3.29.2015

A walk through modern paradise with the Olympus EM5/2 and an ancient, classic, amazing lens.


Lately I've been slagging the Olympus EM5-2. Talking trash about it's feeble video performance. But that's kind of silly given how good the camera is as a day-to-day shooter. I worked in the studio this morning, both shooting new EM5-2 video tests but also working on editing a video project we shot earlier in the year on a GH4. After I hit the point where I was uninterested and antsy I grabbed the new EM-5/2 and carefully placed a venerable classic lens on the front of it. The lens I wanted to shoot with today is the 60mm f1.5 Pen FT lens that was made by Olympus for their series of half frame cameras back in the early 1970's. 

I went into the I.S. menu and dialed in the nearest focal length (65) so I could take advantage of the 5 axis image stabilization and then I set the camera for focus peaking. Parked the car at one side of downtown and walked all the way east and then came back all the way west. After a week of photographic people in close quarters it was a nice change to take a stab at shooting buildings. With the 60mm f1.5 hanging in around f4 and f5.6 I was amazed (as usual) at the amount of detail that this optic delivers. It's really amazing to realize how good optics could be back then.

The camera is delightful to shoot with. Every control is exactly where I would have designed it to be. The exposure, for the most part, is right on the money and the look of the files is gratifying. 











At some point I decided to try the HDR function as it was sitting right there in the middle of the menu. It works well and I am happy with the results. They aren't garish as so much HDR can be (is). At one point I called HDR "technicolor vomit" but the Olympus implementation makes me re-think the whole subject. It's more subtle and more mature.

As for the camera....I like it so much that I'm planning to take all four of my EM5's to my favorite camera store for consignment at which time I'll pick up a second EM5-2 body. Cameras are like rattlesnakes; they always like to travel in pairs...





When I got home from shooting in the downtown area we got phone call from our son, Ben. He's a freshman at Skidmore College in N.Y. It was great to talk to him. Last semester he made the Dean's List with a 4.0. I didn't think he would hit us with another piece of good news in such short order but he's been hired by the college to be a peer mentor in the philosophy department for his sophomore year. I think it's rather rare for a freshman to be asked and I couldn't be prouder of him. That good news certainly takes the sting out of my recent camera video tests.... :-)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The ongoing story of Olympus's video implementation in the OMD cameras. revised 3/29.

the wall with Olympus EM-5-2 from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

Go see the 1080p version: https://vimeo.com/123524213

I had this dream. In my dream I would find a small black camera and it would have a port for an external microphone and another port for set of headphones. The camera would be beautifully designed and as fast as agile as a cheetah. While its primary function would be taking beautiful still photographs it would be a new, "universal" camera that would also make wonderful video content.

This miracle camera would have a built in image stabilization that would make tripods, sliders and other rigs in the video world obsolete. The audio would be surprisingly clear and crisp; easy to use.
Working with it in the field would be a breeze because its perfect EVF would show focus peaking while recording along with a live histogram. It would be so amazing. Perhaps the perfect news gathering and art video video camera.

But then I got the footage back to the studio and that's when the dream started to fall apart....

The first clip I opened was a wide scenic with moving leaves in the distance. The frame was not particularly sharp. Oh yes, it was in focus, but the things in focus just weren't crispy sharp in the way that the video from better cameras like the GH4 is. It looked over sharpened and the victim of some amount of noise reduction even though we were shooting, for the most part, at ISO 200.

I know the fault doesn't lie with the lens because I have terabytes of images from the Panasonic 12-35mm X f2.8 that say otherwise.

The camera is not unusable for video but I have to say that Andrew Reid's rant about the camera's video codec is pretty much right on the money. In other words, buy this camera is you want a micro four thirds camera that takes amazingly good photographs but don't buy this camera as your primary video production camera or you will be crying tears of disappointment and frustration.

Can it be saved via a firmware upgrade? Good lord I hope so.

I gave the camera every chance I could. Lowest ISO. A bright, sunny day. A tack sharp lens. A day without coffee. A mindfulness toward exposure and color balance. The highest quality, All-I codec and much more.

The audio is clean enough, especially given the uncontrolled audio on that location. The colors are perfect. But the whole sharpness thing is just not convincing me. At all. But I did go to all this trouble to piece together a video from the footage so you can see for yourself.

I must say that the big Nikon runs circles around the video capability (at least in terms of video quality) of the EM5-2. And the GH4 makes the Nikon grovel by comparison.

