Saturday, November 23, 2013

Olympus OM-D E-M1

So I caved and bought the Olympus OM-D E-M1 as soon as it came out. My intentions were twofold: 1) I wanted a second body that was just as capable as the E-M5 so that I wouldn't have to switch lenses as often as I was; and 2) I was looking for something that would be better at handling moving subjects, and I figured that the dual phase/contrast detection autofocus system in the E-M1 would be the ticket.

To make a long story short: Holy crap, this camera is awesome!

Now, the slightly longer story...  I'm not going to repeat the specs or show you pics of the camera itself since there a gazillion other places where you can find that kind of information. Where I think I can provide value is in my own perspectives based on shooting with this camera for the better part of a month.

And yes, I've been doing a *lot* of shooting. I'm enrolled in a 10-month Professional Photography certificate program at my local college, and as such, I've been shooting almost every day for the past three months. I've already shot about 5500 frames on the E-M1 since I've gotten it.  Mind you, not all of those are "quality" shots since I've made extensive use of the high-speed burst and bracketing capabilities, but still, that's as many shots as I took in all of 2012, so I think that says something.  My basis for comparison is my previous main body, the Olympus OM-D E-M5, as well as older Micro Four Thirds cameras by Panasonic.  Please check out my earlier posts on the E-M5 for more information on how I use my camera, and tactics that I employ to deal with some of its shortcomings.

Without any further ado, here are my quick thoughts on this amazing new camera:
  • I didn't think it would be possible, but autofocus really *is* faster and more reliable than the E-M5, at least the way I use it. Unfortunately I haven't really put its continuous tracking capabilities to the test, but at least using it the way that I used the E-M5, I have a far higher hit rate for in-focus shots. I attribute this to the slightly faster subject acquisition, but probably more important - at least the way I use it - is that the AF zones can be made far smaller than on the older body. What this means is that you can put the AF point exactly where you want it, and thus reduce the risk of the camera focusing on the background.
  • In the theme of better focusing: focus peaking definitely helps speed up the process of manual focusing when you want fine, fine control over your focus point.
  • External controls!  Woo-hoo!  One of my major frustrations on the E-M5 was a lack of external controls for drive mode (in-camera HDR, exposure bracketing, high-speed burst, low speed burst, and self-timer). I use this function *all the time* and now it is possible to quickly change modes with a press of a button and a spin of a dial. Something else that I have found very handy is the toggle switch that allows you to access four different setting with only two dials. For example, I can very quickly change shutter speed and aperture or white balance and ISO just by hitting the mode switch and the two main control dials.
  • The intervalometer rules. It was a happy day when I discovered this function on the camera. Using it, I can set the camera to take as many frames as I want at pre-determined intervals. I took several self-portraits ("selfies?") as part of my school assignments, and the E-M1's capability to capture several frames without my intervention or an assistant is what made some of my finished photos even possible. I just wish that I could get sub-second intervals, but that's a minor point.
  • With the larger grip, the E-M1 is a much better platform than its smaller, older brother for shooting with larger lenses. Not that the Micro Four Thirds lenses get very big in the first place, but one of my mainstay lenses - the Panasonic 100-300 F4.0 - was sometimes a bit much to manage on the nearly-grip-less E-M5. Even with the added bulk, the E-M1 weighs less and is substantially more portable for activity-driven shooting situations than any comparable DSLR.
  • The WiFi is actually useful! I had never intended to use the WiFi function on this camera, but like the intervalometer, it was indispensable for self-portrait type shots. I could use my Android tablet to frame myself, set the focus, and take the shot. It was also handy in studio type shots when I didn't have an assistant: I could arrange my still life and see the results in real time without having to return to the camera's viewfinder. Having said that, I do wish that you could play with more than the basic settings when controlling the camera in this way, and that the live image was in high resolution so that you can see the fine detail of your compositions. As far as my research has shown, a true tethered shooting option does not exist for these otherwise highly-capable cameras.
Other than the fore-mentioned tethered shooting limitations, the other major annoyance is that the accessory port cover is small, fiddly, and *will* get lost. I lost mine within a week of getting the camera, thus compromising its weatherproofing. Again, this is important for how I use the camera, and may or may not be important for other people.

