A re-appraisal of the Olympus Pens as fine art cameras.

You may remember that on my little journey to west Texas I rashly took my EPL-1 and my EP-2 and a little bag of lenses and batteries.  While the older, film camera lenses saw some use I was most at home using the little 14-42mm kit lens that shipped with every Pen camera you could get your hands on.  It was a wild roller coaster back then.  The economy was still very uneven (yes, worse than today...),  I'd just basically told a publisher I couldn't work with them on a project (the West Texas Road Trip) that we'd been discussing for the better part of two months and I felt at loose ends.

When I got home I posted some images from the trip and did a little write up of the experience but I don't think I really burrowed down to discuss the nuts and bolts of the little cameras in much detail.  I think I was still processing my own intellectual fallibility and hubris.  You see, I thought any project I could think of I could make work.  But by actually going out on the trip, even without the restrictions of a publisher or commercial, outlined project,  I came to learn that I just don't have much of an affinity for the aesthetic of the wide open spaces.  I'm not in love with the ethos of the cowboy as is Robb Kendrick or Kurt Markus.  I don't think Marfa is mystical or Marathon magical.  I couldn't wrap my interests around the endless miles of driving and the vast desolation.  I felt like a character in Jack Kerouac's, "On The Road", destined to drive on mad, nonstop, junkets back and forth across the United States with only a bag of cheese sandwiches and whatever rest stops I could find.

But in retrospect I brought back quiet photographs whose code I hadn't cracked yet.  Like the one on top which speaks to me about the ebb and flow of "colonizing" territory and then letting it slip back toward its sustainable chaos.  Other empty landscapes made me think, pretty much for the first time with any diligence, about how thin the slice of our livable environment is when measured against the volume of the earth.  A few feet of soil and then rock below.  Two feet or fifty feet of vegetation, sparsely scattered around, and above that only the ether.

I guess that not every photo needs to be of craggy faced celebrities, pretty girls and buff men to have it's own subversive impact.

This tree is next to a dammed up spring.  The spring was corralled in the 1930's during our last, national economic catastrophe by people working for the FSA.   It's on a piece of public land miles from the tiny town of Marathon, Texas, at what seems to be the very edge of the earth.  If the stream hadn't been dammed would this tree exist?

And, so what does any of this have to do with dinky cameras?  A lot.  Nothing.  I know that I wouldn't have gone looking for pictures in quite the same way with a different camera.  I've harped on this but the ability to compose and see in a square format removed friction for me.  It lubricated the seeing process in a nice way.  And it's one of the reasons I come back and pick up the Pen cameras over and over again.

I love the fact that they are tiny and light.  I can carry them without regard for their weight, their bulk or the imperialism of their intention.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that a Canon 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D700 is a professional tool that commands a way of confronting subject matter.  They suffuse situations with an expectation of "serious" photography.  They are not airy and exploratory cameras the way the Pens are.  The Pens seem to defy an easy categorization and they seem to morph themselves to match your intention.  If you need them to be serious cameras you can pull off serious photography with them.  If you need them to be "Lomos" or "Holgas" you can do that too.

I find the electronic viewfinder indispensable.  I would never want to shoot one without it.  The only time I can make that work is when I'm shooting video on a tripod.  I use a Hoodman Loupe on the back LCD when I need to use the hot shoe for the microphone adapter.  If I can get away with using the built-in microphone I will.

Of the two cameras I have to say I prefer the EPL's imaging quality and quickness.  I prefer the elegance and retro design of the EP2 as an object.  Of all the lenses I've tried I always seem to come back to the kit lens.  I try to shoot at ISO 200 and I nearly always use the large/fine Jpeg setting.  I only shoot raw if the lighting has incredibly mixed color temperatures.  I try not to use either camera above ISO 800 because, no matter what the reviews say, you'll have a hard time reconciling the noise.

It's a perfect camera for an artist.  It's not a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  And maybe that's why it's a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  Its quixotic approach to imaging pushes us outside the confines of our usual, self bounded boxes enough to make photography serious in the opposite way that commercial photography is serious.  It's serious in the,  "I want to look at things and see how they look as photographs"--way instead of being, "I want to impress the guys on DPreview with the sheer technical quality of the frame and make money from clients"--sort of way.

I keep them because they aren't like my other cameras.  And that's a good thing.


andrewt said...

