With an expiring Chinese visa the time had come to nip across the border to Macao for the tradition of the visa run. Macao is a land I had never before visited, but as a chap who finds a delight anywhere with old colonial architecture and traditions of a far of land still lingering in a delightful manner I was happy to head there with my OMD-EM1 and my new favourite lens, the lovely little Oly 25mm f1.8. More of that camera and lens combo soon, but for just a few snaps from a wander through streets of Macao.
Over the Christmas period I have had the opportunity to borrow David’s Oly 45mm f1.8. Up until now the only primes I had around this focal length were 2 old manual lenses that I got on eBay. More about these another time but whilst I love using them for the tactile nature of going manual (there’s no doubt that I feel more connected with the whole shooting process when using these), I find I do miss a lot of candid opportunities because despite some very good focus aids built into the OM-D E-M1 I simply miss focus, a lot.
Ok, let’s get the most important point out of the way. This lens, in my humble opinion, is stunning in terms of image quality. It is the best portrait lens I have ever used, and that includes the 70-200 MkII Canon. It is very sharp wide open (which let’s face it is where a lens like this will spend most of its time) and produces lovely out of focus backgrounds separating the subject from its surroundings beautifully.
This is a small lens which I personally like. The drawback is that it has a very unusual filter size which means you either need to get new filters or a step-down ring. That aside it looks fairly good on the camera and in auto focus mode it is lovely to use with extremely fast focusing. For manual use you have to jump into the menu and turn on manual focus as it doesn’t have the snap back ring that the pro Oly lenses sport. Personally I don’t much like using it for manual focus, it is just too small and simply doesn’t have a nice feel to it, but with such fast accurate auto focus I can’t see this ever being an issue.
There is no doubt that this is a lovely lens and with Amazon currently selling it at £179 it is an absolute bargain. I have had it in my basket several times as I know that I am going to lose this one as soon as David heads back off to the other side of the world. But the bottom line is, as much as I love it, I am not sure it is for me. If I were someone who shot a lot of portraits or did a lot of street I would have this lens for sure, but as a landscape photographer it is a luxury. For now I will continue to use my old manual 50mm for those sorts of shots but who knows, in the future I may just change my mind.
It’s a dilemma isn’t it? You’ve packed up all your camera gear, booked hotels, travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles with hope and excitement running through your veins, your mind overflowing with images of beautiful landscapes bathed in wonderful golden dappled light………and then you arrive and are greeted by leaden skies and dull grey land. So, what to do?
Well, this is the scenario that occurred to David and I on a recent visit to the English Lake District. There were, as usual when the two of us are together, two schools of thought. David favoured the “sitting in the pub taking wide aperture images of pints of beer” approach. But whilst I could certainly see the merits in this I could also see the downside, there are some seriously strong ales in that part of the world after all. Plus, my passion for landscape photography is at least as strong as David’s passion for beer, so we hit a compromise. Photography until sunset (only 4pm after all), then pub!
“But what about the lack of light?”, David enquired. “Surely light is the thing that adds depth and interest to a landscape photograph”. This is indeed correct and an extremely valid point, especially from a man who is used to shooting in the tropics where gorgeous light is the norm. But there are things that one can do when the sun decides not to play ball, a scenario that I am much more used to than my spoilt brother.
When life deals you lemons make lemonade right? Well, when life deals you a lack of colour in a landscape, simply think about removing all the colour. The temptation can be to try and shoot the scene and then bring out more contrast when post processing but whilst this is certainly an option I have never found it to be as satisfying as going down the black and white route. But to get the best out of black and white photography you have to think a little differently right from the moment you arrive at your location. You need to think in black and white and shoot accordingly.
Think Black and White
What do I mean by think black and white? When shooting colour it is very much about the light and the colours but when shooting in black and white I find it better to think about textures and shapes. Strong textures and shapes are the order of the day. Using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 as I do I am lucky that there are some great settings that allow me to visualize the scene through the viewfinder and the screen in black and white, I always make full use of this functionality and it is one of the things that I love about using the micro four thirds format.
When shooting black and white images I think much more about textures. I look around the scene and identify subjects that have interesting textures and think about how I will bring out those textures when post processing. In the above image the boathouse and rocks have a very defined texture. The sky too has texture to it, albeit a little more subtle. The water too had texture to it as there was a fairly stiff breeze but for me landscape images like this are all about contrast so I wanted to flatten the water out. I did this by using an 11 stop filter to get an exposure time of 36 seconds at f8. To my eye the smoothness of the water draws the eye to the rocks with their bold texture and these in turn lead the eye to the boat house.
