5.15.2015

Walking around with a favorite camera and lens. Museum hopping with the Olympus EM5.2 and the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn.


First there is a break in the work. By some marvel of diligence and happenstance you find that on this particular afternoon all of your obligations have been met and the new projects aren't scheduled to get underway until next week at the earliest. Then the stormy, wet weather abates for a few hours and a handful of delicate sun rays bounce around and entice you out of your safe and isolating office. You realize that it's Thursday and that admission is free at the Blanton Museum and, just down the road, admission is always free at the Humanities Research Center, on the UT campus.

Everyone has choices to make. Do you mow the grass? Do you head to some car care center to get your oil changed? Watch soap operas on TV? Navigate your way from website to website doing vital research on which camera has the fastest shut down time? Or maybe, just maybe you decide to go someplace and look at things that aren't part of your everyday circuit. I vote that I get up from my comfy seat, exit the chilled and quiet studio and actually go someplace. Yesterday it was to the Blanton Museum and beyond. 

If you were going museum hopping what camera and lens would you take? I decided to take the Olympus EM-5.2 and the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn lens. I thought it would be the perfect combination with which to shoot in those clean spaces and even more perfect a focal length if I chose to crop all of the images into little squares. In camera. 

I love handling the EM-5.2 when I have it properly configured. The HLD-8 grip is pretty much mandatory. I bought the grip because I thought I would get a lot of use out of the headphone jack that's designed into the section that attaches directly to the camera. In reality the combination of both parts of the grip makes the whole unit fit nicely in my medium sized hands and spreads out the area that contacts my hands which in turn makes the buttons feel perfectly positioned. I've put HLD-8 grips on both of the cameras. It makes the feel of the cameras just right.

The added benefit of the grip is the addition of the second battery. Since the battery in the actual camera body is harder to get to when the grip pieces are used I've gone into the menu and asked the camera to "please use the battery in the grip first!" This means I can go through grip batteries, replacing them as necessary, for a long time before I have to deal with disassembling the whole melange and fiddling with the camera's battery. 

The 60mm Sigma feels solid and the hood doesn't have a tendency to fall off so I usually stick the lens cap in my pocket when I start out my shooting sessions and leave it in my pocket until I get back in the car to go home. 

While the camera is rugged and lightweight I've developed an psychological need to let the camera dangle from its conventional strap in a configuration that most of us would consider backwards. On most cameras I would let the machine dangle over my left shoulder with the eyepiece side or backside of the camera next to my lower torso or upper hip (depending on the length of the strap). But with the Olympus cameras I generally positioned them so that the lens faces inward instead. 

I do this because I've found the rubber surround for the eyepiece to be a bit delicate and to have no scruples about falling off or being bumped off the camera. It doesn't sound like a big thing but you really would be amazed at how that little bit of rubber around the top and sides of the finder window changes the feel and handling of the camera when you bring it up to your eye.  I think Olympus should give each owner half a dozen eyepiece surrounds with each camera. That way the owners can see just how tenuous the connection between eyepiece cup and camera really is before they need to start spending their own cash on an endless stream of replacements. 

When I'm heading into the museum spaces to make images I tend to use the lens at its wide open aperture, or close to it. In the case of the 60mm that's f2.8. Sometimes I'll get conservative and go all the way down to f4.0 but it's rare. I set the camera for aperture priority exposure and I use the auto-ISO. All of this allows me to shoot quickly when I feel I can depend on the camera's automation---which is most of the time. When the camera shows me a finder image that's too light or too dark in the EVF I can quickly and handily use the front dial (which feels luxurious) to dial in a more accurate exposure compensation. 

I regard the Olympus EM5.2 as the perfect museum camera because the shutter is quiet and has a very nice sonic profile. The combination of the small, non-intimidating size and the gentle noise of the shutter activation makes the system generally welcome in quiet areas. 

The one thing I think that spoils EM5-2 users the most is the almost magical image stabilization. It's hard to go backward once you've gotten a good taste of just how effectively the camera can remediate the effects of over-caffeine-izaton of the user. Most of the interior images I am showing here were shot handheld at around 1/15th of a second. I've gone slower and gotten good results but I just didn't feel like showing off yesterday. 



I started off at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum but truthfully, I just stepped in to use their restroom on the second floor. It's very nice and always spotless. The museum was setting up the atrium for some sort of big gala so I hurried along and headed across the street to the Blanton Museum. Last month I saw an incredible show there wrapped around the subject of the civil rights movement in the U.S.A. in the 1960's. I would have liked to see the show again but I missed it by a week. 

I concentrated on looking for gems among the permanent collection and some of the smaller, temporary exhibits on the second floor. Still loving the exhibit: Wild and Strange: the Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, which are on loan from the enormous collection of photographs at the HRC. I saw the show a few weeks ago and it's reminded me how wonderful smaller, more accessible black and white prints could be. There's a photograph of the installation, just above.


