Posts Tagged ‘olympus’

Pro PEN

12 July 2011

Dear J-

If we read between the lines that Olympus keeps putting out I think I see the micro-4/3rds (u4/3) professional line taking shape. According to my magic crystal ball I see these likely features:

1. Built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
2. Weathersealing, rugged build
3. Vertical grip
4. Phase-Detection AF (PDAF) with regular 4/3rds lenses
5. Lineup of u4/3 High-Grade (HG) primes

The first three are just to keep parity with the current 4/3rds flagship E-5 (and the VF-2 accessory already provides a view roughly as large as the optical system on the E-5). If you’re going to move pros out of their current dSLR bodies you’re going to need at least those features. And yes, Olympus will be pilloried by the enthusiast press for the size and bulk (“small is the whole point of u4/3rds”) but there’s a minimum amount of that needed to support weathersealing and you’re not going to get rugged with an add-on EVF; a built-in eye-level finder is critical).

The last one will come in time (supplemented by the enhanced compatibility with 4/3rds lenses) but it’s the fourth point I want to spend the bulk of time covering. Watanabe has stated that they’re not going to wring much more performance out of the dSLR PDAF-based lens lineup with a contrast-detect (CDAF) scheme already in place with the existing u4/3rds bodies. The newer lenses that have been released lately all have been designed to take advantage of the CDAF sensors. I take that and extrapolate that they must be working on an adapter that provides PDAF for regular 4/3rds.

It’s a big leap and a wild stab but it makes sense of those rumors stating that Olympus have been working on a modular design. In this case think Visoflex, which adapted long lenses to the Leica rangefinder line and included a mirror box to convert the camera into a SLR. In the recent past Sony have started selling the SLT line which includes a pellicle mirror and EVF. The logical conclusion is that the u4/3rds camera to induce pros to switch will be bundled with a Visoflex-like adapter including pellicle mirror and PDAF sensor. The mirror will be set at a shallower angle than 45 degrees to throw the image to the PDAF sensor buried just behind the regular 4/3rds lensmount. At that point I’m not sure if the u4/3rds lensmount supports the communication protocol to the body of focus lock, confirmation, focus point, etc and additional contacts may be necessary which would preclude complete compatibility of the new adapter with older u4/3rds bodies.

Anyhow, it’s fun to speculate.

Mike

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Wide Zuiko Review

30 May 2009

Dear J-

As part of my sporadic photographic review series, I probably should write up something about the lens that’s lived on the camera for the last six months — really, since I got it, the whole idea of using adapted lenses hasn’t made much sense to me, so it’s almost by default. All the advances of the past sixty years — from automatic diaphragms to automatic focus — were made for a reason, and going to adapted lenses loses much of that, no matter the brilliance in optical designs. On the other hand, I’ve also had another 4/3rds lens in my possession, with a theoretically more useful focal length range; but whether it’s the weather sealing or the feel of the lens, it’s the Zuiko Digital 11~18mm f/2.8~3.5 that’s gotten far more use.

Most folks agree that in the range it overlaps the 14~54mm, the shorter lens is better — whether that means sharper, less distorted, or what, it’s more likely that the 2x zoom lens will be less optically compromised than the 3.9x lens (and 3.9x is already a pretty short range to begin with). I’d looked at the 12~60mm lens as well — having wanted a lens that was at least weather-sealed — but ultimately decided that despite its brilliant sharpness, the 12mm end was too compromised, distortion-wise. One of the problems with wide zooms is that they’re often stretched into something that covers wide-to-short telephoto, and the wide end gets saddled with a complex mustache (“wavy-line”) distortion, where the corners are a bit overcorrected. All this is an exercise in pedagogy, as I have no experience with those two lenses, nor the inclination — for reasons I’ll explain.

I’ve read several different schools of thought on how people employ the 11~22 lens, but the one that resonated with me was the person who said he used it as a prime, with a bit of framing flexibility. To be honest, it’s my first extensive experience with zooms besides the ones stuck on the compacts I’ve used; I sometimes refer to them as bang-bang lenses, as I often find myself hitting the stops on one end or the other of the zoom. Having been raised on primes, though, the zooms made me lazy — instead of walking back and forth, twiddle the dial or play the trombone. Other folks said that f=40mm (on a 135-format camera) was the most natural perspective, so I walked around the first month or so at f=20mm, but unhappily — it was a bit narrow, and once I set it to f=18mm, it felt like I was able to breathe right again.

