Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 OMD EM5 Tips I Wished I'd Known Earlier

My Olympus OM-D E-M5, with John Milich grip, simple strap, and oversized shutter button.
The Olympus OMD EM5 is one of the best loved micro four thirds cameras to date.  It's retro form, compact and weatherproof body, and a wide selection of high quality lenses have contributed to its popularity.  The camera is certain capable of exquisite image quality, but to tell you the truth, handling and using the camera have been a bit of a mixed bag for me.  I've learned some things along the way, and have come to terms with the camera.  Here are 10 handling tips I wished I'd known from the get go:
A wide selection of high quality lenses are available.  Olympus OMD EM5, 20mm, F/1.7, 1/3200, ISO 200.
Autofocus
This is my biggest performance issue with this camera.  Unlike DSLRs which use distance information, called Phase Detection, to assist AF, the autofocus of the OMD EM5 works only by comparing contrast of adjacent pixels, called, er... Contrast Detection.

As a default setting, I leave my DSLRs in a mode whereby the camera, using all of the autofocus points which cover the screen would seek out the closest subject, and focus on it.  This won't work on the EM5, because without using distance information, it won't know what is closest.  The camera focuses fastest and most accurately if I select a specific AF Point for it, and it's usually the center one.
If it ain't moving, the AF is spot on.  I focused the center AF point on the eyes, recomposed and shot this Monitor lizard in my backyard. Olympus OMD EM5, 100-300mm at 162mm, 1/320, F/4.6, ISO 320.
#1. I use a Specific or Center AF Point, not Multi-Area Autofocus.

Continuous Autofocus, by inference, doesn't work well either.  What happens with the EM5 is that the focus pulls in and out, until it gets something sharp on the selected AF point, then pulls in and out until it is sharp again, and so on.  A camera using Phase Detect AF can more accurately predict and track the subject, leading to more shots in focus. 
Single Shot Focus is fast, accurate, and at 9 frames per second, allows you capture the decisive moment.  Olympus OMD EM5, 100-300mm at 100mm, F/4.0, 1/200, ISO 1000.
#2.  I don't use Continuous Autofocus with the EM5, only Single Shot Focus.
One of the best tips I got was from a guy by the name of Bryce Bradford, who seems to be an Olympus Sponsored shooter.  He's set up his camera as follows:

Fn1 - Magnify
Fn2 - MF
Rec. - AEL/AFL
AEL/AFL Modes: S2/C2/M3

This allows him to separate the autofocus from his shutter button.  In other words, I can prefocus by pressing the shutter button as usual, then turn off the autofocus by pressing Fn2, wait for my subject to enter the field of focus, then fire away at 9 frames per second.  It's kind of an old school sports shooting technique, but it can work.
A little tougher to get the shot if it's moving.  I pre-focus on a spot before the action, then fired away when Sandy Maxwell entered my focus zone. Olympus OMD EM5, 7-14mm at 7mm, 1/200, F/4.0, ISO 200.
#3. Find a way to separate the Autofocus function from the Shutter Release.

The same applies to autofocus in video mode.  If you leave autofocus on, the camera will drift in and out of focus.  I prefer to leave mine in manual focus and set the Fn2 button to autofocus.  That way, I'll press Fn2 to focus, then press the shutter button to start shooting.  If I need to refocus, I either do it manually, or press the Fn2 button again.

#4. Separate the Autofocus function from the Shutter button in Video Mode.
I used single shot AF at 9FPS to capture slower moving subjects.  OMD EM5, 7-14mm at 7mm, 1/2000, F/4.0, ISO 200.
Video
Ok, so I'm a newbie at video, and I thought by reading the specs that the camera shoots at 60 FPS (frames per second) at 720p (a reduced resolution).  It doesn't.  It only shoots at 30FPS, even at 720p.  Shooting 60FPS is useful for the times you want to do a slow motion effect in the edit.  At 720p, the video just doesn't look good, probably because of the low bit rate.   I struggled with video until I finally figured this out (doh!) and have come to terms with this limitation.

