Olympus 75mm F1.8 review
As the tag line on this site proclaims, Pattaya is an extra-ordinary place. And it is extra-ordinary not because of the surrounding temples or flower gardens or other attractions; it’s extra-ordinary because of the people on the streets.
Anywhere in Thailand has life on the streets; Bangkok is teeming with it. But only Pattaya has the unique mix of normal Thai life, intermingled with abnormal Thai life in the form of street hookers, assorted mafia and Thais of many persuasions drawn here to make a living from the tourist trade. Then there are the foreigners; guys looking for fun, couples and families looking for a beach holiday, and residents trying to live a life in this most strange of cities.
With my wife working, the opportunity to travel has all but disappeared over the last year. I still want to take photographs; but there is only so much you can do with a temple or some flowers; and here is is this weird, wonderful city just waiting to be photographed; what was I waiting for?
Never one to refrain from blaming my equipment, turns out that what I was waiting for was the Olympus 75mm F1.8.
In general, the good-natured Thais don’t mind being photographed. It’s a tourist town and if you point a camera at a beach vendor they will either ignore you or give you a smile. But if you point a camera at a hooker or a pimp, or one of the less desirable characters that frequent the streets; then you could be heading for trouble and a reduction in the number of teeth. Less dangerous, but frustrating, point a camera at a Thai for a candid shot and, if they notice you, you will be rewarded by a huge grin and a V for Victory sign; not exactly what you were hoping to capture. Take the shot above. To me there is a little story you can construct about what the girls are thinking and who is missing from the third chair; all that would have dissolved if the subjects had seen and reacted to the camera.
I do not believe my talents extend as far as describing myself as “a photographer”; especially one who appears so specialised so to be titled “a street photographer”; but those worthy of the name employ a variety of techniques. Some request permission for each photo and will then set up the subject and the location to get the look they want. At the other extreme are those who go out of their way to remain anonymous on the street, capturing life as it happens without interference. Then in the middle there are those who look for neither anonymity or involvement; taking shots when they can and interacting when their subjects spot them. I definitely prefer the anonymous route, partially because I think images without the photographer’s influence are more interesting; but mainly because I have no interest in having my head kicked in.
And that is where the gear comes is important. In theory you can, and probably should, shoot a selection of focal lengths to get different looks in your street photography. Do you want to capture just the face, or a small scene, or a whole street? Each require a different focal length of lens, or a lot of walking to put you in the right place to get the image you are after. A popular focal length is 50mm (25mm on M43); and that will get you shots like this from a metre of so away:
But how many shots like this can you count on before you need a little trip to the hospital? And some replacement gear.
Next size up for me is 90mm (45mm on M43). More anonymity; but not enough to be comfortable. See the guy in the middle at the back? He’s on to me.
Another option would be to strap on the comparatively large 100-300mm lens and shoot from much further away. Downside of this is that you may be a little further away, but a fat lens on the front of the camera pointed directly at the subject is something of a giveaway; and something that almost got she who must be obeyed a kicking from a ladyboy when she tried it.
I tell you what I want, what I really want, I tell you what I want, I want the recently announced Olympus 75mm F1.8. Ideal focal length for what I want to do, and small enough to be inconspicuous.
Two problems with the Olympus 75mm lens. Firstly, it is not widely available. Secondly, my little piggy bank of camera funds is currently depleted so no new gear for me. But when I walked into a camera store in Bangkok on Sunday (just by chance, I wasn’t searching for the lens, honestly officer) and discovered one of the first batch of 40 in the country was sitting on a shelf pleading to be taken home; what could I do…? I did what any feckless, irresponsible gearhead would do, I took out my credit card.
The lens itself itself is a beautiful amalgamation of metal and glass. It looks well made, it feels well made and it probably is well made; as it should be for something that is more than twice the price of the dinky, but plastic, Olympus 45mm. It feels lighter than you expect and, even on the diminutive GX1, it does not make the whole feel unbalanced. This is maybe because my preferred grip is to cup the lens in my left hand while my right hand is on the camera controls. This lens falls perfectly into my hand, such that it is practically invisible; nobody can spot that you have an effective focal length of 150mm pointing at them.
To test this hypothesis, I took the lens out onto the streets yesterday. It was a liberating experience. In the space of two hours (less an ice cream break), I took 150 photos, mainly just seeing if I could point the camera at people and get a shot without being spotted; and my subterfuge rate was close to 100%. This is exactly the weapon I have been waiting for.
Of course, most of my shots were not interesting, but I had many more keepers than normal, and a few I am quite pleased with. Every 75mm shot in this post was taken in that short space of time yesterday, many more useable shots than I would usually get, and I have not posted all of them.
Image quality? Fantastic. Sharpness, contrast, colour, bokeh all sublime. I don’t think I am getting the best out of it yet in terms of using the correct F stop (depth of field issues), shutter speed (some blurring because shutter speed too low), or post processing. If you want to see what the lens is capable of, visit Robin Wong who is a great street photographer and really put the lens to good use.
Meantime, here are some of my first efforts:
Out onto the street and I chance upon the charming old lady I met previously. She is pleased to see me, even more pleased when I make a donation, and I take her photo at F1.8. Reviewing the shot later confirms that, if you are close to your subject and using F1.8, your depth of field is going to be very small. Her blouse is in and out of focus which is disconcerting, and I would have liked her cheeks in focus as well as her eyes. Will have to go back; give her some more baht, and take her photo again. But apart from that; impressive IQ at F1.8 (no additional sharpening).
Learning my lesson, the next was at F4.5, to ensure both people were in focus. The second of the two photos is a 100% crop (click to see full size). Pretty much straight out of the camera; clean and crisp.
Focusing M43 lenses on the GX1 is lightning fast; so it was a little surprising to discover that the 75mm wasn’t, or at least not always. If the focus was initially way out from the position required, it seemed to take a few fractions of a second to gird its loins before launching itself into focus mode. Once it was focused in the general area, subsequent shots were back in the “almost instant” range. Will have to let neighbour Nik check and see whether it is much quicker on an Olympus body. Not a big issue though, and the resulting focus in the image was always perfect. Have not tried manual focusing yet; but the focus ring is smooth with no slop; should be a pleasure to focus with.
Update: See some more thoughts on focusing speed here.
After only one day of shooting, I am delighted with this lens. For a 75mm F1.8, it is compact, the construction is excellent and the IQ exemplary. Just wish it was available in black as well as silver for extra stealth, and include a hood for the price please Olympus.
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