Thursday, July 28, 2011

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The Kit, the Caboodle and the whole Olympus Pen E-P3

The Olympus Pen E-P3, 14-42 kit lens, the VF-2 and
the Panasonic Lumix 100-300 OIS
Less than a month ago I was discussing about making a switch over to the recently announced Olympus Pen E-P3. Just under a week ago the first units shipped and I got my hands on one of the first early arrivals.

The transition over to this system is to replace one of my least used combinations which is a fantastic camera and lens, but just under-utilized. However the other reason for considering this, as had previously written is to get a much smaller compact system. In this review I'm going to focus on what attributes are pleasant surprises coming from a bigger system camera owner.

With just under a week with this unit, there was some major learning hurdles that I needed to get by, but one of the immediate things I noticed was just how customizable this system was. Some of it was buried deep within the system which from a brand new user point of view is actually a smart move. Advanced users will appreciate the fact that there is so much customizability, while new users will appreciate a nice simple transition from a simple point and shoot camera to a more advanced system camera with similar simple features out of the box.

My favourite feature: the Super Control Panel (SCP)
As I got more familiar with the controls, I found that there were many things that were very dSLR like. Coming from both very customizable systems like the Canon EOS 5Dmk2 and the 7D, this camera had almost all the same levels of features. In someways more. Other features that I was surprised to see, echoed the features of my Nikon D700 which for those who subscribe to the major brand wars of which system has more features over the other, has a refreshing blend of both. Olympus really did their homework, and I must say it has really matured in this generation.


One of the more refreshing settings to see is something they adopted from their big brother E series camera cousins in the form of the Super Control Panel (SCP). dSLR users will be very refreshed to see this and gives almost all control of major functions at a glance. Although one oversight I believe is the lack of better custom profile control (known as myset) but seems to be a nice little space where that could be added. The custom profiles is not perfect, but does come with 4 saveable settings which is very nice especially if you're trying to configure this for your own needs.

A surprising mode which I generally find useless on other cameras is the scene modes. On most point and shoots and on some dSLR systems, this feature usually functions to give the easiest set of presets for different situation, but also on most system are pretty dumbed down and don't offer a lot of control. On the E-P3 this is considerably different in that you have total control of the functions once you turn on the custom functions. You can use the SCP and flip between modes to see what scene you're using or to the SCP controls to change options including RAW file output.

There's a whole plethora of features that I really like (which both are familiar on the dSLR but also not) but I'm going to summarize it in this list (updated items - July 29th):

  • Individual JPG compression settings for presets and customizable pixel file sizes
  • Manual movie mode with full 1080 HD (AVHCD)
  • dSLR like Super Control Panel (SCP)
  • Art filters (simulating all sorts of effects) with full SCP control
  • 6 reconfigurable buttons - two dedicated function buttons and full control over both dial directions or what they can do (ie. swapping shutter and aperture control, ev compensation, etc...)
  • DoF Preview
  • Super fast AF (some reviews claim as fast as top professional dSLR, I definitely believe faster than many basic to mid range dSLRs)
  • Multiple AF modes including a generalized 9 point out of 35 AF, tracking, continuous, and face detect
  • 5 Metering modes (ESP, Center Weighted, Spot, Spot Highlight weighted, Spot Shadow weighted)
  • Manual focus zoom (instant on with 4:3 lenses - single button on manual lenses)
  • Wireless flash mode (similar to Nikon CLS and Canon Master Commander)
  • Configurable X-Sync flash modes including rear sync control
  • Maximum X-Sync 1/180 sec (I actually tested it to be at way higher of 1/320 second with my Elinchrom Quadra Rangers - Non of my dSLR's get higher than 1/250 of a second with this strobe. 
  • Minimal hot mirror and AA filter - which allows for more options for unmodified IR filters
  • Adjustable auto ISO range
  • Multi-exposure (2-3 frames)
  • Eye-fi support
  • On board level meter
  • Multi-view (shows image in multiple exposure to choose from)
  • 2-7 shot bracketing (Focus, Exposure, WB)
  • In camera editing (JPG and RAW files)
  • Continuous focus in movie modes
  • Manual shutter and aperture controls in movie modes
  • Super bright OLED touch screen (very bright even in sunlit conditions)
  • Touch screen focus and shooting
  • Touch screen preview functions
  • Stereo microphone
  • In body IS for manual lenses with focal length control on the fly
  • Quiet and fast shutter (1/4000s)
  • ...and much more!
Classic lenses for that Retro look on modern digital.
One of the comparisons I want to make is using manual lenses with this system. I was never a rangefinder user in my 20+ years as a photographer and never really understood the appeal, but as of late, my shoulders are certainly feeling the pain of carrying around the big bags and systems I do carry.

