Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 2: Moulting Series
One of the more difficult scenes to photograph is the moulting process of a spider. First thing, it requires a lot of luck, patience and scouting skills to witness a moult in process. Spiders are very vulnerable during a moult where even a slight disturbance can disrupt the process which may be fatal. Therefore they tend to moult at times and places other creatures can hardly notice.

Next, an orb-weaver is more difficult to photograph while moulting since they tend to hang by a single thread during the process. Even the slightest breeze will swing it which makes working in a very tight depth of field feels hellish. Even worse if the spider we have is tiny, for obvious reasons.

In the past I have photographed several moults of orb-weavers and usually I will take home about 2-3 good images at best. All are quite sizable, at least 10mm in body length. While looking for a candidate as my glamour macro model, I found a very tiny orb-weaver preparing for a moult. He was so small, some 5mm, which made me think for a while whether this thing is worth the trouble. This thing is small, an orb-weaver and there was gust every now and then. Good combo. It was like some kind of a prank- you get what you want but it won't be that easy.

With me was the E-5, Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.0, EC14 teleconverter and the STF-22 twin flash. I cut some used Styrofoam padding to diffuse the flash heads, tied with rubber bands. The settings are nothing amazing- manual mode with 1/200s, f13, ISO100 and the flash on auto TTL. This is my standard default setting with the E-5 with some parameter adjustment if the need arise. The setting was good enough for this situation but something else was bothering me- the wind gust.

The moult was happening at the outer part of a shrub, easy enough for me to poke my gears at it. But this also makes it susceptible to air movement. The tiny spider was rotating slowly and at times swings between sides. It was almost impossible to lock focus manually, especially with my left hand holding a torch light. I switched to continuous AF and used a single AF point to lock it.

Each of the 11 AF point of the E-5 has twin cross sensors, something like 4 sensors in each point. This makes it very sensitive and very accurate. The C-AF managed to track the constantly moving spider and fired away a burst of shots, retarded only by the recycling of the STF-22. I missed quite a bunch since it was REALLY NOT EASY to track down such a rotating tiny thing through a viewfinder over such a shallow depth of field. But the shots that made through were simply astounding.

Don't you just love when it rotates? Grrrr...

From this case study of shooting a moult with the E-5, let us look at how much helpful it was. The trickiest thing about this was to take the shots while not disturbing the spider. I will need to be at a comfortable distance from it, not touching any leaves that would stir the thread it was hanging to, get a good angle with a pleasing perspective and acceptable background, hold my stance firm and track the instantaneous position of the spider (yeah, thank you so much Mr. Wind). Oh, and don't forget I had the hunt-prone 50mm f2 mounted with EC14. At this point, worrying about the camera setting was insignificant as this should have been sorted out earlier. The E-5 tackled these issues like a professional camera it is meant to be.

Firstly the C-AF was very reliable even at such precise focusing distance, such low light and such lens. If I were to do the same with my E-500, the success rate would drop significantly. I will still get some good shots but not as many and will have to work harder. In fact I doubt that the 50mm f2 can pull such task with the E-500, which was why the 35mm was my primary macro lens.

Secondly, the 12.3MP means there are plenty of room to crop. For typical macro shooters, you don't need further explanation. As for the rest, it is simple to figure out why.
Thirdly, the ergonomics of the camera was very good. It balances well and the grip was solid. Unlike other entry level 4/3 DSLRs, the E-5 comes with a larger optical viewfinder which is a blessing when taking such photos. I did not use the live view since I am not used to it and the fact that there is some shutter delay involved. Just how conservative I am.

I have to give some credit to the STF-22 which made my life easier. Shooting between the leaves have always been painful for my DIY flash bouncer and the twin flash just made this so easy. The flexibility on controlling the power ratio and flash angle was instrumental in making the above shots becoming like what they are. It also resulted with less weird shooting stance.

Now let's talk about the weight factor. Holding the whole setup hand held was quite a challenge, specially for me who is spoilt by the marvel of E-500 (435g) with ZD 35mm (165g) and Cybertik MZ-45 flash (270g without batteries). But frankly, it was worth the extra calories burnt. The set back was that I cannot hold it steady as long as the lighter setup due to increasing tremors as my muscle experiencing fatigue faster. I suppose a bit of dumb bell workout and breathing exercise should mitigate that to certain extent.

Every part of a camera review needs a conclusion and the verdict is simple. I find the combo of E-5 with STF-22 is well worth the extra weight due to its vastly improved functionality which makes life simpler. Well that's the whole point of spending money on new gears, other than to impress girls. I am not even talking about image quality here, which is obviously superb, but just to point out how much the new AF being helpful, compared to ummm... the E-500. Of course there are other systems which have similar or even more advanced AF capability but sometimes I wonder why many of their users rather use manual focus when doing macro.

I will write about image quality in the next part with more photos as case study materials.

Note: The spider is a male orb-weaver of family Araneidae. The gender identification is from the swollen pedipalp. He completed the moult successfully in about 10 minutes after which he went off deep into the shrubs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 1: A quick look at E-5 and the Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.

