Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II: So you want high resolution? How about 40MP?

Dome Ceiling, Texas State Capitol - Austin, Texas

Dome Ceiling, Texas State Capitol – Austin, Texas

I’ve been shooting the brand new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II since Friday and it’s been interesting. It’s kind of neat to use a camera before it’s available in stores, thanks to Brett from Olympus, for the opportunity.

This Mark II version brings a couple of big improvements and a host of small tweaks. One notable feature is the new high-resolution mode that generates 40MP JPEGs and 64MP RAW files. It uses the newest sensor shift technology to make 8 1/2 pixel passes, and combines them in camera to generate high-resolution images. This is strictly a tripod only feature, you can’t hand-hold the camera in this mode. But done right, it’s quite amazing.

Charles and I went down to the Texas State Capitol on Friday to do some testing. Both Charles, who works for Olympus, and I were sporting identical E-M5 Mark IIs with the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. The building was a good subject since it has loads of detail and doesn’t tend to move much in this seismically stable part of the U.S.

Because the camera effectively makes multiple passes to create the image, it doesn’t work well for subjects that move a lot. The camera needs to remain stationary and so does the subject, for the most part. But, it’s not as limiting as I thought, especially for someone like me that frequently uses a tripod. As you may know, I often shoot urban landscapes at night. The high-res mode works like a long exposure. You see motion blur but it may work out OK, depending on the situation. More on this below.

Dome Exterior, Texas State Capitol - Austin, Texas

Look at this example of the State Capitol. The flags are blurred because the high-res mode has combined multiple 1 – 2 second exposures together on that windy night. The net effect is similar to a single long exposure, with of course an immense amount of detail. Also, because the camera is taking multiple pictures, the exposure times for each photo get added together. I read somewhere that the “time penalty” for the high-res mode is about a second, but that’s true only if you have sub-second shutter speeds. Since I shot at ISO 200 at f8, the whole process took a lot longer.

Let’s look closer at the results. Viewed full size on my 27” monitor or on my 15” retina monitor, the regular and the high-res images look identical. We need to zoom in or print them super large to really see the difference.

Dome Resolution Comparison - Regular
Dome Resolution Comparison - High-res

There are two ways to look at the output. First, let’s look at both versions at 100%. Notice that the high-res mode is larger because it shoots at 7296×5472 pixels instead of the standard 4608×3456. What you’re looking at is the ceiling of the Texas State Capitol’s dome. It’s a 950×633 pixel crop from the center of the frame. Reference the first photo at the top of the post for the full image.

Exterior Resolution Comparison

The other way is to set the output of both photographs to the same resolution and compare the details. That’s what I did here. I took the high-res version and shrunk it to the same resolution as the standard-res (both at 4608×3456 pixels). What you’re looking at is a side by side comparison of the shrunken high-res version and the standard version. Both are at 100% crops from the center portion of the photograph above (again at 950×633 pixels). I’m sure you can tell which one was originally the high-res version.

Flag Movement Comparison

Here’s one more comparison. Same methodology. This time, I’m at 100% on the waving flags. The standard exposure was 1.6 seconds long. The high-res version is more blurred since it combined multiple 1.6 second exposures. If you look closely, you might notice a fine mesh like pattern on the waving flags. I suspect the pixel shifting and the subsequent merging process created these artifacts. These don’t look too bad, but look at the next image.

Flag Movement - High Res

The mesh like pattern is a lot more visible at 100% on the high-resolution version. This is an extreme example since there was quite a bit of flag movement and I was shooting with a slow shutter speed. The photo may still work, depending on how large you plan to output the image. But the more movement you have, the more mesh like artifacts you’ll probably see. So shooting on tripod doesn’t ensure perfect shots — much depends on the subject. Even still landscapes might have a certain level of movement due to wind, for example.

So is the high-res mode worth it? I think so, especially for someone like me who is willing to use a tripod. There’s a lot more testing I want to do. How does it work in extremely low light? How does it work for HDRs? During the day with a fast shutter, this high-res mode should work much better, I imagine. I’ll do more tests and report on them, so check back.

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I took all photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in JPEG, since the RAW converter is not available.

