Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tip: Yes you can change aperture when using Art Filters !

I have noticed a number of complaints on the Internets regarding changing aperture when using Art Filters. Because Art Filters are only accessible using the command dial and the command dial is the only way to enter aperture or shutter priority modes, the assumption has been that there is no way to change aperture. I am huge fan of the pin-hole art filter, so much so that 80% of my pictures are taken using this effect. Since acquiring the Olympus 17mm pancake, I have been doing quite a bit of wide-open shooting @ f2.8 which means my beloved Pin-Hole Art Filter has been left behind for the rather mundane Aperture Priority mode. The other day by accident I noticed that I could cycle through a variety of aperture and shutter combination's as if I was in Programmed Auto Mode (P) allowing me to select f2.8 when using an Art Filter. I was able to cycle through the aperture/shutter combinations by using the vertical command dial on the back of the EP-1 and now my beloved Art-Filters are once again my default weapon of choice.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Making the Switch: DSLR to m4/3rds

I have seen a growing number of threads on photography forums with same question in mind:  Should I do it ?  Should I make the switch ? A number of people, like myself, have made the switch while others have clearly stated that they would never give up their DSLR.  In effort to provide more food for thought I have decided to write about my story in "Making the Switch'".

Before I begin I want to preface this story by stating that you can always switch back.   Some of the forum posts seem to be from people who are agonizing over this decision and yet they fail to realize that nothing is  permanent,  nothing is written in stone.  If you do decide to switch from one format to the other you can always sell and reacquire what you had (or upgrade to something more desirable).

As someone who has owned a few DSLRs over the years: Nikon D50, D200,  and Rebel XSI I can tell you one important lesson I have learned:  The camera is simply a tool limited only by your imagination.  Regardless of brand, model, and design - a camera is (to a certain degree) a camera.   Of course your requirements as a shooter truly define what your needs are, but most modern digital cameras have the same basic features.  The key reason I purchased my first DSLR was image quality.  I wanted noise free, high dynamic range, color accurate, detailed images - something I could not get from point and shoot camera - and something you could only get from an SLR.  The migration from a point-n-shoot camera to an SLR was truly a wonderful and rewarding experience though at the same time was also my Achilles Heal.  You see with SLR ownership came GAS or Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  I needed more lenses, more flashes, tripods, bags and bags for my bags, etc.  After a while, the Gear Acquisition Syndrome that comes with DSLR ownership somehow became Gear Burden Syndrome.  So to countermeasure the GBS, I begin shooting my D200 with small primes.  At first I felt as though I was somehow limiting my capabilities as a photographer running around with nothing but a 28mm prime attached, but I never seemed to miss a shot - it was challenging, yet rewarding and put a little passion back into the process..  The D200 with a small prime attached left me wanting more (or I suppose less would be the more accurate word here) so I switched from the D200 to a Rebel XSI.  Yes of course that seems to be an odd migration moving from a Pro body to a Consumer, but my reasoning was quite simple:  I wasn't using the D200 for everything it had to to offer:  Was I shooting Birds in Flight ?  No.  Was I shooting sports ?  No.  Was I shooting in the rain ?  No.  90% of the time I was using the D200 with my own no-fills recipe: aperture priority - center point auto-focus, and matrix metering.  After a while I reasoned that I could do the same with a Rebel XSI and have a more compact body in the process.  Yet even with the purchase of the Rebel  I still  found myself  leaving the camera behind.  It was still  something I had to worry about, something I had to lug around and something that drew unwelcome attention at times. - it was still an SLR.  Then the Olympus EP-1 Pen came onto the market.  It was the perfect compromise between an SLR and a point-n-shoot camera.  Interchangeable Lenses: Check.  SLR image quality: Check.  Compact Size: Check.   Of course the Pen is by no means perfect  The grip isn't as comfortable, no viewfinder, slower performance, limited lens selection, and so on.  I honestly begin wondering at first if I had made the right decision, after-all on paper the Pen was no SLR.  And then in a moment of clarity I stopped thinking about  what I gave up, started taking pictures and realized what I had gained.  Taking pictures was no longer a burden.  No bags, no bulky bodies, no protruding lenses.  No pain around my neck, no unwelcome attention.  As Mel Gibson put it best in that movie I can't seem to remember: 'Freeeeeee-dom".  I could take pictures and leave all of my worries behind me. Even better the Olympus JPEGs were so good that I  could even finally retire RAW which went from being the ultimate control freaks best friend to an often exhausting , repetitive process.

So am I telling you to "Make the Switch".  No.  I am simply sharing My Story.  Now please share your own.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Olympus Promises Faster Auto-Focus via Firmware Update

Auto Focus Performance
This update will improve camera AF performance when shooting both stills and videos with the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1 cameras when using any Micro Four Thirds or Four Thirds lens. Auto Focus Lock time when shooting stills is improved by 15%. Auto Focus tracking accuracy when shooting movies is also improved.

Viewfinder/LCD Simultaneous Playback Function
This upgrade also brings additional display functionality to the E-P2 and E-PL1 cameras when fitted with the VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder. Photographers using these combinations can now view menu and recorded images on the LCD while the VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder is in use.

