Olympus Has Fallen

Not the dreadful film, but the camera company. On the 24th June 2020 Olympus announced that they were in talks with Japan Industrial Partners to divest themselves of their camera business after three continuous years of losses despite numerous restructuring attempts. I’ve got no idea what all this means from a practical point of view, but from an emotional point of view it is quite a sad day. I’ve always considered myself to brand agnostic and have used over the years Praktika, Pentax, Minolta, Canon, Leica, Voigtländer, Sony, Panasonic and of course Olympus. But I’ve got to say that over the last 38 years I’ve always had at least one Olympus camera. More than just a few key moments in my life have been documented by an Olympus camera.

 

My first Olympus camera was an XA2. This is the XA4 I bought later to replace it, they look very similar, the major difference being that XA2 had a 35mm lens while the XA4 had a 28mm macro lens.

 

 

Portrait of me in Majorca taken in March 1986 by my father in law, Brooke Spencer. Probably taken with a Leica R4 with a Leica 135/2.8 Elmarit-R on Kodak colour negative film. I’m holding my OM1n with 35-105 lens.

 

I bought my first Olympus camera in 1982 after returning back home from an extended stay in Israel where I got into taking photos. Previously I had a Kodak 110 cartridge camera and when I got the films back from the processors I was dismayed with how crap they looked. I was determined that on the next trip I would take a much better camera. So after a trip to the newly opened Whibys camera shopping Chichester and a long and informative chat with the owner Derek Whitby I left with an Olympus XA2 – a unique 35mm clam shell compact camera. I kept going to Whitby’s until 1988 which was when I migrated to Australia. In that time Derek went on to sell me an OM20, OM1n, OM2n, OM4 and my partner an OM40. Along with those cameras was wheelbarrow load of lenses, some very specie flashguns for the time and a shed load of film. I’m glad their business is still going although Derek and his wife Jacqui no longer run it. The cameras kept marching on and were perfect for my travels being small, durable and highly featured for their time. The lenses were also compact and gave great image quality. I’ve still got most of the lenses and still use them, and I’ve written about them on this blog ( 21mm f3.5, 24mm f2.8, 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4,135mm f2.8, and 35-105mm f3.5-4.5).

 

Believe it or not that’s me in Red Square, Moscow in January 1987. The temperatures were -40ºC. You can just about see my camera bag slung over my shoulder. In it is an OM1n, an OM2n, a 35-105mm, a 50mm f1.4, a 200mm f4 lens a T32 flash and a T20 flash. We went to document the plight of Russians in Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersberg for a human rights campaign that was to be launched later that year at the House of Commons in London). The cameras worked flawlessly in the cold. The photo was taken by my wife on an Olympus AF1.

 

 

My earliest selfie – taken in September 1987 while I was staying with my in-laws just prior to departing for India and Nepal. The camera is an Olympus OM4 with an Olympus OM Zuiko 35-105mm lens. Originally shot on Ektachrome 200 but converted to black and white because of fading.

 

Yours truly on a house boat on Lake Dal in Srinagar, Kashmir, India. I’m wearing a Camera Care Systems pouch with my Olympus OM4 in it. Taken by my partner with her OM40 and 35-105 lens.

 

In 2003 I shot a couple of weddings and my OM4s developed problems, one the shutter failed and the other the film advance jammed. I took them to the local camera whisperer but he broke the bad news to me – there were no new spare parts. He said I could by up some old models and use them as donor cameras but there was no guarantee as to the condition of the parts and how long they would last. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. This came a a particularly bad time for me, I was recovering after a bad accident and was pretty broke. I had enrolled at college to study photography as a form of therapy and now I was pretty well camera less. My late father-in-law (Brooke Spencer) in an act of supreme kindness stepped into the breach. He had just bought a Canon EOS D60 digital SLR and he sent me his old EOS3 film SLR and a couple of lenses. I now had a camera to complete college with and had inadvertently changed system. I went digital with Canon but I wasn’t really happy with it. I found the Canon EOS system to be large, heavy and cumbersome. About this time I fell into writing about and photographing outdoor activities and then was commissioned to write a walking guide. Well after a year lugging a Canon 5d and three lenses on over 1000Km of walks I knew I needed something lighter.

The Canon EOS system full monty. Three bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, flash meter, filters, cables, flash triggers, and reflectors. It is a hernia inducing load.

