Lens review: The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G

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14-42 X on OM-D, collapsed and extended. If you’re wondering why I got a silver one, it’s because the black ones were out of stock at the time I needed it. Would I have preferred black? Obviously.

I don’t normally review ‘consumer’ grade gear for the simple reason that it’s usually built to a price, rather than built to deliver a certain grade of result (or perhaps it is, only the accountants and engineers know for sure). However, sometimes you come across a piece of equipment that fills a need much better than you imagined; this lens is one such example. The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G (what a mouthful, hereafter known as the 14-42X) is a very small – about the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed – zoom for Micro Four Thirds. It was the kit lens for the GX1 and a couple of other cameras for a while, and fortunately also available separately.

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Photoessay: New York street cinematics

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Possessiveness of taxis is a New York thing

I found the people and streets of New York to be eminently suited to a bit of cinematic street photography. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many movies have already been filmed in New York, or it’s the quality of light filtering between and reflecting off buildings, or it’s the various diverse characters that live in the city. These are little moments, vignettes and slices-of-life; I don’t want to use the word ‘stolen’, but it does sometimes feel like one is peering into a pre-coreographed scene and simply borrowing a frame. I sincerely apologise in advance for having some fun with the captions.

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Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2

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Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option for Micro Four Thirds users. (It was also recently re-released as a limited edition all-black version, which now includes the lens hood as part of the kit.) In fact, there’s been remarkably little competition in this arena – just a manual focus offering or two from SLR Magic, and the upcoming (and stratospherically priced) Schneider 14/2.0. Panasonic has the 7-14/4, and the 14/2.5; the latter which is perhaps the 12/2’s closest competition.

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My initial experience with this lens and its optics on the E-P3 and E-PM1 were enough to convince me that Micro Four Thirds had come of age, and would make a worthwhile compact system without major compromises for the majority of situations in which I’d want to use a compact system camera. This impression held, wavered, and changed again – to be honest, until the last Tokyo workshop, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to use the 12/2 on the OM-D (full review here) for a serious evaluation. The last time I used the lens on the OM-D was also the first time I’d taken out the camera for a serious bout of shooting, and definitely wasn’t a good way to benchmark performance of either camera or lens – simply too many variables and unknowns were in play here.

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Spiral. E-PM1, ZD 12/2

The lens is one of the Olympus Super High Grade line, impeccably built and finished with all-metal construction, and one unique feature (for a Micro Four Thirds Lens) – the focusing ring clutch. Sliding the focusing ring backwards a notch puts the lens in manual focus mode, and also reveals a focus distance scale: unlike every other lens in the system, the 12/2 has hard stops at each end of the range. Together with the depth of field scales, the lens should theoretically be the ideal tool for street photography – fast, wide, zone-focusable, and with more depth of field for a given aperture and field of view than its 35mm equivalent.

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In AF mode (left) and scale-focus MF mode (right)

Except, this isn’t quite the case. Sadly, the clutched focus system isn’t really mechanically linked to the position of the lens elements; it too is a fly-by-wire simulation – albeit a very good one, with the right amount of tactile feedback and everything. The problem is to do with the resolution of the distance scale/ mechanism: there aren’t enough divisions.

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Reflections, Tokyo. OM-D, ZD 12/2 from a moving train

It seems that there are perhaps five or six discrete distances to which the focusing group moves, instead of a continuum. The only thing that could cause this is if Olympus used a form of rheostat in the construction of the the focusing ring/ clutch. Although 12mm is a very wide actual focal length with plenty of depth of field for a given aperture, f2 is fast enough that more critical control over your focus point is required. Sadly, though the idea of the ring is a good one, the execution makes it of marginal utility for the photographer in the real world – unless you are willing to use a small aperture – f4-5.6 or smaller – to use depth of field to cover the lack of manual focus precision.

