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.

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, 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.


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).