 

This is the camera kit I used on my first walking guide book. Less hernia inducing than the Full Monty, but still coming in at 7Kg including filters and batteries.

 

When I saw the Olympus Pen EP1 in 2009 I was smitten, but it didn’t have a viewfinder so I held off buying one. Less than a year later Olympus introduced the EP2 and I got one. The next guide book was done with an outfit based around that camera and a a few lenses and I was much happier.

 

Coming in at under 2Kg complete with batteries, filters, microphone and assorted cables for video. This kit still gives me coverage from 24emm to 300emm with 1:1 macro and a smallish prime. All that’s missing is flash.

 

Here I am pausing to take a photo with EP2 while walking up Frenchman Peak in Cape Le Grand National Park, Western Australia.

 

Over the last ten years I’ve heard a lot reasons from keyboard warriors on various photographic forums why the micro four thirds format that Olympus and Panasonic used was inferior to full frame sensors and that you couldn’t get work published if you used it. Well after three books, two exhibitions and loads of print sales no one has ever said the image quality was not up to snuff. Unfortunately photography is an activity dominated by very conservative men who see a small camera, no matter how capable, as being an affront to their masculinity. So Olympus was sandwiched by the small minded conservatives that wanted big cameras and at the other end the onslaught of the do anything mobile phones which now have very good photo and video capabilities.

 

The Canon EOS6d with Sigma 150-600mm lens compared to the Panasonic G85, which uses the same sensor format and lens mount as Olympus, with the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens. The Panasonic has great reach, better video, the same number of megapixels, weighs less and costs less.

 

The Canon EOS 6d camera with 100mm f2.8 macro lens that I used to use for photographing orchids alongside the Olympus EM 1 mk ii with 60mm f2.8 macro lens that I use now. Both produce amazing images, but the Olympus is a lot nicer to carry through the bush all day.

 

 

As I said at the beginning of this piece I have no way of knowing what will happen. Maybe JIP will turn the company around and make it it profitable and innovative. Maybe they’ll just asset strip and close it down. The company does both. I hope it is the former, but if it is the later I guess that this a eulogy for Olympus. But whatever may happen my current Olympus cameras have plenty of mileage left in them and if I can get another 10 years out of them, and at this stage I don’t see why not, then I’ll be very happy.

 

Hell Or High Water

Hell or high water is the new motto for the Avon Descent and was adopted because recent years have seen decreasing amounts of rainfall falling and competitors have had to carry their craft where there was insufficient water. This year, 2017 and the 45th occasion of the race, the water levels were high which meant potentially new records could be set. The Avon Descent was first held in 1973, and there were only forty-nine competitors. This year there were 370 competitors with many coming from interstate and overseas. In more ways than one it deserves the title the “world’s greatest white water event”. The 124 km or 77 mile two day event starts at Northam and finishes at the Riverside Garden in Bayswater with an over night stop at the Boral Campsite just outside Toodyay. For the majority of entrants the aim is just to complete the course, but for the elite athletes it is a chance of competing in a unique endurance race.

The beauty of this race is that you can pick out a few vantage points from a list put out by the race organisers on their website and follow the whole event documenting the whole story rather than just getting an isolated snap shot. In previous years I’d covered the race for magazines shooting stills and then writing the story. This year I had intended to cover the entire event from start to finish and it was to be first time I’d covered it shooting video. Having planned my weekend around the race it was time to check the maps and the approximate timings for each stage. For instance there was no point heading to the first stage after the start as I would not have had time to get there by car, park, and then walk along the river to find a good location to set up. Also I had to think about the weather conditions, because at some of the viewing points you are bussed in and that would mean I’d have to carry everything with me. As the forecast for the weekend was a cold start it was thermals, and fleece. he key was light layers that could be added or taken off as conditions permitted. Camera and lens choice was hard, and I found it difficult to make a decision. For the Friday shots I could work from the back of the car and it was all to be people shots around Northam and for the sake of mobility using either a monopod or a gimbal. In the end I decided to use the Sony A7r and with Olympus OM Zuiko lenses – the 20mm, 50mm and 135mm. This and the gimbal went in a belt pack. Saturday involved shooting at three sites and I wanted to shoot some time-lapse as well as video footage. So I chose the Olympus OMD EM 1 with 40-150mm f2.8 lens for the video work and the EM10 with 12-40mm f2.8 for the time-lapse. I couldn’t set up a tripod at the start as I was going to shoot on the swing bridge so I used a monopod for the video and for the time-lapse I clamped the Syrp Genie Mini to the bridge safety barrier with a Manfrotto super clamp. All this went into my photo back pack. Sunday was the biggest problem with no car access to Bells Rapids everything had to be carried. So I took the Canon EOS6d with 24-70mm, 70-200 and a x2 converter. I’d also need plenty of batteries and memory cards as there would be no nipping back to the car. I decided to carry all this in pouches on a belt as I needed to be able to scramble up some rocks to get a good vantage point. At Bells I mounted the camera on a tripod but at the finish line I shot just using a monopod.

