Posts tagged ‘Panasonic GF1’

The Olympus OM-D – A Street Review

Trafalgar Square, London

I was one of the lucky few to receive their pre-ordered Olympus OM-D camera body in the first half of May; mine came through from Precision Camera, my first class local store. This was just three weeks before heading to Europe for a 23 day (really!), three country, vacation with all of the opportunities that would provide for making photographs. Camera in hand, it quickly became clear to me that I would never again use or upgrade my Nikon D300 SLR equipment. I won’t argue that a contemporary full-frame Nikon D800 wouldn’t beat the crap out of the Olympus for image quality and high ISO applications, but I didn’t have a full frame system and, smaller than my old Leica M6, the OM-D could do everything I wanted in less than half the weight and volume of the equivalent 35mm SLR system. So I gave the D300 and three Nikon zooms away to a somewhat stunned, but very happy, young seminary student just starting out in photography.

[NOTE: The correct designation for the camera is “Olympus OM-D E-M5” and perhaps one day, when there are other models in the OM-D system, it will make sense to refer to this machine as the E-M5 but that rolls of the tongue like the name of some bird flu virus so I shall stick with the more pleasant and nostalgic OM-D identification for the purposes of this review.]

Vacation over and 3,000 exposures later, do I regret that decision? Heck no! Using the OM-D has been the most satisfying new camera experience that I have had in over 35 years and 10 different bodies. I wrote much the same about the Panasonic GF1 two years back, and that was certainly my entry drug into the Micro Four Thirds concept, but the GF1 was never intended to be my primary camera so I forgave its limitations; with the OM-D there is very little to forgive. In case this seems too glowing I must say that I am no Olympus fan boy; I came to the OM-D with some trepidation after multiple bad experiences with Olympus in the past. I was sadly dissapointed with my 1984 OM-4 purchase – the spot meter option made it my dream camera at the time but it failed to deliver (spot readings from a gray card varied by a stop from an average reading of the same card, the viewfinder was dull, the lenses gravelly to turn). So what makes the OM-D a winner?

Electronic Viewfinder

I was nervous about having an electronic viewfinder on my primary camera. The EVF of my Panasonic GF-1 is barely adequate for framing and useless for focussing or image assessment, how would the OM-D stack up? At 1.44 megapixels, the OM-D finder is much lower in resolution than the Sony NEX-7’s 2.4 megapixels: is 1.44 megapixels enough? Yes it is, and after three weeks of daily shooting with Olympus EVF I will never go back to an optical finder.

Using an EVF feels a bit like cheating, much as using autofocus did back in the late 80’s. Obviously the image you get does not match the quality of the final Lightroom results but, set to black and white display with immediate feedback of exposure adjustments, it may be as close as technology will take you towards an instant Cartier-Bresson derivative kit. Hopefully you won’t use it just to make derivative images but seeing the chiaroscuro impact of your settings before you click the shutter is a wonderful boon. And it is certainly much harder to walk around with +3 stops on your exposure override and not quickly realize your mistake.

Function Buttons & Custom Configuration

The OM-D offers four slots for recording groups of custom settings covering everything from exposure controls, viewfinder displays, and sounds to button configuration. After a little experimentation I settled on the button assignments illustrated below, at least for the aperture priority street photography that I concentrated on while in Europe. Like many, I prefer to separate autofocus from the shutter button. I found that the Fn2 button, right beside to the shutter release, was the instinctive position for triggering autofocus. I could have configured the Fn1 button for this, on the back of the camera, which would have more closely matched the Nikon location that I have used for more than 20 years but my large thumb did not rest there naturally and it was too easy to fat finger the image review button by mistake. I quickly came to prefer the top plate location for autofocus despite my long Nikon experience.

Thank the stars that Olympus allowed the red dot video button to be overridden. I shoot video perhaps once a year; I don’t want to waste a well placed function button on that and I certainly don’t want to find that I have accidentally been recording a movie for the last 20 seconds. The video button turns out to be the perfect location for depth of field preview, just a little behind the Fn2 autofocus button.

