I was in full street photography mode at the 2015 SXSW Interactive, last month. I wasn’t an attendee. No, I just find it interesting to shoot downtown when one of Austin’s largest events rolls in. I was sporting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with the compact 17mm f1.8, a perfect setup for unobtrusive photography. The camera was on loan from Olympus and SXSW was one of many places I took the camera to test its capabilities.
I shot for some 3 1/2 hours from the evening into night. I started on 6th street, walked down to the trendy Rainey Street area and back again to 6th. Not surprisingly, the camera worked flawlessly. I’m quite familiar with Olympus micro 4/3 cameras so I knew what to expect. But there are improvements, after all, and the Mark II is Olympus’ latest and greatest. With every iteration one hopes that there are at least a few refinements along the way.
I’ve talked at length about the new 40MP mode but that’s not relevant here. I was shooting on the street and the high-resolution mode requires everything to be locked down — shot on tripod. No. Focusing speed, image stabilization and fast frame rates were what mattered most, on that day.
I’ve gotten used to super quiet shutters on my Fujifilm X100S and Pentax Q7 and I’m happy to report the Olympus’ Mark II implementation is even quieter. Along with the 10 frames per second burst, I could rip off multiple frames without anyone knowing. This works great for candid photography as you see here. But I could see it as a real boon for wedding photographers or anyone else that needs to be perfectly quiet. These refinements are something that Sony does not realize on their current excellent but noisy mirrorless cameras. The Mark II is all about refinement.
SXSW Interactive seemed livelier from my perspective. While I have no idea if the actual conference sessions were any better, I got a good vibe on the street. I like how the organizers combined the 6th Street and Rainey Street areas together to create a continuous flow. It increased the size of the venue which made it more free-flowing and open.
Near Rainey Street, an ad hoc food truck park made for rich street photography. I like shooting in these places since the light from the trucks and the surrounding darkness makes for a moodier cinematic feel. Are food trucks a passing fad? Perhaps these images will date themselves like plaid polyester sport coats.
The bars and restaurants on Rainey continue to expand and have a unique Austin feel — different from the grungy and downscale 6th street but populated with hipsters. I like Bangers for its warm incandescent glow. The periphery featured low-key corporate sponsors but they fit in decently well into the overall mood. After years of shooting SXSW, maybe the impact of blatant corporate sponsorships no longer irritate. I just view them as part of the fabric, backdrops to the scenes I like to capture.
I’ve had good success shooting between 1/20 to 1/40 of a second. Olympus’ in-body image stabilization works well and these shutter speeds give me a combination of motion blur and tack sharp results. Not always on the same image, of course, but it works surprisingly well.
Coupled with the f1.8 lens, I was able to capture some truly low-light photographs. The image stabilization helps, no doubt, but the Mark II can really hold it’s own in these kind of environments. Back when I first started with Olympus with the E-PL1, I would’ve struggled. Slow focusing and noisy high ISO performance, no more. That was 3 or 4 years ago. The modern-day micro 4/3 world has changed enormously.
My friend Mark, who accompanied me for part of this street photography exercise, shot with his Leica M. The Leica M is no doubt a fine camera and a very expensive one at that. But I couldn’t help but have sympathy for Mark’s challenges. You see, while the Leica is capable of producing fantastic images, it’s doggone difficult to do so. While people say the equipment doesn’t matter, they are kidding themselves. It’s so much easier to shoot and capture images with the E-M5. Perhaps you can argue that modern technology is not as satisfying since it’s so much easier. And I can understand that sentiment. When I shot with the Leica M on 6th Street, I felt a great deal of accomplishment when I created a good image.
But the world moves on. DSLRs are great but old tech, so are Leicas, even the digital ones. The mirrorless cameras are smaller, more nimble and have real world features that make them more fun to use and help get the job done. With more mirrorless iterations than perhaps anyone, Olympus continues to refined the experience with their newest E-M5 Mark II.
