Monday, 13 January 2020

Olympus E-PL1

Pink Floyd's The Final Cut (1983) is one of the most unusual rock albums of the 1980s. It's a concept album by a stadium rock band, but instead of being about giant space robots or an Orwellian future society that bans rock music it's a meditative set of ballads about the folly of war, inspired by the death of lead songwriter Roger Waters' father and the broken promises of the nations that came out of the Second World War on the winning side.

It's an unusually personal album for a stadium rock band. I say band. By 1983 Pink Floyd wasn't a band any more, it was a vehicle for bassist Roger Waters. Drummer Nick Mason had developed a taste for classic cars, guitarist David Gilmour was happy to help, but lived a comfortable life and didn't have much to sing about, and keyboardist Richard Wright had been fired during production of the previous album for being lazy.

I know what you're thinking. Why is he talking about Pink Floyd?

Pink Floyd began as a psychedelic freak-out band in the 1960s before mutating into a mostly instrumental space-rock band in the early 1970s. Their songs had lyrics, but the words weren't important. What mattered was the sound. Nonetheless from Dark Side of the Moon (1973) onwards Roger Waters' social consciousness came to the fore, and Wish You Were Here (1975) marked the end of the original Pink Floyd, with the twenty-minute "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" bridging the gap between the two bands. It was simultaneously a piece of epic space music and a personal elegy for a departed friend. From that point onwards the band's music became a backdrop for Waters' lyrics. The band still operated on a grand scale, but their music was tighter, more focused, less hippy-drippy.

For a while this approach worked. Animals (1977) did away with the spacey themes and melancholy of the band's previous albums in favour of tight jams and bitter ranting about social inequality. It didn't sell as well as their earlier blockbusters, and it did nothing to ingratiate them with the punk audience, but it set them apart from their contemporaries. Whereas the likes of Genesis and Yes embraced light pop, Pink Floyd retained at least a little bit of rock credibility. They were cool in a way that ELP and Gentle Giant never were, because they were dark and mysterious. Teenagers love that. Teenagers love melancholy and depression because those things are alien to them, and Animals delivered. It had sarcasm, disgust, anger, self-loathing, bitterness, despair, the works.

Yes, teenagers suffer from depression, but it's just a hormonal imbalance, or a trivial thing that arises from a transient emotional shock. It is a sickness that can be cured. Beneath emotion there is cold, hard truth, and the only rational response to the human condition is horror. Horror that cannot be cured without altering the physical laws of the universe, which is impossible.

An Olympus E-PL1, yesterday.

Animals was followed by a gruelling stadium tour that did nothing to lift Roger Waters' mood, but an incident on the final date of the tour - when a frazzled Waters spat in the face of a noisy fan - provided inspiration for the band's next album, The Wall (1980), which was just as angry as Animals, but with catchier tunes and more of them.

An E-PL1 pictured with some manual focus lenses. A Samyang 85mm f/1.4, which becomes something akin to a 180mm f/2.8 on an M43 body, and a Nikon 20mm f/3.5, which becomes a slightly wide 40mm.

In the late 1970s the Pink Floyd organisation invested most of its profits in real estate, but the band's business partners collapsed in a pile of bad debt, leaving Pink Floyd's members with an enormous tax bill. The Wall was intended to rescue the band from financial oblivion, and in that respect it was a huge success. It sold millions of copies and gave Pink Floyd their first and only chart-topping single.

On a musical level it was a sprawling double album with four or five killer tunes mostly clustered on the first disc. "Comfortably Numb", "Run Like Hell", "Young Lust", "Another Brick in the Wall", "Hey You", and "Mother" went on to become radio staples, but they drained Waters' pool of good songs. He was a lyricist first and a songwriter second, and once The Wall was over he had no more musical ideas.

Why is he still talking about Pink Floyd? It's a gag, isn't it. Like Monty Python.

In the late 1970s the musical climate became inconducive to prog rock. Punk's sputtering rage made prog look self-indulgent and weak; the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had all of prog's technical virtuosity but without the boring bits. Kids gravitated to one or the other. Furthermore long-hair denim-wearing hippies dated badly. In the 1970s it was fashionable to rail against conventional society and mock people who had jobs, but in the early 1980s unemployment became a major political issue, and suddenly the prospect of not having money or a job didn't seem romantic any more.

