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.
The whole point of going to a mirrorless camera, for most people, is to reduce the weight and bulk of their camera, and lenses. Having moved from Nikon to Fujifilm I thought I had done just that, but was it enough? I thought so, until I bought a f2.8 pro’ grade lens for the Fuji, and then I wondered why I had bothered. Yesterday I met the Olympus PEN-F – smaller, lighter, and with relatively inexpensive lenses. Would I be convinced enough to change my whole system again? Let’s see…
Let me give you some facts to consider, based, solely, on my own photographic experience; firstly, when I started in digital photography back in…ahem…1995, we had a Kodak DCS camera in the studio at work. It boasted all of 1.5MP and had a 2.6x crop sensor. This is compared to the standard, 35mm film camera, by which are still comparing our camera and talking about relative sizes to this day. If you want to skip this bit, and I admit its longer than I planned, then scroll on down until you get to the subheading – MY FIRST OUTINGbelow
I used that camera both in the studio and on location, and we were only the 9th fully digital commercial studio in the UK. The reason we were the 9th was simple; a decent digital camera would cost about the same money as a two-bedroom terraced house! I am not joking – £34,000 for the 6MP version, which would quite literally at that time, have bought you my house.
Why am I telling you this? Because we printed our brochures with photos ranging in size from a just couple of inches across right up to A3 equivalent double page spreads, and we did so with images from this camera. Yes, 1.5MP source image was printed to an A3 double page spread, on a commercial press. This is important because whilst I admit the images were nowhere near as good as scanned 35mm transparency film, and I was more used to 5″x6″ positive film, we were doing it in 1995.
So for me, the great megapixel race has never been of interest. I also think it was over around the 16MP mark to be honest, but there you go.
This is relevant because I now have more megapixels in my phone and I (almost) never print those images. I also have a tiny sensor driven Nikon P900, as you’ll see from other posts, and I am more than happy to print the images from that at A4. I also sell them via a stock agency. Yes, little bitty sensor generated files are accepted, if they are good enough, by quite a lot of places contrary to what the full frame fans will try to have you believe. It is also relevant because I used to be a full frame fan – I had a Nikon D700 full frame 35mm equivalent digital camera, and to be honest, the images from the second body 1.5x crop sensor Nikon D200 frequently outsold it. Sure, the D200 wasn’t a quick, wasn’t as good in the dark, but if you worked within the known constraints the images were fine and frequently got printed to canvasses over 4ft wide. I think the CCD was far superior for image quality than the ‘MOS sensors but like Betamax and VHS it was commonality not quality that won the war.
What has this to do with the Olympus Pen-F? Well in order to get smaller bodies, and smaller (and cheaper) lenses, as well as smaller and lighter cameras, the sensor really has to be smaller. I am odd in the photographic world because I have gone from 5×4″ film, to 6×6 film, to full frame digital, to APS-C , and then to Micro 4/3rds. Most people go in the opposite direction, but maybe without the film.
The Nikon D700 was a 12.1MP camera and the body weighed in at 995g. I used it with a 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 lens, which weighed 900g and 1,430g respectively. That means, aside from accessories, I was carrying 3,325g or 3.32kg of just bodies and glass. This is why I have two trapped nerves, one in my neck and one between my shoulders. As well as carrying this, I was often shooting with a second body (the D200, 10MP by the way).
Due to my original neck issue, I then played around with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, but went back to Nikon because it wasn’t doing what I wanted, and got an APS-C sensored D7200. At the time the focussing was too vague and often s..l..o..w.. and the lens choices were far too limited. After doing myself no good carrying the weight again, I then went back to Fuji for the XT-1. By this point there were many more lenses, although still only offered by Fujifilm and Samyang. Exceptional though all those lenses are, you are still very limited compared to Nikon/Canon. Eventually after a number of false starts with some primes, that I nearly dropped in the soup a few times, I ended up with the Fuji XT-2 and the Fuji XF16-55/f2.8 lens. I do not like to miss shots changing lenses, or try to find places to put things down in the, generally, muddy environments I often work.
