21 March, 2011

An outing with E-PL2

My first digital camera was an Olympus. The C-2100 UZ.

Maximum resolution,1600 X 1200, i.e., 1.9 mp. Maximum shutter 1/800 with a 1.8 inch 114,000 dot LCD and coupled with a 38-380 zoom.

It was a joy to shoot with. In our constant pursuit for technological advancements, whether in more megapixels, faster focusing systems, and superior lens coating, we may have neglected the obvious. As a tool, the camera must be fun to use and facilitate the photo-taking experience. The photographer should be motivated to capture the moments without hassle.

In that aspect, the E-PL2 is a triumph. Within a compact 362g but well built chasis, houses a reliable metering system coupled with six art filters. What more could you ask for in a sub-thousand DSLR body?

All RAW images, processed in Olympus Viewer 2 with Pin Hole Art Filter applied (unless otherwise stated)

I traveled to Kunming, China from 19th to 28th February. Instead of lugging my usual backup DSLR-body, I decided to bring the E-PL2 (Thank you Olympus Singapore for the kind loan). Furthermore, I have traded the kit lens for a 17mm pancake lens and save the zooms for my main body. In the end, it was the compact package of the E-PL2 which won me over after I fell ill during the trip. When you have to nurse a bad throat, a persistent cough and a running nose, the last thing you want to handle is a full-fledge DSLR system. The compactness and ease of use of the E-PL2 meant that I could still manage shots despite being drowsy from the medication and fatigued from the traveling. If the best camera is the camera you have with you, the E-PL2 served as an excellent travel mate for all seasons.
First Impressions

Despite its size (4.5 inch X 1.6 inch X 2.8 inch), the E-PL2 is a solidly balanced body to hold. Well-designed in its buttons layout, its only Achilles heel is perhaps, the relatively small and less robust rear-control.

Wish List
I always wanted a digital lomo to eliminate the burden of film processing and scanning. Furthermore I want it to be RAW capable with an arsenal of easily applicable effects to minimize on post-processing effects. In other words, I want a discreet street photography camera capable of high quality images yet motivates me to bring it wherever I go. In short, it must be fun to use.

The E-PL2’s new 3” LCD with a resolution of 460,000 pixels proved a marked improvement for all framing and reviewing over E-PL1’s 230,000 pixels. Call me old school but I have always frowned on LCD framing, preferring the use of optical viewfinder. My other grievance is that nearly all LCDs are rendered of little use under harsh lighting conditions. Imagine my surprise after photographing hundreds of images, there were no inaccurate exposures. The E-PL2 metering system delivers beyond expectation even during the tricky lighting conditions of sunset and sunrise. Together with precise LCD feedback, I became very confident with the results. 

Pop Art Filter


The E-PL2 is not perfect. However, these are not major faults but two minor flaws that Olympus should take heed of.

  • While the addition of a rear control dial (absent in the E-PL1) is handy for photographers who frequently change their camera settings, it could be difficult to work with. Besides being small, the dial serves a 4-way controller as well. In other words, the dial is prone to accidental adjustments. Though I seldom encounter the problem in our tropical climate, the issue did arise when shooting in the cold and windy climate of Kunming. If you plan to wear gloves to fight off the chill, this is definitely not the rear control dial you would want to work with.
  • Perhaps the weirdest design flaw is the lack of an orientation sensor. In plain English, you have to rotate all portrait images manually. Even though I shoot almost 95% of my photos in the landscape format, the remaining 5% of manual orientation can be tedious. Portrait photographers and those who shoot thousands of images take note.


05 February, 2011

Observations: Let There Be Light Seminar by Joe McNally

Joe’s seminar is as much a demonstration of lighting possibilities as well as a sharing of philosophy. Due to field constraints, Joe’s lighting solutions have to be deployable quickly and effectively. He travels with an equipment load of 240 kg, consisting of a wide array of lighting tools as well as backups of backup kits. He shoots RAW + jpeg, the former format for archival and the latter for quick workflow. He has two assistants but he is still vulnerable to human error.

He is, however, not afraid of making mistakes. ‘So what?’ he challenged. He is confident that many editors at National Geographic have seen his every mistake when he shot with slide film. Instead he encourages us to appreciate that mistakes are paths to your future. ‘If you don’t make mistakes, you are playing it too safe,’ he added.

On Limitations
Joe has a fierce reputation of winning assignments that others avoid. He likes to solve problems and handles challenges as part and parcel of his learning process. He urges us, as photographers, to realize how short and precious our time is when we are behind the camera. Hence it is for us to optimize every minute of it. The objective is to convey the impact to those who are not present with good images.
Joe advises us to ‘take the job and pull it out of the fire.’

On Joe’s White Balance (WB) Rule of Thumb
Get the skin tone right and be prepared to let the background go to hell.
Crude as it sounds, WB@location is never precise science. There will always be a need to compensate for the flash due to the ‘ambient bleed’. Since no camera system, presently, can solve all the issues, we have to actively work things out ourselves.

On Being Hands On
Joe highlighted perhaps the one main flaw of his, and any other, seminar.
Practice. Photography is a very hands-on activity. The photographer doesn’t learn merely by watching or reading. Seminars and books inspire and share knowledge but they are not replacements for actual photographing. The photographer must experiment and learn from practice. The best way to start, according to Joe, is two speedlights and any lighting tools that can be packed into a camera bag.

On Visualization
Joe is prepared to improvise, constantly varying and trying new ways to approach the same problem. One way is to think of the cool things people can do and then use light to showcase them. Joe likens each photograph as throwing darts at the wall, with each getting closer to the bull’s eye. Watching Joe work, however, is a great visual and audio learning experience as he voices out his every thought process. There are no secrets or mysteries, only a free flow of information.

