Wednesday, May 14, 2014

OM-Gosh, I am an Olympus Fanboy!

Woe, what a transition! A year ago, I doubted the purpose of existence of (mirror-less) system cameras... and now I am a fanboy...

First I thought,  what is this all about, wanna use small, pick a decent point 'n shoot, such as the Lumix LX7 (still one of my favorite cameras!).
Right, small sensors may not deliver the quality (although that remains to be seen!), however, drawn to quality, one my use a dSLR, even if it is old, such as my trusty Canon Rebel XT (350D) and see what the framing is in the good old optical view-finder.

So, what's the point in the system cameras? There is no point, I thought. And I was wrong!

By now I own 3 different mirror-less systems based of the following cameras:
  1. Canon EOS-M
  2. Samsung NX300
  3. Olympus PEN E-PM2
The EOS-M came with 2 lenses, the stock 18-55mm and a 22mm. Guess which is on the camera the most? Yes, it's the 22mm! I like the camera a lot. Very nice image quality, nothing to complain about, besides the infamous slow focus speed, which I was aware of before the purchase anyway.
The EOS-M is compatible with my speedlites, similarly to my G15, which made my day anyway.

The Samsung NX300 I actually won in a lottery. I like the camera, it has it's quirks however. Never the less, I bought an extra 30mm lens to it, to compliment the 18-55mm kit-lens. In principle I like the camera, although, when shooting in RAW, there is an over-exposed stripe of the left-hand side of the image... not sure what that's all about...

And last but not least, the Olympus PEN E-PM2. I love that camera! I love the micro-4/3 system even more! What brilliant concept!
The E-PM2, as I bought it, came with 2 zoom lenses, the 14-42mm kit lens and a 40-150mm tele-zoom. Both are probably not the best lenses ever made, but, they serve the purpose well!

"Right", I hear you thinking... "that's micro-4/3 vs the rest of the world, what the OM-part of the title anyway?".

As indicated in an earlier post, I was so convinced by the performance of the Olympus PEN E-PM2, that I considered adding a more potent body to the system. The final decision, as you may know, fell on the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Still, I feel you thinking that this was all said before, and yes, you are right. In essence, I wrote that in a couple of posts before.
And here comes the surprising twist.

As I am shooting in RAW, my pictures end up in Adobe Lightroom (which came with the NX300). And here, the problems begin. While my Canon and Samsung photos look alright, pictures from the Olympus OM-D, which should in theory be very close to the pics of the earlier mentioned cameras, looked crap! Grainy, noisy, mushy would be kind descriptions of what the screen was showing.

Grrr! Now that I bought a rather expensive body, I get rubbish images?! What is that all about?!
May it is not Olympus to blame. I opened said Olympus images in "Darktable" and they were beautiful! Same story when using "Rawtherapee".

Having had doubts about my decision to spent quite some money on the OM-D E-M5 body, seen the first results in Lightroom, I am more than a fanboy of Olympus RAW-files by now, when using either of the free software solutions "Darktable" or "Rawtherapee".

Adobe, please do something about Olympus RAW-files!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Focus Peaking on Olympus Digital Cameras

On the search for a second body for my m4/3 system, I came along some hints on how to simulate focus peaking of Olympus cameras not being provided with said feature.

Research on the wides of the interwebs revealed that apparently a contract between Sony and Olympus prohibited the latter to include focus peaking on sensors made by the other party... remains to be confirmed actually.

However, there are clever people out there, which figured out ways of using "focus peaking" with Olympus' cameras. As a straight RAW-shooter, personally I would never been able to come across such a simple solution!

Olympus added some nifty "art modes" for JPEG images.
Here is a video making use of one of said filters for pseudo focus peaking: click! Amin explains how an OM-D can be set to perform this function. However, there is one thing I would like to point out, before you follow Amin's instructions, set the camera to MF (manual focus), otherwise, AF (auto focus) will be assigned to the function button.

When moving towards a slightly different camera, the PEN Mini2 (E-PM2), things change slightly.
Here is what I did, which should work on most Olympus cameras.
  • put the camera into manual focus - not required when using legacy glass
  • set the camera to record in RAW and low resolution JPEG
  • engage the art mode 11 - "Key Line" (filter 2)
All you got to do is focus such that black lines will maximize at the intended focus area and snap a shot. Chimping your shot, you will see the artsy stuff only. Don't worry, on the memory card, there will be 2 files, one artsy fartsy JPEG image and a RAW file, the latter containing the image you wanted.