In a nutshell, with the E-M1 Olympus kept everything that was already great about the E-M5 and filled most of the holes that kept it from being my ultimate camera. 

Here are some of the images that came from this very capable little beast, each of which highlights some of its cool features:
The above photo is a self-portrait. Using the intervalometer, I was able to move around in front of the camera to try different things while it automagically took several frames without my intervention.

A walk in the woods
A walk in the woods
This photo used the in-camera double-exposure function. Yes, I guess the function itself is a bit gimmicky and the same effect could likely be achieved in post-processing, but I like how it replicates how you would do double exposures in old film cameras.

This shot was taken using the Panasonic 100-300 F4 lens. The grip on the E-M1 is just the right size to improve stability and comfort while shooting with this, which is the largest lens I own.

I plan to use the E-M1 as my main camera body. The E-M5 still has a place in my camera bag though: it's slightly more pocketable, and when I bring both bodies along, I plan to put the longer, heavier lenses on the E-M1, and wider lenses on the E-M5, where focus accuracy is potentially not as critical.

Now, I'm just looking forward to trying the new Olympus Pro series F2.8 12-40mm lens. Anyone looking to get me a Christmas present? :)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Olympus OM-D E-M5 long-term experience

Click here for my initial thoughts on the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four-thirds camera.

The review linked to above represents my thoughts on the camera (hereafter referred to as the "OM-D") shortly after getting it. A year later and having taken ~20,000 pictures with it, I think I've come to terms with what this little powerhouse of a camera can and cannot do.

A note about how I use the OM-D: I do primarily landscape and nature shots, sometimes hiking and sometimes mountain biking to the location. I don't mind heading out when the weather is less than ideal; sometimes such conditions lend themselves to more dramatic images. For these scenarios I find the smaller Micro Four Thirds form factor to be perfect, and the OM-D shines in these situations. Lately I've started doing some action sports photography, namely mountain biking and ultimate frisbee. Admittedly the OM-D is not the greatest tool for the job, but I have managed to make it work.  I almost never shoot video - maybe having taken a total of a dozen clips over the past year - so I can't really comment on the video functions.

Finally, other than the OM-D, I've only really used the Panasonic G1, GF2 and Sony DSC-H50 to any great extent, so I can't compare to other camera systems.

I don't feel like waxing poetic or being wordy just for the sake of filling space, so here are my random thoughts in bullet points in no particular order:

Things it's good at:

  • Autofocus with most lenses, especially the more recent ones by Panasonic and the Olympus kit lens, is wickedly fast. It's not horribly slow with the older Panasonic lenses like the first 14-45mm kit lens, the 45-200mm zoom, and the 45mm macro; there's a noticeable difference between these and the newer lenses, but for most purposes it's ok.
  • Dynamic range is far superior to the early Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras that I've used, namely the G1 and GF2. 
  • Burst mode at 9FPS is awesome! And you can repeatedly shoot multiple short bursts without choking the buffer.
  • It's nice to not have to worry *too much* when I take the camera out in a drizzle.
  • The OM-D handles poor lighting conditions pretty well with in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and a fast lens. I tend not to go over ISO 800, but by all accounts the files are pretty reasonable even if you go above that.
Areas where it falls short:
  • Continuous AF tracking is pretty poor, and that's being generous. 
  • The lack of a dedicated control for bracketing is very irritating. I've been in situations where I'm trying to bracket shots for an HDR landscape scene, and seen something that I want to shoot a series of un-bracketed shots. Digging through the menu to turn bracketing off in those cases has meant that I've missed several opportunities.
  • Not really an issue with the camera itself, but I've been disappointed with the lens it came with. The kit Olympus 12-50mm lens focuses quickly and has a very usable macro mode, but compared to my other lenses, it's horribly soft, especially in anything other than full bright daylight, and I'm always disappointed when I see the resulting images on my computer monitor. Despite the weather sealing and the fact it's my widest lens, I almost never use it now except when the sun is high in the sky. In situations where image quality matters, I'd rather use a plastic bag and use my other lenses with care in inclement weather, and do panoramic stitches in the case where I'm presented with a wide vista.
  • I still miss the full-articulated LCD from my Panasonic G1. The OM-D's flip LCD is fine for horizontal shots, but when used for low- or high-angle shots in a vertical orientation, it's no better than if it didn't flip at all.

