Review: the 2018 Panasonic Lumix G9

When it comes to Micro Four Thirds, Panasonic is well respected for their expertise in video while Olympus for photography. This is especially true for the flagship cameras such as Panasonic GH5 and Olympus E-M1 Mark II. Therefore, when Panasonic launched their new Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 recently, it seemed like they were targeting the photography crowd, considering the very similar photography specific features the G9 has in comparison to the E-M1 Mark II.  In this article, I explore the stills shooting capabilities of the Panasonic G9.

As always, this is an independent review and neither Ming Thein nor I are associated with Panasonic Malaysia. The Panasonic G9 and several Panasonic lenses were on loan and have been returned at the time of writing this review. This is a user experience review, and my opinion may be subjective. I was not able to test all features of the camera and shall only focus on the highlights of the G9. I am not adequately equipped to do a video review for this camera. All images shown here were shot in RAW,  except the sequential burst shots which were shot in JPEG (for my sanity). The RAW files were converted to DNG directly via Adobe DNG Converter and post-processed in Capture One Pro.

You may find all the primary images (and a few extra samples) online on Google Photos here. 

The Panasonic G9 is an ambitious camera, sporting some of the best features for Micro Four Thirds.

In terms of AF and shooting speed, the G9 is able to do 20fps with full continuous autofocus using the Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology. The 20fps is only possible via the electronic shutter – you’re limited to 9fps with the mechnical shutter. Panasonic claimed that the G9 features a similar 20MP image sensor as the flagship GH5, but has a new and improved image processing engine. Further, the G9 has Dual IS 2, combining the built in body 5-Axis IS and lens IS. When used with compatible lenses the Dual IS 2 can achieve a claimed 6.5 stops (CIPA rated) of shake compensation. Like the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, the G9 is equipped with a high res shot capability. By taking 8 separate images in quick succession and by moving the image sensor by half a pixel between each shot and finally, combining these images, the G9 can output a full 80MP composite image. The electronic viewfinder has 3.68M dot resolution and 0.83x equivalent magnification. The G9 is fully weather sealed, and its body made of magnesium alloy. The G9 stands out – visually – from its other mirrorless brethren thanks to the addition of a top plate LCD panel, which shows primary camera settings and information. For a full specifications list, you can visit Panasonic’s official product page here.

I only had a few days with the Panasonic G9 and shot insect macro, street and also a live band performance – giving me diverse enough shooting experience for a review. Special thanks to Christine Hia for allowing me to shoot the super adorable Rocky. You are a life-saver.

Olympus 60mm Macro, F11, 1/100, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F10, 1/60, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F9, 1/60, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F5, 1/50, ISO200

There is a reason why I always try to shoot insect macro when I am reviewing a camera. The critters don’t show themselves in the best locations and in most cases you have to contort your body into uncomfortable positions to get a decent composition. Hand-holding the camera in this scenario is the ultimate test for camera comfort and handling.

The Panasonic G9 is about the same size as the GH5, slightly larger than the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, and looks just like a DSLR. In fact, it handles and feels like a DSLR in hand. If you dislike the bulk then there are smaller mirrorless camera options out there. I welcome the (relatively) beefy grip of the camera which adds much-needed comfort and stability while shooting insects. Over 3 hours of shooting along a hiking trail, I never felt discomfort and had a confident grip every time I took my shot. I did, however, wish that the camera was a tiny bit lighter, but I’m sure I will get used to this over a week more or two.

Shooting through that super large, 0.83x magnified and 3.68M dot electronic viewfinder was a new experience for me. The EVF was so bright and detailed that I can tell directly if my subject was slightly out of focus. The EVF did drop in resolution significantly when the camera was acquiring AF (half-press of shutter button), but that was brief and should not impact the overall shooting process. It was just noticeable and can be annoying when I was trying so hard to make sure my spider was in focus.

Pincushion effect on the EVF

On another hand, the EVF exhibited obvious pincushion distortion with the edges being curved into the frame. I did not find this to affect my shooting at all, but those who rely heavily on the EVF for wide angle shooting may find the curved edges frustrating. I guess that is one compromise that happened when a super large magnification was applied to an EVF. If you can somehow overlook the pincushion distorted EVF, this was easily the best EVF available in the market now.

An interesting observation about using the G9 with an Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens. The Panasonic G9 is faster and locks focus (using Single-AF) more efficiently than the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. This was a surprise, and I was pleased to be able to use autofocus for most of my macro shots – instead of my usual manual focus.

Panasonic 15mm, F3.2, 1/160, ISO400

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/80, ISO200

Panasonic 42.5mm, F2.8, 1/50, ISO400

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/320, ISO200

Panasonic 42.5mm, F4, 1/200, ISO200

The next test arena was the streets. This has been my default test for all cameras. To me, it is most important that a camera is able to respond quickly. What is the point of having a super high resolution camera, which can produce clean 1 million ISO images if you can’t rely on it to successfully nail the shot in the first place?

The Panasonic G9 was quick – reacting to my AF adjustments and the shutter button instantaneously. The camera was extremely fast and I managed to nail several critical moments confidently. As expected, the autofocus is almost fail proof in good light.

However, when the light drops, autofocus behaviour changes. I brought the G9 to a dimly lit bar/cafe with a stage (Merdekarya, PJ), one that I frequent for local singer-songwriters performances. The G9 managed to do quite well, but I did have some misses which were troubling. There were moments when the AF failed to lock focus, and then the EVF/LCD screen went completely black for a couple seconds, before returning to normal. I’m not sure what caused this temporary black-out, but I have not observed this with any other camera, not even with the other Panaosnic cameras I have used (LX100, GH4 and GM1). The EVF black-out happened only when the camera struggled to acquire focus repeatedly. I’m guessing the camera resorts to some kind of back-up focusing mechanism when the primary method fails. To remedy this, I changed the focus point and targeted parts of the frame that had more contrast.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/4000, ISO200

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, ISO200 (shutter speed varies). 20fps C-AF test. See the full set of 48 images captured by C-AF on 20fps electronic shutter burst here. 

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, ISO200 (shutter speed varies). 9fps C-AF test. See full set of 58 images captured by S-AF on 9fps mechanical shutter burst here.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/1250, ISO200, 4K Photo 60fps test

See full set of 109 images shot by 4K Photo 60fps here. 

I am not a sports photographer and I rarely shoot fast action subjects. I don’t use continuous AF during my usual shooting. Therefore, shooting a harmless, cute little dog is the best I can offer. If you want flying birds, human somersaults or exploding spaceships, there are other reviews which may sate your appetite.

The first test was with the full 20fps electronic shutter sequential shooting. I set the focusing area to “Custom Multi”, and clustered the group points right in the middle of the frame. The focusing mode was set to C-AF. I could only manage about 50 shots before the camera stopped. It’s important to note that I was shooting RAW + JPEG on a UHS-1 card. The lens used for this test was the Panasonic Leica 12-60mm F2.8-4 IS.

The G9 did a fantastic job in tracking Rocky from one end of the pool as he swam towards me in a straight line. Out of the 48 shots in the series, I counted only 4 images which were out of focus, but the camera was so quick to reacquire focus that within the next frame or two, the focusing was back on track. I repeated a similar test at least 8 times, and have achieved similar success each time.

Next, I tried the 9fps burst with mechanical shutter to follow the dog with lateral movements. Standing at the side of the pool, I followed Rocky from left to right, and then back to where he started. Again, the G9 did a superb job following Rocky with only a few, frames slightly out of focus. I’m thoroughly impressed by what Panasonic has achieved with the Depth From Defocus (DFD) for continuous AF.

There is a 6K Photo mode that allows bursts up to 30fps, or 4K photo mode at 60fps. While this sounds impressve, the photos were all in JPEG at appropriately reduced resolution (18MP for 6k and 8MP for 4K). The Olympus E-M1 Mark II is capable of 60fps and you get to keep RAW + JPEG files in full resolution.

Panasonic 42.5mm, F3.5, 1/160, ISO200

Crop from previous image

Panasonic 42.5mm, F2.8, 1/100, ISO400

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/125, ISO400

Panasonic 7-14mm, F6.3, 1/500, ISO200, High Res Shot

High Res Shot 80MP vs Normal Shot 20MP

Beware of moving subjects, creating articfacts in high res shots.

