photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

No more excuses

A picture speaks a thousand words

in GAS , Saturday, August 08, 2020

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(as previously hinted :-) )

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III


in GAS , Friday, June 05, 2020

Well ok, bowing to intense pressure I’m going to resume blogging in a sporadic way, because my fans tell me that’s what they want.  And in order to boost my traffic to unprecedented levels, I’m going to do a gear review.

So here we go.

In March I bought an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III (Black) Body Only because the man in the shop said I should and he’d give me a special discount and Olympus would send me some gifts I don’t need.

Here it is:

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I left it like that for a few months because it looked so cool.


I tried out this “handheld high resolution” thing, and it’s not much use because it takes over the stabiliser and with my caffeine shake that’s terrible news, and when stuff is moving it’s all weird and choppy and blurry oh and it takes, like, 20 minutes to save the shot so that’s no good.

I haven’t tried the ND filter thingy yet.




The gifts from Olympus arrived yesterday.





Sigma sd quattro H

take it, or leave it ?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A couple of months ago I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying a Sigma sd Quattro H. Ever since the camera was announced, some years ago now, it intrigued me.  As a sometimes delighted, sometimes frustrated owner of the Merrill and Quattro dp fixed-lens series, this new interchangeable lens Foveon sensor mirrorless camera seemed like something I could put to good use.  Of course, it being a Sigma, things are not as simple as they could be. The camera is indeed mirrorless, and fairly compact, but it is designed to take Sigma’s DSLR lenses. This is not totally bad news, as the recent generations of Sigma lenses have been gaining a strong reputation for Zeiss-like levels of optical performance and build quality at a quarter of the price. Unfortunately, they are not a quarter of the weight, or the bulk, and a quarter of Zeiss prices is still a lot of money.

But anyway, here I am, with a sd Quattro H body (let’s shorten that to sd-H from now on), a 35mm f1.4 Art lens, and a 24-70 f2.8 Art lens. The latter is really huge.  And now I need to be convinced all this was a good idea.

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The Sigma sd Quattro H with 24-70 f/2.8 lens next to the Olympus E-M1 with equivalent 12-40 f/2.8

I have used the Quattro dp0 quite extensively, mainly as a “panoramic” camera with the 21:9 ratio. That, together with previous Merrill dp2 & dp3 experience meant that I was not blind to the potential issues. In suitable conditions these cameras can be jaw-droppingly effective, but the range of conditions that can be reliable considered suitable is narrow, to put it mildly.

Although the usual claim by enthusiasts of these Foveon sensor cameras is of remarkable resolution (which they have, but let’s not go overboard), for me the killer feature is (and again, in the right conditions), a film-like delicacy of colour and colour transition. This can justify me packing the dp0 Quattro as special-use secondary camera, but the question is, are the results clear enough to justify the sd-H and 24-70 lens, four times heavier and bulkier?

Before following up on that, let’s just have a quick recap of what the sd-H offers. There’s a full, in-depth review at DPReview, so I’m not going to spend much time on technical stuff here. The body is very well built, and feels like it cost more than it did. It is comfortable to hold, despite its unconventional shape.  The controls are well laid out and easy to reach, although I would prefer the QS Quick Menu button to be in a similar position to that on the dp body. The menu is a paragon of good design - it’s a pity so few people will see it. The back of the camera has a typical Sigma quirk, with two screens side by side. The second, smaller one is used to display shooting parameters. And unlike the dp series, there is an electronic viewfinder, which is quite large and comfortable, but suffers from the difficulty of getting a high rate video stream from the Foveon sensor. Still, it is serviceable. Basically from an ergonomic point of view things are pretty good.  Oh, and there is an option to produce linear DNG output instead of X3F Raw files, which means you can open them directly in Lightroom, etc. Although I’m not sure I’d recommend that. Oh, and the autofocus can only be described as “****** hopeless”.