This is the very famous "filthy apple keyboard" image, used for similar purposes by so many others... Mine is taken with an Olympus PEN E-PM2 and a Cosina COSINON 55mm (@ f/1.4). Have a look:
Key Line art filter image saved as JPEG

Filthy Apple Keyboard image saved as RAW
The art filter enabled, the camera's live view, back screen of EVL, will show the art filter, thereby imitating focus peaking.
Concerning file sizes, the artsy auxiliary file is 292KB, while the RAW image file is 13.7MB.

There you have it, focus peaking with the E-PM2.

Body Shopping Part 2

The micro four-thirds, m4/3 or MFT for short, system is increasingly popular. And of course, in the beginning of this year, the MFT-bug bit me too. For my needs, I figured an Olympus PEN E-PM2 would just be the apparatus to have. After some months, there is nothing that I would regret about this purchase! I love its point & shoot appearance and the silver color, pretending to be a somewhat lower end pocket camera, in particular with one of the body-cap-lenses fitted.
The regular reader of this blog might have seen some pinhole, body-cap-lens and other experiments coming along, which not only create interesting results, but also provide me with a lot of photo fun, which, of course, is why I am busy with photography in the first place.

Right, the title says Body Shopping... and this is exactly what I did today! Yep, I bought a second m4/3 body.
It was always one of my plans, once that I liked the E-PM2, to add some more advanced features.
My considerations were going back and forth between Panasonic and Olympus. In terms of models, that would have been the GH3 or GX7 on the Panasonic side of the game and the E-M10 or E-M5 in the Olympus quarters.
This pre-selection was mainly triggered by the availability of controls and the presence of an electronic view-finder.

In terms of pricing,  any of the above mentioned camerast are all pretty close, however, concerning features, anyone of said cameras provides a set none of the of the others comprise.

I got a portrait grip for my DSLR, which I like a lot, both actually, the DSLR and of course the portrait grip. Not only does the grip add battery-life and also prevents "The Broken Chicken Wing".
The option of having a grip with an extra shutter release button for vertical shooting removed the GX7 and the E-M10 from the short-list. While there is no additional grip for the GX7, the grip available for the E-M10 does neither have an additional battery, nor and extra shutter release button.

Going into the third selection round, one camera fell off. Owning a decent collection of legacy glass, in-body image stabilization seems a good thing to have, thereby eliminating the GH3 from the short-list.
Not so fast, I hear you screaming, what about the E-M10, having IBIS?! And there is one feature, speaking of legacy glass, the E-M10 has an advantage over any of the bodies on the list: focus peaking.
Is it a fight between the E-M10 and the E-M5 now? Focus peaking vs. battery grip?
To be honest, this had me thinking for a while. In particular since the pricing of the two bodies is very close these days. It seems that other features of the E-M10 attracted a lot of buyers, while the 2 year old E-M5 appears outdated to many.
Speaking of the E-M10's additional features, most seem really interesting for most folks, e.g. WiFi, HDR and other things of this nature. I like such features too, however, Samsung NX300, which I won recently, can connect to WiFi and do some tricks on tablet PCs, however, after having tested these facilities, I never actually used those in real photo-life. Concerning HDR, which I use occasionally, I prefer to have full control and rather create the final image manually.
Hence, the battle is between the battery grip with shutter release in verticals against focus peaking (for legacy glass)... or is it?!
This video partially pulled me over to the original OM-D, the E-M5: Pseudo Focus Peaking with the OM-D (a similar trick works for the Olympus PEN E-PM2, will write this up later, stay tuned!).
The final push was that a photo store next town (Rotterdam) offered a free Olympus HLD-6 battery grip to any OM-D E-M5.

=> The decision was taken! I reserved an Olympus OM-D E-M5 body for pick-up for €799.

And now things to really interesting and exciting! When I arrived at the shop, the very friendly employee (big cheers!!!) told me that the camera, when bought in the store, was €699.- only and offered me to sell it to me for this price, despite the earlier commitment from my side. Wow, that's what I call service... thumbs up (FOKA)!

Concluding, not only have a gotten all the features I was looking for, thanks to Amin Sabet, but also got a great deal on the camera (-€100) and a free HLD-6 (worth €200+). Wow! What a day!

The Gods of photography blessed me today!

Big THANKS to the Gods and FOKA!

Body Shopping Part 1

The Canon EOS 400D (Digital Rebel XTi) is one of the most sold DSLR cameras ever made.
In today's marketing, this series of cameras is considered "entry-level". However, there still is life in some of them, in particular since they are marketed as entry level and wont be exposed to pro-level (ab)use.

Got a second hand EOS 400D body for just €99.- from a photo-store next town. On first inspection, there were very few small signs of wear and tear. The coating of the lower camera grip was worn off a bit, which happens really quickly, as my experience with my own trusty EOS 350D has shown. Some paint was worn from the hot-shoe too.

