Olympus announce firmware update for OM-D E-M1 Mark II

Written by Gary on June 20th, 2019

Olympus has just announced new firmware (v3.0) for the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II Micro Four Thirds camera which endows it with many of the new features introduced in the very expensive Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

This will be a much loved firmware update for sports, action and wildlife photographers in particular, but it also adds some videography features – namely the OM-Log400 video profile and better AF performance during video through actively using data from the On-chip Phase Detection AF sensor .

It is great to see Olympus making such improvements to a camera which is now almost 3 years old since it was announced in Sept 2016, which came 3 years after the Olympus OM-D E-M1 original version which was announced in Oct 2013.

The official news release details can be found in THIS PDF.

New improvements from the E-M1X:

  • enhanced AF algorithms
  • adds Group 25 to AF Target which will be fantastic for many subjects such as birds in flight – this is a feature I have been wanting for a long time – thank you Olympus!
  • adds C-AF Center Priority delivers high-precision tracking of moving subjects and sudden subject movement whereby the centre is prioritised in the Group AF target settings but if the centre cannot lock on, the surrounding points will be used
  • adds C-AF+MF1 which allows users to instantly switch to MF by turning the focus ring while in C-AF for fine tuning the focus. This requires an additional firmware update to most of the PRO lenses.
  • AF low light limit now down to a very low light level of -6EV with f/1.2 lenses
  • anti-flicker mode has been added to prevent unstable exposures when shooting indoors.
  • improved Focus Stacking – from 3 to 15 shots can be selected in Focus Stacking and guide lines have been added to the shooting area
  • improved burst mode – setting changes and playback display while writing to card now possible
  • new Art Filter – Instant Film
  • Quick image selection added
  • Frame Rate Priority added to Live View Boost/On2 display
  • Improved jpeg quality – 1/3rd EV better image noise
  • adds Low ISO Processing (Detail Priority) and Low 64 and Low 100
  • Support for Olympus Workspace new USB RAW Data Edit

E-M1X features you don’t get in the update:

The E-M1X obviously has some hardware features that the E-M1II does not have such as the in-built vertical grip with extra battery storage, dual UHS-II card slots, Bluetooth, GPS/Field sensor system, multi-selector tool, improved sensor cleaning system, USB-C port with in-camera battery charging, higher rated shutter mechanism, new EVF features, and the 2x faster engine processing capability which affects many aspects of the functionality such as the AI Intelligent AF Subject Tracking mode, 120p video mode, the improved 7.5EV IBIS which makes hand held HiRes mode and Live ND mode possible.

There are some features that one would think could have made it to the E-M1 II from the E-M1 but which didn’t such as:

  • Custom AF target
  • the new customizable ‘My Menu’ tab

How to get the firmware update:

The Olympus firmware update website is HERE.

You must first install the Olympus Digital Camera Updater software from the above link.

Make sure your camera has a full battery and connect camera to computer using the USB cable and choosing USB Storage mode on the camera options.

Run the Olympus Digital Camera Updater software and follow the instructions ensuring you don’t turn off the camera before it is complete.

Run the process for each PRO lens you have by attaching the lens to the camera (you should turn off the camera before changing the lens) and follow the above but this time it should only display the lens firmware update option.

What next for Olympus?

It was 3 years from the original version to the mark II, and 3 years from the mark II will be Sept-Oct 2019, so we could see the E-M1 III this year. In which case, this firmware update is a good marketing policy as it will allow the E-M1 II to still be produced relatively competitively for perhaps another year at a lower price point than the E-M1 III.

Perhaps a bigger question is what will Olympus put into their E-M1 mark III?

I would hope it does get the new 2x faster image processing engine of the E-M1X so it can get a range of the features of the E-M1X outlined above but is there sufficient room for this chip?

I would think it would get the E-M1X’s dual UHS-II card slots, Bluetooth, GPS/Field sensor system, improved sensor cleaning system, and USB-C port with in-camera battery charging.

But for it to be competitive in the market with very capable cameras such as the Fujifilm XT-3 and Sony a7III, all these features would need to be added but the price kept around the price of the current E-M1 II.

It will be interesting to see if they use a new generation sensor such as the newly developed multi-layered sensor for much improved image quality capabilities.

 

Which full frame mirrorless camera system to buy into? A goldilocks conundrum but none are just right … yet.

Written by Gary on June 16th, 2019

2018 was the year the major camera manufacturers got serious about full frame mirrorless cameras, and yes, they are the future of photography instead of dSLRs because that is where the greatest technological improvements can be made thanks to the full time use of the sensor and the electronic viewfinder.

But which camera system should one buy into?

This is not an easy choice because buying into a system will make it expensive to swap systems later if you find it doesn’t suit your needs, and none of the current offerings are ideal tools.

The camera needs to become a seamless extension of the photographer’s “performance” and provide a comfortable, ergonomic and efficient mechanism to achieve their goals.

The camera system needs to have all the lenses and capabilities that the photographer is likely to need – although this will vary for individual photographers.

Sony has the most mature native system at present thanks to their head start of some years over Canon and Nikon with Canikon users needing to rely upon legacy dSLR lenses to address current needs. Panasonic is the new boy on the block for full frame and although there are some expensive Leica lenses available and Sigma will be joining their lens mount system, users will have to wait some time before this system matures.

Can I love the Sony system?

I come from decades of using Olympus gear and a Canon 1D Mark III pro sports dSLR, and when I bought a Sony a7II camera a year or so ago because it was cheap and I could use my Canon EF lenses on it, I have had quite some time to play with it and try to like it.

Frankly I hate using the Sony a7II – but perhaps the Sony a7III has addressed all my issues – but it seems it has only addressed some of them.

Sony seems to have accidentally created their full frame system, they created the APS-C cropped sensor NEX camera system and then realised that they could actually squeeze a full frame sensor into the same lens mount and camera size – a pretty cool feat indeed!

BUT, the lens mount system is not really optimised for full frame sensors as it is a touch too small which may cause some future lens design and sensor IS issues, and at present they have persisted with the same camera size for their a7 series which is TOO SMALL to comfortably hold the required larger, heavier full frame lenses.

I can get past the poorly conceived Sony menu system, but not the poor camera ergonomics.

