Saturday, 27 February 2016

OM-D EM-1 Low Light Performance

Those of you who follow me know that I recently jumped from full frame DSLR to the Micro 4/3 camp with on Olympus OM-D EM-1. I often photograph performing arts, plays, pub gigs, concerts, etc. Some of my mates had been using their Oly stuff in these circumstances so I wasn't too concerned about the low light performance without having tried it for myself but it was on my mind.

Last night I was invited to shoot at The Bendigo Hotel in Collingwood. The invite was a little unusual, in that I was invited by a person from Europe to photograph the punk rock band GBH for them. It all worked out and I was "on the list" - very important when you want access.

Low light shooting of fast action like a band requires a strong performance from the camera. You need to set your expectations however, you're going to be battling with very low light - cameras need a lot of light, bands hate it. It's very rare outside the stadium concerts to actually have sufficient let alone a lot of light on a stage. This means high ISO, lots of noise, very low depth of field and a continuing struggle to keep the shutter fast enough to stop the action. You can of course use the slow shutter to capture movement in the still image. You will be shooting on manual and you will probably be massively underexposing your images. Nearly all of the images on the night I tested out the Oly features were three stops down from where they needed to be. This means you are over driving the shit out of the sensor and expecting miracles!

Focus

I knew this venue was small and the lighting really shitty - great atmosphere for the band, but bloody awful for photography. I also hate people who use flash during performances so never do. I also don't like being hit in the face by focus assist beams so turn that off as well. This means the camera and lens must play the game and either do the job or go onto manual focus.

For this gig, I chose the 7-14 f/2.8 and the 12-40 f/2.8. These are both impressive bits of glass. First up the 7-14. This managed focus wonderfully at 7mm but struggled anywhere else in the dark. That's ok because I wanted it for atmosphere shots like the stage and mosh pit and 7mm is perfect for that. Given this thing is really aimed at the landscape and architecture photographer making it do double duty at a gig widens its usability. It's wider than an 8mm fish but maintains wonderfully straight lines with the great glass design and the correction information built into the ORF (Olympus Raw File) format allowing Lightroom to correct the distortion.

GBH performing right up close and personal with the mosh. Shot with the Oly 7-14 at 7mm was a great way to get between the tiny gap between speakers and band at side of stage and still capture the intense thundering bouncing mood of the mosh.
GBH had most of the lights turned off or down so were incredibly difficult to shoot but the 7mm came on strong with capturing focus on the singer and maintaining an incredible depth of field given this was shot at f/2.8. An ISO of 8000 meant quite a bit of noise but I still only managed 1/40th of a second which was three stops underexposed. The shot is still cleanable and perfectly usable and captures the moment.

I also made use of the 12-40 at 12mm quite a lot during the night which could capture a more intimate scene of band and mosh than the 7-14 could. At 14mm the 7-14 would struggle to focus so I leant heavily on the 12-40 which managed focus right through its range really well.

Charter 77 singing "Ray Martin you're a f*ckwit" to an absolutely packed mosh.

Conclusion - the camera is more than up to the job of focussing in the dark venue. I was using a single focus point picked for most advantage for the shot I was going for at the time. There was certainly plenty of focus hunting going on and occasionally I would flip into manual focus with the wonderful pull ring on these lenses and either shoot on manual or give it a nudge in the right direction then flip back to auto to let it finish the job. After all without my glasses I'm fairly dependent on the camera getting it right and there was no way I was putting my glasses on in there, they would have lasted 30 seconds. Every now and then the facial recognition would fire up and change the focus point which was fine by me - I'm a believer in trusting the technology.

Low Light - High Noise

Generally in the dark environment, you simply expect a lot of noise and you expect yo use a lot of tricks in the post processing arsenal to get rid of it or mask it by adding film like features to the images. 

Cleaning up the noise yields a softer than desirable result. Those crisp sharp concert images you see are either from big shows with tens of thousands of watts of light or they're flash imagery if there from a concert at all. The most celebrated concert shots are studio recreations!

The following shot is a crop of about 1/3 of the full frame of the image so it really shows the noise. This is SOOC (straight out of camera) and clearly shows the artefacts of shooting in low light at high iso and forcing the sensor to achieve things it simply wasn't designed to achieve by shooting three stops underexposed. You simply can't expect strong detail from the image - or can you? This image is shot at ISO 8000 and is a truly horrible exposure.

