Friday, 19 September 2014

Six years of Micro Four Thirds

On September 12th, 2008, the Panasonic Lumix G1 was announced, the very first Micro Four Thirds camera. It was a true revolution in photography: A compact system camera with very photography oriented ergonomy and functions: A good EVF, tiltable LCD, a rugged body with an easy to grip surface. The autofocus was surprisingly fast, even if AF-C was not very useful. It had one strange omission, there was no video mode.


Even though it was paired with what is widely seen as a fantastic kit zoom lens, the camera was pretty much ignored.

It was not until Olympus launched the E-P1, with a retro styled, metal clad body, that the interest in M4/3 took off. Even if the E-P1 was inferior to the Lumix G1 in terms of usability and functions, in my opinion, and it was paired with an inferior lens.

Here are some highlights from the last six years:

2009


The Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 lens (my review) was launched, and became an instant classic. Even if the price was seen as a bit steep, the lens is loved for the compact size, very good sharpness even wide open, and pleasant bokeh. The downside of the lens is the slower than usual focus speed, even if it is hardly a real life problem anymore with newer cameras.

Olympus launched the PEN E-P1, which became the first really popular M4/3 camera:


Panasonic launched the Lumix GH1, the first system camera capable of continuous autofocus during video recording. It was the best consumer system camera for video for a long time, until its predecessor was released.

2009 also saw the release of the Lumix G 7-14mm f/4 ultra wide angle zoom lens, the first M4/3 lens with a true pro ambition.

2010


The "firmware hack" appeared for the Lumix GH1. This gave you an option of customizing the bitrate and other video options, allowing to create higher quality video streams. This led to an increased interest for the GH1, among independent filmmakers, and enthusiasts alike.

The Noktor 50mm f/0.95 was released, the very first ultra fast lens for M4/3. This specific lens was not so successful, but it was followed by a range of ultra fast lenses from Cosina Voigtländer.

In 2010, many companies tried to sell more television sets by including the 3D feature. To get more 3D contents, 3D photo products were also released. Panasonic made a 3D lens for some select cameras, but it is not very useful, in my opinion. See my review here.


At this time, Panasonic tried to sell Micro Four Thirds to the masses, through the Lumix G10, essentially a stripped down G2. It lost the articulated LCD screen, and had a much simpler EVF.

It is fair to say that it was very unsuccessful: They were not able to sell cheap cameras. And their lesson appears clear today: Leave the low end of the market to somebody else. Panasonic have later focused on the premium market, with cameras like the Lumix GX7 and the Lumix GM1.

2011


Samyang launched the 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye lens (my review). It was one of the first third party lenses designed especially for M4/3, and more important, it is a very good lens available at a reasonable cost. It is highly recommended for anyone who would like to try wide angle photography.

Olympus released the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (my review), which was the first affordable fast portrait lens, at least in the European market.


From Panasonic, we got the Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (my review). While pricey, it was a very good, classic fast normal lens, in a quite compact form factor.

At this time, Panasonic was into miniaturization, and created the Lumix GF3. When combined with the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 lens (my review), it was the smallest interchangable lens system camera to date.


The camera was seen as being too dumbed down, and was not very popular. GF3+14mm kits were often split, and the 14mm pancake lens was sold cheap on Ebay. This made people perceive it as poor, which I think is far from the truth. In my opinion, the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 is very good for its size and cost.

2012


The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was made. With a combination of a nostalgic, retro design, compact size, and very innovative functions, it was an instant success, and brought a lot of people into the Micro Four Thirds system.


The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is still sold at a premium price point today, even if it is getting old by digital camera standards.

Panasonic, wanting to compete with pro DSLRs, launched the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 (my review) fast standard zoom lens for use with the Lumix GH3 camera. The lens is very good, and significantly smaller and lighter than similar lenses for DSLR systems.


Olympus made the 75mm f/1.8 tele lens, which is often seen as one of the best lenses for the system:


2012 was also the year we got the first third party autofocus lenses, the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 30mm f/2.8. My favourite of the two is the Sigma 30mm (my review), which is reasonably priced, and offers a very good image quality with a useful focal length.

2013


In 2013, we saw the release of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, the first truly professional Micro Four Thirds camera. It was the first camera which could autofocus legacy Four Thirds lenses at a good speed, even in AF-C mode, due to the inclusion of PDAF photosites on the sensor.


