Sunday, 5 October 2008

On Olympus strategy and conspiracy - and the final question

In previous posts, we have written about the initial thoughts on the introduction of the Micro Four-Thirds format and the peculiarities of the strategy Olympus seems to follow. Back in mid September, also we could only speculate on ideas that the dpreview.com interview for example made clear.
  1. We did not know about the segmentation strategy, but now we know it: regardless of Panasonic, Olympus aims mFT products at the "lower" class, coming "up" from compacts or buying mFT instead of them.
  2. We did not know about chances of using FT lenses on mFT bodies. We still do not know for sure, but it seems that all of them will work, only perhaps slowly. (I'm personally wondering how slow the 12-60mm will be...)
  3. We did not know if the Olympus mFT offering will sport a viewfinder. Saying that the current mockup is a "mid-tier" mFT camera and even this might include a viewfinder, it is almost sure that the "top" tier cam will have one. So we shall have a Leica-killer after all? Hmm, it might be the case.

Besides other bits, we learned what we have already known to some extent: Olympus is very vague on timing and it reserves the right to choose a sensor manufacturer other then Panasonic (Remember the nice low-level performance of Fuji compact chips? Yumm!).

AND finally we heard that while FT is all about compact tele lenses (thanks, Jonas), mFT is all about compact wide-angle lenses. dpreview however could not manage to go into a very important detail of this matter. FT to many is equivalent to not compact, but high quality wide-angle lenses. The 7-14mm is still unmatched except by the Nikkor 14-24mm in many respects, including edge to edge sharpness. This, we were told, is achieved by telecentric lens design (I mean in the case of the Olympus. In the Nikkor, on 35mm full frame? Ehh...). Although telecentricity has nothing to do with flange back distance, ie. it is achievable with mFT, history suggestests otherwise.

Leica M lenses, to name the most prominent example, can achieve high image quality because they use small flange-back distance to get closer to the focal plane and project light at steep angles onto the film. This is the very reason Leica had to employ a shifted microlens design in the M8, which can never be optimal, onle for a single focal length (and limits focal lengths from above). The Leica experience suggests that using the smaller distance this way is not a terribly good idea (but even then, many photographers without MF gear claim that they use the M8 if they want to achieve the ultimate image quality - confusing, to say the least!). If mFT goes this way, it will be about not only compact, but also lesser quality wide angle lenses.

But what do we really know about telecentricity? Not much, and that is coming from Olympus marketing. Do not get me wrong - they bought me with this too. But have you ever compared the rear lens element of the 35-100mm and the 7-14mm, for example? While the former is so big that the sensor fits right "into" it, including IS movements, the latter is distinctly smaller than the sensor. Conclusion number 1: telecentricity is already sacrifised there, in that fabulous lens! Conclusion number 2: telecentricity is not important? Or is it important only to a certain extent? Well, I do not know - this is a secret yet to be explored. But Olympus going the Leica way or not introducing microlens shifting at all will be an indication of either telecentricity or top image quality not being as important as it was designing FT. The former will bug FT users who were believers of telecentricity being important. Such a move would indicate that the relatively bulky wide angle lenses they have to put up with are in fact unnecessary. The latter will not, but buyers of mFT have to be aware that the images will lack corner-border sharpness and overall definition compared to FT images. I am no saying this is always a terrible thing - Nikon users sometimes say (think about the 70-200mm Nikkor, for example): this is no problem as long as you are shooting people.

Given the marketing strategy of Olympus, this might be a good argument after all!

Friday, 19 September 2008

The revolution of viewfinders

Maybe a new war has been started by the announcement of the Micro FourThirds system. Some years ago it was unimaginable that a professional or an advanced-amateur digital camera existed without an optical TTL viewfinder. The evolution of displays however forces us to rethink this assumption. In order to do this, let us take a look at the types of electronic viewfinders.

The most compact digital camera has conventional colour LCD in their EVF. In these displays, every pixel consists of three dots: red, green and blue consecutively. It is obvious that the whole display has to contain as many dots as the necessary amount of pixels multiplied by three.


conventional colour LCD basics

LCDs have not got light emission in themselves so back-illumination is necessary to see the image. Cold-cathode light tube or white-LED are usable for illuminate. The mostly used LCDs have no more than 200K dots (300x225 pixels x3) so they can not substitute optical viewfinders.


concept of LCoS display

LCoS (Liquid Cristal on Silicon) is a special kind of LCD. The liquid cristal is placed between metal electrodes and a glass. These electordes reflect the light coming through the liquid crystal. Unlike the previous case, LCoS is illuminated from its front side by LEDs. Due to the polarizing beam splitter (PBS) the LEDs do not have to be placed in front of the display. In colour LCoS the display panel is monochrome, but the color of illumination alternates. If the frequency is high enough, the human eye can not sense this flickering, so all we can see is a still colour image.


schematic diagram of a LED illuminated colour, LCoS based EVF


The main advantage of LCoS display is the high resolution in small size and high pixel fill factor. The image is very sharp and there is no visible pixelizing. The first LCoS' had less contrast than conventional LCDs but modern types have not got this disadvantage.


colour EVF (LCoS) simulation - it is three times faster in reality
(you can stop it in pop-up menu of flash player - right mouse button)

After equivalent focal length and equivalent magnification we have to learn a new abstaction, the equivalent amount of dots. The camera manufacturers never talk about real pixels, only number of dots is represented in data sheets. This is misleading however, because we have to divide this figure by three to get the usable number of pixels. There is no other way for manufactures who use LCoS EVF than representing the resolution of a virtual LCD which has same amount the pixels. In other words, they have to "upscale" their actual number of pixels, because they have no control over the communication strategy of other manufacturers.

Photographers often sceptical about the usability of EVFs, but the fact that the cinematography industry has embraced them shows that their conquest is not questionable. The main problem is that demanding photographers have never met an usable one, because EVFs are built into compact cameras (and into high-end cine cameras, such as the Panavision Genesis, unknown to most photographers). The Panasonic G1 is only a first, but significant step. Its 1.44 MegaDot equivalent (800x600 pixel) LCoS EVF is unusual among digital still cameras, but much higher resolution (>1 MPixel) is also available on the market. Maybe we will meet them in the higher category of Micro FourThirds cameras.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Chaos? Bah! Conspiracy!

Both of us are interested in the upcoming micro FT format, but I myself am quite happy with my E-3 (no, you nasty, this is not buyers' remorse - I love this piece of solid chunk), and this is one of the reasons I am sitting calmly at the sidelines these days.

?

Taken with an Olympus E-3 and a Summilux 25mm f1.4


But hey, this list of contrast-AF compatible lenses got me thinking! Almost all Panasonic/Leica lenses are contrast-AF compatible, including the Summilux f1.4? Only a few Olympus lenses are compatible, excluding the super-fast 12-60mm SWD, for example?

As Jules would say: "Whoa...whoa...whoa...stop right there!" I own both the 14-54 and the Summilux. The latter is not slow, but is it faster than the 14-54? Not at all! So what is it? An extra contact? Let me see... One, two, threee, ... Nine. On both! So? Ok, it was the firmware update! And the 14-54 is old, it's firmware can not be updated! (Hey, but these are all-digital lenses aren't they? With their own CPU, that can be updated at any ti.... STOP! You are interrupting my line of thinking!) But... but why are the new lenses not updated, such as the 12-60, or the 14-35? Wait! These are all SWD lenses and the new technology probably does not lend itself to the continuous movement required by contrast AF! But then why can the 14-54 not receive a new firmware? It surely has an old-fashioned motor, all right. Stop, stop, gotcha! It is the new lenses only with the old type of motor! That is! But then what about the 70-300? New, old motor? It is big! Hard to move lenses do not work well with contrast AF! Ok, so it is the new, small lenses, with old-type of motor that will work. I see. Perfect segmentation of the market: Olympus takes the upper league (SLR, SWD, etc [CIA?]), Panasonic takes the consumers. Hmmm.