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Drink and Click, the Pentax Q7 and more experiments with moody black and whites

Silly Expressions, Natasha and Marisa at Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Silly Expressions, Natasha and Marisa at Drink and Click – Austin, Texas

Here’s a change of pace from the Big Bend Nature photographs I’ve been posting lately. I went to a Drink and Click event like I do ever so often. Charles and Brett from Olympus was also there for another demo / photography / socializing event.

I brought my Pentax Q7 with the 40mm equivalent prime lens for some more experimentation, especially with black and whites. I felt a twinge of guilt bringing the Pentax to a semi-Olympus event but people know that I use all different brands. In fact, several of my photographer friends seemed amused, having fun guessing, how many and which cameras I had brought that night.

Actually, I also did bring an Olympus, the OM-D E-M10, which I borrowed for the Big Bend trip and was returning to Charles. I successfully created a wonderful star trail, which I talked about in my previous post — the LIVECOMP feature is perfect for this. What’s even more exciting is that I get to play with the brand new OM-D E-M5 Mark II for a few weeks. I picked it up already and started putting it though its paces. I’ll do some posts about it and culminate with a detailed review.

At Drink and Click, I really wanted to push the bounds of the tiny Q7 to see what it could do. I really like its in-camera black and white and it also works decently for low-light high ISO photography. These high contrast, inky black and whites are something relatively new for me. Something I started back in December, in Japan, when I first picked up the Q7.

Marisa Portrait #1, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
Marisa Portrait #2, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

I chatted with Marisa, a photographer and model, for a few minutes and shot a few portraits. These are definitely not text-book and I’m sure the serious portrait photographers will quibble with what I’ve done. But I like these. The dark shadows create more mystery, I think, and look different. The Q7, for me, is all about doing something different, and I think these qualify.

Marisa Candid #1, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
Marisa Candid #2, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

I also like these casual, candid snaps. They have more of a behind the scenes feel.

The ABGC Exterior #1 - Austin, Texas
The ABGC Exterior #2 - Austin, Texas

Taking shadows to an extreme, these two from the outside of ABGB (Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company) is an exercise in minimalism. With only a hint of shapes, the viewer is left to put the pieces together to form the image. In a way, it’s the anti-HDR. HDR tries to show lots of details, more than in regular photography. And arguably, the problem with some HDRs is the lack of shadows. Shadows add mystery. If that’s true, there’s certainly an abundance of mystery, or perhaps it’s disorientation, in these shots.

The ABGC Interior #1 - Austin, Texas
The ABGC Interior #2 - Austin, Texas
The ABGC Interior #3 - Austin, Texas

Back inside, this large warehouse like bar had plenty of interesting compositions. A little “street photography like” candids, as I explored.

Preening, Models Natasha and Marisa at Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

In the Drink and Click area, I captured Natasha, another model, talking to Marisa. While models often jump into their model poses, I really like this candid as well as the silliness too, like the one at the top of the post.

The Olympus Case, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

You can see how organized Charles is from Olympus. Here’s one of his cases with notations of who borrowed which camera. I heard some 60 people might have come through, playing with the various OM-Ds. People got to test their favorite camera body paired with their favorite lens.

Natasha Candid #1, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
Natasha Candid #2, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
Natasha Candid #3, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

The “Clicking” at these events usually involve models. And over in the corner, Natasha posed for several strobe and light wielding photogs. I opted to catch natural light candids. These three images really pushed the bounds of this little Q7. I shot these at ISO 3200 at f1.9 and 1/20 of a second. Yes, it was dark. But I think these work.

Incidentally, that little camera held in frame, it’s the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Brett from Olympus was putting it through its paces. He’s nice enough to let me to shoot that camera for the next several weeks.

Natasha Candid #4, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Finally, here’s one more of Natasha. It’s grainy and unsharp from motion blur. It’s the kind of photo I would have rejected before but I like it her expression. The photographer, in the shadows, gives context to what’s happening. Is Natasha tired, happy, board? Ambiguity and mystery, perhaps that more important than technical perfection. At least, that what I hope.

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.

Olympus OM-D E-M10: The easiest way to create star trails

Star Trails - Terlingua, Texas

Star Trails – Terlingua, Texas

You may recall, before my Big Bend trip, I blogged that I was bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M10 for something special. Charles from Olympus loaned me the camera along with the Olympus 9-18mm f4-5.6 super-wide lens. Here is the result. This camera is the easiest way to create these dramatic star trails. I’ll explain how, below.

