Category Archives: photography

An Old/New Photo Gear Mashup

As I divest from my Nikon APS/DX gear there have been some moments for reflection on what I actually want to be taking pictures with. The move away from Nikon was about size, weight, and handling. The Olympus Micro Four Thirds (M43) gear is a pleasure to use. It is light and has both a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a good tilting LCD display (some models swivel). So I can shoot eye-level, waist-level and overhead. Most of my photography has me doing all three and I don’t want to have a lot of lag (Live View, I’m looking at you) or a murky display or a display that doesn’t tilt both ways. Nikon is having some serious not-growing-pains as they stake out the DSLR market and can’t put out a mirrorless system that people want. See the previous post for a pre-mortem on that subject.

I enjoy manual focus photography, though I have become so used to Aperture Priority mode with easy exposure compensation adjustment that I only shoot manual in very specific circumstances. The OM-D and PEN cameras have a good focus peaking system and make manual focus easy enough.

But what about old-school manual focus? Well, I mated up a very nice non-AI Nikkor-P 105/2.5 that I picked up for a song on eBay to my E-M10 with an el-cheapo K&F Nikon (G) to M43 adapter. That would normally be a recipe for disaster since non-AI lenses can bust the aperture feeler on modern Nikon gear, but the adapter works like a champ!

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Ben Bilello

In short: The Oly doesn’t use focus-peaking on a manual lens, but the EVF on the Oly is bright and clear enough to make manual focus a snap. It also deactivates the image stabilization, so it is really a throwback experience. On the plus side it meters in “fake aperture-priority mode”! You have to view at the aperture you want to use, and the camera sets an appropriate shutter speed. Even the exposure comp works.

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Vance Provey

I’ll probably look for a similar AI or AI-S version, plus a wide, to use on my ancient D200 body as well as with the adapter to M43. The non-AI mount may not have bodged the sub-$20 adapter guts, but it will wreck the D200’s innards.

Why I left Nikon and went Mirrorless

This is a post in two parts, and conceptually this is Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 1, How Nikon could be the Next Kodak (if they aren’t careful).

A few years back I was feeling particularly hemmed in by the classic DSLR experience. I was happy with the images from my Nikon D300, but not happy with the “eye to the finder” mode of shooting. Among the reasons is that I am a former Rolleiflex TLR user, and waist-level viewing is very pleasurable. It is less “in your face”, it gives a more natural eyepoint on some subjects, and it doesn’t involve blocking your face with a camera body. I also shoot a lot of live music and event photos, and shooting overhead is better when you can look up and see a real-time preview.

Some DSLR’s have live-view and an articulating display. I thought I had it figured out with a D3200. It was a very affordable way to hang a newer and more friendly body off of my existing DX glass. It was also light, had decent live view, a decent LCD display, shot HD video. The other side of the coin is that I was still lugging a heavy kit (17-55DX, 70-300VR DX, and a 35mm f/1.8 normal lens). The body was a little lighter, but not enough to make a day walking around the city any easier.

As I perused the camera landscape I saw that Olympus and Panasonic were making cameras with a newly spec’d “Micro Four Thirds” standard. As well, these cameras depend entirely on the sensor to provide the preview. Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and all have a nice bright display (most articulate for waist level and overhead viewing at a minimum). Good glass was available, and the cameras were well received by the finicky photographic press. I took a walk over to my local Brick and Mortar (Camera Bar in Hartford, CT) and checked out the cameras in-person.

Rant on.

I did the right thing and bought my camera, a Olympus E-M10, from Camera Bar. I have been known to browse in person and buy on-line, but not for purchases where I have picked their brains and gotten some good non-pushy advice. YMMV, but I’m happy I did that. I’ve bought other cameras and accessories there, and will continued to do so. Good folks deserve my business.

Rant off.

The point of all this is that Nikon just announced that the DL, their anticipated entry into the mirrorless game, is being scrapped (the weak-selling 1-Series is not a factor here). I think they made the right move but for the wrong reason. What they should do (IMO, selfishly) is design a mirrorless camera that accepts their DX-mount lenses, which are affordable and often excellent, and ditch the swing-up mirror. A swing-up mirror is an anachronism in a camera for anything other than a few specialized pursuits. Of course it made sense at the birth of the DSLR. These cameras were built using existing 35mm film bodies and had digitals sensors swapped in where the film plane/pressure-plate had been. It allowed the big SLR makers to leverage their investment in SLR technology. Sensor technology was in its infancy, so asking the sensor to stay on all the time, as well as provide output to multiple displays, was a bridge too far.

