Sunday, 31 December 2017

Merry Christmas 2017 - & Happy New 2018!

Christmas has been and gone for another year, and a new year is just around the corner. But it's not here quite yet, so I figure I can sneak in a Christmas post just before 2017 ticks over to 2018!?

Christmas Angel. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.4 @ 1/3rd sec, ISO 200.
Every year, a week out from Christmas, Greymouth holds a Christmas Tree Festival. Local businesses sponsor a tree and decorate it, and then the public give a gold coin donation to come and have a look at all the trees decorated - and to vote on their favourite. It's a local fundraiser and a very popular event. It's also an excuse every year to get the camera out and have a 'play'.

Christmas Light Painting. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f10 @ 1sec, ISO 200.
A very dark room, with very brightly lit trees, is just crying out for some long exposure experimentation. Last year I concentrated on shooting out-of-focus lights (see the post here), whereas this year I decided to go for long(ish) exposures and camera/lens movement. With the Christmas Angel I zoomed the lens out while taking the exposure. For Christmas Light Painting I simply used a 1 second exposure and moved the camera while taking the shot. Both simple, yet effective techniques that I don't do all that often.

Blue Icicle. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens in 'macro'. f6 @1/100th, ISO 640
I don't just experiment with long exposures. I also try to shoot some of the lights and decorations as they appear. The macro function on the 12-50mm EZ Zuiko lens is great for this. It allows me to get some very detailed shots - hand-held - with the aid of the amazing IBIS (in built image stabilization) that Olympus is famous for. Even at f6, ISO 640 was giving me a hand-holdable 100th of a second exposure time. Even so, the RAW file was quite dark when I opened it in Light Room. But a quick move to the left of the shadow slider and a fantastic amount of detail appeared in the shadows. And ISO 640 is pretty clean on the E-M1, so no noise reduction was necessary.

Christmas Bell. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ in 'macro'. f6 @ 1/20th sec, ISO 3200 
This ornate Christmas bell also caught my eye, but it was in a very dark corner of the display. I had to go to ISO 3200 to get this image, and even then it was only giving me 1/20th of a second shutter speed! But it's pin sharp (where it should be at the front edge of the bell), thanks again to Olympus's incredible IBIS technology. Image stabilization isn't a cure-all for everything, and is certainly not an excuse for sloppy camera technique. But when you need it, in situations like this bell in low-light, it can be a miracle worker! Hand-holding a camera in low-light, with a 100mm equivalent focal length lens, and shooting pin-sharp images at 1/20th of a second was practically impossible in the film days. IBIS technology not only makes it possible - it almost makes it easy!

Christmas Town. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ. f7.1 @ 1/10th sec, ISO 3200
In every town and city up and down the country (and indeed in any country where Christmas is celebrated), decorating your home with Christmas lights is a much loved tradition. And some people go all-out! As well as going to the Christmas Tree Festival, we also drove around to check out some of the more spectacular home displays.

Christmas House. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ. f5.9 @ 1/4 sec, ISO 3200 
Here's another great example of Olympus's superior image stabilization in action. At 1/4 of a second, hand-held, everything is still nice and sharp. The E-M1 has 5 axis image stabilisation, while the new E-M1 Mk2 has an even better IBIS system. Apparently people are hand-holding for anywhere up to 10 seconds and still getting sharp images! That's just plain crazy talk!!!

Christmas House ultimate winner. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200 
Our final stop for the night was the truly impressive 2017 Christmas House winner. There was a lot of light to shoot by, but even so I was still at ISO 3200. The RAW file needed to be opened up in the shadows to bring out some of the light, and in doing so, there was definitely some noise at ISO 3200. But dialing in some noise reduction in Light Room cleaned everything up very nicely, and I'm very happy with the final images at high ISO's from the E-M1.

Ho Ho Ho! OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200
Boosting shadows and lowering highlights has given a slight HDR quality to some of the images - especially after adding a little noise reduction and sharpening. I like the effect, since it looks very similar to what my eyes were seeing at the time. Our eyes can take all the detail in, our sensors can't (without a little help later on in software). It's a balancing act to get enough detail in the highlight so that they aren't too burnt out, but still look like points of light - and enough detail in the shadows so you can see what's there, but it still gives a sense of depth and darkness. As much as people worry about dynamic range and noise in the smaller micro four third sensors, I think the E-M1 pretty much nails it!

