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Could the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II be the most versatile and accomplished camera ever made?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Now that is a big claim, but after having a considerable hands on with this flagship Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera from Olympus, I am starting to think it may well be.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II may not be the best in class of every single feature, but, it sure has so many features in a compact, light camera that the overall capabilities will address nearly every need with adequate service, and it has some amazing features which allow unprecedented tools to allow you to capture moments of time with accurate focus and incredible speed.

The original Olympus OM-D E-M5 revolutionised the mirrorless camera world by bring all the main pieces together in a compact, light package – nice EVF, excellent IS, good image quality, good retro looks but it had one great deficit – inability to AF on fast moving subjects. The E-M1 mark I was a step in the right direction at addressing this with the introduction of sensor based PDAF, but it is really the E-M1 mark II that finally addresses this shortcoming and builds upon it in many ways – birds in flight are now within the reach of those carrying small, light kits.

Let’s have a look at the feature set.

Take anywhere camera and great for airline travel

A camera is of little use to you if you don’t take it with you.

The compact, light size of the camera and lenses mean you can take a camera and flash in jacket pockets or even a larger hand bag to social events, and the size won’t draw too much attention, and won’t be as intimidating as a larger dSLR.

You can carry a couple E-M1 cameras and a few lenses on cabin luggage and still be well under the usual 7.5kg cabin limit.

A friend of mine last week was boarding an international flight with business class ticket and the airline refused to allow his camera bag as cabin luggage as it was too heavy, and forced him to put it through check in luggage – that was the last he saw of his $20,000 full frame camera gear – and not covered by his travel insurance!

The small size of the Olympus also means you can have lighter and less expensive tripod heads – if you need a tripod!

Unobtrusive and silent

The lack of a mirror means the camera is far less noisy than a dSLR, and in its default mode is very quiet, but can be made silent by choosing the electronic silent shutter mode. In addition, most of the lenses are near silent during focus. This means they are great at classical music concerts, the ballet, weddings, etc.

Silent mode can automatically turn off AF beep, AF illuminator and flash mode.

A dSLR needs to be put into cumbersome mirror lock up mode to have any chance of getting as quiet as this, but then you are forced to use a bright rear annoying LCD screen instead of the viewfinder.

Even heavy rain will not stop you

With perhaps the best weathersealing in the business, one can be confident shooting with it in the rain – as long as the lens is also weathersealed as well!

Although Olympus do not recommend getting it wet unnecessarily, it will survive a bottle of water being poured over it – although one should protect the hotshoe pins and ensure all seals are in place.

Image quality

Smaller sensor cameras such as the Olympus will not match the latest full frame sensor image quality in terms of high ISO image noise and dynamic range, but the E-M1 II is sufficiently high in image quality for most purposes and at low ISO levels, where it will mainly be used, surpasses the full frame dSLRs such as the Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mark III in terms of dynamic range.

If one needs depth of field then the E-M1 II can potentially match these full frame dSLRs by being able to use 2 stops wider aperture and thus shoot 2 stops lower ISO which negates the advantage of the full frame cameras.

Furthermore, the superb, class leading image stabilisation combined with wide aperture lenses mean it is rare to need high ISO levels, and allows much longer shutter speeds hand held than any other camera currently available.

Image quality is not just dynamic range and sensor noise, optics are a critical component, and the smaller sensor allows more affordable high quality lenses with better edge-to-edge image quality, and less softening away from the centre than many full frame lenses.

When one needs high resolution 50mp images, the E-M1 II has a sensor shift multiple image technology which allows 50mp images to be obtained – this does require use of a tripod and is only for static scenes. An alternative approach to high resolution images is by use of panoramic stitches.

Camera shake is a critical element which impairs image quality and comes from 3 main sources:

  • hand held camera shake – here the E-M1 II is class leading in preventing this – one can carefully hand hold a wide angle lens down to more than 2 seconds with acceptable results!
  • mirror slap – this only occurs with dSLRs, and not with mirrorless cameras such as the E-M1. For best results on a dSLR, you need to use a tripod and mirror lock up – very cumbersome and clunky indeed
  • mechanical shutter shake – most modern cameras including the E-M1 II allow 1st shutter to be electronic to avoid this issue (these are the diamond “AntiShock” or silent heart shaped settings on the E-M1′s drive modes)

Bottom line – the E-M1 II will give better image quality than your old 35mm film, and be competitive with some full frame dSLRs, and easily beat the image quality of my $5000 Canon 1D mark III pro dSLR of 2007 which was at that time Canon’s flagship sports dSLR. For most uses this is plenty image quality – for those that need more then a a heavy, super expensive medium format digital system will be even better than the big, heavy Sony a7R II or Nikon D810 full frame dSLRs – its just a matter of how big, heavy and expensive you can manage.

Ask yourself, are all those wonderful, famous images over the past 50 years taken with manual focus 35mm film cameras at f/8 with nearly everything in focus, no longer great photos because their “image quality” is not as good as a modern full frame dSLR or E-M1 Mark II – of course not!

Don’t get too hung up on pixel quality – there is far more to a photograph than just pixels!

Capturing the moment

No matter how good the camera’s image quality, it is useless if it gets in the way of you capturing the image or does not have the tools to allow you to capture the more difficult shots.

The E-M1 II has these tools a plenty.

Mechanical shutter speed to 1/8000th sec.

Electronic shutter speed to 1/32,000th sec!

Burst rates to 18fps with continuous autofocus and up to 60fps with AF only on 1st shot.

Shooting an unpredictable fast moving scene such as a bullet passing through balloons, or a lizard’s tongue capturing an insect – no problem – just use pro-Capture mode!

Pro-Capture mode allows you to capture a set number of images at a user predetermine frame rate from the moment you half press the shutter to the moment you press the shutter, and then continue capturing a user determined number of images after the shutter is pressed. This can be achieved in full electronic silent shutter mode.

This addresses the issue of human error due to human reflex response times and eradicates any shutter lag issues – of course it helps if you have focus locked already.

Now you could fill up your memory card by shooting at 60fps and save up to the last 14 frames prior to full shutter release and then a set amount up to 99 or an unlimited amount after the shutter is fully pressed.

Depending upon your subject and needs you may prefer to shoot at 15fps and capture only 5 frames prior and 10 frames after – it is very customisable and unlike most other cameras with this new feature – you can shoot in full RAW file type not just 4K jpeg with images extracted from a 4K video stream.

Even if this was introduced on a dSLR, I just couldn’t imagine the dSLR mirror flopping up and down at rates faster than 15fps – and it would sure be noisy!

Unprecedented high image quality hand holdable telephoto reach

Matched with the brilliant Olympus mZD micro Zuiko 300mm f/4 OIS lens and Dual IS giving 6.5EV image stabilisation and superb image quality with incredible resolving power, the possibilities are endless – the lighter weight, weathersealed kit will allow you to carry it further into the jungle and you can get away with not bringing a big heavy tripod along.

This is just impossible with a full frame dSLR and if you wanted 600mm telephoto reach you are paying a lot more money and carrying a lot of heavy gear – unlike the Olympus kit, you won’t get that on cabin luggage!

Fast, accurate focus with many tools to assist in focus of difficult subjects

This topic deserves a lot of in depth analysis so I will do this in a future blog post.

In short though:

Ever since the Olympus OM-D E-M5 was introduced, Olympus took the lead over dSLRs for fast, accurate autofocus on static contrasty subjects, and the E-M1 Mark II has extended this. Unlike dSLRs, there is no need to calibrate each lens for accuracy. To see how fast and accurate these Olympus cameras are, you can resort to the rear touch screen mode  where you can touch a subject on the screen and almost instantly, the camera will AF lock on that subject no matter where they are in the frame then immediately take the photo – and this speed is capable with many Micro Four Thirds lenses.

The Olympus cameras also have featured a very handy, accurate closest eye autodetection autofocus feature which allows you to capture the subject’s closest eye in focus no matter where in the frame it is – as long as you give sufficient time (usually much less than 1 sec) and the subject’s face is visible to the camera and not moving too much. Great for static portraits! This is not possible with most other cameras, and the only dSLR that can do this, the Nikon D750, only allows it for when the eye is near the centre of the frame where the AF points are located.

These mirrorless cameras have AF sensors spread across most of the image area unlike dSLRs which tend to only have AF points near the center, means you have more versatility, and speed in locking AF when the subject is off-center – and who really wants their subject in the center?

Release priority settings allow user to set camera so that one can hold the shutter pressed but it will only take the shot when a AF lock is acquired  – a very handy technique.

In situations where AF can be difficult, one can set the camera to use rear-button autofocus lock and disable the half-press shutter AF lock – this allows you to obtain AF by pressing the rear button and then just wait until the moment you want to capture occurs.

If one has to resort to manual focus, these OM-D cameras also allow image stabilised magnified view through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen as well as focus peaking option which highlights the area in focus. In addition, even in magnified view mode, the shutter can be allowed to half-press to AF lock on the magnified view area! (“LV Close Up Settings” under D2 menu). The MF assist functions of magnified view and focus peaking can be set to automatically temporarily activate when MF ring is turned. I person prefer to manually activate the magnified view by allocating it to a function button.