The Panasonic G9 is capable of excellent image quality. In terms of resolution, images are sharp and very detailed – thanks to the absence of an anti-alias filter. The latest 20MP sensor also means that this is one of the best options available for Micro Four Thirds right now.

For the 80MP high res shot, the camera must rest on a steady surface ( ideally it should be mounted on a sturdy tripod), and the subject must be completely still. Any movement, either the camera or the subject, will render weird artifacts in the final result. If you can control these variables, then you can get a whopping 80MP image output.

There is no easy way of saying this, but I dislike the color profile of the G9. The default JPEG color and the white balance engine don’t work for me. I find the reds unnatural with strong hints of magenta and the green channel is off as well. Skin tones don’t look close to real life and the overall balance is not pleasing. Perhaps the problem is not with the camera, but my own preference.

Therefore, for this particular review, I have painstakingly converted the files from RAW to DNG and processed the images individually in Capture One Pro. I have never tweaked color extensively for any of my reviews before and this was my first time changing the color profile. I did this because I believe the images from the Panasonic G9 deserve better color treatment than what is produced straight out of the camera.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F20, 1/5, ISO200, hand-held

Panasonic 12-60mm, F8, 4 seconds, ISO100, hand-held

Panasonic 12-60mm, F10, 5 seconds, ISO200, hand-held

Crop from previous image

Lets talk about that dual IS 6.5 stops Image Stabilization. At first I was skeptical about the claims from Panasonic, especially having tried the GX8 and GH5 which were nowhere near the Olympus’ capabilities. Quite frankly, I had low expectations when testing the IS.

But… boy oh boy, was I wrong.

I can confidently hand-hold the Panasonic G9 with the 12-60mm F2.8-4 IS lens down to about 5 seconds, with a 50% hit rate. Yes, you heard that right – 5 seconds! I thought I could only do that with the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. However, my coffee intake has also increased significantly over the past few months and the shakes were actively working against me when I tested the G9. I was blown away by the stabilization capabilities of this camera.

Of course, I’m not saying there is no need for a tripod, and for any serious slow shutter, long exposure photography, a sturdy and reliable tripod is mandatory. The image stabilization is a life-saver in situations when a tripod is absent, and allows you to get the shot in less than ideal conditions.

I had no chance to test the dual IS with longer lenses, as the longest Panasonic lens I had was the 12-60mm F2.8-4 lens.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/320, ISO6400

ISO6400, RAW processed (left) vs SOOC JPEG (right). Pay attention to the yellow color patches on the eye-brows on the JPEG image.

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/640, ISO800

Panasonic 12-60mm, F3.9, 1/160, ISO3200

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/100, ISO3200

The final test was shooting in low light. Shooting live performances on stage is a big challenge, and I often find myself using ISO to 3200 and 6400 to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze movements.

The default JPEG engine does a poor job at managing the high ISO noise and details balance. There are noticeable traces of over-sharpening and artificial blurring of details at ISO3200 and higher. I also observed random, stray color fringes in shadow areas that look ugly. I tried various noise reduction settings in camera and they all produced undesirable results. In summary, at high ISO, shoot RAW.

By applying just a hint of noise reduction, I can get away with very usable images even up to ISO6400. I don’t mind the presence of some luminance noise, as long as the image does not look like water-color in the end. I’d rather keep some luminance noise and protect the structural integrity of the image and have it look more natural. The high ISO performance of the G9 sits right at the top of Micro Four Thirds system, alongside Panasonic GH5 and Olympus E-M1 Mark II.

In terms of battery life, I didn’t exhaust the batteries on day-long shoots where I shot about 500-600 shots per day. Since I had one battery to work with, I had to keep it charged for the following day and wasn’t able to deplete it completely for testing purposes.

I did enjoy using the Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 tremendously. It is a high-performing camera, filled with impressive features that just work. The image quality is excellent. The continuous AF is one of the best I have seen on a Micro Four Thirds camera, and the Dual IS 2 surprised me while shooting dangerously slow shutter speeds hand-held. The bright and high resolution EVF was so pleasing to use and the camera confidently nails images one after another.

I do, however, dislike the default color profile of the G9 and found the JPEG to be poor in handling high ISO images. This is a minor problem considering I mostly shoot RAW and post-process images to my liking. The AF suffers a minor hiccup in extremely low light conditions (which the LX100, GH4 and GM1 never had any issue) but this happens so rarely that it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

The Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 is highly recommended for Micro Four Thirds shooters who want the best for all photography needs. And for those looking to venture into mirrorless from the DSLR camp, the G9 should sit high on your list of considerations.

The Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 is available from B&H

__________________

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Source: http://ift.tt/20qMcfK

Review: the 2018 Panasonic Lumix G9

When it comes to Micro Four Thirds, Panasonic is well respected for their expertise in video while Olympus for photography. This is especially true for the flagship cameras such as Panasonic GH5 and Olympus E-M1 Mark II. Therefore, when Panasonic launched their new Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 recently, it seemed like they were targeting the photography crowd, considering the very similar photography specific features the G9 has in comparison to the E-M1 Mark II.  In this article, I explore the stills shooting capabilities of the Panasonic G9.

As always, this is an independent review and neither Ming Thein nor I are associated with Panasonic Malaysia. The Panasonic G9 and several Panasonic lenses were on loan and have been returned at the time of writing this review. This is a user experience review, and my opinion may be subjective. I was not able to test all features of the camera and shall only focus on the highlights of the G9. I am not adequately equipped to do a video review for this camera. All images shown here were shot in RAW,  except the sequential burst shots which were shot in JPEG (for my sanity). The RAW files were converted to DNG directly via Adobe DNG Converter and post-processed in Capture One Pro.

You may find all the primary images (and a few extra samples) online on Google Photos here. 

The Panasonic G9 is an ambitious camera, sporting some of the best features for Micro Four Thirds.

In terms of AF and shooting speed, the G9 is able to do 20fps with full continuous autofocus using the Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology. The 20fps is only possible via the electronic shutter – you’re limited to 9fps with the mechnical shutter. Panasonic claimed that the G9 features a similar 20MP image sensor as the flagship GH5, but has a new and improved image processing engine. Further, the G9 has Dual IS 2, combining the built in body 5-Axis IS and lens IS. When used with compatible lenses the Dual IS 2 can achieve a claimed 6.5 stops (CIPA rated) of shake compensation. Like the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, the G9 is equipped with a high res shot capability. By taking 8 separate images in quick succession and by moving the image sensor by half a pixel between each shot and finally, combining these images, the G9 can output a full 80MP composite image. The electronic viewfinder has 3.68M dot resolution and 0.83x equivalent magnification. The G9 is fully weather sealed, and its body made of magnesium alloy. The G9 stands out – visually – from its other mirrorless brethren thanks to the addition of a top plate LCD panel, which shows primary camera settings and information. For a full specifications list, you can visit Panasonic’s official product page here.

I only had a few days with the Panasonic G9 and shot insect macro, street and also a live band performance – giving me diverse enough shooting experience for a review. Special thanks to Christine Hia for allowing me to shoot the super adorable Rocky. You are a life-saver.

Olympus 60mm Macro, F11, 1/100, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F10, 1/60, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F9, 1/60, ISO200, Flash Used

Olympus 60mm Macro, F5, 1/50, ISO200

There is a reason why I always try to shoot insect macro when I am reviewing a camera. The critters don’t show themselves in the best locations and in most cases you have to contort your body into uncomfortable positions to get a decent composition. Hand-holding the camera in this scenario is the ultimate test for camera comfort and handling.

The Panasonic G9 is about the same size as the GH5, slightly larger than the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, and looks just like a DSLR. In fact, it handles and feels like a DSLR in hand. If you dislike the bulk then there are smaller mirrorless camera options out there. I welcome the (relatively) beefy grip of the camera which adds much-needed comfort and stability while shooting insects. Over 3 hours of shooting along a hiking trail, I never felt discomfort and had a confident grip every time I took my shot. I did, however, wish that the camera was a tiny bit lighter, but I’m sure I will get used to this over a week more or two.

