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Bird photography is an increasingly popular genre that requires effective technical execution, specialized gear and incredible patience, the last of which I unfortunately lack in sufficient quantities. The excitement and fulfillment of bird shooting is not just about the photography, but also spotting and identifying the species, gender and origin of the birds. A huge part of the fun comes from the hunt itself, with photographers venturing deep into the forest or a hiking trail to spot the birds. While I admit I am not a pro bird shooter, I have been approached and asked several times about optimizing the Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera system for bird shooting. The requests are frequent enough to motivate me to pen down my recommendations and suggestions on shooting birds using the Olympus OM-D system.

Let me start by clarifying this article is not about recommending which gear is suitable for bird photography – I am merely sharing my experience using the Micro Four Thirds system. I fully acknowledge the pros and cons of using Micro Four Thirds for bird photography. A lighter and smaller camera system is a blessing on long hikes and extended shoots, but in situations requiring very high ISO (if the bird is under heavy shade and is not keeping very still, for example) the results can be unusable from even the best Olympus or Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras today. For each choice you make there is compromise so let’s not waste too much time debating this. Assume you currently own an Olympus OM-D camera and this article explores how you can optimize your setup for the best possible outcome.

All images in this article were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X and M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO or 40-150mm F2.8 PRO. In some shots, the teleconverter MC-14 was used.

USE PRO CAPTURE MODE

Birds fly, so instead of just taking still portraits of birds, capturing them in some of the most dramatic poses like the moment when they take flight can add more impact to your outcome. One extremely useful feature for bird photography is the Pro Capture Mode in which the camera starts recording images to the temporary storage when you half press the shutter button. The images are stored in full RAW at 60 frames per second thanks to the electronic shutter. For example, while waiting for the bird to take flight, it is always difficult to predict the exact moment of launch.  Once the bird takes flight and as you press the shutter button, the camera will record the current shot and the previous shots (up to 35 frames before capture) and save them to the memory card. This means that even if you are half a second late in pressing the shutter button, you will be able to capture the “action”.

ACTIVATE ANTI-SHOCK

Shutter vibration is a common issue that exists in many cameras and can be exaggerated when shooting with long lenses. MT has previously reported the severe case of shutter shock during his use of the original E-M1 (since mitigated with a firmware upgrade) (article here). In that firmware upgrade, Olympus introduced the “anti-shock 0 second” setting, which is basically first curtain electronic shutter. In theory, this should eliminate shutter shock and has been the default setting on all my OM-D cameras ever since its release. I have conducted several photography walkabouts with local enthusiasts to the National Zoo as well as KL Bird Park, and have found that when dealing with long lenses (eg 75-300mm, or 300mm PRO) the anti-shock setting does make a significant difference. If you use an Olympus OM-D, I highly suggest leaving the anti-shock 0 second feature active at all times.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF 5-AXIS IMAGE STABILIZATION

Micro Four Thirds isn’t great at handling high ISOs but the 5-Axis Image Stabilization can claw back a lot of ground by lowering the need for higher ISOs. I have observed that many bird shooters play it too safe by keeping shutter speeds as high as 1/200 seconds or more; just in case the bird moves. Yes the bird will always move, but there are also moments when the birds do stay very still and cameras these days respond instantaneously to the click of the shutter. By leveraging the powerful image stabilization on the Olympus OM-D, I managed to shoot hand-held using the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO down to shutter speeds of 1/20th of a second, which in turn allowed me to use ISO800 or lower. Is there a risk of ending up with motion-blurred shots? Absolutely. But the hit rates are high enough to take the risk. The three “bird portrait” images shown above were all shot hand-held at around 1/20th to 1/60th. Obviously this is intended for stationary shots. Higher shutter speeds are necessary for birds in flight or in motion.

HAND-HOLDING TELEPHOTO LENSES

Perhaps the largest convenience of using Micro Four Thirds for bird shooting is not needing to use a tripod or monopod which allows for better mobility and reaction time. Not being weighed down by heavy gear is a plus point for adventurous hikes or long walks to find that elusive bird. While a tripod can guarantee stability, what happens if the bird appears behind you? Readjusting the tripod and camera is not an instantaneous process. To save even more weight, leave the tripod collar and hood behind. The tripod collars add 205g and 120g to the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO and 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lenses respectively. The weight may not sound like a lot but hand-holding the lenses for a long period of time will strain your shoulders, neck and wrists.