Other observations:
  • The accessory port covers and rubber eyecup for the viewfinder are fiddly and small and easy to lose. I've lost them all, and now the weatherproofing is less effective and it's extremely uncomfortable to put the viewfinder up to my eye.
  • I still rarely use the touch-screen menu, preferring to use the physical controls wherever possible.
Tricks I've learned:
  • As I mentioned in my earlier post, I've configured the controls as much as possible to match those of the Panasonic G1. It's not perfect, but it reduced the learning curve for using this camera.
  • When I first started trying to take action photos, I kept missing focus since more often than not, the camera wanted to focus on the background. Changing to a single-point AF helps somewhat, but it still misses far too often for my liking. I've learned a number of strategies to deal with this: 
    1. For mountain biking, where the subject is typically moving towards me at a great speed, even the fast AF can't lock in time to get the subject in focus. One thing I do is pre-focus on the area that the cyclist will pass through, using some terrain feature like a tree or rock as reference. I then time it and hit the shutter just as the rider gets to my "zone". I still miss focus fairly often, but it's much better than the ~90% failure rate I experienced previously.
    2. For most of my best mountain biking shots, I positioned myself at a corner in the trail, where the cyclist changes direction from coming straight at me to traveling across my field of view, making focus speed less critical. This also has the added benefit of creating a more dynamic shot as the rider leans into the turn.
    3. In Ultimate, using a single point AF and focusing on the head or body of the player does help a bit. However, the smallest focus point is still larger than that of the Panasonic cameras, which still leads to occasionally focusing on the background. To deal with this, I lower the focus point and target the *feet* of the player. This way, the background (literally, the ground) and the subject are usually very, very close, and with the typical depth of field that is achieved, the whole player is in focus. 
In summary, I'm quite happy with my purchase, and I'd be interested in obtaining a second body so that I don't have to switch lenses in the heat of the action. I'm quite curious to try the Panasonic GH3, thinking that the larger body may match my largest lens (100-300mm Panasonic F4-5.6) a bit better, and the Panasonic GX7, with 1/8000s shutter speed and rotating EVF looks cool too. On the other hand, the recently-announced Olympus OM-D E-M1 sounds like it addresses many of the E-M5`s shortcomings as related to the way I use the camera.

Do you have an OM-D or other Micro Four Thirds camera? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review

This short write-up is an expansion and update of my review on for this camera, written on August 5, 2012.

Initial Thoughts

Original review.

My Panasonic G1 was showing its age and I was growing frustrated with its poor low-light performance and slow autofocus, plus I wanted a second body so I wouldn't have to switch lenses so often. I cross-shopped this against the Panasonic G3 and GH2; I recognize that the G3 is much less expensive (I could've almost gotten two bodies for the price of this one body + lens), and the GH2 is more comparable price-wise. When I played around with the G3 in a store, I discovered that I just didn't like how it felt, and I really missed the automatic EVF proximity sensor. I never did get an opportunity to actually hold a GH2, although I imagine I would have liked it a lot. At the end, what tipped the scales for me were:

