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Infrared Photography with Micro 4/3rds Cameras

Surprising results from a tiny system

Late last year, I decided to shop around for a micro 4/3rds mirrorless camera to convert to infrared. Mostly, I wanted to have a camera that was compatible with my OM System OM-1 kit, as it has become my primary camera body. Carrying two systems while traveling is a pain, especially when one of them uses large lenses. My full-spectrum infrared Nikon Z6 is excellent, but the size of the body and compatible lenses makes it prohibitive to pack as a second system for my photography workshops. I like to have a compact infrared camera for traveling, preferably one that I can use with lenses that are either already in my bag or that take up little space.

Infrared Body: Olympus OM-D E-M5ii

After shopping around and consulting my colleagues, I settled on purchasing a second-hand Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark 2 body. While not packed with the features of the newer cameras, it still sports 16 megapixels, has excellent IBIS, and face/eye detection AF. That’s more than I need for my style of infrared photography. The E-M5 is solidly built, has easy to use controls, and IMO happens to look beautiful in silver. Another benefit of the E-M5 is that it uses the older contrast-detection AF system, which isn’t susceptible to the banding artifacts that you can sometimes see with newer mirrorless cameras. I had the camera converted to full-spectrum infrared by Kolari Vision.

Choosing Micro 4/3 Lenses for Infrared Photography

The real test of an infrared camera system isn’t the body, it’s the lenses. You can convert just about any camera to infrared, but if the lenses you use create hotspots, it’s futile. Hotspots are the bane of every infrared photographer, and mitigating them usually requires shooting wide-open and attempting to fix them in post; something that isn’t always easy. A potential advantage of the small M4/3 sensor is that it produces 2x the apparent depth of field as compared to 35mm full-frame. That means, I can shoot an f/4 lens wide-open and have the same DOF as using f/8 on a FF body. Many lenses start to show hotspots at f/8 or higher, so this was something I was curious to see.

Wide-angle lenses are typically the problematic for infrared photography, as much of their power comes from optical coatings that simply aren’t designed for infrared wavelengths. The result can be images with extreme corner shading, and very soft (or even mushy) corner sharpness. My first infrared camera was a Nikon 1 V1, and its 10-30mm zoom lens was so bad at the wide end that it looked like someone had smeared a ring of petroleum jelly on the lens (the lens was fine with visible light).

I’ve tested a large range of Nikon lenses with infrared, and I have now done the same with OM System/Olympus Micro 4/3 lenses. I found a few articles discussing Olympus lens performance with infrared, and some of those lenses are available on the used market at extremely reasonable prices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the newer “Pro” lenses fared worse in my testing than some of the older designs (probably due to differences in coatings). In the end I settled on a trio of Micro 4/3rds lenses that are absolutely great for digital infrared photography:

  • Olympus 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 ED MSC: This wide-angle zoom lens is a nearly perfect performer, even when stopped down past f/8. This lens performed better than any of the wide-angle Nikon Z lenses I tested, and offers an 18-36mm FF equivalent range. It uses 52mm front filters, which are modestly priced. This lens is the most expensive of the three I list here, but you can find them used for around $225.
  • Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ power zoom: This is my go-to lens for infrared photography with Micro 4/3 format cameras, as it delivers the 35mm equivalent of a 28-84mm lens. It is absolutely tiny due to its collapsible design, and it is so compact that it can just stay on the camera without taking up additional space. It performs extremely well in infrared up until about f/8, which is well past the normal aperture range I usually need. It uses 37mm front filters, which are fairly inexpensive. If you had only one lens for Micro 4/3 infrared photography, this is the one to get. It’s also available on the used market for under $200.
  • Olympus 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6R: While I don’t shoot a lot of telephoto shots in infrared, this lens is tiny, lightweight, and nearly perfect across the range. It offers an equivalent angle of view to an 80-300mm lens on 35mm format, and is remarkably good. Even better, you can find this lens in excellent condition for under $100 (I got mine for $75).

There are many other Micro 4/3rds lenses that perform well with infrared, including many of the small primes, and the 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. The result is that I have lots of choices for infrared photography with the Micro 4/3 system, and many of the lenses are tiny.

Despite the excellent performance of the OM System Micro 4/3 lenses I tested in infrared, there is one major difference between the M4/3 kit and my Nikon Z6. Unlike with my Nikon I was unable to get a set of clip-in (rear-mounted) filters to use with my E-M5 Mark II body. That means I have to use front filters when using my full-spectrum converted Olympus camera. If you have a fixed conversion, this isn’t an issue, but I like having the option of using a variety of filters, including the Kolari IR Chrome filter. While clip-in filters are a little clumsier to change in the field, they allow you to use any lens with your infrared camera, regardless of filter thread.

