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Landscape Photography with a Micro 4/3 Camera

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View from the summit of High Street
Landscape photography with a Micro 4/3 camera. Not just possible but a good alternative.

One of the things I love to do is question conventional wisdom and push boundaries. One assumption that I believe needs to be challenged at the moment is that a Micro 4/3 camera for Landscape Photography is not a good choice.

I think this assumption has an historical background. Look at the great Landscapers of the past and you will find they shot in the main with Large Format cameras which gave them two advantages:

  1. The size of the negative/transparency is large so they can be used to create large prints with good quality.
  2. The camera movements allowed the image to be rendered with a full depth of field so that the nearest and furthest points were pin-sharp.

As photography has progressed, the large format camera remains the medium of choice for “serious Landscape Photographers” although many have moved to use slightly smaller/lighter cameras which allow the attachment of a digital back.

Whilst the original advantages of using Large Format still exist, I would question if they offer quite the advantage over a Micro 4/3 camera that people immediately assume. More importantly I think the downsides to using a large format camera probably outweigh any advantage (certainly for myself). Now to be clear, I am not saying all large format photographers should switch to micro 4/3, just that if you want to shoot Landscapes doesn’t rule out the Micro 4/3 cameras.

To deal with the issue of the negative/transparency size versus the size of the tiny micro 4/3 sensor first let me say one thing, the end result is everything. If I can print my image at the size I want and achieve the quality I want, why do I need lots of potential in reserve. For me this means being able to print an image where the longest side is 30” (although most of the time I print on A3+ paper). If I can produce my image at these sizes and see loads of detail in the print (not on screen) when I view the print then the camera is achieving the results I want. This is the case with images I shoot from the 16Mpixel Panasonic GX1. When I look very closely at my prints with a magnifying loupe and compare them to the screen, I can see the printer is the limitation not what the camera can capture.

Think about this. Do you really need to reproduce your images larger than 30”?

Next to the subject of using Camera movement to achieve huge depth of field. The Micro 4/3 camera doesn’t have this and currently doesn’t have any tilt and shift lenses that could achieve the same effect. The sensor in the Micro 4/3 is however small and this allows a much larger depth of field to be achieved without needing to stop the lens down to an excessively small aperture. Most of the images I shoot with my 14-45mm lens use f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/7.1. With the lens set to 14mm I usually achieve sufficient depth of field to render everything sharp. Sometimes if I am shooting a close subject I might go as high as f11 but I like to use the larger apertures. This allows me to avoid the effects of diffraction (caused by having a small aperture) softening the image. A large aperture also translates into faster shutter speeds so getting a sharp image with no camera shake is easy and makes a tripod unnecessary in many situations.

So, if I can achieve large, detailed prints where the entire image is sharp from front to back do I really need to move to a larger camera?

Now consider the other benefits of Micro 4/3. It costs less to buy a complete kit; I can’t believe how affordable some of the great lenses are. You can carry it around easily so are able to visit quite remote locations. It’s less tiring so you are fresher when trying to create your work. You can work much quicker and therefore respond easily when the lighting is changing rapidly. You are more manoeuvrable so explore many more compositions and angles. It’s much easier to learn how to use. It’s much easier to achieve good results with a Micro 4/3 camera for the average user.

I think the message is clear, Micro 4/3 cameras can be a serious tool for the Landscape Photographer.

Why I Changed my Camera

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Haweswater in the English Lake District. Shot on a GX1 with 14-45mm kit lens from a GF1.

In the past I have received quite a bit of correspondence from people wondering why I changed my camera from the Sony NEX-5 to a GX1. There is also a fairly regular flow of people wondering what I think of the GX1 or the Panasonic system in general and is it worth investing in. Since I started publishing the Light Weight Photography blog in addition to my Lenscraft website the volume of enquiries has accelerated. It seems many people are considering going light weight but just have some doubts. I thought therefore I would take a little time to outline how my journey has brought me to the Panasonic GX1 in the hope that it will help anyone facing this decision. If this raises any questions, add them to this blog posting below and I will do my best to answer.

Firstly I would like to say that I won’t recommend anyone reading this make a decision based on what I like and what suites me. Selecting a camera is a very personal choice and one that each photographer has to make for themselves. I will however outline why I have made the choices I have.

My first serious “light weight” camera was a Sony R1. This had a 10Mpixel sensor and a fixed Zeiss lens which was the equivalent of 24mm-120mm. The camera produced good images that I was very pleased with but the resolution really became too small for what I wanted to do with my work (mainly stock and fine art). The sensor was starting to show its age with poor low light performance (due to noise) and the entire camera was still the size of a small DSLR. (By the way I still miss this camera.)

