A need for change – moving to micro 4/3

Although I can spend countless hours watching and waiting for ‘the moment’ in nature with butterflies, bees, lizards and anything else that moves or grows, my patience with life in general is limited, especially with myself: I need change, challenges and my spirits sink with the humdrum. One of the many reasons I love natural history is that there are so many opportunities for those small things that bring joy and mean that life is never dull and they cost nothing.

 

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One of the first pictures I took with the new Panasonic GH4 fitted with the Laowa 15mm f/4 wide angle macro. This is the Piano Grande in Italy’s Sibillini National Park one of my favourite places and just right to try out new gear.

Given that side of my disposition, I found that spending two weeks in a hospital bed, back in March of this year, nearly drove me insane, in spite of superb care on the part of medical staff and Lois’s daily ministrations. I had to be firm to leave knowing that the therapeutic value of the morning chorus was infinitely better than the slightly deleterious effect of going home with my drainage tubes and catheter intact… However, during that period of enforced immobility I had a lot of time to think about where life in general was going and about future projects. They say it is s a consequence of getting older (and perhaps of having illnesses that could have been far worse than they were) that one gets a sense of time being precious. Things simply cannot be put off until tomorrow, next week, next month or even a year hence – it is a question of carpe diem, seizing the day for who knows what the future brings? With that sense of time being just that bit limited and the knowledge that one was not mortal certain pictures and directions began to emerge.

 

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Yellow tulips (Tulipa australis) in the ever-present wind high above the Piano Grande – I had never seen them in greater profusion and hit the timing perfectly. Taken again with the Laowa 15mm f/4 wide-angle macro fitted with a Metabones speed booster: this produces an equivalent focal length of 19.2mm. I shall write about my experiences with this brilliant optical device soon.

In my film days I had flirted with a number of camera outfits and formats searching for the Holy Grail of absolute sharpness and the Nirvana of equipment that did all I wanted. I moved from Canon to Olympus to Nikon on the 35mm side and then Bronica to various Mamiya cameras on the roll film front. My camera bag through, a chronic indecision capability (from which I still suffer) often weighed more than 20 kg and contained two outfits – sometimes there were two and more bags. It has been clear to me for a long time that I needed to lighten up and not just when it came to camera bags! Almost 3 years ago I made an attempt to do this with a mirrorless camera in the shape of the Sony NEX7 with its 24 MP APS-C sensor – a machine capable of stunning results. Although reviews (never believe them) lauded the logical nature of its menus and functions I found that they left great deal to be desired and were not in tune with the way I thought. I would not class myself as a Luddite and have used computers since they depended on punch cards, have built many electronic devices and have a very strong technical background. However, I was frequently flummoxed and found that settings simply would not stay where I had put them – they were far too easy to change accidentally. On the positive side I liked the much lighter weight of the camera and the fact that, via adapters, I could use a huge range of legacy lenses.

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The sight of the Lady’s Slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) fills me with an overwhelming feeling of privilege at being able to see this rarity. As a kid in the UK it was simply a dream. One of the loveliest sites I know is beside a rushing cold mountain torrent visited just a few days ago. Laowa 15mm f/4

Back in 2014 I had the chance of looking at some Panasonic GH3 cameras that a friend and top wildlife filmmaker, Marco Andreini, had used for his remarkable documentaries. Here were instruments capable of superb stills work but also allowing me to expand into video work. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time and there is only historical precedent… When I quit the shores of Great Britain for the first time back in 1978, I had no intention of ever going back to teaching and thus cashed in some of my teachers pension to purchase three folio sized works on orchids and a Bolex 16mm cine camera. Whilst in Cyprus, I did quite a bit of filming work for the television but it subsequently became very expensive when one had to fund one’s own ventures and shoot on print stock to have rough prints made first. I did no more when I returned to the UK and made a mistake of entering the independent school system in a series of teaching and pastoral roles which left me with no time, energy nor enthusiasm for dealing with the moving image. But that is another story…

