People love to talk horse poop about stuff they haven't tried for themselves. My favorite is the put down that you shouldn't buy micro four thirds cameras because you can't do narrow depth of field effects. I shot this at Starbucks this morning while sitting around with a bunch of my swimmer buddies, swilling coffee. Pen EP3 with Pen F 40mm 1.4 MF lens.
Let's get a few things out of the way first. I walked into Precision Camera and paid for my Olympus EP3. Olympus isn't sponsoring my review or giving me this stuff so I feel pretty okay saying just about anything I want about the EP3, good or bad. I was immediately interested in the Pens on their launch because I am a collector of Pen F film cameras and their incredibly good Pen F lenses. The stuff is downright amazing. I rushed to the store two years ago to look at the EP1 and I passed on that camera. There was no way to do eye level viewfinding. No EVF. I'd have to wear reading glasses to see fine detail on the screen. Just not going to happen. But I didn't get too upset because I knew it was only a matter of time before they released a model with an EVF. Well, we got the EVF in the form of the VF-2 and while many people don't like this solution I'm very, very happy with it. In fact, I own two of them and now use one on the EP3 and one on the EP2 or the EPL1 depending on which camera I'm toting as a back up. I got the EP3 a couple days ago but today was the first time I had free time to walk around and shoot with it. I put the kit lens in the small bag but I also dragged along a bunch of the old glass, including the (All Pen F lenses from the 1970's) 25mm 2.8, the 40mm 1.4, the 60mm 1.5, and one of the two 50-90mm zooms. It all fit, with my phone and an extra battery, in a bag about half the size of an 9 by 12 inch envelope. The Pen lens are all metal construction with buttery smooth focus rings and the build quality (optically and mechanically) is nearly on par with older generation Leica M lenses.
The wonderful thing about the EP3 is the integration with the VF-2 EVF. Now that I've practiced I can bring the camera up to my eye, push the dedicated magnify button on the button row (second from the top) and the image in the finder pops up to 7X. I can fine focus, push the button once again, compose and shoot. The worst thing about the EP3 is having to learn the intricacies of a burgeoning and bloated menu interface..... The shots of the building above and below were done with the 50-90mm zoom lens. Its maximum aperture is f3.5 (constant) but I tend to use it at f4 and smaller just to sharpen it up a bit. Both of these images were shot at f4. When I use the Pen digital cameras with MF lenses I tend to use the "A" setting and correct for over and underexposures (which I can see in real time) by using the exposure compensation dial. When the light is unchanging, as in bright, cloudless daylight I tend to use the "M" setting and set the fastest possible shutter speed and a middle aperture (which for m4/3 I deem to be either f2.8 or f4).
I've been shooting all the images in my initial tests as SF large Jpegs and I get about 800+ on an 8 gig SDHC card. I'll run out of batteries before I run out of disk space. As soon as all the raw converters are in place I'll switch to raw just to see if there's much difference in performance. My assessment right now is that if you have good lighting technique and good exposure, as well as using good, basic techniques such as stabilizing the camera effectively and focusing accurately, this camera will make files that, up to about 11x14 inches, will be indistinguishable from just about any other camera on the market. All bets are off if you insist on shooting all your stuff over 1600 ISO. In fact, if you believe that the most important metric of new digital cameras is high ISO performance do yourself a favor, stop reading my stuff and don't buy a micro four thirds camera. You probably won't be happy. And you'll be at the emotional mercy of every company's newest model upgrades.
When I walk the streets of downtown Austin with my Pen cameras I tend to let the strap flutter in the wind and just hold the camera in my right hand as I'm walking. I only put the strap around my neck when I need to dig cash out of my pockets for coffee at Cafe Medici or when I'm changing lenses and I want to make sure I don't drop anything. The camera works well with the 50mm to 90mm zoom but I was hampered from time to time by the long minimum focus distance of that lens. As you can see from the Harley detail below it is reasonably sharp even at its closest focus distance.
I'm sure you're dying to know how fast that new AF is. And I'd love to tell you but the old AF on the EP2 was never an issue for me (especially since 90% of the time I'm shooting MF) so you'll have to take what I write with your own grain of salt. I put the new kit lens on and tried it under a number of conditions over the last few days and it's just fine. The camera is not a sports camera and I don't think you'll be happy with continuous AF if you are pressing it into service as an indoor gymnastics camera and you are trying to track your child running across the mats and throwing themselves over some horse device. I've shot gymnastics indoors before for several clients (Motorola was a sponsor for the national team for a while) and I would advise you to run out and get a Nikon D3s or a Canon 1dmk4 with some fast and expensive glass if that's what you have in mind. If it's any consolation to m4/3 owners and users neither Leica M9's nor any of the $25,000 and up medium format digital cameras is any better than any of the Pen in low light focusing speed. In fact, having used both I would say that the Pens run circles around the Leaf AF7i and fast Schneider glass and that's about $40,000 worth of technology.