For all the advances in DSLR technology, and those cameras continue to be excellent performers for both stills and video, what exactly is the mirror doing in a camera like a Nikon D7000 Or a Canon 5DMKII? My feeling is that it is truly vestigial and an annoyance for most users. These cameras have sensors that are clearly capable of running full tilt all day. Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror? Or more specifically: Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror in every level and every price range? (If you think Canon has fared any better in catching up with mirrorless tech… read THIS)

One of the advantages of the mirrorless generation is that they can use a shorter focal distance (the distance from the lens flange to the film plane), allowing a shallower and smaller camera body. But there is another advantage is the lack of a mirror mechanism. Entry-level gear like the Nikon D3200 I experimented with have a mirror mech with an expected MTBF of 50-100,000 actuations. Most could probably outlast that by a bunch, but then again most entry-level cameras will never see that many shutter presses. A professional or prosumer camera might be good for 150k actuations. Still, that’s a lot. But I’m not sure it is ever anything other than a noisy inconvenience in a consumer camera.

So that is where a company like Nikon, an also-ran in the story of mirrorless cameras, could really clean up and deliver something better than they currently provide without actually developing a new camera system and without the question of “do we throw yet another freakin’ lens mount into the alphabet soup that is modern photography equipment?”. Nikon should transition to a Mirrorless DX camera to supplant/continue the already good/great 3xxx series. Hell, you could reflex the light path 90-degrees with a fixed mirror/prism and gain a shallower body while still using the DX flange distance… just sayin’….

I wish I could have thrown in on an upgrade to my D300 and gone on loving the Nikon DX experience. But now that I have a few years of mirrorless under my belt, and my Nikon gear has languished (actually being passed on to my nephew) I can say with confidence that I am not ever going back. I could end up moving to Sony or Fujifilm and their excellent mirrorless products, or I could upgrade my E-M10 when the time is right, or maybe another Micro 4/3 body like Panasonic/Lumix… But no. Not going back.

I’ll speculate in Part 1, the prequel, about how things could really go sideways for Nikon if they screw this up and decide that they can be the torchbearer for traditional SLR technology.



Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).

How big is Micro-Four-Thirds?

I began to share my experiences with my Olympus OM-D E-M10 in two previous posts. The transitions from my Nikon APS-C gear has been a mixed bag. Technically it has been fairly easy. Artistically it has been more challenging.

My expectation was that the steepest part of the learning curve would be adapting my Nikon routine to a new system. And sure, the Olympus menu system is different, and in some ways more complicated/arcane. That turned out to be  a one time thing. How often do you really rework your everyday settings? For me, not often. I now know the Olympus menus well enough to get what I need most of the time. I have been thrown off a few times but once you remember that all the time/bulb/comp modes are in the manual shutter settings it solves most of those problems too.

The real joyride has been artistic, with a side of camera capability. The photos from the Olympus have a different look. The exposure curve is different. It does not demand a maniacal devotion to underexposure the way the Nikon does. I don’t think I ever intentionally used a positive exposure compensation on the Nikon. That would be suicide in anything other than deep overcast conditions. You would be asking for a world of blown highlights.

Conversely the Olympus seems to have broader latitude, and a more accurate matrix metering system. There is a caveat: areas of high tone seem to block up without being clipped. If I am shooting an area of white, like clouds or sea foam, the image will lose detail in that bright zone.

the SABINO, Mystic, Connecticut

Here is a photo of the steamboat Sabino. The image is not overexposed, but the chine of the hull is lacking detail. It doesn’t look awful, but it does lack depth. This would not have happened with my D300.

On the other hand, I took a few images at an indoor farm market, under mixed lighting, where I was not expecting much and the result is:

Wild Mushrooms, Matane Public Market

Beautifully saturated colors and crisp detail, without having to resort to much in the way of post-processing. That is the kind of image that has kept my D300 in the bag.

The difference between my two systems reminds me of the differences between color print films, or color transparency films. You liked Kodak, or Fuji. You probably did not like both. With DSLR you probably fall in with Nikon or Canon. I think of Nikon as Kodak and Canon as Fuji. You get more pop and saturation out of the Canon. You get a warmer, natural image out of the Nikon. If that is the case, then the Olympus is leaning more toward Canon. The images out of the camera look amazing. Sure, the M43 systems give up some resolution, and the images seem a little noisier. But the combination of the glass, sensor and firmware combines to generate some extremely pleasing images.

Speaking of glass, I sprung for a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens and it is very nice. Sure, the automatic focus can be glacial, and the manual focus control feels like a greasy zoom control. However, the images are very good, very flat (in terms of distortion) and the focus speed only becomes an issue in low light. In combination with the OM-D it is a lot like shooting with my old Oly 35SP rangefinder: light, fast, crisp, and easy. What it leaves me wanting is a real old-school manual focus control, and having the aperture on the lens barrel would be cool too. At least I know what I want out of my next fast prime.

