Is Dynamic Range of Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Good Enough?

This is my last blog entry of the year 2019, in 2 days we shall usher in 2020. I think it has been quite an interesting year for me, taking the bold move dive into YouTube, and still surviving thus far. For this last video of the year, I shall be exploring the dynamic range capability of my main workhorse Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. In the video, I brought the E-M1 Mark II out for a torture test at Batu Caves, where the lighting condition was unbearably harsh and I can think of no better place to fully test out dynamic range of any camera. I then demonstrated how I extracted as much shadow and highlight details as I can in post-processing using Capture One Pro. See the video below. 

To me personally, I have not encountered a situation where the E-M1 Mark II could not capture sufficient dynamic range, both for my commercial jobs as well as personal photography. As long as you don't severely overexpose or underexpose your shot, you could get away with very good recovery in post-processing. That ISO200 RAW file from E-M1 Mark II is a lot more capable than you think. Have a bit more faith in the camera, it has never let me down so far. 

I shall see you beautiful people in 2020. Have a good celebration, and may the coming year bring you more opportunities in life and much happiness! 

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25 Tips On Having An Awesome Photowalk

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you have had a wonderful celebration and a fantastic time during the holiday season. It may be Christmas time, but shutter therapy must go on. 

I believe photowalk is crucial for any photographer - if you are new to photography it is a place to discover what the camera can do and get to know it better, if you are an experienced shooter it is an opportunity to experiment and continue to work on your craft. Photowalk is also important because we shoot not for others but truly for ourselves, we are not there to please anyone else. For photographers who shoot professionally, taking time off to shoot not for your clients but for yourself can be good for your soul and prevent creative burn outs. 

In my latest video and also as summarized in this article, I am sharing 25 tips on how to have an awesome photowalk!


1) Visit The Bathroom Before A Photowalk
2) Go minimalist - less is more
3) Wear neutral colors - blend into the crowd
4) Have a simple checklist
5) Wear comfortable shoes
6) Start with positive mind
7) Smile - you are not invisible
8) Respect
9) Keep the shutter clicking
10) Be aware of your surroundings
11) Pet the cat
12) Do a mini project
13) Go with a smaller group
14) Go solo
15) Train hard
16) Take the viewfinder away from the eyes
17) Think of what to shoot, not just how to shoot
18) Make friends
19) Stay hydrated
20) It is OK if you miss a shot - you cannot shoot everything 
21) Avoid distractions - get into the zone - zen mode
22) Take the road not taken
23) Share, print
24) Be yourself - shoot for yourself
25) End the day with an expensive cup of coffee

Please remember to go out and take more photographs! Enjoy shutter therapy. 

And again, have a happy and Merry Christmas!

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The Future of Digital Imaging - Will Smartphones Replace DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras?

There have been a lot of chatters and speculations flying around that some companies won't survive the coming storm and smartphones will eradicate the existence of dedicated cameras in the future. Just because the camera sales are down and some companies aren't doing so well recently, it was too easy to make assumptions that the market won't survive and some brands will have to die. That is oversimplification of what will happen. The doom and gloom scenario have been vastly exaggerated, and I have a few things to say about this topic. I personally do not think smartphones will fully replace DSLR and mirrorless cameras, in the future there is enough room for everyone to co-exist. In this article (and  a video I made) I addressed this issue and shared my thoughts on what will happen to the future of digital cameras. 

A lot of parallels were drawn from the demise of Kodak due to the rise of digital photography in comparison to some companies not innovating fast enough to catch up to the rise of smartphones. I am not denying there are stark similarities between these two scenarios, but the there are some crucial key differences as well. 

Kodak based their almost entire business model on supplying film and printing, the digital photography revolution killed them because digital cameras no longer need film and printing. The medium of photography, the way the camera works have changed fundamentally.  It was not because Kodak did not innovate fast enough or catch up to the market, in fact Kodak was the forerunner when it comes to digital photography, they contributed greatly at the conception and innovation of digital cameras right at the start. There were a lot going on in the company which led to the downfall, and the main reason was Kodak holding on to their old business model.

