Shifting Gears

I have been writing stories of my wanderings, and posting photos here for quite a bit – 3 years to be exact – though I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned how I do it and what I use in doing it. But now I suddenly find it interesting to get talk a bit more about the stuff that I do and the small number of gear that I use. Now let me forewarn you that I’m not a pro, not even by a long shot. I talk from the perspective of the average guy who just happened to read a page or two about photography – enough to know about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. But other than that, my only credential is that I just like taking photos. I have no schooling or training on the disciplines of composition, post processing or any such stuff. I just look at a scene, decided how I want to capture it, take a shot, and see if the result is what I wanted. Many times it’s not, so I move to another spot, or change a camera setting, and then try again.

Let me also declare here that what I will write is a not a review of my equipment. I have no qualifications whatsoever to do such a thing. You will not see me talking about chromatic aberration or dynamic range or such technical geekery. I will simply talk about my personal experiences about the stuff that I use.

Olympus E420 (left) and Olympus EPM2 (right). [Shot with Panasonic Lumix LX5; Focal Length=90mm (35mm equiv), 1/60 sec, f3.3, ISO400, Flash = On]

Olympus E420 (left) and Olympus EPM2 (right). [Shot hand held with Panasonic Lumix LX5; Focal Length=90mm (35mm equiv), 1/60 sec, f/3.3, ISO400, Flash = On]

The Olympus E-420

Though I’ve had a few film cameras before, I never tried to seriously dabble with photography. It was an expensive hobby back then (it still is, but not as much as before). My first foray into the digital world was through a small Nikon point-and-shoot that was a hand-me-down from my aunt way back in 2007. It was as basic as a camera can get, and there’s not much else you can do with it but point, and shoot. In 2008 I “upgraded” to a Sony DSC-H50, which had more manual control, and it gave me my first opportunity to play with aperture and shutter speeds. The Sony was a good stepping stone, one that really roused my interest in photography. It was then in the summer of 2009 that I upgraded once more, and this time to a real “serious” system camera.

I chose the Olympus E-420 for a couple of reasons, one logical, one not. The logical: The E-420 was the smallest, lightest DSLR in the market, and knowing quite well that I will shoot most when I travel, size and weight were a big consideration. Indeed, it was a choice I never regretted to this day. The not logical: In a market that was, at that time, flooded with the Nikon d3000 and the Canon 450d, I wanted something that was neither a Nikon nor a Canon. I knew full well that accessories and lenses would be harder to come by, by going “the road less travelled”, but I just couldn’t see myself wearing a Nikon or Canon neck strap. I never regretted that too.

The best word I that could perhaps use to describe the E-420 through the four years I have been using it was “old-school”. First, it’s got a sort of “retro” look. The traditional styling, the fine texture of the materials used and the general sturdy feel of its build, is something you won’t find in most entry level DSLR’s. Second is its functions. The thing feels like a film SLR that just got implanted with a digital sensor and an LCD. It’s only got a measly 3 focus points – you got that believe it or not, just three – which makes prefocus and recompose almost SOP everytime (I’m too lazy for manual focus). The good thing about it though is that since it’s only got 3 of them, there’s very little guessing on where it will focus. In exchange of versatility, you get predictability. It’s only got one control dial, but it doesn’t bother me since I shoot in aperture priority around 95% of the time. I can still control both shutter and aperture in full manual mode, through the use of a function button, but I’m oftentimes happy to let the camera calculate shutter speed for me. It’s also got no automatic stabilization on the sensor, and olympus doesn’t put one on their lenses, which is part of the reason why the camera, both body and lens, is smaller than the rest. Instead, whatever stabilization I do has got to be in my physical body…arms, legs, lungs and all that, like using an old school film cam. That taught me how to calculate the usable shutter speeds based on focal length. It is definitely not a camera for a demanding pro, but it’s a very good one for someone trying to learn. The scarcity of bells and whistles in this camera will teach one to get back to basics. Old-school, like I said.