Nowadays, of course, computer technology allows us to take control and I have  long had the intention of documenting many of those aspects of insect behaviour and other things that I see on a day-to-day basis in and around my home in Italy. The idea has been to produce a documentary with a slightly autobiographical slant. The hospital stay made me determined that this was something to do sooner rather than later and thus, when my son came out to Italy with his family recently, he brought with him a brand-new Panasonic GH4. That was about a fortnight ago and since that time I have made tentative forays into getting to know the camera. I have done this reasonably slowly for I hate being in the position where I have to think too much in the field about what I’m doing technically. The menus (and a control system with wheels and buttons) is far more logical than the Sony NEX7 ever was and the range of capabilities for both still and video work is astonishing. It is a camera that is much used for professional work, especially in the moving picture world. It is no slouch for still either – a professional machine for both worlds.

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Pheasant’s Eye (Narcissus poeticus) on the Piano Grande

I shall write much more about it as time progresses and permits but, thus far, I have found a renewed energy and enthusiasm for many things to do with nature photography. As a first foray into dealing with this camera I’ll put some notes under a few headings below.

Quality of build

The first thing that impressed me on handling the Panasonic GH4 is that it is a thing of technical beauty – there is a feel of solidity and of great quality even though this is a small camera and I have fairly large paws. It is laid out in terms of controls by people who obviously knew what they were doing at the design stage. Essential functions such as; ISO, white balance, exposure compensation all have their own separate small buttons placed where it is not easy to hit them accidentally. There are various function buttons, one of which quickly accesses the various focusing aids that I now find essential: enlarged image portions and image peaking. I use a battery of legacy lenses and these have to be focused carefully by hand.

Image quality

I’m staggered by the image quality having already ignored those supported online authorities who maintain that the 16MP sensor is disadvantageous when compared with the 24 and more megapixels of other sensors. I have a feeling that most of these pundits seldom venture outside their locked cells into the real world of field imagery and trot out “facts” with an authority that the information certainly does not deserve: the more rubbish they spout the more certain they seem, to be. It is generally like this in the world of macro photography where so-called ‘experts’ know the proverbial ‘diddly squat’ about those things of which they write – image resolution, diffraction, magnification and depth of field. I often wonder how many of them actually take images that might stand muster when the rest of us examine them. This might seem a very dismissive attitude to take but then I have been around for some time, shall we say, and have a strongly technical background which includes a lot of optics theory and practice. I have spent my life trying to squeeze the optimal definition and greatest possible depth of field, fighting against the physical limits imposed by diffraction and have tried every trick in the book (and created some) to create the impression of biting sharpness and rendition of detail. It is what I like – I am not a soft focus ‘in the name of art’ kind of guy. I admire a handful of people who can do this work extremely well but so many of their camp followers cannot and generate what one might technically term an unmitigated load of faecal material.

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Another flowering plant of Cypripedium – this year quite a few of the plants seemed to be ‘blind’

The quality of the raw images that I have obtained from the GH4, with its 4/3 picture ratio is incredible – remember this is a sharpness and definition fanatic talking. I can easily produce large prints from this instrument and, when needed, can use Perfect Resize (the Genuine Fractals successor) should I want even larger displays. The reality is that most of us do not need large prints even for exhibition purposes where one might be trying to sell imagery. Most people do not have the wall size. The way in which this camera handles the information produced by the sensor is truly remarkable – even on enlargement to 200% when dealing with images in Lightroom 6 I do not get an impression of graininess and definition is maintained with extreme precision. Colour rendition and contrast is as good as I could possibly want. Although I have a battery of macro lenses from Sigma and Nikon I also purchased a dedicated 60mm Olympus lens manufactured for Micro 4/3. I have always obtain great things from lenses produced by Olympus – they are, after all, desirable microscopes makers of some of the most desirable microscopes on earth. This small lens is beautiful – results are excellent and it is beautifully made. Although it has the usual focus on a wire system it feels like a precisely machined mechanical thread with just the right resistance to facilitate focusing. In fact, when I sold my Olympus film outfit and changed to Nikon (because of the autofocus capability that Olympus did not seem keen on developing) I kept a full set of the exquisite Olympus macro lenses made for bellows use with each dedicated to a particular range of magnifications. I have long used them via home-made adapters on all sorts of rigs I have made to which Nikon bodies have been attached. Now a Panasonic body will do the job for me.