Because each of the lenses in my arsenal has a different filter size, my solution was to purchase a set of 58mm filters to use across all three of my primary lenses. I use step rings to mount the filters to the wide-angle and standard zooms. I keep the step rings on the lenses, and I picked up some inexpensive 58mm lens caps to use with them. Fortunately, the 58mm filters aren’t particularly expensive, and they aren’t awkward to use with the lenses in my kit. You can also adapt them to fit the small primes with 46-58mm step up ring.

Pros and Cons of a Micro 4/3 System for Infrared

In a perfect world, I’d love a one-lens infrared solution in the 24-200mm range, but the Olympus/OM System and Nikon Z lenses in that range both produce unacceptable hotspots. Nevertheless, for my style of shooting, I find using a Micro 4/3 camera for infrared to be extremely pleasant. The small form-factor of the body and lenses makes using it as a second body extremely simple. The lens performance is excellent, too, and there are focal length options that allow me far more choices than I had with my Nikon Z infrared kit. For example, I can use the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens and 60mm f/2.8 macro lens with my Olympus infrared camera, but their Nikon counterparts produced unacceptable hotspots. Moreover, adding one of the M4/3 primes to my kit is painless, as they take up very little space in my bag.

Benefits of Micro 4/3 Infrared Cameras
  • Small form-factor of cameras and lenses
  • Availability of lenses on the used market at extremely discounted prices
  • 2x effective depth of field makes it easier to avoid hotspots by shooting wide-open
  • Older cameras with contrast-detect AF avoid banding artifacts
Drawbacks of Micro 4/3 Infrared Cameras
  • Requires the use of front-filters and step-rings*
  • Higher-ed PRO lenses (like the 12-45mm f/4) produce hotspots, especially on the wide-end
  • Fewer megapixels than larger format systems
  • Older cameras don’t offer subject-detection autofocus options

*I’ve recently been made aware of a company that produces clip-in infrared filters for M 4/3. I hope to test them soon.

Skip the Travel Tripod?

Advances in image stabilization systems make shooting hand-held easier than ever

Christmastime in Europe is a magical thing to experience.

In 2023, I went on several trips where travel photography was the predominant style. That meant focusing on outdoor/street scenes, and indoor/ architectural scenes. These subjects are particularly prevalent in Europe, where I took a group of clients to visit Christmas Markets in Austria and Germany, along with a stop in Prague.

As always, I recommended for my clients to bring a lightweight travel tripod, because a primary goal for us was to shoot during the twilight/”blue hour.” Having a tripod in those situations can be really handy, because it allows you to shoot slower shutter speeds and keep your ISO down, which often leads to cleaner images (less noise, and more dynamic range).

I was excited to be using my new OM System OM-1 kit, with a couple of zooms (12-45mm f/4, 40-150 f/4) and two small primes (9mm f/1.7 and 25mm f/1.8). My entire kit only weighed 3.5 lbs.; less than my Nikon Z9 and 24-120mm f/4 combo, which I lugged around Croatia in 2022.

Along with my camera, I packed my trusty Gitzo traveler tripod and a small ball-head, and flew off to meet my clients in Prague, excited to capture photos of these magical cities at Christmastime. That’s when reality set in.

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Whose Vision is it, Anyway?

AKA: Did you “Photoshop” that?

When I was growing up in the early 80s, you really had only two choices when it came to making prints from your film. You could either take it to a lab (or drugstore), or do it yourself. While at-home darkroom work was fairly reasonable for black and white film (and I’m glad my dad built a darkroom for my mom in our garage), color film was really not feasible for most home processing. So the rolls of color print film went off to the drugstore, with mixed results.

I remember driving out to the Mojave desert with my Nikon EL2 and a roll of print film, looking to photograph comet Hale-Bopp. The good news was that I actually captured shots of the comet. The bad news was that the print lab assumed I’d woefully underexposed my film and returned photos with gray skies instead of black. Fortunately, I was able to use a flatbed scanner and my rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop (this was the mid-90s, you know) to get reasonable-looking images.

