more notes on the Olympus EM5-2. Spring day in Austin.

I've been shooting with the EM5-2 for a little bit more than a week but it's been a week dense with projects and so far few of the projects have included the new camera. I have an advantage with the EM5-2 in that it's an upgrade of a camera (the original OMD EM5) that I have four of and have used extensively in corporate event shoots and personal work. That means that most of my learning curve with the new model includes learning where in the menu the controls for new features are. I also have to get used to the new button placement. 

Since I bought the camera with the intention of pressing it into service as a handheld video camera, thinking to take advantage of both the five axis image stabilization and the focus peaking I have outfitted it for that. I bought both halves of the battery grip, partly because I will welcome double the shooting time before battery changes but mostly because I want the headphone jack that allows me to monitor audio. That headphone jack is on the part of the battery grip that attaches directly to the camera. While the add-ons grow the package it's still relatively small and very easy to work with.

I hit my first learning glitch over the new feature; focus peaking. I went into the menu, set it up the way I wanted it, turned it on and then exited the menu. To my consternation, with a manual lens mounted I could not get the focus peaking to appear. Thankfully, my friend, Frank, showed up to help me out. A lifeguard in the camera set-up pool. He let me know that I needed to assign the focus peaking to one of the dozens of function buttons that festoon the exterior of the camera (there are really only three or so but I'm finding on re-reading the owner's manual that almost any button can be reconfigured...

I replaced the "magnify" feature I'd set at function 2 with focus peaking. I figure it's all part of the same intention----getting sharp focus from manual lenses. That worked perfectly and for a while I was very happy. 

It would seem like a more balanced report if I could list out other things that interfere with my enjoyment of the camera but so far I haven't stumbled over any. Focus peaking works a little bit differently on this camera than it does on my Panasonic GH4. When the focus peaking is engaged the camera actually darkens the view screen a bit so there's more contrast between the peaking artifacts and the scene. It works well and helps make the feature even more fine tunable. I do find it a bit jarring to have the focus peaking indications vanish when the shutter button is pushed half way down, but at the same time that push on the button also restores the preview to its normal state which assures me that we got the exposure nailed down correctly. 

I spent an hour this morning out shooting with the camera and one of my all time favorite lenses from the original, film, half frame Pen. It's the 40mm f1.4 and it's a great optic once you are two stops down from wide open. Everything is sharp pretty much across the frame.  It's not terrible at f2.0 but everything except the middle third of the frame goes a bit low contrast, low sharpness to me when I use the lens wide open. Solution? Don't use the lens wide open.

Let's talk for a second about the improvements. The camera feels as though it is better made than its predecessor. More solid and weighty. The EVF is wonderful. Sharp and detailed and imbued with a fast refresh rate. It's one step closer to the holy grail of looking through a window. The shutter has a wonderful and very quiet action. I use cameras in many interior spaces and on many jobs. The ones in the theater or the ones where I shoot in conferences or in small meeting rooms are the ones that both make me cognizant and also appreciative of a low decibel, sonically well behaved shutter mechanism. That's something I like in the new camera. 

I am enthusiastic about the banishing of the accessory port just above the finder window. Olympus accomplished this by giving me a dedicated microphone port and a real sync terminal. What it really means for me is that when I shoot video as I wanted to with this camera I am able to put the microphone into the hotshoe and connect it to the dedicated port. The older accessory took up the hot shot and required that I do something else with the microphone. Like parking it on a "cage" of adding a bracket to the camera. 

Video. Let's talk about the new elephant in the room; video. Or more precisely the image quality of the video. I can already tell you that my test with the image stabilization have shown me that we're on the right track in using this camera for handheld video content creation. It's rock solid. I use the "mode 2" of I.S. because I don't really trust the digital IS in conjunction with the mechanical I.S. I think it can create artifacts in the video with more extreme camera moves. 

But let's cut to the heart of the matter, we all wanted this camera to be as good with the image quality of video that the GH3 is. (We really want GH4 quality but most of us are more than happy to settle for GH3 1080p quality if you dig right down). Is it? Andrew Reid at EOShd.com says No Way! And the discussion about it rages on over twenty or so pages at his well read site. I'll have to say that even at the All-I setting which gets us 77 megabits of data per second the codec isn't as sharp as the one from the Panasonic at its 50mbs setting. But the All-I setting does a good job of preventing motion issues and files that get blocky with a combination of low light and fast movement. 

