Technology

Tech Lust

I may have ended my 365 project early, but I still take plenty of photos with my Samsung Galaxy S2, and the results are all still making their way to Instagram and my InstaGary site. And It’s still all good fun, playing with new apps and filters. The latest app I’ve discovered is Painteresque, available on Android, and by far the best filter I’ve found yet for turning photos into paintings. The results are shown in the picture below.

But my main photographic interest, if not the main source of my snaps quantity wise, is still my Olympus Pen. I haven’t used it as much of late But I have plans for my Pen. I have my beady eye set on a new lens. It’s an f1.7 unit, priced right and would enable me to get so much more out of the camera. It isn’t just the lack of a bright piece of glass at the end of the sensor holding me back though.

My laptop. I bought it in 2008, and it shows. The CD drive stopped working years ago, as they always seem to do with laptops. The camera and speakers have also since died. USB ports are ceasing to function. And despite reformats to clear the clutter, it’s just so, so, so slow. Painfully slow. Made worse by the fact that I’m running, or trying to run, the latest processor and RAM intensive photo and video editors. As far as other programs are concerned, I run resource-light apps and software to try and keep things moving. For antivirus software I use Norton – it keeps the bad guys out of my system. Just as importantly it lets the good guys in my system function properly. It is quite possibly the only  program that I do use that is both up-to-date and easy on resources.

It is, most definitely, time for a new laptop. I have my beady eye cast on a few units. HP, Sony, Samsung and Lenovo are all candidates. It’s just going to depend on who is offering the biggest bang for my buck when the time comes for me to buy. No brand is off the list though, other than Apple, so suggestions/recommendations are welcome.  My requirements are quite simple. A minimum of an Intel Core i5 processor, 6 megs of RAM and a 17″ screen.

I’m just a little peeved that I’ll be buying a few weeks before Windows 8 is released. Although that might not be a bad thing. I’m sure I’ve read that last minute Windows 7 buyers will get a free update, and maybe I can hold off going through with that update until everyone else has suffered from the early release bugs!

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Photography

Olympus Pen 18 Month Review

There’s only one bad thing about buying a new camera. And it doesn’t really matter how good the camera is, or how much you spend on it. There’s a better one coming along about five minutes after you’ve fired off the first few shots. Such is life. I can’t afford a new camera every five minutes. I’ve had to live with my current model, the Olympus PEN E-PL1, for very nearly eighteen months now. It’s not, truth be told, hard to live with.

The Good

From the moment I took the camera out of the box, I loved the PEN. It looks fabulous. It feels weighty and solid. It feels like a quality camera, which is good. Feeling like you can take an award winning shot gives you the confidence to do so. The camera fits nicely into the hand as well, allowing a firm grip, and a steady shot. The buttons are well placed too, although given that this is the budget member of the PEN family, there aren’t a plethora of buttons – it’d have been poor if they weren’t well placed.

I bought the PEN for it’s large sensor, and the improved quality in low light shooting that that enables. I haven’t been disappointed. The manual functions are all there to make the most of  the sensor. It’s always produced good quality shots with nice colours. So good is the Jpeg engine, I don’t bother shooting RAW.  I like the Art filters too, although they are, like filters usually are, a bit gimmicky. But they work well in stills. It’s a more mixed result in video.

The PEN has been a joy to use. It’s diminutive size, in comparison to DSLR’s, is a serious plus point. It’s so much more convenient to take out that a full sized DSLR. It’ll not fit into a pocket, but it’s not going to make your shoulders ache after a day of carrying it around. It does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well. And unlike its more expensive PEN stable mates, it has a built in flash. The lack of which would have been a deal breaker fore me, to be quite honest.

The Bad

It’s not perfect though. Being the budget model, as I mentioned earlier, it has a few low spec compononets and missing features. The most obvious one is the LCD on the back. It’s a 3″ screen, but low resolution, and you can never be sure whether you’ve got a winning shot or not. The camera doesn’t always deal with contrast so well either, and I’ve gotten home plenty of times with dud shots wasting space on my memory card.

And while the Jpeg engine is great, the iAuto setting leaves something to be desired. In many difficult situations it’s next to useless, and you have to go manual. Which isn’t always convenient. And is not something my old Panasonic TZ5 ever struggled with – Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto perhaps the best out there. Having said that, the results using manual settings can (when they come off) put anything my TZ5 could do to shame.