In the early 1980s kids began to wear crisp white shirts and skinny ties and make jerky, robotic music with synthesisers. Beards fell out of fashion. The New Wave was paranoid and nervous, driven by suppressed hysteria and nameless fear. Pink Floyd may not have worn shirts, but they smartened up, Their new sound struck a balance between the nervousness of New Wave and the bombastic majesty of stadium rock. Of their British peers only Peter Gabriel managed to switch from prog to post-punk successfully, but really only on his third solo album; his later albums went in a completely different direction.

Commercially The Wall was huge, but on a political level it was a disaster. Mid-way through the recording process keyboardist Richard Wright was dismissed, apparently because he refused to cut short a yachting holiday to do some keyboard overdubs. His argument was that Waters was probably going to use a session keyboardist anyway, so what was the point of turning up, but that didn't cut any ice so he was given his marching orders. He was kept on as keyboardist during the album's tour, but only as a paid musician, not a member of the band.

In his defence Roger Waters could truthfully say that he had single-handedly saved the band from bankruptcy, and if Gilmour or Mason had any good ideas he would have been happy to use them, but the result was a band that became a personal vehicle for a man who had used up the last dregs of his musical inspiration. Like the Crusaders many centuries before, Roger Waters took Jerusalem, only to find that he had no reason to keep it.

Women. For millions of years they have been an integral part of the human race, and yet they're still weird and different.

Nonetheless Waters still had things to say. For The Final Cut he used musical ideas that had been rejected from The Wall, with David Gilmour popping in to perform guitar solos on a couple of tracks. Gilmour was uneasy about the material, but he was being paid so he didn't mind. Nick Mason had even less to do with the album. He was replaced on one track by a session player because he had trouble playing to Waters' satisfaction, and the rest of the album was dominated by piano ballads. Richard Wright was long-gone. There was no chance whatsoever that original songwriter Syd Barrett would return, and so ultimately the album was, as the liner notes put it, "a requiem for the post war dream, by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd".

The Final Cut was released within a few weeks of another anti-war album, Yes Sir, I Will, by anarchist punk band Crass. It's fascinating to compare them. They're both about the Falklands War in particular and war in general. Crass were anarchists who wanted to overthrow the capitalist reality in favour of individual self-governance, although I suspect they would have been horrified at the thought of Ayn Rand-style self-interest; like most lefties their politics were incoherent and if put into practice would have resulted in total state control, although they were too full of themselves to admit it.

The interface is a bit cartoony and there's an awful lot of menu-diving if you want to turn on bracketing and the motor drive, but it's generally only one level deep.

In contrast Waters was an old-fashioned conservative-with-a-small-c; a home-owning car-buying job-having hat-wearing semi-detached suburban Mr Jones who disliked Margaret Thatcher and her uncouth bossy ways, who felt that the problem was bad leadership rather than a rotten system. The Final Cut also had a sense of nostalgia for the British Empire and British commercial dominance, which would have horrified Crass. It has to be said that this aspect of the album hasn't aged well. Although the lyrics are written in character, the use of "nips" for the Japanese is jarring, and Waters comes across as politically naive, pining for a golden age that was pretty rotten if you weren't a middle class white British man. He was in his own way just as short-sighted as Crass.

The two albums were directly inspired by the Royal Navy's sinking of the Argentine warship General Belgrano during the opening stages of the Falklands War. Until that point the war had been a jolly adventure, but all of a sudden two hundred Argentine sailors were dead and the war wasn't jolly any more. It was at the time a major political controversy and both albums refer to it directly.

Meanwhile the Soviets were engaged in a slow-motion invasion of Afghanistan, Israel was invading Lebanon, nuclear armageddon no longer seemed like science fiction, and terrorist groups were attempting to push their views with violence. Roger Waters was appalled by all of this. What had gone wrong? He was appalled that forty years after the Second World War, and ten years after the hippie dream for which Pink Floyd had provided the soundtrack, the world seemed to be getting worse, not better.