Shooting through that super large, 0.83x magnified and 3.68M dot electronic viewfinder was a new experience for me. The EVF was so bright and detailed that I can tell directly if my subject was slightly out of focus. The EVF did drop in resolution significantly when the camera was acquiring AF (half-press of shutter button), but that was brief and should not impact the overall shooting process. It was just noticeable and can be annoying when I was trying so hard to make sure my spider was in focus.

Pincushion effect on the EVF

On another hand, the EVF exhibited obvious pincushion distortion with the edges being curved into the frame. I did not find this to affect my shooting at all, but those who rely heavily on the EVF for wide angle shooting may find the curved edges frustrating. I guess that is one compromise that happened when a super large magnification was applied to an EVF. If you can somehow overlook the pincushion distorted EVF, this was easily the best EVF available in the market now.

An interesting observation about using the G9 with an Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens. The Panasonic G9 is faster and locks focus (using Single-AF) more efficiently than the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. This was a surprise, and I was pleased to be able to use autofocus for most of my macro shots – instead of my usual manual focus.

Panasonic 15mm, F3.2, 1/160, ISO400

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/80, ISO200

Panasonic 42.5mm, F2.8, 1/50, ISO400

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/320, ISO200

Panasonic 42.5mm, F4, 1/200, ISO200

The next test arena was the streets. This has been my default test for all cameras. To me, it is most important that a camera is able to respond quickly. What is the point of having a super high resolution camera, which can produce clean 1 million ISO images if you can’t rely on it to successfully nail the shot in the first place?

The Panasonic G9 was quick – reacting to my AF adjustments and the shutter button instantaneously. The camera was extremely fast and I managed to nail several critical moments confidently. As expected, the autofocus is almost fail proof in good light.

However, when the light drops, autofocus behaviour changes. I brought the G9 to a dimly lit bar/cafe with a stage (Merdekarya, PJ), one that I frequent for local singer-songwriters performances. The G9 managed to do quite well, but I did have some misses which were troubling. There were moments when the AF failed to lock focus, and then the EVF/LCD screen went completely black for a couple seconds, before returning to normal. I’m not sure what caused this temporary black-out, but I have not observed this with any other camera, not even with the other Panaosnic cameras I have used (LX100, GH4 and GM1). The EVF black-out happened only when the camera struggled to acquire focus repeatedly. I’m guessing the camera resorts to some kind of back-up focusing mechanism when the primary method fails. To remedy this, I changed the focus point and targeted parts of the frame that had more contrast.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/4000, ISO200

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, ISO200 (shutter speed varies). 20fps C-AF test. See the full set of 48 images captured by C-AF on 20fps electronic shutter burst here. 

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, ISO200 (shutter speed varies). 9fps C-AF test. See full set of 58 images captured by S-AF on 9fps mechanical shutter burst here.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/1250, ISO200, 4K Photo 60fps test

See full set of 109 images shot by 4K Photo 60fps here. 

I am not a sports photographer and I rarely shoot fast action subjects. I don’t use continuous AF during my usual shooting. Therefore, shooting a harmless, cute little dog is the best I can offer. If you want flying birds, human somersaults or exploding spaceships, there are other reviews which may sate your appetite.

The first test was with the full 20fps electronic shutter sequential shooting. I set the focusing area to “Custom Multi”, and clustered the group points right in the middle of the frame. The focusing mode was set to C-AF. I could only manage about 50 shots before the camera stopped. It’s important to note that I was shooting RAW + JPEG on a UHS-1 card. The lens used for this test was the Panasonic Leica 12-60mm F2.8-4 IS.

The G9 did a fantastic job in tracking Rocky from one end of the pool as he swam towards me in a straight line. Out of the 48 shots in the series, I counted only 4 images which were out of focus, but the camera was so quick to reacquire focus that within the next frame or two, the focusing was back on track. I repeated a similar test at least 8 times, and have achieved similar success each time.

Next, I tried the 9fps burst with mechanical shutter to follow the dog with lateral movements. Standing at the side of the pool, I followed Rocky from left to right, and then back to where he started. Again, the G9 did a superb job following Rocky with only a few, frames slightly out of focus. I’m thoroughly impressed by what Panasonic has achieved with the Depth From Defocus (DFD) for continuous AF.

There is a 6K Photo mode that allows bursts up to 30fps, or 4K photo mode at 60fps. While this sounds impressve, the photos were all in JPEG at appropriately reduced resolution (18MP for 6k and 8MP for 4K). The Olympus E-M1 Mark II is capable of 60fps and you get to keep RAW + JPEG files in full resolution.

Panasonic 42.5mm, F3.5, 1/160, ISO200

Crop from previous image

Panasonic 42.5mm, F2.8, 1/100, ISO400

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/125, ISO400

Panasonic 7-14mm, F6.3, 1/500, ISO200, High Res Shot

High Res Shot 80MP vs Normal Shot 20MP

Beware of moving subjects, creating articfacts in high res shots.

The Panasonic G9 is capable of excellent image quality. In terms of resolution, images are sharp and very detailed – thanks to the absence of an anti-alias filter. The latest 20MP sensor also means that this is one of the best options available for Micro Four Thirds right now.

For the 80MP high res shot, the camera must rest on a steady surface ( ideally it should be mounted on a sturdy tripod), and the subject must be completely still. Any movement, either the camera or the subject, will render weird artifacts in the final result. If you can control these variables, then you can get a whopping 80MP image output.

There is no easy way of saying this, but I dislike the color profile of the G9. The default JPEG color and the white balance engine don’t work for me. I find the reds unnatural with strong hints of magenta and the green channel is off as well. Skin tones don’t look close to real life and the overall balance is not pleasing. Perhaps the problem is not with the camera, but my own preference.

Therefore, for this particular review, I have painstakingly converted the files from RAW to DNG and processed the images individually in Capture One Pro. I have never tweaked color extensively for any of my reviews before and this was my first time changing the color profile. I did this because I believe the images from the Panasonic G9 deserve better color treatment than what is produced straight out of the camera.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F20, 1/5, ISO200, hand-held

Panasonic 12-60mm, F8, 4 seconds, ISO100, hand-held

Panasonic 12-60mm, F10, 5 seconds, ISO200, hand-held

Crop from previous image

Lets talk about that dual IS 6.5 stops Image Stabilization. At first I was skeptical about the claims from Panasonic, especially having tried the GX8 and GH5 which were nowhere near the Olympus’ capabilities. Quite frankly, I had low expectations when testing the IS.

But… boy oh boy, was I wrong.

I can confidently hand-hold the Panasonic G9 with the 12-60mm F2.8-4 IS lens down to about 5 seconds, with a 50% hit rate. Yes, you heard that right – 5 seconds! I thought I could only do that with the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. However, my coffee intake has also increased significantly over the past few months and the shakes were actively working against me when I tested the G9. I was blown away by the stabilization capabilities of this camera.

Of course, I’m not saying there is no need for a tripod, and for any serious slow shutter, long exposure photography, a sturdy and reliable tripod is mandatory. The image stabilization is a life-saver in situations when a tripod is absent, and allows you to get the shot in less than ideal conditions.

I had no chance to test the dual IS with longer lenses, as the longest Panasonic lens I had was the 12-60mm F2.8-4 lens.

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/320, ISO6400

ISO6400, RAW processed (left) vs SOOC JPEG (right). Pay attention to the yellow color patches on the eye-brows on the JPEG image.

Panasonic 42.5mm, F1.7, 1/640, ISO800

Panasonic 12-60mm, F3.9, 1/160, ISO3200

Panasonic 12-60mm, F4, 1/100, ISO3200

The final test was shooting in low light. Shooting live performances on stage is a big challenge, and I often find myself using ISO to 3200 and 6400 to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze movements.

The default JPEG engine does a poor job at managing the high ISO noise and details balance. There are noticeable traces of over-sharpening and artificial blurring of details at ISO3200 and higher. I also observed random, stray color fringes in shadow areas that look ugly. I tried various noise reduction settings in camera and they all produced undesirable results. In summary, at high ISO, shoot RAW.

By applying just a hint of noise reduction, I can get away with very usable images even up to ISO6400. I don’t mind the presence of some luminance noise, as long as the image does not look like water-color in the end. I’d rather keep some luminance noise and protect the structural integrity of the image and have it look more natural. The high ISO performance of the G9 sits right at the top of Micro Four Thirds system, alongside Panasonic GH5 and Olympus E-M1 Mark II.

