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Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO review

well, my idea of a review, that is

in Product reviews , Wednesday, July 22, 2020

So, here’s a gear review. It’s not tongue in cheek, nor is it sarcastic, but it is purely subjective, is grounded solely on my own needs and desires, and has absolutely no measurements or “tests”.

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I didn’t need the (deep breath) Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens. I’ve already got far too many Olympus lenses, including the near-overlapping M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2:8 PRO, and the M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ (“AMATEUR” I assume). And of course I don’t actually “need” any of this stuff. However I have long wished for Olympus to break out of the “high quality lenses have to be fast and heavy” mindset, and offer smaller lenses that do not compromise on quality (either optical performance or handling). To some extent they made a move towards this with the 12-100mm f/4 PRO, although nobody would describe that lens as small or light - even if relatively, it is. So, given all of this, when this 12-45 PRO was announced, I was interested.

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The new tiny 12-45 f/4 PRO versus the giant 12.40 f/2.8 PRO. Take your pick.

While the rough direction of my photography tends towards relatively exotic travel, especially the higher latitudes, clearly I don’t do that everyday. But photography is part of my everyday life, and while I don’t necessarily share much of my day to day, mundane photography, I still do it, still enjoy it, and it keeps me in practice. So, having a compact but quite nice and high-ish quality system is enticing. On the camera side, the OM-D EM5 Mkii fits the bill, but the existing 12-40mm PRO lens is a touch unbalanced on that body, especially without the various bolt-on grips and baseplates.  And the 14-42 EZ isn’t very inspiring, at least my copy isn’t, although it was probably better before it had a fairly traumatic trip around Colombia.

Yes but. The 12-45 PRO lens is quite expensive, and from my point of view, hardly essential. However, when shopping at my favourite online store the other day (for mosquito repellent) I noticed a very interesting “open box” offer for the lens, some 30% off standard price. At that price I thought it was worth a go, especially right now it might be a good idea to buy up Olympus lenses while we still can.

So here it is. I’ll skip the unboxing ritual, although it is worth pointing that this lens comes with a rather nice soft cloth wrap, rather than a clumsy pouch, which could actually be useful. As opposed to all other PRO lenses (and a number of AMATEUR ones), it has no “manual focus clutch”. This is no big deal - in my opinion this is only really useful on prime lenses. I can switch to manual focus on the flick of a switch on the camera body anyway. Otherwise it is clearly a member of the PRO family, both by design and heft. Addressing the number one question, is it really that much smaller than the 12-40 PRO? Well, side by side there is less in it than you might expect. But when mounted on the EM-5 MkII, the difference is very noticeable. While the 12-40 PRO unbalances the handling (to some extent, let’s not exaggerate), the 12-45 PRO feels absolutely perfect.

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So, I bolted the the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens on the front of OM-D E-M5 MkII body (sorry, I seem to be drifting slightly towards the Sarcasm Sea here, I’ll try to stop it) and took it for a brief walk while waiting for a doctor’s appointment (I’m fine, thanks for asking). Unfortunately - or not, who knows - I didn’t notice that the camera was still set to use a custom colour setting I’d been playing around with, and to record in JPEG. Just as well I’m not into “tests”.

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My initial impression was just it was just seamless to use. It fits perfectly onto the E-M5, and is a really nice, flexible walk around lens. The zoom range is very useful, and it does have one special trick up its sleeve in that is has a very short minimum focus distance of 12cm at all focal lengths. This gets close to macro range. It’s sharp - at least as sharp as the 12-40 PRO - and as far as I can tell at all focal lengths, starting from wide open. Of course, wide open is “only” f/4, which some bespectacled angry geek will pop up and correct to “f/8”, but that’s part of the design. Frankly f/4 is good enough for me. I’m far more often struggling getting enough depth of field rather than complaining I’ve got too much.  Of course it could be brighter, but then it would be a 12-40 f/2.8, and, well, start at the beginning if you didn’t get the message on that yet.

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A close focussing test.  At focal length 12mm.

