Olympus E-M5

The new Olympus E-M5 is an interesting camera for street photographers. It’s smaller than an normal DSLR but larger than a candy-bar style micro four thirds such as the GX1. So it might be the best of both worlds for you, or the worst of both worlds.

E-M5 splash resistant

The E-M5 is splash resistant which is excellent news for London street photographers

The E-M5 is launching against tough competition from the GH2, GX1 and even the E-P3 because the sensor size is the same as these other cameras. This means that the fundamental physics behind shallow depth of field, low light performance and image quality are all the same across the competition. To address this Olympus have tweaked the sensor, but don’t expect images that are of a fundamentally different charachter than the other micro four thirds.

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Try before you buy

In my days as a ski instructor, I used to get asked alot by my friends which skis they should buy. My advice was always the same always: “Do a demo day and try them out. Or, if you can’t get to a demo day, then just bite the bullet and hire them.” People hate that advice because it involves effort. But if you want to put in zero effort into your gear selection then you’re not really putting serious effort into your endeavour, whatever field it is in. So my advice on which camera to buy is similar: “Try before you buy.”

Peter Thomson Photography

It's worth spending time to get the right gear for street photography.

The time and money that you spend on renting camera gear will be repaid in better purchasing decisions and educating your taste in what you like and why. So, how can you get access to street photography gear to try out before you buy:

Friends, family and fools
First stop is to try and borrow gear from your friends. You may find that there is more gear available to borrow than you expected. Try friends of friends and putting the word out that your are interested in gear. The advantage is that it’s free (although it’d be polite to buy them a beer or loan them some of your kit in return). The disadvantage is that you won’t get much choice, so the kit available might not be stuff that you’re considering buying.

Professional Photography Gear Hire
Professional hire companies serving photographers are overwhelmingly stocked with Canikon DSLR kit and studio photo shoot gear so not much there for a street photographer. Occasionally you’ll luck into a small company with a little micro four thirds gear for rent but it’s usually an old model. If you’re in the USA then Lens Rentals has a good range of Micro Four Thirds kit.

Film Industry Hire
Professional hire companies serving the film industry often have micro four thirds lenses as part of the kit for GH2s. The rentals can be expensive but if there is a company close by and you can get a deal from them then you’ll get access to some seriously high-end gear.

Review samples
Manufacturers often offer journalist review samples that blogger. You can contact their PR departments via the “media” contact page on their websites. Some camera shops have demo units that you can try out. Ask around your small local camera shops.

Loan programmes
Local groups and clubs sometimes have loan gear. This can be a great source of street photography gear for you to try out. It’s also a great way to meet people that are interested in the same type of photography that you are.

E-Hire UK
In the UK we are lucky enough to have a partnership between Olympus and the old four thirds format E System User Group. That club has evolved and now includes both four thirds and micro four thirds. The gear hire part of the collaboration is administered by a PR company called the Write Group. I’ve hired some of the gear that I’ve reviewed on this site from the Olympus E-Group hire and I can highly recommend it.

They have the full range of Olympus Micro Four Thirds Cameras. The excellent micro four thirds primes in 12mm, 17mm and 45mm. Along with wide zooms like the 9-18mm and the longer kit lenses.

It’s best to join the E-System User Group first and get to know the community a little. Read some of the threads about lens hire and comments on the new cameras. You can dive into the hire list as a PDF from their information page.

Why I hire
I have a process that I followed with ski gear when I was an instructor and have since applied to photography:

  1. Decide your five year plan for building a tool kit (Jared Polin has a great video on this step).
  2. Prioritise the order you need to build the kit in so that you get the most versatile items first.
  3. Read reviews and choose 2 best products that are candidates for your next step.
  4. Try them out (most people skip this step).
  5. Buy.

Try and keep your trial gear focussed on either things you’re considering buying or on kit that will help you learn. For example, it will be a long time before I invest in the 12mm Olympus wide angle prime. But I learnt a lot about framing and depth of field from spending time with it.

7 reasons I won’t be buying an EP-3

I tried out the Olympus EP3 specifically out as a street photography camera. The streets are a natural home for the EP3 because it’s smaller, lighter and less try-hard than a DSLR. But it’s not perfect. In fact it’s far from perfect…

Olympus EP3 Review

For a premium camera there is a lot missing from the EP3.

Shooting blanks: On my second day out with the EP-3 I was swapping memory cards and didn’t put a card back in the EP-3. It shot away happily for the whole morning, with no indication that there was no memory card inserted. This seems minor, but wait until it happens to you. Especially for street shooting, you need a camera that works with you not against you.

Image quality: The high ISO performance is only marginally better than the other micro four thirds cameras. If you’re contemplating your first M43 camera then this would be a good contender, but as an upgrade its disappointing. The image quality is good but, tests have found that the sensor is pretty much the same as the other cheaper Olympus PEN cameras. Even so, it does take great street photos, just not any better than its competitors.