In terms of battery life, I didn’t exhaust the batteries on day-long shoots where I shot about 500-600 shots per day. Since I had one battery to work with, I had to keep it charged for the following day and wasn’t able to deplete it completely for testing purposes.

I did enjoy using the Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 tremendously. It is a high-performing camera, filled with impressive features that just work. The image quality is excellent. The continuous AF is one of the best I have seen on a Micro Four Thirds camera, and the Dual IS 2 surprised me while shooting dangerously slow shutter speeds hand-held. The bright and high resolution EVF was so pleasing to use and the camera confidently nails images one after another.

I do, however, dislike the default color profile of the G9 and found the JPEG to be poor in handling high ISO images. This is a minor problem considering I mostly shoot RAW and post-process images to my liking. The AF suffers a minor hiccup in extremely low light conditions (which the LX100, GH4 and GM1 never had any issue) but this happens so rarely that it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

The Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 is highly recommended for Micro Four Thirds shooters who want the best for all photography needs. And for those looking to venture into mirrorless from the DSLR camp, the G9 should sit high on your list of considerations.

The Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 is available from B&H

__________________

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Source: http://ift.tt/20qMcfK

Photoessay: Watercourse

X1D5_B0002671 copy

Being an island, water is of course unavoidable pretty much everywhere you go in Iceland – it shapes the country and often emerges in spectacular form from the least expected of places. Volcanic rock is of course extremely hard and resilient, but eventually the water wins; what I found most mind-boggling about the landscape wasn’t the scale, spectacle or extremes – but the fact that it will continue to change dramatically. What we see is but an instantaneous snapshot of a work in progress that will only get more spectacular with time, assuming a) we as the human race are still around to see it, and b) we haven’t somehow messed it up ourselves. I do realise the irony in that thought – and I’m sure many people will point out that I’m directly contributing to b) by merely visiting. Yet without more of us going and exploring to know what ought to be preserved, we can’t preserve it – or more importantly, give the landscape enough visibility in the wider social context so that people are aware that it needs to be preserved. Curiously, quantum mechanics is correct again even at this scale: we influence the outcome by measuring (recording) it…MT

Shot with the Hasselblad X1D Field Kit and processed with PS Workflow III.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.

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Street photography with the Olympus ZD 17mm f1.2 PRO – an addendum to the review

Some of you who read the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens review here, must be wondering why there were no street photography images, since the 35mm equivalent is a classic focal length for street photography and it is widely known that I do love shooting on the streets. The culprit was bad weather, thanks to a spell of rain over the last couple of week combined with overcast skies. Lighting is crucial for all photography and with cloudy weather I would have had flat, uninteresting and dull looking images. Fortunately, I did have a little time left with the Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens before returning it to Olympus, so I went out to do some street shooting when the weather cleared. This article shall be an extension to the Olympus 17mm F1.2 review, with more sample images shot with the lens.

F2.8, 1/6, ISO200

Fast and reliable autofocus can are crucial for nailing the shot, particularly when its a fast paced one. Why do I always shoot on the streets when I am reviewing a camera or lens? When I spot an opportunity, and I know I have to act quickly, the camera’s ability to respond fast enough to capture the shot tells me a lot about its performance. A lot of photographers over emphasize the image quality (resolution, high ISO, dynamic range, etc), but to me, what really matters is getting the image in the first place. What is the point of having a high megapixel, clean high ISO camera if it fails to capture the critical moment?

I appreciate the extremely fast autofocus that Olympus is able to offer with their recent releases of cameras and lenses. The Olympus 17mm F1.2 was snappy in acquiring focus, and I as confident in shooting the images I wanted to capture. The autofocus is so reliable, I just do not see the need to engage manual focus, at least not for street shooting.

Personally, I’ve never quite got along with the 35mm equivalent for my own street images. I acknowledge the versatility and effectiveness of 35mm in producing natural looking images but I have always worked with exaggerated focal lengths on either ends of the spectrum, i.e. wider than what the eye can see, or much longer into the medium telephoto range. My favourite lenses to use on the street would be the Olympus 45mm and 12mm. Hence, it took me some adjustment to get used to this Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens.

F6.3, 1/500, ISO500

F4, 1/125, ISO200

F4, 1/200, ISO200, I was not prepared, but I took this by reflex. I should have used faster shutter speed to freeze the cat

F1.2, 1/1000, ISO200, even at this close range, the depth of field is not that shallow enough for subject isolation at F1.2

F4, 1/25, ISO200

If you tend to use the 35mm focal length often, especially while shooting on the streets, there is a lot to like about the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 lens. Besides the obvious speedy AF, the lens manages to render realistic and natural looking results, something I feel is a step up from the older Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens. I have said this before in my review, but this is more evident with street images. Despite repeated attempts, I could not successfully achieve such results with the older 17mm f1.8.

Given the drawbacks of a 35mm lens, I was careful not to get too close to the head when shooting people, as that would create ugly distortions.

Some would argue that F1.2 aperture advantage is lost when shooting on the streets. That is true to some extent – with so much ambient light, we do not really need to shoot wide open at all. Using a wide angle lens also means we want as much to be in focus as possible, maximizing depth of field by narrowing the aperture to F4 or F5.6, if needed. Even at wide open F1.2, there is not much shallow depth of field advantage due to the smaller sensor size. Very few of the images in this series were taken with F1.2 wide open.

The unique thing about using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, is the ability to utilize the electronic shutter that goes up to 1/32,000 second shutter speed, which in combination with ISO Low (extended to ISO64, from ISO200) you can shoot wide open under bright daylight without having to attach an additional ND filter.

F3.5, 1/500, ISO200

F3.2, 1/500, ISO200

F4, 1/500, ISO200

F1.2, 1/1250, ISO200, if you see a cat, shoot it!

Crop from previous image

F4, 1/3200, ISO200, Pro Capture Mode (low) used.

A few comments pointed toward the Sigma 16mm F1.4 lens released recently. From my understanding, that lens was originally designed for use on Sony APS-C (E-Mount) cameras, and conveniently adapted for compatibility when used with Micro Four Thirds mount. I have not personally tried the lens myself, and I am as curious as everyone else on how the Sigma 16mm performs. If only I could get my hands on one.

So what do we do after the usual street shooting session? For me, I always end my shutter therapy with a cup of overpriced coffee. And sometimes that comes with some ridiculously “hipster”-ised food. This also gave me a chance to continue shooting with the lens, doing what most normal people do these day (at least this is rampant here in Asia), shooting our food before we eat. So here are some more image samples from the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens, non-street shots, but mostly close ups, further exploring that feathered bokeh Olympus is so proud of.

F3.2, 1/50, ISO200

F8, 1/15, ISO500, the 17mm F1.2 PRO lens has decent close up shooting capabilities

F1.2, 1/400, ISO200, the F1.2 was useful in this situation to isolate the subject, placed against an otherwise messy background

F5.6, 1/125, ISO200

 Bokeh comparison, from F1.2, F1.8, F2.8 to F4. Kindly take note that the F4 bokeh shape is not fully circular anymore.

F1.2, 1/40, ISO200, all it takes sometimes, is a cup of good coffee to pick me up.

I hope this extension to the original review of the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens has been useful.

I do have a an interesting list of cameras and lenses to review early this year, and I am excited to go out and shoot and share these images here with you beautiful people!

The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO Lens is available from B&H
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Is available from B&H

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Exhibition: Idea of Man, part II at the Ilford Galerie, Kuala Lumpur

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I’m pleased to announce my first exhibition for 2018, and the second instalment in the long-running Idea of Man project – part II premieres together with the opening of the Ilford Galerie in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is a continuation of my exploration into the transience of modern life – human figures are anonymous, on the move, and in a built environment, there is separation but no individuality, and every situation is a familiar one which we have probably been in at one time or another. They could be us. The perspective is one of conscious observer rather than participant: a deliberate acknowledgement of human nature in self-awareness and our tendency to as “why me – and how am I any different?”.

The event starts a 1pm on Saturday, 20 January and features prints made by my usual partner in crime, Wesley Wong. Please come and say hi if you’re in town.

