Micro 4/3 for Street Photography
Some know and some dont, but the main camera that I used for my work on the street when I was shooting digital was an Olympus OMD E-M5 micro four thirds body, with both the 50mm and 35mm equivalent voightlander manual focus lenses. This is the only camera used on all the shots on this site so far, until I get the film processing up and running properly, as in the scanner to scan the negs.
So, I have previously posted some brief thoughts on the camera, but this was when it was very new to me, I was still using AF lenses, and I was still new back into photography. I now have a greater appreciation of the tools that I require for the work that I do, and I am better placed to be able to make a few comments on the camera and the lenses. For all the film snobs out there, stay tuned, I will have a review of that gear and its benefits and limitations soon as well...
I will start by saying, that I love the OMD. I dont think that shy of buying a Leica M Monochrome ($8000ish for the body and another $8000 for the two lenses I would want), that I would buy a different digital body if I had my chance over again. This is impressive with the relatively small amount of information that I had when making the purchase, and is extra impressive with the way I like to swap and change things...
I will start by noting that to convert micro 4/3 lens lengths to a full frame, or 35mm equivalent, you simply double the length. So I will refer to the actual lens length from here on, but keep in mind that the 25mm lens is a 50mm focal length in 35mm terms.
When I purchased the camera I bought it with a 17mm f2.8 Olympus pancake lens. I hardly used the thing. It was a little soft, and didnt have the character in the photos that I was after. I then purchased a 30mm f2.8 Sigma, this is a great little lens and one that I still have. Its downside is that the 60mm focal length is a little weird. I have only kept it so I have something the is AF if I am feeling lazy. Note that I havent used it since buying the voigtlander.
The two lenses that I carry with me everywhere are the 17.5mm and 25mm voigtlander Noktons, both amazingly fast at f0.95. In terms that everyone will understand, when these lenses are wide open they are able to view 4 times more light that the human eye. Amazing for low light work, but not the main reason that I went for these lenses.
There is something about shooting with manual lenses. I honestly believe that it will make you better at your craft if you can learn to do it well. If you think that you struggle with manual focus, then spare a thought for me. My eyesight is pretty much terrible, even with contact lenses.
So why manual... Well, the main reason is the fact that if you were to go buy a Leica, you know, the stupid expensive thing I mentioned about... I do want one. Its just nuts! Well, they aint got any little auto focus motors, they are rangefinders and they are manual focus. Same as my lovely Nikon FA 35mm SLR... Manual focus. My Mamiya C220 TLR... You guessed it... I guess the whole manual thing goes back to the same reasoning for the fixed focal length lenses. Yes there has been a heap of technical developments in photography, but there are just some things that work well just the way they were.
The other reason that these lenses are so appealing, is their build quality. I think I would be able to drop one off a roof top and they would still work. No, Im not going to try it...
However, more on the focus point... And this is where I finally make my point on the Micro 4/3 system for street work. I take my time huh... The lenses have hyperfocal markers on them... What are hyperfocal markers I hear you ask?
See the little markers on the base of the lens that list the f stop numbers. These are the magic little markers that I am talking about. These allow you to zone focus... You set the lens focus to infinity on the little marker on the lens, and everything from the corresponding mark on the other side, all the way to infinity is in focus. There are a couple of things that impact the hyper focal distance.
1. The f stop, the smaller the value the smaller the depth of field, so the smaller the hyperfocal range. For example, if I use f8 (my go to aperture setting) and set the infinity mark to the hyperfocal mark on the right, then everything from about 1.5m to infinity will be acceptably sharp. This is a great range of focus, and with a 35mm equivalent lens on, one that you will be well within for all of your work on the street.
2. The lenses focal length... This is where my point is finally made.
Remember at the start of the post I told you about doubling the focal length for the lens to get the 35mm equivalent... Well, the wider the lens the greater the hyperfocal range. So, we will just touch on that for a second and then I am done...
One of the arguments that people raise against the cropped sensor cameras now that full frame sensors are available is the increased depth of field that they have. This is an issue if you are wanting to shoot traditional portraits or something where you want to isolate the subject through blurring the background by using wide apertures. With a full frame sensor (or 35mm film) f2-2.8 is more that wide enough to achieve this, however, micro 4/3 sensors use effectively wider lenses for the same focal length, and this means that there is about 2 stops difference in the depth of field. So, to get your f2.8 depth of field and corresponding background blur for your lovely portrait, you need something that stops down to f1.4. To give context, the Voigtlander lenses stop down more than a full stop further than that again.
So, this argument is a valid one for a wedding photographer, or a portrait dude... But its an advantage for someone shooting on the street in my opinion. And you guessed it, it all relates back to the hyperfocal distance. On my 17.5mm my hyperfocal distance that I can leave my lens in for the whole day and shoot away like crazy is much wider than if I was shooting on a 35mm film camera, or a full frame sensor digital. It also means that when the light starts to fade I am able to go to f5.6, or f4 and still have a useable range to work with in the focal range.
Auto focus, pfffft... Who needs auto focus! I love my manual glass.