Street Photography Camera Review

The EP3 blows out a little bit like every other M43 camera, but it's still great.

Focus: Obviously the focus speed is good. It’s one of the fastest autofocus in the M43 family. But it doesn’t play that nicely with the Panasonic Primes like the 20mm or 14mm. Occasionally failing entirely to find focus. Just hunting away backwards and forwards. Even with Olympus lenses, the autofocus had a tendency to focus on the wrong things. For example often preferring to focus on the background than the subject. Seemingly regardless of what focus mode it was in.

Build quality: It’s bigger and heaver than the other Micro43 range-finder style cameras like the GF1,2,3 or the GX1 and Olympus EPM1 or EPL3. This extra size doesn’t bring any real improvement in controls, weather proofing, or image quality. The build quality jump from cheaper cameras like the GF2, or EPL2 simply isn’t worth it. The build quality is solid. The metal body is great, but the buttons are cheap and the shutter feels tacky.

E-P3 Street Photo Sample

The EP3 is heavier than most, but it's still small enough to capture nice moments on the street.

Menu settings:The ISO maximum setting forgets itself each time you change modes. This would be fine on some cameras, but the EP-3 has a worrying tendency to bump the ISO more aggressively than aperture or shutter speed to balance for a shot. As a result, you can find yourself shooting at an almost unusable ISO 1600 without knowing it. It’s also fiddly to change amongst the art modes. You often have to reset back to manual and then back into art filters just to choose a different filter setting. Which is a pity because the straight-out-of-the-camera high contrast B&W art filter is actually pretty nice.

EP3 Black and White High Contrast Art Filter Sample

Once you've found the settings, the EP3 art filters are actually quite nice.

Buttons: Click button on the back wheel is unpredictable and makes the second wheel less useful. I’m sure with some customisation you could settle on control settings that you like but the EP-3 is not as natural a full manual camera as I was expecting. The Canon G 12 with it’s multiple wheels manages to squeeze DSLR controls into a small space so the EP-3 dials feel mean and lazy.

EP3 Buttons

The EP3 controls aren't as good as they should be.

Battery: The battery compartment accepts the battery just as easily the wrong way around as the right way. Again it’s a small thing but this is a premium product. You deserve better.

Overall, this is a top shelf camera. If money is no object then you’ll get great street photos out of the EP-3. But if you’re shooting a GF series Panasonic or a ‘lessor’ Olympus then don’t take any shit from EP-3 fanboys. Because it’s not all that. I won’t be getting one.

Who owns street photography

To become a better street photographers we need to learn from the masters. The conceptual artist Vuk Vidor has a great poster called Art History. It got me thinking about what different street photographers are known for. Sometimes it’s not always the thing they wish they were known for.

I’ve put together a poster of about who’s who in the world of street photography in 2011. There might be a few names you don’t know and a lot that you already do.

Who owns street photography

Download the PDF of Who Owns Street Photography

For clarity, I’m not asserting any copyright over the image, the names or the design. Other than that, if you re-use the design yourself, it can’t be for commercial purposes.

I’m planning to revise it for the end of 2011 and do another one in 2012. I’ll update the pdf as well, so do help out by commenting. Have I missed anyone out? Have I misrepresented anyone? What are people really known for and who moved you in 2011?

David Gibson Street Photography Workshops

This weekend I had the chance to do a street photography workshop with David Gibson. David is a member of the in-Public collective and his work was featured in the Street Photography Now book and many others.

Street Photography Lessons

Small format street photography workshop in London

I was a bit worried that maybe I’d get looked down at for shooting Micro Four Thirds by a bunch of big SLR wielding purists. Instead we had a total mix, from a Leica M9 and X100 through to Micro Four Thirds, SLRs, medium format and even a faithful compact film camera.

Street Photography Course

David let each of us explore, looking for new angles, and new shots.

David was great because he met each of us at our own level. For me as a beginner, he had great tips about finding a voice. For others, who were much more advanced, he still had suggestions on curating projects or finding ways to play to their strengths. Overall, there were three key things I took away:

  1. Working with the background more.
  2. Finding the emotion in a shot.
  3. The importance of patience.

On day one we reviewed works by the traditional masters ranging from Cartier-Bresson to Garry Winnograd and cutting edge modern photographers ranging from Nils Jorgensen to Matt Stuart. David taught us a lot and also prompted some good debates such as:

  1. How legal/ethical is street photography?
  2. Should we bounce between black & white or colour?
  3. Should we photograph sick, injured or homeless people?
  4. What defines street photography?
  5. Is composition more important than emotion?

David showed us some of his own work and used it to explain the importance of using projects to keep your momentum and build a direction.

