I was recently asked if I wanted to go to Alaska for a few days of techie fun – drive around in an innovative Chevrolet Volt and shoot with the new Olympus E-P3. A new camera and cutting-edge electric car at my disposal? A dream road trip!
Since I was in Alaska to shoot with the newly launched E-P3 (Olympus E-P3 hands-on intro and video), I left my E3 dslr kit at home, but not without a little anxiety. I’ve never used an Olympus PEN system camera. I knew that if I had my pro system with me, I would shoot sparingly with the E-P3 and continue to rely on my familar camera. However, I was kitted out with three high grade lenses, and after some preliminary experimentation with the camera, I was a lot more comfortable relying on just the PEN system. It doesn’t hurt that it’s nice looking camera, either – I had the black version with the regular grip, so it felt a little more “serious” than a point-and-shoot.
The first most obvious change is that the view screen is also a touch screen. I have been looking forward to digital camera manufacturers embracing touch-screen interfaces, and it’s a welcome addition as well as an easy transition for people already using smart phones or tabloid devices. Olympus takes it further with the ability to actually focus using the touch screen. Furthermore, where the previous versions of the PEN had 11 focus areas, the EP-3 has a grid of 35 focus regions. Auto focus speed has been increased greatly, so between quick selection, focusing via the touch screen and actually being able to trigger the shutter via touch screen, accuracy and speed of capture is quite fast. It was a little confusing that the image I just shot remained on the screen, but while it processed, I could still go ahead and shoot the next frame. Viewing my photos was so much easier with the touch screen – you can swipe left and right to scroll through your shots. Very cool!
The user interface is intuitive and user-friendly with added graphics. The best example of this can be seen when scrolling through the art filters; several samples of the effect is shown on the screen so that there is no guesswork when selecting the desired result. There is an option to turn the customization menu on or off. I had the camera before the official release without an instruction booklet, though, so it took me a while to realize this. For the entire trip I relied on auto ISO; a little frustrating, since I tend to prefer to have greater control over my exposure, amount of noise reduction, and white balance. I finally did find out how to activate it after the trip, and turned this menu option on. The shots didn’t seem to suffer for leaving it up to the camera to decide which is the most important thing.
I was eager to see if Olympus had addressed an issue that I’ve had problems with along the way. I shoot mainly cars professionally, and I’ve always had a problem with red finishes posterizing and looking blotchy. To test this, I specifically called “RED!” first when picking the Volt I would drive for the trip. The TruePic VI REal Color Technology does fine tune color gradation. I didn’t notice any blotchiness in the reds of the car, though occasionally gray areas in clouds were oddly lumpy – mostly on sunny days. I was well pleased, however, that the blues in glacial fissures stayed very true to color – they are difficult to capture correctly. I was also happy with the saturation of more subtle colors, especially on gray days. Alaska in the summer time tends to be generally overcast interspersed with surprise sunny, beautiful days. It’s also known as the Land of the Midnight Sun, so a few of us took a 10:30 p.m. hike to nearby Exit Glacier in Seward. The lighting was almost dusk-like, but still had good visibility, and I got a hint of color in the slow sunset over the mountains reflected in the mostly brown outwash plain. I was also impressed with the sharpness of detail and minimal noise in the dark areas of the outwash plain.
I generally juggle at least two cameras on top of my digital kit; a Holga, and whatever else I toss in the bag – vintage, pinhole or some other random toy camera. On my smart phone, I have a few photo apps downloaded that I also like to play around with. Instead of juggling my film cameras, I scrolled through the Art Filters. To feed my Holga jones, there is the “Pinhole” filter that adds vignetting around the edges. Those that like tilt-shift effect apps will love getting high resolution images with the E-P3 using the “Diorama.” New art filter effects are White Edge, Star Light and Pale & Light Color, which can be added to other art filter effects. As much as I shy away from HDR post-processing, I found myself using the Dramatic Tone filter fairly often to accentuate the clouds and landscape.