OK, this is a feasible theory, but to be honest, we simply don't know. We might be just in the grip of some kind of marketing strategy, but it might be the case that the master of FT will be Panasonic in the end. Are the "macro" and micro Four Thirds formats compatible? They seem to be. Is their combination a sensible way of building a camera system that is solid and up to various professional assignments on the one hand and portable and has great image quality under many circumstances on the other? Well, we just simply do not know that yet. :O

Friday, 12 September 2008

The chaos-theory

The day has come that we have been waiting for. Here is the Panasonic Lumix G1, the first Micro FourThirds camera and two new lenses. Now I have to compare my predictions to the facts.

Where I have made a mistake is the switching between aspect ratios. I predicted that the sensor will be wider than 17.3mm so the amount of pixels will not decrease in 16:9 mode compared to 4:3. I said it based on the LX3's solution. I can not understand the lack of it, the variable aspect ratio was published as a main part of Micro FourThirds concept. The images are 4000 pixels wide in all modes. This is not a switch between ratios, but simply cropping of the image.

My thoughts about EVF hit the spot very well. The G1 has a LED (alternating colour) illuminated 800x600 pixels LCOS display in the viewfinder coming from Panasonic professional videocameras. It is equivalent to an 1.44 MegaDots (800x600x3) conventional LCD. The refresh rate is 60fps which is quite high to composing and shooting without delay. The size of the viewfinder image is comparable to the one found in contemporary fullframe dSLRs and it covers 100% of the image. This is a very nice feature and an elegant answer to critiques targeting he "tunnel-vision" viewfinders found on entry-level DSLRs. Of course, EVF needs permanent power supply during composing so G1's battery life is not as good as modern dSLRs'.

I can offer an opinion about AF based on the dpreview's short video-clip only, but the implementation is very promising. The speed of the AF system is comparable to entry-level dSLRs' and is absolute unusual from the contrast AF method. As I said before this is the most important development (new focusing algorithm and high refresh rate) which allows the make of a non-SLR interchangeable lens camera. The 23 AF field is unique in this price category of dSLR's. Unfortunately, that warnings in the announcement about the limited usability of "legacy" FourThirds lenses with the adapter were in line with the most pessimistic expectations. The lack of AF with most of the available lenses is a very strong disadvantage and the most frustrating deficiencie of this system. The large Zuiko lenses look very impressive on G1 (or the other way round?), but I do not think that anybody will buy or keep $1000-$6000 devices to use them only in manual focus mode.

AF works only with following "legacy" lenses on Panasonic G1:
- Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-50mm 1:3.8-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S.
- Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-150mm 1:3.5-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S.
- Leica D Summilux 25mm 1:1.4 ASPH.
- Zuiko Digital 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6
- Zuiko Digital 40-150mm 1:3.5-5.6
- Zuiko Digital 25mm 1:2.8

The size of lenses is very promising. As I wrote some weeks ago about the possible advacement in the wide-angle range, the new 14-45mm lens is much smaller than its anchestor due to difference in its design. Do not forget that it is also a stabilized lens, so stripping the lens from this feature, its size would shrink even further! I have seen only few sample photos, taken probably in JPG format, but they are quite good at first sight, especially in terms of CA cancellation and considering that this is a kit lens (by the way: I can not understand why F/13 aperture is used for samples on a 12 megapixel camera - maybe they have never heard about diffraction.) I have calculated the size of some lenses based on a photo using comparation method. The Lumix G 7-14mm is about 80mm (length) x 65mm (diameter). The classical version of this lens is 120mm x 87mm. The difference in size is terrific but we have to wait for the first photos taken with it, because it is very hard to meet the quality of the comparable Zuiko lens. I am sure the 20mm 1:1.7 will be very popular and is also very small: it measures 25mm (length) x 55mm (diameter).

The lack of movie recording is a little bit disappointing. It was the second most important feature when the system was announced and after the release of the Nikon D90, this feature was very much expected. I think its omission is a big marketing mistake. There is a special lens in Lumix G roadmap, however. The 14-140mm F4.0-5.6 O.I.S. HD will support all functions of video mode. Most importantly, it will focus also during movie recording, a feature the D90 misses badly. However, if only this lens will be usable for video recording, the system will lose the advantage of large sensor due to small apertures compared to very bright video lenses. We shall see.

In last years the principles of FourThirds system were compromised many times. Here belongs the camera dependent lens-firmware updating, the limited contrast AF, the RC flash mode wich is supported only by Olympus and image stabilizer mix-up by the two supporting companies. If the placement of the stabilizer in the Micro FourThirds will be as muddled as now, the standard will become a bit ridiculous. The confusion is evident given that the most frequently asked question among FourThirds users is: "What happens if both stabilizers are swithced on?" I do not think it would be a bad strategy if Olympus did not release many original lenses for Micro FourThirds. If they only relabel the Lumix G lenses, they can focus on the dSLR segment better.

Other features of the G1 are not attached to the system, but they show the strength of Panasonic. The rear LCD has 480x320 pixels which is the resolution of the iPhone but in smaller size and higher density. The 12 megapixels of the sensor is enough for A2 sized prints. I do not want to rank the image quality of the sensor before I have developed some RAWs on my computer. The HDMI output makes it possible to show your photos or to verify the image quality on large TVs.

The Panasonic Lumix G1 stirred up the people, the internet forums burn due to traffic. It is hard to draw the inference, and indeed, we should not draw them yet Olympus have not announced any MFT device, so we have to wait until Photokina or even longer - I am afraid we will see only a Zuiko Digital 9-18mm and some MFT mock up there. It looks to me that the real purposes of the two companies with MFT is to exploit their capacity and to sort resources ideally. Not bad to the consumer, I would say!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Monkey in the family

As I had promised some weeks ago, I completed my flash-holder arms. I would like to share my first experiences and some photos taken with them.

Update: new photos

The story started with a murder. I looked for two strong and flexible arms which have to hold the two FL-36R flashes. It was difficult to find them because the turning-moment is quite high due to the necessary length of the arms and weight of the FL-36R. After some tests I bought a Joby Gorillapod SLR Zoom version tripod and I have sawn it into three pieces. I made four aluminium caps onto their ends on turning-lathe. I had to ask for some help from my colleague to make the flash-shoes with a miller into two caps. After preparation of the arms the caps were fixed with two-component epoxy based glue.



the set-up in itself (click to enlarge)

So, there was nothing other to do but make the rack of the arms. I used a piece of an old shelf made of steel. I glued a thick rubber strip into its slot for prevent scratches on camera body and for solid fixation. The Zuiko Digital 50-200mm has tripod collar so I did not make sleeve-nut because I do not need tripod when I use shorter lenses. Due to the specially shaped rack there is enough room to my forefinger, so it is easy to hold the camera in vertical position.



holding in different positions

Last weekend I tried to take some photos of insects and wildflowers with my new equipment. The first experiences are very positive. I used to use two home made diffusors for my STF-22 twin flash when I had it. There was no enough time to make similar ones for FL-36R's but built-in wide-angle panels worked very well.



Wild chicory (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro)

As you can see there are no visible shadows and the lighting is quite soft and natural. Accuracy of exposure is very decent from a flash-system that was not primarily created as a macro tool. The positioning flexibity is better than the STF-22 has, especially with longer lenses or when you use one of the flashes to light the background.



Small heath (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro)

Of course after two days of using the arms I need more time and to have more experience to perfect this tool. There are many unanswered question and many things to do. It is the most important to give a name to this set-up. :) I am thinking about the standardized production but I have to estimate the demand and to calculate the real costs. Stay tuned, and I will share all information soon.

Sample No. 1
Sample No. 2
Sample No. 3


update:
I have not got time to deal with standardized manufacturing so I give all information about this set-up.
photos of project

update II.:
Joby has announced the new Gorillapod Focus which can support up to 5kg. It would offer more stability for my set-up. The only problem is that Focus is too expensive and too nice to saw apart. (..but it is worth considering)

Friday, 29 August 2008

Got an E-3? Get LR2+Standard profiles!

Ever wanted to work with a nice RAW converter for your E-3 (or any other Olympus camera, for that matter)? Tried all of them and found that they either produced a nice conversion (such as Olympus Studio or Silkypix) or have a great workflow and are thus easy to use? Well, many of us went through this, complicated by the dilemma of "what makes the Olympus colors".