#5.  Shoot video only at the highest resolution, ie.1080i, but note that it only shoots 30FPS.

Ergonomics
The power switch is badly located.  It normally takes two hands to turn it on.   Climbing and biking are my main sports and I sometimes need to turn on the camera, shoot, and return the camera to its case with one hand.  There is a way to turn it on with one hand, and you need to hold the camera against the tension of the strap, and flick the power switch on and off with your thumb.  With an add-on grip, this is much easier to do.

#6. Learn how to turn on the EM5 with one hand.

Another neat trick: At 9 FPS, you can do a 'hand-held' HDR.  Olympus OMD EM5, 7-14mm, F/4.0, ISO 200, HDR with Photomatix Pro.
The rubber eyecup comes off too easily, and the replacements are not easy to come by.  I'm on my second one.  Either use a little epoxy (which will probably void your warranty) to keep it in place or keep a very close watch on that eyecup.

#7. Watch that rubber eyecup.

A grip improves the handling of the EM5.  There are at least four different grips for the EM5 on the market.  The original Olympus HLD-6 Grip, which comes in 2 parts, and is the most expensive, but probably the best in terms of feel, but blocks the battery compartment; the J.B. Grip, which is the cheapest, lightest and offers decent grip; and the grips from John Milich and Really Right Stuff.  At the time I got mine, the RRS grip was not yet available and I bought the grip from John Milich and am really happy with it.  Both of these grips have built-in quick release plates, which is a must for me.  The only time the grip comes off is if I'm not carrying a tripod with a quick release, and if I need to go really light.
John Milich Grips for the OMD Em5.  The Basic Grip is the lightest and is the one I use.  It's the one on the top.
#8. Get a grip.

Built-In Timelapse Function
The EM5 will do timelapse without any other equipment.  Well, nearly.  With a couple of rubber bands to hold down the shutter button while the 'anti-shock' function is engaged, you have timelapse function with a limited set of time intervals.  The Anti-Shock function is really a delayed shutter release function and is hidden away in the menu under Custom Function E.  I can use regular rubber bands to hold down the shutter button, which allows the camera to fire one delayed shot after another.  I can use regular rubber bands which grip my oversized shutter release button, but you can make a fat rubber band out of on old bicycle inner tube if regular rubber bands won't work.  I store my rubber band by wrapping it around my 7-14mm lens, which is what I use to shoot most of my time-lapses with.

#9. Stick a couple of Rubber Bands in your camera bag for a lightweight Timelapse Solution.


The start and ending timelapse sequences in the above video were shot using the rubber band technique.

Image Stabilization
The 5-axis image stabilization in the OMD EM5 is alien technology.  It's game changing and there's nothing else like it on the market.  But if you think it works great for still, for video, its amazeballs!  I can attach the camera to my GorillaPod Focus, splay out the two lower legs, curl the top leg over the top of the camera to make a handle and, voila!... A steadycam!  Well, not quite, but quite good, and for no extra weight or complexity of setting up a steadycam.  For a go 'fast and light' videographer, this is a big plus.  If I'm out without the Gorillapod, I can squat down, lock my elbows on my knees, and get away with 'tripod-ish' looking clips.  It's that good.

#10.  Image Stabilization Rocks!  It's the main reason I'm still with this camera!
New Year's Eve, Phuket, Thailand. OMD EM5, 20mm, F/1.7, 1/400, ISO 3200
In Closing...
I think if you're happy with the AF, which excels for still subjects, this is an awesome stills camera for photographers.  For video, it's mixed bag.  On the one hand, it's got that amazing stabilization, and on the other hand, it's let down by no choice of frame rates.