I shot this outside my cabin near Big Bend National Park, more precisely, in Terlingua, Texas. My first several tries, earlier that night, were less satisfying, mainly because of composition and the occasional passing vehicle. It takes a long time to do nice star trails and even that far in the country, car lights were surprisingly numerous.

So how do you create these star trails? With most cameras, it’s a real effort. First, you need to take hundreds of photos continuously, on tripod. Then, in post processing, you need to stack and combine all the photos into a single image with software like Photoshop. Also, most cameras don’t have the built-in controls to take continuous time-lapse photos, so usually you need external hardware to control the camera. With the Olympus E-M10, all this is automatic.

I did a detailed review of OM-D E-M10 last summer but didn’t know about this feature. It’s something that isn’t talked about much, I think. Called Live Composite Photography or LIVECOMP for short, everything is done in-camera with a few simple settings. The E-M10 was the first camera to do this and it’s also available on the E-M1 via the firmware update 2.0. Of course the just announced E-M5 Mark II also has LIVECOMP.

This nifty feature is also hard to find in the manual, especially if you don’t know what it’s called. But it is easy to setup. Here’s how.

1. Select M on the mode dial.

2. Using the top control dial (closer to the rear) set the exposure time past 60 seconds, past BULB and past LIVE TIME to LIVECOMP. It’s the last setting.

3. Select the “Menu” button to set the exposure time for each image.

4. The first picture you take (by hitting the shutter button) preps the camera and sets the baseline for the composite.

5. The next picture starts the composite process.

6. Finally, press the shutter button again to stop the composite.

7. It will take a couple of minutes as the camera creates the final stacked composite right in the camera.

That’s it for setting up and using LIVECOMP. But you also need to decide on the exposure settings. This is where a little trial in error is in order. First you need to determine the aperture size, the ISO setting and the exposure time. In photography, these three settings work together to set a certain exposure level. There is no absolute correct exposure level, that’s the creative part of photography. The ISO values and aperture size can be adjusted using the standard controls on the camera. The exposure time is set in step 3, above.

What were my settings for the star trail? This is what worked for me but other combinations should work too.

ISO: 800
Aperture: f4.5
Exposure Time: 20 seconds
Focal Length: 9mm
Duration: 3 hours

Your settings might be different depending on the ambient light and the lens used. Why did I pick these settings? I did some testing but here was my reasoning.

With a super wide-angle, f4.5 will allow me to get everything in focus. 9mm on the Olympus is equivalent to 18mm (2x crop factor) in 35mm “full frame” terms. There’s the “500 Rule” in star photography that says divide 500 by the focal length to get the maximum seconds you can shoot without seeing any star movement. In my case that’ll be 500 / 18 = 27.7 seconds. I just rounded down to 20 seconds to be safe. Given an aperture of f4.5 and an exposure time of 20 seconds, ISO 800 gave me the look I wanted. Plus, I knew on the E-M10, ISO 800 should still be clean without a huge amount of noise.

Did I need to stack perfectly still stars to do star trails? Perhaps not, but I wasn’t sure. Would there be small gaps in the trails or would they blend smoothly together? Logically it seems like it would. If I used an exposure time of 40 seconds instead, I could have shot at ISO 400, which would even be cleaner.

I shot this starting at 1am for 3 hours. 3 hours is the maximum duration but the manual says other factors, such as battery life, can reduced the total time. At 20 seconds per exposure for 3 hours, there were 540 pictures stacked to create this single star trail. All of this was done automatically in camera. I was left with a singe RAW image. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

It’s even better, as the name LIVECOMP suggests, you see the results LIVE on the LCD. You actually see the star trails building in real-time. You can stop the LIVECOMP when things look good on screen.

HEB Light Trails - Austin, Texas

Star trails are perfect for LIVECOMP but what else? Fireworks would also be fun, especially if they are shot from multiple locations. But what else? I’m not sure, I guess that’s the fun, creative part of this feature. I shot this the other night at a local grocery store called HEB.