Streettog

We all got to try out new approaches and learn from each other.

We met for a second day at a great little cafe in Shoreditch. A couple of the crew had brought prints with them so we had a nice start to the day with a flat white and an impromptu crit. I was really impressed by the way David encouraged everyone to have a view and I learnt almost as much looking at other people’s work on Sunday as from the masters on Saturday.

Spitalfields

Each person had their own style of shooting.

The morning shooting session took us to Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market. We took a short break at Spitalfields, and then spent the afternoon shooting in Shoreditch and Petticoat lane. We wandered mostly as a group but people also broke off to chase a shot.

Street Shooting

The small group meant that we all got to ask questions.

A highlight was retiring to the pub to review shots from the day. We also made time to critique each person’s portfolio. It was a refreshingly honest change from the polite feedback that you usually get from friends and family. Instead, we had great debates about the importance of consistency in a body of work, how much a photo needs to stand on its own and how a photo reflects the photographers intentions.

Photography Course London

We all tried out new techniques from the classroom session in the field.

I was cynical about going to a workshop for something so subjective as street photography but it’s amazing to learn from other people’s experiences. I was also a bit shy about being a novice but David put us all at ease and I can really recommend the course.
If you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on cameras and lenses then maybe it’s time to invest a little in the most important piece of photographic equipment you have. You.

GX1 Review Questions

I’ve had a few more questions from readers about the GX1 about elements specific to street photography. I think the GX1 is going to be an important camera for street photographers. It meets my main criteria of fast, light and discrete. It also takes great quality photos.

With the GX1 you are buying into a standard that is growing and developing with ever more lenses and a community of passionate street photographers. However, no camera is perfect and you need to pick a tool that suits your usage. A couple of common questions so far have been:

External Viewfinder
The external EVF is not really any better than the G3, so if you really want an EVF then just get a G3. The GX1 with viewfinder attached is taller than a G3. On the street this will mean bumping the EVF against your chest, pulling it off to fit in your coat pocket and generally flaffing around. Not conducive to the decisive moment.

Lumix GX1 Back

The external EVF on the GX1 adds more bulk than I expected.

The G3 is smaller and more subtle than most people realise. It can be used perfectly well on the street. The X100 also has a great viewfinder. Or plump for what you really want and get a Leica.

Lumix G3 Back

The G3 is suprisingly slim in the hand. So if you really need an EVF then try it out.

The real problem is that whatever EVF you use, it’ll never be as clear as an OVF. Kai from DigitalRev put it best (although he was comparing a Sony transparent mirror to a Canon mirror SLR); “The [EVF] feels like looking at what the camera sees, the [OVF] feels like looking at the subject.“ So until EVFs improve I’d take that off the table as a reason for or against the GX1.

As a street photographer you’ll want to experiment with hotshoe OVFs, EVFs and maybe even an SLR style like the GH2 or G3. But in the end you may find that an LCD is just fine.

Build quality
As tough as it is, the GX1 is not a weather-proof camera. The build quality is better than the GF series. But not by much. I said in my original review that I’d be happy dropping the GX1 in a puddle or using it in the rain. But this is more about the fact that it’s good value and if it broke, then it’s not too expensive to replace.

Panasonic GX1 with 14mm Lumix

The GX1 is built pretty tough.

I also think that the GX1 will be like the GF1 in that it’s not technically waterproof, mud proof or dust proof. But that it’ll stand up to most of those pretty comfortably. So test it out for yourself. I think the all metal body will pleasantly surprise most street photographers.

High ISO noise
From what I can tell so far, the JPG engine is better, but the high ISO RAW files will still be pretty noisy over 800. I’m starting to think that this is just the curse of M43 because the EP-3 is no better. ISO noise isn’t a reason not to get a GX1, but if you’re upgrading from another M43 camera just to get better ISO, I’d be wary. On the street, better ISO is great because it gives you more options, but I’ve found that I can live with up to 800 in almost any conditions.

Conclusion
In the end, I’m a street photographer and can only comment on the GX1 for that purpose. I’m guessing that the GX1 would kick all kinds of ass as a travel camera. Especially paired with the X lenes. As a street camera, the GX1 is a worthy successor to the GF1. If you’re new to street photography, the GX1 is a camera that will grow with you and you’ll get years of good shooting out of.

Olympus 45mm Review

The m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 by Olympus is a stunning portrait lens. Put simply, if you only have a kit zoom and a wide prime (like the 14mm, 17mm or 20mm) then you’ve just found your next lens.

I’m a big believer in prime lenses. You get more glass for your money and it forces you to learn how to compose an image by zooming with your feet. But how does the 45mm preform as a street photographer’s lens?

Olympus 45mm 1.8

The 45mm focal length lets you capture small details even from across the street.