When visiting the Blanton I always try to do one nice image of the Battle Collection of 
Sculpture casts. I like the intersection of the profile and the soft blue, just above.
The 60mm seemed perfect for this kind of spatial compression.

The photograph above and the one below really do show just how well corrected 
the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn lens is. The images are filled with parallel lines that do a 
great job of staying straight and true. It's really a nice performance for an
inexpensive lens used at its widest f-stop.


I left the Blanton galleries and went across the courtyard to the little museum café to get a pre-made ham and swiss cheese sandwich before soldiering on to the Humanities Research Center a few blocks away. I'd been hearing about the Alice in Wonderland show and wanted to see it. There were a number of really great images from the second half of the 1800's and the show laid out an interesting progression of re-interpretations on a 150 year time line. Below is one of Lewis Carroll's notebooks. I particularly like the last passage on the page...

One of Lewis Carroll's notebooks. The Humanities Research Center.
Austin, Texas.



I think the Alice in Wonderland show is fun for art buffs as there are lots of very interesting materials, across media, that I was surprised to discover. My favorites were a series of comic book covers featuring Alice, and also a series of illustrations done by Salvador Dali for a unique edition of an Alice in Wonderland book. Those surrealist illustrations alone are worth getting out and seeing the show...

I know we're all jaded about what cameras can do these days but the comic book cover and lantern slide box, just above, still amaze me in terms of how well stabilized the frames were and how perfectly rendered the details are from a camera handheld at ridiculously slow shutter speeds. And that's why I grab the Olympus stuff when I go out to shoot for fun.

Oh, and by the way, these are Jpegs from the camera...small exposure tweaks, that's all.



5.14.2015

Three Distinct Ways to Build Your Olympus Micro Four-Thirds Len Inventory. (but you can always mix and match).

 
Shot with the Sigma 50mm Art lens at 1.4

If you bounce into and out of systems, never plan ahead and then waste money like a drunken camera rep then you've just about gotten into the flow of how I plan my equipment acquisitions; and especially lens buying. But if I, for once, walked into system absolutely cold and could buy all the lenses and accessories in any fashion I chose I would follow one of these three plans I'm going to outline below. Each is predicated on looking the camera system differently. One potential buyer wants the system because it can be small and light. Another buyer wants it because it can produce great images in a smaller package that the big, full frame cameras and this buyer wants to maximize quality while covering every possible focal length.  The third buyer is looking to use the system with primes to squeeze, potentially, the last picoliter of quality out of the system. Everyone else is some sort of elastic collage of the first three types. 

Give me complete focal length coverage and range...

The easiest way to buy into the Olympus M4:3 system just changed. With the introduction of the 7-14mm f2.8 Pro zoom lens the user can make the same choice so many professionals and advanced enthusiasts do when buying a bigger Canon or Nikon system. You buy the holy trinity of super high quality zoom lenses. In M4:3 you can go two ways and not get burned in either direction. 

You can buy the über-cool three Olympus lenses and get the reach of optical systems that go from 7mm all the way to 150mm and have the luxury of all of them opening up to f2.8. The people I know who have the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and the 40-150mm f2.8 are deliriously happy with the performance of both. The 7-14mm will be available next month and should be just as good. In fact, looking at the specs and construction details, it may be the best of the three. No small praise as Olympus can be one of the best lens designers in the world when they aim for it.  Three lenses, two EM5.2 bodies and you are ready to go. That would be the logical path for people who shoot lots of different stuff and want to be covered with high quality focal lengths at either end of the spectrum and everywhere in between. 

Staying with the same basic considerations (coverage) you could alternatively go for the Panasonic trio and the benefit you would accrue is the ability to use the lenses on either the Panasonic or Olympus system but the bonus is that when using the two longer Panasonic lenses (the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm) on a non-Olympus body like the GH4 you'll be able to take advantage of the in-lens image stabilization. If you are solely a Panasonic shooter this is probably the better choice. If you're sporting the OMD cameras you'll get more on the telephoto end of each of the longer Olympus lenses than you will with the Panasonics and you'll be taking advantage of the in-body I.S.

I can speak directly to the quality of the Panasonic lenses having own the all three and used them extensively in video and stills. The 7-14mm f4 is one stop slower than the upcoming Olympus version but is smaller. I found it to be sharp wide open but with a bunch of vignetting at max aperture. That goes away mostly by f4.0 and completely by f5.6. People can grouse about "equivalence" till the coffee gets cold but if you are using a wide angle lens like this you probably are smart enough not to expect to drop the background too far out of focus. You're probably using the lens to, A: Get everything in without backing up. and, B: You need to emphasize near/far relationships and, C: You'd like to get pretty much everything in the frame, from front to back, in acceptable focus.  I like the Panasonic lenses a lot. Even after the last big purge I just couldn't let go of the 12-35mm, it's really, really good. All three are well designed, well behaved and as sharp as you'd want them to be. 