We also got the Lumix GX7, the long awaited "rangefinder style" Micro Four Thirds camera, with an eye level viewfinder in the top left corner:


Panasonic made the Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 (my review), a very compact and good zoom lens. I find it very useful.

2014


The Lumix GH4 (my review) was released, the first 4k capable consumer system camera.

Olympus has finally announced their pro tele zoom officially, the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8:


It will be an expensive lens at around US$1500, but has pro features like weather proofing, internal zoom, and a dedicated 1.4 tele converter optionally available, the MC-14.

The Lumix GM5 is a very compact camera with an eye level viewfinder included:


It will be the perfect travel camera for style conscious photographers. The Lumix GF3 was also a small camera, but failed because it did not have the level of external controls that the users expect today. The Lumix GM5 fixes this by retaining a lot of physical controls, despite the small size. It has a PASM mode wheel, and a focus selector, which is very useful.

The future


There is now a very impressive Micro Four Thirds lens lineup.

What news are you expecting for the coming years?

Monday, 15 September 2014

Product news

These are exciting times, with a lot of product announcements in relation to the Fotokina trade show. Here is a short summary:

Lumix G 35-100mm f/4-5.6


This lens is designed to match the Lumix GM1 and GM5 camera, both in terms of styling and size.


It is expected to cost US$400. But it will probably be primarily sold in twin lens kits with the new GM5 camera.

The Lumix G 35-100mm f/4-5.6 is a very compact, short tele zoom. It is not a lot more compact than the longer and much cheaper Lumix G 45-150mm f/4-5.6, though. So I would seriously consider the longer of the two, unless you specifically want a lens which is styled similarly as the GM1 and GM5 cameras.

Lumix GM5


The predecessor to the very compact Lumix GM1 camera. It addresses one of the concerns with the GM1: The missing eye level viewfinder:


It also adds a flash hot shoe, but loses the built in flash. Regarding flash use, keep in mind that this camera still uses the same shutter module from the GM1. It is good in the sense that it is very inaudible, but it has a very poor flash sync speed of only 1/50s. This makes the camera less than optimal for fill flash use outside during daytime. Read more about the shutter unit here.

The camera also improves upon the predecessor in terms of video features, giving access to full HD recording in 50/60 FPS (depending on region, PAL/NTSC). If you are interested in a small Micro Four Thirds camera, I would recommend getting the Lumix GM5, rather than the GM1

Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 II


A somewhat strange and unexpected release from Panasonic is the updated version of the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 (my review):


There is some uncertainty about what has changed between the old and the new version. As it stands now, I am thinking that this is purely a cosmetic change. The optics are certainly the same, and probably the focus and aperture mechanism. So I think this is just a redesign to make the lens styled like the new GM5 camera.

This is just what happened to the 20mm lens, by the way, which received a makeover last year. Here are some tests I made to see if there was any real difference.

Lumix LX100


Not a Micro Four Thirds camera, but very interesting anyway. The competition has toughened a lot lately in the premium compact market. We used to have a competition about bringing out the most impressive aperture, which the Lumix LX7 won by using a f/1.4-2.3 zoom lens.

Then came the Sony RX100 series, which changed the game by upping the sensor size to the so called one inch sensor.

Panasonic's answer was launched today, the Lumix LX100:


It further ups the sensor size by using a Four Thirds type sensor, at about twice the area of the one inch sensor. However, the image circle does not cover all of the sensor, meaning that effectively, the sensor size is about 1.5 times that of the one inch sensor.

In terms of features, this camera appears to have it all: A very bright aperture range of f/1.7-2.8, electronic eye level viewfinder (EVF), 4k video, and to top all this, it also has retro styled shutter wheel, exposure compensation wheel, and even an aperture wheel around the lens. These retro items are probably aimed to compete with the Fujifilm line of cameras, e.g., the Fujifilm X100.

The only negative aspect of this camera is that it is larger than the competitors. However, to incorporate such a fast lens, it needs to be fairly large.