I've been making an effort to reduce the weight, but I just found in order to get the quality of lenses that I want, it seems that I can't help but get bigger and heavier lenses. With exception to some classic film lenses, it seems that camera makers make these lenses to be carried by some incredible sherpa.

On my 5Dmk2, I've been using classic manual focus lenses. Using a variety of adapters this has made it a joy to get different personalities or forgotten lenses from the past onto modern cameras. I chose the Canon system specifically for it's versatility in adaptable lenses. My friends have been extolling the virtues of the micro 4:3 systems for a while, but I didn't buy into it. I was convinced that I could not get the shallow depth of field control and look that I love out of my 5Dmk2. So why the change of heart? First I'll start of by saying that the E-P3 is no replacement for my 5Dmk2 by any stretch of the imagination, but several factors come to play here set aside the idea that I can carry twice as many lenses as I could with the 5Dmk2.
E-P3 with Electronic View finder VF-2 and a
 classic Contax Carl Zeiss 50mm F/1.7.

The biggest advantages I've found has actually been in the metering and focusing. On the 5Dmk2, you have to rely on stop down metering to get it right (unless you use LiveView which isn't very comfortable to do with a camera this heavy - regardless isn't all that accurate). On the E-P3, the ESP metering is very smart to account for manual aperture controls. The screen does it's best to compensate, but regardless of the darkness of the aperture, the images still come out almost perfect every time. It's hard to really give an impression of how important this is until you've shot a lot of manual lenses on a dSLR.

High resolution electronic viewfinder.
Focusing is also a nice treat on this system. Even on the LED screen focusing is pretty easy to do. Much easier to do than the 5Dmk2, but also with the quick zoom modes, you can quickly check focus. What makes this all the better is using the very high resolution VF-2 viewfinder. I've been using both split prism focus screens and AF confirm chipped adapters, but nothing seems to really nail it like this combination. I almost feel like I'm using a medium format camera by being able to see the depth of field and my focus all come together on the viewfinder.

I was pretty certain that nothing could replace an optical viewfinder, but the VF-2 sports some awesome features that makes a person rethink that. 1,440,000 pixel display, 60 fps, diopter adjustment and 90° flip up makes this an awesome accessory. Personally I found it was finally the first electronic viewfinder that I felt was close enough to replacing an optical viewfinder.

So finishing off this review, those that read my previous entry knew that I was going to replace my Canon EOS 7D with it. I can confidently say that this was a great move on my part. Although it does not completely replace it, it certainly fits much differently in my set-up. I specifically replaced the 7D with the Canon EF 100-400L combination, and some people might wonder if I've lost my mind.



7D & 100-400L vs E-P3 & Panasonic 100-300
First off, I don't recommend this to everyone. The 7D and the 100-400L combination is still a superb and superior combination, however in my case was whether or not it fit my style of shooting and my other concerns.

Both systems have their pluses and minuses and with the improvements on the AF system in the Pen, it's blurred the line further. For a bird hobbiest I might give a cautionary thumbs up for choosing this, but without a focus limiter and 3D tracking, it's still not quite perfect. Image quality wise though, is almost identical. I'd argue that the Panasonic 100-300 has more contrast, but the 7D obviously makes up in resolution.  Will I miss this combination, sometimes I might, but for most applications, I'm plenty happy with the Pen. Both are very comparable to each other, so it comes down to functionality.