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Diagonals, Shibuya. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Curiously, this is most definitely not the case for either manual focus with the ring in the AF position (i.e. selecting manual focus on the camera body) or when using autofocus. Here, the lens is precise, moves in as many infinitesimally incremental steps as one could desire, and has no trouble finding critical focus. While on the subject of focusing, it’s probably a good time to talk about autofocus performance. Like all of Olympus’ other MSC designs, the 12/2 is an extremely snappy lens – even more so on any of the recent bodies. I haven’t experienced any gross focus misses, but it’s worth noting that some care is required at f2 – the plane of focus isn’t quite as deep as you’d think.

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Taxi rush, Shinjuku. OM-D, ZD 12/2

The lens is not weather sealed or gasketed, and once again, Olympus has decided not to include a hood – this is excusable for a $250 economy kit item, but not on a $800 premium lens. It just smells too much like penny pinching. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the optional hood is rather cumbersome; it increases the bulk and visual size of the lens hugely, requires a thumb screw to attach, can rotate freely and requires a different cap – why can’t they just use a bayonet hood? Zeiss lenses are a great example of how bayonet hood mounts should be constructed.

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Shadows, Otemachi. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Over a good year of use with this lens on the E-PM1 and OM-D, those are my only two complaints: the inaccuracy of the pseudo-manual focus clutch, and the continued minor farce of the lens hood. If you read this carefully, it means that I don’t have any major criticisms of the optics.

The 12/2 uses a rather exotic optical design with 11 elements in 8 groups; one of these is aspherical, one is made of ED glass, and another two of exotic Super HR and DSA glasses. It’s a non-symmetric, telecentric design whose optical formula honestly doesn’t look familiar to me – the closest thing I can think of are the Zeiss Distagons, insofar as they use several extremely dome convex front elements and a rear telephoto group. The lens also employs Olympus’ ZERO coating to minimize flare and maximize contrast and transmission.

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The overhang. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Let’s get the most popular question out of the way first: yes, it’s sharp. Bitingly so, at all apertures, across the entire frame in all but the most extreme corners. There appears to be a small amount of field curvature, but nothing overly serious; enough that for optimal sharpness you’ll want to move the focus point over your subject rather than using center-focus-and-recompose, though. The lens has a slightly odd MTF chart that is indicative of a significant dropoff in microcontrast about halfway to the edges; I don’t see this in practical use, which suggests that the field curvature is probably responsible – and more complex than a merely spherical surface. In the real world: sharpness will not be an issue.

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Fuji TV building, Odaiba. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Though some of you might think that a little nice bokeh might be obtainable from the 12/2, you’d be mistaken; you have to be very close indeed to throw anything significantly out of focus. Fortunately, the lens focuses down to 0.2m, so this is actually possible. If you have enough distance between subject and background, then bokeh is actually fairly pleasant; however, if there isn’t a lot of distance, and the subject is a bit farther away from the camera, nothing really gets out of focus enough to begin with – in fact, you have to be a bit careful of double images in the out of focus areas. There’s a bit of spherochromatism, too.

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Star. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Although the lens in general well corrected, you do get the feeling that it’s on the extreme edges of what was possible with the design constraints put upon the optical designers: there’s visible CA against high contrast subjects, especially in the corners where you can get up to 2 pixels’ worth; there’s also very noticeable distortion. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in nature – barrel with no sombrero/ moustache – and is easily correctable in ACR. Flare exists but the ZERO coating does a good job of keeping it to a minimum – even without the hood. Stopping down to f4 on the OM-D makes everything but the distortion go away, leaving you with an excellent optic. It doesn’t quite have the transparency of the 75/1.8 or 60/2.8 Macro, but it’s fairly close if used stopped down. It is definitely the best wide option for M4/3 users at the moment. One interesting use of the lens is for handheld long exposure photography – due to the short focal length and excellent stabilizer in the OM-D, shutter speeds of anywhere down to 1/2s (consistently) or 1s (occasionally) with critically sharp results are possible, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.

