Sunday, June 05, 2011

A Review of the Olympus E-P1 with FA 43 Limited

Bast and starfish
In this post I'll give you some idea of what to expect with the Pentax FA 43 Limited lens when used on the Olympus E-P1 Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera. As we saw in my last article, this requires the use of a simple adapter, easily available for twenty dollars, that takes the K-mount lens on one side and attaches to the MFT mount on the other, providing the correct registration distance.

Along the way I'll mention some specific camera settings and provide some tips you might find useful. This will not be a test-heavy critical review, but rather a walk-through from actual field usage.

The first few shots, starting with the one above, are taken wide open at f/1.9. This provides the smallest depth of field, something those who pursue bokeh always crave. Bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus part of the image. It is a mistake to think that this is necessarily nicest when the aperture is wide open, since quite often a lens benefits from stopping down a little bit. But in most cases it is a fast lens that will be desirable for smooth bokeh.

Of course what some like in bokeh others hate. It is, by its nature, a subjective property.

rose in bouquet
But I don't think anyone could be disappointed by the photos on display here. The bokeh is smooth and distinct from the in-focus area, providing good subject definition. I should note that I have processed these photographs using my usual workflow, since my aim is to demonstrate what the lens will do in "real world" usage. These are not unprocessed test shots, but neither have I applied any "special effects". I've applied slight curve adjustments and sharpening, with a little colour compensation as needed.

The photos themselves were taken hand-held in natural light. These first three were taken at minimal focus distance, which should be 44cm but seemed to be more like 46cm on this body. To give you some idea of the depth of field, there is about 15cm between the cat's in-focus head and the background. The rose is projecting out of the bouquet by a bit more than that. Of course you know how big a typical lemon is, so you can take it from there!

You might also wish to take into account that the first two photos have been significantly cropped. I find this sensor produces images with great detail that handle even extreme cropping very well.

Oh, yes, the first two shots have a shutter speed of 1/60s. The built-in image stabilisation seems to work very well; I simply take it for granted. Even though it is pretty well impossible to hold a camera still while looking at the rear LCD (a disadvantage of not having a viewfinder), I don't get shake in the finished images. I don't believe the Olympus claims of 3-4 stops advantage, but bravo to them for making a working system no matter what the actual spec.

net fruit
I shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Camera RAW. The camera's Picture Mode was set to "Natural" and I used the native settings of ISO 200 and 4:3 aspect ratio. The E-P1 will go to ISO 100, but this is being "pulled" in-camera and so will not result in ideal image quality. (From what have seen it is totally usable, but I avoided it here.) Similarly, several different aspects are available but the setting that uses the entire sensor optimally is 4:3.

I have a penchant for composing and cropping square images, and I do find the 4:3 handier for this than the Pentax 3:2. If you think about it mathematically, less of the sensor is cropped out in the case of 4:3. For my way of shooting, that is an advantage to MFT I had not considered.

Leica by way of Olympus and Pentax
I thought it would be fun to shoot a Leica lens using a combination of two other systems, a sort of photographic summit! Maybe in the future I'll try the Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit-R on this camera.

It is easy to see from this image that the camera is by no means noise-free even at ISO 200. That is unfortunate but I am not strict about this, so long as the noise has a nice quality. After all, I enjoyed film grain; I don't see why digital should be any different. I will investigate image quality at higher ISO in a future article.

The E-P1 has a host of other customisation settings; another that might have a bearing here is Gradation. It took me a while to get my head around this, since the manual is not as forthcoming as it might be. Thankfully, Olympus provide a useful explanation on their own website. Essentially, by setting Gradation to "Auto" one extends the ability to capture dynamic range, since the camera compensates for both highlight areas and shadow areas. One is less likely to blow out the highlights or lose detail in the shadows. Sounds perfect to me! I haven't seen any disadvantage to using this setting, though I suppose, logically, additional noise in the shadows would be a risk.

Now for a series of shots taken at f/4. This allows a greater depth of field while optimising sharpness with the FA 43 Limited.


I should point out that the FA 43 Limited is sometimes criticised for its relative softness in the extreme edges, something which is a by-product of its optical design. But the lens is made to cover the full 35mm film frame. Even when used on a Pentax digital system, with the APS-C sensor, the extreme edges are never seen. When used on MFT, doubly so. These images demonstrate that there is no problem whatsoever with sharpness and clarity in the corners, though I suppose a series of formal tests would prove it. Someone else can do that if they wish, my actual usage has convinced me that at f/4 one gives up nothing with this lens. Even at f/1.9 the metal fruit bowl was sharp at the extreme edge of the frame.


A few more words now about how to set up the camera for easy use of manual lenses. First, be sure to have "Live View Boost" set to "Off". This means that the relative darkness or lightness of the image on the back LCD will reflect the resulting image exposure. This is easily tested by changing exposure compensation. I found that after only a bit of practice it was easy to get a ballpark exposure with a quick glance. I have "EV Step" set to "1/3EV" for fine-tuning, and generally keep exposure compensation at -1/3EV to safeguard highlights. My experience is that the E-P1 meters very accurately, even with third-party lenses.

On the other hand I have "ISO step" set to "1EV", so I can quickly change ISO by a stop at a time. I don't find I need fine control; it just slows me down.

In order to get the best of both world, I set "Metering" to pattern (indicated by a certain complex icon) and set "AELMetering" to spot. I also ensure that "AEL/AFL Memo" is "On". With this combination, the camera meters as intelligently as possible by default, but any time I want to take a spot reading I can press the AEL button and this is locked in until I press the button a second time to release it. This provides a fantastic degree of control.

This is maybe not so important, but I set "Rec View" to "Off". This means that I do not get an automatic view of the last photo I took popping up on the LCD. I find this gets in the way of taking the next shot. But there is one advantage to keeping this set "On"; the automatic image preview displays immediately, whereas you have to wait for the shot to be written to disk to get a manual preview. This advantage is somewhat negated by the fact that, in either case, one cannot delete the image until waiting for the access light to stop flashing. An SLR has spoiled me in terms of the speed of its operation. But I will say that the E-P1 is not terribly frustrating now that I am used to it. The overall responsiveness lies somewhere between a point and shoot and an SLR. Since I am not going to be shooting sports or going birding, I am cool with that.

radiating song

For this final photo I've enhanced the noise in post-processing, since I like it this way. After an evening shooting at sunset this bird piped me home. That seems like a good place to close this article, though I'll be back with more again soon. I want to test ISO and say a bit more about camera operations.

Until then, colour me impressed. This lens/body combination is brilliant!



robin said...

I now set gradation "Off" since otherwise noise in dark regions is unusually emphasised.

Anonymous said...

Robin,How is it that you can set gradation to off?
My EP-1 options are only; auto,normal,high key,or low key.

robin said...

I believe that "normal" is indeed "off", since it uses the normal tonal gradation of the image with no adjustments.

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