Urban Night Photography - Shooting In Low Light, Just Go Out And Shoot!

When the sun sets, night time can be both challenging and fun to shoot. Living in an urban environment provided me lots of interesting opportunities to explore. I find that constant gear measurebating has led to many of my photographer friends having second thought of going out to shoot in the dark, fearing that the ever so tiny grains of high ISO noise in their images will be the center of attention when they share their images on social media. I think that is ridiculous. Just because we don't have the presumably "sufficiently capable" gear does not mean that what you have cannot do low light photography! I was always annoyed when I hear oh this camera and that camera is "hopeless" in dark environment, or "how I wish I have that latest full frame camera". Funny, because I don't shoot with full frame (nothing against any format here, this is a general discussion) and even when I was merely having a smartphone camera on my hand at night, when photography opportunity presents itself, shoot it!


I made the video above to send a message out that - hey, your camera is more than good enough to shoot in low light. High ISO noise? So what? Noise or no noise, a photograph is still a photograph, and when I look at a photograph I am looking at the story it is telling. I am looking at the layers of ideas or expression of emotion from the photographer. Even if the image has obvious high ISO noise all over, that does not mean that was a poor image. Photography is a lot more than just having "technically perfect" image. That is the problem with the new generation of photographers. Being obsessed with getting the clean zero noise shot and having infinite dynamic range and gigapixels in an image will do nothing to make you a better photographer. 


So please do not ever think that your camera (even if you are only using a smartphone now) is not good enough. We buy better gear or upgrade for specific reasons. I buy macro lens, because that lens allows me to get closer to my subject and achieve higher magnification, which my normal kit lens can't do. For sports photographers, they need a longer lens for the reach. These reasons are justifiable. I cringe when someone says "this and that camera is bad for low light shooting". 

Just go out and take more photographs already and stop complaining!

Why I Upgraded to Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO from 25mm F1.8

I have blogged about this topic before, about me getting the M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO, but I am making it into a video version so I could upload it to my recent YouTube Channel. The original article was here (click) if you have not read it. I won't compose a full length article on this blog entry, only giving a short summary on the key points why I upgraded to the Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO from the 25mm F1.8 version.


I have used the 2014 version of Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8 since it's release. After reviewing the lens, I immediately nabbed one from the first batch of production, and have been a super happy user of the lens ever since. Knowing that a majority of my commercial work and my own personal shoots depend on that one singular lens, it makes perfect sense to upgrade it to a superior version, which I got for my own birthday last year. Why did I upgrade to the F1.2 Version? In summary, for the brighter opening of F1.2, giving me a full EV stop advantage of light gathering in dark environment in comparison to F1.8 version, weather-sealing (I do shoot in the rain during events) and the improved image quality overall: better contrast, a little sharper and better bokeh.


The 25mm F1.8 is so small and compact, it fits the use on smaller camera setup, and can still deliver incredibly sharp images. I highly recommend the F1.8 version for newcomers to Micro Four Thirds, and those who are not shooting in a professional capacity (no need for weather-sealing, or the F1.2 extra brightness). F1.8 is plenty bright for most situations.

So what are your own experience using either or both of the Olympus 25mm lenses? Please share your thoughts!

Interesting side note: Olympus Visionary from Finland, Peter Forsgård and Lumix Ambassador, Matti Sulanto (also from Finland), both posted YouTube videos about Micro Four Thirds 25mm lenses this week. Check out Peter's video here and Matti's video here. This happened out of pure coincidence, we did not coordinate this beforehand, I swear.

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Telecentric Lens Design - Did Canon RF and Nikon Z Adopt Similar Approach as Micro Four Thirds?

I was excited to find out that finally both giants Canon and Nikon stepped into the mirrorless game seriously this time, releasing their new full frame mirrorless cameras in 2018. Nikon launched their Z6 and Z7 with a new Z Mount, while Canon released the EOS-R with a new RF Mount. Taking a closer look to the mount design, both companies adopt very similar approach - and I cannot help but find many similarities and be reminded of what Four Thirds promised and delivered in 2003 when Olympus DSLR E-1 was launched - a more optimized telecentric lens design.

Since I am still in the video frenzy mode, I thought why not do one, just me rambling on about this topic?


Important disclaimer before diving too deep - the intention of the above video and this blog entry is not to make comparisons between different camera systems and lens designs, that has never been the objective of this site, and I see no benefit in doing so. I gain nothing from praising one system from the other, thus this article is made strictly out of my keen observation on how the imaging products have evolved over time. I believe there are no bad cameras these days.Furthermore, it is crucial for us photographers to understand our gear better to allow us better operate it, and make full use of the strengths while at the same time workaround the weaknesses to accomplish our photography goal.

