Photoessay: A Swiss landscape or two

On a recent assignment in Switzerland, I had the occasional break, and the even more occasional bit of interesting weather – fog or sun, it was either 5 C or 25 C with nothing in between – so I made the most of it by doing a spot of landscape work. I was surprised to discover that the Swiss countryside in summer really does look like the postcards – intensely blue skies, emerald meadows, and lots of cows. It’s positively bucolic, but in a good way.

Landscape photography is tough without a car or sufficient time to do some hiking. Part of the time was spent outside Geneva in the very scenic Vallee du Joux, home to a number of the old watchmaking manufactures. The big body of water is the Lac du Joux, which is as still as a mirror in the early mornings, but can get quite choppy once the mid-afternoon breezes start to blow. I’m told that as idyllic as it seems in summer, it hits -20 C at times in winter, and there’s nothing to see but white. I suspect I might have some problems with the small buttons on the OM-D in that weather, though.

This was the second time I’ve used Zeiss lenses on M4/3 – I actually find the ZF2s work better than the ZMs because they’re mostly telecentric designs. The 21/2.8 is particularly good, actually – it has very refined contrast that the Panasonic 20/1.7 lacks. (You’re probably wondering why I didn’t use that lens – I can put the 21 on the D800E and the 85 on the OM-D, swap them, and have a very nicely spaced set of 21, 42, 85 and 190mm :) I still maintain that so far, the best color I’ve seen comes from Olympus bodies and Zeiss lenses…now if only they’d make some M4/3 AF glass. Preferably a fast 28mm equivalent…MT

This series was shot with an Olympus OM-D, Panasonic 20/1.7, Zeiss ZF.2 21/2.8 Distagon and ZF.2 85/1.4 Planar via adaptor.

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One of those trees that fell in the forest which we never hear about

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Photoessay: Some Hublots (and, how to shoot watches on location with available light…)

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I was recently at a Hublot event – both covering the new Basel 2012 watches for fratellowatches.com as well as meeting the CEO and marketing people (it never hurts to network in this industry). I didn’t want to bring the lighting equipment, and the photos were for a blog – not commercial use – so I figured that I could get away with a lightweight rig. I used the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro, and available light. Most of the images were shot at ISO 1600 or above; even at larger sizes, they hold up pretty well. Needless to say, for web use, they’re fine.

But I digress – all I had was whatever lights were set into the roof of the showroom, and a dark watch display tray for use as a background. By tilting the tray and camera to look for the right lighting angles – sometimes to avoid reflections, sometimes to enhance them – I managed to produce a set I was pretty happy with, but yet manages to have a very different feel to what I normally produce in the studio. (They also have zero dust retouching, which you fortunately can’t see at this size – cleaning cloths are your friend!) Enjoy! MT

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Full review: The Olympus OM-D E-M5

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My stealthed-up OM-D. Note lack of strap D rings; these are the clip points from the Crumpler strap.

I did a double take after seeing the teaser images for the OM-D, way back at the start of the year. Olympus managed to make a 2012 camera look like a 1970 one; not only that, why on earth would you need a prism hump for a camera that doesn’t even have a prism? My first impressions of the spec sheet were ho-hum, yet another over-cramped sensor with too many pixels, inside a tiny body. And it wouldn’t fit my workflow, because there was no ACR support of any kind. And what’s with having two cryptic names? Then, after a long wait, and at a camera shop in Singapore looking for some lighting gear, I made the mistake of playing with one. Not only did it not feel plasticky and toy-like as its appearance would suggest, but the camera was also very responsive – in a connected-to-your-synapses-good way that I’ve only felt with the pro Nikons up to this point. I was intrigued.

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Reach out and touch me. Tilt and capacitative-touch LCD; there’s actually another accessory port under the flash hotshoe for things like GPS, macro LED lights (that look like tentacles), or for a completely bizarre twist, another EVF.

