Friday, May 29, 2015

More Olympus Goodness

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, 40-150mm f2.8 Pro Zoom with the matched 1.4X teleconverter. 1/10th (one/tenth, not 1/100) of a second @ f4, ISO1600

I covered a conference about the Rohingya boat people this morning. The conference was in the event rooms at one of Bangkok's better hotels. The room was nice but very dark and I was forced to use high ISO and slow shutter speeds, not a combination I usually like. But the in body image stabilization in the E-M5 Mark II saved me.

How effective is Olympus' in body image stabilization? Very effective. The top photo was made with a 40mm-150mm f2.8 lens and a 1.4X teleconverter. The focal length was 210mm, which because of the 2X crop of Micro 4:3 compared to "full frame" works out to a 420mm lens. The exposure was 1/10th of a second @ f4, handheld. Think about that for a moment. A 400mm lens handheld at 1/10th of a second. And this was not a fluke or one off success. Here are two more samples.
Same lens combination, 1/15th of a second. ISO1600 @ f4. 
Same lens, again 1/10th of a second. Handheld. The woman on the left is blurry because she was moving, But the man on the right, the subject of the photo, is sharp. 

This pretty much blew me away. I've been impressed with the in body image stabilization in my E-P5s since I started using them. But I never would have expected to get sharp pictures at 1/10th of a second handheld with a 400mm lens, even with the in lens stabilization used by Canon (or Nikon). Amazing.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

One Month with New Cameras

A sort of mini review.
A worker in an Ybor City cigar factory. Made with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and an Olympus 75mm f1.8 lens. ISO800, 1/160th @ f2. 

I've had my E-M5 Mark II bodies for a month now and thought I would post a short review of the new cameras. This is based on my day to day use of the cameras and comparing them to my Olympus E-P5 bodies, and, to a lesser degree, the Canon 5D series bodies I no longer have or use. This is based entirely on my experiences with the camera and does not involve any "pixel peeping." Your mileage and experiences may be different. 

I got the E-M5 Mark II bodies because while I was very happy with the E-P5 there were some shortcomings that made it less than ideal for what I needed. 

The E-M5 Mk2, and all of the Olympus OM-D bodies, feature faux SLR styling with a "mirror hump" housing the viewfinder. Since these cameras are mirrorless, there is, by definition, no mirror. The hump accommodates some electronics but could have been eliminated by moving the electronic viewfinder to the side, like the Panasonic GX-7 and some of the Fuji mirrorless bodies have done. On the other hand, the hump gives the camera a very retro faux SLR look (like the Fuji XT-1).  
The National Cemetery in Bushnell, FL, made with an E-M5 Mark II and the 75mm lens. ISO160, 1/8000th of a second, f1.8. 

I like the small size and image quality of the E-P5. The high ISO limit (the small sensor limits the camera to ISO1600 for day to day work, IMO) is partly mitigated by the excellent in body image stabilization. Once I got used to Olympus' labyrinth menus, I found the E-P5 was as easy to use as Canon's 5D series bodies. The E-P5 is not tiny, at least not compared to some of the Micro 4:3 cameras made by Panasonic or even its little sibling, the Olympus E-PL7, but it's as about as small as I'm comfortable with. I don't have huge hands but cameras that are much smaller than the E-P5 are hard for me to hold. 

I always use my E-P5s with the VF4 electronic viewfinder. This is a great viewfinder, arguably the best electronic viewfinder on the market right now, but it adds considerable bulk to the camera and takes up the hot shoe. That hot shoe thing was the biggest problem for me. I don't use flash very often and I use on camera flash even less often, but there are times, especially at breaking news, when it's just not practical to use off camera flash. For me, those times are still mission critical. 
During an anti-coup protest in Bangkok. I was squeezed in with other photographers. If I had tried to hold my flash off camera I would have blocked the view of those around me. I had to use on camera flash because it was well after dark and there was no street illumination to speak of. E-M5 Mark II, 12-40 f2.8 Pro Zoom. ISO800, 1/50th @ f2.8 at 40mm. Flash in TTL mode.  

A busker in Tampa. E-M5 Mark II, 17mm f1.8 lens. ISO200, 1/60th @ f5.6, flash held off camera. 