Frankly, I was very happy to hear the full frame mirrorless announcements from both Canon and Nikon in 2018, that only solidified my belief and the fact that mirrorless is the future. I was only a little frustrated that Nikon and Canon did not take the plunge earlier, allowing Sony a full 6 years gap to be the sole manufacturer of full frame mirrorless cameras, in which they have become dominant. Late is better than never, I guess, so it is interesting to see what these big boys are doing with their new full frame mirrorless system, being so late entering the game.




Both Nikon and Canon took the advantage to introduce new mount. Nikon made 2 changes: 1) increase the lens mount throat diameter opening from 47mm to 55mm and 2) reduce the flange back focal distance from 46.5mm to 16mm. Similarly, Canon, maintaining their already large lens mount opening of 54mm (just 1mm shy of Nikon's new Z mount opening), decreased their flange back focal distance from 44mm to 20mm. Both companies advertised these changes aggressively, highlighting that having large lens mount opening in relation to sensor size and also having shorter flange focal distance can dramatically improve optical design and resulting image output.

It makes perfect sense, because having larger glass element to fully envelope the image sensor area allows light to hit the sensor more perpendicularly, and bringing the rear end glass element from the lens closer to the image sensor minimizes light strays and bending. The obvious benefits in terms of technical image quality? Minimized aberrations (chromatic, spherical, etc), improved corner./edge sharpness, and better per pixel optimized light capture overall.

This actually refers to telecentric lens design, meaning having the optics designed in a way that the light will hit the sensor more linearly without too much straying off, and this was already adopted by Four Thirds system lens mount in 2003! Yes, Olympus and Panasonic that started the Four Thirds DSLR system, with Olympus releasing their first DSLR Olympus E-1 in 2003 alongside their first fully realized telecentric design lens, Zuiko Digital 14-54mm F2.8-3.5. These technical concerns and approach to optimize lens mount and subsequent optical design have been fully implemented by Olympus and Panasonic's Four Thirds system 16 years ago. 16!

Canon improving their telecentricity in optics using RF Mount


Nikon and Canon adopting same approach, minimizing light straying/bending, and using new mounts to ensure light hits sensor more linearly, achieving better telecentric design. 



Olympus adopted telecentric optical design with their Four Thirds mount, and this lens, 14-54mm F2.8-3. was released in 2003. 


Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-54mm F2.8-3.5

In 2008, Panasonic introduced the world's first Micro Four Thirds system camera, the Panasonic Lumix G1. Then in 2009, Olympus released their Micro Four Thirds camera, the Olympus PEN E-P1. Both G1 and E-P1 used the brand new Micro Four Thirds mount, a new mount created as both Panasonic and Olympus take the bold move, the first in the world, to enter the mirrorless game. They made one significant change in the mount design for Micro Four Thirds, making the move from DSLR to mirrorless cameras. Now there is no mirrorbox/pentaprism mechanism in the camera anymore, hence they were able to move the lens much closer to the image sensor. The flange focal distance was reduced from 38.67mm to 19.25mm. Yeap, Micro Four Thirds did this in 2008, about a decade ago. The full Micro Four Thirds system, with many subsequent lenses released, all inherit the original DNA from Four Thirds system, having optimized telecntric lens design, and both companies have put in much effort to improve their lenses over the decade. 

So why am I bringing all this up now? What am I trying to do?

I was actually happy to see that everyone else is doing their best to improve the lens design now. Both Canon and Nikon, big boys in the industry, adopting similar approach, just validated the fact that Micro Four Thirds alliance knew what they were doing, at least when it comes to the lens design approach. We know that we cannot just look at the camera from what the camera can do alone, the lens optimization and design play an important part as we look at the system as a whole. 

The fact that I have been shooting with Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses for so many years, I am happy to have enjoyed the superior lenses, especially all the Olympus M.Zuiko lenses. If you have ever used any of those fantastic tiny little lenses, you would know what I mean. The lenses were all super sharp, performing incredibly well even at wide open apertures and all technical flaw was very well controlled. Yet these lenses come in compact and light weight forms. It was truly a joy to shoot with small yet very optimized lenses. 

What are your experiences with your lenses and camera system? Do let me know!

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5 Dos & Don'ts On Using Olympus OM-D Cameras

Here is a quick video I have made recently to summarize some common mistakes I have observed some photographers do while using their OM-D cameras, some done unintentionally, and also adding some additional tips on optimizing the use of the camera. Some of the recommendations are subjective, you may choose to disagree with them, but I did find them working well for me.


