Heresy – The Olympus E-P2 IS better than the Leica M8

The Olympus E-P2 is better than the Leica M8 … at least for me.

A good friend of mine loaned me a Leica M8 body recently (many thanks, Zoran!) with an eye to a sale, as I had a hunger to go Leica digital as I have a few nice old rangefinder lenses hanging about.  This hunger arose and then intensified as I have been having more success with my Olympus E-P2 than I usually enjoy with my Canon 5D outfit for more candid and intimate shots, and I guess I thought that the M8 body might confer a bit more of the old Leica magick on me if I had one.

To get ready for it, I sold off a wad of kit that I owned but never used, and now it has gone I know I didn’t actually want (let alone need) either. This included a FujiFilm S3 Pro DSLR, a Canon G10, and some other digital paperweights. Don’t get me wrong – in the right hands, these are serious tools capable of great work, it’s just that my hands were not the right ones. This was a Good Thing. No-one wanted to buy my old Tamron Adaptall zooms and Pentax Takumar primes either, so I still have them. This outcome was also a Good Thing.

I used  the Leica for a couple of weeks in parallel with my E-P2 “Pen” that I also have been using as a mount for old glass. Before I confer my decision, I must confess that I own and occasionally use a beautiful chrome M6, so I know what a camera fitted with the famous red dot can do in the right circumstances. Notwithstanding my love of my film M6 (note that I have also owned and used an M5 and loved it too), I just couldn’t get the M8 to feel right and work with me as I have done with it’s film-based brethren.

The M8 is a beautiful tool – hand made and handsome in a most purposeful way – that can excel as only a rangefinder can with the right eyes and brain behind it. It seems that I am not one of those appropriately equipped to delight in the M8 experience. Here’s why:

  • It’s too heavy.
  • I hate the viewfinder – the framelines are worthless, and the 0.68 magnification factor – optimised for longer lenses, just what you don’t need on a crop sensor body –  is not nice when you have been used to a classic M6 with the standard finder magnification of 0.72.
  • I had issues with the rangefinder leading to consistently out-of-focus images with a properly calibrated modern Summicron 50mm, if you can believe it.
  • I was worried about its worth and felt as though every eye was on me – this is the opposite experience most people report about using a discrete black dumb-looking rangefinder.
  • Now I have discovered the value of family video, the M8 can’t actually shoot any.
  • The in-camera JPEGs are horrible, although the DNG RAW files are as industry-standard as you can get.
  • Because of the excessive inbuilt IR sensitivity, you really do need to invest in IR cut filters for each lens you use, and they are expensive.

There are some good M8 things as well:

  • It’s so cool.
  • You can use any of the fantastic glass made for a Leica over the past 80 years by Zeiss, Canon, Voigtlander, and yes, even by Leica. It’s all fabulous, and you can pick and choose the rendering intent you are seeking.
  • It’s low-light noise performance, although not as good as the Canon 5D, is pretty darn good, and better than the Pen’s. The sensor is nearly APS-H size (but not quite), which is more than double the area of the micro 4/3 standard sensor real estate.
  • Did I already say it’s cool?

On the other hand, my creativity with old glass has been recently unmatched by my use of the Pen. I believe that I have recently taken some of the best shots of my 47 years of having access to and using a camera (I started when I was 7 with a Box Brownie) on the Pen. Here’s why:

