This is the second of a four-part series discussing the technical side of photography.
There are many occasions where I find regular photographs just don’t do. Perhaps the dynamic range is too great, or the vibe of the scene is somehow just not transferring through my lens. A great photographer may be able to employ raw artistic talent to overcome such obstacles — having an eye for the right moment and getting just the right composition. Those things are certainly important, and I don’t intend to downplay them. However, whatever quantity of those sorts of talent I may have, or skill in teaching them, I’m not going to struggle to address them today. Instead, I want to talk about using Olympus cameras’ technical functions as valuable tools that can help in those situations.
Like in many things, there are purists in photography who only want to focus on artistic talent. I do largely agree that focusing on the essence of a thing can be very important. However, I personally don’t believe one should be constrained by that pursuit alone. I don’t suggest that technical skill (or the techniques that I will be describing) is more important than artistic talent; but I do hope to show that when used in conjunction, technique can enhance artistic talent, and open more opportunities for artistic exploration. After all, a painter cannot master painting without mastering the brush first. The same goes for photographers and cameras. Not learning how to use all of the capabilities of the camera would be like a painter not knowing how to use certain colors.
Using technique to supplement art means that the photographer should still attend to artstic aspects of good photography, such as subject, exposure and composition. Technical capabilities should be used to enhance an already good photo, not dress up a bad one. It is certainly true that one can find on the internet countless examples of how some of the techniques I will describe have been used clumsily (hopefully you don’t count mine among them), and this is where much of the critique against them come from. But as long as we are pursuing “good” photography, that is no reason to avoid them.
There is probably no better example to start off with than the Olympus Art Filters (“Art” on the mode dial). Photographers, even many dedicated Olympus users, have tended to dismiss them as gimmicks for years. However, I have seen a general awakening to their merits in the small µ4/3 community I am a part of. Once a few started posting examples of them and what they can do, many photographers on that forum who used to hate them are now realizing their potential. For me, the art filters are every bit as valid of an option in my artistic toolkit as — say — black and white photography, in some cases even more so.
The different effects of the art filters open up new photographic opportunities. They can make more interesting images possible, or overcome a situational hurdle that would hinder standard photography. They can be used to single out or accentuate a particular aspect of the image. Much of that can be replicated with powerful post processing software, but why bother when the out-of-camera results are instantaneous and so satisfying?
Just like when choosing to use black-and-white, the best way to approach the use of art filters is to consider how the scene can be enhanced, perhaps zeroing in on a particular characteristic, and choosing an appropriate filter to accentuate it. For example, I went to Ireland in 2014 to practice landscape photography, but for most of the trip the skies were gloomy and overcast. The lighting made the pictures flat at best, and overexposed the sky at worst. Switching to the Dramatic Tone art filter brought out amazing contrast in the skies, and was a perfect look for Ireland’s rough landscape and castle ruins. In some cases, employing it completely changed the feel of the scene. I used this filter often during the entire trip, and some of my favorite landscape images were taken with it.
Another filter I have a particular fondness for is Key Line. In 2015 I did some street shooting both at Seattle’s Pike Place Market and at the San Antonio River Walk. I am admittedly not much of a street photographer, so I am not sure these qualify, but I felt my use of the Key Line art filter provided ambience I wasn’t capturing otherwise. The starburst effect on the highlights was an additional option set in the filter’s sub menu. There are several such interesting effects hidden in the Art menus, which are deeper than one might think at first glance — offering dozens of different optional effects for each filter.
The Partial Color art filter provided a means to draw the eye to a certain focus point, much like blurred backgrounds can be used. Back to Ireland 2014, I wanted to capture the vast scale of the mountainous landscape of Connemara National Park. I did some panoramas, but my favorites utilized the Diorama art filter, which played with the depth perception to nice effect.
I suspect all of the art filters can yield interesting results in the right conditions. The only way to unlock these matches is to experiment with the various effects in different situations. One trick I use is to shoot JPEG+RAW when I am using the art filters (I don’t normally see the need to do so otherwise) so that I have a filtered JPEG image as well as a normal RAW image, and I can choose which I like better. This method is also useful in that it keeps me from getting too caught up in the filter’s effects. Since I am still seeing the normal photo, I keep myself grounded in the standard photographic principals. Art Bracketing (a camera burst that takes one shot with each filter, and can also include the Scene Mode options) is another method for exploration. It can quickly flood the memory card with dozens of versions of the same shot each time the shutter button is pressed, however, so be sure to select only the filters you want to see beforehand. A second trick is that art filters can also be applied in-camera after they are taken. Simply go into the playback mode and press “OK” to call up the sub menu with the picture you want to edit. The “Edit JPEG” option will make the filters available. This is a more time-consuming method than the one above, but can be a useful option for a scene that in retrospect would have benefited with a filter. There is also a third option with OI Share, described at the end of this post.
When I go back through my JPEG+RAW or art bracketed images on my computer at home, I try to not choose too many images of one style. Too much of anything can become tiresome, and the art filters are no exception. Over-reliance on any one technique can also stifle artistic imagination and growth. In situations like the Ireland trip, where the gloomy weather made “normal” travel photography flat, there were other solutions that I also utilized. I zoomed in on close objects, or found ways to make a bit of color offset the grey skies.
As I mentioned before, many of the effects of the art filters can be applied in post processing. For example, I occasionally may choose to change color pictures to black-and-white for aesthetic reasons. While it is rare for me to do this, in Ireland it proved useful to negate the gloom of the overcast skies. I never shoot black-and-white to begin with, because it is too easy to change to black-and-white from a color picture, but not the reverse. Also, as a photographer who strives to bring out amazing images of nature, color is very important to my personal style. Many photographers skilled in post processing could have even swapped out the overcast skies for prettier ones in Photoshop, but my photo editing set up is very basic — a conscious choice at this point — and I don’t have that capability.
High Dynamic Range (HDR):
While HDR photography is rather popular in the mainstream, many photographers profess loathing for it, for much of the same purist reasoning I described above. What most of the detractors really dislike, however, is actually Tone Mapping, an optional subset of HDR processing that can give an over-saturated yet low-contrast look. It can be striking, but also quite surreal, and most people either like the effect or hate it. While Tone Mapping can take on a wide variety of effects – some similar to a few of the Olympus art filters (particularly Dramatic Tone), the Olympus HDR function such as found on the E-M1 is not doing Tone Mapping in-camera. Any tone mapping would be done manually in post processing using specialized software.
HDR in itself is actually a very useful feature, meant to compensate for a technical deficiency found in all cameras. The problem is dynamic range — the measure of the range from light to darkness (highlights to shadows) a camera can expose all at once. Like all light exposure measurements in photography, it is measured in f-stops (meaning the doubling or halving an amount of light), and the equivalent setting for the camera is called exposure value (ev). The human eye, without factoring in dilation, has a dynamic range of 10–14 f-stops, approximately 24 f-stops if given time to adjust. Camera sensors cannot yet reach these levels, although technology is constantly improving. When a scene’s dynamic range is greater than the camera can manage, the shadows will be completely black and/or the highlights completely white (depending on how the camera’s exposure was set), with no detail information recorded within them.
HDR is a trick that allows the camera to shoot at greater dynamic range, and should primarily be used when light and shadowed portions of a scene are too starkly in contrast for the camera to expose all of it. The camera fires an automatic burst of several shots at different exposure value intervals above and below the normally metered shot. In the case of the E-M1, those shots will then be merged in-camera (if using HDR mode 1 or 2 — see below), or they can be merged with specialized software in post processing (using any of the other options). While most cameras have exposure bracketing in their menus, the E-M1 has a very convenient button that calls it up immediately, and offers options for the number of shots taken and the exposure value intervals used. Generally, I have found that taking three shots at o ev, -3 ev, and +3 ev is enough for most situations, offering an expanded dynamic range of 6 additional f-stops, generally putting the picture’s dynamic range on par with that of the human eye. Thus, the resulting image can be more true to real life than what the camera could capture otherwise.
