Local Walks

I wrote quite a post here, but accidentally wrote over it. Well, I saved it, then began another one with a different title as I didn’t think it ready for publishing and it looks like that was interpreted by the WordPress software as ‘overwriting’ it. Not too sure I am good at using that quick post tool after all! One of the reasons I started this blog, even more than  various other, often half-hearted web projects, was to find my own voice. I assume everyone has their own, unique voice as after all, whilst it may be convenient to see people statistically, we are individuals. I am actually from a family with not 3.25 people, living in an apartment with 2.5 rooms. Well, I’m not the 0.25 if that’s what you’re thinking, sleeping in 0.5 of a room, anyway (though some might beg to differ)!

Anyone who knows me will know that as well as loving to take photos, I take many of them (probably too many) and in fact do so almost every day. Digital has allowed me to be prolific in a way film would never have permitted and as cameras get faster and easier to use and get good results from, the temptation is to take even more! Of course, what’s more important is quality over quantity, so such a machine-gunning approach has severe limitations, which might only be apparent after the fact, when you see a friend’s collection from the day and envy their 15 good ones as opposed to your 800 mediocre ones, but that’s the way it goes. In some cases, it does help, for example getting the composition or focus just right, or being free to experiment with angles. I’m not sure it’s really better than a slow and meditative style, with less shutter-clicks and more looking, though. Large, ‘endless’ memory cards are as much curse as blessing in this sense.

I often head out for a walk in my local area, a ‘walkabout’ in the hours of best sunlight. Best sunlight for photography, that is, which means the early morning, though this can be as late as 7:30 in winter, or around and including the ‘golden hour’ before sunset, when that luminous golden aura surrounds everything from the setting sun. I truly enjoy these walks and the bonus is that not going to far means I can get back and do other things at home more easily. Once I start messing with trains, a necessity for a lot of interesting places to be sure, the whole thing takes up much of the day. So what do I photograph? There is a beautiful shrine near me, called ‘Suwa Jinja’ that is a favourite place. The shadows and streams of light between trees are evocative. The only thing is, it’s pretty small and being a shrine has hardly any flowers and the trees don’t change much outside of Autumn. Another favourite is a small stretch of water, connected to a larger river, where reeds have been planted and small fish and turtles swim. Yet what I go there for, despite it’s (hideously) concreted-over banks, a seeming favourite reducer of unemployment figures here in Japan, are the migrating wild birds that cluster there. Alongside ducks are cormorants, blue or white herons and egrets. I try to catch them in beautiful take-off, which necessitates a fast camera, either that or zoom in very far on their faces with my ultrazoom.

Then there is the area I jokingly call ‘beautiful countryside’. It has some nice paths, rice fields, old farmhouses and some small half-forgotten shrines here and there. Some of the local farmers are very friendly, offering me a drink and none has really been hostile, though I don’t like hearing the yappy, barking dogs much. Wild birds are to be found here and there and depending on the month, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, various insects and at times even snow, though that is only once or twice a year. These local walks are something I truly enjoy, getting lost in the mystery of my surroundings. Each time I can find some new minutiae of detail to obsess over and sometimes whole new places. It’s a kind of adventure for me, a smaller scale camera trip with the advantage of no time limit and knowledge that I can always come back and photograph later.

So what gear do I use? Currently, pretty much all of my collection. These expeditions are also a good way to find out more about them and realise which ones I enjoy using most and why. I suppose ultimately, I’m learning more about myself this way.

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More on Mirrorless

Like a lot of people, during many years of DSLR use, I’d been wanting for some time a lighter, alternative and I decided a few months ago to follow my heart on this and give M4/3 a try. Thanks to some superb pricing, I found myself with an Olympus EPL-2 with the twin zoom kit, something I’d had my eye on for some time, but already having an extensive Nikon system, had been loath to start investing in another one. Yet realising that without too much outlay I could have a pretty comprehensive kit that is very little trouble to carry around and a real pleasure to use, I took the plunge and haven’t really looked back.

Seeing the quality I could get and in many cases superior sharpness and colour, has been quite a revelation. Olympus and Panasonic have given me access to a new family of relatively small, light lenses of incredible quality, with the promise of more to come. Just looking at the results from the 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica, or Olympus’s groundbreaking 75mm f/1.8 or 60mm macro is just astonishing. No, I don’t (yet) have a complete system on it, nor do I need to, as I have the Nikons for that. What I do have is a highly portable, if not quite ‘compact’ sized system, with very good sensors, ergonomics and lenses that are in many ways better than their equivalents on DSLR systems, which may come as a surprise to anyone assuming that bigger must necessarily be better.