Here is the list of what I have discussed in the video, if you prefer to read instead of watching a 10 minutes long video:

1) DISABLE INSTANT PLAYBACK
All cameras (not just Olympus OM-D) has instant playback enabled, allowing quick preview of the previously shot image. While a lot of people need the acknowledgement to confirm that the previous shot was successfully taken, the short display time is interrupting the shooting process, and it stops the camera for that very brief period of time. This is even more true for fully electronic devices, using EVF and LCD screen. The quick display can be timed so badly that I did miss some shots happening real life because I need to half-press the shutter button to get rid of the playback. I suggest fully disabling instant playback, and only review your shots as necessary, when nothing crucial is happening while shooting.

2) DISABLE FUNCTION LEVER
The 2x2 function lever was introduced in Olympus PEN E-P5, and has made it into almost all Olympus OM-D cameras ever since. There are two function positions, 1 and 2. When set at position 1, the camera's  command dials (front and back dials) behave normally, as the camera should, controlling the basic exposure settings such as shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation (depending on P, A, S or M modes). When the function lever is switched to position 2, the command dials control different set of settings, by default these settings are white balance and ISO. The problem I had was the switched being changed involuntary, sometimes  happening while inside the camera bag. Imagine a situation I need to change my shutter speed, instead of quickly adjusting the shutter speed with one of the dials I may have accidentally adjusted the white balance. This is problematic because once I realize the mistake, I need to correct the mistake first, eg correcting the white balance to the original setting, then switch the lever to the correct position, before finally getting to adjust what I wanted to adjust in the first place - shutter speed. The additional 2-3 steps to get to what I wanted to do, just simple shutter speed change, simply because of the wrong position of function lever, has caused me to miss some critical shots. This was frustrating so I have since then permanently disabled the function lever.

I wonder if anyone wanted me to explore the M.Zuiko 12-200mm lens more?

3) EVF DRAINS BATTERY MORE THAN LCD SCREEN
While this is not a secret anymore, and should be a common knowledge, I find that still quite a number of people  believe that by using the EVF on the OM-D camera, they will save more battery than LCD Screen. This belief originated from DSLR, which was true because using optical viewfinder (with no electronic components) uses no power, hence not using the LCD screen on a DSLR, you save battery. This is no longer true for mirrorless cameras with EVF, especially Olympus OM-D. The EVF has twice as much resolution and refresh rate, that they will suck the battery dry much faster than LCD screen. I suggest getting more batteries as spare and use EVF or LCD screen as you feel comfortable for each situation, and should not worry about battery life. But in the case that you have one battery left for a long duration of shoot, and you are doing all you can to conserve battery life, using the EVF all the time is a bad, bad idea.

4) DO NOT USE DIGITAL TELECONVERTER
I originally did not see this as an issue, we all know digital zoom will not give you the best results. However, the reason I put this into the list, is because I have quite a large number of people complaining to me that the images from their OM-D cameras were terrible in quality, has poor resolution, were not as good as even their smartphone cameras! I thought, wow, how bad can it be, when I inspected their images, truly they did tell me correctly, the images were blur, not sharp and blotchy. When I checked their cameras, very often the main cause is the teleconverter being switched on. Half of them did not realize they have enabled this accidentally, the other half did not know that digital teleconverter will cause severe image degradation. Instead of getting, say 16MP full resolution, you get practically only equivalent of 4MP output. Please, do not use the teleconverter. Trust me on this.

 5) SET NOISE REDUCTION TO AUTO
Lastly, make sure you did not turn ON the noise reduction setting. The noise reduction in Olympus camera is not exactly noise reduction, it is actually Dark Frame Subtraction method, a two step image shooting process (actual image + dark frame) to effectively remove hot pixels (due to image sensor heating up) during long exposure shooting. For E-M1 Mark II, after about 4 seconds or longer shutter speed is engaged, if you set noise reduction to auto, the dark frame subtraction method kicks in, and it will double the time  you shoot an image as the camera also captures a dark frame with the same shutter speed you have specified. This helps in long exposure, and necessary to ensure images are clean and free of "hot pixels". However, in normal shooting circumstances, say you are dealing with normal shutter speeds (1/60th, for example) if you intentionally turned the noise reduction setting on, the camera will take two frames as well, resulting in double the time the camera needs to capture one photograph. This will significantly delay shot to shot performance, with noticeable longer "blackouts" between frames. I don't recommend turning the noise reduction OFF either, just set it to Auto, and the camera is smart enough to figure out when to enable it. Just don't turn it on. The OM-D blazing speed will be crippled if you do so.

I hope you have found these tips useful! If you have more tips, please do share with everyone in the comments!