My experience is that many of us decide - rightly, I think - in favour of convenience, even if it means giving up not only the "Olympus colours", but sometimes also pleasing colours as such (strong subjectivity warning!). Lightroom is a prime example of such a solution. It is very-very handy, but uses the ACR engine for RAW development, which produces colours, reds and greens in particular, that are very different from what the belowed Olympus colours look like (or, many would argue, colours of the real world). The example below shows a notorious case: red t-shirt with along with skin colours. The result coming from the ACR 4.3 (or 4.4) engine is not that very-very bad, but soon you will find that there is a (kind of complicated) yellowish-greenish cast on it.



Naturally, this and similar experiences made many to play around with the "Calibration" sliders, including me, either eyeballing results or using one of the scripts that are trying to match camera colours to the Gretag Macbeth chart. This is a possible way of proceeding, but it has its own problems, most importantly the oversaturation of some skin tones as we try to create a red red. One reason for this is that the sliders allow only for a limited adjustment of colors. To adjust one tone, you have to introduce a global shift in all colors, which is naturally not what you genuinely want. In this case, I very much do not like the colour of the lips.



This is the point, where Lightroom 2 enters. In this incarnation of LR, Adobe made the considerable effort of introducing camera profiles, which they confusingly named DNG Profiles. These profiles have little to do with DNG, but are very powerful, because they can shift all hues individually and thus do not require the creator to use global shifts. There is a free tool to download, which can be used to home-brew a profile either based on personal taste or a calibration (with a GM colour patch card), but most of us will not want to use this (come on, this is difficult to do properly). The good news is that Adobe has created a profile for a number of cameras, including the E-3. There is a pack of "Adobe Standard Beta" (ASB) Profiles to download, which they claim to have been built to match the camera manufacturers' colour signature. If you install it, you'll be able to choose them in the calibration module. I find the result using this profile the most pleasing: reds are reds, but not oversaturated (similarly to what Ryan Brenizer finds). This is my calibration of choice at the moment.


Give LR2 a spin, if you want convenience and good colours. Now they seem to be possible at the same time!



PS: Ironically, I find that the ASB profile for the E-1 does not do such a great job, especially to blues, which are remote from the Olympus blue. On the other hand, I have to say that as much I loved the out of camera jpgs of the E-1, I am not a fan of those coming out of the E-3 (colour-wise). In this case, I find it a bit yellowish, but fine in general. This is so though the ASB profiles try to emulate the E-3s jpgs, but I have to admit, that the difference is marginal.


Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Micro FourThirds: Should they have started with it?

Since the date of the announcement of the FourThirds system, experienced photographers often ask: why does a compact camera system not exists with this sensor size? Such a combination would have ment an ideal compromise between image quality, depth of field and the physical size of the equipments.

There is a big inconsistency in the FourThirds system. The E-1 was not regarded as a top dSLR from an image quality point of view when it was announced, and now the E-3 is walking in same shoes what clearly visible in its price - it is the cheapest really professional dSLR. At the same time, the pricing strategy of Zuiko lenses is not based on the lenses' optical parameters and the size of the lens elements, but on their equivalent focal length, so sometimes their prices seem to be irrealistic and many customers are discouraged as they just do not see the benefits behind the high cost.

One of the problems of the FourThirds is that the flange focal distance (the distance between the plane of bayonet and sensor) was not decreased propotionally to the image size. There are many reasons for this. In comparison to 3:2, the 4:3 aspect ratio means relatively higher image and consequently higher main mirror in the mirror box. Because of this, the size of some mechanical elements could not be decreased too. This effect is liable for that the Focal Length Multiplier is 2.0 to the 35mm system, but the flange focal distance is 38.67mm what is hardly smaller than at other 35mm cameras. As a result, relatively large diameter bayonet and strongly retrofocus design for wideangle and normal lenses is required. The common consequence of this design is that "ordinary" FourThirds lenses with smaller than normal field of view are not smaller than their 35mm "FullFrame" equivalents.

The Micro FourThirds offers a real solution to this problem. The dedicated lenses of the new system can not be as telecentric as the older ones but perhaps the new Panasonic sensors are not as sensitive to the direction of rays as older CCDs were. Leica and Kodak in M8 shift the microlenses a bit at the edge of the sensor to prevent strong vignetting but the focal length range is very limited at the telephoto end so this solution is not suitable for Micro FourThirds.

Clearly, current mainstream camera design in the semi-pro and pro market is dictated by the viewfinder design, leading to the dominance of dSLRs. The main question is: therefore if Olympus wanted to produce a new system six years ago, was it really necessary to use optical TTL viewfinder? The first concern is the quality and usability of viewfinder, but we have to be careful in jumping to conclusions as we know very little about an EVF what could be manufactured on the cost of a TTL optical viewfinder. Still, considering the size of a really high quality viewfinder, such as the one used in Panasonic's Genesis cine camera, there must be considerable engineering challenges to face in this area.

In digital still cameras, we mostly meet EVFs in compact cameras as auxillary service. I am not referring to the now dominant back LCD only solution, as the size and quality requirements are very different. The only one quasi 1-megadot EVF was built into an old Minolta camera, and its quality was significally better than in simpler devices. Compared to a dSLR, a camera with EVF has no moving main and auxillary mirror, focusing screen, pentaprism or pentamirror, very complex AF modul and focal plane shutter. These are the most expensive elements in a dSLR and from their cost it is possible to make a high resolution EVF with high picture-frequency, that is comparable to optical viewfinders. The evolution is continous, for example: OLED - EVF, etc.

One of the features of SLR cameras that there is the possibility to use AF system based on phase-difference detection. When the FourThrds system was started, the contrast detection AF were incomparably slower than phase-difference detection AF because only the latter could give information immediately about the amount and direction of necessary lens-movement. There was no chance to sell a new interchangeable lens system with an AF what ten times slower than competitors. The situation is not much better today but looking at the AF performance of Olympus E-420/520 in LiveView mode when it is switched to contrast detection mode. The shutter lag is still too long because Olympus can not solve the precise light-metering without moving the mirror, but if we look at only the length of the AF process, the improoving is significant. This improvement is one of the factors which allow the starting of the Micro FourThirds. There is a note in news that tells us to be careful. Some functions of new system will not work if we use the MFT/FT adapter and traditional FourThirds lenses. If there will really be only contrast detection AF in the new cameras, maybe it means that the AF will not work or it will be slower. On the other hand, the adapter is an extension-tube what restores the flange focal distance for normal FourThirds lenses so there is no lens in it and it has no effect to the image quality.

The switching between aspect ratios is a very interesting possibility opened up by the new standard. Unlike many review site, the Micro FourThirds whitepaper not give information the horizontal and vertical size of the sensor, only on the diagonal size. This is very important because Panasonic, one of the founders of this new standard, announced the LX3, an interesting new compact camera only a couple of days ago. It has larger image sensor than coverable by lenses so it can switch the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9 without loss of resolution. Based on the available information, I predict that we will face this solution in Micro FourThirds cameras so the width of the sensor will be about 20mm instead of 17.3mm with unchanged height and the number of effective pixels will not decrease when it is used in 16:9 or 3:2 mode. If this really is the case, the lens hood of some normal FourThirds lenses will cause a little vignetting in this modes.

The whitepaper also stresses that the recording of movies is one of the features of the standard, and the two new pin on the bayonet was designed for this reason. Panasonic has great experience in manufacturing amateur and professional video equipment. Probably all Micro FourThirds camera will be able to record movie but maybe a videocamera-system with interchangeable lenses is among the main goals of Panasonic. We have to remember that Panasonic has announced its experimental HDR sensor which have more than 20 EV dinamic range. Combination of this sensor and the size advantages of the new system could produce a high quality movie solution at a price never seen before.