Even with my small hands, my 5th finger falls uncomfortably below the bottom of the grip which is also not as deep as it could be, while the thumb on the rear feels unstable and it is actually difficult to rotate the quite stiff rear dial with your thumb holding the camera one handed.

Sony needs to take a leaf out of the Olympus camera designs

Now Olympus have not always had the best designs for ergonomics.

The revolutionary OM film cameras were amazingly small and light when compared to the behemoths of the day, but they had no ergonomic grip built in as these cameras did not have image stabilisation nor autofocus so the user was expected to use a two hand approach to address this and as such a grip was not needed.

Enter the digital SLR world and Olympus experimented with many grip designs over the years, including the downright ugly E330 which I owned and then the much improved E510.

Then Olympus changed the mirrorless world with their fantastic compact OM-D E-M5 which was beautifully designed for using with the initial compact lenses but did require an extra grip for the larger lenses and this extra grip proved to be a weak point.

But now they have evolved to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II which for me gets close to the perfect feel of a camera in the hand, even with larger lenses.

Why can’t Sony make their a7 range a touch taller with a deeper grip and a thumb and dial control similar to the E-M1 II, plus throw in a swivel LCD and I think I would actually love their system – for one can’t fault their class leading sensor image quality nor their class leading AF tracking capabilities in their version III cameras.

That said, they should not follow the Olympus On-Off switch position veing placed on the left side which requires two-handed operation (this harks back to their OM film SLR designs but is not ideal now) – this is one area where Sony has probably got it right – put it on the shutter release button.

What about the new Canon R series?

This is a difficult one for me because I have lots of pro Canon EF mount lenses and would love to use them on a Canon mirrorless full frame camera.

The current cameras (both are consumer level quality only even the Canon RP) do not address my needs – in particular, they are now the only full frame mirrorless cameras without sensor based IS. Canon has introduced some controversial user interface controls which we will have to wait and see how they pan out, and they are not weathersealed, nor do they have dual card slots, nor do they have a fast burst rate or silent electronic shutter mode, and the video capability is crippled. They even crippled their USB-C port to only USB 2.0 speeds – really Canon?

I do like the new RF f/1.2 prime lenses as these bring for the first time to full frame, fast, accurate AF with very high image quality wide open for lenses such as these – but they are very expensive indeed!

Their list of native lenses is very much early days so we will need to wait and see how this matures and if Canon decides to add IBIS in to their cameras.

The Nikon Z series?

These look very promising although their AF tracking is not quite up there with Sony yet, and perhaps more troubling is their initial native lens line up decisions. The burst rate with Live View update, AE and AF is limited to 5.5fps and the buffer is very limiting for sports or wildlife.

For me they are not on my plans given my Canon EF lenses would unlikely to be able to be used well on them even if an adapter came out.

That just leaves the Panasonic S system.

This looks like it will be a fantastic system, but it will be big, heavy and expensive – everything that I try to avoid.

Where does that leave me?

Waiting for Canon to add IBIS and add some proper features, or Sony to fix their camera ergonomics and add in a swivel LCD screen and make them as comfortable, as weathersealed, and as capable as my E-M1 II.

Or perhaps Olympus will show them all how to design a full frame mirrorless camera properly – but I doubt they will waste money venturing into that competitive world with a falling market.

For my needs at present, the Micro Four Thirds system is the most optimal in terms of weight, size, image quality and cost – I wont be taking my Sony a7II and large, heavy Canon EF lenses on my overseas holidays.

Perhaps I will skip full frame and supplement my Micro Four Thirds go anywhere system with a medium format mirrorless system such as the Fujifilm GF system – although I really can’t see myself getting much benefit from it.

 

What camera to buy? Most people ask the wrong questions and buy the wrong gear.

Written by Gary on May 28th, 2019

It is 2019 and the photography world has been changed for ever – the profit margins and ability to make a living from photography has taken a massive hit thanks to the devaluation of the photograph and the photographer as a result of super saturation with digital images.

Making money from photography is becoming so difficult, many pro photographers have resorted to relying upon advertising income from YouTube photography tutorials and gear reviews to make ends meet.

Clients often do not understand how time consuming the post-processing and image management phase is (see this little blog post on event photography) and thus the total hourly rate a photographer is paid may fall below the minimum wage, and this doesn’t even factor in their equipment and business costs such as public liability insurance, equipment insurance, car costs, office rental, etc.

According to CareerCast’s 2018 Jobs Rated Report , photography made it into the WORST 25 jobs in the US with median income less than the US median income for all jobs while photography jobs are expected to decline over the next few years (see Petapixel’s post)! Perhaps it is NOT the best career choice! See my wiki post on photography as a career.

According to Domo’s Data Never Sleeps 5.0 report,  on average, every MINUTE Snapchat users share 527,760 photos, Facebook users post 200,000 photos and Instagram users post 46,740 photos – most of these are taken smartphones. That equates to 400 million photos uploaded just in Facebook and Instagram EVERY DAY!

People take 1.2 trillion photos each year! Mainly with smartphones.

Global camera sales have markedly fallen due to the rise of smartphones, and possibly that most people already have a digital camera that is adequate for their needs and see no reason to upgrade.

Why do you need a camera instead of just a smartphone?

For most people the image quality of a smartphone is adequate for their needs, and with AI / computational photography which is improving image noise and even background blurring in smartphones, the need for a digital camera is becoming less.

Reasons you may want a digital camera:

  • better image quality especially in low light or high dynamic range scenes
  • better image stabilisation for hand held long exposure shots
  • ability to take wider field of view shots rather than rely to panoramic stitching
  • ability to shoot high quality telephoto images
  • ability to shoot higher magnification macrophotography with focus stacking for greater depth of field
  • ability to have greater control over the image taking process – better subject tracking AF, better exposure control and bracketing, longer shutter speeds for blurring water, etc
  • ability to shoot fast moving subjects – AF locking on moving subjects, faster burst rates, better image quality at lower light levels
  • improved ability to work with electronic flash / strobes including high speed sync, etc.
  • to help you see the world in a different light, to be more mindful of every moment you live and seek out beauty and weirdness in the world around you which most people take for granted or do not notice
  • for professional work if your clients are not going to respect you if you turn up with just a smartphone
  • as a status symbol – yes, a Leica or Hasselblad camera will probably still convey that you are probably wealthy

What camera gear will suit YOUR needs the best?