Diverting the Workflow

I have a habit, tic, recurring theme…. when it comes to equipment like cameras, musical instruments, fly rods, etc… I typically use one to the exclusion of any other options I might have. My Nikon has sat idle while I explore the E-M10. One way I use this to my advantage is to make sure that the device I am using is providing a learning or creative opportunity. With the Olympus I have the opportunity to reassess my workflow, from exposure evaluation through the shutter press and into post processing.

NEWS FLASH!!! Apple just released the Camera Raw Update to support the E-M10!!! Which is awesome because I have been importing the JPG/RAW pairs with the JPG as the master image (Apple Aperture, another post(s) for another day). Huge news for me as long as the RAW processing doesn’t suck.

The core of my evaluation of a camera comes down to things like low-light performance, focus accuracy, “handling”, and overall noise and image detail. Some of that is more a matter of feel than empirical proof. Compared to the Nikon, descendant of the mighty Nikon F, the E-M10 feels a bit like “OM-1 meets an X-Box”.  When using the very “serious” Nikon you get a lot of very serious options. It took them over a decade to include an interval timer that didn’t require a slide-rule and a night school course. Video was seen as a gimmick, or in Canon’s case a threat to their high-dollar video systems.

The Micro Four Thirds systems have no such baggage. They have in-camera processing that you would recognize from your favorite iPhone app. The Super Control Panel, touchscreen, and highly customizable controls are right out of the same milieu. You get 21st century thinking by the bucketload. Not that it is all for the better, but you get it by the bucketload. The tools are right in the camera to push the sensor into some very rarefied air. Long exposure, composite exposure, simultaneous video and stills, excellent in-camera HDR, focus bracketing…

I will cover these points in more depth as I go along, but here are the things that I have noticed immediately:

Focus By Wire – does not feel like mechanical focus, but no surprises

Focus Peaking – Not as helpful as I imagined

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) – A good EVF, but still an EVF. Plus, the live image looks horrible compared to the preview you see after taking the photo

(All three of the above features fall apart completely in low light/night photography. Want to take advantage of the super-useful LIVECOMP mode, good luck with infinity focusing at night)

Focus Performance – shockingly fast. Even with a lens like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, with a reputation as a slow focusing lens, it is still not brutally slow. But in comparison to the kit lens (just for instance) it is noticeable because the kit lens focuses instantly. And that is with contrast-only AF. None of that fancy phase detection like the E-M1.

Info Display – Olympus lets you decide which viewfinder info mode(s) you see in each exposure mode. Great, except it makes for a lot of twiddling to get the info you want, when you want, on the display you are using.

Menus – Yes, the Olympus menu system is byzantine. Apologists, spare ye thy breath. Basically, your settings in one mode, say Aperture Priority, are only for that mode. I *think* this is how it works, but the menu system gives you no easy way to verify this. Also, when you adjust something in the menu, like turning on HDR shooting, the menu always resets back to the top of the first menu. So you have to navigate back to the item each time you change it, try it, and want to modify the setting or turn it off. It feels like a lot of extra button presses. I know that I will have a full post, or more, on the menu system alone. It might just help me get over the last hump of the learning curve.

Here is an image from the E-M10, f/8, 1/2000sec, ISO1000, uncropped:


Back to the Future with Micro Four Thirds

A few months ago I picked up a compact camera in an effort to give myself a break from lugging my Nikon DSLR rig all the time. I have done this before with Point/Shoot camera ranging from the awful-ish Canon TX-1 to the great-ish Canon G-10, and a few other pocket cameras as well. While they were acceptable for many uses, it was never in doubt that the image quality was a big step down from an APS-C camera, never mind a full-frame model.

I had been following the progress of cameras like the Olympus Four-Thirds range, and the great compacts coming out of Panasonic, Sony, and Fujifilm. My question about why we didn’t have a serious digital rangefinder-style camera, which I have been asking for over a decade, was rarely answered. Sure. there were pricey options from Leica, and a dead-end option from Epson(?), but it wasn’t until recently that you could get anything good for under a grand.

A little background: I grew up shooting pictures with hand-me-down 35mm rangefinders, and they always had some kind of shutter problems, or sticky aperture, etc… But I loved how light, compact, and simple they were. I also yearned for a SLR because I liked the idea of viewing through the taking-lens and having interchangeable lens options. My first SLR was an Olympus OM-G, because I could afford it. Later, an OM-1 when I had the money. That camera changed everything. All-metal build, great lenses, great meter, and as durable as a rock. It was also the smallest SLR available. An SLR that a rangefinder lover could love.