The E-M5 Mk2 is a little bit bigger than the E-P5 without the EVF, but with the EVF attached, as mine always are, the E-M5 Mk2 is a little bit smaller. The weight of the two is virtually the same. The E-M5 Mk2 is even more customizable than the E-P5. There are more buttons on the E-M5 Mk2 and every one of them can be reassigned to other functions, like ISO or white balance selection or video recording or depth of field preview or, well the list goes on and on. 

If you get an E-M5 Mk2 you will want to spend quality time with the manual. This is only the second camera I couldn't just pick up and start making pictures with (the first was the E-P5, also a camera that calls for serious manual reading). 
On a songthaew south of Bangkok, E-M5 Mk2, 12mm f2 lens, ISO400, 1/400th @ f2.5. 

My first real test of the relative merits of the E-M5 Mk2 vs the E-P5 was last week during anti-coup protests in Bangkok. The scene was what I call a cluster ruckus. At the first protest I went to there were over 100 media people, photographers and reporters, nearly as many agents of state security (plainclothes army and police and uniformed police) and just four protestors. 

The E-M5 Mk2 bodies and the 12-40mm f2.8 zoom handled it better than my Canon bodies would have. Partly because I think the autofocus, in the single shot mode, is even better than the Canon autofocus and partly because the camera is so small that I wasn't fatigued by its weight. The AF on the E-M5 Mk2 is better than the autofocus on the Canon 5D Mark II and, in single shot, the way I usually use my autofocus, as fast as the 5D Mark III and more reliable than the 5D Mark III. 

This was the first news photography I've done with the E-M5 Mk2. I was very happy with how well it worked. 

The real test came at the larger protest that night. There were more protestors, more police and more media. And it was dark. It was a very fluid situation.
Protestors link arms against the police. 12-40mm f2.8 zoom, 12mm @ ISO400, 1/125th, & f2.8, on camera flash set to TTL. 
Police (and a few tourists) line the stairs above the protest and watch protestors. E-M5 Mk2, 40-150mm f2.8 Pro zoom. ISO1600, 1/25th of a second @ f2.8 handheld. That is the equivalent of an 80-300mm zoom used at 150mm. Handholding a 150mm lens at 1/25th of a second. With my Canons I would have had to increase ISO to get a higher shutter speed, probably taking it up to ISO6400 to get two stops, bringing the shutter speed up to 1/100, the bare minimum for something like this. 

Again, I was very happy with how the E-M5 Mk2 handled the situation. A couple of things stand out for me. The image stabilization is amazing. I don't know how else to describe it. Olympus in body image stabilization has been among the best in the business for a few years now. The five axis image stabilization in the E-M5 Mk2 is supposed to give you up to five stops. I can't vouch for that, but I easily gained a full stop over my E-P5 bodies. 

I got usable frames with at 150mm and 1/25th of a second, which although it's only a 2 to 2 1/2 stop advantage, it was such a fluid situation with so much movement, I couldn't have gone to a slower shutter speed. I would not have been able to do that with my Canon cameras. The old rule of thumb for shutter speed is 1/the focal length of your lens (a 200mm lens would call for 1/200th for example, a 35mm 1/30th and so on). The image stabilization in the Olympus bodies blows that formula away. 
Bangkok after dark. E-M5 Mk2, 12mm f2 lens. ISO400, 1/5th of a second at f5.6 handheld. 

The electronic viewfinder takes some getting used to. That's not a bad thing, it's just a thing. When you look through an optical viewfinder, like in a traditional SLR or especially a Leica, you're looking at the the scene. When you look through an electronic viewfinder it's more akin to seeing the scene on television. Going back and forth can be a little jarring (it was when I used my Canons and E-P5 side by side). Using just an EVF has some advantages. When it's dark, like it was later at the protest, using an electronic viewfinder is almost like using night vision. It allows you to see when your optical viewfinder would just be dark. On the other hand, an EVF can be harder to use in bright sunlight. The EVF in the E-M5 Mk2 is excellent. I don't have any problems during the day and it's considerably easier to use in dark rooms than my Canons were. 