As an artist's camera the Pens are great for sketching. However, as a photographer with artistic intent I wish the dynamic range was better. I would like to maintain detail in both lights and darks.

I think that wide open spaces force you to look harder for compositions. Part of that aspect of photography where it helps you to "see." But I also personally get tremendous satisfaction out of well-done pictures from wide open spaces.

I lived in New Mexico for a year and one thing I learned is that I'm not naturally drawn to such wide open spaces. I prefer a little confinement. I think we are all just wired differently that way. Texas is a nice balance - used to live there, but now live in California.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is wired differently as you say - I love wide open, desolate areas. Living in Denver I have the choice of mountains to the west or prairie to the east. I love the prairie. It pulls me in and I find it achingly beautiful. City life has no appeal whatsoever. It's just where my job is.

John Krumm said...

These cameras hit a sweet spot, for sure, which is why they are selling so well. I'm still holding on to my 620 and pile of 4/3 lenses (knowing that regular 4/3 might turn into m43-pro eventually, and the regular lens line retired over the next few years). I'll very likely buy an EP-3 or EPL2 after September, especially if it has a built in viewfinder, and let other people make sure the E-5 is worth the money first.

We have a guy in town who uses many antique cameras, and recently he had a show of portraits shot on glass plate, scanned and then printed on what looked like old butcher paper, perhaps 4 feet across for some, about 20 prints and he said it cost him around eighty dollars, and just amazing detail, and super shallow depth of field. Maybe I should give that a try... : )

Curt Schimmels said...

I was at a classic car show, yesterday. I made the decision before I left the house to take the EP-1, and the 14-42mm kit lens. I could have taken a DSLR, but quickly ruled that out. I could have taken some manual lenses, or the very fine 20mm F1.7 Panasonic, but decided that in the direct sun of the day, the kit lens afforded me wide-angle to portrait length, and with only a loss of very narrow DOF (I could still get to F3.5 @ 14mm, which was enough for isolation where I needed it.)

I was so glad I made that those choices! I found myself holding the camera at my knees, or lifting it above my head for different perspectives. On occasion, I was able to reach into the engine bay for shots I could not make outside the body of the car. I got perspectives that worked for me.

I happened to notice several DSLR users at the show, ranging from little Rebels to pro-body Nikons and Canons. Every user I watched shot from the same position, standing with the camera at the eye. I'm sure their shots were beautiful, but for me, with all from the same perspective, they would be boring.

In this sense, I can really agree with your premise of being freed from the "imperialism of intention."

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

My satisfaction with the EPL1 grows every day. And I find the dynamic range to be very good, though I have no other current camera to compare it, but I think is far better than the DR from my old E1. Still think that the kit lens is her weakest link and I'm looking for an upgrade. I would love to hear your opinions Kirk about using the Lumix 20mm 1.7 and (if you have tried it) the Zuiko 14-54mm. Thanks in advance!

Kurt W said...

Good to see the Pens back in the Kirk Tuck limelight. "I know that I wouldn't have gone looking for pictures in quite the same way with a different camera." That says it all. The guys with the big honkin' Canikons just laugh at my little camera. They think it's cool but, really now, not for serious photography.

I fly planes for a living and we have a saying about the guys who wear the big pilot watches ...but I can't say it here.

Craig said...

I can appreciate how you feel about the Pens, because it's actually kind of how I feel about some of my old cameras that don't require batteries, don't autofocus, and don't even have built-in meters. Shooting a 1957 Konica rangefinder with its fixed 48mm lens doesn't have the same "serious" feeling of holding some big monster like a 5D Mark II. The mood is much more relaxed for some reason.

Michael Ferron said...

Hmm as one who has had some problems with dynamic range on other Olympus digital cameras I have to say I haven't with the EPL1. Shoot at ISO 200 for best results and keep the EV set at -.3 to -.7. By far the best little camera I've ever owned.

Drew Sanborn said...