If you have ever tried manually focusing a tilt-shift lens in an optical viewfinder of a dSLR, you will appreciate how useful these tools are!

In addition, most of the higher end lenses have a MF clutch mechanism which not only allows rapid selection of MF instead of AF, but gives a better MF ring experience with end stops and MF distance scale. Many of these lenses also have a Lens Function Button which can be programmed to do various jobs such as halt AF temporarily when the subject goes out of the frame.

Furthermore, there are instances where you want even more depth of field – the latest OM-D cameras, including this one, have both manual focus bracketing and automatic in-camera focus stacking modes to allow a series of shots with user customised focus settings to combine photos of a close subject, mid subject and distant subject to give an overall sharp in focus image – this is particularly useful for macro work to get the whole subject in focus, and also for close up wide angle landscapes.

In addition, the E-M1 Mark II takes the photographer far beyond this capability with the following tools:

  • PDAF sensors for faster moving subjects – although not quite as fast and reliable as the latest Nikon sports dSLR, but impressive indeed for a mirrorless camera and adequate for most users and even birds in flight which is notoriously difficult. Birds in flight is now “easy” see comments on this blog.
  • User customisable in-camera focus range limiter - this is an awesome unique tool – user can set the closest focus and the most distant focus which the AF system will range through trying to find a subjevt to lock onto. Not only does this speed up AF lock acquisition, but can be used to ignore distracting foregrounds or backgrounds such as wire fences, windows, foreground foliage, etc. It will work with all Micro Four Thirds AF lenses and on my testing, works with both Panasonic and Olympus Four Thirds lenses but not with Canon EF lenses using the Metabones adapter. Current dSLRs have to settle for the much less useful lens based focus limiters which only have 2 or 3 set ranges.
  • C-AF tracking algorithm parameters can be customised in a similar manner to sports dSLRs eg. AF scanner mode, C-AF lock sensitivity setting
  • Preset MF allows one to be in MF mode with focus set to a user set distance (easily set by using AF or magnified MF beforehand), and then potentially, use the rear button to AF on another part of the scene, then quickly reset back to the preset MF distance ala focus pulling method of video work – this could be very handy indeed!
  • AF targeting pad – the rear LCD can be swiveled out and used as a touch screen to select the AF point while viewing the image through the viewfinder – awesome for off-centered subjects, and as the screen can swivel out, your nose wont accidentally move the AF point. One can set Fn1 button to reset the AF point to the center point.

Exposure and previsualisation tuning tools

Modern cameras are amazingly sophisticated in getting exposures what they think is optimum for a given scene – they access a massive database of similar scenes to determine the best way to set exposure. If they detect a face, they will tend to expose for the face and ignore the background.

The OM-D cameras take this further thanks to their electronic viewfinder which, unlike the optical viewfinders on dSLRs, allows:

  • WYSIWYG view – if you adjust exposure compensation to under-expose, the view will change to be darker to reflect this change
  • exposure aids such as Live Histogram and Highlight/Shadow warnings which are extremely useful in determining where in the image the image will end uo featureless and blown out unless you adjust exposure. If you use spot metering, this area displays on the histogram in green.
  • pre-visualisation aids such as WYSIWYG monotone or picture styles, image aspect ratio, Colour Creator, white balance, ART filter effects, keystone adjustment as well as visually compose your 2 frame multiple exposure which would be very difficult with an optical viewfinder!
  • Live Boost for darker scenes or when using flash as a main light source
  • “optical viewfinder mode” – attempts to give a more natural view without the WYSIWYG feature or Art Filters or picture style effects
  • grid overlays such as rule of thirds
  • dual electronic level overlays
  • keystone compensation

High level of customisation

For better or worse, the Olympus cameras have an incredible amount of customisation possible which can be very confusing to the newbie (the newbie can always resort to iAUTO mode).

Nearly every control can be allocated different functions depending on the user’s needs, and with the E-M1 Mark II, these can now be stored in one of the 3 custom settings and selected on the top right PASM dial as well as saved to a PC and reloaded from a PC.

An example – the “2×2″ lever which normally allows the twin dials to gain different functions, can be re-allocated to be the POWER ON-OFF switch while the named power switch is disabled – very handy indeed for those wanting just right handed operation of the camera.

No need for your reading glasses!!!

Us older guys who need reading glasses to operate dSLRs can survive very well without them using the OM-D cameras.

You can see all the main settings at a glance in the EVF by pressing the OK button and then can adjust any of them.

You can visualise a playback image through the EVF and even magnify it.

You can visualise the full menu system in the EVF and adjust any parameters.

When using my Canon 1D mark III dSLR, I have to take my reading glasses off to take the shot looking through the viewfinder, and then put them back on to playback the image, change the menu, or view the top LCD screen – and this constant swapping is extremely frustrating and risks breaking the glasses and losing the shot and losing your interaction with your subject who then thinks you are inept.

High resolution “scans” of film

Gone are the days where you need to buy an expensive, slow film scanner to digitize your negatives and slides.

Set the camera up on a tripod with a macro lens, and a light source beneath your film (eg. an iPad with a diffuser).

The articulating rear screen makes ergonomics of macro work so much easier and the magnified view makes accurate manual or auto focus a breeze.

If you want high resolution 50mp jpegs / 64Mb RAW files, just turn on the High Resolution mode.

Very nice hand held “run and gun” video

In addition to the now standard 1080HD video, the E-M1 Mark II sports high quality 4K 24/30p video, but perhaps more importantly, the class leading image stabilisation works extremely well in video mode so that you can get away without having big, heavy tripods or stabilisation rigs.

The forthcoming Panasonic GH5 will provide even better 4K video quality, but for most people, the E-M1 Mark II’s video will suffice.

Easy to use flash:

PC sync port as well as a flash hotshoe.

Olympus flash units are generally more simple to use than Canon or Nikon flashes, and of course there is remote optical TTL flash (“RC mode”) as well as high speed sync modes (“Super FP”) and flash sync is a nice fast 1/250th sec – better than most full frame dSLRs.

In the studio setting, or darker indoors when using flash as you main light source, you can use Manual exposure mode (but still with automatic TTL flash if desired) and have the viewfinder automatically change from a the usual WYSIWYG ambient light mode (which will appear too dark if your manual exposure is set to grossly underexpose the ambient light) to a more useful optimised view mode.

Unfortunately, Olympus in their wisdom has added a 5th hotshoe pin in the last few models to accommodate a power supply to certain flash units. This means one can no longer safely just attach a Canon style flash unit as I suspect the flash unit may not appreciate the power supply. HOWEVER, by using the PC sync and manual flash exposure, one can achieve fairly even scene coverage at shutter speed of even 1/500th sec which will be very handy for outdoor sunlit shooting.

Smartphone WiFi wireless remote control

This is very cool indeed – the ability to remotely see the live camera image on the smartphone, change camera settings remotely, and then select the AF area by touching the desired subject on the smartphone resulting in AF lock on the subject anywhere in the frame and immediate shutter release and image transferred back to the smartphone.

Just awesome – next time you are in a lightning storm, have the camera set up on the tripod in the rain with a lens hood on to prevent rain hitting front lens glass, then remotely control the camera from the safety and comfort of your car.

Obviously this is also very cool when traveling without a PC – just transfer images wirelessly to your iPad or iPhone and then upload to internet.

Night photography features

The E-M1 Mark II has dramatically improved long exposure thermal noise to such an extent that one may be able to avoid using the “Noise Reduction” automatic dark frame noise subtraction technology which effectively doubles the length of your long exposures.

It has improved high ISO noise compared to previous models but still 1-2EV worse than current full frame cameras, but you can still get good image quality of Milky Way astroscapes using a wide angle f/2 lens at ISO 1600 or 3200 at 20sec exposures if that is what you are into.

The EVF can also be set to a Live Boost mode to allow better visualisation and manual focus of dim objects such as stars and, optionally, boosted even further to Live Boost 2 mode to assist in composition of very dark scenes – although the frame rate of the EVF is very slow and not great for focus, and really only suitable for tripod work.

AF on relatively bright stars is easy with a lens f/4 or brighter – just choose a single AF point instead of a block of points – if your lens is not as wide an aperture or the star dimmer, consider using AFL with the in-camera focus limiter to stop the focus hunting so much. If you really get stuck, use magnified MF mode – and even try AFL whilst magnified!

Preset MF mode – just in case you accidentally turn the MF ring – you may as well lock it in as a preset MF so you can quickly return to sharp focus!

In addition it has the interesting and very cool unique long exposure modes of the previous Olympus models:

  • Live Time and Live BULB – unlike dSLRs which don’t get past 30secs for long exposure timed shots, the Olympus cameras can get to 60secs and in addition, visually display the progress of the image “development” so you can assess the exposure. If you want longer timed BULB, just use normal BULB and set the maximum duration for 1,2,4 or 8 minutes, but in this mode there is no visual update of the image on screen.
  • Live Composite – allows an initial scene exposure shot then a user customisable number of further images, but with only the brighter areas added to the original image which prevents the original scene becoming over-exposed. Great for car light trails, fireworks, star trails, etc.