This photo illustrates an important point. LIVECOMP is not the same as a single long exposure. I shot this for maybe 10 minutes. A long exposure will completely blow out the exposure, making the image too bright. Notice how nicely the HEB sign is exposed. No, these are a series of short 1 second exposures stacked together. Same principle as the star trails but with a more common subject.

The settings for this photo?

ISO: 200
Aperture: f7.1
Exposure Time: 1 second
Focal Length: 10mm
Duration: about 10 minutes

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 is a fine camera and I recommend it highly. It’s even better if you want this unique LIVECOMP feature. I have to admit that I’m too lazy or undedicated to do star trails manually, however, with the E-M10, I am more than willing to create them. Because, after all, it’s easy and fun.

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I took both photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M10 using the LIVECOMP feature.

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Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.

The Big Bend National and State Parks with the Nikon 35Ti and Portra 400

Land Rover, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend Nation Park, Texas

Land Rover, Santa Elena Canyon – Big Bend National Park, Texas

You might remember that I used a slew of cameras on the Big Bend trip a week and half ago. A mind-boggling, to some, 6 cameras in total. I had my “high profile” cameras such as the full frame digital Canon 6D, or the medium format film, Mamiya 645E, as well as my ultra fun compact digital, the Pentax Q7. But the camera that really delivered some beautiful photos was my 20-year-old 35mm compact, the Nikon 35Ti.

The Nikon 35Ti was a rich man’s travel camera introduced back in 1993. This titanium clad beauty was sold for a hefty $1,000 back then. I picked it up last year for under 300 bucks. My first roll, the tried and true Kodak Portra 400, a very easy film to shoot.

I mentioned earlier that my first experiment with Velvia 100 didn’t turn out as well as I hoped. I under exposed the film too much and I wasn’t crazy about the colors either. No such issues with Portra 400. Nearly every shot from the first roll came out great. Portra is easy to expose since it has so much latitude and I’m also familiar with the way the 35Ti meters.

About the only gripe with this camera, at least for landscapes, is the fixed 35mm focal length. I would have loved to shoot something wider, at least 28mm or more. That said, I think I managed some nice travel shots. What I love the most is the warm and mellow colors. That’s the main reason I’m experimenting with film.

Trees, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Path, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

On the first morning, we went to Santa Elena Canyon. There was a wonderful old Land Rover parked in the lot. The group rushed out to the canyon but I stayed behind and shot the wooden path with several of my cameras. As you know, I like the man-made and like how the path created a winding leading line towards the massive canyon walls.

Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

At the river itself, I couldn’t find a good composition. My sensibilities wanted me to be in the middle of the river with the walls rising on either side but I wasn’t prepared to risk my equipment for that vantage point. Obviously, I’m not a serious landscape photographer. By the way, this is the “mighty” Rio Grande which separates the U.S. and Mexico. So yes, the cliff on the left side is Mexico while the right side is in the “country of Texas”.

Cabin, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Fence, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

A couple of stops later we got the Castolon Ranger Station. I made my way back to the historic displays which got me into my element. As you know, I’m a urban landscape photographer which means I’m at home in the city and near man-made things. Nature is great as long as its taken in moderation, I say.

Window, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Little House in the Desert - Big Bend National Park, Texas

There is no question, I “see” a lot better with the hard angles and geometry of the man-made. I also enjoy the compositions more, I think. At least for now since I don’t usually shoot nature by itself. Unlike my typical city shots, I like how I get to juxtapose these structures with the wide open west.

These western landscapes have a painterly look to my city slicker eyes. I don’t know if it’s the light, the dust or some other mysterious X factor, but the images look different here. These were taken around noon but they don’t have the harsh look that usually dissuades me from shooting midday.

Road, Tuff Canyon #1 - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Road, Tuff Canyon #2 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Next up we stopped at Tuff Canyon. I shot from near the car. The road and leading lines, attracting my attention. Again, the man-made mixed with nature, I guess.

Flowers, Tuff Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

I did shoot the flowers though, that’s nature, right?

Path, Sam Nail Ranch - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Chisos Mountains from Sam Nail Ranch - Big Bend National Park, Texas

We quickly stopped by Sam Nail Ranch before having a late lunch at 2pm. We were just passing through. Those mountains in the distance, the Chisos, would appear golden if we came here at the right time near sunset.