And regarding the lens size, why is it so much smaller than the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 (my review), which has similar specifications, and also cover the Four Thirds sensor size? The LX100 lens actually has better specifications, as the aperture opens up more than one more stop in the wide end. I guess there are three answers:

  1. The LX100 has a smaller image circle than the Micro Four Thirds system, to accommodate the multi aspect sensor.
  2. The LX100 doesn't have a lens mount, and can use an optical design with a shorter register distance, putting the exit pupil closer to the sensor. That allows making a smaller lens construction, especially for the wide angle part of the zoom.
  3. Even if the LX100 has a larger aperture in the wide end, this probably does not require any larger optical design. Generally speaking, a normal zoom can be made faster in the wide end without much extra effort in the optical design. Rather, I think the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 lens aperture is deliberately capped in the short end, to have a constant f/2.8 across the zoom range.

The LX100 appears to have a leaf shutter. This is good news, as it allows for a fast flash sync, a silent shutter which is stealthy when photographing people, and shutter shock should not be a problem.

This camera looks like the perfect premium compact right now. I think Panasonic have made a winning camera, let's see what the competitors come up with to top this one.

It is not perfect, though. It does not have a tilting LCD screen, and the screen is not touch sensitive. Further, it is a bit unclear from the specifications if it includes a built in ND filter. ND filter can be good when you want to photograph using fill flash outdoors on a sunny day.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8


This PRO labeled zoom has been awaited a long time already. In this official announcement, the price is given, US$1500, which is not too bad.


The lens is mostly useful on Olympus cameras, given that it does not have any optical image stabilization. The size of the lens is perhaps unexpectedly large, being 60% longer and 150% heavier than the competing Lumix X 35-100mm f/2.8 from Panasonic. Of course, the Olympus lens also has a 50% longer focal length, and a wider zoom range, which is very useful.

Like the other PRO rated lenses, this one is "weatherproofed", meaning that you can bring it out even if it rains, but you cannot submerge it, of course. It is also dustproof and freezeproof. To get the most out of the lens, especially in terms of environment protection, it is best to combine it with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera.

Olympus also announced the very first tele converter for Micro Four Thirds, the MC14:


As you can see from the image, the tele converter has an front lens element which protrudes significantly. With this construction, you physically cannot mount it to most Micro Four Thirds lenses, in fact, doing so might damage the lens and the converter. When using it on the 40-150mm lens, it becomes a 56-210mm f/4 lens.

The converter is designed for use with the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 exclusively at this time. Perhaps it will be supported by future lenses, like the 300mm f/4 which Olympus have said they may bring out. The tele converter would make it a 420mm f/5.6 lens, very useful for bird photography. Personally, I would rather use the Nikon 1 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens for birds (my review), though, which is another 800mm equivalent option.

Conclusion


After a period where Sony were dominating the premium compact camera line with their RX100 series, Panasonic are now back on top with the Lumix LX100.

With the introduction of the Lumix GM5, they have a very capable premium compact system camera, which is quite stylish too.





Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Worse image quality with electronic shutter?

Recently, an interesting Panasonic sensor data sheet came up. It is believed to describe the sensor sitting in, e.g., the Lumix GX7 and GM1.

The data sheet says that there are two options for electronic shutter readout: 12 bits in 1/15s and 10 bits in 1/22.5s. It has been demonstrated that the Lumix GX7 has a readout speed of 1/15s, and I have measured the speed of the electronic shutter in the GM1 to around 1/25s.

Do recent Panasonic cameras use the faster 10 bit readout, and is it affecting the image quality when using the electronic shutter mode?



To test this, I have taken the same picture using the Lumix GH3, Lumix GH4 and Lumix GM1, all using both the mechanical and electronic shutter modes. The photos were underexposed by two stops, to make the rendering of the shadows more challenging.

All the pictures were taken at ISO 200, the base ISO for these cameras:

Mechanical shutter
Electronic shutter
Lumix GH3
Raw image file
Raw image file

Lumix GH4
Raw image file
Raw image file
Lumix GM1
Raw image file
Raw image file

Looking at the JPEG output images above, there is little difference to find, beyond some unintended differences in the exposure. However, when I process the RAW files in Silkypix, increasing the brightness by three stops, I find some difference in the shadows:


What we see here is that the Lumix GH3 image quality is pretty much comparable when using the mechanical and electronic shutter. However, when using the electronic shutter with the Lumix GH4, you lose some effective dynamic range. There is more noise in the shadow areas. The same goes for the Lumix GM1.

This is because the GH4 and GM1 are designed to use a 10 bit output in electronic shutter mode, to speed up the sensor readout, rather than 12 bits with the normal shutter. Less bit depth effectively means less dynamic range, and more noise in the shadow areas.