Meanwhile, I have kept building my ‘main’ Nikon system and have some of the reasonably priced Nikon primes. They are a lot more fun to use than zooms and are sharp and bright, but no way do they have the character and level of interestingness of my M4/3 ones. There is a reason for this.  Whilst my 35mm and 50mm f/1.8’s are in many ways excellent lenses, with fine sharpness, bokeh and usability, they are offered as Nikon’s ‘second best’ to their larger, f/1.4 cousins. Meanwhile, on M4/3, there is no ‘full frame’ to encourage users to ‘upgrade’ to… To mind almost as ridiculous as asking 35mm film users to go out and get a medium format camera if they want a good lens!

Whilst there are grades of lenses on M4/3, you can get some incredible ones without too much outlay. Thanks to the smaller and ‘designed for digital’ sensors to cover, you can get some really excellent glass especially developed for them, a situation we previously only found with the high-end compacts (though M4/3 sensors are so much larger than such compacts that you have a big advantage). What really showed me the strength of the system was reviewing my images, seeing just what I was able to achieve with them. Thanks to Olympus’s intelligently built-in shake reduction and lenses that don’t really need to be stopped down, I could get away with much lower ISOs, so avoid the disadvantage here. I started to get some really amazing results and being able to use the small cameras more casually is undoubtedly a factor in this. In terms of the lens designers, the format means they can much more easily make small sharp creations, that perform really well indeed.

Here are my lenses and a little comment on what it’s like to use them. These aren’t of course reviews, but in a sense user reports. They an’t objective tests, but my feelings of what it’s like to use them. The reference point is all I really know; my experiences with Nikon’s line, on DX, which has it’s own significant advantages when it comes to dynamic range and depth of field control, not to mention being light years better at higher ISO’s (especially compared to the aging sensor in the EPL-2).

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Life with the Olympus E-PL2

Finally, I got myself some mirrorless action and I have to say, I’m loving it! In many ways this is the camera I’ve been waiting for years and I just came around to realising it did indeed arrive, already. As a DSLR user, I love the image quality and ever-increasing features, but hate the bulk, and in some ways mirrorless cameras this Pen are a salvation from it. Looking at images on the computer screen, I’m seeing a lot of quality there already, some incredible colours and outstanding sharpness, even from the entry-level zooms I got with it. Sooner or later, I’ll be getting After a while I got the Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4 and expect to be was beyond my wildest dreams even more blown away by results from this, the best prime lens I’ve yet to use.

In terms of high-ISO, dynamic range or resolution, the results from the 12mp sensor are not really up to the standards of my Nikon D5100, but perhaps up there with earlier cameras, I’m not quite sure. I generally cap it at ISO 800, which is not even as good as the D5100’s 3200, but still the advantages are astounding. With full-time live view, I can see the results of exposure, picture styles or the special Olympus Art filters right up before I press the shutter button. Let me tell you, that in itself is a revelation. I remember the film days when you’d stop down the lens with a button to have a DOF preview, which was actually a pretty big deal them and you’d generally want a camera that could do this. This is the same thing, just 1000x more effective. You can be way more creative than ever before in this way, AS you take the picture, not at a PC afterwards, or to a lesser extent, checking the results afterwards. That whole, ‘take the picture now and get it ready afterwards’ takes away a lot of the thrill and pleasure of experimenting with photography, creating images that have never, ever been taken exactly that way before. This camera and the system it is a part of helps restore the excitement, at least for me.

The camera is small and light, the lenses too, being almost weightless, even the (slightly long by comparison), 80-300mm equivalent zoom (80-150mm). Putting IS in the camera was a remarkably prescient choice, allowing for such small, light lenses, and for absolutely every lens used to be stabilised, which is especially wonderful for immaculate primes. I just love it and find it very effective and the beauty is newer iterations will be even better, on the same exact lenses. I found I could  discretely take photos of people and things and dogs, for that matter, without any intimidation and with fast, accurate and face detecting autofocus (yes, even on the dogs). Seeing as I am getting this as a kind of replacement or grade to a high-end compact, this is a revelation and of course newer models will have even better AF and perhaps even phase-detect, as Nikon incorporates.