I hope someone will figure out what settings we can use to optimize the camera for shooting much better video because the one thing the video should show is just how good that stabilization is. But it doesn't really matter if the client ends up asking me why the video doesn't look sharp. Right?

They swung. They missed. Hey! Olympus!!! Get working on that firmware. We deserve better looking video than this. Next step? See how the uncompressed video looks via a digital recorder sucking data from the HDMI plug. That's all I have for now.

Added notes: I thought about the material I shot yesterday and I decided to try a few more tests this morning in the studio. I've read a number of different articles and looked again at John Brawley's nice  project, shot with the EM5-2.  I re-tested the camera with all new settings. I've ditched the All-I codec in favor of the highest quality setting ACVHD codec at 60p. I went into the profile settings and created a custom profile that drops the sharpness to minus two, the contrast to minus two and the saturation to minus one.

I turned off the image stabilization, turned off the noise filter and the noise reduction and carefully manually focused the lens with the camera sitting on a stout tripod.

The files were better but not "head and shoulders" better. The drop in contrast and sharpness is definitely helpful and a small bit of post production sharpening in Final Cut Pro X adds back some snap. I also brought the black levels down in post which adds back some contrast but not in the destructive way that in camera contrast control seems to work.

I think I am closing in on a more workable set of parameters for shooting video on this camera. I am hopeful that I'll get it into the ballpark to work as a competent B-roll camera and as a quick, mini-ENG camera for run and gun stuff that's not destined for bigger productions.

If you have suggestions for improving the look of the footage from the Olympus EM5-2 I'd love to hear it. Put it in the comments and we'll share. The camera is a wonderfully fun photography camera. Perhaps we can pound it into shape (with the help of a firmware update or two....) in the near future.
Thanks for staying tuned.

Added notes v2.0: I tested the camera with different settings in the studio today. See video here: https://vimeo.com/123557879

3.28.2015

Just a program note. Samsung sent me one of their NX-1 cameras. I will shoot with it and see if it matches the marketing speak.



I resigned from Samsung's beta tester/user program in the middle of last year because I got tired of waiting for a camera that felt like it was aimed at my particular market. I may (or may not) have been premature in my resignation because their new flagship camera, the NX-1, was announced shortly afterward. While I am happy with my current set of cameras I was, initially, very interested in the video capabilities of the new camera. The control set seemed good and I was intrigued by the availability of 4K video and the very fast processor set of the camera.

My initial interest was diminished when I learned about the new codec (H.265) Samsung used in the camera because it's highly compressed in camera and must be converted to an editable file for use in Final Cut Pro X. The resulting converted files can be enormous and the process time consuming. I've since read glowing reports about the image quality and I'd like to see for myself.

As to the still imaging capabilities of the camera-----I think all the cameras on the market are fine for my use. Some menus are better than others and some sensors (like the one in the Nikon D810) are standouts. But most advancements in the still field will be less spectacular than the big jumps in capabilities we saw five and ten years ago.

I am not a sports shooter but if I was I couldn't really test the performance of this camera and it's 15 fps because I only have a handful of lenses for the system and if I was shooting something like the USMS Swimming Nationals in San Antonio next month I would want lenses like the fast tele zoom or the equivalent of a 300mm f2.8 to use in order to really frame tightly while having the lens speed to give me fast shutter speeds as all that work would be handheld.

It's interesting to have three relatively new products in house at the same time. And three such different permutations of photographic tools. I have the EM5/2 with its very nice image quality and color, coupled with the world's best image stabilization. I have the Nikon D810 with its incredibly detailed sensor and massive dynamic range. And I have the NX-1 which shoots fast and offers up the promise of excellent 4K video.

I wish Samsung had sent along two things to help me make a better evaluation of this camera. The first would be their fast, longer zoom. The 50-150mm f2.8. If the camera is going to shine then this lens would go a long way to unveiling that shine. And secondly, on a much more pedestrian note, there was no charge of any kind in the box Samsung sent. I ended up having to buy a USB cable and charging the camera battery, in body, with an old Apple USB phone charger. Hmmmm..... In addition I think every camera maker should supply reviewers with two batteries...

I am waiting for the battery to charge before I begin going through the camera menus and setting it up the way I want it.

It's always a bit awkward to get a review camera within a week or two of having bought a new model camera for one's own system that also wants reviewing. The Olympus got here first so it gets priority in the next few weeks.

Lots of good cameras out there. I guess we'll see which ones are the most FUN to shoot....

3.27.2015

more notes on the Olympus EM5-2. Spring day in Austin.


