Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014

The winning entries in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 were announced last night at a star-studded event at the Natural History Museum attended by Sir David Attenborough and the Duchess of Cambridge no less(!). The overall winning image was 'The Last Great Picture' by Michael 'Nick' Nichols, below. It features a pride of lions, mostly sleeping, taken with an infra-red camera. I'll comment on this image shortly. The winning images can be found here.

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The Last Great Picture by Michael 'Nick' Nichols.


This time last year I wrote a blog post about the 2013 competition (here) and started a Facebook discussion (here), both of which seemed to resonate with many photographers. For those who don't want to wade though either discussion, my main grievances were the dominance of 'flagship' species (lions, tigers, polar bears, penguins etc) and the almost complete absence of insects and other invertebrates in both 2013 and 2012 competitions. Other photographers made similar points.  Whether as a direct result of these public discussions or not, two new categories were added to the 2014 competition - Amphibians and Reptiles, and Invertebrates.

So how have these changes affected the images in this year's competition? Well, I'm pleased to see that the presence of 'flagship' species amongst the 2014 winning images is notably reduced. The various category winners feature a mouse, herons, click beetle larvae, a green vine snake and so on and the competition is better for it in my opinion. Quite simply the winning images are more representative of the world's various animal taxa than they were in previous years. That has to be a good thing.

So what about the images themselves? I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first. I think the overall winning image is 'nice', but that's about it. It's a pleasant image. It doesn't grab me and I find the wonky horizon somewhat distracting (not to mention surprising!). However, having dug a little deeper into the winning images I've found there are quite a few that I really do like. Here are a selection:


Glimpse of the Underworld by Christian Vizl

Little Squid by Fabien Michenet

I think the Little Squid image above is absolutely stunning. This image must have been very technically demanding but is creative, other-worldly and highly original.


Winter Hang-Out by Lukasz Bozycki


 The Great Arrival by Sergio Pucci


Night of the Deadly Lights by Ary Bassous 


Sailing By by Matthew Smith


The Enchanted Woodland by David Lloyd

and there are others too. All of these images are interesting, original and attractive. 

Inevitably there are other images that I'm less keen on and one or two that are rather formulaic. I won't single any out but I sometimes wonder whether the judges are as familiar with previous entries to this competition as I am :) 

So overall I think this year has been an improvement on last year's competition. The winning images are more varied in terms of subject matter and include a number that I consider to be of very high quality. Those positives are inevitably tempered slightly by the overall winning image which strikes me as a rather safe and conservative choice.

Finally, a couple of disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: The above comments obviously represent my entirely subjective views. I simply speak as someone who has followed the WPOTY for many years and who holds the competition in great affection.

Disclaimer 2: By way of transparency, I should point out that I did enter this year's competition but, despite making the shortlist, I didn't make it into the winning images.



Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Marbled White Butterflies Part 1

Each summer I like to pay a visit to Ryton Wood Meadows, a Butterfly Conservation reserve that is especially good for Marbled White butterflies (note that the site is for members only).  I always enjoy photographing Marbled Whites and their absence from sites closer to home necessitates a one hour drive. This means an early start is required in order to arrive on site before the butterflies have warmed up too much.

This year I actually made 2 visits as the first, in early July, was on a particularly warm, sunny day and the butterflies were on the wing within around 45 minutes of my 6:00 AM arrival. On the plus side, the early morning sunshine provided very attractive light conditions during that short period. The second visit in mid July was on a much cooler, grey day. This meant more co-operative butterflies but less attractive light. Nothing's ever simple is it?!

The following were my favourite images from the first visit. The images from the second visit will form a later blog post.

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The first 4 images were taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Olympus 60mm macro lens:









This final image was taken with a Canon 60D and Tokina 35mm macro lens:



Friday, 10 October 2014

Wildlife Trusts Calendar 2015

I'm very pleased to have an image of mine included in the national Wildlife Trusts calendar 2015. My image is of a striking male Banded Demoiselle damselfly and represents the month of June.

The calendar features a selection of excellent images and is printed to a very high standard. It would make a great present for any wildlife lover and helps out a great cause too.




It can be purchased from Amazon or from Calendar Club.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Two Tone Pill Woodlouse

I recently found this Pill Woodlouse in my garden and wondered why its front and rear were different shades of grey. A bit of research revealed that woodlice shed their 'skin' in two halves. This individual had shed its rear but was yet to shed its front. You learn something new every day!