With the exception of the Canon 5Dmk2 no camera out there really tries to be all things to all people. The raison d'etre of the Pens and their ilk is to be small, light, convenient, inexpensive and competent and they do all that very, very well. Once again, for reading impaired: Pens: NOT A SPORTS CAMERA.
But for walking around shooting art in the streets I find them delectable.
When I used the 50-90mm zoom I realized that when I hit the close focus limit of the optic I could always zoom in to get the magnification I wanted. Not the best solution but very workable for a casual day on the streets. I love this speedometer because it is so clean and industrial.
The last photo I shot with the 50/90 today was this basket of bottled water. This weekend is the annual ACL music festival and this retailer had several baskets full of free drinking water with their logos on them. The other basket also had some catalogs. I think benevolence is good marketing for just about everything. And I'm sure the people who were walking from the downtown hotels to the park, several miles away, were appreciative. For me it was a chance to test the red reproduction of the Oly files and I didn't find them wanting.
When I hit Cafe Medici I changed the battery (I'd had the same battery in the camera since I purchased the camera) and I pulled the 50/90 lens off and exchanged it for the 25mm f2.8 Pen F MF lens. That lens is a moderate wide angle on the original Pen F film cameras but is right in my sweet spot as a normal lens on the digital Pens. I'm using an adapter that allows Pen F's to be mounted on the Pen digis with no issues. It's sold by Fotodiox on their Amazon storefront. Your real issue will be finding Pen F lenses which seem to have been snapped up on the announcement of the EP2....
The 25mm is sharp and bright and you can see how well it does detailed in these two hand held images of coffee cups. I shot at 500 ISO. You'll also notice that the noise is very well controlled. I did try a few shots shooting across the bar into the window but the lens has much more flare than it's modern cousins and I chose not to include those images because I didn't want people to presume that the flare from a 40 year old half frame lens was somehow related to something endemic in the camera itself.
Be sure to click in and see how nicely the camera and lens do coffee bubbles. Many people look at the Pen system and decry the lack of prime lenses but if you are willing to forego AF you can open yourself up to a world of stellar optics with an m 4/3rds camera. With one adapter you can try any one of the Leica M series lenses or the Carl Zeiss lenses made for the M series Leicas. This is the best glass in the world and the adapter will only set you back around $50 at the most. With the adapters I have I can use the Pen F lenses (of course) and the Olympus 4/3rds lenses and Nikon lenses. In fact, I've held on to three Nikon manual focus lenses largely to be able to use them with the Pens. They are the 50mm f3.5 Macro, the 50mm 1.4 and the 135mm 2.8. All of them work very, very well on the cameras. And cost a fraction of what some of the new Olympus and Panasonic lenses cost. The lens I used for the coffee shot above cost me $80 at KEH in 1995. It's superb.
One of the things I really like about shooting with manual focus lenses like the 25mm 2.8 Pen F is that I'm able to do zone focusing with a high degree of success. As I walked around I photographed my familiar Children's Musuem, green wall with the 25 set to its hyperfocal distance for f8. I could just bring the camera to my eye and shoot and know that everything from about 4 feet to several hundred feet would be in acceptable focus and the things I cared about would most certainly be in sharp focus. With half the equation taken care of by the extensive depth of field all I have left to think about is composition and exposure. And that brings up the exposure capabilities of this particular camera.
2nd Street DJ in front of a retail clothing store. Totally engrossed in his computer and the spinning red disks. My camera was not fooled by the dark background and nailed the exposure with no help from me....
I won't pretend that I'm some sort of camera design expert and that I know exactly what algorithms are programmed into the Pen cameras but I do know that when I use evaluative metering in 95% of all situations I end up with a file that looks great. I pulled a little red saturation out of this image because there was a lot of kick into the DJ's face from the red record. But that has nothing to do with exposure.
Set and forget. Either set to manual exposure for unchanging light (bright daylight, inside a big venue with overhead florescent lights, etc.) or depend on the evaluative metering. It's damn good. I've never used the spot or averaging meter in a Pen so I can't really speak to that....
Jan Heaton's Cow for the Austin Cow Parade currently lives just outside the W hotel. Back to the 40mm 1.4 Pen F lens.