Santa Clause. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200
Would a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mk3 give a 'cleaner' file at ISO 3200? Of course it would. But so what? It would have also been a lot heavier to lug around for the evening - and I may not even have bothered? Am I unhappy with the files from the E-M1? Absolutely not! In fact, I'm thrilled with them. I've owned a lot of DSLR's in my time, both full frame and cropped sensor (admittedly from a few years ago), and I wouldn't have been comfortable going past ISO 800 with any of them. The E-M1 (and E-M5 MkII I had previously) is the first camera I'd happily shoot at ISO 3200 if I needed to. The results above show why.

I hope that Christmas 2017 was good to you, and I pray that 2018 will be even better! Father Christmas was good to me this year and I managed to get quite a few photographic goodies that I will be testing, using, and blogging about very soon! I also turned 50 at the end of 2017, and my family surprised me with a new monitor for my computer! So I will also be writing about my new office space and using a dual monitor set-up at home. Looks like 2018 is getting off to a good start already! :-)

Friday, 22 December 2017

Food Photography Assignment

Let me just say right off the bat that I'm not a food photography specialist. I don't really know the first thing about 'styling' a food shoot, and don't have a studio with a wall of lights or specialist equipment. I'm just a guy, with a camera, and 25+ years experience of shooting a variety of subjects.

Coconut Pumpkin Soup with Prawn Wonton. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.5, 1/200th, ISO 200
Recently, I was asked by the marketing department at Tai Poutini Polytechnic (where I work) to photograph the Tutoro Restaurant's evening service. The Tutoro is the polytech's student restaurant, and every year the chef trainees and food & beverage service students team up to run a night service open to the public. They plan, prepare, cook and serve a three course meal to those lucky enough to book a table for a night of gastronomic delight!

Waldorf with a Twist. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM; @f2.8, 1/60th, ISO 400
The brief was simple - turn up and take photos of the food once prepared - and some of the action in the kitchen. Images that can be used later on for promotional and marketing purposes, and as teaching aids for the course tutors. Sounds easy enough. But the challenge comes with trying to achieve all of this in a working kitchen, in the middle of a real service. I had a job to do - but more importantly so did they - with paying customers. So it was important that I move fast and not get in the way, but still come away with great food images!

Tai Poutini Tartlet. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 800
I knew I was going to want to get in fairly close, use a fast lens, and create as much shallow depth of field (background blur - bokeh) as I could. As such, my newly acquired Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens was going to be perfect for the job. Attached to the 40D it gives an equivalent fov (field of view) as a 80mm short-telephoto does on a full frame camera. And the fast f1.8 aperture - even stopped down one stop to f2.8 for a touch more sharpness, was going to give me just enough light to hand-hold the camera and work quickly.

Seared Salmon Fillet. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 400
The general rule for achieving a 'sharp' image is to not use a shutter speed below the lenses focal length. With the 50mm Canon prime, this means not going below 1/50th of a second. In the artificial lights of a commecial kitchen, in the evening, at f2.8, I was there or there abouts with the shutter speed. Hovering around 1/50th and occasionally getting up into the dizzying heights of 1/100th of a second. To help with my 'keeper' rate, I shot in 'continuos low' drive mode so I could shoot a short 'burst' of shots. When you do this in low light, it's more likely that at least one of them will be in sharp focus.

Farm Raised Lamb. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 640
I also set the camera in auto ISO - to range between 400 and 800. With the 40D, ISO 800 is the top number that the auto ISO will go up to, while its 'default' is apparently ISO 400. I don't use auto ISO all that regularly - preferring instead to choose the lowest ISO I can get away with. But inside, at night, under artifical lights, I was always going to have to ramp up the ISO anyway - so why not let the camera take care of it for me? One less thing to have to worry about - right?

So how is the noise at ISO 800 I hear you ask....  and it's a good question. Noise is certainly apparent at ISO 800 - and can be quite obvious in the shadows if the image is underexposed. The 40D is, after all, a 10 year old camera! But if you get your exposure right then noise isn't a major problem, and can be controlled nicely even with the basic noise controls available in Lightroom.

BTW - the Farm Raised Lamb was what I ordered at the end of the night when I was very knidly offered a meal. And it was amazing! A Rack of Lamb served with rosemary polenta, cauliflower puree and seared asparagus. Yummmm! Delicious.