Movie-Still-Compatible (MSC) Lens Compatibility
This update also ensures that like the E-PL1, the E-P1 and E-P2 camera models are fully compatible with and able to take advantage of two recently announced and soon-to-reach market lenses; the M. Zuiko Digital™ ED 9–18mm F4.0–5.6 and M. Zuiko Digital ED 14–150mm F4.0–5.6 lenses. Olympus is designating these two lenses as MSC, or Movie-Still-Compatible. They are optimized for shooting high definition video with accurate and silent autofocus.

The new firmware will be available on April 22, 2010.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Olympus 17mm 2.8 Review

The Olympus 17 2.8 was announced around the same time as the EP-1. Ever since it was announced the lens has faced quite a bit of scrutiny from users on the web. Even some reviews were rather ho-hum about this optic, and of course once the Panasonic 20 1.7 came onto market, it almost seemed to fade into the shadows. Truth be told I purchased this lens for two reasons: 1) The price was hard to resist and 2) The lenses profile and design are a perfect match to the EP-1. I did of course consider the Panasonic, but I honestly have trouble with the price of this lens which is almost as expensive as the camera body itself and my good friend, author, and professional photographer John Biggs stated that the Panasonic had two notable cons which concerned me: 1) Size  - with lens cap  in place the Panasonic is almost as thick as the kit lens and 2) Focusing - the Panasonic seems to focus a bit slower on the Olympus body.  That being said I am not here to contest the two lenses against one another, only provide a subjective review of the 17mm 2.8 itself.

Design / Build

The Olympus 17 2.8 is quite small and extremely light with the profile only protruding roughly an inch from the camera body.  The lens itself is a mixture of metal and high quality plastics all of which feels a bit better in hand than most 50mm 1.8 primes I have used.  The focusing ring is well dampened and quite smooth though it should be noted that the focusing ring is by-wire and not truly mechanical, nevertheless in practice manual focus was actually quite a pleasurable experience.


Thought not scientific, one thing that I took notice of immediately when using this lens indoors was the speed of focus which seemed by all accounts to be significantly faster than that of the Olympus 14-42 kit lens.  Focus acquisition was about as quick as I could press the shutter  (center point engaged) which was a welcome delight considering that the EP-1 does in fact seem a bit slower at times than an SLR

Image Quality

I expected the image quality of the lens to be somewhat lackluster after reading several reviews and forum postings on the web all of which had me thinking that this lens was average at best.   I suppose the lesson learned here is that one should always take information on the web with a grain of salt  as my own findings revealed that the Olympus 17 2.8 was an all-around solid performer.  Wide-open @ f2.8 the IQ is stunning from this little gem.  Sharpness, color, and micro-contrast are superb.  No pixel peeping was necessary to see that this lens is optically superior to that of 14-42 kit (and I do consider the 14-42 to be a very good lens).  Out of focus rendition is quite appealing with a very smooth background rendition achievable at fast apertures  which is something of an unusual trait that is typically not found in wide-angle lenses, but a welcome bonus nevertheless.


The Olympus 17mm 2.8 should in fact be on your short list, especially now that the price has dropped to below $250 (U.S. Dollars).   You do give up the convenience of a zoom in the acquisition of a prime, but at the same time you maximize the IQ potential of the camera which for me is welcome trade-off.  The lens is such a good performer that I am actually debating selling the 14-42 kit, a lens which I have raved about in the past.  Probably the only notable con is the speed of the lens itself with 2.8 looking a bit slow for a prime, though  in all fairness we should consider that most 35mm primes are typically no faster than f/2 (save exotics like the Canon 35 f1.4 L, but this lens also costs 5x more) and most likely the speed  limitation  is  by design, after-all remember the Olympus 17mm is a pancake lens (silver dollar edition no doubt).

So in summary what does one get for $230

  • Portable Size and Weight.
  • Fast and Accurate Focus Acquisition.
  • Attractive & Well Executed Design matched to the Pen's retro looks and styling.
  • Constant 2.8 Aperture.
  • Excellent image quality (even wide-open), a step-above the Olympus 14-42 kit lens.
  • Delicious Bokeh - did I just say delicious ?

Samples - Out of Camera JPEGs

Bokeh Test (Click For Larger Sample).  Look closely at the texture and detail on the plug itself.

Detail Test - Wide-Open (Click For Larger Sample).  Amazing level of detail and texture on the torch.

Bokeh Test -Wide-Open  (Click For Larger Sample)

Detail Test - Wide-Open  (Click For Larger Sample).  Examine the level of detail in the Subject's Eye.

Wide-Open Bokehlicious

Friday, April 2, 2010

Completing The Look - Part I

My Pen with a "Hippie Camera Strap"

If there is one thing that the Pen (or Micro 4/3rds format in general) has resurrected, it's the old school film-era style of photography.  When I say 'style' I mean a number of things:  Fashion, Lens Choices, and Post Processing.  Yes, this is a fad, but it's a good one, one that can teach us a few things in a world lost to  automatic technology.  So what does one need to 'Complete The Look' and become a true old-school photographer ?  Well in the next few weeks I will be talking about everything from fashion, to technique in a series dedicated to bridging the analog & digital divide.