IOM2 opening

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Creative integrity – or, the Struggling Artist Myth explained

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For the past six years, I’ve shot for pay full time, and occasionally for the better part of the preceding ten years before that. During the last six, the proportion of images of any sort shot with my own creative vision as primary motivation vs those shot with somebody else’s – i.e. for a client or as part of a commercial assignment – has swung from 100-0 to perhaps 5-95. This is expected, and both good and bad. It’s what actually had me stumped in my early pro days: every time I met a successful or established photographer, they almost never had a camera with them – or if they saw something spontaneous, they’d use their phone to shoot it. I wondered why, especially given their access to ‘better’. I think I know the answer to this, and to be honest: I’m not sure I or anybody else is going to like it. Read on if you dare.

Like most people, I started photographing because [I had an interest in it and wanted to record things] – and at a subconscious level, there was some emotional return/ satisfaction derived from the creative process. It was something I could do to fill small gaps of time, and there was undeniably some geek factor to the equipment. I photographed whatever took my fancy, and nothing else; at that point my work was so bad nobody would have thought twice about asking me to shoot anything, even ‘for exposure’. At some point I started photographing watches – because the nice collectors who owned them allowed me to, and because there was no way in hell I could afford to buy the ones I liked. I photographed more and more watches because I wanted to capture them in the way I saw them; at some point this became commercially attractive to some watch companies, and the first assignments started.

I was fortunate that the early jobs were still very much ‘shoot as you see it’ – this lead me to believe the (false) notion that photographers were always hired for their creative vision. At this point, I still had, and would continue to have, a normal corporate employer for many more years. I did some editorial work for a photography magazine on the side – though in hindsight, it was really a camera magazine (important difference: is the focus on images, or hardware?). This taught me another important lesson: in the commercial world, there’s honesty, there’s an unfavourable review, and then there’s when the silence speaks volumes but doesn’t annoy your advertisers. There’s also the catch-22: be honest and you lose your advertisers; say little or be dishonest and you lose your subscribers. As you might have guessed, that’s the reason why this site has never had and will never have advertisers or paid content: I don’t want to have to make that choice.

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Photographing commercially has taught me that my initial impression of this industry was completely wrong: whilst at some levels and for some clients – albeit very high, and very few – you are hired on the strength of your portfolio and you’re allowed to do some really experimental stuff (example one, example two) without any limits – that’s extremely rare. I count myself fortunate that I’ve had more than my fair share of this type of client, and obstinate enough to keep looking for them and not willing to settle for being a photocopier.

But – the photocopier-type job is inevitable, especially when you need to pay your rent. It is any job where the visual presentation of the subject is decided for you; whether the client art director has their own ideas and refuses to take input even though some things are physically impossible or would look very awkward/ unflattering – or they’ve simply handed you somebody else’s work and said ‘copy this’. The latter seems to be especially common in Asia where for some odd reason originality is verboten, and one must copy what was hot in Europe and the US last season. It is difficult to describe how this kind of job makes you feel; it’s not quite soul destroying (like being a first year audit trainee, for instance) – but it’s definitely not good. Perhaps the best analogy is astroturf: the grass really is greener (you’re not stuck pushing paper) but it’s not really grass: it’s merely somebody else’s idea of what grass should be.

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Even in a halfway situation where you do have some creative input – it feels like design by consortium. The result is an average decision whose aim was to keep everybody happy, but in reality makes nobody particularly unhappy, but also doesn’t really leave anybody inspired and in love, either. It’s corporate mediocrity at its very best; a bit like the look of a modern Toyota. It’s good enough work but not special – call it the output of a craftsman rather than an artist. What’s missing is usually the consistency and singular vision: you can tell when a product has been designed (and designed well) by one person, because every decision has a logical defense – even if individually they may not make sense, at least you’ve got a scalpel instead of a Swiss Army Knife. Think of it as an Otus instead of a 16-400/6.3 superzoom. This is of course complete anathema to both [what construes art] and what gives maximum satisfaction to the creator: the purest work is when we make something because we are compelled to.

With enough time in the game, your mindset shifts – our personalities are nothing more than a reflection of our experiences. If we only experience groupthink, having the imagination to create an original idea and the confidence to push it through become difficult, and risky. We don’t want to lose the client – especially in the current environment of continual creative budget cuts – so we slit our wrists and slowly sink into that warm bath. In the meantime, because we’re now thinking and seeing commercially – this is after all, what the clients want – we’re getting more of the same kind of work, which is of course self-reinforcing. We see less raw, less personal application, and we wouldn’t want to shoot something without lights, tripod, art department touch up etc. – which of course means we don’t shoot at all outside work. That personal vision has now shrunk. What makes us better commercial service providers has in reality made us worse creatives.

I realize this only when I found earlier this year I had to force myself to shoot for practice and to make material for the weekly PS sessions; it wasn’t because I was inspired or seeing opportunities. I didn’t even photograph my two year old much. The sense of potential I used to feel when walking through an unfamiliar location or encountering great light anywhere had left: photography had become another job. This really hit home when I experienced nothing but a sense of ‘not again’ when packing for a job several months ago, and more so when I started turning down work and not bothering taking opportunities to shoot.

Perhaps it was because I had two new mistresses occupying a lot of time and headspace – Hasselblad/ DJI and designing watches – or perhaps it was because I’d changed the way I work so much, I lost sight of why I enjoyed photographing in the first place.

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If you’re getting a sense of what’s coming next – you’d be right. I feel that continuing as a commercial photographer and delivering anything less than 110% would be a disservice to my clients and a hypocrisy to myself. The same goes for teaching. It would completely kill my enjoyment of the art and probably also my ability to see; that fire is still alive, but requires some careful tending.

If anything, the last six years of doing pretty much nothing but living and breathing photography 24/7 has taught me that one cannot go full steam into a single passion without running the risk of losing context and drive; there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. But I’m fortunate that I can happily say I’ve done far more than I ever expected as a professional photographer, and I’m looking forward to being an amateur photographer for more of the time, and shooting for nobody but myself. The reality is that the images that appeal to me personally and that I like, I have no commercial application or value – forget about art, that market an entire world to itself that I have no intention of doing the required things to penetrate. And in an odd way, I’ve made my peace with that. And this time, with focus spread over three rather different fields – I think I’ll actually do a better job at all of them. MT

Coda: The obvious questions from the readership are a) whether I still shooting commercially: yes, but only with the right creative fit of commission and client; b) whether this site continues: it does, though the content and subject matter may shift as I photograph differently; b) whether my role at Hasselblad continues: it does, and the level of time and involvement of this is one of the reasons something has to give. Finally d) there’s also the watch company we set up – at www.ming.watch.

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Favorite images of 2017 (or The Year in Review), part II

 

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June, Ginza, Tokyo. GX85, 35-100mm

Though this looks like part of a Koenigsegg from the previous post, it’s pure coincidence – I shot this through a window at the Nissan salon in Ginza whilst walking past on the way to another meeting. The textures and shades of red really appealed – and I’m actually surprised the M4/3 sensor didn’t cook the color channel.

(Continued from Part I)

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July, Kuala Lumpur. D810, 85PCE, SB900s and the MING 17.01

For me, 2017 will always be the year we seriously got into the watch game: buying is one thing, commissioning custom pieces is another, but building a brand is quite something else. The 17.01 occupies a special place in my heart because of what it is, what it represents, and the overwhelming (and unexpected) support we got from our friends in the collector’s community – our final batch sold out in two minutes. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s the harbinger of changes to come…

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September, Kuala Lumpur. D850, 24-120

Not only do they grow up fast, but learn fast, too. “Put your face in the light and turn a bit more towards me, Sophie,” I said – and this was the result.

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October, near Selfoss, Iceland. DJI Mavic Pro

When I first saw photos of this place, I wasn’t sure the color could be real…but thanks to oblique light and all of those volcanic minerals, it’s very real. I would have loved more light time over this location, but weather simply wasn’t cooperative. In fact, I could probably use more flight time overall – but thanks to tightening restrictions and ever decreasing time, that’s not very likely.