Choice of camera gear is always a compromise between:

  • price
  • feature set of the camera
  • ergonomics
  • sensor image quality
  • file size, image storage size and post-processing speed
  • size and weight of the lenses to match the camera system
  • optical quality and capabilities of the lenses
  • the need for a large, heavy tripod (the bigger the camera and lens, the bigger the tripod and tripod head required)

Perhaps the first issue you need to consider is the sensor size:

For the same technical quality of the sensor, the larger the camera’s sensor, the better the sensor image quality in terms of ability to capture high contrast scenes and have less image noise in low light situations, while offering greater versatility and control over how much you can blur the background.

BUT larger sensor cameras come at massive costs!

Larger sensor cameras are generally much more expensive, have much more expensive and far larger and heavier lenses which means greater issues for traveling and hiking and a greater opportunity cost – you might be better off spending the money on a holiday which might give you better images.

Cameras and lenses depreciate in value quickly – digital cameras lose nearly all their value after 5 years so as general advice is don’t spend too much on a camera if you are not going to be using it enough to warrant that cost.

Most people these days are quite happy with the image quality of the very tiny sensor in their smartphones, and so a substantially larger sensor cameras such as Micro Four Thirds will provide nearly all the feature sets and image quality they will need – and particularly as AI and computational photography combined with new multi-layered sensors are introduced over the next few years to dramatically further improve image quality.

I personally shoot 90% of my photos on Micro Four Thirds as they are far more fun to use and give me adequate image quality for less weight and cost than a full frame camera system. The other 10% is made up with smartphone shots and full frame camera shots (yes I do have full frame as well for special situations but I hate using it).

If you really think you need the higher image quality of larger sensors then there are a few sensor sizes to consider in increasing size and sensor image quality:

  • APS-C cropped sensors such as the excellent but expensive Fujifilm X mirrorless system with their lovely lenses (I would not recommend Canon or Nikon cropped sensor cameras at present as their dedicated lenses are not that great and they are both in the progress on moving to mirrorless systems – Canon’s EOS-M mirrorless cameras has lens compatibility issues with their new Canon R full frame mirrorless system, so I would avoid the Canon EOS-M system personally).
  • Full frame sensor cameras starting at $US2000 (excl. lenses) such as Sony a7III, Canon RP or Nikon Z6 (or you could buy the older dSLR technology realising that you will not be getting the latest AI technology which mirrorless allows such as the latest AF tracking and your lenses will not be optimised if you later transition to the mirrorless world)
  • Medium format sensor cameras such as Fujifilm GFX which will set you back $10000-$30000 depending on camera and lenses

What about the megapixel count?

For most of us, all current cameras give adequate numbers of pixels – smartphones give around 8mp, video-optimised cameras can be around 12mp, the older Micro Four Thirds cameras are at 16mp, while most cameras are at 20-24mp – it really doesn’t matter they will all be fine for internet display of images as well as printing high quality prints to about 20″ x 30″ which suffices for 99% of users.

Some people may want more for very large highly detailed images of landscapes or architectural works or if they are in the habit of severely cropping their images and for this there are several options:

  • buy an expensive high resolution camera eg. 40-50mp such as a Sony a7RIII or Nikon Z7 or even the new Fujifilm GFX 100S 100mp camera!
  • take multiple images and do a panoramic stitch
  • for static scenes, use a camera with sensor-shift HiRes mode to take multiple shots of the same image to create a high resolution 50-80mp image

Features to consider in your camera:

Can it detect the closest eye and track it to keep it in focus?

  • Most of us take photos of people, and the aim is usually to get the sharpest focus on the subject’s closest eye – failure to do so will generally detract from your portrait.
  • Olympus was the first to develop a closest eye AF detection and locking capability, but now Sony have taken this even further with their Real AF system. Panasonic, Fuji, Canon and Nikon are catching up.

Can it track moving subjects well and can the user optimise this for their needs?

  • traditionally the expensive sports pro dSLRs such as the Canon 1DX and Nikon D5 were the best at this but the new mirrorless cameras with the help of AI and their faster burst rates are changing the game.
  • the Olympus E-M1X has AI to track moving trains, motorbikes, etc and will add more as time goes on.
  • Sony can detect and track animal eyes.
  • Olympus E-M1 II and E-M1X can allow the user to set a focus range so the camera’s AF will ignore anything closer or more distant than that range – great for avoiding AF locks on the background instead of the player!

How fast can it shoot to capture sports?

  • an issue with the higher resolution cameras is that the file sizes are extremely large and thus the burst rate is much slower – usually only 5 frames per second instead of closer to 10 fps for most sports cameras when using mechanical shutters.
  • some Olympus and Sony cameras allow full AF tracking with silent electronic shutters at 18-20fps – but fast moving subjects such as soccer balls may become distorted due to the otherwise well controlled rolling shutter that is a problem with all current electronic shutters until we get a global electronic shutter.

Can it take high quality images BEFORE you get to press the shutter so you don’t miss a critical action shot?

  • a major problem in capturing unpredictable actions shots such as a bird suddenly deciding to take flight or an unseen motorcyclist coming over a jump, is the human reaction time – some cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1II and E-M1X have a “Pro-Capture” mode which automatically saves a number of shots BEFORE you press the shutter so you don’t miss that time critical shot – a very valuable feature for some people.

Can it take high quality images of moving subjects in low light?

  • a great image stabiliser in the camera (the Olympus E-M1X has the best out there) is fantastic for low images where you can resort to a longer shutter speed but this will result in blurring of any moving subject – great if you want moving water blurred but not so helpful when shooting sports or wildlife in low life – in these situations, a full frame sensor with a wide aperture expensive lens may be required to get the image quality you want – and this may mean $10,000+ and 5-10kg of gear to carry – there is no free lunch here!
  • if Milky Way astroscapes are your thing (although they are getting a bit passé these days thanks to super saturation of the internet with these images), a full frame sensor with a wide aperture wide angle lens and tripod is probably the best way to go.

Can you get the look you want with the camera?

