Watch photography with the Olympus OM-D, and thoughts on its use as a backup system

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The Maitres du Temps Chapter Two Tonneau China special edition.

For a system to be able to serve as backup, it must fulfill one important function: the ability for me to continue working with it and delivering images if my main system should fail for any reason. And it should be able to cover all genres of what I shoot, without too many workarounds or compromises. The obvious choice would of course be to buy two of the same camera, but a) where’s the fun in that, and b) sometimes it’s also useful to have a different camera system to give you other shooting options not available from your primary.

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For the past couple of months, I’ve been shooting with the Olympus OM-D for most jobs which do not require special purpose lenses (e.g. tilt shifts) or huge resolution; the Nikon D800E of course covers everything else. What I’ve found so far is that from a usability and image quality point of view, the camera has no problems delivering the goods consistently; the only exception being a peculiar lockup problem that only happens if you use the Fn1 button to zoom into an image after shooting, then hit the protect button if you’re in the screen with the zoom toggle slider on one side. Unfortunately that does seem to be part of my workflow, but I’m learning to avoid it.

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The biggest question, in my mind, was whether the system was a viable alternative to the D800E for doing watch work – rather important, given that this is the majority of what I do commercially. I acquired a Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro Elmarit (yes, a review is in the works) for this purpose. Suffice to say – the lens isn’t the limiting factor at all, it’s pretty darned awesome (and one of the better macro lenses I’ve used, actually).

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Although Olympus does have a wireless flash system (FL36R, FL50R and FL500R) which is IR-triggered like Nikon and Canon’s systems, I wasn’t about to buy another set of speedlights, and certainly not about to carry them around along with the primary system, too. Fortunately the Nikon SB900s I use have a SU4 optical slave trigger mode – with manual flash power, of course. I used this and manually set the output levels. Yes, it’s much slower than using iTTL and dialing in adjustments directly through the camera, but it works.

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All in all, as you can see from the images here, I think the results are pretty darned good – my client didn’t say anything about the file quality, or lack of it; the OM-D’s files interpolated very cleanly to 25MP and their required resolution.

Depending on what I shoot, I’ll carry the OM-D body and 12mm and 45mm macro lenses, or just the 45; the 20/1.7 rides along as a body cap. One nice thing is its ability to use the Zeiss ZF glass I’ll normally carry for my D800E via an adaptor, so I don’t even have to carry the 45 and 20mms if I’ve got the 50/2 Makro-Planar and 21/2.8 Distagon.

One note of caution – during my recent Hong Kong workshop, the camera decided to stop working in a very humid environment (light rain, probably 90-95% humidity) and didn’t come back to life again until being dried out in air conditioning and with a few blasts from a hair dryer for good measure – so they’re probably not as well weather sealed as they claim. It continued to work intermittently for a few days afterwards, with menus self-navigating (as though one of the buttons was shorted out) before working normally thereafter. Odd. MT

The Olympus OM-D in various configurations is available here from B&H and 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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Photoessay: The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude

Not a commercial job, but one of those watches I’d personally encountered once, a long time ago in 2003, but was unable to afford at the time. Nevertheless, it left an impression on me, and from the time I did have the money to spare, I’ve been hunting one down. The problem is that they were very rare to begin with – I believe just 150 pieces were made – and with a very unique and beautiful dial; consequently, they’re rarer than hen’s teeth, and I’ve only ever seen one offered for sale new, and a grand total of zero on the secondary market. On my last trip to the factory, I did ask on the off chance that there was an unsold piece or two in the stockroom; there wasn’t.

On the way back to Kuala Lumpur, I passed by the watch shop in the airport without a second thought; after all, I was late for my flight at that point and had to run. Something compelled me to take a quick look; in a display case hiding behind a pillar was the very watch I’d been searching out for years. Some hasty negotiation ensued – it was obviously a new old stock piece bearing the marks of rough handling, but still sold as new with warranty – they were nice enough to give me a hefty discount and an additional strap. My wallet was suitably lightened, and I just managed to make my flight.

