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.

 

The Pen Is Mightier Than The dSLR

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The Olympus Pen EP5 compared to the EP2. The family resemblance is obvious, but the EP5 is a much more refined product.

Perhaps a bit of hyperbole but depending on you your usage the Olympus Pen series of cameras could suit you better than a dSLR.I mentioned in my blog post Olym-Puss that I had got an EP5 and I thought that I would write about my experiences with it. This is not a review, it’s a little late as the camera is probably about to be discontinued as it is being heavily discounted. So if you want a cheap second body for your m4/3 system or a newbie considering dabbling your toes into the m4/3 pool then it would be a good choice.

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The camera has a flip-up touch screen that is nice and clear which is just as well for unless you pony up for an optional LCD viewfinder it’s all you’ve got.

A little history. Regular readers will know that I’ve had a long-term relationship with Olympus cameras since I bought my first in 1982. I ceased to use them long after the company dropped the OM range of film cameras and I could no longer get them repaired as there were no longer any available parts. I moved over to Canon, not because I thought that they were any better than other brands but because my father in law very generously gave me a Canon EOS3 film camera and two zooms that were surplus to his requirements and I stayed with the brand well into the digital age. While I liked the results my 5d gave me, the user experience was somewhat bland and dissatisfying, so when Olympus announced the micro four thirds concept with Panasonic in 2009 and unveiled its first camera the Pen EP1 I was intrigued. I found a local dealer and had a long look at one. The camera felt lovely in the hand but there were two major problems that stopped me buying one:

  • there was no viewfinder just a rear LCD screen and that was for me at the time a major sticking point
  • I was financially embarrassed at the time and so could not afford it.

In 2010 Olympus released the EP2 which had provision for an optional LCD view finder. So my major objection to owning one had been overcome. In 2011 I was kindly given an EP2 kit consisting of the body, the LCD viewfinder, a 14-42 kit lens and the 17mm f2.8 pancake lens. I was smitten, it quickly became my favourite camera. The 12Mp sensor was not the greatest, but the experience of using it made want to wring the last drop of image quality out of it. I still have it and use it.

Busking
Busking in Salamanca, Hobart. I intend primarily the camera to be used for street photography and travel with small primes.

In 2012 Olympus announced the OMD EM5 a camera that harked back to my beloved OM4 film cameras. The major features of that camera were the new 16Mp sensor and the 5 axis in body image stabilisation (IBIS). This camera ignited the imagination of the photographic community and it was a deserved success for the company. A year later the Pen EP-5 hit the market and it was essentially an EM5 without the built in viewfinder. Unfortunately the camera was poorly received, and after the website DPReview gave it savage write-up exposing the problem of shutter shock sales tanked and rumours have since circulated that the EP5 would be the last premium Pen camera. So given that why would I recommend one? Well Olympus was stung into action and issued a firmware release for the camera which enabled an anti shock setting, which is a kind of ersatz electronic first shutter and this helped enormously, in fact it inclusion makes it an entirely different camera. This and the same 16 MP sensor as the Olympus OM-D E-M5, an improved 5-axis in-body image stabilization, 9 frames per second continuous shooting, and a tilting rear touch screen, a HDR bracketing mode, a minimum shutter speed of 1/8000 sec, a maximum shutter speed of 60 seconds, focus peaking to assist manual focus, and built in Wi-Fi for connection to smart phone or tablet. Put this into a beautifully crafted body that feels absolutely lovely in the hand (confession time – I know its wrong but I could just sit and fondle the EP5 for hours on end) with a bloody good sensor and you have a delicious photo taking experience.

Mount Wellington
Mount Wellington viewed from the rivulet. No HDR here folks just one exposure and a good dynamic range from the sensor.

Talking of the sensor, the 16Mp sensor used by Olympus has as many conspiracies about its origins as the birth of President Obama does. Some believe it made by Panasonic and others by Sony. I don’t give two hoots as to who made it, all I know is that it is packed full of goodness. For a small sensor the dynamic range is impressive and you can pull up shadows and recover highlights nicely. There is noise at the base level ISO of 200, but it doesn’t look too digital, some would say it has an organic quality akin to that of film. I wish this aspect were better as I do a lot of copy work of paintings and illustrations and feel that the ability to render fine detail is a little compromised. The Olympus True Picture imaging processor gives this beautiful colours that Olympus is famous for and it would be entirely possible to just shoot jpg with it and get excellent results straight out of the camera. When I got the camera I thought that primarily I’d use it as a street and travel camera with a small prime like the afore-mentioned 17mm f2.8 or the wonderful 25mm f1.8. I have changed my mind on that and use it for landscape and macro work. Noise is well controlled up to 3200 and the sensor handles long exposures very well.