I’m not reviewing this as a travel lens or a macro lens. It’d be great for the former and terrible for the latter. I’m a street photographer, which means that what I’m looking for in a lens is speed, discretion and toughness.

Street use
The zoomed in 42mm end of my kit lens is the range that I use the least; so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a 45mm prime lens. But the 45mm is like any fixed focal length lens; the constraints are what teach you to be a better photographer. Marisa Myer, the lead product manager at Google has a saying: “Creativity loves constraints.” I certainly found this true with the Olympus 45mm. You end up moving your feet to compose the image.

Micro four thirds portrait lens

The Olympus 45mm blows out the background for near perfect portraits.

The 45mm forces you to decide in advance what you want the photo to be about. Once I got the shots into Lightroom I found that none of them needed (or would stand up to) re-cropping. All I can say is, get your framing right inside the camera. For me, that meant turning the GF2 into high burst mode and shooting multiple exposures for each subject. There was usually one shot in each cluster that was noticeably better than the others.

Olympus 45mm street photography

The Olympus 45mm f1.8 works just as well for spontaneous reportage shots.

The 90mm equivalent zoom really does reach out and touch your subjects. Reportage street shots suddenly become intimate moments and street portraits suddenly become studies in eyes, facial expressions and emotion.

Image quality
The m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 captures light like a dream. You do need to keep an eye on the autofocus because it only needs to be off a tiny bit to ruin the image. You’ve also got to fiddle occasionally with the white balance because you’ll be getting less in each frame than usual, but overall the image quality is excellent.

Olympus 45 prime

Like most micro four thirds primes, this lens loves strong light and dark shadows.

Contrast is good. Lightroom corrected for any distortion, vignetting or colour aberrations. Of which, there wasn’t really much in the first place. The image quality is consistent with a lens double the price.

Bokeh
The shallow depth of field and bokeh on the m.Zuiko 45mm lens are outstanding. This lens is the reason you got into micro four thirds instead of sticking with an LX5, Canon G12 or Olympus XZ-1 or even the Fuji X100. The f1.8 really brings an M43 sized sensor to life.

Olympus 45mm bokeh

Bokeh balls show up for almost any light source, this is a shot of a lamp post and taxis on Oxford Street in London.

Bokeh balls are soft and round because of the good quality aperture blades. The balls show up for even soft light sources and look consistently good. You simply can’t get this effect with a point and shoot.

m.Zuiko 45mm Portrait

Bokeh balls in daylight. This would be an achievement even on a full frame DSLR.

The blur is smooth and buttery. In the end, this is unashamedly a portrait lens. If you’ve never used a portrait lens before then it’ll feel weird at first, but I got used to it pretty fast. The way it captures faces is excellent, with very little distortion in the foreground and great backgrounds.

Olympus 45mm portriat

It takes a while to get used to composing a portrait to avoid cliches. The key seems to be just enough background interest without distracting from the subject.

The depth of field isn’t as razor slim as the Panasonic Leica 45mm, but for half the price it’s plenty narrow enough to do good portrait work. Just get your subjects standing a little bit further separated from the background.

Build quality
This is a plastic lens. It’s no Olympus 12mm. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The 45mm is well built, solid and tough. For street shooting you’ll still need a filter or a lens hood. But only to protect it from the usual bumps of life on the street.

Olympus 45mm on GF2 shot with GX1

The Olympus 45mm is solid and well built. It looks good on a street camera.

Overall, the build quality would suggest a much higher price. The lens will easily stand up to day-to-day street shooting.

Speed
The focus speed is fast. It’s all internal focus and the focus-by-wire feels good in the hand. The 45mm finds focus well. Even in difficult shots (with multiple subjects) the lens cooperated with the Panasonic GF2 very well.

Olympus 45mm f1.8

The long focal length lets the viewer peer into the scene and the autofocus copes with night scenes and multiple subjects.

The autofocus struggled at macro lengths (anything less than 1 meter) but at normal working distances it kicked ass. Manual focus worked with the GF2 range assist so it was easy to pre-focus for candid shots.

Discretion
Where the Olympus 12mm fell down for being shiny and sticky-outy, the 45mm is a more matt silver, and that little bit smaller. Taken together, the smaller diameter and less shiny body mean that the 45mm is discrete enough to work on a GF/GX Panasonic or PEN series Olympus as a street lens.

m.Zuiko 45mm depth of field

Having some distance from your subjects lets you capture the decisive moment that little bit easier.

The 45mm is also more zoomy so you’ll be a bit further away from your subjects. This means that the demands from bloggers to ‘make a black version’ aren’t as important as for the 12mm. Even so, I’d be tempted to wrap it in black electricians tape if I was using it at night or for shooting protests and riots.

Conclusion
The Olympus 45mm lens brings the versatility of the Micro43 system into the league of the old Olympus OM system or even the Leica Rangefinders. You can now build a solid 24mm/50mm/90mm three lens kit for semi-professional street photography use.