In contrast Crass were appalled by everything, and whereas The Final Cut is a minor masterpiece, Yes Sir, I Will isn't very good. This is where I'm going to digress slightly. The Final Cut met with mixed reviews in 1983 and is generally ignored nowadays. It's an oddity. Successful on its own terms, but too personal to have widespread appeal and not bad enough to be remembered as a disaster. Floyd fans who liked the old spacey jams hated it.

And then the camera pans along to John Cleese sitting at a desk, and he says "and now for something completely different", and then the titles start.

On the negative side the lyrics are erratic, veering from brilliant to embarrassing, and a lot of reviewers saw Roger Waters as a humourless multimillionaire with a Jesus complex. Half of the songs are imitations of music from The Wall; the other half are filler; the single "Not Now John" is just dreadfully bad. But the album is far more listenable than Yes Sir, I Will. At the very least it had a critical response whereas Yes Sir bypassed the media entirely. The two albums were essentially political essays set to music, but Crass weren't interested in entertaining anybody and they had even fewer musical ideas than Roger Waters.

The problem with Yes Sir, I Will is that it's a declamatory set of political slogans designed to rile up a crowd of converts. No-one's mind was changed by Crass; no-one who was not already a fan of the band bought the album. Young political wonks tend to assume that everyone who is not on their side is a demon, including people who aren't even political, with the result that their political base never expands and they eventually spend most of their time fighting each other. Furthermore Crass had an irritating habit of droning on about how they were unjustly persecuted, because they were very pleased with themselves.

The sad thing is that Crass were essentially correct. War is a racket; there's nothing heroic about it; Empires are not cuddly, they are Mafia-style protection organisations; the Western world is built on the suffering of others. But saying so without adornment wins no-one over and solves nothing. Crass was never in a position to fix any of those problems or provide an alternative solution and I suspect most people in 1983 dismissed them as a bunch of lefties. Furthermore, putting yourself in a position where your political enemies can accuse you of taking the mickey out of Simon Weston is bad optics.

Imagine if, like, the entire episode was just preamble. Imagine if the episode never actually began?

The Final Cut's saving grace is that Roger Waters obviously meant every word, and underneath the seething anger and bitterness the album has a human core. Later in the decade the likes of Sting and Bono were widely criticised for their socially-conscious stance, in Sting's case because it felt like a pose, in Bono's case because he seemed to latch on to other people's causes, but Roger Waters was older than both of them, and perhaps because of that The Final Cut has an underlying air of emotional vulnerability, a bitter passion that eluded his Waters' peers.

Ultimately The Final Cut is a lot like Lou Reed's Magic and Loss. Hard to like, difficult to enjoy, but hard to dismiss. Teenage poetry, but what's wrong with that? What else are teenagers supposed to listen to?

It wouldn't be fair on the audience though. They didn't want to see a camera panning across a beach. They wanted zany jokes and Terry Jones dressing up as a woman.

Crass split up after Yes Sir, I Will and went on to become nobodies, exhibiting awful paintings every so often. Pink Floyd also split up, with Roger Waters going off to an erratic solo career, but a couple of years later David Gilmour and Nick Mason un-split the band, eventually re-hiring Richard Wright, and today we're going to have a look at the Olympus E-PL1, a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera from 2010. It was part of the second wave of M43 cameras, after the successful E-P1 of 2009. It was intended as a cheaper alternative to the E-P1 for people who wanted to try out the Micro Four Thirds system but didn't want to fully commit. It has nothing to do with ELP. That was a band.

I've long been fascinated with Micro Four Thirds, but not enough to spend any money on it. I remember when the E-P1 came out; it was a fresh, new idea. A compact camera with interchangeable lenses and a decent sensor. But the range of lenses was very small, and although you could use masses of third-party lenses with a simple adapter ring the half-sized sensor meant that everything became a medium telephoto. About the only killer lens from the original range was the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, but that was about it.

Remember when Joker was Oscar bait? And then it was an irresponsibly wicked folly? By the time the Oscars come around will it be Oscar bait again?

What is Micro Four Thirds? Back in the early 2000s Olympus was unique amongst the major camera manufacturers in that the company didn't have an SLR system. The OM range was discontinued in the early 1990s, and for the rest of that decade Olympus concentrated on compact cameras and what it called "single lens reflex" bridge cameras with a built-in zoom lens. When digital SLRs became a mass-market phenomenon in the early 2000s the likes of Canon, Nikon, Pentax and so forth had a range of 35mm lenses and camera bodies that they could adapt for digital sensors, but Olympus had nothing.