I’m pleased I bought this lens, although the special price had a lot to do with it. It has its own niche, and for me that will be getting glued to the front of my E-M5 MkII. This, and just maybe the 17mm f/1.8, will fit very nice into a corner of my small Domke shoulder bag, and be a perfect companion for casual photography. Which is most photography, for me.

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All photos taken around Mendrisio, Ticino, Switzerland.

 

Doubling down

and moving out

in Photography , Saturday, December 28, 2019

The frequency at which I updating this site recently hardly justifies the hosting fees, or indeed all the work I put into upgrading it some months back. This reflects my currently diminished interest in “engaging with the community”, where more and more I’m finding that an audience of 1 is all I need.  There’s nothing world changing or meme generating about my photography, so it would only be counterproductive, and probably depressing, to fish for likes and whatnot.  Although you’re more than welcome to boost my ego on Flickr.

Another brake on my visible creativity is my processing, in both a computing as well as a mental sense, of the too vast haul I brought back from Greenland in September. The problem there is that the overall quality is too high. It was really difficult to cull the stragglers when a very high proportion of the photos was pretty good, even if I say so myself. And to a reasonable extent I avoided repetition and taking “just in case” shots. This is problematic because I don’t have to time to edit thousands of photos, and I already have a significant backlog. On top of that, I’ve been busy planning another imminent trip, once again Deep South to Antarctica, with an Hors d‘Oeuvre of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia. I’m kind of telling myself that the Patagonia leg will be focused on trekking, with at most a little vacation photography, but we all know where that ends up.

Which brings me finally to the point. My last few, far between posts have pretty much been about gear, and so is this one. After quite a lot of thought and dithering, I have decided to redouble my reliance on micro four thirds gear, and in particular Olympus. There is a significant advantage in polar regions to having two cameras, generally one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto, so I have replaced my older E-M1 (which did fine in Greenland) with a second E-M1 Mark II. How do I explain this extravagance? Well, lucky me, I work in a Swiss Bank, so I’m insanely rich, darling (well, really less rich than insane). And considerably more truthfully, the fact that the Mark I and Mark II have different batteries means more weight and bulk to carry, and the slightly different control and menu layouts are annoying.  The new Mark II came with a free grip from Olympus, which is also useful in Antarctica. And both, together with a set of Pro zooms covering a wide focal range, snugly fit into the camera bay of my fabulous Atlas backpack, which is perfect for trekking. So there we have it.

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I expect the Sigma dp0 will come along too, although my objective of keeping weight down to 20kg + 8kg backpack for a 30 day trip is under quite some strain.

Regarding the Olympus stuff, I‘ve mentioned the mushy far distance effect which I dislike a few times. Actually I‘ve looked at raw files from other cameras, including medium format, and seen pretty much the same thing, it just sets in at a greater distance or higher frequency. Probably another aspect of the same root cause is a plasticky look which sets in on surfaces like exposed rock in certain circumstances. Processing software has an effect on both of these behaviours - I find Adobe Lightroom / Camera Raw to be the least bad. Interestingly the Sigma cameras seem to be free of these effects, as does film, so maybe it is a Bayer filter thing, but these systems have their own drawbacks.

Mush

This is what I mean by “mushy”.  This is a 1:1 screenshot, probably further damaged by compression, but maybe it shows what I mean.

Finally, does any of that make an iota of difference between a good photo or a bad photo? Of course not. But it can be annoying.

So, my objective now is to take as few photos as I possibly can, and to try to be aware of and work around the limitations of my gear. Oh, and to put a memory card in.

** I was hoping to fit in a “my favourite shots of the year” before heading off, but I ended up spending the time unpacking and repacking everything again.  I’m a hopeless traveller.

 

Hardware

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 ?

 

Interesting Times

Fame ...AND fortune!

in Photography , Thursday, January 10, 2019

Welcome to 2019. I spent the last couple of weeks off the grid - no forums, no Twitter, no Brexit, no Trump. It was wonderful.  On my return I found quite a few surprises, for example the palace revolution at the veteran Luminous Landscape website - see Andrew Molitor’s take on that. Other than some very helpful experts populating the technical forums, the Luminous Landscape hasn’t been very relevant to me for quite some time, but in it’s heyday it was a big influence on me. I followed the site since the very early days, pre-digital boom, and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge Michael Reichmann as a major influence on both my photography and my approach.  Some may find that an uncool admission, but it could have been a lot worse.

