The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
The Australian bush is a dangerous place for the intrepid orchid hunter. Poisonous snakes and spiders are the least of your worry. Nope the thing to worry about is the Kangaroo tick. Size is not an indication of dangerousness. At 4mm in length one of these horrid little beasties can cause a lot of pain and suffering. A lot! When we were away on our little jaunt to Nannup the other week unknowingly I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. Shortly after getting home they began to make their presence felt – quite literally. I woke up to find that my love spuds felt like they had been trapped in a vice and then set on fire. Very quickly it felt like I was walking around with a space hopper stuffed in me jocks.
Not for nothing are ticks referred to as “the dirty needles of the bush“. Each tick is like a little syringe loaded with all sorts of nasty toxic bacteria and unfortunately the process of removing them can inject even more of that horribleness into your bloodstream. Now after a few days of antibiotics and ibuprofen things are starting to improve. So if you are an orchid hunter let this be a salutary warning and please take precautions.
Funnily the word orchid comes from the Ancient Greek ὄρχις (órkhis), literally meaning “testicle”, because of the shape of the twin tubers in some species of Orchis. In England between the 11th and 15th century orchids were called bollockwort with bollock meaning testicle and wort meaning plant. In medical lingo inflammation of the testicles is orchitis.
Here are some recent pics from the suffering artist.
* Today’s song reference seemed very appropriate. It is of course Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”
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!
Talk to a lot of people in Perth (Western Australia) – especially migrants – and many haven’t left the metro area. They know nothing of rural Western Australia at all. Few people realise that the Wheatbelt has a large number of lakes such as Kondinin Lake pictured above. The assumption is that because the rainfall is low there can’t be any large bodies of water. The truth is that the Wheatbelt has a very low drainage profile which means that water collects in large shallow depressions. During the hot summers the rate of evaporation is high and tat creates these salt lakes. Kondinin Lake is huge – it covers an area of 15 square kilometres – and after a decent bit of rain it attracts a huge variety of wild birds. It is also a popular boating and water ski destination. Now who would have thought that.
On the shore of the lake is the Kondinin Pioneer Cemetery. A final resting place with a nice view. It’s not the most interesting cemetery but it does make you think at what life must have been like as you walk around. The saddest part of the cemetery the grave of the “unknown pauper” who in 1934 shuffled off of this mortal coil. The people of Kondinin couldn’t find it in their hearts to bury the poor wretch in the cemetery itself so the grave lies outside it. Unfortunate in life and unfortunate in death.
So if you are driving to Esperance or Hyden, then do a bit of a detour and see the lake.
*Today’s musical reference is of course Road To Nowhere by Talking Heads.
This post came about as a response to post on a Google+ group I belong to. The post contained a link to an article at the website Olympus Passion by Chris Corradino (whom I don’t know) called “Full Frame vs Micro 4-3 Revisited with Pro Olympus Lens” where a canon EOS 6d with 17-40mm f4 L lens was compared with an Olympus OMD EM10 with 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. Nothing wrong with that, it serves as a potentially useful comparison of two popular cameras and lenses. In the article he posts two pictures of the same scene taken around a year apart, one used a polarizing filter one didn’t and the Canon 17-40L is not the best lens in the line up, and comparing a wide-angle zoom to a standard zoom doesn’t really tell anything. Also Olympus uses in camera software correction of its lenses to the RAW files whereas the Canon doesn’t and one has to manually apply correction when processing in Lightroom or ACR. So I thought about it and decided to do my own test. Now before I start I’d like to say that testing zoom lenses is fraught with difficulty and the reason why is very ably demonstrated by Roger Cicala’s excellent article “Painting Zoom Lenses with a Broad Brush – Roger’s Law of Wide Zoom Relativity” which is enough to make any sane person throw up their hands in horror at the enormity of it all.