On the positive side it meant that they could start from scratch, but their first attempt was only moderately successful. It was called Four-Thirds, and it was a partnership with Kodak and Panasonic and possibly Leica and Fuji, I can't remember. Some of the partners dropped out. Four Thirds was based around a relatively small sensor that was quarter-full-frame (with a 2x crop factor). In theory this meant that the cameras could be small as well, but the first batch of Four Thirds SLRs were surprisingly chunky. Some of the lenses were apparently very good, but as with all small-format systems there was only a small choice of wideangle lenses and no fast, wide lenses, and I personally couldn't imagine spending a fortune on a system that seemed so limited.

In its favour Four Thirds introduced Live View and ultrasonic sensor cleaning, both of which seemed like fripperies in the mid-2000s but are essential nowadays. By the end of the decade Olympus found a niche with the E-400 and its successors, which were cute-looking compact SLRs, but on the whole Four Thirds felt like a disappointment with a limited future. Olympus made an attempt to target the professional market with the E-1, but as with the OM system in the 1970s and 1980s professionals avoided Four Thirds because it offered nothing that Canon and Nikon didn't already have. In an alternative world Four Thirds would have died off, leaving Olympus to the compact market, but there was a second string to the company's bow. Olympus teased a compact mirrorless system for several years before launching the E-P1 in 2009.

It was a big hit. It was more or less what the Four Thirds system should have been from the start. It combined a twelve-megapixel Four Thirds sensor with a compact body that was much the same size as a compact camera, but heavier. The mirror box was omitted in favour of full-time live view and the lens-sensor distance was cut down. Olympus called the resulting system Micro Four Thirds, and it's still going strong today. There were ambitious plans for a wave of manufacturers to join in with the M43 system but as of 2019 the only players are Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica.

Photography, ladies and gentlemen. Men and women driven by vanity, greed, and lust. And fear, and a desire to live after death. Lust, desire, and fear. Men driven by dreams of yachts and women, women driven likewise. That's why this blog has such a peculiar name. I was thinking of the things that drive men to pick up a camera, and "lust and fear" was already taken.

The three manufacturers have taken slightly different tacks. Olympus makes cute pocketable compacts and has recently targeted the gentleman street photographer market with the chunky OM-D. Panasonic has instead aimed at the video market. Micro Four Thirds was designed from the start for video recording. The E-P1 was launched with impeccable timing, just as digital SLR videography took off, but Olympus generally left the digital video market to Panasonic. Panasonic's M43 cameras have from the start offered high frame rate recording, direct 1:1 sensor readout for super-telephoto magnification, support for external hard drives and RAW video, etc, and nowadays they're popular with video diarists, or "vloggers" as young people call them nowadays. Something something Leica fill in later.

But let's talk about the E-PL1. It was part of the second wave of M43 cameras, launched as a budget alternative to the E-P2. Ten years later they're available on the used market for pennies, and if you want to really skimp you can buy a body and an adapter ring and use one of your manual focus lenses instead. All the images I shot for my trip to Feltre were taken with an old Olympus OM 21mm f/3.5, which is equivalent to a 42mm lens on an M43 body, e.g. just slightly wide. I'm going to stop writing E-PL1 in bold now. The used E-PL1s I have seen tend to have paint wear around the shutter button. I find that removing the battery zeroes the date, but I'm not sure if this was the case when the camera was new; it seems that Olympus saved money by omitting a date battery.

How robust is the shutter? It has a mechanical shutter. Mine has taken five thousand shots. The camera is essentially disposable, so I'm not too worried about shutter durability. Batteries and chargers were common among the early M43 cameras and are still widely available. The E-PL1 takes SD cards; a single 16gb card will store over two thousand RAW images. The camera uses a USB cable for file transfer, so you might never have to remove the card, but irritatingly the USB cable has a non-standard connector.