Red Carpet Actress
Austin like faux Hollywood
There are two significant features on the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II among a slew of smaller improvements. I’ve talked about the first one, the 40MP high-resolution mode. For most people, the second major feature is probably more significant — 5 stop, 5 axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS). It’s a potential game changer for a low light situations. And more importantly, it makes photography a heck of a lot more fun.
I’m no stranger to tripods. When you shoot a lot at night like I do — you need them — if you want to create high quality urban landscapes. On my recent night photography excursions in Las Vegas and San Francisco, however, I opted to shoot sans tripod. What a liberating experience. Olympus’ newest built-in image stabilization is that good. Life is so much better without a tripod.
Ever since the first Olympus micro 4/3 camera, the E-P1, they’ve included In-body image stabilization. That’s been one of my favorite features and a competitive advantage. Every major iteration brings improvements and on the Mark II, Olympus claims up to 5 stops of stabilization. My casual tests confirm that the performance is noticeably better and I get at least 4 stops, regularly.
What does this mean for real life photography? I can shoot at lower ISOs even at night. I shot all of these at ISO 200, the base ISO, which gives the best image quality. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/2 of a second to about 1/8 of a second. Of course I couldn’t shoot all of my night images at 200 but many were in the lower range, typically under ISO 800. You see why I didn’t use a tripod.
In San Francisco, I got the best performance. Here’s an image I shot at 1/2 second at a 36mm equivalent (that’s 4 stops of performance). Tack sharp. A 1/2 second exposure requires me to concentrate, hold my breath and use good techniques. The IBIS does the rest and I can reproduce consistent results.
In Las Vegas, I used a more comfortable 1/5 of a second and shot a lot faster. I use shutter priority, set the speed depending on the situation and use Auto ISO. That way, I know the camera will optimize for the lowest possible ISO value and I maintain the highest image quality. 1/5 of a second also works well for motion blur, which I like in these situations. It imparts a sense of action which compliments a lively place like Vegas.
So are tripods dead for me? Well, not really. Though for most people, they may no longer need one. When shooting HDRs, I still prefer to use them since I get rock steady framing between multiple exposures. That neat 40MP high-res mode also requires the stability of a tripod.
Make no mistake, 5 stop image stabilization is significant and it works (to varying degrees) on any lens. It gives me that ability to shoot free form, at night, like I do during the day time. I used the 12-40mm Pro lens which tops out at f2.8. Imagine what you can do when you use a prime lens with an even larger aperture? Well I have. I’ll talk about my results in an upcoming post.
I’ve talked about the new 40 megapixel mode on the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II a couple of times already (here and here). Out in the canyons near Las Vegas, I explored this special mode some more, via landscapes. The high-resolution mode thrives on stillness. It needs a tripod and, ideally, very calm weather to do its magic. This high-resolution is achieved via sensor shifting which makes 8 passes. When the conditions are just so, you get some wonderful results.
Luckily, the wind was non-existant most of the time. And even though the bulk of compositions consisted of immovable rocks, there’s always scrub and grasses that would benefit from absolute stillness. Back in San Francisco, where I tested the high-res mode, I had some doubts of its efficacy outside. Even in the city, I often found some subtle movement that would render less than perfect results. However, on a very still day at Muir Woods, I found that landscapes were indeed possible.
With tripod in hand, I shot in and around Red Rock Canyon, 30 minutes west of downtown Las Vegas as well as at the Valley of Fire State Park, located 1 hour east. All of these where shot as 40MP JPEGs with the E-M5 Mark II with the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. I cropped all but the last image in a 2 x 3 aspect ratio. I find that I like these landscapes better that way. And even with the crop, I’m left with sizable 35.5MP images.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m new to landscape shooting. And I don’t consider myself a true landscape shooter since I’m not camping out for days waiting for the perfect environmental conditions. That, to me, is what sets a true landscape photographer apart. The lighting here is hardly dramatic and the skies are sort of blah. I suppose you can almost consider these well composed snapshots. But, I am happy with the results. Also, I think these high-resolution “test shots” are a lot more interesting to look at than the typical snaps used to test cameras.