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Commuters. OM-D, 12/2

As always, I suppose the litmus test for a lens is if you’d buy it a second time – I think the answer for me would be a qualified yes. I have since had the chance to shoot with the Panasonic 14/2.5; thought I prefer the 28mm field of view over 24mm, and believe that M4/3 lenses should be a compact as possible to play to the other strengths of the system, I would still pick the 12/2 as the optics are better – they simply render in a more three-dimensional way due to better microcontrast, as well as better edge sharpness. Interestingly, the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 runs it very close at f2.8; however, the T stop of that lens is about 1/3-1/2 stop slower too, for a given physical aperture. What qualifies my opinion is the upcoming Schneider 14/2; it remains to be seen if it performs as well as its price suggests it should. In the meantime, the best way to judge the 12/2 is on its pictorial results – construction, expensive accessories and the imprecise focus clutch are just distractions. And on that basis alone, I think the lens deserves a place in a serious M4/3 shooter’s bag. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12/2 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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On Assignment: concert photojournalism

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Tompi. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

I recently played the role of official photographer for a producer friend’s concert – it was a moderately large affair featuring a good number of famous local musicians. The nice thing about this event was that it was large enough to have professional acts, decent lighting and good organization, but not so large that I didn’t have access to everything – and I mean everything, including the stage itself during the performance*.

*One thing a good concert photographer should never do is interfere with the act; so even though the stage might be open to you, one should never get between the performers and the audience unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then only for the shortest possible period of time. Oh, and remember that the shutter sound carries quite clearly through any microphones that have been placed near equipment.

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Through the legs. Nikon D700, 28/1.8G

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of the types of music being played, I have to say this was one of the more enjoyable events I’ve attended and shot; I guess I’d be the restless type of concertgoer who’s only happy with a camera in hand and backstage pass – not so much to meet the artists, but to shoot. Although it’s the first photojournalism assignment I’ve done in quite some time – and the first concert assignment in many years. (In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.) This job made me realize just how much I missed photojournalism.

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Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

There were a number of photographers there from other local/ national media and international agencies; the locals were mostly using midrange APS-C bodies, kit lenses and off-brand flashes; you could tell the major agencies by their standard issue pro bodies and f2.8 zooms. Interestingly, the proliferation of lower end cameras amongst media/ newsmen – at least in Malaysia – has been getting increasingly common as these organizations seek to cut cots. I can understand the bodies passing the threshold of sufficiency and being capable of producing great results in the hands of any competent photographer, but the use of slow kit zooms just hamstrings the ability to create a picture that preserves the ambient light and feel of the scene without resorting to a flash.

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In the moment. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

From experience, I know that when wearing my photojournalism hat, the lighter you can go, the better. I was carrying my D700/ MB-D10, 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G for close distance coverage; the OM-D and 100-300 rode shotgun for more reach. (I was also carrying the 12/2 and 45/1.8 as backup in case the D700 developed a problem, plus an SB900 for balanced fill which I didn’t land up using. My motto is go light, but not so light that you have no insurance when it comes to equipment failure.) Many of you will know that the new Nikon 28/1.8 G has proven itself to be a very capable lens even on the demanding sensor of the D800E; I’m pleased to report that both the 28 and 85 f1.8 G lenses performed flawlessly on the D700, both in terms of focusing accuracy and optical performance. The 85/1.8 G does exhibit some moderate flare with strongly backlit point sources (the hood makes almost no difference here), but I personally don’t mind it as I feel that it adds to that atmosphere and pictorial value of the image somewhat.

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Keyboards. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The big surprise of the night was the OM-D and 100-300 combination, however. I didn’t use AF-C; most of the time careful timing, a short burst and the extended depth of field for a given FOV due to the smaller sensor was enough. It’s rather counterintuitive for DSLR shooters, but I find that with the OM-D, just depressing the shutter all the way down and trusting the camera’s AF system yields a considerably higher hit rate than using AF-C, or worse, AF-Tracking. The 100-300 delivered excellent optical performance, even out to the 300mm limit; due to the lighting conditions I was working wide open the whole time. The lens did hunt somewhat above 200mm, but so long as I was in the ballpark, focusing was reasonably fast.

