Nov 182012

Yesterday Steve Huff posted one of his “crazy comparisons”, pitting the OM-D against the Leica M Monochrom. While I don’t fully agree with his methodic approach (but then, it was just for fun), the result was pretty impressive. People couldn’t tell the difference.

What exactly did he do? He took his Leica Monochrom, mounted the $5000 Leica Summilux 35/1.4 ASPH and an orange filter, and on the OM-D side he used just the kit lens with the Picture mode set to “monocrome / orange filter”. That’s probably as unfair as it gets, but to level it a bit, he presented the images in “web size”. He didn’t want to test sharpness or any other lens-dependent properties, he wanted to compare tonality.

I really suggest you head over to his site and hopefully come back to read on.

As you see, he used JPEG on both cameras, because the software B&W / orange mode of the OM-D works only in JPEG.

Of course I have no Leica to compare (neither do I want one), but when I saw the beautiful tonality, I just wanted to make some in-camera B&W images myself. And I was struck.

I have sometimes used the D300 at ISO 6400, but that was mainly to make the point that such high ISOs are possible with the camera, at least as long as you shoot in B&W. Sometimes I just liked the grittiness of those images, although at ISO 6400 the tonality was relatively poor.

These images that I took today were of course taken at base ISO, and they had a richness of mid-tones that was really amazing. Could they probably be usable straight out of the camera? On the LCD they certainly looked so, and when I had them on my computer and looked at them on a 1920×1200 display, they still looked pretty good, even at pixel level.

I decided to make another comparison, this time not between cameras, but between myself using Lightroom and the algorithms of the camera.

In the introduction I have said that the OM-D’s monochrome mode only works for JPEGs, and that is right, but you can still use RAW+JPEG, and then the JPEG will be in B&W, while the RAW retains all color information.

Basically I wanted to see two things, namely how hard or easy it would be to emulate Olympus’ JPEG processing, and whether I could even improve upon that.

For the first point I tried Lightroom’s “B&W / Orange filter” preset. Bingo! I didn’t have to go any further, this was already sufficiently near.

For the second test I used two images, the first one, this street scene, slightly hot on the highlights. I have linked both thumbnails to the full sizes on Flickr, to make it easier to see the difference.

The out-of-camera JPEG is on the left, my own version is on the right.

I think even when shooting B&W, I wouldn’t do JPEG only. There is a clear advantage to my version. It has more mid-tone contrast, retains highlights much better, and it is also sharper to boot. It is a tad noisier as well, but firstly I could have tackled noise and because it was a rush job I didn’t, and what is more important, for the other qualities I take a little noise all the time.

The second image is shot into the light and the JPEG has very dark shadows. From the JPEG I wouldn’t have been able to open them up as well as I did, and while I prefer the image as it now is, I could have opened them up much further without breaking the image technically.

Some of the noise in the second image is from opening the shadows without noise reduction, but most is artificially added in Lightroom.

The other two images have been processed in Lightroom as well.

What have I learned? Well, mostly that I won’t dump RAW, even if some people suggest it’s a good idea (and it may be for a pro in certain situations). But I have also leaned that using the camera in B&W mode is a good way to shoot for B&W, even if I do the final processing from RAW. The preview in the electronic viewfinder or on the LCD is of a total different quality than just converting color images later. You don’t need to think around the corner, you see B&W, and B&W is what you get. I like this so much that I have dedicated one of my camera’s “MySet” presets to B&W.

And there is one more thing: The difference in tonality between my street image and that of the camera is greater than the difference between the Leica and the OM-D. Much greater. So please stop talking about Leica tonality. It’s just bits and bytes, and once we’ve got them out of the camera, we can make of them whatever we want.

The Song of the Day is “Crazy” from Tori Amos’ 2001 album “Scarlet’s Walk”. Hear it on YouTube.

Apr 262012

It get’s pretty interesting now. After Olympus Viewer 2 and Corel AfterShot Pro we’ve got a third RAW converter that is able to work with images produced by the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Phase One has just released Capture One Pro 6, and among the supported cameras are the OM-D and the Nikon D800.

The Image of the Day has been converted with Capture One Pro, the version to the right with AfterShot Pro. Both have been further processed in Photoshop, both link to the full size image.

The AfterShot Pro version is a tad lighter and has slightly different color rendition, but I suppose that is entirely my fault. They have slightly different distortion correction as well (AfterShot Pro supports the lens, Capture One Pro does not), but that’s also not the interesting point.

Look at fine detail in the windows, especially the one in the middle. I know, it’s hard to see, but the AfterShot Pro version has some artifacts that got amplified by sharpening, while the Capture One Pro version is as clean as it gets. And not only that: I had to put more work into the AfterShot Pro version.

On the other hand, Capture One Pro is substantially more expensive, and while the difference is visible when you know that it’s there and when you are looking for it in 100%, it is hardly visible at all at normal viewing distances. Anyway, fact is, that we’ve got one more choice for our workflow.

Btw, do you remember yesterday’s ISO 6400 image and how I was not able to improve on the JPEG using the RAW, AfterShot Pro and Photoshop? I tried it with Capture One Pro as well, and although the result was much better, it still was worse than the JPEG from the camera. Impressive.

