The recent lock downs for the COVID 19 outbreak had a very strange effect. Living in York we don’t visit the coast very often, but as soon as the Western Australian government said we could leave our region all I wanted to do was go to the coast. I suppose it’s a bit like being on a diet and then spending all day obsessing over food. Well with the lockdown over we put the dog in kennels and headed down to Mandurah for a couple of days to get an oceanic fix.
Now the plan was to spend three days visiting some reserves around, but as Robert Burns once said “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”. The first spot we went out to was Lake McLarty, but there was no water in the lake and no birds to be seen. To cap it all the weather was grim – a storm front was closing in. So we decided to cut our losses and head in land to Pinjarra and walk along the Murray River and visit the Edenvale Heritage Tearoom. Well the tearooms were still shut because of COVID so we settled for a walk along the the river.
The next day the weather was grimmer than the previous day’s. We were wearing enough clothes to make Captain Scott of the Antarctic fame look severely underdressed. The morning’s activities were to be based at the Creery Wetlands Reserve which was only a short way from where we were staying. Although wet and bitterly cold we had more success than the previous day. It is amazing how much wildlife can be packed into a small area just minutes from a city centre. If you are in the area it is well worth visiting, don’t let the fact that the entrance makes it look like an off-shore detention camp put you off. As you cross the bridge you get the feeling a couple of Border Force goons could jump out of the bushes and indefinitely detain you. Once in side you can commune with nature to your hearts content.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
OK that maybe a little bit melodramatic, but there was no doubt that getting out and about after a few weeks of lockdown was a bit of a rush! So where did I go? What did I do with this new found liberty? Well I went to Wongamine Reserve near Toodyay to look for two types of orchid and do the walk trail. Pretty sad eh?
The reserve isn’t really visited any more the gates are locked and many of the signs broken or over grown. In fact speaking of overgrown the walk trail is so overgrown in places that I suggest that if you do want to visit and walk there that you take a GPS and download the walk track from Trails WA and follow that.
Was there anything positive about the visit? Well yes there was actually. The woodland is home to quite a variety of bird life – I didn’t photograph any as I was not carrying a suitable lens as I had gone to photograph orchids. I would expect from walking through the bush that would be quite a display of wildflowers in spring which would make the journey well worth while. There were quite a few species of dragonflies as well which at the time surprised me for some reason.
Did I find the orchids? Well the Winter Spider Orchid is only 6cm tall with a 2cm flower and the Crinkle-leafed Bunny Orchid is 10cm tall with a 9mm flower and considering that the reserve is 330 ha of bushland I think I did well to find anything at all. I didn’t find any Winter Spider Orchids, I have photographed them before at Babakin, but I found lots of the Bunny Orchids. In fact I never seen so many Crinkle-leafed Bunny Orchids before. So all in all it was a great day out.
It would be tempting to say that this picture is a metaphor for these COVID19 times, but actually that would be quite crass. While all the restriction have been in place I’ve been determined to have some creative output and this is part of it. Over the last week I’ve been making myself go out in the evening to photograph. To make things a little more interesting I decided to impose a restrictions on myself. In this case I would use a focal length that I don’t particularity like (50mm) and an old vintage lens on a digital camera.I’ve walked past this wreck many times with the dog and really not taken any notice of it. Well on this particular evening the local farmers had been burning off and the smoke in the air was creating a nice warm light as the setting sun shone through it. I thought that the rust of the car complemented the warm lighting.
Like many people at this time I’ve had my movements curtailed. Where I live we are allowed out locally for exercise so I’ve been going out for walks along the river to photograph and video the birds that can be found there. This is the third time I’ve tried to video wildlife and it is very hard.I don’t work from a hide so I have to set up quickly and quietly and often the birds will move on before I can get filming. Shooting mainly just after dawn or just before sunset has meant using high ISOs and made focusing difficult. But, the more you do it the better you get. The purpose of the video was to make something, learn something new and help keep me thinking positive thoughts during this time.
Just out of interest I’ll put the stills up below. They were shot on either a Canon EOS6d with the Sigma 150-600mm f4.5-6.3 Contemporary lens or the Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens. I wonder if you can tell the difference at web size without enlarging to 100% or checking the EXIF data?
This last few months have been particularly difficult in the light of climate change induced bushfires here in Australia and now the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID 19). It would in the light of compulsory lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions on social gatherings and travel easy to be filled with dread and let feelings of hopelessness pervade our lives. I myself have had further restrictions imposed as I’m in the process of recovering from spinal surgery and am fighting off the temptation of feeling sorry for myself and collapsing in a heap.