Moonrise
Blue Moon. Long exposures such as this cause no problems.

The AF system is largely good. Single point AF is faster than a whippet on ICE and being a contrast detect system reading straight off of the sensor there are no front or back focus issues which makes using fast glass wide open incredibly accurate. It’s so good that I’ve not bothered using face detect or eye detect AF modes. The continuous focusing with subject tracking is absolutely pants, a sports beast this camera ain’t, but having said that I have photographed the local surfers using ordinary continuous AF and set to the low frame rate of 4.5 fps it does a very good job using the cheap but sweet 40-150mm lens. The touch screen enables you to select an AF point and trigger the shutter making tripod work for landscapes, and architecture a sublime experience. While on the subject of tripods it’s a shame the tripod bush is not located on the lens axis, no big deal if you don’t shoot panoramas or stitch, but it is an inconvenience if like me you do.

Park Beach Surf #1
The continuous AF was able to keep up with this surfer using the cheap 40-150mm f4-5.6 lens.

IBIS is bloody fantastic. In fact it is so good there must be magic involved. This makes handheld macro and telephoto work a delight. Shooting in low light with static subjects is a breeze. With moving subjects bump the ISO and deal with the grain once you go over 3200.

Cabbage White Butterfly
A cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on a lavender flower. A combination of IBIS and HSS flash makes macro a breeze.

Video performance leaves a lot to be desired. Lets be honest and up front here. Olympus suck big time when it comes to the implementation of video and the EP5 is not an exception to this. The codec is nasty and not good for any subject that has a lot of movement or fine detail and it is NTSC centric only offering 30fps. There is 1080, 720 and VGA, the best quality 1080 is 24MBps which is not really going to cut the mustard if video is your thing. The video clip below was shot with the EP5 and clearly shows its short comings. I’m seriously hoping that since the release of the EM5 ii and with Australian cinematographer John Brawley on board as a tester and advisor that the video side of things will improve in later models.

 

 

So to sum up. The EP5 is a very fine camera. Now it is being discounted at the $400 AUD mark it is a steal. If you already have a m4/3 camera system snap one up as a second body. If you are m4/3 curious then get one and explore the world of mirrorless photography. I bought mine as a back up to my EM10, the EM10 has now been relegated to back up duties, or occasions where I need a built in viewfinder. This is a camera which on release should have got a lot of love. Unfortunately Olympus shot themselves in the foot by releasing it with such an obvious shutter shock problem. I think had they sorted the camera properly prior to release it would have sold like hot cakes. Now the problem is fixed and it is at bargain prices I think it should go on to become a cult classic. I think about buying another Canon dSLR but honestly now I’ve gone mirrorless with all that entails I can’t go back.

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The Olympus Pen EP-5 compared with the OMD EM-10.

Go West – part 2

Russell Falls
Russell Falls in Mount Field National Park. Tasmania.

 

Lady Baron Falls
Lady Baron Falls in Mount Field National Park, Tasmania.

 

Mount Field National Park is one of Tasmania’s oldest and most popular parks. The reason why is that within the park there are rain forest, alpine moorland, glacial lakes and snow gums. In summer the park is a blaze with flowers and in autumn it is a glorious golden hue as the vagus trees (Tasmanian deciduous beech) prepares to shed its leaves. There are a variety of walks within the park that go from being just a 30 minute stroll to 8 hours Alpine walks which require cross country skies in winter. The Russell Falls walk is one one of the most popular walks in Tassie, it takes you through a forest of ferns, eucalypts and myrtles on the way out to the water fall. It is only takes 25 minutes return and is suitable for for wheelchairs and prams. Another popular walk is the Russell Falls / Horseshoe Falls / Tall Trees Circuit / Lady Baron Falls walk. An unwieldy name for for a very pleasant 2 1/2 hour walk that connects three waterfalls and the Tall Trees Walk. It requires a bit more effort but is worth it as it gives you a very good look at the ecosystem of the lower park. My favourite walks the Pandani Grove Nature Walk which is located on the Mawson Plateau in the alpine areas of the park. This is the best way to experience the alpine ecosystem of the park and as you walk around the glacially formed Lake Dobson you pass through a forest of pencil pine and and pandani. This walk takes about 40 minutes. Last time we went to the park we did the Pandani but also tacked on a side trip to Platypus Tarn in the hope of seeing a platypus. This adds another 20 minutes on the walk but takes you on a quite steep and rough path and I’d recommend it only if you have proper walking boots and are prepared for cold and wet weather. We didn’t see any platypuses, but nothing in life is guaranteed.