Coming back to smartphones, yes it is clear that smartphones are eating into the pie of digital camera sales, but what is happening now is entirely different. Smartphone's  camera is fully digital camera, a direct imitation of similar digital photography process found in DSLR and mirrorless cameras. There is no change of shooting method or process, and the digital photography at the core has not changed at all. In fact the cameras on smartphones, at the time of this writing, are still inferior in comparison to what dedicated, traditional digital cameras can do. Again, as I have said a few times in my previous videos and articles, the main reason smartphones are doing so well - convenience and full integration with digital lifestyle and social media. 

No I don't believe this will be sufficient for the smartphones to kill off the existence of DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but I do have a few thoughts on what will happen to the industry moving forward. 

It is not difficult to predict the demise of entry level DSLR and mirrorless cameras. The only way the business model for low priced, low profit margin products to work is sales by sheer quantity to the mass market. It is no secret that the top selling camera models for the past 10 years have been the lowest entry level cameras (such as Canon 1000D, 500D/600D series, Nikon D3000/D5000 series). The camera companies can only make enough money by selling in huge volume. 

However, here  comes the problem, the immediate drop of sales over the years happen to this huge chunk of entry level market - a lot of consumers have decided that their smartphone camera is good enough for day to day shooting and snapshots, and they don't need an actual camera anymore. If the sales quantity of entry level cameras continue to drop, it will reach a point that the camera companies will lose money instead of making money by maintaining the entry level product line-up. Without the mass volume, it does not make sense to continue making entry level cameras where the demand has almost completely stopped.

The next practical move is to shift the market upward to mid tier and high end models, such as Canon 7D series or 5D series, and Nikon D500 and D700/800 series. Selling one D850 camera can bring in 10 times the profit of one D3500 camera. There is no future in keeping the entry level products and they will surely go first. 

What made smartphones so successful? Besides the point that it is one device to do it all, the form factor of smartphones are truly compact, so small, so light and so slim, easily pocketable and bring around everywhere. I am speaking for the mass consumer market, I am not referring to professional photographers and serious enthusiasts, there is no place for large, bulky and heavy cameras in the future. The cameras will have to be made truly portable to entice the general market to want to bring out and use. I believe there will be compromise when it comes to overall imaging performance, we won't be getting the best of the best out of smaller sized cameras. Also, there will be hybrid products, cameras that will be co-dependent on smartphones to work. 

A solid example would be Olympus Air A-01, an interesting flirtation into what the future of hybrid imaging products may look like - stripping off unnecessary parts of the camera that can be filled in by the smartphones. No EVF and LCD screen, but the Olympus Air needs the smartphones to be connected, utilizing the much larger sized and higher resolution screen as live view. By removing so much components, the camera module was miniaturized, being so small even when paired with the smartphone, yet at the same time maintaining the full imaging performance of a true Micro Four Thirds system, having a much larger image sensor than what the smartphone built in camera has, and the ability to adapt higher grade optics to achieve specific photography effects (macro, telephoto lens, large aperture lens, etc). Who is to say that this incarnation of hybrid imaging product is not capable of super advanced computational photography? Utilizing the best of both worlds - a real camera and the true power of a smartphone. There is no longer a need for a larger, bulkier traditional camera, at least not for the general consumers. 

The next important race will be for convenience, not so much of pushing the imaging boundaries. If we study consumer behavior, they mass consumer are usually happy with sub-par quality, at the expense of convenience. Take audio for example, when mp3 format came along, it was broadly embraced though the audio quality is not as superior in comparison to a CD (compact disc). The mp3 format is easily shareable and used across multiple devices, the popularity and wide use of mp3 was not because of pushing audio quality boundaries, but due to sheer convenience. Then came along steraming services such as Spotify - the audio quality is even worse than what an average mp3 file can produce, yet it was adopted by every smartphone user. The elitists, true audiphiles and hi-fi enthusiasts will still be around, championing super audio CD and high resolution audio, but they make up a very small percentage of the market. A general consumer would be happy listening to Spotify music off a $10 China off-brand headphones. 

Similar scenario can be applied to digital imaging products. The chase of higher megapixels, cleaner high ISO numbers and better dynamic range can only bring the camera sales so far. The camera companies are fighting a losing battle. If this is the direction where the core companies are pushing, they are only targeting a very small, and diminishing market. I believe we can still win back the crowd of camera users that have been lost to the smartphone domination. There will be smartphone users who want to upgrade their photography skills and use a dedicated camera. Camera companies need to readjust their strategies to accommodate such market, and I believe this market is growing and will continue to grow.