A little more research on reaching home in Kuala Lumpur revealed that the OM-D was not only surprisingly expensive for what it was – D7000 money – but perhaps enough camera that you could use one on assignment and be taken seriously. And whilst a nice idea, the two-part vertical grip both managed to look dinky and defeat the point of having a compact system in the first place.

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Ladies at lunch. OM-D, 45/1.8 – this has rapidly become my favorite lens for the camera. It’s a little long to use at arms’ length on the Pen Mini, but excellently stealthy on the OM-D.

I admit, following reading a number of excellent reviews on the web, temptation peaked. ACR support was the final straw – one day, it followed me home. (My dealer has a joke about my car washes being very expensive, because while waiting for the car to be ready, I usually drop by; most of the time, I buy something. This was another one of those expensive car washes.) After all, I reasoned that I already had the Pen Mini and excellent 12/2, 20/1.7 and 45/1.8 lenses for Micro Four Thirds, plus there was all of this Leica M glass sitting around and an adaptor. The Pen Mini was surprisingly excellent. How bad could it be?

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The Kicker. OM-D, 45/1.8

Actually, a lot better than expected. Turns out there’s a very good reason for that prism hump, just not one you’d expect. Aside from the 1.44 million dot EVF, there’s also a five-axis gyroscope – supposedly a world first – inside the camera that controls the matching five-axis moving-sensor stabilization system. I’m not a fan of sensor based systems, because they don’t generally have as much correction power (from an angle of view basis) as lens-based systems for longer lenses, and they tend to do odd things like ‘snap’ back into position once the limits of travel are reached. The OM-D’s system displays a little bit of the latter, but very, very little. And it’s surprisingly effective, too – it activates with a decisiveness I haven’t seen before on a sensor-IS system – but then again I don’t have any lenses over 90mm EFOV, and if I did, I’d probably buy the Panasonic 100-300 which already has lens-based IS built in, giving me the choice of both systems (but not together, as apparently both manufacturers claim they don’t play nice). You still need to give the stabilizer a moment to lock down though, otherwise you might get that unexpected jump.

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A repost of one of my favorite portraits. OM-D, 45/1.8

And that brings me to the next popular point of contention with the OM-D: the fan noise. Turns out it’s the a combination of the gyroscope and the electromagnets that move the sensor, or keep it in place (if the IS system is off). In fact, you can hear a similar noise in Nikon’s VR lenses when VR is engaged if you listen carefully. I don’t think it’s a big deal, personally. You can only hear it in near-silent environments.

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A shave and two bits. OM-D, 45/1.8

The OM-D is a tricky body to get a feel for – it’s smaller in person than you’d expect from pictures; it’s a little taller than the E-P3 due to the finder hump, but nowhere near as bulky and unwieldy as the E-P3 with the VF2 viewfinder attached. Ergonomically, this is good and bad news; the camera sits in the hand well, and both exposure adjustment dials fall easily to thumb and forefinger. The arrow keys on the back are still OK, but a little bit of a cramp to reach; the delete button and power switch are both far too low. Moving the power switch to that little empty bit of deck underneath the shutter button would be fantastic – a split second fumble to power the camera on can often cost your the shot. More on this later.

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Damn you, Magritte. OM-D, Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE via adaptor

For the most part, ergonomics are solid. There are plenty of programmable buttons; the two on the top deck (Fn and record), one next to play (Fn) and the arrow pad. The play and Fn buttons are a bit small – perhaps making them pointier and longer might help – I’d be concerned about being able to hit them reliably with gloves, but then again they seem to be fine for bare-handed use. The arrow pad is set to pick focus point by default, and this is the behavior I prefer. You can assign shortcuts like ISO and WB to it, but why bother when there’s the excellent SCP which shows all settings at a glance? Hit the OK key and use your finger to select the setting, then use the front dial to change it.

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Night Tree. OM-D and 45/1.8. ISO 2000, would you believe?

