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.



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.

First Plunge into Mirrorless

I’ve finally taken my first plunge into the great ocean of mirrorless cameras! It’s something of an historic moment for me, as after 15-odd years of using Nikon SLRs, I’m finally buying into another system (not including a host of compacts). After a lot of careful (some would say obsessive) research and window-shopping, I finally clicked the buy button, on an Olympus E-pl2. It’s kind of interesting, as my first cameras were Olymouses, compacts that looked easier to use than an SLR and full of the latest technologies, at least for that time. Today, unusually for a tech-lover like me, I went for something a generation behind in performance for the consistent retro-styling and a sense of being fun to use. I really love the EP-2/ EP-3 styling and the E-pl2 is the most recent scaled down version of this Olympus has made. In fact, I’ve had my eye on this camera ever since it was first announced and the fact that I can now buy it online for a mere ¥42,700 (I know, the price keeps changing), with a two-zoom kit pushed this shopper over the edge. That’s what I’d generally spend on just one DSLR lens, or a high-end compact. I’d really like the EP-3, a truly beautiful and fast camera but it comes at a much higher price and contains a lot of outdated technology when you compare it with the soon to be released EM-5, so any kind of big purchase like that is something I’d do in the future, or perhaps never do, with all my investment in Nikon gear. This way, I get to dip my feet in that great ocean without too much risk of drowning in it.

So with all the choices out there, why did I chose this? One big influence was this blog post by Jonathan Fleming, which shows what wonderful images you can get straight out of this unassuming camera. Another one was the peculiar price oscillation I saw for this on Amazon. Though according to CamelCamel.com the price has been gradually sinking over the past few months, it actually alternates every few days between 42,700 and 51,000 yen, so that’s a pretty decent saving for timing it right. For me, online shopping is a bit like hunting a wild animal, you need just the right amount of planning and cunning if you are to get the killer deal! Of course, there were many other possibilities and still are. Mirrorless certainly offers a lot of variety, but the good thing is that if you stay away from the latest and greatest,  they are generally priced so affordably that you could buy more than one if you really wanted. Still, no-one wants to waste their hard-earned money and I recently made a fairly exhaustive study of the options out there right now, in my post, A Mirrorless Ocean, which is probably too long for anyone to do more than glance at, but if you scroll down to my conclusion, you’ll see what I mean.

Other Options, Other Opinions

Small but massively heavy, more the first of the robo-cameras than the last rangefinder.

If you look at that post, you’ll see that initially my favourite was the Nikon 1 series, so why the second choice? Well, trying out the Nikon J1 and V1 in my hand basically put me off them. I realise they have excellent performance (in good light) and sharp little lenses, but they really feel like bars of molded soap. In the case of the feature-rich V1 though this is more like a smooth brick; at around 500kg, that thing is heavy and not exactly good-looking. The J1 loses a lot of its advantages, but it is lighter, though I had to wonder, do I really want to whip out something so toy-like and amateur-looking everywhere I go? This is all the more relevant in a walk-around, social camera, than one I’ll be relying on on photography-centric trips. Answer- resounding ‘no’. Then, at our camera show in Ginza, one of the members was taking photos with an elegant EP2 and asked me to take his photo. It felt so nice in the hand and after all, shouldn’t the things we use feel good? This is a published photographer, who used Contax rangefinders and medium format around the world. The fact he used only this EP2 on a month trip around Europe last summer was a pretty good advertisement. Style and performance in one- and the E-pl2 is a direct descendant of that model (which I’ll admit feels a lot nicer to use).


The nearest competition for me was the Panasonic G1X. With better movies and AF in a decent body, along with a newer 16mp sensor, it is an attractive option. Yet there were strikes against it, too. For one thing, it doesn’t have an affordable twin-zoom kit and I think I could well use these little cameras for their telephoto ability, which becomes very large on DX and simply massive on FX. I actually often use my Canon G9 in this role, with its generous 35-210mm lens and decent 1/1.7” sensor, sometimes with a 2x converter. Having something an order of magnitude better for this without too much extra size is very attractive. Yet buying lenses separately quickly becomes very expensive and I’d rather invest in my Nikons that way. More to the point, the G1X feels too serious for me, just too minimal and cold. Plus the menus are not only horrible to look at, but only in Japanese (here), for some bizarre reason. Small points, perhaps, but I want a camera I actually enjoy using. Picking it up, it feels solid and capable, but not really all that much fun, which I suppose is the idea of styling something as more tool than toy.