The first to win the race of convenience wins the market. Why not make the camera connect directly to cloud storage, and at the press of a shutter button the image will be transferred to cloud immediately, effectively simplifying the overall digital photography process? From the cloud storage, with an app, any person can download the image directly or share it out from their phone seamlessly, without having to connect to the camera, or any other devices. We are moving toward 5G connectivity, where massive amount of data can be uploaded and downloaded almost instantaneously, I believe this can improve a lot of possibilities when it comes to pushing the convenience factor in digital cameras of the future. The consumers will  be happy to sacrifice image quality and performance (say, use a smaller image sensor such as Micro Four Thirds instead of full frame), using a truly compact form camera which have superior connectivity, yet delivering shooting capabilities far beyond what a typical smartphone camera can do. 

Finally the camera technology will converge and in the future all cameras will have eerily similar capabilities and features. It is already happening - Canon and Nikon are adopting the telecentric lens design approach when they went mirrorless with their full frame cameras, the same telecentric design adopted by Olympus more than 15 years ago. Olympus started the 5-Axis Image Stabilization, now everyone also has almost similar implementation of 5-Axis IS though the exact mechanism of how they work is still quite different. We see similar image sensors being used in different camera models, same EVF panels, same features and shooting capabilities and everyone is trying to do the same thing. One day, we can't really tell apart from one camera to another, and everything will look boringly the same. 

I am sure the product categories will be streamlined. Look at Canon  - they have 200D series, then the 800D, 80D, 7D, 6D, 5D and 1D series, that is just too many product lines, and now some of the cameras are starting to look very, very similar. Do we really need that many camera categories? Will there be enough consumers to sustain that many lines of products? I believe the camera companies will have to simplify their product categories, slimming down to maybe 3 or 4 categories the most. 

I believe DSLR and mirrorless cameras will continue to exist alongside smartphones. I don't think they are going anywhere, but the market is shifting and we will see many changes happening soon. After all, the demand of the market is changing and the way the consumers do photography and use imaging products now are constantly evolving. 

Do you agree with my commentary and speculations? Feel free to disagree with me, and I would love to hear your thoughts, please share in the comments below!

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Why Olympus Is Not Going Full Frame

I have received quite a number of comments and feedback especially at my YouTube videos as well as in my recent articles here, with some of you commenting that if Olympus is to survive the current camera sales thunderstorm, one of the viable solution is for them to go full frame. While I am excited with the idea of Olympus making full frame cameras, being an Olympus photographer, ex-employee, and an ex-engineer looking at the whole situation through realistic filter, I strongly believe full frame is not the answer for Olympus at this point of time. I made a video to explore the reasons why it is not the best option for Olympus moving forward, and why staying committed to the current maturing Micro Four Thirds system is the better strategy. 

Kindly take note that I do not represent Olympus in sharing any of my opinion, and I am not doing this to defend Olympus, or with intention of bashing any other brands. I am a photographer, a camera lover and there will be no bashing or negativity toward any camera or products in the industry. 

If you are not the video watching kind of person, here is a very short summary of my points discussed, explaining reasons why Olympus will not consider going full frame. 
1) Maintaining balanced size and weight for both camera and lens combo
2) Larger image sensor is not the solution
3) Entering full frame war is not a good strategy, and is a losing battle
4) Olympus should focus on pushing imaging innovation and technological boundaries

Olympus had a vision when they started the Four Thirds format, they knew to achieve the optimum size and weight balance for camera + lens combo, the best format was the Four Thirds sensor format. They have stayed committed to this format and philosophy all this time, and honestly it is a good strategy, knowing that it will be an impossible battle to collide head on against the big players such as Canon and Sony who, not in secret have infinitely more funds to burn for R&D and marketing. Olympus strives to provide alternative products that are portable and compact, yet at the same time delivering professional grade performance and results, and they have not been complacent in pushing innovations and technological boundaries in their product development. Therefore, instead of fighting a losing battle by entering the full frame market, I strongly believe Micro Four Thirds has a strong footing and is a great alternative, which honestly is more than sufficient for most photographers who don't shoot in the most extreme conditions. 

