The Magic Wand

I though I should write about one of my all time favourite editing tools, the Lightroom Brush tool. This is not only my favourite Lightroom tool (closely followed by the camera calibration colour panel), but is the main reason I stuck with Lightroom after looking at some contenders.

This is my "hands on" tool. It is, for a self confessed computer shirker, the closest thing I have at hand to a real darkroom manipulation. 

Why do I like it?

One of the strongest weapons we have in photography to get our artistic point across is selective focus and subject placement. Lens focal length and aperture selection, focus point and Bokeh rendering, with some other factors will determine the starting point, but when the image hits our screens the quality needed to really bring out the best in the image, to really push home our intent is often the difference between "just ok" and better.

I find the brush tool while powerful, to be quite gentle and natural looking, where global settings can look harsh very quickly. Even tools such as Clarity and De haze look less aggressive when brushed on selectively. It may be that selective application, but even in direct comparison of areas sharpened globally or brushed, there seems to be (to my eye) a subtle difference.

My work flow has come to the point where I rarely do anything to an image with global tools other than a pre set, relying on a little light brush work to give the image the right emphasis. I would love to say i can do this with perfect camera control, but the reality is I often shoot with a little caution in fast moving scenes, needing to add the fine balance later in post processing.   

 The original file with my "Gentle +" pre set (+ contrast, whites and shadows, - blacks and highlights). The pole is clearly the central subject, but it does not jump out from the background. The 17mm lens used has excellent Bokeh coherence and micro contrast, but it's wider focal length can still make things too close in focus plane to work.

The original file with my "Gentle +" pre set (+ contrast, whites and shadows, - blacks and highlights). The pole is clearly the central subject, but it does not jump out from the background. The 17mm lens used has excellent Bokeh coherence and micro contrast, but it's wider focal length can still make things too close in focus plane to work.

 Pleasant but not punchy.

Pleasant but not punchy.

 After "Gentle Push" and "Soft Bokeh" applied. "Gentle Push" adds only about +10 contrast, sharpness and clarity and Soft bokeh subtracts about the same, but the effect is obvious, like a veil of clarity.

After "Gentle Push" and "Soft Bokeh" applied. "Gentle Push" adds only about +10 contrast, sharpness and clarity and Soft bokeh subtracts about the same, but the effect is obvious, like a veil of clarity.

 Detail crop showing the natural looking sharpening and softening in harmony. Notice how the woman in the background is less obtrusive, as is the drink machine on the other side.

Detail crop showing the natural looking sharpening and softening in harmony. Notice how the woman in the background is less obtrusive, as is the drink machine on the other side.

 The same base image with the global settings applied the same as "gentle push" brush settings. The image has more punchy colours and contrast, but is still a bit (or is more?) busy to the eye.

The same base image with the global settings applied the same as "gentle push" brush settings. The image has more punchy colours and contrast, but is still a bit (or is more?) busy to the eye.

 A crop showing the slightly harsher and harder detail also applied to the background.

A crop showing the slightly harsher and harder detail also applied to the background.

It is subtle I know (the effect in editing looks stronger tan the blog post shows), but subtlety is good.

Tram Ride

A year or two ago, on a tram ride in Melbourne, I took these images, all from the same seat in the same ten or so minutes (roughly from Spencer Street to the Docklands. 

The block below are probably one quarter of the images from that day that I like.

Magic spot, magic light.

All images were taken with an EM5 and 45mm lens

Future proof?

After a two year break from the photo industry, I am back in the fold. At the moment my role is teaching courses and a little sales work as needed, but it is all good.

The other night, I took part in a Canon sponsored event, partly as back-up staff, partly out of curiosity and something instantly struck me. 

The big two have not moved ahead very far in terms of mirrorless thinking. Canon is at the moment the leader of the two in practical Live View application (I believe), but the two reps present were reticent to apply any of this technology, something I found odd as we were doing astro photography. Live View with its automatic mirror-up vibration reduction, exposure preview and focussing benefits (magnification and accurate off the sensor focus) have always seemed to me (especially when using Canon myself), to be a logical feature to use. Little was said on the subject.

There are rumours of better adoption of this technology, but they have lost a lot of ground to the Sony, Fuji, Panasonic/Olympus brands in an area that is not a quaint side line, but the realistic future of camera tech. Lets look at some realities;

It is growing when the industry, generally is not.

Video cannot be shot with a mirror down. As SLR technology improves here, the relevance of the SLR itself lessens, leaving the SLR makers with the quandary of developing the tech at the expense of their own preferred format.

Live View is exactly that, the huge convenience of "what you see is what you get" applied to a field that has always had to put up with a certain amount of user "blindness", due purely to limited technology. Maybe one of the reasons phones are so popular may be this very feature (see it, shoot it - get what you see). The first thing I teach when getting down to the nitty-gritty of better image making is Exposure Compensation. It is infinitely easier when you can see what is going on. I remember being quite afraid of the mystical art of exposure comp. in the film era especially. It was the feature of true pro's. I use it all the time now as the perfect "mind reading" light meter is still a little ways off.

Focussing has more options, is smarter, will be even faster and smarter with near future development and is effectively unlimited as it processor based. Phase detection focus has improved steadily over the years, but relatively slowly compared to the amazing growth of Mirrorless AF systems and is it "better" that we rely on a system that looks for us, not with us? Don't even get me started on calibration and accuracy!                                                                 This seems also to go for silent electronic shutters, super high speed and high frame rates, removing other shutter limitations and vibration. It is not limited to the Mirrorless cameras, but most of the good thinking seems to be coming from there. 

Cameras will be smaller, less fragile (no mirror box to shake loose), have smaller lenses/accessories and it's form factor can be re-invented as needed. Just look at the modern return of the view finder style retro clone. Why not as any shape works when the old rules no longer apply.

