Sunday, March 11, 2012

On the Vampiric Edge with the VF-2 Viewfinder


There are plenty of sites where technophiles post their experiences with the latest gadgets, advance copies of pre-production cameras and other adventures on the so-called "bleeding edge". And there are also those who harbour an almost fetishistic fascination with cameras from yesteryear, marvelling at how difficult it is to take photos with them, how much specific knowledge and practice is required to get them to perform to standard (and how superior they are once all that is accomplished).

I am sympathetic to both extremes, but find myself somewhere in the middle. I'm content to seek out the best deals in gear two or three years old, without sacrificing the convenience and functionality of recent technology. This is motivated not only by a desire for value for money, but also out of a distinct dislike for consumer culture that mandates the release of three (or six!) slightly different models a year. By buying slightly older units discarded by bleeding edge dudes, I do my small bit to help prevent electronic landfill. And save lots of money.

What's the opposite of "bleeding edge"? Perhaps the "vampiric edge", sucking the remaining life-blood out of something that would otherwise be discarded.

Olympus E-P2 with VF-2 viewfinder

All of this is to frame the fact that I have a "new" camera, the Olympus PEN E-P2, which is essentially the same as the first-generation E-P1. The notable difference is the accessory port that allows for an optional electronic viewfinder. Without this, mirrorless systems like Micro Four Thirds (MFT) operate like point and shoot cameras. You hold the unit out on extended arms, using the LCD panel on the back to compose your shot.

This is in contrast with an SLR, which provides an optical viewfinder. With these cameras you hold the viewfinder up to the eye and experience a framed world-view that shows you exactly what you are going to shoot. Besides aiding composition, the extra stability means sharper and more appealing images. This stability comes from two sources: having a third point of contact with the camera and being able to keep your arms closer to your chest.

Since I already owned the E-P1 (a great bargain), the only reason to obtain an E-P2 was to purchase the VF-2 as a companion piece. Thanks to a photo buddy in France, I can now experiment with a photographic experience that is a lot closer to that of shooting an SLR. It's not the same experience, since the viewfinder in this case is electronic (EVF is the usual acronym), not optical. This means that you essentially have a small LCD panel right up close to your eye.

Olympus E-P2 with VF-2 viewfinder

The VF-2 provides 100% image coverage and a magnification of 1.15x. It has 1.44 megapixels (800x600) which gets a bit grainy when zoomed in, but is still very usable. A notable feature is the adjustable tilt angle, which allows viewing from the back (as in an SLR) or top-down, like a glass plate camera. This configuration is perfect for street shooting or any time you want to be discreet. Finally, I should mention that it is available in silver or black to match your camera.

The picture above shows the VF-2 partially tilted upwards. I found this to be a useful position, though I'll need practice to keep image framing horizontal. The EVF inserts into the flash hot-shoe, with a second connection directly underneath. The obvious disadvantage is that you can't use a flash at the same time. Since I rarely shoot flash, this is not a big issue for me. (But I do wonder why the flash shoe is not provided on the top-left side of the body. Having the flash off to the side is actually an advantage. This design would solve two problems in one.)

Schweppes looking rather indignant

This article is illustrated with images I shot yesterday, with minimal processing (curves and a bit of mandatory sharpness) so as not to obscure the basic quality you are likely to get out of this system. I used my Olympus G. Zuiko Auto-S 40/1.4 lens, as you can see from the pictures of the kit. I find this a particularly handsome combination!

It also produces great results, especially at f/2, which produces ample sharpness in a narrow depth of field. Manual focus is a dream on the Zuiko, something you cannot say about any of the contemporary MFT lenses (except maybe the 12mm, but I can't afford that). ISO was 200 or 400 and the shutter speed is noted in the mouse-over text. As always, click through to Flickr for larger images.

The shots of my E-P2 were taken with the Pentax K20D.

My evaluation continues in Part Two, coming up soon!


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