So is this a problem?

Keep in mind that the pictures above were deliberately underexposed by two stops, which is a lot. Here is what I get when I don't adjust the exposure.

Mechanical shutter
Electronic shutter
Lumix GH3

Lumix GH4
Lumix GM1

Here are the 100% crops from the same area, after applying a one stop exposure increase in Silkypix:


As you see, when you get the exposure fairly right, there is no difference between using the mechanical and electronic shutter. Increasing the exposure by one stop in post processing using the RAW file is no problem with the electronic shutter mode.

Speed of E-shutter readout


The GH3 electronic shutter had a readout speed of 1/10s, which is very slow. This leads to significant rolling shutter artifacts, that you can read about here. How does the GH4 compare?

One way to test the speed of the electronic shutter is to take a photo at a fast shutter speed in artificial light. For about a century or so, people have been using incandescent light bulbs for electronic indoor lightning. Even when used on alternating current (AC), the light is stable. Since the filament is heated, it emits light also when the alternating current is at zero.

However, traditional incandescent light bulbs are now being replaced with the energy saving fluorescent light bulbs. They tend to flicker at 100Hz (in Europe) or at 120Hz (in the US). The lights don't flicker at 50Hz and 60Hz, as you might expect. This is since during each period, the electrical current reaches two peaks, see the illustration below:



Here are images taken at ISO 1600, 1/400s with both cameras:

Lumix GH3

These results are quite easy to explain. With the Lumix GH4, I get about 3.3 stripes horizontally. Each stripe corresponds to 1/100s, hence, the total exposure takes about 1/30s.

The Lumix GH3 has a much slower electronic shutter. There are ten stripes in the image, which means that the exposure takes 1/10s. This causes a number of problems, making the electronic shutter mode fairly useless.

Here is a summary of recent cameras:

CameraElectronic shutter readout speedBit depth
Lumix GH31/10s12 bits
Lumix GX71/15s12 bits
Lumix GM11/22.5s
10 bits
Lumix GH41/30s10 bits

Panasonic has made the electronic shutters faster, but at the expense of the bit depth. This could cause somewhat worse dynamic range when using the electronic shutter.

Conclusion


In recent Lumix cameras, Panasonic have sacrificed some bit depth over speed when designing the electronic shutter. I think this makes sense, as the slow shutter readout caused big rolling shutter problems with the first generation electronic shutter, as implemented in the Lumix G5, G6 and GH3.

If you need to lift the shadows a lot, the newer implementation using the shallower bit depth is going to give you more noise. However, with most real world use, this is not a problem at all. A one stop increase is no problem at all, but if you need an extreme three stop increase, then you will see a difference.





Sunday, 31 August 2014

Lumix 100-300mm vs Nikon 70-300mm

When Nikon launched their Nikon 1 mirrorless format, it was hard to understand why anyone should buy into it. The cameras were pricey, relatively large for a 1'' sensor, and did not have a good ergonomy.

With the launch of the Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, I think the format finally makes sense. This is the only 800mm equivalent lens which is truly portable and which can be handheld. It is a very good birders lens.

In my review of the Nikon 1 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, I was testing it with the Nikon 1 J1 camera, with a 10MP sensor. Since this time, I have acquired the Nikon 1 V3, which is a more suitable camera for a long lens, with the extra hand grip, and the EVF. The V3 also has 80% higher resolution, at 18MP.

With the V3 camera, I have re-run the sharpness tests. For the rest of the lens review, see my previous article.

I'm not sure if the image quality is better with the 18MP sensor in the Nikon 1 V3 camera. But the resolution is higher, which should make it better for an evaluation of the sharpness.

For a point of reference, I have compared the images from the 70-300mm lens with the Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6 on the Lumix GH4.

Both cameras with lenses are pictured below:


As you can see, the Nikon system is much smaller, and should be easier to bring along for trekking.

Both lenses are quite long tele zooms. They are usable for, e.g., spectator sports, wildlife, and birds. My original review was written from the point of view of using the lenses for taking pictures of birds, and I will continue along that line here.

At 300mm


When taking pictures of birds, reach is very important. Often, you will find yourself using the lens at the longest zoom setting. That is why I have compared them at 300mm, their maximum extension.