The Fn1 button, on the back of the camera, is a little wasted in this configuration since changing the focus area away from center only / no face detection was something that I did only very occasionally. Perhaps having Fn1 revert to my most frequently used configuration set, which would include the focus area along with everything else, would be a better use? Time will tell as I cover a wider range of subjects.

Given the smaller size of the OM-D body compared to that of my old Nikon D300, the control layout is a good fit. The Olympus design relies much more on the index finger, with no function buttons on the front of the camera (where Nikon places depth of field preview and a custom button for use by second and third fingers). In practice though, I made little use of Nikon’s front face function button so I don’t miss it; and I like having shutter, focus and depth of field all together under the same finger. Mileage will vary for other users I am sure.

Dual Dial Controls

It took me a few days to get used to the position of the rear dial, my aperture control; initially it seemed further to the left than my searching thumb expected with the camera at my eye. But this was a trainable obstacle: it required significantly longer to adjust to than the my chosen location for the focus button and conscious effort was required for a couple of weeks before the muscle memory fully kicked in.

The front dial, on the other hand, was immediately comfortable for exposure compensation. I greatly prefer the Olympus dial associations to those of my older Nikons: on the OM-D, the front dial is always exposure compensation with the rear dial switching between aperture and shutter speed according to the A or S mode selection. On the Nikons the front wheel was always aperture and the rear wheel always shutter speed; a separate button had to be pressed in conjunction with a dial in order to change the exposure override. In M / manual mode, where exposure compensation is moot, the front dial of the Olympus does become the aperture control but if exposure compensation makes sense for the mode you are using then it will be set via the front dial.

With the effects of the compensation immediately visible in the viewfinder, I found myself using it more often than I had with previous cameras. Seeing the sunlight reflecting from the glass pyramid entrance of the Louvre back onto the wing of the original building, it was easy to preview and manipulate the exposure to bring out the triangular pattern of highlights on the facade. Score two for the EVF and two more for the well located exposure compensation dial that did not require a selector button to be held down at the same time; Nikon gets a zero.

Pyramid, The Louvre, Paris

Image Stabilization

The OM-D’s in-body stabilization worked well under most conditions though my longest focal length was only 45mm (90mm full frame equivalent) so I was not really pushing its limits as a longer telephoto lens might. Working in aperture priority, favoring depth of field over shutter speed, my problems were always with people moving rather than the camera failing to compensate for my shaky hands. I have more than a few images with sharp contexts surrounding slightly blurred pedestrians: walking subjects need a faster shutter speed than my poor street skills typically allowed for.

Touch Screen

Now this was unexpected: I really like the touch screen! I had expected to disable it at the first opportunity but instead found it unobtrusive and useful. In operation it performs much as does an iPhone, with a light stroke or tap and no pressure. Reviewing images is a breeze with this capability, flicking through the images to the left or right. Tap to zoom in and push position the image, and there’s a slider to change magnification.

One frustration with image review and the touch screen: if your finger passes to close to the view finder, the eye level detection kicks in and turns off the rear screen in favor of the EVF. This happens way too often when you are trying to zoom in and check the focus of an image detail. Happily, there is nothing that depends on the touch screen – anything you can do with a tap or a swipe is also accessible through intuitive use of the cursor and OK buttons.

A second frustration is that some obvious things are not accessible through touch. Using the info summary display, you can select the feature you want to configure by touch but must press the OK button to activate it. That should be a double tap. And why can’t you choose the ISO, focus point, picture mode (viewfinder color preference), image quality or any other values by touch? Still, this limitation is much preferable to the opposite of only being able to make such changes through the touch screen: gloved hands on January morning in Wisconsin are much happier with buttons than capacitance detection touch screens.