In September 2005 Olympus launched one of its most successful DSLR- the phenomenal E-500. It was cheap, packed with unimaginable features and produced amazing colors through the Kodak KAF-8300CE sensor. I was considering to get my first digital camera and after evaluating several possible choices, I eventually picked the E-500. The choice was based on the value for money and I was simply amazed by the Four Third vision which was bold enough to develop an entire system from scratch, optimistically speaking. See, with the Four Thirds system I will get 1-stop deeper depth of field than any APS-C camera, which is a good news for macro photographers. The E-500 was Olympus' third DSLR.

5 years later Olympus announced the E-5 which came quite late by today's standard. Since a couple of years back, camera manufacturers came to get the habit of producing too many DSLR models too frequently. Sometimes the newer model just cannot be justified properly- they take an existing model, thrash out some minor features and there you go- the latest entry level DSLR. So how is E-5 different from their previous professional camera, E-3, or even the last one out, E-600? I can't tell you much since I don't have either. But I can tell you how E-5 responds when I took it out on some macro shootings.

Shot with E-500 on ZD35/3.5

Olympus Malaysia offered me a unit for testing together with the STF-22 twin flash unit and some other goodies. Naturally whenever someone loan me a camera for a week for testing purpose, it must be that we want to see how the beast can fare when we attach a macro lens to it. Anyone can take macro shots but the number drops when we talk about nature macro. Unlike still life, living critters in the wild hardly pose for you hence a good set for nature macro kit needs to be more than just capable of taking nice photos. Things get more complicated if you intend to haul the gears deep into the tropical rain forest.

I have both Zuiko Digital macro lenses. Most of the time I use the 35mm f3.5 for macro works because although the 50mm f2.0 is significantly sharper, it suffers badly from erratic autofocus when used in low light. Furthermore, it can yield a magnification of only 1:2, which is half of what the el cheapo 35mm produces. Nevertheless it serves as a perfect portrait lens since the sweet spot is somewhere close to the widest aperture and even open wide, its resolution is significantly higher than all other 50mm. So for this review, I will put the Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.0 to test.

Due to time restriction, I only have enough time to do a few tests. This is the test to see how the 50/2 performs on E-5 compared to E-500. OK, I know it sounds like a bad joke but that antique is the only thing I got.

1. In a test done by a famous website, they concluded that the ZD 50/2 out resolves the E-3 sensor. That means this lens still has some untapped potential. On the E-5, the images taken with the 50/2 show much higher detail which correlates to higher resolution. In layman terms- photos will look sharper and crispier with the E-5.

2. The hunting syndrome commonly associated with the 50/2 is well managed by the E-5. The auto focus locks faster and hunts less on low light. It even behaves quite well with the EX-25 attached! Now this is something I never have expected. I taught the chronic low light hunting syndrome suffered by 50/2 is incurable and was simply amazed beyond words when I can easily lock focus with C-AF under the shades of the forest canopy. The focusing speed feels faster as well but that might just caused by some stray endorphin after realizing my favourite lens is cured from night blindness.

Ok, time for sample photos.

This is a portrait shot taken with the ZD50/2 on the E-5 with available light. The details (if you can see the high resolution copy) are mind blowing. I can't compare with other recent DSLRs but against my little sidekick the E-500, the difference is like heaven and earth. Below is the 100% view straight from the camera without any editing (except probably auto-resizing by blogspot). The setting was "Natural" mode and no adjustment to contrast nor sharpness. As bare as it can be.

By now I can hear someone complaining- "Dude, we hate your boring portrait shots. Bring out the spiders!" Since it is not so frequent that I got the chance to test a pro camera before it hits the store, why not we indulge on something else first. In fact macro and portrait share a lot in common since I shoot both using the same lens. Next is a macro shot, taken with the STF-22 on a partially random setting. Personally for me, I have no complaint in regards to the image quality, at all. The image is so refine with rich details and virtually no annoying noise. Good enough for my standard and beyond.

In terms of color reproduction, I am very pleased to note that the E-5 maintains the signature of Olympus on producing very pleasant and natural colors. Coupled with the 50/2, there isn't much you need to (or can) tweak at post processing unless you got the white balance screwed up. The colors are just nice and I find them to be richer than other MOS-based DSLR from Olympus. Oh, a note on the auto white balance. It is fairly accurate and much better than the E-500 although most of the time during the test I use either the preset or manual (Kelvin) settings. This habit was the by product of using the E-500 for so long. At other times, the auto white balance is very reliable.

Now let's get a bit serious. I was wondering if E-5 is a better choice for macro photography compared to my current gear. One distinct advantage the E-500 has is its light weight- a very significant advantage for hand held macro shooters like me. E-5 needs to do more than just giving higher resolution in order to seriously compete with E-500 in the realm of macro. This old work horse has helped me to gain several international recognitions and to date I found no other DSLR model which is suitable to replace it. This, we will look deeper in the next part.

To end the first part of this review, I have 2 conclusions. First, the ZD 50/2 which has already received a legendary status, becomes a super lens with even higher details and much improved auto focus. Secondly, the E-5 is a major improvement in terms of image quality than E-500 or even the E-520 (I had the chance to play with one for 3 weeks). I am saying this as a hardcore E-500 fanboy who has been resisting any sort of gear change for years.

Thank you for reading this entry which has nothing to do with spider. But I need to write something, somewhere.