Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Olympus in-Camera magic: the OM-D series,

(Warning! Contentious content)

Some people are used to give female names to their camera. I don't but if I had  to, i would give it Mélusine, the name of the Queen of Fairies, with the tail of a Siren, so well she supplements the needs of Imagination.

When the E-M5 appeared almost 3 yrs. ago, the mirrorless m4/3 format was still immature: slow AF, mediocre sensor, low sensitivity to light, restricted Dynamic Range. All it had was small size and better image quality than the so called Point & Shoot cameras.

Then suddenly all problems were solved, everything fell into place, and we had a jewel of a camera whose whole was more than the sum of its parts. When Steve Huff made one of his Strange comparisons against the Leica M9 he defied his audience to tell which shot was which.

The E-M3, a black beauty.

To me its is still a recent buy, but from the beginning it has somehow changed the way I shoot. By offering a tolerable EVF of some 1.4 Mpx and a small dSLR form factor it brought me back to my film times. But by giving me separate wheels for aperture and EV controls, plus a manifold of buttons to change the settings it has made for me even more useless Photoshop and PP. DPReview however was the first to notice that Olympus had made the miracle of making a Jpeg processor which had as good Dynamic Range as the best result you could get from RAW processing.

I know that many will cry foul. This is a contentious issue for people who consider Lightroom their holy grail. Much good might it do to them, I consider the time saved in avoiding PP precious for further shooting.

By seeing what the sensor sees I make corrections on the spot, and I am ready to shoot in a few seconds, even with the right Art Filter if I need a special atmosphere, for tone gradation there is even a separate button.

The OM-Ds have also a nice feature called Live Time. When shooting at extra low shutter times, the camera shows you an image emerging from the screen, so that you can stop the exposure any time, when you are satisfied with its brightness. Live Time makes it easy tomake such effects, like light-painting:

courtesy Steve Huff.
On the side of reactiveness,  not only the AF is lightning bast. The back screen, a great bright OLED  is touch sensitive, and has touch shutter: you select the area AF by touch, the camera does it and shoots instantly.

Priceless: when using it from the navel, people never notice you, especially if you have a wide angle pointed in a different direction, but they are still within the frame. OTH you can completely shut down the back screen, and use the EVF instead, as if it were an ordinary dSLR: great in bright Summer days, and great on batteries.

Now about the debate Jpeg vs. RAW. The difference is not in the recording format, but if and when you do a photographer's work. You are not collecting Kellog's Mickey Mouse piccies like kids after all, are you? One must be ready to catch reality, and if that reality is dead, because it is PAST, no exotic processing is going to save your skin.

Reality must be caught while it develops. That is the meaning of HCB apocryphal: 'I am a  hunter, not  a cook'.  We are not Digital cooks. If need be, one can convert an uncompressed  Jpeg into a Tiff, and work losslessly for minor corrections. Don't invent a fake world at the expense of a snap!

With the OM-D Olympus gave the possibility of preparing a perfect image BEFORE the shot, which a photographer should always attempt. Thinking that one will save the image later and correct it is just an illusion - treating photography as if it were  a painting, adding layer upon layer, an additive art, which it isn't. Better choose the right light on the scene, instead of brightening later on the computer. At the worst learn to use a speedlight - you are still using real light! Photography is about Light, not about layers of painting.

A proof? If you have a high number of keepers from the start you won't be interested in spending hours in the digital lab. You'll be more interested in spending that same time on the field in catching the visual opportunities. And this will result in a higher number of keepers.

Now what is a keeper and what is not a keeper? If you are on flickr, you know that others will rate your pics, and  that they almost never rate the camera, or the processing, but content, the decisive instant.

They will be indifferent if it is a Jpeg or a Tiff, and they will certainly not rate a RAW. They will rate if the picture is timely or not. The same will happen in contests.

All this wouldn't have happened if Olympus and Panasonic hadn't introduced the view from the sensor instead of the traditional dSLR view from the lens. EVF allows WYSIWYG and it is the whole difference: like going from a geocentric astronomy to heliocentric. You compose everything  on the LCD. Bye bye, Photoshop!

The E-M1 was the first to sport duplication of functions by WiFi on a  smartphone.

Now back to the Olympus cameras. Later models have refined the concept and added innovative features.
The expensive E-M1 introduced PDAF in addition to CDAF (Phase AF + Contrast AF). This allowed to use over 30 High Quality lenses of the earlier 4/3 system and use them at their native speed, which had been impossible with the E-M5. 
  It added also HDR in camera and Time Lapse Movies. A Color Director - I could also see its uses, next to Tone Control. Again something you don't need Lightroom for anymore

Introduced later this year, like in the E-M1, the economy E-M10 added Wi-Fi, which allows to download, or better upload piccies to your favorite social sites on the fly.
The E-M10 sports a new pancake zoom kit lens

Thus you can see a new concept emerging in photography: not  a work of art or better an overprocessed monster, slowly cooked in PS, but image as instant communication, to be corrected later in Instagram or Snapseed if need be, if you want to add to the fun. Otherwise just plain, stark photography, directly uploaded on line. Communication first, musings later.

Besides WiFi also allows to literally to drive the OM-D on a tripod from the phone: again WYS in the phone is IWYG from the camera. Isn't it neat? You can 'touch' the camera from the phone!