There is also the kit lens. It’s capable enough in most circumstances. But with a maximum aperture of f3.5, it’s not the brightest piece of glass in existence. As far as low light shooting goes, some of what I gained over the Fuji HS10 it replaced, from having the larger sensor, has been lost with the kit lens. To be fair, most kit lenses from most manufacturers are of similar spec.

The Alternatives

The last year has seen a real explosion of quality compact cameras that could see themselves as potential rivals. A few have caught my eye. Fuji’s new X-S1 superzoom is a wonder. Canon have also just released the latest in their G range, the G1 X. It doesn’t have the zoom of the Fuji, but has a sensor even larger than my PEN’s. It comes with much faster glass though – f2.8, Both have just one obvious flaw. The price. They are both in the $600 plus bracket. A little cheaper, and able to fit into a pocket, is the new Panasonic TZ30 travelzoom, the descendant of my old TZ5.

It’s hard to believe that you can fit a 20x zoom into a pocketable camera. And with the new CMOS sensors, the capability of the camera is light years ahead of my old model. Sure, it won’t produce shots of the same sort of image quality as the other camera I’ve mentioned, especially in low light, nor can you get quite as creative. But for most everyday shooting viewed on a monitor, it’ll match them 95% of the time. For half the price. And fits in your pocket.

The Verdict

I mentioned the flaws of the Olympus PEN. But really, they are completely overshadowed by the positives. My main complaint can be solved by simply buying a new lens. I’d hoped to have done so by now, but it hasn’t come to pass. In other words, I haven’t had the cash. And you do need cash, because the MFT lenses (especially the Olympus ones, although the Panny lenses will fit too) cost a very pretty penny.

But there is light on the horizon, because a few third party lens manufacturers are about to release some cheaper, but hopefully just as capable, lenses. I’m particularly keeping an eye out for a couple of Sigma lenses due out soon and shipping, apparently, for less than $250.

Did I make the right choice? I’m still happy with my camera. I’d prefer the Fuji or Canon that I’ve mentioned, but they are not really within my budget. Nor were they available in 2010! But if you are buying one today, then it’s worth noting that you can pick up an E-PL1 with the kit lens for just $290! That’s a hell of a lot of camera for the money. If my budget were under $300, I’d be hard pushed to think of anything else I’d buy. Shucks, if my budget was $400, I’m not convinced that there’s anything out there substantially better – I’d probably still buy the PEN and put the $100 into a piggy bank to go towards a new lens one day.

The last word on this mini review though should be left to the photos. Whenever a camera interests me, I’ll go read the reviews. They’ll have an impact on my buying decision. But I’ll also search Flickr for real world examples of what people are getting out of the camera. Those results influence me far more than the mere written word. So please do click here to see a little gallery of my best/more interesting results. The image below is just a little teaser.

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Photography

The Influencer

If I might be allowed to blow my own trumpet for a minute, I’ve been a real ‘influencer’ of late. Convincing bloggers of the world to adopt Disqus, the commenting system, for one. Persuading photographers to plump for the Olympus E-PL1 as a second example. Pft. Who am I kidding. I just like gadgets and tend to evangelize.

What really gets people to go for these products is that they are, very simply, great products. It’s nice to know stuff I write at least gets read though! But influencer? I’m not convinced. Let’s experiment. Attractive ladies of Delegacion Coyoacan aged between 18 to 30….the fashion for 2011 is shorter skirts and more cleavage! Let’s see how that works out….

I did, however,  get an email some months ago from a chap in Bangalore, asking me for my recommendation as to what camera he should buy. How cool is that? Bangalore to Mexico City. In a flash. Viva la internet! Or le internet? Have the Frenchists made up their mind yet? But anyway, I sent back a few suggestions. Top of the pile was the Olympus E-PL1. Of course that would be my number one recommendation – I did buy one myself. He replied, thank me for my help, and telling me the E-PL1 it would be.

Yesterday I received another email. He’s actually bought one, on Christmas Eve. A new, proud owner of one of the finest cameras you can buy for around $500. He sent a couple of photos along with it for my comment. They were both great, but the one I posted below was awesome – great reflections. I played with it a little.

The original is the right hand image. I got rid of the leaf with the Clone tool in Photoshop and put a bit more light in the shot. Turned up the vibrance a little too much though. Looking at the two side by side below, I prefer the original. Although when viewed full screen it does need more light, and then I prefer my own manipulation.