My quest to reduce weight had now only been partially successful – I now had a body which weighed 507g and a lens which weighed 655g. Yes, that is correct, the lens weighed more than body and two totalled 1,162g or 1.162kg. It was also not that much smaller than my mirrored DSLR body and favourite lens combinations had been. Most of this was down to that lens. Gorgeous thing that it is, and image quality to die for, it is big and heavy. I also wanted more lenses but simply could’t afford them. I analysed my shots and found I shoot a lot of image as wide as I can with the 16mm end. I would like wider, and I would like longer. I don’t actually shoot much in the middle funnily enough.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not going to dissuade anyone from buying into the Fujifilm system. It is a professional workhorse system with very professional quality images. I have, quite honestly, never seen images bettered by any other camera I have used. I have sold countless images from the XT-2 and the XT-1 before it, but these were images that were shot when I could be arsed to carry it, and there is the nub of the problem. Most of the time I just couldn’t be arsed. I didn’t want it around my neck, because frankly it hurts, and if it went into my bag then it very often stayed there. Putting all the stuff down to get out the camera would often mean I had missed the shot anyway, and after 10miles I rarely had the energy left to try. I love walking, but I do not like walking when everything hurts and you fear putting down your bag because you know you don’t want to pick it up again.
Here is my kit in a rare moment on the Isle of Skye. I haven’t stopped to take photos, I’ve stopped for lunch. I did take some photos, as you’ll see from my previous blog entry, but I feel I have become someone who is shooting out of necessity, for documentary, and not because it is actually ‘fun’ anymore. I miss the fun. I want to feel inspired and to try things again.
That Gitzo tripod is super wonderful too – and it weighs in at just under 3kg. It was overkill for the camera really, but I like stability in high wind, especially when on cliff/mountain tops. That rucksack, required for all the kit, accessories, waterproofs, lunch etc, also weighs 3kg (empty).
I worked it out that on an average days hillwalking and shooting, I would be carrying at least 18kg, and I just stopped wanting to do it. I wasn’t enjoying being out and worse still I wasn’t enjoying my photography or feeling creatively inspired and that is the crux of the matter.
When I first moved from the Nikon gear to mirrorless I went with the Fujifilm system based on image quality alone. At the end of the day a camera is a tool for taking great images, and to me, hopefully selling them.
At the time of my change over from the Nikon, I did look at the Olympus OM-D system. I had loved Olympus’ film cameras from the OM range. I had several and I really coveted the OM4Ti, although I could never afford one. Sadly by the time I could Olympus appeared to be on their uppers, they had stopped making the OM series, and so I moved to Nikon.
When I moved from Nikon to Fujifilm, as I said, I did look at the OM-D range but I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the feel of the OM-D cameras in the hand, they were actually just a bit too small. In spite of what a lot of people claim, I wasn’t convinced by the build of the original OM-D cameras, they felt, well…cheap.
Funnily enough, the PEN-F, despite being a rangefinder style actually feels more substantial than the OM-D bodies I have looked at, even though it (probably) isn’t. It is also gorgeous to look at, OM4Ti gorgeous, and its really REALLY well made. I actually have more confidence in the build of the PEN-F than I did the XT-2. I guess its those machined dials. I know I said they are tools, but ask a mechanic if he wants a spanner from Snap-on or B&Q. If you enjoy using your camera, you will use it more. Like anything I guess.
So, let us also look again at that weight again – the PEN-F body is 427g, saving me just 80g on the Fuji XT-2. Not worth it really, given I would lose a fairly big lump of money from my investment changing systems. But, here is the real difference. You see that lens? Well that baby weighs just 155g. The Olympus 4/3rd is a 2x crop sensor, so a 9-18mm is an 18-36mm equivalent. The Fuji X series has a 1.5x crop factor so the 10-24mm, Fuji’s nearest equivalent, is a 15-36mm. The Fuji weighs 410g. So now I have saved 80g on the body and 255g on the lens, a total of 335g. But it gets better still when you look at the other lenses I might need – because I don’t really need a f2.8 with the excellent image stabilisation offered by the PEN-F body, I went for the kit option with the 14-45 lens to replace my Fuji 16-55 coverage. This means I am now comparing 93g to 655g, saving, well, you do the math and you can see where this is leading.