ISO & Noise

Clearly, the OM-D cannot compete with a 2012 era full frame SLR but I found that the noise “grain” was acceptable for street photography even when shooting at ISO 1600 in the Paris Metro. The Panasonic GF1 is at the edge of its envelope at ISO 400, the OM-D delivers equal or better results at ISO 1600. Most of the time I left the ISO setting on Auto with an upper limit of 1600. Evening dusk images of Parisian cafe patrons at ISO 1000 are not noise free but compare very well to, better than, traditional film results of the same subjects.

The ISO value selected by the camera in Auto mode is visible in the viewfinder so, with that feedback, it is a simple matter to the widen the aperture or drop the shutter speed if you want less noise and have the light to avoid it.

Olympia and Admirers, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Lenses and Depth of Field

Speaking about lenses might be outside the scope of a typical camera review but it goes to my motives in choosing Micro Four Thirds over 35mm full frame format, an option I had given serious thought too before ordering the OM-D body.

I took three lenses with me to Europe, my entire Micro Four Thirds collection at this point: the Panasonic 20mm f1.8 prime, the Olympus 45mm f1.8 prime, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 zoom. I made little use of the zoom on this trip but I expect it to be the foundation of suite of zooms covering wide, mid range and telephoto lengths for landscape work. The whole outfit traveled in a twelve year old REI fanny pack (a “bum bag” for the offended British reader). This in turn was carried inside my laptop backpack when flying, allowing me to take my clothes in a second carry-on and not check any bags; plus three for Micro Four Thirds, another zero for SLRs.

Depth of field is a major difference between Micro Four Thirds and 35mm full frame: at F8, a 25mm standard lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera has roughly the same depth of field as a 50mm standard at F16 on a full frame 35mm camera – that suits my purposes very well. I am not a portrait photographer, I generally do not want to isolate my subject from its context. For both landscape and street photography, I typically want the maximum depth of field possible: ideally, the image would be in focus from front to back. The smaller sensors of Micro Four Thirds cameras need only one quarter of the light required by a 35mm full frame sensor to afford the same depth of field from a lens of equivalent magnification. Happily, on those few occasions that I really do want shallow focus, the Olympus 45mm f1.8 can open up and deliver.

Noise Levels

All the notification beeps and buzzes can be disabled; that really was the first thing I did along with turning off the low light focus assist light.

The shutter is not as quiet as my Leica M6 (an unfair comparison) but it is hardly noticeable in real world situations and far more discrete than the rolling thunder of an SLR.

The camera makes a continuous hushed whirring sound when switched on, noticeable only to the photographer holding the camera up to his face. This is the sensor “floating” as it does even when the shutter is not pressed. Image stabilization is only activated when the shutter is half pressed but the sensor mechanics are powered up and ready to go active when called upon.

Black or Silver?

Like many others, I was initially seduced by the marketing images of the silver body, preferring the leatherette styling of the torso to the more obviously plastic diagonal pattern of the all black variant. Seduced is the word, for who would choose a silver body for discrete street photography? Nevertheless, that is what I ordered.

Reading that the silver bodies were likely to be over subscribed and the last to be delivered, I dropped in to Precision Camera back in April to find out what they knew and whether I would be better switching to black to have a chance of delivery before I left on vacation. By sheer dumb luck, the Olympus rep was demonstrating the cameras in store that day. I got to examine and handle both models – the marketing photos had greatly exaggerated the size and finish. In the hand, the black looked just as good as the silver. And the word was that silver, body only, would be the last to arrive and probably not before I left the country. Precision Camera allowed me to put a second deposit down on a black body, committing that I could cancel whichever order did not arrive and apply both deposits to purchase the first one that showed up.

Having had the black body for six or seven weeks I would not now order the silver. I do wish the 45mm lens had been available in black but, even with that mounted, the combination does not look as serious or threatening as the SLRs being waved around by everyone else. The black OM-D is indeed a discrete street tool.


