Photoessay: Tokyo monochromes

This set is a whole bunch of little snippets of life from around Tokyo – mostly Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza. I’ve tried to get into the Japanese style of street photography/ reportage a little; the intentional chaos is somewhat unnerving to my perfectionist nature and definitely not so easy to replicate. Still, I think I got just enough of an influence in there to get something different to my normal work. MT

This set was shot with an Olympus OM-D, ZD 12/2, 45/1.8 and Sony RX100. As usual, click on any image to go to its Flickr landing page; EXIF data is intact on the right hand side link.

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Shadow of a head

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Look before you leap

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Untitled

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Diagonal

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Trapped

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Meditation nap

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Lines I

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Lines II

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Overpackaged

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Ginza reflections

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Confidence

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Bad boy I

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Bad boy II

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Just another afternoon in Shibuya

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Photoessay: A slice of green in Tokyo

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During my last trip to Tokyo – the workshop and the couple of spare days I had – one of the things I’d always wanted to do is find a bit of urban oasis in the concrete jungle of the city. It seems that the Japanese apply the same sort of perfection to their landscaping as they do to just about everything else – even though it seems at times that some parts of the composition may be chaotic, it’s probably intentional. On a more practical note, the gardens were used to provide easy perspective practice for that portion of the workshop. We visited Koishikawa garden near Iidabashi station – a little mini-enclave with several distinctively different areas to provide some variety.

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Personally, I was just happy to enjoy the flawless green grass of the Imperial Palace East Garden – open to the public, and supposedly with regular lunchtime concerts (though I was there at the appointed place and time, I guess it must have been the wrong day). One of the photographic ideas I continued to explore here (and you may have seen some evidence of this in my past work already) was layering and the use of projected surrealism – spot the Monet-a-like, and homages to Chinese painting in the fish. Though I like this for my personal work, I’ve yet to see any commercial potential here…

Thoughts and comments welcome as always; you can click the images to view larger versions via the flickr landing page, plus EXIF data if you click on the right column (‘The photo taken with an XXX’).

This series shot with an Olympus OM-D, 12/2 and Sony RX100.

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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

Macro shootout on Micro Four Thirds: four lenses, one winner

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Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s review of the new Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 Macro; aimed at answering two questions: what is the best macro lens for Micro Four Thirds, and just how much better are the system-specific lens designs? Firstly, a bit of background logic. I’ve selected lenses around the same focal length range – 50mm+/- – in mounts that can easily be adapted to fit M4/3; this pretty much means native lenses and Nikon; Canon and Sony do not have mechanical aperture control, and thus no way of stopping down; besides, Zeiss makes the same lens in multiple mounts. I haven’t used conventional lenses with extension tubes* as these are not real macro lenses; their optics have not been designed with optimization for close range performance in mind. Exotic optics and things that aren’t easily available such as the Coastal Optics 60/4 APO-UV-VIS-IR were also excluded for obvious reasons.

*With one exception, explained later

This left us with four practical contenders: the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit (PL45), the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, the Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and of course the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro (ZD60). Some are going to cry foul at not having the older Zuiko Digital 50/2 Macro present, but there’s a good reason for that – I didn’t have one handy, and the newer lens has a much higher MTF. Basically, we have here the best short focal length macros available for the respective systems – I might have missed one, but the test would be meaningless unless repeated with all lenses at the same time.

These tests would be useless without consistent methodology – so a quick note on that is necessary to provide some background context to the tests. The camera used was an Olympus OM-D, the highest resolution camera available for Micro Four Thirds, and with a pixel pitch equivalent to a 64MP full-frame sensor; this was shot RAW, converted in ACR with identical settings and zero sharpening. I used a Manfrotto 468MGRCO Hydrostat head and Gitzo GT 5562 GTS legs with no center column; this combination is rock-solid and rated to far higher loads than I can even physically carry. To completely rule out camera shake, the test subjects were illuminated with flash – in this case, a pair of Olympus FL-600Rs, triggered wirelessly using the supplied flash for the OM-D. The lens was defocused serveral times for each shot and the best image selected.

Focusing was performed with either AF and checked with 10x live view, or manually with 10x live view, at the intended point of comparison. A G-compatible adaptor was used to mount the Nikon and Zeiss lenses; the aperture on the 60mm was set to the same approximate size (as viewed from the front, object side) as the Zeiss when stopped down. The magnification of each scene was matched between the different lenses by moving the tripod.