Panasonic 100-300
Canon EF 100-400L
As manual focus shooter, I actually found one of the best combinations is the Canon 100L macro lens with the Pen. It makes it a 200mm F/2.8 equivalent and it focuses very fast and it's so easy to see the focus in the viewfinder. I haven't tried manual lenses with bird photography, but I had no problem shooting some action stuff like these guys doing medieval combat and this was all done using the rear LED screen and not with the electronic viewfinder.

Fast moving fighters are no problem capturing with
manual telephoto lenses.
I do wish and suggest that Olympus do a few things to make the experiences with telephoto lenses better on the micro four thirds system and that's to put in an in body focus limiter. Since most lenses made for the Micro 4:3 system are focus by wire, I can't imagine it being hard to add a simple feature of limiting focus to preset distances. By doing this, action photography would be that much easier to do and with the zippy AF system, hunting would be reduced to a smaller rack rather than the full range. I'd also suggest that they give a setting to give up a little later on acquiring focus lock. By making this an option, the user can control how soon it would give up (a feature that is found on my dSLRs).

The Olympus Pen E-P3 is certainly getting closer to being a great telephoto camera. I think with a few more tweaks which I think can all be done in software, it will make all the difference in the world. The main thing for me is that I'm so pleased not to carry around such a heavy rig when I go hiking. The 5Dmk2 companioned with the E-P3 is really just perfect for me. But I would argue that this is also a great advanced option for those looking to upgrade to a system camera.

Load up the bag, we're ready to go!
The great rangefinder lenses and classic film lenses out there are so inexpensive compared to the more expensive plastic AF modern lenses, which really makes this whole exercise that much worth it. Even in my case you don't have to change systems. Two lenses (and soon a third) will be exclusive to the Pen, but all for far less than the whole kit in the 7D and the 100-400L combination.

In conclusion whether you're a casual shooter, professional, or amateur, this system is definitely mature enough to consider as an alternative to buying a full sized dSLR system. Save your shoulders and definitely give this consideration. I am certain that you won't be disappointed. Kudos to Olympus for doing this right. This 5th version of the Pen has really matured and is really well done. I guess the next step will be to put in a new sensor, but in the meantime, this is more than enough of a system with results that I feel meet my professional standards.

Come check out my images with this system on my flickr feed: Click Here

Addendum: Turns out the sensor appears to be a new sensor (sorta). The new LiveMOS sensor bumps up not only high ISO improvements, but the frame readout speeds increased from 60 fps to 120 fps. This certainly explains why the AF is as fast as it is. But there are reports from DxO that seem to suggest that it's a tweaked version. Regardless, it is improved over it's predecessors and if that meant tweaking the current designs, Olympus certainly did a good job of it.


One other thing that I should mention and if there are those at Olympus listening, turf your software. It's awful, buggy, and stupid slow for doing anything but JPG work. It's the worst RAW processor I've recently used. Kludgy and unintuitive interface is some of the key things very wrong with it. I sadly would say that Canon's own DPP software which I think is pretty weak is ten times the program this is. Hopefully Adobe Lightroom will have an updated Adobe Camera RAW for this soon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

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Rokinon/Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC

Fellow photographer tries it on the D300s
So here's another 3rd party manual lens I've recently tried on the 5Dmk2 that I intend on adding to my collection, the Rokinon/Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC (click here for specs).


I had the opportunity to test out an AE version which almost is enough reason to pick up a Nikon just so you can use this superb piece of glass with. I envy some of the features you get with the AE version that you can't get on the Canon such as the auto aperture which is handy especially not only in metering, but also when you're trying to focus on the subject.

Some Nikons can also do AF confirm which can also indicate which direction you need to focus. It works well, but a word of caution here, the recent generation of AF confirm chips on adapters seems to do a much better job of confirming focus than the built in functions of the Nikons. The Nikon systems just have way too much margin for focus confirm so you have to really rely more on your eyesight to nail focus especially with a lens with such a small depth of field like this one. This almost renders the built in AF confirm pointless on the Nikon because of this issue.