But the next big surprise was an email from Olympus Europe, telling me that my already forgotten submission to their “snow” competition had actually won.  And netted me a €500 voucher to spend on Olympus gear. Well, I don’t really know what I’m going to do with the voucher, but the praise is very welcome!

I’m also feeling just a little vindicated, because the photograph in question - which I actually took way back in 2006, is reasonably typical of my general approach, and not a blatant attempt to win a competition with some 500px super saturated horror.  To be honest I had no expectation whatsoever of winning.  The technical quality is terrible and the photo was shot using a measly 10 Megapixel Olympus E-3 camera.  Here it is…

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I can only thank the judge, Lukasz Bozycki, for his astounding good taste :-)

Literally ten minutes after the email from Olympus Europe, I got a totally separate email from the publishers of the UK-based Olympus magazine asking to use a photo of mine in an upcoming special issue. Fame AND fortune! The day job must be starting to feel nervous.

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

Uncompetitive spirit

although with right incentive…

in Photography , Monday, October 08, 2018

I’ve never been one for competition, of any kind. I prefer to do things my own way, to set my own goals, and not bother too much what other people are doing. This is not restricted to photography - I have the same attitude towards all forms of work and play. I certainly compete against myself, for example setting time or difficulty targets for mountain biking, but I really have little interest in fitting in with some set of restricted parameters to compete with others. The fact that I’m a miserable antisocial loner doesn’t help much, mind you. But when it comes to photography, and indeed all arts, I really, really do not get the idea of competing. How can we say that one person’s mode of self-expression is better than someone else’s ? It strikes me as being more harmful than anything else. Of course if you treat photography as a technical endeavour then it can work - prize for the razor-sharpest photo of nothing in particular, prize for the highest resolution brick wall, prize for the most slavish conformance to the Rule Of Thirds. Etcetera.

Which is all a long preamble to say I entered a competition. Not exactly National Geographic, but instead a competition run by my local bricks and mortar camera shop, Foto & Ottico Carpi of Bellizona (of which more below). The competition required a submission of just one photo, of an animal. Any animal. And the first prize is an Olympus E-M1 MkII, so not exactly nothing. Still, despite my having plenty of photos of animals (not that I’m any good at all at wildlife photography), I still dithered up until almost the last moment before sending in my entry.  You may be able to spot it in the screenshot below:

Screen Shot 2018 10 07 at 22 07 51

The quality of the entries to the competition has really taken me aback. This is a competition run by a small, if excellent, shop, in a small provincial town in one of the sleepiest parts of Switzerland, open only to subscribers to the shop’s mailing list. It just goes to show how many really excellent photographers there are, and that despite all the sneering about selfies and camera phones, there is still a very significant section of the public who take photography seriously. Of course, these could all be the shop owner under different pseudonyms :-).

I’m not sure when the winner will be announced, but I am sure it won’t be me.

Footnote:

Foto Carpi is a family business, run by the professional photographer Milo Carpi, located in the Main Street of Bellinzona, Ticino. They are an Olympus Pro dealer, Nikon as well I think, and also stock Sony, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma and a surprisingly good range of accessories. They even sell film. I got my last ever rolls of Ektachrome E100G there. They quite often run open days supported by the importers of their main brands. It’s really encouraging to see such a business managing to survive in these times, but the icing on the cake, and really surprising thing are their prices: I only really look at Olympus prices, so I can’t say for sure that this applies to all brands, but their Olympus prices consistently undercut even the lowest prices from Swiss internet box shifters. And this with personal service and advice, the security of being able to personally bring in any defective or damaged item, and a hotline to Olympus Switzerland. I try to give them as much of my business as I can.  And I often find excuses to stroll past their window display.

 

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