I've been shooting with the EM5-2 for a little bit more than a week but it's been a week dense with projects and so far few of the projects have included the new camera. I have an advantage with the EM5-2 in that it's an upgrade of a camera (the original OMD EM5) that I have four of and have used extensively in corporate event shoots and personal work. That means that most of my learning curve with the new model includes learning where in the menu the controls for new features are. I also have to get used to the new button placement. 

Since I bought the camera with the intention of pressing it into service as a handheld video camera, thinking to take advantage of both the five axis image stabilization and the focus peaking I have outfitted it for that. I bought both halves of the battery grip, partly because I will welcome double the shooting time before battery changes but mostly because I want the headphone jack that allows me to monitor audio. That headphone jack is on the part of the battery grip that attaches directly to the camera. While the add-ons grow the package it's still relatively small and very easy to work with.

I hit my first learning glitch over the new feature; focus peaking. I went into the menu, set it up the way I wanted it, turned it on and then exited the menu. To my consternation, with a manual lens mounted I could not get the focus peaking to appear. Thankfully, my friend, Frank, showed up to help me out. A lifeguard in the camera set-up pool. He let me know that I needed to assign the focus peaking to one of the dozens of function buttons that festoon the exterior of the camera (there are really only three or so but I'm finding on re-reading the owner's manual that almost any button can be reconfigured...

I replaced the "magnify" feature I'd set at function 2 with focus peaking. I figure it's all part of the same intention----getting sharp focus from manual lenses. That worked perfectly and for a while I was very happy. 

It would seem like a more balanced report if I could list out other things that interfere with my enjoyment of the camera but so far I haven't stumbled over any. Focus peaking works a little bit differently on this camera than it does on my Panasonic GH4. When the focus peaking is engaged the camera actually darkens the view screen a bit so there's more contrast between the peaking artifacts and the scene. It works well and helps make the feature even more fine tunable. I do find it a bit jarring to have the focus peaking indications vanish when the shutter button is pushed half way down, but at the same time that push on the button also restores the preview to its normal state which assures me that we got the exposure nailed down correctly. 

I spent an hour this morning out shooting with the camera and one of my all time favorite lenses from the original, film, half frame Pen. It's the 40mm f1.4 and it's a great optic once you are two stops down from wide open. Everything is sharp pretty much across the frame.  It's not terrible at f2.0 but everything except the middle third of the frame goes a bit low contrast, low sharpness to me when I use the lens wide open. Solution? Don't use the lens wide open.

Let's talk for a second about the improvements. The camera feels as though it is better made than its predecessor. More solid and weighty. The EVF is wonderful. Sharp and detailed and imbued with a fast refresh rate. It's one step closer to the holy grail of looking through a window. The shutter has a wonderful and very quiet action. I use cameras in many interior spaces and on many jobs. The ones in the theater or the ones where I shoot in conferences or in small meeting rooms are the ones that both make me cognizant and also appreciative of a low decibel, sonically well behaved shutter mechanism. That's something I like in the new camera. 

I am enthusiastic about the banishing of the accessory port just above the finder window. Olympus accomplished this by giving me a dedicated microphone port and a real sync terminal. What it really means for me is that when I shoot video as I wanted to with this camera I am able to put the microphone into the hotshoe and connect it to the dedicated port. The older accessory took up the hot shot and required that I do something else with the microphone. Like parking it on a "cage" of adding a bracket to the camera. 

Video. Let's talk about the new elephant in the room; video. Or more precisely the image quality of the video. I can already tell you that my test with the image stabilization have shown me that we're on the right track in using this camera for handheld video content creation. It's rock solid. I use the "mode 2" of I.S. because I don't really trust the digital IS in conjunction with the mechanical I.S. I think it can create artifacts in the video with more extreme camera moves. 

But let's cut to the heart of the matter, we all wanted this camera to be as good with the image quality of video that the GH3 is. (We really want GH4 quality but most of us are more than happy to settle for GH3 1080p quality if you dig right down). Is it? Andrew Reid at EOShd.com says No Way! And the discussion about it rages on over twenty or so pages at his well read site. I'll have to say that even at the All-I setting which gets us 77 megabits of data per second the codec isn't as sharp as the one from the Panasonic at its 50mbs setting. But the All-I setting does a good job of preventing motion issues and files that get blocky with a combination of low light and fast movement. 