Pros:
– Shallow depth of field
– Focal length forces you to think
– Extremely good price

Cons:
– Requires a little getting used to
– You might graduate into the Leica 45mm after a few years
– Would have liked a black version

The 45mm was so good that occasionally when I’m out shooting a wide angle prime (my natural comfort zone) I occasionally say to myself “Damn I wish I had the 45mm with me.”

GX1 Review

The GX1 is a real contender for best street photographer’s camera of 2011/2012. One of the keys to good street shooting is to find a lens that works with your style. So when I got my hands on the GX1 at a launch event I ran it through a couple of lenses that you might be interested in for street photography.

14-42mm X Lens
I tried the GX1 first with the 14-42mm X lens (available at a kit in Dec/Jan). The X lens is nicer than you’d expect. It feels a bit like a point and shoot but it’s so easy and nice to use that after a moment you let go and just enjoy the toggle-to-zoom power steering. The GX1 and 14-42mm are well proportioned and the focus is fast.

Panasonic GX1 with 14/45mm X lens

Small, fast, discrete and well built

As for how the toggle zoom performs on the street, it is fast enough to let you frame the shot, even when things are moving fast. For a prime shooter like myself, it still feels a bit like cheating. I also don’t like the point and shoot aesthetic. Yet somehow it all seems to come together and using the GX1 with the 14-42mm on the street is effortlessly cool.

Lumix GX1 with 14/45mm X lens

The GX1 with 14-42mm X lens

45-175mm X Lens
The GX1 and 45-175mm X lens feel like a great combination. The lens doesn’t overpower the camera and the weight balance makes for easy shooting. The 45-175mm X lens is the unsung hero of micro four thirds. I predict big things for this lens. It has semi-manual zoom-by-wire and focus-by-wire (twist controls on the barrel) giving you the feel of a good manual control lens. Like the touch screen on the GX1, the toggle to zoom on the X lens is only there if you want it. If you want to run manual, you can.

Panasonic GX1 WITH 45/175mm lens

The GX1 pairs nicely with the 45-175mm lens

The X 45-175mm gets you up close and personal with your subject (from a distance). It’s a bit over powered for street shooting but I think you’d get used to it. The quality at the long end isn’t perfect but it packs so much into a small space that you’ll forgive it alot. I didn’t encounter the focus hunting or incurable softness that some have complained of. For street shooting the small size of the 45-175mm means that you can reach out and touch your subject.

GX1 sample street photography

GX1 with Lumix 45-175mm lens street photo

Summary
GX1 Pros:
1. Small, light, subtle for use on the street
2. Good manual controls
3. Image quality

GX1 Cons:
1. Sensor seems like it hasn’t caught up with competitors
2. No EVF or tilty-swivelly LCD
3. Can wash out highlights

Bottom line:
The GF1 reborn as a modern street shooter.

Ps. Panasonic UK are running more demo events in London. I wrote a separate mini-post on the GX1 Launch Event Review. The Lumix GX1 is a camera you have to try in person to appreciate.

Panasonic GX1 Launch

I had a chance to drop by the Panasonic launch event for the GX1 at Jacobs Digital today. The GX1 is a great little camera. If you liked the GF1 you are going to love the GX1. Panasonic are excited about the camera but have positioned it at the high end so it’s not going to be for everyone. They admitted that they’ve had lots of feedback about the lack of built in EVF (so they are listening). Even so, the GX1 is an important part of Panasonic’s future vision for semi-pro micro four thirds cameras. Of course, my main question was “What is it like as a camera for street photographers?”

Panasonic GX1 Event at Jacobs Oxford St

Panasonic GX1 launch event at Jacobs Digital on Oxford Street London

The touch screen, thumb wheel and overall style owe a lot to the GF2. Which as you know, I think is heavily underrated. My prediction is that the GX1 will be underrated as well, until it gets into the hands of enough people. Then it will become a roaring success. It’s a try before you buy camera. You’ll know instantly if you love it or hate it.

The Jacobs Digital staff were nice enough, but obviously not used to reviewers, journos and bloggers invading their store. They’ve recently redone the store layout so that things are more open plan. They also have lots more Micro Four Thirds lenses on display so it’ll become a bit of a mecca for street shooters. If you’re in London then do drop by. These guys know their kit.

Lumix GX1 street photography

Jacobs Digital on Oxford Street hosted the launch event for the GX1

For me, the GX1 itself is pretty much perfect. The autofocus is fast (not EP3 fast) but it’s fast enough for most street photography. The build quality is solid so it’s a bit heavier than it looks. Every dial, button and lever is tight.