  • weatherproofing, since I take my camera on hikes, canoe trips, and mountain bike rides, sometimes under less-than-ideal conditions
  • in-body image stabilization
  • capability to add an external battery holder
  • reportedly greater dynamic range
  • weatherproof kit lens that goes wider than the Panasonic zooms (12mm-50mm)

After having used the OM-D for a few weeks, I can say that I'm happy with the purchase. The IBIS is the real deal, low light/high ISO performance has to be seen to be believed, and the autofocus is wicked fast. The capability and level of sophistication of this camera makes my old G1 look positively primitive. My only real complaint is that I wish the OM-D was a Panasonic, at least from a user interface perspective. I've spent two years shooting with one camera exclusively and I know how to get to all the controls and change all the settings that matter to me without thinking about it. Trying the Olympus for the first time, I knew the learning curve for this camera was going to be a steep one when I discovered that the Olympus zoom works opposite to the Panasonic zooms. I know that the UI on the OM-D is extremely configurable and I've done what I can to match the controls to what I'm used to, but I was only able to go so far. What I miss the most is the fact that the drive mode is not immediately available (on the G1 a lever quickly moves you from single exposure to burst to bracket to timer) and enabling exposure bracketing in particular is buried a couple of menu levels down. I also find it odd that not every button can be assigned to every function. Olympus has seen fit to limit which functions some buttons can take, and to make some buttons not customizable at all (D-pad up and left arrows, in particular). The touch screen menu is pretty comprehensive, but it still doesn't have the bracketing function, and because it's a capacitive screen and can't be operated while wearing gloves, I haven't gotten into the habit of using it. I also miss the fully-articulated LCD of the Panasonic cameras.

From an image quality and functionality point of view, the OM-D is exactly what I was looking for. Now all I have to do is get used to the UI...

Long-term Experience

Coming soon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Asheville, North Carolina

I've been meaning to come to Asheville for years given its reputation as a mountain biking destination. Now that I've actually been there,  Asheville, North Carolina, is officially my favourite American city. It's obvious that it's a city that embraces active and healthy living, it's got a vibrant downtown, people are very friendly, and the mountain biking is insanely good. About the last two: Never have I been anywhere before where on seeing my bike, random people come up to me in supermarket parking lots with unsolicited advice on which trails to ride. I got this advice in the hostel and at bike shops, but that was to be expected. In a parking lot while putting away my groceries? Not so much. It was greatly appreciated though, and I think it speaks to the character of this mountain town. Of course mountain biking isn't absolutely everything there is to this place: in the downtown area there are art galleries, ample selection of cafes and restaurants serving locally sourced yummies, numerous brewpubs, and more massage therapists and yoga instructors per capita than I've seen outside of Ottawa's Westboro neighbourhood.

Now about that biking...  I rode here for three days, and barely scratched the surface of what area surrounding Asheville has to offer.

On day 1, I rode the Laurel Mountain loop in Pisgah National Forest. If your thing is epic rides, this is the place for you. Once you get on a trail, it's miles and miles and miles before you have to look at your map. You don't have to think about which turn to take (they are few and far between) only about climbing over the next rise, cleaning the stream crossing, walking up the crazy steep slope, hike-a-biking over the jagged rocks on the off-camber turn with serious exposure, spinning the pedals as you go up, up, up.... Do you see a theme here?  I'll admit, I was not prepared for the relentless and seemingly endless uphill. I should've clued in when the guy at the bike shop started describing the route: "Well, you climb for six miles..." There's nothing to compare to this in New Jersey and I suffered appropriately. And the payoff? Going *down*. Bouncing over rocks, dropping off ledges, railing (or walking!) insanely tight switchbacks, and then rolling out to a sweet, flowing singletrack descent. Of course, the gorgeous vistas and the mystery of riding through tunnels of mountain laurel only add to the experience.