Oh, I forgot to mention the OM-D has also inherited the touch screen from the E-P3; Olympus has done a good job of making its operation unintrusive so you’re not accidentally shooting with your nose (you can do a touch-to-focus-and-shoot operation when in live view). It’s handy to select focus points quickly, as well as scroll and zoom images – though this behavior is just a little counterintuitive, because I don’t do it on any of my other cameras.

In addition to being hugely customizable, there are several neat touches with the operation of the camera – in playback, the FN1 button next to play zooms into the focus point to the last magnification with two presses: first to enable (after which you can also use your finger to drag the enlarged area box) and another to magnify. Amongst all cameras, only the pro Nikons do this. Better yet, you can skip between zoomed-in images to compare areas of the image using the front command dial. On top of all this, you can even select clipping levels for the shadow/ highlight warning display. Nice.

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Memorial for a leaf. OM-D, 45/1.8

The OM-D has other functions which I don’t really use, but which might be nice for JPEG shooters like special effects and a form of live curve control using the dials; it isn’t very precise, but it is better than nothing.

Remember I was talking about losing shots to a powered-off camera earlier? There’s a good reason for this: if you leave the battery, it’ll probably be dead after about 300 or so frames because the EVF and LCD appear to be always on, even if the camera is in standby; the LCD might be black but mine at least has a telltale glow. My friends who don’t power off between shots are reporting battery life in this range. I’ve got no problem getting 500 shots out and barely making a dent in the battery (one little segment missing), however. I think I’ve only charged it a handful of times since getting the camera, and never has the battery been fully depleted.

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Untitled. OM-D, 45/1.8

I think the EVF saves power over the LCD, but then again I’m not entirely sure; there’s a lot of dots on that little monitor. It’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve seen, with a very high refresh rate, low lag, good usability in low light (though oddly the live preview tonality etc doesn’t accurately match the captured image sometimes) and a fine dot pitch. Do I miss my real viewfinder? Yes, but to be honest, I seem to have adapted to this one. And being able to see a quick review of the image you just shot in the finder is great – you don’t have to take your eye away from it to check your composition. Similarly, if you want to shoot discretely at waist level – the tilting LCD is great. I prefer these to the swivel kind that frankly always feel like they’re going to snap off at the hinge point.

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In praise of tilt screens. OM-D, 45/1.8

In use, the OM-D shows that it was designed by photographers – or at least has had heavy photographer input in most of the engineering decisions. Menus are logical, and settings are mostly easy to find – though it could really use a way of saving settings to an SD card to transfer between multiple cameras (this is a ‘pro’ feature for users of multiple bodies), or reload if somebody plays with yours. It’s solid, and surprisingly hefty for its size – the body is made of magnesium alloy a mix of magnesium alloy, plastic, and some stamped metal (brass?) parts; it’s weather sealed to the same level as the E-5. If you look closely, there are gaskets on every compartment. Although I’ve seen videos of people washing their E-5s, note that the only weather sealed M4/3 lens at the moment is the 12-50 kit lens. All in all, I’m pretty confident that the camera could take a decent beating and survive.

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Remember this shot from Wesak Day? The camera was already soaked by similar blessings at this point. OM-D, 12/2

The critical thing that makes a good camera, in my mind, is responsiveness. And the OM-D has it in spades. I think it’s the fastest-focusing contrast detect camera out there; it’s noticeably faster than the Pen Mini, which I already thought was pretty speedy. It even shoots at 9fps, in RAW, with no buffer indigestion. Frankly, in good light, with a contrasty subject, it gives my D800E a run for its money. The catch is that you must use the Olympus lenses for this. Despite the supposed openness of the Micro Four Thirds standard, there are definite speed advantages to be had for using a manufacturer’s own lenses on its own bodies.