The lens itself is a work of art. Clearly the best build by Samyang I've laid hands on. The massive focus ring is a joy to work with. It's smooth and has a decent amount of working distance to nail focus. The polycarbonate body reminds me of the Canon EF 100mm F2.8L maybe better. The lens hood is sculpted and easy to attach and detach. Although I was using a Nikon version of this lens and adapted it for use with an AF confirm Fotodiox adapter, the aperture ring was actually easy to use in this version compared to the 14mm one by Samyang. I might pick up this version just so I can use it between the two systems.

Rokinon/Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC
Example 1. Shot with natural light at F/1.4
The lens looks rather large at first, but is pretty light weight. It feels so natural on my camera but clearly there's a huge advantage with this design over the competitors. The huge front element with a 77mm threading has far less vignetting than it's competitors when shot wide open. It's one of the most complex designs for a 35mm with 12 elements in 10 groups with one aspherical element and two high refractive index elements. This lens is an internal focus lens so the front element doesn't turn and doesn't extend. The whole lens just feels perfect in my hand.

Rokinon/Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC
A great lens to use with strobes
Of course the best thing to demonstrate is how this lens shoots in low light. Example 1 was done while lying on the ground, wide open and natural lighting.

The lens even on an adapter did not fight me at all. Focus is indeed very narrow when wide open, but even stopped down to F/2 it was very easy to work with. During this modelling session, I brought out my Elinchrom Ranger Quadras and used them with this lens.

Rokinon/Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC
Not too wide but enough to captures
a lot of your scene.
This lens most importantly is sharp and has gorgeous micro contrast. That sharpness is easy to see even in the optical viewfinder which does help in focusing. I only made a few focusing errors but once I got used this this lens I was really enjoying how easy it was to work with. I'm still wondering who their lens engineer is? Did they poach an engineer from Zeiss because they went from a substandard lens maker to being a really good lens maker.

Overall impression is that this lens is a treat to use. It is tricky to focus, but not nearly as hard to focus as my Samyang 85 F/1.4. The longitudinal chromatic aberrations in this lens are not bad for a lens this wide but the big thing is the lack of vignette for a lens this fast.

For the price it would be a hard not to pick this over the Canon 35L. Samyang's pricing on their latest lenses have been creeping up (this lens retails around $600-650), but so has the quality. AF would be the next logical progression but I would also see at least another 30% increase. Even if they did that, it'd still be cheaper than the AF brands. However that said, if Samyang continues to make quality optics like this, with the same build quality and attention to detail as the other 3 or 4 lenses they've released in the past couple of years, they are sure to be an option that is not overlooked.

If you're in the market for a 35mm for a wide angle standard on a full frame camera like the 5Dmk2 or the Nikon D700, this is an awesome lens to choose over the branded ones. As a normal on the crop, it's also a great lens to consider. The size might be a little intimidating, but once you feel it on the camera, you'll love it's size and feel. I give a high recommendation for this lens.

I want to personally thank my friend Anthony at Camera Traders in Victoria for lending me this lens to try out. He doesn't have any for sale yet, but his stock should be arriving any day now and a thanks goes out to our model Leanne Davis for being our goth girl.

Ready to Rock and Roll
Sharp, fast, and a pleasing lens to work with. Processed with a grunge effect.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

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The Velvet HDR Underground. HDR, DRI, LDR, Black Card, Layer Masking compared.


Figure A: Kitschy yet iconic at the same time!
Although one of the catch words these days in photography is HDR (High Dynamic Range), the problem with it is it starts to look like cheap velvet paintings of the 70's (actually all velvet paintings look cheap). In case there are those out there that have no idea what a velvet painting looks like, here's figure A.

Regardless, HDR was invented in the 50's for a very important and specific reason which was to image difficult to visualize subjects like what it looked like in the heart of an atomic explosion with the entire image of the explosion intact. It has other applications, specifically one of those reasons is to simulate what the human eye sees and not what a camera sensor or even film sees.