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October, Harpa, Reykjavik. X1D-50c, 45mm

An impressively modern building, but so clearly Icelandic and inspired by the landscape: the mass forms of the building itself are very much like the giant cliffs and mountains, and the hexagonal structure like basaltic lava pillars…and that’s before we even get to the way the light plays with the glass and mirrored panels, appearing transparent, solid (and icy) all at the same time. A nightmare for AF though, with many reflection planes and very thin ‘real’ object planes…

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October, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hellnar, Iceland. X1D-50c, 90mm

We drove through overcast skies that suddenly darkened and darkened…and looked as though they were going to open up with rain, but instead produced a rainbow and lifted. Unexpected, dramatic, beautiful, and given the speed of winds and weather changes in Iceland – looking almost like it was running in fast forward. I think this was the peak ‘action’ (certainly peak intensity), and in the full size version, you can see a few signs of hunan habitation which also put the whole scale – and our relative insignificance – into context.

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October, near Snaefellsbaer, Iceland. X1D-50c, Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar

In so many ways, this is yet another microcosmic metaphor for the country: glacial runoff, lots of water, much more verdant that expected, with surprising hidden rocky-watery drama that you don’t see until you’re above or right on top of it – I’m sure one of the reasons this place is so popular is not just because you’re seeing something so different to whatever else you might be used to, but also because you feel as though you’re genuinely discovering something in the process.

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October, Haifoss, Iceland. X1D-50c, Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar

Trying to produce something different but clear and essential isn’t easy, especially in a place that’s been photographed to death. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen something this minimalist – all elements are clear, yet a sense of mystery remains and the textural differentiation is very real despite being dark. A print of this one really sings, but not in a high key pop way: think slow smoky jazz with just a trumpet and a piano…

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November, Kuala Lumpur. D850, 85 PCE, SB900s and the MING 19.01

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November, Kuala Lumpur. D850, 85 PCE, SB900s and the MING 19.01

Our second release, and me continuing to push what can be done for a) a new brand b) a brand out of Asia c) a brand at our price point. I’m pleased with the result, at any price point (and I’ve had the privilege of handling, wearing and owning some rather special pieces). On seeing it, a collector friend said to me “You made a watch for you, not the collectors, didn’t you?” – I wholeheartedly agreed with him, because if we don’t love and believe in our product and design language – how can we expect anybody else to?

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November, Daikanyama, Tokyo. D850, 24-120

On first glance, it’s a rushing woman in a kimono with red hair (or a red hat and scarf) – but look closer and it’s merely an illusion. I see hope and passion in a tough environment – at least for long enough to merit further investigation. Somehow feels like life…

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November, Maranouchi, Tokyo. D850, 24-120

There is a sort of integration and continuity to modern life and cities that is both confusing but somehow works if you can spend the time to figure it out – other than the use of visual wimmelbild, I’ve struggled to express this (probably because it requires more than two static dimensions). Yet it’s so all-pervasive that I am drawn to continue – I think this image continues one step closer…

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November, Omotesando, Tokyo. D850, 24-120

We again have a scene of tension, increased by contrast and monochromaticness – hard vs soft, curved vs straight, massive vs detailed. You can visually see the corners pulling against each other thanks to the gridlines projected over everything. Also, the lines on the car remind me of one of my favourite pieces of automotive art – Frank Stella’s 1976 BMW 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’ Le Mans car.

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November, Gion, Kyoto. D850, 24-120

In urban photography, I’m always looking for scenes that are a representative little vignette of the whole place – something that captures its spirit and feeling, if you will. The small alleyways of Gion at night have this paradoxical feel of invitingness because of their warm decor and lighting, but at the same time a sort of impenetrability and intimidation factor because the doors are usually closed, and there are few windows (none, in older establishments) that give any clue to the atmosphere within. People hustle past either with a determined destination in mind (or perhaps not quite having worked up the courage and curiosity to go into one of these places).

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November, Kiyomizu, Kyoto. D850, 24-120

A young couple celebrates the season amongst the crowds at one of the most popular spots in Kyoto – I spoke to the man briefly afterwards when he asked me to take a picture for them; it turned out he’d just proposed (if I understood correctly) at that moment. Sometimes, we get lucky. MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Favorite images of 2017 (or The Year in Review), part I

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January. John Rylands Library, Manchester. X1D-50c, 45mm – place aside, think of the concept of a library: the preservation and sharing of knowledge – which itself needs to be nuanced, detailed, solid, and illuminating at the end of the visit: this scene translates all of that into architecture, and subsequently a physical location. What could be more appropriate?

Let’s indulge in a little retrospective curation today. Being the start of the new year, I generally find it useful to review my output from the previous year for a couple of reasons: firstly, to see how things have moved in general (often, you have the intention to shoot something but not necessarily the opportunity or discipline) and secondly, to determine where to go from here. It always makes sense to know one’s strengths and weaknesses, not to mention an awareness of just how much of photography is down to serendipitous luck. I suspect we’ll find that the planned/ commissioned work is pretty much as expected with few wildcards, but the spontaneous stuff is both less in overall volume (simply due to not having time or opportunity) but higher in spontaneity (because the few opportunities that remain are really NOT planned.) It also doesn’t help that the more you shoot – the higher the thresholds get. There’s simply a lot more history to overcome: what you produce now needs to be ‘better’ than what you did previously in the same subject or style category; yet it’s precisely this sort of precuration that kills experimentation. And we’re not even counting what I think of as the ‘craftsman’ type jobs where the client defines precisely what they want, and there isn’t much scope for creativity – those of course almost never hit the radar.

Interestingly, I landed up with more images from more recent shoots – which suggests that there’s definitely temporal bias even after a few months; either that or I’ve simply forgotten work from earlier in the year. Even so, there are only 29 images in this set, each of which I think would pass the ‘would I print and hang it’ test. With that preamble out of the way, let’s go to some images. I won’t leave much commentary other than precisely what appeals to me in the image and a little context. Even so, it’s going to be a fairly long post – so I’ve broken it into two parts. MT

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January. Hasselblad HQ, Gothenburg. X1D-50c, 90mm

One of those spontaneous moments where shallow-angle winter light made it feel like we suddenly stepped out of a camera factory and entered a 1940’s detective agency, complete with trench coat…

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January, Ipoh, Malaysia. 501CM, CFV-50c, 80mm

We arose from the primordial muck, we changed, we conquered, we terraformed to our liking – or the liking of our customers. Is this sustainable?

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January, TTDI Ascencia, Kuala Lumpur. H5D-50c, 24mm

Timing matters, even in architectural photography. Especially in architectural photography, because you can’t move the building, the light source, or your modifiers (clouds). Right place, right time, but not that much time when you’re on assignment. Sometimes, you get lucky.

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February, Thaipusam, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur. H6D-100c, 100mm

I’ve said this time and again, but beyond the sheer visual impact and atmosphere of the event – there’s something about this festival that hits you at a much deeper level and keeps you coming back again and again. I have no idea why, but I’m not ruling out a 2018 visit which will be my seventh or eighth.

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February, Thaipusam, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur. H6D-100c, 100mm

It’s all in the eyes – he had the same intense unblinking stare at the other devotee in front of him, for nearly ten minutes; for a split second, he turned and fixed me with the most intense gaze I’ve experienced – right through the camera.

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April, Kuala Lumpur. H6D-100c, 24mm

I think of this image as ‘the aftermath’ – one day after the party, some presents and detritus still strewn around, the kiddo off on her next mini-adventure and nowhere to be seen…time flies, and its relative passing is really only brought home when you have something (like this) to measure it against.

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May, Hong Kong. H6D-100c, 35-90mm

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May, Hong Kong. H6D-100c, 24mm

This and the previous images are conceptually opposite sides of the same coin: on one hand, there’s the heavy engineering and hazards etc. that go into making a habitable human environment; on the other hand, modern society and economics mean that somebody’s entire world can be contained in the ~140sqft you see in the image above – shot from the 10sqft balcony, with a 16mm-e lens. That gives you an idea of just how small the space is – yet it still felt quite cosy and homely, without any of the claustrophobia you might expect. But one would have to be extremely careful in curating possessions, I think…

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April, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. H6D-100c, 150mm

We arrived late at night to darkness and a warren of narrow, unfamiliar streets. And awoke (slightly jet lagged) the following morning to this – welcome to Istanbul.