Other features:

  • automatic eye sensor EVF switching
  • fully articulated, swivel touch screen
  • dual SD card slots including one UHS-II compatible slot
  • in-camera automatic HDR as well as manual HDR modes
  • Timelapse mode up to 999 frames
  • Timelapse movies at 4K 5fps, 1080HD 5/10/15fps
  • Multi-exposure mode to automatically combine 2 photos with optional auto-gain (the original one can be one on the memory card or a previous multi-exposure RAW file which thus allows unlimited multi-exposures)
  • keystone compensation
  • Automatic flicker reduction with flourescent lighting (or you can choose 50Hz or 60Hz, or turn it off)
  • AF illuminator built-in (no flash required)
  • ART filters to help previsualise images as well as create special effects
  • Colour Creator image toning and colour control
  • in-camera RAW processing to create new jpegs in playback mode
  • Selfie assist mode – automatically reverses the image on the swivel screen when facing the subject
  • USB 3.0 port
  • stereo mic, mic port, headphone port, audio level controls
  • optional battery portrait grip
  • optional underwater housing

What’s missing?

Like all cameras, there are necessary compromises, some of these relate to the sensor size such as:

  • ability to achieve ultra shallow depth of field with wide angle lenses or with most zoom lenses (for most purposes you can achieve an adequate level of shallow depth of field using the E-M1 Mark II with wide aperture prime lenses or a f/2.8 telephoto zoom). Of course, it won’t be long before cameras will have the new iPhone 7 portrait feature of intelligent software blurring of the background which you can do now in computer software but is time consuming and difficult to get the same effect that the lens paints on a full frame camera with a 35mm f/1.4 lens or 85mm f/1.2 lens.
  • high ISO performance for low light action subjects, although the noise levels at ISO 1600-3200 should suffice for most uses, and made up for with its other advantages such as hand holdable telephoto reach, and wide aperture telephoto lenses giving more depth of field and allowing lower ISO by using a wider aperture.
  • single shot high resolution 50mp capability

Other features that are missing and issues:

  • no Scene modes to assist newbies in photographing sunsets, fireworks, etc. – all other Olympus digital cameras have these, but it seems Olympus has taken a leaf out of the Canon and Nikon books and left this beginner’s easy presets out of their pro camera – presumably as no space on the PASM dial after they added the 3 custom settings
    • this means no Panorama mode at all! – you need to manually ensure WB, exposure and focus are all locked then take your shots and then stitch them on a computer software package such as Lightroom
  • no built-in GPS – not really needed but some may like it, the rest of us can use the smartphone app to achieve the image tagging
  • no built-in popup flash – but comes with a small bundled flash unit which can act as a master remote TTL flash controller
  • not able to use shutter speeds faster than 1/50th sec in silent electronic shutter mode as top of frame not illuminated – the GH-5 can sync to 1/2000th sec in electronic shutter mode – presumably thanks to a faster or different designed readout.
  • unable to use the older BLN style batteries – new, larger batteries are needed
  • no sweep panorama mode – I must admit this mode on some cameras doesn’t make sense to me – if you want good quality images you should not be moving the camera during the shot – I won’t be missing this.
  • in-camera panorama stitching – you will need software to do this and you need to manually lock settings for each image so they look similar
  • radio TTL remote wireless flash control – PocketWizards have created a third party option for Panasonic GH4 so hopefully they will produce an OM-D version, and Nissin have just announced a Micro Four Thirds version of their Nissin Air System which works on 2.4Ghz radio frequency for remote TTL flash.
  • Lightroom 5 will not open the RAW ORF files – you will need to upgrade to Lightroom 6, or use Adobe Raw converter to convert RAW to DNG (does not currently read the 64Mb HiRes RAW files), or use Olympus Viewer 3 to slowly convert to 100mb TIFF files as Lightroom 5 will read the DNG or TIFF files
  • Windows File Explorer or photo app does not display these ORF files yet – needs an updated codec to be installed but it seems this is not available as yet
  • you may need to update firmware for some lenses – eg. Sigma has just released an update for the 30mm f/1.4 MFT lens
  • unanswered questions – does the EVF fog up in high humidity as occurs with my E-M1 mark I and E-M5 mark I?

There are some firmware improvements I would like to see:

  • INTRODUCE AN OPTIONAL ARTIFICIAL LOUD SHUTTER SOUND – the shutter is so silent, subject’s don’t know when you have taken the shot and they can move
  • ability to set the auto ISO default slowest shutter speed to (image stabilisation effectiveness in EV / focal length) x user EV setting
    • the Olympus default is 1/focal length which doesn’t allow the user to utilise the image stabilisation capabilities to its full effect and doesn’t even take into account the 2x crop factor effect
    • having a user EV setting as a user variable allows the user to take control of how much they trust the IS and their hand holding skills
  • ability to toggle AF targeting pad ON/OFF via a button – currently cannot allocate this function to a button
  • Release Priority S = OFF is not honored when AF mode is S3 thus cannot have AF locked and press shutter and wait until subject enters focus distance before shutter fires, admittedly honoring this could create problems for users who use back button AFL then recompose as shutter would not release at all and would confuse them – maybe there needs to be an additional setting?
  • AF with Four Thirds lenses is still too slow – perhaps even slower than when using Canon EF lenses with a Metabones adapter!
  • add a Panorama mode to make this easier than manually locking all the settings for each shot
  • ability to select AF sensor mode: hybrid vs PDAF vs CDAF
    • this would potentially give the photographer even more control, but perhaps more importantly, allow companies like Metabones to get certain Canon lenses to autofocus fast and accurately on the camera (for example the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens just won’t autofocus properly – and even on a Sony a7RII, one must select PDAF mode not CDAF mode for it to work, most other Canon lenses will AF fine on both these cameras with a Metabones adapter, although not as fast as a Micro Four Thirds lens on the E-M1 II).
  • option to have spot meter coincide with the current single AF point – the Mark II as with prior OM-D models always keeps spot meter in the centre
  • firmware bug causing issues with Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens focal limiter – PS.. Panasonic has issued a firmware update for the lens to fix this.
  • ability to use the aperture ring on some Panasonic lenses
    • there are not that many lenses with aperture rings but it shouldn’t be that hard to add that fuctionality and make it useful
  • ability to use Dual IS with Panasonic OIS lenses
    • if Panasonic and Olympus want to continue the paradigm of a unified Micro Four Thirds system, they need to work a bit closer together to improve compatibilities – Panasonic cameras will not do Dual IS with Olympus OIS lenses either, while panasonic cameras don’t have the lens database data to allow Panasonic’s DFD AF technology to work with Olympus lenses or Panasonic Four Thirds lenses for that matter.
    • in the interim, probably best to turn the lens IS off when using Panasonic lenses
    • on a similar vein, the ProCapture mode is said to only work with Olympus M.Zuiko lenses.

Firmware updates Olympus are allegedly working on:

  • Adding ‘Auto ISO’ capability to manual video shooting
  • Allowing for control of autofocus racking speed while shooting video
  • Clarifying and enhancing customizability of continuous autofocus behavior beyond the current -2 to +2 ‘tight to loose’ scale
  • Working on the AF algorithm to improve tracking performance
  • Enable the ability to enter playback and menus while the buffer is clearing

Final word:

This is one hell of a photographer’s tool but so feature laden and customisable that one really needs a good grounding in photography and a preparedness to learn how to use these features to avoid being frustrated with its complexity.

That said, beginners can resort to just using iAUTO mode and even using the rear LCD screen to touch a subject to focus and take the shot.

It is indeed a camera to grow into, but having come from the E-M1 it does feel very natural in the hands with similar ergonomics – although the menu system has been revamped for the better.

Finally, the camera is only part of the equation – the great range of high quality dedicated lenses for the camera is probably the biggest reason to choose this system, and it seems Olympus is preparing to announce even more nice lenses soon – the rumour is wide aperture telephoto prime lenses – here’s hoping for a 100mm f/1.4 and a 200mm f/2.8.

Affordable compact mirrorless cameras for the parent wanting to capture their child or pet

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Most parents, even if they are not photographers, want a camera that is easy to use and will capture high quality photos of their kids as they grow up – and as good as smartphones are, they can really suck with poor image quality in low light, and often have trouble capturing the moment, not to mention, lack the option of having a bounce flash for nice light.

A cheap digital SLR camera will do a good job of moving subjects but these cameras and lenses are too big for hand bags and are not able to automatically autofocus on a child’s face and lack the many features we now take for granted in mirrorless cameras. Nevertheless they could be a cheaper option for some. For example, Canon 100D with 40mm f/2.8 STM lens will cost around $AU490 after cash back and then you can throw it away and get a mirrorless when you can afford it.

Mirrorless cameras offer smaller size and are quierter, less intrusive while allowing a range of features not available on dSLRs – unfortunately they do tend to struggle with focusing on moving subjects unless they have PDAF technology (the larger OM-D E-M1 or Sony mirrorless) or DFD technology such as the latest Panasonic cameras.