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Monday, 22 September 2014

Mating Damselflies

Here are 3 images of mating Blue-Tailed Damselflies, all taken this summer.

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First, a 'wide-angle macro' style image taken using my Tokina 35mm macro lens. The challenge with images such as this is to show enough background detail to illustrate the subject's habitat but not so much as to compete with the subject. Hopefully this one is about right.



This next image was taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Olympus 60mm macro lens:



And finally, another image taken with the E-M1 and 60mm macro:


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Website Updated

I've finally updated my main website (www.mattcolephotography.co.uk) and added some of my recent images to the Latest Images gallery. Each image has also been added to the relevant main gallery. I've also updated the 'Images in Print' page.

One such image is this pair of mating 22 Spot Ladybirds. I'd never previously seen a 22 Spot Ladybird in my garden so I was particularly pleased to see this pair.


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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review

The following text is taken (with permission) from my review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 published in the August issue of Wild Planet Photo Magazine.



Q1  What were your first impressions of the E-M1?

My first impressions were very positive. Compared to a DSLR, the E-M1 is small and lightweight even though it is one of the larger mirrorless cameras on the market. It is also a great looking camera with an attractive retro look that gives more than a nod to the original Olympus OM series.

Q2  Have you used a mirrorless camera system before?

No. As a result I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from the E-M1 or how it would compare to a DSLR.

Q3  In what ways is it different to your current camera system?

The size of the E-M1 is perhaps the single biggest difference to my current Canon DSLRs. The micro four thirds lenses are also very small and lightweight relative to equivalent DSLR lenses. A key reason for the diminutive size is the relatively small sensor contained within the E-M1. It measures only 17.3mm x 13mm, compared to Canon‘s APS-C sensor size of 22.2mm x 14.8mm and a full frame sensor size of 36mm x 24mm. A benefit of this smaller sensor is that the effective focal length of lenses is doubled relative to their use on a full frame body. A smaller sensor also provides greater depth of field (for an equivalent field of view) – something that appeals to me as a macro photographer.

Another key difference between the E-M1 and my current DSLRs is the presence of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the E-M1. This is perhaps the single feature of the E-M1 that concerned me the most prior to the test as I assumed the EVF would be inferior to an optical viewfinder. The EVF does take a bit of getting used to but it provides a bright and very detailed image with no discernible lag. For macro photography I also found the instant image review and the magnified view function to be very useful. After using the E-M1 for a while I became completely accustomed to the EVF.

Q4  What's it like to handle?

Despite its small size, the E-M1 is comfortable to hold due to the substantial hand grip, a feature not always present in mirrorless cameras. However the large number of buttons and dials and the fact that some of these perform multiple roles is a little daunting at first. I found it surprisingly difficult to perform fairly simple tasks such as changing the ISO, adjusting flash exposure compensation or adjusting the size of the chosen AF focal point. Fortunately the online instruction manual came to the rescue and, as ever, once you know how to change these settings they seem reasonably straightforward thereafter. In fact once I had used the E-M1 for a few hours I found it a pleasure to operate and increasingly realized that it contained an impressive range of features.

Q5  How good are the Raw files? 

A concern that I had prior to using the E-M1 was how well it would perform in low light. A downside of a smaller sensor is often noisier images and so I was keen to examine the RAW files at a range of ISO levels. I was pleasantly surprised to find noise levels to be broadly similar to those produced by my current DSLRs. The E-M1 obviously can’t compete with the latest full frame cameras in terms of low light performance, but to compete with cameras with the larger APS-C sensor is itself quite impressive. I would say that the E-M1 is capable of producing publishable images at ISO 800 and perhaps slightly beyond.

Q6  What's the most impressive feature?

One of the most impressive features of the E-M1 is the quality of the touch screen LCD and particularly the ability to auto focus (AF) and shoot using the touch screen. I rarely use AF in my macro photography and so this isn’t a feature that I was expecting to be impressed by but when photographing a static subject using a tripod, tapping the LCD screen will instantly lock the focus on that part of the subject and fire the shutter. This feature, which works in much the same way as the cameras on many mobile phones, worked amazingly well on the Olympus 60mm macro lens and the Olympus 12-50mm kit lens, both of which are dedicated micro four thirds lenses (as opposed to regular four thirds lenses which can be used on the E-M1 via an adapter).

Q7  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the standard zoom lens?