There is an antidote to this. Firstly instead of just being passive and feeding our psyches with all the negative news we can find in the media endeavour to do something creative. Creativity is important, it feeds the soul, gives a sense of achievement and allows you to express yourself. All of this has a positive effect on your psychological well being. It doesn’t matter what it is – paint, draw, knit, cook, write, photograph, sing. Although singing could be problematic depending upon your living arrangements and how well you can sing. My partner has issued me with an ultimatum; if I sing Bohemian Rhapsody at full volume in my usual tone deaf manner then lockdown or not I will be looking for alternative accommodation which I think is a little harsh. Secondly reconnect with nature. This one could be a bit hard depending on what the local authorities are imposing, but it can be done. If confined to the house take time out in the garden, encourage wildlife to come into the garden and watch them. Plant things and watch them grow. If possible go a walk in the park or woods (maintaining correct social distancing of course), go bird watching, fungi spotting it doesn’t really matter. Bonus points if you can combine this with doing some creative as this will allow you to enter a flow state. Sounds poncey but “it is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, 1975). The benefits of this are that intense and focused concentration on the present moment that you become so totally engrossed in the experience to the extent that other needs or concerns become negligible and this makes you feel in control over a situation. Do this a few times a week and your mood will lift.
I’ve taken my own advice this week. As I said I’ve been laid up at home and not doing much so I hauled my carcass down to the Avon River a couple of times to photograph some birds in the dawn light. It was well worth it. Stalking birds and photographing them required too much concentration and I was able to forget about my own circumstances and the worries of the world and just enjoy being in the moment. It was so enjoyable that I’m going to get out and do some more over the next week.
Right that’s me done I’m off to try and bake a lumberjack cake.
A review of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens for m4/3
I’ve said many times on this blog that my favourite focal length is 35mm (35mm equivalent) which give a diagonal angle of view of 63.4º To me it is a relaxing normal view, I find 50mm a bit too tight and 28mm a bit too “loose”. So when I migrated from so-called full frame to micro four thirds in 2010 one of the first lenses I bought was the Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f2.8 pancake lens. Actually at the time there were only three lenses in the system the 17mm, a 14-42mm kit lens and the 40-150 telephoto kit zoom and I ended up getting them all.
The 17mm was equivalent to 34mm in in full frame terms and has a diagonal angle of view of 65º, so close enough as not to make any real difference. It wasn’t a well received lens despite being what initial advocates of the micro four thirds said they wanted – pancake lenses. It’s slow maximum aperture of f2.8, slow and noisey auto focus combined with less than stellar optical performance put many people off and they went for the much more expensive Panasonic 20mm f1.7 which had the virtues of being optically better, and having a faster maximum aperture. It still wasn’t great in the AF department though. But hey these were the early days of mirrorless technology and AF systems were not very quick and accurate then. But anyways I got the Olympus in a kit with my Olympus EP2 and I actually loved it. I could slip it mounted to the EP2 in my pocket which made it a great stealth camera combination and I used it to shoot my TransPerth-Transhumance project. I still use the lens today, mainly on my EP5. The area where I felt it was absolutely hopeless was video. The AF was too slow, too noisy (think angry wasp stuck in a jar) and I wanted a bit more subject isolation than the f2.8 aperture could give.
So fast forward a few years and I’m shooting more and more video and I decide to get myself a better 17mm lens. In the intervening years Olympus had produced the very favourably received 17mm f1.8 and the eye-wateringly expensive f1.2 version. Panasonic had also come to the party with their Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens. In fact I went to my local (if you can call 110Km away local) camera dealer to buy this lens and it was always out of stock which made me want it even more. But in the end I went for an outlier in the form of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens. The reasons being that f1.4 is faster than f1.9, it was cheaper than the f1.2 and the difference between f1.2 and f1.4 is slight, and my dealer had it in stock. So what makes it and outlier? Well to put it bluntly it’s bloody huge. It has a 67mm ⌀ filter thread which compares to 37mm for the Olympus 17mm f2.8. It is bigger than the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and the Panasonic Leica 8-18mm f2.8-4 while being only a little shorter than the Olympus 75-300mm f4.8-6.7. The 16mm focal length equates to 32mm on full frame with a diagonal angle of view 68.1º so is a bit wider, but when used with the Panasonic G85 for 4K video this isn’t much of a problem as the camera crops in slightly. So how come this lens is so lardy I hear you all ask. Well this lens wasn’t designed for micro four thirds, it was initially designed for the Sony 6000 series cameras with an APS sized sensor where it equates to being a 24mm in full frame terms. To get a wide angle lens that’s fast and a good optical performance means lots of glass and glass is heavy, and this lens is large and heavy for APS format cameras. To get some additional return on their investment Sigma decided to offer the lens in micro four thirds mount hence it seeming a funny focal length and being bigger than necessary.
