Bit o' Basketball and Thoughts on the future of Olympus and Sports Photography

As part of the workshop series we run at work, a small group of us attended a local seniors basketball game.

My own efforts, grabbed between talking to other attendees, surprised me. Sport was the primary reason I picked up a camera in the 80’s. This developed into a more mature and measured love of all things wild, but in my younger days, I was drawn to the “thrill of the chase” sports photography offered.

To clarify, the “thrill” back when I started came mostly from getting a sharp, reasonably relevant image “in the can”. Shooting film, often black and white so I had some control of quality in darker winter months, using a camera with no autofocus or motor drive and on film with maybe 3 rolls (108 shots total) to get the job done, sometimes felt like playing Golf with one arm and in the dark!

To say my skills went up a notch because they had to was an understatement. Some other shooters I knew at the time would expect 5-10 keepers per roll. I was happy to just come away with one decent image for the day.

The EM1 has been my work horse for the last couple of weeks in Japan and it is earning my grudging respect. I still prefer the images out of the old EM5’s, but that is as more habit and “success memory” than an actual measure of compared quality.

Most of the images here were shot at ISO 6400, some at 3200 with apertures of f2.8 to 1.8 as available. They are fine I guess, but needing to work at these ISO settings never sits well with me.

The EM1 has better high ISO quality and meters more consistently, but I like the way the EM5 images clean up. The older sensor has little colour noise, meaning what noise there is tends to be sharper and cleans up well. The stronger colour noise in the EM1 images leads to more “mushy” noise reduction (or maybe that is Lightroom). I have to keep in mind also, that I scrutinise these images more closely. I was often surprised by the EM5, I am often demanding to be surprised by the EM1.

The surprise for me on the night was the AF.

No kidding you might say, it is a sports action camera, but the reality is I have never fully trusted AF for most things. I feel that it is too hit and miss and strips the photographers decisive control and intuition away, but using the 12-40 and 75mm (cupboard is a little bare at the moment), I experienced a better than 75% technical success rate, allowing me to concentrate on the action, not just technical things. Some shots happened as quickly as I could spin around and push the shutter. Very few missed entirely.

If this was to be my main photographic focus, a 17mm or 25 f1.2 (for cleaner, low angle back grounds) and 40-150 Pro zoom (more versatile for down the court runs) would be in the bag and maybe the EM1x, but for occasional stuff this works fine.

The area I think Olympus really needs to offer something is in the super fast medium tele area (200 f1.8 or f2). This would make the most of the the other set of advantages the M43 sensor has to offer*, but until then they are fighting a head to head sensor race with full frame cameras that do offer theses lenses, even with their inherent disadvantages (bigger size, higher price, and a 50% reduction in reach).

*More depth of field at the same magnification, allowing the use of faster glass without razor thin focus and/or the 2x reach at the same focal length (200=400 on a FF) it offers. The reality is, it is much easier to make a 200 f2 than a nearly impossible 400mm f2! My 75mm f1.8 that did really well on the night is a full frame 150mm f1.8 equivalent, or in other words the mid point between Canon’s slightly slower, bigger, more expensive 135 f2 and insanely big and expensive 200 f2 IS lenses. All this power in a lens that fits in a coat pocket. Olympus (or Panasonic) needs to go one better and soon, before the Olympics. To add more emphasis to this argument, they already have a history of making these lenses for the recently replaced 43rds range (a 35-100 f2 and 150 f1.8)!

If not why make the EM1x?

Children's Parade

You do not have to look far for culture in Japan. This parade appeared at our hotel door as we were leaving and followed the same path as us for a block or two. Apparently there is at least one festival every day of the year, somewhere in the country.

The Incident.

The great shmutz on the shirt incident.

Argh! My shirt. It is ruined!

Argh! My shirt. It is ruined!

“What that tiny bit of shmutz?

“What that tiny bit of shmutz?

“Really, get over it. It’s tiny”.

“Really, get over it. It’s tiny”.

“Hardly noticeable, hazard of the job”.

“Hardly noticeable, hazard of the job”.

“In all seriousness, you should go back to your station, shmutz and all.”

“In all seriousness, you should go back to your station, shmutz and all.”

Meanwhile, business as usual at the “coal” face.

Meanwhile, business as usual at the “coal” face.

No Cliches

A few loose promises made to myself this trip.

No mobile phone (user or otherwise) images

But it is nearly impossible to shoot Shibuya without catching someone else’s selfie.

But it is nearly impossible to shoot Shibuya without catching someone else’s selfie.

Or at any other crossing it seems.

