There is a picture in our minds of this thing – a thing that happens or will happen. We see it with absolute clarity. It is definitive. It is the shot we’ve been waiting for, and it will be perfect. Except that it won’t. Because the perfect shot won’t be one we visualize ahead of time. It’s the one we will find. It is better than what we can visualize, because what we are able to construct in our minds is no match for the unfettered chaos that the world hands to us. It is better than what we can visualize, because it takes the brutal construct of mismatched and unrelated existence, and it turns it into beauty. The real stuff. Not the manufactured, syrupy, synthetic, caffeinated, sugar-free, low-calorie, off-the-shelf type of beauty that we find for cheap sitting in a rack at the grocery store. But the real stuff.
Every great shot has an element of surprise. It catches us off guard. The trick is not trying to control and predict it. The trick is to be ready for it when it happens. It is to push and prod to evoke it. It is to step into it and find it. But photography is a medium of the real. It is grounded, or at least connected, to the physical world. The idea that capturing something random is inferior to the preconceived is a fanciful myth.
Great photographers react to the random chaos in the world. They suck it in, adapt to it, adopt it, and make it their own. Don’t be anchored by your imagination when taking pictures. That will produce mediocrity. Use your imagination to see more deeply into everything that sits right in front of your eyes. That will be the perfect shot.
A Night in Savannah by Spencer Lum
How good do I think the Olympus PEN E-P2 is? It was my camera of choice to document the birth of my little girl. That’s how good. You can see those pictures here. I’ve been playing with it since mid-summer, and I am very impressed. I pair it with Panasonic’s 20 f/1.7, which is a gem of a lens – sharp, small, light, and it goes down to 1.7! Combine it with the image stabilizer built into the PEN, and we have a stellar combination. A little while back, I went to Savannah with Irina for a shoot, and the pictures here are from that trip.
Being able to work with the 4:3 framing, as opposed to the 3:2 framing you get with an SLR, was a real pleasure. It’s closer to the classic ratio you get working with view cameras, and I think it has a wonderful sense of balance. Perhaps not as overtly dramatic as 3:2 framing, but the extra height lets you bring in just enough additional information to change the way you see.
The 20mm focal length is a little unusual. It’s a 40mm equivalent in a full frame camera, and being neither 35 nor 50, I was afraid that it wouldn’t capture the essence of either. It turned out to be a wonderful blend of both. The 50mm focal length is a thoughtful one that focuses on strong content. Not having the distinct character of wide angles and the soft bokeh and tight framing of telephotos, it forces you to focus on content and composition in the most exacting of fashions. 35mm lenses are similar, but they let you play a little more with angles and step in closer for more dramatic composition. I find them to be a little more fun, but there’s a sort of analytical quality about the 50 that I really enjoy. 40 gives you both. It has the thought process of a 50, but with just a little more room to play around.
In my mind, the camera you have the most fun with is the camera to use. If you’re not enjoying the pictures you’re taking – if you’re trying to hard to follow this rule or that rule, and you can’t step into that frame of mind, where ideas flow, and you can’t stop yourself from engaging with your environment, I think the camera is getting in your way. It doesn’t matter whether the format is an 8×10 or a point and shoot – you need to feel a connection with what you’re shooting. The E-P2 gives just that feeling. It is fun, fun, fun! It’s like a drive a roadster. Sure, an SLR will get you from here to there in a proper fashion and with great results, but the E-P2 is about snapping away, carefree. It’s about just you and your subject matter, getting rid of the technical gobbledygook that stands in your way.
The camera is compact enough to throw in your pocket and light enough to forget about, even when it’s on your shoulder, but how about the image quality? Quite nice! No, it’s not a match for the Nikon D3 that I take to weddings or the Leica M9 that I play with in the home and on various outings, but I think the pictures are good enough – and good enough is not all that trivial. It means they’re good enough that I’ll use it for my personal projects, which are most important to me. It means that I don’t have to worry about whether it will print out nicely. It means that I like what I see, and I can get what I want out of it, so I can just worry about taking pictures. Not to mention that a D3 and an M9 aren’t bad company to keep.
My favorite part of it all? I love being able to compose without a viewfinder. I know most serious shooters prefer viewfinders – they feel more connected to them, but I’m the exact opposite. I love the freedom that shooting viewfinder-free affords you. I can adjust my angles and positions within inches just by flicking my wrist this way or that way. I can hold the camera over my head or near my feet. And if I need a viewfinder, the digital version for the E-P2 is quite sharp and works nicely. My favorite part is being able to see the world around me, as I compose my shot. I can see what’s to the left of of the frame, to the right of the frame – all around the frame – without having to my eye away from a viewfinder. I can watch moving objects before they enter the frame. I feel more connected to the environment. And there it is again – connection. If the photographer is connected, viewers will be connected. The E-P2 feels just right.
Are there downsides? Sure, there are. I’d love a built in flash to get that “snapshot aesthetic.” More than that, I’d love faster autofocus. It’s acceptable, but there have been plenty of times I’ve missed a shot that I would be able to catch even with Panasonic’s Lumix CF1, much less a full-fledged SLR. What bothers me most about the focus, though, is that the delay takes me out of the moment and forces me to wait and think about the camera. Sometimes I can focus faster on my rangefinder, others, the E-P2 will do a better job, but it’s not just the speed – it’s the sense of control. On a Leica, I feel in control. Even when it takes longer to focus, my mind stays on the subject. I find that disconnection annoying. Also, ISO performance could be better. I don’t like to go over 200 and absolutely don’t go over 800. But with the image stabilization and a light sensitive lens, I find it all quite acceptable. At 800, it’s a little noisy, but in black and white, the noise has a very nice quality to it. Not unlike film grain, but a little more even.
It’s an odd time for a write-up on the Olympus PEN E-P2. It’s probably getting close to the release of an E-P3 by this point, but I’ve been running a lot of workshops over the past half year, and one thing I clearly see is that most people aren’t really taking full advantage of the cameras they have. I cannot stress enough that great photography is not about making a great picture in every situation at anytime. It’s about careful observation and knowing what makes for a great picture that the camera can take. Great photographers know how to make their cameras communicate. They know how to make pictures that speak about their point of view, and you don’t need $10,000 of camera gear to capture that.
This is a great camera for portability with respectable image quality, great fun factor, and good ease of use. It’s perfect as a carry-around camera, but it can be just as easily used for serious photography in the right conditions. It might be more limited than your typical DSLR, but in real-life use, the portability more than makes up for it. I’ve been looking for a small portable camera that I could carry anywhere but still use for fine art projects for the better part of a decade. It might not be the jack-of-all-trades camera you’d get from an SLR, but the E-P2 manages to hit the mark on all of the essential qualities that I need in a way that makes shooting an absolute pleasure. What more is there?
Jeffrey Park by Spencer Lum
Some of you might know Irina, one of the wonderful photographers in my studio. She was moving out of her apartment, so I stopped by to take some pictures. It’s an incredible complex – I wish I lived there. There’s easily enough for a book’s worth of material, but, alas, not living there, I only had a couple of hours to spend.