The human eye is actually quite a sophisticated imaging device. It has the ability to see well in the dark while at the same time it also sees what's in the light. This is all simultaneously and mostly instantly. The problem with most photographs is that the medium isn't able to render the same range as what the human eye can see. The big misconception by many is that the camera sensor or film cannot see more than what it represents. The recording medium can see quite a bit more than what one might think it can see (at least with modern sensors and to dispel the notion that film has a way higher dynamic range than modern sensors; most modern sensors have a dynamic range of 10-12 stops, while film has a range of 8-12 stops). The real problem is the display medium that we view them on. I won't go into details about the differences between additive and reflective light/colour because there's plenty of articles online about colour theory.

In a nutshell, reflective colour or photographic display medium can only display a certain range of light and colour to maintain a certain level of smooth photo-realism (when the medium is incapable of displaying the range you'll see banding in things like blue skies or worse, blown out highlights). One of the tricks to 'increase' this range is to employ a technique called tone compression. This is what this article is going to mainly focus on.

Figure B: Typical exposure - balanced for the entire scene but doesn't represent what my eyes really saw.
Tone compression merely takes the darkest areas and 'compresses' the range so that subtle details are more visible. The same is also applied to highlighted areas. In reality, regardless if you like HDR images or not, what most people see on the internet or their computer screens is merely some sort of tone compression not true HDR (in reality, there is no known medium that can display HDR properly. It is merely an intangible range that an image can have, but requires optimization to be displayed on a medium that is incapable of displaying the full range).

Figure C: Single RAW file compensated by ±2 stops in exposure. 
In figure C tonal recovery is done by adjusting the exposure in Lightroom from the single RAW file. The thing to note is that even though the sensor is able to see 10-12 stops of dynamic range, very subtle details and colours are still lost. So this is where multi-bracket exposures comes into play (figure D).

Figure D: Three bracketed exposures.
Note the differences in the rocks on the left to figure C and the sunset colours and cloud details on the right.
In figure D, the amount of subtle detail differences become apparent in both examples, compared to pushing the file as in above. HDR software attempts to combine all images to give an image that comes closer to what I saw.

Figure E: HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software combines all exposures together
 to create an image that comes close to what the human eye sees.
HDR software like HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software does a pretty good job of combining the images using the tone-mapping functions, however there can be a few issues with colour, saturation, and if you're not careful sometimes it creates these awful halos around areas of strong contrast. Understanding how to use HDR software takes practice. Generally speaking, I found that with all HDR software, I still have to make adjustments after processing to tone down the effect. Often, I found that most HDR software is too contrasty, and sometimes too much saturation. Figure E has been adjusted slightly with contrast and saturation as an example.

Another option to traditional tone-mapping is using something called exposure fusion found in programs like Photomatix. Although Photomatix traditionally is an HDR program, exposure fusion is actually not HDR but rather it is LDR (low dynamic range sometimes referred to as DRI or Dynamic Range Increase). Here's a great link on the subject but basically like HDR in that it combines images, it uses a much better algorithm that compares the multiple images and takes the best balance of saturation, contrast, exposure and recombines the images. Unlike HDR images which tend to have a certain fuzziness or glow about it (hence the velvet painting feel), exposure fusion keeps things sharp looking and much more balanced. Figure F demonstrates how fusion works.

Figure F: Exposure Fusion via Photomatix Pro.
Note the details in the sunset and the rock details.
Exposure Fusion is an excellent option to maintain a level of realism that HDR software has always seemed to struggle with. Note also how the sky has been balanced from the darker areas to the lighter areas. Your eye would see a far better consistency across the scene, personally I think this is a touch too much and with some more tweaking and adjusting I probably could have balanced it better across the scene.


Beyond HDR or Fusion

One thing I hope to clear up is that you don't need specialized HDR software to get your images to get this appearance.

One of the more typical examples of compressing or balancing your scene is to employ the use of gradient filters while shooting your images. Grad filters do this by slowing the exposure time down in a specific area of your scene. Think of this as the tinted top portion of your vehicle windshield (or even sunglasses). By darkening the scene in the bright areas, you can compensate your exposure settings so your shadow areas get more time to expose. This can also be done easily through Photoshop or Lightroom through the gradient filter option (figure G).

