Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Tale of Two Cameras

I'm a very happy Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII owner - it's simply an amazing piece of kit, and I find it very hard not to sound like a massive Olympus fanboy (which I suppose I am).

But I also have this Jekyl and Hyde aspect to my photography. Having grown up (literally) with SLR cameras, I find the lure of the DSLR sometimes overwhelming. Muscle-memory (and actual memories) kicks-in whenever I pick up a traditional SLR styled camera, and despite myself, I have that feeling of 'coming back home' (even though I am now happily living in the 21st century). Fortunately, I usually have a couple of DSLR's floating around home that I can use to get my 'fix'.

Earlier this week I was hit by one of these 'must use a DLSR' moments, so I headed out with a Nikon D70 to a local walk that ends in a beautiful waterfall. I traveled light, with just the D70 and 18-55 'kit' lens, plus a spare battery. I also had my phone with me (don't we all), and decided to do a comparison between the two. The D70 is 6MP, while my Samsung galaxy has an 8MP sensor (and is a lot newer technology). Should be a good contest?

Samsung S3 8MP phone on left, Nikon D70 6MP DLSR on right
First up it looks pretty close. They are both resolving about the same detail, although there is more dynamic range coming from the D70. I was also able to manually set the White Balance to 'shade' on the D70 to give a truer colour representation. The file from the Samsung S3 is a little too blue/magenta, especially in the foreground.

Samsung S3 Smartphone
Things get a bit more complicated when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the limits of the small chip on the Samsung. It's done an 'ok' job, but the highlights of the water are totally blown out and unrecoverable. The phone only shoots jpegs, and I had the exposure compensation value dialed as low as it could go to try and get some detail in the water - but to no avail. To be fair,it was a very contrasty scene, and not the ideal time of the day to be shooting - but sometimes we don't get to choose these things - especially if we're traveling. I also tried a HDR shot with an app on the camera, but it was HORRIBLE, so I deleted it :-(

Nikon D70 shooting RAW
In comparison, shooting in RAW with the D70 has allowed much more detail to be retained and extracted out of the file in post-processing (no surprises there). Again, I would reiterate that it was very harsh lighting, and not ideal conditions for a great shot of the waterfall - but the result is far more usable than what came out of my smartphone.

Coal Creek Falls. Nikon D70
Don't ask me why (no, really - don't), but I've decided to get 'real' and shoot in full manual for a while. Usually my default shooting mode is A (Aperture priority) so I can control depth of field - and let the camera worry about the rest. But I enjoyed shooting in manual on the D70 (with a few caveats) and having complete control over all the settings. It really does make you fully aware of the relationship of all the factors in the exposure triangle (Aperture, Shutter and ISO).

If I wanted to shoot at a specific aperture, then I had to decide what the shutter and ISO were going to be to assure that the shot was well exposed. Shooting in the forest, this usually meant trying to keep the shutter speed high enough to hand-hold the camera and still get sharp shots - so the ISO was the control that got changed the most. Of course the higher you go with ISO the more noise you introduce, especially in the shadows, and this is certainly true of 6MP sensor on the D70. Even at ISO 200, when the shadows are lightened in post-processing some noise is evident. But then again, I'd rather have noise than a blurry image :-)

Life lines. Nikon D70
This is one of the things I missed by not using the OM-D E-M5 MkII - better high ISO performance combined with amazing image stabilisation. On several occasions I tried to shoot at 1/30th second with the D70 (at 55mm) and got blurry shots. Wouldn't have been an issue with the OM-D EM5 MkII (or any of the other Oly mirrorless cameras).

Were there other things I missed? Absolutely. How about the electronic viewfinder for one! I can't say it often enough - using an evf like the ones on the O-MD's is a life-changing experience as a photographer! I'm not joking. I used to be an evf snob - spurning this t.v style viewpoint for the more 'pure' optical viewfinder experience. Trouble was, I'd never actually used an electronic viewfinder. Certainly not one as good as the one on the OM-D E-M5 MkII. Once you have, I swear to you, there won't be any going back!

Annoyingly, the D70 doesn't show the ISO in the viewfinder or top lcd display - you only get to see what you've set when you hit the ISO button to change/modify it :-( Bummer. With the OM-D's you get all of that, and more (as much, or as little, info as you want) right in the viewfinder before you take the shot. And if you are shooting in manual and change a setting, then the exposure changes as you watch it  - real time, along with the histogram reading and any other info you have overlaid in the evf. Brilliant. Seriously, seriously brilliant.

Backlit Ferns, Nikon D70 with Nikkor 18-55mm
Did I enjoy shooting with the Nikon D70? Well, yes I did; and no, I didn't (there's that Jekyl and Hyde thing again). I really do enjoy the feel of a DLSR in my hands, and the Nikon D70 with 18-55mm kit lens isn't a heavy camera to carry around. Many people make a big thing about the weight savings when changing to mirrorless, but in terms of size and weight, the D70 with kit lens is about the same as my OM-D E-M5 MkII with battery grip attached. Things change of course if you start lugging around four or five additional lenses with a DLSR and battery grip attached - but with just a body and plastic kit lens, weight doesn't really come into the equation.