I'll say that the video at the best levels, using good lenses is right up with the Canon 5D mk3 (un-hacked) or the Nikon D750--810 at their in camera settings. The big issue with all of these cameras versus the GH4 or the Sony A7 is that the files don't appear as crisp and detailed. Is it a deal breaker? Not for me. I'll use a GH4 to do locked down interview shots but when motion is involved everything is a trade off and I'm firmly of the belief that the Olympus gets the best part of the deal with a hand-held camera. Good video focus with the right lenses, great stabilization, good color and adequate sharpness. 

If you are relatively new to video you'll find that lots of things that critics bitch about are either as a result of comparisons between $1,000 do everything cameras and $25,000 dedicated video cameras or they are the result of trying to shoot distant objects and landscapes with an absolutely limited number of overall pixels. The 2K frame comes in right around 2,000,000 pixels which isn't a lot to spread around a wide frame with lots of small details. All of these cameras are much better at the kind of stuff I also like to shoot much better. In short, closer shots of people, waist up interviews and tight detail shots almost always look great. Big, chunky graphic frames are the forté of low resolution cameras and this is no different with video cameras. 

I have several projects coming up on which shooting video with the Olympus camera will be easy to do alongside whatever other camera I choose to use. At that point I should have a lot more to say about how the camera handles day to day video shooting but, for right now, I am guardedly optimistic. 

Shooting the graffiti wall with this camera is a piece of cake. Easy as can be. The focus indication through peaking was right on the money and the color and integrity of the Jpeg files was as peerless as I always remember it. It's an amazingly good camera in a nice system at a nice size and a decently low price point. Will it replace my Nikon D810? Nope, it will complement my big, heavy but amazingly detailed Nikon. They both work pretty darned well. Pictures follow. Click to see them big.


Vintage LEDs. Already.

In the LED heyday of 2011. With Jana.

Back in 2011 I wrote a book about LED lighting for photographers. Even though LEDs were more expensive and less efficient (and well color balanced) back then I was pretty sure they'd catch on. Four years down the road I'm on my third or fourth generation of LED lights. I am finding them more and more useful all the time. 

I recently photographed 20 people during a day of making images for a law firm. We were shooting on a rainy and overcast day and the building in which the law firm was housed sits right in the middle of Austin's downtown district. 

I was making portraits of people in offices with the shapes and textures of the city softly rendered outside the windows. A cityscape background made soft and somewhat surreal by the combination of aerial mist and quickly diminishing focus from the f2.8 setting on my 85mm lens.

The light in the offices (with the regular office lighting extinguished needed to be supplemented. I brought along three flashes but I also brought along five LED panels. Four of the 312AS lights and one of the 504AS lights. All of these units are marketed by Fotodiox and all feature the ability to adjust color temperature and output levels. I used the big light diffused through a 1/2 stop scrim for my main light and used the smaller lights for fill and accents. 

None of this would have worked on a sunny day. It it had been a brighter day I would have defaulted to the flashes and some umbrellas. But luck was on my side. The constant light source was a blessing since a lot of the people being photographed were nervous in front of the camera and a fair number told me that they were habitual camera blinkers. Not having the flash going off and cueing them to blink was great. The subjects were amazed when I would tell them that we got twenty or thirty great shots without a single blink.

In the same week I used some of the small LEDs for a video interview and I used the large LED to supplement ambient lighting for a video slider shot in a lab. One evening we had a power failure  here in our neighborhood, which is an extremely rare occurrence, and I brought in a case of the LEDs from the office and placed them all over the house. They ran for hours on their batteries and were still going strong when the power came back on. Later in the week I agreed to photograph a doctor here in the studio that had a tough schedule and needed to make his appointment with me after 9pm. 

We're in a residential area that doesn't believe in street lights so I wanted to make it easy for the doctor to find me in the dark. I put one LED on a small stand to light up the house number on the mail box out near the curb. I used another two lights to sweep the drive way with light and I used one light facing the studio to light up the small building's exterior. 

The doctor honed in on the location like an airplane following landing lights. 

I don't know if you've started to experiment with LEDs yet but now is a good time to start. Especially if you are interested in video production. The panels are cheaper and more consistent than ever before and the color just keeps getting better and better. With a good low light camera like the Nikon D610 it's almost as if there is no downside to their use. You won't freeze fast action with them but you can light up a portrait really well. 