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5 Easy & Unusual Photography Hacks

I have always wanted to made a "photography tips" or hacks article, and I thought it would be awesome to do it in a video format instead.  Do not worry, the article form is still here, and not going anywhere soon. The strange thing about YouTube, some of my videos now are starting to reach out to wider audience than what I can do on this blogging platform. It is indeed interesting to study how times have changed and the way people consume media has evolved too, video has been the mainstream media for years now, and I am extremely late to the party. So here you go, for those who love to watch video (and people talking non-stop on screen) than reading articles while imagining their own voice-over the words in mind.



TIP 1 - WALLET WITH DEDICATED SD CARD SLOTS

I have been using this really cool wallet that has dedicated SD card slots inside. The special design allow storage up to two SD cards, but I only carry one spare 64GB (95Mb/s) card, which serves as a back up in case I forgot to bring any other cards. This will not happen for commercial jobs of course (which I checked the items  on my bags like a hundred times before leaving the house) but for casual outings and also my personal shutter therapy sessions, I go minimalist, carrying one camera and one lens, and as I quickly run out of the door, sometimes the SD card may be left behind unintentionally. It has happened before of course, to me and to my friends. Nothing can be more frustrating as we are so pumped up for a shoot or a session with fellow photogs and arriving on location early, powering the camera on, to find out the SD card is missing!


It is not about how much we prevent ourselves from forgetting to bring an SD card, we are humans, and it will happen even to the best of us. I learned this from my high school guidance and counselling teacher - she said: "it is not about what we do to avoid forgetting, but how we prepare ourselves in the event that we forget". There should be a contingency plan in place, hence having a spare SD card in the wallet which I carry with me everywhere I go to every day, is a reliable fail safe. As a bonus, if your friend forgets an SD card, you can loan him, and you can impress some photographers with this neat trick! Pulling out an SD card from your wallet. It also gives a strong impression that you are always prepared and you are serious about what you are doing in photography.

TIP 2- CHAIR SOCKS FOR BATTERY STORAGE

This is a weird one, but I found that it worked like a charm. I bought chair/table leg covers, in the form of fabric tiny socks to store my batteries. I carry MANY batteries out for a shoot. And the mini socks I bought from Daiso costs RM5.90 or two pairs. Why use the socks? First and obvious reason, to prevent scratching when the batteries got out of place into the bag in contact with other items, eg camera body or lenses. The fabric provided soft padding and prevent these scratches from happening. Reason number two is more functional - to identify which batteries have been used up! So when I am replacing a battery after it is depleted, I will store the empty battery unit into a "reversed" mini sock. The reversed mini-sock clearly indicated the status of the used battery, so that when I am replacing the battery next, I won't mistakenly slot the used battery into the camera. This is a practical solution for heavy, all day extensive shoots that require changes of multiple batteries. Such a simple, yet colorful and elegant solution to battery management in the camera bag. And trust me, those tiny little colorful socks are conversation starters!\




TIP 3 - CARRY A MACRO CONVERTER

I understand that not everyone will go deep into macro photography, hence the suggestion of spending unnecessary budget to purchase a dedicated macro lens is out of the question. However, that does not mean that we cannot do close up shooting, or pseudo-macro photography from time to time without digging deep into the wallet. A good solution is to get a macro converter - low in cost, good compromise between convenience and quality and it gets the job done. I have the Raynox DCR-250 which I bought for about RM300, and it is so small it fits anywhere in the bag, and there is no excuse to leave this behind. When the opportunity presents itself, the option to shoot macro is there.

 Raynox DCR-250

 Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 closest shooting distance, without macro converter. 

Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 with Raynox DCR-250 Macro Converter

It is also important to take note whether the converter that you bought fits the filter thread of your lens. I had a step up ring to ensure perfect fit. Also, not all macro converters are built equal. I find the Raynox performing incredibly well for the price point. 

TIP 4 - PORTABLE LED LIGHT

Lighting is crucial in photography and we don't get the luxury of having great light conditions at all times. In very difficult situations, having that additional boost of light can make a huge difference. It is helpful to carry a compact and portable LED light. I have a cheap LED Ringlight, which is battery operated and is powerful enough to light up a table, or a person if placed close enough. Also, having an LED light can encourage more interesting and creative photography execution, placing the light at the back of the subject can create "rimlight" effect that can add drama to the image. 



TIP 5 - PRINT A MINI PHOTOBOOK

We consume photography mostly through screens. Either on our smartphones, tablets, laptop and computer screens or TV.  I still believe that photography comes alive in prints. Therefore, having a mini, easy to carry about photobook to showcase your work when you meet people can set you apart from other photographers. There is something magical about being able to feel the photographs in hand, something tangible rather than a digital image seen on screen. I think that makes photography more real, and less "virtual". It also shows that you take your photography seriously, as you curate your own shots to a limited number and took the effort to make a print and be proud to show them off to people. 


Do you have any other tips to share? I would love to hear from you! 

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