OPTIMIZING C-AF SHOOTING – LOW BURSTS ONLY

I am no expert when it comes to shooting birds in flight but it is important to remember that Olympus Continuous AF (both C-AF and C-AF + Tracking) modes only work at low sequential burst modes in all Olympus cameras. For example, on the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II, if you intend to shoot burst sequential shots on continuous AF, you must select the LOW burst speed (10 fps on mechanical shutter, 18 fps on electronic shutter). If you select HIGH speeds, C-AF will not work. This is the primary cause of many C-AF shooting failures experienced by camera reviewers and other photographers. Olympus hasn’t done a stellar job of communicating best practices and optimization of camera settings either.

For those intending to explore bird photography using the Olympus OM-D system, I sure hope these tips come in handy! If you do have more to share, I will be glad to hear from you in the comments section.

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

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Great light and crazy architecture one morning in Tokyo – best to make the most of it. I thought of hitting multiple destinations, but the truth is anybody who’s been to Tokyo will know there’s so much of interest architecturally everywhere that it doesn’t really matter where you go. I suspect this is because underlying land costs in Tokyo are so high that anything you put up on the site will be (relatively) cheap in comparison; unlike in other parts of the world where construction is equal to or greater than the real estate. Even straightforward buildings have a personification of that Japanese obsession for imperfection, and as a result usually sport one or more very nice details to break pattern. Okay, I just can’t help myself: I like graphic subjects. MT

With the exception of one image (D850), this series was shot with a Nikon Z7 and 24-70/4 S. No post processing, just the monochrome picture control from the Z7/D850 profile pack…

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

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MF tonality and separation: in the full size image, the airplane is in a clearly different focal plane to the tree and hangar – even though it was shot at f8.

I’ve written previously about what exactly contributes to the ‘medium format look’. However, I think to some degree we also need to both define what constitutes the hallmarks of smaller formats, but more importantly figure out where each format’s strengths lie. Having now shot what I’d consider ‘enough’ with a complete MF system wth lenses ranging from ultra wide (24mm, or 18mm-e) to moderate tele (250mm, or 180mm-e) I think I’ve built up a much more complete picture. No doubt this will change if the recording medium size increase further – with the 54x40mm sensors, for instance – but I think it’s fairly safe to extrapolate based on the differences between subsequent smaller formats.


Compositions like this do not work without extended DOF, but the perspective limits your format size in achieving that.

Depth of field
This is probably the most immediate giveaway: for a given subject magnification, aperture and angle of view, larger formats will appear to have shallower depth of field. Remember that the real focal length and aperture are what determines the degree of background blur; the larger the format, the longer the lens required to cover that angle of view. Even though lenses tend to get slower as the format increases – faster apertures for longer real focal lengths are harder to build – in practice, what we notice is larger formats have some degree of separation between subject and background/foreground planes, where smaller formats may not. However, this may require larger output sizes or resolutions to discern; 1MP web jpegs are almost certainly going to be missing something. It gets a bit more complicated, though: for an ideal lens, the transition between in and out of focus becomes significantly more abrupt as the focal length increases. With a shorter real focal length, that transition might be very gradual – and thus appear to have almost no visual separation at all.


Shallow enough DOF for you?

Angles of view, projection and optical formulae
That said, things get more complicated still: longer lenses are easier to fully correct for, which means optical formula limitations that degrade our perception of sharpness of transition (think of an image ‘sliced into planes’ ) such as coma, longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration are more easily minimised. When these aberrations don’t ‘eat into’ the edges of the focal plane, we are given the impression of shallower depth of field because the boundary of confusion is much tighter – a subject is either in focus, or it is not.


24mm, and 16mm-e, but no strange edge stretching.

On the reverse side, when engineering for shorter real focal lengths, all sorts of other problems must be taken into account. For instance, if the design requires a relatively long image distance compared to the actual focal length (e.g. Nikon F back flange, ~47mm, focal length, 21mm) then a telecentric design must be used, which contains another set of elements to ‘straighten out’ and extend the ray path so that it might focus the projected image at the correct distance. Even if not, and we are using a system with a short flange back distance – symmetric designs aren’t always ideal because you’re going to land up with very extreme ray angles towards the edges. Since digital sensors are not truly planar but more like a waffle grid, interactions at the edges of the individual photosite can produce both vignetting and purple fringing towards the edges of the sensor. Offset microlenses over the photosites can compensate for this to some degree, but the potential for aberrations to start affecting transitions remains high. This is one of the reasons a lot of fast wide lenses lack the sort of clean transition you’d otherwise expect.