Forest At The Mountain's Feet
The look out point on the drive up to the Mawson Plateau in Mount Field National Park, From here you can look out over the Derwent Valley and see how the forest changes from dry eucalypt (which is the typical Australian bush) to the wet eucalypt forest which is dominated by trees that can grow up to 90 metres.

 

Lake Dobson
The Pandani Grove Nature Walk follows the shoreline of Lake Dobson. Mount Field National Park, Tasmania.

 

Bennetts Wallaby
Bennetts Wallabies regularly can be found grazing near the picnic areas of Mount Field National Park. This was was seen near the information hut on the shore of Lake Dobson on the Mawson Plateau in Mount Field National Park.

 

What can you see in the park? Well Bennetts Wallaby and pademelon can often be seen grazing in the late afternoon and early evening at the picnic areas. Barred bandicoots are seldom seen in daylight hours but can be seen around the campsite and picnic areas at night looking for insects and worms. Also active at night are brush, ringtail, and pigmy possums. In the more remote areas of the park it may be possible to see Tasmanian Devils, eastern quolls and spotted tailed quolls. Again these animals are only active at night. All of Tasmania’s snake species are active within the park and caution should be exercised if you should see one as they are all venomous. A lot of bird species inhabit Mount Field, with the majority being found in the eucalyptus forest. Here you can see green rosellas, yellow tailed black cockatoos, yellow wattle birds, crescent honeyeaters, grey shrikes and currawongs. Harder to see, but still present in the undergrowth are scarlet and dusky robins and blue wrens. If you are lucky and in the alpine areas you may see wedge tailed eagles soaring on the thermals looking for prey. In terms of flora – basically you have three distinct ecosystems, dry eucalyptus forest, wet euclaypt forest (or rain forest) and the alpine heath. Below 670m you see dry eucalyptus forest which is your typical Australian bushland and is identified by the tall growing trees such as the swamp gum (the tallest hardwood tree in the world growing up to 100m tall) the white gum and the stringy bark. The understory comprises of native musk, and hazel or dogwood. Up to 940m is either closed rainforest or in the transition areas mixed forest. This is dominated myrtle-beech and sassafras with an understory of native laurel. In the gullies formed by the numerous creeks are several species of tree ferns and it is these most people think of when they hear the term temperate rainforest. At 880m and above the Tasmanian snow gum starts to dominate the sub-alpine forest. Past this and you see alpine heath of the pandani which with its palm tree looks can grow to heights of 9m. As you explore the areas around the lakes or tarns ( a tarn is a lake that was formed during the ice age when a glacier created a cirque, corrie or cwm which later fills with water) many shrubs grow mountain berries which introduce a splash of colour to the undergrowth.

Pandani Grove
Walking through the wet forest on the Pandani Grove Nature Walk you can see the stands of pandani for which the walk is named. Pandani (Richea pandanifolia) can grow as tall as 9 metres

 

Snow Berries
Snow Berries (Gaultheria hispida), Mount Field National Park, Tasmania.

 

If you want to spend more than a day in the park there is a campground for vehicle based campers near the visitor centre. It has a camp kitchen, shower block with laundry and barbecues. There are some basic huts for walkers in the alpine area, and these have basic facilities such as running water, a wood heater, and bunks with mattresses. All accommodation can be booked through the visitors centre on (03) 6288 11149. There is also some private accommodation outside the park.

 

20150417Mount_Field-0019_HDR-2.jpg
Pandani Grove Nature Walk

 

Lake Dobson
Lake Dobson