Because I’ve also reduced the lens sizes and weights, I also don’t need a heavy weight tripod, so bye bye Gitzo to be replaced by a MeFoto (bargain used) and my tripod, and head, has now gone from just shy of 3kg to 1.6kg. My filters are smaller too. In fact, everything, aside from the bag is smaller and lighter. Now before everyone says I’m comparing a Ford Focus ST to a bog standard 1.2 version, yes, I get your point, but they both get me from A to B. This is only my comparison and my decision, based on what I have owned and what I own now, for my type of photography, need. I do not expect everyone to agree, but you read this far so want to see what I did, why, and importantly if it works, for me. It may not well work for you because I don’t know you or what you need for your photography.
Anyway, that is the reasoning behind going to the PEN-F and it took a lot longer to get here than I planned, but what follows is my very first outing and my first impressions. I should say that I tried a demo PEN-F first, thanks to Ffordes Photographic Ltd of Beauly, where I have shopped since before they were even in Scotland!
Anyway, enjoy the photos.
MY FIRST OUTING
I confess that the PEN-F is, as the advertising says, a beast. So also is the full manual, the menu system, and all the options. For the first time, ever, I actually had to read all of it, before I could attempt to take a variety of images and understand what it (and I) was doing. I was still reading it at 3am this morning!
So, I traded in my Fujifilm kit based on the demo one, yesterday and I took the PEN-F for a walk this morning. I went local, to the coastal/dune/woodland path parking in Lossiemouth. To be realistic for the future explorations and longer walks, I went with all my landscape kit, plus the Nikon P900 for any chance wildlife encounters, and also took my new used MeFoto tripod. These are the shots from this morning and my comments on them:
I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority because that is what I use most, and I left it there the whole walk. Normally I would use this and Manual for almost all shoots. I also started with the infamous front mode knob set to the I setting and left the menu settings for the colours for this in default. This was the first shot of the morning –
I stumbled across this wonderful use for something long since dumped. The colours in the sky and the heather are rendered accurately and the tones were good enough on the in-camera jpeg I didn’t require the RAW image. I shot both Raw and Fine Jpegs throughout, as I wanted to experiment with the modes, filters, and effects, but I also wanted the ‘negatives’ too if you get what I mean (film pun).
I decided to get a little closer to the subject, physically, and this in-camera jpeg initially came out a little too light so I have increased the contrast, reduced the highlights very slightly, and increased the vibrance very slightly in Lightroom (to the jpeg). All alterations were under 10%. I am pleased with the result, remembering this is the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body only. The detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I could have improved the in-camera processing when taking the image by using the plentiful adjustments that are available, but it was very difficult to see the screen in the bright sun. People often ask why I sometimes take an umbrella when it’s sunny – it’s because it helps you see the screen, although you do look an idiot using it. (Try it, somewhere quiet…)
I took a few shots wandering around, and in both portrait and landscape orientation, and at a variety of lens lengths, all on the kit lens, before I had a look at concentrating on the heather.
I had read on several reviews and forums that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd systems and so f8 becomes more like f11 or something along those lines. With that in mind, and knowing the reported sweet spot of the lens, I tended to stick around f5.6 as with this shot of the heather, and sadly it didn’t end up with the depth I thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now to get it. I also think this heather is a little too pink rather than purple and would adjust this from the raw file if the shot was worth keeping. I put this up unaltered to show you the straight from camera shot.
Having used the normal shot settings I decided to play with some of the Art filters that come from using the now famous knob on the front the camera. This is Pin Hole III and I liked the colours of that one for the situation, and with the colours around me, although it does move the heather to the pinker tones again.
Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, obviously, where these settings are used here, these are all out of camera jpegs without any Lightroom alteration unless specified. I had set the Mono one set-up to give me the maximum grain, and at the time of shooting, I adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce was would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polariser on this bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I do find the grain a bit too much. I have now set my mono up with +1 contrast, +1 sharpness, and the lowest added grain setting instead. I look forward to seeing the difference.
I really like option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction, in the Olympus system. This was actually a huge selling point for me because although I don’t do a lot of long exposures now, because they are a bit too common and almost a cliche, I imagine it will save a lot of effort. I like the idea of being able to see what you get with the Live Time mode, and stop a Bulb exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure, and then to physically time it, in the field, is hard work. Often it is frankly a bit “hit and miss”, and so to cover all bases you shoot several images with slightly different durations. You can’t see what you’ve really got then until you get home. Knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following, and also something that would only be available on screen or with an EVF. You simply couldn’t do it with the viewfinder on a DSLR because you aren’t looking at what the sensor is actually doing.