Although the autofocus on the Olympus is excellent, it works best in light (which is not as obvious as it sounds). The autofocus in the Canon 5D Mark III is almost prescient. It can lock AF (in the single shot mode) in near darkness. I think the Olympus outperforms the Canons in single shot in daylight or anything up to dusk, but by the end of the night, when it was completely dark, the Olympus AF was having a hard time locking focus. (Canon's autofocus is still considerably better for continuous use, as in sports.)  

Part of that is user error. The Olympus has an autofocus assist light that projects a bright red beam the camera uses to lock focus. It works well but it's very annoying (think the bright red dot that's used on military scopes or by snipers). I have it turned off on my cameras. I should have turned it on as it got dark at the protests. The other issue is the autofocus system used in mirrorless cameras vs the autofocus used in SLRs. They're different, each with strengths and weaknesses. Mirrorless AF is catching up quickly to SLR AF, but the final few steps to get mirrorless AF to really rival SLR AF is going to be a challenge. 

At a Chinese opera in Khlong Toie. E-M5 Mk2, 12mm f2 lens. ISO1600, 1/30th @ f2. Even though it was dark, there was enough contrast that the AF locked in with no problem.

I haven't even tested the E-M5 Mk2's marquee features - the High Resolution mode (the camera can output a 40 megapixel file) and improved video. I haven't needed video since I left the newspaper world. The high resolution mode intrigues me but it comes with conditions: the camera has to be on a tripod and your subject has to be perfectly still. I haven't had a chance to use it under those conditions yet. 

So what's the downside to the E-M5 Mk2 and is it worth upgrading if you're already a M4:3 user? 

The biggest problem I have with M4:3 cameras is battery life. And battery life with the E-M5 Mk2 is not as good as it is with other M4:3 bodies. I think that's because the image stabilization uses more power than it does on other Olympus bodies. If you already have a M4:3 OM-D body, especially the original E-M5 or an E-M1, I'm not sure the E-M5 Mk2 is worth the upgrade (unless you need the high res mode). If you have the entry level E-M10 and want a more robust camera it's worth considering the E-M5 Mk2. 

At $1,100 for a body, I think it's a little overpriced, by maybe $100 or $150. Some people compare it to entry level models from Canon or Nikon but I don't think that's fair. The E-M5 Mk2 offers a lot more than those cameras do. Its weather proofing alone is class leading. The Olympus does compare well to the Canon 7D Mark II, Canon's top of the line APS camera. The 7D Mark II is about $1,700, so the E-M5 Mk2 doesn't seem so bad. The E-M5 Mk2 is $200 less expensive than the E-M1, which is a little bigger and has better autofocus. If you need AF nearly as fast, in the continuous mode, as the Canon 5D Mark III, the E-M1 is for you. If you need high res and better video the E-M5 Mk2 is for you. 

The Olympus lenses are excellent. Some of them, like the 75mm f1.8 and 40-150mm f2.8 pro zoom, are exceptional and class leading. 
In a market in Samut Songkram. E-M5 Mk2, 17mm f1.8 lens. ISO200, 1/100th @f1.8.

It might be easier to ask, "who is the E-M5 Mark II not for?" That's easy. 

If your bread and butter is sports photography or low light, available darkness photography you still need a traditional full frame digital SLR (not the least for the exotic long lenses, like the 600mm f4 and 800mm f5.6). 

If you need a high megapixel count for your day to day photography you should get a Nikon D810 (36 megapixels) or Canon 5Ds series camera (50 megapixels) or step up to medium format digital.

The biggest problem with the current M4:3 cameras (besides battery life) is the 16 megapixel sensor. Olympus and Panasonic have wrung about as much out of that sensor as they can. Image quality at lower ISOs, below 1600, is excellent. But the further you go above 1600 the more digital noise you're going to encounter. High ISO photography is still the realm of full frame sensors and the excellent Fuji sensor.

I've been saying for several years that mirrorless cameras are the future of photography. Each generation of mirrorless camera has been considerably better than the camera that proceeded it. With the E-P5, I thought mirrorless could handle about 80% - 85% of what I did but the remaining 20% - 15% was still important to me. The improvements with the E-M5 Mk2 bring that up to above 95% and what's lacking (high speed continuous autofocus) is not that important to me.