It was an absolute workhorse, and it was responsible for perhaps the vast majority of my photos in this blog. In broad daylight and well lit conditions it delivers everything one could ask for from a DSLR. Crisp, sharp photos that produce pleasant colors which Olympus is known for – neither bland nor cartoonishly saturated. In low light, the camera struggles a bit – low light conditions was not exactly Olympus’ bread and butter, until the recent release of the game changeing EM-5. Like most of its contemporaries, ISO1600 was the highest sensitivity available on the E420, and that point, degradation in the image quality is really visible to the naked eye, thus I typically had only ISO100-800 to work with – not a whole lot of room when light is scarce. However, with a wide and fast lens, a bit of knowledge regarding stabilizing your body (eg. bracing with a wall or post if possible, tucked elbows, steady breathing and shooting on the exhale), and knowing your own limits with regards to slow shutter speeds, you can still get a fairly good chance at a decent enough night hand held shot on this camera, even at ISO800.

Hand held shot of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, with the E420 (focal length=14mm; 1/15 sec.; f2.8; ISO800)

Hand held shot of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, with the E420 (focal length=14mm; 1/15 sec.; f/2.8; ISO800)

Hand held shot of Cheonggyecheon, Seoul, with the E420 ((focal length=14mm; 1/30 sec.; f2.8; ISO800)

Hand held shot of Cheonggyecheon, Seoul, with the E420 (focal length=14mm; 1/30 sec.; f/2.8; ISO800)

The Olympus Pen EPM-2

Olympus E420 (left) and Olympus EPM2 (right)  [Shot with Panasonic Lumix LX5; Focal Length=90mm (35mm equiv), 1/60 sec, f3.3, ISO250, Flash = On]

Olympus E420 (left) and Olympus EPM2 (right) [Shot hand held with Panasonic Lumix LX5; Focal Length=90mm (35mm equiv), 1/60 sec, f/3.3, ISO250, Flash = On]

In 2010 Olympus released a new line of system cameras called the Digital Pen, a digital revival of their diminutive line of film SLRs called the Pen. Like the original Pens, the Digital Pen line was a system composed of bodies and multiple lenses, not unlike DSLRs. However unlike DSLRs, they don’t have Optical Viewfinder (OVF) mechanisms, allowing them to be significantly smaller. In principle, you can do with a Pen whatever you can do with a DSLR, except look though an optical viewfinder (that small hole on the DSLR where you peep through to see the image). You use the LCD for that instead, like a compact camera.

I first saw a Pen for my own eyes while touring around Bangkok in 2010. A few Japanese tourists were carrying the first generation Pens inside the Wat Pho temple. The first digital Pen models released in 2010, the EP1 and the EP2, were received with enthusiasm in the cyberwolrd, but had some significant issues, particularly the poor focusing performance (the system had barely matured by then). However, what nobody can deny was that they were beautiful gadgets. Back then the DSLR craze was still in full bloom here in the Philippines, and people wore big chunky cameras wherever they went. However at Wat Pho, my supposedly attractive retro-styled E-420 looked like a ridiculously big, black blob next to the Pens. They were small, but looked serious enough for business.

I resisted adopting the system at that time though for two reasons…one real, one imagined. The real – it was out of my budget. As an average wage earner I could only invest in such luxuries as system cameras around twice a decade, or maybe thrice if I’m lucky. The imagined – the system was still in its infancy and I wanted to wait a bit more for Olympus to pull it together, and make the Pen system a serious contender, in a world that thinks any good, serious, camera has to big and heavy. But seriously, even if the Pen was perfect as heaven back then, I still wouldn’t have been able to buy one.

It was 3 years later after that Wat Pho encounter that I finally got my own Pen. By now the digital Pen had met my “imagined” criteria. It is now a matured, fully performing system that’s got fast focusing, in contrast to the first generation models. I could only get the lowest end model of the current generation, the EPM2, but as I’m finding out, its got more than what I asked for. It is ridiculously small for a system camera, and almost light as a feather too. But don’t be fooled by its size. The only thing the E-420 has that the EPM2 doesn’t is bulk. Other than that, the EPM2 can run rings on its larger, older brother. It’s got the same sensor as the much acclaimed EM-5, plus sensor-shift stablization, all in a body that can fit a pocket. It can fire the Metz 48 AF-1 external flash that I’ve been using on my E-420, and with an adapter it can take my other Olympus lenses. Plus, the battery of my E-420 is compatible with the EPM2, and vice versa, so I have an instant spare whichever camera I use.