Charter 77's lead singer engages with a single fan from the pit
I've processed this image pretty hard, generally harder than I normally would. I increased the exposure a full stop which blew out the lights so I reduced the highlights by half a stop, changed the clipping levels for the blacks and added a bit of clarity and vibrance then slightly reduced the saturation overall. Now onto the noise processing, I used luminance and contrast noise reduction heavily followed by colour noise reduction again quite heavily. This yields a less noisy brighter image.



Often these really noisy images lend themselves well to black and white rather than retaining the colour. In this case I'm going to just floor the blacks in the conversion because I want to get rid of all the extraneous detail. This will also eliminate much of the noise.

Final result - the mono image with strong contrast, noisy and soft but acceptable
After the processing, you're left with a strong image that isn't going to pass any sharpness lover's test of photography (who are those guys anyway) but it yields an image that captures the great moment that was happening on stage. There is one more thing to do in this image however, get rid of that pesky photographer in the background - it's ok, I'm sure I'm in his images too.


In this final image I got rid of the photographer and a few other bright bits that were distracting. I left the bright L shape because it helps direct attention to the fan's face as he gazes up at the person on stage.

Conclusion - what I asked this camera to do on this night was almost offensive, and to be honest it did a much better job than the 5dii could have. What we have at the end is a photo that isn't going to win a competition, but really, who gives a shit about them anyway, what we've got is a strong photo that the performer is going to like and clearly shows a moment of the evening. Given that these two know each other and have for a long time it's likely to be a good memory keeper.

A final word, I am literally stunned just how low I was able to drive the shutter speed and have the camera simply deal with it. The 5 point IS (image stabilisation) in this thing works stunningly well with these high quality lenses. I was able to single hand hold the camera and in cases like this one shove it between the heads of two people to frame and snap the shot thanks to the bright image on the back of the camera.

I'm going to enjoy working with this beast. If I can manage shots I'm happy with from the fast moving music world photographing plays where I have some control over added lighting and can freeze the actors for a longish exposure on a tripod is going to be a walk in the park.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Review BetterBatt generic Olympus BLN-1 battery replacement

The humble battery, oh how many of them we need for our digital cameras.

Recently I moved on from the world of DSLR to the Mirrorless 4/3 OM-D EM-1. This machine takes a BLN-1 battery and hovering between $80 and $120 depending on where you buy them and how desperate you are they are the one disappointment with this camera. That said, the same disappointment is shared among all the brands because they all price their batteries higher than they should.

Since any mirrorless camera has to display the image so you can compose they chew up a lot of power and go through batteries considerably quicker than a DSLR. This means that for a four or five hour street shooting session I need a couple of batteries and for long exposure work even more because I'm making the camera work much harder. This is cool and is expected.

I started the hunt for a non genuine battery and a good friend +Ananda Sim recommended betterbatt and so did a few other people. They're available from http://www.betterbatt.com.au/ and they don't even know I'm writing this review although I'll probably tell them.

The first thing I check when I'm buying non genuine (I've used Wasabi in my past camera life) is the ratings on the container to make sure they match or exceed the genuine battery.

Voltage

In this case the battery is marked 7.6v which matches the Oly BLN-1 - it's critical that this number is exactly the same as the genuine battery. Less will make the voltage converter in your camera work hard and will lead to early battery consumption and early failure of the battery. More will either make your camera hot as it deals with the excess voltage or kill it.

It should be noted that this voltage figure is the nominal voltage. When a battery is fully charged it will usually perform over this stated voltage by a small percentage gradually dropping back as the battery loses power.

Lithium batteries have a good steady curve over the power usage but have a sharp drop off once they reach the critical point. Your camera will recognise this and shutdown to avoid corrupting cards or damaging the machine. Generic batteries are likely to have a different profile than originals but the camera will have enough engineering tolerance to still work properly. In this case the Oly detects the fall fine and stops you from over discharging the battery.

Ability to supply power

This battery is 1020mAh / 7.8Wh. These numbers show the batteries ability to store and supply power. The battery will store 1020mAh (milliamp hours). These numbers can be bigger than the genuine battery and your battery will give you better life in the camera. If the storage rating is smaller you'll get less life per charge. Being different can't damage your camera and often the non genuine batteries store more or less power. Genuine battery manufactures may use cells designed specifically for their space which gives them the most grunt possible per cubic mm. Generic manufacturers usually use standard cells and fit as many as they can and filling the voids. This means that often generic batteries will not last as long as originals.

Charging

Betterbatt warn you on their website (and again in person if you pick them up from the store) that you cannot use the Olympus genuine charger because it "talks" to the battery and won't charge it.

