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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christmas came early: Olympus E-1 + Zuiko 50 ED F2 Macro

For the last 2 years I've embarked on a "vintage digital" hobby. That is to say, purchasing and shooting with the top-shelf DSLRs of yesteryear which are no longer considered competitive or relevant vis-a-vis modern digital bodies (or perhaps I should even say current year models considering how rapid body turnover is nowadays, with SONY as a case in point).

Last year for Christmas I bought myself an EOS 1D MK IIn body for a bargain price which had been heavily used but shoots (and still shoots) great. It clocks in at around 8.1 megapixels, and I've actually managed to get a few images accepted at Shutterstock; so it can still hold its own. The build quality is gorgeous (full magnesium weather-sealed body), and it's well-balanced like a precision firearm. This is actually my primary vintage-digital snapshooter. I actually prefer the images from this camera over more modern crop cameras such as the T3i or SL1. Image-wise, I will always prefer images from the 5D classic though. It was magic when I first bought it, and is still magical. Anyhow, today's post is about Olympus E-1, so I'll write and post images from the EOS 1D MK IIn some other time.

====Olympus E-1====

I browse all the major used camera sites--KEH, Adorama, resellers on Amazon--from time to time just for fun. Sometimes I'll buy stuff, such as the 1D MK IIn last year.

One day I ran across an Olympus E-1 body selling for a little less than $60. There were actually a dozen E-1 bodies, with condition ranging from torn-to-crap to very good. I snagged the very good copy as this year's Christmas present to myself. After I checked the shutter count (almost 400,000 shots!), it's obvious this baby got used, probably by a pro, but the exterior body was in superb condition. I figure that if I can clock about 6,000 shots before the camera goes kaput, that'll have been a penny a shot, which is still a bargain in my book.

In hand, it's just a marvelous camera. Total magnesium body, great haptics, and solid mechanical switches, dials, and controls. Olympus back in 2000 sought to make a new breed of digital camera to compete with Canon and Nikon. You can tell that they put everything they had into this camera. I was ecstatic to pick up something which originally costed $1699 at release for pennies on the dollar. Build quality on modern cameras are just not of this grade, unless you spend $5,000-8,000 on the top-end stuff; but I'd rather spend that on a budget car for my kids.

The shutter is silent and the balance of the body actually lends itself to shooting at low shutter speeds even though it does not have image stabilization built in. I'll have to make a video about this later to show you. 

Those who have been spoiled by the technology of recent years--AF microadjustment, 60 to 160 discrete focus points, live view, etc.--may not like how primitive this camera may seem. Olympus did not have a professional grade focus system in place that could rival Canon or Nikon in 2000. So there are only 3 AF points: left, right, and center. On top of that, they are not visible at all in the viewfinder, so you have to get used to "feeling" where the focus point is. Given that, I have not found the lack of multiple focus points to be that great of a hindrance. I've manually set the camera to shot center point AF only, and then utilize the focus-and-recompose method of shooting. 

The miniscule rear LCD screen is useless for checking focus accuracy, lighting, or anything else. However, even the technologically superior 5D classic's LCD didn't do much better. With this generation of DSLRs, you just had to do the best you could in camera and then check all these things when you uploaded the flash cards to your computer. While the E-1 will miss focus every so often, I find that taking a few extra "safety shots" solves the problem. 

It's only 5 megapixels, but like the 1D MK IIn, every single pixel is a quality pixel. Camera makers back then weren't just pumping up the pixels every 6 months to impress the soccer moms and dads; every pixel had relevance. 

===Zuiko 50 ED F2 Macro===

Now that I had the E-1 body in hand, I needed some good glass to go with it. I had seen some pretty impressive street photography done with the Zuiko 50 ED F2 Macro, but $500 new on Amazon was a little steep. Fortunately, I was able to get a like-new copy used for about 1/2 that. It absolutely sings as a portrait lense.

With the release of the EM-1, old Zuiko 4/3 glass is once again becoming relevant, and I expect used prices to gradually rise (as has been the case with ALT lenses since mirrorless bodies became more competitive and numerous). There is still some very good Zuiko 4/3 glass out there that can occasionally be had for a bargain, but right now I think I'll just keep the 50 F2 mated to the E-1 as an everyday portrait shooter. 

And now for a few pictures!

The E-1 + 50 F2 is not the quickest, but can acquire focus in about one second. There will some hunting from time-to-time. The best method is to get some separation between the subject and the background, and most of your shots will be in focus. So far it's been marvelous for candid shots. Plus the equivalent 100mm distance allows me to be across the room and hence not influence my subjects as much.

As you can see with this last one, the center focus point of course focused smack dab on the nutcracker's nose, which was ostensibly in the center. I tried a couple pictures toggling either the left or right focus points and could not get the eyes in focus. That said, for distances a little further than this, focus acquisition works just fine, and F2 can tolerate a bit of shift with no problems or loss of sharpness.

This was shot at ISO 100, F2, 1/10 handheld in a dark restaurant with no off-camera strobe. If I had planned the shot and told the subjects to stay still, I'm certain I could've gotten results just as sharp as an outdoor shot. 

*I no longer post full-resolution images, as they tend to get pirated and put on other sites. However, I will say that I've already made some 8 x 10 prints with these images and they turned out superb. I could probably go at least twice as large before I'd see any artifacts. You don't actually need tons of megapixels, you need quality megapixels.

===Final Thoughts===

While there have been some very attractive deals on Thanskgiving, Black Friday, and as we get nearer to Christmas, such as the LF1, Olympus mini PENs, etc., I still felt the ~$250 I spent was well worth it. While those modern bodies have alot of cutting-edge functions, they often lack in haptics, build quality, and other areas. From my handling of them in stores, they just aren't made to last. World-class quality, even from a decade ago, is still world-class quality. Right now I'm enjoying these vintage digital bodies like fine wine. If I can shoot these bodies for another 5-10 years, I'll be able to get the top-end bodies of today for pennies on the dollar once again in another 10 years. 

Merry Christmas from Mastering Microstock, and happy shooting!

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