Seasoning Asparagus. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 640
I wasn't just there for food shots though. I took a lot of photos of the students themselves preparing, cooking and serving the meals. I obviously can't show these on my blog since I don't have model releases etc - but the above image is one of my favourites of the evening and gives some indication that it was truly a working kitchen in full service mode. I now also know where the saying "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" comes from!  I've never sweated while taking photos so much in my life!

Fungi O'Bean. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 500
Clafoutis. f2.8, 1/100th, ISO 400
As I said at the beginning of this post - I'm no Food Photography expert (far from it). But I did know the 'look' that I wanted to go for - and the steps I needed to take to get there. I had to work fast, stay out of the way, but get close in to get the shots - all in a very hot, frenetic, working kitchen environment. So yes - I'm very please with the images of the food that I was able to take with my old Canon 40D and 50mm STM Prime lens.

Panna Cotta. f2.8, 1/60th, ISO 400
The Canon STM f1.8 is a joy to use. Fast focusing, accurate, quiet and super sharp - especially stopped down to f2.8. It's because of this lens alone that I use the 40D as much as I do. A 'fast' 50mm is a lens that is missing from my micro four thirds arsenal at the moment - but this is something I hope to rectify early in the new year.. I've got my eye on the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 - the micro four thirds version of the Canon nifty fifty. The Olympus 25mm f1.8 is also a stellar lens, but just that bit more expensive.

NZ Cheese Selection. f2.8, 1/100th, ISO 400
Overall I'm very happy with the food images I captured on the evening.  Boosting the ISO, using a fast prime and shooting RAW gave me the flexability I needed to take half-decent food shots in less than ideal conditions. Perhaps more importantly - the polytech cooking tutors were also very happy with the results. Not bad for 10 year old kit and a cheap prime lens.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Castle Hill, a Concert, and the iPhone 5s

For Father's Day this year the family got together and brought me a new (slightly used) iPhone 5s. My Samsung S3 was becoming increasingly unreliable (turning itself off on a regular basis), so I'd been making noises about a 'new' phone for quite a while.

It also happened that a friend recently upgraded to the iPhone 6s, and was no longer using his 1 year old iPhone 5s (in mint condition). So a deal was done, and we both came away very happy.

I've written on this blog before about not being interested in the cutting edge of cellphone technology. For a start I don't have the budget for it. And secondly, I'm a pretty conservative phone user. I basically use them for texting, the occasional call, and for listening to music on :-) So I don't want the latest or greatest mobile phone. My first cellphone was an iPhone 3, which I absolutely loved. My next phone was the Samsung S3 which I purchased new, since it was about 3 generations old at the time. Another great phone - but it was Android, and I did miss the iOS experience. So I've moved back to Apple again with the 5s and, once again, I'm loving it.

Castle Hill. iPhone 5s. Shot from a moving vehicle.
Exactly one week ago (as I post this) I was lucky enough to be offered a ticket to the Midnight Oil concert in Christchurch. My brother-in-law (thanks Hamish) had a friend pull out at the last minute, so he asked me if I'd like to go instead. I didn't need asking twice!

Because the concert was on a week night, the family decided I would catch the shuttle service to Christchurch from Greymouth and go on my own. Bit of a blokes night out. I traveled very light, basically just a change of clothes and a toothbrush. I certainly didn't consider taking my OM-D E-M1 with me, although I did suspect that there might be a few photo opportunities. Enter the iPhone 5s.

Midnight Oil video screens at Horncastle Arena, Christchurch
I'm not going to bang on again in this post about how a camera phone is no substitute for a 'real' camera - I've made myself very clear on the subject on numerous occasions quite recently. But hey, I had a new iPhone 5s in my pocket, so wasn't I just a little curious about the quality of its camera? Of course I was.

In terms of its camera, the iPhone 5s uses a 1/3" 8MP sensor - which just so happens to be exactly the same specs as the Samsung S3. Is the camera's performance the same then? Short answer - yes. Practically identical. Which is to say, not that great (imho). I know for a fact that the 'newer' generation of iPhones like the 7 (and now 8) have excellent cameras on them - my daughter has the iPhone 7Plus and the photos she gets using her phone are quite impressive indeed. Unfortunately (although not surprisingly), the camera on the iPhone 5s is not in the same league.

Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil. iPhone 5s
Is it unusable as a camera? Well no, of course not. And maybe given the circumstances (a very dark, in-door concert, at night), it actually did a fairly impressive job. At least I thought it did when I reviewed the images after taking them on the little 4 inch screen. The reality is a little different when you look at them on a 21" monitor however.

Midnight Oil, Horncastle Arena, Christchurch. iPhone 5s
There was a good crowd for the concert, although it wasn't packed (not surprisingly on a Monday night). There was plenty of space, and no one was banging into you from the sides or behind - so holding the phone steady was relatively easy. It was also fairly easy to get a good view. We were about 15 meters from the front of the stage without having to push and shove to get there, and probably could have gotten even closer had we wanted to. The touch-to-focus function worked very accurately in low light, although I suspect the high contrast offered by the stage lights helped in this regard.

The 'Oils' in full voice! iPhone 5s
Pinch to zoom (digitally) did help to get even closer to the action, although at a cost. The images taken zoomed in are even softer and more overtly 'digital' looking than those shot at 'normal' focal length (of around 30mm in full-frame camera terms). I won't be printing them out and hanging them on the wall anytime soon (or ever), but as low-res images for the blog (or as wallpaper for my phone) they work just fine.

Dump Trump! Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett as political as ever...  iPhone 5s
Am I disappointed in the images I got from the concert then? Actually no - not at all. I'm really quite happy with them, all things considered. As I said earlier, this wasn't about photography, this was about enjoying a concert. And enjoy the concert I most certainly did!

You can see in some of the photos above that many other concert-goers had their phones out, capturing and recording the event for posterity. And while I can kind of understand why they do it, it also drives me crazy! Yeah, I know - I did it too (although not in video). But over the course of a two hour concert, I took maybe 20 photos on my phone - mostly at the start, and then a few at the end. Many others had their phones out over 50% of the time, experiencing this larger than life event through a 5" screen. Seriously people?

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Punakaiki Blowholes with the Canon 40D

My run of good weather on the weekends is continuing, despite a very wet week and a very stormy Friday. I had resigned myself to a wet weekend spent indoors (catching up on some film scanning), however a quick look at the forecast on the interwebs late on Friday night suggested otherwise. Saturday looked promising, with some clouds around - always an exciting prospect for a landscape photographer after a passing storm front.

I decided to try my luck and head out Saturday morning - but where? A quick check of the sunrise and high tide times (sunrise was at 7.20am and high tide was 8.20am) and my decision was made for me - the blowholes at Punakaiki.

I've photographed on the West Coast for a very long time (about 20 years), but I have never managed to be at Punakaiki at the right time of day (high tide) to capture the blowholes in action. With a bit of planning, and a lot of luck, I was determined that this was about to change...

Punakaiki Blowholes at Sunrise. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/160th @f5.6, ISO 800. 0.9 Cokin Grad
I arrived at Punakaiki at 7.00am - 20 minutes before sunrise. The 10 minute walk to the blowholes meant that I was setting up my tripod 10 minutes before sunrise and a full hour before high tide. After such a stormy week with torrential rain, I was hoping for an aggressive incoming tide to create lots of action at the blowholes. I wasn't dissapointed.

Smoke on the Water. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/125th @f8, ISO 800. 0.9 Soft Grad
Having used the Olympus OM-D E-M1 for my last few outings, I decided this time to give the Canon 40D DLSR some love. I also thought that the 10-22mm ultra-wide lens would give me a better view of the blowholes than the Olympus 12-50mm. The Canon at 10mm gives a traditional field of view of around 16mm, which is very wide. Whereas the Olympus at 12mm achieves a traditional 24mm angle of view. So the Canon will get me wider - right?

Unfortunately, no. I also decided to shoot with the Cokin 0.9 Soft Graduated ND filter on the lens, to even out the exposure and tone down the sky - which it did brilliantly. But it also meant that I couldn't zoom the lens all the way out to 10mm because I was getting some of the filter holder visible at the edges of the frame. Doh! Best I could do was to start the lens at around 15mm which, when you add the x1.6 crop factor of the 40D, becomes a... 24mm field of view. Exactly what I would have achieved with the Olympus at 12mm (which doesn't show the filter holder on the edges of the frame). Oh well, never mind...