Did I say it already, but I love the colours! So vivid and natural and pleasing, perhaps the nicest I’ve yet seen from a digital camera, except perhaps my trusty old F30 largish-sensor compact by Fujifilm, that captured some very pleasing colours as well. I like my vivid Nikon colours, too, but they don’t quite ‘sing to me’ in the same way and certainly the skin tines don’t seem quite as good. I generally use them in Raw and fiddle around (less and less though these days, as the quality is outstanding there, too) but at least at lower ISOs, I’d happily use this camera in Jpeg. Fast, quick,responsive and a picture that’s ready to see straight from the camera.

The Art filters seem to me more usable and pleasing than I have on my Panasonic LX5 and are certainly more interesting than anything I’ve seen in another camera. Even ‘Pop Art’ looks good to me, though I’ve been playing around with the dramatic tone and grainy black and white options more, the later giving a super-contrasty look that suited a lot of images and the former, yes, you guessed it, an element of drama. I’ll put a few examples up here to see what I mean. Of course, all this is nothing you couldn’t do in a way at least on a computer afterwards, but where’s the fun in that, at least with a compact-sized camera suited for quick sharing. I like living now and shooting now and this helps me to do that. Of course, if you are anal like me, you can do the ‘Raw + Jpeg’ trick and have a regular photo too, at a cost in file-size and probably I’ll end up doing that sometimes at least.

I also love the built-in flash, which you can actually angle upwards and bounce. How intelligent is that?! A flash that’s always on the camera and can be bounced all the time. Sure, it’s not as powerful as an extra one, but it will be enough in many cases. Along with the built-in stabilisation, this really feels like a camera from the future and makes others that appear to have a built-in pressure to buy more accessories rather than the feature itself seem antiquated. I know, though, that lens based stabilisation and larger flashes are a lot more capable, especially for power users, but since there is nothing to stop them from being added if need be, it is a simple act of genius to include them in the camera body.

So, I am finding mirrorless even more enjoyable to use than I thought, much more so than any compact. Though I am now a member of the M4/3 club, it has opened my eyes up more to the advantages of such systems generally. The Nikon 1 system has a smaller sensor, but much faster and more flexible AF (very important, this, as MF will be hard on these small cameras) and even smaller lenses, the disadvantages of course being less ability to control the DOF, which for me is essential and the small lens selection right now, especially when it comes to primes. NEX offers much better image quality, but again, a small lens selection and whilst in both these cases you can use more with an adapter, that is hardly ideal and they are going to be massive and ungainly on the camera. Here the Nikon has an advantage, as it will easily AF the larger lenses, up to a point, but with the 2.7x crop, it’s really more for telephoto than regular usage. Anyway, just throwing that in, as other systems are also excellent, carefully designed and worthy of consideration. Who knows, I may get one from theirs too in the future, but for now I’m very happy with this and in fact looking forward to both more lenses and a better, E-M5 style body in the future, especially if I find myself using this more than I anticipated.

One thing is for sure, just a few minutes with a mirrorless camera will convince you that with their quick, easy operation and excellent image quality, this is the way of the future and DSLRs will find themselves in increasing competition from them, after a while finding it hard to survive. I wont be selling my gear and moving camp, though, as I’m very confident that Nikon (and Canon) will make APS-C and eventually full-frame mirrorless models over the next few years and my lenses will be just as relevant on them for decades to come.

A Mirrorless Ocean

In my last post on the topic, I started off reflecting on the sheer variety of mirrorless (or CSC, compact system cameras), and ended up seeing the spirit of playful creativity they bring. Today, I want to get back to the camera themselves. Like many, I continue to be a DSLR user with a compact, or compacts for backup. As my needs changed, I ended up getting more bodies to meet them, not to mention lenses, attachments, batteries and so on, this being life for a photo enthusiast or pro, you simply want the best tool for the job. Now we have a whole new range of possibilities opened up by this growing range of CSCs, which while they can’t yet, in my opinion, replace a DSLR in many areas, in others they may even be better than one, which isn’t something I could say about many compacts, by virtue of being ligher, smaller and much, much more discrite.

Interestingly, despite all being in their own way attractive and exciting they bring a new range of pros and cons, not just in the camera themselves, but as systems. I’ll go into what I see these as being below. By the way, the order is based around their approximate date of introduction, though I do save one for last. I’ll get onto which I like best in the conclusion, which if you’re anything like me you’ll scroll right down to, although I think you’ll be able to guess from the various summaries.

