photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

One year (and a bit) later

in Olympus E-System , Tuesday, February 15, 2005

So I've had the E-1 for just over a year. I've taken about 6000 frames with it, I've made my first commercial sales as a photographer with E-1 photos, and I've probably progressed a great deal as a photographer due to the freedom that digital brings. So maybe it's time for a quick review update. Rabadan_050205_10_001.jpg
Gugge Musik group at Rabadan 2005, Bellinzona. Some of the first entries I posted here included photos I took at Rabadan 2004. This time I had the flash!


I can't say I've had any major problems with the E-1. I've had no failures either of the camera or any components, even when submitting it to quite harsh conditions. I've treated it with respect, but I've assumed it was designed to be used, not left on a shelf, and it has not been mollycoddled. So far it hasn't complained. I have had some problems with auto focus, especially with the 50-200 lens, and even more so with the TC14 converter. The main problem is that the camera has had a bad habit of losing focus on foreground objects. However, a large part of this is probably down to me, not being at all familiar with AF, and underestimating the learning curve. Recently I've forced myself to be more methodical with it, and things have improved a lot. The new 1.4 firmware helped to. Only twice has my E-1 frozen, requiring a battery-remove reset - both times this was with the FL36 flash attached, which I'm not 100% happy with. But then again, I'm a total novice with flash.

What I like, particularly

  • The viewfinder. It is far better than any other DSLR in its class, and most above it. I've at least handled most DSLRs, and the only one with a better viewfinder I know of is the Canon EOS 1Ds - and it should be better! The 100% coverage is fantastic, and makes up for the 1Mpix difference between the E-1 and Canon, Pentax, Nikon and Minolta cameras.
  • The battery life - it just goes on forever. I've only once been caught with a low battery, and it was my fault, 100%
  • Handling: the camera just feels right. It balances perfectly, and all the controls are in the right place - well nearly all
  • The lenses. They're all great. Maybe the best is the 50-200 zoom, which is amazingly flexible, applicable to semi-macro close-ups, portraits, and of course wildlife. It is a little bit heavy though!
  • The dust shaker. One doesn't really notice it of course, but that's the whole point. It is very entertaining watching one's peers frantically cleaning their Canon & Nikon sensors. I've never cleaned mine. I have no idea how to, and I doubt I ever will. And I change lenses frequently, in all conditions. Finally this brilliant innovation is getting noticed elsewhere...

What I like less

  • Image review - it really should be possible to automatically display a image post capture with shooting info, e.g the histogram. I really cannot understand why a firmware update could not incorporate this.
  • No ISO information in the viewfinder. This is a fundamental parameter for a digital camera. Ok, you can bring it up by pressing the ISO button, but the camera should remind you, not the other way around.
  • The software. Olympus Studio is not very good, certainly not worth the price. It has a few nice touches, such as being able to rename files using EXIF data - why does nobody do this ? - and a decent workflow, but all in all the usability is poor, it isn't always very clear what it is doing, it has some irritating bugs, and it remains slow. Version 1.2 improved the speed, but added several new showstoppers, such as - incredibly - killing the histogram update in RAW development. CaptureOne is far better, although Studio remains the only choice for computer controlled shooting.

Long term view

I think investing in the 4/3rd system was a good move. I have bought the 50-200 and 11-22 zooms, and the 50mm macro, as well as the 14-54 zoom. I might trade the 11-22 for the 7-14 when it becomes available. However, I hope that the system will take off to the extent that a wider range of lenses becomes available, and even that specialist lenses such as a tilt/shift are offered. I would very much like to see a Fuji 4/3 body with the sensor from the S3, and even more to see Fuji making 4/3 lenses. At the moment things are looking quite good. However, I doubt that the E-1, or any 4/3 camera, can fully meet my needs as a photographer. This isn't bad - when I had the Canon T90, I used the Hasselblad Xpan just as much, along with a few other more esoteric devices, like the Hasselblad ArcBody and the Fuji GS670. The Xpan still gets used relatively often - the others not so much. But probably at some point I will add a "medium format" digital system to the E-system. A Hasselblad H1 would be nice! But then again, so would a Zuiko 300mm F2.0 lens... Probably the year in which I've used the E-1 has been my most productive year as a photographer, and I can't say much better than that.