Give me a minimal footprint...

At this point you could just stop, say, "That was easy as pie." and go about the business of making cool images. Unless..... you fall into the minimalist category. If I wanted to go super stealthy and ultra-pared down I would be using one body and two lenses. You couldn't go far wrong with the Olympus 17mm f1.8 and the Olympus 45mm 1.8 lenses. Both are small, light, well designed, sharp and relatively cheap. When I want the maximum flexibility with the minimum fuss I drop those two lenses into a bag along with an EM-5.2 and one of the new, little Olympus flashes that comes packaged with the new OMD camera and I'm pretty well set for artsy/photojournalistic style shooting. 

And this brings us to the third discrete shooter style: GIVE ME THE ULTIMATE IN IMAGE QUALITY....

In this arena I'm also going to go for the ultimate snob choices because I secretly believe that the zooms are so good that most (98%?) of users are never going to see a real difference in overall quality. Where they will see the difference is in maximum apertures and depth of focus control. This is the part of the market that will want prime lenses. Single focal lengths. Fast glass. A little more stabilizing heft in the hand.

While the zooms are good at wider settings the single focal length Olympus 12mm opens up to f2.0 and is pretty sharp all the way through the aperture range until you hit f8 where diffraction kicks in, as it does with just about every lens in this sensor format and size. The maximum aperture is quite usable and it low light it gets you one full shutter speed stop faster than the zooms. 

Next up you could pretty much take your pick between the Leica 15mm f1.8 and the Olympus 17mm 1.8. I'd go with the Leica as it sits in the middle between the typical 28mm equivalent (for full frame) and the most popular medium wide lens which is a 35mm equivalent (for full frame). Since me next choice will always be the 25mm Leica f1.4 Summilux the 15mm makes more sense for me as I think the 17mm and the 25mm are pretty close to each other and I either want to go long (the 25) or I want to go obviously wider (15mm). 

Both are good lenses. The 17mm seems to be optimized for a flatter field and more uniform sharpness all the way across (better if you like to photograph brick walls) while the Leica seems optimized to have higher sharpness in the center and shrugs away the lack of sharpness in the corner as being endemic to the overall design. In other words, a compromise. 

I've owned the Leica 25mm Summilux f1.4 since it hit the market three or four years ago and I like it very much. It would be hard to persuade me to go in another direction. Fast, sharp, small and contrasty. It's everything I want in a normal focal length!

Next up is the short telephoto. While Olympus has their very good and very small and relatively cheap 45mm f1.8 in this range and Panasonic has just introduced their version of the lens, if you are going to set up a whole system rationale based around optimum quality you can't duck out on this one. It's got to be the Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2. If this lens ever sits on your camera mount, even for a moment, and you pick it up and shoot with it wide open there's no way to resist it's gravitational pull. Sharp at f1.2. Sharp at f8.0 and sharp everywhere in between. It feels great and the images it generates are breathtaking. Add to this the fact that the lens comes with image stabilization for those GH4 sometimes video shooters and you'll be forgiven for starting to think that $1400 might just be a bargain for everything you are getting. 

But don't stop there. There are two other lenses to snag before we stop putting together the super-image-quality-prime-lens option. 

While the 45mm gets you into a nice, short telephoto that's good for most casual portrait work you'll want to pick up the cheapest great lens in the system for tighter headshot and anything that needs a bit more compression along with freakishly good image quality. That would be the Sigma DN 60mm f2.8. It's a gem. I find mine to be sharp, wide open. It's a nice, longer medium telephoto length and you'll only be out about $200. It's an amazing bargain. And it fits beautifully on an EM-5.2.

We round out the system with the almost obligatory Olympus 75mm f1.8. Long, sharp, fast, elegant... I'd get mine in silver.  Don't know why but I would. And I would use it in the middle of the Summer with my chrome EM-5.2 body and it might even stay cooler....but I wouldn't count on it. 

Those are my takes on approaching the Olympus system when it comes to lens buying. But you can always go a totally different way if you are a contrarian. For example, one weekend I was shooting downtown and a friend walked up and loaned me his Sigma 60mm dn lens, telling me I just had to try it. I did. I shot with it on the older EP-3 for a couple of hours. I post processed the files the next day and I was surprised at the overall quality of the files. At f4.0 there wasn't a single criticism I could level. I cruised to Amazon.com at the end of my editing session and bought all three of the focal lengths, the 19mm, 30mm and the 60mm. I had owned the earlier versions of these lenses in the Sony E mount and I had chalked up their good performance to the 24 megapixel sensor on the Nex7. Now I understood that they were just really good lenses regardless of the camera. 

