Xmas party time and time to count our blessings that we have Micro Four Thirds

Written by Gary on December 17th, 2013

Yep, Christmas has come around again and far too quickly, it’s time for work Xmas parties which are traditionally documented with poor image quality smartphone or compact cameras – without flash indoors or with their tiny built-in flash.

Social events such as these are where Micro Four Thirds really can allow you to create great quality, flattering photos without direct flash, and yet still not take a camera bag of equipment which risks being stolen.

Even better, some of the cameras such as the Olympus E-M5 are almost waterproof so if someone does spill their glass of champagne all over it you don’t have to get too upset!

I was able to walk to my work function with my Olympus E-M5 camera with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens in one jacket pocket, and an Olympus flash in each internal jacket pocket (I only ended up using one as the party was too crowded to set up a remote auxiliary flash), and a spare lens such as the almost waterproof  Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 in the other jacket pocket.

This level of versatility is why Micro Four Thirds is the BEST compromise on size, weight, image quality and value for money.

No dSLR can offer this capability.

No smaller sensor compact camera can offer this level of image quality.

The lens:

Whilst you can use your kit zoom lens with its f/3.5-5.6 widest aperture range, there are a few issues which limit its versatility such as:

  • slower autofocus in dim light
  • too much depth of field with less options to create shallower depth of field to blur the background and party goers in the rear who are not the subject of your shot
  • requires more flash output, especially when using bounced flash, this can be an issue for battery life and flash recycle time
  • limits your ability to allow a little bit of underexposure of the ambient room lighting without having to resort to higher ISO or shutter speeds which are too slow

The best lens is probably a compact, champagne-proof lens such as the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 as the f/2.8 aperture addresses all of the above nicely and the 24-80mm equivalent field of view is perfect for small groups and large groups indoors.

If this lens is too big or expensive, then my favourite lens for these occasions is the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens which allows the camera and lens to fit in a jacket pocket.


Here is how I set my camera up so that anyone can use it and take great shots, even if they have had a few drinks:

Set AF to S-AF with closest eye face detection ON.

Set ISO to 400 (this allows for faster flash cycling).

Shoot in RAW so that it is easier to correct white balance if there are color hues resulting from bounce flash off non-neutral walls.

Set exposure mode to manual:

  • using the 20mm f/1.7 lens, set aperture to f/2.2 (or f/2.8 or f/4 if you need more depth of field for group shots)
  • set shutter speed to a level that provides some ambient exposure (eg. 1/80th sec – this is trial and error)

NOTE: if you are shooting in bright office lighting instead of darkened party rooms, you will probably need to use the lowest ISO on your camera and the fastest shutter speed for your flash sync (1/160th sec on Panasonic and 1/200th or 1/250th sec on newer Olympus cameras) so that the background office lighting can be under-exposed – even then you may need to add a polarising or ND filter to allow wide apertures.

Set flash exposure compensation to zero or +0.3 (again test this for your scene)

Attach the Olympus FL600 flash to the camera and rotate head to bounce off a wall above and behind you, or to the side of you so that the light will fall nicely on your subject’s face. Flash should be in TTL mode.

Getting the shots:

And you are then set, these are the type of shots which can be attained with little expertise of the “photographer” other than half-press shutter, wait for white square around the faces, compose, wait for the best shot then fire away.

Given the photo bombing by other party goers, you will need to do a bit of cropping and vignetting in post-production to keep your images simple!

ps.. I don’t always get mobbed like this!

Very happy Xmas group

nicely lit portraits

nicely lit portraits

nicely lit portraits

If you use a wide aperture and face detection AF, be aware that it will focus on the closest face it detects and the others in the group may be out of focus, this can work well as in this photo, but generally you will want to try to keep most subjects relatively equidistant from the camera or choose a smaller aperture to gain more depth of field.


It does help if your work colleagues are not only amazing people to work with but scrub up well for the photos, but it is still best to try and get the shots done EARLY in the party before too much has been indulged!

NOTE: no red eyes, no nasty reflections from glasses, no unflattering shiny reflections from direct flash on skin – just beautiful soft lighting that suits most people.

Most of the eyes have nice catch-lights from the flash hitting the wall behind the photographer, while the eyes are not too dark as is often the case with bouncing off a ceiling.

10 reasons why Micro Four Thirds easily beats a dSLR for parties:

  1. small enough to carry in a jacket so you don’t have to put it down on a table and have it stolen
  2. lenses are smaller and less intimidating to your subjects who will be more “natural”
  3. some, like the OM-D’s are “champagne-proof” – just rinse them under the tap (if you have a “waterproof” lens as well such as the 12-40mm f/2.8)
  4. just enough shallowness of depth of field with 20mm lens at f/2-f/2.8 for party shots whilst still giving good background blur
  5. ability to use 20mm f/2.0 instead of 40mm f/4.0 on a full frame for the desired DOF means flash does not have to work as hard saving batteries and recycle time
  6. ability to use f/2 with adequate DOF gives more background blurring than if one used f/4 on full frame (background blurring unlike DOF is more a function of actual aperture not 35mm eq. aperture)
  7. option of image stabilised f/1.7 prime lenses allows for longer shutter speeds if you need it for the ambient lighting
  8. image quality across the frame is generally sharper so your subjects near the edge appear as sharp as those in the centre
  9. eye detect face detection autofocus means it will accurately AF on subject’s closest eye no matter where they are in the frame, allowing easier, faster, compositions with room for context
  10. you don’t look as silly as if you carried a big camera and lens to a party

Best wishes to you all for a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and take the time to count your many blessings, and think of those who are not so lucky.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Traciatim says:

    Those seem pretty great for flash shots at a work party. I recently picked up the fl600r since I wanted to near how to use a flash properly, since I’ve always just avoided it at all costs in the past (only built in or fl-20 from my c5050z days). What do you do when you don’t have a close wall, some kind of diffuser or bounce system or just deal with flashed faces?

    • admin says:

      If there is no suitable wall to bounce off, I resort to bouncing off the ceiling (but then you may need a direct fill in flash too to avoid dark eye sockets if the angle from the ceiling is too steep).

      I have been known to ask someone to hold up a white table cloth to bounce the flash into 🙂