China, Part 1
Hey fellow photo travelers and camera addicts, welcome to the first of a three part set of posts on my first trip to the Fujian coast of Southern China. This first post has two distinct themes; firstly, it focuses on my experiences on the road with the Olympus OMD, which has been very interesting, and secondly I am going to have a look at shooting pattern which is the primary reason to visit this part of China. I have had the OMD for two weeks now but this was the first chance I have had to travel with it to get to know it better in some diverse shooting situations. In some ways this was the perfect trip to try it out on as it poured of rain every day except the first and I got a chance to use it with a variety of lenses from my fave 14mm f2.5 to the 45-200 mm zoom. I also took along the new Sigma 30mm f2.8 and have a few shots and some thoughts on it as a newcomer to the M43 range.
Fujian and Pattern
The Fujian coastline is famous for its shellfish, fishing and seaweed harvesting, and all along the coast there are intricate layouts of channels and bamboo poles along the beaches and estuaries. Its these channels, sandbanks and poles that create the much sought after patterns and all it takes is the right vantage point, some half decent light and you have hours of interesting shooting on your hands. This leads me to my first observation on the OMD and that is that I found battery life not to be so great in extended use and I reckon it would take two to three batteries to get me through a full day of travel shooting. Unfortunately I wasn't able to source spares in time for this trip so had to stop shooting on a few occasions when the juice ran out. I don't see the OMD as any worse than similar cameras in this class but I did use the rear screen more than I thought and had several dawn to dusk days of shooting. Just pointing this out and I will be better prepared next time. As ever on a trip like this its always wise to have a back-up, particularly if you are using a small cam system like M43 and I took along a G3 and also a little Fuji F600 P&S.
Like many coastal areas, the weather in Fujian can be unpredictable and unfortunately for most of the trip we got caught in some really wet, misty weather. This is far from a show-stopper though, it just creates a different shooting environment and you have to get on with it. I think the second shot above is a very good example of this where the misty light forced a hi-key look and I think it worked rather well.
Before we look at how the OMD and M43 lenses worked in this environment a quick word about shooting these patterns from a technique and style perspective. Photography is hugely popular in China and there is a kind of style that is expected when shooting these scenes. For example, to the Chinese mind the landscape and nature should be large and any humans small by comparison. The conventional idea is to shoot down from on high, frame your subject entering from the bottom left and work to get the pattern interesting through either using the poles, sandbanks or waves. As I have written before in a previous blog, I think these location cliche shots are incredibly important but you should try to put your own unique take on it whether that be by varying the rules a little or using the light differently. Because of the poor weather I was forced to use a high key look and its worth mentioning here that its very easy to underexpose these so keep the exposures up to the right and don't be afraid to use a stop or more of positive compensation. On the shooting technique for these I didn't use a tripod but instead used the pistol grip I showed in the last post and this gave me an incredibly stable hold on the OMD which was mounted with the Lumix 45-200mm. I found this to be a really neat, stable shooting set-up for this kind of landscape photography and can highly recommend it. All you have to do is remember to switch off the Lumix stabilization on the lens and let the OMD's marvelous in-camera stabilization do its stuff. It goes without saying that you should try to stay at sensible shutter speeds for what is a pretty healthy 400mm equivalent max zoom but I had few problems at 1/250 and lower if I was careful. I can't recommend this set up highly enough, the zoom is a cracker and I enjoyed watching my travel companions lug there pro bodies, 70-200's and tripods up to the vantage points while I had the tough little OMD and the small M43 lenses to carry :)
Here is the OMD looking rather splendid with the pistol grip and my favorite lens the 14mm F2.5 Lumix. This shot was taken with the Lumix G3 and Sigma 30mm which I took as a back-up camera and I have to say that I found its overall performance to be not in the same league as the OMD, but more on that comparison in the next post. The Sigma lens is an ok performer and pretty sharp but I didn't find it as useful overall as I thought it would be. At f2.8 it sits a bit uncomfortably between the much more able 20mm F1.7 and lovely 45mm F1.8 Olympus.
Going back to technique for a moment, its also desirable to make sure your subject doesn't overlap the darker background areas and try to show the full reflection if possible, just good compositional basics. Incidentally, I managed to download the new Adobe Lightroom4-1 beta release which has the OMD RAW convertor so I had a go at the RAW files and I have to say they looked good and stood up well to the Hi-key work although the sunset shot above didn't need so much because the light was the best we had on the trip and I set the OMD to shade white balance for that nice glow. Here's a slightly different angle so that you can get a better idea of the overall scene from the vantage point.
One thing to watch out for when shooting late in the day is to milk the scene to its last as just when the light was going I thought the shooting was over but I noticed the fisherman going to spread the nets and managed to get a nice pattern as he moved into the arrangement. This is pretty low light stuff at a long zoom and the OMD 45-200 combo handled it with ease.
Returning to the flat, diffuse light issue for a moment, I see a lot of comments about M43 that criticizes the lack of DoF. I have to say that I am totally bemused by this and have found that I have 'lost' more shots (creatively) through having too little DoF than too much. I have many shots taken with my D3 and 50 f1.4 where I have nailed the closest eye but don't like how quickly the focus falls off on the rest of the subject. Narrow DoF is without doubt a useful technique but I find that for travel use in particular there is more advantage in the M43 sensors DoF range, so far from being a drawback, and in this lower light, it is without doubt a very distinct benefit.