It’s a small watch by today’s standards, but is very thin (and of course mechanical) and pairs perfectly with a suit. The original Reversos were double sided with a blank metal case back, ostensibly to protect the watch while its wearer played polo; these days they’re either used as a second dial for complications, or a canvas for an engraving or art piece. I’m thinking of getting a Hokusai wave enameled on the back, but I’m in no hurry; these things are like tattoos; once it’s on, it’s for life.

If this story isn’t an example of fate and patience, I’m not sure what is. It seems that good things do come to those who wait. MT

This series shot with a Nikon D800E, SB900s, AFS 60/2.8 Micro and Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar.

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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

Photoessay: The C3H5N3O9 (Nitro) Experiment ZR012

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Despite being completely unpronounceable, this watch is just plain outright cool. The brainchild of Max Busser (MB&F) and Felix Baumgartner (URWERK), it is the first watch to use an eccentric planetary transmission system for the timekeeping mechanism – i.e. the same geometry as the Wankel engine. (Curiously, there’s only one ratio of inner to outer satellite that actually permits the three distinct chambers to be formed; any other ratio doesn’t seal at all). The minutes are read off the red tips of the upper ‘rotor’, with the hours on the level below. There is no seconds indication, but there is a power reserve on the back of the watch.

I believe these are the first photos outside the official press release, and I was told that the watch is a working production prototype – which means non-final parts and finishing, and some potential tool marks in places as befits an engineering experiment…

Many thanks to Ian Skellern at C3H5N3O9.

This series shot (hastily) with a Nikon D800E and AFS 60/2.8 G Micro. It wasn’t a commercial shoot, so please excuse me if I missed a spot or two. All images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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Photoessay: The Maitres du Temps Chapter 3

This watch was an early production prototype photographed for my client, which is the Manufacture. [Puts on horological hat] It’s an interesting piece because it carries clear DNA from its creator – Kari Voutilainen (the dial) – whilst at the same time retaining the brand’s own DNA (the rollers). It’s a substantial but not oversized watch at about 42mm in diameter; contained inside are time functions, small seconds, date, synodic moon phase indication, day/night indicator and second time zone display. The latter two functions are hidden under panels on the dial at 12 and 6 that retract slightly into the plane of the dial and rotate out of the way, activated by the button concentric to the crown. The button at 9 advances the second time zone display (under the panel at 6). You can see the action of the panels in the final two images. Maitres du Temps is an interesting brand because it collaborates with famous watchmakers to create the various ‘Chapters’ – they do have an in-house execution and assembly facility headed by the noted Andreas Strehler, but each project always lands up different because it carries the DNA of the master watchmaker in charge of the project. Chapter 3 looks nothing like 1 and 2; they were of course designed by completely different watchmakers. Personally, this piece is by far my favorite – I think of it as classical, with a twist. MT

This series shot with a Nikon D800, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and several SB900s. As always, clicking on an image brings you to the Flickr landing page, from which you can view a larger version.

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Photoessay: The Speake-Marin Immortal Dragon

One of the more unusual watches I’ve photographed, the Immortal Dragon is both immaculately finished on the dial and the movement – the watch has both serious horological pedigree (being from the atelier of highly respected independent watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin and some pretty unique aesthetics. The dial was hand-engraved in relief by master engraver Kees Engelberts, and the watch is a piece unique destined for the Asian market in honor of the current lunar year of the dragon. MT

This series shot with a Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon with Leica M-F adaptor and multiple speedlights.

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Opening night of my joint exhibition with Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica

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Last night was the grand opening party for my exhibition of fine art watch photography at Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pending any unforeseen changes, the images should be up for the next month on the first (Adorn) floor, and were co-sponsored by Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica. Some images from the launch party follow.

For my KL readers, I’ll also be on radio – a short interview – on Friday, 4th May at 1.45pm on BFM 88.9. For everybody else, there’s a podcast on bfm.my. MT

Sorry, no POTD today – was trying to rush these out for today’s post.

Some images courtesy KH Yeo (D700, 24/1.4) and myself (M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE).

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POTD: Transparency

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Benzinger Skeleton. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro.