Ergonomics aside, that's about where the positives end (for me) :-)  The lack of evf, no IS (on my lens), fixed lcd screen and constant need to take my eye away from the optical viewfinder to 'chimp' the exposure or change ISO, meant that the user experience was less than smooth. I suppose the positive is that it only confirms my enjoyment of using the Olympus OM-D system.

As far as replicating the ergonomics of a DLSR on mirrorless goes, perhaps I should look at getting a Panasonic G series as a second body? It's tempting, but so is an Olympus Pen for an even smaller, carry-around-all-day style camera. It's great to have these kinds of options in the micro four thirds  ecosystem. Kudos to Olympus and Panasonic for building such a great system in such a short time.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Thoughts on the new Olympus E-M1 MkII

Pre-orders are now happening at stores like B&H for the new Olympus E-M1 MkII. Some initial (Olympus initiated) user reviews are also beginning to surface, with images that give some indication of what the camera (paired with the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro lens - more on that later) is capable of. This is not one of those reviews. Unfortunately, despite me best efforts, Olympus doesn't send me any gear to test. So I haven't had my hot little hands on a pre-production model, and can't give any genuine feedback on how it handles, what the low ISO is like, and how damn fast the autofocus system is on this thing. So what's this post for exactly?

E-M1 MkII from the front. Yummy!
Well, like many Olympus users, I've been waiting with a great deal of excitement for the release of the E-M1 MkII. The original E-M1 is a great camera, and has been a worthy flagship model for the past three years. But I have the E-M5 MkII, which in many ways is a 'better' camera than the E-M1 - so I've been eagerly awaiting the E-M1 MkII to tempt me to upgrade. And on paper, the E-M1 MkII is certainly the temptation we all hoped it would be. 15fps burst shooting at full RAW, 20MP sensor, fully articulated rear LCD screen, dual card slots, dual image processors, 4k video, and incredible dual AF 121 point (all cross type) on-chip contrast and phase detection focusing that might very well be a sports shooters dream - and the DSLR killer many thought it could be.

But then we get to the elephant in the room - and the 'other' specification on paper that it shares with a top range DSLR - the price!

The fully articulated rear LCD screen a-la the E-M5 MkII. Great to see!
Along with many other people eagerly awaiting this camera's release, my enthusiasm was severely dented when the expected price was announced - $1,999US body only ($2700NZ). In the UK it's even worse - initially expected to sell for around £1850 ($3000NZ). If you include the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro lens, it brings the total up to an eye-watering $4000NZ. And for many, many enthusiast photographers (me included), that's simply too expensive. For the body-only it's over $1000NZ more than the original E-M1 is selling for at the moment ($1600 vs $2700). Is it really a full $1000NZ better camera? $500NZ I could argue for - maybe. But $1000NZ more! C'mon Olympus - seriously?

I know there will be a few with deeper pockets than I that will simply have to have it - and so for them the money won't really be a problem. All power to them. Wish that was me - I really do. But for a very large percentage, Olympus's pricing of the E-M1 MkII has lead to a lot of head scratching, and disappointment. Even the initial chatter from Olympus-sponsored shooters and elite camera reviewers has expressed concern over the pricing for this camera.

New HLD-9 grip will add even more to the price!
Sure, the price will come down after the initial RRP has been set - but probably not by much - and certainly not by $1000NZ. Can Olympus really justify full-frame DLSR prices (it's more expensive than a Canon 6D), even with their flagship camera?

Some on the forums have suggested that Olympus are obviously drawing a very specific line in the sand with this camera. They are going after the professional shooters who would otherwise spend twice as much again on a 1Dx (etc), while making the 'enthusiast' line of E-M5's and E-M10's for us mere mortals. And this may be true - especially when you look at two of the three new lenses they released at the same time. The 'Pro' designated 12-100mm f4 and 25mm f1.2. They ain't called 'Pro' for nothing.... and also come with the price to match the quality. I suppose that for a 'Pro', quality means expensive. They expect to pay four times more for anything your average Joe would pay for their gear -as long as it also comes with pro-level build quality and IQ.

The new 12-100mm f4 IS 'Pro' lens
And while we're on the subject of lenses... I've got some concerns over the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro - namely that f4 constant aperture. Don't get me wrong, it looks like a nice lens - both in terms of build and IQ (from what we can tell from the initial internet reviews). But when we talk about micro four thirds sensors, it's 'generally' accepted that the shallow depth of field capabilities of the lens/sensor combination is doubled when compared to traditional 35mm film cameras or full-frame digital. So a constant f4 aperture sounds great - and is 'ok' for full-frame, but actually corresponds to an f8 constant aperture on a micro four thirds system. Not really sounding so flash now, is it? I don't know of any DLSR shooter who would pay $1300US for a 24-200mm f8 lens, even with great build quality. I guess Olympus wanted to give the new E-M1 MkII users a solid walk-around 'kit' lens - but isn't that really what the popular 12-40mm f2.8 is for?