But, the all important question: "How much life is still left in the camera?"
Or, in other word: "How many shutter cycles has this camera already done?"
Well, this is not easy to find out, but more to this later!
The actual shutter actuation count, when I finally found out how to display it, was just 2414. And this number includes the tests I did myself.

I expected a low count, however, not that low. As stated above, the camera has some minor signs of usage. The best clue came with the settings. When I switched the camera on, in the store actually, everything in the settings was factory default, even the mode dial was on the green box (fully automatic).

The camera itself is nothing particularly special in today's terms. However, I personally always liked my EOS 350D for its simplicity of just being an SLR, which happen to have an electronic image sensor. The EOS 400D is exactly the same, in a way.

One of the reasons for me to decide for the 400D was, that it comes in the same basic body as the 350D, allowing to use not only the 350D's batteries, but also the battery-grip.

The other main reason was the firmware improvements done in the 400D, allowing for better tethering. With the 350D tethering in Lightroom was really quirky and failed more often than it actually worked. In contrast thereto, the 400D is a solid and stable performer of said task.

Now, how to obtain the shutter cycle count of the EOS 400D?
There is no shutter count data in the RAW-file's EXIF metadata.
But, there is a firmware hack!
Have a look here:
The hack went smoothly w/o any problems at all. If you want to try for yourself, read everything, in particular the warnings, before you start!

Benefits of the 400plus hack are among others: scripting of the camera, advanced bracketing, auto ISO and custom modes!

Here's a tip for you, when you want a cheap and cheerful 10Mpixel DSLR, get a used EOS 400D body, in particular if you own some old Canon lenses anyway!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Composition and the Impact on Human Vision

Composition, a very theoretical beast, and boring, or is it?
Composition of an image can also be the power to determine the behavior of audience. In the movies, that happens all the times.
Here is a study of a photo I was lucky enough to shoot today.
Have a look:
Trees 'n Moon
I guess, you are not sure what to think of say about about this. And there are reasons for this!

First, I would like to go into the technicalities of the photo. 
This was shot at low sun, with a Panasonic Lumix LX7, with a polariser, as a -3/0/+3 Ev HDR at f/4.
Maybe HDR was not necessary, but, I did it anyway... Since the wind was blowing hard, moving the clouds and shaking the trees, so I had to use a lot anti-ghosting, so much of the image is just the 0 Ev frame anyway.
There was no cropping involved in post processing!

Composition and why this image is so tense.

First "problem", actually I waited for this, is the divided frame. Left and right, clearly different, right through the middle. That is very disturbing!

The moon is placed in the upper right thirds, that attracts the eye. However, the entire rest of the right side is negative space!

The trees are placed in the lower third, ending in the lower thirds, opposing the moon. This creates a tension between the the two.

And now to the most disturbing element of this photo, the element that actually does the trick, the clouds... dominating the entire image and the left half of the frame.

This is pure hardcore composition... which most wont find appealing in an image...
Ask yourself: Where to look first? Where to look at anyway?!

Irritating, isn't it?

Ahh, I love photography!

Explanation of the dilemma:
=> Human vision is attracted to the brightest part, the highest contrast and structure.

Right, there is one place, in this image we are not attracted to, the lower right. Nothing going on here, just empty blue sky...

The moon sits in the upper right thirds, having high contrast makes it very prominent (rule of thirds). The moon also contrasts strongly to the blue sky.

But, at the upper left, the brightest spot in the image attracts our senses. Actually, the brightest spot quite on the edge of the frame, which is very disturbing. Some photographers would probably correct that by darkening the brightest part of the clouds.

Surviving the clouds, just to be caught by the tree's detail... detail and structure, that's what we really like too look at!
And there is our vision, jumping in a triangle not sure what to look at... the moon, the bright clouds, the trees, or the moon?!

As I said, I love photography.

And, btw, here is the same scene, a few seconds later, when the clouds were gone.
Moon n' Trees
Technically the same photo, although, this is the 0Ev frame only.

As I said before, there was no cropping in post, neither here, nor above.

And yes, I did some tricks in post production (GIMP) on the upper image, besides HDR, none of which I did to this photo.

Composition wise, this photo is also cut in half, but by a diagonal rather than a vertical as we see above. Now there seems a pointy relationship between the moon and the tree, which seems supported by the faint structure visible in the otherwise pretty dull sky.
In terms of eye-movement, you may find yourself looking from the trees to the moon, crossing the dark diagonal. Once arrived at the moon, which now is the brightest part in the picture, your vision will rest.

Yes, this second picture is in balance and creates some rest, but, is it as interesting as the other one?

I am sure my audience is divided as to which of the 2 photos is more appealing, but that was not the point of this post. The point was what composition can do to the observer!