“Scene” allows you to use presets depending on your subject matter. In this mode, “Children” and “3D” have been added as options – while I didn’t get to test either, 3D might be a desired option as it becomes more mainstream. I played around with “Landscape” mode, but generally preferred the results shooting the awesome Alaskan landscape in regular old P mode. The Fireworks setting works really well if the camera is used with a tripod, and I got this shot of the Macy’s fireworks on American Independence Day after returning to NY.
Olympus sent along two different Zuiko zoom lenses – a 14-150mm and a 75-300mm that is compatible with the movie feature. I tended not to use the kit lens or fabulous snap-focus wide-angle lens (it’s better for street-shooting in NYC), and instead used the 14-150mm the most on this trip; it provided enough range shooting the people around me, landscape, and then a zoom when needed. As we were getting our quick safety lesson before kayaking the Kenai Fjords, a Bald Eagle settled in a tree right by us. The zoom was able to get in close enough for a decent, clear close-up shot of the eagle before it took off to find food over the water. The E-P3 is not waterproof, so I kept it in a wet bag strapped to the kayak and used it sparingly.
After spending a sunny, gorgeous morning kayaking, we took a helicopter to Godwin Glacier for a hike. Our guide told us that the main rule in Alaska is, “Don’t fall.” If we fall into a fissure on the glacier, we will have to be “extracted.” If we are “extracted,” that means you generally don’t come out alive. I wanted to come off the glacier alive, and as we stepped – as gingerly as one can with metal crampons strapped onto one’s feet – along a foot-wide strip of ice between two deep fissures, I was so very happy that the PEN system is so small and light that a quick correction to the left or right wouldn’t throw off my equilibrium and send me tumbling to certain extraction. While the body is metal, it is small and sturdy. Since the camera is so small, the scaled-down but powerful lenses keep the system compact. A heavy, bulky dslr plus a 12-60mm lens would have been more likely to swing around and compromise my balance.
I switched to the 75-300mm lens on the 6-hour Kenai Fjords cruise so I could zoom in real close to breaching whales and other wildlife along the rocky fjords. Framing with the view screen is still manageable with the 14-150mm lens, but I highly recommend getting the electronic viewfinder to use with the 75-300mm. The zoom is so extreme that you not only need the precision of the viewfinder, you simply need the camera to be braced against something. There were 99 other people on the cruise also trying to take photos of the fleeting wildlife, so a tripod was simply not an option. I was able to brace the camera against the boat’s rails and get some fin and tail shots of Humpback, Orca and Fin Whales. Still, I think I would have achieved better framing results if I had the electronic viewfinder. I used the movie function to capture the breathtaking Humpback whale “bubble net” feeding. I really enjoyed the option of making a moving image but it is a big draw on the battery. My battery was fully charged at the start of the cruise, and by the end, after lots of autofocus and two short movies, my battery was already depleted and showing red on the screen. I still had a drive from Seward back to Anchorage, and I wanted to take some more shots of the Volt along the way. I did pull over and get the shots I wanted, but it was a little tense knowing that any second my battery would die. For those important trips and moments, definitely bring a second charged battery along.
Above Photo: ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/320 sec., Focal length: 156mm
All-in-all, this is a really great camera option for pro shooters who don’t want to drag around their heavy kits, or advanced amateurs who want more control over camera functions and lens quality. I’m seriously considering getting one to keep in my bag as an every-day camera – the quality of the 12 megapixel images is so much better than my old 8 megapixel E-300 that is currently my take-everywhere shooter. Like regular dslrs, PEN cameras have the option to shoot RAW, JPEG, or RAW+JPEG. I shot the latter. All of the photos shown are the JPEG version because the software isn’t available yet to process RAW files. The quality of the JPEG files is quite good, and it will be interesting to see what the RAW files offer once I’m able to process them – especially in the cases where my clouds are oddly blobby. In all likelihood, this was a once-in-a-liftetime trip, and all of my great experiences and memories were aptly captured with the E-P3.
Megan’s Olympus E-P3 Alaskan Adventure Photo Gallery
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