  • most cameras will be able to give you the look you need but can they do it within the price and weight you are willing to pay?
  • Micro Four Thirds can give lovely portraits with blurred backgrounds if you use a suitable lens such as 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, a 25mm f/1.2, a 45mm f/1.2 or f/1.8, or 75mm f/1.8
  • I love to carry my Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens traveling as it is relatively compact for such a long range high quality weathersealed lens, that it supplements my smartphone perfectly and allows me to capture images most other people cannot capture.
  • BUT if you really need that ultra-shallow depth of field and extreme background blurring then you may just have to pay up for a full frame to get that degree of control and that is perhaps why the first lenses Canon have made for their Canon EOS RP mirrorless camera is a 50mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.2 – both very expensive but excellent lenses.

Is it weathersealed and how reliable is it?

  • One of the reasons I chose Olympus OM-D E-M1 cameras is that they probably have the best weathersealing out there – so good that users confidently wash their cameras under running tap water. You may even escape a transient dunking in a river without harm although this is not recommended!
  • This gives one much confidence when shooting in inclement conditions or even in the event your water bottle leaks in your backpack carrying your camera gear.
  • Unfortunately, most other cameras have weaknesses in their sealing which may let you down when you most need it.

How easy is it to carry and use?

  • lens weight is a major issue – anything more than about 800g starts to get tiring to carry and even worse if the camera does not have a comfortable grip – this is a problem with the Sony full frame mirrorless cameras and one of the reasons I much prefer to use my Olympus OM-D E-M1II
  • camera design ergonomics have a big impact on user experience – where are the buttons and dials placed and how easy are they to use? Is the rear screen able to be swiveled out and what features can be activated when used as a touch screen?
  • how user friendly is the menu system? – the Sony system is not great, Olympus is marginally better. If you only use one system you can get use to that system’s menu but it becomes problematic when you have two different camera brands and you have to remember how each menu works.
  • a great in-camera image stabiliser may be more forgiving with one handed shots and may allow you to leave your tripod at home more often.
  • can you flip out the LCD screen to do a selfie?

How good is it for video?

  • I am not a videographer and pro videographers have special expectations from a camera for swivel out LCD screens for selfie vlogging to rolling shutter minimization, slo-mo options, 4K 60p, etc.
  • For me, I just need an easy to use video without needing a tripod or heavy expensive stabilisation rig to prevent annoyingly shaky videos, and that means great in camera image stabilisation and the Olympus is great in that regard.

Conclusion

Everyone has different needs and priorities.

If you are making a living out of photography then you have paying clients and your choice of camera will be determined by how best you can meet their needs.

For the rest of us, the camera should be a fun tool, which is not burdensome, not going to financially stress us, and which can keep us in the learning process throughout our life while allowing us to appreciate the present moment and motivate us to get out there to enjoy life, and perhaps even as a tool to help us connect with others – just don’t rely on social media Likes to determine your happiness – the happiness should come from you living life not on what other people think of your images – for that is the road to frustration, disillusionment and unhappiness.

Photography for most of us should be about the journey and enhancing our life experience, and not about the end goal.

 

The color blind photographer – almost 10% are color blind – here’s how you might be able to manage it

Written by Gary on April 4th, 2019

Colour visual impairment is very common affecting around 8% of males and 1% of females of those with European ancestry, and those affected see the world differently to non-affected people and have a significantly reduced color vision palette.

Most people probably will not know they are color blind but one can easily test yourself via this online test that Enchroma provides.

How does color blindness occur?

There are 3 types of cone cells in the retina each of which detect a different range of colours, blue “S” cones, red “L” cones and green “M” cones (S, L, M refer to short, medium and long wavelengths of light).

The OPN1LW and OPN1MW genes (responsible for red and green cones respectively) are located on the X chromosome, whereas the OPN1SW for blue cones is on a different autosomal chromosome.

The far majority of color blind people have Deutan blindness (6% of all males and 0.4% of females of European descent have a partial form called Deuteranomaly ) which is inherited from the X chromosome, so any male with this gene will be affected, but females generally require both X chromosomes with the defective gene to have color impairment. If a mother has only one chromosome affected, 50% of her sons will be affected and 50% of her daughters will be carriers. If a father has the gene, he will not pass it to his sons but ALL of his daughters will be carriers.

In addition, 1% of males have no green receptors which is called Deuteranopia in which greens look like dark purples , while 1% of males and 0.01% of females have the milder red receptor deficiency called Protanomaly and another 1% of males have no red receptors which is called Protanopia in which reds look like dark greens. Extremely rarely (1 in 100,000 people) have an inherited blue cone deficiency called Tritanopia which may also be acquired due to various eye conditions and can cause confusion between blue versus green and red from purple.
There are other extremely rare forms of severe color blindness such as blue cone monochromatism in which both red and green cones are defective, and Achromatopsia in which there is no color vision but only shades of grey.

If one has an extreme form of colour blindness, this will usually prevent you passing your driver’s license testing and you should give up on most commercial photography other than B&W photography.

How does Deuteranomaly affect you as a photographer?

Those with Deuteranomaly will usually have most difficulty seeing certain shades of pinks (which may look grey) and purples (which may look blue) while other hues in the reds, yellows, oranges and brown range may look similar especially in low light.

This means that when one is editing photos, they may over-emphasize certain hues such as pinks which can be problematic when editing skin tones, and when styling a fashion shoot, the colours may well be not as complimentary to each other as they perceive.

How can a Deutan mitigate these issues?

Some companies sell expensive glasses designed to “improve color vision” in those with milder forms such as Deutans. An example is Enchroma who makes glasses that filter out certain wavelengths to “reduce confusion” and reduce the overlap of colour detection between the red and green cones.

Unfortunately, whilst these glasses may provide a more colorfully vivid experience of sunsets by allowing one to see more pink and purple hues, a study has shown they do not provide a more “normal” visual perception, nor do they correct your vision to pass color blindness tests.

However, there is help at hand for those photographers editing their photos or viewing digital images in the form of software correction.

Windows 10 seems to do an excellent job of correcting color vision for digital displays – just go to Settings:Ease of Access: Color Filters and turn on Color Filters and select the deficiency, for a deutan this would be the deuteranopia setting. Once this is set you may even pass the online test that Enchroma provides and be given “normal vision”.