I imagine it is the same set-up, within the camera’s programming, that also enables you to see the difference that filters would make at the time of shooting on the screen also. I look forward to seeing how it works, especially with ND grads and polarisers. You do have to play in the menu though, as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. I turned this off, and now it is set to show me what I am actually getting, which to my mind should really be the default setting on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.
At this point in the walk I moved to the 9-18mm wide angle lens for the remainder of the walk.
I like monochrome work, I specialised in it as a wedding photographer, so I will be experimenting with these settings quite a lot. I really like that you can personalise all the settings, save a number of options, and manipulate the art/colour filters for each individual shot if required. Love that Olympus, really love that a lot. It goes with my way of working and getting it right ‘in-camera’. I want to spend my time taking photos, not working on my Mac. So, I guess it was worth reading the manual…
I was warned online that there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras because they put so much in, option wise. I don’t want them to change it, but I imagine it scares the hell out of novices who probably don’t get to see or use half of what the cameras are capable of. For someone with 30 years as a photographer, many of those as a professional, and 20 years digitally, I did not expect to have to read the manual hardly at all. I would say, that aside from looking a few things up, I didn’t read the manual for the Fujifilm cameras and certainly not for my Nikons. If I hadn’t have customised the PEN-F I feel I would have been frustrated with it, and disappointed with the operation and the results. It was worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort. Of course, you have four saveable Custom options which could reduce work in the future, and some settings will now stay as they are.
One thing that does concern me though: I did my custom settings to the main menus, then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed, and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t, so I had to troll through all the menus and do it again. It may be that normal menu settings don’t save unless specified as the Custom options on the dial, but I hope not. I don’t want to sacrifice C1 (Aperture Priority with my settings) and C2 (Manual with my settings) for my normal operations.
I also don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera. On more than two occasions with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download corrupted at some point. As the file is then being saved onto a card, which is then installed into the camera, it didn’t compromise the camera by failing part way through. If the file was corrupt, the camera simply didn’t accept it, and the update procedure was cancelled without loss. I have a nasty fear that if the download is direct to the camera via the app, and it corrupts, I may be stuck with a camera that effectively has no functioning operating system installed! This may be unjustified, and it may be recoverable in the event, but it is scary. Anyway, back to the images…
Neither of the two lenses I purchased, the 9-18mm or the 14-45mm are macro lenses. But this is what you can with the 9-18mm, which happened t be on the camera at the time:
Again, I was expecting slightly more depth of field, based on what I had read, and so I apologise for the out of focus forward mushrooms in the shot. I will know in future I need to set a smaller aperture value for these types of images. This was shot with Color mode II on the front knob and has been cropped very slightly in Lightroom. The uncropped version is below:
Please remember all these images are resized to a maximum of 2000pixels on the longest edge and are therefore NOT displaying at full size. So, if you’re impressed, imagine what the full size ones look like! I don’t often pixel peep but I couldn’t resist with a new camera and I was impressed.
If anyone wants the full size images please let me know and I will add them as linked attachments. I don’t do this routinely as it can make the site slow to load, and it’s time consuming for me.
I was really enjoying getting up close and personal again with such a wide angle lens. Something I had enjoyed with the Tokina lens I had on my Nikon. This image is cropped to emphasise the flowers nearest the camera and the vignette (lost when cropped from the original art filter – Pinhole III again) was then added back in Lightroom.
The PEN-F is so much fun to use that I found myself doing more experimental shots than I would previously have taken. I got into the mud for this one and the thing sticking up is really only around 10″ tall. I like the gunky face which I only actually spotted on the monitor back home. This could have suited the Diorama setting more than the Pinhole and I wish I had done a shot in both modes. I was however very pleased with the reflections.
My biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F is – what a lot of fun photography is, again. As I said in the first section, if you were with me, the Fuji X series provide an excellent workhorse for capturing a vision you have already, but the PEN-F whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visialise things and try experimenting more. It is a workhorse capable professional camera, with added fun.