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The most important thing is that once I found the right focal length, the lens doesn’t impede my vision — I bring it up to my eye and it picks out the scene I see; no matter the aperture, there are no funny quirks to be worked around — no exposure compensation penalty to remember when working wide-open, no artifacts, no flare. Aside from the bulk, there are no significant vices to using it. If that’s boring and sterile, I’ll take it over the mental catalog I needed to carry around with each separate legacy lens I put in front of that E-1. The camera is best when it’s not obtrusive; I picked the E-1 because of its quiet operation, which does not disrupt the subject — now the lens doesn’t interrupt my train of thought.

One last thought: where do I go from here? My dalliance with Leitz lenses has been dizzying; both the price and consistency have been spectacular, but will there ever be a digital body that you can use them with automatic diaphragm at a price I can justify? The Nikkors that litter my life make me think that my future lies in the Nikon camp, but I wonder if the backwards compatibility is more than lip service from Papa Nikon. So if I delve deeper into the Olympus world, I go further towards a system that’s prime-lens-deficient; though the zooms are unparalleled, the prime lineup has gaping holes (no wides aside from the fisheye; no long macro, no affordable long lenses) that aren’t likely to be filled soon. Yet the f=18mm “prime” I’m using is seriously flexible, ready for nearly everything I throw at it; six months on, it’s been an incredibly wise investment, and a good first choice for a system.

Mike

Zuiko Hole

18 May 2009

Dear J-

There’s those that will always bemoan the lack of a ___ lens (insert your favorite type here; I like to pick on the lack of a shift lens in the Zuiko Digital line although pretty much any other lens that strikes my fancy is already there) in any lineup, never mind that it’s usually an exercise in mental aggravation — if you gave them that lens, would they buy into the system anyway? It came to me this way:  the lens that makes the most practical sense for most wildlife photographers (and some sports folks) is something like a f=400mm f/2.8 lens on 135-format film.  It’s generally just long enough, and are designed to work well with teleconverters, so for a relatively nominal price, you’d also have a f=560mm f/4 and a f=800mm f/5.6, most of the reach you’d need, reasonable quality (maybe not as good as the equivalent primes would be, but good enough for most purposes).  After all, there’s a reason that the Modular APO-Telyt-R system comes in 280/400/560 and 400/560/800 lens heads; they’re classical trios of telephoto focal lengths.

So, in 4/3rds land, where does that put you?  The DOF snobs would have you believe that more DOF is a handicap, and that your equivalent lens should be a silly f=200mm f/1.4; let’s ignore them for now and concentrate on the real world.  Truth is that depth of field wide-open on a f=400mm f/2.8 lens is nearly useless (not everyone wants to make things look like a Martha Stewart product shot, thank you).  No, a sensible f=200mm f/2.8 (or if you insist on the exotica, a f/2 lens) would do the trick nicely.  No one who’s had to lug a f/2.8 exotic into the field sneers at the f=400mm f/5.6, which would provide the same coverage and DOF as a f=200mm f/2.8 would on 4/3rds.

Problem is that it’s a serious overlap with the existing prime f=150mm f/2 exotic Zuiko, as well as the 50~200 f/2.8~3.5 and 90~250 f/2.8 zooms for that system.  It’s probably the reason Olympus hasn’t come out with one yet, despite the relatively low investment needed to design a superior f=200mm f/2.8 lens (such lenses having been around, in one form or another, since the 1936 Zeiss Sonnar “Olympia” for the ’36 Berlin Games– here’s some trivia for you; Olympics always bring out interesting lenses); too close, too much overlap.  And, as I’ve noted before, probably too much lens if they slot it into the SHG lineup; still, though, with the high-quality teleconverters available in the system, it seems like a natural fit to me, and one with a better price (I’d hope) than the existing SHG exotica.

Mike

Olympean Heights

16 May 2009

Dear J-

The danger of saving money through buying the right thing — though it may be more expensive — the first time, rather than iterating through various cheap ones is you might not know when to stop. Okay, make that you into I and you’ve got the heart of my problem; I tend to believe that I might as well short-circuit the whole thought process of wondering what might be better by getting the top of the line by not having to wonder. And that, of course, saves no one money.

The Olympus lens lineup is divided into three tiers; now that the system’s been out for six years or so, there’s a pretty complete lineup in each tier. The standard grade (lowest) lack weather sealing and fast apertures; the high grade (middle) are pretty well-built and have reasonable, though not constant apertures; and the super-high grade (top) are built to withstand being used as bludgeons, contain zooms with constant apertures, and, oh yeah, cost well over a thousand dollars apiece. For people who don’t make money with their photographs, in fact, the SHG lenses occupy the same position as most Leitz glass: for those who won’t settle or for those who don’t need to. It doesn’t stop me from looking at them, breath fogging the plate glass of the virtual display cases.