The test scenes were artificial constructs to investigate specific properties: resolution at center, border and corner wide open; bokeh, longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberrations and distortion. The lenses were tested in the range they would be typically used – moderately close distances down to the 1:1-1:2 magnification range. All use floating elements, and infinity performance is excellent across the board – it isn’t difficult to design a normal lens that performs well at infinity.

With regards to the commentary, please go off what I say and not what you see: even though these are low-compression jpegs of screen shots of 100% crops, there will inevitably be some differences in color and resolution compared to the actual files which I’ve viewed on a calibrated monitor, at full resolution. Clicking on the ‘full resolution’ links takes you to the original screen shot file.

1. Center resolution at mid distance, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison center mid distance
Click here for the full resolution 100% screen crop.

Wide open, the ZD60 has both the best resolution and microcontrast here, taking the crown from the PL45 by a hair; there seems to be just a tiny bit of CA or bleed on the edge of the lettering of the PL45 that’s robbing the lens of crispness. You can also see that the lens doesn’t seem to be resolving on as fine a level as the ZD60  – note the fiber in the right hand center edge black portion. Neither the Nikon nor the Zeiss are anywhere near in the running here; both have internal veiling flare that clearly lower contrast and resolution, especially in the texture of the label. The Zeiss is a bit better than the Nikon, but then again it should be; it’s the only lens in this group that’s been stopped down by a stop. The legacy lenses are a little disappointing but not entirely surprising; even on the larger pixel pitch D800E they require some stopping down to reach optimum resolution.

2. Bokeh and longitudinal CA, f2.8

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Full resolution. From the previous frame. A set of keys was lit directly with another flash to provide a bright, contrasty and reflective background subject.

Bokeh is pretty good in all of these, but not perfect in any of them. If I had to choose one, I’d say my vote is betweens the Nikon and the Olympus; the Nikon appears the smoothest of the bunch, but also suffers from significant longitudinal chromatic aberration. The Olympus has almost no longitudinal CA, but it does have some texture in the OOF highlight area, as well as a bright edge to the same area. The PL45 is clearly the worst of the bunch, with uneven highlights, bright edges, and longitudinal CA to top things off; it seems that it might also be prone to double imaging with certain out of focus subjects. The Zeiss falls somewhere in the middle for smoothness, but has the worst longitudinal CA. Remember that the relative merits of bokeh are very subjective – what might be to my taste may not be to yours. CA, however, is CA, and can require significant postprocessing work to fix if present in the OOF areas.

3. Corner resolution at approx. 1:3 magnification, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison corner
Full resolution

As with the initial center crop, it’s a very close race between the PL45 and the ZD60; both appear to have contrast, but the ZD60 has slightly higher resolving power and microcontrast. I see a small amount of CA on the PL45 image too; the top edge of the white line has a slight green fringe. The Nikon lags behind both for resolution, and has some visible CA; note the top edge of the white line. The Zeiss is the worst here – there’s visible CA, a tiny bit of coma, low contrast, some flare, and markedly lower resolution than the others. It also has the warmest rendition of the lot (WB was manually set to the same Kelvin temperature for all images).

4. Center resolution at 1:2 magnification, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison center 1-2mag
Full resolution

Things haven’t changed much in the center and at closer distances; the two legacy lenses are closer in resolving power to the native M4/3 lenses, but both still lack microcontrast. In overall resolution, there’s little to choose between the Nikon and Zeiss, the PL45 is only a bit better. It’s actually surprising how much crisper the ZD60 appears here.

5. Border resolution at 1:1.2 magnification and distortion, f5.6

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Full frame; a 20mm extension tube was required for the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 MP to achieve this magnification as it’s normally limited to 1:2.

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Full resolution

A more practical application – for me, at any rate. None of the lenses had any noticeably distortion, so I didn’t bother to include full crops from them. For all intents and purposes, it’s a non-issue. The focus point of this image was the center pinion of the second hand of the watch (the round thing), not the 60 text. Note that the hand is very dark blue, and the left-edge blue highlight is the color of the hand. The color fringing visible on the high contrast edge of the steel pinion itself, on the other hand, is chromatic aberration. On stopping down a little, the Zeiss has caught up with the PL45 and ZD60 in both resolution and microcontrast; there’s very, very little to choose between the three. The PL45 appears to have the most contrast overall, followed by the Zeiss; the ZD60 still seems to be resolving slightly more than the other two (note micro-machining marks in the highlights of the silver guilloche pattern) but with lower contrast; perhaps its coatings cannot deal with the reflections from the silvered pattern as well as the Zeiss T* or Leica coatings. The Nikon is clearly struggling to deliver the same macro- and microcontrast, though resolution appears to be only a hair behind the other three. I think the PL45 looks the best here, with the Zeiss and Olympus tied for second, but it is very, very close indeed.

Conclusions

Given that you’ll have to shoot all of these lenses at relatively large apertures (for a macro lens) to avoid diffraction, wide open performance and close to it are both very important. Although both the Zeiss and Nikon are relatively modern designs, it’s clear that the legacy mount lenses simply don’t do as well as the dedicated designs, which isn’t surprising. As a practical option, although image quality is more than acceptable – we are very much into the realm of pixel peeping here – the dedicated M4/3 lenses are simply much easier to use thanks to autofocus; it’s nearly impossible to nail critical manual focus wide open and handheld, though quite doable on a tripod. If resolution is your priority, then your choice should be either the ZD60 or PL45; however, if it’s bokeh, you might want to think about an adaptor. Bottom line: if you have these lenses around, and work in a controlled environment, you could quite happily make do with an adaptor.

All of these lenses are capable of producing stellar images technically; the artistic content is of course very much down to the photographer. I don’t think it’s difficult to pick a winner here; although the PL45 and ZD60 are both excellent lenses, the ZD60 simply has far fewer optical shortcomings than the PL45, and a transparency about it that makes it look as though the other lenses have a veil or film or something pulled over them. I own all of these lenses, and have extensive experience with them. The Nikon has been my mainstay lens for watch photography since its release several years ago; the Zeiss I use for food, and the PL45 has increasingly been my lens for both product and food shoots because of the extended depth of field available with an 45mm real focal length and the M4/3 system. I’ve generally avoided shooting wide open with the Nikon and Zeiss at close distances, though. However, this test (and the preceding review of the Olympus ZD60) is seriously making me reconsider the position of the former two lenses; the Olympus is so much better on M4/3 than the other two even on the Nikons, let alone adapted to M4/3.

I think you don’t need me to tell which lens is the clear winner here…MT

The various lenses tested are available here from Amazon: Olympus ZD 60/2.8 Macro, Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, 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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Review: The Olympus ZD 60mm f2.8 Macro and FL-600R wireless flash system

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Although ‘development announced’ (i.e. officially leaked) several months ago together with the 75/1.8, Olympus’ newest macro lens – the M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 (hereafter known as the ZD60) was formerly announced at Photokina 2012, and should be available sometime in October 2012 at a price of around RM2,000. It’s also only the second macro lens available natively with a Micro Four Thirds mount (and autofocus), the other one being the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, which I reviewed earlier here. Being an OM-D shooter, and heavily product-photography oriented, I was invited by Olympus Malaysia to review the ZD60 together with the new PEN Lite E-PL5 (review coming in the next week or so). The macro work I do almost always involves flash, so I had them loan me a set of their most recent flashes – the FL-600R. This review will therefore be approached from the point of view I’m most familiar with: photographing watches with speedlights, in a pretty much identical manner to how I do it with my main Nikon system. There will be comparative notes throughout, and no pictures of flowers, cats, eyes, coins, trinkets or other typical macro subjects. Let us begin.

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All images in this review were shot with an Olympus OM-D and FL-600R wireless flashes; the images are all from the ZD60, except the images of the ZD60, which were shot with the PL 45/2.8.

Let’s talk about the lens first: it offers 1:1 reproduction ratio at a minimum distance of 19cm from the sensor plane, which translates into a healthy 7-8cm of working distance at maximum magnification. This is great news for people who want tight frame coverage; by comparison, if I try to get the same subject coverage (i.e. 2:1 on full frame) with my D800E and Nikon 60 macro, I’m down to around 4 of working distance, which makes even lighting control much more difficult. The optical design has 13 elements in 10 groups, with one ED element, two HR elements and one E-HR element (I presume these are different types of optical glass).

Optical design and MTF chart. From Olympus Malaysia

Three of the groups float and perform focusing functions. This is not a simple optical design! There are traces of a double-Gauss base design in there, but it looks as though heavy modifications and extra elements were added to optimize resolution and close range performance. By comparison, the excellent Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro – which has been my mainstay lens up til now – has one less element and one less group.

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Size-wise, it’s similar to the 12-50 kit lens for the OM-D; build quality is definitely better, but still plastic and nowhere near as nice as the 12/2 and 75/1.8 lenses. The plastic used is matte, feels reasonably robust, but curiously has visible moulding lines in several places – I’ve not noticed this on any of the polycarbonate-shelled Nikon or Canon lenses before, but it may be because those tend to have a spatter-finish paint that hides the seams better. It’s also weather sealed, with ‘SPLASH PROOF’ in big letters on the bottom of the lens barrel. The lens is made in China.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300.

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100% crop of the above.

Two small points of interest on the ergonomics of the lens itself – firstly, although the (optional, shame on you, Olympus) hood is a bayonet fit, it telescopes in and out; neat, but I found it annoying after a while as if you support the lens by the hood and put too much pressure on it, the hood will easily shift or start to collapse back in. Second is the little rotary knob to control the focus range, accompanied by a pointer scale showing the subject distance and corresponding magnification level. The switch has several settings – full range, 0.4m to infinity, 0.19m to 0.4m, and a sprung detent to take the lens to 1:1. It sounds clunky but is actually very practical in use – selecting the right range keeps focusing fast and positive, and the 1:1 position is very helpful in traversing the focusing range when you don’t have a full-time mechanically coupled focusing ring. Overall, ergonomics are excellent.

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100% crop of the above.

Once in a while, (though increasingly frequently with today’s computer-designed optics) you come across a lens that is truly outstanding – the last two that come to mind were the Olympus ZD 75/1.8 and Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. I’ve used a number of competent, but imperfect, lenses in the meantime, none of which were that memorable for their optics. Fortunately, the ZD60 is another one of those lenses that falls into the ‘truly outstanding’ category – I’ve tried hard under many varied test conditions to find fault with the optics, and come up with an extremely short list. If you want the short answer, you can skip the next few paragraphs: this lens offers excellent optical performance at every aperture and focus distance.

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The lens has an even more impressive MTF chart than its highly-regarded predecessor, the ZD 50/2 macro for Four Thirds; granted, both designs only have to cover the small Four Thirds frame, and they used a lot of elements to do it, but still: it clearly outresolves the OM-D’s sensor, even wide open. On my copy, I simply didn’t see any improvement in stopping down – you get increased depth of field, and sharpness stays constant (i.e. outstanding) at every part of the frame. There’s diffraction beyond f8, and that’s about it. The plane of focus is also flat, as far as I can make out, and there’s almost zero distortion present. Let’s just say that the ZD60’s resolving power is not going to be the reason for any soft images. Like most of the extremely sharp lenses, the ZD60 also has very high microcontrast – these characteristics are related because high resolving power is required to differentiate between subtle tonal differences in the subject. In fact, it’s amongst the best lenses I’ve ever seen; deserving of the superlative classification (for lenses, at any rate) – of transparent.

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For reference, the screws on the right are about 1.5mm across.

Although overall resolution would support a much higher-density sensor, it wouldn’t be practical in use: on the OM-D’s 16MP sensor, you already have minor diffraction from f8, and visible diffraction at f11 and up (even though the lens can stop down to f22, I really wouldn’t recommend it; you might as well use a pinhole at that point). I suppose it would have been nice if it had tilt control too, but I think given the target market for Micro Four Thirds, that option might be a long time coming. I believe Novoflex has a T/S bellows system, which might be worthy of investigation at some point in the future.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude.

As for the other optical qualities of the lens – bokeh, chromatic aberration, color rendition and transmission – there are very few flaws. The only one I could find was some slight texture in the bokeh, and even then only in a couple of frames with circular out of focus highlights at a certain brightness level – one of the signatures of a moulded hybrid aspherical element somewhere in the construction. To keep things in perspective, even the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro exhibits this trait, and more obviously. Aside from that, bokeh is smooth and pleasant, with very minimal bright edges on defocused highlights. Chromatic aberration was nonexistent laterally, and more commendably, almost completely absent longitudinally, too, even wide open. I have not seen this level of CA performance in any macro lens I’ve used to date, even the Leica 120/2.5 APO-Summarit-S. Color rendition is neutral and pleasingly saturated, and taken in tandem actually quite reminiscent of the Zeiss lenses. Olympus uses their new ZERO coating on the lens, which keeps transmission high – I would estimate the lens to be around T3.0.

The ZD60 uses Olympus’ MSC system, which has the elements moving linearly on a rail; it’s not as fast as the 12/2 or 45/1.8, but with the limiter in the 0.4m-infinity position, it’s similar in speed to the 75/1.8, and definitely faster than the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8.

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FL-600R compared to the Nikon SB900. One would fit in your pocket; pocket the other and you’d probably be arrested on a public indecency charge.

Next up, we have the FL-600R flash; it has a guide number of 50m at ISO 200, or 36m at ISO 100, running off four AA batteries, with a wide panel and zoom head covering from 16 to 85mm. Full-power cycle time is claimed to be 2.0s with NiMH batteries; it didn’t feel any slower than my Nikon SB900s or SB700s, which I find to be pretty fast. In addition to the usual TTL and manual modes, the flash can also act as both wireless commander and slave using Olympus RC system. It’s also got a bright single LED in the base portion – ostensibly for video use, but I actually found it to be a useful modelling light for macro work, making focusing and composition quite a bit easier. If only it was in the head itself and even brighter…

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In use, the flashes are fairly simple to operate, though the very low number of external controls means that a lot of button presses are required, and you have to remember what does what – I much prefer the softkey and physical switches approach of the SB900 and SB700. That said, the units are physically much smaller than even the SB700 and SB600, and positively dwarfed by the SB900 – this leaves very little real estate on the back for the LCD and controls.

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Overall, I found TTL flash exposure to be mostly good; wireless TTL on the other hand, was a bit hit and miss. There were certain situations – specifically when one flash was firing at the background, and the other at the subject – where the subject exposure was a bit inconsistent. Not much of an issue, I just dialled in manual power. The limited external controls and display space also mean that adjusting settings for remote flashes with the FL-600R as master isn’t so easy, and requires far more button presses than I would like. Fortunately, even with the FL-600R on the hotshoe, the camera itself can be used to set the remotes; the hot shoe contacts then transmit the data to the flash. Coupled with the OM-D’s touchscreen, it’s a fast and easy experience – in this respect, better than the Nikon system. And you can control all three groups of flashes from the camera, regardless of which flash is attached to the hotshoe – which is one more than the Nikon system. There are also three available channels so other users’ flashes aren’t triggered by yours and vice-versa if there are a few of you. I can see this being useful if you shoot Nikon or Canon, but to be honest, I’ve never encountered an Olympus flash shooter…

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The only major issue I have with the wireless flash system is triggering – the sensor on the flash unit itself seems to be very small, aimed forwards and somewhat recessed – this makes no sense whatsoever, seeing as the flash is likely to be facing the subject, which means that the sensor will be away from the camera. Even the Nikons – with side and front mounted sensors – still have problems picking up the optical trigger signal at times. With the FL-600Rs in orientations where the sensor wasn’t almost facing the camera directly, triggering was somewhat hit and miss, especially with the small flash supplied with the OM-D. Use of one of the FL-600R units as a master improved this somewhat, but camera companies really need to start making flashes with multiple optical sensors, or better yet, built in radio triggers for both camera and flash. I know some of you might suggest external radio triggers, but has anybody tried looking for a TTL PocketWizard for Olympus lately? It just doesn’t exist.

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To date, when using the OM-D for macro work, I’ve either been using my large LED panels (and hence continuous lighting) or the SU-4 optical slave mode on my SB900s and the supplied small flash set to 1/64 power, which works well, but lacks the convenience of being able to set the power output from the flashes either via TTL metering or directly from the camera, let alone both. This can be inconvenient at the best of times – worse still if your flashes aren’t easily accessible. I’ve wanted to try the Olympus wireless flashes for some time now; my thoughts are that so long as you can spare one unit to use as a master trigger, they’re a viable alternative to the Nikon system; the problem is that I’d have to buy another five flashes to get the same flexibility as I have now, which seems somewhat silly.