I've found in my experimentation that at least this generation of the charger charges the battery fine. I also have the Betterbatt charger on the left and it charges the batteries in about 1.2 hours where as the Oly takes nearly 3 hours. 

There is no noticeable run time difference between the battery charged in the Oly charger and that charged in the Betterbatt charger.

Caveats

When you're buying non genuine you don't void your warranty, but shop around, check the reviews, buy a reputable non genuine brand because Lithium Ion batteries are lethal if they're made incorrectly or have low production quality. Seriously, these batteries have caused plane crashes through fire. Once a Li battery gets to the heat where it will burn it will light up and it will not go out. It burns so hot that it will destroy whatever its in and probably a good part of what is around it.

Betterbatt

These guys are in Melbourne and source and test batteries from various suppliers rebranding them with their brand. They have a warehouse which has a pick up location in Flemington but you need to order before you go and wait for the confirmation before heading there. They also mail them out. I went to pick them up because I needed them quickly and because I wanted to see their operation. They are basically a small company run by a bunch of younger people which is awesome to see.

Conclusion

These batteries are serving me well and the pre-configured battery trip voltages in the camera for the warning display and the battery out indicator work fine for both the genuine battery and these ones. I'm happy with my purchase at roughly 1/4 of the price for a genuine battery.

YouPic - Bleah, its more of a stalker than Linked In

I decided to give YouPic.com a go, this is partly because photo handling on g+ is now so mediocre and Google Photos just isn't there (yet).


Their premise seems really good "YouPic is the place for photography enthusiasts around the world to be inspired, receive recognition and improve their photography." and "Learn photography, get tips, feedback and recognition. Share your experience and get rewarded with massive global exposure."

Seems like a great plan, the trouble is the user experience is fairly poor. The User Interface is fairly snazzy but the photo support isn't awesome which is sad for a photo site. You can certainly share them and albums of sorts.

The way they try to get wide circles of followers up quickly is they have gamified the system. People get points for loving a photo or offering critique. People get eXperience Points when they do things with the images of others. It seemed like a good idea so I put up a selection of images and within minutes started getting some love. I thought this is cool, what a great experience for a new user.

But then the notifications started, within the site notifications are really slow and I really get the impression that people are only loving and critiquing to bring up their own level to increase their own exposure. Its remarkably like the desperate hundred hash tag people who are trying to get the pages I loathe like "Best Top Photographer" to notice them and share their image.

I'm a firm believer in that your following and growth will happen organically if your images are any good and appeal to people. The desperate game isn't for me.

Next come the enticement back to the site emails so that you can do the same for other people. You've got XX new fans waiting for you. Argh! Really!


I've given it a good try. I've found that the critique is without value because it seems unrelated to the image. The comments are simplistic and mostly consist of "I love your image, follow me too". I'm sure the vapid, desperate and insipid will love YouPic but I'm afraid it's not for me and I've deleted my account.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Olympus Focus Stacking - OM-D EM-1 Firmware 4.x

I love creating macro images. In the past I have used various means to achieve this even building my own lens and bellows to get a 5x magnification so I guess you could call me an enthusiast of all things small. I've used focus stacking techniques in photoshop to improve the otherwise minuscule depth of field that plagues macro shots. A short time ago I changed down from full frame Canon to the Olympus OM-D EM-1 and what can I say, I've just played with another feature that has made my day. In body camera stacking. Wow. Just Wow.

Before we get going and I show you why my toungue is hanging out of my head like a happy dog, lets first see what a couple of vanilla images look like at f/2.8 and f/8. All of the images I've included here are SOOC JPEG at Fine Resolution / Maximum size.
f2.8 focussed on the washer

f/8 focussed on the washer
Out of these two shots, the f/8 yields the kind of result I'm used to. Reasonable depth of field given its a close focussed macro. You can go up more f/16 or f/22 but for my money the image starts to degrade after f/8 so I tend to hover here. To get better depth of field I would in the past have been manually focussing in steps and then stacking them all later on.

First up, lets turn the feature on. It's buried quite deep in menus and since I'll probably use this a lot I'll try and figure out how to put this on one of the plethora of function buttons.

Open Shooting Menu using the Menu button then scrolling, turn on Bracketting

Select focus bracketting

and turn it on

Turn on focus stacking from within Focus bracketting

set the depth you want to have - i.e. the depth of field you want

Differential of 1

The camera exposed two shots at slightly different focus steps and produced this final stacked shot. It has more depth of field than the f/8 shot but not much.
Focus differential of 1

Differential of 5

The camera exposed six frames and produced this final stacked shot. This is quite a bit better than the f/8 result.