  • It’s so cool.
  • It’s small and relatively lightweight.
  • I have a huge choice of glass – with just 2 adapters that cost $25 each, I can use any screw or bayonet mount lens  ever designed for the Leica rangefinder family, or any of the almost limitless array of glass built on the M42 / Pentax screw mount. Oh, and don’t forget the modern M4/3 glass from Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Voigtlander or some of the boutique glass factory products designed to fit M4/3 cameras too. And just like with the M8, you can pick and choose the rendering intent you are seeking by your choice of lens.
  • When I use old glass, because of the M4/2 two-times crop factor the sensor sees only the prime middle section of the chosen lens’s image circle – goodbye soft corners, farewell vignettes.
  • The Pen’s optional electronic viewfinder (VF-2) is amazing, in that with its 1.15 times magnification you can actually see and compose the picture even in low light with the camera pressed up against your face, just like we all used to do until optical viewfinders were cruelly snatched away from us at the dawn of the digital age, and not replaced in order just to save a few bucks in build costs. You can also examine the effects of your chosen aperture on the depth of field. A side benefit of the VF-2 finder is that at least with some lenses, keeping both eyes open results in a most unusual 3D view of the scene you are shooting.
  • This face-stabilised mode allows for sharp images as the camera wobbles about far less than when held at arm’s length like every other digital P&S wonder on the planet does without a viewfinder.
  • It has sensor-stabilisation available for every lens that you can fit, making otherwise shaky images possible in low light.
  • The JPEGs it makes automatically are far and away better than the Leica’s by a country mile. The RAW images are of course every bit as good for raw material as the DNG varieties that the M8 creates.
  • The colour performance and white balance is better than the M8.
  • The low-light performance, although not as good as the M8, is pretty darn good, and vastly better than any point-and-shoot can do, because  although not offering any more resolution, the sensor is 9 times bigger (225 mm2 vs 25 mm2) than the 1 /2.5 “ sensor in the typical 12 mpix auto-everything Canon/Nikon/Samsung/Pentax and, yes, Olympus offering.
  • It’s a fantastic video camera, especially when fitted with old glass.

It’s not all rosy, however – now for the bad Pen issues that have impacted me

  • The autofocus with a modern M4/3 lens is slow compared to a DSLR (however it kills the M8’s, which has none at all anyway).
  • The crop factor is 2 times, making your old 50mm a short telephoto, and thereby automatically making very wide angle lenses very expensive. The M8’s crop is only 1.3 times, which is far more useful (to me at least).
  • It’s so cool especially fitted with an old lens, that people stop you to ask “what camera is it”?

I find that my creativity, especially with people, portraits and candids, soars with the Pen (compared to using but primarily worrying about protecting the M8 because of its cost) especially when it is fitted with a quality old fashioned manual-everything lens. My current favourites are the 50 year old Canon 50mm f1.2 LTM light bucket, and the fabulous Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f2 M mount lens, my new “standard”.

My percentage of keepers is massively higher from the Pen than from the M8. On this basis alone, I am prepared to accept the two compromise areas I don’t really like about the Pen – the crop ratio, and the low light noise performance. Simply put, a successful keeper is infinitely better than and preferable to an out-of-focus or missed shot to me…

If I want really wide or super low light quality, well I just use the Canon 5D instead. It’s horses for courses, I guess. So, I’m staying with the Pen as my choice for a small, super-high-quality unit to use when the Canon 5D is just too big.

Oh, and I have just saved wasting $2500 on a dream that would not deliver for me, too. Just don’t hate me for being a heretic


Adventures at 3200 ASA

My astute readers will know that I have been looking for P&S nirvana in my journal over the past 6 months or so. Instead of dwelling on that issue in the blog, today I want to discuss my main tool, the mighty Canon 5D, but with a twist – what it can do at 3200 ASA, and what a spot of image tweaking can do. And not a camera picture in sight today either …

Here is a very dramatic image shot last night at twilight, immediately after a torrential rain storm:

I know I’m probably not objective, but I find this image breathtaking, because in my minds’ eye, this is how I remember the scene. Drama, color, light. It was shot at 3200 ASA, hand-held for 1/8 sec @ f4, and a tad underexposed. This is what 3200 ASA and a decent lens coupled with image stabilisation can do for you when you have forgotten your tripod. The insipid original, shown straight from the RAW file, looks pretty damn ordinary:

Just another dull, lifeless image. Well, that’s what I saw when I looked at the shots in Adobe Bridge. But how to bring it to life, to re-create the tension in nature that I had seen? Well, here’s what I did. Remove what noise I could fine to get a basis to start from – remember it was underexposed at 3200 ASA, and so had a few issues. Then, Topaz Adjust was run over it, to intensify colours and detail. Noise removal again, then a bit of adjustment to the curves, and voila. Oh, I also used the CS5 lens correction adjustment that is in ACR to fix the geometry and vignetting from the Canon 24-105 mm f4 L that occurs at full aperture use. And the picture jumps off the page…

Even as a mono it is strong:

In fact it was having processed it as a monochrome that inspired me to revisit it again as a hyper-real colour shot from a movie.