One thing I have learned is that it's best to shoot with the camera contrast set a bit flat and maybe also minus out the sharpness a bit. Or shoot in neutral rather than vivid or natural. The reason is that the flatter files will give you much more dynamic range. When I shot the cow above I used my "flat is fine" setting fully aware that I'd want to push up the black slider in Lightroom to +6-10 points. I capture the hightlights and the result is that the blacks can be weak. With one nudge of the slider I've got a file that captures the tones I want and the increase in blacks adds back some drama and an impression of greater sharpness.
I'd been downtown, walking and photographing for a couple of hours when a light rain started falling. It was our first rain in almost three months. I took the hat off my head to cover my camera and lens and reveled in getting wet. But it didn't stop me from pulling the camera out from time to time to snap away at stuff I was interested in. Like this bridge. The 40mm is analogous to an 80mm on a full frame camera and it's a focal length I'm very comfortable with. Funny how unconscious selection works. I have very few wide angles for any of my cameras (none for the Hasselblad system) but in the Pen system alone I have the kit lens, two 38mm 1.8 Pen F's, one 40mm 1.4, one 40mm 1.2, a 60mm 1.5, the 70mm f2 and two of the 50-90mm zooms. And that doesn't count other brand lenses that I adapt with adapter rings onto the Pen cameras.
Still, there is one more lens I'd love to have for the Pens. It's on my wish list. I really want the Panasonic 7-14mm. I made the mistake of shooting with Paul's 7-14 and I can't get it out of my head. Even though it's not really my style....
Whole Food's flagship store is smack dab in the middle of Austin. It's the starting and ending point for most of my walks. And why not? I can grab a coffee in the morning if I'm starting out early and if I'm coming back late on a steamy hot day I can always grab a frosty cold IPA back at their wine and beer bar. Today I went by the store and found these pumpkins. They had so many varieties. I went in to their concierge desk, explained what I wanted to shoot and got a visitor badge. That way, as long as I promised not to shoot their customers, their signage or any packaged goods I could shoot away with the EP3 and the 40mm 1.4 Pen F and none of their associates would bother me. It's a good bargain. Just as in street photography I like to get the willing approval of a private venue before I start sucking up their photons with my camera. The light was my friend today.
Part of the easy approval process might have been the fact that the camera and lens are so small and retro looking that no one presumes for a moment that I am a globe trotting, widely published professional photographer... :- ) Above, more world class pumpkins...
Since I had carte blanche to shoot at will I tried a few shots with these cacti before heading back over to the magic pumpkins. A cloudy day is a wonderful thing for anyone who wants to shoot produce. The soft light is made directional by dint of the overhead covering. It turns omni-directional lighting into soft, directional lighting just inside its shadow boundaries.
People on the forums have taken Olympus to task for the price of the camera and me to task for daring to mention how much the EP3's other branded predecessors cost. This camera's files run circles around the files I got from the Nikon D2X from four or five years ago and it cost less than a quarter of the D2x, body only. You pay a premium for design but then you get to use a camera that's beautifully designed. Very few people will buy an EP3 with the intention of making it their sole business camera. That's just not its role. It is an artist's camera and while there are many camera choices on the market people gravitate to cameras that make them feel productive and make them feel creative. If you are a person with a spreadsheet mindset and must quantify every camera purchase with a series of metrics and check off lists then the Pen is very much not for you. Stop reading and buy the Rebel T3i. It was made for the check list people. But you can't really put a hard price on good design and good ergonomics. Dare I say it? Exquisite haptics. Beguiling visual aesthetics. If that sounds like BS to you then no, you don't get it and you WILL be happier with a Canon Rebel of some sort or, if the price is right, one of the entry level Nikons. But the important thing to understand is that different attributes have different values to different people and artists don't have to justify their tool purchases to engineers. (Unless they are married to engineers and buying cameras with the joint checking account....).
If you think the Olympus is overpriced then it is. For you. I am a veteran buyer of many Leicas and, for what they were able to accomplish, I didn't think they were over priced. You just can't over estimate how important the feel of a camera in your hand is until you spend hours each day with it.
When I was last in Rome I spent 12 to 15 hours a day with a camera in my hand. At the time it was a Mamiya Six. Over the course of two weeks I knew every square centimeter of that camera by touch. And I loved it. Obversely, I was an early owner of the Nikon D700 and found it to be annoying in my hand over time. I had to reach too far to hit the shutter button. The body never felt right to me. When I picked up the Pen it fell right into place. Once I mastered the menu items I needed I could go on shooting and walking for hours without the camera making its presence known. What's that worth? And how will you know until you do your first 100 hours with it? And how will you know how much better another camera will be if you never put down your defensive spreadsheets and try some alternatives? If several hundred dollars of difference is too much for you to consider between two cameras, one of which you might own for years, then really, you can't afford this hobby. And if metrics and specs are the sole foundation of your decision making tree for your tools then I'll brashly state that you don't have the emotional intelligence to make it in this business either. End of pricing rant.