If you do reportage, travel photography or features the new generation of mirrorless cameras will more than meet your needs.  

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On a small soi off Sukhumvit

Ajarn Neng Onnut prays before starting his day tattooing people who come to his home in Bangkok.

Ajarn Neng Onnut is a master of the spiritual Sak Yant tattoo. He is one of the most famous tattooists in Thailand. People who believe in the power of the tattoos come from across the Kingdom and around the world to get a tattoo from Ajarn Neng. 
The Ajarn's assistants steady a young woman getting a tattoo while the Ajarn tattoos her. His studio is  really more of a chapel. The walls are adorned not with pictures of tattoos but with religious paraphernalia. 

Ajarn Neng's work has been featured in the book "Sacred Skin." He is a regular at the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Blessing Ceremony in Nakhon Pathom. A visit to his home (he works out of his home) is nothing like visiting a tattoo parlor in the US. There's no music. No whirring of the tattoo guns. In fact, aside from people praying and the occasional small talk, it's silent. 

Ajarn Neng uses long hollow stainless steel needles. He dips the needle into a reservoir of ink and goes to work on his subject's back, arm, neck whatever. He sanitizes the needles between tattoos by putting them into an open flame and a disinfectant. There is no autoclave or similar sterilizing device. The tattoos are all, every single one of them, done by hand. 

He works with astonishing speed. A complex tattoo of a stylized lion, for example, takes only a little over an hour. A simple tattoo of a prayer takes about 30 minutes. 
A woman prays before getting a tattoo. 

The Ajarn does not tattoo people for ornamental reasons. This isn't "body art" in the sense that tattoos in the west are. Sak Yant tattoos, like those the Ajarn applies, have specific spiritual meanings. Soldiers might get one to help them in battle. A business person might get one to help him or her succeed in business. Another person might get one for personal reasons, for example to keep negativity at bay. 

Sak Yant tattoos have become popular in the west as a form of body art. Thai religious leaders discourage tattoo parlors and tattooist from giving people Sak Yant tattoos for purely decorative reasons. Ajarn Neng interviews people before he gives them a tattoo.
A woman makes an offering to the Ajarn before he blesses an existing tattoo.

Everybody who comes into Ajarn Neng's space has to pray before he will consult with them. His assistants guide newcomers and people not familiar with Thai spirituality through the process. 
One of the Ajarn's assistants helps an American with her prayers before she met with the Ajarn.

He meets with people getting a tattoo before he starts working on them and talks about their spiritual needs and what they want from the tattoo. Some might come in with no idea of what they want and leave it up to the Ajarn to select something suitable. Others might come in with a specific tattoo in mind but after consulting with the Ajarn select something different. Still others might come in with a specific tattoo in mind and that's the tattoo they leave with. 
A woman from the UK gets a spiritual tattoo on her back.

I spent two days with the Ajarn. There is a very inviting vibe to his place. People drop in to chat with him about their spiritual needs, others come in to get existing tattoos blessed or renewed, there's a steady stream of people coming for tattoos and the Ajarn makes time for all of them. Although the Ajarn speaks a little English, there's almost always someone there who can help visitors with the complexities of Thai and help bridge the gap between the Ajarn's English and tourists' total lack of Thai. 
A blind man rests contemplatively while he waits to meet with the Ajarn. It was his birthday and he wanted the Ajarn to pray on an existing tattoo.

In some ways this is the undiscovered part of Bangkok I enjoy working in. In other ways, Ajarn Neng Onnut is anything but undiscovered. As out of the way as his place is, and it is very out of the way, several kilometers down Sukhumvit Soi 93 in a small residential development, foreigners always find their way to his place. In the time I was with the Ajarn, he gave an interview to an American journalist and tattooed two Americans and a Briton. His place is a beehive of activity. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Progess

Is not all it's cracked up to be. 
A motorcycle streaks past diners at a street food stall on Sukhumvit Soi 38. 

One of the great things about Bangkok is the extraordinary street food. It's almost everywhere and it's usually very good. They're usually mom and pop type places where you can get a stir fry, like pork and basil, or curry for between $1 and $1.50. Some elaborate dishes, especially seafood, might cost as much as $5.