Day 2 was a vastly different ride. Needing an easy day I hit the much milder DuPont State Forest. I was frankly quite disappointed with these trails. With rolling hills and a mix of wide singletrack and fire roads, it seemed that this trail system is well-suited for someone looking to put in miles without the heart-attack-inducing steeps of the Pisgah National Forest. This day was redeemed by the wicked BMX track fun of the  Ridgeline Trail, and by views of several waterfalls.

Day 3 in the Asheville environs was spent taking a bit longer at the waterfalls in DuPont State Park, this time with the actual intent of taking pictures. No mountain biking this day, but instead I focused on exploring the possibilities of multiple-exposure shots like panoramas and HDR. Looks like I have a lot to learn here...
Triple Falls
Triple Falls upper sections - panorama

Triple Falls - middle falls
Triple Falls middle section - HDR

On Day 4 I finally got around to heading to Bent Creek, just 15 minutes from downtown Asheville. Man, to have a wicked trail system like this so close and readily available is awesome! Apparently all the locals think so too, since prior to riding here I was asked again and again if I'd been here yet. And, more to the point, it is obviously busy and well-used, and the parking lot at the trailhead was full of bike-rack-bearing vehicles shortly after noon on a Wednesday afternoon. Once I was out on the trails, I could see the reason for its popularity. Not technically challenging by any means, the trails are a cross-country rider's dream, all full of ups and downs and flow and general fun. Best of all, it featured a kick-ass, white-knuckle, whoopin' and hollerin', grin-inducing downhill, the likes of which I have not experienced since leaving BC. With jumps, bermed corners, and just enough obstacles to keep things interesting, I had a great old time going down this rollercoaster of a trail. (Note: I'd *love* to take a 1st person video coming down this thing. If someone wants to get me a GoPro Hero 3 or Contour 2+ or something along those lines for Christmas, I'd be a very happy camper!)

As I said earlier, I just barely scratched the surface of what Asheville has to offer. Will I be back? Oh yes!
Bent Creek parking lot shortly after noon on a Wednesday in late November

Monday, November 19, 2012

White Clay Creek State Park - Check!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'd been meaning to check out White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware. Well, I finally made it. What a blast! The trails are fun, fast, and flowy, and there's even a few surprises. With very little in the way of obstacles and elevation change, this would be an ideal park to ride a singlespeed cross-country rocket. No derailleurs, no slapping chain, no shock squishiness... Sadly, today I had to make do with my Blur LT, a somewhat long-legged trail bike that was serious overkill for the terrain, and on my first trip up, I was on my crippled Giant Anthem with its rear shock so far gone the bottom bracket was practically scraping the ground. Yes, that's right, I've been there twice, two Sundays in a row. Despite the drive (it's about a two hour trip one way), I was entertained enough the first time around that I immediately made plans for a return. I'm so glad I did! On my first go-around I missed the southern portion of the trail system, so that's where I dove right in today.

Straight out of the parking lot is  a long, flowy (you're gonna hear that word a lot), nearly pedal-free, singletrack decent. Wheee! Then a bit of a climb, then a whole series of log piles, like someone had left their firewood to season in the middle of the trail. Fun! Then a decision, left down Snow Goose, or right on Mountain Goat. Mountain Goat looks like it's a little less-traveled, might be interesting. Rounding a corner I realize that the trail is aptly named as it hugs an almost-sheer drop around the bend. The exposure is not anywhere near as bad or consequential as in Colorado or around Moab, but you definitely notice it. Dropping (litterally - the trail is near-vertical) down into a ditch and soaring up the other side brings me to another decision point. This time the trail called "Corkscrew" beckons me forward. I figured with a name like that it's got to have the goods, and yup, it delivers them in a whoop-de-do-filled package. Down, up, turn, down, up, turn, lather, rinse, repeat... Like a half-pipe for cross-country bikes, going weightless at the apex of each turn. Wheeee!!!! (If you've ever ridden the Sidewinder or Tap-and-Die trails in Vermont's Kingdom Trails, or the bottom of the Mount 7 trail in Golden, BC, you'll know what I'm talking about.) Well, *that* was unexpected. More flowing singletrack goodness brings me back to the car, where, after a bite and putting on another layer (it's getting cold!) I'm off to explore new trails, but return to Mountain Goat and Corkscrew to finish off the day on a high.