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Blue note. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

So far, no surprises – I’d shot with the 100-300 in good light conditions, and been pleased with the results. The OM-D, on the other hand, seems to excel under tricky mixed-light or strong-color situations; to get a sufficiently high shutter speed – I was in the 1/45-1/60s region most of the time, at 300-400mm equivalent – I was solidly in the ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 band. In all honesty, I don’t feel the files were noticeably more noisy than the D700 for a given ISO; the only place where the smaller sensor made itself known was in dynamic range – the D700 had probably two stops extra on the OM-D. I can definitely see where the 75/1.8 would be useful though – 100mm was a bit long at times, and the extra 2 1/3 stops (probably more in transmission) would have pushed image quality even higher still.

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Strumming out. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

All in all, a very satisfying nights’ work. Come work delivery time, the litmus test is always the client; I’m happy to say that this one passed with flying colors. “I can’t stop looking at the pictures, they’re amazing!” was the text message I got a few days after delivery. So, anybody else need a concert photographer? MT

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One – Ramli Sarip. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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This is what rockers do. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The loud pedal. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Thank you to my band. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The hair. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Backstage with the fans. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

Photoessay: Summer in Geneva

The sun comes out in Geneva (apparently quite rare). A quick travel series using the Olympus OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro – my backup lens while on assignment.

Enjoy! MT

As usual, all images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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Enter the August 2012 competition: Compact Challenge – here!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com) or via Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn itYou can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  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: Geneva monochromes with the Olympus OM-D

Some street photography from Geneva with the Olympus OM-D andy 45/2.8 Macro. I didn’t use the 45/1.8 (my choice for this kind of thing) because I was decompressing with my backup lenses after being on assignment…

Enjoy! MT

As usual, all images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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The inaugural mingthein.com photography contest closes 31 July 2012 – the more people entering, the larger the cash prize! Enter here

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com) or via Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn itYou can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  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: 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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The inaugural mingthein.com photography contest closes 31 July 2012 – the more people entering, the larger the cash prize! Enter here

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com) or via Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn itYou can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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POTD: If you’re not getting wet, you’re probably not close enough.

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Wave action. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, 14-42 kit lens…at 14mm.

Sometimes risks are necessary for experimentation. Just don’t do it with any gear that would be critical if dead, unless you absolutely have to get the shot. MT

Sushi, and the philosophy of photography

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Seared Wagyu beef with momeji oroshii.

Sushi is a universe in itself – there are so few components that if you get any one of them slightly wrong, the taste will be horrible. But if you get every one of them right, the experience can be magical. Specifically, your fish must be fresh and in season; precisely the right amount of soy sauce should be brushed on to the top, with a little dab of wasabi hiding between the rice and the fish. The fish itself is cut slightly concave so it drapes perfectly over the rice, itself measured to precisely the right quantity to make a mouthful and shaped by hand, not too tightly packed and not too loose, either.

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Katsuo (bonito) with ginger.

And then there’s the seasoning that accompanies the rice – a mix of mirin and rice vinegar – which must offer the right degree of tartness and sweetness to provide a counterpoint to the fish and soy sauce, but not so much that it overpowers or tastes sour. And this is before we even talk about more complicated creations that involve multiple types of fish, or searing, or additional condiments and seasoning.

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Broiled anago (freshwater conger eel).