I haven’t spent much time in the desert but I really enjoy its minimalist beauty. With less underbrush, visual clutter is easily controlled. The rock formations have some vague similarity to the urban structures that I typically shoot. And the red rocks are striking and make a nice counterpoint to the blue skies and the blue-green plants. These two photos are from the Valley of Fire. I’m sure you can tell where it gets its name.
Here’s a bit of cliché but it’s hard to resist a gently curving road. The 40MP high-res mode takes a couple of seconds to execute even under bright conditions. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic.
The image looks OK but a bit flat. I shot the photograph at the top of the post, 20 yards left of this road. It’s my favorite with the wonderful color variations. It’s also a HDR — created from three 40MP images, which I post-processed on the computer. While the image pops nicely, I don’t think it looks garish like some HDRs.
Finally, one from Red Rock Canyon. I took the same scene with both 40MP and the standard 16MP. At web sizes, the resolution can’t be appreciated. However look at two squares at 100% — therein lies the difference. The one the left at 40MP and the right at 16MP.
The problem of course is that you, the viewer, don’t get to see full resolution images on a large display. These small web sizes ultimately don’t do these images justice. I have two displays on my computer. A 15” retina display on the Mac Book Pro and the 27” external Thunderbolt display. While the big external monitor looks fine, it’s really the high-resolution retina display that really shines. I would love to take a look at these on one of those new Retina 5K 27” iMac displays. Now that should be truly spectacular.
We weren’t planning anything for spring break this year. Actually, we hardly ever do. A week just seems too short to bother with and it’s a good excuse to just catch up and relax at home. But, at the last-minute, my wife said she found “reasonably” priced airplane tickets and hotel accommodations. In Las Vegas!
I’ve only been to Vegas once, for a couple of days, a few years ago. The rest of the family has never been. I still have these notions of a city of wild parties and boring business conventions or perhaps a mix of both. I didn’t think it was a proper destination for a family trip.
But looking at Google Maps, I discovered a treasure trove of natural parks close by. Red Rock Canyon was a mere 30 minutes west of the famed Las Vegas Strip. The Valley of Fire State Park, an hour east. My older son was itching to go hiking and a 30 minute drive beats a 7 hour expedition to Big Bend, so things started to look interesting.
Of course, photographically, it could be interesting too. My recent first trip to Big Bend National Park was my introduction to hiking and landscape photography. I felt comfortable following up with another trip — at least I already had the hiking boots and photography backpack. Then, of course, there’s always the wild, kitschy and exuberant Las Vegas architecture. That would fit in great with my urban landscape interests.
We had a great time. We went to Red Rock Canyon twice as well as the Valley of Fire. We did some night life things too, in moderation. We saw two shows and walked through some of the more dramatic showcase hotels. Each family member got to do some of their favorite things.
I shot photos of course. That was my main interest beyond spending quality time with the family. I couldn’t shoot as much as I wanted, though I’m sure, the family thought I shot more than any normal person should. It’s a delicate balance. I also, hesitantly, brought 4 cameras on the trip — two digital and two film plus the iPhone.
I was testing the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and also had my small Pentax Q7, mainly for black and whites. On the film side, I brought my chunky medium format Mamiya 645E and the compact Nikon 35Ti. All, packed into a 15 pound package, which I managed to successfully pass through TSA checkpoints. I even got them to hand check the film.
The hiking was more challenging than my first trip to Big Bend. I carried the said 15 pound package plus a 3 pound tripod up a trail rated moderately strenuous. The Mamiya was the heaviest and most bulky. I wondered if it’s worth the effort but then I see the colors that I got from film and I’m encouraged.
It was a fun mix of nature and the man-made. Day time outdoor activities and night-time glitz. A lot more photos to come.