Today I'd like to talk about fashion in relation to photography.  Why fashion ?  I mean really who cares about the look of the camera ?  Well I for one think it does matter, even if the effect is more or less psychological.  Our digital cameras are designed to be perfect, automatic, no work required, color output machines.  As much as I embrace the technology that goes in digital, one can't help but to feel a bit 'tired' of the cookie cutter look of SLRs and the feeling that once you own one cliche 'soccer mom' pictures of the kids running around and flowers in the backyard are the only things that seem to come natural.  Yes, I know I am being a little sarcastic here, but truth be told sometimes the device in hand does in fact become an extension of our perspective.  One can't help but to shoot black and white with a Pen, but why is that ?  You can shoot black and white pictures with just about any camera, but the Pen seems to provoke the interest a bit more.  It's the design and style that plays a role here and regardless of how you attempt to deny it, it works.   Put an all magnesium weather sealed Nikon D3 in one's hand and watch what happens:  the camera inspires confidence.  People assume as it's a pro camera it will auto-magically make them a pro.  Now put a cheap, disposable camera in hand - where is the confidence now ?  Yes, I know we are comparing apples to oranges here, but keep in mind that we are not comparing specifications, were comparing the look and feel of the machines in hand.

So if you really want to go all out and complete the look of your Pen, here are some suggestions:

Get an Vintage Camera Strap.   These straps also known as 'Hippie' camera straps are all over ebay and  tend to be dirt cheap.  There wide with a velvety finish and actually feel very nice around the neck all the while giving the camera a very era specific look. 

Ebay ( Leather Cases )
Purchase a leather case (or for a truly retro look, go for a half-case as shown above).  Not only does it look good, feel good, and smell good - but it also protects your investment.
Apply a skin to your camera's body.  Again not only does it 'complete the look', but it also helps protect the body.  Skins are in everything from leather to wood grain as shown above.

Any more tips for "Completing The Look", please share in our comments section.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Life's Precious Moments

The Pen being a small and unobtrusive camera was welcome in a setting such as a veterinary clinic because of it's point-n-shoot looks.  Yet in this setting, under less than ideal lighting I was able to capture the magic of a dog's emotional first visit to the vet due to the Pen's phenomenal high ISO performance and in-body stabilization - this in itself is a testimate not only to the camera's capabilities, but it's ability to go anywhere and everywhere life's precious moments may be waiting to be captured.

14-42 Kit Lens. ISO 800-1600. Out of Camera JPEG.  Pin-Hole Art Filter.  

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lens Choices For Your Pen

It's a heavily talked about topic on forums: what lens should you get for your new Pen ?  The answer unfortunately is not a simple one.  If you are like me and spend time trolling (no pun intended) through the forums, you probably see a re-ocurring theme of 'Purchase the Panasonic 20mm prime'.  So is it that simple ?

To start, I am going to say something that will shock and awe you, something most people won't admit too, but as a long time photographer I plan to enlighten you with:  Most lenses have good optics.  Computer aided engineering, advances in optical technology, coatings, etc - you name it, "it's in there" - even in the inexpensive kit lenses.  What does this mean ?  Well quite simply it means that the inexpensive kit lens that comes with your Pen is going to be sharp, contrasty, and colorful.  Reviewers and critics will attempt to find flaws, and on paper these flaws are in fact reproducible, but in the field you'll most likely never see them.   So putting charts and graphs aside and equalizing the playing field in terms of the quality of the optics, how do we compare these two lenses ?  We compare them in terms of their usability, a factor that at the end of day goes a lot farther in making a sound decision than attempting to figure out which one has the higher MTF number !
So why should I choose the Panasonic 20 1.7 over the Olympus 14-42 kit lens ?
  • It's compact.  Much more so that the Olympus kit.  While the pen cameras are in most cases more desirable to carry around than an SLR, the protruding kit lens is still a buzz kill for those seeking a truly 'pockatable' option.  
  • It's fast.  The 1.7 aperture + Olympus IBS (In body stabilzation) + Olympus high ISO performance equals a very confident 'no flash required' machine.
So why should I choose the Olympus 14-42 kit lens over the 20 1.7 ?
  • It's cheaper.  The 20 1.7 is a very expensive lens considering at the end of the day it pretty much is the standard fair 35mm 50 1.8 (ok 40 1.7, but u get the drift) which go for around $100.  You pay a premium for the lack of competition in the 4/3rds marketplace.
  • It's more flexible.  A zoom is always more flexible that a prime.  28-84mm is a very good working range that should satisfy most day-to-day requirements.
So what is best choice ?  Get Both.  I think the 14-42 is a great lens, and really should be your first choice.  It's cheap, offers a nice range and to taking a quote from Steve Job's "It Just Works".   The 20 1.7 is more specialized and should be considered as a second addition to the family (especially so if you require a faster aperture and/or looking to minimize the footprint of your Pen as much as possible).  I myself patiently await more 4/3rds primes !