New Toys, Old Strategies


Like most photographers, I have a love-hate relationship with the tools I use. I am as captivated as the next photographer by the promise of the newest cameras, yet I am loath to give up old strategies that have served me so well. As a photographer, I depend on my cameras to make the pictures I want to make. As a professional, I depend on that same gear to earn my living.

As an educator I need to be up to date on the latest “toys,“ so I can help students figure out what technology will help (or hinder) their growth as photographers. This summer, working in all of those roles, I have undertaken a major experiment in testing out and reconfiguring what cameras/gear I will be using in the future.
I have blogged numerous times about how a camera fundamentally solves one major problem, which is getting an image onto a digital chip, onto light-sensitive material or onto a printed page. I have also blogged about how the best camera is the one that solves that problem as easily and efficiently as possible. The rest, as they say, is commentary. I have explored this idea from a number of perspectives, including as pro, as a teacher and as an artist, in some of my previous blog entries, which can be found at:

A few of my podcasts also explore my approach to camera gear.

Today, I approach gear as something of a minimalist. I ask myself, “How little gear can I carry to do the job I need to do?”  This has not always been my approach. I have gone on my fair share of gear-buying binges. I was hoping that a certain “toy” would solve the problem I was facing. The reality was that only creativity, imagination and hard work would solve my problem. As I have aged and I am traveling more and more, I have also been trying to pare down the amount of gear that I carry with me.
So, this summer for the six weeks I am working in India, I only brought three Olympus Pen cameras and four lenses.  I have no DSLRs with me!
Moving to the smaller, compact cameras was not very hard because I spent almost a decade using Contax Rangefinders to make 35mm slides for magazines and photo agencies. So in theory, I am used to smaller, mirror-less cameras that work well in low light and attract little attention because they do not look like "serious cameras.”

As I was packing my camera bag for the India sojourn, taking along the Pen cameras and putting aside the DSLRs was a bit unnerving. On the one hand, I was used to the DSLRs and I knew what they could do. On the other hand, going to India would be as good a testing ground as any. The obvious upside of the smaller cameras was the vast amount of new space in my bag. I have to say, as I was about to close the bag after that initial packing session, I checked everything three times because I was sure I was missing something. In the past, my rolling bag would usually be stuffed to the gills and now it had plenty of room to spare. Later, I noted how much less the collected gear weighed when I had to lift that same bag into the overhead bins on the various flights that I took from the U.S. to India.

So, I am three weeks into my six weeks in South Asia and my new setup seems to be working quite well. I am using an Olympus E-P1, and E-P2 and an E-PL. I have Micro Four Thirds Zuiko lenses, specifically the 9-18mm zoom (35mm equivalent 18-36mm), two of the14-42mm (35mm equivalent 28-84mm) and the 14-150mm lens (35mm equivalent 28-300mm.) I do not use the “kit" lens, the14-42mm, very much but I like to have it around as a backup. The other two lenses cover pretty much everything I need ton cover, from 18-300mm (35mm equivalent) in just two lenses. As might be expected, they are not the fastest lenses in terms of maximum apertures. But, since the Olympus cameras have internal stabilization and the Pen cameras have no mirrors to contribute to unsteady images, I have few complaints.

There have been a couple of pleasant surprises in the time I have been using theses new “toys.” The first big surprise has been how the E-PL has become my primary body. I had been enjoying using the E-P2 back home and I had assumed that it would be my primary camera here. The deal breaker is that the E-PL has an incredibly rapid system to toggle back and forth between still and video recording, unlike the other Pen cameras. I have been shooting a great deal more video than still imagery and the treat has been how shooting stills amidst the video has been so incredibly easy. That technology, which enables instant toggling between the two recording media, only exists on the E-PL.

When I was planning to be shooting video I knew that I did not want to use the built-in microphone for my audio, so after a great deal of research I settled on using a Sennheiser MKE 400 shotgun microphone. To my mind, it is the best combination of technology for the price (with size, as always, a major consideration.)  There are many other microphones out there but this looked best to me.

Using an external microphone forced me to consider where I would put that microphone. I could not put it in the hot shoe on the Pen cameras because that is where I need to put the Olympus SEMA-1 microphone adapter, which sends the sound from the external microphone into the camera to become part of the video. So I dug deep into my history as a “gear head” (and former camera-store employee) and realized that a simple straight flash bracket would be ideal. The images below show how I have the gear set up. I leave the camera/ bracket/microphone combo on the tripod permanently and fold the legs of that tripod underneath when it is not in use.

[Note to Olympus here: I still would like another input option for the sound besides via the hot shoe, so I can use the Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder on the Pen cameras while sending high-quality sound into the camera from the external microphone I decide to use.]
The electronic viewfinder has also been a pleasant surprise. If I use it folded down in the “normal” position, I can have the camera pressed up against my eye/face which means the camera is much more stable than if I were holding it out at arm’s length, as is typical with many digital cameras. If I tilt the viewfinder up I can hold the camera notably higher or lower than usual, creating interesting angles. Resting the camera on the ground with the electronic viewfinder tilted up has enabled me to make some interesting night photos/time exposures without having to roll around on the ground.

So far it has been an interesting experiment and I am glad I took the chance. It will take me a few months to really know how well this new system will work but, so far, these new “toys” are working well for me. I am excited by the new work I am making and I am enjoying the creative freedom this technology has given me.  I also know that my back thanks me, since I have a much smaller bag to pull around with me and to lift up into the luggage bins on airplanes.


Discussion 5

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 Interesting to see how far the Olympus Pen has come....I have an old Olympus Pen EES-2 for sale on eBay at the moment, after deciding to scale down my photographic gear and keep only those things I actually USE!!


Great article -- I'm considering picking up an E-PL1 as a second digital body -- makes a great telephoto companion to my M8, and can use most of my "M" lenses with a simple adapter.

My one worry is the lack of a control wheel -- is it possible to set a "minimal acceptable shutter speed" for shooting in Aperture Priority mode? I figured I'd roll along with Auto ISO and adjust the aperture on the lens and let the camera work on exposures, but don't want to be in a situation where I mount a 90mm and have the camera decide that it should be set at 1/60 and ISO 200.


I read that the PEN sensor's optimum dynamic range is at ISO 200, and that it drops somewhat at 100. Can you see any difference?

No fixed lenses such as the 17/f2.8 or 20/f1.7? That must make low-light photography difficult, especially at ISO 100. 


I am enjoying the E-PL more than I expected because of the toggle between videos and stills, so I like and use that the most.  I am a sucker for wide angles, so I am mostly using the 9-18 mm (35mm equivalent 18-36mm),

Because all my work ends up in publication, I have an unsual strategy in that everything I shoot is at ISO 100. I use a flash, a table top tripod or create a silhouette, depending on the light I find.  But I am awlays at ISO 100 so I can make very big files that work well in publication.  Again, the files I make are great quality at that speed.  Having never gone beyond that I can not say much.  Not sure that helps but that is my strategy.

I'm curious to see how large you can go with the prints using these Olympus cameras. The sensors and crop factor would be a concern for me. I love the 4/3rd cameras though and they are tempting. Out of those 3 Olympus, which do you like the best? What about your favorite lens on that system? I'm curious about that too.