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Bulding blocks. OM-D, 45/1.8

There is a catch with autofocus, however. As good as single AF is – I would say easily class leading, and giving most DSLRs a run for their money (with none of the AF alignment problems, because the imaging sensor does the focusing) – continuous AF is a completely different story. Even though Olympus claims that continuous and tracking AF is greatly improved with the OM-D, frankly, it’s unusable. Continuous autofocus can’t seem to anticipate subject motion; it drops after the first frame, and usually comes close but fails to re-acquire the subject. Tracking AF is a similar story; you can see the camera manages to find the subject in the frame and displays this in the finder, but somehow it just fails to move the lens by the right amount to keep up with it. I would personally avoid these two modes, and instead rely on its extremely fast S-AF, low shutter lag, and the higher DOF of Micro 4/3 (for a given FOV and aperture) to save you. In fact, I don’t think I’d use this camera for moving subjects at all; that’s why I still keep the D700 and battery grip around.

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Holy man. OM-D, 45/1.8. Even at the slow, predictable speed of the moving float, getting this shot was a lucky break.

I haven’t seen any AF errors for single AF, except when there are objects at multiple distances inside the focusing box (whose size can’t be changed) and something other than the intended subject is the most contrasty. It’s also worth noting that because the imaging sensor is used, the AF grid covers almost the entire frame. These are two huge advantages of mirrorless systems that frankly I miss with full frame cameras, whose AF grid usually covers the central third of the frame at best.

All of this usability would be utterly, well, useless, if the image quality didn’t match. The OM-D reportedly uses the same sensor as the Panasonic GX1 I’ve been told by a number of sources that it’s a different sensor; 16MP and 3.63 micron pixel pitch. That’s tiny; the 10MP 1/1.7″ compacts run at about 2.3 microns or so. By comparison, the D7000 and D800E have a 4.88 micron pitch, and the D700/D3, an enormous 8.5 microns. (Every time you double the pitch, you quadruple the photo site area.) Even factoring in advances in technology, I’d expect pixel-level performance to be on par with the Pen Mini; going from 12 to 16MP while maintaining the same pixel quality is pretty much what Nikon did with the D3s to D4 move, and in about the same gestation period.

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Hot day. OM-D, 45/1.8

Wrong. It seems that either the old sensor was pretty old, or the new sensor has skipped half a generation – pixel level image quality is on par with the D7000, as far as acuity and noise goes; it may even be slightly better on the noise front. Color accuracy is better, too; the OM-D is both accurate and delivers excellent skin tones. The best way to describe its tonal palette is ‘natural’ – very little work is required to get my desired output from the RAW file, which isn’t necessarily the case with other cameras. The only place where it can’t quite keep up (and this is a fact of the laws of physics) is in dynamic range; I don’t know exactly how much it has, but my gut puts it at around 11-12 stops useable at base ISO with careful RAW processing, which is a little less than the D7000, and two stops less than the D800E. The sensor is further limited at higher ISOs, at which point dynamic range falls further. There’s probably no more than 6-7 useable stops at ISO 3200. This is still excellent performance for such a small sensor!

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Migrant workers. OM-D, 45/1.8. ISO 3200

On the noise front, I limited my Pen Mini’s auto ISO to 1600; anything beyond was just too grainy and edge-compromised to use. I’m happy to raise that one stop to 3200 for the OM-D; perhaps 6400 if I have no choice, since there are a few more pixels to play with – but by then dynamic range and color are really suffering quite badly. All in all, though, I’d put the noise performance on par with the Leica X2 I recently tested. One more stop of useable high-ISO, the hugely improved stabilizer, and the ability to use an eye-level finder and brace the camera against your face (increasing stability and reducing the minimum shutter speed required to handhold) means that the OM-D is capable of delivering 2-3 stops of additional usability over the Pen Mini (and by extension, E-P3/ E-PL3 cameras of that generation) – which is a huge step forward. In fact, it gives better color and detail than my D700 at base ISO, and keeps up with it noise-wise to about ISO 800. It’s probably about as flexible as the D800E in that sense. In daylight, picking this camera is a no-brainer.