ZD Lens Magnification

in Olympus E-System , Tuesday, February 08, 2005

For a long time before I bought the Zuiko ED 50mm macro lens, I (and others, I think) was intrigued by the apparent fact that the 14-54mm zoom actually focusses closer than the 50mm. How could this be ? There was plenty of comment on forums such as DPReview about the magnification factors of the lenses. This didn't make much sense to me, as surely a 50mm is a 50mm, no ? Well no, not exactly, as the closest focussing distance of a zoom lens is not necessarily constant at all zoom settings (focal lengths). To illustrate this, and to see how various Zuiko Digital lens combinations shape up, I've conducted an informal comparative test of the 50mm, the 14-54mm and the 50-200mm to see which can give the best magnification. I'm not really into heavy testing, so it was a bit rough and ready. The subject is a Swiss 2 Franc coin, which is about 26mm across: I set the lens at closest focussing distance and moved the tripod until the edge of the coin was in focus. All shots are at f/8. The lighting and aspect differs as I had to move the tripod to different positions for each lens. All files were rapidly processed in Capture One immediately to sRGB JPEG, with nominal sharpening. Here are the test shots: 50mmExt_001.jpg
ED 50mm Macro, with EX-25 Extension Tube 50mm_001.jpg
ED 50mm Macro 14-54TCat54_001.jpg
ED 14-54mm Zoom, with EC-14 1.4x Teleconverter, at 54mm 50-200TCat283mm_001.jpg
ED 50-200mm Zoom with EC-14 1.4x Teleconverter, at 283mm 14-54at50mm_001.jpg
ED 14-54mm Zoom, at 54mm 50-200at283mm_001.jpg
ED 50-200mm Zoom, at 200mm 14-54at37mm_001.jpg
ED 14-54mm Zoom, at 37mm Obviously the 50mm with extension tube gives the highest magnification. The 14-54mm does focus closer than the 50mm, but it does this focusses closest at around 37mm. At 50mm it is someway off. Of the three, the 50-200 is perhaps the most flexible. Although it isn't compatible with the EX-25 [CORRECTION - it has been pointed out to me that this is a mistake - it is in fact compatible] , it can be used to get some quite effect close-ups. There are some combinations I didn't try, such as the 14-54mm with the EX-25 (I ran out of time), but it wouldn't change the result. ps - this entry, and quite a few recent ones, was posted with the brilliant Mars Edit from Ranchero Software. Whilst writing this, for the first time ever it crashed on me, just as I opened iTunes - maybe it found David Sylvian's "Blemish" a little too avant garde for its tastes ? :-) Anyway, I soon stopped cursing - Mars Edit also has an autorecovery feature which rescued everything I wrote, unprompted and immediately. Now that's what I call software.

Pixel mapping

in Olympus E-System , Monday, February 07, 2005

So, about 1 year on from buying my E-1, I suddenly noticed...... ARGHH! a STUCK RED PIXEL!!! Rabadan_050206_23_001.jpg
the stuck pixel The world is ending! I need a new camera! I have to search the web for horror stories about hot pixels!!! And then, I remembered: a quick trip to the camera settings menu, select "Pixel Mapping", press ok, et voila, no more red pixel. Apparently Nikon & Canon owners, and quite possibly Pentax too (but maybe not Minolta) have to send their cameras to be serviced to accomplish this task. :-p