Photography has always been a slave to technical limitations, but each time these are overcome, we move towards a better way, often with a vocal core of hold-outs for the old ways. I remember or was aware of the transitions to Colour,  Auto Focus, Digital and now Mirrorless technology, each with it's detractors and often with some valid points to hang their arguments on, at least early on, but the only real reason to hold on to old ideas is because you personally want to. You do not need a better excuse, that one is fine. If it wasn't there would have been no painting after photography, no records after CD's and no film after digital.

It becomes a problem, when the big two (not anywhere near as big as they were, but still perceived to be the royalty of the industry) control our perceptions of the natural change coming, it is much like the big oil companies short circuiting the development of natural energy sources. 

When I switched to Olympus from Canon five years ago, it was for practical reasons. The focus speed and accuracy, the sublime sharpness of both the sensor and lenses, in such a small and affordable package all persuaded me over. I even bounced back to Canon in a small way (forgivable after 30+ years with them?), but found the same compromises came up in size, selection of suitable lenses (more, but less reliable, bigger and dearer), body size (tried an EOS 100, but it felt, ironically, too small) and sensor (issues with clarity and highlights).

 Not all that glitters is gold.

Not all that glitters is gold.

During my Canon time, in digital at least, the average life of a camera, due to unrest, not reliability, was less than two years and my lens arsenal was much the same. My OMD's are five years and counting. For the first time since film, I am looking at long term life, not waiting for the next big thing (that usually changed nothing).

Did I take ok images with Canon. Of course I did, otherwise i would have given up some time in the 1980's. Is the future the 60+ year old SLR and the brands that cannot break from them? Probably not.

I sometimes get the urge for another system, just to liven things up a bit (spice of life and all that), but every time I look at Canon and Nikon, I personally see a long term dead end. 

Anyway, rant over. Use what you want, they all take good images, but look a little more deeply than the salesman's recommendation of the same old same old. The form factor and usability of the camera you buy should be a major factor in your choice, not just the name on top.

Signed, Anonymous

One thing I really appreciate about bigger cities and something I am acutely aware of not having at home is anonymity. There is a big difference between the freedom of photographing people that are forever destined to be strangers. The city I live in has about 80,000 people, but it is amazing how often you run into people you know and the smaller place does have a feel of being much smaller (often manifesting in suspicion or a heightened awareness of thing "out of place"). The two problems I face with this are directly related. The people you are dealing with are more aware of you, because people doing anything overtly tend to stand out (especially in less busy streets) and conversely, they tend to act in a more contained and conservative manner. Melbourne has all sorts and they are just as happy to be themselves as they are happy to let you do your thing.  

This shared anonymity is an almost friendly barrier to judgement. 

Could I have taken the images below at home? Probably. But it would have been more strained, and stressful* and it would have taken longer than the half an hour or so these took. To be honest it would not have felt worth the effort.

This unfortunately has resulted in my photography becoming sporadic, limited to travel.

Within the last year, I have been verbally abused for including (just) a Harley Davidson motor bike in the front corner of an image of a building, had a Tarrot card reader (doing readings out in the open) chase me through a market to ask what I was up to when I took a wide angle image they were barely recognisable in (I did not even notice them when I composed the shot), had someone in the street stop and demand to see my "peeping Tom" images while photographing flowers in a nearly empty park and been honked at while photographing a leaf pattern on some cracks in the road edge! 

Compare this to 5 trips to Japan and dozens to Melbourne without incident.

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Olympus Colour

It is true that in the modern, digital world we can often have what we want.

In photography, the brands we use have always had some small effect on what we produce, but it is true to say also, in the digital world, any decent camera will have the capacity to produce images similar if not identical to any other.

My journey to Olympus was slow and over thought. Coming from Canon, I had a strong, and opinionated colourful palette to compare to. Fuji offered something as brilliant, but different, Sony had a more neutral (Nikon like?) colour look and Olympus was, to be honest, not my favourite by a long shot.

When I was working in a shop, I had the luxury of trying before buying. It sounds wonderful, but talk about paralysis by analysis! I stumbled across part of this analysis the other day. 

The first image came from a Fuji with the 27mm pancake (40mm)

The next image was taken using a 6D and 40mm combination. Here is the colour I grew to love, rich and deep, cool overall, but warm where relevant.

The third image is the base colour from an Olympus RAW file, showing the unnaturally warm/muddy magenta tint that I really do not like (and lets not talk about the "warm" base setting they all come set with).

The last image is the same image with my basic Lightroom import settings applied (added white/reduced highlights, darkened black/boosted shadows, added blue channel and a slight boost in contrast).

I must admit, the Fuji image (a jpeg, not RAW) still appeals, but the Olympus image sits in a nice middle ground between the Fuji and Canon and there is plenty more to find.

The Fuji has a cool colour that I find appealing, although as I process more images from my library I must admit, it does not feel natural anymore, just appealing. Something I have also found frustrating with Fuji is their stubborn adherence to the X-Trans sensor with all of it's processing issues, when I know that the magic is available through normal Bayer array sensors in the XA series and now the tempting XT-100). The key to matching this cooler colour, without loosing strength in warm tones with Olympus (a Canon speciality), using EM5 mk1's, is the camera calibration blue saturation slider in Lightroom. The watery, almost delicate rendering is tougher as the Olympus cameras seem to put more "rubber to the road" in image depth, making their images less "etherial"(fragile and fickle) and more realistic (robust but boring?).

Processing can give you what ever you want, it is just a case of getting over it and accepting the reality that choices have always been a part of photography, not a limitation. 

 Here is a bit of a meatball image, processed with a preset I call "Deep Dreamer". This little bike is always found in one of Melbourne's lanes, outside a shop and is a little worse for wear. This colour is what I would call Canon on speed, but taken on an Olympus.

