A quick review of a lens for Micro Four Thirds. The Panasonic 14-45mm.

I get maximum image quality bang for my bucks when I use single focal length lenses on my Panasonic and Olympus cameras but there are times when you're walking through a crowd and you want to shoot instantly.  But you have the wrong lens on the camera and by the time you get into your bag and get the lens changed out the image you were lusting after is long gone.  In those situations it makes sense to use a zoom lens.  Panasonic and Olympus make a bunch of "normal" zoom lenses.  Most of the cameras come with one in the "kit." 

I've got a collection of them.  Lately, when I get them in kits, I try to trade them for pricey, name brand camera batteries.  But I also wanted a good one so I did my research on the various web sites that do lens test (Photozone, SLRgear) and decided to try the grandfather of m4:3 zooms, the Panasonic you see above.  It's small and light but a little bigger than the current Panasonic 14-42.  The newer lens doesn't have the Optical Image Stabilization switch on the body.  The older one does (see above).

I decided I needed a better lens when I tested the 14-42 that came with my G3.  It was consistently soft at the long end and got worse as I focused to infinity.  What did I have to lose?  I waited until one of those days when Amazon.com's dynamic pricing algorithm was in my favor and bought one for around $225.  Long story compressed to digestible tidbit?  It's good.  The center is really nice and sharp and stays that way from wide to tele.  It's sharp wide open (in the center 2/3rds of the frame) and that's where I like to use it.  I spent an afternoon shooting with it on the GH2 body and it's a revelation how much fun it is to shoot with a small and light camera and lens package.  


Transitioning to an EVF future. And then some.

I've been using and writing about electronic viewfinders for the last three years here on the Visual Science Lab.  My first real experience with EVFs was via the Sony R1 camera which, I felt, was a surprisingly prescient offering for its time.  It use a very flexible LCD finder screen which could be positioned as a wais tlevel finder and it had a low res but well implemented, true EVF.  When packaged with a large sensor (about the size of the Canon G1X sensor) of 10 megapixels and a very well reviewed Carl Zeiss 24-120mm (equivalent) zoom lens it became a great shooting camera for a certain kind of subject.  I used it extensively for interior and exterior architectural studies and many available light portraits.  It worked well in the studio for still life set ups with the proviso that I shoot with continuous light.  The low light capabilities of the finders weren't stellar and made use with flash a bit problematic.  But the sensor, which was rumored to be a variant of the sensor in the Nikon D2x professional camera, was amazingly detailed and well mannered.

Ben and I have also had the pleasure of using the EVFs in Canon's superzoom line of compact cameras, including the SX10, SX20 and SX30.  The EVF worked well in full sunlight for stills and video.  Ben and his friends have put a lot of miles on those cameras in the pursuit of their digital video art.  (Which reminds me...he promised to teach me Final Cut ProX when he had a chance..).

Recently much progress has been made with EVFs.  So much so that I found, recently, that I've been drawn to work with the Panasonic GH2 and the Olympus EP3 not so much for the nimble size and fun optics but for the instantaneous feedback of the well implemented EVFs.  Pre-chimping beats the hell out of post chimping any day of the week.

I love pulling the camera (regardless of brand) up to my eye and seeing a clear, clean representation of just how the camera would finally render the images.  The impact of exposure compensation, Jpeg parameter changes, dynamic range expansion schemes and more.  When I went back to a conventional optical viewfinder I always found myself wanting to see what the camera saw, not just the soft fall of focus caused from viewing a scene through a fast, wide open lens.  The scene might look one way with the lens wide open but have a different character when stopped down for shooting and with all the parameters figured in.  Seems like a little thing to wait to see the image on the back panel after taking the test shot but it isn't.  I also work a lot of days in the direct sun and resent having to wear a Hoodman Loupe around my neck for post shot examining of a camera's LCD screen in bright light.  Or any ambient light.  Every color cast changes your perception of color rendering...

So, when Sony announced the a77 back in August my attention was piqued.  But real life intervened.  The floods in Thailand threw a huge wrench in Sony's rollout and I finally put my hands on an a77 a few weeks ago and started an evaluation.  My first concern was the quality of the viewfinder but that faded in minutes.  The finder is great.  I love it.  But we'll talk about EVFs in depth in a future column.  My second concern was how the camera would handle situations that comprise the bulk of my paid work, portraits with electronic flash on various locations.

The a77 accepted my radio triggers and syncs up to 1/250th of a second with smaller flashes.  With bigger flashes is seems to sync better at 1/125th.  With one menu adjustment the finder shows a bright image of the person in front of me under conventional modeling lamps of 100 watts.  As the light drops (say in a dark room) the finder becomes noisier but is still usable for easy composition and feedback.  Shooting this way means that I do have to  post chimp to see the actual result.  But as I transition to shooting more portraits with big panels I can go back to the nuanced preview I like.

My first paying job with the a77 was making location portraits of doctors and the camera passed the test with good marks. 