Anyhow, he had a couple more questions – some of his shots were blurry and he was unsure how the Image Stabilisation settings work. He also wanted to know about getting news lenses. First thing I’d recommend to anyone with a new camera is to get themselves an account on Flickr and make use of the community. Firstly, I’d love to see more photos! And Flickr is an easy way to share.

Secondly, you can explore other E-PL1 photographers efforts and see what they are getting out of the camera. There are groups too, and it isn’t hard to find one or two dedicated to this camera. There are plenty of discussions going on, and helpful members who’ll give lots of opinions of what you’re doing right or wrong, and how you can get the most out of your camera. The important thing is to upload lots of photos and get chatting to other members. It’s hard for me to say why some shots have come out blurred without any more information.

It’s probably that the camera wasn’t focused properly when the shutter was clicked. I get that more often when the camera is set to Continuous Focus, so I now usually have it set to Single Focus. It’s also one of the Olympus’ few weak points – it’s not the fastest focuser. Macro shots also sometimes struggle to find focus – I’ll often switch to Manual Focus for that. I really don’t play around with the image stabilisation an awful lot, but I’m not convinced that that is the cause of any problems, especially in good light.

As for lenses. The kit lens that comes with the E-PL1 is decent. A kit lens is very rarely, if ever, anything more than ‘ok’. It does the job and I have no real complaints, but once I’m rich enough I will splash out on some new glass. Top of the list is the f1.7 pancake lens. That wouldn’t be at the top of everyone’s list, but I have a baggy pair of jeans with big pockets and with the pancake lens attached,

Lenses are not cheap though. I’d love the professional 14-35mm f2.0 SWD but at nearly $2,000….a bit out of my price range. I can dream though. An f2.8 lens is a little closer to any budget I might one day have, but it is still pricey. The lower the f number, of course, the more light you can get in, the better your low light photography will be, and the greater depth of field you can squeeze out.

I guess after the pancake lens my next purchase may well be a zoom lens, such as this one. It’s cheap, has a decent range, and produces reasonable results. I keep an eye out as well for new lenses hitting the market. But until my finances improve substantially, I’ll just continue having fun with the lens I have – it does the job nicely!

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50 Days With The Olympus E-PL1

Time flies when you’re having fun. And have I ever been having fun with the Olympus. So after 50 days of use, with hundreds of photos up and displaying on Flickr, it’s time to report back on how good the camera is, its plus points and the few minus points.

First of all, the biggest pro, the most important plus point, dare I say the be all and end all of camera usage – it is great fun. It’s a joy to use, and the results exceed expectations. Photography should be fun. It should be about capturing moments that you’ll want to remembers. And, if you’re a little more adventurous, creating moments that you’ll never forget.

A camera should be easy to use, should know what you’re thinking in auto mode, and respond well to instructions when you play with settings. It should be quick to react, and reliable when recording those moments. The Olympus, for the most part anyway, does all of this with aplomb.

It’s a nice camera to hold as well. It’s a little too big to pocket unless you fit a pancake lens and have baggy jeans with sizeable pockets. But it’s not so big that it is in any way awkward. It has a pleasant heft to it as far as weight goes, and feels very solid. All the dials, buttons and flaps open, close and click with a reassuring amount of solidity. Made to last is the thought that springs to mind.

Pinhole Pew

This camera is aimed at new users and experienced users alike, and served both well. The auto setting has a menu that allows you to tell the camera what effect you’re looking for, and it will apply the settings. Want a blurred background? Want to freeze an action shot? A little more colour? A little less light? No need to study the million different aperture, exposure and shutter speed combos.

You tell it what the desired end result is, and it will comply. The Art Modes are fun as well, producing great looking shots, providing you’ve matched the right sort of filter for the subject at hand. The photo above was taken with an Art Filter. And of course, if you want to manually adjust the settings, then no problem – the full range of manual options are there on the dial. And there is the manual focus ring on the lens too.

I’ve always wanted to create some cool bokeh images. Although the photo below is a practise shot, rather than a proper photo with an onject focussed in the foreground and bokeh in the background, it shows how capable it is, capturing the headlights of moving road traffic quite nicely.