It was these limitations together with the launch of the NEX-5 that convinced me to sell the R1 and buy the NEX-5. My hope was that the NEX-5 would perform similarly to the R1 with a higher pixel resolution (14Mpixels), better low light performance, all in a smaller package with a more complete coverage of focal lengths. To go with the NEX-5 body I purchased the pancake wide angle prime 16mm lens, the kit lens which I think was an 18-55mm and the very large 18-200mm super zoom. At the time this was the entire range of lenses although there were regular rumours of new lenses.

The Matterhorn, Switzerland
The Matterhorn, Switzerland. Shot with a Sony NEX-5 and 18-55mm kit lens.

Initially I was happy with the camera and impressed with some aspects such as the excellent sensor and small size. I soon became aware however of new limitations and that my decision to purchase the Sony had been heavily influenced by the performance of the R1. I had reasoned that Sony had produced such a great camera in the R1 that the NEX-5 had to be better – but for me it wasn’t.

The body and kit lens together were still too bulky and the 18-200 lens was simply huge. The prime 16mm and kit lens whilst tiny suffered from diffraction and left my pictures a little soft (not a lot but enough to frustrate me). Corner focus on all lenses ranged from acceptable to dreadful and I was having my images regularly rejected by Stock libraries as a result. Worst of all for a landscape photographer was that the widest lens equated to 24mm on a full frame camera and I needed at least a 20mm.

For a while I considered a lens adapter with the NEX-5 but I still couldn’t get the lens quality and focus length I wanted in a compact, lightweight package. It was this that caused me to switch to a Panasonic GF1 which was starting to show its age at that time. This was a 12Mpixel camera and I purchased a 14-45mm lens, a wide angle 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) and 45-200 lens. This was a great outfit with quality lenses in the focus lengths I wanted, all in a small package. The image quality was good and I never had an image rejected from this camera.

Dovestone
Dovestone on the edge of the Peak District (near to my home). Shot on a GF1 with 14-45mm kit lens.

I have to admit that I loved this camera due to its design, build and size (my daughter now has it). The limitation was that the sensor wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked. I could see a little too much noise and at 12Mpixel it was still a little too small. It was these limitations that encouraged me to purchase the GX1 body with its 16Mpixel sensor. The lenses I have kept because I think they are excellent in terms of image quality, build, size and weight. The 9-18mm in particular is amazing.

I think the GX1 produces great pictures but it’s probably not the end of my journey. Ideally I want a 20Mpixel sensor with better low light capabilities. I also find the GX1 sensor still has a little too much noise for my taste (you may think otherwise) so I often apply light noise reduction even at ISO100. I should mention to put this in perspective that I can often see noise patterns in my 5D MKII even at ISO100. The size and lenses are however spot on and I can only see myself adding to these. In fact I have also added the Panasonic 20mm prime and Olympus 45mm prime which are both first rate.

I think my view has now shifted to make lenses my most important factor when choosing a camera system (providing its small and light) and I accept that I will upgrade my camera body from time to time. I hope from this explanation that you can see my journey and reasoning and that it will help you. As I mentioned above, if anyone has any questions post them here and I will do my best to answer.

Is this the biggest compact camera advantage

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View from the Summit of Kidsty Pike

Some years back I made a startling discovery. I was finding that when presented with the same location, photographers with compact cameras often produced better photographs than those with expensive SLR’s. At first I dismissed this as a fluke but then I started to notice this scenario again and again at all sorts of locations.

Now when I say better, it would be easy to dismiss this as being personal preference. Yes there might have been some of this at work but others also seemed to agree. It’s also worth me pointing out that when I say better photographs I am not referring to qualitative such as sharpness of image or colour rendition or noise free images. What I am really talking about is composition which after all is the cornerstone of photography. People with compact cameras were regularly finding better compositions than photographers with more expensive equipment and quite often years of experience.

There are a couple of factors that I think might have been at work here:

  1. Experienced photographers who often have “superior” equipment can restrict their creativity by thinking the image that would be produced will be of an inferior quality so they don’t try the shot. The less experienced photographer just takes the shot because they like the image and quality is a secondary (if that) consideration. They just want to take a nice photograph.
  2. The way you use a small compact camera is very different to the way you use a DSLR. With the compact camera you hold it away from you and view the image on the LCD. This gives you great freedom of movement and you tend to move in towards the subject so that it fills the frame. You also tend to twist and turn the camera easily until you find the most appealing composition. With the DSLR you hold this to your eye which is often held at eye level and further away from the subject. Holding the camera to your eye also steadies it but tends to restrict the movement because it requires you move your head and entire body. I believe this limits the compositions you will try and chances are, prevent you from finding the best one.

