Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

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Olympus PEN-f: In-camera JPEG vs Processed RAW

As you’ll know if you follow my blog, I recently switched from the Fujifilm X series to the Olympus 3/rd system, moving from the XT-2 to the PEN-F.

The Fujifilm system is renowned for the quality of its in camera Jpegs, and I have written on the subject in relation to social media client use, and to using the ACROS setting in my blog. So, logically, I wanted to see if the jpeg output from the Olympus PEN-F would be as good. In order to do this, I shot a whole day on the Mono 1 setting for my Superfine Jpegs (its a hidden menu option, more on that here), but also saving the raw files. I then processed the Raw images in Adobe Lightroom (LR) as this is the most common development program.

My Mono 1 settings are for +1 contrast and +1 sharpness, with added fine grain because I like the film effects, as you’ll know from my ACROS usage on the XT-2. Raw files were processed to add +30 up to +50 sharpness, and to change the profile to Camera Mono so that they would end up, in theory, as similar to the Superfine jpeg in tone etc. I wanted to see how much is lost with the in-camera process to jpeg compared with the, probably superior, LR process of the raw file. The results are quite interesting:

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Processed Raw (highlights pulled back by -50)

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In-camera jpeg
This is the most telling shot of all and the one I looked at first on my Mac. It was this pictures that made me decided to process the raws to monochrome and to provide this series of comparison images. As you can see, I was able to recover the blown highlights on the back of the white pony from the RAW, but the jpeg continues to look slightly ‘sharper’. This may be raised mid-tones, increased sharpening, I am not sure at this stage, but the result is definitely interesting and supports the use of Raw in many situations.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With this shot, I could again pull back the highlights of the image generally, which would suggest that I considered shooting with some negative exposure compensation or reduced the set construct amount from my +1 setting back to 0. In Raw processing I was also able to add a false graduated filter to the sky to increase significantly the cloud detail in the sky to create a more balanced image. This would suggest that I should have used a ND Graduated filter at the time of shooting, if I wanted to use the Jpeg. Adding a false filter in LR afterwards wasn’t an option as it increased the noise in the image and made the grain more noticeable in the sky than the rest of the image in an unpleasant way.

Again, the Raw image wins for post production abilities as we would expect. But importantly it also shows us what could have been achieved in-camera with a little more thought perhaps at the time, and using the correct filtration.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With this image, taken from the same spot, there is very little to notice between them at all. I have corrected the verticals in the Processed image but not in the jpeg and I did this so I could easily tell them apart once posted into this blog and I could no longer see the filenames. That is a reflection on how close they are. If anything, I prefer the in-camera jpeg on this occasion, and would correct the verticals for use. I think it appears slightly sharper and there is more detail in the sky.  It is strange, because although they were taken just minutes apart and from the same place, the sky recovery from the previous shot was better in the raw image processing and the in-camer jpeg would not have been my choice.

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In-camera jpeg (15.4MB)

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Processed Raw (unprocessed 20.2MB)
With these too I am really struggling to tell them apart. I think the jpeg looks somewhat ‘cleaner’ which makes it look a little sharper. As a side point, I have put the file sizes in brackets as part of the captions. Bare in mind that the original raw, unprocessed, would be colour so we would expect it to be higher due to holding the additional colour information. The superfine jpeg is still a decently sized file, and all of these files from the shoot ranged from 13.6MB – 15.5MB straight from camera. The raw files ranged from 17.7MB – 20.2MB in size. Both are more than adequate to produce some very high quality printed images.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With these two final images I am again struggling with which is which and if there is a difference, albeit minuscule, I would say I have a preference for the jpeg because, again, it strikes me as a ‘cleaner’ image. The camera is definitely doing something to increase the clarity, in my opinion. To test this, I tried raising the contrast slider by +30 in LR, and this appears to confirm my theory and I then really can’t tell the difference. I would assume this comes from my having added a ‘red’ filter to the creative control on the mono setting at this point in the shoot. I had forgotten about that until I checked the camera!

It would appear to get the very best out the jpegs, don’t use the plus or minus contrast setting as this is too clumsy, but use the colour defined filtration options in the customisation of the art settings. This was one of the attractions of the Olympus system, the ability to add ‘filters’ in-camera. If the raw file is saved alongside the jpeg you can always then change the whole image or effect later.

For the creative black and white shooter, the Olympus system offers a real opportunity to create substantially large and good quality jpegs in the camera at the time of shooting. This reduces the amount of time that anyone would need to spend on their computer and so give them more time to create new images out in the real world – ie. time with their camera being a photographer rather than in the office or studio glued to a monitor.

Shooting raw at the same does enable you to have a back-up, either for when you were trying to work quickly in the field and didn’t quite get it right (such as not using ND grads etc), and it gives you the options of changing your mind and not having the art settings at all and producing a completely different image. The choice is really up to the photographer and what they want their images to say, coupled with how they like to work. Memory is cheap – shoot both.