The 12-50mm kit lens is a reasonable lens but, as is typical of kit lenses, it is by no means a great lens.  Images are a little soft, particularly towards the edges at 12mm and all over at 50mm. There is also a degree of barrel distortion at 12mm and the maximum aperture is f3.5 at 12mm and a disappointing f6.3 at 50mm. On the plus side the 12-50mm range is very useful, the AF is fast and accurate and the lens is splash proof.

Q8  You shoot a lot of macro, were you happy with the results you got using the 60mm macro lens?

Yes, the Olympus 60mm macro lens produces excellent results. Images are very sharp throughout the frame with no signs of distortion or other imperfections. A slight niggle is that the choice between manual focus and AF is controlled via the camera rather than a switch on the lens itself.  However, the lens does contain a switch to limit the AF to three alternative distance ranges as well as a short cut to move straight to 1:1 i.e. the lens’ maximum magnification.

Q9  How did the image quality compare with similar shots taken with your Canon macro lenses?

The image quality is comparable to my current macro lenses. The only real differences are that the Olympus 60mm macro provides greater depth of field as a result of the E-M1’s smaller sensor and benefits from the E-M1’s in-body image stabilization.


Q10  What was the flash like in use?

The E-M1 comes with a small detachable flash which works fairly well. It is not overly powerful but seems comparable to most onboard flashes and it can act as a wireless trigger for external flashguns such as the Olympus FL-600R. Some may not like the fact that it is detachable as it's something that could accidentally be left at home but if you don’t plan to use the flash its removal keeps the camera’s size and weight to a minimum.

Q11  How do you rate the camera’s focusing and metering?

In my tests the metering of the E-M1 was accurate, reliable and consistent. It dealt with high contrast scenes in much the same way as my DLSRs do. In terms of autofocus, the E-M1 uses contrast detection via 81 focus points when using native micro four thirds lenses and this proved to be very quick and accurate on both the Olympus 60mm macro and the Olympus 12-50mm lenses. However, when using regular four thirds lenses via an adapter, the E-M1 uses 37 point phase detection. While I wasn’t able to test the AF with a regular four thirds lens, some reports suggest that it may not perform quite as well as the contrast detection AF.

Q12  What’s your main grumble with the E-M1?

I have few grumbles with the E-M1 itself but, as a macro photographer, my main gripe with the micro four thirds system in general is the lack of a macro lens with a focal length longer than 60mm. Currently no manufacturer produces such a lens for either the micro four thirds mount or the regular four thirds mount. The crop factor of the E-M1 does mean that the Olympus 60mm macro provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 120mm. However, I regularly use the Sigma 150mm macro on my Canon DSLRs which provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 240mm. This focal length provides a great deal more working distance than the Olympus 60mm macro which has to be within a few centimetres of a small subject such as a butterfly in order to produce a frame filling image. Anyone wishing to use the E-M1 with a macro lens longer than 60mm would be reliant on used lenses.

Q13  Overall, has it lived up to your expectations? 

Since I genuinely didn’t know what to expect from the E-M1 it has surpassed my expectations. It is a very enjoyable camera to use and produces excellent results.

Q14  What would you do to improve it? 

The positioning and complexity of some of the buttons, switches and menu commands took a bit of getting used to but I think this is due to the fact that the E-M1 doesn’t have a top LCD screen like my DLSRs have and also because it has an awful lot of features packed into a small body.

Q15  So, is there a place for it in your camera bag?

I am very tempted to buy an E-M1 but I think it will depend on whether I can acquire a used macro lens with a 100mm+ focal length in the four thirds mount.

My rating 
• Features 9/10. The E-M1 contains an impressive range of features for a camera of this size.
• Build quality 9/10. Build quality is excellent. The metal body of the E-M1 gives it a rugged and durable feel.
• Image quality 9/10. The E-M1 produces very high quality images and noise levels are lower than you might expect for a small sensor camera.
• Handling & Performance 8/10. It handles well once you have mastered the large number of buttons, switches and menu options.
• Value for money 8/10. The E-M1 is not a cheap camera with a price tag higher than many DSLRs.
Overall (out of 50) 43

Summary:

The E-M1 is a feature-packed camera that is small and lightweight yet delivers excellent image quality. The controls and menu options take some getting used to but, once mastered, the E-M1 is a pleasure to use. The micro four thirds lens range may constrain some uses of the E-M1 but hopefully this range will expand with time.


UPDATE: An E-M1 has indeed made its way into my camera bag along with a used Sigma 105mm macro in the full sized four thirds mount. However, I have found that I've used the Olympus 60mm macro far more than the Sigma 105.


Here are a few sample images, all taken with the Olympus 60mm macro lens: