Photoessay: A study of wave action

Some experiments into how the same subject can be simultaneously not the same. A bit of contemplative photography while on vacation. Or perhaps I just like water and waves for the same reasons I like clouds. Sometimes, we don’t need to think too much about it – just shoot. I need to go on holiday more often; but then again, don’t we all? MT

This series shot with an Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini at Tanjung Jara, on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.

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Photoessay: Seascapes

Inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The South China Sea, off the east coast of Malaysia at Tanjung Jara.

This series shot with an Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini and the 14-42 kit lens.

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POTD: Surreal portraiture

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Floating head. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini and kit lens.

Sometimes, the atmospheric conditions – early morning haze resulting in a vanishing horizon – and perfectly calm seas make for interesting photography; the kind where you don’t mind risking a camera in chest-deep water. MT

Photoessay: Reflections in glass

This building is one of the more interesting in downtown Kuala Lumpur – mainly because of its highly reflective mirrored glass surface that causes its character to change with the light; it blends into its surrounding environment by reflecting it, yet stands out because it doesn’t look anything like the surrounding windowless concrete shopping plazas. Coincidentally, it also contains the offices of Leica Malaysia. MT

Series shot with a Leica M9-P and Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1.

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POTD: Nucleation

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Everything needs a catalyst. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G.

In case you’re wondering what it is you’re looking at, it’s boiling water at moderately high magnification, frozen by off-camera flash. High enough that my knuckles were gently steaming after about ten seconds or so. Experimentation is the source of all art…but yes, you can go too far. I’m pretty sure I got a sizable blister on one of my fingers after this. MT

POTD x3: The kind of sequence that kills cameras, and a quick reminder

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The kind of sequence that kills a camera: or, advancing waves at 14mm. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, 14-42 kit lens.

Let’s just say there was a reason I was using this and not, say, an M9. Also, I was moving out of the way rather quickly!

I’ve been experimenting with sequences/ sets a bit lately; it’s something that I thought might be interesting to build off the contact sheet idea – any not make the contact sheet and thinking process part of the desired end output? But then I suppose it would require us to think about the individual frames in the context of their own contact sheet, which would be rather meta and confusing…or perhaps the right way to approach this would be thinking of the sequence in itself, much like a video clip – except we just capture key frames. I have a sneaky feeling that pursuing this path of development will eventually lead me back into experimenting with cinematography again (which will be the subject of a future article).

A quick reminder: My Singapore reader meet up will happen tonight, at 7pm, outside Ion Orchard near the red floor installation and the ‘bubble’ MRT entrance. You’ll find me because of the M9-P hanging around my neck, and I’ll be wearing a red t-shirt. (For some odd inexplicable reason, this is beginning to feel like a blind internet date. Oh well, at least we know we all have one thing in common!) We’ll wander around from there and find something to eat. Looking forward to meeting you all! 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

The never-ending quest for more magnification

The arrival of some new adaptors gave me an idea. Just how much further could I push the limits of macrophotography before I need to buy a microscope?

Quite far, it seems.

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What you’re looking at in the image above is a mishmash of gear which could mostly be replaced by a single long tube with a mount at either end. From right to left: Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar (I tried the Leica 35 FLE, but there wasn’t enough working distance) mounted on Leica Bellows II, mounted on Visoflex III, mounted on Leica M to Nikon F adaptor, mounted on 72mm of Nikon-fit extension tubes, mounted on Nikon F to M4/3 adaptor, with an Olympus Pen Mini hanging off the end.

The results? See for yourself below. The full frame is slightly less than 2x3mm in most of the photos with the 50mm, and 1.5x2mm with the 35mm. That’s 6:1 or 9:1 on Micro Four Thirds, but more like 12:1 or 18:1 equivalent on FX. I’ve marked on a larger photo of the watch exactly what you’re looking at, for readers intimately familiar with horological architecture. Note that the angle is slightly different in some of the images.

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Does it make sense? No, because we’re clearly a) hitting diffraction limits; b) seeing resolution limits on the lenses used; c) seeing CA, distortions and other artifacts introduced by the sapphire crystal we have to shoot through on the watch and d) very low contrast. And for most watches, there won’t be this level of detail to capture in the first place. Curiously, lighting is actually pretty easy with the 50mm because it has a decent amount of working distance. For all practical purposes, I think 5:1 is pretty much the limit for watch photography. MT

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Balance rim rate/ inertia adjustment screw

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Escape wheel and bearing

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Barrel bearing

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Hairspring and carrier

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Third wheel jewel bearing and bridge end

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Balance stud attachment screw

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Barrel pivot and jewel bearing

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Minute hand tip

POTD: Spot the snowflake

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House near Strakhov Cloister, Prague. Olympus E-PM1, 45/1.8

The title of this shot is a bit of a red herring: yes, there is a snowflake, but no, it isn’t really visible at this size. What drew me to this scene was the balance of color; the simple geometry of house and sky; the texture of the tan wall and the two little details (visible in the full size shot) – the snowflake decorations in the window, and the moon hanging low in the early morning sky. I suspect this would make a great large print, but I haven’t had a chance to find out yet. MT