Today, most of us aren’t shooting color print film, but the idea remains the same. You can choose to let your camera be the lab (i.e., the drugstore) and rely on its rendition of colors and contrast, or you can work on your images yourself. The good news is that most cameras offer a variety of preset color and contrast settings, like “standard,” “vivid,” and “portrait.” But does the camera really know which tones you want accentuated and those you want muted? I think not. That being said, our cameras do a pretty reasonable job of rendering images that look fairly similar to how the scene appeared at the time, which brings me to the point of this article. Is a “faithful” rendition of the scene a compelling photograph, or would you like to convey a different sense of feeling. After all, the camera simply records data; it’s up to our brains to interpret it.

A couple of months ago I was in Alaska on a cruise with a group of clients. One of the signature stops on the cruise was Glacier Bay National Park, a place that’s fairly inaccessible except by boat or float plane. As it turned out, by the time we arrived at one of the signature glaciers, the air was hazy and the angle of the sun created quite a bit of haze. This is what my camera saw:

Johns Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay, Alaska, as interpreted by my OM-1 camera.

Frankly, that’s more or less how the scene looked. The glacier was somewhat back-lit, and there was a lot of haze in the air, reducing contrast. Meh. Had I been shooting a documentary or on a photojournalism assignment, this image would have been perfectly reasonable to use right out of the camera.

Needless to say, I like my landscapes to have impact and feeling. So of course I processed the photo to get more of what I felt. For example, had I been using black and white film, I’d have considered using a yellow filter to cut through that blue haze and add contrast to the mountains. After processing, I ended up with this:

Johns Hopkins Glacier, processed in Lightroom and Photoshop (click to enlarge).

Which one do you prefer? In reality, it doesn’t matter. Because you get to have your own opinion and your own style. The bottom line is this: If you let your camera do your processing for you, your choices for output will be quite limited. You don’t need to build a darkroom in your garage to have the creative freedom once enjoyed by the masters.

Micro 4/3rds Lens Kits for Travel Photography

When it comes to going small and light, there are lots of excellent choices for Micro Four-Thirds shooters

Olympus OM-1 with 12-100mm lens
The OM Systems OM-1 with 12-100mm f/4 PRO lens is an amazing single-lens travel kit!

If you enjoy traveling with your camera, you probably want a kit that offers a fairly wide range of focal lengths, but also something that is fairly lightweight and compact. Recently, I’ve been discussing with a colleague about the dreaded “what to pack” question. He’s going to be in Paris next month, and wants a flexible kit to use with his OM-1 body. The problem isn’t a lack of options; it’s literally quite the opposite. There are so many lenses available for Micro 4/3rds users that sometimes it can feel overwhelming when trying to decide what to pack for a trip!

The Micro 4/3rds system offers photographers a tremendous range of lens choices for travel, as most of the lenses for this system are fairly small and light to begin with. Options range from single all-purpose zoom lenses, two-lens zoom kits, a trio of tiny primes, or a mix of zooms and primes. Most of these lenses are quite good and make few optical compromises, and none of them will make you feel weighed down. In the end, the lenses you choose really depend on how much you’re willing to carry, and the type of subjects that interest you most.

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Small, Fast, and Light: Micro 4/3rds Prime Lenses

These small prime lenses for Micro 4/3rds format open up a wide range of creative possibilities

Three prime lenses for Micro 4/3rds mount: Panasonic/Leica 9mm f/1.7, Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Olympus 45mm f/1.8

Earlier this year, I purchased an OM Systems (formerly known as Olympus) OM-1 flagship mirrorless camera, along with a set of zoom lenses that are perfect for the majority of my photographic needs. One thing I hadn’t considered at the time was the prime lenses for Micro 4/3 format from Olympus and Panasonic.

Prime, or fixed focal length, lenses generally serve to either extend the range of your kit (ie, adding wide or telephoto prime to a zoom kit), or to provide a way of getting a different look to your images, usually because they are designed with a fast maximum aperture. You can also use primes for dedicated purposes; most portrait photographers will have at least one fast portrait lens (like an 85mm f/1.8 or faster) to deliver nice subject isolation.

Introduction

A few years ago, before I switched to using a mirrorless system, I frequently put a 50mm f/1.8, a.k.a the “Nifty Fifty.” In my bag when traveling. But when I got my Nikon Z kit, I stopped using a 50mm prime, even though I’d purchased the outstanding Nikon 50mm f/1.8S Nikkor Z. Why? Because it was just too darned big to bring along as an extra lens, and using the F-mount version required a lens mount adapter, adding weight and bulk to my kit.

Continue reading Small, Fast, and Light: Micro 4/3rds Prime Lenses