There’s a parallel between sushi and photography (and sushi and many other things, actually) – aside from the obvious that it’s art, sushi making requires both technical skill and creativity. There are constraints, but you can work around them. It can be learned, it can be honed by experience, but there’s definitely an element of talent and intuition involved which all great sushi chefs possess. Photographs and sushi both come in small, bite-sized increments – they require little time to create if all the elements come together, and can be enjoyed in moments or contemplated for hours – I’ve eaten sushi dinners with 20+ different varieties served over many hours; I suppose that would be like going through the Magnum annual. Neither photography nor sushi is cheap, either; and mastery can take years.

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Torigai clam.

There’s even an anticipative element to it – the feeling of curiosity before you go to eat (wondering what is in season and came from Tsukiji today) is much like the feeling I get before a shoot; you’re all excited and ready to go. It’s also entirely possible that it’s just me.

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Seared katsuo

The best sushi I’ve ever eaten – so far – comes from a local chef in Kuala Lumpur at a restaurant called Hanare; Kenny Yew is an absolute genius when it comes to creating new things – for instance, seared wagyu with momeji oroshii chili – as a sushi. I need to go at least once a month or I get withdrawal symptoms and the DTs, because I just can’t eat sushi anywhere else now. The few lucky friends I’ve taken there feel the same way. It really is art – some of the pieces make me tingly and others nearly bring me to tears. I’ve eaten things there I never would have though edible, let alone ordered – and loved them. That’s much like how certain exhibitions, art or equipment inspire me to try photographic experiments that work out a lot better than expected.

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Seared hama-tai (sea bream)

And best of all, you can mix the two. The lighting conditions at that restaurant are pretty horrible, but they save me a seat at the counter which happens to have a halogen spot over it; I position my sushi carefully to be well-lit. This set might appear the same, but that’s because I wanted a consistent point of view; (and comparison)
they were also shot during the same meal. I discovered one other thing that night: the best color I’ve yet managed to achieve is delivered by a combination of Zeiss glass and Olympus cameras.

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Oo-toro. (Fatty yellowfin tuna belly)

I had the ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the Pen Mini via an adaptor, and was utterly floored by the color when I opened up the raw files on my computer – the sushi literally looked like it had in real life. Every bit of the color, texture, iridescence and freshness was captured. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the fortuitous lighting, the great color and micro contrast of Zeiss lenses in general, and the pleasing color palette of Olympus cameras. Whatever it is, I think I’ve found my perfect sushi-camera.

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Red snapper.

My parting advice is that if you do get a chance to eat sushi made by a master, do as you would do at an exhibition of photographs by a great photographer: put away your preconceptions, go in with an open mind, and enjoy. You’ll probably be surprised. MT

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Kamburi (giant yellowtail).

Long term review: The Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini

(hereafter known as the Pen Mini for simplicity.)

First things first: I don’t do measurement style reviews; there are other sites that do that much better than I can. I write from a shooter’s perspective: is it a good tool? Do I enjoy using it? Are there any critical flaws potential purchasers should know about? If you’re fine with that, read on.

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Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, taped up for stealth and wearing the excellent Zuiko Digital 12/2. I’ve since switched to using a small lanyard strap, because a strap this chunky is overkill for such a small camera – and I wanted to use it on my M9-P.

At the end of 2011, Olympus introduced an interesting trio of cameras. Although they were ostensibly positioned at different market segments, just a couple of hundred dollars covered the spread, and they all shared the same sensor and AF system. Two of them even almost had the same body (the E-PL3 and E-PM1 only differ by a mode dial, flip screen and another button or two). The E-P3 had sightly different firmware, better build, and a greatly increased number of manual controls.

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Prague river evenings. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

Let me be honest upfront: I was not a fan of the original E-P1, nor any of its descendants or sub-lines. They were slow to operate and focus, had frankly quite poor image quality, and were neither small nor light. They were also ergonomically pretty poor.