The race happens on the first weekend of August every year. It kicked off on the Friday with the competitor registration at the Northam Swimming Pool and then their craft were taken down to the race marshalling area on the banks of the river. Late in afternoon and into the evening was the Avon River Festival with a huge fireworks display on the Avon River, stage shows featuring a variety of local talent, a family fun zone, rides for all the family, sideshow alley and roving entertainment, a community street parade, markets for avid shoppers, and food. On Saturday morning the event kicked off proper. As I arrived I could see hot air balloons drifting lazily above the river. The power craft were away quickly and smoothly and then it was the turn of the paddle craft. I was surprised to see that someone was competing for the first time on a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). Barely had half the paddle craft left than the news came through that the first power craft had reached Toodyay. It was going to be a very fast race with little hope of getting shots of the power craft. I spent a total of an hour and half standing on the swing bridge -it is a wire suspension bridge that bounces a lot, the police constable standing next to me complained of feeling seasick from the constant motion. It didn’t effect me but it really made me glad that I had the in body stabilisation activated on the cameras. After the start I went to Williamson Weir stayed there for an hour and a half. The Weir is man-made and its concrete lip and rock wall are hazardous to boat and paddler alike so around half the competitors choose to portage around it. Thankfully the other half run it and you get the thrills and spills with plenty of encouragement from the watching crowd. Finishing up in Toodyay for the day is great. There is always a great vibe with a tremendous crowd and a party like atmosphere. When I got there the town was packed and in full on carnival mode. It took an age to find some parking and get down to the river. Here there was a team change over area, and along the riverside were lots of anxious looking paddlers all staring up river for any sign of their team mates. As the first canoes started to come round the corner and pass under the timing gate they got their first sight of their team mates and their faces would burst into a huge grin of relief. The spectators would burst into rapturous cheers as the fresh team-mate paddled away heading for the Boral Campsite that marked the halfway point and the end of day one.

I couldn’t face getting up at 4;30am in the dark and freezing cold to get to the start at Boral Camp for day two so I just headed out a bit later and went straight to Bells Rapids in Walyunga National Park. You have to leave the car at the nearby state equestrian centre and then you taken in by bus. From there it was a quick walk to what I call the media rock. It’s a nice big rock that juts out into the river which gives a good view of the competitors coming under the bridge and through the rapids. I got there just as the TV crews were claiming their spots and setting up. I squeezed onto the end closest to the bank and put my tripod up to mark my territory. When the press photographers arrived they gave us a filthy look, but as they were shooting hand-held they didn’t need as much space. A little while later a hopeful photo enthusiast asked if could join us on the rock, one of the guys I know from the papers said it was OK if he didn’t talk about equipment – his or ours – and if he did he’d get thrown in the river. He decided that he couldn’t not talk about kit and took himself off somewhere else. After a couple of hours I knew that I’d have to get my skates on if I was to get to the finish line.

The finish line is in Bayswater a suburb of Perth. A huge screen had been put up and there was a live commentary being given. I positioned myself by the finish line as I find that the images taken as the paddlers beach their boats and walk ashore tells a very powerful story. It does not seem to matter whether they are newbie’s in their first race or veterans each face has a similar look etched upon it. It is a mixture of pain from the sheer physical effort, relief from finishing, and disbelief that it is all over. Some will swear that they will never do it again, but most know that even as they hit the finish line that they will be back next year.