There are other effect of switching to a non-mirror/EVF solution, namely:
- contrast detection AF is still much slower than phase-difference detection AF
- light-metering can be slower too
+ precision of AF does not depend on many mechanical elements which often cause AF errors
- delay of EVF is added to shutter-lag
- higher power consumption
+ simpler and cheaper normal and wideangle lenses
+ totally noiseless functioning is very useful feature for many photographers (nature, theatre, people, etc.)
+ live histogram
+ viewfinder boost in darkness
+ unlimited number of AF fields
+ 100% viewfinder is easy realiseble
+ magnification is possible in viewfinder

This is all very nice, but every FourThirds user has now a question: what is the future of their beloved system, already purchased and planned to be purchase lenses? If Micro FourThirds can not win new customers, there is real chance to the new system will fail with the old one. It is clear that Olympus will kill the 4x0 camera-series by Micro FourThirds but it is also dangerous to Pro bodies and lenses. The chance of a simple upgrading from entry level camera will be lost due to lens incompatibility and this would be not an attractive feature of any camera makers' product palette. Still, the amount of sold Pro/Top-Pro lenses and other accessories is very large so I at least hope that new semi-pro or professional FourThirds cameras will be designed in the future. We just know too little to draw any conclusions right now.

I fell in love with Micro FourThirds at first sight because I wanted to decrease the size and weight of my photo-equipment. I wonder which group of customers will be targeted with the price and external design of cameras. The whole Micro system has a point only if its price is competitive so probably we will get simpler and cheaper products for the first time, but I would really like to have an elegant, "Zeiss Ikon like" camera option. I am sure this would be very well received by demanding, semi-pro and pro photograpers.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The big misunderstandig

I read day by day on online forums and review sites that Panasonic (Matsushita) makes image sensors based on NMOS technology and this type of integrated circuits are built into all new FourThirds cameras, but this is an old misunderstanding.

Panasonic used 0.35 µm NMOS technology only at 7.5 megapixel image sensor of Olympus E-330/Panasonic L-1. The name of this circuit is Matsushita MN39960. The 10.9 megapixel image sensor of Olympus E-410/510 is manufactured using a two metal, single polycide (titanium silicide) 0.25 µm CMOS technology and its name is Matsushita MN39963. The chips of Olympus E-3, E-420/520 and Panasonic L-10 are CMOS circuits too.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Macro photography - yesterday and today

Olympus has great tradition in manufacturing of macro lenses and accessories. I take mostly macro photos since I have been using FourThirds system. Before 2007, I worked with an Olympus E-1 camera, a STF-22 twin flash set, an extension tube, a teleconverter and the two macro lenses of the system but now I am using E-3 and two FL-36R's. Another change is that I bought an EC-20 teleconverter, which made 2:1 magnification available to me. In this post I'm trying to collect my thoughts about handling and image quality from this point of view.


Glanville fritillary (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-20)

It is well-known that the larger depth of field (DOF) is an advantage in macrophotography. This was one of the reasons why I chose the E-1 in 2005. After four months of using the E-3 I'm still thinking that the FourThirds system is the best solution for macro shots. Even though the larger sensors have better signal to noise ratio and they can mask the effect of the diffraction, their advantages fall to the ground in this type of equivalent (same DOF) situations.

The improvement in the image quality of the cameras is clear. I take more than 80% of macro shots at ISO400. I could not have done this using the E-1 without compromises. The A3+ sized prints from picture-files of E-3 that contain 8-10 megapixels are beautiful and full of details with no visible noise. Sometimes the employees of the shop hand the photos of insects to me with closed eyes. :) The more AF fields, sensitive and fast AF system definitely help to make high-quality photos easier, too.

The change of cameras had other effects, too. The relatively small resolution of E-1 could hide the weaknesses of the lenses, but the E-3 has double the pixels. The first thing I noticed when I put the 50mm macro onto the E-3 was that the image quality is very sensitive to subject distance. It is clearly visible that this lens is specialized for macro and portrait distances. There is easily discoverable contrast and sharpness drop at infinity especially with fully opened aperture. But as long as we use it for what it was designed for, it is a really amazing lens.

The 35mm macro is an another story. When I bought it some years ago, its image quality was a big surprise. It is a relatively cheap and very-very sharp lens. The high resolution remains with teleconverters, and hardly depends on subject distance. Due to the small aperture the foreground cannot be separated from background in normal situations, so this lens is not as universal as its big brother. The darker viewfinder or lack of sealing sometimes can be a problem too. In my opinion both lenses can exploit a 10+ megapixels sensor.


Common milkweed (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-20)

I have more than a year experience in using of STF-22 twin flash and now I can compare it to the dual FL-36R setup. I think the easiest way to show their features is to list their advantages and disadvantages.

STF-22 pros:
- very flexible and easy to use positioning mechanism (tiltable, rotatable individually or together)
- precise light-intensity controlling
- ratio control from 8:1 to 1:8 (very important and useful)
- small heads

STF-22 cons:
- FR-1 adapter ring is not a part of the set (it makes the whole solution ridiculous)
- FR-1 is too long for 35mm macro or for combinations with EX-25 (I used a DIY adapter)
- the controller is built into the body of FL-50, so it is needlessly large and heavy due to rotating and tilting head (the center of weight is positioned too high so it is hard to hold the camera in portrait mode)
- very dark LCD back-lighting (I can't understand why it is darker than the LCD of the FL-50)
- unusable auxiliary bulbs (why no LEDs in 2004?)
- serious faults at electric contacts in the head-wire sockets of the controller
- price (it is over any competitive products)

two FL-36R's pros:
- virtually unlimited performance (for macro applications)
- relatively cheap
- a third flash (or group) is usable for lighting of the background
- they are usable for any other application

two FL-36R's cons:
- there is no manufactured solution to fix them onto the camera (I'm working on it now)
- Olympus wireless RC has not as precise in light-intensity controlling as STF-22 for small distances
- the built-in flash has to see (directly or indirectly) the sensors of FL-36R's
- no ratio control from menu (it would need only a new camera firmware)
- batteries can go dead individually (you have to observe two packages)
- heavy


Hazelnut (Acorn) -weevil (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-14)

Something is still missing from this very good macro-system. There is a 100mm macro lens in the lens roadmap of Olympus since 2005. I like the wider angle of view in macro shots but sometimes I need a longer lens. I use the Zuiko Digital 50-200mm SWD and EX-25 in this cases, but a lighter and specialized lens can be a better solution. I have a dream that it will brighter than f2.8 but there is very small chance for it. I hope Olympus will release the 100mm macro lens soon.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Olympus has answered our letter

After some technical problem we succesfully got hold of the right person at Olympus to file our petition to. I made a .pdf file from the list of people who signed and it also included their honest comments. It is clear from our statistics that Olympus has read the blog-post "The most wanted imaginary lens for the FourThirds system" several times and has downloaded the pdf file. Let me quote their answer:

Dear Mr. Nagy,

Thank you for your e-mail and for your interest in Olympus.
Your opinion will be passed on to our department concerned for our future reference.

We are constantly making efforts to improve our products. Therefore, we are always grateful for customers' opinion. We would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere appreciation for your continued support for Olympus products.

Thank you.

Best regards,

M. Higa
OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. Tokyo, Japan


I find this kind response encourageing. We hope that this information will be used in future development of the Zuiko Digital lenses.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Is it really 5 frame per second?

The story began last Thursday. I have noticed a strange thing when I was trying my friend's new Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 lens. After taking the first pictures I could hear that the sound of the moving mirror is slower at 14mm focal length than at 35mm. To verify that I heard I have performed a brief acoustic analysis. It is a high precision method to determine the speed of sequential shooting (based on the visual analysis of sound waves). The results of the analysis is as follows:


Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 @ 14mm f2.0 1/2000 sec.: 4.3 fps - mp3


Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 @ 35mm f2.0 1/2000 sec.: 5.0 fps - mp3

It is sounds like madness, but the owner of the lens gave an idea what causes this phenomenon: the Zuiko Digital 14-35mm has very large rear lens-element, and it is closest to the image sensor when the lens is set to 14mm. The light-beam in the mirror box is the thickest in this case because the diameter of the rear lens-element is larger than diagonal size of the sensor.

I made an animation based on CAD drawing from "Passion for the best - episode 16." and my measurements. The maximum error in the size or position of the elements is 0.5mm.


Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 @ 14mm

It is clearly visible that the mirror has to reach its highest position to pass the light onto the sensor when the lens is set to 14mm. At first we thought that the speed difference is caused by the fact that the mirror has to travel a longer distance than in any other case, but now I think that it is the timing of the shutter causes the difference in fps. Look at the following animation:


Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 @ 35mm

In the first case (14mm) the camera has to wait for the mirror to reach its highest position, and it can open the shutter after that. The mirror can return after the exposure is taken. In the second case (35mm) the shutter can be opened significantly sooner, and although the mirror has to go right up to the highest position, it can do so during the exposure. This is of course only one of the possible reasons. Our first thought might have been correct as well. The traveling direction of the focal plane shutter makes the problem more complex.

I never use my camera in high speed sequential shooting mode so I don't want to draw a heavy-handed conclusion. The decrease of the speed is not published by Olympus, so it would be worth repeating the experiment with other lenses too. The Zuiko Digital 35-100mm 1:2.0 for example also has a very large rear lens-element but I can't try it right now. If the difference between real and official data is more than 10% (0.5fps), it can be critical because that lens is often used for action photography. If I remember well, its rear lens-element does not move behind the plane of the bayonet so there is probably no problem. I have measured the speed of the camera using the Zuiko Digital 35mm macro, the ED 50mm macro and ED 50-200mm SWD attached. All performed around 5.0 fps

Some thoughts about the lens itself:

Its building quality is excellent. The extending of the tube is negligible, there is no wobbling. The moving of focus ring is very smooth and the feeling is similar to "focus by wire" (which I find excellent). The zoom ring is little tighter than on other top-pro lenses but there is nothing to worry about.


Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 14-35mm 1:2.0 @ 24mm f2.0


100% crop from previous picture

I have not taken enough pictures to judge its optical quality. I think this lens is optimized for shorter subject distances. Portraits and object-photos were very sharp even at F2.0 but when I focused to far subjects the pictures were not as perfect as I expected. The most conspicuous improvement on previous top-pro lenses is the extreme flare-resistance. You can take photos with the Sun in the background and the contrast will hardly decrease. Both types of chromatic aberrations are low. And yes, it is very large and heavy.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Ssssh... darkness comes!

I am whispering very low, so only those hear who listen closely. Today we receive the ED 14-35mm f2.0! By the end of the weekend, we shall also have an EC-14. Guess what kind of review will come out if we put these together with the Summilux 25mm f1.4! Hah! ;)

Update: it has arrived and is magnificent.


double DOF porn
Image taken with the other DOF king of the four-thirds line-up, the Summilux 25mm f1.4. Note how I lost control over things and overexposed the image by almost a stop, which had to be pulled in PP. Even the RAW headroom of the E-1 was not enough to save the burned-in areas. Because of this, purple fringing around the engraving still has a blueish-purple halo around it, even after "defringe all edges" - a setting that has to be applied to almost all Summilux shots.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

What do I need to shoot a wedding?

E-3! And courage...

Well, the answer is not that clear or imperative, but I kind of feel so. Let me explain. "What do I need to shoot a wedding?" is one of the most often asked questions on amateur photographic forums and since I have just shot one, I feel the urge to answer it - very briefly. My almost immediate answer would be: do not do it, unless you have already done it! Having shot a couple of thousand of neat frames of your child/dog/etc., it is very tempting to offer help to a friend. But a wedding is one of the most serious assignments. I, for example, am not expert or pro at all (if you need really expert advice, head towards the website of Joseph and Mark, my personal favourite - and a fellow four-thirds/e-system user or Flashflavor, where you are instructed to use how to use flash creatively and mostly on weddings.). However, having gained a little experience along others and shovelled together tools I know, I did recently do a wedding where there was no backup. Kind of giving me the shiver down the spine, but I was not too bad. In fact, I was thoroughly enjoying it and got some shots I find neat. But I have to say, there were technical glitches all the way through, all of them worth pointing out.

So: equipment. You can shoot any project with any gear - we know that. But we also know that better suited gear will get you more keeper shots than other gear - so I'll skip the "It's the photographer" type of thoughts, if you allow me. You need a normal-wide zoom and a tele zoom for PJ shots and portrait-type/beauty shots (one of those with some close-up capability, if possible). You need good quality and relative fast lenses, so do not go below the "Pro" line. Have two camera bodies with you! This is not a luxury. Having a camera body for both lenses gives you flexibility and the much needed ability to react quickly to events. And if anything fails, you have a second body to work with. Remember that anything can fail at any time, and this is an event that can not be repeated. It is of course better to have the same type so you do not get confused. Also remember to set their controls similarly and their clocks in sync. (You would not believe how annoying is to have non-matching clocks.) My choice was two E-1 bodies with the 14-54 and the 50-200. Ideally I should have had an 50mm f2.0 and a Summilux 25mm f1.4 as well, but none of them were an option this time. The 14-54 is fine, although I find I have to knock local contrast and warm images up a bit to give it a feel I like (I have to say I would have preferred the 12-60 to the 14-54 only once: for group shots.). The 50-200 was really fine, although sometimes I would have preferred a bit less DOF and I did not really needed the reach (not the 35-100 again? grrr, too heavy...). The E-1s were performing fine, but often I missed the AF performance of the E-3. I did not quite miss shots because of the AF, but were close (that is: did not miss any "type" of shots - I did miss quite a few actual shots). Being slow is one bad thing and not being able to set a significantly off-center AF point is another. And yes: the damned AF C-S-M switch! Be sure to check you have not bumped it accidentally. I have done it more than once and performance suffers a lot, as you know.


Julcsi + Szilárd
Example of mixing existing light with strobes. Here, most unusually, strobe light is harsh. Thankfully, the features of the couple are great, so this is not very disturbing. Still, I've had preferred the flexibility of TTL and adjustment of light intensity.


As a four-thirds (=smaller sensor) photographer, you will need more light, ie. flashes (do not work without flashes, unless you have really a lot of light - unlikely in churches. I have tried and failed this.). Because on-camera flash is ugly, you'll need to have them off-camera. Because things happen kind of symmetrically in the church, you need two of them. If you can afford the luxury, have 3 of them, so that you can pop one on the camera for quick PJ-style work, while still have the two others on stands. It might turn out that the flash will be the only light you'll have in the church. I am not an expert, but putting the two strobes on stands to the side of the church facing the couple worked for me more than once (well, twice). I have used two Nikon SB-28s as I got them relatively cheap, their Auto mode works fine with the E-1 and the recycle fast and easy to connect to radio slaves. I put them on light Manfrotto nano stands. You can try to soften the light, but you lose power and recycle time. Flashes will also be used outdoors, if the couple opts for that kind of pictures (they surely will). In both cases, you will need some kind of method of triggering and given the nature of the job, you do need the wireless ones. I have to say I have used the cheap "cactus" ones and although they worked well, they gave me a bit of a headache. Despite trying out them in advance, I realised during the wedding itself that 1) the flashes were set to a bit higher power than I wanted them to work (and could not close the aperture as dropping shutter speed was not really an option), 2) sometimes the flash beam got blocked a bit, so I would have preferred an asymmetric light instead of the "patterned" one.



Julcsi + Szilárd

Although working with the "Cactus" radio slaves is a bit of hit and miss, you can get satisfying shots. However, you definitely need an assistant for this.



I was relatively successful with my relatively lowly setup. I got shots that I am happy with and I did not fail the couple. So why do I say you need an E-3 instead of an E-1? Well, mainly for three (and a half) reasons:

#1: Remote flash. I have not extensively tested the E-3 remote flash in real life, but what I have seen so far tell me that having TLL metering, but most importantly remote control over my flashes would have been great. I was careful/lucky this time, but it could have been worse. And how much better it could have been? One thing I have to add that not being able to use the E-3 in commander mode when an add-on flash is on board is beyond me. I have used a Canon system this way and found it very convenient. There should be no reason for this not being possible.

#2: Routine use of iso800. Partly rendering the use of flash unnecessary (or meaning a need for lower power), the impressive performance of the E-3 at iso800-iso1000 would have been very welcome. I would not advice anyone to use the E-1 in this case beyond iso400.