For me, a great camera is one which 'disappears' when I'm taking photos, and handling is instinctive.  With the OMD EM5, I have to think a lot about setting up the camera for the shot.  For now though, the ability to go 'fast and light' is invaluable, and I've come to terms with the OMD EM5 because at the end of the day, I still come back with great clips and shots.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Sandman Hoggar Fatbike Review

'Instagramed' pic of my Sandman Hoggar
Is a fatbike a snowbike, and if so, what is a snow bike doing on a sunny, tropical island like Singapore?

What's a Fatbike?
A fatbike is a bike with a frame and fork designed to use tires around 4" or wider.  It requires wider rims, hubs, and bottom bracket. 

The Fatbike is an Adventure Bike
My interest in fatbikes peaked when a friend of mine, Joe Cruz, toured the length of South America on a fatbike, the extra floatation and traction from his 4" tires allowed him to ride on trails that a walker would find challenging.  That opened up my eyes to the types of trails I could ride with a fatbike, and to the endless possibilites of where I could take it.

Joe Cruz riding his fatbike in South America.  Photo © Tom Walwyn.
The Fatbike is a Trail Bike
Then it occurred to me that a fatbike might actually ride quite well on the local trails we have here in Singapore.  Because of our population density, our trails are heavily used, and because of continued riding during the rainy season, the trails are badly eroded, creating steep, loose-rutted conditions and exposing slippery wet roots and rock.  As a bonus, a fatbike distributes the weight over a bigger surface, and skids less (depending on how you ride it) and so may possibly contribute less to further trail damage and erosion.

Enter the Sandman Hoggar
When my wife sent me a video of the Sandman in action (below), I knew I had found my fatbike.  Not all fatbikes are designed to be snowbikes.  Sandman designed their bikes from the ground up to be trail bikes.  My Sandman Hoggar is a titanium frame that is designed to use and comes complete with a front suspension fork designed for fatbikes.


Why Sandman. from Martín Campoy on Vimeo.

Aesthetically, my size small Sandman Hoggar has very pleasing lines, with an upward curving top tube that transitions seamlessly into the seat stay.  I'm about 1.7m (5' 7") with a bike inseam of about 31", and once or twice, the top tube has gotten in the way of a dismounting on extremely steep descents, but mostly, standover clearance is not affected. 
Sandman sponsored rider, Milton Ramos, admiring his Sandman Hoggar.  Photo courtesy Sandman Bikes.
Sandman worked out a 'racers package' for me where I bought the bike, without a lot of the beefier (and heavier) All-Mountain parts.  My complete Sandman Hoggar weighs 13.2kg (29.1lbs) with Husker Du tires, ultralite tubes, Crank Bros Candy pedals, XT brakes, Sandman racing rear hub, and ultralightweight KCNC and Mt. Zoom parts from Conticomponents and XCRacer.  It's a racy setup, and light for a fatbike, especially for one with front suspension.

The 90mm travel suspension fork is made in Germany by Answer.  It's an upside down fork that uses a 20mm through axle.  It's stiff as hell, but is a bit of a pain to set up.  It's still fairly new, and has a lot of stiction.  I'm still experimenting running it with different pressures.
Gabriele Incuria borrowed a Hoggar and won the hardtail class of the Italian Superenduro series. Photo courtesy Sandman Bikes.
How does it ride?
Local bike guru, Poh Yu Seung took it for a spin and had this to say:

"Carves at high speed, nimble at low speed.  Flowy and instinctive.  It really opened up my eyes to what a well engineered fatbike can do." 

It's a well thought out fatbike.  Suspension might not be that important if you are using a fatbike as a snow bike, but for a trailbike, it is greatly improves handling, and Sandman is currently the only fatbike manufacturer to design a fatbike using front suspension.  As such, the Hoggar shines on most technical terrain, where I'm likely to be riding more cautiously - that includes anything loose, wet, slippery or big drops.

One reason why the Hoggar feels so agile is Sandman's choice to use lightweight 47mm trials rims on its wheels.  Although narrower, these are much lighter than the typical 65mm fatbike rim.  The narrow rims have the effect of 'rounding out' the tire profile, somewhat reducing bad tire manners that can be found on 'squarer profile' fat tires at low pressures.  It turns out that I can use ultralightweight 2.7" DH tubes which further reduce weight.  Narrow rims reduce float, so these may not be the best choice on snow, but for dirt, these are great compromise.

