Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Discovery?

As I mentioned a while ago, I've been taking a look at some micro 4/3 camera and lens combinations, now that prices on the original models (Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic G1) have crashed. The story so far, should you care:

The G1 is a sexy little beast, covered in some tactile substance that the human hand finds irresistible: it's like holding a rather solid kitten. Mmmm! The articulated screen is a joy to use: why don't all cameras have one of these? I was not entirely convinced by the electronic viewfinder: it's brilliant in good light, but less so in low or very bright light. And, yes, as no doubt you've read elsewhere, the 14-45mm zoom is reassuringly solid. However, it quickly became obvious that the whole package was far from pocket-sized and covered in functional but inconvenient lumps and bumps, and that I'd really be looking at replacing my Canon DSLR if I were to seriously consider keeping it. So, reluctantly, I'll be passing it on.

The E-P1 is another matter. Having rejected the Olympus EVF as seen on an E-PL1, I was sold on the 17mm pancake lens and optical viewfinder combination. It just feels good, as does the whole camera -- it's simply a marvel of design and just-rightness. It's perfect in the way the original cassette-tape Sony Walkman was perfect. And it takes a decent picture, too. I have to say the collapsible 14-42mm lens is a bit wacky and a bit wobbly and longer than I really like when, um, erected, but a good size for a travelling companion.

But ... I think I have made a curious discovery.

When you start using it, you begin to notice that the area covered by the brightlines in the 17mm viewfinder seems to be rather less than the area covered by the rear screen (and captured by the camera). At first, I was puzzled. It was a classic case of not believing the evidence of your own senses. I mean, they must be the same, right? Perhaps it was just parallax? Damn it, this viewfinder is designed for this fixed focal-length lens and no other, isn't it? I was so baffled that I eventually opened the glory hole under the stairs and rummaged around for five minutes to find my tripod (yes, that's how baffling this was).

I set it up. I put the E-P1 on it. I lined up the view on the rear screen with some obvious markers about 10 feet away. I looked through the viewfinder. Nope: the two views were definitely not the same. Definitely a smaller angle of view in the brightlines... About, say, that of a slightly wide "normal" lens.

Hey, just a minute... I fetched the Panasonic 20mm pancake lens I happened to have next door, and attached it to the E-P1. I lined up the view, and looked through the viewfinder. Amazing. The brightlines were, pretty much, an exact match. How about that?

Have you read this anywhere else? That the Olympus 17mm viewfinder is a pretty sloppy match for the Olympus 17mm lens, but a decent match for the Panasonic 20mm lens? I certainly haven't. So, unless I have a freak sample of the viewfinder, I think this is something well worth knowing.

That is, that if you want a fast snapshot/street camera (that's "fast" as in aperture -- the Olympus autofocus is dreadfully slow -- I have yet to try the firmware update) with an accurate optical viewfinder and in-body image stabilisation, the combination to go for is an Olympus E-P1 plus Olympus 17mm viewfinder plus Panasonic f/1.7 20mm lens. Pass it on!


JSLewis said...

There is so much techno-photo gumpf on the web I don’t want to add more to the pile, but I am going to any way... first and last hopefully. Anyway...some dry technical stuff coming up, excuse me whilst I don my lab coat...

It appears what you are seeing here is a common feature of viewfinder/rangefinder cameras. As a lens changes slightly in focal length from near to infinity focus the framelines of a fixed viewfinder can only be accurate for one focus position. It is common for this to be set to a mid/near focus point to allow for more accurate framing close-up. When the lens is focused at or near infinity the image on the film or sensor will be around two frameline widths wider than the area delimited by the viewfinder brightlines – maybe about the same as the difference between a 35mm (equiv.) and a 40mm (equiv.) lens. As your observation was based on a distance of 10 feet then I guess Olympus vf framelines must be calibrated for accuracy at quite close focus – but then accuracy is not really what this type of viewfinder is about – everything inside the lines is in, anything outside is down to chance/luck/experience (delete as appropriate)!

This is the reason I took to using rangefinder cameras a few years ago, I found the loose framing and open view helped me to see differently, be open to less constrained compositions, it gave my photographs some air.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for the comment, JSLewis -- Mike Johnston of TOP said something very similar when I described the problem to him. I'm not convinced, though.

I'm going to do some more tests, but -- subjectively -- it seems to me that the framing is consistently more accurate for the 20mm (40mm-equiv) focal length than the 17mm (34mm-equiv) at all distances.

I think the annoying thing, to me, is that the brightline frame is so much smaller than the captured image at 17mm, by some margin. I realise optical viewfinders are not ideal for tight framing at close distances, but I would expect to frame an image at "snapshot" distance (say, 10-20 feet, well outside of the "parallax zone" for a normal/wide lens) with an acceptable degree of accuracy.

If you don't own one of these, try the combination in a shop, and you'll see what I mean.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

You mention TOP, and Mike Johnston; in one of his posts he mentions the 40mm focal length as the "ideal", and adds that Sally Mann agrees. I, have no loud opinion, myself, as I'm a zoom user, and must sit at the childrens table.

I am still awaiting the review of the device that turns the LCD into a "viewfinder".

JSLewis: "some air", very nice, sort of Zen and the art of anti-composition.

An aside; I'm finding Mikes abstractions inspiring.

Mike C. said...


"I am still awaiting the review of the device that turns the LCD into a "viewfinder"" -- sorry about that, I got diverted onto this micro 4/3 thing.

In brief: it works. It feels a bit odd to start with, but with a good, high-res display like the LX3's, it's quite effective. You really need to order the folding tripod socket model (not the flash bracket model), and to go for the higher quality lens.

The guy makes them himself to order, for more or less any model of camera. His site is here:


If you have a problem seeing your LCD in bright sun (who doesn't?) it's a good solution. If you like to bring a camera up to your eye and brace it against your face, it's also a good solution.

Now you've reminded me, I'll try to remember to do a proper post.