I have used the sd-H properly now on 4 outings. One to Venice, which didn’t go well, two quick trips to the local Valle Verzasca, and just recently a long weekend in Tuscany. It’s still all a bit inconclusive. I got some nice results in Verzasca, but I was very constrained by the lack of Depth of Field preview. Also the lack of an orientable screen or finder can be very restricting. Basically it’s not a lot fun using the sd-H on a tripod, but generally that is where it works best.

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this kind of detailed, softly lit scene is where the Sigma cameras do excel

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For my trip to Tuscany I went well prepared. The area is one I know extremely well (I even published a book about it) and there’s absolutely no stress to get the shot, because either I’ve already got it, or I’ll get it next time. I also made a DNG colour profile for the camera, and took along my MacBook Air to be able to do some on the spot verification.

So, I did some handheld shots, and some tripod shots, initially all in DNG, and imported them into Lightroom. I was pretty disappointed. For example, the clichéd shots of Tuscan poppies were just smudges, with reds either overblown to flat areas with no detail or clipped to white. Just like digital cameras 20 years ago.  A shot where the ISO crept up to 800 looked like some Chernobyl aftermath. Some shots were inexplicably soft (the 24-70 lens is stabilised, but it’s no Olympus), which I’d also noticed in Venice. And generally the resolution and sharpness was not impressive at all.

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Foveon colour at ISO 800. Ouch.

Oh, and the classic Foveon green flare made a unwelcome appearence.

Sdh green flare

the classic Foveon green flare

But then… when I got home, I opened the same images on my desktop computer, which has a fully calibrated Eizo monitor attached to it, and there a rather different picture emerged (literally!). The overblown reds turned out to actually hold detail. The softness in some cases turned out not to be so soft. Some of the poppy field shots turned out ok. And the photos which I took in X3F format are technically not so catastrophic. So the lesson there is that perhaps my 2011 MacBook Air is not the best tool for evaluating image quality.

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Foveon colour at ISO 200. A bit better.

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Hardly a portfolio shot, but technically this one worked ok.

Since there was quite a lot of mountain bike touring involved on this trip, I didn’t limit myself to the Sigma. I also took my Olympus E-M5ii, with my old and travel worn 14-42EZ pancake zoom. This, unlike the sd-H, could happily travel in my backpack. Oh, the shots show a somewhat alarming softness on the right bottom corner, but if you don’t look too closely, the combination actually works pretty well.  Of course, putting a “proper” lens on the Olympus narrows the gap quite a lot, making me question the sd-H even more.

When quickly reviewing photos to illustrate this post, I noticed some shots taken in previous years in Tuscany using the dp0. That camera has a smaller sensor than the sd-H (APS-C rather than APS-H), but a fixed precisely matched (and ultra wide) lens. And even as thumbnails, the shots just pop off the screen. I expected the sd-H, with Art lenses, to have the same effect, but so far, it doesn’t. I’m not quite ready to put it on eBay, but as it stands at the moment it could not justify its place in my camera bag on a real trip.  I guess we still need to work on our relationship.

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This is beginning to get there.




well it’s more interesting than photography…

in GAS , Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A couple of months ago I had two blog posts playing around in my head, on the twin topics of “Software” and “Hardware”. “Software” got published, and here, belatedly, is “Hardware”.  I know: gear isn’t important, it isn’t interesting and it has nothing to do with Art, or indeed Photography. But, hey, it sure gets clicks.

The idea really is to get this stuff behind me once and for all. To choose a solution on both fronts that I’m comfortable with, and from then on just do the photography stuff. I might still browse through gear reviews and those crazy, crazy forums on the train or wherever, but only at a distance. And actually, on the Software side it seems to be working. I did have a bit of a glitch a month or so back, when my faithful Epson 3800 printer finally decided to throw a hissy fit. I replaced it with an Epson P800, and thanks to my investment in ImagePrint, it just slotted in and was immediately productive. In the past it would have taken me weeks, months even to get to grips with a new printer, but with ImagePrint handling everything it is completely seamless.