All cameras will struggle to focus on strongly backlit subjects (sunny window behind your subject) or low contrast subjects such as black cats in dim lighting.

The falling Australian dollar has made camera gear more expensive in Australia which makes finding a good camera and good low light lens for under $AU1000 challenging – don’t forget to consider buying second hand on Ebay!

The main requirements:

  • affordable – around $AU1000 for camera and lens
  • compact – should fit in a ladies hand bag
  • high quality images – thus a reasonably big sensor is needed – Micro Four Thirds gives this while still allowing compact camera and lens
  • fast, accurate autofocus on the child’s face – now this is where things can get difficult in low light and with a moving child
  • ability to touch the rear screen and rapidly have the camera focus on that area and take the photo
  • smartphone WiFi connectivity to allow instant uploads to the net via the smartphone
  • image stabilised 1080HD video capability
  • a low light lens to allow better images indoors with or without a flash

The Olympus options:

I love Olympus cameras, particularly the OM-D series (as I prefer to use a viewfinder rather than the rear screen), but the Pen series may be very adequate and more compact for the casual parent photographer who is happy to just use the rear screen and not have a view finder.

None of the Olympus models at this price point have PDAF capabilities so will not be able to track a subject with autofocus, but their autofocus is so fast you can usually get away without this as long as the subject is not moving too quickly.

Then you would need to select a nice low light lens which will allow better images in low light indoors, and for this, I would look at the Olympus m.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8 ($AU431) (or Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 ($AU509) if you want a wide view or Olympus m.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 ($AU382) if you want a closer view). If you have lots of money then the Olympus m.Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 lens will be even better but this will set you back around $AU1600 for the lens alone!

The Panasonic options:

The latest Panasonic cameras are very nice as they have Panasonics DFD autofocus technology which should allow faster autofocus on moving subjects.

  • Panasonic Lumix DC-GX850 $AU649 with kit zoom lens – coming in Feb 2017, has 4K video, selfie mode with flip up screen and hands free modes (face shutter, buddy shutter, Jump snap) as well as Background Control features makes it a nicer camera for the parent than the Olympus options but you do lose the viewfinder, hotshoe for a flash and the built-in image stabiliser.
  • Panasonic Lumix GX85 $AU 980 with kit zoom lens – awesome camera, similar to the GX850 but you also get the viewfinder, flash hotshoe and image stabilisation built in.
  • Panasonic GF8 – $AU579 with kit zoom lens -  older model with similar capabilities to the GX850 but no 4K video

You will then need a Panasonic low light lens such as the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens ($AU378)Panasonic 25mm f/1.7 lens ($AU288) or Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens ($AU790) if you just want one zoom lens and don’t mind it being a bit bigger. The autofocus is not quite as fast on the pancake lens but its compact size makes carrying in a handbag easier.

The high end mirrorless options:

For those where size and money are not an issue, here are a few options which will allow even faster autofocus and shallower depth of field with a range of other benefits:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark I ($AU1150) or the much more expensive, new E-M1 mark II version ($AU2750) coupled with the Olympus m.Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 lens ($AU1600).

Sony a7II full frame mirrorless ($AU1900) with Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens ($AU1150), but this route will take you down a path of financial pain – their full frame mirrorless lenses are very expensive!

Conclusion:

If you have the money and don’t mind the larger size and lack of selfie features, go for the Panasonic GX85 and buy a low light lens and a bounce flash to sit on the camera for when the light is dim and not so nice.

If the GX85 is too expensive, and you want to use bounce flash, go for the Olympus OM-D E-M10 mark II with an Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens.

If you can’t see yourself using a bounce flash, the lighter, smaller, cheaper, Panasonic GX850 with its selfie features combined with a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens  or for faster AF but larger size, Panasonic 25mm f/1.7 lens, the would make a great compact combination.

 

DxOMark releases sensor tests of the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II – comparable to Canon 6D and 5D Mark III

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

DxOMark has just announced the results of their sensor tests of the new Micro Four Thirds flagship camera – the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and for a cropped sensor it performs superbly and remarkably, the overall sensor image quality score is comparable to the new Nikon D500 cropped sensor dSLR and the Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mark III full frame dSLRs!

Now that is a pretty good achievement indeed and further lessens the need for a big, heavy, expensive dSLR kit, especially when there is far more to the camera than just the sensor – it’s feature set just blows the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III dSLRs away with its in-built 5.5EV image stabiliser that works on all lenses and even becomes 6.5EV effectiveness with the Olympus OIS lenses, its 50mp sensor shift HiRes mode, ability to accurately focus on the subject’s closest eye no matter where they are in the frame, up to 60fps burst rate, up to 1/32,000th sec shutter, Live Composite mode for night imagery, 4K video with awesome image stabilisation, and much more.

How did it score?

Overall score of 80 beats the E-M1 mark I’s score of 73, and almost matches the Nikon D500′s score of 84 (wins on dynamic range but similar image noise), and is comparable to the Canon 6D score of 82 and the Canon 5D Mark III’s score of 81 – the Canons winning on image noise but losing significantly on dynamic range – see side by side comparisons on DxOMark here.

First the bad news – the ISO issue.

For some reason, perhaps a marketing con, Olympus appears to have incorrectly assigned the ISO levels as the measured ISO as per DxOMark tests is consistently just over 1EV lower than stated.

For most people this will not be an issue, but if one is using manual exposure settings from another camera, or from an external light meter, then users may need to make an adjustment, and if one is comparing image quality at same ISO settings between brands, this needs to be factored in – as they have on DxOMark’s analysis which take this issue into account.

Strangely, the LOW extended ISO setting of ISO 64 was measured at ISO 83 which was the same measurement for the base ISO setting of 200!! This suggests there is NO real benefit of using the LOW setting at all!

This has tended to be an issue with most Olympus digital cameras including the E-M1 mark I but to a lesser extent.

But there is a lot of good news!

Image noise:

Image noise is significantly improved over the mark I with an almost 1EV improvement, and other tests of the mark II also show an incredible result with thermal sensor noise at long exposures.

That said, predictably, image noise still falls 1-1.5EV short of the image noise on contemporary full frame cameras, but for most of us, the level of image noise is not really an issue unless we need to shoot above ISO 1600 which is quite rare (>90% of my shooting is at ISO 200-400).

Shooting at high ISO levels even on full frame cameras is not a great idea unless you really need to as not only do you get increased image noise but, more importantly, you lose dynamic range – for the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III you lose 1 EV dynamic range at ISO 1600 compared to ISO 200, and these cameras have limited dynamic range to start with.

The only time the full frame image noise really has a substantial advantage is in some types of shooting moving subjects in low light or in Milky Way astroscapes.

If you need a certain amount of depth of field in your low light images, then, the full frame noise advantage may be nullified as the E-M1 can resort to 2 stops wider aperture to achieve that depth of field and this means 2 stops lower ISO.

If your subject is static, the E-M1 Mark II wins again thanks to its far better image stabilisation and electronic shutter capabilities.

Dynamic range:

Dynamic range is the ability to capture are large range of scene brightness levels, the greater the dynamic range, the less likely you will get blown highlights in which you lose image detail totally and which cannot be readily addressed in post processing.

In many respects, dynamic range is more important than high ISO image noise because it will affect every image you take no matter what ISO.

At ISO settings of 200-400, the E-M1 mark I had better dynamic range than the Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mark III, and now the E-M1 Mark II extends that gap a little so that it is 1EV better than the 5D Mark III and 0.6EV better than the Canon 6D and 0.4EV better than the newer, and very expensive, Canon 5DS / 5DSR full frame dSLRs!

New full frame cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark IV and Nikon D750 generally have a better dynamic range than E-M1 Mark II.

Conclusion:

Keep your ISO at 200-400 and be happy that your sensor image quality will surpass even a Canon 6D, 5D Mark III, and in HiRes mode will presumably better the 50mp Canon 5DS / 5DSR.

 

 

 

Panasonic GH5 announced – specs for 4K video appear awesome and 5 axis image stabilisation at last

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Whilst Panasonic has given some specs of its next flagship Micro Four Thirds camera, the Panasonic GH-5, the company formally announced the final specs this am at CES 2017, and impressive specs they are if you are into videography!

Panasonic has for some years now been focusing primarily on video capabilities rather than flash or still photography for their mirrorless cameras, and particularly with their GH series which have been very popular amongst videographers despite the 2x crop factor of the sensor.

Their current model, the Panasonic GH4 was one of the first to incorporate 4K video.

Panasonic retained the same GH4 battery for the GH5, and say the GH5 will be shipped in March-April 2017 and have priced it at $US1995 body only which is the same as the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.