The moral – get out when the light is right. Look at your images, and think about how you can best represent what you saw. And revisit them a day later, to see if you can see something different. Oh, and clean your sensor. I did, using 2 tongue depressors, a few bits of lens tissue and some optical cleaner. Don’t pay $100+ for a shop to take 3 weeks to do it badly, do it yourself. Perhaps the next blog topic?

For the anoraks who may be wondering – the vertical white stick in the centre of the frame isn’t dirt, it’s the top of the 40 tonne stainless steel gargantuan flagpole at Parliament House a couple of kilometres away.

The best camera is the one you have with you

I have written before about the merits of keeping a junk camera in the car at all times, ready for making that elusive shot that you won’t see again. In my case, you might recall it’s a FujiFilm S6500fd, I bought for $20 at the local Salvation Army shop. For those that are keen readers of this blog, you will also remember that I have a $3 tripod in the boot, just in case. I didn’t need it today.

The reason I didn’t need a tripod is that the light was so bright that, as I was being a bit lazy, the P setting on the camera chose 1/1500 second @ f8, for 200 ASA for this scene.  The shot above is half of a frame from the Fuji, with intense contré-jour lighting making the image come alive.

I forgot 2 key things – how to set the ASA, and how to enable RAW image capture. I couldn’t remember the way to make this happen, so the image above is dragged from a JPEG. This brings up a cardinal rule that I manage to break, as I never bother to read the manuals as I’m too damn smart – yeah, right…

If I had been clever enough to remember how to set up the RAW capture in a hurry, this image might have been better, but never mind – I think it is – yet again – a testament to the engineering that Fuji packed into this small marvel.

Here’s the EXIF information:

I was pretty sure that I had the lens racked out a fair way – it seems that it was set at 25 mm, which is about 112mm in 35mm terms, so not really that far. It is pretty crisp and flare-free at this length, reinforcing my thoughts that it has the Fuji EBC coating applied.

Here’s another, to show how sharp the lens is:

And here is a section from this image of the boat on the right hand side magnified to 200%:

Pretty bloody good, I reckon, especially as this image’s EXIF shows it was shot at 66.7 mm – that’s 300mm equivalent in 35mm sizes, at the smallest stop on this camera – f8. I guess they limit the small f-stop sizes to limit diffraction ruining the pictures. Don’t forget, this camera has a 6 megapixel sensor sized at 1 /1.7 inches – that’s just 7.6 x 5.7 mm, or 43 square millimeters in area. My 5D by comparison is 864 sq mm, or 20 times bigger.  And, yet again, great contrast. It’s the sharpest $20 I’ve ever spent on cameras.

UPDATE – I have discovered that the S6500fd has an interesting cousin. Many people believe that the FujiFilm F30 was just about the best low-light capable P&S camera made, at least until the current crop of those equipped with a “backlit sensor” has emerged. I believe that the S6500fd and the F30 use exactly the same sensor – a 6.3 megapixel 1 / 1.7 inch, sixth-generation CCD device built by FujiFilm, with very low noise levels up until about 800 ASA. This sensor is famed as being one of the best small sensor chips ever produced, and critics have noted that Fuji dropped the ball when it obsoleted this device in favour of joining the megapixek race in 2007. This makes the S6500fd one of the best bridge cameras ever made, and the web’s forums are full of people bemoaning the fact that they took this path instead of remaining with IQ as the prime directive.

Wikipedia has the following entry about the sensor:

“Super CCD is a proprietary charge-coupled device that has been developed by Fujifilm since 1999. The Super CCD uses octagonal, rather than rectangular, pixels. This allows a higher horizontal and vertical resolution (at the expense of diagonal resolution) to be achieved than a traditional sensor of an equivalent pixel count.

In 2006, Fuji introduced the 6th generation of the Super CCD sensor (size 1/1.7″, 6.3 million effective pixels). This sensor allows for acceptable image quality even at ISO 800. It is built into the FinePix S6500fd (2006) bridge camera and the FinePix F-series F30, F20 (2006), F31fd and F40fd (2007) compact cameras, all of which are widely accredited for their class leading low-light capabilities.