When I went back to shoot with my conventional cameras I found that, of all the cameras I owned, they had become the least fun to shoot with.  And, at the ISOs I use (50-1600) the files where a toss up.  I made up my mind and decided that, for my "work" cameras, I would switch to an all Sony system.

I won't bore you with the details of the disposition of the previous system but I thought I'd share what I've started with in the new system.

I had amassed a collection of bodies over time.  Each had different menu set ups and the screens on the back of the cameras ranged from "good"on the back of the 5d2 to "horrible and punishing" on the 1Dmk2 (my oldest).  I had a bunch of disparate lenses and both of my most used "L" lenses were very sharp f4 lenses.  I really wanted to simplify the entire inventory. 

I wanted two identical bodies so the menus, knobs and settings would always match.  And I've signed a pact with the gods of photography to only replace in pairs from now on.  With this in mind I bought two a77's.  I read both manuals (kidding) and I set up both cameras to exactly the same settings.  Now I'm diving in and master each of the control sets and special settings.  I'm intrigued by things like the Multi-Frame noise reduction.  I want to know every control setting on the camera.
No fumbling with personal settings or custom settings that vary from body to body.

I wanted two fast zoom lenses that I could use to cover an event without having to change lenses.  I working in a lot of dust and grime last year and not having to switch lenses on a hot, dusty highway construction site would be...advantageous.  I chose the Sony 16-50mm f2.8 lens and the 70-200mm G series lens.  I've tested them at all relevant apertures and I'm happy with their performance.  

I bought the Sony HVL-F58AM flash unit and it seems to work fine.  It's flexible and it can be controlled by the in-cameras flashes on the a77's. 

I also bought a nice Hasselblad to Sony Alpha lens adapter and I'm very, very happy with the performance of the 80mm Zeiss Planar and the 120mm Zeiss Makro-Planar.  They have a different look.  I call it "authoritative bright."  It looks clinical, contrasty and clean.

In the end, all current systems are overkill for most of the photograph we do.  I do like shooting with the EVFs and I'm sure many will argue convincingly for OVFs.  I looked at aging inventory in one system and decided to start over again in an different system.  Working with new gear and a new style of feedback is refreshing and novel.  It makes shooting more fun.

I'm sure I'll hit some snags in the transition but you know I'm transparent enough to mention both sides of the equation.  I wonder if Sony marketing needs a pro user to sponsor?  

A quirky, fun and thoroughly enjoyable book overtly and incidentally about the hobby and art of photography.

This book is fun, smart and sly.  Click to see the Amazon Page.

My mailbox seems to be a mythical, magical place.  One day I came home to find a box full of LEDs shoved into the tiny, metal, barrel-vault construction.  One day I came home and found $45,000 worth of Phase One equipment next to my door because it wouldn't fit in my mailbox.  No signature required... Sometimes I find letters from readers from exotic places...

But last week I came home and found a nondescript but bulky envelope that contained a smallish book and a note from one of my readers.  His name is K.D. Dixon.  He is a photographer for fun and a serious writer.

His note suggested that I might like his novel about photography and called it, "A quirky catalogue of imaginary photographs, it is an idiosyncratic mix of character study and meditation--a glimpse into the life of a peculiar photo-enthusiast named Michael Quick and a questioning, if somewhat cursory, examination of his private obsession (photography)."  The book is entitled: The Photo Album.

Now, first a quick warning to my obsessive compulsive mathematician friends and non-fiction readers:  There are no equipment reviews.  No "behind the scenes" set up descriptions or diagrams.  No teeth gnashing battles between the forces of light (Raw files) and the forces of darkness (Jpegs).   You won't find principled discussions of the role of social networking in marketing your photographic enterprise.  Nor, in this book will you find any real discussions of technique.  I would also point out that while there are no color illustrations.  I hope we didn't just look 90% of the audience...

What you will find are 130+ really incisive observations about life and photography that made me laugh and smile.  Some are encapsulated discussions of the very things we talk about here, such as "why take photographs?" or why people like to take photographs of some things but not others.  There is no story line, per se, but there is an arc to the work that strings the pages together.  It's the kind of book that you can pick up, read until the sun sets or your glass of wine becomes empty, then bookmark; knowing you'll pick it up again soon and that you needn't remember the precise plot points of a complex narrative to enjoy your next dip into smartly written and questioning vignettes of everyday life through the eyes of a photographer.

There are so few books like this.  And there are so few that are written as well for photographers of a certain age and experience.  If you like the Visual Science Lab it is my opinion that you will love this little book.

I have one problem with this book.  I want to keep it and come back to it again and again.  In fact, there is one page that I'm going to use to open a talk with on Thurs.  But I also want to give it to one of my good friends who is a photographer as well.  I think he'll really appreciate the feeling of commonality among enthusiasts that this book conveys.

Hey.  It's the price of a decent lunch.  Buy a copy and see for yourself.  It's on my "Recommended for Smart Photographer Who Like to Read list.  Check it out here.