I was too busy with the composition and stuff... so that I actually did not note myself that the clouds form a face, staring at the moon. A dear friend of mine pointed the face out to me...
And here we have another component, which draws the eye, faces, e.g. the man in the moon.
Isn't it wonderful how our human brain works... locking on whatever is familiar!
When editing the photo, I personally did not notice the face at all, since I was so focused on the general lines...
rules of thirds
Here's what I see in my image now:
looky looky ... a face is staring at the moon!
Now, let's have a look/analysis to/of the image without clouds:
no clouds!
The moon and the trees are essentially in the same position as in the image before. However, there is a very different imperative to the image now. First of all, the vertical division is gone, and so is the "face".
What is left is a moon casting a frame to the trees (green lines), causing a diagonal negative spave (red lines). Incidently, some clouds form arcuate patterns across the sky (blue lines), pulling the image into balance.

Thanks to Richard for pointing out additional visuals... As I said, I was so busy with the general lines, that I missed the face.

Friday, May 2, 2014

To Infinity and Beyond

Again in a adventure using really cheap lenses. This time I went CCTV-style, using very a very in-expensive C-mount Bokeh-monster.

Concerning the title, this lens, mounted on a m4/3-camera, using the appropriate adapter, will actually focus at infinity, and even beyond (which is of no use what so ever).

Have a look, here is my Olympus PEN E-PM2 with a 25mm f1.4 CCTV-lens
Olympus w/ VF2 and 25mm f1.4 CCTV lens
Yes, this does look ridiculous, I agree, however, the EV (electronic view-finder) make focusing so much easier... highly recommended! And yes, the lens look kinda out of proportions.

CCTV-lens on Olympus E-PM2
Some words about the 25mm lens. There are several models available for cheap from the Far East. When browsing evil-Bay, you want to make sure to get a good one, or let's say, the one you really want. On youtube "Blunty" reviewed a CCTV-lens with a rather poor iris, which went from odd to square when stopped down. It seems that this lens employs an iris having 6 blades.

Contrary to Bluty's lens, I ordered one, on Evil-Bay, which was mentioned to have an 12 blades iris. And guess what, the lens that was sent to me got 12 blades in the iris! So, if you are looking for consistent bokeh, pay attention to which lens to order...

Now, let's dive into some pictorial goodness...
Very much like the lensbaby stuff, the CCTV-lens has some sort of a sweet-spot, which can be controlled by the iris, hence the importance of having a homogeneous iris in the first place.

25mm @ f1.4
25mm @ f4.0
25mm - closed as much as possible
Right, technical stuff done, what about real files?
Don't know what drove me to take picture of moving subjects... the manual focusing with this lens is really sublime, i.e. very slow. Good for getting the focus on stationary subjects.
Although sheep are not belonging to the group of fastest creatures of the world, they gave me a hard time getting focus, lens wide open.

sheep running - f1.4
This little fellow was storming towards me from meters away... no chance getting a picture.
Then, close to the fence, he started to browse, however, he was moving is head sideways in a very fast pace, making it nearly impossible to get a good shot. Below, that's the best I could do... with a fully manual lens.
Moving to more stationary subjects, what about some flowers?
Flowers @ f1.4
The shot above clearly shows the sweet spot effect of the CCTV lens. Still, this is just a regular shot.
In the next photo, I went a close as I possibly can, i.e. some sort of "closest up possible".
Minimum focus distance, f1.4
The following 2 images are HDR... for all you haters. For taking 3 shots, I had to stop the lens down, since it was impossible to get an underexposed frame with the lens wide open... and there is not ND-filter in the PEN-Mini2.
And yes, I used photomatix, for styling too. Argh! Should be a no-go, according to many photographers.
Anyway, here is what the results are:
Sundown HDR, stopped down CCTV lens
Sundown HDR, stopped down CCTV lens
CCTV-lenses are interesting, inexpensive alternatives to rather expensive micro-4/3 system lenses.

There are some down-points to such lenses:
  • Those lenses look really quirky on an actual m4/3-camera.
  • They create severe vignetting, when stopped down entirely the vignetting is beyond being acceptable. 
  • Wide open the focus falls into a sweet spot rather than a decent focus plane.
  • f8 seems to be the limit of stopping down the lens decently.
On the positive:
  • Those lenses are really inexpensive.
  • The Bokeh, using the right lens, is beyond any available pro-grade (D)SLR-lens.
  • The low-light performance is exceptional.
  • C-mount lenses are really small, not filling up the bag.
  • Focus action is really slow, making it easy to focus w/ the aperture wide open, provided the subject is not moving too fast.
Summing up, C-mount lenses are worth the consideration. There are some legacy specialty lenses available for this format... certainly worth to have a look at.