Apple iOS devices have a similar setting but in my experience is doesn’t seem to work as it makes the reds appear pink when they should be red despite of which intensity you set and when re-running the online Enchroma test I now get a Protan result irrespective of intensity suggesting there is a problem. The setting is found at Settings:General:Accessibility:Display Accommodations:Colour Filters then you can turn this on and then select which type and the intensity whilst viewing a color palette.

More information on my wikipedia.

 

Back road 4WD adventures in East Gippsland, Australia

Written by Gary on March 26th, 2019

The Far East areas of Gippsland in Victoria offers many options for exploring (preferably with a 4WD or perhaps a AWD SUV) remote coastal beaches and remote alpine cool and warm temperate rainforests.

You should expect that in most of these areas there will be NO mobile phone coverage and hence no internet, so you need to plan for this in advance – ensure you have road maps (if hiking, then appropriate topographic maps), advance downloading of Google maps (and other phone maps) for offline use, and if you are hiking then you should take a pre-registered radio beacon EPIRB (and ensure you have updated your account with your trip details and car registration).

In addition, once you leave the main towns or Orbost, Nowa Nowa, Buchan and Cann River, you should expect to find NO food shops or petrol stations, so you need to ensure you have a full tank, plenty of water and some food.

Finally, before you go, check the Vic Emergency app to check for bushfires and road closures which may impact your trip and check the weather forecast – storms or wet weather are likely to create dangerous conditions or at the very least make some of the roads far more difficult to negotiate with slippery roads, potential trees blown across them and possible fires due to lightning strikes.

The McKillops Bridge circuit

This is full day trip is possible perhaps even with a 2WD (in dry conditions with care and skipping the Balley Hooley camp ground segment) and starts from Orbost and can return back to Orbost (or various other return routes can be taken).

The 1st segment from Orbost to Balley Hooley camp ground

There are two main alternate routes via Buchan where you have the option of visiting the Buchan limestone caves:

“Scenic route” via the Snowy River valley on the Orbost-Buchan Rd:

  • an option is to take a side route to Stringers Knob Historic Fire Tower by turning left at Monument Track and further on to Mottle Range Flora Reserve (the only known naturally occurring stand of E.maculata – spotted gum in Victoria)
  • from there head to Buchan on the Mottle Range Rd (84min, 63km to the Basin Rd intersection)

The “Google route” via the main highways:

  • take the Princes Hway to Nowa Nowa then up to Buchan
  • take the Buchan-Orbost Rd and turn left onto Basin Rd (55min, 76km to this intersection)

Balley Hooley camp ground

This is a nice, small free camp ground where the Buchan River joins a bend of the Snowy River which makes it a nice spot for canoes and kayaks and perhaps a swim but the shores are rocky without sandy beaches and the water can be muddy. You will need a AWD or 4WD for the somewhat steep segment of gravel road down to the camp ground with some ground clearance required.

Snowy River at the very remote camp ground

Tulloch Ard forest drive

This is a nice drive through various types of forests northwards until you reach some lovely alpine vistas and head back to bitumen at Butcher’s Ridge.

This section offers a few side routes including:

  • Basin Creek Falls – apparently great views and walk to falls
  • Ash Saddle – walking track and picnic area (750m walk)
  • Tulloch Ard Lookout walk – 3.2km return 1.5hrs, mostly easy with some steep sections and rough surfaces and steps

Once back on the bitumen, head north through Gelantipy (no shops or fuel) to the McKillops Rd junction and take this road north-west, through some very nice forests to Little River Falls.

Little River Falls to McKillops Bridge

This 16.5km segment of road is NOT recommended for vans as it is one of Victoria’s most precarious roads – a winding, downhill narrow gravel road with many blind corners and very few options for room for another passing car with a steep cliff on one side – take it slowly and with care as it is not a one way road!

Little River Falls picnic ground is on the side of this road at the start, although unless there have been rains the river is likely to be dry, but it is a nice spot for a bite to eat.

There is a side option to drive to the Little River Gorge Lookout which overlooks Victoria’s steepest gorge, although you can still see some of this further down the McKillops Road as shown here in this panoramic stitch I took:

Panoramic stitch of the view over Little Gorge from McKillops Road

As you are now heading down the north slopes of the Great Dividing Range, it becomes noticeably hotter and drier with more stunted mallee-like forests around the bridge area with temperatures some 5degC warmer

There is a Little River camp ground on the way down, and you can also camp on the north-east side of McKillops Bridge – both are free camp grounds.

View of the Snowy River
McKillops Bridge
McKillops Bridge

Deddick valley drive

From McKillops Bridge you drive along the cliff face overlooking the Deddick River on a winding gravel road which from my view, lacks photographic appeal and has no options for camping until you reach Ambyne where there is a suspension bridge and the start of a section with some free camp sites.

The road turns to a general south-easterly direction through to Tubbut and on to Bonang – neither have shops or fuel.

Not far from Bonang is The Scenic Gap Reserve and a 3hr steep walk down to the Errinundra Old Growth Forest walk – although you will need hiking poles and be prepared for snakebites as this is not only remote without phone reception but parts of the path are overgrown making it impossible to see a resting snake.

From Bonang, you have a range of return options.

  • bitumen highway to Bombala then to Cann River
    • this is probably your best option if you either need food or fuel, or you are running out of daylight or a storm is coming or been
    • Bombala is a good size rural town with a platypus centre and some interesting buildings
    • before getting to Bombala, the smaller town of Delegate has some interesting buildings and nice rural rolling hill views
    • the highway back to Cann River takes you past Coopracambra NP and there is a short side route to Beehive Falls
  • mainly mountain bitumen to Goongerah and then Orbost
    • Although this part seems popular with motorcyclists, I found this quite a boring winding mountain drive with the added issue of logging trucks, but the Goongerah camp ground is a lovely little free camp site alongside a clear stream which is well worth considering for an overnight camp
  • AWD/4WD gravel to Delegate historic area and Bendoc
    • historic gold mining area with river diversion tunnel
    • one can then head east to the highway to Cann River, or north to Bombala, or head south on Clarkeville Rd to the seasonally closed 4WD only Goonmirk Rocks Rd and Tennyson Track (see below)
  • AWD/4WD gravel to Gunmark Rd and Errinundra Saddle
    • side route to a walk up to Ellery View Lookout on the Errunundra Rd
    • option of going south to the popular remote Ada River camp ground then to Club Terrace, Lind NP and back onto the main highway between Orbost and Cann River
    • option of going south-west on the seasonally closed Greens Rd through nice rainforests to Mt Ellery, Big River and then back onto bitumen down to Murrangower and Orbost – this was quite a nice drive and gave views over the mountains to the south at Ocean View Lookout
  • 4WD only long gravel road to Combienar via Tennyson Track
    • this is seasonally closed and rated the hardest of the 4WD tracks mentioned on this blog post and takes you back through Combienar and then to half way between Cann River and Orbost on the main Princes Hwy
    • I didn’t get time to do this circuit as storms intervened
    • highlights include:
      • Goonmirk Rocks
      • Frosty Hollow free camp ground
      • Waratah Lookout
      • Queensborough River picnic area
      • Tennyson free camp site
      • Buldah where you can head east to the highway to Cann River
      • Three Sisters Lookout
Ocean View Lookout on a smoke haze day due to regional bushfires