When I look back at how big and primitive my first set of LEDs was I am pretty amazed at the progress the lighting industry has made. I just checked out the latest from Fiilex and I am convinced that if I have the budget I'll be making some additional investments in their products. Especially now that the big 500 series light is available. It's very clean and pure and kicks out the equivalent of a 750 watt tungsten spotlight. So very cool.


Thoughts While Finishing up a Project and Getting Ready for the Next One.

From: A series of interviews about LBJ.

When I read about an epiphany of one photographer or another in regard to their newly found love of video it always seems as though the protagonists need to disavow traditional photography in order to sally forth on their new moving pictures quest. It's almost like everyone needs to mythologize a mystical transition in which they are moved to discover a higher power of communication. A creative growth spurt. These new Jedi Masters of video talk in terms of framing things beautifully; of capturing the beautiful light; of using the images to tell the story. Yawn...

The presumption that clings to these epiphanal transformations is that everyone who makes the journey has started out as a still photographer and have only just made the jump to video since the days of digital made everything possible in a camera of which one already had possession. The shorthand conceptualization seems to be that the new practitioner has made the jump from one liners to, at least, fully fleshed out essays. And that's where I have a problem. 

I have never really considered myself to be a visual person. My early impulses to pick up a camera were not because I felt something artistic that needed to be examined and shared but because I had a series of beautiful girlfriends whom I needed to photograph as a way of making notes for future story ideas, a cataloging of virtues. It was a way of remembering details that less lazy writers may have accomplished just as well with a stack of notecards. 

When I worked in advertising I wrote advertising copy. Our agency was fairly small, only 25 people or so. That meant that I was pressed into service writing not only magazine and newspaper ads but also television commercial scripts and radio commercial scripts. My early training with motion was in the service of advertising. In those days (and maybe to this day) the writer went along on the production of TV commercials in case a quick script change was needed. Or in case a clarification was required concerning the creative idea.

Writing commercials and then supervising them became a circular learning opportunity. You learned what dialogue rang true and you learned how well, or poorly, your creative ideas translated into visual plays. In the 1980's we felt the need to get stuff just right either in pre-production or during rehearsal for a number of reasons. The primary reason being that 35mm or 16mm film stock,  along with development, cost real money. Every minute of shooting required crew, and investment in spoilable, one time use, resources. We would actually mould and re-mould the stories we were trying to tell as actors read the lines. It was the language that mostly drove the commercials. The concepts bolstered by the words...

Sometime in the last two years I made a somewhat conscious decision to circle back into motion productions. Video. But I have to confess I don't see things in terms of great shots or wonderful transitions or beautiful light. I see faces and emotions and expressions and I free associate about each person's backstory or the story of the character they are playing in the moment. For me it's about the relationships, the nuance of personality and the interplay. Not the beautiful frame or "the story." 

It's both a handicap and a blessing. I think I have to work harder than my peers to cobble together a pleasing frame. In the same way I am constantly trying to learn how to better compose stills when my natural intention is just to center everything up and spend every moment watching the eyes and the expressions of my subjects. I envy (to a limited degree) the people who seem to be able to relegate their subjects to the status of visual elements. But I seem incapable of doing that, just as I am incapable of the invisible mental tactic of composing in thin air for a square or specific crop and then duplicating the same thought during the post production.

I've circled into video and yet I find myself captivated by the experience of the spoken word and the script, and the actors' interpretations of their scripts, to a far greater degree than I am drawn into the look or the costumes, or the styling, or framing up the shot. Lighting to me is an accessory to story telling. It sets the mood and is part of the creation of the mix of expressions and intellectual or emotional intensity that moves a visual play forward. My eye doesn't linger on the great shot. 

 There is one reason I like to shoot video at least as much as I like to shoot still images. That's because the video gives my mind action to follow while a still image allows me to stop, linger and then move on. The video moves through time. The still resides in memory. 

Both skills have their value. The photo makes a direct tattoo on the memory (if it's any good) while the video entertains the mind (and the more basic emotional responses) but the story trumps the imagery. Even if the imagery is beautiful. 

Today I tried to edit a video that had no narration or on camera speech. No words. No sounds. The client will use it at a huge, noisy trade show and the sound was deemed to be un-useful. The client requested that we just cut the whole project as a silent, stand alone piece. A series of interlinked images moving through time; selling a product or a combination of products. I don't know why but the silence paralyzed me and left me a bit bewildered. I grabbed a lively bit of music and put it under the video time line. Once I had a rhythmic beat in place I could figure out the way the video should be cut. I figure I can always throw away the music bed when I deliver the final, approved video. 