Another feature all those fairy cameras have is strong IBIS, meaning that you have rock steady AF, a thing that only steadycams could provide in the past, with a heavy expense and with a cumbersome equipment. Now it works with a slight buzz, as if by magic. Or the whirr of invisible gyroscopes. In fact Olympus made the sensor levitate!

 That means shooting with a 3-4 stop advantage in low light. You can also shoot movies, which are absolutely steady, including the image of the viewfinder.

This combination of features has resulted in an industry standard that other brands have trouble to follow.  This disruptive  technology has created a cognitive gap with other users, that is why I have trouble explaining why I am not interested in Photoshopping anymore and I have switched instead to  the 'Slow Photography' paradigm.

When I tell DPR forum users the above they can get very angry, but that's the mere truth: disruptive technology can change radically one's habits, and sometimes for the best.

I have been accused of using Olympus' Art filters in place of PS, in a crude way. But the truth is that I like them crude, exactly like B&W is a strong transformation of colour. I like them not for realism, but from distancing from the real in a critical way. For instance to show how hard underprivileged environments can be. I am not into the beautification of marriage photogs. or other commercial shooters.

A tip about the lenses

Strong IBIS and good sensors have much reduced the need of fast lenses - this is another contentious argument. Be against or for, my pleasure. But I will give my opinion:

People have forgotten than in film times there were plenty of 2.8 and even 3.5 great primes optimised for resolution and small size. Last century. Leica 3.5 lenses were not rare, and so Zeisses and other wonders: the best pancakes ever made for rangefinders.

Lenses below 2.0 were rare, big and mostly used for Portrait or Fashion. Now in the consumerist age everybody seems to have learned the worst from Marriage photogs. , but the truth is that fast and sharp exclude often each other. 

Example: the PanaLeica 25mm has half the resolution at 1.4 it has at 2.8, Lensrentals discovered.

So people get lenses that are fast and sharp, but only at smaller apertures, and pay big bucks for the privilege, LOL.

Zeiss knows since it just provided the Sony A7 with a 35/2.8 for small  size and sharpness.

But what do people know? In fact with short distance to flange it is v. risky to make fast lenses, especially in wides, for resolution drops at the edges since they are not telecentric.

Better have a moderate aperture and exploit the sensitivity of the sensor, exactly like Sigma is doing with its Art DN Series, if one wants sharp across the frame. These lenses are resolution champions  for Micro 4/3 and they cost 1/3 than those of other makers. Just check them at Lensrentals.

The Sigma Art Series for m4/3 system, all f/2.8
BTW sharp and high resolution are not the same. Sharp is subjective while resolution is measurable.

Most of my lenses are 2.8, and believe me I don't feel limited at all. In low light Auto ISO can to to 3.200 or even 6400 and IBIS allows me to shoot at 1/10 s perfectly stable at 2.8. What else do I need? That is candlelight.

People object: but you don't get nice bokeh. I reply get close to your subject and you'll have all the bokeh you need at 2.8. 

Besides I, consider bokeh  a dirty trick issued from the beautification drive of Marriage photogs.  - a drive towards fake photography as fake as it might be. Women without pimples or freckles.

Again this has nothing to do with Slow Photography, which is rather on the side of f/64 and the Stieglitz camp. Again YMMV, as they say. But a Camera is first and foremost a perspective machine. Why waste your DOF by blurring everything?

Feel that I have been unfair or unjust towards PP? Feel free to comment. If we are many we might even try to make a poll.

My Black Queen, with gaffer's tape over the Logos.


  1. Interesting discourse. While I've barely been at it for a couple of months, I've noticed how my photography has progressed from wide open through F/2.8 to F/5.6 as a general setting. I do appreciate the option of going all bonkers, er, bokeh, but often, the max is not what will provide a fitting background. One word about that excellent IBIS: I shoot with an E-P5 and legacy manual lenses, and love it. The manual focussing is so much easier with stabilized optics.

    Keep up the good work!
    Sean Wagner

    1. IBIS is sometimes underrated, but it what gives the advantage to a small sensor like m4/3. Especially FF35 suffer when having none, there is always some little handshake that ruins the resolution, or short DOF doing the same. So you need a tripod, and then Street Shooting is gone. The OM-D is really a unique combination of many factors, that many don't grab in the first instance, so it's nice to see you react quickly :)

  2. Well when first I started with digital photography, I was fascinated what I could do in Photoshop, I would sweat late at night slaving over my finished product. Then all at once, after a year or two I realized that photography is a visual language, not a product. I do still quickly adjust a couple of things in Photoshop at times, but nothing gives me as good a feeling as getting a good shot right from the camera and forgetting about adjusting what I say in my "communication". I had a music teacher that told us to "sing loud even if you are out of tune, you'll get better" as I had an art instructor that said "don't put lines down if you don't mean them" I'm coming to feel that way about photography and Bravo! for your article here.

    1. I dropped my 7 years of PS, after I read thet Pekka Potka didn't find more than 1(3 of difference between Jpeg and RAW in the new sensor of the E.M5. Why should I PS, if may main motive was increasing DR relighting?
      Then I also thought of HCB and his Art of Archery. Why not go back to my slides period. When I failed a pic I simply threw it away, It's really a matter of developing attention in the filed, not doing paintings ex post.