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That said, the Olympus system – and Micro Four Thirds – for macro work has a lot going for it; firstly, a truly outstanding lens which is almost completely CA-free; flashes that aren’t that expensive, and very, very small – like the rest of the system. I could fit an equivalent system to what I use now in a bag half the size. Although on the face of things, the Nikon system has a huge resolution advantage – you lose something in diffraction (despite the D800E not having an AA filter), and the OM-D files are clean enough to upsize well to 25MP or so. The difference is much less than you might think. I think I’d have a very difficult time deciding what to buy if I was starting over again with the same objectives. As it is, I won’t be returning the ZD60 to Olympus; it’s unquestionably earned a place in my arsenal, edging out the 45/2.8 (it’s also nice that I no longer have a focal length overlap with the faster 45/1.8). As far as I’m concerned, this is the new reference lens for Micro Four Thirds. It’s that good. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

The FL600R flash is also available here from B&H and Amazon.

Come back again tomorrow for part two: a four way shootout between the M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 macro, Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar and Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro!

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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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Parting shot – another 100% crop.

Review: The Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit for Micro Four Thirds

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One of the earliest lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system, the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit (hereafter known as just the 45 for the rest of the article) is also perhaps one of the most underrated. It acquired a reputation of being a slow focuser; that might have been as much due to the bodies available at the time as the lens mechanics. (The lens actually has a range limiter switch).

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Square hoods are a very typically Leica thing – just look at the S lenses. Oddly, the hood for the 25/1.4 is much deeper than this one.

Something I’ve always wondered was whether this was a Panasonic design, a Leica design, or a mix of both. Turns out that the answer is that the optics are designed by Leica in Germany; they’re assembled at Panasonic’s factories in Japan, and QC’d by a Leica rep who’s based there. Regardless, the optics are pretty darn superb. The lens is very useable even wide open at f2.8; unsurprisingly, for a macro lens, every focus distance is sharp. Performance is slightly worse in the corners than the center, but even this slight degree of blurring is removed by stopping down to f4 or smaller.

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The midsize lens balances well on the Olympus OM-D.

Don’t go any smaller than f11 though, because after this point there is clear diffraction softening visible on the OM-D’s sensor; fortunately due to the short real focal length, you’re unlikely to need to do so even if you require extended depth of field. f2.8-f8 is a good practical working range.

I’m pleased to report that the lens is also very low in chromatic aberrations of any kind; lateral CA is almost completely absent, and longitudinal CA (spherochromatism or ‘bokeh fringing’) is mild, and completely gone by f5.6. This suggests that the lens’ design is almost entirely tele centric, and definitely optimized for the M4/3 mount as we don’t see any evidence of purple fringing.

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Study of a pepper, 1. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

Bokeh is a slightly different story. Whilst bokeh is superbly smooth and uniform with no ghosting or double images if you have enough distance between subject and out of focus area, there is a very odd transition zone immediately on either side of the focal plane that is both slightly nervous and displays bright edges on highlights. It’s worse at larger apertures and complex/ busy subjects. If you stop down to f5.6 or so, this property goes away.

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Hublot Big Bang Ferrari Chronograph Magic Gold. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

Outside of macro work, in truth, a 45/2.8 as a multipurpose lens just isn’t that exciting because it’s a bit in no mans’ land. You have the equivalent FOV of 90mm, but none of the bokeh separation; it isn’t a sufficiently compressed perspective to be exciting or let you do something compositionally different with all-in-focus telephoto shots. In fact, it feels more like shooting with a 60-75mm lens in that regard. Yet you can’t be lazy with your shooting discipline, because it really needs about 1/100s for a consistently sharp image – providing you’ve got either one of the stabilizers off.

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Maitres du Temps Chapter Two Tonneau. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

As with all of the Panasonic lenses on Olympus bodies, you have a choice of which stabilization system to use – either the moving-lens based system, controlled by a switch on the side of the lens, or the sensor-shift type built into the body. I did quite a lot of testing comparing the two systems – unfortunately there’s no real quantifiable way of doing this – and didn’t see any significant benefit of one over the other. As with all IS systems, you need to turn it off if the shutter speed is high enough otherwise you will actually land up with double images. The threshold is probably around 1/500s. I think this is because it can’t react fast enough to the high-frequency vibration caused by the shutter, but I’m sure there are others far more knowledgeable on this subject.