Generally with the exception of the image of the ponies where the highlights were blown out, I preferred the result of the in-camera jpeg and will therefore remember to use my grad’ filters more often. But, shooting both means if I’m rushed, it doesn’t really matter.

Photographing a quarry rehabilitation in Suffolk

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View from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/220sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Between 1968 and 2000, over 3.5million tonnes of sand and gravel were extracted from a site just 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, an act which could have been devastating to the landscape and wildlife. But, since the mid-1980s the commercial site management worked with the local Wildlife Trust in a unique partnership which was ahead of its time, not to restore the habitat, but to actually rehabilitate and enhance it.

When the last pit closed in 2000, part of the rehabilitated site was already so significant that it had already become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The whole site was donated to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust by CEMEX in the same year, and they have continued to expand and develop the site, with the aid of a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and legacy gifts, creating a marvellous network of hides and paths within what is now the 128-hectare Lackford Lakes reserve.

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Male Banded Demoiselle; one of only two species of colourful damselfly species in the UK they are seen from May-Aug  (Calopteryx splendens) – Canon SX700HS, 135mm, 1/250sec@f6.9, ISO250 (auto ISO, Tv priority)

As part of the SSSI designation, 105.85ha were seen as ‘favourable’ with eight individual units, including the sailing lake. The notable features being the aggregations of non-breeding birds, assemblages of breeding birds, the outstanding dragonfly assemblage for which it is rightly famous, and for the supported variety of birds, which encourage the photographers and birders from far and wide. In fact, there are now many more photographers than birders at Lackford, as evidenced in the hides to the sounds of machine-gunning shutter fire (a small distraction).

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View from Bernard’s Hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF16-55mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/160sec@f11, ISO200 (AP)

Whilst specialist telephoto lenses are de rigour in the hides, it is actually possible to get some great shots with the minimum of equipment, so the keen amateur naturalists should not be discouraged. All the shots in this blog entry were taken either with the Fujifilm XT-2 and 16-55/2.8 lens, the Canon PowerShot SX700HS compact, or even my iPhone! I have included the settings in the captions for your reference.

Obviously, as you can see from the photos, I was blessed with extraordinary bright light which added use of fast shutter speeds to capture insets and birds whilst maintaining a lower ISO and without compromising on the depth of field. The downside of this was the high levels of contrast and the danger of bleaching out the lightest areas on occasion, and even shooting with the compact set to -1/2 stop wasn’t enough to save some of the images, sadly.

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Another view from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/240sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Although I had gone with the view to a relaxing birding morning out, I was able to get some good scene setting shots with the Fujifilm combination, but also, due to the excellent placing of the hides close to the wildlife, some good close-up shots of the birds behaviour also. Being able to extend my birding visit to include some photography also meant I ended up being one of the first cars on-site and one of the few still remaining when the visitor centre closed at the end of the day.

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Geese feeding by Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/550sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority) – image cropped from 6000×4000 to 5281×2721

Even with the short lens on the Fuji, I was even able to get some decent close shots of the geese which were feeding just outside of Steggall’s Hide, which also provides a shelter for the sheep which graze this area.

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Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@30mm, 1/320sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:

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Fuji @ 34mm – 1/200sec@f5.6/ISO200
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Ash Carr (Fuji @ 16mm – 1/80@f11/ISO200)

 

The reserve is certainly one of the best ones I have experienced for close-up views, and has reasonable visitor facilities which would only be improved by adding some lunch options to the small cafe menu (cake and drinks is nice but not enough for the all-day birder).

I did try some photography of birds and insects with the Canon, and whilst the results were very good when the images were in focus, it was very difficult to get reliable shots of anything that didn’t remain quite stationery. This was mainly due to the appalling slow focusing abilities, and the macro setting was completely ineffective.

I would certainly recommend using an DSLR over a compact, but I would not be discouraged from attempting photography with a good compact or bridge camera, just be prepared for a good few out of focus shots or shots focussed on the background rather than the subject. With digital this isn’t a problem as you can fill a memory card at no cost other than your editing time, but with film this could be a more costly issue.

My longest lens with the Fuji for this trip was just 55mm (82mm in 35mm equivalent), which was certainly long enough to get some good shots, but they would include a reasonable about of background. Of course, contextual shots are actually very interesting, often more so than just frame filling portraits. I think you’d easily get away with a medium telephoto from many of the hides, unlike many RSPB reserves which demand 400-600mm+ for anything decent.

LackfordLakesMap

The layout of the reserve is also fairly accessible, with ramped access wherever possible, and fairly even surfaced paths, although some could be heavy going for those pushing wheelchairs and I could easily see this becoming even more difficult in wetter conditions. Suffolk of course is a very dry county with a chalk based soil so it maintains good stability longer than most.