Figure G: A soft gradient effect
For most applications, a gradient effect or filter covers most things, however many gradient filters or even just the basic filter is either flimsy, requires additional hardware, too linear, has colour casts and may have light leaks. They can be costly, or the effect is too strong, or not strong enough. Software is a great solution, but if your scene has a difference of 6 stops from the sky to the foreground, then you need to consider other options. One of my more favourite methods in the field is to use a black card (here's a good link describing how it's done). Like a gradient filter, it slows down the exposure in the areas that are too bright, however there's the added benefit of having a stronger effect when you need it. You can also feather the effect across the scene, by painting the effect you desire (figure H).

Figure H: Black Card Exposure
Black Card exposure does take lots of practice and experience to get right so it's not for everyone. It does require a good understanding of exposure and good memory (to know where to dodge your exposures blindly in front of the lens). The tradeoff to black card is that it can create a surreal feel to your images, Especially in scenes where long exposure shows water milky, but your skies which typically move as being crisp and sharp. I like this effect personally but for some it might be too extreme.

Sometimes in the end, nothing is better than just doing a layer blend of multiple images within Photoshop. Figure I demonstrates the combination of using bracketed exposures, layer blending, and some other minor adjustments done in Lightroom. Of course it does mean you need to set up for three exposures to do so and some knowledge of Photoshop.
Figure I: Exposure blending, layer masking of 3 bracketed images.


I personally have enjoyed using black card to do most of my work. I certainly am comfortable with using all sorts of software, but in the end to me the most important aspect is achieving the closest possible image to what my eyes adjusted and saw. Your RAW images from your camera is certainly more than capable of capturing that kind of vision without resorting to HDR or multiple exposures (Figure J), but it of course means you expose your image correctly so you can do the necessary recovery in the shadow and highlight details at a later date.

Figure J: Sometimes you can just use your original image and just do all the corrections in Lightroom.
Whatever method you choose to do your tone recovery, what should be apparent in this exercise is that all methods employed here can be used to recover an image to hopefully your liking. Do you need to have HDR software or Photoshop to do things? Not for the scenes that are less extreme. This example used in this article certainly pushed the range at 4 stops of difference from the highlight to the shadows. Beyond that, even HDR software has it's limitations and black card would be about the only option here. But with 4 stops, you have a lot of flexibility and every method demonstrated here today is more than capable of doing some sort of tone recovery to an image.


Mouse over the links below to compare images.
(Just discovered Blogger supports inline javascript - more posts with this feature in the future)
Original | HDR |Fusion/LDR/DRI |GRAD Black Card Layer Mask Lightroom

Sunday, July 3, 2011

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5Dmk2, Extreme CF Adapter, Eye-Fi X2 and iPad2 - Awesome Combo!

A couple of months ago I recently discovered a line of high speed CF adapters for SD cards. I picked up an Eye-Fi card to experiment and found that it worked very well with the adapter. Performance was slightly under par with cameras that were tuned to work with the Eye-Fi card but when you get your settings right it just works.


Now don't get this confused with tethered shooting, rather it allows you to review your shots about 5-10 seconds later on a larger screen like a computer. However it does mean you needed to bring a laptop along or more equipment to really see the benefits.

Eye-Fi also has an iPhone app which was intriguing in application. I only have an iPhone 3Gs so it's not going to give me better resolution like the iPhone 4, but the pairing is very handy for getting images off the camera immediately and on to your phone. If you're a news photographer, this could get your images uploaded immediately to a sharing site (like picassa, flickr, etc...) within minutes. I found that with the file sizes of the 5Dmk2, that I needed to use RAW + small JPG files to expedite transfers. However since I'm not a journalist I found really little application other than the gimmick of it all.

So the next evolution in my hands was to install the Eye-fi app to the iPad2. That's where the lightbulb went off and it was what was missing to really make this combination work well. With the compact size of the iPad2, this gives such a great previewing tool on location. No need for a laptop or other expensive tethering solutions. Immediate reviewing with your clients or models and reshoot as necessary.

The resolution and the download time is very quick so if you have a new iPad2 and looking for something to pair up the two technologies, then this adapter and Eye-fi combo is a nice way to go.

There are several sellers on Ebay that sell these and here's a link to one seller on Amazon.