The E-PL1 has the same twelve megapixel sensor that was in all of the early M43 cameras. ISO range 200-1600, with 100 and 3200 as software-generated expansions. Higher ISOs are grainy but generally still usable, in particular the camera still captures colour well, and does a good job keeping luminance noise down. The maximum exposure time is thirty seconds, after which it takes a thirty-second dark frame, and even with long exposures the results are clean. There's about a stop of headroom, which leads to one of the camera's problems.

This was shot at ISO 1600, but the shadows have been boosted, so the dark parts are more like ISO 3200 or 6400. There's a lot of luminance noise but the colours are generally true and in black and white it would look a bit like grainy film.

Olympus kept the E-PL1's price down by using a simplified plastic body, and also they cheated a bit by cutting some things from the firmware. For instance there's absolutely no form of remote shutter control whatsoever. The E-P1 had an electronic shutter release, but it's not compatible with the E-PL1, and there's no remote thread on the shutter button. If you merely want a delayed exposure there is of course the self-timer, but if you want to hold the shutter open for an arbitrary length of time the E-PL1 is not the camera for you.

Why is speculum porn so offensive? Not because of the subject but because of the concept - the idea that if men find women's bodies attractive, then internal shots of women's bodies taken with medical equipment will be doubly attractive. Human sexuality isn't that mechanical.

The second problem is that the camera only brackets by a stop in either direction. I mention this because a tiny compact camera with live view is ideal for HDR or astrophotography or night-time photography, because it fits on a tiny tripod and has a boosted live view display that's visible in darkness, but the lack of remote shutter control and bracketing cuts your options considerably. Even worse, if you want to take a three-shot bracketed burst, you have to hold down the shutter button with your finger for the three exposures. You can't simply set the timer and let the camera take three shots independently. If you do, it'll take the first shot and then stop (at which point the next two shots will still be part of the bracketing sequence).

Other problems? The matrix metering is paranoid about highlights. If a scene has some sky, or a window letting in a bit of light, the camera underexposes so that the highlights don't blow. The ISO 1600 image above of the room with a dried-out piece of wood was shot with matrix metering, and I had to boost the shadows. It's a smart idea, but it goes too far. I think the idea is that if you shoot JPEGs the camera will boost the shadows for you, but if you shoot RAW and don't want noisy shadows you have to use center-weighted metering, which works well enough, and yes I know that RAW doesn't stand for anything, it's just that I like to write RAW in capitals because it pleases me and that's all that matters.

The camera also has spot metering and highlight and shadow spot metering, which is a little bit like the OM-4's multi-spot metering, but simpler. Does it work? Dunno, I haven't tried it. If I was that concerned with exposure accuracy I would use manual exposure.

I find that taking photos with a mobile phone is easy, because the depth of field is so huge it doesn't matter what the phone focuses on. Taking photos with an SLR is also easy because I'm looking through a clear viewfinder and bracing the camera against my face. The big problem with a large-sensor compact is that depth of field is a consideration, but you're focusing with a camera held at arm's length using a dim screen in sunlight, so it's a lot easier to miss focus, especially if you're focusing on something off-centre.

Luckily Olympus sells a bunch of digital viewfinders. The VF-3 pictured in this article was essentially made for the E-PL1 - same colour, similar market segment. It's okay. The screen is usable in daylight but looks washed out. The camera has an option to change the colour balance and brightness of the electronic viewfinder, but the effect is subtle. In low light the screen is perhaps inevitably grainy, but on the positive side it gains up so that you can shoot in near-darkness, which is one limitation of optical viewfinders. In daylight you can leave manual lenses stopped down before you shoot and focus with the lens stopped down. It still feels like looking through a tunnel, and I worry that after bracing the camera against my face the viewfinder will snap off at the hinge. The 90 degree tilt was invaluable for the shots of the ceilings of the Doge's Palace.

The E-PL1 has a built-in flash! I've never used it. It also has a hotshoe, which is a surprisingly hardcore feature for such a simple camera. The viewfinder also plugs into the hotshoe so I admit I haven't used the shoe for creative flash work. Flash sync is a disappointingly low 1/160th of a second, although Olympus flash units have a high-speed sync mode. Am I going to spend money on an Olympus flash? No.

