Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 3: Daylight Macro

I apologize for the delay. Just after I published Part 2 I shifted my house to Puncak Jalil, a nice double storey link facing a small hill with a water tank. The property agent said since the front door is facing south, I should get good feng shui. What happened was TM did not reconnect my broadband until almost 2 weeks. I have called them relentlessly after the 5th day we made the request for line transfer and after a lot of BP-rising and saliva-spitting complaints, I am back online. I am waiting to hear what the TM Point GM will say about this, as she told me last week she would.

What makes a good macro machine? There are several attributes which I would put-
1. Good low ISO performance.
2. Lightweight.
3. High megapixel.
4. Low moire.
5. High flash sync.
6. Natural colours.
7. Rugged.

I am not including the obvious ones such as image quality since it is so obvious, we would not be considering something which cannot meet such basic requirement. By the way, I wrote about this earlier and the E-5 got my applaud.

It is obvious that any amount of noise will reduce the quality of a macro image, henceforth we normally shoot at low ISO. So we are more interested in the performance in the range of ISO100-400 rather than peeping the ISO3200. Here the E-5 does exceptionally well where the low ISO range is virtually clean. The weight, on the other hand, is rather on the high side and using it without a support can be draining unless you are used to it. But my concern is the twitching of fatigued muscles while trying to lock focus which induces tremor. The megapixel at 12.3 is adequate for cropping although we hope to see something bigger in the future. Yet we rather have a clean 12.3MP than a noisy 16MP.

Moire is a major bane in macro. It just makes nice photos turn bad. The moire level in E-5 is acceptable even at such high image resolution (these two tend to be proportionate), probably due to the power of the new Truepic V+ engine. They told us it works and from what I see, it did. At 1/250s flash sync, this is very good indeed for some of those high speed macro actions. Well, I can get 1/320s with a 3rd party manual flash on my E-500 but the output is not as consistent. With E-5, the TTL was very accurate.

Getting the right color in macro can be forgiving and tricky at the same time. Since we don't deal with human skin tones, there is no proper benchmark to tell if the color of a particular frog is right or not. You can easily get away most of the time. What makes it tricky is if the hue of the subject is not tally with the background or other minor subject. Even worse if you are doing species identification where accuracy is paramount. The E-5's natural color with just the right hue is a great relief, in fact that is expected since all the previous E-system models have proven to give such natural colors without being too pale nor overly saturated.

The last attribute is sort of a paradox. How could you expect a lightweight DSLR to be rugged at the same time? Either way is good, having both is heavenly (remember the OM-1?) and neither is definitely not appealing. The significant advantage of a camera built like a tank is that it allows you to capture nature's masterpieces which otherwise would require special protection, which i turn is definitely going to be cumbersome. Imagine photographing an adult mosquito emerging from its pupa. The most dramatic angle is to shoot it from almost the same level where part of your lens will be submerged. This also increase the risk of the whole equipment and the photographer himself being submerged by accidental trips. Now imagine doing this with a weathersealed lens and body- the big worry is reduced hence the photographer can have more freedom to exercise his art.

Sorry, I was too engrossed in resuming this review that I went on writing without considering how to link it with photos. OK, back on the ground, I will explain how these photos were taken with the E-5, STF-22, EC-14 and ZD50mm f2.0 on manual mode.

The mantis nymph. 1/160s; F/13; ISO250.
This was taken at a public park with plenty of distraction such as kids playing soccer and adults jogging wearing bright colored shirts. To isolate potential disturbing background, I shot this upwards with the sky behind. The flash gives excellent front fill while keeping the sky blue. Nymph mantis is not the most cooperative subject so I chose this photo out of some 20 frames since it shows the most decent pose.

With the lighter E-500, I can have more freedom to poise the camera in awkward positions to get these things right: mantis head facing forward, no leaves obstructing, sky without clouds and ugly tree silhouettes, flash not blocked, flash direction not creating excessive highlight and most important is to get the focus right (while keeping my breath to reduce body tremor). Yes, I used autofocus with 1 active point at the mantis' eye. But the extra weight of E-5 is a disadvantage, comparatively. But not all is lost since this shot was actually taken without using a tripod or monopod. The image stabilizer is proven to reduce the effect from tremors. Even the advanced autofocus system which locked rapidly allows for a significant shorter period of trying to get the focus right, reducing the compounding effect of body tremor drastically.

Don't you just love the colors? I only raise the curve slightly in CS3 without any other post processing tweak. Nope, nothing else at all.

Female jumping spider (Siler semiglaucus) eating an ant. 1/250s; F/13; ISO100.

The female S. semiglaucus is a very attractive spider and is a darling to any macro photographer. Unfortunately she is rather very small and always on the move. I was lucky to find one with a prey- an unidentified (to me) black ant. S. semiglaucus is one of the few species of jumping spiders which are known to prey on ants. The beautiful pattern on her abdomen is an ingredient for a great photo but the problem is with her white pedipalps. If you are shooting from front, you are bound to get some highlights there. If you are shooting her eating, you cannot run away from doing that.