Here is a bit of a meatball image, processed with a preset I call "Deep Dreamer". This little bike is always found in one of Melbourne's lanes, outside a shop and is a little worse for wear. This colour is what I would call Canon on speed, but taken on an Olympus.

The cooler balance is alluring, but the more I shoot Olympus (with pre-sets added in processing) the more content I am with their naturalness. 

This is another test taken the same day (although I forgot the Fuji until almost too late, hence the different light.

Here, first up, the Fuji looks cooler/greener, The Canon nice and clean and the third image (older processed Olympus), warmer and again a little muddy, although on inspection, possibly the most accurate. The last image is a newer processing of the olympus image.

Choices are a part of image making. They always has been. From the designers intent when designing sensors (or film) and algorithms, through their inherent technological limitations, to camera settings, lens coatings, light, viewing media, processing choices and even differences in the viewers environment or eyes, there is no "standard" or untouched image. It is not possible to see the world with an untainted brush, but it is possible, even desirable, to choose the flavour of your image.

Control, both in exercised choices and then in restraint are important.

Blush

In a house we left years ago, there was a magnolia tree that became my garden muse for several seasons. 

 550D 35 f1.4L

550D 35 f1.4L

 1Ds Mk2 100 f2.8 macro USM

1Ds Mk2 100 f2.8 macro USM

Through several cameras and over a couple of years, my relationship with it developed and changed.

The Magical Fireworks factory

Not really, but the wood strapped to the trees and the fort like structure make me think of it as something a little cool and a little mystical.

In reality, it is a maintenance storage shed, Philosophers Path style, Kyoto.

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New Fast Lenses, Perceptions and Relevance

Just out of curiosity (yeah sure), I have been looking at some of the comparison tests between the new f1.2 Pro Olympus lenses and my stable of, I guess now, "regular" lenses (although the 75mm sits in it's own middle ground for now).

The consensus seems to be;

  • The Pro (and Leica) lenses can test sharper, especially wide open and in the corners.
  • The Bokeh they produce, predictably as this was one of the design directives, is "better" or at least more. This is obviously in response to the current fashion of modern or luxury Bokeh.
  • They are built like the proverbial brick sh*t house and are full frame SLR size and price as a consequence.
  • The lesser lenses are all capable of matching the pro lenses in some circumstances, often the logical circumstances for their use and have shown some dignified character even when assailed by their no-holds-barred younger siblings.

My take away from this goes again to interpretations of need, minimum as opposed to maximum quality and perceptions.

Sharpness

When do we need really big files? The two relevant times are big prints (or prints of cropped images) and looking at small parts of an image on a screen, usually just for testing. There are no other relevant uses in most peoples lives for super high resolution gear.

Printing has a few realities to face. Very large prints are rare, expensive and of limited use outside of galleries. I know from years of experience, reading and observing, that camera resolution and lens sharpness suffer badly from the law of diminishing returns as the print process is the limiting factor. Choice of paper, ink type, printer and size are all going to determine the real end product, not just input. Remember that the world's greatest art works were painted with oils on canvas. Resolution was not a factor.

Printing has it's limits. Ming Thein for example spent a lot of time and money creating a series of super resolution prints that resolved the limits of a 36mp sensor. He was limited in shooting, printing and paper options, maximum print size and in his own words "relevance". You cannot do this at home or even through a pro lab. It took direct control of a multi $10,000 professional printing press (and the print maker) using multiple fine droplet passes and taking considerable time and money.

A good image will still be a good image even if technically weaker than one taken with later or better gear. Technical limitations are far less important that the aesthetic value if the image. The Holga crowd even revel in the flaws of their cameras.

If you need to go really big, small differences in sensor resolution and lens sharpness will not make that much real difference. Even if you did a pair of identical prints for comparison (only reason you would?). There are plenty of M43 vs full frame comparisons on line, generally showing that the difference in prints of quite large size (feet not inches) are surprisingly irrelevant. 

I am not saying that sharpness is not a thing, but visual perception of it is more often than not related to micro/macro contrast, focus, depth of field, colour, tonal separation and lighting than pure sharpness. I even remember seeing many images last century that looked sharper because of strong and tight grain.

If a lens shows low resolution, but high contrast, the perceived sharpness of the images it produces are usually better than the reverse. Much of this stands to be changed in post processing anyway. Sometimes too much fine resolution can even take away perceived sharpness from an image.

 An old (digitally ancient) image of my niece Lilly (now in her teens). The image is a crop taken with a 10D Canon (about 4mp after the crop). The perceived sharpness of her hair is strong and does not need to be any stronger, especially for this type of image. This image effortlessly prints to A3 with "hair splitting" sharpness. More resolution would define every pore or the peach fuzz on her skin but would it make the image better or just too busy? The Bokeh also shows how less DOF would ruin the image (focus is a little too far forward, grabbing the hair), but F2.8 (F1.8 in M43 format) on an 85mm lens saved it from the trash bin. I sometimes wonder if this camera would still be more than enough for portrait images.

An old (digitally ancient) image of my niece Lilly (now in her teens). The image is a crop taken with a 10D Canon (about 4mp after the crop). The perceived sharpness of her hair is strong and does not need to be any stronger, especially for this type of image. This image effortlessly prints to A3 with "hair splitting" sharpness. More resolution would define every pore or the peach fuzz on her skin but would it make the image better or just too busy? The Bokeh also shows how less DOF would ruin the image (focus is a little too far forward, grabbing the hair), but F2.8 (F1.8 in M43 format) on an 85mm lens saved it from the trash bin. I sometimes wonder if this camera would still be more than enough for portrait images.

As for 1,2,400% resolution comparisons on screen. They are only for photographers. No one else cares.

Testing sharpness only gets us into the bad habit of ignoring other lens characteristics such as contrast, tonal separation, colour, "draw" or such mundane things as handling.

Bokeh

This one is dangerous ground to enter. Firstly, there is no right or wrong, no perfect or un-useable Bokeh. It just is. When Mike Johnson and John Kennerdell first exposed the western world to the Japanese concept of Bokeh in the 90's, they opened a can of worms, one that I think even they would sometimes like to re-can.

Bokeh is not simply fuzzy round balls of background blur. Some of the early lenses selected out as stellar Bokeh exponents (Leica 32 f2M) often only showed their true power at longer focussing distances, without exaggerated compression or super wide apertures. One of the things I took from the very first articles on the subject was the usefulness and relevance of Bokeh when it created a settled and harmonious transition between the in and out of focus areas of the whole image. The modern trend is to ignore the transition and just go from super sharp to exaggerated blur. Addictive but lacking in real usefulness.

 What would be gained from shallower DOF? A speaker as the hero of the story accompanied by lots of soft mush. If I wanted that, I could either get closer or use the 25mm with it's more trendy sharp/soft Bokeh  (and find something more interesting than a speaker to shoot).

What would be gained from shallower DOF? A speaker as the hero of the story accompanied by lots of soft mush. If I wanted that, I could either get closer or use the 25mm with it's more trendy sharp/soft Bokeh (and find something more interesting than a speaker to shoot).

Super shallow depth of field (as opposed the Bokeh as a whole concept) is very fashionable at the moment, but it can be overused to the point of being sameish, even boring. My best or most useful Bokeh lens is my 17mm f1.8, which is considered by many to be "ugly" or at best "impractical" at Bokeh (as if it was a sport or applied trick), because it holds too much semi-cohesive detail at wide apertures. There was a time, not so long ago, when this was considered a very desirable characteristic.

 This image was shot wide open with the 75mm f1.8. If I had f1.2 would I have used it? No, because I needed to balance the amount of blurring with clear rendering of relevant detail. The Bokeh is gentle, sweet and harmonious, but not all pervading. As a practical consideration, f1.8 was tons for a decent ISO and shutter speed combination in evening light. 

This image was shot wide open with the 75mm f1.8. If I had f1.2 would I have used it? No, because I needed to balance the amount of blurring with clear rendering of relevant detail. The Bokeh is gentle, sweet and harmonious, but not all pervading. As a practical consideration, f1.8 was tons for a decent ISO and shutter speed combination in evening light. 

Certainly, my 25, 45, 75 and even the 75-300 are obviously more able to produce the accepted perception of modern Bokeh, but so are any long and/or fast lenses. 

I personally want more connection to all parts of my image. Separating out the main subject form the back ground increases the perception of sharpness and "snap", but where is the story?         

I would hate to think I only had two depth of field methods, super Bokeh and landscape deep.

How much blur is enough or too much? If you study the top tier images used by the masters of portraiture, they use many apertures, not just their widest. Go on, fight it. Fight the urge to go to that (literally) two dimensional safe haven of F-razor thin and explore the relationship between your main subject with some, less or even no blur in an image. 

I know if I bought an F1.2 lens, the novelty would wear off pretty quickly, but even worse, I might not like it's Bokeh or rendering for my style of shooting and would then start to resent the weight and price of the new glass. I also would not part with one of my "lesser" lenses as it would be like abandoning a faithful friend.

The 17 and 45mm lenses at F2 to 2.8 are pretty sweet for me (that's F4 to 5.6 in full frame terms), handling the balance of in-to-out of focus elements beautifully and relevantly for their intended applications. Also at that aperture they both stack up so closely to the Pro lenses in sharpness that the differences are effectively irrelevant. The 25mm's also look to be too close to split.

One of the things that drew me to M43 is it's near perfect practical application of apertures and depth of field. Full frame is worshipped as ground zero of photography, but why? It was invented out of convenience (availability of 53mm motion picture film stock), then considered a small and non professional format,that then became the default "senior" digital format. There is not a real difference in quality until you start looking at medium format sensors and even then we come back to perceived want vs practical need. What we (M43 to FF sensor users) need to look out for are the hungry 1" sensors nipping at our heels.

If you need proof, go to DPreview or a similar site, look at the high res comparisons of sensor "X" vs "Y" and ask yourself if, after sound processing, professional printing to a gallery print size, well presented and at sensible viewing distance (not 200% on a screen), whether anyone will judge an image by the camera the took it or the content. if the camera was the main control factor, nothing from years past would have cut it. This is not the case. I remember seeing jaw-dropingly gorgeous images from 35mm images for years before digital and most people who have used them are saying the current M43 sensors produce about the same quality as medium format film.

Character

Totally subjective, but the character of a lens is often a deeply hidden and elusive beast. It cannot be tested any other way than through use and observation.

The trend in recent f1.8 to f1.2 lens comparisons showed a difference in colour from lens to lens. Sometimes the older lens was warmer, sometimes not. Apart from warmer images tending to look less contrasty (i.e. less sharp), the processing of images from a lens becomes habitual and refined. I personally have pre-sets for different lenses tending to make them all fit my preferences, but without sacrificing their own look. It has taken me years of use to start to get a true feel for my lenses, but what it has taught me is that knowledge of the lens (and sensor) in hand really opens your eyes to what each offers.                                                                                                          Dull day, needing a more contrasty and brilliant look? Pen F and 25mm. Strong sun and deep shadows? OMD and 17mm. Brilliant sun, clean lines and metallic surfaces? OMD and 75-300.

When you look this deeply at a lens, it tends to blur the line between better and worse or stronger or weaker. You start to feel every lens, no matter how poor overall has something to offer*. If I had reviewed the 14-42 kit a few years ago, I would have probably been harsh based on it's build and price, but now I see the many character strengths it has. It and the 75-300 help remind me that Bokeh is not a more or less thing, it is a creative element with many degrees of application and colour, sharpness and rendering in general of all types have their place.