You’ll notice that the features of the camera are generally in the ‘pros’. Why? Well, to do anything else would just end up repeating them, as it’s generally the features that are lacking, or don’t work, that end up being cons. I’ve also tried to focus on balancing usability concerns along with IQ, to my mind (of course!), as unlike the bulky but ergonomically time-tested and proven DSLR’s, these are all about the portability, with IQ arguably coming a close second. Many of these cameras would never survive going toe to toe with a modern DSLR in IQ terms (though a few of them, interestingly enough may even surpass them), but then again, they don’t have to, it being enough they are all far, far better than even a ‘high end’ (1/1.7″ sensor) compact. With each of them I list the system name and crop factor compared to 35mm full-frame. It may be a dated frame of reference in our digital world, but it’s the only commonly-agreed one we have, so it serves a purpose. So here we go, an early 2012 survey of the CSC options of our time…

CSC Systems Today

Olympus Pen EP-3

Probably the nicest CSC of the bunch, but not necessarily the most powerful.

Olympus (Pen, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- The Pens offer a beautiful range of bodies, with retro-styling and built-in shake reduction (uniquely, as other manufacturers limit this to the lens-based stabilisation). As cameras to use, this is very attractive, as unattractive models just aren’t much fun. Being M 4/3, the longest standing CSC system and arguably the inspiration behind the others, there is already a great and growing selection of lenses, far better than any other CSC system. With the Panasonic made, though Leica-designed 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4 and 7-14mm wide-angle, you have some of the best lenses anywhere, certainly for the price. Olympus is catching up too, after initial efforts just to make lenses smaller, ending up with their decent folding zooms, they are now making world-class optics again, just as they did for the original 4/3 system, in the 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8. What is unique about these lenses, aside from their relatively very small size, is their small price. there is just no way you could make lenses of this quality in this price range for a full-frame, or even probably an APS-C camera. Simple reason- a sensor that is easier to design for and much less glass needed to cover it.

The latest bodies have very fast contrast-detect autofocus, which works well in good light and with stationary subjects. Due to the inbuilt IS and styling, they are a favourite for using classic MF lenses with adapters, or perhaps even newer ones as well. Their software also offers excellent jpeg conversion, wonderful menus and creative ‘picture styles’, which along with the fantastically styled bodies, makes for a uniquely attractive photo-taking machine. Throw on a nice, stabilised prime and you could be in photographer’s heaven, especially with the recent EP-3. Very soon, the high-end, weather-sealed EM-5 will be released, along with a ‘new’ 16mp sensor and 5-axis stabilisation, built in viewfinder and weatherproofing., though until it comes out, we won’t know for sure how good it is.

Cons- The current highest end body (EP-3) is pricey, whilst older models, which are still on sale, have much worse AF. It uses an older, probably even 4-year old 12mp sensor, so you have to wonder if you are getting good value for money with it. No inbuilt EVF, just fairly low-resolution LCDs for focusing. There is a good external EVF, but it’s bulky, which seems to defeat the purpose of a small system. Also, the M 4/3 sensor is smaller than APS-C, as found in most DSLRs, making for worse dynamic range, high ISO and making it harder to limit the depth of field. The lack of phase-detect AF means the camera can’t do motion tracking very well, making them a poor choice for sports, crawling babies, even flowers swaying in the wind. If you found yourself missing a lot of shots on your compact due to movement, you may see the same thing happening here.

Another con is that despite being a large and growing system, it still lacks what many pros need- bright 2.8 zooms. Even if it had them, they would need to be at least f/2 to compensate for the smaller sensor, as are Olympus’s M4/3 zooms. They are probably (in f/2.8) coming though, as Panasonic has already shown prototypes at the latest CES show. Due to the laws of physics, they’ll be best balanced on the larger bodies making for a relatively compact system rather than a small one, as cropped-sensor DSLR users have been enjoying over the past decade, only more so.

Summary- Olympus offers the nicest bodies in my opinion, with the design, stabilisation and software. With the right lenses, you could really by in a photographer’s Nirvana. The only things holding me back right now are the lack of phase detect AF, which I suppose could be made up for if they develop an even better contrast detection alternative, and the seriously outdated sensor. The upcoming EM-5 promises a better sensor, though being micro 4/3, it will probably be a tweaked version of the one used in Panasonic’s G3/G1X, which is an improvement, but not nearly as good as it’s APS-C rivals, despite having much smaller lenses to compensate.