Differential of 10

This time the camera exposed fifteen shots and what an amazing outcome. This is about 1.5cm of depth from a macro where you normally get about half of one mm.

It goes backward!

One thing I note is that the focus seems to assume you want to go backwards and steps away from the camera, this might be because I focussed as near as I could to the lens and it had no choice. I'll have to experiment more. When I read "bracketting" I assume it will by default go equally forwards and backwards by default. This is certainly workable and needs some more play.

When you're using 10 you might notice some focus banding with softer areas. I do see one softer area on top of the washer.

Bugbear

I really wish that the camera would use a different name for the final stacked image or have something in the metadata. If you're listing Olympus this would be an great improvement on this otherwise awesome feature. This will help you find them without having to review them all.

Caveats

The Focus Stacking feature is only available on the OM-D EM-1 although the focus bracketing is available on its little brother the OM-D EM-5. You then need to manually stack in your tool of choice afterwards if you're shooting with the EM-5.

The feature only works (currently) with three lenses:
  • Olympus 60mm Macro f/2.8
  • Olympus 12-40 f/2.8
  • Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 (also works with the teleconverter on)
While the images used to make the stack are all recorded as per your current settings, the final stacked image is only available as a JPEG regardless of other settings.

Conclusion

This is an awesome feature and is just the next step in enjoying this camera. This few second task in camera from a touch of setup and one finger button press replaces literally hours of work in photoshop. The focus banding is slightly annoying because when doing it manually this wouldn't happen but I reckon I prefer this being essentially lazy I find that this feature is going to go the distance with me.

Friday, 5 February 2016

From Full Frame to Micro Four Thirds – the first weeks… Downsizing from the Canon 5dii to the Olympus OM-D EM-1

Over the last few years I have been procrastinating. I’ve been a Canon shooter since the late 80’s  when I was shooting Canon film SLR in school. I’ve still got a trusty F1 that I acquired last year. It was natural that when Canon digital became available I went there, first the 300d, then the 40d and finally the 5dii. All were good machines for their time with great build quality and reasonable feature set for the money. The trouble is, that’s where it stopped. Nothing has really changed at Canon since the 5dii. Sure they doubled the resolution with the Mk iii but at the expense of sharpness and quality and the noise, oh the noise! Really put me off. Canon like many corporate giants simply don’t listen to their users. Do you think you could ever email someone at Canon and get a response (unless you’re famous then they’ll beat a path to your door). It was time I left the steam era and moved forward.

Recently I looked at the Sony A7r series, they're pretty decent but Sony are crying out for lens diversity and those they do have are very expensive. The Sony can drive the EF lenses I had through an adaptor about half as well as the native EF could. That's not a step up. I did nearly jump when the A7rii came out because it combined the best of two of the a7 series into one great machine that would have
met my needs but still, all that money and poor lens performance. No was the answer.

Over the years I’ve dallied with other smaller format cameras such as the Sony Mavica and Cybershot. Both good point and shoot for their time. A few years ago along came the OM-D EM-5. The functionality that had been packed into that tiny form factor was simply amazing. A lot of my friends took them up, most left their big heavy gear behind. I did play with the EM-5 and quite liked it, but it wasn’t quite for me. Then came the EM-1, now that was a bit of a beast. Resolution not far off the 5dii but with so many more features built in – simple things like wifi sharing, inbuilt bracketing for focus for example. I took an EM-1 out for a play on an Olympus experience photowalk and quite enjoyed the experience for the half an hour I had it.

Image: Olympus.com.au

On the Sunday before Australia Day there was an Olympus sale at DigiDIRECT in Melbourne, that was the final clincher, the EM-1 and the magic M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 lens for just $1466. That was simply too amazing a deal to pass up for Aussie stock. The first my partner knew about it was a phone picture of the camera with the caption "It looks lonely all by itself in the bag". The timing was perfect, not only was I becoming jaded of my street photography because the shutter of the 5dii sounded like two bricks being banged together ruining many candid moments but becoming older I was also feeling the pain of carrying that heavy gear with me everywhere. The 5dii has been steadily dropping in price since the 5diii came out and the once $5000 beast was now sub $1000 second hand.

I've now had the EM-1 for just on two weeks and what a difference, I've jumped right back into street photography with a machine that’s very near to silent – even more so when only using the electronic shutter.

Let’s talk about the good things because there are a lot of them. I really am impressed with this machine and so glad that I made the decision - no buyers remorse here.