These are, bar far, not the greatest photos I have ever taken, but in total I was out for just over 2hours and I shot 38 images. This is pretty much what would have been a roll of film, and a traditional quick test for a new camera. I enjoyed the short trip and I would have been out longer if it hadn’t not only rained, but also lost the nice clouds decent light. I can work with and in this, but I didn’t want to. It was nearly lunchtime and the forecast wasn’t showing it improving. I feel that I still need to finish reading the manual to fully get to all the features and options of the PEN-F, so I was happy to come back in.
On location – a lot nicer to carry!
My bag with PEN-F shot with the P900
My bag with P900 shot with the PEN-F
My bag was more of a pleasure to carry, and you can see my basic set up for this trip was somewhat lost in that expanse of Lowepro loveliness. On that note, I wish Lowepro would pay more attention to their hiking pedigree and put a bit more effort into their more economical ranges. Sadly the quest for the perfect camera bag has never been fulfilled, by any photographer, as a far as I am aware.
Just to finish; if you are doubting the capabilities of a smaller sensor camera then I would ask you to question what the marketing bods have told you to get you to buy newer, pricier, and more gear. How much do you really need? I mean, look at these!
Think that’s, even mildly, impressive? Well that isn’t from the PEN-F, it isn’t even a 4/3rds sensor, or a camera anything like as featured or sophisticated as the PEN-F. Remember I said I took the Nikon P900 along with me? Well these are from that tiny weeny sensor! Imagine what I am going to do with the PEN-F…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:
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.
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.
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Black Headed Gull
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Magpie (in the car park)
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.
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:
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.
The sky on Skye is wonderful this morning, which is typical when it’s time to go home. Of course, there is no need to go straight home, or even via a remotely direct route, as part of the fun of any adventure is the travelling.
So, this morning, after more kippers, I am off to Dunvegan Castle, or I would be, if it wasn’t shut for winter. Scotland, which is very reliant on tourism, is still stuck in the age when winter was winter and nobody came. In the Skye Brewing Company, yesterday, they were commenting they hadn’t ever seen a February so busy, and they are not alone. Closed castles, closed hostels, closed pubs, closed hotels, and lots of tourists. The things that are open are reaping the rewards! Welcome to the 21st Century Scotland!
For me, I have spent two days wishing for a dramatic light, and today I am getting it. Of course, I am heading in the wrong direction and constantly shooting into the sun, but then that is the nature of having to stick to moving in certain ways, on certain days.
I love the new ACROS setting that is available with the Fujifilm XT-2, the X-Pro 2, and the soon to be available XT-20. It is a shame it cannot be retrospectively applied to XT-1 shots though.
Moving further down the road, I wanted to get a sort of Canadian feel to a shot and include some trees, something that is actually quite scarce on Skye.
The light was coming in shafts that appeared to set the landscape on fire, and the building bulk of the clouds was creating thick shafts of light with definite edges. The effect was stunning and as brutally hard to capture as it was threatening. Clouds building ominously over the top of the mountains were also making me happy not to be up there. People who think we have small mountains in Scotland which are easily tamed should remember this is still the training ground for the Royal Marines, saw the birth of the Commando units of WWII, and still breaks many international mountaineers even to this day.
The Caiplach Forest shot required a lot of in-camera, or on-camera, filtration using ND grads and a polariser. The sun was just to the left of the shot meaning flare was a huge issue, and I must have been quite entertaining to watch as I wafted my map book between camera and sun to prevent lens flare. Without the filters I could have used the lens hood, but then I would have lost the drama of the sky and mountains. The shafts of light were really ‘thick’ and whilst I wanted to loose some of the general haze, I was desperate to keep the shafts visible to add to the drama. The light on the grasses and heather was so stunning that even just stood watching it around my feet made me feel like any moment my boots would catch fire.
It was really difficult to capture what I wanted in the second-by-second changing light, to stand in the wind, keep everything steady, and to time it just so that the big cloud sat in the right place over the Cuillin.
With all this drama surrounding me, I was tempted to stay for another night on Skye, perhaps moving to the Broadford, or Sleat, areas. Sadly, budget constraints, balanced with the forecaster promise of just waking up to wet, dull, and more wet and dull, wasn’t appealing.