In my initial test shots of the EPM2, the difference with the E-420 is already apparent. Shots at ISO1600 look like the E420 at ISO400, and even at ISO3200 the images are still clean enough that I will have no qualms shooting at this sensitivity at all, and I will push this to ISO6400 when needed. That’s a 2-3 stop improvement for a camera so compact.

Being a Pen, it has no OVF. It also has no mode dial. Instead, you switch modes through touch screen. Touch screen!? That’s a no-no for purists! But the world does not stand still, and if you don’t believe touch screens are the future, then try to remember the last time you used a rotating dial on a telephone. The EPM2 has often been described as a camera for neophytes, and indeed the camera will lend itself well to anyone who just wishes to point and shoot, but if you wish to consider photography seriously, the camera can get serious with you too. In fact, it behaves exactly like my E-420 even at full manual, except that you have to use the touch screen a lot more, instead of buttons and dials, which I’m totally ok with. Despite it’s tiny size, and scarcity of visible external buttons and dials, there are enough controls on this camera to tickle ones creativity. You just have to get accustomed to doing it the “new school” way.

Just take note though, that you really need to read the manual to make the most out of it. On my E-420, I literally put away the manual on day 1 and learned to maximize it on the fly. With the amount of stuff hidden behind the menus on the EPM2 though, that’s going to be a tougher thing to do.

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 42mm; 1/1600s; f/8; ISO1600)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 42mm; 1/1600s; f/8; ISO1600)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 14mm; 1/400s; f/8; ISO1600)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 14mm; 1/400s; f/8; ISO1600)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 41mm; 1/800s; f/5.6; !SO6400)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 41mm; 1/800s; f/5.6; ISO6400)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 14mm; 1/50s; f/3.5; ISO6400)

Handheld shot with the EPM2 (focal length = 14mm; 1/50s; f/3.5; ISO6400)

Panasonic Lumix LX5

The Panasonic Lumix LX5 [Shot with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=42mm, 1/8 sec, f5.6, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

A close-up of the Panasonic Lumix LX5 [Shot hand held with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=42mm, 1/8 sec, f/5.6, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

There is a quote that says the best camera in the world is the one that’s with you. If portability is the sole consideration for what a good camera should be, then the LX5 will win by a mile, or a light year. It falls under the category of “enthusiast compacts” – essentially cameras that have the power of compacts, but the controls of the more complex system cameras. Being jointly owned by my wife and myself, the camera serves a dual purpose. For my wife, it’s a specialist cam. She has a Panasonic waterproof cam as her daily shooter, but when she needs something that can handle low light conditions (eg. dimly lit auditoreums), she takes hold of the LX5. As for me, it fulfills the functions of a “side arm”. In instances where I can bring along 2 cameras, it takes the role of a back-up, or a spare. But there have also been instances where this is the only cam I brought. The camera’s bright optics (f/2 at its widest focal length) and effective in-body stabilization, make at a very capable low light shooter, and I really love shooting evening scenes. Its wide angle lens (24mm on 35mm equiv.), the widest that I have, also makes it very ideal for taking landscapes.

Of course I will not pretend that it can match a DSLR toe to toe – it can’t, and it’s not what it’s made for. For one who is serious about photography, the versatility of system cameras like a DSLR or the EPM2 is irreplaceable. But the point of this camera is to give you a tool that comes in a very compact package, yet allow you to use a bit of your creative juices to make the best out of a scene. And that the LX5 does with flying colors. If all you need is a camera that can take very good photos of your vacations, and you don’t necessarily need to invest in photography as serious endeavor, then this (or its successor, the LX7) is a camera that I would highly recommend.