I’m not really the scientific type, but I know that to make any form of comparison you have to compare like with like and remove all variables. The cameras and lenses tested were as follows:
- Olympus OMD EM1 mki with Olympus m.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 pro
- Canon EOS6d with Canon EF 24-70mm f4 IS L
- Sony A7r with Sony FE 28-70 f3.5-5.6 OSS
Why three cameras and three lenses, well mainly a case of why not, but also I wanted to see how a budget kit lens performed against the two “pro” lenses, and I was using it as a control as I had previously looked at it. Each lens was shot at the wide end and the long end, with the wide end an architectural shot to look at how the lens behaved at infinity and close-ups at the long end.
Typically standard zooms behave best at the wide end and the performance deteriorates as you zoom into the long end. All the lenses were tested at an aperture of f8 for the two shots previously mentioned and wide open to test for vignetting. For each shot the camera was mounted to a tripod, there were no filters on the lenses, any image stabilisation was turned off and the shutter was tripped via the self timer. All metering was done using a handheld incident light meter – Minolta Auto Meter V f. Because the base ISO of the EM1 is 200 all the images on all cameras were shot at value. The only DSLR in the group was used in live view mode to avoid mirror slap. The images were all shot as RAW files and then converted to 8 bit jpgs using RawTherapee (version 4.2.1) which allows you to switch off any embedded lens correction. There was no sharpening, noise reduction or correction for chromatic aberration. Ok that’s the methodology lets look at what happened. Click on the images to see them at full size.
Olympus OMD EM1 mki with Olympus m.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens
Built for the micro four thirds system this lens is equivalent to a 24-80 mm lens and that’s all the talk of equivalency you’ll get out of me, if you want more see this. The lens was launched at the same time as the EM1 in 2013 and it heralded a new line of “Pro” lenses. Of the three lenses here it is the only one with a metal outer construction and it has a splash proof and dust proof design. Its vital statistics are 84mm in length, a diameter of 69.9mm, has a filter thread of 62mm and weighs in at 382g. Not that it counts for much, but it feels nice in the hand and the manual focus clutch (reminiscent of the ones found on Pentax’s 645 range of lenses, is a very nice touch. Optically there are 14 elements in 9 groups – there are 1 aspherical element, 1 dual-sided aspherical element, 2 ED glass elements, 2 HR glass elements, 1 EDA glass element, 1 HD glass element. It is the most optically complex lens of the group. For bokeh aficionados there are 7 rounded aperture blades. The minimum focusing distance is 0.2m.
At the wide end the centre of the image is what you’d expect from a modern zoom, it is sharp and contrasty. At the edges the image is still sharp but the contrast has fallen off a little giving the appearance of softness. The chromatic aberration (CA) is very apparent. At the long end in the centre the image is still sharp but the contrast is lower than what we found on the wide end. The edges exhibit a little softness. The CA virtually non-existent. The results from the long end caused me a little consternation as it was the first time I’d seen images without any in camera correction applied so I repeated them just be sure and got exactly the same result.
Testing for vignetting and distortion I found that the lens exhibited marked vignetting and barrel distortion at the wide end at f2.8. The vignetting had disappeared on stopping down to f5.6.
At the long end there is only slight vignetting and very mild pincushion distortion. What is interesting is that there is significant variation in the exposure, remember these were metered using a handheld incident meter. The long end is nearly a whole stop darker than the wide end. This shouldn’t happen with a constant aperture zoom.
Canon EOS6d with Canon EF 24-70mm f4 IS L lens
This is the most expensive lens in the group with a retail price of around $1200 AUD. It is also worth pointing out that this is the budget standard zoom in Canon’s L range. This lens was introduced in 2012 and was intended to be a kit lens for then newly announced Canon EOS6d. The body is made of some variant of ABS plastic which is somewhat disappointing considering the price, but with a weight of 600g it has a satisfying heft. The optical construction is 15 lens elements in twelve groups with 2 aspherical and 2 UD elements. The aperture diaphragm is comprised of 9 rounded blades. Unsurprising it is the biggest lens of the trio being 93mm long, 83.4mm in diameter and has a 77mm filter thread. Image stabilisation is built into the lens and is good for four stops. The minimum focus distance is 0.38m, but the lens has a rather nifty macro feature where you press a button and turn the zoom ring and that takes it down to 0.2m and a maximum magnification of 0.7x.