The Olympus OM-D story is not a complete Disney fairy tale; there are a couple of warts on this Prince Charming.

Most significant, though not disastrous, the camera sometimes locks up completely. Other users have reported the same problem though I cannot be sure that the cause is the same; I never figured out what the sequence of events was though, for me, it was always seemed to be after the camera had been idle for several minutes. This happened three or four times during the trip; happily it is fixed simply by popping out the battery and putting it back in. If I were a professional photographer, a journalist say, the lost shots could have been more significant. I imagine that there will be a firmware fix available soon.

Spare batteries: there are none to be had. I always buy a second battery when I get a new camera but Olympus has yet to deliver any to its vendors some two months after the camera shipped. Fortunately the one battery sufficed. On my heaviest day I made nearly over 360 exposures and the charge indicator still showed “full”. Some reports suggest that the battery indicator can go from full to flat very quickly and I was always conscious that I could get caught out, topping the battery up more often than I might have done otherwise.

Flash shoe cover: lost. I noticed this was loose one time and pushed it back on. Next time I looked, it was gone :-( It’s a standard fit so I should be able to get a replacement if I can be bothered to look; still, I would have preferred not to lose it inside two weeks of active use.

Flu Shots, Post Boxes and A GF1

Post Boxes - Regal Arbor 8, Great Hills Trails & Research Blvd, Austin

The family piled into the mini van and headed to the doctor’s office for our annual flu shots on Saturday morning. I used to figure that flu shots were a waste of time until ten years back when I spent Christmas week laid up in bed while the vaccinated remainder of the household happily traded presents by the tree; I have not been so foolish as to skip my appointment since.

I took the Panasonic GF1 just in case an opportunity arose for making a photograph; the girls wanted to pick up a take away lunch from Firebowl Cafe on the way home so I had ten minutes in the parking lot. Now parking lots are one of my favorite places to be with a camera – like I said in my last post, I’m strange that way.

I am still a little surprised and delighted by the quality of the images that this small machine produces; it does not look especially serious but it is. The low resolution viewfinder leaves much to be desired but the output, with the 20mm pancake mounted, is detailed and crisp. The grid of squares in the example above would betray any hint of distortion from the lens; there’s nothing significant to be found. The auto focus can hunt some on low contrast subjects, but that’s easy enough to work around. And I have grown to love the extra composition real estate of the 4/3 aspect ratio; I am starting to prefer the world in that frame over the classic SLR 2/3 ratio. It is perhaps ironic that I chose a sample image that virtually self crops itself to 2/3 format with its foreground tarmac.

With 11th hour timing, Panasonic has at last acknowledged the enthusiast market and unveiled the GX1 as the true air to the GF1 throne. The GX1 is not a revolution in design but is a significant incremental refresh, starting from a strong foundation. It looks to be just what the doctor ordered despite the still separate viewfinder. The Sony NEX-7 is seductive; its ‘Tri-Navi” controls and integrated high-res OLED viewfinder are ground breaking in a compact however, on paper (web page), the GX1 offers enough improvement to retain my loyalty. Final decisions won’t be made until I actually get to look through the finder and see for myself if the 6x increase in EVF detail and faster focusing is sufficient but I am hopeful. I foresee my SLR bag being left behind for our trip back to the UK next summer; replaced by an REI fanny pack with room for two 4/3 bodies and three or four lenses; that will save my back in the airport.

I must admit to still being tempted by the Leica M9. I made the mistake of taking my M6 out of its storage place to ponder the question; handling it again did not help. I might just be able to afford the body and one lens. I only have Voigtlander 35mm and 15mm for the M6 and there is no point in spending $7,000 or more for a body and not putting Leica glass on the front, that glass is the point after all. There, that’s all I needed to do, write the numbers down – there is no way I can justify $9,000 on one camera and one lens. I am not speaking for everyone else here, I do understand the Leica effect all too well, but I just won’t make enough use of any camera to support an expense of that scale. There’s a school I know of in Guatemala that can put that kind of money to much better use. I can add a GX1 body and two lenses for the price of a Leica 50mm Summicron.