 A unique 3D look from the 14-42, that none of my other lenses seem to emulate quite this way. High micro contrast and old fashioned, coherent Bokeh rendering limited by a not-able-to-be very fast aperture setting combined to make this. With another lens I would have gone wider, creating a more sharp/soft look. How predictable. 

A unique 3D look from the 14-42, that none of my other lenses seem to emulate quite this way. High micro contrast and old fashioned, coherent Bokeh rendering limited by a not-able-to-be very fast aperture setting combined to make this. With another lens I would have gone wider, creating a more sharp/soft look. How predictable. 

When the lens is far from poor, slightly better does not hold as much promise.

I have learned that the 17mm is the perfect lens for street grabs. It has the right mechanical and optical characteristics to do the job as I want it done. The Pro 17mm or the Panasonic 15mm may offer similar or better sharpness characteristics, but I doubt they would do that job better.

I learned a similar lesson with Canon gear. The nearly perfect, character filled 85mm f1.8 vs the slow focussing, way too big 85L with it's "one look" trick is a prime (excuse the pun) example.

How would I cope, not being able to rely on my knowledge of the delicate sweetness of the 45mm at F2.2-2.8, the utterly useful 17mm at F2-4 or the surprising quality and forgiving nature of the slow 75-300? Why break something that is working so well. The reality is, if I bought any of the new lenses (money is in the bank), I would most likely still use the old lenses for much of my work, effectively making the lenses twice as expensive as I used them half as much. 

This has already happened with the Pen F, kept in "reserve" while the old OMD EM5's do the bulk of my travel work because they are more expendable, comfortable and more than enough.

I am not expecting this post to change any one's mind about the new glass. I know how hard it is to resist, but maybe my perspective may help sort out some thought processes.

*An old friend of mine and very talented black and white photographer used to buy up all sorts of lens odds and ends, test them and either keep them (often with their apertures super glued to their best setting), or pass them on with detailed health checks. Some of his favourites cost $10 at a flea market. He was a true brand agnostic.

The Dynamic Duo

After looking at my preferred lens kit (4 primes), I think it only fair to give the two zooms I use, more often than even I realised, a quick mini review.

                                                              The Batman                                                                       (Dark Mysterious and often Underestimated)

First up the 75-300 zoom.

It is really hard to over state the power and usefulness of this lens. It has reach, sharpness, nice Bokeh (yes, it is possible for a slow lens to exhibit pleasant Bokeh in the true meaning of the term), brilliant colour and takes images that mathematically seem Bumblebee like* in their improbability. I have had two of these. The first I parted with when I still used Canon for my long lens work, but I caved and got a second, then compared the images it created to both the 400 f5.6L and the 70-200 F4L and realised it lost very little and allowed me to cut the Canon cord.

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 When given good to average light, it can fool me into thinking I am looking at an image made by the 75mm f1.8.

When given good to average light, it can fool me into thinking I am looking at an image made by the 75mm f1.8.

 Giant poster anyone? This is a 50% crop.

Giant poster anyone? This is a 50% crop.

 Sitting on my back patio, looking at what ever comes. This bee was about 6 feet away. This focal range is excellent for capturing small objects in flight and staying out of their reaction zone.

Sitting on my back patio, looking at what ever comes. This bee was about 6 feet away. This focal range is excellent for capturing small objects in flight and staying out of their reaction zone.

 A blow up of the above image showing both the shallowness of the depth of field at extreme magnifications but also the sharpness retained wide open and hand held at the longest (weakest) focal length. Would anyone complain about an A3+ print made from this image?

A blow up of the above image showing both the shallowness of the depth of field at extreme magnifications but also the sharpness retained wide open and hand held at the longest (weakest) focal length. Would anyone complain about an A3+ print made from this image?

 In less than perfect light, it pulls off the most unlikely images. A purely speculative image taken with a flick of the wrist at about 10 feet in the most atrocious weather. I know for a fact that the previous image was taken across the street, so the lens had to fully refocus in a split second.  

In less than perfect light, it pulls off the most unlikely images. A purely speculative image taken with a flick of the wrist at about 10 feet in the most atrocious weather. I know for a fact that the previous image was taken across the street, so the lens had to fully refocus in a split second.  

 A bit like the Pelican, this lens looks ungainly, even inefficient, but it is as graceful as any when allowed to fly.

A bit like the Pelican, this lens looks ungainly, even inefficient, but it is as graceful as any when allowed to fly.

                                                                  Robin  (or maybe Nightwing?)                                      (The Little Scrapper)

A lens I own due to a re-gifted camera (EPM2) and one that I have only used a couple of times for testing, is the 14-42 f3.5-5.6 11R (the newer non electronic collapsible one).

What can I say? This lens reduces the gear centric thinking that I think controls most of us a bit. It is cheap to buy, cheap feeling and even a little cheap to look at, but the images are anything but cheap. It allows me to scratch the "gear does not matter" itch.

This is the lens (wait for it), that allowed me to sell the 12-40 F2.8 as it filled the seldom used wide-ish angle and even less often needed "all rounder" standard lens roles. Paired with the 45mm, which is the perfect foil for it's main weakness (slow at the long end), or the 75-300, I have either a very pocketable little day kit or an amazingly powerful (for it's size) travel kit especially with the EPM2.

Don't get me wrong. The 12-40 was a lovely lens, but this little gem comes sooo close at equivalent apertures, I do not need to stress that I am cutting irresponsible corners. It is only ever really going to be used for the occasional landscape (best aperture always used) or the even more occasional trip when a camera is really considered optional, but I would have no hesitation using it for either.

The lens has a "fine" sharpness rendering, with lots of micro contrast. It is by far the best cheap, standard lens I have ever used, with only the Fuji 16-50 kit for company. It also brings to my kit a slightly old fashioned rendering, where the 12-40 shared a similar look and dynamic with the 25mm, making them too similar to split, this lens has this in common with the 17mm f1.8.