I am not saying that I do not want to see improvements from Olympus, it is quite the opposite. By committing to the Micro Four Thirds format, knowing well the technical restrictions of the smaller image sensor size, Olympus will need to work doubly hard to come up with advancement in their camera innovations to appeal to mass consumers. They are indeed heading the right direction with the improvement of groundbreaking shooting features that greatly benefit real world photography such as the 5-Axis Image Stabilization, Hand-Held High Res Mode, and computational deep learning focus tracking as seen in the E-M1X. I hope Olympus will surprise us more with new features and continue to push what the smaller camera system can achieve, and I am sure we will find out sooner rather than later. 

So what are your thoughts? Do you think the only answer is for Olympus to go full frame? Do you think Micro Four Thirds has a place in the camera market in the future? Share your thoughts!

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Street Shooting with Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III

With so much heavy talk going on here recently, I decided to slow down a little bit and enjoy shutter therapy! I joined a recent photowalk organized by Olympus Malaysia, led by the amazing Syazwan Basri yesterday. I decided to use the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III and did a video showing what happens before each shot as well. It was indeed a fun and enjoyable walk, a much needed shutter therapy on a weekend morning. 

I only brought one camera (E-M5 Mark III) and two lenses (17mm F1.8 and 12mm F2) along for this session. I used the E-M5 Mark III for both video and stills. Knowing that we will be constantly moving all the time, I left the tripod behind, which would have slowed me down tremendously. Instead I used the "selfie video vlogging" approach hand-holding the camera in one hand, recording myself as I walked, something which I did not like doing, but I guess it was the best option for this particular case. The lens for the scenes of myself talking in the video was shot on the 12mm F2, while everything else during the photowalk, all images were taken with 17mm F1.8. 

I also shot behind the scenes of each shot, quickly switching between video and photo mode of the camera. I also narrated in the video my thought process behind each shot, how I executed them and why I did certain things with the camera settings. I shared tips on how to create starburst effect, using gaps to create foreground blur, finding the right moment, approaching strangers for portraits and generally being respectful to people you encounter during a photowalk. I think the last point was the most important one. 

Here are some shots taken from the photowalk! Now tell me, have you had your shutter therapy lately?

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Why I Don't Use Back Button Focusing

Back button focus has been compared to the invention of sliced bread, and many who went BBF said they never went back.  However, that was not the case for me. I acknowledge the advantages of separating the AF function away from the shutter release button, and this is a popularly used,  much highly regarded photography technique by many. Nonetheless, back button focusing just does not work for me, and my reasons may not be universally applicable to all of you, but I would like to explore my reasons why I still stay with the shutter button as my to-do-it all options. 

For those of you who prefer a video version, here is a short, 10 minutes version of me ranting about back button focus. For the first time in almost half a year, I was recording myself indoor, in the living room. Surely this was not my favourite way of doing a YouTube video, but I admit the convenience was too hard to pass. 

I am not a wildlife or sports photographer. I totally understand how the back button focus can make a huge difference in such shooting scenarios, especially when you don't want to keep refocusing before each shot, that will increase a chance of miss focus. Hence using back button focus, locking it and waiting for the action to happen, and when it happens immediately pressing the shutter button can minimize the risk of error.  This is applicable for wildlife, for example bird shooting, as well as sports where some of the players are holding their position and you wait for them to spring to action. However, I shoot events, weddings, portraits, and products, and back button focus just does not help in any way. I find myself rarely needing to wait for my shots, when I see something happen I normally have to react quickly, and have the shutter button released as quickly as possible. 

I find that when I use back button focus, the handling of the camera is compromised. This is true for Olympus cameras, and I cannot speak for other cameras. Olympus cameras, especially the OM-D cameras were designed with prominent thumb resting area, allowing comfortable and secure gripping if your thumb is resting tightly on the hook. The smaller size of the camera makes it even more difficult when back button focus is being used, moving the thumb away from the thumb rest, which means effectively only 3 other fingers (other than your thumb on BBF and index finger on shutter button) are used to hold the camera in such an awkward manner. Then camera then slides into the palm, and digs into it, which is very uncomfortable for long hour shooting. I have full day shoots (corporate events, weddings) and I need to have balanced, comfortable and secure handling without worrying about the camera slipping off my hand. I don't like to move my thumb away from the thumb rest!