Keep in mind that with the smaller sensor of the Nikon 1 system, the Nikon lens at 300mm corresponds to an equivalent focal length of 810mm, while the Lumix lens at 300mm corresponds to 600mm equivalent focal length. Hence, the Nikon lens gives you a longer reach, a higher magnification. You may view that as unfair to the Lumix lens in the comparison, but I still think the tests makes some sense, from a bird photography point of view.

Here are two pairs of images taken at 300mm with both lenses. All the pictures were taken using a tripod, at the camera's base ISO. I used a 10s shutter delay to avoid camera shake, and I also used the electronic shutter to avoid shutter shock.

Nikon 70-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6Lumix G 100-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6
Nikon 70-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6Lumix G 100-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6

In the first pair of pictures, the focus was set on the blue sign. Here are 100% crops from the sign to better evaluate the image quality:


In this example, I think both lenses are doing a respectable job. The Nikon lens is perhaps the most sharp already wide open at f/5.6, while the Lumix lens can be seen to yield slightly sharped images as it is stopped down.

And from the second pair of images, I set the focus on the window frames. Here are 100% crops from the left part:


In this second example, I think we see the same pattern: Both lenses perform well, and the Lumix lens can be seen to improve a bit when stopping down.

At 200mm equivalent


In the short end of the zoom scales, the Nikon lens corresponds to 190mm, and the Lumix lens corresponds to 200mm equivalent. These are quite similar, which makes the comparison more fair. Here is a pair of example images:

Nikon 70-300mm @ 70mm f/4.5Lumix G 100-300mm @ 100mm f/4

And here are 100% crops from the lower left corner (click for a larger view):


In the short end of the zoom range, it appears that the Lumix lens had the upper hand. It is very sharp already at f/4, while the Nikon lens appears a tad bit more dull. Still, the Nikon lens is probably quite adequate for most uses.

Real life comparison


Here are two pictures of a pigeon, both taken at the same distance, at 300mm:


Nikon 70-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6, ISO 160, 1/400sLumix G 100-300mm @ 300mm f/5.6, ISO 200, 1/640s

And 100% crops from the image:


Again, I think the Nikon lens has the best sharpness. It is of course a bit unfair to compare them at different magnification, though.

Example pictures


These are JPEG images straight from the Nikon 1 V3 camera.

Compared with other long tele zoom lenses, the Nikon can focus quite close. This small bird was photographed at a distance of about 2m, too close for, e.g., the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3. The exposure parameters were 300mm, f/7.1, 1/100s, ISO 400:


The 100% crop shows an amazing level of details:


This was taken at 300mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/60s:


I think the picture shows that the Nikon 70-300mm has a very nice bokeh.

This 100% crop illustrates that the picture is not completely sharp. After all, it was taken at 1/60s, much too slow for a long lens like this, and even too slow to stop the bird's movement:


Here is a picture taken at 300mm, f/5.6, ISO 160, 1/250s:



A 100% crop shows that it is sharp enough. Here, the problem was getting close enough to the bird.


One of the big advantages of the Nikon 1 V3 is the very quick autofocus, even for moving subjects. In this example, I was panning the camera, while following the path of the seagull. I used the AF-C focus mode, with the sensor spot focus mode, set 10FPS, and took a lot of pictures while panning.

I used ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/500s. In retrospect, I should probably have set the ISO even higher, to get a shutter speed of around 1/1000s, to stop the movement of the bird better:


This 100% crop shows that the bird is in fact in focus, quite impressive:


I tried to capture birds in flight with the Lumix camera/lens as well, but was not able to do so. I am sure it is possible, but it probably takes more effort, due to the relatively poorer autofocus for moving subjects.

Read more about photographing birds in flight (BIF) with the Nikon lens here.

The Nikon CX 70-300mm has an impressively short minimum focus range of about 1 meter. The enables macro images of insects from a comfortable distance. Here is an example, taken at 300mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/400s:


And a 100% crop from the image:


Conclusion


The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 still performs very well on the higher resolution body Nikon 1 V3. I found that the sharpness was very good at 300mm, but not as good at the short end, 70mm. That is unusual, but not really a problem, since we would often use these types of lenses in the long end.

With the very capable PDAF system, and high frame rates, it is fairly easy to capture birds in flight with the Nikon setup. It is a very compact birders lens/camera.