But my paralysis made me realize that the brain has to be satisfied over time, in a different way, to create images that move. Being a writer makes video more alluring because it makes use of narrative and the passage of time; same mindset as writing. Being an (admittedly) unstructured artist makes video less alluring because it requires a structure and an attention to detail that I seem to be better suited marshaling in distinct spurts. Like the making of individual photographs. And all at once I feel like I am stuck somewhere on the middle of the continuum. Not in one camp or the other. Not I ever have to make a choice. It's the burden of being enamored of expressions and the promise of back stories in a world that values the perfect construction and lots of sparkle. Darn.

There's nothing wrong with a tripod addiction as long as it serves the work. At least that's my rationalization...

Last week I got rid of four tripods. One got donated to a younger photographer and the other three sacrificed themselves in a trade deal. But that certainly didn't impoverish the inventory at the Visual Science Lab. Don't worry, we still have one set of sticks for nearly every day of the year. And we use them. When we only shot still images life was easy and breezy. Using a big, fat camera and a huge lens? Grab the huge Gitzo with the five pound, dual axis head on it. 

Shooting a pixie camera? Grab one of the smaller tripods with some sort of sexy ball head on the top and get after it. Shooting with an Olympus OMD EM5/2? Just leave the tripod in the cage. (Had to get that in...). But what tripod do you take with you when your lovely clients hires you to shoot some great video (smooth panning, smooth tilting) along with some great stills? What if a fair number of those stills are verticals? It's an important question because nearly every video fluid head on the market works only in the horizontal configuration. Not vertical. 

Two things came up recently in the business. One was a client who wanted to shoot video in a vertical format to present on 50 inch, vertical screens. The second was a shoot the required a mix of still images (including vertical portraits) along with conventional video. I did my research about shooting vertical video and was about to buy an L-bracket when (fortunately) my client changed their mind about the virtues of verticality. But the second shoot continued on in it's bi-directional reality. I brought along two tripods. One with a ball adjustable, conventional video fluid head and one with a conventional, still photography ball head. What a pain in the butt. The mix of verticals and horizontals was throwing a monkey wrench into the whole idea of "hybrid" content creation, or what K5600 Lighting refers to as: "Light once, shoot twice."

Once I had the post production from that shoot out of the way I went out looking for a convertible head solution to the two tripod tragedy. I found one that I think will work well in the form of the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 head. It's a fully functional fluid head with very smooth, variable pan drag and lovely tilt controls along with firm one handed locks and even a spring balancing option. There is switch that allows you to go from the video/conventional horizontal setting to a photo setting that lets you move the bullhead in all directions, just like any other bullhead. The cost of the head is around $365 and can be used with a conventional tripod connection (flat platform) or with a ball attachment on a video tripod. The way I bought it is with the flat bottom. I already have a ball rig for a different head that fits just right. But for now I am using it on a big, Berlebach, wooden tripod that has a built-ion leveling ball as part of its design.

I've practiced with the video movements using a Nikon D810 and a 80-200mm f2.8 lens and have found it to be very well behaved over the range of all its controls. A full evaluation takes time but I thought I'd let you know that this is out there in case you are in the same boat and trying to juggle two sets of requirements for camera stabilization on one location shoot. This is one that works well.  So far nothing negative to report. 

The head has three tripod levels and the tripod has one of its own. Talk about 
"level headed." 

The pan arm is removable and can be switched to the opposite side for all of those right handed people out in the world. 

The KPSI (knobs per square inch) on this head is high and should appeal to people who like a wider range of control and the visual appeal of....knobs. 


Observations on the Olympus EM5-2 during a rainy day at #SXSW in Austin, Texas.

checklist: Read manual. Set function buttons. Go through the menu and customize. Attach battery grip. Attach Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 X lens. Go downtown and check out the street life at #SXSW.

A light mist was falling when I left my car over near the Treaty Oak just a block from the Whole Foods store at Sixth and Lamar. There was a Ziploc bag stuffed into my back pocket. I figured I'd use it if there was a downpour. The Olympus EM5/2 felt familiar. Hanging by your side it's easy to forget that you're not just towing around one of your older EM-5s. I was wearing a baggy, old sweatshirt and my left arm rested over my camera and lens, keeping them dry; for the most part.