So what changed? Firstly, the ergonomics. The Pen Mini is tiny. As in compact camera tiny, without a lens attached; and not much larger than a LX5 if you use one of the pancake lenses. The main thing is operation speed. The latest generation are fast. Fast enough that you’re constantly impressed that it’s found focus, and done so accurately. And fast in every other way too – navigating menus, playback, zooming review images, shot-to-shot, etc. Curiously, the small-bodied E-PM1 and E-PM3 are both faster than the flagship E-P3; they’ll shoot at around 5fps with the stabilizer off, but the E-P3 is limited to 3fps. Apparently it’s a limitation of the older shutter or stabilizer design. (But that’s not as fast as it gets; the new E-M5 will do 9fps with AF locked, and focusing is supposed to be even faster – not that you’d really be able to tell the difference.) Bottom line: you’re not waiting for the camera, and it isn’t what’s stopping you from getting the shot. After trying one in a store – a friend bought the E-P3 – I instantly decided it was fast enough; if the image quality was okay, then we’d be in business.

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Rush hour storm. Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7

Autofocus is very fast indeed for static subjects in good light; I can’t tell the difference between the Pen Mini fitted with the right lenses (the new Olympus ones) and my D700. In lower light, there’s a difference; in very low light, sometimes the camera will fail to find focus at all. Forget about moving subjects; although there’s notionally a tracking mode, it’s essentially useless. Fall back to prefocus, timing and the larger DOF afforded by the small sensor in such situations. There is one quirk with the Olympuses (Olympii?) that I haven’t seen with other contrast-detect AF systems: it gets confused by extreme contrast (for example, focusing on the sun or a point light source) and just hunts, or perhaps reports good focus after settling at an intermediate point. That’s odd, because something that high contrast should be a perfect focusing target, right? Maybe it’s the pixel overload – blown channels – that stops it from working properly.

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The assembly of modernist cuisine. Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7

The headline spec isn’t that exciting – just 12MP, and seemingly the same sensor as the previous generation of cameras. What Olympus did was increase the sensor readout speed to 60Hz, which has the effect of doubling autofocus speed (slightly more, actually, when the new focusing algorithm is taken into account) and making the view smoother. A good 12MP is more than enough for almost all but the most demanding uses; I’ve been plenty happy with the output of my D700, and guess what, that has exactly the same resolution.

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Afroman. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

A D700 it is not, however. The Pen Mini (and by extension, other cameras using the same sensor) produce detailed, sharp images when used with the right lens and within their optimum shooting envelope; in some ways the output reminds me of the Leica M9 at low ISO. The antialiasing filter is very weak, if there is one; single pixel detail is excellent, especially when paired with the right lenses – the Olympus 45/1.8 that accompanied the cameras at launch is a good example of that. I’d say the sensor provides clean output up to ISO 800; it’s useable at 1600, and perhaps 3200 in a pinch. What you see isn’t the increased luminance/ chroma noise (but maintained detail) of the M9; there’s definitely a gentle smeary noise reduction going on even for the RAW files which seems to kick in around ISO 1250. Fine detail structures are the first to go, followed by edge detail. It’s noticeably by ISO 1600, and annoying if you go any higher. More critical is the narrowing dynamic range as the sensitivity increases – by ISO 1600 you’re probably looking at no more than 6 good stops from a RAW file. Note the reduced dynamic range is also noticeable at base ISO – specifically, the highlight recovery slider in Adobe Camera Raw does very little if the image is overexposed, and what little it does is tinged with false color information. The shadow slider still shows that there’s a decent amount of information in the quarter tones, but at the expense of luminance and chroma noise.

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Arches, Vienna. ISO 1600 – looks good at this size, right? Visible edge erosion due to non-cancelable noise reduction at 100% though. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

You’d think this sounds pretty damning – it’s not. The files are punchy, and respond well to tweaking. However, the color palette is pleasing rather than accurate; something you need to take into account of if shooting objects, scenery or architecture. It excels at skin tones, however – in both RAW and JPEG. I’m a stickler for accurate color, especially after curve tweaking; it required quite a number of tries before I could accurately correct for the Olympus color palette (but still leave some residual camera signature in place).