Back in the “olden days” of film we often used cards with windows cut into them to explore composition but I haven’t seen anyone do this for a long time. If you are a hardened DSLR user you might want to consider using a compact camera as a compositional aid.

As for the image here, it was shot on my GX1 with an Olympus 9-18 lens and shows the view from the summit of Kidsty Pike in the Lake District. Had I been using a DSLR I doubt I would have moved in quite so close to the foreground rocks and I doubt the image would have had quite so dynamic a composition.

I should also have said to click on the image and zoom in. I have posted a slightly larger file than usual. When you view it a full size it gives a greater feeling of depth.

Color Passport Update

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In past blogs I have discussed how useful I find the Color Passport from Xrite. Initially I used this to set my white balance in the GX1 so that the AWB setting I tend to use almost 100% of the time is more accurate. Previously this was setting the colour temperature to 4,700K and the tint adjustment in Lightroom to 0. Having created a custom white balance the colour temperature has increased to 5,400K and the tint to +8. These are significant corrections and ones that I probably wouldn’t have landed on myself.

The other thing I have used the Color Passport for is to create a custom calibration profile for the GX1. Again this is having a dramatic effect as the contrast increases, pinks have become more vibrant, orange less saturated and blues and greens look more natural. I now use this profile as the starting point for all my conversions for the GX1.

The other night I was adjusting images before sending them to my stock library. My workflow for this uses a separate package for keywording and Lightroom for the RAW file conversion. What I happened to notice when doing this was that the thumbnails in the keywording application appeared more natural than the image in Lightroom, despite having used my custom camera calibration. After a little adjustment to the calibration slider I found setting the Green Hue to -33 and the Green saturation to -11 gave me much more natural Landscape greens.

Now I don’t know if this setting will work for all images so I decided to apply it to other shots in the batch. I created a custom Lightroom Preset and applied it to a few others. Yes they improved but there was also an interesting side effect with some. Applying the preset seemed to change the histogram substantially. Histograms that lacked contrast and that were gathered in the mid tones now extended across a greater tonal range and in some instances filled the histogram. Looking more closely at these images I found the details appeared crisper (which might be expected from improved contrast) but the luminance noise appeared reduced even though I hadn’t applied any noise reduction. Whilst you might struggle to see what I am talking about at this reduced resolution, here is a comparison from the above image (click the image to enlarge).

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I will keep a close eye on this in the future, but it seems to have given a promising improvement to quality, which is all important with stock images.

Select the Right Aperture – Part 2

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Copyright: Robin Whalley, 2011

Continued from previous blog…

So, looking at the use of aperture to control depth of field is actually a very effective tool for doing this and depth of field is a key creative decision you need to make when capturing your images. Let’s say you want to create a portrait but the background is distracting. The solution is to open the aperture wide to throw the background out of focus and isolate the subject. If you are shooting landscapes and want to achieve the maximum depth of field so that everything from the foreground to the distant background is sharp, you would select a small aperture. Sure there are other factors at work here which can emphasise the impact of the aperture but they do just that, emphasise the effect. The priority should still be to select the right aperture for the image.

Now let’s consider some of the problems that come with the aperture control and lenses. The first occurs when we stop the lens down to its smallest aperture. This often results in diffraction and potentially distortion. I once had a wide angle Pentax lens that when stopped down to its smallest aperture would bend and distort images in the corner. Diffraction is a little different and will result in soft and slightly out of focus images. Again I remember when I was first starting in photography and I had a cheap wide angle Tokina lens that suffered badly from diffraction. Not understanding this I would stop down the lens to f/22 and the results were always poor.

At the opposite end we can open up our aperture as wide as possible. Most lenses however don’t go very wide with a maximum aperture in the range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 (particularly true of zooms). At their widest aperture most lenses are also soft, especially in the corners. Many also suffer from uneven lighting and tend to vignette due to light fall off in the corners – not always something you want. Higher quality lenses from top manufacturers such as Zeiss and Leica tend to be the exceptions and will still perform well when wide open or stopped down. Unfortunately they are also expensive.

This then leaves most of us with an area of optimum lens performance which is usually 1-2 stops above wide open for usually 1-2 stops. With a typically zoom lens on an SLR this is probably in the range of f/8.0 to f/12.0. Does that sound familiar?

To be continued.