Roadside goannas are common in this region, often found feeding on road kill, and in addition to kangaroos and wallabies, you may be lucky enough to see a lyrebird rushing back into the roadside scrub. At dusk and at night, there is the high risk of killing the nocturnal animals such as wombats.

Storms and bushfires are major hazards to consider when deciding on these remote drives in alpine areas, especially in Summer

See also my wiki pages on this drive and related links.

 

Birds and goannas of East Gippsland, Australia

Written by Gary on March 17th, 2019

I spent the last couple of weeks camping in a tent in east Gippsland which allowed one to witness the habits of the various creatures – they all seem to have a time of day when they would frequent the camp site or go hunting for food on the beaches.

Before we start on the birds, one animal that is very common in East Gippsland and which you will almost certainly see on the gravel roads or in your camp site, is the Lace Monitor lizard or goanna which is around 4 foot long with a powerful tail and claws and some venom in its saliva like perhaps all reptiles, although unlike Australia’s venomous snakes it cannot envenomate to cause significant systemic toxicity, but it’s bite can cause local tissue damage and infection. They are carnivores and seek small animals, eggs or road kill. The ones around camp sites are very used to humans and will walk within a few meters but are generally wary and will not appreciate being approached, so give them their space and they will not be problematic to you.

Australia is well known for its venomous snakes – we have most of the top 10 most venomous snakes in the world – and it is fascinating how they appear to have evolved.

Toxin venom producing lizards (Toxifera) evolved some 200 million years ago and from these, snakes evolved some 120-150 million years ago by turning off the genes which make limbs. Australia’s elapid venomous snakes appear to have evolved from an ancestor of the sea krait snake which appears to have swam to Australia around 25 million years ago (there were apparently no snakes in Australia before that time) and this then resulted in all of Australia’s terrestrial Elapid snakes evolving as well as via convergent evolution, some sea snakes. Monitor lizards didn’t make it to Australia until some 15 million years ago, while it seems pythons didn’t come to Australia until around 8-14 million years ago.

Goanna walking past my tent – remember don’t leave food or anything that smells in your tent, this would be an open invitation for all kinds of wildlife to rip into your tent such as wombats and rodents
checking out our fireplace for left over scraps using his forked tongue as a smell sensor.
gulping down some food it has found under the rocks
a bat that found his way inside a caravan which I was asked to gently remove (with gloves on)
Pied Currawong in the distant tree in Drummer Rainforest taken with a Olympus 300mm f/4 lens and cropped substantially.
Yellow breasted Eastern Robin taken with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens as I walked by in Drummer rainforest.
Yellow tailed Black Cockatoo in MacKenzie River rainforest taken with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens – these are definitely heard before being seen on a far away tree – they have a very loud , eerie high-pitched wailing contact call, kee-ow … kee-ow … kee-ow
Female lyrebird scrounging around the leaf litter in the relative darkness of the MacKenzie River rainforest understorey – Olympus 300mm f/4 lens – you may see a few of these whilst driving on remote gravel roads so take care not to turn them into roadkill – they have enough problems with coping with introduced foxes.
Hooded Plover at the water edge at sunset taken with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens
Sooty Oystercatcher at sunset taken with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens – my favorite lens for bushwalking and beach walks looking to capture smaller animals
The smaller the bird, the harder they seem to be to capture on camera – they hardly ever stop, always jumping around unpredictably – perhaps it makes them harder prey to catch – not sure what this one is – Olympus 300mm f/4 lens
Dove taken with Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 whilst I was relaxing at dawn in a hammock
Galah, Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens
Rainbow Lorikeet, Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens
Pair of Rainbow Lorikeets backlit by the early morning sun, Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens

 

Surprise giant bioluminescent ghost mushrooms light up the night

Written by Gary on March 15th, 2019

Whilst camping a couple of weeks ago in Victoria’s remote wilderness, there finally was a little rain after some weeks of dry, warm weather, and I awoke from my tent to find myself in the midst of glowing lights.

I thought these may have been glow worms with my bleary eyes but in the morning I investigated and discovered that ghost mushrooms (
Omphalotus Nidiformis ) had grown following the rains the previous day to over 30cm in diameter!

This was at least 30cm across!

That night I decided to get my tripod out and used my Olympus OM-D E-M1II with Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens with noise filter = LOW, long exposure NR on.

Some of the mushrooms at night, 19mm, f/2.8, ISO 800, 60secs, sunny day white balance.


Closer view of a mushroom, 40mm, f/4, ISO 1600, 60secs, sunny day white balance.


Another one, this time 32mm, f/4, ISO 400, 240secs, sunny day white balance using Live Time mode.

I have previously posted a blog on ghost mushrooms from western Victoria using an Olympus 25mm f/1.2 lens and an Olympus fisheye lens here.

 

Emergency replacement of your jammed seat belt – Subaru Outback

Written by Gary on March 13th, 2019

While I was holidaying in a wilderness area recently, my driver’s side seat belt mechanism in my 2006 Subaru Outback suddenly jammed and nothing I could do would un-jam it.

This is extremely problematic as not only is is dangerous to drive the car without a seatbelt (in fact, probably more dangerous in a car fitted with air bags as the airbags are then likely to cause a hangman’s fracture of your neck from hitting your head too low and hyper-extending your neck), but it is illegal in Australia and your car would be made un-roadworthy.