In any case the shallow DoF is there anyway if your technique is right as this G3 shot with the Sigma 30mm at f 2.8 shows. This isn't even that fast a lens but any more shallow DoF and the photo would have completely lost its sense.
I don't want to labour the DoF topic too much, but it is my personal view that this is simply not an issue with the OMD, a good lens and decent compositional technique will give you shallow DoF if you desire it for creative effect.
I noticed that my travel companions didn't shoot vertically very often and it was evident in many of the local images that I looked at that horizontal view was predominant. I think you have to be careful when shooting these natural patterns that you don't get stuck in the conventional horizontal landscape view as many of the more interesting patterns actually emerge in the vertical. As always, its simply good camera craft to change your angle and view frequently and I developed a reverse shooting technique for vertical shooting with the OMD and pistol grip. I found that by holding the pistol grip in my right hand I could get a very solid hold and trip the shutter button with my left index finger. It sounds a bit awkward but if your are using a pistol grip give it a try and see if it works for you.
Finally on the subject of view and framing, don't forget to try a different crop if it fits the subject, sometimes a 16x9 crop will enhance a scene for example.
Oh, and its also worth trying some variation on the editing technique, this is very de-saturated but somehow I like it.
Pattern is Everywhere
Since we are on the theme of shooting pattern, it's not only during the location shooting that you need to be aware and its worth keeping a camera with you always on these trips. This is a real benefit of the OMD, its small, discrete, fast and easy to work with in use. The only real issues I had with it were a couple of physical niggles and I will summarize those at the end. I saw the following shot while we were waiting for our driver and caught the subject passing through the shadow pattern.
I really like this kind of shot and in many ways find this more interesting than the vantage point formula takes. Incidentally, if you are using the Lightroom release I mentioned, it doesn't complete the conversion to allow the use of plug ins so I couldn't get this shot out to Silvereffex pro where I think it would have looked great. I ended up using a Lightroom plug in downloaded free and it gives a rather nice de-saturated look. I liked the scene so much that I had our driver take a portrait of me which is intended to reflect my frustration with the Chinese internet censorship that prevented me from getting to my own blog or any of the other photo blogs that give me my daily fix :)
Anyway, the OMD handled all of the contrasty scenes I threw at it with aplomb and there is no doubt in my mind that the sensor is a cut above the G3, it handles higher ISO better to my eyes and the RAW files seem to have more to them. There is no science to this from me but if you want to look at the detailed testing then I guess the DP Review one will satisfy you, personally I think it might be better to try one yourself or wait for more 'real world' takes from Steve and others who are more interested in how the camera works in use.
OMD For Travel Summary
Lets cut to the chase, this is an absolutely outstanding travel camera, it's weatherproofing and sealing makes it ideal for the beach, rain and humid mist that is often encountered in Asian travel situations. It is very versatile and when coupled with the excellent Lumix and Olympus lenses can cover off everything from environmental portraiture to the long range pattern shots shown in this post. I just love the above portrait of Mr Zhang Han Zhong, who is chairman of the Hui An photographic Society and an extremely nice guy.
The OMD is also very robust and well put together, the only minor niggles I have were picked up by Robin Wong and others in early use and relate to the misting up of the EVF in damp conditions. I don't really see that there is much Olympus could do about this and don't consider it a design flaw as such, just try to keep water off it if you can and when it goes you obviously have to default to the rear screen. I found it helped to use a ziplock bag which I had to use in the rain as I didn't have the weather-sealed kit lens. It also clears pretty quickly when it gets dry. On the subject of the viewfinder, be very careful with the rubber eyecup which comes loose easily and I nearly lost it a few times. I might pop a tiny spot of glue on the corner to hold it. I also took a S$7 small 7eleven umbrella with me and the OMD handles so well that I was able to hold the brolly against my shoulder and shoot at the same time. Take a white one and it can double as a diffuser or you can even shoot a flash into or through it.
I mentioned the battery life previously and it also takes a long time to charge the battery so I fully intend to get three as soon as they are available, just be aware of this if you are intending to travel with one.
In case you are thinking of making this kind of trip, the beaches shown are at Xiao Hao, Dong Bi, Sa Jiang and Qu Di. The trip I went on was with an old friend Vicky Yeow who runs her own photo travel company vickyphotographyworkshops and I can highly recommend her. Unless you are very familiar with the area you will never find the proper vantage points or interesting shooting sites, and its also critical to go at the right time for tides and so on. On the equipment front, a long zoom is essential and you may want to consider a tripod although I found my pistol grip set up and the superb stabilization in the OMD was just fine. I would suggest that the OMD Lumix 14 & 20 primes along with the 45-200 zoom and Olympus 45 make a state of the art travel set up that can take on anything.
Well that's about it for this first post folks, I will be covering off more people orientated shots at different locations including the fascinating 'Earth buildings' in the upcoming posts and will also look more closely at the Sigma lens and some shots from the G3.
I feel I have been a bit lightweight on discussing the OMD here but I think that is simply down to the fact that it is such a good travel camera that there is really nothing to comment on other than how well it does the job when coupled with the right lenses.
I hope the somewhat unusual shooting of the pattern scenes with it have been of some interest and as ever I look forward to any comments or questions that you may have.
Until next time, safe traveling.