Now the GH5 raises the bar to a completely new level by adding in:

  • 20mp sensor without low pass filter for greater image detail
  • new Venus 10 engine which is said to give 2 stops better high ISO image quality thanks to new High Precision Multi Process NR and even better DFD AF tracking thanks to 480 fps drive speed and the time for measuring the distance to the subject is 6x faster, while factoring the distance into in-plane or in-depth is 2x faster
    • ultra-high-speed AF of approximately 0.05 sec
    • By analyzing every single frame precisely, it achieves a maximum 200% higher precision frame detection with minimum motion detection error for higher tracking tolerance against moving subjects
    • “Multi-pixel Luminance Generation renders clear, sharp images by referring to a 9x larger area of pixel information during the de-mosaic process for precise detail reproduction”
  • a lovely new electronic viewfinder with 3.68 million dots
  • 2 SD card slots, each capable of using UHS-II cards and supporting U3 class cards as well as V60 class cards for 60mb/s read/write
  • SD cards are hot swappable – if recording video, one fills then can automatically keep recording to the 2nd card and while that is happening, eject and replace the 1st card so recording can then continue unlimited when the 2nd card is full!
  • on sensor CDAF  autofocus points substantially increased to 225 points but still no PDAF points as they are relying upon their DFD technology
  • at last a 5 axis sensor based image stabilisation system similar to Olympus, and more recently Sony and Pentax, and this will work in Dual IS 2.0 with lenses with optical image stabilisation which includes most Panasonic lenses (Dual IS is presumably not compatible with Olympus lenses – you only get the sensor IS).
  • mechanical shutter burst mode increased to 9fps with continuous AF or 12 fps without C-AF
  • USB 3.1 USB-C type port
  • full sized type A HDMI port
  • 5Ghz 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.2 for smartphone remote control and transfer of GPS data, etc
  • new XLR audio hotshoe adapter powered through the hotshoe to give Phantom power to external mics and manual audio level controls
  • the GH4′s 4K 30fps Photo mode has been taken up a notch to 4K 8mp 60fps or 6K 18mp 30fps photo modes (upscaled 6000×3000 pixel 2:1 aspect ratio)
  • the 4K video has been given an enormous boost in quality options as well as features:
    • uses the full sensor so no longer a further crop
    • movie length is now unlimited
    • no longer requires external HDMI output – the GH5 will record internally ( although the really high end 4K modes will require HDMI output)
    • internal recording 4K 4:2:0 8bit 150mbps 60p/50p
    • internal recording 4K 4:2:2 10bit 150mbps 30p/24p
    • internal recording 4K 8bit 100mbps 30p/24p
    • firmware updates will provide even higher HDMI modes such as 400Mbit ALL-I codec for 4K (10bit 4:2:2)
    • Anamorphic 4K mode
  • 1080HD can now do up to 180fps to give 7.5x slow-mo effect if desired
    • firmware updates will provide 10bit in 1080p mode and 200Mbit ALL-I codec for 1080p (10bit 4:2:2)
  • choose between MOV, MP4, AVCHD Progressive and AVCHD formats at a variety of frame rates
  • ‘Cinelike D’ and ‘Cinelike V’ as well as ‘Like 709’ for compatibility with HDTV
  • control over the highlight response rolloff (Knee point and Knee Slope)
  • unlike Sony, Panasonic requires that if you want V-LOGL and VLogL View Assist Function, you need to purchase this as an additional option for $US99
  • embeds SMPTE-compliant Time Code either in Rec Run or Free Run count-up method
  • dramatically reduced rolling shutter skew
  • display now also shows Gain and Shutter Angles, waveform or vectorscope monitor display and luminance level settings for 10-bit video
  • new rear AF point toggle
  • new rear dial
  • new built-in microphone that helps cancel out camera noise
  • can now use autoISO in manual exposure mode with exposure compensation set, and can assign slowest shutter speed for use in other modes
  • Post Focus enables users to select the specific focus point even after shooting – particularly helpful in situations like macro shooting where severe focusing is required. In addition
  • Focus Stacking

Compared to the similarly priced Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II:

Pros

  • far better video capabilities, especially now that it also has the sensor based image stabilisation and the high end 4K modes (but then it also beats current Sony, Nikon and Canon cameras for video features as well and at much lower price points)
  • far better electronic viewfinder
  • GH5 can do flash sync to 1/2000th sec  with electronic 1st curtain shutter which might be very handy!!
  • Post Focus mode – user can select focus point after the shots were taken
  • similar sensor
  • both the SD card slots are UHS-II whereas the Olympus only has one which can use UHS-II
  • both weathersealed and freeze proof

Cons:

  • no PDAF points as it relies on DFD technology although this only works with Panasonic Micro Four thirds lenses
  • the Olympus is far better looking aesthetically with its retro styling
  • no Dual IS with Olympus OIS lenses such as the brilliant Olympus 300mm f/4  (but then the Olympus does not have Dual IS with Panasonic lenses)
  • still photography features generally not as good as the Olympus, for example:
    • 20mp RAW burst rate is only 9fps with C-AF and 12fps without C-AF (Olympus can do 18fps with C-AF and 60fps without C-AF) – although the GH5 can do 8mp 60fps and 18mp 30fps in the 4K and 6K Photo Modes respectively
    • the Olympus PDAF points allow faster AF of moving subjects with both Olympus and Panasonic lenses whereas the GH5 only works with Panasonic lenses
    • Olympus has a range of still photo techniques eg. HiRes 50mp mode, Live Composite mode for night shots, 20mp RAW Pro Capture mode (GH5 can do this pre-capture burst but only in the 18mp 6K jpeg Photo Mode), etc
    • Olympus has arguably better jpeg colours
    • although it has face detect AF, it doesn’t do closest eye detect AF as does the Olympus
    • electronic shutter only goes to 1/16000th sec not 1/32000th sec

For more information on the GH5 and updates as well as links to reviews see my wiki page.

Texture and bokeh imagery from the Grampians

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Here are a selection of mainly texture and bokeh studies from Victoria’s Grampians mountain range in Spring taken with the Olympus OM-D Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Grampians

Grampians

Grampians

Grampians

Grampians

Grampians

Grampians

For more pics from the Grampians, see my earlier blog post.

Can Micro Four Thirds cameras do portraiture well?

Monday, December 26th, 2016

I often get asked this question as many people are told that you need a full frame camera to do portraiture to get adequately shallow depth of field and nice bokeh blurred backgrounds.

This might apply if you are shooting wide angle lenses but once you hit standard focal lengths and longer, Micro Four Thirds cameras are very adequate indeed – IF you are using a wide aperture lens such as the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, Olympus mZD 25mm f/1.2, Olympus 25mm f/1.8, Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.2, Olympus 45mm f/1.8, Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 or even the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 when used at 135-150mm.

A world famous portrait photographer, Sean Archer started off with Micro Four Thirds, and was encouraged to migrate to full frame dSLR which he did, but he is now back using Micro Four Thirds and the Olympus 45mm and 75mm f/1.8 lenses.

I have blogged before of Sean’s beautiful work here.

The Olympus OM-D cameras offer a few major advantages over full frame dSLRs for portraiture:

  • image stabilisation with prime lenses allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds such as in low light or with fill in flash
  • more compact and light – you are more likely to take it with you and not intimidate your subjects
  • near silent – great for ceremonies, concerts, and anywhere else where a noisy dSLR is not welcome
  • closest eye detection AF for superbly sharp autofocus on the closest eye one of the most desirable features of a portrait (although not 100% reliable but much better than a dSLR, and your subject’s eye does not need to be near the centre of the image as with a dSLR AF point)

There are some downsides compared with a full frame dSLR:

  • AF is not so good for moving subjects unless you get a Panasonic G85 or Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II
  • the near silent shutter can work against you if shooting models – they can’t hear when you have got the shot
  • the cameras don’t look as big and heavy to be “professional” – never-mind, just carry a few with battery grips attached and external flashes
  • less able to gain shallow DOF with wide angle lenses
  • less able to gain super shallow “arty” DOF – don’t worry, most professionals won’t use this for  portraiture as you don’t get the ear to nose in focus which is what is desirable for most portraits
  • ability to use standard f/2.8 zoom lenses for adequate shallow DOF portraits (the Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 won’t give you the shallow DOF you want)

My favourite lens for portraiture is the Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8:

Here are some examples from a workshop I ran on a sunny day outdoors without reflectors or flashes to show that you don’t need a full frame dSLR to get beautiful imagery.
75mm

75mm

75mm

75mm

please say yes

You can see more outdoor sunny day portraits of mine using this lens at this blog post.

One can use the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8:

Olympus lens

The Olympus mZD 45mm f/1.8 makes for a nice light, compact portrait lens:

Zombies shot outdoor with an off-camera Orbis Ring Flash attached to an Olympus flash with a orange filter on:

zombie guy

retro zombie

For social events, I love the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake:

Camera, lens and bounce flash kit all fit in a couple of coat pockets!

Here the camera automatically focused on the closest face which is well to the left of what the AF points on most dSLRs would be able to detect, but not an issue with a mirrorless camera!

For Olympus users, they may prefer the larger and newer Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens with faster AF, or, if you have the money, the very expensive but superb Olympus 25mm f/1.2 lens.

DOF
see more of these here.

With Micro Four Thirds, there is a large range of lenses, but if you want shallow depth of field, you do need to choose a wide aperture lens such as f/1.2 – f/1.8 or f/2.8 if focal length is longer than 135mm.