This might be the most beautiful photograph I've ever made of a pumpkin. I didn't know I had it in me. It's a pumpkin portrait......
I know. You've heard that the noise in the smaller cameras is horrible. I'm sure it is but I'm too busy looking at the fun photographs to notice it. A dimly lit chocolate display. A fast lens. Some built in image stabilization. Yummy.
Hey, guess what? Olympus has been building their image stabilization into the bodies so that even my 1968 version 60mm 1.5 is now image stabilized. Amazing. And it works well exactly because the sensor is smaller than FF and APS-C. Less inertia, less required movement, less acceleration and deceleration. It's a great technology and it means that I can stick with slower ISO's like 500 for less noise. That being said I'm good with the EP2 up to 800 ISO with no qualifications and the newer EP3 up to 1600. Could I go further? Yes but I'd want to do my noise reduction with a plug-in in PhotoShop. But, step two, the shorter focal lengths that cover the same angle of view also give you more depth of field so when I put a sharp 40mm 1.4 lens on the front and shoot it at f2.8 I get the same DOF I'd have at the same angle of view with a full frame lens at f5.6. Two free stops right there.....
Everything is a compromise. If ultimate noise performance is the end all and be all for your style then this isn't your camera. Get a big Nikon D3s and be happy at 12,000 ISO. Buy a Pen and be happy making good photos and NOT carrying around a giant brick...
Finally, lets talk about studio flash and portraits. I do a lot of portraits. Sometimes I shoot them with a Canon 5Dmk2 because it has a big file and clients expect it. Sometimes I shoot them with a Hasselblad and a 150mm so I can get crazy nice shallow depth of field coupled with incredible detail in the parts that are in focus. And so, I wanted to know if I'd be able to use this camera to shoot studio portraits.
I want to use the VF-2. That's a foregone conclusion. But I also want to sync with my Elinchrom studio flashes. That's a given. Couldn't do it with my EP2 because you could only use the hot shoe for one or the other. Not both. But the EP3 comes with its own little pop up flash. Joy of joy. It is capable of manual operation at 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64th power settings. That means I can use its flash to sync my big flashes. But the flash points forward. No problem, I've made a little white reflector from a business card that bounces the internal flash's light right up to the ceiling and not directly into my subject's eyes. Today I set up the studio using one large 70 inch diameter octabank on an older Elinchrom 250 WS monolight. Cranked all the way down and using the camera's lowest ISO of 200 I was getting f8 as my minimum f-stop. I decided to shoot all my favorite lenses.
This one is with the 40mm 1.4. One of the benefits of the EVF cameras (from all makers) is the ability to define an aspect ratio. I love shooting portraits in the square. That makes EVF cameras an ultra bonus for me.
Also a 40mm shot. At f8. 1/60th. ISO 200. No fill.
This was taken with the 60mm 1.5 lens. All lenses are good at f8. The Pen F lenses are good at one stop down from their full aperture and excellent at two stops down. For this lens that would be f2.8. By f8 it's just cruising.....
This was taken with the largely unknown and relatively rare 70mm f2. It's a beautiful focal length for studio portraits. Not much longer than the 60mm but just enough. I moved the camera in several feet for a nice tight crop of Ben. If he looks tired he was up this morning at 5:15am to go to a cross country meet in Waco, Texas. One of my favorite portraits of him. A one light set up I discovered when ZA was still in kindergarten.......
From the 70mm we moved on to the 50-90mm zoom lens. This was an early but wonderful zoom that Olympus designed for small "sensor" film cameras. It's pretty sharp wide open at f3.5 but really comes into its own at f4 and a half and f5.6. This is the middle of its focal length range.
So, I'm about six hours into the EP3 and I'm not yet willing to give final assessment of the product. I know that when I look at my favorite pumpkin shot or the shots of Ben that I'll be able to do really good work with this camera. In a few moments of madness during a kick set at swim workout this morning I actually toyed with dumping all the Canon stuff and beefing up the little system. But I've gone that route before and some clients are looking for big files, or blistering frame rates, or just the assurance of the appearance of a lot of "iron" on their projects.
My current bottom line is this: I loved ( and still love ) the EP2. This camera is better. The back screen is better. The sensor seems sharper. When I use the AF lens I know it's faster and more assured. If I could travel the world and do art the way I would ultimately want to it would probably be with either two of the EP3's and some carefully chosen lenses or a Hasselblad and one or two lenses. Either way I'd be shooting square and not worrying about the gear. This is nice stuff.
If you are looking for the EP3 consider getting it here and help support my blog without costing you a cent more.....