The first time I mounted a f=35mm lens for a 135-format camera, I looked in the viewfinder and felt like I was coming home. Granted, I’ve spent twenty-five years looking through glasses with wire frames, so I suppose my field of view is naturally constrained to that little box by now; I waited so long to get that lens — a Nikon 35 f/1.4, modified to AI via a factory replacement aperture ring (trivia here: the minimum f-stop drops from f/22 to f/16 as a result; also, the rare earth elements in some of the glass lenses is slightly radioactive, which has stained them an amber color) — because the f/1.4’s were so much rarer than the f/2 and f/2.8s and I didn’t want to settle — for this I suffered with lenses that didn’t quite fit my vision.

Funny thing is that the Olympus HG glass is by no means settling — in fact, except for the weather-sealing, neither is the standard grade; they’re all pretty strong, optically. And the SHG lenses, with constant apertures, are all pretty shockingly large and heavy (said the fox, as he attempted to reach the grapes: “They must be sour.”); they’re not as portable and hand-friendly. Next time: photographic evidence that I talk a good talk, but can’t possibly follow through*.

Mike

* How many lenses do I have in the f=200mm focal length class?

  • Nikkor 180mm f/2.8
  • Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4
  • Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm f/4
  • Zoom-Nikkor 100-300mm f/5.6
  • Canon New FD 80-200mm f/4L
  • Canon New FD 100-300mm f/5.6L
  • Tokina SD AT-X 100-300 f/4 (Nikon AI mount)

How many more would I need?

Zoo News

8 March 2009

Dear J-

We were at the zoo — again — this weekend, this time without the heavy artillery (Tokina 100-300 f/4, manual focus version) I’d brought along last week; the big Tokina’s actually a pretty nice lens to bring to the zoo, as you can get decent subject isolation and background separation for some of the bigger animals, but for smaller birds, you still need more reach.  The combination of size/weight/aperture is just about the limit for my poor handholding capabilities, too; faster means either bigger (heavier) or shorter (focal-length), so for now it’s the Golidlocks Zoo lens:  just right.

It could be better wide-open, and given that it’s an adapted kludge, anything other than wide-open is not used.  Of course, there are, um, possibilities inherent in the matchup of the Zuiko Digital 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 and the EC14 teleconverter.  Better not think about it too much, not with the siren call of the internet moments away.  I’m gradually accepting the idea that the computer’s much better at focusing than I am, and having modern capabilities (auto diaphragm and exposure) is nothing to sneeze at, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never be able to justify the silly-money Super High Grade lens lineup.

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Today, then, as ever, I wandered around with the camera stuck at f=18mm (36mm equivalent), nearly wide-open.  Point, shoot.  It’s nearly perfect, in fact, for this purpose, aside from the excessive weight; responsive, always ready in the hand, and sufficiently wide to grab expressions.  Now, the next big thing very well may be the micro-4/3rds 20mm “pancake” lens they keep showing off as a prototype:  make it fast enough and that’s my next walk-around camera.  I’m honestly amused by the folks who want the pundits to be right:  that 4/3rds is nothing more than a dead end, that you can’t get lens performance like this without a more significant penalty; it’s as if the continued existence of 4/3rds is itself an irritant.

Mike

Glassy Eyes

19 June 2008

Dear J-

The more I shoot with my current setup (Olympus E-1 with vintage lenses) the more I’m tempted to acquire more glass, even though I swore off more acquisitions only a month ago, and this even despite already owning multiple lenses in those same focal lengths.  What I’d be smart to do is set money aside for some actual Olympus lenses instead of making do with the motley crew of lenses I currently rotate.

For example, Olympus makes a 50 f/2 macro lens for the 4/3rds system; that lens is fast, compact, autofocus, and a 1:2 macro lens to boot, so why would I even consider instead spending a fraction of its purchase price on something like a Summicron-R 50 f/2?  I will say that there’s something seductive in the way the Leitz lenses feel:  well-damped, solid, and with an impressively long focus throw.  Here’s where my limitations come into play, though; anything less than 50mm or so of actual focal length and I can’t honestly say that I’m focussing accurately.  Besides, giving up on manual focus and aperture rings would mean that one-handed operation would be a bit more feasible; considering that for most photographic opportunities I find myself juggling baby, dogs, and camera, a free hand would be greatly appreciated.