 

Tarra Bulga National Park and Aussie wildlife in the wild

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Tarra Bulga National Park is a mountainous region of cool temperate rainforest which once covered most of Gippsland until European settlers cleared most of it in the mid 19th century.

Access is via Traralgon from the north (2.5hr drive from Melbourne)  or via a windy narrow two-way bitumen road from the south along the Tarra Valley which is not suitable for caravans, but which takes you to other picnic areas en route such as Tarra Falls (not an easy photograph) and Cyathea Falls (a short circuit loop walk accesses this small waterfall), the remote Tarra Valley Caravan Park (this is as far north on the Tara Valley road that caravans can access – they can’t go further north to the NP), and then access to coastal Gippsland including historic Port Albert (Gippsland’s first port, established c 1850) and Wilsons Promontory  (The Prom).

If you are coming from the south then a short detour to Victoria’s tallest waterfall, Agnes Falls is well worth it:

Agnes Falls

Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens at 17mm.

Tarra Bulga NP has a nice open picnic ground and nearby tea rooms. The picnic ground has a variety of birds including the very friendly crimson rosellas which you may find end up sitting on your shoulder while you try to eat:

rosella

The flighty wrens and robins are much harder to catch such as this flame robin which was about 10-15m away and required cropping:

wren

and even the Laughing Kookaburra likes you to keep your distance of about 10-15m:

kookaburra

on the road near the picnic ground was this poor wombat who appeared to be coping well despite a limp from past trauma:

wombat

The main attraction though at Tarra Bulga NP is the historic suspension bridge within the majestic Eucalpytus regnans rainforest (the tallest flowering plants in the world) – if you walk the full circuit “scenic track” it is a pleasant largely shaded 2.8km circuit walk with total ascent of 129m (mainly up graded path rather than steps) which will take just under 1hr allowing for time to get a few pics.

suspension bridge

suspension bridge

If you have the time to also visit Wilsons Prom you can complete your Aussie wildlife in the wild experience with a few more such as this cute kangaroo joey feeding at dusk:

joey

or these emus:

emus

and if the prevailing winds have been westerlies, you may find the beaches covered in these small beautiful but painful Blue Bottle Portugese Man’O'War jellyfish which will give you a painful sting if your skin touches the tentacles which can measure some 1m in length:

blue bottle

and nearby, this Sooty Oyster Catcher was taking a bath:

oystercatcher

I hope this has inspired you to get out and go for a drive, or better still stay for a couple of nights or more and explore the region.

We had an amazingly tasty and healthy lunch at the Port Albert Cafe and Wine Bar – the owner is a brilliant chef who obviously loves her cooking, the crispy duck with mango and cashew salad was awesome and the many cake options for dessert (or take with you for your NP walk) make it well worth the visit – unfortunately she has the business up for sale so make sure you get there before she has moved on.

Most of the above photos were taken with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens, or for the birds, the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 lens using a Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 camera.

Road trip to Victoria’s wonderland – the Grampians

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

The Grampians is a group of mountain ranges formed from uplifted resistant Palaeozoic sandstone bed making it one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and the beautiful sandstone boulders, epic views and with access to native flora and Australian wildlife make it an iconic bushwalking destination for tourists from around the world.

You will see kangaroos, black wallabies, emus,  Australian birds such as tiny robins and wrens, parrot species, New Holland honeyeater, laughing kookaburra, wedge tailed eagles and the really noisy white sulfur crested cockatoos. While walking on a sunny day you are likely to see a range of small to medium sized lizards – mainly skinks (and hopefully not a snake – these are generally very shy and avoid tourist areas but are deadly if you step on one and it bites you – a great reason to stick to the paths where you can see where you are stepping!). If you are lucky you may see an echidna (a  monotreme) looking for ants on the side of the road at dusk. If that is not enough wildlife, or you want to get up close to a snake or other animal, you can visit the nearby Halls Gap Zoo – the largest zoo in Victoria outside of the urban districts around Melbourne.

This Australian National Park is the biggest national park in Victoria and covers 167,219-hectare (413,210-acre) and is situated in western Victoria and to the north of the volcanic plains which formed most of south-western Victoria. The forest is mainly dry sclerophyll eucalypt forest with an understory of tea trees with their white flowers dominating in spring.

The sandstone was laid down from sediments from rivers during the Devonian period 380 million years ago which forms a 7km thick layer of sandstone which then became uplifted, tilted and then eroded. When sea levels rose 40 million years ago, the sea lapped at the north-western area which now has become the Little Desert National Park. The Devonian period was a time of wooded plants, insects and amphibia but before spiders, reptiles, dinosaurs and conifers had evolved.

Aboriginal occupation of Gariwerd (their name for the Grampians) dates back more than 20,000 years and they had six seasons for the region – check out the Brambuk Cultural Centre for more information.

The highest peak is Mount William at 1167 metres creates the Grampian Wave – a weather phenomenon at certain times of the year when strong westerly winds create a large scale standing mountain lee wave enabling glider pilots to reach extreme altitudes above 28,000 ft (8,500 m).

Towards the end of a decade of drought, a massive bushfire in Jan 2006 devastated 50% of the forest, but this allowed Parks Victoria to re-discover places such as Fish Creek Falls and design and create new bush walks such as the Grampians Peak Trail which so far is at Stage 1 and allows for 3 days / 2 nights walk with overnight remote camping.

Major flooding in Jan 2011 and heavy rain events again in Sept 2016, forced parts of the park to close for several months. Before you go, check the park’s website to ascertain which areas and remote camp grounds are closed.

I am pleased to report that the park now looks even better than before the fires and is an absolute pleasure to explore as long as you take the usual precautions of sun protection, wind and rain protection for those sudden late afternoon thunderstorms, plenty of water (2L per person for 2-3hr walks on warmer sunny days), and sturdy shoes. On hotter days, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the extreme heat conditions which may prevail.

It is a two and three quarter hour easy drive from Melbourne, mainly along freeway and highways which allow for a nice coffee break half way in the small town of Beaufort. The more adventuresome with time on their hands might like to return via a longer and more interesting route either to the north through winery and historic gold field towns of Avoca, Maryborough, Maldon, and Castlemaine, or to the south to Dunkeld with its highly regarded Royal Mail Hotel restaurant, then the volcanic park of Mt Eccles, then to Port Fairy, the volcanic Tower Hill park and then along the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles and Otway Ranges.

The main tourist town in the Grampians is Halls Gap which lies in the valley and the shops and main camp ground are within a short walk to the beautiful Wonderland region. There are plenty of accommodation options but these can get booked out in peak seasons. There are dozens of kangaroos and maybe a few emus grazing in the camp ground and at the cricket ground, and as you sit and eat your dinner outside at the Harvest Cafe, you are likely to see a few of them hopping down the road at dusk.

Best time to go is in Oct-Nov when the spring wildflowers are at their best, the weather is not too hot and, to avoid the crowds, avoid school holidays, public holidays and weekends – although your choice of restaurants becomes severely limited, but your accommodation options increase and there are less people on the narrow winding roads and at the walks.

November can also be noisy cicada time – cicadas live most of their life underground (several years) as a nymph in burrows along a tree root from which it feeds on the sap. After spring rains and when the weather warms up, they climb a tree, latch on with their two big front claws,  and emerge from their nymph shell through the dorsum, leaving their dried shell and becoming green with transparent wings as adults. The rest for a while then for a few short weeks they join their mates in the trees, eating and creating a piercingly loud noise and mate before the females lay eggs and then die.

While I was there, a cicada had mistaken my car tyre for a tree and the nymph shell was on one side and the new adult cicada on the other:

cicada

Nymph shell – note the large front claws and the dorsal exit. Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens at 150mm f/5.6.

cicada

The newly emerged adult cicada – Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens at f/7.1 with some mild cropping as I didn’t want to get too close in case it flew away but in retrospect I probably could have got a close up of just its eye!

pinnacles

Perhaps the number one walk to do is the walk to the Pinnacles which gives a great expansive view over Halls Gap and the valley looking eastwards and if, as with this young lady, you wish to partake in some daredevil mindlessness you can sit and enjoy the view from the adjacent protuberant cliff face edge. The actual Pinnacle is a protuberance which has fences to reduce risk taking behaviours.

There are several options to walk to the Pinnacle, all of which require rock hopping, rock steps and sun exposure, but are well worth it, and within the capability of most people – even sedentary ones as long as they can walk up steps and negotiate rocks:

  • a longer ascent from Halls Gap camp ground for the fitter walkers with good knees
  • a shorter ascent from Wonderland Carpark which can optionally include the Grand Canyon loop
  • an easier ascent from the Sundial carpark – 4km return, allow 2hrs, total ascent 180m

pinnacles

On a hot sunny day with cirrus clouds and blue skies, drink plenty of water, wear a hat and sunscreen, but don’t forget to look for contrasty dramatic rock formations such as this one, but make sure you watch where you walk as it is easy to miss a deep ravine, step on a poor skink, or sprain your ankle!

sundial peak

When there is a strong, hot, north wind blowing, a better option may be the walk to Sundial Peak which is more sheltered from the wind and provides more coverage of trees in the event of lightning which tends to come on such days. The Sundial Peak also looks out over Halls Gap but being more south than the Pinnacle, it overlooks Lake Bellfield, although the Pinnacle cannot be seen from this lookout. The walk from Sundial carpark to the lookout is 4km return, allow 1.5-2hrs and ascent is only 115m making it more friendly than the Pinnacle walk.

sundial peak

You do also get lovely views to the south down the valley from the Sundial Peak.

sundial peak walk

The Sundial Peak walk early in the morning when no one was around – but I did get caught in a thunderstorm!

reeds Lookout

After your walks and you have had dinner, head up to Reed’s Lookout and The Balconies for an epic sunset view looking south across Victoria Valley. Be warned though – even mid-week, you will not be alone!