Bokeh

I’ve been equally impressed with its ability to take decent video too, although I’ve yet to take the time to get the camera mounted on a tripod and shoot something decent. But the image detail, image stabilisation and colour reproduction have all been good. The audio captured by internal mics is positively outstanding in comparison to other cameras I’ve had. A positive revelation in fact.

But by far and away the biggest plus point of the E-PL1 from a photographers perspective is image quality. You expect it, given the price and the fact it has a nice big sensor in there. And it delivers. Low light, high ISO shooting has become a pleasure instead of a noise ridden pain. I’ve captured shots at ISOs 800 and even 1600 which are more than just usuable.

At the former setting, they are as sharp as images I got at ISO100 with some of my old compact cameras. At the latter setting, the quality beats by a big margin images shot at ISO 400 with those compacts. ISO 1600 needs perhaps just a little extra contrast to produce a fine image, visually free of noise when viewed on a PC monitor. The photo below was taken at night, without flash, at ISO 1250.

The Confession

So are there any black marks on this otherwise sterling review? One or two. Perhaps the most irritating is the cameras occasional inability to focus quickly. It is only occasional though, and happens most often when shooting in low light, or shooting macro. In fact, for real close ups, I’ve taken to using the manual focus ring.

Which brings me to minus point two. The rear LCD (the camera has no viewfinder) is a fairly low resolution unit. As a result, it isn’t always brilliant in bright lights, and it doesn’t always show as much detail as you’d like to see when manually focusing. But it does generally do the job well enough. It is also possible to buy an EVF that plugs into the hot shoe – it’s reported to be an excellent, quality addition to the camera, one that I will eventually make.

If I wanted to be picky, I could also mention the battery. The recharger has a cable to plug it into the mains. I do prefer the rechargers that plug straight into the wall. And the battery itself  can confuse you as to which way it should be inserted into the camera – although it won’t quite go all the way in if you’re doing it wrong.

But none of these flaws are deal breakers. Mild and occasional irritants is all. I couldn’t recommend this camera highly enough. It’s a gem. A keeper. And coming from me, given that this is the fourth camera I’ve had this year, that is perhaps saying something! I do wonder where this leaves some of the top end compacts such as the Canon G12 and Panasonic Lumix LX5.

Both of those cost nearly as much as the E-PL1, both have their good points, neither of them, however, comes close to matching the image quality you can get from this Olympus. If I had about 500 bucks to splash on a camera today, it’s a no brainer, and the G12 and LX5 will stay on the shop shelves. I will finish this post off though with a gallery that I’ve curated on Flickr – click here. This is what the camera is capable of.

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Redundant Camera Lust

This time next year I’ll be in Mexico London Cologne. I hope. One thing I do miss about the UK is the opportunity to go to shows, both in the UK and in Europe. Car shows, photo shows, any tech shows. At the moment Photokina is on over in Germany, and it’s a show I’d like to go see one day. Maybe next year. To check out all the latest cameras in the flesh.

There’s been plenty of interesting, dare I say exciting, cameras on show this year. Which normally sparks off a bout of camera lust, and scheming with a view to getting my hands on one. But to be honest I’m so happy with my Olympus Pen that I have no desires for a new model. Not even secretly.

Well, perhaps there’s a little camera lust still in me. If I were rich perhaps I’d be looking, but more with an eye on having myself a little mistress than on replacing the new love of my life. Five cameras stood out this year in particular. Which ones? These ones…

Top left is is an intriguing compact known only as the Olympus Zuiko. They’ve revealed very little about the camera, other than it’s got a fancy Zuiko lens on it. I suspect it’s going to be a very fast bit of glass, and pack a larger sensor in the mould of the Panny LX5 and Canon S95. But it has a port which will allow the use of Olympus Pen accessories, which is nice.

Top right is the new Canon SX30. I like the superzoom/bridge cameras, and if the specs and quality of the previous model are anything to go by, this could be the new class leader. It’s 35x zoom certainly heads the field – you do kinda wonder how far camera manufacturers can take this zoom thing! Alternatively you could buy a Leica V Lux 2, which is really a $450 Panasonic FZ100 with a Leica badge and a $1000+ price tag…

Middle is the new Pentax K-5. Poor old Pentax just don’t get the attention that Canon and Nikon get in the DSLR market, and they haven’t got an equivalent of Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds cameras to fall back on. Yet they produce top quality DSLR’s with specs and results that often outperform their more illustrious competitors, priced considerably cheaper. Not that this is a cheap camera. You’ll only get a couple of hundred bucks change from two thousand dollars. It’s not an entry level DSLR. But it is cool.