I tried out the GX1 with my trusty 14mm Lumix prime. It’s a match made in heaven. Fast to focus, wide aperture, nice wide field of view. These two would fit into a coat pocket. – And pack a serious punch. The 14-45mm X lens and 45-175mm X lens balance nicely on the Panasonic GX1 but it will do its best work with primes.

GX1 Review

GX1 with 14mm lens and filter

I got to take a lap with the GX1 on Oxford Street. The thumbwheel gives you instant full manual control of shutter speed and aperture. The ISO is easy to change.  It’s a nod to the LC1 and the GF1 all rolled into one. The GX1 does suffer the GF1 and GF2’s tendency to wash out the highlights a little. But on balance the image quality was impressive.

Lumix GX1

GX1 sample shot on Oxford Street, London with the 14mm Lumix prime lens

There are some video previews of the GX1 across the web and I also wrote up a mini-review of the GX1 using the new X lenses: GX1 Review

Henri Cartier-Bresson Street Photography

The decisive moment: Top 5 street photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the original street photographers. I’ve picked out my top five favourite images. I’ll be referring back to these a lot so that we can look at the different things we can learn from them like geometry, cropping, contrast and timing.

Henri Cartier

Cartier Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier Bresson

Henri Cartier Bresson

The photos tell real human stories. For me, they are the benchmark for all street photography to aspire.

Do you do have a favourite Cartier-Bresson image?

Rescuing Highlights

How I learnt to stop worrying and embrace the blowout
I grew up shooting film and fell off the wagon when things moved to digital. I had a string of Canon Ixus point and shoots and only just got back into photography with a micro four thirds camera. You can tell a lot about my shooting style by knowing how far I want to escape the point and shoots.

One of the worst things that Canon point and shoots do is blow the highlights out to white. Even in good light you can end up with over exposed, burnt out and horrible photos. Whole areas of the image with lost detail because it’s just a sea of plain white pixels.

Everything is just grey
Using point and shoots gave me a taste for the ‘rescue highlights’ function in iPhoto, the curves tool in Photoshop and the ‘recovery’ function in Adobe Lightroom. But recently I’ve realised that I may have gone too far.

No photos please

The image above would be fine if I’d left the whites alone. As it is, look at how flat the photo appears. It’s actually quite contrasty but without the white pixels it’s just a sea of grey.

Embracing the highlights
To help ween me off my greyscale addiction I’ve been experimenting with presets and filters for Lightroom. The irrepressible Eric Kim has made his presets for Lightroom available for free at http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2010/09/eric-kims-free-street-photography-lightroom-3-presets/ I’ve submitted a couple of my photos to his settings. Most just scared me back into my comfort zone but a couple have shown me why I’ve got to stop worrying and embrace the blown highlights.

Eric B's high contrast filter for Lightroom

As you can see, there are patches that are blown out, but the overall feel of the image is so much better. This is a RAW photo with only Eric’s presets and no other post-processing so it’s forcing me to get a feel for the contrasty vibe you get by leaving the extremes of an image intact.

As an experiment I took the original photo from the Frieze art fair last week in London back through Lightroom to see what it was like without the greyscale hammer. The result is much higher contrast. I’m not sure that it feels like “me”. Somehow it’s too hipster for my tastes. The high contrast style seems too much like it’s trying to be a LOMO or 1970’s pinhole camera. Even so, I can tell that this version of the image has something to teach me.

Fieze Art Fair Photography

The GF2, like the GF1 before it, seems to love being shot straight into the sun or in other tough light situations, so leaving in the highlights is going to allow me to get much richer images. Exciting times.

If you’ve ever struggled to get a black and white image right then leave a note in the comments about how you made it work. I’m keen to check out more examples of how post-processing changes the style of a B&W image.

Olympus 9-18mm Review

Zuiko 9-18mm Review

Olympus 9-18mm on GF2

The Olympus 9-18mm lens is a versatile way to explore ultra-wide angle shooting. It does a great job of allowing you to capture an entire scene. This lens really puts you inside the action.

Zuiko ultra wide angle lens

Get in close to the action

For dedicated street photography in real-world situations, the Olympus 9-18mm does really well. If you’ve moved into micro four thirds from DSLRs with ultra-wide lenses then this lens is going to help you settle in and feel at home.

The real reason to add this to your kit is that you probably already have the 17mm prime that came with your PEN or the 14mm that came with your GF Panasonic. Your second cab off the rank was the excellent 20mm Lumix. But somehow all of this has left you without a wide angle as good as an LX5’s 24mm or your trusty 24mm SLR lens. The 9-18mm Olympus is your ticket out of wide angle withdrawals.

Image quality
The quality of the images is great. Good contrast and detail across the aperture ranges. It’s not as bright as your primes so you’ll occasionally need to up your ISO a little. Amin from Serious Compacts did some in depth testing of the lens. If you’re interested in the technical ins and outs of the lens then check his review out.