On Lighting Tools
Joe spent most of his time demonstrating the various lighting tools available. With umbrellas, he showed how lighting changes by first casting light through them (diffusion) and by reflecting light off them. A Rayflash ring flash attachment was used to give portraits a ‘pop’ effect. He adjusted the zooming effect of his flashes to illustrate the fine control of light dispersion. With softboxes, he pointed out how light does not spill but collect around the subject. Even the blinds, pallets, and wire grilles of Shriro House were utilized to give portraits a unique lighting effect. By the end of the demonstration, Joe has opened our minds to the many possibilities that patiently await our discovery.

On The Zone
There are three, to be specific. Joe’s system is to perceive set lighting distinctly as

• the foreground,
• the middle (subject), and
• the background.

By this division, the photographer can breakdown and tackle the set as distinct components. Each zone can be lighted up accordingly to the desired effect. Joe does offer some pointers. White backgrounds should be lit at least 1 ½ to 2 stops higher than the subject while fill lights should be 1 to 2 stops lower.
Joe believes portraiture and landscape photographers share much in common. The human face is similar to the terrain since the quality of light conjures a different look.

Let There Be Light seminar is a great learning experience. Both Joe McNally and Louis Pang were willing mentors, encouraging questions from the participants. In the end, the participant will take away, not just, valuable learning points but a refreshed approach to enhance his craft. A participant remarked to me that Canon users will be disadvantaged as both Joe and Louis and use Nikon and speak in Nikon’s “Creative Lighting System”. I disagree. Systems are but tools, designed as enablers. Lighting is lighting. It is indiscriminate or as Louis say, misunderstood. Users of Canon and other systems are well capable to create great images. The history of photography which Joe reminded us constantly to pour through, bears the burden of proof. All that remains is great imagination and a relentless commitment to excellence.

02 February, 2011

Observations: Guerilla Lighting - Fast & Furious with Louis Pang

Let’s face it. It’s tough being the opening act for Joe McNally’s Let There Be Light Seminar. Louis doesn’t hide from the fact, instead he embraces it. The show must go on and as we soon learn, it’s never the size of the act but that of the heart which matters. Louis was most kind to extend a seminar invite to Clubsnap and I was the fortunate observer. Having won eight Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) awards, Louis is a celebrated speaker who willingly shared his experience. For more information on Louis, please visit his info-packed website.

Louis confessed that he avoided flash usage in the past. He was unsure of its proper usage and chose to do without. He soon realized that ignorance is not a valid excuse. Furthermore the choice is simple: to capture great moments without great lighting or to do so with great lighting. He chose the latter and the rest was history.

On Posing
Louis believes that the distinction between posing both sexes is simple: we seek to accentuate the curves of ladies and the ruggedness of men. He pours through magazines, researching and using his iPhone to reference images. These images serve as a best-of gallery and a ready database whenever needed. Louis advocates practicing these poses in front of the mirror so that they become second nature. But images are at best, static. To replicate them, the subjects, who are often than not, non-professionals, have to relax. In Louis’ own words, ‘If they feel good, they look good.’

On Grooms
Louis shares that most men do not like their photos taken. Man, in general, want to maintain a sense of control and hence, are reluctant to yield to a photographer. The easiest way to relax the client is to pose him with his hands in his pockets and/or lean against something, be it a chair or the wall. Sitting the client down and asking him to lean forward is another good relaxation technique. If the client is particularly resistant, be prepared to lead by example and demonstrate each pose personally.

On Brides
Brides are trickier. No bride, however lean, will deny that they have big arms or heavy shoulders. The photographer should avoid having her shoulder pointed towards the camera. If required, utilize a shawl to cover up or crop half the arm away. To conjure a slimming effect, photographers could pose heavier bottom brides with one leg over the other.

Regardless of bride or groom or family members, the photographer must work fast to avoid boredom from setting in. Now that the posing formalities are dispensed with, Louis launched into his pet subject, guerilla lighting.

On Guerilla Lighting
What is Guerilla Lighting? For Louis, three words.

• Fast
• Effective &
• Mobile

On Lighting Arsenal
Louis’ mobile lighting arsenal includes

• SB800s & 900s
• Battery packs
• Justin clamps
• TriFlash
• Ezybox Hotshoe kits
• Trigrip Reflex
• Honl Snoot
• Gels
• Monopod and
• Gaffer Tapes

On Environment
Once operational Louis takes a photo of the room, without flash, to assess:

• What is the available light?
• Whether to remove or blend in the ambient (available) lighting?
• Is it good (desirable) enough?

Louis clarifies that there is no such thing as good and bad light just misunderstood light. He prefers to think in matrix metering to simplify all decision making. The photographer needs to understand the elements available and their possible lighting effects. Thus curtains can be deployed as a large light diffuser and the simple act of drawing curtains can focus the light to the desired area.

On Physics
There are some natural laws that the photographer should observe.

• Light has to be logical. Photographs should have one consistent shadow look since there is but one sun. Multiple especially intersecting shadows can be distracting and unnatural.
• Light loses its power in proportion to the distance traveled.

On Human Connection
Louis shares a simple fact, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ He firmly believes that the development of strong human relationships lies at the very core of his success. He advocates taking care of people so that they can relax, allowing the photographer to focus on the vital. The capturing of emotions.

On Being the Best
Two hours passed quickly, Louis concluded his segment with a powerful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be a bush if you can't be a tree.
If you can't be a highway, just be a trail.
If you can't be a sun, be a star.
For it isn't by size that you win or fail.
Be the best of whatever you are.

What secrets will be revealed when Joe takes the stage? Stay tuned for the next installment.