6.18.2018

A quick, in progress review of the second best m4:3 lens I have ever shot with. The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro.

Jill Blackwood at "Dot" in "Sundays in the Park with George."
Zach Theatre.

I've been photographing the dress rehearsals for plays at Zach Theatre for about 30 years now. In that span of time I've gone from shooting set up shots in black and white, done with medium format cameras, with prints processed in my own darkroom to shooting current plays with a mix of digital cameras. While good cameras are nice to have good lenses are even better.

A few weeks ago I shot the dress rehearsal for "Sundays in the Park with George." It's a good production with one technical caveat; the stage is bare and the background is largely light absorbing black. It's an inherently high contrast collection of scenes.

Recently I've asked the folks at Zach Theatre to let me photograph both the Sunday evening technical rehearsal as well as the Tuesday night dress rehearsals. I only charge them for one but I enjoy theatre and more importantly I like to see the blocking and action at a run through before I shoot the final practice. This let's me know where people stand when and what they are about to do. I like being prepared so I think of the first night as a scouting trip in anticipation of the actual assignment.

It works out well. I no longer get nervous about "getting the shot" and on Sundays, with no audience underfoot, I can use louder cameras and move around a lot more. Actors like Jill (above) are so used to seeing me at their rehearsals that they can ignore me entirely.

I always dress in "show black" and even wear a black cap to hide the bright beacon of platinum (not white or gray) hair that I am sure would be a visual distraction. On Sundays I've started shooting with the Nikon D800e cameras and the Nikon lenses because the shutter noise isn't an issue. On Tues. I shoot with the Panasonic GH5s because noise becomes an issue. We almost always have an invited audience; it helps the actors fine tune... I need to use the mechanical shutters sometimes in order to handle flicker from some of the lights and in those situations I'll wrap a neoprene case around a GH5 which does a good job of quieting an already quiet shutter.

On Tuesdays I'm relegated to center of the house. I don't complain because I have a whole row of seats to myself. But we are half way up the house from the stage so I depend on lenses with reach for most of the best marketing worthy photos. I'm filling out the Nikon lens inventory slowly but in the m4:3 inventory I already have the PERFECT LENS with which to shoot from mid-house. It's the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro.

As far as I am concerned (for theater work) that lens has only one aperture: f2.8. I use it all evening long, all wide open. It returns photographs with lots of great detail, never back or front focuses and never flares. The lens has a tripod mount but I shoot the theater work handheld. I'll go wider than 150mm (300mm FF equiv.) if I want to capture more atmosphere but I think the images that sell plays are mostly shots of two characters together in a dynamic scene or small ensembles of actors. Wide stage shots rarely make it onto promotional websites or into magazine print unless the scenery is just spectacular.

When I compare the files from Sundays and Tuesdays (Nikon vs. Panasonic/Olympus) the advantage of narrow depth of field obviously goes to the Nikon but the other technical qualities are a wash. The files aren't much different in the noise department (f2.8 versus f4.0 or f5.6) and the cameras focus equally fast.

If I had to choose between the two systems the two Olympus Pro lenses I use would tip the balance in favor of the Panasonic GH5. Where I prefer the Nikon is in controlled marketing photographs that we take outside of rehearsals. These are situations where I am able to control the light, use flash and take advantage of the Nikon's superior quality, when used at ISO 100 and with lenses stopped down to optimum apertures. Nice to have both. Even nicer to know why.

I can imagine that if most people bought into the m4:3 system cold and only used the 12/100 and the 40/150 Pro lenses they would never, ever have format envy again. Amazing lenses. Wish Olympus would make one Pro lens for the Nikon. It would be a 24-200mm f4.0 with the quality of the 12-100mm f4.0. I know it would be large and heavy but if the optics were as good it would shift the whole market around. At least that's what I'm conjecturing right now.

11 comments:

Ken said...

Love the lens! It’s on my list. Have you tried using the 12-100 for any theater? I fear it may too slow to be useful at f/4 but the range would be ideal in so many ways.

Craig said...

I'm trying to imagine how big a full frame 24-200 f/4 would be. With VR too, right? I'm guessing at least twice as big, if the f-stop=focal length÷entrance pupil formula applies to zooms as well (which means at full extension, you'd need an opening of 50mm v.s. 25mm for the Olympus Pro zoom.)

And would it be as sharp?

I used my 12-100 yesterday along with the tiny 17 and 45mm 1.8 primes on 3 separate shoots. One was to gather unobtrusive (non-posed) shots of conference participants attending a presentation.

With the sync IS in the 12-100, I was able to to keep the shutter speed at 1/60 over the entire focal range and get sharp results (except for a few overly animated hand gestures during Q&A periods). Given that I was mainly shooting tight on the long end, this is pretty impressive.

Silent shutter, no flash. Would I have preferred to bounce light? Yes. Would that have been distracting after the first handful of shots? Yes.

ODL Designs said...

Love the 40-150, a true workhorse lens!

Dr. Nick said...

"never back or front focuses"

Do mirrorless cameras have this issue? I thought that because they focus on the sensor itself they're always in focus if they actually attain focus.

Ken said...

Dr Nick, I haven't had a mirrorless front/back focus. I haven't seen this since I shot DSLR's (2002-2006) and have been with mirrorless and compacts since (mainly Fuji and m4/3...now just Olympus).

Kirk, my 12-100 arrived the other day. Wow. Just wow. I was worried about f/4, but the OIS / IBIS combo is spooky good at 6.5 stops. Amazing. I haven't used it for theater yet, but will supplement it with faster primes if needed. It will be great for video work as well.

For theater, I plan on using it for the video (for live work with an audience, my location requires a range of 35-175mm to go from full stage to tight video) and will try it for stills. For still, I typically start at 1/125 and we'll see how it goes at a test rehearsal first. I can always fall back to the primes if needed. For travel and pretty much anything else I do, there are zero doubts about this lens. The test images I have shot have blown me away with the detail, contrast, etc. This very well may be glued to my EM1.2 more than my favorite 17mm f/1.8

Kirk Tuck said...

Ken, I'm glad you share my appraisal of the 12-100mm. A sleeper if there ever was one. I spent all evening with it at the theater last night. Never left f4.0. The light was good enough for 1/125th, f4.0, ISO 1600. A touch of noise reduction didn't hurt the files.

But here's one more thing to think about. Panasonic just updated firmware for the GH5. They added a feature called "Night Mode." It basically allows you to make your screen completely black and orange/red. You can choose whether to go to night mode for the EVF or the LVF or both. When shooting with an audience the night mode is much less obvious/annoying than the regular all color screen when checking data or changing settings. The added advantage is preservation of night vision. It's pretty amazing. I shot with the back screen in Night Mode all evening and could make setting changes without becoming a light beacon in a dark theater.

Ken said...

Great addition to the GH5. Don't have that on the EM1.2. When shooting stills, my default (even outside of theater) is the keep the LCD flipped closed so it's not even visible. For video, I keep the LCD open but I have a spot where it's not going to interfere with the audience in the main theater I shoot in and the slight glow helps me not trip over my own feet, LOL.

One other question re: sound. Wondering if you have a more elegant solution. For a straight play, non-musical, I run about 100' feet of mic cable down to the stage and have 2 mics in an X-Y config at the front lip of the stage for best vocal pickup and it cuts out most of the annoying audience noises that way too. They run into a Zoom H4N and the sound is recorded internally and also sent to the camera as a backup just in case. The Zoom is mounted on a flash bracket (attached to tripod) and I monitor live from the Zoom. For musicals, I use the same musicals it's a bit easier as everyone is mic'd and the sound is louder out in the audience so I have a different placement for that. Have you ever used wireless OR had your audio totally separated from the camera? The running of 200' total feet of cable, gaffer taping it to the floor around seat leg on the edge of the theater, etc. is a pain, but is the best I've come up with. I'd love to hear, maybe in a post, how you do your theater audio. As always, keep up the great work and thanks!

Ken

Kirk Tuck said...