Zuiko 25mm f1.2 Pro lens - 'Excellent'
To me, the also new 25mm f1.2 Pro lens makes much more sense for the E-M1 user. For a prime it's big, and it's heavy - but it's also f1.2! Now we're talking. The lens will have bokeh to die for, and while I understand it's not always about beautiful bokeh, it's nice to be able to achieve it when you want/need to.

Personally, I'd give the 12-100mm f4 a miss, in favour of the 12-40mm f2.8 and 40-150mm f2.8 Pro - or alternatively make up a four kit system with even faster primes (like the 17mm f1.8, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8) .

Zuiko 30mm f3.5 Macro - really?
And then we come to the third new lens release, which, not surprisingly, has been somewhat overshadowed by the other big announcements. The Zuiko 30mm f3.5 Macro wasn't a surprise exactly - there had been several forum discussions around on its imminent release. But generally, the ultimate conclusion was 'why'? Did we really need a 30mm f3.5 Macro? Had you ever looked inside your camera bag and thought - 'you know, what I really need about now is a 30mm f3.5 Macro lens'? No, thought not. Me neither.

What would I have rather seen Olympus release instead? Well, since their 'affordable' primes top out at 75mm, I would like to see a 100mm f2.8 prime in their consumer line, or maybe even a 150mm f2.8 (or f4 if they must)? A more consumer based prime in the telephoto end would be great. After all, it's not just 'Pros' who enjoy shooting sports and wildlife - so a 'faster' prime alternative to the 75-300mm f4.8/6.7 would be great.

One final thought (promise).... why couldn't they just have called it the E-M2? I appreciate they've got this whole MkII thing going across the whole range of cameras - but seriously! The E-M2 is a whole lot easier to type than the E-M1 MkII. You just know it's going to get shortened to the E-M1-2 anyway. How confusing is that!? Just saying....

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

2016 Greymouth Street Races

I love the Greymouth Street Racing event held here every year at Labour weekend. I look forward to it every year - and this year was no exception. It looked good in terms of the weather (slightly overcast but no hint of rain), and my previous experience using the E-M5 MkII had me excited for more.

Go-Kart action. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
It turned out to be a strange sort of a year this year though, and I came away feeling a little frustrated. First there was an horrific accident in the very first race of the day, that sadly resulted in the death of one of the riders. It is the first fatal crash the event has had in its 27 year history, and almost ended the day before it had begun. Racing did resume, however, at 2.00pm in the afternoon (a delay of about four hours).

F1 Rider No.121. Greymouth Street Races. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
This meant that a whole days racing was now cut down to only a few hours. Understandable given the circumstances, but disappointing none-the-less. Maybe this sudden urgency made me loose my focus, or maybe it just wasn't a good year, but whatever the reason, I found myself constantly at the wrong places at the wrong times - not getting the shots I wanted.

Motorcross Rider 450, Greymouth Street Races. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm 
Because I had some time on my hands before racing got underway in the afternoon, I decided to walk around the whole track and see if there were some vantage points I could use to give me different photos than previous years. It turns out that there isn't, but unfortunately racing had gotten underway again and I was stuck in a section of the track that had no decent photo opportunities! There are several crossing areas spaced around the track for people to change sides every now and again, but because they were trying to get through the races quickly, I was stuck there for almost an hour before I was allowed to cross over to an area I actually wanted to shoot from! And this turned out to be the story of my day.

Catch me if you can.... Greymouth Street Races 2016. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
There are two or three areas on the track where the riders come around a bend at a low angle and pick up speed, and these are the areas I try to concentrate on. I focus on the bend, switch the camera to manual focus, and take a burst of images as the bikes reach the area of focus. I use a fast shutter speed to stop the action, and although this can reduce the sense of motion and speed in the image, I think it's made up for somewhat by the exaggerated angles that the riders achieve. There is still a lot of drama in the composition, and that's what I'm after.

Ahead of the pack. Greymouth Street Races, OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
I try to get as 'clean' and as uncluttered a composition as I can, which isn't easy given the number of people at the event. Sometimes feet, legs or bodies in the background can't be avoided - but I do try to whenever possible. And a little cloning later on never hurt anyone :-)

This year, I also decided that the images actually worked better in black and white. I've never converted my street racing images to black and white before, so this was a new twist this year. I converted them in Photoshop, using the high contrast red filter setting, and dialed it back just a touch if needed. This gave me punchy, high contrast images that I like - finished off with what I hope is a subtle vignette to frame the action in the center of the image.

Total concentration. Greymouth Street Race, 2016. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
Next year I'm hoping to have the use of a Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8/6.7 - either by getting one earlier, or renting one for the weekend. I'd like the 600mm reach for sports and wildlife anyway, so it would be the perfect lens for the street races. Josh has also expressed an interest in this lens - so maybe we could go halves and get it together?  That would be pretty cool....