I shoot insect macro and portraits a lot. Critical focus is priority when shooting close up.  For insect macro, even 1-2mm movement away from the focusing plane will throw the subject entirely out of focus. Similarly, when I shoot portraits of strangers on the street, I normally shoot wide open at F1.8 or F1.2, and any movement on the subject's part, even just a few centimeters can cause softness in my image. No amount of post-processing or photo manipulation can save an out of focus image. Having the AF assigned to back button means I need to lock AF first in one action, before capturing the image with another action by pressing the shutter button. The delay between AF lock and shutter release is increased when using back button focus. This is significantly improved when using the shutter button for both AF operation and shutter release, because after the AF is acquired, I can immediately fully press the shutter button instantaneously with almost no delay. This is of course less crucial for shooting landscapes, subjects that are perfectly still or anything that are too far away. For me, back button focus causes the slight delay which can amplify the chance of critical focus accuracy error. 

Finally, during my brief experience using back button focus, my thumb suffers cramps and sore after a long day of shooting. It happened a few times that I decided it was definitely not the right technique for me. Besides, most of my photography subjects are constantly in motion, I am always moving around, nothing stays still, and I need to refocus my shots all the time before releasing the shutter button. The index finger is already always on the shutter button, having another finger locked on another button just makes things a bit more complicated and uncomfortable. I will have to press the shutter button to capture the image anyway, why do I need to use another button? Doing everything with one button works more efficiently for me as I need to refocus almost every shot. 

I don't think there is any right and wrong technique, as long as you find the most suitable one for your own photography needs. Back button focus certainly is not for me, but if it works for you, then stay with it!

What are your thoughts? Share your experience!

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Is Computational Photography the Future?

In my recent camera sales is declining video and article I received several comments claiming that the introduction and advancement of computational photography in smartphones is the main reason that negates the need for a camera, and implications were made about how cameras should adopt computational photography and "catch" up to smartphones. However, this is something that deeply troubles me - computational photography has been around since the beginning of digital photography and the level of computational photography applied in dedicated cameras today is not lagging behind smartphones. I want explore the significance of computational photography that has already been adopted integrally in Olympus OM-D cameras. 

The core of digital photography comprises of 3 components - Lens, Image Sensor and Digital Processing. The lens allows light to enter the camera and focuses light onto the image sensor to form an image. The image sensor then translates this light from analogue into digital signal. Then the digital processing converts this into the final output, resulting in JPEG files which can be viewed on digital devices and shared on online social media platforms. Computational photography comes into play during the capturing process of the images as well as during the digital processing stage. A lot of camera operations rely on software algorithms and the final optimization process to produce that beautiful JPEG file relies heavily on computational photography. 

How is smartphone's computational photography better than camera's? I just do not see it. A lot of reference was made to the fake bokeh rendering, smart HDR processing and auto-compositing of images done by smartphones with ease and minimal effort, to produce amazing results. I argue that these advancement in software has been seen in cameras for a while now and there is nothing new in the smartphones that can even come  close to what the dedicated cameras can do. Except maybe the fake bokeh artifical rendering but in cameras why do we need fake bokeh when we can acquire real and better more natural looking real ones?

Now let's take a look at the processing chip found in Olympus OM-D current line-up of cameras - Truepic VIII. In a single Truepic VIII chip, Olympus claims that there are two Quad Core processors. There are 8 independent processing cores in an Olympus camera with a Truepic VIII processor, and you know what? Olympus E-M1X has two Truepic VIII processors, meaning E-M1X  has a total of 16 cores! Each core is assigned for a singular, computational heavy task - one core to compute image stabilization real time, one care for AF operation, one for smart image processing, one for writing/reading to SD card, one for EVF/Live View display, etc. Olympus also claims that the processor that they used in their cameras are more powerful than any consumer mass available Intel processor (true in January 2019, source here)

So why does Olympus need so much processing power (more powerful than any smartphones) in their camera? Is the answer not obvious enough? Of course - computational photography. 