"It's a perfect camera for an artist." I completely agree! With the ability to change formats (including that terrific 1:1 ratio, which you have made good use of here), the selection of art filters, great jpegs, and the amazing range of possible lenses, the E-P cameras are superb creative tools. I just got back from a week on Chebeague Island, off the coast of Maine, where the landscape varies from wide-open ocean vistas to densely tangled thickets of spruce and hemlock and the lighting varies from bright sun to dense fog . . . the E-Ps responded well to all occasions. I use the E-P2 with the 14-42 lens and the E-PL1 with a Lens Baby Composer. All that equipment fits into a small shoulder bag and weighs next to nothing. I've had hundreds of cameras, but in terms of flexibility, ease of use, and image quality, these are the best I've ever had. Thanks, Kirk, for sharing your experiences with them.

BB W. said...

Great piece, Kirk. Very thoughtful and thought provoking - many thanks!

Brad C said...

Great reminder of how the physcial camera itself may influence our images. I have one of the custom modes on my GF1 set to shoot in Black and White, square format, and love the ability to 'see' that way.

duncan said...

Well put.

3 weeks ago heading for Tuscany, I faced a small dilemma over my normal travel gear (E30+12-60+ CPL/NDG) and the EP1+14-42 I had purchased the day before (plus an 82mm CPL I had spare)

IQ, enjoyment, etc - the Pen was great. Missed the filters. Overall it simply worked - just on a wrist strap.

then you have to add the Italy factor - more discussions with strangers about the Pen than I could believe! Not a reason to buy, carry. use an image capture device - or maybe it is?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that no one has commented on your photos in the thread. The first is beguiling in its simplicity but totally integrated. I love it. I would buy the print. The next two are as stark and graphic as images from the surface of the moon. All three are collectible and amazing. And here I thought you just shot people. Come on, people! These are great.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

The last anonymous comment got me... I`m embarrassed to reckon that we let our camera fetichism flow freely singing the praises of the PENs, again praising the chisel in lieu of the master's hand or the sculpture, and these photos are almost that,bidimensional sculptures being at the same time so graphic as the former commenter expressed so aptly. You may not have a penchant for wide open spaces, but certainly you can make them sing!

Lash LaRue said...

All three of the images are wonderful. As for why? You are primarily a "people" photographer, and one of your skills is capturing what Jay Maisel calls "gesture." And since landscapes have "gesture" also, you have been able to transfer that skill to the landscape. You do not try to get the grand vista; you capture the intimate gesture.

Janis said...

Kirk, thanks for posting your lovely images, and for the post. You summed it up beautifully: "a 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D700 is a professional tool that commands a way of confronting subject matter. They suffuse situations with an expectation of "serious" photography." That's exactly why I feel a kind of relief when I use the EPL-1 instead of the D700. I relax and enjoy spontaneous photography and I don't have to plan my day around carrying and protecting a heavy bag of expensive equipment. You can use the Pen for serious photography, but you also have the choice to play with various modes and art filters, which are great fun, esp. (in my case) pinhole camera. Some people are offended by the idea that the Pens are "fun," but to me that just means they lend themselves to being creative and experimental. I didn't expect to like the camera so much, and I'm definitely creating some different images than I did in the past. I'm not selling the big camera, but I feel that a new door has opened.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

I'm a little divided on this one. While I've loved my E-P1 a lot over the past year, there are some things with micro four thirds that have me thinking about cashing in. I shoot about everything, my kids, stock, sports, landscape, you name it. No I'm not a pro and don't know if I will ever truly turn that corner. Not that I don't trust my abilities, I'm just not sure if that's where I want to go. Anyways, back on point. For the past couple weeks I did an experiment by shooting primarily with my son's D40 and it has made me seriously think about what I'm looking for in a "small" camera. I guess its not as much about the cameras as the lenses. Basically I want tac sharp 50mm and 85mm focal length equivalent and a fast focusing wide aperture 80-200mm option. Out of over 1500 vacation shot I took over half with the wonderful little $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8.

I'm seriously thinking about selling out my primary DSLR and the E-P1, shooting for a while with the D40 and waiting to see what Olympus, Canon and Nikon have in store between now and the fall.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Kirk> "I find the electronic viewfinder indispensable. I would never want to shoot one without it."

I finally tried that one during Photokina, and compared to the optical viewfinder of my E-520, it knocked me off me feet. I mean, seriously, even with wearing my glasses, I was able to see the whole frame, and it can give you whatever information you'd ever need.

Hm. My wife wants an E-PL1 anyway, and with the kit zoom, they're pretty cheap at the moment. But that viewfinder makes me considering one for myself...

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