I’m Strange

Sidewalk Rorschach 1, 5th & Lamar, Austin

Fine art landscape photographers, the kind that might make a living from their prints, will scout a location and calculate what time of day to come back for the most dramatic lighting. Some will go as far as figuring the date when the moon will rise at sunset on the left side of the crest then plan a return visit to the area on that date. That’s not me. I am an opportunist with a schedule that is defined by family and work. I am also lazy and impatient; I will never be able pay for more than a very rare meal for two with my pictures.

So it came as a surprise that that I would see a subject and make a plan to go back the next day with a camera. And when the result was not quite what I had in mind (bad framing in the poor Panasonic GF1 EVF), to go back again with a different camera. Again not satisfied – the afternoon sun glared off some of the elements – choose to go back yet again, before 11am and on an overcast day. That’s not my usual haphazard M.O.

And what majestic scene was it that drew me back three times? Was it a Moon and Half Dome (Ansel Adams)? Was it Shiprock Storm (Mitch Dobrowner)? No. It was tar splatter on a downtown Austin sidewalk.

I’m strange that way.

The GF1 Shines, And Doesn’t

Behind us, Arboretum, Austin

If I can escape from the house early enough, my favorite thing to do on a Sunday morning is to get to the nearby Starbucks or La Madeleine, before the crowds, to drink coffee and read without the threat of interruption from high school math or physics homework questions. Usually, I throw the Panasonic GF1 into the book bag so that I won’t regret a missed opportunity for a photograph.

We come to greet you, Arboretum, Austin

The surreal and sometimes sinister quality of store windows around the Arboretum area of Austin has long been a draw to me and this morning’s high contrast morning sun brought out a new twist in their potential for interpretation. It seemed as though the aliens from some 1950’s fanzine cover had been caught hiding in plain sight, observing the humans passing by from behind the glass.

Reach, Arboretum, Austin

The GF1 is both perfect and frustrating in these circumstances. Perfect for being small and at hand, frustrating for the lack of detail in the viewfinder – “is the mannequin’s foot in the frame or not?” It was hard to be sure. I was happy enough with the view finder when I first obtained the camera but now, in the knowledge that the state of the art in EVFs has moved rapidly and far forward, I am less forgiving. On the other hand, the image quality produced by the GF1 and 20mm lens is most satisfactory.

We stand ready, Arboretum, Austin

Sturm und Drang and the Nikon 1 System

Wounded, Laguna Gloria, Austin

Wikipedia, in a nice turn of phrase, describes Sturm und Drang as an 18th Century German artistic movement in which:

“individual subjectivity and, in particular, extremes of emotion were given free expression in reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment.”

The Sturm und Drang in the photographic world this week has been over the announcement of the Nikon 1 System, Nikon’s entry into the the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (ILC) battleground. Enthusiast photographers have reacted en masse with disappointment, horror, derision, despair, disgust, a resounding collective raspberry and predictions of the fall of Nikon. The sensor is smaller than they expected, the lens apertures are slower than they wanted, and there are not enough buttons and wheels – no M, P, S, A dial. Clearly, they say, Nikon missed the mark and missed badly.

But hold the phone. Did Nikon really tie on a blind fold and jump off a cliff?

All this negativity reminds me of the reaction of some of my fellow software developers to the original iPad launch; they wanted all the bells and whistles of their Mac Book Pros in a compact tablet form factor and therefore considered the iPad a failure and a lost opportunity. I thought that they had missed the point; we all know how it turned out. Apple understood that the market for the iPad was not professional software technologists, and Nikon understands the that the high volume, high profit market segment for mirrorless ILCs is not enthusiasts looking for a second camera.