Operation - everything has been quite intuitive from the default controls (and there IS a button for everything) to the super menu the experience of moving camera families has been pleasant. I've had my disruptive moments trying to figure things out but only once have I reached for the manual.

Macro from a portrait zoom - what?? Yes, macro from a portrait zoom. The 12-40 is a cross between a nice landscape lens and a nice portrait lens. Pretty much just right for both, but macro? It focuses very close and comes off as a good macro player.

Autofocus - simply amazing, quick, easy to manage, easy to direct even on difficult subjects. I have when using the full scene focus had some interesting choices by the camera but once onto focussing on the points I wanted it's been awesome. Another nice feature in this area is face detection, when I'm shooting the family I want to spend most of my time with them without a camera on my face so the fact that the body finds faces and adjusts the depth of field to get them all - awesome. Lazy I know, but a great feature for most consumers.

The autofocus was quick enough to catch this Noisy Minor an Australian native bird and the glass came up with a lovely depth of field and the sensor delivered the beautiful colour.






Weight – what can I say, the EM-1 and 12-40 are so light in the hand that I can carry it around all day on only a wrist strip. Lately I’d been using a Black Rapid shoulder strap with the 5dii and still found it painful after a full day of walking. Not any more. Joy.

Build quality & style – just amazing – a nice heft without being heavy, awesome metal feel, style and looks. The machine looks and feels robust without gaining any ugly in the process. The ugly stick was kept in the drawer when this one was designed.

Instant on from hard off or sleep – this one is always important for me because shooting street sometimes you’ve got to be really quick, there’s usually no time to wait while the beast pokes the monkey that runs in the cage in the backside to get moving.

Tilting screen – this has been a wake-up call for me, while shooting the Pride parade in St Kilda on the weekend I was able to compose actual portraits on the fly while the parade flowed past by holding the camera above the people and actually composing not just shooting blindly as I had to with the 5dii. I still go back to the view finder all the time, a habit I’m trying to break myself of, but while we’re here, what a view finder it is. Simply the best all digital view finder I’ve ever encountered.
Splash and dust proof – I shoot quite a bit by the sea, especially when on my Great Ocean Road project. This was a must have for me in the replacement as it had saved me a number of times with the big beast.

The portrait at left captures the casual colourfulness of the LGBTI+ Pride parade in St Kilda. I really enjoy the moment here. This is SOOC (straight out of camera) with a slight crop to eliminate someone who stuck their head in at the last moment.




Dynamic Range - this is easily as good as the 5dii although in some respects better. Something I've not seen any reviewers pick up on is that while the DR is very similar to the big boys, if the image is particularly dark it will favour shadows, if it is particularly bright it will favour highlights. This effectively uses the sensors DR in the right way - by giving you the most detail in the biggest area of the image.

I've played with this shot a bit, but the source data had to be there to begin with for me to do the post.

Wifi via OI.Share on the phone or tablet with the 5dii I had to hack a wireless router to control it using DSLR Controller on my tablet. Great for those challenging things like time lapse or fireworks. Well, that's all built in to the body but I can control the camera when I want to and quickly dump to socials or news providers via OI.Share right there on the spot. Great!
Image Stabilisation – this in body stabilisation is stunning, hand holding down to 1/10th of a second produced a sharp portrait, hand holding down to 1 second produced a usable but not entirely sharp night scene. Amazing. I really look forward to shooting the next play with the combination of the tilting screen and this strong stabilisation, I suspect the woes of the dark play room won’t be half the issue they’ve been with the big beast.

Features – more than you can poke a stick at, in this two weeks I have been deliberately sticking with the standard aperture priority while I learnt the machine and the lens.
The ability of this little lens to close focus is astounding, you almost don’t need a macro lens (don’t tell the other half that – I’m picking up a macro lens on Sunday!).

There is one negative and that is battery life. This is the same for all mirrorless cameras as they have to drive the screen and keep the sensor running for the viewfinder. There does seem to be room in that body for more battery but hey, they’re not all that expensive (about half the price of the Canon) not to mention they’re very light so having a few extras in the bag is no big deal. It would be nice if the battery came with a plastic protective cap and some kind of charge indicator on board.

Conclusion... for now
Overall this camera has reinvigorated my shooting and a some people have commented they can see something new in my shots, that something new is my arm doesn't hurt and I'm having fun again. Truly having fun.

Two parades in two weeks and plenty of play time in between.

Oh and on top of that I emailed Olympus and they replied. Awesome.