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Doctor Zoidberg. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

There’s a second switch on the side of the barrel, and that’s to control the focus limiter. Like all M 4/3 lenses, manual focus is entirely fly-by-wire; I personally don’t like these systems because they don’t give you enough tactile feedback and lack hard infinity or near limit stops. Although I prefer to use manual focus when shooting close focus so I can set my magnification before focusing, this is one of the few lenses where I have no choice but to rely on autofocus.

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Street scene in Geneva. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

It will hunt a bit if you have the lens set to full range and aren’t focusing on a close subject; but for the most part, focusing is actually pretty swift if only small changes in focus distance are required. Switching on the limiter – near focus of 45cm – makes things much faster. (The full limit is 25cm, which gives 1:1 magnification and about 10cm or so of working distance from the front of the lens). I haven’t actually tried it on the E-PM1, but I don’t expect focusing performance to be much worse.

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Hublot Ultra Thin. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro, ambient light on location.

The 45 works much better as a dedicated macro lens, and will serve handily as a portrait lens in a pinch; however, my general purpose pick would be the Olympus 45/1.8. Image quality is superb; there’s a biting sharpness and fine microcontrast structure you’d expect from a lens with this price tag and implied heritage. It definitely renders in a very different way to the Olympus 45/1.8; I suppose the best way to describe it would be tight and controlled.

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Geometry. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

It’s a midsize (for M 4/3, but about the same size as a 50/1.8 for any SLR mount) lens which balances well on an OM-D, with or without the optional grip. Sadly, the only metal parts in this lens appear to be the lens mount and screws; whilst the plastics are of high quality and the build quality and tolerances are tight, it just doesn’t have the feel of a precision instrument in the same way that say the Leica M or Zeiss ZF lenses do.

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Study of a pepper, 2. The full size shot shows some nervousness of bokeh around the focus transition zone near the stem. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

I would personally prefer a bit more control over my depth of field in a macro lens. Having said that, the extended depth of field offered here can be useful for certain applications where you need to get a large amount of the subject in focus. Perhaps the forthcoming Olympus 60/2.8 macro will better suit my requirements. However, it does offer some advantages over my normal setup – at maximum magnification, it covers a 17x13mm frame, against 36x24mm for full frame, and without the need for any extension tubes and the accompanying degradation in quality*. I can also see some uses for it for macro video, though the fly-by-wire focus ring may prove to be a bit of a problem.

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Grilled wagyu done right. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

*Extension tubes add another set of mount interfaces into the optical system; any slight deviations in planarity, or looseness, or give, will result in the optics being slightly off-axis. This is visible as softening, coma or astigmatism.

For now, though, the Panasonic Leica 45 retains a place in my bag, especially for use as part of my backup system on watch shoots. Don’t let the plastic exterior fool you: optically, this is a serious lens, and in the grand scheme of things it actually represents fairly good value for money despite being one of the more expensive lenses in the M 4/3 system. MT

The Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 is available 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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Hublot Diver’s Chronograph. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

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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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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Olympus OM-D lockup problems

I’ve found a particular combination of button presses that makes my OM-D lock up – admittedly it’s probably one that only I use, but I thought people should be aware so they can avoid it:

1. I’ve got my camera set to Continuous-L, 4fps, RAW.
2. Play back a file
3. Press the Fn1 button to zoom to 10x, keep pressing to zoom out again to the screen that shows the zoom slider and thumbnail toggle (i.e. keep pressing the button)
4. At that screen, press the Fn2 button to protect the file
5. You’ll now find the camera has locked up and requires a battery removal.
6. The file will still be there, though.

So there you have it. Unfortunately it happens to follow the way I work (zoom in to check focus, zoom out, protect file) – same thing I do with my Nikons – just that here it seems to trigger some sort of firmware panic, which requires a battery removal to resolve. MT

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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POTD: Watery blessings

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Water blessings. Another one from Wesak Day; look out for a full photoessay soon. Olympus OM-D, 12/2

I’m working on an exclusive which will all be revealed tomorrow at 12PM GMT+8, as soon as the embargo is lifted…stay tuned. MT