I'll say that the video at the best levels, using good lenses is right up with the Canon 5D mk3 (un-hacked) or the Nikon D750--810 at their in camera settings. The big issue with all of these cameras versus the GH4 or the Sony A7 is that the files don't appear as crisp and detailed. Is it a deal breaker? Not for me. I'll use a GH4 to do locked down interview shots but when motion is involved everything is a trade off and I'm firmly of the belief that the Olympus gets the best part of the deal with a hand-held camera. Good video focus with the right lenses, great stabilization, good color and adequate sharpness. 

If you are relatively new to video you'll find that lots of things that critics bitch about are either as a result of comparisons between $1,000 do everything cameras and $25,000 dedicated video cameras or they are the result of trying to shoot distant objects and landscapes with an absolutely limited number of overall pixels. The 2K frame comes in right around 2,000,000 pixels which isn't a lot to spread around a wide frame with lots of small details. All of these cameras are much better at the kind of stuff I also like to shoot much better. In short, closer shots of people, waist up interviews and tight detail shots almost always look great. Big, chunky graphic frames are the forté of low resolution cameras and this is no different with video cameras. 

I have several projects coming up on which shooting video with the Olympus camera will be easy to do alongside whatever other camera I choose to use. At that point I should have a lot more to say about how the camera handles day to day video shooting but, for right now, I am guardedly optimistic. 

Shooting the graffiti wall with this camera is a piece of cake. Easy as can be. The focus indication through peaking was right on the money and the color and integrity of the Jpeg files was as peerless as I always remember it. It's an amazingly good camera in a nice system at a nice size and a decently low price point. Will it replace my Nikon D810? Nope, it will complement my big, heavy but amazingly detailed Nikon. They both work pretty darned well. Pictures follow. Click to see them big.












3.26.2015

Vintage LEDs. Already.

In the LED heyday of 2011. With Jana.

Back in 2011 I wrote a book about LED lighting for photographers. Even though LEDs were more expensive and less efficient (and well color balanced) back then I was pretty sure they'd catch on. Four years down the road I'm on my third or fourth generation of LED lights. I am finding them more and more useful all the time. 

I recently photographed 20 people during a day of making images for a law firm. We were shooting on a rainy and overcast day and the building in which the law firm was housed sits right in the middle of Austin's downtown district. 

I was making portraits of people in offices with the shapes and textures of the city softly rendered outside the windows. A cityscape background made soft and somewhat surreal by the combination of aerial mist and quickly diminishing focus from the f2.8 setting on my 85mm lens.

The light in the offices (with the regular office lighting extinguished needed to be supplemented. I brought along three flashes but I also brought along five LED panels. Four of the 312AS lights and one of the 504AS lights. All of these units are marketed by Fotodiox and all feature the ability to adjust color temperature and output levels. I used the big light diffused through a 1/2 stop scrim for my main light and used the smaller lights for fill and accents. 

None of this would have worked on a sunny day. It it had been a brighter day I would have defaulted to the flashes and some umbrellas. But luck was on my side. The constant light source was a blessing since a lot of the people being photographed were nervous in front of the camera and a fair number told me that they were habitual camera blinkers. Not having the flash going off and cueing them to blink was great. The subjects were amazed when I would tell them that we got twenty or thirty great shots without a single blink.

In the same week I used some of the small LEDs for a video interview and I used the large LED to supplement ambient lighting for a video slider shot in a lab. One evening we had a power failure  here in our neighborhood, which is an extremely rare occurrence, and I brought in a case of the LEDs from the office and placed them all over the house. They ran for hours on their batteries and were still going strong when the power came back on. Later in the week I agreed to photograph a doctor here in the studio that had a tough schedule and needed to make his appointment with me after 9pm. 

We're in a residential area that doesn't believe in street lights so I wanted to make it easy for the doctor to find me in the dark. I put one LED on a small stand to light up the house number on the mail box out near the curb. I used another two lights to sweep the drive way with light and I used one light facing the studio to light up the small building's exterior. 

The doctor honed in on the location like an airplane following landing lights. 

I don't know if you've started to experiment with LEDs yet but now is a good time to start. Especially if you are interested in video production. The panels are cheaper and more consistent than ever before and the color just keeps getting better and better. With a good low light camera like the Nikon D610 it's almost as if there is no downside to their use. You won't freeze fast action with them but you can light up a portrait really well. 

When I look back at how big and primitive my first set of LEDs was I am pretty amazed at the progress the lighting industry has made. I just checked out the latest from Fiilex and I am convinced that if I have the budget I'll be making some additional investments in their products. Especially now that the big 500 series light is available. It's very clean and pure and kicks out the equivalent of a 750 watt tungsten spotlight. So very cool.