I love and hate the idea of skeleton watches. Seeing your wrist hair through the dial isn’t so fun; but being able to see the movement definitely is. This shot is a play on the transparency of the watch – you know it’s there, but at the same time, it isn’t. MT

On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P

We photographers are a strange lot: sometimes we make our lives difficult when there’s absolutely no need to. I recently shot a watch photography assignment using a Leica M9-P, of all things. (This setup has been the subject of another post, here)

You probably know that my usual rig for this is a Nikon with a whole bunch of extension tubes. Why did I do it, you might ask? See the end of the post for the answer.

Let’s start back-to-front, with a few highlights from the results:

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Deep Sea Chronograph.

I would conservatively say that this was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done, and the only one that required the services of an assistant – normally, I find they just get in the way and it’s much faster for me to do what needs to be done rather than have to explain it. Firstly, this rig is one which does not focus to infinity, is entirely manual, and is both heavy and unwieldy. Put one finger wrong and you’re liable to make a hole in the bellows, which being the better part of half a century old, is extremely fragile. (The mechanical parts are still in amazingly good condition though, and operate very smoothly.) You need to set magnification first – also restrictive, between about 2.5:1 to 1:2 only (with the Visoflex and 90/4 only) – then move the entire rig to frame – and because it’s unwieldy, you can’t do this handheld. I made a kind of gimbal head out of a Manfrotto 468RC0 Hydrostat head tilted at 90 degrees, to which was vertically mounted a Manfrotto geared focusing rail, with the rail on the Bellows II attached at right angles to that – which allowed me tilt and yaw motion, and precise front/back and up/down movements. Slow going – there were ten adjustment points on support system alone, to say nothing of photographic controls – but accurate.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

Secondly, the Visoflex prism obviously blocks the M9-P’s hotshoe, ruling out the use of flashes – at least by any conventional means. With a custom-fabricated cable (read: a hotshoe cover with holes made in it to thread through speaker wire, which was then soldered to the contact points of a donor slave – in this case, a Nikon SB700), it was possible. The slave flash would fire at minimum power and trigger the other flashes in SU4 optical slave mode. Optical slave mode is a polite way of saying 100% manual – so it’s either light meter (which I don’t have) or experience (which I do have, from shooting the same thing with slide film). My assistant would run from flash to flash poking buttons and turning wheels in response to cryptic instructions like “top, up one; back, thirty-two and fifty millimeters, up ten degrees; kill the right one.”

[Translation: Top flash, increase power by one stop. Back flash, change power to 1/32 and zoom head to 50mm, tilt the head up ten degrees. Turn off the right flash.]

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Amvox World Chronograph

It was a near thing. The entire job relied on a single critical part: that sync cable. At one point, there was an internal short somewhere which either kept the flash firing frequently enough to trigger epilepsy, or not firing at all. And to compound things, I suspect the trigger voltage of the hotshoe and flash didn’t agree, which would occasionally cause the M9-P to not fire its shutter at all. And then the Visoflex jammed…let’s just say the Victorinox earned its keep on that day.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

It took me just over nine hours to make a final cut of 80 photographs – which is excruciatingly slow, considering I’ll normally do three times that number in two thirds of the time. Most of the delay was due to moving and setting the camera, or fine-tuning the flashes.

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Duometre a Spherotourbillon

However, I think this conclusively proves that the Leica M system is a lot more versatile than most people think. Now, if only Leica would produce modern versions of these accessories – and perhaps something to trigger a flash. I don’t think most people have any idea how difficult it is to find a Bellows II-screwmount to Leica M adaptor until you look…

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Master Ultra Thin Reserve de Marche

One quick comment on image quality: the 90/4 Macro-Elmar is a superbly sharp lens with great micro contrast, if you use it in the optimal range. At maximum aperture (f4), there is very visible chromatic aberration – both longitudinal and lateral. Stopped down between f5.6 and f11, it’s superb. At f16, diffraction suddenly kicks in – there’s a huge difference between f13 and f16, it’s as though somebody has run a Gaussian filter over the entire image. (I think at this magnification it’s probably closer to f32, though). I wouldn’t even go near f22. I had to pay careful attention to lighting with the M9, for the simple reason that its dynamic range is probably 2-2.5 stops less than the D800 at base ISO. All in all though, I think you’ll agree that the combination is capable of some spectacular results – even more impressive considering that it was never designed for this.