Impossible DOF and perspective for anything but a very, very small sensor. Foreground pipes are barely 20cm from the lens.

But, we’re still not done yet. Even though the perspective (foreground-background) relationships between objects remain the same for a given angle of view, there are practical optical design issues to contend with. In general, the shorter the real focal length and the larger the format, the more projection distortion becomes visible without resorting to very exotic optics: think of squashing a printed balloon onto a glass window, or translating a globe to a flat map. We can represent a map of the world on a 2D surface, but it requires some cutting and/or stretching (which is how we land up with things like the Mercator, Hammer, Panini etc. projections). Stretching is necessary should we want to present a continuous surface, which obviously causes some distortion to the image being projected – we see this as corner smearing or stretching. All lenses have some degree of field (focal plane) curvature, which becomes harder and harder to correct for as the focal length becomes shorter and the angle of view wider.

The wider you get, the worse this becomes. Once you pair that with the inherent difficulties of shorter real focal lengths and physically smaller lenses (i.e. fewer elements, less image circle to work with) – you can probably see why it’s easier to design a 50mm lens with a 60mm back flange distance (~1:1.2, 645 format) than a 30mm one with a 47mm back flange (~1:1.6, 35mm-e), even though they cover the same angle of view. As this ratio gets larger, design becomes exponentially more difficult for reasons previously described. Every time you want to correct for something – telecentricity, field curvature, distortion etc. – you introduce additional elements which must themselves in turn be corrected for.


Heavily corrected, but distortion is still visible.

Sensor proprettes
In the earlier article, I also touched upon some of the underlying media differences: no longer do we have the same recording medium in different areas, but physically larger sensors will a) not just have greater spatial resolving power for the same output resolution, but b) generally have larger photo sites and greater spatial resolving power. This leads to significant gaps in dynamic range, noise and in turn, color resolution. On top of that, the potential for greater spatial differentiation leads to much better tonal separation and subtlety: you’ve got a lot more steps to describe the same transition.

These differences must be considered together, mostly because of simple economics: smaller/worse/cheaper vs bigger/better/more expensive. There aren’t any really bad MF lenses because the underlying cost of the main component (sensor) determines the pricing level anyway; however, there aren’t that many good entry level kit lenses for similar reasons. In practice, I believe what this means is that there’s a sweet spot for every format/system; however, this isn’t immediately obvious to most people as few have shot a variety of systems under an equally wide range of conditions. My personal feeling is that there really isn’t a one-size-fits all both because of underlying system characteristics (e.g. small vs large sensors and attendant body features such as AF) and because no one system can give you a sufficiently wide variety of rendering styles. By sensor size, here’s where I think the strengths and weakness lie:


Those impossible compressions…

Compact, phone
Good for: Casual documentary, stealthy documentary, social record. Small size and ubiquity means you are inconspicuous; small sensor means you have almost unlimited depth of field and minimal focusing issues. Fast to use because there are few parameters to control (e.g. changing aperture makes no difference anyway, focus distance only when below a certain range).
Limitations: No DOF separation, restricted dynamic range and poor overall image quality, few options other than a wide FOV.

1″
Good for: I’m struggling a bit here. They’re a bit better than the compacts, but not so much that you’d be happy with one of these for primary output. Rendering of wide options tends to be quite uninspiring and just a bit messy looking: there’s enough depth of field differentiation to make transitions nervous, but not so much DOF that everything is in focus. The biggest strength I can see is for highly compressed telephoto perspectives where everything is in focus – the crop factor means you have much greater DOF than you might think for a given aperture, plus light gathering ability doesn’t become so much of a problem.
Not good for: Similar limitations to compacts and phones, but more lenses available.