Ken, I can actually help you with the audio!!! All the productions at Zach Theatre are mic'd. All the mics are radio microphones and they all go through a big sound board run by an audio engineer. For video, when we are recording sound in a dress rehearsal, the engineer runs a balanced XLR cable down to my camera position so I can feed the (beautiful and well modulated) audio from the show directly into my camera so the audio is recorded with the frame.

You can't run the "Line out" feed from the sound board directly into the 3.5mm microphone input on our cameras because it will overload them. It's a higher level signal than most external microphones. I use either a passive Beachtek D2A interface which drops the signal down to match it to the camera inputs or I use (more recently) a Saramonic SmartRig+ to do the same. My preference is for the Saramonic because it's also a great microphone pre-amplifier that allows me to use two XLR connected microphones, give them both phantom power, and then plug directly into the camera's mic jack.

At the end of last year I bought the Panasonic XLR adapter that works proprietarily with the GH5. It offers the same benefits as the Saramonic but skirts the built in camera microphone pre-amps and delivers the audio in a cleaner fashion.

But back to my main point, if you can pull audio off a sound board you'll be way ahead of the game because you and the engineer can work together to find the max level of the show, set your camera accordingly and then not worry about levels (much) for the rest of the show. Hit me offline if you need more info.

Rick said...

Hi Kirk,

You've discovered my most-used lens. Don't know if that makes it my favorite (has some strong competition) but its utility and adaptability are unmatched among m4/3 lenses for my needs.

Not requiring the GH-series videocentricity I use mine on both E-M1 models where the blazing fast focus (Oly uses two smaller, faster focus groups in lieu of one) and hybrid CDAF-PDAF acquire and cling to the subject tenaciously. I never expected that from m4/3.

Two improvements I'd like to see in a 40-150 mkii would be the focus limit and hybrid IS from the 300/4. Make a "perfect" lens more perfect? We're all a little greedy in this regard.

On camera noise and being discreet, the E-M1ii's regular mechanical shutter sound is surprisingly soft--much less distinct and quieter than the original E-M1. And if that's not good enough the full e-shutter is obviously silent and delivers up to 60fps for anybody needing that. Fast sensor read times eliminate rolling shutter effects with non-action work.

In re. the above questions about focus adjustment, I don't believe there's a need for m4/3 lenses but for adopted AF lenses, the PDAF E-M1s both offer focus adjustments and the 4/3 tele lenses can definitely benefit (each camera-lens combo is unique). Why adopt a 4/3 lens? For performance and the like, the Oly 4/3 35-100/2.0 and 150/2.0 are unmatched by any native m4/3 lens and for portraits, I'd vote the zoom as better than any native m4/3 zoom. They are large and heavy in a very non-m4/3 way, but oh so lovely.

Ken said...

Kirk, that's great! I'll hit up the sound designed when he is back in town and ask. The local guys don't usually know what to do with that but he will. He's out on a national tour (as usual) with a Broadway musical as their lead audio engineer. For the musicals, that sounds perfect as the full orchestra is mic'd as are the actors (at least all of the ones with any lines/solos, etc.). For straight plays, it's not always mic'd so I'd just have to do my old method, which works fine for a small stage. The straight plays are usually in a smaller 230 seat theater, but the larger musicals are in a 1600 seat theater.

This next one, I'm on stage as a principle character in the musical on the main stage, so I don't get to video it or do the stills. That alone is a point of frustration as I know the video/stills will be far below what I would do (based on the last few times that has happened). It's sort of how I have tons of pictures of my family but few with me in them :-) Ooops.

However, I am going to do an audio only recording (or two) of the final two dress rehearsals for posterity (pre-set, then run backstage and go on). Since the center of the house is the sweet spot of sound, I'll setup my Zoom H4N and record it in 4 channels. The two built in mics (XY) at dead center of the house with a more narrow field and then two XLR's plugged in to house L & R. I'll balance it all out later in Logic Pro X.

As always, you are very helpful and thanks for your replies!

Ken

Anonymous said...

Have to agree here Kirk. 40-150 Pro is a sensational lens that I used all over New Zealand recently, especially for compressed landscapes. The only downside IMHO is the wobbly lens hood, which is out of character with the rest of the lens’ construction. I most probably should just pack it away and not use it.

MFDU
(Max from Down Under)