Olympus 9 to 18mm Oxford Street

Ultra wide angle allows you to shoot without pointing at the subject

Real life shooting
It suffers a little from the “what’s the point of this image” problem that some wide angle lenses have. But it’s saved by being nice and contrasty so that you can still make out the story that’s being told. It’s variable focal length allows you to cheat on the zoom with your feet by reacting fast to a situation.

Olympus Ultra Wide Lens Review

Wide angle captures the space but shrinks the subject

You’ll often find yourself on the street, maybe in a crowd, and all of a sudden you want to grab the context or the size of the crowd but can’t step back fast enough or far enough. With this lens you can drop back from a nice normal 17mm (35mm equivalent in 35mm) to the 9mm (18mm equivalent) and grab an ultra-wide shot. Powerful stuff.

Olympus 9-18mm with hood on GF2

Zuiko 9-18mm with Hood

Low profile on the street
Even with the hood, the small size means that your micro four thirds still looks subtle. You can snap quite good closeups without pointing the camera directly at someone. It’s a dark colour and it is seriously compact. Even the way that it extends is subtle. Class.

9-18mm lens street photography

This lens captures light just the way you need for a micro four thirds lens

To decide whether this lens is for you the best thing is to try it out and see which ends of the zoom you are using. If you’re sticking to 9mm – 12mm then this lens or the new Olympus 12mm are for you. If you’re sticking to the 18mm end of the lens then you might be better sticking with the primes.

You can check out the Flickr album of my time with the lens on my Peter Thomson photostream.

Olympus 12mm Review

GF2 with Zuiko 12mm lens

Olympus 12mm f2 on a Panasonic GF2

The Olympus 12mm Micro Four Thirds lens is an amazing piece of glass. The f2.0 apeture gives creamy background blurs and it’s sharp when you need it to be. The autofocus is snappy and it’s pretty small. So why is it not for me?

For such a lovely lens there are some significant downsides. You may be able to live with them. If so, then this is a must have lens. But for me they were deal breakers.

Too much of a good thing

12mm portrait lens

Wide angle lenses let you fit a lot into the shot

I normally love wide angle lenses. They capture more of the background for what are technically called ‘environmental portraits’. Or more accurately, ‘photos-where-you-can-see-stuff-around-the-person-so-you-get-a-sense-of-their-personal-story’. The 24m equivalent field of view is luxurious but on this lens it seems too wide for sensible street photography.

Just a little bit too close for comfort

12mm portrait lens

High angle, wide apeture, shallow depth of field (but getting a bit too close)

To get the creamy shallow depth of field that a 2.0 does best, you need to get close, really close. In fact, you need to get so close to your subject that it’s uncomfortable for the model even if they are a friend or willing participant. Let alone a stranger that you’re snapping an impromptu street portrait of. Even so, when you do finally get close enough, then this lens will give you some of the best photos ever taken on a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Too much of a good thing

Oxford St

Great contrast and sharpness, even wide open at dusk, but what is the photo really of?

For normal reportage style street photography the 24mm equivalent meant that everything felt a long way away. Each shot came out without a focal point, or if there was one, it suddenly felt an extremely long way away. I usually love prime lenses and am an advocate of ‘zoom with your feet’ street photography. Yet somehow the Olympus 12mm just didn’t sing as a street lens. Steve Huff took some great street photos with this lens but you’ll see that other than inanimate objects, a photo of his friend and a hit-and-run of a person sitting (read easy target), his photos don’t have a central point of interest.

Bling on the street

GF2 12mm

You are running a micro 43 kit because you wanted to be fast, small and discrete. The Olympus 12mm lens lives up to the first two but fails so badly on the third that it couldn’t be your primary street photography lens. It’s hard to convey in a photo just how shiny the casing of this thing is. The matt lustre silver seems like it should be subtle, but it’s not. Suddenly your range-finder inspired incognito stealth-camera might as well be an SLR. I got all the funny-looks, raised hands and turned heads you usually only get when shooting a full frame SLR on the street. For this reason alone, the Olympus 12mm is not a street photographer’s lens.

Is this a lens for street photography in a city like London?
Kai Wong and the DigitalRev team loved the lens. They’re right that the snap-focus ring and the build-quality are superb. If you are in Hong Kong or LA then the silver bling and the need to get close might not be deal breakers. Inhabitants of large Asian and American cities are pretty indifferent to strangers taking photos around them. But in London or most big European cities this lens will just spoil the decisive moment.

However, if you’re shooting travel, family and landscapes then the Olympus 12mm m.Zuiko is probably one of the best lenses on the market today. You can see more photos on flickr.

Ps. In terms of camera compatibility, the Olympus 12mm on GF2 worked perfectly. The Panasonic camera picked up the Olympus lens and the autofocus was spot on. Even the toggle pull distance focus worked with the distance scale on the GF2. Lightroom corrected for any barrel distortion in the RAW file, but there wasn’t that much anyway. The lens is definitely compatible with the GF2.