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A quick shot with a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens made by Olympus for micro 4/3 – bitingly sharp and very well made in spite of being more plastic than metal.

Capabilities

I have to emphasise that I’m strictly a novice when it comes to using this camera and I seriously doubt that I will ever exploit all of its capabilities. Thus far, I have found the menu structure far easier to grasp than that created by Sony for their NEX7 camera. It can certainly do what I want to in the field when it comes to stills – and a great deal more. My experience of electronic viewfinders thus far has been one of disappointment even when “Internet pundits” have declared how close some manufacturers’ EVF is to the optical version. Here, for the very first time is an electronic viewfinder that is absolutely superb – even when using magnified portions of the image. It has an image intensifying system that enables you to view bright images even when a macro lens is stopped down and this is an incredible focusing aid when coupled with the image peaking, where edges are outlined in a colour when they are in sharp focus. The viewfinder shows you the result you will get and I have found that I need to do an absolute minimum of adjustments when I process results in Lightroom 6 whereas the Nikon D 7100 cameras and the Sony NEX 7 need just that bit of twiddling to get on screen what I saw originally… The crop factor of x2 is a distinct plus when it comes to macro work and depth of field.

 

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Corncockle (Agrostemma githago) one of the few consolations for some prospecting for a tour to start tomorrow…in the rain.

Legacy lenses

Thus far, I have just two dedicated Micro 4/3 lenses and am reliant  upon a collection of what are lovingly termed “legacy lenses”. I have never skimped when it comes to lenses all of which I bought with the highest optical resolution in mind – the result is that my various macro lenses and the wide-angles capture more than enough detail to generate pin-sharp images on a small sized sensor. For sometime I have used a Laowa 15 mm F/4 wide-angle macro lens for a lot of my work and have written extensively about it on this blog and in the photographic press. It is a very sharp lens but people do find that having to set aperture and to focus manually are troublesome, especially if they have always been able to rely upon fully  electronicall-coupled lenses. As I have said before, it is a lens that pays the taking of care and the bright, pin- sharp viewfinder image produced by the Panasonic GH4 is helping me get the precision that I demand in wide-angle macro work.

And so…

I do not want to jump to conclusions at this early stage and wax too lyrical but… I do feel that the leap I have taken to a smaller format is going to open far more to me then would have the purchase of yet another Nikon camera such as the D500 or D810. They have excellent image quality (which I have already) plus many bells and whistles that I do not need for the kind of work I do. I am not into male cosmetic jewellery, just cameras that do a job… I have already taken a few video samples and can see that this is going to be something from which I shall derive huge pleasure and hope that I can share it with others of like mind who will get thrill from seeing things in nature to the extent that I do.

I shall post more in due course but finish off by saying but I am very grateful to one of Italy’s inest cameramen, Marco Andreini and, at a distance across the pond, to Rob Sheppard who made that leap to micro 4/3 before I did. Their superb work and writings convinced me that I should spend my hard earned shekels on a camera like a Panasonic GH4 and revolutionise the way I work…and why not? It was a toss-up with the Olympus OM1 D but the video capability of the GH4 swayed me. I shall try not to disappoint in the material that I generate and that is always a spur – especially as I really do feel excited by this change of direction. It was during the aftermath period when convalescing from surgery that I felt utterly devoid of energy and, very rarely for me (and a bit worryingly) devoid of enthusiasm: iwas annoyed with me for not being ‘superman’… I am not a believer in the therapy of spending money but this is one time that I can and will make an exception.

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