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The thinking man’s camera. With beer, too. OM-D, 45/1.8. ISO 2000

This doesn’t of course mean that the OM-D is perfect; there are many things that only reveal themselves with extended use, and one of the reasons why this review has taken so long (other than the X2 and M-Monochrom arrivals) is because I didn’t feel like I’ve had enough time to shoot with it to fully understand this camera; there’s a lot of functionality in here I haven’t even tried, like video mode for instance. What I do want to test more extensively – and haven’t had the chance to, because FL-50Rs aren’t exactly cheap or easy to borrow – is the wireless flash system. If it’s as accurate and flexible as Nikon’s CLS, I may well have found a replacement lightweight system for anything that doesn’t require 36MP. I did briefly play with the two-part grip; it’s very solid, and improves handling and balance dramatically – with or without the vertical portion. It takes another battery and is sealed to the same degree as the rest of the camera. The only problem I have with it is the rather stiff price for what is effectively a few bits of plastic and some buttons; it’s fully 1/3rd of the camera – at least where I live.

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Untitled portrait. OM-D, 45/1.8

Things I’d like to see improved:
– Strap lug placement is awful. Using the included D-rings, the strap digs into your palm, or the web between your fingers. It seems like this is an Olympus tradition; every single Olympus I’ve owned has had this problem. I solve it in the usual way: remove the D rings, and either use a thin lanyard hand strap (fortunately, the camera is light) or a Crumpler Urban Disgrace that attaches via a lanyard-style string that threads through the remaining eyelets.
– Continuous AF. It’s not usable now, period.
– The power switch is in a terrible location.
– The buttons could be more tactile, they feel, well, mushy. It’s not always clear if you’ve pressed something.
– Playback and FN1 buttons are too small, and you can quite easily press the wrong one.
– It seems battery life could be improved, perhaps through more intelligent use of sleep modes. The camera could be a bit faster in waking up and powering on, too.
– Some way of saving settings to an SD card and transferring them to another camera – this is meant to be a pro grade camera after all, and pros have more than one camera. With that many custom settings, resetting a second camera is a colossal pain.

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Contemplating the upgrade (note watches). OM-D, 45/1.8

Notice that with the exception of continuous AF performance, there are no real big issues here. In all fairness, continuous AF is something that none of the mirrorless cameras do well (with the exception of the Nikon 1, which has phase detect photo sites on the sensor).

With the arrival of the OM-D, it finally feels like Micro Four Thirds has come of age. The original promise of ‘smaller, same quality’ which was made with Four Thirds I felt was never fulfilled with earlier cameras; they weren’t small enough, or able to deliver the same image quality. Although Micro Four Thirds went a long way to fulfilling the smaller part of the equation, image quality, speed and usability were lagging behind until the last generation; only now has the promise been met. I don’t look at the OM-D’s files and think ‘wow, this isn’t bad for such a small sensor!'; instead, I look at the files and am satisfied enough to not think about the sensor size. It’s hugely liberating to be able to carry a pro grade body and three lens fast-prime kit – 24, 40 and 90 equivalents – whose total weight is around 600g, and without feeling like I’m compromising anything (at least not for what I shoot; if it were sport, it’d probably be a different case). That’s the weight of one lens for the D800, or the M9-P body only. That’s hugely appealing for travel. Even two bodies wouldn’t weigh that much.

In conclusion: it’s an exciting time to be a photographer. For the vast majority of my work, this is more than enough camera; I just need a solid macro option (there’s a 60mm 1:1 on the way) and a good wireless flash system, and I’d be seriously tempted to switch over. MT

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Waiting for more rebar. OM-D, 45/1.8

More of my work with the OM-D can be found here on flickr. This is a set which will be continuously updated as time goes by…

Update: I’ve been made aware of an excellent thread on DPReview by Archer Sully here documenting some of the ‘hidden’ features of the OM-D that the manual doesn’t cover. It’s good reading for any OM-D shooter.

Get the Olympus OM-D here from B&H or Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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