It’s important to re-emphasize that highlights will be brighter and shadows darker when not using HDR, so consider taking a normal shot as well, to choose whether the normal or HDR level of contrast is preferable. If no highlights and/or shadows are clipped, it may be better to use a normal shot (particularly if you are shooting RAW format, which has much more dynamic range that JPEG) and alter the lighting in post process. Turning on the Highlight and Shadow option by pressing the Info button while looking through the EVF allows the camera one or two different means to show if you are clipping the exposure, either through a small histogram on the bottom of the screen, and/or by “blinkies” highlighting the clipped areas. The “blinkies” function is not on by default, and needs to be enabled in the Menu by going into the Gears Tab, selecting Built-in EVF, then Info Settings, and check the Highlight and Shadows box for any of the three Info custom sets (the histogram and a level gauge are also options). If you enable more than one custom EVF set (up to three), you can then cycle through the views by repeatedly pressing the Info button.
When using Olympus’ out-of-camera HDR options (not HDR 1 or 2), one of the images taken will represent the median of the exposures taken — what the camera would have chosen as the proper exposure if left to meter automatically — so in these modes it is easy to see if a normal shot would have sufficed. The in-camera modes don’t really give you this option. HDR 1 is subtle in its implementation, and creates close to life-like contrast levels anyway, but HDR 2 is meant for more extreme lighting conditions and is much more aggressive in its averaging out of contrast. If the dynamic range of the shot wasn’t equally extreme to begin with, the lights and shadows will be very even and the colors will look washed out. Both HDR 1 and 2 only provide a JPEG (RAW files are not possible), while the out-of-camera options provide differently exposed files of any format(s), depending on your settings, which can then be combined in software like Photomatix Pro to create an ORF file. I like the HDR 1 and 2 modes for convenience, but when I am shooting a scene where it is important to me to get it right, I prefer the added flexibility of using the out-of-camera modes.
Another point about Olympus’ HDR capabilities is that with the image stabilization of the E-M1, I can get a sharp HDR image even hand-held. The outer edges may need to be cropped a tiny bit, but its a negligible problem. The in-camera HDR 1 and 2 functions handle this fine as well. It goes without saying, however, that tripod use will still provide sharper shots.
The Scene mode on the Mode dial is actually just a set of shortcuts. They adjust the various settings of the camera to be optimized for a particular situation or look. For the most part, the same settings can be adjusted in the Super Control Panel in any mode, and of course they can be replicated in post processing. Naturally, the result will be a JPEG, since by definition none of these settings apply to RAW files. Fortunately, Olympus JPEGs are extremely good out-of-camera. That said, JPEG+RAW can be used to get one of each, if desired. Also as mentioned, the various Scene options can also be bracketed to get multiple versions of the same shot.
Studying the effects of Scene Mode can help a new photographer determine what sort of settings can create what effects. Its simply a matter of finding an appealing picture and then checking the settings to see how it was created.
Scene Mode is one area where I feel Olympus could provide a bit deeper implementation; with a little creativity and forethought, there is some flexibility to be had. The defaults are fine for starters, and they can be modified by going into the Picture Mode menu in Shooting Menu 2. That said, I think it would be interesting for Olympus to go all-out with them and merge this feature with the MySets feature, allowing for even greater flexibility for any situation by allowing autofocus and shooting modes to be recorded as well. While I am getting slightly off-topic here, the MySets feature saves all settings on the camera at the time to a pre-set for immediate call-back. This is useful if a photographer oftentimes revisits the situation where those settings were needed. In that way, it is not much different than Scene Mode, although a bit more intimidating to implement and limited to only “MySets 1-4.”