#3: Fast and flexible AF system. Although I know that good portraits are more than just pointing an AF point on the eye of the subject, the E-1 shows its age in this area the to most. You do miss quite a few PJ shots with the E-1.

#3.5: 10 megapixels. You will almost certainly not print in a size where you need 10 megapixels for a wedding shot (although if you happen to print big, more is always better). Still, because I like to crop more and more for different looks, I appreciate the freedom of having twice the number of pixels.

There is one area where I might fear the E-3: I had to pull some images because I did not get the lighting quite well and the bride's dress burned in. I could pull the E-1 raw files by almost 1 stop. I am not sure if that would have been possible with the E-3. (Oh yes, the second most often asked question: should I shoot RAW? The answer is a definitive YES!)

(PS: they were an amazing couple to work with. A big hug to Julcsi and Szilárd who proved to many that you can get married and stay relaxed at the same time!)


Julcsi + Szilárd

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm 1:4-5.6

It is more than a year since a standard category ultrawide-zoom has appeared on the Olympus roadmap. On 13th May Olympus announced the Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm 1:4-5.6 lens. The announcement is surprising because Sigma has just released the FourThirds version of their 10-20mm EX DC HSM lens. Many people thought that this lens will substitude the standard category ultrawide in the roadmap, but here is a real Zuiko Digital lens now.



What is the similarity between super-telephoto and ultrawide lenses? The extreme wishes of people. I tried many times the Zuiko Digital 7-14mm lens and I can say that it is a very special tool. The 7mm gives unusual perspective, we can take some spectacular photos at first try but the persistent and creative work is hard with it. I think Olympus has found the best compromise in focal length. The 9mm is enough for most photos which require ultrawide lens but this lens is realizable in small size. Its 280g weight is the lowest in the class. Angle of view is 100 degrees diagonal, 88 degrees horizontal and 72 degrees vertical. These data are perfect for landscapes and photos of buildings in most cases. When I was working with 7-14mm lens, I noticed that sometimes I intuitively adjusted it to 9mm focal length because the perspective distortion was not as aggressive as it was at 7mm. I think this is visible well in following comparison which shows the difference between the field of view of shortest 4/3 lenses.



After the first happy minutes I read the anticipated price of this lens. FourThirds users do not have many choices but $600 is unusual in standard category. I know that ultrawide-angle lenses are more complex than others. The ZD 9-18mm has 13 elements in 9 groups, including ED and Dual Super Aspherical lens elements and metal mount so the price is reasonable from this point of view. But let's take a look at some competent products:

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X 116 Pro DX ($570): A truly professional lens designed for APS-C cameras with full metal body. It reaches the highest resolution results at photozone tests in its class. It is a whole stop brighter than Zuiko. Maximum angle of view is 104 degrees diagonal and 94 degrees horizontal on Nikon APS-C cameras.

Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM ($700): One of the favourites of Canon APS-C users. Plastic body with average build and decent optical quality. It is a third stop brighter than Zuiko. It has ultrasonic AF drive.

Sigma 10-20mm 1:4-5.6 EX DC HSM ($430 - available for 4/3): Similar optical quality than Canon EF-S 10-22mm. Build quality matches the semi-pro category with HSM AF drive. Sigma is often criticized for quality variation, but I could see many good qualty photos with this lens. Brightness is same like Zuiko, and this is a significantly cheaper lens.

After this short comparison the $600 is not as reasonable as it looks at first sight. I am optimistic and I hope this price will be commensurable to optical quality of the new Zuiko. The 7-14mm was the world's first standard production lens with large diameter DSA element and here is another lens with this complex technology. The gaps in FourThirds line-up are smaller and smaller and I am sure that this lens will be in bags of many photographers who have been using only Pro lenses till now.

PS.:
Where is (my) Zuiko Digital 100mm macro?

Re: photozone review of the Zeiss ZA Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM (off-topic?)

You know what is the difference between Leica and Zeiss, right (besides the price difference, that is)? Leica is for bokeh, Zeiss is for sharpness. Really simple wisdom, but it is interesting to see it being proven. The recent photozone review of the Zeiss ZA Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM shows that this lens, aimed at future users off the 35mm sensor Sony cameras, joins the string of evidences. It is shown to be very sharp, showing low levels distrortions, but a kind of ugly bokeh. The out of focus areas do not fade nicely to the background, but decompose into sharp little circles. There is also secondary CA visible - see the shirt of the cyclist. Despite the low distortion, almost no vignetting and great sharpness (at least on APS-C), this can be a great problem, as the reviewer points out rightly.

So how do we come here? Well, the four-thirds member of the league is the 14-35mm f2.0 SWD, a lens that was delayed for a long time, was criticised by many. Most of the critiques related to zoom range, size and price. Well, looking at the Zeiss, or the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 USM L or the Nikon AF-S Zoom- NIKKOR 28-70mm f/2.8DG IF-ED 24-70mm f2.8G, criticising the Zuiko for the zoom range seems to be ridiculous well placed. Designing lenses with the same short field of view might be a sign of of collusion in the industry, but I'd rather think of it as a technological necessity. Already with the 2.5x almost 3x zoom range, we see signs of weaknesses with these bright zooms. Olympus might argue that not going that wide is a price we have to pay for better image quality, but the argument has to be really-really strong. imagine results if they were wider/longer! Because of this, I think it is better to drop the "range" case. Size-wise the Zuiko is indeed the fattest of all lenses and can also be the priciest, too (along with the Nikon). But compared to what? [Notice the editing! I was stupid enough not only to insert the reference to an older Nikkor, but also build part of the argument here on a trivial misunderstanding. Corrections are indicated with strike-through, as the realistic conclusion does have to change.]

Well, you can compare it to the Canon, selling at around $1200 at B&H. Why would you do so? Because Canon is the staple of photojournalists. Are there any other ways to compare? Surely there are. If you look at the nice little review from digitalcamerareview.com, you can see that the Zuiko makes compromises that are different from the Canon or the Zeiss. It insists on weather sealing and f2 brightness - I think the former is a must for a pro-grade lens, while the latter is a a) must for four-thirds because sensor size, b) unique selling point that has the power of differentiate on the market, c) nice touch many were waiting for. Along with this, is has almost zero CA, extremely nice bokeh, and remarkable sharpness, at the price of some vignetting. Well, what lens comes into your mind? Yes, a Leica, but a big, zoom version of that, which - in contrast to many Leicas - can bring together sharpness and fastness while keeping a superb bokeh.

I do not want to say it is better or worse than others. I do not want to say that Leica or Olympus is right to price its lenses the way it does. The point is only that if you see a lens which projects images in a way similar to the best lenses ever made (insert counter-argument here at will), you might find ways to rationalise size and cost that is larger than the competition in some dimension (especially considering field of view), but way smaller than the competition in other dimension (like bokeh and image quality in general).

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Two days with the 35-100mm f2

OK. I loved this lens the last time (click on the link for our extensive, albeit E-1 based review of three Top Pro lenses). I sold stuff to finace the purchase. And thanks to a friend, I had the chance to spend two days with it. I wanted to try it first, you know. The end result? I am buying one of those $400 50mm f2s on eBay. Why?

Well, the Olympus 35-100mm f2 is an engineering beauty. If you are into para-military hardware, it is a must to buy. It is rock solid, it operates and looks like it was built for really heavy use. It's image quality is also very nice. In fact, I think that the transitions from and to out of focus areas are most Leica-like. The similarity is that its bokeh and transitions are very nice, altough the image is not über-sharp (at least wide open). When I am trying to think about something that I feel difficult to describe, I reach to the word: microcontrast. But it is not only that, but also something else. Do buy at least one of the leica magazine, the LFI, and take a look at the photo essay at the end. You'll get the impression what Leica glass can do to transitions and colours. I do not know a scientific test to show this, but my feel is that the he 35-100mm f2 can do the same.

Reggeli / breakfast

For me, the 35-100 mm holds (held?) three promises: 1) shallower DOF for better separation, 2) low-light capability, 3) versatile FOV range. Well, the results I got were mixed. Regarding separation, the effect is much better than with anything else, but do not expect wonders. Out of curiosity, I have tried a friend's Canon EF 85mm f1.2 @ f1.2 on the street. As you might imagine, separation was more pronounced, but even that did not yield a kid of separation that I feel pronounced enough to be used effectively as a photographic tool. Shooting portraits is as entirely different issue. DOF can be so shallow at f2 on other camera systems, but the the DOF given at f2 in 4/3 is more than enough - to me.

KG

The 35-100 is most interesting when used in low-light. It is interesting because the largest aperture, f2 predestines the lens to be used under such circumstance.. On the other hand, the almost 2 kilogramms concentrated towards the front of the camera-lens combination can make its handling difficult - being big has its drawbacks. I felt that sometimes it was difficult to keep the 35-100 steady and although IS was switched on on the the E-3, and took care of the movements, sometimes I felt that fatigue took its toll on the images. After one and a half hours of work on a concert, I really felt that in my joints that I was holding almost 3 kg. On the other hand, the FOV range is really convenient - no wonder this has been the standard for so long (this was a new experience for me).

Jambalaya / Nemes Zoli

Conclusions? Took me a couple of days to digest the experience. I really wanted this lens, but Olympus's naming scheme is actually quite correct. A pro (or a pro-like amateur) does not necessarily need to live on the edge, as the 35-100 prompts. The 50mm f2 or the 50-200 might be just fine in many cases. The 35-100 if for those who know exactly what they want it to do with the special capabilities and can endure the penalties the lens imposes on the user. Or for the well to do weight-lifters, who are not so rich to be able to afford a Leica.

This is why I am going for the 50mm f2. In short: price and weight. But still I dream with the 35-100mm f2 occasionally.

And one more thing: this is not only about size, etc. I could convince myself (perhaps falsely) that I need the lens. But recently there has been an increase of supply of the 35-100mm f2 on eBay and in on-line stores. I know that many people checked the development of an SWD version and got negative response. Well, I do not know. But still, I prefer to wait a bit. Until then, we expect the 14-35mm f2 to arrive...

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Get a grip! (or not?)

Folks, it turns out we have less time than we thought, so there is no weekly digest or similar. But still, there are things worth discussing, one of them being the ergonomics of cameras and the grip in particular. I find that people have mixed feelings with the grip: some hate it, some could not live without it. Some find it bulky and unnecessary, some think that no real camera should be without it. Are any of these opinions wrong? No, they just come from different user, and when you think about getting a grip, you should consider that.

Grips come in two flavours, the one around the release and another, "portrait" grip "below" the camera. The first type is found on almost all DSLRs, the second mostly on professional ones. The Olympus E-System offers an entire camera line without any of these and have no built-in "portrait" grip in the pro series (which I consider series 1.5, by the way, but that's another story). This gives us some ground for discussing the topic.

We see that no 1 series pro DSLR is without a "portrait" grip, and almost no DSLR is without a "normal" one (and many get the latter type for Leicas, DP-1s, G9s and so on). This is no wonder, as the series 1 monsters not only eat juice and are therefore in the need of a hefty batter pack, but are usually coupled with large lenses. And this is the point: the grip gives you stability and, well, grip on the cam. Remember that up to a point, weight is on your side: the larger is the mass of the camera, the less likely is that you or the flipping mirror in particular introduces camera shake. You, of course, have to be able to hold the weight. Because of this, there is an optimum weight for every photographer. In any case, the grip aids stability, no matter where it is fitted.

Note that the above applies to both vertical and horizontal grips. Olympus decided to have a detachable grip on the pro line and this is a wise decision. They seem to know their user base: serious amateurs and some professionals. Neither of them really need the vertical grip all the time, so I think that debating the need for a fixed grip or the lack of it is moot. If you use pro (in the case of Olympus: top-pro or Super High Grade) optics, you need a grip, full stop (my recent experience with the 35-100, coming soon, only reinforced this feeling). But to fully exploit the portability of the system, you should be able to detach the grip for occasions you prefer a more compact package.



(Open bracket: By the way, I am looking at the grip of the E-1 and the E-3 on my desk as I write this. Man, how much better the former is built! The HLD-4 appears to come from a similar Chinese willage as the grip of the 30D I used a couple of weeks ago, although it is more solid and does not creek as much. But just knock on it and you'll hear the sound of the partially hollow interior. Do the same to the HLD-1! You knock on solid material. Man, we really are in need of a HLD-4pro with a BLL slot! Close bracket.)

But how about the "normal" grip, found on almost all cameras, except the really small ones? Well, that is not strictly necessary either. But you have to be aware what it does to you. I had an E-400 for some time, and I did an experiment, using the 14-54 @ around 50mm f3.5 in a not so well lit room. Using iso400 (on the E-1! huhhh), I found that in the case of the E-400, I needed a 1/60 second exposure for acceptably sharp images, whereas with the E-1 (with its wonderful grip) I needed 1/20 second. Clearly, it is not only the grip that affected the results, but also the mechanics of the shutter and the mirror. Oddly enough, the best damped mechanics are found on the pro-level cameras, which also have the largest grips. The E-400 slams!

Do not get me wrong, I have no problem with the E-4xx series. They are nice little cameras and all that, and I do like their ergonomics as much as I loved my old OM-1 and OM-2n. If you have enough light, this is no problem. But they are often advertised by enthusiasts as great low-light candid cameras. This might be true if you look at size only. But you have to consider the final outcome and the effect griplessness (along with the lack of image stabilisation) has on it.


PS: Detachable grips have a side effect: they cost money (well, at least now that the promotion run out on the E-3). There are always rumbles about the price of the grip, people complaining about an apparent gap between the price and the "value" or manufacturing cost of the item. This is of course understandable from a purely psychologic point of view. You do not like to buy an apple for $100. But consider that pricing in the real world has nothing to do (or at least: does not have to do) anything with manufacturing cost. But it has a lot to do with value! Among others, the price is efficient device to tell apart different types of consumers, professionals from amateurs in our case. The grip of the E-1 was marketed at around $500, if I my memory serves me well. This is ridiculous, no matter how fine the item is crafted. But this way Olympus could sell the E-1 to two different type of consumers at different prices. And this strategy worked: the pros bought it, because they needed it and earn the extra price in no time. The grip of the E-3 is much cheaper and you can imagine what signal this sells to consumers (or producers, if you consider the D300 for instance).

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The most wanted imaginary lens for the FourThirds system.

The DSLR system of Olympus is often criticized for the lack of inexpensive, good quality prime lenses. The benefits of these lenses are smaller size and larger aperture in the wide-angle and the normal range - the just announced Zuiko Digital 25mm 1:2.8 is perhaps the first answer to this desire. Bright telephoto lenses are usually expensive, so it is very important to find the proper combinations of focal length, aperture and price to successfully market such a lens. As the product palette seems to have gaps in this sense, it is worth looking at it from this point of view.

The manifest strategy of Olympus is to produce smaller lenses than others do. Due to near telecentric design, this advantage is hardly or not visible at shorter focal length (and in the case of the Top-pro range, where the comparison does not exist in other brands' lineup). The real difference is in telephoto applications. The Zuiko Digital zoom lenses produce relatively constant image quality across their focal length range, but further increasing the quality is impossible for the most of FourThirds users. With nature photography becoming more and more popular, but this is not supported by Olympus, because Top-Pro lenses have breathtaking price.

We have to be honest with ourselves. We are not buying costly equipment just to make compromise all the time. The zoom lenses with teleconverter attached or the adapted small-format lenses can't satisfy the demands of professional or serious amateur photographers. I could always show a photo of relatively good image quality taken with the combination of the Zuiko Digital 50-200mm and the EC-20, but those was not as perfect as prime lenses could be. The Zuiko Digital 70-300mm does have not sufficient resolving power to exploit the features of the E-3, and the F5.6 aperture is insufficient. The pictures taken with them look nice when they are resized for the web, but if only a part of the picture or large prints are needed, we are often displeased with them. I have never seen a really sharp picture from Bigma in original, 8-10 megapixels size. When I say "sharp", I think about a photo with lot of real details (such as feathers of a bird), not an overprocessed, oversharpened one.