My photography activity slowed down until the early digital era. I have spent over 10 years shooting Nikon DSLR cameras, and have become accustomed to their strengths and weaknesses. My current 3-lens kit is everything I could want for 90% of the situations I encounter. 35mm f/1.8 G, 10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 DX G, and 70-300mm VR DX, and a D300 body. Versatile, Yes. Light, Not Especially.

This past spring Olympus released the OM-D E-M10, a SLR-style mirrorless Micro Four thirds camera with a very good 16mpx sensor and a greal line of lenses. Priced under $700 with kit lens, it was an easy decision. I sold off some gear and paid cash at my local shop (Camera Bar). Yes, I am lucky enough to have a real camera shop in walking distance from where I work. I was able to handle it, compare it to the excellent E-M1, and bought it from them instead of “showrooming” it and getting it on line.

I’ll go over the comparison in further detail as I continue these posts, but for starters I’ll share an image from the Olympus. The top image is a crop and reprocess done on my iPad in PSExpress, and the lower image is the unretouched original. Dusk shoot, long lens, moving subject, high ISO. JPG transferred to my iPad using the camera’s built-in WiFi.

Olympus E-M10, 75-300mm @ 300mm, f/6.7, 1/1250sec, ISO1000




Lazy or Persistent? Still not sure…..

[I published ths post with the intent of finishing it the same day. Two weeks later, I finally got to it. P]

One thing that should be obvious from a quick tour through my Flickr page is that I hammer on similar compositional elements from familiar/repeat locations. One reason is habit. I habitually walk in the same locations and often have a camera with me. Those locations provide a similar arrangement of terrain/water/sky and I am tweaking my use of them as positive and negative space (or tellimg myself that I am). But another side of the process is the challenge of revisiting the same compositional elements and finding new subtleties in lighting, atmospherics, optical effects from lens/camera choices, and encountering other users of the same space. Ragged Mountain in Southington has been a regular haunt for something like 36 years, and I keep finding new ways to view the same terrain.

Ragged is the slice of cliff seen northeast of Hart Pond, and east of Wasel Reservoir.

The most prominent feature seen from the summit of the Ragged Mountain main cliff is Meriden Mountain. The view is directly south, down the spine of the “Hanging Hills” of Connecticut’s traprock ridge complex. As I developed a better organized digital photo collection I was able to assemble a calendar-sequenced series of photos of that view. Click on it and you can see it as a slideshow and watch the seasons progress. While a true photo-nerdlinger would have taken all the shots with the same equipment from the same spot, I am not that nerdlinger. I probably have enough photographs in my collection to create similar sets for a few other locations. They would be similarly “similar” but not forming an exact time-lapse. But it does raise the question of “process”. I am not sure if I revisit the same spots for any specific reason other than enjoyment and convenience. That would make the collected photos more of an artifact than a conscious work. But I don’t carry a camera around for my health either. What started as a way to combine  photography time with a hike with my dog or walks with my wife and friends has definitely evolved into a search for interesting clouds/skyscapes and flattering lighting of the landscape. A midday hike may be invigorating, but sunrise or sunset (more likely sunset) provides something closer to “golden hour” lighting and more vivid dimensionality.

If the upside of revisiting the same locations on a regular basis is allowing deeper compositional analysis and targeting better lighting and weather, the downside might be working on the fly to make the most of a visit to a new locale. Recently I was on a drive with my wife and we stopped at a pier across from Galilee/Point Judith, RI. It provided a very different view to the north than you get from the east side of the inlet (Salty Brine/George’s), where buildings obscure a lot of the horizon:

Jerusalem, RI

That is a location that might very well be worth revisiting, though it isn’t all that convenient. It might not be the most photogenic, but it does have a good view of a rare South County perspective, the northern horizon. This is one of the shorts where I am tempted to use Photoshop to knock out the clutter on the left side. There is great detail in the clouds but the wide shot and the fiberglass boat are not helping show it off.

The skill that I hone while working with DSLR gear is getting a good digital negative, and improving my skills at manipulating exposure and focus on the fly. That can include looking for an improvised camera support to allow a better HDR series (since I rarely carry a tripod/monopod) or using spot metering to evaluate the range in a scene before choosing a metering method. I have also become less dependent on auto focus and auto exposure. Aside from occasionally forgetting to set the AF/MF switch on the lens back to AF , I feel like I am better able to hit the intended values on the digital file.

In the upcoming weeks I’ll post a few more example images with detail about the conditions and challenges of the shot. Thanks for reading.