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April, Istanbul. H6D-100c, 100mm

The city and its people have seen thousands of years of history pass through its straits and streets – there’s a sort of feeling of calm acceptance no matter how crazy things get. The one constant is change; we are the transient and insubstantial element. Istanbul, on the other hand, endures.

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April, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. H6D-100c, 150mm

This image is all about tension: order, chaos, balance, imbalance, patina, age, newness, precariousness, solidity, fragility, warm, cool, straight, curved – every element is represented, and somehow remains coherent and integral. It’s ancient architecture at its best…looking at the building, it’s easy to forget that construction started ~1,500 years ago – I can’t imagine any structure of the current era lasting much more than 100 years, let alone 1,000+…

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May, Ångelholm. H6D-100c, 50mm, DJI M600, Broncolor Siros 800L, and of course a Koenigsegg Agera RS

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May, Ångelholm. H6D-100c, 50mm, Broncolor Siros 800L, Koenigsegg Regera

What can I say – what an assignment! The best of the best and an open creative brief. The image with the aerial light trails is pretty stunning as a large print – as it was intended to be viewed. I didn’t get to drive as neither of the cars were set up yet, but there’s a standing invitation I will cash in on one day…

(To be continued in Part II.)

 

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Review: The Olympus M.Zuiko 17/1.2 PRO

Firstly – Happy New Year! I hope 2018 proves to be fruitful and fulfilling – both photographically and otherwise. Now on to the business at hand…

The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens was launched in September 2017 and together with the Olympus 25mm and 45mm F1.2, completes the PRO F1.2 lens trinity. My review unit of the Olympus 17mm F1.2 was on loan from Olympus Malaysia during the final week of 2017. I acknowledge that 35mm (equivalent) is a classic, popular and highly revered focal length especially for environmental portraits, documentary and journalism work as well as traditional street photography.  Frankly, 35mm is not my favourite focal length to work with – I generally prefer either the wider or longer end for my photography needs. Therefore, this review was exceptionally challenging for me and required more effort than usual.

Some disclaimers before we move on – the Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens was on loan from Olympus Malaysia solely for review purposes only and will be returned soon after. Neither myself nor MT are associated with Olympus in any way, and this review was conducted independently. This review is based off user-experience and presented from my point of view and is therefore, subjective. All images were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and post-processed with Capture One Pro.

A gallery of all the images shown in this article with EXIF data intact can be viewed on Google Photos Album here.

F1.2, ISO200, 1/1600

The Olympus 17mm F1.2 shares similar specifications with its other F1.2 PRO siblings. According to Olympus, the aim was to deliver critically sharp images even while shooting wide open at F1.2, while maintaining smooth buttery bokeh (with a feature called “feathered bokeh”). The lens construction is quite complex, consisting of 15 elements in 11 groups (1 Super ED lens, 3 ED lenses, 1 ED-DSA lens, 1 EDA lens, 1 Super HR lens, 1 aspherical lens). The lens is capable of a maximum magnification of 0.15x, nowhere near macro levels but useful enough for general close up shooting. The lens is by no means small or light, weighing in at 390g and similar in size to the Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 lens. For full product specifications, you can check out the official product page here.

The first impression of the Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens in hand is how similar it looks and feels like the 25mm F1.2 and 45mm F1.2 lenses. All three F1.2 lenses are about the same size and have the exact same design. I wouldn’t be able to tell the lenses apart, unless I looked for the focal length markings. Design uniformity is not necessarily a bad thing, but a little differentiation would be appreciated. Imagine working in a dark environment with these three lenses at hand – I’m sure some precious time will be lost just looking for the focal length marking.

The lens may look huge in the product images, but it does not feel unbearably large in the hand. I am used to handling the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 lens, so the 17mm F1.2 (similar size and weight) felt right at home. A genuine concern, however, is the diminishing benefit of Micro Four Thirds systems having smaller, more portable lenses. These new F1.2 PRO lenses are no smaller or lighter than their DSLR counterparts. I can’t deny that the size advantage is questionable now, but before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a pause and look at what the lens can do. After reviewing the results from this F1.2 lens, I can safely say I don’t wish the lens to be any smaller or lighter if it means a compromise in image quality.

F1.2, ISO200, 1/400

Crop from previous image

F5, ISO200, 1/2500

F3.2, ISO200, 1/6400

I never liked the original Olympus 17mm F1.8 lens, and it wasn’t just me showing a lack of enthusiasm. I remember in Ming Thein and Steve Huff’s original reviews, they were both unimpressed with it. Before diving into the different aspects of reviewing the lens, if the lens works for you, it just works when you are shooting with it. With the older 17mm F1.8, no matter how much effort I put into getting a good shot, I always came home with lackluster results. I have given that lens many a chance at redemption over the years, but it just did not manage to work out.

The new Olympus 17mm F1.2, on the other hand, is a completely different lens altogether. From the moment I shot the first image, I was smitten by it, and as much as I dislike the 35mm equivalent focal length, I hope my images do justice to the “a-hah!” moments I had during my time with the 17mm F1.2 lens.

The 17mm F1.2 is super sharp, even wide open, and if my shooting experience was accurate, this could be the sharpest of all the three F1.2 PRO lenses. It is so sharp, that stopping down to F1.8 or F2.8 doesn’t yield that much more benefit, besides more depth of field control. Although sharp, the lens is still capable of rendering naturally pleasing looking images, and there is a sense of realism that the old 17mm F1.8 couldn’t deliver. The images just look right.

The sharpness is consistent across the frame, from corner to corner. At F1.2, the extreme corners are still very good, though stopping down a bit can help get better uniformity. Considering that Micro Four Thirds is not the best system for shallow depth of field, having sharp and usable F1.2 results is extremely important, and the 17mm F1.2 delivers just that.

F1.2, ISO200, 1/320, “Feathered Bokeh”

F1.8, ISO200, 1/160, Normal Bokeh

F1.2, ISO200, 1/1600

Bokeh rendering comparison with a busy background: F1.2, F1.8, F2.8, F4, F5.6, F8. All original individual images can be found here

The 17mm F1.2 renders excellent looking bokeh. Olympus claims that when shooting at F1.2, the lens can produce “feathered bokeh”, which are softer looking bokeh balls that fall off beautifully into the background instead of the typical solid, blocky looking bokeh balls from ordinary lenses. Whatever Olympus is doing, the bokeh from the 17mm F1.2 lens is pleasing and addictive to look at.

It’s worth noting that you need to move in considerably close to the subject to be able to achieve sufficient subject isolation, as depth of field is still not that shallow with the smaller sensor size on a Micro Four Thirds camera. There is no contest to larger sensor cameras that can render blurrier backgrounds (shallower depth of field), but we are not talking about the amount of bokeh here, but the quality.

As expected from a PRO grade lens from Olympus (based on experience with their other PRO lenses), distortion, chromatic aberration and flare are all well managed. Wide open, the chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is evident in high contrast, out of focus areas. This can be eliminated in post-processing if required. Stopping down to F4 removes all traces of chromatic aberration.

The images are completely corrected for any barrel distortion, and most RAW converters should be able to read the lens profile and apply automatic corrections. This should not be an issue if you shoot JPEG, as barrel distortion is non-existent and all straight lines should be perfectly straight.

F1.2, ISO200, 1/20,000, Corner Sharpness Test. Electronic Shutter used

F1.2, Corner crop from above image

F4, in comparison to F1.2 Crop

F5.6, ISO200, 1/160, Barrel Distortion Test

F5, ISO800, 1/500, Barrel Distortion Test

F5, ISO200, 1/250, Barrel Distortion Test

F5.6, ISO200, 1/400, Chromatic Aberration Test

F1.2, Crop from top edge to show Purple Fringing

F5.6, crop from previous image, purple fringing mitigated.

For my usual portraits, I normally use either the wide angle 12mm F2 lens for environmental portraits, or a medium telephoto or longer lens such as 45mm F1.8 or 75mm F1.8 to produce more flattering, natural looking results. I was curious to see what the new 17mm F1.2 can do when shooting people, so instead of just shooting strangers on the street as usual, I was fortunate to have my friend Carmen model for me again. And she looked stunning in that yellow dress!