In late 2007, the 7th generation was introduced (size 1/1.6″, 12 million effective pixels). Included in Fuijfilm FinePix F50d (2007). This sensor, although sharp, has significantly decreased ISO performance compared to earlier generations, dropping in quality to average level. When compared to the 6th generation sensor, the individual pixel area on the 7th generation sensor is approximately 1.7x lower, considerably reducing the amount of light reaching each pixel.”

DP Review also noted in 2007:

There are some compact camera brands we would currently absolutely avoid for regular high ISO photography, but in reality – aside from one or two 6MP Fujifilm Super CCD models – the only real difference between the best and worst models is the quality and quantity of noise reduction, and none really impress. Many decent compacts can produce almost SLR-like quality at their lowest ISO, but whatever the marketing departments of the camera manufacturers may like you to think, there is no way you can get acceptable results from a small sensor compact at high ISO settings – some struggle even at ISO 400. The only exceptions are the Fujifilm FinePix F30 and F31fd, which use a combination of large pixels (lower megapixel count), clever sensor design and clever noise reduction to produce decent results at ISO 800 and usable results at ISO 1600 (the ISO 3200 mode is, however, a step too far).

These images prove my theory about keeping a camera handy – I would not have this to present to you tonight without following this very simple maxim – the best camera is the one you have with you.

For Alex

This is what keeping a cheap camera in the car is all about – see my previous post.

I was moved today by the sad news of the death of a young guy at my work. I felt a  need to express myself in some way about this awful news. This was shot on the way home from work.

This image is for him. I hope it conveys a sense of sadness, of quiet desperation.

This is a 7 shot HDR, toned sepia, from a Fujifilm Finepix f6500fd.

Brilliantine coils of cigarette smoke, curling away like dreams

“I used to think that all I wanted was the good opinion of honorable men and the ungrudging love of beautiful women. Now I know for sure that all I really want is a cigarette.” Quote from “The Singing Detective”.

Continuing my night photography efforts at soccer training across the road, I think I might have finally nailed it. Canon 5D, EF 35mm f1.4 L, 1/6 sec @ f2.8, 1600 ISO. I like the irony displayed in this image, with the coach smoking while his superbly fit athletes run around on this oh-so-cold night.

There is a strange footnote to this image. I asked this fellow if I could take this shot, and before he replied with permission, he said in a really strange and questioning manner “I know you…” Oh dear, here it comes. I was thinking. But it turned out he remembered me in a pleasant way from the late 1980s when I used to frequent a small cafe named Poci’s Pizza, where he was the cook. We patrons used to get falling down drunk every lunchtime that we went there. No wonder he remembered me.

One of the players had a muscle problem (Canon 15mm F2.8 fish-eye) and so the coach lent a hand to massage it away, cigarette still firmly in place. I framed the second image to back-light his cloud of smoke, as it seems to me to be a focal point of this series of images. I wish I had had such dedication when I was a smoker.

Second footnote – Poci’s Pizza closed in about 1989. I gave up smoking on 17 December 1998. I still drink too much, but I’ve never looked back.

Avatar treeline

How I love landscape photography. In particular, I love the opportunity for a ghostly or spiritual feel to be evoked by an image. Like this one. It also looks 3D to my eyes. Suffer, James Cameron!

The processing story follows:

This was one frame of a series of 3 for a HDR I was planning. It was shot behind an old church in Millthorpe, NSW, one misty morning last November. I was too lazy to cut the HDR in the end, so it sat in my files, untouched.  A run through Topaz Adjust in Photoshop making it a tad “smoother” resulted in the focus piece for this entry.

Misty this morning

In the country where I live, people often say the divide between not-winter and winter is Anzac Day.

Anzac Day falls each year on 25 April, remembering the sacrifice made at Gallipoli (in Turkey) by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps when they landed there in 1915. Other people say Australia became a nation on that day. Oh, we were soundly beaten.

Anyway, Anzac Day is only a couple of days away, and I reckon that they are right about winter coming. It was cold and misty this morning. This place is across the road from where I live now.

I tried to capture the painterly light that I see developing more and more as the dark months draw near.