Overall, image quality is right where you’d expect it to be for a sensor of this size: better than the 1/1.3″ compacts, but probably lagging a stop or so behind the best of the current APS-C cameras (Nikon D7000, for instance.)

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Cathedral reflections, Prague. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

Let’s talk about ergonomics. With a body that small, there’s no way you can fit a huge amount of external controls in. And they didn’t even bother trying. In fact, there are so few buttons on the back of the camera that you really HAVE to use the ‘super control panel’ screen to make settings changes – or suffer through the absolutely horrible menu system. I also find the camera quite slippery to hold because it has no thumb grip other than the movie record button and a vestigial rubber protrusion above the D-pad/dial combo; I fitted a spare ThumbsUp and haven’t looked back since. It doesn’t really fit properly, but it does the job well and hugely improves handling. I suspect one of those stick on front grips by Richard Franiec would also make a big difference. There’s only one programmable function button – the record button under your thumb. You’ll have to decide what your most frequently used function is from a rather short list. I’m using it for center AF point during shooting and instant delete during playback; you could also use it for the usual AF/AE functions and a few other things.

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Magritte strikes again. The camera really does quite lovely blues, especially sky tones. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

I have a love-hate affair with the menu. On one hand, the menu button brings up something that’s clearly aimed at a complete novice – you have a choice between scene modes, movies, PSAM, and a deeper-level settings menu. Curiously, the settings menu has two versions: the simple ‘idiot’ version with only basic options such as time, date, format etc – and a super-comprehensive version that makes the camera’s behavior more customizable than my D700. For instance, I can even adjust the LCD’s color temperature (!). The nice thing about this is you can set up the camera once to suit your shooting style, and not really touch it again after that. I shoot RAW, auto-ISO to 1600 with a lower limit of 1/60th (small cameras held at arms’ length mean higher propensity towards camera shake blur) and auto-WB. It’s in continuous high mode, with the stabilizer off, single point AF-C. The JPEG color settings do affect the RAW preview, so as usual I turn the saturation and contrast down, and crank up the sharpening so I can more easily tell whether what I’ve shot is in focus or not.

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New year’s eve rebel. Olympus Pen Mini, 12/2

You’re probably wondering why I don’t use the stabilizer: basically, it’s pretty much useless. I have much better results by shooting fast bursts and keeping the middle image. Turning the stabilizer on creates an odd double image effect that I suspect is an artifact of not being fully able to compensate for the shutter recoil. At higher shutter speeds, you shouldn’t be using stabilization at all on any camera, because it won’t react fast enough. And don’t even think about using the stabilizer for movie recording; it’s a digital effect and creates horrible rolling-shutter jello. That said, I tried shooting video once with the camera, and was horrified by the jellocam effect even with stabilizer off; sufficient to say, this isn’t a good choice for movie makers. This is rather odd, since the sensor can read out at at least 60fps; furthermore, the design of the cameras actually seems somewhat video-centric – why else would you fit a 16:9 LCD to a camera whose native aspect ratio is 4:3? That’s actually one of my pet peeves with the Pen Mini: you’ve got a lot of unused LCD space in normal shooting mode, so the 3″ LCD is effectively more like 2.5″. At least there are plenty of pixels, so the image is sharp and fluid.

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Architectural trees. This is about as bad as flare gets with the 45/1.8, with the sun in the frame – it’s not technically great, but it is very pleasing in a cinematic sort of way. Which suits my shooting style pretty well. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

Assuming you can figure out the menu and set up the camera to suit your style, the Pen Mini is actually a joy to shoot. I enjoy using it because it’s so small; it un-encumbers me and allows me to just be there with the option to shoot (without much compromise, if any) rather than consciously be shooting, as I would be if I was carrying a larger, bulkier camera. On a recent trip to Europe, I carried a Pen Mini and three lenses as my secondary/ backup system – all in the spare pockets of my jacket! I didn’t notice it was there until I needed a 90/1.8 equivalent, and out it came.