So now a week later, I’ve edited the 50Gb of footage and made a 7 minute clip. As I write this I’m thinking about how things went and what I would change if I were to do it again. Well to start with I wouldn’t bother with the Sony. It produces very nice images, but the screen is terrible. It is winter here and the days aren’t as bright as they can be, but the Sony’s rear LCD panel is virtually unusable. The other thing that puts me off is that the user interface isn’t very intuitive and so adjusting some settings in a hurry is a pain in the nethers. The OMD EM1 mk i is constantly a surprise when shooting video. The touch screen is a pleasure to use and the phase detect auto focus does very well. It is tempting to run off and get a mk ii for the 4K and the improved focusing. The Canon EOS 6d was the surprise, the autofocus is crap, but Technicolor’s CineStyle Profile and Canon’s superb lenses produce gorgeous images. All it needs is a flippy flappy touch screen and dual pixel auto focus and it would be perfect. “The 6d mk ii has that!” I hear you say, but (and there is always a but) the mk ii’s video compression is worse than the mk i. What Canon give they take away! There is always the EOS 80d. I might try to hire one for the next project I shoot. I wish I’d used the gimbal more instead of the monopod, accepting the fact that I couldn’t use it for the long lens shots. Sound could be a lot better – it is the aspect of video I always struggle with. I’m also beginning to think that I’ve out grown iMovie – a better editor would give me some more options. I’ve downloaded DaVinci Resolve to give that a whirl on my next project. In many ways I’m no different to the competitors in the race – I’m already starting to plan for next year!

Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5

Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 lens
Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 lens

 

The Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 was one of the original lenses released with the OM1 in 1972. It is fair to say that the lens has tended to be ignored somewhat since the release of the f2 version, this was true in the days of film and it is especially true today with the current trend of mounting legacy glass on cameras such as the Sony A7r. Demand for a product dictates the price and copies of the f2 change hands on eBay for over $1000 USD while the f3.5 goes for around $350 USD. Apart from the aperture what other differences are there between the two? Well asymmetrical-type ultra wide-angle lenses are designed for optimum performance at infinity and unfortunately when used at their closest focusing distance picture quality has a tendency to deteriorate. The 21mm f2 lens incorporates a floating element system for improved sharpness from its close 0.2 meter (0.7 ft) minimum focusing distance to infinity and ensuring its superlative optical performance be extended to its closest working range. So what are the advantages of the 21mm f3.5? Well it fits Yoshihisa Maitani’s design criteria for the OM system – being lightweight and very compact. This thing is

The Fotodiox OM to Nex adapter is bigger than the OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 lens.
The Fotodiox OM to Nex adapter is bigger than the OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 lens.

absolutely tiny. It is about the same size as the Fotodiox OM to NEX adapter. Most other camera systems would call this a pancake lens – it’s not, it’s just that most modern DSLR cameras are very bloated and unnecessarily large. Optically it has 7 elements in 7 groups, is 31mm (1.2 inches) long, 59mm (2.3 inches) in diameter and has a filter thread of 49mm. Like most Olympus OM lenses there are different versions of the lens – the original weighed in 185g (6.5 oz) while the newer MC (multi coated) one, which is tested here, is 180g (6.3 oz) while sharing the same optical construction and exterior dimensions. Although it does not have the floating rear element of the f2 version it still focuses down to 20cm (7.87 inches) and the quality is reasonable.

20160907-olympus21mm-0228

Test Results

The book shelf optical test. The camera is mounted on a tripod so as to get the whole shelf in the frame without causing loss of the parallel vertical lines.
The book shelf optical test. The camera is mounted on a tripod so as to get the whole shelf in the frame without causing loss of the parallel vertical lines.

Using my standard book shelf test it is immediately apparent that the lens has noticeable barrel distortion. This is not uncommon in wide-angle lenses and occurs where the image magnification decreases with distance from the optical axis and makes parallel straight lines look like the edges of a wooden barrel. These days this can be easily corrected in post. Looking more closely it is easy to see chromatic aberration on high contrast edges, again easily corrected in post. Wide open at f3.5 the centre of the image is sharp with what would now be construed as having low contrast but is actually quite good and can easily be improved on with a quick adjustment in curves. The edges are very soft and lacking in contrast – not mush but would be easily noticeable in architectural shots. At f8 the centre has improved and you can forget the thoughts of a contrast adjustment. The edges have improved but they are still not good. It is at f11 where things start to come very good, the centre is excellent and the edges are not far off. Any further stopping down and optical quality will drop off due to the effects of diffraction. Vignetting is very apparent when wide open – maybe 2 to 2 1/2 stops difference between the centre and the corners. Things improve significantly by f8. Flare is very well controlled considering the angle of view and the sun stars are quite nice considering there are only six aperture blades.