The product palette of both Canon and Nikon contain high quality long telephoto lenses with medium brightness. I would count the 300mm 1:4 and 400mm 1:5.6 into this category. People often seek my advice before making a purchase, and I can tell that these pieces of equipment attract them like magnets. Their price, size, weight and image quality are in perfect harmony, and they are also available second hand. Pentax announced a lot of DA/DA* prime lenses in last three years. This marking means that these lenses are optimized to the size of sensor. The upcoming Pentax 300mm 1:4 is a DA* lens too. This is important, because the K20D has similar pixel-size to that of the E-3, and if we cut out a the center of the image, we would virtually get a combination of a 10 megapixel sensor and a lens with 600mm equivalent focal length.

We all want more and more millimeters, but it is important to keep our sense of reality. Longer focal length for the same price means less brightness and limited extendability (eg. via teleconverter). There were some extra long lenses in the OM lens range, but the longest really professional telephoto lens was the Zuiko 350mm 1:2.8. After a lot of talking with nature photographers who own any E-system camera I think the solution is a 300mm 1:4 lens in Pro (High-Grade) category. Teleconverters could be used efficiently on a lens like this: the EC-14 can convert it to a 420mm 1:5.6 lens, making the system very flexible - such a setup would complement the Zuiko Digital 50-200mm perfectly. Considering the possible size of the lens as well as the pricing strategy of Olympus and competing manufacturers, I predict a $1800 selling price. I am sure that the interest would be overwhelming. Of course, this lens should use the newest AF motor of Olympus, so we can guess its name already: Zuiko Digital ED 300mm 1:4 SWD. Nevertheless, I can imagine many alternatives: 250mm 1:3.2 or 350mm 1:4.5 for example.

Some years ago when I launched a website to popularise the FourThirds system in my home country, I started a petition topic in its forum, but my motivation wasn't sufficient to finish it. I am a member of a few internet forums, and I can see that more and more people having a wish similar to mine. I was very pleased when I saw that many experienced photographers who shoot amazing pictures wrote the same lens parameters what I dreamt of. So I have decided to try it more seriously this time, and repeat the petition with an appeal to international co-operation. Maybe it seems naive, but I think such a move can deliver only benefits. We can assist to the birth of the lens we wish to have and we would get the answer to our questions about the lack of prime lenses. Although I have no affiliation with Olympus, having been offered a pro membership by Olympus Europe, I am in the position to deliver the petition directly to Olympus and add a bit more thrust to it than it would have otherwise.

If you agree with this petition, the following link will take you to our petition website where you can read the details and sign.

PETITION FOR AN AFFORDABLE FOURTHIRDS TELEPHOTO LENS

There are

people who have already signed!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Weekly digest #1: 14/4/2008

We are planning various types of entries here, the weekly digest being one of them. There is a lot of pieces of information floating around and we found it useful to pick out the technically important of them. You'll find that many of these refer to dpreview forum entries. No wonder - the most lively Olympus forum operates over there.

There are two important product announcements that has been keeping us interested during the past week (weeks). The E-420 is out with the ZD 28mm f2.8 and so is the ED 14-35mm f2. Besides the newcomers, weak points (?) of the E-3 and its more serious kit lens, the E 12-60mm f2.8-3.5 continues to be discussed.

There does not seem to be reliable information available on whether the E-420 shares the sensor of the E-3, but colour rendition and banding seems to be similar. On the whole, the former is great news! E-3 image quality in such a small package is wonderful. Of course, other aspects of the E-420 are discussed wildly, including SAT, high iso performance and a comparison with Sigma's DP1. I am not crazy for SAT - perhaps as I am afraid of everything that is uncontrollable, but the high iso performance of the E-420 does not fail to impress me. Although Michael Reichmann seems to be fond of the Sigma because of its sensor size, I think that even if the Sigma's IQ was somewhat better, usability (speed of AF and in general, that is) puts the E-420 way ahead of it, sensor size notwithstanding.



Photo courtesy of takuhitosotome


With the possibility to attach to any 4/3 camera, the 25mm f2.8 pancake is clearly aimed at users of the E-420. Looking at the MTF curves, we have already seen a couple of weeks before that it will not be bad at all, although clearly setting aside the aim of telecentricity. Not many really nice sample pictures are out yet with either part of the minuscule setup, but the shot of Takuhito Sotome of his Leica shows the important point of the lens well. It is quite sharp, but because of the lack of ED elements, it clearly shows chromatic aberration, especially in the out of focus areas (thanks to Takuhito for the image and the fact that we can zoom in on to 100%).

On the other extreme of the lens range, we find the monstrous but potentially wonderful 14-35mm f2. We know that producing a really high quality lens is truly a challenge. Creating a zoom with similar qualities is even harder. Well, Olympus could not do it either: the 14-35 is almost a kilo. But how is image quality? Both fourthirds-user.com and digitalcamerareview.com was kind enough to post full-size samples for us to scrutinize, the former even posting RAWs. The lens is clearly very fine and even without a side by side comparison, we can see that it delivers superb microcontrast and almost CA-free bokeh and edge rendition (see church and bumper of the car in particular).

Regarding the E-3, the problem of the strong anti-aliasing (AA) filter seem to come up all the time. Although we are not saying that this should go without any comment, it seems that people can not believe their own eyes when they see a sharp E-3 shot and are not comforted by the fact that Getty has approved the E-3 as one of the "base" cameras. Krisztián has already produced a thorough introduction to aliasing, AA and Moire, but it is available only in Hungarian at the moment. If there is a need for it, we shall translate it.

Regarding the 12-60, there still are issues with its wobbly front barrel and now a possibly related problem of off-axis alignment has appeared. What can I say? It's sharp, it focuses fast, but I am happy with my 14-54.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. One of the busiest thread was the one suggesting that Olympus produced a 300mm f4 tele lens. Well, this idea is not without history. We shall talk a bit more about it next time.

Until then: happy shooting!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

fourthirdsinfo.com started!

Well, the wait is over - at least our wait. Being Olympus four-thirds camera users for almost three years, and amateur photographers for a longer period, Krisztián and I have thought it's time to wrap up things. Making comments on various (but mostly on the dpreview) forums, we had the impression that occasionally, we hit a nerve here and there. Most recently, we showed some weak and strong points of the Olympus E-3 (ever heard about strong banding in weak light or the stellar sharpness that puts the AA naysayers in shame?), but have followed the development of the system quite closely and analysed points that appeared the most important to our eyes.

However, all this information has been scattered over various places and is somewhat difficult to put together. Why would anyone ever want to do that - you might ask. Well, that's a good question, and the very reason this blog is up only now. However, the 24000+ hit on our review of the Top Pro / Super High Grade lens line and mails we receive convinced us that it might be worthwile to try out a different approach.

5 tavasz / 5 springs
Image taken with the ZD 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 lens @ f5. Background blur - one of the greatest headaches of those unfamiliar with the four-thirds system - is nicely rendered even with this relatively "harsh" lens (note the funny way the out of focus lines are separated). Although it is clear that greater sensors can provide shallower depth of field (DOF) if we hold everything else constant (and thus greater flexibility in this respect), often it turns out that one does not want such shallow DOF for one reason or another, or can compensate for it by more carefully adjusting the relative distance of camera, subject and background.


So here we go: although blogger allows comments on entries, our aim is to turn forums inside out so to speak and create a single place where information (appearing most important to our eyes) can be found. We are not trying to replace formus, rather contribute to them - in fact, you will find lots of pointers here to forum threads. We shall continue to monitor news related to the four-thirds system, write comments on them, clarifying matters that appear to be confusing. We shall post images that demonstrate the capabilities of the system and write honest analyses showing both strengths and weaknesses - just as we always did. The only difference is that you will find every information in a single place.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. You asked why is it four-thirds? The "dead end of camera evolution"? Well, obviously we don't seem to think it is a dead-end and been happy users for years now (even though we could buy into other systems). We think that it is not, because.... well, let me explain this later.

Until then, have a good day and check back later!
Zsombor & Krisztián