Silverfast DC-Pro for E-1 RAW

Lasersoft Imaging is a company with an impressive pedigree in digital imaging. For years, their Silverfast software has been the gold standard in scanning software, supporting a huge range of scanners with a sometimes bewildering variety of options and configurations. From low end consumer devices to high end drum scanners, Silverfast has it covered. Many hardware providers have given up on their software, and either bundle just Silverfast or provide alongside a token face-saving effort of their own. Silverfast is extremely powerful and with some experience can be used to extract the best from scanners, especially film scanners. However, it isn't exactly a usability paragon (although it is better than its only serious rival, the cranky and bug-ridden Vuescan). Since Silverfast is basically a generic image enhancement application layered on top of a device driver, it didn't take a huge leap of imagination to work out that the device driver could be a RAW decoder. And hence a new range of Siverfast variants, the DC range aimed at digital cameras. As a long-time Silverfast Ai user, since Lasersoft claim to support the E-1, I've been tempted to try it for some time. There are 4 variants to Silverfast DC - DC-SE, DC-VLT, DC Pro, and DC Pro Studio. DC SE is the basic version, bundled with some cameras (e.g Leica Digilux); DC-VLT includes the VLT (Virtual Light Table), a RAW engine limited to 24 bit output, and the full, sometimes overwhelming set of image adjustment utilities. DC Pro is the same (also includes VLT) but supports 48 bit output. DC Pro Studio adds some extra features to DC Pro, for example the clone tool, which is I think unique in RAW converters, allowing dust and hot pixels to be removed at the conversion stage. Confused ? Well we've hardly started on Lasersoft's Byzantine product segmentation! Anyway, the main thing to remember is that we have effectively two loosely coupled applications. VLT is essentially for selecting, organising and managing digital images, DC is for processing them, although the boundaries are a bit blurred. The functionality of the VLT depends to some extent on the version. You switch between the two but you cannot have both on screen at the same time. The reason for this is, I suspect, a legacy issue, as the DC series are really a bolt-on to the Ai scanner series. However, the VLT isn't bad at all, once you get used to it. It is fast and responsive, highly customisable, and in my opinion better than Photoshop's File Browser. You can use VLT to select photos from the file system and sort them into any number virtual albums, you can queue images for background processing, and a host of other things, but it must be said that certain features, such as batch processing, are as clear as mud. In many ways VLT combines the best of Olympus, PhaseOne and Adobe's features, but one thing missing is the ability to compare several previews at once. It does avoid imposing its own idea of the world, unlike C1 with its annoying sessions concept. The only drawback is, as I said before, the fact that you have to switch to another application to apply corrections. VLT has also a very complete EXIF browser, one of the best I've seen. vlt.jpg
Silverfast's Virtual Light Table Unfortunately it is when you switch to the (confusingly named) "Silverfast" application that the early promise starts to fade. The initial images presented look quite strange, apparently because Silverfast doesn't use the in-camera white balance. Bringing up the same image simultaneously in Olympus Studio 1.2, C1 SE v3.6 and Silverfast gives almost identical results in the first two, and a completely different rendition in Silverfast. Silverfast does seem to bring out better shadow detail than the other two, but at the expense of a bizarre colour balance which is all but irretrievable, even with the fast power of the image correction tools on offer. DC-Pro, unlike DC-VLT, appears to use the Olympus RAW internal thumbnails (with DC-VLT, thumbnails are generated by VLT, like in C1). Ironically, when you first open an image in Silverfast DC Pro, a very nice looking preview - generated from the thumbnail, I assume - flashes up, only to be overwritten by the above-mentioned oddity. dcpro.jpg
The Silverfast image adjustment application A core feature of the generic Silverfast range is color managed workflow. Silverfast allows you to - indeed encourages you to - calibrate your scanner against a supplied target. DC-Pro also includes camera calibration features, and a supplied target. This really would be a winning feature, except for the fact that even Lasersoft themselves point out that camera calibration is so dependent on external factors that it is of little use except in controlled shooting conditions. It is an interesting feature to have, but it may be at the root of the problem which Silverfast has with the E-1: the interpretation of the RAW data is based on camera profiling, and it appears that with the E-1 at least, Lasersoft have got this seriously wrong. The adjustment tools do allow a reasonable rescue operation to be mounted, but this requires first going to another application to read the in-camera white balance, and to generate a reference image to try to match. All a bit pointless really. For those unfamiliar with the scanner versions, Silverfast also includes some strange-seeming options, such as a Descreen filter. Very useful for scanning printed paper, but not much called for in RAW processing. In the same menu as this unlikely option are the sharpening (USM) tools, and another hangover from film scanning, the GANE grain reduction tool (which can't be applied at the same time as USM!). This, at least, can be used for noise reduction - except that there is a noise reduction slider in the Picture Settings widget (which only comes with DC Pro Studio, as far as I know - even more confused ?). All this needs a serious tidying up operation. DC-Pro Studio adds yet more mayhem, with a more flexible sharpening tool, the above mentioned clone tool (which actually includes a texture matching option putting it on a par with Photoshop's healing brush), and the AACO Auto Adaptive Contrast Optimisation tool, "for the correction of dark, high-contrast areas of the image while preserving the details in the highlights". AACO is a newcomer to Silverfast's vast acronym collection. It seems quite useful, but the early version in Ai Studio was buggy. A final point is that it isn't quite so clear where in the processing these tools are applied. Mac and PC trial versions of all DC Pro variants are available from Lasersoft. The trial is fully functional but imposes a watermark on final output. It does allow one very positive point to be seen - apparently Lasersoft have managed to avoid the dreaded "tetris effect" in bright reds which plagued earlier versions of C1 and others. dcpro2.jpg
300% zoom in Photoshop of Silverfast converted RAW - no Tetris! Silverfast is especially interesting because it offers the promise of a one-stop, integrated solution for both digital and film-sourced raw image processing. It is competitively priced compared to alternatives such as C1, and unlike any other rival it matches and sometimes goes beyond Olympus Studio's organising features. The Silverfast correction tools are really all-encompassing, and in some areas, for example the ability to simultaneously adjust individual RGB or CMY channels, way ahead of Photoshop. A free rotate tool similar to C1's would really complete the package. However the transition from scan correction to RAW adjustment software has been handled clumsily, and needs a serios rethink. There are far too many ambiguous, redundant or plain irrelevant featires. But for Olympus E-1 owners, at present colour fidelity is a showstopper. Lasersoft have stated on the Silverfast forum that fixing the GUI is a priority. If they can fix a few other things, improve E-1 profiling, and try to separate out specific film scanning features from specific digital RAW adjustment features, then they may still be well worth watching.