I spoke to the local mechanics who said there was nothing one could do to repair it and it would need a new unit.

Fortunately, I had access to the internet and by extensive Googling found that this indeed was probably the case, although some had managed to disassemble the mechanism (see videos at bottom of this blog) and un-jam the ball that causes the belt to lock – unfortunately, this did not appear to be a feasible option on this seat belt – and it did have prominent warnings not to try as it may explode!

I contacted my local mechanic who called Subaru and he informed me that not only would a new seat belt cost $AU1850 but that it would take at least 3 weeks to get from overseas.

Not happy at all!

I thus resorted to emergency measures and purchased a used one online from a car in which the air bags had not been deployed – and hopefully the seat belt explosive pretensioner device had also not been deployed and made arrangements for it to be shipped to me – having my car towed home on a 8 hour trip was not a preferred option!

I managed to successfully replace my seat belt with this emergency second hand one and although there were many steps which had to be considered, I managed to get it all done in an hour or so.

DISCLAIMER: the manufacturer clearly states on the seat belt that it should NOT be used in a different car – so following these instructions is at your OWN risk and for emergency use only until you can have your mechanic install a new replacement.

Here is what you will need:

  • a replacement seat belt mechanism which has not had it’s pretensioner deployed (check inside the tube to ensure the piston is in the same position as your one) and is not jammed (it needs to be held upright for the belt to be able to be pulled out)
  • 14mm socket
  • 10mm socket
  • socket extension head for the top panel bolt
  • socket wrench (you may need a longer than usual handle to undo firmly held bolts)
  • small screwdriver to disconnect the airbag sensor clips
  • Philips head screwdriver to disconnect the lower panel spring clip

Steps required to replace the driver’s side seat belt mechanism

  1. Move the driver’s seat forward as far as possible
  2. Disconnect the car battery to avoid accidental deployment of the air bags
  3. Remove the rear plastic cover of the driver’s seat right track rail
  4. Remove the rear door rubber seal (at least the front and bottom parts)
  5. Remove the plastic lower wall panel by pulling it at the top and bottom rear and then sliding it out of its front bottom catch mechanism, then disconnect from the rear bottom safety spring using the screwdriver to undo the screw holding the safety spring onto the panel.
  6. Remove the top wall panel by pulling out the small rectangular “Airbag” labelled segment at the top which will expose a bolt that will need to be removed using the extension attachment for your socket wrench.
  7. Remove the large black metal protector over the belt using the 10mm sockets to undo the bolts.
  8. Lift up the driver’s side of the rear seat (or fully remove the rear seat but this is not really needed), to allow you to free up the plastic protector panel that lies under the carpet – you will need to create enough room to give you access to the 14mm bottom bolt that holds the pretensioner into the car wall.
  9. Disconnect the two air bag sensors by using the small screwdriver to gently flip up their top plastic square which will allow the connector to disengage.
  10. Unscrew the plastic cap near the rear of the pretensioner device to allow it to be freed from the floor connection.
  11. Remove the 14mm bolt holding the pretensioner onto the car wall.
  12. Carefully remove the 14mm bolt holding the seat belt onto the car wall avoiding stripping the bolt edges – you may need a long wrench for this one as it is held very tightly).
  13. Remove the top panel from the seat belt by passing the pretensioner through the panels’ belt gap (you will need to play with the panel mechanism to achieve this).
  14. Put the replacement seatbelt in by reversing all of the above steps – check that the belt is coming out freely once it has been mounted, and note the final attachment of the upper panel needs to be positioned so that the up-down slider position corresponds with the up-down slider of the upper panel.

Hope this helps someone get out of a predicament – I presume the general principles will apply to most modern cars.

But what if you can’t get a replacement unit?

I have not tried this on my jammed unit, but you may wish to consider following these Youtube videos on how to dismantle your seat belt mechanism (against manufacturer’s advice) by removing the 3 plastic lugs holding the Do NOT REMOVE plastic covers on:

These are not Subaru models but you get the idea

If you are lucky you may be able to fix the jam by tapping the mechanism as shown in this video with the aim of freeing the stuck gravity ball which is the culprit (I tried this and it didn’t work on mine):

 

Walking with dinosaurs on the Bass Coast

Written by Gary on February 14th, 2019

Victoria’s southern Bass Coast around Inverloch is not only a lovely place to spend Summer at the beach and explore the surrounds, but it is also a walk into the past.

The sandstone rock platforms date to around 120 million years ago (mya) which was during the Cretaceous Period and it is fascinating to try to consider what these times were like.

To do so requires a bit of an understanding of Australia’s place in the world then and its climate.

Southern Australia with it’s connection to Antarctica intact had moved from the northern Hemisphere where it had been some 550 mya, to close to the South Pole as part of the Pangaea super-continent.

During this migration south, around 360mya, during the Carboniferous Period when ferns, seed ferns, horsetails and gymnosperms evolved, conditions were warm and tropical which resulted in massive “Coal forests” dominating the land until the Permian Ice Age 280mya which resulted in ice glaciers covering most of south-eastern Australia (as demonstrated in Werribee Gorge and around Heathcote). These “Coal forests” became buried and are now the massive coal (as well as oil and gas) deposits which are being mined in various parts of Australia including the Bass Coast.

After the Permian Extinction event of 252mya, Australia became warmer and more monsoonal with the Triassic and Jurassic Periods, and much of Australia became large sedimentary basins with little evidence of Jurassic Period dinosaurs.

By 120mya the Australian craton had started migrating northwards but this time AWAY from the Antarctica craton creating a massive Rift Valley (similar to what is occurring in East Africa today). Africa had separated from South America (c140mya) which was still connected at its southern tip to Antarctica. Tasmania was at the South Pole.

This rifting created subsidence including the land between Tasmania and Victoria forming a massive flood plain with large rivers and many small rivulets at a time before the Ice Ages and well before Antarctica had become covered with ice and well before Australia had become an arid inland region.

120mya, the climate in this region was more of a cool temperate climate with snow on the alpine areas, long polar winters without sun and the rivers covered in ice. This was well BEFORE Australia had been populated by monotremes, marsupials, snakes or goannas but there were a range of Cretaceous dinosaurs and other animals.