 Wide open at the long end. EM5. Like the 75-300, this lens does not offer "super" Bokeh, but what it does offer is pleasant and reasonably controlled.

Wide open at the long end. EM5. Like the 75-300, this lens does not offer "super" Bokeh, but what it does offer is pleasant and reasonably controlled.

For the kind of methodical or light hearted work it will do, it is ideal. If I was working professionally? Not sure. I would probably be too conscious of it's perceived cheapness, but if only the results mattered, then it could be my sneaky secret.

 Every extinguished bug's last act is held in fine detail.

Every extinguished bug's last act is held in fine detail.

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 A crop of the above image showing the fine detail on offer. This is the kind of quality that used to thrill me from my 35L Canon. How far we have come.

A crop of the above image showing the fine detail on offer. This is the kind of quality that used to thrill me from my 35L Canon. How far we have come.

 I really appreciate the smooth Bokeh transition. One of the advantages of a slow lens is you shoot with the assumption of good depth of field, not be tempted to push the envelope too much. Ironically DOF still often bites me with M43 because you think you should have plenty, but often don't. The snappy, micro contrast sits well with the pleasant Bokeh. 

I really appreciate the smooth Bokeh transition. One of the advantages of a slow lens is you shoot with the assumption of good depth of field, not be tempted to push the envelope too much. Ironically DOF still often bites me with M43 because you think you should have plenty, but often don't. The snappy, micro contrast sits well with the pleasant Bokeh. 

What I have learned here is;

Modern lenses and cameras are getting better and better, reaching a point of technical sufficiency. More is really excess or to relieve photographer limitations. There is little to be gained from the super lenses on offer unless you are going to really stress them in the specific area they are designed to excel (often fast apertures) and newer cameras are reducing limitations, but in most cases these limitations do not need to be removed.

This is especially evident when the end product is considered. For blogging, book publication, fine art prints up to a size and blogging etc, most cameras and lenses produce better images than needed.

Ask an Olympic sports photographer if they could do with more speed, accuracy and resolution and the answer will be yes, but ask them if they could do their job 20 years ago, they will also answer in the affirmative, it just took more time, planning and skill. They will also be the ones out of a job when the guy in the bleachers can shoot 16k video in the near dark, lifting out award winning images through image saturation alone.

When you have been in the photographic world for long enough it dawns on you that you have been basically looking at the same images over and over for years. Advertisements are the most telling. I remember some amazing shots, taken in the seemingly distant past of great sporting or wild life events on film, without fast motor drivesmanually focussed. The quality when viewed in a magazine, glossy brochure or even bill board was/is sufficient to impress. We are now being coerced by ideas not realities. I keep a few ancient (90's) magazines around to remind me.

Can you tell the difference between a 72dpi or 300 dpi A3 print at a normal viewing distance? There are many examples of people educated in the field not being able to. This also goes for cameras. I remember reading a review of the new Canon G9 super compact camera on The Luminous Landscape blog. The reviewer was using it to make record keeping images made with his main camera, a 50mp medium format model. He was so surprised by the quality he made a bunch of prints (fairly big, A2-3?) and showed them to his friends, all fellow photographers.  The only way any of them could tell the difference between the images was the different depth of field rendering of the formats, but they usually could not pick a clear winner or even work out what the trick to question being asked was. Some even preferred the colour from the Compact.

The same site recently compared prints from three Canon cameras (an 8, 20 and 50mp). Yes you could tell the difference between the extremes on close inspection, but at normal viewing distances not really. The things that were not rendered by the 8mp camera (a small red and white sign on a door) were still not perfectly clear (i.e. readable) with the 50mp images. This also bring up the subject of relevance. Would the image be better if you could read the "no parking over driveway" sign?

Ok. I have strayed off topic a bit, but the examples are many, comparing big vs small, real vs perceived, lens A vs B, all leading to the same conclusions; we can now easily measure better than we can see, but measuring is often pointless in the real world. Kudos to you if you just bought that super lens or monster camera, but I warn you, for your own sake, don't go comparing it's results to lesser lenses or even worse ask a non photographer what they think. Their lack of shared enthusiasm can be heart breaking.

Try it yourself. Show a group of average people an image taken with a compact or older SLR of low MP rating and a different image made with a state of the art camera. Be fair and offer up two of your favourites images processed as well as you can, preferably both done recently so your own skill and processing preferences are the same. Don't tell the viewers what they are responding to, just show them the prints. I bet no one will pick or even care what differences there are in the images technically, only aesthetically (remember photo blogs are written for other people with the same interest, but the bulk of the viewing public has no such interest).

On the bright side, all of those older images you took on redundant cameras and formats, are still just as relevant now as when taken. 

Modern photographers are not limited by gear, only ability, skill, practice, time and subject matter.

*

* One of my favourite explanations for the difference between mathematics and science goes something like this;

"Mathematics plots and measures the probable, science proves it". Two examples are the Titanic that "could not be sunk". The first field experiment horribly proved otherwise and the Bumblebee that apparently, mathematically cannot fly.

The Three Musketeers (plus the other one)

I have written a lot about the lenses I use, hoping, I guess to help others to make informed choices about their own needs and to be honest, because it helps me to make sense of what I feel about them.

I think it is also important with the flood of uber expensive glass coming from Olympus and Panasonic at the moment, to take stock of the "lesser" lenses they offer that made their name in the first place. 

The first thing to qualify here is that the "best" lenses by test bench reputation are not necessarily the best lenses overall, or at least they are not in a class of their own.

The four lenses that are my stable are;

Aramis the flexible persuader The 17mm f1.8.

Not a reviewers favourite, but loved by it's users and often under estimated. I find it ironic that many of the giant killing comparison tests around use this lens when it is thought by many to middle of the road at best.