Boroka Lookout

If you are enthusiastic get up well before sunrise, drive the 20 minutes or so in the dark to Boroka lookout which faces east overlooking Halls Gap, for some shots BEFORE the sun comes up – I was lazy and couldn’t be bothered using a tripod and just relied upon the Olympus OM-D E-M1′s awesome image stabiliser plus used a Reverse ND gradient filter to help reduce the contrast at the horizon.

Grand Canyon

The “Grand Canyon” short circuit within the Wonderland on a cloudy day with the Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lens at 7mm and f/8.

This is a first post on the Grampians and I have only touched the surface – the main tourist attractions – although I didn’t get to go to the Zumsteins and Mackenzie Falls on this trip.

 

 

 

Supermoon Obscured By Clouds but the Olympus 300mm Shines Like a Crazy Diamond

Monday, November 14th, 2016

Tonight was the much trumped Great Gig In The Sky of the so called Super Moon – a full moon at closest perigee (closest distance to earth) for 7 decades making it 14% larger than when it is at its smallest.

No one would really notice this but it made a good excuse to do some calculations and flex the brains to work out where to shoot it from and which lens to use.

Well, for me, the new amazing and superbly sharp Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 OIS lens was the one to play with and really makes Micro Four Thirds system and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 shine – this would make a moon which normally has an angular diameter of approximately 0.5 deg, nice and large in its 600mm equivalent field of view in full frame terms which gives a 4.1° diagonal field of view (2.3° x 3.4°).

The problem is that to get a city skyline and the moon in the shot, you need to be a long way from the city – perhaps 30km depending upon how much of the skyline you want in, and the moon must be rising – remember the lens only has 4 degrees field of view so if you want the moon and skyline in the same image, you need to capture the moon within 15 minutes of it rising (the moon travels 15 degrees every hour).

Here is my test shot hand held with the 300mm lens in daylight uncropped but with tonal adjustments in LR to show how big the moon will be with this lens and how sharp it is even handheld with its superb image stabilisation:

300mm eq focal length moon

I wanted to shoot the Melbourne skyline and have the moon rising behind it and for this I calculated that the small mountains to the south west of Melbourne – the You Yangs at 50km line of sight from Melbourne would be a reasonable choice – although a little too far but there were no closer accessible elevated sites available.

Heaven sent the promised land, looks all right from where I stand ….

I had tested it last week at sunset, and just to give you an idea how far away the city skyline was, I took a shot with a 50mm equivalent field of view lens (the traditional “standard” field of view) but I had to use a LR brush to highlight the buildings as they were so tiny in the distance:

50mm eq focal length

Here is the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 lens hand held at f/5.6 – an uncropped version using LR to increase contrast and clarity of the buildings:

600mmeq focal length


And here is the cropped version which really blew me away with the details it resolved including the AMP sign is clearly visible through the 50km of haze – just amazing – click on the image to get a larger view:

600mmeq focal length

The weather forecast was not looking great with remnants of a passing low pressure system still generating much low cloud, but at 5pm, there were large areas of clear sky which would move over Melbourne bringing hope.

So there I sat like a lunatic on the grass (further apologies to Pink Floyd – but I think many of us photography addicts are a little brain damaged – especially when the heavy clouds came over making our heads explode with dark forebodings, and we would not even get to see the dark side of the moon let alone the super moon), and Wishing You Were Here

 

I was thinking I like to be here when I can …. but Time was ticking away the moments that make up a dull day … fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way … kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town, waiting for someone or something to show you the way,

and, although No-one told me when to Run, I decided to give up, packed up my camera and tripod, drove down the mountain and out the gates of no return … one sure way to make the clouds part and show the moon – and sure enough it did – so I stopped my car on the side of the road and took a hand held shot just to show I was there.

600mmeq focal length

And when I come home cold and tired … It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire….

and then I think of the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and how well this would work with this lens …

and my mind again plays tricks on me …. the cash registers start ringing …. Money …. if you ask for a rise, it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away

Apologies again to Pink Floyd for the dozen references to their fantastic archive of works which I will treasure until I die.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 II vs peer PDAF capable cropped sensor cameras for sports and wildlife

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

This blog post is an on-paper comparison of the feature sets of these cropped sensor cameras, particularly looking at sports/wildlife capabilities but also the range of lenses.

When comparing a smaller 2x crop sensor such as the Olympus has with these APS-C 1.5x or 1.6x crop sensors, you can expect high ISO noise to be perhaps 0.5 EV better on the APS-C, while shallow depth of field potential is likely to be 1 stop better with the APS-C size sensor assuming similar aperture lenses of similar field of view.

On the other hand, the Olympus sensor size allows for shorter lenses and greater telephoto reach for similar size lens, and the laws of physics means there should be opportunity for less optical aberrations from edge to edge as aberrations generally increase exponentially from distance from the centre.

Taking all this into account, the image quality of these cameras should be reasonably comparable and largely dependent upon which lens is being used, accuracy of focus and how much camera shake there is – and on all these point, Olympus tends to be a winner, and Olympus is a clear winner when it comes to the availability of an enormous range of dedicated fast CDAF optimised, silent lenses designed for the sensor.

Olympus E-M1 II vs Canon 7D II:

First, let’s look out how well the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Micro Four Thirds camera compares with Canon’s flagship APS-C 1.6x cropped sensor sports dSLR, their Canon 7D Mark II.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 II Canon 7D Mark II
Price at Amazon.com $US2000 body + $US2499 for 300mm f/4 IS lens = $US4500 $US1499+$US1999 for 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens = $US3499 but it is only f/5.6 at 400mm and images will not be as sharp and you only get 4EV not 6.5EV of IS
sensor 20mp 2x crop 20mp APS-C 1.6x crop
Weight 574g body + 1270g lens = 1.8kg
910g + 1.64kg for 100-400mm lens =2.55kg
Size 134 x 91 x 67 mm body + 93mm x 227mm lens
149 x 112 x 78 mm body + 193mm long lens which extends on zooming
image stabilisation sensor based 5 axis 5EV + 6.5EV Sync IS lens 4 EV OIS in stills, no sensor IS
Shutter speed range 60sec -1/8000th (1/32,000th electronic)
30sec-1/8000th
Flash x-sync 1/250th sec, slow sync, 19 output levels manual
1/250th, slow sync
radio TTL remote flash No
Canon, Profoto, Bowens, Godox, PocketWizard, etc
Viewfinder 2.35mdot EVF, eye sensor auto switching, 120fps, 6ms reaction time, 21mm eyepoint, 0.74x magnification, minimal blackout in burst mode
optical, 0.63x magnification, mm eyepoint, minimal blackout in burst mode; not usable when mirror locked up such as in vibration reduction shooting, Live View, and in video shooting
LCD screen 1mdot articulating touch screen, AF Targeting Pad feature
1mdot, fixed NOT touch sensitive
video awesome image stabilisation 4K 24/30p 236Mbps Cinema 4K quality mjpeg; 4:2:2 uncompressed video directly from the HDMI port, lenses optimised for video work
no 4K video; 1080/60p but HDMI out is only 1080 8bit, lenses not optimised for live view or video work
Burst rate 18fps with C-AF x 77RAW or 60fps with S-AF in electronic mode x 48 RAW; 10fps C-AF mechanical shutter x 148 RAW;
10fps with C-AF, max 31 RAW
Top panel dual dial + 2×2 system Yes No
AF 121pt Dual Pixel cross type CDAF/PDAF, closest eye detection AF, all working video mode including subject tracking
65 cross type PDAF with limited coverage, plus on sensor dual pixel for live view mode, face detect AF only in live view mode and no closest eye detect AF; no subject tracking in live view; 1 central point is dual cross;
Hi-Res mode Yes, 50mp/25mp jpeg, 80mp RAW
No
Live BULB, Live TIME, Live Composite, 60sec timed, Live Boost EVF Yes No
Dual card slots 2 x SD (1 is UHS-II)
1 x CF, 1 x SD, no UHS-II
Auto HDR, Auto focus stacking, Keystone compensation Yes No
Pro service support just building infrastructure Advanced, mature pro service
AF fisheye lenses several including the unique Olympus mZD f/1.8 fisheye NONE – only full frame or 3rd party MF lenses
“14-28mm” pro lens 7-14mm (14-28mm) f/2.8, 534g, 106mm long, 0.2m close focus, no filter, MF clutch, $US1299  EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 not a pro lens, no STM, no IS and only 16mm at wide end
“24-70mm” pro lens 12-40mm (24-80mm) f/2.8, 382g, 84mm long, 0.2m close focus, 62mm filter, MF clutch, $US740 or 12-100mm (24-200mm) f/4 IS PRO
 EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS but not STM
“70-200mm” pro lens 40-150mm (80-300mm) f/2.8, 760g, 160mm long, 0.7m close focus, 72mm filter, MF clutch, $US1399, opt. 1.4x converter  EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM but this is not a pro lens
“50mm” pro standard prime lens Oly 25mm f/1.2  EF 35mm f/1.4L, EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM but this is really a 38mm eq. lens and not a pro lens
cropped sensor dedicated AF lenses more than 40  mainly consumer type EF-S lenses
CDAF and video optimised lenses more than 40  4 EF-S STM lenses
cropped sensor dedicated AF super telephoto lenses at least 300mm in full frame terms 300mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4 OIS, 90-250mm f/2.8, 40-150mm f/2.8, 150mm f/2.0, 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5, Pan. 100-400mm, numerous 300mm zooms (note 2x crop factor) EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
full frame fast AF super telephoto lenses at least 300mm in full frame terms nil EF 70-200mm f/2.8 or f/4 IS, EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6; EF 200mm f/2.8, EF 200mm f/2, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II, EF 200-400mm f/4 IS with extender, EF 300mm f/4 IS, EF 300mm f/2.8 IS, EF 400mm f/5.6, EF 400mm f/4 DO IS, EF 400mm f/2.8 IS, EF 500mm f/4 IS, EF 600mm f/4 IS, EF 800mm f/5.6 IS