The sailing lake shares the access road, which is bumpy and potholed, but the sailing does not seem to disturb the birds half as much as the driving of the sailing lakes users might scare visitors. The Slough is generally very quiet with most photographers in the Double Decker trying to get shots of the elusive Kingfishers for which Lackford has become, rightly, famous. Personally, on my previous annual visits, I have only ever seen a Kingfisher from the remoter Steggall’s hide (twice) but I was informed a pair were nesting right outside the visitor centre. This had evidently afforded some reliable views with the benefit of a cup of tea!

You’ll struggle to get a mobile signal throughout, although it is intermittently available as attested by the sudden maddening beeping as it catches up with your emails and messages at various spots. If required, if you really can’t leave it alone, Bess’s Hide is the best place to be (or it is if you’re on EE anyway).

No dogs are allowed on-site.

The terrain is a mixture of wooded areas, reed beds, lakes, and meadows, bordered by a neatly scalped golf course, a road, and the river Lark. In late summer it is still possible to get good numbers of birds, so it is a good place for the birder as well as the photographer, however it is the damselflies and dragonflies which astound in summer. There are also some larger mammals, aside from the semi-resident sheep, in the form of grey squirrels and, spotted from Steggall’s, even a fox.

If you are sitting in Steggall’s minding your own business before being interrupted by monstrous knocking noises do not be alarmed. The semi-resident sheep use it as a shelter and are under the floor! They are a horned variety, with a bit of an attitude, and they like to let you know it.

My list for the first hour was impressive, and over the course of the day ended with 32 species seen with good views. Many more were heard or glimpsed.

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Snap of my list after one-hour (iPhone 6s)

Canada Geese
Egyptian Geese
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Grey Heron
Coot
Lapwing
Greylag Geese
Tufted Duck
Cormorants
Black Headed Gull
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Moorhen
Pochard
Crow
Buzzard
Common Tern
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Blackbird
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Coal Tit
Marsh Tit
Green woodpecker
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Little Grebe
Magpie (in the car park)
Goldfinch
Tree Sparrow
Common Whitethroat (female)

I would imagine a more experienced birder would come away with far more, as would locals who could learn the likely locations and calls of their own patch more than the visitor would.

I was delighted to see that there was less ‘cock-waggling’ (one-up-man-ship over photographic/birding kit) as we say in my home parts, especially than at many reserves (Aberdeenshire I am looking at you…), and also that birders and photographers were happy to talk and aid species identification with each other. It was also very good to see that you could hire binoculars and this, coupled with the friendliness of natives, meant that new visitors could share the experience without the usual feelings of being intimated by all the ‘gear’.

Lackford Lakes is a reserve close to my heart, because I grew up just a few miles up the road, and when it was an active quarry. It was on my cycle route on a Sunday with my Dad quite frequently, and I wonder what he would make of it now (sadly, he had several years of ill health before he passed away in 2006, which meant he missed a lot of the really impressive redevelopment and expansion that has occurred).

As a year round reserve it is bringing people from the neighbouring conurbation’s back in touch with nature and providing a sanctuary that is visited by people on their way home from work, as well as providing a home for nature of course just outside of a very large market town. Power to thy elbow Suffolk Wildlife Trust, power indeed.

 

Troup Head; Bird Photography with a standard lens

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6000×4000 pixel original, cropped to 3362×2241

The proscribed wisdom is that you have to have long telephoto lenses in order to take part in wildlife photography. You don’t.

Now we have that simple statement out of the way we can look at the reasoning behind it. The image above was shot with a Fujifilm XT-2 and Fujifilm XF16-55/2.8 LM WR lens at 55mm (1/500sec @ f5.6). Using field-craft, a much under-rated skill in the land of the long telephoto, and by carefully studying the subject and the location, it is possible to get close enough to many species without the need for a telephoto lens.

The image above has been cropped from the 6000x4000pixel image to 3362×2241 pixels, which at 300dpi would enable a 10x8inch photographic print (11″x7.5″ as cropped). This is fine for most uses, and if viewed on electronic media such as an iPad screen, this image is still beautifully detailed.

The obvious additional advantage of the standard lens is the ability to also capture contextual shots such as these:

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Uncropped, shot at 55mm/f8
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Uncropped, shot at 42.7mm (composed as required)

As you can see from all these images shot with the 16-55 standard zoom lens, in this instance it was possible to obtain all the shots required without using a telephoto at all. Obviously, these birds are not generally regarded as dangerous although the unprotected cliff edges most certainly are, and I would not necessarily recommend using a standard lens to get really close to something like a panther, but it does illustrate that even with the beginners set up of body and standard zoom it is amazing the results you can get if you are prepared to do your homework.