The trails in this area are extremely well-built and -maintained, and traverse scenic valleys and fields, and offer lots of views of beautiful bubbling brooks. It could very well be that autumn brings out the best out of these trails, but more than a few times I stopped to just soak in the scenery. Or maybe 6 weeks of minimal riding took its toll on my cardio and I just needed extra breaks.  ;)

Unfortunately I have no pics of this adventure. I brought my camera on my 1st trip and carried it for several miles in my backpack. I saw an opportunity, took it out for a quick snap... "No Card" blinking on the LCD. Crap. On my second ride I made a conscious decision not to bring the camera. I just wanted to ride! You're just gonna have to use your imagination for this one.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Updated Trails List

I've just finished a four-day run of mountain biking. That's more riding than I've done in a long, long, time, and I can't even remember the last time I did that many days in a row. Mind you, day three almost doesn't count: daytime temperature in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania was 41 degrees Celsius, so after an hour of riding, I just said, "screw this!" and went to the bar. Much cooler there, what with the air conditioning and a pint of wheat beer.

Today's ride on a new-to-me set of trails in the Western side of Allamuchy Mountain State Park in Northern New Jersey, which was on top of rides around Raystown Lake and Rothrock State Forest in Pennsylvania, got me to thinking about where I've been on my bike. Just out of curiosity I tried to remember all the places I've gone mountain biking and put them down on my trails list. I actually surprised myself with the length of the list! Despite all I've ridden, I've definitely got more on my to-do list: White Clay Creek, Delaware; Bend, Oregon; Crested Butte, Colorado...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Clik Elite Compact Backpack Review

I reviewed the Clik Elite CE706GR Compact Backpack on Here's the review, edited slightly.

I desperately needed a daypack that could hold a hydration pack and yet would leave my camera with lenses readily accessible. The Click Elite Backpacks seemed to fit the bill: rugged camera backpacks with a sleeve sized to fit a 3L hydration bladder. I have a smaller camera system (Panasonic G1, lenses: 14-45mm, 45-200mm, 45mm prime) and prefer to travel light so I thought that the smaller backpack would work well

- comfortable, carries the weight of a camera, 2L of water, snacks, and a small tripod well
- seems bombproof, except for the pulls and toggles for the elastic straps
- appears to have space for a camera body with lens and two spare lenses

- it's possible to fit a 3L Camelbak bladder with up to 2L of water, but when it's full with 3L of water it's a pain to get it into the sleeve
- it's not *practically* possible to fit my camera with a lens mounted, plus my two extra lenses in the camera compartment. With two lenses in the lens holders, there's no room for the mounted lens when I insert my camera body. I now have to choose which glass to bring with me on my hikes, and I've cursed a couple of times when I had a perfect shot for the lens that I didn't have with me.
- the camera compartment zippers get stuck when opening and closing the compartment. It seems like the turn radius at the corners of the compartment is too tight for this size of zipper
- external pocket & elastic strap not practical - would've been more useful with a larger-volume pouch. The pull for the elastic strap came off when I tried to "encourage" it to hold a light jacket in place.

Field notes:
I went hiking near Port Hardy, BC, on a very rainy day. Found out to my dismay that the rain cover couldn't accommodate my tripod, which was in the tripod holder. I also found out that the cover wouldn't stay put - it would become dislodged at the slightest provocation. I really wanted to like this pack since it got rave reviews in other places, but it's barely functional for me. I'll keep it until I can find a suitable replacement but there doesn't seem to be much else out there...

2/5 stars.