I keep hearing that fatbikes are 'fun', but nobody could really tell me what that 'fun' meant.  Having ridden the Hoggar for awhile, I can say that 'fun' translates into more confidence, less fear.   There's more traction in the tires, which means better grip over obstacles, and much more powerful braking on steep and scary descents.  The increased mass of spinning fat wheels increases gyroscopic force, which means more stability.  More grip, more stability equals more confidence, less fear.
Sandman sponsored rider, Milton Ramos, leading a stage at the Titan Desert Classic. Photo courtesy Sandman Bikes.
Downsides
Fatbikes don't do well on anything long, smooth and flat or uphill - like a road.  Those fat tires have a lot of rolling resistance.  This can be minimized by using higher tire pressures.  If there's any such thing as a 'fast' fatbike, the Hoggar is it.  However, in general, fatbikes are just going to be slower to accelerate and require more effort to maintain speed on the flats than a conventional mountain bike.

If the Hoggar has a weakness, it's perhaps on climbs where I need to move my butt forward and off the saddle.  Sandman won't release the Hoggar's geometry numbers, but the seat tube and head tube angles look fairly slack.  That's great for ripping it up, but combine the slack geometry with the increased weight of the fatbike and rolling resistance from the tires, and I find that I'm working quite hard when I'm climbing. 

Versatility
The Sandman has another trick up it's sleeve.  You can buy a 29er wheelset for it.  Say what?  Yes, since 4" fat tires on a 26" rim have basically the same diameter as a 29" rim/tire combination, you can equip your Sandman Hoggar with a 29er wheelset.  The Sandman does require a 165mm rear and 135mm front hub.  This gives you the option to run a lighter weight rig for the times when fat tires are not needed. Sandman has a sponsored rider (Milton Ramos) and he's been racing quite successfully on a Sandman Hoggar running a combination of fat and 29er wheels.  Having both a fat wheelset and a 29er wheelset increases the versatility of this bike.  Essentially, by using two wheelsets, you have two bikes: a front suspension fatbike, and a 29er hardtail.
Milton Ramos racing the Sandman Hoggar using a 29er wheelset.  Photo courtesy Sandman Bikes.
If you can't afford a second wheelset, but want to put in some road miles with the Sandman, you could do it with a fat road tire like the 26" Schwalbe Big Apple 2.35.  Those tires fit fine on the Sandman's 47mm 26" rim, but will lower the whole bike a bit, and quicken the steering. 

Who's the Sandman for?
I'll stick out my neck and say this is a near perfect trail bike for Singapore.   Our trails are also very short in length and we don't have big hills.  Our trails are also very loose, badly eroded, and often wet with slippery roots and logs, and no sticky mud.  

If you are the sort of person who dreads riding technical sections, give a Sandman a try.  However, if you are the sort of person who covets speed and loves being in the front of the pack; or who is struggling to keep up with the pack, this may not be the bike for you.  The Sandman is a great confidence booster, but comes with the cost of more rolling resistance requiring more power and energy to pedal.  

The Sandman is also a great choice for someone who wants one bike (but with two wheelsets) to do it all.  It can be a fatbike for the winter, or trail riding; and a 29er hartail for the summer or racing.

Conclusion
I love my Sandman Hoggar.  I love the way it looks, and how it rides on technical terrain.  I'm not fast and efficient on it, so if the ride is going to be long or fast, but not too technical, I ride my other bike.  If I had a second wheelset for it (ie, 29er wheelset), the Hoggar could be my only bike.

Sandman Bikes are available direct from Sandmanbikes.be.
They come in sizes S through XL, and some models are available in a custom XS.

Disclosure: Although I paid full price for my Sandman Hoggar, Sandman did subsidize my shipping cost.