Here is a list of instances when computational photography plays a crucial role in modern digital cameras, especially in Olympus OM-D cameras

1) AF operations
In a single-AF operation, at the half-press of the shutter button the camera quickly captures 240 frames per second, and these images are not stored in the SD card, but in the temporary buffer. The camera's processing will analyze all these images quickly and using smart contrast detection the "computer" will quickly acquire and lock focus. 
In Continuous AF, or 3D tracking, computational photography plays an even more important role to analyze the pattern of subject movement and apply an adaptive smart algorithm to predict where the subject will move to next, allowing the tracking to work efficiently. None of this is possible without raw computational power, and believe me when I tell you the C-AF or 3D tracking in any top level Canon, Nikon, Sony or Olympus cameras are superior than the best smartphone camera you can find today. 

2) Composite Modes
There are many composite modes in camera - High Res 50MP shot, Live Composite, in camera HDR, Focus Stacking and Hand-held multishot noise reduction, all taking multiple images at once, and merging them together with smart real time analysis and effective processing to accomplish selected, desired results. Each composite settings require the camera to perform some computational photography magic to selectively take some parts of an image and merge them all into a final composite image. Most of these composite modes can be executed with just one click of the shutter button. Computational photography has been used by cameras to push and break boundaries - to acquire more high resolution image, to achieve better image quality (less noise in high ISO, wider dynamic range than single shot), to capture more depth of field and to prevent overexposure in long exposure modes. If this is not pure computational photography, I don't know what is. 

3) 5-Axis IS
How does image stabilization work? The gyroscope will detect movement of camera shake, and the camera will use the efficient computational power to counter these movements, all happening so fast that the image or video is fully stabilized. We know how capable the 5-Axis IS in Olympus camera is, and then there is the 5-Axis Sync IS, when the body IS works with lens IS in sync to further improve stability of the shot. 

4) Smart JPEG Processing
Modern digital cameras have superior advanced JPEG processing that a lot of people take for granted. The images are not uniformly sharpened, and the noise reduction application is not done on a global level. The camera will analyze each image separately and apply variable sharpening and noise reduction on images with different shooting parameters (different apeture used, ISO number and lens attached). If the lens is sharp, shooting at optimum aperture and lower ISO, the in camera sharpening is lowered and less noise reduction is applied to achieve a more natural look. Also, the camera will study different areas of the image and apply noise reduction and sharpening selectively. There are a lot of processing happening to optimize a JPEG file in camera - barrel distortion correction, vignetting compensation and chromatic aberration suppression just to name a few. Also, since Truepic 6, Olympus uses no low pass filter on their image sensors, hence they have advanced the smart Moire correction algorithm in their processing engine ever since. Furthermore, there is compensation for diffraction when narrow aperture is being used. All this, happening at a click of a shutter button, almost instantaneously, with virtually zero shutter lag when shooting with a camera. 

Do not get me wrong, I am not bashing smartphone photography, in fact, far from it. I am a firm believer that smartphone photography is the future. However the claim that the computational photography in cameras are falling behind and that camera manufacturer's should play catch up - that is fraudulent. 

The problem with smartphone cameras is not the software. I admit the software is improving, and there will be progress and we will see more exciting things happening in computational photography soon. The real limitations to progress of digital camera in a smartphone is the actual lens and image sensor used in smartphones. The multiple  camera setup is a good idea, but it is not the ultimate solution for smartphone photography. I would be terrified to think of iPhone 15 wiith 15 camera modules at the back of the phone. There is no point having so many cameras, all with similar physical limitations. 

How to improve smartphone cameras? Use larger sensor, maybe include a 1 inch image sensor (like what Panasonic did once), and use larger and higher quality optics to complement the more capable image sensor. Combine that with truly powerful software, then we can talk. At this moment, no matter how advanced the computational photography is in an iPhone or Samsung camera, the fact that those tiny image sensor and crappy lens still render sub-par quality images. I have tested the Samsung Note 10+ recently and trust me, I am NOT impressed. For a smartphone camera, yes it is possibly the best now in the market, but compare that with even an entry level mirrorless camera, say an Olympus PEN E-PL9, there is still a serious gap. 

Let me know if you still hold firm to the believe that, today, the smartphones have higher level computational photography power than cameras? Share your thoughts!

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