So, printing, that’s kind of halfway between hardware and software. The real hardware is the glitzy black boxes covered with dials and knobs with big tubes sticking out the front. Since I got into digital, I’ve been a faithful (or maybe lazy) Olympus user. My current “default” camera is an Olympus E-M5 MkII which I actually bought on impulse at a crazy low ex-demo price as a backup to take to Antarctica.  By the time I returned it had become my main camera, and although the shutter count is still some way short of my near-retired E-M1, I’m sure if I could record how long I’d carried both for, the E-M5 would win easily.

My last major outing with the E-M5 was to Madeira, where I was seriously surprised by the wealth of photographic potential. I had just the E-M5 with the 12-100 lens with me, having taken a fairly casual approach. What I sorely missed was a polariser, but still, the combination generally worked very well.  Where it did fall down is on something I’ve noticed before: distant fine detail, especially in vegetation, has a tendency to turn into an unsightly mush, which is noticeable even at A4 print sizes - well, it is to me, anyway. This impression has been confirmed to me by an acquaintance who is a professional Olympus user, and just has to be considered to be a limitation of the relatively small sensor and low-ish 16Mpix resolution. But it really only strikes in very particular circumstances - for example in urban photography I never notice it.  But anyway, this leaves an itch when it comes to some types of landscape photography.  Other than that, the Olympus m43 system fits me just fine. The lenses are just superb, and the bulk / weight, or lack of both, are very welcome.

But still, I wanted a “high quality” solution.  I’ve been seriously toying with the idea of Medium Format mirrorless, the Hasselblad X1 or Fuji GFX.  I briefly tried out the GFX and felt that it was a very nice camera, even if I prefer the aesthetics of the Hasselblad.  But the prices ... especially of the lenses ... I really cannot justify. If I was a professional, maybe, or even if I was a good enough photographer to do either justice, but I’m neither of these, so no. I’d rather spend the money on a trip to Greenland, but since I don’t actually have that kind of disposable income anyway, that’s not an option either.

But there’s another option lurking, which any readers of my past writings on gear might well see coming: Sigma. I’ve been dithering about this for ages, and typically, the death sentence of the Sigma SA lens mount and associated cameras bought about by Sigma joining an alliance with Leica and Panasonic was just the trigger I needed to grab a Sigma sd H Quattro while I still could. I’ve been a strong fan of Sigma cameras since the DP2 Merrill, and have got some very satisfying results from the ultra wide angle dp0 Quattro. But these are fixed lens cameras and rather specialist. The sd is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, albeit one compromised (in some senses) by taking Sigma SA mount lenses designed for DSLRs.  The Sigma Art lenses are optically fantastic, on a par with the best Olympus can do, but O.M.G are they huge and heavy.  Initially I got the 35mm f1.4 Art, and supplemented it with the 24-70mm f2.8 Art.  I doubt I’ll be adding to the collection.  Being used to micro Four Thirds (or even non-micro Four Thirds), and indeed Sigma “compacts”, I’d largely forgotten about camera weight. The Sigma sd H itself isn’t heavy, but add a lens to it, and it takes me back to the nightmare days of my Canon T90 with solid lead telephoto lens bolted on the front. It’s going to have to really produce the goods to stay off the shelf.

Although people rave about the resolution of the Sigma Foveon sensor, rightly so, my attraction is more to the crystalline clarity and luminance of the photos it produces.  It’s as close to film as I’ve ever seen from a digital camera - indeed much closer than any other. The colour output has a similar character to Kodak Portra, although unfortunately with a dynamic range more like Fuji Velvia.  But in the right circumstances, both the Merrill and Quattro variants of the sensor really sing.

So there we have it - Olympus m43 for general use, Sigma sd H and dp0 for when I need something a little different. I decided to take the sd H, with the 24-70 lens, along with the E-M5 and 12-100 lens for a short trip to Venice last week, thinking I might dedicate a little bit of time to some side by side testing.  Of course I could do side by side testing in our back garden, but I actually need interesting subjects to motivate me to “test”, and our garden, welcoming as it is, doesn’t really qualify, especially not at this time of year.