I, an enthusiast, complained recently about the lack of an upgrade path from my Panasonic GF1 / Leica M9 surrogate, the ultimate cause of which is that Panasonic is prioritizing the same market that Nikon is aiming for. To wit, the much larger number of point-and-shoot users that hanker for something more capable without the perceived learning curve and bulk of an SLR. Nikon sees Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung threatening to take away its entry level SLR audience and it is fighting back with a camera that can take 60 frames a second and let you select the one keeper with the perfect smile. Eat that Cartier-Bresson!

Would I buy an Nikon V1 for myself? Probably not. Would I advise my dad to consider one? That’s a definite yes. Would I buy one for each of my artist daughters as a graduation present? I might well. The Nikon V1 looks to be a talented single shot camera with excellent video capabilities that will allow my non-expert but motivated family and friends to produce great photographs and movies. I might not purchase one for myself but I can think of a dozen people I could influence in that direction.

Thom Hogan, a well connected and insightful observer of Nikon developments, offered a balanced and detailed “Don’t Undersell What the Nikon 1 Can Do” commentary on his by thom site. And has offered an explanation for Why make a small-sensor mirrorless camera?, acknowledging that Nikon might perceive some good reasons to do so.

Meanwhile, what is an enthusiast to do? Thom Hogan has a quote for that too:

“Everyone’s looking for redemption in a new camera. The old ones work pretty well.”

I’ll keep taking pictures with what I have and wait patiently for the new year. My two cameras work pretty well, I’m in no hurry.

No Panasonic GF1 Upgrade?

Arboretum parking lot 6, Austin

Arboretum parking lot 6, Austin

The Panasonic GF1 is the light and discrete camera I carry for street photography and grab shots; it is my ‘affordable by mortals’ Leica M9-P substitute (see Panasonic GF1 – Two Week Report from May, 2010 for a full review).

I continue to be delighted with the camera but Panasonic the company has me a little worried. Between them, Panasonic and Olympus blazed the trail for mirrorless, interchangeable lens, cameras and with the GF1, I bought into the Micro 4/3 architecture. Now the GF1 is discontinued and there is no replacement. Come January, 2012, I will have the funding for an upgrade to address the GF1’s several deficiencies but neither company has yet shown me that it will have a worthy successor in its stable when I have the money in the bank.

Yes, there has been a GF2 and now a GF3 but they represent a sleight of hand change in direction not an upgrade path. To quote DP Review from its February, 2011, GF2 review:

These changes all signal a clear repositioning of the GF series in the market. Whereas the GF1 was unashamedly a camera for enthusiast photographers, the GF2 is now aimed much more at compact camera owners looking for an upgrade.

The GF2 took away controls and the GF3 took away even the ability to mount a viewfinder attachment – that is not progress. Good for profits perhaps, but a serious dissapointment for the likes of me. Meanwhile Olympus is doing no better; the EP3 is barely treading water by way of being an improvement and the new Olympus VF3 viewfinder is a lower resolution, lower magnification, retrograde move.

What I want is:

  • An integrated EVF viewfinder that won’t be damaged knocking around in my book bag
  • A high resiolution EVF that is close in quality to looking through the glass
  • A form factor that does not attract unwanted attention (it should not look like an SLR shrunk by an encounter with an over-hot washing machine)
  • A flip up rear display for waste level shooting
  • A Micro 4/3 lens mount

In fact, what I want looks disurbingly like a Sony NEX-7 with its built in 2.4M pixel EVF (more than 10x the resolution of the GF1’s EVF). If the Sony was combined with the kind of user interface consideration that the Samsung’s NX200 Smart Panel exhbits then my loyalty might really be stretched come the new year. Perhaps it is a good thing that Sony continues to prove itself clueless with its menu designs?

Sony NEX-7 - rear view

Sony NEX-7 - rear view

Here’s hoping Panasonic or Olympus has something better on the shelves by, say, February of 2012. I won’t be holding my breath though.