Panasonic G1X

Stylish and simple, this camera has everything going for it, but can it’s ‘evolution’ match other maker’s ‘revolutions’?

Panasonic (Various Bodies, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- Along with Olympus, newer models have very fast contrast-detection AF and the growing selection of lenses. The higher-end models have a newer 16mp sensor, that has better high ISO and dynamic range than the former 12mp sensor , which in the case of the rangefinder-styled G1x has made its way into a small body. The larger models have good, built-in EVFs, which gives them a mini-DSLR styling. They have excellent 1080p video, with fast AF, especially in the flagship GH2 model. If you want something smaller. though, with great controls, taken as a set, the G1X and it’s retracting power-zoom offer a great image quality combo in a small and stylish body.

Cons- Lower end models are like plastic Fisher-Price toys, seemingly to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ie a compact user looking to move up slightly). As with Olympus, no phase-detect AF, and the disadvantages of the smallish sensor in this category. Panasonic also has a reputation for poor jpeg output and dull, unnatural colours. After using their compacts, I’d have to agree to an extent. It’s not so much that their colours are always so bad these days… just that other makers do better, especially Olympus, with their incredible colour. Also, no OS in the bodies means it can’t be used with primes or legacy glass, a small point perhaps, but a missed opportunity all the same.

Whilst their primes are excellent and the original 14-45mm OiS zoom is a bit of a legend in its own lifetime, there seems to be a lot of controversy about the newer ‘x’ branded power-zooms. Perhaps as a consequence of their attempted miniaturisation (very effectively, I might add in the case of the diminutive 14-42mm x), I have seen a lot of complaints of the OiS not working and in fact blurring shots just when it is needed and also of the long ends being soft and blurry compared to their predecessors. Leica actually refused to have them branded with their name, as they depend so heavily on digital correction to resolve their various distortions. There also seems to be some variance in reports, as whilst some professional reviews praise them, users are having some really bad experiences and even advising to turn of the stabilisation and forgo using the long ends of the zoom. Seeing as they are quite expensive in their range, I’d personally hold off getting one until the issue is resolved, or else work within the limitations they might have, as having such a small, retractable zoom is very attractive, if it actually works well.

There is also and this is just my opinion (but not only my opinion), the absolutely dreadful interface and overlays Panasonic is plagued with. Much like my LX5, there are a collection of very useful features buried in menus with obscure terms (okay, it’s even worse for me as I need to work out the Japanese interface as Panasonic has yet to figure out how to make their menus bilingual). The overlays take up much of the screen, so you end up switching them off even if they would be useful. Plus their LCD’s are small and low resolution compared to the competition. I really get the feeling that whilst some of the cameras are seriously designed by and for photographers, the same can’t be said for the interface. Panasonic, if you are in any way listening, please rewrite the book here!

Summary- The higher end Panasonics offer a very compelling system, with some remarkable lenses. Yet to get an EVF, you need a bulky body that goes against the spirit of CSCs, giving them an underwhelming impression, despite their capabilities. If the new G1X had one, it would be just perfect, with its full range of controls, 16mp sensor and attractive styling, yet for now you are stuck with it being an accessory and an expensive one at that (without being as good as the Sony model, either). The G1X, like the similarly-styled GF1 before it, remains a very attractive camera, at a good price point, yet one that can’t be seen out of context of the competition it now faces in today’s crowded marketplace. After playing around with it for a bit, it’s a camera i can recommend, but not one I can solely recommend.

Unless you are doing video or can handle a larger body, I think Olympus has the edge… except for their outdated sensors, this is. I can’t say I find Panasonics as enjoyable to use as some other brands, due mainly to their interfaces, which for me prioritise the wrong controls, leaving others buried, but this is a small issue when compared with something like lens choice or image quality.

Overall, as they have done for so many years, Panasonic offers a serious selection, with many models (including some discontinued ones on sale for hefty discounts) offering a very good ‘bang for your buck’. Whether you can live with what often comes across as an electronic maker’s venture into cameras is up to you… I’ve certainly got a lot of good use from my Lumix compacts, whatever their shortcomings and the G1X is a very attractive package. I suppose my general feeling is that most of their cameras are a work in progress and other than the GH-2 they have yet to produce anything that comes across as ‘fully finished’ to me as a NEX 7, EP-3, or V-1. Talking of the NEX7…

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Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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