M4/3″ and APSC
Good for: Given the lens selections, this isn’t a bad all-round solution for most people. I still haven’t found any wides whose rendering I really like, though – for the all the reasons we previously discussed. I think the main strength is again telephoto work: excellent small lenses with fast apertures (thanks to crop factor) offering enough separation (and not so little you have problems getting enough of the subject in focus) but still the option to get everything in focus if you need to.
Not good for: Wide angle work; a consequence of lens design and simple physics: the wider the field of view, the more spatial information (i.e. resolution) you need to avoid a gritty look.


But sometimes, you might want that gritty look…

35 FF
Good for: General shallow DOF work, moderate wide to moderate tele, supertele with shallow DOF. I think most people have realised by now that to get a wide range of distances in focus with high resolution 35FF bodies, you’ll either need to stop down past the diffraction limit, be shooting pretty wide and/or with subjects constrained beyond a certain distance, or use perspective control (i.e. tilt). Yet because of the completeness of the attendant systems, 35FF remains the all-round choice format: everything from 8-800+mm in a single lens without TCs, plus perspective control and macro.
Not good for: Getting everything in focus outside wides or what tilt shifts are on offer; subtle separation at wide/normal angles of view


50mm, f8, and it’s clearly not even close to all being in focus. Yet the appearance of transition itself is quite natural…

MF digital (44×33, 645-54×40)
Good for: Superwide to moderate telephoto; getting some sort of DOF separation at all distances and focal lengths even with moderate lens speeds
Not good for: Getting everything in focus without the use of tilt shift adaptors or putting the back on a technical camera, telephoto work, anything fast moving

LF
Good for: Full perspective and DOF control, a very ‘flat’ look no matter what the angle of view – minimal distortion and clean projections
Not good for: Anything where you don’t have space for a tripod and several minutes to set up each shot, digital work with the full format area


This kind of tonal subtlety remains the main reason to go larger.

There are three ways of approaching this: either select the format that will give you the greatest coverage of the kinds of things you normally shoot; restrict yourself to one format that produces results of the kind you want to produce; or, have multiple systems (or a system that allows for some interchangeability of lenses and sensor sizes, e.g. Nikon 1/CX, Nikon APSC and Nikon FX: three bodies, one set of lenses). I’ve gone down the multiple system route because I found the the adaptations simply don’t work that well – it usually isn’t a limitation of optics, but the whole thing just becomes very clunky in use. But of course, we also must remember that doing something differently with unconventional formats almost always yields unusual (and sometimes quite aesthetically pleasing) results…MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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When you have a subject with a title this good, one is simply compelled to use it – even if it means some heavy curation, some redaction, and some vicious cuts. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I loved the alien-dystopian-ness of this series, combined with the motion and slightly shadowy figures. It’s both surreal and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, with solid blocks contesting against ephemerally transient reflections and ghosts. If it gets chaotic, just go with the flow. Welcome to both yesterday and the future. Embrace the cliche. Welcome to Japan. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, 24-70/4 S and 50/1.8 S. No post processing, just the monochrome picture control from the Z7/D850 profile pack…

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

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I’ve had the privilege and frustration of working with both the best and worst hardware of a wide variety of types. I say this independent of cost, as often it isn’t a good indicator for suitability to a given task – in fact, this is increasingly true as cost increases and your tools get more specialised. It’s also not always true given reliability issues, customer support and other general electronic weirdness and histrionics. Perhaps crappy is an unfair term that probably does the hardware in this discussion a disservice. If you haven’t noticed, the industry has been changing silently but surely: the midrange has gone high end, the high end has gone stratospheric, the bottom end is gone, and the midrange has gone downmarket. We now have multiple $3000-4000 FF ‘pro’ lenses released as par for the course and nobody blinks an eyelid (compare that to just a few years ago when only the Otuses were in that territory, and the same lenses were in the $1000-2000 range). We have the ‘low’ end of medium format now below the high end of full frame – $4000 Fuji GFX50R vs $7000 Leica M10 – and we have some true bargains at the beginner level. We have entry points into full frame at sub-$1000 (albeit in older hardware, though still available to buy new). That’s a psychologically significant number; it’s the price point of the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D back in the days of the first actually affordable DSLRs in the early 2000s. What if we go lower still?