This is probably the single most important lens in my kit. Ironic really, as it is the only wide angle in a portraitists bag and although it is the weakest by reputation, it never, ever lets me down optically, mechanically or creatively. I thought (stressed) long and hard about this one, switching between the 15, 20, 17, but in the end I kept the 17 as the first choice due to it's excellent functionality. I decided to get one of the others or any improved future model the second I felt it was not doing the job. That day never came.

Build to purpose (I believe), it offers the ideal optical characteristics and utility for a wide-standard lens. When compared to the Panasonic 20mm or 15mm's for example, it shows a deeper and more coherent, old fashioned (?) bokeh transition, rather then the fashionable, but not as useful in a street wide angle lens, fast and creamy drop off.

It always amuses me when people reviewing or commenting on the bokeh of wide angle lenses are disappointed, even after qualification, by their poor performance as traditional portrait lenses. 

I feel a more useful application of the designer's talent is to give the lens, designed for "environmental" portraits, more depth of focus, not less. The new 17 f1.2 looks to have the creamier out of focus blur that people are lusting after, but that only makes the older lens all the more relevant as an option, not just a make-do lens.

It has also revealed a pleasing landscape capacity recently.

 The expanded out of focus coherence is very forgiving, but can also still be snappy enough thanks to it's micro contrast, for creative use.   The above image reminds me of the Leica look I fell in love with years ago. The overall clarity of the composition, even the out of focus areas, with added snap on the focus point that really jumps out and draws your attention "out of order". A more modern Bokeh design would hero the foreground, at the expense of the rest of the story.

The expanded out of focus coherence is very forgiving, but can also still be snappy enough thanks to it's micro contrast, for creative use.

The above image reminds me of the Leica look I fell in love with years ago. The overall clarity of the composition, even the out of focus areas, with added snap on the focus point that really jumps out and draws your attention "out of order". A more modern Bokeh design would hero the foreground, at the expense of the rest of the story.

 This image shows the bokeh rendering at it's best. The image is a bin job, but even at f2 and manually focussed at 2 meters (for outside shooting), the image holds together. Most lenses would show a blur line at about the second poster or closer, with little rendered usefully past it. It would have an obvious sharp/soft dynamic. The 17mm lets you determine the point where the detail transitions naturally. In practice, it makes the bokeh "invisible" not an effect in itself.

This image shows the bokeh rendering at it's best. The image is a bin job, but even at f2 and manually focussed at 2 meters (for outside shooting), the image holds together. Most lenses would show a blur line at about the second poster or closer, with little rendered usefully past it. It would have an obvious sharp/soft dynamic. The 17mm lets you determine the point where the detail transitions naturally. In practice, it makes the bokeh "invisible" not an effect in itself.

Colour, flare, contrast? No problem there either.

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Sometimes it simply surprises with it's visual crispness. This is one of those lenses that does not test super sharp (in some tests, but well in others which is why tests are of limited use), but looks sharp to the eye. I think this is the benefit of it's "micro contrast", something a lot of older Leica and Zeiss glass exhibit in spades.

It is superior at adding punch to images in less than perfect light, another excellent street feature.

 The EPM2 and the 17mm seem to particularly like each other.

The EPM2 and the 17mm seem to particularly like each other.

*

 Athos The Straight Shooter.

The lens that often gets brilliant reviews, but is my least favourite of the 4 (for reasons even I have difficulty explaining) is the 25mm f1.8.

There is nothing much to complain about.

The CA wide open is more obvious than the 17mm (on my copies anyway), but is easily fixed. It is enough for me to have a pre-set in Lightroom (called 25 wide open). None of the others has one.

When it is (I am) on song, it is powerful and competent, a visual chameleon, taking on some of the best characteristics of the other three and then some. I often think of it as my "Canon memory" lens. The look is bold, rich, smooth and sharp, but not so sharp that it is an overly obvious or artificial look, just honestly sharp, wide open or stopped down.

This lens often delivers images that look "bigger" than M43, especially on the Pen F. I think it may shine brightest when the files are printed really big, allowing the eye to explore deeper, discovering the fine detail and smooth texture within.

 EM5 25mm

EM5 25mm

In contrast to the 17mm, this lens offers more portrait like bokeh. It drops away smoothly and pleasantly, but missed focus can leave an unsettled feeling of softness, I often misinterpreted this as a lens failing until I worked it out. It has a similar look and bokeh to the 20mm Pana, but the focussing, both AF and MF, are far better implemented.

Although I am an advocate for the perfect 40mm equivalent, the 25mm (50mm equiv) makes so much more sense in tandem with the 17mm as do it's optical properties.

 Spot on, but the focus drop off even at f4 is quite quick, so focussing mistakes are punished.

Spot on, but the focus drop off even at f4 is quite quick, so focussing mistakes are punished.

*

d'Artagnon the talented all rounder.

The 45mm, one of the recent legends of lens manufacture and one of the foundation stones of M43 success (along with the 20/14mm Pana's). It is the pocketable best friend that has been my go to lens when a standard-longer is wanted.

I recently shot a wedding using the 45 for 80% of the images.

This lens just makes sense. It is very sharp in a more "snappy" sense than the 25mm, probably due just to the extra reach (compression), but at the same time seems to be gentler and does not have the "flattened" effect of the 75mm. I like it so much I have 2 (maybe I should just get them turned into a pair of goggles and wear them with a funny hat!?).

The sample images I could show are legion, so I will use a small representative of the lenses consistent excellence and utility. All taken in one day, along with many others.

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And one from the recent wedding.

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"A little bit of this and a little bit of that". Universal, reliable, jewel like.

Perfect?

I would like a slightly closer focus, like it's Panasonic counterpart, but the 25mm grows another foot in that area, so kit balance is retained.

*

Finally we reach Porthos, the not so gentle giant.

The 75mm is by many measures the most powerful of the set. It is bitingly sharp with strong colour and contrast. It is the only one of the four that falls outside of the "normal" range of lenses. I can always pick images made with this lens without checking the EXIF data. They just jump out.