Or at any other crossing it seems.

Even when the light takes on the intensity of a renaissance painting.

Even when the light takes on the intensity of a renaissance painting.

Or when they are incidental, in the background.

Or when they are incidental, in the background.

No homeless or urban decay.

Rare as they are in Tokyo streets, the classic juxtaposition of poor/wealthy is still findable, and hard to ignore.

Rare as they are in Tokyo streets, the classic juxtaposition of poor/wealthy is still findable, and hard to ignore.

All fronts, no backs.

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No more metro shots. God no.

Well what was I supposed to do. Just keep walking?

Well what was I supposed to do. Just keep walking?

Especially no metro and mobile phone shots!

And above all, no Geisha, especially the “fake” ones.

…..

…..

Oh well, maybe next time.

The Relative Value of Lens Speed

This trip forced on me a change of basic technique. Loosing the use of one camera very early on, made me rely on a single camera and a pair of zoom lenses, which is not how I usually work.

The three primes, work horse lenses on every other trip, sat idly in my now uselessly overweight bag leaving me both a little frustrated and guilty that I was not using them. On the last night in Kyoto, I decided to go light and only take the 17 and 45mm lenses.

The value of their faster apertures soon came back to me, especially the 17mm lens’s very practical long transition Bokeh.

The true value of this lens comes with it’s ability to hold coherent detail in well out of focus areas. This matched with it’s slightly wide angle of view and small focal length (due to the format) makes it ideal for street style grab shots at wide apertures. This benefit comes at a price of course. You have to be aware of these included elements. The first image below could probably do with a little cropping to get rid of the left hand figure, still coherent (irrelevant) even at f1.8.

The main subject in the second image below is out of focus (best focus fell on the man in the hat to the left). If this shot was taken using my 12-40 or the Panasonic 20mm at equivalent or even slightly smaller apertures, this focus error would be a lot more obvious.

First the 17mm wide open or at F2.

And the 45mm, again mostly wide open or near.

As an ideal contrast to the 17mm and designed more commonly to suit, this is a true portrait lens with smooth and rapid Bokeh transition or in practical terms it easily makes a “hero” of the main subject. I personally (and this is highly personal), do not like to much the overtly super-Bokeh look. I generally prefer to have some subject context rather than just pleasantly smooth mush, so if I owned for example an f1.2 lens, after the one trick buzz of very strong drop off was exhausted* (although I fully admit it has a practical use to reduce ugly backgrounds), I bet it would be used at f2 or 2.8 most often, where it would have little benefit over the equivalent f1.8 lens.

For example the middle image of the set above, is a messy image. It only works (if it does at all for you) because of the balance of the messiness. With a faster aperture or longer lens, the plane of focus would be more defined and the out of focus subjects, the man’s sleeve and the distracting blob over the woman’s eye, less so. Would it make for a better image or not? I feel the “painterly” rendering rather it has rather than the more modern sharp/soft dynamic suits it better.

If you love your full frame, fast lens, super soft and powerful Bokeh rendering, then fair play and it is as relevant as any other technique, but remember, it is a bit like sugar. Too much can be addictive and mask other flavours. The best aperture may not be the widest available. A customer/colleague of mine recently showed me a series of work place portraits taken on his full frame camera a with an f1.4 105mm lens used wide open. The sharpness and smoothness of the Bokeh was impressive, but the strongest visual element in the images was the row of perfect “Bokeh Ball” yellow lights in the background, taking much of the visual power away from the human subjects. As good as they were, I could not help but think that they and the biting sharpness of the lens wide open were the true success stories of the image.

*Fully achievable at smaller apertures or even shorter lenses if needed, even if some post processing is needed. My one true “cut-out” lens is the 75mm f1.8, which is a powerful tool when used properly, but it wears thin when over used.

Harajuku 2

Another set from Harajuku

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THis fellow must have been following us as we came across him in Dotonbori Osaka

THis fellow must have been following us as we came across him in Dotonbori Osaka

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EM5 and 17 or 45mm, or EM1 and 12-40

Haiku #81 Smoke

A Rich Vein of Light

Sometimes, usually when you least expect it, so be prepared, the gods of light smile on you. Often this is semi predictable, other times it just happens and you just need to be grateful.

On a trip up to Kanazawa from Kyoto, after we had explored all of the sights ear marked as worth while, the walk back to the station dished up some light that can only be described as “Theatrical” in nature.

It started gently enough.

Regulation random snap of a well travelled local.

Regulation random snap of a well travelled local.

Another just up the road with the usual “OK-ness” factor.