I bought mine in black. I wish I'd bought the silver ones just because they look so different and so much like pieces of modern, minimalist sculpture. 

Once you have your system put together you'll be ready to head out and shoot just about anything that comes along and still know that you've got great tools in hand. Next time I'll do some comparisons with the ancient Olympus Pen FT half frame lenses. You don't need to rush out and buy them but they do have  completely different look to them and sometimes the aesthetic differentiation is just as important for a project.  

One last thing: If you've decided on buying an EM-5.2 you might consider two extra batteries. If you shoot a lot of video then make that four extra batteries. If you think the Oly batteries are too expensive you'll be happy to hear that I've been using the Wasabi Power batteries (less than half the price) for several years, across a bunch of Olympus cameras and have never had issues. 

thanks. Kirk




5.13.2015

Why I keep the Olympus OMD EM-5.2 cameras around. "It's not the horse it's the arrow!"

OMD EM5.2 shot with Nikon D610 and Sigma 50mm Art.

Oh sure, I love the big Nikon full frame cameras, especially when I have the time to put them on a tripod and take test exposures and chimp. Seriously though, it would be hard to dispute that for many applications that require very high resolution and very high sharpness the combination of the D810 or even D610, coupled with a killer lens (like the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art), is tough to beat. But that presupposes that every shooting situation requires those very structured and measurable performance attributes. Your jobs with a camera may the same day-after-day and year-after-year but mine sure aren't. And when I'm off the clock and shooting for pleasure my mind wanders into other areas. Other camera system strengths. On most routine jobs the bigger cameras are overkill.

Don't get me wrong, I love overkill as much as any other red blooded American male who grew up driving big block V8's too fast. Always nice to have some in reserve in case you need to pass...

The flipside  is that I also sit in the other chair. The editor's chair. The post processing strato-lounger. The Eames chair of file enhancement. And setting there for a long time takes the creative starch right out of you while making your butt bigger.  I re-discovered this yet again on Tuesday morning when I sat down to convert about 900 D610 raw files into Jpegs and Tiffs. The fast SD cards (UHS3) and the quicker buffers of the newest generations of cameras make it easy to shoot fast, and shooting fast generally ends up meaning, "shooting a lot."  I could have shot less but you never know what you'll get next and....the cameras make it so easy. Hand me another slice of pizza...

But dang! Processing those files took longer than I'd like and in the end I'm going to guess that 98% of the images won't make the final cut into the two or three ads that are planned. And in the same vein once the client finds those three killer images they'll probably abandon everything else from the day's take and use the "keepers' over and over again. In this instance I felt like I needed the high ISO performance that the D610 provides. It's no little deal to pull off ad-ready images while hanging out at 6400 ISO.

When I shoot for myself I mostly come right back to the Olympus micro four thirds cameras and the motley assortment of Panasonic, Olympus, Sigma lenses, and the weirder, third party lenses I have adapted to the format. And I sat down today to figure out why.

I started shooting with the micro four thirds Olympus cameras the minute they got the first EVF enabled body ( the EP-2 ) into Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. The size was perfect and it was the first camera I could really use the Olympus Pen FT lenses from my half frame collection on. While we'd never call the 12 megapixel sensor "state of the art" the camera made mighty good images from day one. In fact, when I go back and look at work I did with that camera in 2010 I find that I love the color and really can't see the visual manifestation of lower dynamic range the way I thought I might. The color is as gorgeous as I remembered.

The full frame Nikons are great for things like theatrical photography where I need to make images during a dress rehearsal performance of a play.  The size of the sensor and the speed of available, long lenses makes subject isolation easy while the high ISO performance of the same sensors makes getting good, rich exposures with low noise easier as well.

The Olympus OMD cameras make nice enough images of stage performances but they have lose out to the high ISO performance of the D610s by at least two stops. The alternate reality is that the OMDs have great EVFs and that means every bit of action I shoot during a show comes pre-chimped and well corrected before it's even been shot. And the 16 megapixels on the sensor is the absolute sweet spot for almost every application while keeping editing from being a full time, cave dweller job.

Where the OMD cameras come into their own is travel. Whether you are traveling from your house to downtown and then walking around for hours at a time or when you are traveling to faraway places and need to pack and carry what you'll be wearing and playing with for weeks at a time the smaller cameras just have it all over the bigger, heavier ones. I can pack two cameras and three small lenses in one of my smallest bags and have everything I want in a package that camera be carried across my shoulder for an entire day without screaming for a chiropractor to fix my lower back, shoulder and neck as a result (not that I would ever willingly see a chiropractor...).

The OMD is much more at home sitting on the edge of the restaurant table at lunch and