Whilst the D3500 kit is normally $400 with the 18-55 or $450 if you feel like adding the non-VR 70-300 to the bundle, it represents the current bottom of the barrel for Nikon. (Similar options are available from Canon, but unlike the D3500, they use a much older sensor – the 18MP thing in the 4000D dates back to 2012 or thereabouts, and it shows.) Depending on your luck and timing, you could probably find an earlier D3300 or D3400 for slightly less money, but they lose out to the D3500 in one important way: the grips on those cameras are far too small, and not at all comfortable to shoot with. The D3500 finally inherits the smaller body from the D5500/D5600 (the former which I liked quite a lot) and with it, a much deeper place for your fingers to rest. It shares a sensor with the D5600, which lacks PDAF points, but is otherwise state of the art. I lucked out on mine – some idle eBay clicking one night yielded a new kit for a little over $300, shipped. At that price, I figured there was nothing to lose. The weird thing is its predecessors don’t seem to be much cheaper, if at all.

How wrong I would be. It seems that money now buys you a camera that has been through so many design iterations and minor refinements that the minor bugs have been ironed out and most importantly, the whole thing just works. There is not feature overkill, but sufficiency. It doesn’t do a lot of things, but I suspect that’s because it had to be simplified enough for the target market to be comfortable with. And that’s just fine with me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with unnecessary complexity: there is a high chance something is going to be set up in a way that you don’t want or can’t easily change precisely at the wrong time, costing you the shot. The Sony cameras have always been like this, made worse by features that can be mutually exclusive (but not explanation of why or warnings when you set one or the other). Honestly, sometimes you just miss a camera you turn on, set exposure and shoot. Yes, only the middle focus point is anything approaching reliable, but it’s good enough, and surprisingly fast with the 18-55 AF-P. I treat it as centre-focus-and-recompose and haven’t had a problem. Overall, the camera just feels snappy: instant on, very fast AF with the AF-P lenses, 5fps, good write speeds, and no waiting for menus and the like. Controls are in familiar places and muscle memory is happy to take over. Why can’t all cameras be this well sorted?*

*Actually, I know why: because simplicity doesn’t sell to gear heads, and that’s most of today’s profitable photography market.

I could go into an extended discourse on image quality, but that would somewhat defeat the point of this piece. It’s more than good enough – a clear step up on M4/3, and the JPEGs are surprisingly decent out of camera. Tonality for B&W is very good, color accuracy could be better (I find skin tones a bit too saturated) and fine detail handling is nowhere near as good as the D850/Z7 which I suspect are running much more sophisticated algorithms. Unfortunately you can’t upload custom curves, but remember again: it’s a $400 camera, including the lens. RAW file quality is of course much better – leaving little, if anything, to be desired at lower ISOs, and good quality to ISO 1600 or so. In short: more than good enough.

I don’t think too much when I use this camera. It’s cheap enough and durable enough that it usually just gets tossed into a bag naked, or into the glovebox, or something similar. It’s light enough you don’t notice it’s there if you’re already carrying a bag for something else, and feels good enough to handle and use that you don’t regret not bringing something more ‘serious’. In fact, I’d argue it’s the very lack of seriousness that is rather liberating, which in turn carries through to the way you use it. Compositions are somehow a little less rigid/ formal and more spontaneous; you experiment more; you’re okay being a little faster and a little looser – except by you, I mean me, and in that time the camera has already focused properly and you don’t have shake issues since the lens is stabilised. It actually feels much like the large format equivalent of an iPhone for photography, if that makes sense: you see something, make some adjustments on autopilot, shoot, and move on. The process is neither painful nor especially enjoyable, but the results are predictable and often surprise you for being better than you’d otherwise expect.


Outtakes: the effects of zero gravity/ return to gravity on ageing.

Actually, I lie: it feels a bit less fiddly than the Ricoh GR I recently tried (I blame that on the loss of several physical control points in the latest generation). It’s also faster in every way (especially focus) and image quality is well, pretty much identical. It’s also about 40% of the price, at least in my part of the world. You lose pocketability and half a stop of lens speed, but gain the entire 29-85mm range, an optical finder, massively better battery life, and of course access to other lenses. Living in a hot climate, you tend not to have the pockets anyway – so whatever you carry beyond keys, wallet and phone goes in a bag. Size, up to a point, is moot. But the battery life IS a big deal – I think I’ve charged the camera perhaps once since buying it, with about 2,000 frames so far. And even then it wasn’t flat – just one of the three segments fell off. If it’s as linear as my other Nikons, I could probably have gotten away with not charging it yet at all. It’s the only camera I own one battery for (and don’t feel range anxiety with).

