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.