Punakaiki Blowholes. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/400th @f8, ISO 800. 10mm focal length
I did, however, get a chance to shoot at the lenses full 10mm ultra-wide range a little later in the morning. To begin with I shot on a tripod, at the same location, for about an hour and a half to capture full tide. Once I knew I had the shot(s) I wanted, I then removed the camera from the tripod, took the filter off the lens, and moved around to a viewing platform so I could shoot down and into the blowholes. At 10mm this has exaggerated the perspective, creating a dramatic image. Since it was later in the morning, with a bit more light, hand-holding the wide angle wasn't an issue. Shooting at ISO 800 gave me a fast enough shutter speed, and the extra weight and bulk of the 40D provided a stable base to shoot from.

Chimney Pot, Punakaiki. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm. 1/800th @f5.6, ISO 800. 14mm focal length
I had a fantastic morning at Punakaiki and am thrilled that I have finally - after 20 years - managed to capture the blowholes in all their glory. I also enjoyed using the 40D and Canon 10-22mm, even though I couldn't use the ultra-wide end of its range most of the time. Then again, I'm not really an ultra-wide kinda guy. I've always thought that 24mm is plenty wide enough for most circumstances, with an ultra-wide lens presenting more problems than it solves. It can be dramatic (as in the shot of the blowholes mentioned above), but it also means a bit more work in Lightroom to eliminate the distortion and vignetting inherent in these types of ultra-wides.

Eventually I would like to get a wider lens for the OM-D E-M1 - probably the Zuiko 9-18mm f4/5.6ED, which equates to an 18-36mm focal length in traditional film terms. I know that many 'serious' landscape photographers opt for the Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 PRO, but at twice the price, and with an extra 2mm at the wide end that I probably wouldn't use, I think I would be better served with the Zuiko 9-18mm. It also happens to share the same 52mm filter thread as my other lenses, which simplifies things in terms of filter holders etc. In the meantime, if I want ultra-wide, then I guess I'll be reaching for the Canon 10-22mm and 40D. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Landscape photography with the Olympus OM-D E-M1: Part 3

We have had an incredible run of gorgeous, clear, sunny Saturday mornings here on the West Coast in the last month. After working all week, and with a busy weekend ahead, I'm finding it exciting and energizing to plan where I will be to take photos as the sun rises on another glorious Saturday morning. This week I headed in-land, to Lake Brunner, Moana.

Kahikatea Grove - Te Kinga. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/10th @f6.3, ISO 200. 0.9 ND Soft Grad
First off I went to the settlement of Te Kinga - one of my favourite places to shoot. Sunrise was scheduled for 7.40am, and the above image was taken at about 7.30am - 10 minutes before sunrise. I've been having fun using filters (see last post), and had decided that I was going to make good use of them to extend the exposure and smooth out the water.

Kahikatea Grove Long Exposure. 8 seconds @ f6.3, ISO 200. Cheap plastic ND+16 (-4 stops) filter
I love the way the long exposure has flattened out the water and produced nicer reflections, but I hate the strong colour cast and the way that it's sucked all the definition and colour out of the trees themselves. Compare the colour in the first image with the second - taken with a cheap plastic ND filter, and you'll see what I mean. Damn! I guess that means I am going to have to spend some serious money to get a decent ND filter after all.

Winter Sunrise - Te Kinga. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/10th @f8, ISO 200. Polarizer & 0.9 Soft ND Grad
Having established that I couldn't use the ND filters, I decided to just stick with the Cokin 0.9 soft grad, in conjunction with a Cokin circular polarizer. The polarizer was cutting out 2 stops of light, giving me slightly slower shutter speeds anyway, so I just went with that combination. Cokin are also considered a 'cheaper' alternative to the likes of LEE and NiSi filters, although they do offer a more 'premium' grade glass filter. Their 'Nuances' range of ND's are every bit as expensive as the LEE Big and Little Stoppers (-5 and -10 stop neutral density filters), so I may have to start saving my pennies for a Cokin -5 stop ND (since I already own the filter holder and lens adapters).

Te Kinga Jetty & House Boat. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50 EZ lens. 1/100th @ f6.3, ISO 100. Polarizer
Once the sun was up, I moved around to the jetty to take some pictures of the lake bathed in early morning light. I kept the circular polarizer on the lens to intensify the blues of the lake and sky and was able to ditch the tripod and start shooting hand-held. I moved around the jetty trying out various compositions, but ended up preferring this vertical image with the jetty used to lead the eye into the image, where it then moves to the houseboat.