Most importantly though, it’s one of the few tools I’ve used of late that serves as a strong and visceral reminder that photography is about images first and foremost. The tool is effective enough but also unremarkable enough that you don’t really notice or think about it and just make the damn picture – maybe that in itself does make it remarkable. Take for instance my choice of illustration for this post – Sophie was jumping on the office sofa again, trying to cross her legs in midair and land sitting down – with the flying cushions and strong graphic themes of background image and her own stripes, it felt much like Philippe Halsman’s photograph of Dali (Atomicus). We also happened to have another piece of hardware recently acquired for a specific purpose** – a Godox AD400 – on a lightstand. I did about thirty seconds of setup: move stand, turn light on, dial in 1/16 power, set camera to manual and max sync speed, pop up flash to minimum power to trigger the AD400 – and shot off a few frames. Total shoot time, a few minutes; total hardware cost, about $1000 (excluding sofa). I should probably have thrown a polar bear in there since there were no cats handy, but I didn’t want to break the spontaneity of the moment – and with a four year old, it’s seldom recoverable once lost. She (and I) are thrilled with the results. Yes, a Hasselblad and Broncolor strobes would have been better, but we’re not printing murals with it. Know your purpose and all that – I’m pretty sure social media will survive just fine.

**Very tight background highlight control using cut gobos immediately behind diffusion material

The point of all of this is of course that the result was what I envisioned; the hardware was capable enough to achieve it, but not fiddly enough to get in the way, and reliable enough not to halt proceedings. I could see the facial expressions well enough in the finder, AF was fast enough to track her bouncing, shutter lag low enough to allow careful timing (but 5fps available if needed), and flash durations short enough (1/4000s or so at T1 and 1/16 power on a 400WS strobe) to properly freeze motion – no blurry hair, no streakiness. In fact, I suspect the AD400 is the D3500 of studio lighting: color consistent to 75K, very short (0.9s at full power) recycle times; 400 full power shots on a charge with the option to run off the mains, built in radio and optical triggering as well as TTL capability; 9 stops of control, and a whole bunch of different interchangeable mounts. Did I mention a gridded snoot was all of $20? The last time I looked, you had to get a Profoto B1 for this, at many times the price, unable to run off mains with less battery life, and twice the volume and weight. The other Godox options were pretty bad, too: zero color consistency, inconsistent power and very long flash durations. It seems in the last few years whilst I was focusing on the shifts happening at the bleeding edge of the market, I somehow managed to miss arguably more signifiant changes happening at the other end. Never has it been easy to get results this good with this little effort or cost. MT

The Nikon D3500/18-55 kit is available here from B&H (get the two-lens kit if you’re feeling particularly flush) and Amazon
The Godox AD400 is available here from B&H and Amazon

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Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

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With the amount of glass (all flawlessly clean, of course) in Tokyo, the number of tourists and the close proximity of everything…I can’t help but wonder if the residents sometimes feel like they’re living in a giant exhibit, periodically interrupted by gawking visitors with cameras from another realm. They take it with remarkably polite stoicism, unlike say, Venetians, who suffer the necessity of paying tourists with the bare minimum of tolerance. I suppose having industry other than tourism helps; that feeling of the ability to say ‘no’ – even you never do. Even if they didn’t – I certainly felt like I was part of the show. If not diving with the sharks, then at least snorkelling in the aquarium. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, 24-70/4 S and 50/1.8 S. No post processing, just the monochrome picture control from the Z7/D850 profile pack…

__________________

Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

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On rare occasions, I wander off my usual street shooting grounds and explore new locations at random. This time, I went to Kampung Datuk Keramat, an old Malay town which still retains its charm and character. Unlike Kampung Baru, another Malay settlement I have shot before, Kampung Datuk Keramat is not right in the middle of the city but about 5 kilometers away from the CBD. This results in very interesting backdrops as you always have the concrete jungle and skyscrapers in the background. This allows for very interesting framing by juxtaposing the old wooden structures and low rise residential buildings against the towering modern behemoths.