The lack of pro quality compact EF-S dedicated lenses for the Canon is partly made up thanks to access to the large range of pro EF full frame lenses, but these are unnecessarily large, heavy and expensive for a cropped sensor dSLR, but if you also own a full frame Canon dSLR then you will accept this compromise.

The Canon EF 400mm f/4L DO IS lens is heavy, expensive, not quite as sharp as the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 but much more compact and less expensive, and given it has IS and the bigger, cheaper Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L doesn’t, this is the lens I initially chose to compare with the Olympus 300mm f/4 to get IS and the 600mm equivalent field of view. The Canon lens is very sharp wide open, although a little softer at f/5.6-8 and does give the Canon 7D II combo perhaps 0.5 EV ISO advantage over the Olympus but at a big cost in money and weight. The Canon lens uses drop in filters and has close focus to 3.3m and perhaps 4EV OIS whereas the Olympus lens is at least as sharp, just over half the weight, much lower price, less intrusive, has silent AF optimised for video and CDAF, uses normal 77mm filters, has close focus of just 1.4m and 6.5 EV of Dual IS so you know which combo I would prefer!

The cheaper Canon alternative is the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L which lists at $US1179 on Amazon and weighs the same as the Olympus lens at 1.25kg, but is substantially longer at 257mm and of course it has no image stabilisation at all.

Perhaps a more exciting Canon alternative is the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens which lists at $US1999 which does have a 4EV OIS and weighs 1.64kg and focuses as close as 1m, but is a little soft at 400mm wide open at f/5.6 and needs to be stopped down to f/8 to get anywhere near the level of sharpness as the Olympus wide open at f/4.

Unless you need radio TTL remote flash or you have a stack of pro Canon lenses, the Olympus E-M1 II easily beats the aging Canon 7D II on nearly every parameter – although C-AF Tracking may still beat the Olympus.

E-M1 II vs Fijifilm XT-2:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 II Fujifilm XT-2
Price at Amazon.com $US2000 body + $US2499 for 300mm f/4 IS lens = $US4500 $US1899+$US1699 for Fujinon XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OIS WR lens, but optically will not be anywhere near as good as the Olympus prime as it is much softer at the telephoto ends even stopped down and no close focus limiter switch = $US3599 
sensor 20mp 2x crop 24mp APS-C 1.5x crop
Weight 574g body + 1270g lens = 1.8kg
507g + 1375g for lens =1.9kg
Size 134 x 91 x 67 mm body + 93mm x 227mm lens
133 x 92 x 49 mm body + 95mm x 211mm lens
image stabilisation sensor based 5 axis 5EV + 6.5EV Sync IS lens 4 EV OIS in stills, no sensor IS
Shutter speed range 60sec -1/8000th (1/32,000th electronic)
30sec-1/8000th, (1/32,000th electronic)
Flash x-sync 1/250th sec, slow sync, 19 output levels manual
1/250th, slow sync
radio TTL remote flash No
No
Viewfinder 2.35mdot EVF, eye sensor auto switching, refresh 120fps, 6ms reaction time, 21mm eyepoint, 0.74x magnification, minimal blackout in burst mode
2.35mdot EVF, 0.77x magnification, significant viewfinder blackout in burst mode above 5fps, refresh 60fps (100fps with battery grip)
LCD screen 1mdot articulating touch screen, AF Targeting Pad feature
1mdot, 3-way tilting NOT touch sensitive
video awesome image stabilisation 4K 24/30p 236Mbps Cinema 4K quality mjpeg; 4:2:2 uncompressed video directly from the HDMI port, lenses optimised for video work
4K video; 1080; F-Log Gamma
Burst rate 18fps with C-AF x 77RAW or 60fps with S-AF in electronic mode x 48 RAW; 10fps C-AF mechanical shutter x 148 RAW;
14fps electronic but rolling shutter may be problematic; 8fps mechanical (11fps with battery grip), max  30 compressed RAW at 8fps
Top panel dual dial + 2×2 system Yes No
AF 121pt Dual Pixel cross type CDAF/PDAF, closest eye detection AF, all working video mode including subject tracking
 325 pt Hybrid PDAF but C-AF may not be up to pro sports yet
Hi-Res mode Yes, 50mp/25mp jpeg, 80mp RAW
No
Live BULB, Live TIME, Live Composite, 60sec timed, Live Boost EVF Yes No
Dual card slots 2 x SD (1 is UHS-II)
Two UHS-II SD Slots
Auto HDR, Auto focus stacking, Keystone compensation Yes No
Pro service support just building infrastructure minimal
AF fisheye lenses several including the unique Olympus mZD f/1.8 fisheye NONE – only 3rd party MF lenses
“14-28mm” pro lens 7-14mm (14-28mm) f/2.8, 534g, 106mm long, 0.2m close focus, no filter, MF clutch, $US1299 XF 10-24mm f4 no IS and only 15mm at wide end
“24-70mm” pro lens 12-40mm (24-80mm) f/2.8, 382g, 84mm long, 0.2m close focus, 62mm filter, MF clutch, $US740 or 12-100mm (24-200mm) f/4 IS PRO
Fujinon XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R OIS WR
“70-200mm” pro lens 40-150mm (80-300mm) f/2.8, 760g, 160mm long, 0.7m close focus, 72mm filter, MF clutch, $US1399, opt. 1.4x converter Fujinon XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR
“50mm” pro standard prime lens Oly 25mm f/1.2 XF 35mm f/1.4 or  f2 (NB. also the lovely XF 56mm f1.2)
cropped sensor dedicated AF lenses more than 40 about 15
CDAF and video optimised lenses more than 40 about 15
cropped sensor dedicated AF super telephoto lenses at least 300mm in full frame terms 300mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4 OIS, 90-250mm f/2.8, 40-150mm f/2.8, 150mm f/2.0, 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 , Pan. 100-400mm, numerous 300mm zooms, (note 2x crop factor)
 Fujinon XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OIS WR
other AE bracketing only ±2 not ±5; need to buy and use the battery grip to get faster burst, and faster AF as well as faster EVF refresh rate which is half that of the Olympus by default.

It will be interesting to see how the high ISO and C-AF performance compares with these cameras, I suspect Fuji will win the high ISO and the Olympus will win the sports shooting capabilities.

The sharpness at 600mm equivalent focal length (ie. 400mm at f/5.6) on the Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR is very soft compared to the Olympus 300mm f/4, ePhotozine’s tests show the Fuji’s centre is about 2100LW/PH and edge is 1400LW/PH compared to the Olympus which is around 2700LW/PH at centre and at edge, and these both hit around 3100LW/PH stopping down to f/5.6 while the Fuji lens struggles to get to 2500 by f/11 and the edge is still only around 1700! The Fuji lens is optically more comparable to the Panasonic 100-400mm lens but the Panasonic lens gives even more telephoto reach of 800m on the E-M1 II.

Another peer camera is the Sony a6500 which is a APS-C 1.5x crop mirrorless camera which like the E-M1 II has fast on sensor PDAF autofocus, 5 axis image stabilisation (although allegedly not as effective as on the Olympus), 4K video, nice EVF, and touch screen, is smaller but not as weatherproof, lacks the ergonomics and pro features of the E-M1 II for example, shutter only goes to 1/4000th sec, only one SD card slot and, like the small battery is on the bottom, at max burst of 11fps, live view is disabled (as with the Fuji) . The a6500 size and smaller grip will make holding larger lenses much more uncomfortable than with the E-M1 II.