At 24mm the centre of image is extremely sharp and contrasty and the edges are the same. At the tele end it is a repeat. Chromatic aberration is non-existent at both extremes.
Shooting wide open at 24mm vignetting is very apparent, I would say that there’s probably 2 stops difference between the corner and the centre. The barrel distortion is not excessive but is noticeable. At 70mm a small amount of vignetting can be seen and there is some mild pincushion distortion.
Sony A7r with Sony FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS
The joker in the pack and the cheapest on test at just under $350 AUD, and boy when you pick this one up it certainly feels like it. When I originally wrote about it on 3rd July 2016 I was very skeptical of its durability, well nothing adverse has happened to mine, but, Kirk Tuck wrote today that his met a tragic end courtesy of a dog’s tail and a hard floor. Well what do get for your $350? Well unsurprisingly at this price point this is largely made of plastic – the cheap kind – and is very light coming in at 295g. There’s not a lot of glass either just 9 elements in 8 groups made up 1 extra low dispersion and 3 aspherical elements. The simpler optical design and low price makes this the only variable aperture lens in the test group. The aperture diaphragm is made up of 7 blades. Size wise it is a compact 83mm long, has a diameter of 72.5mm and has a filter thread of 55mm. The plus points are that it is dust and moisture resistant, has built in image stabilisation, has a respectable minimum focusing distance of 0.4m and comes with a lens hood. As an aside I believe that every lens should come with a hood.
At 28mm the lens is again just like any other modern lens – sharp and contrasty. At the edges there is a drop off in contrast but they remain sharp. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled and easily fixed in Lightroom. The slow variable aperture means that vignetting is not a problem and there is only slight barrel distortion. At 70mm the centre is sharp and has good levels of contrast, the edges are sharp with a slightly lower contrast. There was also some evidence of coma. Again very little vignetting and a slight trace of pin cushion distortion.
So is the Olympus 12-40 the Canon killer that Chris Corroding says? Well without in camera software correction it is only just a bit better than the Sony which is half the price. It is the correction that elevates this lens to very good. Having said that the Canon 24-70 f4 is probably one of their very best zoom lenses and produces very good images straight out of the camera. Apply the Lightroom lens profile and it is even better. Is that surprising? No considering its cost I would hope it be optically very good. This is the rub – for $350 AUD you get a surprisingly good lens with the Sony and most people would be very happy with it. The Olympus at $870 AUD sees some significant improvement. The Canon at $1200 AUD sees only incremental improvement over the Olympus. The law of diminishing returns is very clearly at work here.
When it comes down to sensor performance the Sony A7r rips the head off of the EM1 and EOS6d and spits down the stump. I have been amazed by how well it performs – the dynamic range is very, very good, the lack of an anti-aliasing filter means that with good lenses insane amounts of detail can be rendered, and the high ISO performance is also very good. The Canon EOS6d’s sensor is capable of very nice colour rendition, especially skin tones, but it is not the best when it comes to dynamic range. It is what I’d call workman like. For the Olympus EM1, well the dynamic range is very good, high ISO performance not so. The lack of anti-aliasing filter helps you get the best out of the lenses. I really like my m4/3 Olympus cameras and lenses, I use them more than anything else, but I really feel that the sensors are holding them back. I’ve yet to get any long-term usage out of the new 20Mp sensor that is found in the EM1 Mkii, but I do think that if they got access to the latest BSI sensors from Sony and reduced the base ISO to 100 that there would be quite a sizeable performance boost. But all this is moot as all three are capable of excellent results if I do my part.
It is important to remember that I only have access to one of each lens so I have no idea of what the sample variation is for any of them. What does this all mean in terms of real world usage? Well I’ve used my Olympus 12-40 far more than the Canon 24-70 and I am more than happy with how it performs. I hardly ever use the Sony 28-70 as I only really use the A7r with legacy lenses.