It all went wrong. Of course it did. The 24-70 lens arrived at the last moment, so I decided to take advantage of an hour between trains to try it out at Milan Central station, and to review the files on the way to Venice.  Then in Venice I took it out in the late afternoon to just do some more familiarisation shots.  The battery ran out at about 70 shots, probably because it wasn’t fully charged to begin with, but also because the lens has an optical stabiliser, which doubtless sucks up power. No problem, I just reached into my pocket to swap in the spare battery, only to realise that I’d bought the dp0 spare, not the sd, and they’re very different.  And of course I’d brought the dp0 charger as well. So the wonder-camera turned into a temporary very heavy doorstop.

Not haven taken any really challenging shots, or indeed been all that careful, and no comparison shots at all, I don’t have much to base an opinion of the sd H in an urban setting on, but to be frank, what I do see doesn’t really blow me away.  It’s early days yet, but I have a nasty feeling that the perfectly matched fixed lenses of the Sigma dp series play a bigger role than I’d realised.  I did, however, take a few landscape shots in December when I first got the camera, and they were promising. We shall see.

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Venice, by Sigma sd H Quattro with Sigma Art 24-70mm f2.8 lens

The kind of embarrassing thing though is that I also had my Ricoh GR II with me, and due to the lack of power for the Sigma, and also an unfortunate accident with the E-M5, it got pressed into service far more than I expected. And not only did I really enjoy using it, but the “image quality” is actually quite breathtaking. Of course I already knew this.  Waaaay back towards the end of the last century it was the original film GR1 which shocked me into realising what a difference a great lens can make, and the descendants of that camera have maintained the tradition of optical excellence. In fact, I’m loathe to say this, but the GR, at least at 28mm, may be every bit as good as the Sigma. Ouch.

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Venice, by Ricoh GR II with Ricoh 18.3mm f2.8 lens

The Olympus E-M5 did its job efficiently and reliably, and I certainly enjoyed using it.  It doesn’t quite have the wow factor of it’s two companions, but it provides a far greater degree of flexibility than either, and remains my no 1 choice.  Unfortunately, on a night time shot, I was carrying it on my Gitzo Traveller tripod, and the assembly holding the ballhead to the centre column fell apart just as I was heading home.  The E-M5 hit the paving stones - well the 12-100 lens did so first - rather abruptly. The mount on the lens was visibly skewed and the lens was unusable. Fortunately there was no other visible damage, and the camera seems fine.  The lens has gone off to Olympus for repair, and I’ve ordered a new centre column from Gitzo through gritted teeth. I do sometimes - ok, often - wonder just how much Gitzo actually really deserve their reputation.

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Venice, by Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus m.Zuiko 12-100mm f4.0 lens

So, that’s the hardware story.  I did cast around a little, I looked at the new Nikons, I even looked at Panasonic, but finally I decided that Olympus backed up with Sigma and Ricoh are a pretty good comfort zone.  Actually, if only Ricoh could expand their philosophy to a somewhat wider range (yes I know about Pentax, but no thanks) I could be very happy with just that. The Sigma sd H may turn out to be a big, heavy mistake. But the dp0 is a gem.

Oh, and about film cameras? Yes, well, they’re all sitting on a shelf, along with a drawer full of film. I haven’t used a film camera since last September, and right now I feel absolutely no urge to do so again.  Things may change, but I may, just possibly, finally be done with film.  Anybody want to buy an XPan ?


Photokina Fallout

GAStrology time again

in GAS , Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The recent avalanche of new camera announcements (albeit most of them vague promises for 2019) have once again stirred up doubt and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. As a committed and long term user of Micro Four Thirds, and Four Thirds before that, I might be wondering if all this rush towards “full frame” somehow invalidates my photography. It’s a stupid reaction, but not uncommon, and let’s face it, I’m just me against the relentless onslaught of marketing and Internet pseudo-peer pressure. Every telegraph pole out there has a raven perched on it, croaking “Micro Four Thirds is dead, nevermore!”.