These eating spots are scattered through the city. I have small favorite haunts that I visit in most of the neighborhoods I've photographed in. One of the best gathering of street food stalls in the entire city is on Sukhumvit Soi 38, a longish walk from our apartment. 

The food stalls on Soi 38 run the gamut from Chinese inspired noodle soups to curries to Thai stir fries to western favorites like hamburgers and Turkish kebabs.
Diners on the sidewalk on Soi 38. 

A man who has had a Pad Thai stand on Soi 38 for 30 years cooks up an order of the Thai stir fried noodle dish. 

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced this week that the street food stalls on Soi 38 have to close. The family who owns the land the carts are on haven't raised the rents in nearly 40 years. The family patriarch recently died and rather than keep the land in the family, and the food carts on the street, his heirs have decided to sell. It's prime land, very close to Sukhumvit Road and an easy walk to the Thong Lor BTS station. A condominium developer snapped up the property. 

The stalls that are in the street or on the sidewalk will be the first to go. They are expected to start closing as soon as next month.  The stalls that are off the street may be around for the rest of 2015 but will be gone early in the new year. What's not clear is what happens to the stalls that have off street seating but on street kitchens. Some of the most popular stalls do their cooking on the street or sidewalk but provide off street seating for their patrons. Will they have to close next month when the other sidewalk places have to close or do they get a reprieve? 
A food cart that does all of its business in the street and on the sidewalk. Its time is limited.  

To be fair, this is not the end of the world. It's more like the passing of a beloved institution. Street food is one of the things that makes Bangkok what it is. To quote Joni Mitchell, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." 

The development will bring in more jobs than the street carts provide, at least during the construction phase, but the practical question is "how much development can Sukhumvit sustain?" It's retail and condos from Soi 8 all the way to Soi 100. The small mom and pop shophouses have been torn down to make way to tall condos and expensive (and trendy) retail. Traffic is so bad on Sukhumvit that you can literally walk faster than the cars during rush hours. 

There are more photos of Bangkok street food in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Not a Happy Anniversary

Thai police scuffle with protestors at a demonstration against the coup at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Friday, May 22, was the one year anniversary of the coup that deposed the elected civilian government. Thailand's second coup in the 21st century.

The Thai Army overthrew the elected civilian government on May 22, 2014. The coup came at a strange time in Thailand. The elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had already been ousted by the courts (on corruption charges), but there was a "caretaker" government comprised of her political allies running the government. Suthep was still leading the anti-government protests, but it was a standoff. 

Suthep didn't have the power (either constitutionally or politically) to completely overthrow the government and the government didn't have the power (politically) to control Bangkok.
A pro-democracy, anti-coup activist greets a police commander at the site of a planned protest on the anniversary of the coup. Protestors had planned to go to the criminal courts to file charges of treason against the military leadership who overthrew the government last year. Most of them were detained by police before they could leave the subway station near the courts building. 

The Thai army stepped into fill the void and seized power. Senior military officers now control all of the government ministries. The Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, is the former army commander and leader of the coup.

The first weeks after the coup were marked by large protests in Bangkok but little violence. The army gradually asserted control and rounded up nearly all of the members of the elected government. Hundreds of people were detained for short periods of time (weeks, not months) and subjected to what the junta calls "attitude adjustment." 

There were occasional protests against the coup, but nothing has threatened the dominance of the junta. 
Thai police at BACC before the protest Friday night. 

The protests on the coup anniversary were the largest protests Thailand has seen since May of last year. That said, they were still small. There were four protestors at the subway station near the courts (and hundreds of journalists and security agents). There were small protests on some of the university campuses and some of the towns upcountry that have a strong "Red Shirt" presence. 

The biggest protest by far was at BACC, where there were perhaps 100 people (this in a city of 12 million). 
Protestors lock arms during a face off with police...

while police preparing to arrest protestors also lock arms. 

Police and protestors faced each other for several hours in a tense standoff. Protestors tried to occupy the sidewalk in front of BACC and police occasionally swept through the crowd, detaining people they had identified as protest leaders. There were some scuffles but no large scale violence, like we experienced during the Suthep led protests of 2013 and 2014. 
Protestors console each other after a police sweep through the crowd.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.