I prefer to keep my images as simple as possible - I guess that's my 'style'- (if I have a style), and when I'm composing an image it's usually more about what I leave out than what I include. I often have this internal dialogue when I'm shooting that discusses what I should or shouldn't be including before I take the photo. I guess I also look for strong leading lines and am a firm follower of the golden mean (and rule of thirds). All pretty standard stuff...

Te Kinga Frost. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-500mm EZ. 1/320th @f6.3, ISO 100. Polarizer
I am also trying to be a bit more spontaneous with my photography as well.What does that mean? Often when I go out to shoot, I'm quite single-minded and have certain images already in my minds-eye that I'm going to get. I've driven past literally hundreds of beautiful photos and not stopped to take them because they weren't 'what I was looking for'. But I'm trying to stop more often when I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye - and the above photo is one such image. Driving out of Te Kinga to get to Lake Brunner, the 'old me' would have simply kept on driving past a scene like this because a 'lake' shot was the next on my list. But the 'new' me stopped and took the photo. And you know what - the new me is glad I did. It might just be my favourite image from all the ones I took that morning.

Lake Brunner - Moana. Olympus OM-D E-M1. 1/100th @f8, ISO 100. Polarizer
I did eventually make it to Moanna and get my lake shot - and yes folks, I think it's now official: I'm obsessed with jettys! Although honestly - what's not to like? General theme of all my images in the last month; a) they are very blue, and b) they have a jetty in them. Easy....

Lake Brunner Reflection. OM-D E-M1. 1/80th @ 88, ISO 100. Polarizer
See what I mean about everything I shoot being blue at the moment? Even the boat is blue! I wanted to make sure I got all of the tree and its reflection in the vertical image - so yes, that means a lot of blue sky and a lot of blue lake - enhanced even more by using a polarizing filter. In fact, it pays to be careful when using a polarizer, because you can occasionally got too far with it and make blues turn almost black. Just keep spinning the filter and watching the effect in the viewfinder of your camera. And remember, you can dial the effect down as well as up.

Shoe Fence, Moana. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/500th @ f5.6, ISO 100. Polarizer
My last images of the morning were more of the spontaneous variety. On the way home I saw this fence, laden with shoes, and thought it would make a great shot, but kept on driving! So the new me told the old me to turn the car around and take some darn photos! So I did. And once again, I'm glad. The complementary blue and green, with the leading lines on the fence posts and wire, mixed in with the colour and shapes of the shoes, makes for a quirky and compelling image. And a great way to end another successful landscape shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fun with Filters

As a serious landscape photographer you'd think that I'd have an equally serious arsenal of filters. A polarizer, LEE Big & Little Stopper (-6 and -10 stop neutral density filters), plus a good selection of hard and soft graduated ND filters - at the very least!
Cokin 'P' Series Holder with Graduated ND filters
Well yes, I do have a polarizer, and a 0.9 (-3 stops) soft grad - both of the Cokin 'P' variety. But that's it. And if I'm honest, I don't even use them very often either! And that's generally down to laziness. Yes folks, I admit it, I'm a fairly lazy photographer. If I can get away with it, I won't use a tripod. I won't use a filter. Heck, I will even try not to use any accessories (like remote releases). I won't even use a polarizer even when I know it would be beneficial for the final image! Why not? Because, well, it's just too much of a hassle. You've got to get it out of the bag, set up the filter holder, fiddle around with adapter rings, etc... You get the point.

Laziness aside for a moment, the 'other' issue I have with filters is the expense. Have you seen the price of the LEE Big Stopper! Over $200NZ for one filter! Buy the Big Stopper, Little Stopper and a couple of hard and soft grads, plus the filter holder and adapter ring for your lens and your looking at well over $1000NZ. And I'm not just picking on LEE. Filters from Cokin and NiSi are similarly priced. When we start talking that amount of money, I start thinking of lenses not filters.

Yet having said all of that, I've been thinking very seriously lately about using filters a lot more in my photography. Why the change of heart? Well, it has a lot to do with the landscape photography vlogs I've been watching on Youtube lately. They all - and I mean ALL - make great use of filters (as well as tripods and cable releases), and I'm beginning to think there might just be something to all this fiddling about before you taker a photo (I jest - but just a little).