Sixth Street was the place to be in Austin today. There were thousands of people walking up and down the closed off street. I concentrated on evaluating the focusing speed in S-AF along with the accuracy. Yeah. It's perfect. Don't worry about it. An hour into the walk and the light mist turned into a steady rain. Nobody ran for cover. It was 60+ degrees out. Nobody was going to freeze. The EM5/2 didn't stop working.

Pull the EM5/2 up to your eye with your finger already on the shutter button and the camera is ready for action. Let go of the button and then touch it again and you are in focus. Every shot gets pre-chimped so I can't really say that the camera is incredibly accurate or inaccurate when it comes to exposure but I sure didn't feel the need to ride the exposure comp button much. The camera was set to SF Jpeg and that's fine with me on this camera. No big changes needed in post to get where we need to go.

The street today was all about hip-hop. People were passing out CDs and posters. One young person tried to hand me a CD and I demurred. He looked me in the eye and said, "Hey man, take a chance. It's really good stuff. If you don't like it you can just throw it away. Give a listen." That worked for me and I took it gratefully. Played it one the way home and liked it. Getting too far into your comfort rut can rob you of stuff you might never even have known about.

I'd write a bunch of stuff about the camera but it would be boring. The camera just flat out worked exactly as an expensive, mature product should. It nailed focus and exposure and made files that I liked without much effort on my part. And yes, the Image Stabilization is everything Olympus says. It's epic. If you make a lot of money you should buy one of these cameras even if you have one of everything else. Fuck the attitude that you only do full frame or you only do Fuji or whatever. This is all about easy shooting and nailing it every time. Everyone needs at least one camera like that. Right?

Back to Sixth Street. All the bands come from all over the place and they are frantic to be in front someone; anyone. They've got signs and CDs and posters and push cards and all the stuff. They seem like photographers on the web, always so anxious to sell a workshop or an action or something. I guess it's the same in every field.

At one point I did a quick survey of cameras in the crowd. What are the young kids using? What's the egalitarian camera of choice? Yeah. It's a Canon Rebel. Not a Nikon. Not an M4:3 system and definitely not a Fuji. In two hours I saw hundreds of Canon Rebels and Canon 5D-somethings. The next most popular camera represented (not kidding!!!) was Leica digital rangefinders. M9s and M8.2s. Then me and my Olympus. Oh my God it's a Canon Rebel world....

This year there were no photographers hanging around the edges. The participants were also the photographers. Everyone carried. Everyone shot. And guess what? They mostly shot video. No old men with long zooms. Not even me. No guys with fishing vests. No guys with three cameras swinging around their necks. That's over. That's gone.

The crazy people? Not the musicians or the fans or the photographers? No, it was the Texans who came to protest the black helicopter alien crazy communist new world order socialist obama secret plan to take away all of "our" weapons. There was a small contingent of people, rallying around a flag that had an image of an AR-15 assault rifle on it and the legend, "Come and Take it!" emblazoned in white on a field of black. If you are a Glock carrying gun nut you have my sympathy because you might be crazy but don't post any gun-toter drivel on the blog. I guarantee I'll just moderate the crap out of it.

So here are ten boys, girls and grizzled old guys who look like they've been eating their stockpiled MREs for months, wearing the latest fashion rifles, in some cases complete with scopes, in a crowd of thousands in order to prove some insane political point.

I shot a few debates between sane people and the gun people. Then the rain really picked up and I walked the mile and a half back to my car and headed home. Whatever you need to know about how the Olympus OMD em-5/2 shoots normal images on the street is right here in the photographs. Coming up next will be a bunch of stuff about video. If you are a video hater you might want to read something else for a while... we're going to pound on the video here with this camera.

Hey! We re-instituted the full feed. RSS-iness Too many people complained. But I figured out another issue with the feeder readers, I now have no idea how many people actually read the blog on any given day because if they aren't coming to blogger to read it their numbers don't get counted. That makes me think my readership has done a hard plateau. Hope that's not true and I don't know how to work around that so I just give up. Read it here or read it there. Just read it. And remember to post a fricking comment from time to time. That way I'll at least know that there are some warm bodies clicking away at the keyboard. Sorry for all the display ads and links. We'll try to do something about that.... Many more images below....