Bottom left is a new Fuji, the Fujifilm X100. A range finder with a fixed lens containing some very bright glass, painting pictures on a nice large proper DSLR sensor, with EXR tech and with all the manual controls you’d want, laid out on dials just as you’d want. Range finders are cool, but this one looks ubercool. I imagine the price tag, when revealed will be hefty. Alternatively, you could always go and pick up a Leica D Lux 5, which is a rebadged Panasonic LX5 with it’s price doubled….

Last, but not least, is the new Casio EX H20G. I know. Casio. Famous for cheap plastic watches with cruddy calculators. But along with Samsung they’ll really upped their game in the digicam world and have been seriously innovative whilst keeping their products at a respectable price level. This one is a jack of all trades that fits in a pocket and had the most advanced GPS system currently available – it can locate and tag photos even indoors or elsewhere that’s out of sight of a satellite.

Those are my five picks from Photokina 2010. Other people will have other favourites. The Canon G12 perhaps. Or the Nikon D7000 DSLR, or their G12 baiting Coolpix P7000. Perhaps the rather awesome Panasonic GH2. Or Samsung’s effort to crack the MFT type market, the NX100. The Olympus E-5 will surely have a few friends too.

Anything there to make you check how much you got in your wallet?

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Olympus Pen E-PL1 Video

I sacrificed some ‘p’ numbers when swapping my Fuji HS10 for the Olympus Pen. Gone are the days I could shoot in 1080, and I’m back down to 720p. I never could really tell the difference though. Then again, I always watch my videos through Vimeo on a laptop monitor.

I have never really quite got the hang of making a video, for various reasons. I often fail to frame the shoot right for a start. I’m using a reasonable, but not expensive piece of video editing software that I perhaps don’t know how to use properly as well. And my laptop is simply not powerful enough, resulting in some jerky moments.

Nonetheless, here is a quick video I shot using the E-PL1. A clip of an outdoor break dancing session and a clip in low light of a metro train pulling into Bellas Artes metro station. The sound quality isn’t bad at all considering the camera has a tiny, tiny mic. There is a hotshoe stereo mic adapter accessory, which I will probably buy one day.

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It’s Here!

The exchange was done without fuss. No need for trilby hats, long macs, newspapers with eye holes and discreet dropping and picking up of a brief case. Although in Mexico I feel as jittery as a spy from a John Le Carre novel must do when I have a wad of cash in my bag. The camera had to be paid for though, so risks must be taken.

But anyway, that’s a long way to say that I am now the proud owner of a brand new, slate blue Olympus E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds camera. Finally, a real camera. One with interchangeable lenses and a big sensor. I shall be playing with it mucho over the next few days. Weeks. Months. Years. My continual ‘trading up’ that is enabled by Mexico’s ridiculously high taxes has come to an end.

Here’s one of the first photos. Using the Pinhole setting in the Art dial. I’m impressed with the Art scenes already. I suspect I’ll be doing a whole ton of photos in the half dozen different settings the camera offers.

Pinhole Racing Green

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It Can’t Come Soon Enough

I’m getting a new camera, on September 11th. As revealed yesterday. I’m so excited! Why? It’s a huge step up from the small sensor point and shoot cameras I have been using to date. It has plenty of potential for growth in the future, with lenses, microphones and other bits and pieces I can buy to expand its functionality.

It’s a Micro Four Thirds camera, a format that most people are still not terribly familiar with. Basically, it takes a DSLR, removes the big mirror that makes a DSLR so chunky, but keeps all the important bits that help DSLR’s take photos of such high image quality. In essense that is the large sensor.

The video I’ve posted below is an advert for the camera, and there is another one on YouTube here. Both highlight the superb video quality of the camera, and there is another short video showing how the commercials were made. Olympus also produced a series of videos to explain what the E-PL1 can do, as well as some tutorials.

There’s also plenty of other stuff on YouTube about the Pen E-PL1, including hands on reviews by Which?, DigitalRev TV, What Digital Camera and Weird Hairy John, who I think normally goes by the name Photo John. There’s a pretty indepth review from Geekanoids and their odd voiced presenter – parts 1,2,3,4 and 5.

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