Peeping at 100%, we can see some details are lost. I admit this photo was a bit overexposed so just imagine how it will be at -0.3 EV. What can you see here? Although some part is blown, the overall details are intact, more than enough for a photo taken around 1:2 magnification. Let's be frank, there is no sense in being so meticulous up to the point we want to see every single hair strand. Drop the EV more and I might get some more texture on the pedipalps but at the expense of the black ant. Here the dynamic range is sufficient, in fact very comparable to anything else in its class. To get significantly more DR, use film.

One thing I like about this shot is that I managed to hide the evidence of using a twin flash. Somehow I hate its reflection on the subject's eyes which looks so unnatural.

If this looks softer at 100% compared to the girl's finger in Part 1, it's probably due to the magnified tremor at macro level and the fact I was using the EC-14 teleconverter.

Lynx spider upside down. 1/250s; F/13; ISO160.

Lynx spiders (Oxyopidae) can be very sensitive. Some species, such as this one, have far visual range and will run away when a photographer approaches. They are so agile than once they run into the foliage, it is extremely difficult to detect them. This female thinks she found a secure hideaway underneath a leave.

I noticed that they respond mainly to movement. Once you are close enough and do not make any obvious movement, you are close to invisible to them. This gave me the opportunity to shoot at various angles.

Almost the entire body is in focus. This is not a flat side profile shot as I want to emphasize on the face a bit hence sacrificing part of the tapered abdomen end. I am not really fond of this leg formation as it looks awkward but this is natural for a wary spider. In a more neutral situation, she will have the body pressed lower to the surface and legs pointing forward. The current position, however, makes photography difficult as you cannot get all the legs in focus.

From here the colors are just great, the details are great, the dynamic range is great, so what else there is to say? You don't see noise at the shadowed area. No visible moire. Very sharp. The only setback is perhaps my artistic taste which may not be everyone's cup of tea. But that is a variable on the photographer and as far as proving what this camera can do, it is of little relevance. If it gets the job done, it's worth it. By the way, quite a number of people did say my taste is ok. To them at least.

I wonder if anyone wonders if I used the swivel live view to take such shots with difficult angles. No, I didn't. I am used to using optical viewfinder and I get better intuition when looking straight with the camera in between me and the subject. But these reasons are due to my lack of familiarity with that feature. I did try using the live view a few times and abandoned it for 2 reasons:

1. It will take me more time to get familiar with it up to the point I can use it comfortably. With the limited time I have, I rather explore other potentials than trying to master a new skill.

2. The dreaded shutter lag is there. I don't know much about the lag of other DSLR but the outdated E-330 seems to score higher points here. When doing macro I cannot afford any lag. Even a slight delay may likely cause a shift in focus when we are in the realm of very shallow depth of field.

But it is too harsh to criticize a feature I haven't fully explored yet, especially a feature that can be so helpful in macro works. My wish is Olympus will explore a more functional live view system, one which has reasonably fast autofocus and release the shutter without significant lag. This alone will propel the usability of this feature in many new applications. In other kind of photography, this is probably not even an issue at all. For example if we take candid photos of people in an event, a swivel-LCD live view of any level of shutter lag is simply a gift from the heavens.

So how do I find the E-5 so far? Good enough to say that I want one. Quite badly.

Next part will be out in a few days.

The top photo of the flies having a good time was taken in daytime but with flash and the background was far away, showing only black. Although it was shot with exactly the same setup, it was there as a lure instead of a case study.


  1. Amir, a superb write-up, from a macro sifu like yourself. It is refreshing to have such detailed descriptions from yourself, talking specifically on macro photography and the potential that E-5 brings to this photography genre. I have only touched the surface, and am glad to find much elaborative review here.
    As for the live view, only newer lenses equipped with built in contrast-detect AF capability will focus extremely fast with the E-5. I tried 9-18mm, 25mm, and 14-54mm mk2 (all with the Contrast Detect AF) and they all performed flawlessly, and locking in focus superbly fast on live view. Lag was almost non-existent.
    Unfortunately, both macro lenses, the 50mm and 35mm are dinosaur lenses.
    So I am guessing the next entry is the night macro at kemensah?

  2. Thanks guys.

    Naturally the next one will be night macro, how E-5 fares during the absence of available light. I'm gonna be a bit ruthless in dissecting it's low light AF capability, an area where Olympus is not at its strongest point so far.

  3. Thanks for sharing. You really have some terrific close-ups.

  4. From street and life photography to macro photography reviews shows that E-5 is more than capable machine from Olympus. Great review write up. I like your words "Good enough to say that I want one. Quite badly"

  5. Superb macros Amir. Did you try the E-5 with the onboard flash or was it with an external flash?
    Just curious to know about the built-in flash.
    I am at the moment in a dilemma in deciding between an E30 (which is literally not available) and the expensive beast called E5!
    Just wanted to know its pros and cons..