All images are SOOC with no sharpening or optical corrections. The sections are 100% views from the centre and top left corner of the image. This can be viewed larger by clicking on the image.
All images are SOOC with no sharpening or optical corrections. The sections are 100% views from the centre and top left corner of the image. This can be viewed larger by clicking on the image.

 

Wide open vignetting causes a light loss of 2-21/2 stops in the corners.
Wide open vignetting causes a light loss of 2-21/2 stops in the corners.

 

A comparison between the Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 and the Canon EF 20mm f2.8.
A comparison between the Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 and the Canon EF 20mm f2.8.

 

A comparison between the Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 and the Canon EF 20mm f2.8.
A comparison between the Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f3.5 and the Canon EF 20mm f2.8.

So keeping in mind this is a sample of just 1 and I have no idea if this is a good example or a bad what can I say about this lens. Well I happen to own a Canon EF 20mm f2.8 and while not one of Canon’s primo L lenses it is considered quite a respectable performer when stopped down. When we compare the two the first thing that comes to mind is the size difference. As I said before the Olympus is tiny, and it still looks small when attached to the lens adapter. Vignetting on the Canon is very well controlled, this is the big benefit of that large front element (72mm filter size compared with 49mm). Chromatic aberration is no better and no worse. It is the wide open corner sharpness where the Canon beats the little Olympus, but not hugely so and by f5.6 they are both pretty much the same. The big advantage the Olympus has over the Canon is filter use – the smaller size makes filters more affordable and I would hazard that is one of the few, if not only, ultra wide-angle lens that safely use the Cokin P system (84mm in width). My Canon still vignettes with the larger Cokin Z-Pro system (100mm in width).

 

Real World Examples

Stopping the lens down to f16 and then using the closest focusing distance of 0.2m I was able to to capture a wide angle close up of these flowers with plenty of DOF. Everlastings on Mount Brown in York, WA.
Stopping the lens down to f16 and then using the closest focusing distance of 0.2m I was able to capture a wide-angle close up of these flowers with plenty of DOF. Everlastings on Mount Brown in York, WA.

 

This lens encourages you to look for unusual points of view. A Vampire jet on the Beverley-York Road advertises the Beverley Aeronautical Museum.
This lens encourages you to look for unusual points of view. A Vampire jet on the Beverley-York Road advertises the Beverley Aeronautical Museum.

 

The OM 21mm f3.5 is well suited to architectural photography. The York Residency Museum. Built in the 1850's as the quarters for the superintendent of the York Convict Depot and is the last remaing building from the depot. Later it became the official residence of the magistrate, then it was used as part of the old York Hospital. It fell into disrepair and was saved by the work of the York Society. In 1972 it opened as a museum and has been used as such since.
The OM 21mm f3.5 is well suited to architectural photography. The York Residency Museum. Built in the 1850’s as the quarters for the superintendent of the York Convict Depot and is the last remaining building from the depot. Later it became the official residence of the magistrate, then it was used as part of the old York Hospital. It fell into disrepair and was saved by the work of the York Society. In 1972 it opened as a museum and has been used as such since.

 

Shooting into the sun flare is very well controlled for such a wide lens. Note the sun star - the six aperture blades create a nice effect when stopped down to f16. The Shire of York Christmas tree for 2016 on Avon Terrace.
Shooting into the sun flare is very well controlled for such a wide lens. Note the sun star – the six aperture blades create a nice effect when stopped down to f16. The Shire of York Christmas tree for 2016 on Avon Terrace.

Conclusion

Well my only criticism of this lens is really nit-picking. It is just that aperture of f3.5 is a little dim and if I were to use it on an SLR (digital or analogue) it would make focusing using a split screen finder a little bit tricky. With the EVF of the A7r it makes no difference as the view can be made brighter and the focus peaking is easy to see. Probably this is not the lens to buy if you’re into astro, but if you shoot landscape and architecture as I do then it is a worthy addition to the camera bag.
The other OM lenses I’ve looked at are:

Olympus OM Zuiko 135mm f2.8
Olympus OM Zuiko MC 50mm f1.4
Olympus OM Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-f4.5
Olympus OM Zuiko MC 35mm f2
Olympus OM Zuiko MC 24mm f2.8