Shapes and lines
Strong shapes and lines add to the dynamism of any black and white shot and landscapes are no different. The line of the horizon, the solidity of the boathouse and the triangular shape of the collection of rocks in the foreground all help to create a strong dynamic.
The beauty of black and white is that it can remove distractions allowing the mind of the viewer to concentrate on the main elements of the photograph. It’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. Take the distant mountains in the above photograph, even with relatively flat colours (take a look at the video below to see how dull it was) that a dull day displays the eye would still be drawn to these, perhaps more so than on a sunny day as the viewer would be subconsciously searching for some interest. But in black and white, whilst still an important element of the scene as a whole the mountains stand out much less allowing the main elements to become more bold and striking.
So, next time you look out of the window and it is dull and overcast remember, beautiful locations are beautiful locations no matter what the weather, you just need to shoot in a way that brings that beauty out in the best way that the conditions allow.
I am often asked “what camera do you use”. My old blog was pretty much dedicated to wobbling around the world on an old bicycle, and until recently this question had never crossed my befuddled mind. But as time moves on and circumstances change photography has become an increasingly important part of my life, both as an expression of the way I see the world, and as an outlet for the passions of a slightly confused fellow drifting through life in his own slightly off-skew sort of a manner.
During those years of drifting along my interest in photography has grown immensely. I originally began photographing my journeys because one of my closest friends, who happens to be a professional photographer, convinced me to do so. “You go to interesting places and do interesting things” he told me, “photograph it!” Well, there seemed little arguing with this logic, and so I followed his instructions, and as time passed I began to get an insight into what photography is about, and as this insight developed so did my interest, and with the developing interest seemed to come a development in ability and understanding of what I was doing. A new awareness of light and life began to emerge. And so did my photography, I think in the direction of travel photography which perhaps explains the question regarding the camera.
Two or three years back in an attempt to lighten my load I tried moving away from my cumbersome Canon DSLR camera and its two lenses to a compact camera. The compact was a great camera for its design brief; a point and shoot camera for the mass market; people who want a camera to make all the decisions beyond composition for them. But for the photographer who wants to take control and tell the camera what to do it was very limited.
Fortunately for me a great new system had just emerged, micro 4/3. Designed jointly by Panasonic and Olympus these cameras have a sensor half the size of a full frame DSLR but around 9 times bigger that a run-of-the-mill compact. IE, it has a sensor big enough to fulfil the needs of pretty much everyone. Micro 4/3 cameras offer full manual control and have a wide array of high quality interchangeable lenses that freely swap between M4/3 brands.
For several years I used Panasonic’s wonderful little GF1, a camera that had, and possibly still has, an almost cult following. Back then the only lens I used was a tiny but perfectly formed Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens. With the sensor being half size this equated to a focal length in 35mm film terms of 40mm. Loitering twixt the classic focal lengths of 35mm and 50mm this was the perfect lens for street photography and travel. For those of you wondering, the lens has an organic zoom system, called legs.
Times move on though and micro 4/3 developed a new darling, the Olympus OM-D EM5. This may not be the catchiest moniker on the market but the camera does, to my mind at least, have the most wonderful styling. Harking back to the Olympus OM range that began life in 1972 the OM-D could easily be misjudged by anyone other than a very keen observer as a relic of an era gone by. This in itself is, to my mind, a bonus for street photography. There is something disarming about odd eccentrics travelling the world by bicycle and using ageing film cameras. People from developing countries cannot quite grasp why a fellow from the land of milk and honey is travelling in the manner of the poor and using technology from the dark ages, and so the luddite traveller is treated with caution and kind concern from a discrete distance. The thing with the OM-D EM5 though is that beneath its ageing exterior lies one of the most advanced cameras ever built for the mass market. Even that stylish exterior is an advanced weather sealed magnesium body, a step beyond all but the most exclusive of Canon DSLR cameras.
And it is a Canon full frame DSR that I have just been comparing my old EM-5 with. For those interested in the technical ins and outs of the OM-D EM5 there has been much written about it over the past couple of years, a good start for real world use would be Robin Wong’s informative review, and for a more technical review look.here.
Time though moves on, and even though the EM5 is very often the camera I grab to take out of an evening when I am fortunate enough to have both cameras with me, it is it’s successor, the outstanding Olympus OMD-EM1 that now travels everywhere with me. But more of that, and the way I travel the world, a little later.
All images on this post were shot using a Panasonic Lumix GF1 (360 grams) combined with a Lumix/Leica 25mm f1.4 lens, a M4/3 heavyweight at 232 grams