As this was my first time exploring Kampung Datuk Keramat, I was not too concerned with my hit rate or photography yield. I focused on discovering the new location and getting to know it a little better. After all, familiarity will make me a better photographer by allowing me to be more prepared and approach future sessions with a clearer vision of what I want to shoot. This particular excursion was just a quick survey of potential photography opportunities and I am pleased to report that I was impressed. I will surely return to Kampung Datuk Keramat soon and document this quaint village more comprehensively.

I have also noticed how friendly the locals here are – far more approachable than citizens inhabiting the CBD for sure. A risk not to be taken lightly was the possibility of trespassing, as a majority of this village is residential. I took effort to ensure that my friends and I only shot from the public roads.

All images were shot on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 PRO lens.

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Trying something a bit different with this set; both because I’ve seen the Nezumuseum garden at its best and because it was just a different time of year to my normal trips to Tokyo. Landscapes in monochrome, especially high frequency ones (grass, leaves, trees etc.) tend to be challenging because they quickly devolve into something very messy looking and ‘hard’, as there’s not much spatial room for midtone transitions; having the benefit of color gives you a little more latitude to play with in this regard. However, I suspect here I was inspired subconsciously by the sort of high contrast and chaotic Japanese street photography genre to try and create something a bit different to the usual color explosions. Winter is a bit of a masochistic time to visit a garden like this, which is best in spring or autumn; it never really snows enough in Tokyo to blanket things into nice soft contours, either. But there is something sober and slightly dark about the scene that I find pleasantly contemplative. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7 and 24-70/4 S. No post processing, just the monochrome picture control from the Z7/D850 profile pack…

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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There are two kinds of travel photographers*: those who travel to photograph, and those who document their travels. I used to be firmly in the former category: you pick a destination and plan your entire itinerary based around photographic objectives; you try to sit/stay/transit via positions that maximise every possible photographic opportunity. You depart at times when light and seasons are likely to be most cooperative. Your equipment is 90% of your total baggage weight, and you’ll recycle your underpants if it means you can bring both the gimbal head and the ball. You pack every bit of gear you own just in case – you can always leave it in the hotel, but you might not be able to get a spare on location. And then you carry everything on the off chance you might miss an opportunity. You fly airlines that are lenient on hand luggage, but must balance that off against who cleans their windows best (or has A330s/A340s with that CrystalVue coating). I’ve done that round first on holiday, then on commissioned jobs, on workshop tours, and finally on misguided attempts to take a break from commercial work. Of late, I find the way I work changing; and that’s meant some big changes in the way I approach the idea of travel photography. Oddly though – my yield isn’t lower. If anything, I’d say quality is higher. Let’s try and figure out why.

*There may well be a third kind, but I’ve yet to find it.

The old adage of being less likely to find something when you’re looking intensely for it is probably true, or at least it feels that way. We are at least more aware of the time spent looking, and that’s not always a good thing; it leads to impatience, boredom, and compromise. And worse, it means you might miss other opportunities because you’re not prepared or set up for them. Then you start carrying a second body or a quick draw compact or something else, or worse, 20kg of gear and then use your iPhone. I’ve done it before; it’s photographically missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps one just feels the pressure of expectations: none other than your own.

Then there’s also the creation of opportunity: by participating, you open yourself to new things, and more possible photographic scenarios. But if you’re too busy trying to make an image first and last, then you’re far less likely to be in the right place at the right time because it’s much harder to know exactly where and when that time and place might be. Moreover, if the essence of travel photography is to capture/document/share one’s experiences – what raw ideas exist if you don’t have any experiences in the first place? It is simply impossible to authentically capture what you haven’t experienced. Perhaps worse still would be capturing somebody else’s expectations of what those experiences should be – none other than the proverbial checklist.

I can’t help but always feel a bit disappointed whenever I go to places that are on ‘everybody’s list’ – they tend to be more touristed than authentic, more hyped than real, and you go away with that feeling of having checked off but missed something essential. Perhaps it’s because these places might not necessarily be a good fit between your own interests and what the city has to offer that best matches. Though it’s possible to fall back on serendipity and the joy of discovery (I’m sure there’s a special German word for this) – a bit more detailed research or recommendations by peers does help. These days with travel primarily being for non-photographic work, there isn’t a lot of extra time left over so I know where I want to go beforehand; the journey between points of interest serves the function of serendipitous discovery for me, and I deliberately allow a bit more time for this.