The Panorama option creates a border on both ends of the viewfinder, delineating the overlap the photographer should leave between shots, to ensure there is enough for stitching. The downsides are that it only does this in Landscape orientation (no Portrait orientation photos can be stitched), and no vertical panoramas are possible. Furthermore, it does not stitch the photos together in-camera, but instead requires Olympus Viewer. Due to these limitations, and because I use Hugin as my stitching software, I don’t tend to use this mode.
Be aware of the last four Scene options in the menu; Fisheye, Wide Angle, Macro and 3D. The first three are for use with lens adapters (mfcon-x), which must be purchased separately and only fit the two 14-42mm, 14-150mm, and 40-150mm (non-Pro) lenses. There are two other macro settings in the scene menu, which can be used with other macro hardware. Fisheye lenses also do not need to use this setting. The 3D setting is only for use with a 3D lens.
Photo Story mode is an option on the mode dial that does nothing to change the nature of the photograph, only how it is presented. If any of the menu items discussed here should be considered a gimmick, perhaps this is the closest to it. But, that’s not to say it should be avoided. It is most useful for sharing images over email or social media by adding frames and layout for selected pictures. My wife and I use it as a fun way to share experiences in real-time while traveling or with friends by utilizing the WiFi on our E-M1 to transfer the pictures to a mobile device. To be sure, there are plenty of third party apps that can do a lot more with framing, but for quick convenience this mode works very well.
When using Photo Story, the layout and frames are chosen beforehand, and the pictures are then added as they are taken (although any of them can be rejected if desired), and the finished layout has to be approved before saving. If shooting JPEG+RAW, a normal version of each photo is also recorded. While we tend to use Story Mode in bars and restaurants, its more useful than that. Imagine using the two- or three-panel side-by-side layout for comparison shots, or to show progression or motion.
Olympus OI Share:
OI Share is an add-on app for mobile devices, and is relevant to this thread because it ties together many of the features discussed here, and offers a few more options. For casual travel use, it is extremely useful and fun. Primarily, it offers wireless connectivity to compatible cameras, allowing the user to upload photos or control the camera (though not quite to the same level as Olympus Capture). The remote option can be a good way to be in a photo without using the timer mode, allowing for more careful composition and timing. It can also add Geotags by keeping a log of locational data and later matching it with the time a photo was taken. This is another useful travel feature, but the mobile device and the feature must be turned on when the picture is taken, which can reduce battery life.
There is also an Edit Photo menu, with some useful (and some not so useful) features that mostly cannot be found on Olympus Viewer 3. It does not have any standard editing controls. The most useful option in my opinion is the ability to “watermark,” the Edit Photo menu option that looks like a quill. (I use this is quotes because I have no idea how easy it is for thieves to remove the resulting script.) Using the signature tool in the lower right-hand corner of the Edit Photo mode, you can write hand-written or typed words with plenty of font options. The results can be colored, sized and positioned any way you want, and is saved for later use. Olympus Viewer 3 can do this too, but I find OI Share’s interaction with Apple Photos works better on the iPad than Olympus Viewer 3 does on the desktop. There are also several pre-designed Olympus logos, one of which (the OM-D logo) I use on my online avatar. A different menu option, available only to shots taken in Story Mode and chosen by selecting the same icon, can apply different graffiti, circles and arrows to the picture – mostly just various ways to point or highlight a portion of the picture. These shapes can be sized and positioned and come in red, black or white. Admittedly, I’ve never used the Photo Story graffiti, and while I do use the scripting tool, i’ve never used the hand-written feature. I might have found Olympus OI Share’s feature set more useful if it offered various picture frame styles to be applied to the photos, and perhaps the ability to put regular photos into a Story Mode configuration after the fact, but these options are currently not available.
However, there is one other option of great use on Olympus OI Share’s Edit Photo menu, and that is the ability to apply the same Art Filters and Scene Modes from the camera onto any photo after the fact. This is a great way to try out different effects without having to bracket a bunch of versions of the same shot. If you use Olympus OI Share often, this obviates the need to go into the in-camera Art Mode at all. Even the firmware updated filters such as Partial Color are available, displaying a slider bar on the side for selecting the color to isolate.