Last weekend I was lucky enough to get on a photo walk in London sponsored by Olympus. The event appeared on my Twitter stream, and despite not owning an Olympus (digital) camera these days, I took the opportunity to email Olympus to ask if a camera and lens could be made available for me to try out: I had a very quick response from them to say, yes, they would happily lend me something.
Let me say up front that for my purposes, I think my Nikon D810 is about the best camera on the market today, bar none. I've had it for a couple of years now, and I've not seen anything that appeals to me more as a go-anywhere-do-anything general purpose camera.
But "go-anywhere" has its limits. On the trip to Berlin that I blogged about last year, I found myself leaving the big 24-120 mm ƒ/4 lens behind in the hotel, and just going out with the 35mm ƒ/2. Lugging the camera and zoom combination around a city for the whole day was just not that enjoyable. Since then, I scarcely take the big zoom walking around with me at all, even though I've been fortunate enough to take the D810 to Paris, New York, Normandy and many other places.
All of which brings me to Olympus. I'm looking for something altogether smaller and lighter than the D810 as my "go-anywhere" companion. I have a predisposition towards Olympus cameras, not least because I spent a quarter of a century shooting with my OM2n, before going digital in 2005. That camera, with its jewel-like Zuiko lenses, was for me right-sized, as well as being highly responsive and producing wonderful pictures. Admittedly, the shutter speed ring around the base of the lens was an ergonomic disaster, and the on-off switch was in the wrong place, but other than that I still think it is a fantastic camera :-)
The OMD series, as well as the PEN-F, are similarly right-sized. So, as the opportunity came up to try out one of them on a real evening shoot, I grabbed it.
The photo walk was run by Angela Nicholson of Camera Jabber. She gave us a great introduction to the aim of the evening, which was to have a play with the OMD multiple exposure modes and light painting.
The live composite multiple exposure mode is very clever, although conceptually quite simple. Essentially the camera takes a base exposure, and then automatically takes a series of subsequent exposures at the same setting, blending them together using the equivalent of lighten mode in Photoshop. This means that the multiple exposures build up on the rear-view screen as they happen, so, for light painting, you can watch what's going on and when the desired effect has been achieved, press the shutter button again to stop the exposures. After a period of in-camera noise reduction, a single raw image results. This is a terrific idea, and I can see this kind of thing being of use at, for example, an aircraft night shoot.
I was kitted out with an Olympus OMD E-M1 mark-II and the 12-40 mm ƒ/2.8 lens. Claire, from Olympus marketing, had kindly brought one along for me and was very generous in showing me all the relevant ins and outs of the settings. Of course, this was what I'd hoped to have a play with: the newest and latest and greatest, two and a half grand of gear.
We set out for some of the local squares and parks in Bermondsey, and ended up in the teeth of a howling gale and horizontal sleet on Tower Bridge. Setting the camera on my tripod, I was quickly in the business of collecting live composites. Claire was a really good sport in waving coloured LED lights around in front of us to get our multiple exposures. It was tremendously easy to get effective light trails, and watching them build up on screen was both a bit magical and gave a reassuring feeling of being in control.
The only criticism I have is that there isn’t a way to pause the multiple exposures in the middle of the set. For instance, if you are collecting light trails from traffic and a bus parks in front of you, you’d want to pause the series, and restart once the bus has moved on. Obvious, and should be addressable in firmware, I imagine. (And while we’re at it - why not some other modes? Overlay, screen and multiply could all be useful, I’d have thought?)
Having given the local squares ago, we ventured onto Tower Bridge for some light-trails with the moving traffic. Unfortunately, the horizontal sleet soon landed on the front of my lens, and even though I gently wiped it with a clean lens cloth, and put my back to the wind, I still still didn't get any pictures I really liked. Nevertheless, the live composite mode certainly worked.
I took the opportunity to do a few other shots on Tower Bridge. Reverting to type, I tried some street-shooting. I set the camera to ISO 3200 and ƒ/5.6. This was optimistic, I suppose, because it gave a shutter speed of about 1/6 of a second. However, as the picture above shows, it worked fine. The image stabilisation is excellent: it coped perfectly with several exposures where I held the camera at arms-length in portrait orientation, with the screen articulated in a down position for composition. Anything more likely to give camera shake from my wobbly hands can scarcely be imagined. However, all the shots were sharp. Outstanding!
So, what to think? The E-M1 mkII is a little bit of a marvel. It's pleasantly small, it's very light, and travelling with it would be great. The 12-40mm lens was wonderful, and the whole ensemble didn't seem to notice the weather. But, for me (and based on a single evening’s shooting) it does suffer from two downsides. The first is the price. Like I say, it's a little marvel, and, of course, that comes with a price tag. Camera Price Buster currently puts it at £2399, including the lovely 12-40 mm ƒ/2.8 lens. At this point, that is simply beyond my budget. It may be a fair (opening) price, but I'm not letting go of my D810, and I would have to do so to afford the Olympus.
The other thing is that I've got really spoiled with the full frame Nikon high-ISO. For night shooting, I think nothing of setting the D810 at ISO 3200, and in the usual English murk, it's very useful for wildlife shooting as well. Although the well exposed areas of the Olympus pictures at that high sensitivity looked okay, as soon as I started to push the sliders in Lightroom to bring out just a little shadow detail, or alter the exposure, the electronic noise really showed through. Now, it is true, as Rick Sammon says, that if your picture is so boring that people notice the noise, then it is a boring picture. Even so, I just don't think it's something I want to have to put up with. (Having said all that, the example shown above has no noise-reduction applied).
If I only wanted a camera for travel (or if I was an enthusiastic light painter), and without the demands that I tend to put on my D810, I would get the Olympus. But – the D810 is still my fundamental general-purpose camera.
Anyway, my thanks again to Angela Nicholson and Claire from Olympus for the excellent help and advice on the photo walk. If you're possibly interested in this kind of thing, check out the Olympus events webpage.