So I'm turning a new leaf this year. No more lazy landscape photographer. I've already got a Polarizer and a soft grad ND, so I'm halfway there with the filters. I'm seriously considering getting a 10 stop ND filter to go with them, for long exposure photography (probably a Cokin 'Nuances' 1024), but in the meantime I've dipped my toe in the water already with a recent internet purchase.

A whole set of 'ND' filters for the Cokin P system
If you use the Cokin 'P' (for Professional - I kid you not) square filter system like I do, then you will find a lot of cheap Chinese rip-off filters for sale on the interwebs. You will, of course, get what you pay for. And for practically a tenth of the price of the 'real deal', you can't really expect much. But then again, they must do something - right? If I'm going to pay $200+ for one filter down the road, then I'm going to damn well make sure I like using it! So what better way to practice than on the cheapy stuff first. And you can't get much cheaper than $25NZ for 7 no-name ND filters that a guy was selling recently on Trademe. I snapped them up, knowing full well that they were going to be flimsy, plastic (the more expensive filters are made from either resin or glass), horribly inaccurate in terms of neutral colour, and probably worse than useless. But I also figured that if I enjoyed using them, and wished I had better ones, then I would know that any serious money spent down the track would be well worth it. That's the theory anyway.

Long exposure with ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Long story short - I've only had them for a couple of days, but I'm having a blast! And surprisingly, the results actually aren't half bad (with a couple of caveats). The above image is a 30 second exposure made in the middle of a very bright day, and the cheapo plastic ND filters combined with my Cokin P circular polarizer have done a decent job. And the colour cast is actually pretty minimal - especially compared to a 'Tian Ya' ND filter I also have which has a horrible brown sepia cast to it.

Cobden Beach at Midday. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/250th @ f11, ISO 100. No filter
Above is the 'control' image - the shot of the beach with no filter. This gave a reference point for how the colours should look once I started adding filters.

With Polarizer. 1/60th @f11. ISO 100
Simply adding the Cokin circular polarizer improves the image dramatically. It also has the added benefit of slowing the shutter speed by 2 stops.

With ND16 (-4 stops). 1.6secs @f11, ISO 100
Adding the ND16 neutral density filter has again slowed  the shutter down, now to the point of blurring some of the movement in the waves. In terms of a colour cast, it's introduced a very slight magenta tint to the white clouds, but overall not too bad.

With ND16 + Cokin 0.9 (-3stop) soft ND Graduate. 1.3 secs @f11. ISO 100
Adding the Cokin 3 Stop soft grad has helped to lower the density in the highlights, especially in the clouds (obviously) - but hasn't effected the overall shutter speed too drastically. Again,colours are looking pretty good.

ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Remember that caveat I mentioned earlier. Well, here it is in all its glory! That's some pretty serious flare spots. And they were present on quite a few of the images I took using the plastic ND filters. A lot - but not all. This was a very extreme torture test, in very bright conditions, at the time of day that I wouldn't normally be shooting at. So the nasty flare stuff doesn't really surprise me at all. Also, on closer inspection, lots of tiny bits of fluff and lint had adhered themselves to the plastic filters which probably didn't help matters.

Same as above, yet without the strong sun flares....
A quick clean, another shot done with the same settings - and viola, a different result. To be honest, I did clone out one lone flare spot in the sky, and a few are creeping into the top of the frame, but it's nowhere near as bad as the previous shot - with a simple clean!

So did I have fun with my new plastic ND filters? You betcha! Will I use them again? You betcha - can't wait. Except next time I won't try them under such torturous conditions. This lazy photographer may be turning a new leaf. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Second landscape shoot with the OM-D E-M1

It's winter here in NZ at the moment, and what a wild and wet winter it's been. The West Coast of the South Island normally bares the brunt of any storm that passes through, although this winter we've been left relatively unscathed (fingers crossed). The weather man predicted a fine weekend (after a fairly wet week) and I didn't need any further convincing to head out with the E-M1 again.

My favorite area to shoot landscapes is around Hokitika - a half an hour drive from where I live in Greymouth. Not only is it the location of my favorite lake (Mahinapua), but it also has several other 'must visit' attractions (Lake Kaniere, Dorothy Falls, Hokitika Gorge and Sunset Point - to name a few). So that's where I headed this morning - first stop Lake Mahinapua.