From what I’ve seen, though, similarly to my LX5, the pictures from it come out dull and lifeless, so you have to PP to get them looking as vibrant as Olympus Jpegs. No problem if you use it in Raw, though it’ll probably take time to get them looking just right and I find with things like skies, Panasonic goes for some weird colours that are really hard to correct, though it may be possible. With Lightroom camera profiles you can shoot in raw and generally only need to adjust exposure or white balance a little, but Panasonic needs much more than that to look good enough. Aside from this, it really is an excellent little camera and it is a very hard choice between it and the E-pl2, it also having it’s own retro style and solid controls, being a bit like a scaled-up LX5. It has an attractive twin lens option at ¥51,000, with both the prime 14mm f/2.4 and a stabilised 14-42mm zoom and whilst  I like that set if only for the prime, I would much prefer the excellent 20mm f/1.7 Panasonic makes, which I’ll probably end up getting and using as my main lens. Yes, it’s that good, so much so that the set with the GF1 it first came out with has actually appreciated with time and is offered for a hefty 80,000 online! Panasonic’s original kit zoom 14-45mm is also reputedly the best in class, despite it’s size, so I may well get one of those some day. That’s the great thing about M4/3, the variety of good lenses, small and relatively affordable, something I’ve been waiting in vain for on Nikon DX mount.

Then we have the newer Pen models. The E-pl3 improves on this in so many ways. It brings a tilting LCD, faster AF and 1080p video, but it also brings a super-slim compact style body with no built-in flash. I just didn’t like the feel of it, especially with the kit lens on it, the same way I feel about the NEX models. It is elegant in its own way, but has few control and none of that retro, cool style I look for in a Pen. I can see why it exists and they made a great job with it, as similarly to a lot of Panasonic users it is aimed fairly and squarely at those upgrading from a compact who probably don’t really want to carry around a DSLR, though would like at least some of its performance. I’m certainly not dissing it as a camera, though at the end of the day, it costs quite a lot more for the same kit as I have (¥66,000 vs ¥43,000), yet it both loses the retro styling and doesn’t add a newer sensor. Essentially, a well-taken photo will be the same. I figure that the Pens are refreshed so frequently that soon there will be a nice model with all those and more features, especially the new 16mp sensor and 5-axis optical stabilisation of the E-M5, perhaps even with a new pancake lens improving on the current, dark 17mm f/2.8 Olympus makes. I prefer having various bodies with lenses than changing lenses and missing a shot, so having this in addition some day might be an option, though I’m tired of waiting for it to appear, as not only will it take a while to come out, but it will start off being around twice the price, which is more than this consumer wants to spend on such fast-changing technology.

You pays your money and you makes your choice.

So you pays your money and you makes your choice! I’m anticipating really loving the style and feel of this camera, though perhaps feeling a bit frustrated by its performance. Hopefully it’ll be enough, but we’ll have to see, as I’m generally shooting still things anyway. In a sense, though, the body’s being thrown in with the lenses, probably in the hope that I’ll buy more of each in the future. We’ll have to see about that, though I definitely have my eye on that Panasonic 20mm, which would make for a fantastic little set and probably all I’d want or need in many situations; yes, it sounds that good! A rangefinder for the new millennium. The zooms are really just for their convenience, though I do love their small size and smooth, fast, silent focussing, which will be great for video (even if this cam is a bit backward in that area, not a major concern for me as I won’t use it much). This has actually been a long time in the making, I’ve had my eye on a Pen for years now and really desired something like that, with built-in IBIS and a small lens to take around with me. Who knows, I might like the results so much it gets chosen instead of my Nikons. I’m really looking forward to playing around with it, taking some semi-macros and using the art filters, possibly in RAW+Jpeg mode, so I have a ‘regular’ photo as well. It’s certainly going to be a big just up from my compacts, my only other choice for really traveling light and one I was never completely satisfied with, with their tiny sensors and fixed lenses.

* Note, product photos were taken at the 2012 CP+ Show in Yokohama, Japan. No cameras were hurt in the making of this blog post.

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