I’d also like to be able to regain wide-angle photography without having to resort to pulling out some of my exotic lenses; the full-frame 16mm Fisheye-Nikkor works surprisingly well with minimal distortion, but what I’ll probably save my pennies for is either the 11~22 zoom or the 8mm fisheye, along with the 50mm macro.  The 14~54 has had great reviews, but considering my recent usage of that focal length range (on the LC1, I’d usually rack the zoom out to full-wide or full-tele, 28 or 90, and be perfectly happy with those results).  I don’t generally find myself limited when shooting with single focal lengths, although that may be a by-product of the lenses I’ve owned.  Now if Olympus would just lower the price on that 7~14 …

Mike

Walkabout Rig

26 November 2006

Dear J-

The worst pictures are the ones you end up not taking because the camera was too bulky/complex to use. On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to be relying on your camera phone for much beyond casual snaps, so what’s a budding photographer to do?

I have an absurd amount of grad student stipend invested in (politely, classic; popularly, obsolete) Nikon glass, so I ended up with the cheapest SLR capable of handling AI lenses with some grace and resolution — Kodak DCS 660C, which is a modified Nikon F5 with a 6MP Kodak imager stuck inside. In the nicest possible sense, this is a beast of a camera; the regular F5 is heavy enough, but when Kodak is done with it, it feels more like something you’d weigh corpses with, assuming you never want to see them again. The ‘developing’ process is straightforward but clunky — open files in DCS Photo Desk, tweak, save into 18MB TIFFs, then convert into JPEGs for sharing.

For a couple of years before, when I’d initially converted to digital, I was using a Sony DSC-D770, which had an optical TTL finder, mechanically-linked zoom, and decent (assuming you left it in manual focus) responsiveness. Ideal, then, except for the resolution — 1.5MP is enough for desktop backgrounds and e-mail, but not much else. Enough squinting through its keyhole of a finder and I was ready to chuck it; it was cheap enough that I didn’t mind bringing it in places I’d rather not lug an SLR rig, but boy did it attract attention, despite being nice and silent.

So, for now, the 660C fits my abilities as a high-end rig; given that the lens that lives most on it right now is a 50f/1.8 AI-S, I can’t be happier with the results I’m getting from it. All the errors are clearly my own, not the camera’s. But back when I was serious with film, I also carried around a Olympus 35RC, for those times when I didn’t want to be conspicuous and pull out a motorized Nikon F2 to blast and flap and scare any potential subjects (there’s a few folks who respond to the sound of a motor drive, but they’re fairly few). Maybe I should have loaded it with high-ISO film for that gritty street look, but I supplemented with a Vivitar 285 for when I needed more light — the camera can be small, but lots of light is going to call for a fairly good-sized flash (my other flash is a Metz potato-masher, ’nuff said).

So, I have my high-enough-end digital squared away. What’s the equivalent of the 35RC, then? What are the requirements?

  • Reasonably wide, bright lens (35RC = 42mm, f/2.8)
  • Compact — the 35RC is less than a pound
  • Flash shoe
  • Manual exposure capability
  • Dedicated controls — I don’t want to dip into a menu

Suffice it to say that there’s not too many new cameras that fit my bill, and honestly, not too much interest in providing photographers with manual controls in a compact body (the manufacturers are much more interested in selling you a cheap dSLR, which then may or may not entice you into higher-profit glass). So, just like grabbing a rangefinder from the 70’s made sense, it might be worth the effort to get a used ‘prosumer’ digital.

First off, forget cameras in the SLR/ZLR mold — Olympus E-10/20, Canon Pro1, Nikon x700, Sony F-series. Forget the superzooms; not compact enough. Think something more like a Canon G-series (or the slightly dimmer-lensed S-x0), or a Coolpix x400. Me, I’m going for a Sony DSC-V1 for one reason alone — it’s not as wide as some of the others, and it doesn’t save in a RAW format (but when you’re talking about a walkabout rig, wouldn’t you really rather have something useful straight out of the camera?), but it’s much faster/more responsive than its peers (Canon G5, Nikon 5400) — in a world of the decisive moment, response is key.

It’s an unassuming little brick of a machine, and it’s hit the MP-obsolescence curve gracefully (e.g. cheap enough to be a bit of an impulse buy, enough resolution to make good prints). As they’re all mostly leaf-shutter cameras now, noise shouldn’t be a critical issue, either, and should thus allow for less intrusive photography; I’ve always prefered the fly-on-the-wall approach to paparazzi-stalker long-lens tactics.

So, that’s my vote. Why no Powershot-G? Check the response times; it’s clear that electronic wizardry trumps silver halide in the veins, at least at that time. Plus the G’s have held their value absurdly well (as has the Coolpix 5000, which is usefully wider, as well as better-accessorized), compared with the V1.

Mike