 Powerful enough to calm the smaller format doubters. 75mm f1.8 (150mm f2.8 equivalent).

Powerful enough to calm the smaller format doubters. 75mm f1.8 (150mm f2.8 equivalent).

 A crop of the above, shot wide open.

A crop of the above, shot wide open.

At first, this was a revelation, allowing me to cut Canon loose as I had found my replacement for the 135 F2L, a lens with almost identical properties. It is longer and faster than the Canon in their native formats, but it also shows the flip side of it's power, much the same as the Canon.

 My current screen saver. Pin sharp and hyper real looking at 29" even cropped a little.

My current screen saver. Pin sharp and hyper real looking at 29" even cropped a little.

It can look too perfect or "flat", a bit two dimensional. On it's own it would be a pony with just one impressive trick, but in this kit it offers reach and a distinctive look, strengthening the team overall. Combined with the very capable, but less "perfect" 75-300, these two make a good team.

My only minor complaint is the focussing, that I considered very capable until I used the 40-150 F2.8. Of the four I would consider the 75mm the slowest in grabbing (even a little more finicky than the 75-300) and has an annoying habit of getting stuck on some things when used on the EM5, but less so on the Pen F.

*

These are just four good lenses from a capable designer/manufacturer. All other brands can produce lenses that are similar, but I hope this post shows two important things;

1) All reasonable quality lenses are enough to do serious work* and all have features that can be a benefit to the photographer, even lenses that have been over shadowed by more impressive stable mates.

2) Getting to know your lenses is key to success. Find their character, replace them if they do not suit, but use the strengths of each lens to it's fullest and don't dwell on perceived weaknesses.

* my trouble-shooting pair of the 14-42 and 75-300 can produce pro grade images as well, often indistinguishable from the better glass. More on this later.

 

Perfect Day

With permission from the bride, I am going to share a couple of my favourite images from the wedding last month.

Mainly I have included them to show the beautiful rendering the Pen F gives, especially when your subject deserves it.

I have always been a fan of the OMD's mono images, but the Pen F files are more flexible in the highlights and smoother, giving me a couple of different scratches for that mono itch.

The combo of the Pen and the 45mm also shine, taking the bulk of the images on the day.

 Pen F 45mm

Pen F 45mm

 Pen F 45mm

Pen F 45mm

Thanks the happy couple and Hollybank reserve for putting on a perfect day.

 Pen F 45mm

Pen F 45mm

It is no slouch with colour either, but the mono images really shine for me.

Ha colour.

Strong light and brilliant. Suck it mono! 

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Ok, fair's fair. The mono reply is strong also I guess.

The lure of evil colour

Here are a couple of images that I like, but have had trouble deciding on processing for. Black and white or colour? Both work both ways. This is one of those exercises that helps decide me on being a colour only shooter. The lure and mystery of colour always draws me even when I feel a mono image is the obvious, stronger and easier path.

I did a rare wedding the other week. The sort you wish they were all like, small, friendly, genuinely loving and stressless. The images came effortlessly as they do when you are gifted with wonderful subject matter, but even then the mono/colour question cropped up time and again. I really liked the mono images and some really sang when the colour ones struggled in soft, green shade under an old tree, but colour called me first. Shame really as the Pen F in particular does mono as well as any digital camera I have used.  

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 Tighter cropping due to the over abundance of orange and white in that corner. Not offensive in the mono image.

Tighter cropping due to the over abundance of orange and white in that corner. Not offensive in the mono image.

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 More "open" and gentle than the colour image, but I cannot deny that the yellow of the helmet was the draw for the image in the first place.

More "open" and gentle than the colour image, but I cannot deny that the yellow of the helmet was the draw for the image in the first place.

Coping with the first snow.

Lots of fun for us, but an un welcome reality for the locals. Snow and especially ice, can just make things hard, but the Japanese tackle it with their usual stoic good cheer.

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training

When travelling in Japan, most people use trains at some point. For me they are the beginning and the end, and sometimes the middle of a shooting day, offering a perfect mix of people, light, colour and movement.

Kyoto has some of my favourite stations, so far at least. They cover the small, quaint and slightly shabby to magnificent state of the art. Either way, they are part of life in Japan and it shows.

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Live view

A benefit that can never be under estimated about "Live view" cameras (mirrorless or the odd mirrored camera that can function well this way), is removing the guess work of exposure compensation.

The image below was taken late evening in that period where you start to mistrust your own eyes, but before full darkness. For an SLR shooter, even with a state of the art light meter, getting the exposure somewhere between "as seen" and "as wanted" is tricky, requiring lots of experience. Imagine doing this in the film era!

With a "What You See Is What You Get" camera, it is simply a matter of setting for taste based on what you see.

The most important setting control on my EM5's is the exposure compensation control that I have switched to the back thumb dial. The Pen, to it's credit does not seem to need as much adjustment, which is good as the control is far too stiff and frustratingly cannot be moved.

 EM5 45mm at F2

EM5 45mm at F2

Oddly, when I use an SLR camera, I am now keener to use exposure compensation, as I know the benefit. Getting used to setting it though without seeing the effect is unsettling and to my mind pointless in this day and age. Ansel Adams would have used any tool at his disposal, even digital, so why shouldn't we.

 

Incidentally, this is also an area the EM5 shines, both technically and artistically.

reinvention

It's always a challenge to go somewhere many have gone, even yourself on several occasions, and "see" something different, just or differently. 

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Winter can provide different light, especially when leaf cover diminishes. 

 

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Fresh paint helps also.

Escorted

On our visit to Chinatown in Kobe, we were unintentionally escorted by a group of high school kids.

It seemed that everywhere we wanted to go, they went to, so for about an hour we ambled in loose ensemble, all engaged in our own things. The longer we were around them, the more infectious their sense of comradeship and fun became.

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