Walking on these 120mya sandstone rock platforms, one can easily see today remnant fossilized trees which had fallen in the silt, and each year researchers come to dig the coast line looking for small dinosaur fragments amongst the conglomerate rocks remaining from the rivulets.

Fossilized tree trunk on the sandstone rock platform at Eagles Nest
Eagles Nest
Eagles Nest rock platform, Inverloch
Conglomerate rocks embedded in sandstone from the 120 million year old rivulet beds – could any of these be dinosaur fragments – part of a rib, or a tooth?
I imagined this could be a foot print but I am guessing it is not
and this paler one different to the other rocks in this conglomerate could represent a tooth, but who knows – I am no geological archaeologist!
Even if one does not discover any dinosaur bones, it is a lovely way to explore the area and search for interesting patterns – a bit of mindfulness at the seaside.
Nearby is evidence of the resulting volcanic activity due to thinning of the crust with the rifting with flows of igneous lava / magma deposited above the sandstone and these have been dated to 99.9mya.

This leads us on to how Australia’s unique animals evolved and came to be in Australia.

The first monotremes evolved c110mya and whilst the first marsupials (early opossums) evolved c100mya in North America, they had to migrate to South America and then across the Antarctic (before the trans-Antarctic mountains were pushed up c50mya) arriving in Australia c55mya where they then evolved into kangaroos, koalas and wombats.

40mya, whales evolved from the hippopotamus and would eventually travel to Australian waters.

Australia is well known for having the most venomous snakes on earth, and it is interesting how these evolved.

Snakes evolved from lizards around 120mya, with the “Old World” snakes being the pythons which have residual lizard features.

The elapids evolved c38mya and arrived in Australia c25mya from the north perhaps from a close ancestor of the semi-aquatic Sea Kraits which had evolved at the same time.

It was around this time that Australia’s climate dramatically changed. Australia had already become much drier c38mya when the Antarctic started to develop ice sheets and duracrusts started to form across Australia. This arid climate accelerated when South America and Tasmania both had separated from Antarctica allowing the circum-polar ocean currents to form c27mya which would result in a freezing of Antarctica

Australian terrestrial Elapid venomous snakes then evolved over time into a range of closely related species including Eastern Brown and Taipan with their tolerance to the new arid inland conditions, the Copperhead and Tiger snakes, but also the Australian elapids evolved into vivaporous sea snakes (c16mya).

The Australian goannas (monitor lizards) and pythons arrived in Australia from the north c15mya, although the pythons may have arrived somewhat later around 8mya.

Presumably the ice ages of the Pleistocene (the last 2.8 million years) were a trigger for the evolution of Australia’s megafauna which tend to cope better in cold conditions. Yes, it is better to be shorter and smaller when there is global warming!

Homo sapiens evolved some 300,000 yrs ago, and around 45,000 yrs ago, Australia’s indigenous peoples migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka. In contrast, the Polynesians migrated much later, starting around 3000BC and migrated from Taiwan region to eventually cover most of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and to Hawaii.

Bass Strait did not become the sea way that it is today until the end of the last Ice Age resulted in sea levels rising c8000 yrs ago which cut off Tasmania from the mainland.

More details on how Australia evolved is on my wiki page here.

 

Bushwalking with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens

Written by Gary on February 9th, 2019

Recently I posted how my favorite walk about lens is the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8.

If I am wanting to target smaller wildlife such as birds, then the more focal length reach the better, and the Olympus micro ZD 300mm f/4 OIS lens is a perfect lens for such ventures.

Matched with the Olympus OM-D E-M1II Micro Four Thirds camera, it becomes a unique kit which is:

  • incredibly sharp 600mm focal length reach in full frame terms
  • excellent weathersealing
  • fast and accurate auto focus
  • perhaps the heaviest kit I am prepared to carry in my hand for 1-2 hours on my short walks coming in at under 2kg – no other kit can give that telephoto reach at that image quality for under 2kg!
  • awesome level of image stabilisation (although the E-M1X will give even more image stabilisation)
  • ability to shoot at up to 18fps silently with continuous AF
  • ability to capture a burst of shots BEFORE you release the shutter button which is great for capturing birds taking off
  • ability to program the camera to ignore foreground or background when focusing by dialing in a focus range limiter – not just the one that is on the lens.
  • ability to shoot hand held 4K 30p video (although you do need to take some care in this to avoid too much camera shake as I had in my video below)

The down-side is that it is still quite heavy and the focal length is fixed so when you are about to step on a snake as I almost did, the lens to too long to capture it – and even larger animals such as kangaroos can be too close to capture.

Here are a selection of shots from yesterday:

No idea what bird this is (cropped image) but it didn’t hang around long (tree trunk darkened in post-processing) – Bald Hills Nature Conservation Park where I convinced my wife that even if it is remote, it is safe to walk – I was not aware this guy found 10 or so copperhead snakes in the wetlands there one afternoon – but then he went searching for them!

The snake I almost stepped on was near the entrance to the nearby Kings Flat Reserve. It was a shiny deep black colour and although I only saw the tail end as it slithered into the undergrowth, it looked to be about 1m long or so and I suspect it was probably a Red-bellied Black Snake.
eastern yellow robin
I believe this is an Eastern Yellow Robin in the Bald Hills reserve (cropped)
bee hive
almost bumped my head on this lot at Bald Hills – I presume they are native bees but I am no expert on these!
kangaroo and joey
Kangaroo and her joey happened to cross our paths
Here is a quick hand held video using this lens, apologies for the shake, not even the wonderful IS could cope with my tired arms at the end of the day combined with my inexpertise at video work – something I rarely do but on this occasion my wife requested a video.
joey
Her mother was slack leaving this big burr on her neck, but he is still very cute!
and just to show how well this lens can perform even shooting into the low afternoon sun, the micro contrast and sharpness is awesome.
Another demonstration of the shallow depth of field and bokeh.

None of the above would have been possible had I used my full frame camera – they just don’t make a lens with the same capabilities in that weight range – as discussed in my earlier blog post here.

If I was a birder with plenty of patience and sitting in a hide with a tripod, then sure, the full frame camera with a 600mm f/4 lens may get better image quality – but at what price in terms of money and burden?