Another just up the road with the usual “OK-ness” factor.

Then I started to get the feeling of something brilliant (literally and figuratively) burgeoning.

To the right..

To the right..

then the left…

then the left…

then the right again. Things were looking exciting, but no winner yet.

then the right again. Things were looking exciting, but no winner yet.

When the light takes on a character closer to a Hollywood film set you realise that the Hollywood look is only trying to control that rare perfection natural light is often stingy, but better with.

“Glow-acious” as Brett Western puts it.

“Glow-acious” as Brett Western puts it.

Just down the road,

Just down the road,

Then with added human element.

Then with added human element.

Content at this stage with a decent haul of morning tourist images and some more artistic ones later, I almost packed my camera away, but my wife suggested we veered left, away from the station and continued to enjoy the beautiful light.

The real mayor and city council of Kanazawa.

The real mayor and city council of Kanazawa.

One of the many reasons I married her is her solid intuition.

Even the ugly can take on a majesty with good light.

Even the ugly can take on a majesty with good light.

On we went, seemingly unable to escape the drama and beauty of the afternoon.

On we went, seemingly unable to escape the drama and beauty of the afternoon.

Not sure where he came from, but I turned around and he was magically there.

Not sure where he came from, but I turned around and he was magically there.

Reassuringly, the EM1 has a similar rich and smooth highlight roll-over as the EM5. Ideal for this light.

Reassuringly, the EM1 has a similar rich and smooth highlight roll-over as the EM5. Ideal for this light.

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Deeper into the tall buildings the light started to reduce in intensity.

Deeper into the tall buildings the light started to reduce in intensity.

Then it “bounced” back when we turned around to go home.

Then it “bounced” back when we turned around to go home.

Something about that spot.

Something about that spot.

Council chambers in recess.

Council chambers in recess.

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Then we started the walk back to the station.

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Not so much a study of light, but certainly one of effort.

Not so much a study of light, but certainly one of effort.

Still feeling it.

Still feeling it.

Finally back to beautiful station building.

Finally back to beautiful station building.

As I and many others have said before.

Light is everything.

As a side note, every image was taken with the 40-150 kit lens. Probably not something I would have contemplated a few months ago, but there you go. My 75-300 would have been too long for several of the images and the 12-40 too short. The 12-100 would have been ideal and certainly optically better, but 3-4 times as heavy.

Fun at the Ball

Fun with “Bokeh Balls”, or how to turn a pet hate into a bit of artistic licence.

All photos taken at Kyoto train station with the EM1 and 40-150 kit (probably not the cleanest Bokeh, but all I had, so perfect).

Family in White and Red

Family in White and Red

Three Policemen walk into a Bokeh party.

Three Policemen walk into a Bokeh party.

Father and Son

Father and Son

Puzzle

One of the things that draws me to photographing people is a natural inclination to be absorbed into their lives. When taking a mutually consenting portrait, I feel the first minutes should be spent without camera in hand. Time getting to know the person and the things that define them should come before the camera is applied.

In street situations, I feel the opposite is true. That highly desired intimacy and spontaneity is only possible if the process is entirely one way, anonymous, instinctive but always respectful.

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It is also important to remember that light is the true hero, even if the subject is more mundane.

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Contradiction as Reality

These images were all taken from the basically the same position on a road just outside of Kyoto proper.

Devastation. Coming from Tasmania, I am well acquainted with the eternal tension of preservation versus exploitation and the fine balance that has to be reached.

Devastation. Coming from Tasmania, I am well acquainted with the eternal tension of preservation versus exploitation and the fine balance that has to be reached.

Beauty from devastation.

Beauty from devastation.

Beauty before devastation.

Beauty before devastation.

Good Character

Once again I am disarmed by the warmth of spirit and dignity of the people of Japan.

Shibuya EM5 17mm

Shibuya EM5 17mm

Harajuku EM5 17mm

Harajuku EM5 17mm

Kyoto EM1 12-40. The fast transition of this lens punishes shallow DOF and any near misses, but it is smooth and gentle. It is also frikkin’ gorgeous, lush and sharp.

Kyoto EM1 12-40. The fast transition of this lens punishes shallow DOF and any near misses, but it is smooth and gentle. It is also frikkin’ gorgeous, lush and sharp.

Kyoto Em1 12-40

Kyoto Em1 12-40

Tokyo EM5 17mm

Tokyo EM5 17mm

Some would argue that the “facade” they display is hiding a darker and vastly less happy reality, but aren’t deeply felt and practiced good habits better than bad ones?