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Because we photographers have a particularly odd fascination with checking out other people’s equipment, I’m going to leave you with some gear shots. I will also say that if anybody is in the market for a tripod head, the Manfrotto Hydrostat series is truly excellent – it’s the only head I’ve ever used that doesn’t exhibit any ‘droop’ when locking down the head, no matter the weight or magnification of the camera and lens combination attached. It’s rock solid.

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Yours truly at work. (You’ll notice I’m not using the tripod here; I put it aside for the further-away shots of whole watches.)

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My exhibition of fine art horology sponsored by Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica will be on display at Starhill Gallery, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur from 3 May onwards – please drop by if you’re in town! If you let me know in advance, I’ll try to give you a personal tour. MT

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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!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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

POTD: Spot the famous photojournalism reference

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Nomos Tangomat GMT-12 Prototype in Auckland. Bonus points for those of you who can spot the famous photojournalism reference here – hint: think Prague. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 kit lens.

On assignment this weekend, so I apologize in advance if it’s a little quiet here or on flickr. I will still be using the D800 for most things as it won’t involve much, if any, wide-angle work; there’s a D3x in case it does, though. MT

Hiding behind the subject

Photographers normally hide behind the camera (though we shouldn’t, because it distances us from what we’re shooting and makes us observers rather than participant-observers, but that’s another story for another time) right? So what’s with hiding behind the subject?

A friend once said this to me about a watch: I’m expecting exceptional photos because it’s an extraordinary subject. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at first, but I do now. How many images are famous because of the content – maybe the rarity of the subject, the famousness of the person, the momentousness of the situation – rather than because the photograph itself is exceptional? Look carefully. For instance, imagine the photo wasn’t of say Obama, but instead an ordinary man. Would it still be a special photograph? Probably not. The examples go on. Some of these images are truly special for their composition etc – but a lot are also well known solely because the photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m not saying that news photographers can’t shoot, but there is a continuum. I often wonder whether I’d be able to produce images as good or better than other people if I was in one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations. The honest answer is, I don’t know.

But I digress; back to the watch.

Supposing you make what is perceived as an ordinary photo of an ordinary subject; that is probably par for the course. If you can make an exceptional photo of an ordinary subject, then the talent lies with you as the photographer rather than the subject for being special. However, if you fail to make a ‘wow’ photo with a very special subject – I dunno, say a Bugatti Veryron for instance – then you’ve both failed to capture the essence of the subject in the photograph, and failed to apply your nascent talent as a photographer.

I bore this in mind as I photographed the watch – a Lange & Sohne Datograph.

The image on the manufacturer’s site looks like this (slightly different to the actual watch shot because this is an updated model):

It’s technically competent, but a very flat, very boring shot that fails to capture any of the magic of the piece. I can’t say I was happy with my first, second or even third try; I too made an ordinary photo out of an exceptional subject (you’ll see why, shortly) or at best, a good photo. Which still didn’t do the subject justice, in my mind.

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Early attempt. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Later attempt, which you’ve probably seen in another article; I use this for illustration purposes. Yes, it’s compositionally and technically much stronger, but also fails in many ways to capture the essence of the subject. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Here’s an interesting attempt to capture the idea of cool precision. I think by throwing out conventional notions of how I’d shoot a watch, I was definitely making progress. I didn’t even use my usual D700 and 60 macro combination with flashes; this was shot with the Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 and continuous LED lights.

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Final attempt. I like this idea because it subtly represents the ‘best of Germany’-teutonic-aesthetic, yet it’s still a little bit imperfect (like anything handmade, especially the subjects) and a bit surreal. The watch was actually resting on the same surface as the lens, but the laws of optics reverse the projection (and in turn required mirror-imaging in photoshop to make the orientation look correct). Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G and a Leica Noctilux 0.95 ASPH.

This philosophy is something I now keep in the back of my mind when I shoot: don’t hide behind your subject. At very least, do it justice. If you can, then make an extraordinary photo. If you can’t, then try, or at least know when it doesn’t come up to scratch. It isn’t easy to do, but I think just one more way to raise your game. MT

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