Micro four thirds for street photograpy

As much as you love your DSLR, it makes you look like a tourist, or even worse a hipster.

There is a long history of anthropologists, archaeologists and bad-ass photojournalists carrying cameras that were small enough to keep a low profile but big enough to get the job done. The micro four thirds standard is a successor to that legacy.

Micro four thirds is a collaboration between Olympus and Panasonic to provide for compatibility of cameras, lenses and accessories. Olympus provide the standard with photographic history, integrity and credibility. Panasonic provide the system with cutting edge video tech, great pancake lenses and a sense of possibility for the future.

Cameras that meet the standard include mini-slr types like the GH1 from Panasonic and range-finder style bricks like the Lumix GF1 and the new Olympus EP3.

The sensor is large enough to capture a lot of light which provides for fast shutter speeds (less blur with moving subjects), wider apertures (nice shallow depth of field) and lower ISO (less noise).

The standard also now has a wide range of lenses from various manufacturers. You can get fish-eye lenses, mount old OM Olympus legacy lenses from the 1970s or specialist video lenses.

The Leica M series and the Sony NEX prove that you can put big sensors in small cameras. But both of these have their drawbacks, price in one case and lens choice in the other. This leaves micro43 as the natural standard.

For impromptu street photography the micro four thirds cameras provide light weight and low profile. For ‘stop a stranger’ street portraits, the micro four thirds says:

“I’m a serious enough photographer that I’m not just taking this photo for my own weird purposes to look at home. I’m also not so serious that I’m going to put this in a magazine and embarrass you.”

The retro micro four thirds cameras pretty much say, “I’m a blogger who understands the importance of good photos, but isn’t pretentious.”

The friends I have with micro four thirds cameras all got them when they got frustrated that a point-and-shoot just wasn’t quite enough, and a DSLR was too much. For street portraits and street photography there is nothing quite like it.

You can find the full range of camera bodies at http://www.four-thirds.org/en/microft/body.html

What really makes the system so dynamic is the range of lenses. You can see the official micro-four-thirds lenses at http://www.four-thirds.org/en/microft/lense.html These are just the tip of the iceberg.

GF2 Review Street Photography

Panasonic GF2 Review

The GF2 gets consistently negative or indifferent reviews around the internet. But what I started to notice was that these negative reviews are never from anyone that actually owns a GF2. So this review takes the form of an extended rebuttal to the most common complaints:

“The touchscreen removed the manual control”
– The only manual control removed was the mode dial. In day-to-day shooting the modes you use will be either manual (M) or full auto (iA). To switch between these you just set the camera to manual and then use the blue iA button to turn iA on and off. So no real loss with the removal of the mode dial. The complaints about the loss of the mode dial are a classic tip that a reviewer only played with a camera in the store (where you want to check out the modes).

“There are no dials to control Shutter, Aperture and Iso”
– The dial on the GF2 is on the top right of the back of the camera (under your thumb). It is a nice smooth dial with a robust click for each step. When you press in the dial it clicks from changing Aperture to changing Shutter Speed. This is so easy and fast for manual control that I now prefer it to 2 dials because I can do it one handed. The Iso is changed using the dedicated Iso button on the back of the camera.

“The touchscreen is useless in day-to-day shooting”
– It takes about 5 mins to tweak the quick menu which appears on the touchscreen (accessed from a dedicated button) I chose Shutter Speed, Aperture, Iso and Focus mode as the shortcuts but you could choose whichever you wanted. The touchscreen is also excellent for reviewing images by flicking through them. But most of the time you forget that it’s there because you can run the camera from the buttons and dial.

“JPG’s are cr_p”
– Yes they are, if you are pixel peeping. In which case, what are you doing shooting JPGs? Shoot RAW. For the occasional quick happy-snap the jpgs are nice and the intelligent dynamic plus intelligent sharpness make for easy and tidy JPGs. But you really got into micro 43 to shoot RAW didn’t you?

Why the GF2 is so important:
– Micro 43 is all about the ‘prosumer’ market. It’s amateurs that want professional style kit and professionals that want a fast/light kit for a particular need. The GH and G are great mini-slrs but they let us sometimes forget that the micro 43 is a rebirth of the rangefinder ethos. Micro 43 was born for street photography and the GF2 feels like a no nonsense street camera. The PENs have their moments as street cameras but if you harbour a residual Panasonic/Leica association then the GF2 is going to deliver a solid street photography experience and will pair well with the Panasonic Prime lenses.

Shooting the GF2 for street photography

Shoot Wide, Shoot Prime, Shoot Raw.

Photo samples from the first week with the GF2:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterjthomson/sets/72157627241615711/