Lake Mahinapua Sunrise 2017. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/4s @ f8, ISO 200
Sunrise was 7.50am, and I arrived at 7.30 to a frosty, but perfectly clear morning (with not a cloud in the sky, unfortunately). The jetty at the lake is a perfect focal point for leading the eye into an image. I usually shoot it from further back, since it's built in an 'L' shape jutting out into the lake. But this time I decided to concentrate on capturing just the end of the jetty. I composed the photo to highlight the jetty itself and not the sky, since the day was cloudless, and I set the E-M1 on a tripod. The morning was perfectly still, so a shutter speed of 1/4s was enough to give me smooth water with perfect reflections. I used an ND grad to darken the sky a little, and also tried some with a polarizer and ND filter to slow the shutter speed to around 2 seconds. Job done. Next stop, Lake Kaniere.

Hans Bay, Lake Kaniere. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/640th @ f7.1 - ISO 200
It's been a few years since I shot at Lake Kaniere, so I was looking forward to getting some new images of the area with the OM-D E-M1. Overall I'm pleased with the calm, clean images I was able to take, although I would still have preferred some clouds in the sky. The final result is nothing spectacular - just a 'nice' image. I will need to go back and capture some more moody, atmospheric light. It could also be a better sunset rather than sunrise location? It has potential, I just haven't visited it at its best.... yet.

Canoe Creek Walk. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/40th @ f5.4 - ISO 800. 30mm
Just before the turn-off to get to Hans Bay at Lake Kaniere, there is a small (15min) walking track that follows Canoe Creek to the lake. The track winds through lush native forest and is well maintained with wooden walkways that cross over the creek in several places. These paths curve through the bush and form fantastic leading lines through any composition. They also remind me a little of the jetty's that jut out into the lakes themselves. I'm a sucker for a jetty in an image. I can't go past a jetty without photographing it! Just look at the images that accompany this post!

Deadwood - Lake Kaniere. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/60th @ f6.3 - ISO 800. 36mm
At the end of the Canoe Creek walk you come out the the shore of the lake and can walk around to a sheltered inlet that has an otherworldly feel to it. Very spooky and Jurassic Park-like. The carcasses of fallen trees litter the bank and cast these amazing reflections into the water. It's dark, it's cold and it's eerie - and you could easily imagine a dinosaur (or an orc) emerging from the forest. I took several images I liked at this location - all hand-held with an ISO of 800 to keep the shutter speed reasonably high. Yes, I could have set the camera up on the tripod - and maybe I should have? But with the ibis (in body image stabilisation) of the E-M1 and no real need for a long shutter speed, you can get away with hand-holding most of the images as long as you're ok with shooting at ISO 800 (and I am). I may go back soon and shoot at the same location with my medium format Bronica on ISO 100 film, in which case I definitely will need a tripod.

Sunny Bight, Lake Kaniere. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/1600th @ f5 - ISO 200. 23mm
My final destination for the morning was a picnic spot at the other end of the lake from Hans Bay - Sunny Bight. More clear blue skies, more still calm water, more beautiful reflections - and more jetty images! :-)

I found a small jetty that I was able to access from the car park, and this time decided to place it dead-centre in the lower third of the frame - for the classic jetty-leading-into-the-frame shot. I think it works compositionally by 'grounding' the viewer in the scene and leading the eye into the symmetrical view of the reflected mountains in the upper third. The jetty itself could maybe do with being a touch lighter - although i also like the way it almost 'emerges' from the bottom of the frame?

All-in-all I had an amazing morning shooting around two incredible lakes. I started out on a tripod in the very early morning light at Lake Mahinapua, and ended up hand-holding for the rest of the morning at Lake Kaniere since I was shooting with decent shutter speeds, filter-free. The compact, yet solid form factor of the OM-D E-M1, with its incredible ibis, encourages photography that is unencumbered by a tripod, although you obviously have to be careful when light levels drop or you're purposely wanting long exposures.

Some may look at micro-four-thirds as something of a 'lesser' format compared to full frame, or even APS-C? Yet for landscapes, I think they actually have more benefits that negatives. They are smaller and lighter, which if you are tramping distances is definitely a positive. They have increased depth of field at all apertures - great for landscape photography. And image quality from the 16 to 20MP image sensors is perfect for an A3+ sized print. What more do you want? Seriously....?