Olympus 17mm f2.8
Sigma 16mm f1.4
Diagonal angle of view
6 elements in 4 groups
16 elements in 13 groups
5 rounded blades
9 rounded blades
Minimum focusing distance
maximum magnification ratio
⌀ 57mm x 22mm (H)
⌀ 72.2mm x 92.3mm (H)
In the hand the Sigma 16mm feels very dense and substantial. The lens body is made out of what Sigma calls a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) which is substantially stronger than conventional polycarbonates while having similar thermal expansion properties to aluminium. The lens mount is made of chromium plated brass which should ensure a long life. The Sigma 16mm is advertised as being dust and splash proof but on closer reading of Sigma’s spec sheet there is only one seal and that is at the lens mount. The lens comes with a bayonet mount petal lens hood which has a ribbed grip to make attaching and detaching easier. While it is good that the lens comes with a hood it’s not the best implementation and feels quite insubstantial and can be fiddly to attach as it can foul and not lock home. There is a ribbed rubber focus ring of the fly by wire type – it feels smooth and easy to use. There are no other controls or switches which means if you want to switch between AF and manual focus you will have to use the camera controls for that.
The Sigma 16mm has an optical construction of 16 elements in 13 groups with 3 FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) glass elements, which offers performance equivalent to fluorite which exhibits less chromatic aberration than those utilising a traditional flint glass. There are 2 SLD (Special Low Dispersion) glass elements which also help to minimise chromatic aberration and 2 ASPH moulded glass aspherical elements which work to reduce optical aberrations. According to Sigma’s website the ASPH elements are polished with a tolerance of under 10 nanometers or 0.000001 millimetres which according to Sigma reduces onion ring bokeh.
In terms of autofocus the stepping motor is fast and accurate and very smooth when shooting video. I tested the lens on the OMD EM1 mk ii which has on sensor phase detect AF and on the Panasonic G85 which uses DFD technology – a variant of contrast detect auto focus that requires the lens to provide a profile to the camera to ensure fast and accurate AF. The Sigma does not have such a profile as these are limited at present to only Panasonic’s own lenses. Despite that there were no problems and I could detect no discernible difference between the Olympus and the Panasonic. The only downside in the AF department is that I can’t use the Pro Capture Low setting which gives up to 18 fps with auto exposure and AF tracking. This is no fault of Sigma’s as the option is only available with Olympus lenses.
Optically – well straight from the get go the Sigma is impressively sharp wide open corner to corner. The performance improves slightly (and it is only visible on my 4K screen at 300%) as you stop down. Diffraction sets in at f16 and this does soften the image. In terms of chromatic aberration, well wide open in high contrast situations it is apparent albeit slight and it is easy to correct in post. The lens is reasonably resistant to flare – but if you have a specular light source in the frame you will experience some veiled flare and ghosting. If you turn off the built in lens profile you can observe a slight barrel distortion, but switch on the profile and it is not visible. The bokeh balls this lens produces are more or less round when shooting wide open even at the edges of the frame and the transitions are nice and smooth. There is some onion ring bokeh which is the result of using moulded aspherical lens.Vignetting is not a problem and is very slight in the region of 1/2 stop.
Being designed to have an image circle much larger than micro four thirds requires means that you are using the best performing part of the lens and this really shows. Just for giggles I compared the Sigma with my old Olympus. The Olympus is noticeably soft in the corners at all apertures and just average in the centre. It suffers badly from chromatic aberration. Vignetting is very apparent, in excess of 1 stop in the corners with the lens profile switched on and getting on for 2 stops when switched off. Physically, optically and figuratively the Sigma stands head and shoulders above the little Olympus. The only area where the Olympus wins out is its small size and that is why I’ll continue to use it when I want something small and compact. For every other occasion I’m reaching for the Sigma. The knock on effect is that I’m seriously wondering about replacing my Olympus 45mm f1.8 with the Sigma 56mm f1.4.