P1030117

Hand held shot over the Thames, London, with the Lumix LX5 (focal length=24mm (35mm equiv); 1/3 sec.; f/2.0; ISO800)

Handheld shot of the Leal Senado, Macau using the LX5. [focal length = 24mm (50mm equiv); 1/30s; f/2.0; ISO400]

Handheld shot of the Leal Senado, Macau using the LX5. [focal length = 24mm (50mm equiv); 1/30s; f/2.0; ISO400]

The Gorillapod

The Joby Gorillapod [Shot with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=42mm, 1/13 sec, f5.6, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

The Joby Gorillapod Jr. [Shot hand held with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=42mm, 1/13 sec, f/5.6, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

One of the most low-tech, most unassuming, but most important gadgets in photography is a tripod, most especially if you like shooting any form of landscape, which you will undoubtedly do if you travel. One of the critical elements of shooting in ambient light is stability, and when you photograph places, you use what ever light is available – sometimes in the form of a setting sun, or light from office windows, or the headlights of rushing traffic. In these instances, there’s no substitute for a tripod. No amount of technique or in-camera stabilization can beat the stability of a piece of metal, or in my case – plastic, with three legs.

I do have a full grown Wei Feng tripod that weighs as heavy as a set of three water pipes, and for that reason it rarely goes out of the house. Instead, my most constant photography companion is the diminutive Gorillapod SLR. The thing weighs next to nothing, but it can carry my E-420 even with my heaviest lens attached to it. I bought the Gorillapod way back in 2010, and it’s been to each and every trip I have made since then, sometimes as backup to the Wei Feng, but most often on its own. It can easily slip into my camera bag, or my backpack, and it’s so light you can forget it’s there until you need it. It is undoubtedly too small and short when standing on its own though, but I have mastered the art of looking for that perfect ledge, railing or trash bin cover to perch it atop on. On one of my samples below, it was wrapped around the railings in Hong Kong’s Avenue of the Stars, and on the other sample, it was standing on the railings of a bridge near Manila Bay. On both occasions, I held on to my camera’s neck strap of course. Needless to say, what I consider my most memorable photos were taken from atop the Gorillapod.

The Gorillapod, with the E420 and the heavy-ish 14-54mm II lens mounted.

The Gorillapod, with the E420 and the heavy-ish 14-54mm II lens mounted. [Shot hand held with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=42mm, 1/10 sec, f/5.6, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

A tripod mounted shot of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, with the E420 mounted on the Gorillapod (focal length=14mm; 15 secs.; f/11; ISO100)

A tripod mounted shot of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, with the E420 mounted on the Gorillapod (focal length=14mm; 15 secs.; f/11; ISO100)

Long exposure shot of Manila Bay, using the E420 mounted on Gorillapod, with ND400 filter. [Focal length = 14mm; 50secs; f/8.0; IS0=100]

Long exposure shot of Manila Bay, using the E420 mounted on Gorillapod, with ND400 + ND 8 filter. [Focal length = 14mm; 50secs; f/8.0; IS0=100]

Lenses

(L-R) Olympus 14-42mm f2.8-3.5 II; Olympus 50mm f2.0; Olympus 40-150mm f4-5.6 II

(L-R) Olympus 14-42mm f2.8-3.5 II; Olympus 50mm f2.0; Olympus 40-150mm f4-5.6 II [Shot hand held with Olympus EPM2; Focal Length=39mm, 1/4 sec, f/8, ISO3200, Flash = Off]

By enthusiast standards, my lens line-up can be described as “scarce”. Of course I would have liked to get my hands on any lens that I could, like everyone else, but with a limited budget I needed to choose very wisely and settle only for the best bang for the buck. The 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 is the most versatile of the small bunch, and is probably responsible for 75% of all my photographs. Being an Olympus High-Grade lens, the thing is sharp and fast. The 50mm f2.0 Macro is a specialist lens, and it’s considered the star of the Olympus line-up. Being a Macro lens, its focusing is too slow to catch moving subjects, but it’s the best for things like taking photos of food, or whenever I need a optically fast medium telephoto. The 40-150mm f4-5.6 is my only true telephoto lens. It is only a kit lens that came with my E420 purchase, but since I seldom shoot beyond 50mm, I didn’t see the need to purchase another telephoto. The lens is good enough when I need something “long range” in the outdoors, and though I seldom use it, It’s one of those things that I’m definitely happy to have in the few times that I do need it.

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