The Song of the Day is “Got Another Sweetie Now” by Benny Carter and The Chocolate Dandies. Hear it on YouTube.

Apr 252012

Today, actually as image for Monday, I have an image that I technically made on Monday, precisely at 1 am, having just arrived in Vienna. I don’t put this up for its artistic merits, today it is about image quality at higher ISOs.

Here is the original JPEG from the camera. I have improved it slightly in color purity, a little bit in detail and although it’s a square as well, I’ve also used a slightly different crop.

The image has been taken at ISO 1600 and 1/8 s. That is what happens when the OM-D is on aperture priority, Auto-ISO, and using its defaults. Depending on the focal length of the lens the camera tries to maintain a certain minimum shutter speed (for the 14 mm lens this is 1/30 s, basically it’s always the old principle of one over the equivalent focal length). This goes on until the maximum ISO is reached (by default set to 1600), and from there the camera compensates by lowering shutter speed.

As I’ve already said, for my taste the Nikon method of allowing the user to set the crossover speed (instead of calculating it) is superior, but then, for me it works perfectly. On the E-P2 ISO 1600 was already a problem, especially at night, but look at the images: Stabilization does a great job, dynamic range is clearly there and noise is well contained. In fact, this is good enough that I can stop worrying about ISO at all. I don’t even have a function button assigned to ISO. The camera is always on Auto, with one exception and that is manual mode. For manual mode I’ve set it to ISO 200.

At ISO 1600 and a reliably holdable shutter speed of 1/8 s the camera already sees more than my eyes do, i.e. the resulting image is brighter and has more visible contrast than the scene in reality. As long as my goal is to show what I see, I have no reason to increase ISO further.

There may still be reasons to raise maximum ISO to a higher value, for instance if you need faster shutter speeds in low light or if you need more depth of field.

Here I have an ISO progression from 800 up to 6400. These are 100% crops of JPEGs right out of the camera. Only the ISO 6400 image was slightly rotated to better align with the other images. The lens is the Panasonic 20/1.7 at f2.2, shutter speed goes down to 1/5 s for ISO 800. In reality the scene was considerably darker.

I think it’s safe to say that ISO 6400 is visibly worse than the other three, and of course the fall-off in image quality is as expected. ISO 3200 is definitely usable, better than on the D300, and ISO 1600 is good enough for any kind of professional use. ISO 6400 is usable on the web and certainly for small prints. I think I should be able to squeeze out some more quality from the RAW as well. Remember: these are 800×800 crops from 3456×3456 images.

Apropos RAW and quality: I have tried to improve the ISO 6400 image by working from RAW, but at least my first attempt failed. What I got was visibly worse than the JPEG from the camera. I think this is remarkable and a testament to Olympus’ JPEG engine.

Like in “413 – When Lights Are Low“, the Song of the Day is “When Lights Are Low” from Roberta Gambarini’s 2007 album “You Are There”. Here it on YouTube.

Apr 202012

This is Keith. Keith is happy. Keith, say hi to your fans 🙂

Well, the image of Keith was taken with the E-P2 and the Olympus 40-150 lens. Of course this image is from the same series as “2010 – He Shall Feed His Flock“.

Btw, I’m happy as well. Today I got my Olympus OM-D E-M5, and although I made only a few images so far, I can already say that this is the best camera that I ever had. See for instance the two images below:

On the left side you see the JPEG that came out of the camera. On the right side, with the white border, you see what I made of the RAW file using Corel AfterShot Pro, Topaz Denoise 2 and Photoshop CS3.

Of the few images I have chosen this one, because although it is base ISO 200, the dynamic range of this scene is brutal. Click on the images, both open to full size. Look at the dark ceiling. It was almost black and I have opened it up considerably. There is definitely some noise, but it is very well controlled. At the same time I could bring a little more contrast into the highlights. There is plenty of headroom on both sides.

Of course this would not have been possible with the Panasonic LX5 and the Olympus PEN E-P2, but in fact my Nikon D300 would have been much worse as well. Really, in terms of dynamic range (and also of high ISO noise as I’ve already seen) the OM-D bests the D300, just as I had hoped for.

In case you wonder, I have tried the RAW converter of Olympus Viewer 2, the software that came with the camera. Forget it! It is so painfully slow, I can’t use that program in my regular workflow. In a discussion on I found out that although Adobe does not yet support the OM-D, Corel AfterShot Pro does. You may not know it by that name, Corel only recently acquired it. The program was formerly known as Bibble Pro 5, thus it is no newcomer at all. It’s also reasonably fast and it may currently be your best choice if you need a RAW converter for the OM-D. At 80$ or 90€ it is not even expensive, and usability is fine as well.

As soon as Adobe’s DNG converter supports the OM-D, I will switch back to that again, but for now I can at least work.

Of course I have not tried everything yet, but as far as I can tell now, the OM-D is a perfect upgrade from the D300. As a consequence, not only the E-P2 will go, the D300 and most of its DX lenses will go as well.

The Song of the Day is “Happy” from the 1972 Rolling Stones album “Exile On Main Street”. Lead vocals by Keith Richards. See a live video on YouTube.