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Sushi. Seared isaki with momeji oroshii chili. Olympus Pen Mini and Panasonic 20/1.7

Ultimately, the make or break for any camera system is the available lenses; it’s why the NEX and Nikon 1 haven’t quite taken off with anything other than then beginner/ upgraded market, and it’s unlikely the Ricoh and Pentax systems will appeal to anything other than a very niche audience. Argueably, Micro Four Thirds is the most complete compact system; it certainly has the most lens options other than Leica M (and there are plenty of adaptors that allow you to use those lenses, too). I could find fast primes in the focal lengths I’d want to use, which is more than I can say of any of the other systems; better yet, I had a few choices. Fast and wide? No problem – there’s the excellent Olympus 12/2, or the compact Panasonic 14/2.5. And then there are a few zooms, too. I went with the 12/2, smitten by its clutched focusing ring (but finding later that it lacked sufficient resolution to be truly useful for zone focus, and wishing I’d bought the much smaller Panasonic instead). Midrange? Olympus 17/2.8 pancake, Panasonic 20/1.7, Panasonic-Leica 25/1.4, or the insane Voigtlander 25/0.95. All are good except for the 17, which is an utter dog. I went with the 20 for the size; it’s a fantastic and very versatile lens, except being an older model, focusing isn’t as fast as the newer lenses. The Voigtlander looks insanely cool and offers very close minimum focus, but is hugely impractical (magnified live view focus at arms’ length, anybody?) and expensive. The Leica is a nice option, but too bulky for my liking. I shoot usually 24/28 and a short tele pair; on the D700 for instance it’s the 24/1.4 or Zeiss 2/28 Distagon plus the Nikon 85/1.4 G. Olympus released a new 45/1.8 together with the trio of cameras; it’s probably the standout lens in their range. It’s light, cheap, fast to focus, has great bokeh, biting sharpness and a very pleasing overall rendition – what more can you ask for? Sure, metal build would be nice, but I’m happy saving that for the new 75/1.8 (150mm equivalent) exotic. I was considering a macro solution, but I have the D700 for that – and don’t think that will be changing anytime soon.

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Edible foam. Olympus Pen Mini, 14-42/3.5-5.6 IIR kit lens

I know in my mirrorless tips article I recommended using an external finder/ EVF for stability; I don’t with the Pen Mini for one simple reason: the stability I gain from bracing my face against the finder is negatively offset by the loss of stability caused by removing the ThumbsUp. Plus it makes the camera rather bulky, not pocketable, and fragile-feeling – I’d be constantly worried about snapping the finder off because it pivots through 90deg for waist level shooting, and doesn’t really lock in place all that securely.

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Graffiti. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

With all cameras, the ultimate litmus test for me is how much I use it: the cameras I like more tend to be workhorses or go-to cameras, either because I enjoy using them or they’re the best tool for the job. Anything that stays around for longer than around 2-3,000 exposures is a keeper for me; none of the other mirrorless systems I tried (NEX-5, X100, X1) lasted that long. The Olympus is rolling over 7,000 and going strong – which is nearly as much as I shot with the M9-P during the same period (since November last year). My D700 has seen just a couple of thousand frames, which is unusual.

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The embarrassment of having a pigeon crapping on your head. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

In conclusion, it’s a competent, fun camera. And at the current price of around $499 (I’ve seen it as low as $399 after rebates) in the US, it’s a no brainer. In fact, I’m thinking of picking up another one in electric pink to use as a spare or street photography camera; nobody is going to see me as a concern or take me seriously with one of those, which should make for some very interesting images. Micro Four Thirds has finally made good on its promise of smaller, just as good with this camera – its cheapest entry level option – not the flagship. I just hope the current corporate farce doesn’t kill the company, now that they’ve finally figured out how to produce a great product. MT

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Haunted house. Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7