A view from Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

The last stop, after lunch and a rest was Chisos Basin. This is one of mountain formations behind the famous “Window”, which we shot for sunset. The weather and light didn’t cooperate so our sunset “window” shot wasn’t impressive but at least I got this snapshot of the big mountain.

Th photo is grainer than the others, which means the image was most likely underexposed and the scanner brightened it. Portra was able to recover this well and I’m left with a decently exposed image. Velvia would be less forgiving in this case.

This was the end of the first day. We stayed until it got dark, past blue hour, and then headed back to our cabin.

Contrabando #1 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #2 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #3 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #4 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The 2nd day, we spend the bulk of the day at Big Bend Ranch, which is the Texas State Park that’s located next to the national park. Right off the road, not far from the entrance, is Contrabando, an old movie set. Several western B movies were filmed there. As you can imagine, my architectural interest drew me in for more of the man-made set in nature type photos.

Rio Grande from Contrabando - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Behind the set was the Rio Grande again with its readily accessible border with Mexico. Incidentally, Big Bend is in a middle of a desert as is the Mexican side. The borders are permeable since no one in their right mind is going to be walking through the area. The tall mountains and the harsh climate forms a natural barrier going north or south.

Rio Grande from a rest stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rio Grande at the Rest Stop #2 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rocky View from DOM Point - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

What’s great about the Big Bend State Park is the easily accessible dramatic shots right off the highway. We detoured several times at a rest stop and turn outs to get these dramatic views. Not much hiking involved, which is fine with me. I took all my gear including the tripod to shoot at these locations. The Nikon 35Ti though worked great handheld. It was truly an easy point and shoot experience. Not bad for a 20-year-old film camera, I say.

Framed, Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
A view from Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The highlight of the trip was Closed Canyon, where they shot the last scene from the movie Boyhood. It took a few snaps here with the Nikon as well as a whole bunch with my other cameras. I did my first real hike here, only about a mile and half round trip. The ground was more uneven than expected so the hiking boots really helped.

The Rio Grande - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Finally, the last photos of the first roll were shot here, again just off the highway. It’s my favorite view from the entire Big Bend Trip. I think I shot nearly every camera from here and every photo looks different. It will make an interesting comparison for a future blog post.

It’s here where I switched out the Portra 400 roll for Velvia 100, which I shot for the rest of the trip with the 35Ti. I haven’t finished the roll but I’ll get that developed eventually to see if Velvia came out better on the Nikon than my medium format Mamiya 645E.

What struck me is that with 37 photos from the first roll, I covered a nice selection of scenes. I know I shoot like crazy with my digital cameras but selective shooting works great too. It’s so old school where you might only shoot several rolls per trip but end up with a lot of keepers.

I think the image quality from 35mm looks great too, depending on your target output. On my Retina 15” MacBook Pro, these images, full screen, look gorgeous. Lovely color, sharp details and not even a hint of grain. If all I wanted was photos for my MacBook Pro, 35mm would be more than enough. However, displayed on my external 27” monitor full screen, the image quality degrades somewhat.

These photos still look decent on the large screen but I can see difference compared to digital or medium format film. The grain is noticeable too though not really objectionable. This is the limitation of 35mm film. Displayed large, either on a monitor or paper, the image suffers.

People I know that shot 35mm told me that they feel comfortable with prints up to 8” by 10”. After that, sharpness begins to degrade. Interestingly, the 15” MacBook Pro screen measures 8” by 13”. Is it the perfect resolution and size for displaying 35mm? Perhaps. It’s not to say, these images can’t be blown up much larger. I’ve seen 35mm printed big and it can look nice, depending on the subject.

I’ll need to experiment more and even print some of those photos larger to see what they look like. But the surprising thing about the Nikon 35Ti, along with the Portra 400, is how wonderful these images look. They might not have the detail and resolution of digital, but I prefer the colors a heck of a lot more.

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I took all photos using my Nikon 35Ti 35mm camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400 film. I enhanced the color saturation digitally which were scanned by Precision Camera, when the film was developed.

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Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.

Haiku Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Sensor shifting tech
High-res plus stable movies
Great mark two update

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