I have to confess some of the offerings look tempting. The Nikon Z7 seems pretty nice in theory - I saw one in the flesh yesterday, alongside the Olympus E-M1.2 and Lumix G9 MFT cameras, and the Nikon looks about the same size as the Olympus and actually smaller than the Lumix, despite housing a sensor that’s twice the size. Then again, boy is that Nikon ugly! And not even in a quirky way.

The standard defence of MFT would be that the cameras and especially lenses are smaller and lighter. Well, although there are smaller and lighter variants in the MFT world, honestly if you want reasonably fast, weather sealed lenses, and a rugged body, in many cases you may wonder if the smaller, lighter bit starts to get a bit marginal.

I’m not so bothered, in general, about “image quality”, whatever that means. Generally any modern camera is good enough for everything except very special cases. But nevertheless, recently I have been starting to get frustrated with a certain lack of resolution of high frequency detail in the far distance. Close up, there’s no problem, the Olympus body/lens combinations can deliver all the resolution I’ll ever need. I can understand that MFT might impose too many limitations on, say, outdoor portrait or wedding photographers, but for my mixed urban/landscape stuff, generally it’s not the limiting factor. I rarely need to go over ISO 1600, indeed I’m not that often over 200, and I tend to be scaling for more depth of field, not less.

Anyway, to try to get a handle on the realities of the situation, I decided to make a small series of prints from Olympus files (all 16 Mpix) at the largest size my printer offers, A2. And, frankly, they worked out just fine. They stand up very well to high quality scans from 120 format film, and in some respects to Sigma Foveon files. Honestly, I can’t see me ever needing to print bigger - I have no actual use even for A2. If ever I did, I’m sure I can find professional printers who can go up to A1.

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A2 Prints from Olympus 16Mpix files

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Detail of above A2 Prints

I then started to think about a couple of future trips I have planned, which involve flights with very restricted weight limits. That’s when the apparently marginal weight advantage of MFT starts to kick in. For example, the marvellous 12-100 f/4 lens is practically on a par with any Olympus prime, even the f/1.2 series, and at a push could work as the sole lens for most trips. It weighs 560g, and with Dual IS offers unbelievable stabilisation. There is a 24-120 f/4 Nikon lens that weighs 710g and has less range (yes, I know all about depth of field, but for me this is at best irrelevant, at worst a downside). If we move up to the equally fabulous Olympus 40-150 f/2.8, which weighs 760g, then the closest Nikon I can find is the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which weighs 1.5kg and is significantly more expensive and bigger. It’s at this longer end that the MFT weight advantage really kicks in. And if you’re willing to compromise a bit on aperture, then you can find very good MFT lenses that hardly register on the scales.

Certainly “full frame” sensors have an attraction and certain advantages in noise threshold, dynamic range, and resolution. But frankly, these advantages are often not much different from trivial. I’ll take the possibility of carrying an extra 150mm of focal length reach over a 0.5db increase in dynamic range.

Olympus didn’t announce ANYTHING at Photokina, which was another sign that the sky is falling on them, apparently. Well, it might not be the best news for Olympus, as new product drives sales (I suppose), but it’s fine by me: I’ve pretty much got everything I need - although that 300mm lens is sort of tempting. I don’t even have the latest body, the E-M1.2 - it doesn’t really offer me anything over my E-M5.2 or E-M1.1, and it’s noticeably bulkier. What I would like to see Olympus work on, personally, is a range of optically excellent medium aperture primes, along the lines of Leica Elmarits, and a high-end medium aperture medium zoom, within the 14-35mm range. But then again, the “low end” lenses they already offer in this range are really far from poor.

So, in summary, the grass is actually a perfectly nice hue of green on my side of the fence, and I’m sticking to it. I did vaguely hint at the one Photokina announcement that really did have me clutching my wallet: the L-Mount alliance. The thought of a full frame Sigma Foveon camera interchangeable with Leica and Panasonic bodies, all three taking each other’s lenses is really interesting news. Certainly not a solution for weight-constrained trips, but otherwise, I can see this paired with my Olympus kit as the ultimate solution - for me.

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