Manual focus lenses? As mentioned the M43 system is compatible with almost every manual focus lens ever made, including security camera and 16mm motion picture camera lenses, and with the right adapter you can even use autofocus lenses, sometimes with autofocus. There are speed boosters that act like a magnifying glass, squashing down the image circle of a full-frame lens so that it's even faster on an M43 body. Unfortunately the 2x crop factor turns almost everything into a medium telephoto, which isn't much fun because shooting a medium telephoto with a compact camera is awkward.

Awkward but not impossible. The E-PL1 has in-body image stabilisation, and a bit of experimentation with telephoto lenses suggests to me that shots at 400mm and above aren't impossible. Composing, focusing, and shooting at that length with a manual focus lens is however extremely difficult. You have to zoom in with the viewfinder, focus, then zoom out and hope you don't jog the focusing control, then compose, then take the shot, then check to see if it worked. It's not really practical for sports or anything that involves moving subjects such as airliners. It can be done; people have done it; it doesn't strike me as a lot of fun.

At the other extreme shooting wide is difficult because there aren't all that many ultrawide manual focus lenses. There were a few compact 20mm and 21mm manual focus lenses, but they're not wide on an M43 body. About the widest you can go is 14mm, which becomes 28mm on an M43 body, which still isn't very wide. Off the top of my head the widest full-frame lenses ever made were 11mm (a massive modern zoom lens) and 12mm (an early-2000s Voigtlander rangefinder lens), so if you want true ultrawide coverage with M43 you either have to use native lenses or fisheyes.

Sadly there isn't a particularly good range of native ultrawide M43 lenses, and as with all small-format systems it's difficult to take wideangle pictures with a narrow depth of field. An M43 equivalent of a 35mm f/1.4 would be a 17mm f/0.50 or something similar, which doesn't exist. For this reason APS-C and latterly full-frame mirrorless cameras from Fuji and Sony have stolen some of the M43 system's thunder, but M43 bodies still have small size on their side.

There are only six more paragraphs left, but the last one is just a couple of lines long. You're doing great. You can make it.

Ergonomically the body is generally good. The zoom in button is under my thumb, the shutter is in the right place, it's large enough to brace, small enough with a pancake lens to put into a large jacket pocket. The buttons feel spongy and I worry that they'll pop out, but they haven't yet. The E-PL1's menu has one of those systems where you have to press OK after changing a value. If you change the value and then just back out of the menu, the change doesn't stick.

There's a wide range of JPEG options, including square output if you want to know exactly how your images will look on Instagram, and some art filters that I have avoided because I can always apply them later. You can also shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, which is unusually flexible for a budget camera.

Video is another aspect where Olympus cut some corners. The E-PL1 has two video modes. 640x480 VGA at 30fps, I have no idea why, and 720p at 1280x720, also 30fps. Not 1080p and no other frame rates. It uses a peculiar codec that foxes Adobe Premiere. I have to convert the files with Handbrake. It's not a great video camera and I have barely used it as such. Panasonic's contemporary M43 bodies were much better in that respect.

That's it. The end. If *I* wrote the captions, who wrote the article?

Does the E-PL1 make any sense nowadays? The original E-P1 has a certain amount of historical cachet, but it doesn't support an electronic viewfinder, and it's slightly more expensive on the used market. On a pragmatic level the mini-SLR Panasonic M43 bodies have better video modes and better ergonomics, with built-in viewfinders, and if I was committed to Micro Four Thirds I would have chosen one of them, but ultimately I just wanted to dip my toe into the system.

Image quality-wise I don't have a problem with twelve megapixels, and the tonality even at higher ISOs is surprisingly good for a decade-old compact sensor. In particular the E-PL1 has nice blues, nice vivid Velvia-like skies, and although there's subtle shadow noise even at ISO 200 it's not offensively bad. You may find the grain characterful. Do I have anything more to say about the E-PL1? It's competent, technically limited, good colours, makes for a cheap introduction to the world of M43, but I still prefer SLRs. Paired with the 9mm body cap fisheye lens I wrote about a while back it makes for a good pocketable street scene camera. Some people might not like M43's aspect ratio, which is 4:3, coincidentally the same as 645. I find it dull, but that's just conditioning because I grew up with 4:3 televisions. Kids today probably find it bracing.

Imagine calling a cat Socks. The cat would spend the whole of its short life believing that socks are made out of cats.