If you are thinking of shooting portraits with subject isolation using the 17mm F1.2, simply because it has an F1.2 aperture, I’d caution you to manage your expectations. Do not overestimate the capability of the F1.2 lenses, you can only create sufficient background blur if you are close enough to the subject. Being so close to the subject also creates another problem – perspective distortion that will result in disproportionate looking human subjects. Therefore, the 17mm lens is suitable for mostly half body or more coverage when shooting portraits. If creating shallow depth of field is a priority, I highly recommend the 45mm F1.8, 45mm F1.2, 75mm F1.8 and 40-150mm F2.8 (you’ll notice that they’re all on the telephoto end).

Having said that, the images from the Carmen shoot were better than I originally anticipated. The lens managed to render really natural looking images – something that surprised me. Maybe I was conscious about not getting too close and the wider composition helped maintain the natural look in the images. Despite the harsh lighting, the lens managed to pull in good amount of contrast and the images pop even without much post-processing.

F1.2, ISO200, 1/400

F1.2, ISO200, 1/400

F1.2, ISO200, 1/640

F1.2, ISO200, 1/4000

F1.2, ISO200, 1/8000

F1.2, ISO200, 1/5000

For an F1.2 lens, focus accuracy is more crucial than speed, and the Olympus 17mm f1.2 is both extremely fast and accurate at the same time. The few out of focus shots I did have were a result of user error (such as placing the focus point in the wrong area). I shot a few fast moving subjects, and the AF managed to lock on almost instantly. I briefly tested this 17mm F1.2 lens on a Panasonic GH4 as well, and the AF performance was speedy and accurate too.

Considering that 35mm is such a classic, popular focal length, I am sure many would treat this as the one do-it-all lens, replacing the standard zoom or kit lens. Having good close up shooting capability (0.3x maximum magnification) helps in shooting everyday subjects, such as food and simple wide angle product shots. You know, those “Instagram-Hipster-Looking” shots of a coffee by the window, or a plate of overly colorful food that people spend 15 minutes photographing and 5 minutes eating. Oh dear, I may be just one of those people, unfortunately.

Having brought the Olympus 17mm F1.2 around with me almost everywhere, I did try to shoot as many ordinary, every day subjects as I could. Did I find the 17mm lens to be versatile enough? Personally – no. I prefer to use the 25mm lens as my do-it-all solution. I can see the importance of and use for the wider coverage that the 17mm provides. If you can deal with the perspective distortion (not tilting your shots too much), you can get really good shots with the 17mm F1.2 lens, especially with the ability to shoot at F1.2.

F5.6, ISO200, 1/30

F5.6, ISO500, 1/80

F8, ISO200, 1/60, Flash used

F5.6, ISO200, 1/30, Well, since a cup of coffee is so mainstream, why not coffee beans instead?

F5.6, ISO200, 1/80

The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO changed my perspective of working with this focal length, especially considering I did not expect to fall in love with this lens.

The lens is incredibly sharp even when shooting wide open. The sharpness is uniform from edge to edge. The bokeh is beautiful and soft, resulting in pleasing and natural looking images. Technical flaws are well controlled with no noticeable distortion, minimal chromatic aberration and good flare control. AF is speedy and reliable. the lens just works and it exceeded my expectations.

Of the three F1.2 lenses, I am surprised to conclude that this 17mm F1.2 is my personal favourite.

If you are a 35mm focal length shooter, this could be the only strong choice available for you within the Micro Four Thirds family. There are other close alternatives, such as the Panasonic Leica 15mm f1.7 and 20mm F1.7, but these do not give you a 35mm equivalent field of view. I personally would not recommend the older 17mm F1.8, unless a budget is holding you back and you absolutely need to work with a prime.

I have a few more days before I return this Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens to Olympus. I plan to roam the streets of Kuala Lumpur and do my usual street shooting with the lens! More sample photographs, this time street photography images will be available soon.

The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO Lens is available from B&H
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Is available from B&H

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Discussion points: photographic rules

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Much has been written about photographic guidelines or rules that are supposed to guarantee you – or at least lead to a high chance of success – an interesting or balanced image. I’m not about to reinforce those, but neither am I about to dismiss them completely. Instead: let me offer you an alternative take on The Pantheon of Photographic Dogma like ‘the rule of thirds’ and ‘best light at dawn and dusk’ and ‘blur only your backgrounds’ etc. Important: it is not to be confused by the limitations imposed by the physiology of the way we see: we cannot help notice bright colours because this is the way our brains and eyes are wired. We cannot help but notice abrupt highlight clipping (but not black shadows) – because we cannot change the way the cells in our retinas are laid out. Apply some scepticism to internet pundits who can’t differentiate between man-imposed rules and those which are physiologically limited. With that, let’s move on to the discussion background.

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The first problem is that a set of rules can only consistently and successfully be applied to a situation where all of the variables and parameters are known and defined: you cannot impose a set of hard rules on a situation that has a fluid form, where there is no certainty over the kinds of challenges or subjects you encounter. Yet the exceptions are precisely what makes for an interesting photograph: it’s what isn’t commonly encountered or routinely seen that holds the attention of an audience. The unexpected visual non-sequitur is what we remember – the unexpected element that has no ‘standard’ way to incorporate because we have no way to anticipate it. Our minds tend to filter out the common and the repetitive – else we’d never get anything done for visual overload. This means we have an innate ability to filter out anything that isn’t exceptionally different; it means that a composition that was created according to a set of fixed rules – and which would therefore follow a certain set of spatial parameters – will not differentiate itself simply because there are others that have come before it, and probably quite a lot of them. In other words: you can’t do the same thing as everybody else and expect a different outcome, and if you don’t have a different outcome, the image simply gets lost.

Bottom line: if the aim of photography is to create something unique – you make it significantly more difficult by imposing constraints that do not need to be there (and are unlikely to take into account edge cases and exceptions, which are the more interesting subjects anyway).

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Spatial rules basically simply and generalise some assumptions – sometimes correct – about physiology and psychology of seeing. For example, having eyes physically laid out left-right means that landscape view is probably more natural to us than portrait because of the way the fields of vision of each eye overlap. Except, not all people have the same physiology, and not all cameras have the same aspect ratio – we haven’t even begun to talk about perspective, either. Some have better (read: more dominant) peripheral vision than others; some have more acute central field vision. A square aspect ratio camera isn’t really going to match our field of vision – or make sense to apply the same compositional rules to as a 16:9 one.

All of this is not to say that rules do not have their uses: they do. I think if anything they give you a good guide as to what to avoid if you want to make an image that stands out – note: I didn’t say works or is interesting or anything of that nature. Sometimes it might just so happen that one particular rule works for that situation; it doesn’t mean it’s universal. It would be risky to say that if a single image of an alien and a celebrity is interesting, they’d all be – but if all or the great majority of images were nothing but aliens and celebrities – who would take a second glance?

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We’ve touched on the cliches, we’ve touched on the physiology (much more detail in this and this article) but we haven’t touched on some things that generally make sense; I use the term ‘generally’ because as always there are exceptions dependent on the subject, scene and communicative intent of the photographer. Whilst for instance hard shadows usually make for interesting architectural images, they aren’t always so good for senior portraits or product photography. But this can be simplified into a logical statement like “shadows can assist with spatial orientation of a composition, and enhancing texture” – which I think is legitimate. But ultimately, the photographer has to decide if they actually want an obvious spatial orientation or not – they may not, for instance, if the intention is to make an extremely abstract composition. The example images given deliberately violate at least one, sometimes more, of the commonly bandied photographic rules – yet to my eyes at least, they still work.

My personal guidelines have long ago been distilled down into The Four Things: note that these are not hard and fast rules, but flexible guidelines that take into account human visual psychology and are not subject or situation or hardware specific. There are other considerations I keep in mind that may be stylistic rather than anything else – e.g. if my aim is to make a graphic image, I’m going to look for very hard shadows and intense colours, or cinematic images require layering, dominant hue and conscious foreground use. But even then – they aren’t exclusive, can deal with the edge cases. A subject can be presented any number of ways and still be arresting. MT

Over to you to discuss in the comments:

  1. Did you ever find photographic rules (golden ratio spirals, don’t put horizons dead centre frame etc.) useful?
  2. Did you eventually find them limiting?
  3. Are there any you still come back to, regardless?
  4. Do you have any personal guidelines of your own you adhere to?

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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