There’s definitely something satisfying about finding a place that’s new to you and experiencing it without preconceptions. Not only is the experience better, but your eyes are not biased towards what might have been shot and shared before by other people: in effect your vision is entirely your own. (I also try hard not to look at the work of others before I go to a place to avoid being biased; I often ignore my own previous work too, especially if I’m trying to evolve creatively.) I find that the one or two frames you might get during these ‘explorations’ are much stronger and and resonate more acutely with you personally since there are no other third party associations.


Sophie, street photographer

I wish I could say this shift and discovery of efficiency and vision were brought on by a conscious choice or considered evolution; they weren’t. It’s a consequence of going with no intention to shoot and suddenly seeing things pop up that you might have ignored or not had the headspace to see before; then you find yourself making something compositionally interesting but frustrated by the process (and lack of hardware). To find that right balance between being ready/prepared but not overanxious (a local Malaysian term describes this best: “kancheong”) is a tricky thing indeed. I think, for the moment at least, I’ve managed; some of that is equipment, some of that is accepting some compromise** in the workflow and output. No matter how dedicated you are, the more finicky the process, the less likely you are to repeat it – and repetition is what produces creative evolution and tangibly different results. For somebody who is almost pathologically conditioned to pursue something to the nth degree, this is the equivalent of a sea change for me.

**Knowing/ understanding, practicing and accepting are all very different things

Regular readers will have noticed first the PEN F JPEG experiments and the next an increasing use of SOOC JPEG from the Nikon Z7, culminating in a dedicated picture control pack for this (and the D850) – this is no coincidence. As I find myself with less and less time to spend postprocessing, no matter how efficient my PS workflow becomes or how fast my computer is – it’s still much faster to not have to do it at all. Admittedly, a good chunk of my reluctance to accept camera JPEGs previously was due to atrocious color and horrible tonality; onboard processing has not only improved to a degree that the results are acceptable, but often seem to compare well with post-conversion as something is likely going on in the data processing higher upstream – and the closer to the signal the processing, the cleaner/smoother the result. I also admit that it felt very wasteful to chase ultimate image quality in other areas, but then let one of the key areas go completely.

The upshot of all of these philosophical changes is probably best summed up by the results from a recent family trip to Japan – 10 days of sporadic shooting, spacing other activities, resulted in pretty much the same rough cut number of images as previous photography-focused trips of nearly the same duration. I only carried at any time the Z7, 24-70 and at most one other lens – either the 50/1.8S or 70-200/4. But I was done with my curation and most of the post for the few images I wanted to rework after the plane ride home, and another couple of hours covered the rest – including archiving and parting out for future posts etc. This process would have previously taken the better part of three to four days with Workflow III, or a day longer with Workflow II. This is obviously a lot of time freed up for other things, both during the trip, and afterwards.

Curiously, I’m much happier with my output from this trip than previous ones, despite familiarity of the subject matter. I suspect it has a lot to do with me passing over compositions that fall into the “good if fixed with some rebalancing in post” to only stopping for “strong as is” – you don’t spend time propping up what’s weak, shooting the raw material to begin with, or agonising if it makes the cut or not. They’re binary ideas/scenes: captured in a sort of instinctive stream of consciousness rather than overt deliberation, they either work or they don’t. That, and the hunt for the three year old’s next capsule machine won’t wait for the right subjects to fill your imagined scene. MT


Sophie, charge remaining 0%

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Continued from Part 1

Perth makes for a marvellous backdrop for monochromatic street photography thanks to constantly clear skies, deep shadows cast by direct sunlight and the urban architecture filled with people going about their day. Due to limited time, I didn’t dedicate any shooting sessions to black and white work but shot everything in color and converted some of the shots in post. However, most of the images shown here were shot with the intention of being presented in black and white.

I am grateful for the chance to shoot in Perth again, now that I can see it through the eyes of a street photographer. I will surely plan another trip to Australia (maybe covering other states?) in the near future. Perhaps I can take this one step further and conduct a street photography workshop in Australia! Please do let me know in the comments if this would be of interest to you, what you would want to learn from me and how can I contribute to the photography community there and maybe we can make something happen.

<img src=”https://mingthein.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/8a11b-p3270895.jpg” width=”800″

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