Saturday, 27 February 2016

OM-D EM-1 Low Light Performance

Those of you who follow me know that I recently jumped from full frame DSLR to the Micro 4/3 camp with on Olympus OM-D EM-1. I often photograph performing arts, plays, pub gigs, concerts, etc. Some of my mates had been using their Oly stuff in these circumstances so I wasn't too concerned about the low light performance without having tried it for myself but it was on my mind.

Last night I was invited to shoot at The Bendigo Hotel in Collingwood. The invite was a little unusual, in that I was invited by a person from Europe to photograph the punk rock band GBH for them. It all worked out and I was "on the list" - very important when you want access.

Low light shooting of fast action like a band requires a strong performance from the camera. You need to set your expectations however, you're going to be battling with very low light - cameras need a lot of light, bands hate it. It's very rare outside the stadium concerts to actually have sufficient let alone a lot of light on a stage. This means high ISO, lots of noise, very low depth of field and a continuing struggle to keep the shutter fast enough to stop the action. You can of course use the slow shutter to capture movement in the still image. You will be shooting on manual and you will probably be massively underexposing your images. Nearly all of the images on the night I tested out the Oly features were three stops down from where they needed to be. This means you are over driving the shit out of the sensor and expecting miracles!


I knew this venue was small and the lighting really shitty - great atmosphere for the band, but bloody awful for photography. I also hate people who use flash during performances so never do. I also don't like being hit in the face by focus assist beams so turn that off as well. This means the camera and lens must play the game and either do the job or go onto manual focus.

For this gig, I chose the 7-14 f/2.8 and the 12-40 f/2.8. These are both impressive bits of glass. First up the 7-14. This managed focus wonderfully at 7mm but struggled anywhere else in the dark. That's ok because I wanted it for atmosphere shots like the stage and mosh pit and 7mm is perfect for that. Given this thing is really aimed at the landscape and architecture photographer making it do double duty at a gig widens its usability. It's wider than an 8mm fish but maintains wonderfully straight lines with the great glass design and the correction information built into the ORF (Olympus Raw File) format allowing Lightroom to correct the distortion.

GBH performing right up close and personal with the mosh. Shot with the Oly 7-14 at 7mm was a great way to get between the tiny gap between speakers and band at side of stage and still capture the intense thundering bouncing mood of the mosh.
GBH had most of the lights turned off or down so were incredibly difficult to shoot but the 7mm came on strong with capturing focus on the singer and maintaining an incredible depth of field given this was shot at f/2.8. An ISO of 8000 meant quite a bit of noise but I still only managed 1/40th of a second which was three stops underexposed. The shot is still cleanable and perfectly usable and captures the moment.

I also made use of the 12-40 at 12mm quite a lot during the night which could capture a more intimate scene of band and mosh than the 7-14 could. At 14mm the 7-14 would struggle to focus so I leant heavily on the 12-40 which managed focus right through its range really well.

Charter 77 singing "Ray Martin you're a f*ckwit" to an absolutely packed mosh.

Conclusion - the camera is more than up to the job of focussing in the dark venue. I was using a single focus point picked for most advantage for the shot I was going for at the time. There was certainly plenty of focus hunting going on and occasionally I would flip into manual focus with the wonderful pull ring on these lenses and either shoot on manual or give it a nudge in the right direction then flip back to auto to let it finish the job. After all without my glasses I'm fairly dependent on the camera getting it right and there was no way I was putting my glasses on in there, they would have lasted 30 seconds. Every now and then the facial recognition would fire up and change the focus point which was fine by me - I'm a believer in trusting the technology.

Low Light - High Noise

Generally in the dark environment, you simply expect a lot of noise and you expect yo use a lot of tricks in the post processing arsenal to get rid of it or mask it by adding film like features to the images. 

Cleaning up the noise yields a softer than desirable result. Those crisp sharp concert images you see are either from big shows with tens of thousands of watts of light or they're flash imagery if there from a concert at all. The most celebrated concert shots are studio recreations!

The following shot is a crop of about 1/3 of the full frame of the image so it really shows the noise. This is SOOC (straight out of camera) and clearly shows the artefacts of shooting in low light at high iso and forcing the sensor to achieve things it simply wasn't designed to achieve by shooting three stops underexposed. You simply can't expect strong detail from the image - or can you? This image is shot at ISO 8000 and is a truly horrible exposure.

Charter 77's lead singer engages with a single fan from the pit
I've processed this image pretty hard, generally harder than I normally would. I increased the exposure a full stop which blew out the lights so I reduced the highlights by half a stop, changed the clipping levels for the blacks and added a bit of clarity and vibrance then slightly reduced the saturation overall. Now onto the noise processing, I used luminance and contrast noise reduction heavily followed by colour noise reduction again quite heavily. This yields a less noisy brighter image.

Often these really noisy images lend themselves well to black and white rather than retaining the colour. In this case I'm going to just floor the blacks in the conversion because I want to get rid of all the extraneous detail. This will also eliminate much of the noise.

Final result - the mono image with strong contrast, noisy and soft but acceptable
After the processing, you're left with a strong image that isn't going to pass any sharpness lover's test of photography (who are those guys anyway) but it yields an image that captures the great moment that was happening on stage. There is one more thing to do in this image however, get rid of that pesky photographer in the background - it's ok, I'm sure I'm in his images too.

In this final image I got rid of the photographer and a few other bright bits that were distracting. I left the bright L shape because it helps direct attention to the fan's face as he gazes up at the person on stage.

Conclusion - what I asked this camera to do on this night was almost offensive, and to be honest it did a much better job than the 5dii could have. What we have at the end is a photo that isn't going to win a competition, but really, who gives a shit about them anyway, what we've got is a strong photo that the performer is going to like and clearly shows a moment of the evening. Given that these two know each other and have for a long time it's likely to be a good memory keeper.

A final word, I am literally stunned just how low I was able to drive the shutter speed and have the camera simply deal with it. The 5 point IS (image stabilisation) in this thing works stunningly well with these high quality lenses. I was able to single hand hold the camera and in cases like this one shove it between the heads of two people to frame and snap the shot thanks to the bright image on the back of the camera.

I'm going to enjoy working with this beast. If I can manage shots I'm happy with from the fast moving music world photographing plays where I have some control over added lighting and can freeze the actors for a longish exposure on a tripod is going to be a walk in the park.

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