As the weather closed in, it was time to go. I was to head not directly for home, or as directly as I can going via Inverness, but to go down and then across via Spean Bridge, then into the Cairngorms, to Aviemore, and then finally to home on the Moray coast.
So, although this blog series is called 3 Days of Skye, there is quite a bit of not Skye today too (but it’s all related).
Passing by three sets of locked toilets, and wondering if the second dose of kippers wasn’t agreeing with me, I finally found myself at the Kyle of Lochalsh and happy to pay my 20p to pee.
As I sat and drank some water, in the warm sunshine, without need of a jacket, I could watch the weather on Skye take a rapid turn for the worse. I sat at the pier-side and looked back to the changes on Skye then took a brief walk in the warm sun.
I had left the hotel by 9am, but it was still lunchtime before I was off of Skye. I knew I had a good 2/3rd of the journey home still to do, and with stops I anticipated getting home well into the evening. Time to get going.
Of course, if you are heading from the Kyle either to Inverness or to Fort William, you have to pass the monster of Eilean Donan Castle. It is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland, and quite possibly also one of the most photographed castles in the world. It owes it’s modern day fame to the 1986 film Highlander, and possibly a little bit to an earlier James Bond.
Ancestral home of the MacRae’s, not the MacLeods (see yesterdays entry), the Chief of the MacRae’s still resides (at least for some of the time) within its walls. It also provides wonderful tours, and has an excellent gift shop, like most respectable castles in Scotland, well, at least those with intact walls of roofs of course.
Normally, I seem to time this very badly and get to the castle when the tide is almost right out, and the infestation of midges at it’s very worse. The castle stands on Loch Duich, and this is a tidal sea loch. Luckily for me, today at last I had timed it well, and although the reflection could have been better if the wind had dropped, it was nice not to dance about being bitten to death. I swear the highland midge is the originator of the highland fling and it hasn’t anything to do with music…
As I reflected on the number of times I have stood in this, and similar, spots and the events in my life surrounding the times I have passed this castle, and the people I have been there with, the light burst through the clouds to catch the stonework which improved this image and created a warmth to the granite.
Travelling on, initially signed for Inverness and Fort William, I was to take the A87 turn to Invergarry, and then on to Spean Bridge where between there and Fort William, I would then take the turn signed towards the Cairngorms National Park.
The last photo of the day was taken in strange place not far from a lay-by on the A87. The OS map shows the word Cairn, indicating a burial or memorial cairn, but it seems that this little spot, and it’s spectacular view, has become something more significant than that. Whilst carefully picking my way from 10″ cairn to 10″ cairn, edging towards the point I took my shot, I counted over 20 memorials. I stopped to read the plaques where they existed. I am stood carefully by one to a chap called Mike at the time of taking the photo.
There were the little cairns with no markers, some with little slate plaques, two with iron crosses (made of iron, not in the unfortunate Germanic sense), and one clearly Jewish memorial. It was quite moving. Obviously, these people must be either lovers of the mountains and thus their loved ones have held this spot dear, their friends and families have found something here that speaks to them.
I hope it continues, in the same, carefully un-arranged, not becoming a clinical, official, or uniform manner. I hope their souls gather to admire the view and trade tales, and so, at the end of their tales, it is also the end of mine.
I hope you have enjoyed my wee trip through the Highlands to Skye. I have made many trips like this over the years, and it will always remain one of my favourite places, in spite of the tourist take-over, and the weather, and the midges.
If you enjoyed this, please share it, and if you didn’t, then how the hell did you get through three other sections to part four?
Enjoy the mountains, leave nothing by footprint, and take only photos away with you.
I shot this with a Fujifilm XT-2, Fuji 16-55/2.8 XF lens, using a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 3 tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head, SRB and Cokin P series filters (which are too small and soon to replaced), and I carried my gear in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW.
I was powered by Lucozade and Chocolate Mini-Rolls, mostly plus copious amounts of tea. All photography and copy is the exclusive right of Blythe Storm, Copyright 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, contact me for details. I AM NOT SPONSORED, although I am open to offers, bought all my own gear, and paid for all my accommodation and refreshments.
Map of Skye reproduced with permission, and much thanks, to isleofskye.com – a great source of information about the island.
If you have joined us at the end of the trip you can find the links to the previous entries below: