I was once in the habit of reviewing films and books several (or maybe many?) years ago here on this blog, and did so for a couple of years. That stopped after I concluded that while it was easy to comment briefly about something I saw or read, it was much harder to write thoughtful reviews worth the digital space it’d take up. I still watch a lot of films through video on demand subscriptions, DVD rental, blu-ray and in the cinema of course, and some really continue to impress – e.g. two recent Netflix TV series Narcos and Daredevil. And we’ve been binge-watching seasons of 24, with Ling lamenting that half the time the series “don’t have head or tail” since she’s often busying with housework and thus missing a lot of episodes in-between.

It was really hard to miss the hype train for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the last 12 months, not when the daily Facebook feeds were filled with posts about J.J. Abrams forthcoming take on the venerable property. And I’d come right out to say it: I realized that there would be no pragmatic way for me to avoid all the buzz and predictions about story and character fates in the months on social media before the film’s release. The only way would be to go off Facebook altogether LOL. So, I gave up trying to avoid it, and ended up watching the theatrical screening of the completed film in December last year already pretty much knowing what was going to happen at most plot points. And yes – there were dedicated SW: TFA spoiler sites, and though one might scoff at them, they nailed an amazing number of predictions and photo leaks. I’d put their hit rate predictions at about 90% in fact.

I’m also one of many weirdos who after getting inducted into Star Wars-verse with the first film’s screening at the Odeon cinema in 1977, have continued to invest in the pop-culture phenomena, including owning the original trilogy on VHS tapes, VCDs (does anyone even remember those LOL), laser discs, DVD, and now finally blu-ray. And there’s also been the (many) books I’ve bought and read on it. So, since Star Wars has become a good part of my growing up, I figured I’d do a series of posts collecting some of my notes and thoughts on it! Starting off with the the new film, and then I’ll probably write about the other films, the books, and some of the merchandise.

I wasn’t going to cram with everybody else for the Day 1 opening of SW: TFA here in Singapore on the 17 Dec Thursday, and opted instead for an 18 Dec screening at Serangoon Nex. Truth to tell, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a cinema hall in Singapore sold-out like that evening. The audience was for the most part well-behaved, and unlike some of the other Day 1 screenings here and outside Singapore, there were scant cheers when the trademark scrawl opened the film, nor applause when John Williams’ signature Star Wars march brought on the end-credits.

star-wars-tfa-poster

Spoilers… spoilers… spoilers!

And the good bits for me:

The cast, right at the top of the list of things that I felt went well. Harrison Ford didn’t missed a beat in his return to one of his two most iconic roles (the one being a certain archaeologist with a fedora and a bull whip) as the sardonic one-time space pirate Han Solo. He has a few outright hilarious lines with Chewie, though all rib-tickling also leads one to wonder – in at least one case about Chewie’s weapon of choice – why he’s only making the jibe now and not 30 years earlier in the original trilogy. Of the three new young leads, Daisy Ridley displayed the widest emotional range and whose character arc seemed better fleshed out than the others, and especially in comparison to Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron who spent more time in torture chambers and behind the cockpit controls of the newly stylized X-Wing fighters cheering the other Resistance pilots onward than having a real story told of his character.

The script, for the most part, though not the overarching plot. The banter’s cute, with Finn and Rey’s lines eliciting the most chuckles among the audience. Heck, maybe a bit too much even – and I wonder if Finn’s character was included in the story largely for laughs.

Minimal lens flare. And you have to see J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the two re-imagined Star Trek films to see what I mean here. In fact, the general Internet was so fearful of his overuse of digital lens flares that fan-made parodies of the teaser trailer were made – called ‘lens flare editions’. Thankfully, this was all dialed down for TFA, and the computer generated elements were nicely integrated into the film’s practical effects and real-world sets. Totally unlike the three prequel films, where the CG was pretty obvious everywhere it was used.

Lots of story and branching possibilities. Despite the film’s already longer than usual run-length of 135 minutes, there’s clearly a lot of subplots that were not concluded or characters’ agendas explored at this point. The Internet was buzzing with speculation on Rey’s real lineage after theatrical release, and it’d be no surprise that many of the secondary characters will be mined and fleshed out in literature in the coming years. E.g. Lor San Tekka on Jakku, Captain Phasma, and General Hux.

Lightsaber duels that look like real sword fights, and not gymnast show demos and kungfu bouts. As one Youtube channel quipped, the original trilogy duels were routinely like two geezers poking each other with walking sticks, and the prequel trilogy went the other extreme – totally incomprehensible with duelists flying and somersaulting in the air, though the bits where the Jedi were hurling machinery and furniture at each other was cool. The ferocity and energy exerted in each thrust and slash in TFA are apparent, and underlines the duel’s life or death intensity.

Some very impressive action set pieces, especially the dogfight on Jakku where the Millennium Falcon gets chased through the bowels of a ruined Star Star Destroyer.

Nice updates to vehicles, including the X-Wings, Tie-Fighters, land vehicles, and the dagger-shaped descendants of Star Destroyers.

No Ewoks, no Gungans, no Jar Jar Binks. ’nuff said LOL.

And the less impressive bits:

John Williams’ score – apart from the already very familiar opening and end-credits music, the score was for the most part nondescript.

The overarching plot being – essentially – a retread of Episode IV, albeit with some minor character variations and agendas. You have Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth replayed. The hero(ine) is from a desert backwater planet. You have the shadowy main villain and the more ominous ‘master’. You have the planet destroyer weapon, this time round deployed at a planetary system.

Same old protagonist, same old antagonist. Little seemed to have changed in the last 30 years in between trilogies..One would have thought that the galaxy would had been in total upheaval since the Emperor’s demise in Episode VI and the galaxy witnessed seismic changes. But heck no – it’s still the same two loggerheads going at it. The Empire is now The First Order, and the Rebellion is the Resistance. At best, unadventurous and worse, lazy writing in my opinion.

Needless character deaths, whose so-called emotional outcome could had been achieved just as well without killing the character.

But my biggest grip of the film was how little the new trilogy used  material or even drawn general ideas and themes from the Expanded Universe (EU). Granted that the latter is pretty convoluted now with all the published books, games and comic books prior to TFA, and Disney has come out to say they’re disregarding the EU. But there’s a lot of rich material there – and some of it is far more compelling than TFA’s newly developed continuing story and context. I’ll write more about this in the next couple of posts when I reflect on some of the EU books I’ve read and really liked.

More in the next post!

I’m only reminded again how quickly time zooms past when it’s time to do another year-end post summarizing our key purchasing decisions in the year. It only seems last month when I did the 2014 version of this annual post!

Dell XPS 13 – Win: an easy win for this purchase, since it’s become my daily work horse laptop. The laptop still looks as good as it did about a year on with nary a scratch on  the aluminum case. My only two quibbles with the XPS 13 is in the minor light bleed around the edges of its ‘infinity’-styled screen – guess I got a lousy unit upon notebook delivery – and also that I still don’t especially like the carbon fiber palm rests. Would have much preferred if the notebook had used the same aluminum material all round, like in the Macbooks.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – Win: this was picked up at about the same time as the XPS 13, and I’ve ended up using it a lot more at home than I’d thought – so much so that the exterior casing has gotten quite a few nicks. The tablet-notebook hybrid has accompanied us on two vacation trips now, and I recently picked up the new Surface Pro 4 type cover keyboard for it too – an accessory that provides a better speed typing platform than the older type cover. The machine’s 4GB RAM was initially sufficient when the Surface Pro 3 was running Windows 8.1, but ever since the upgrade to Windows 10, performance is noticeably more sluggish now. Note to self: if I get a replacement, get one with 8GB RAM!

Panasonic DMC-LX100 – Mixed: I never quite took to the LX100 the same way as I’ve liked using the older E-PL6, a similar-sized though also functionally very different compact m4/3 sensor camera. The camera is wonderfully featured, but was also finally quite soft in the corners wide-open, and I routinely found it easier to work to get the colors I wanted using RAW images out of the E-PL6 than the LX100. So, the LX100 got sold off a couple of months ago.

Nission i40 Flashgun for m4/3s – Win: much smaller and also more compact than the flashgun it replaced (the Metz 50AF-1). The flash is sturdily built, recharges quicker, and – aside from that Olympus’ TTL doesn’t quite typically throw up exactly the right amount of light as the Nikon speedlight flashguns did – has worked well otherwise. The only minor annoyance: the left real mode dial markings have almost all but faded off. Poor quality imprinting onto the rear dial I guess.

Mazda 3 – Win. We’ve adapted to our new 2015 ride, and have pretty much adjusted to the limitations of the vehicle compared to our old Nissan Latio – basically reduced leg head room spaces, and the absent footbrake. The car purls along with less effort than the Latio, even though the rated engine horsepower is identical. Though oddly, we ended up not using a lot of the vehicle’s nice features, including the sunroof, the Bluetooth connections, nor the built-in GPS maps (really not necessary with Google Maps).

Epson L550 Printer – Win… for the most part. I’ve printed several hundred A4 and 4R-sized photos for family, Hannah and our photo albums. The ink tanks are still more than half-full. Not unexpectedly, how well the print retains colors is dependent on both the photo paper used (Epson papers have worked much better on the L550 than another manufacturer’s!), and also display conditions, e.g. if the printed surface is exposed without protection. Of issues: the printer started making odd mechanical noises during print runs shortly after purchase, and from the sound of it, the print head its roller mechanism is impacting something in the printer’s innards. Aside from the din that makes, it doesn’t impact the print at all and can be solved by simply lifting the document feeder cover altogether by an inch or so. Still annoying nonetheless though.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Win. Lovely phone with a stunning build and design. I’ve not typically used phones as personal audio players yet, but tried it out in the recent Club Med trip, and found that the device churns out audio quality that’s every bit as good as the Sony F886 Walkman I’ve been using for more than a year now. One less device to bring around now – hooray!

Philips Slow Juicer – Win. We’ve significantly cut-down on our usage of the Slow Juicer a month back after Ling read that too much juices was leading to sugar overdoses in our diets. Not through any fault of the Juicer of course.

Olympus E-M1 – Win. Handles quite differently compared to the E-M5, and also a much better camera body to use with the 40-150mm f2.8. Got it at a wonderful price point, and supports WIFI tethering too – which eliminates the need for separate remote controllers.

Olympus 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s – Win. The 12-40mm has been heavily used since its purchase. I never quite expected to put the 40-150mm through similarly heavy use, but the recent Club Med Bintan trip proved that wrong. The lens’ responsiveness and handling, alongside how confidently it locked focus even in difficult lighting conditions, has assured that this lens will see a lot more use than the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 I had for the old Nikon DSLR.

Legoland Malaysia – Win. Of the two short vacations we’ve had this year, neither were entirely free from issues, but the Legoland Malaysia one was far less problematic. The room was passable, trips to the theme park a lot of fun – though the cost of the trip wasn’t exactly low.

Club Med Bintan – Lose. This one was the real disappointment of the year, after reading all the praise heaped on the resort in blogsphere, never mind that the Tripadvisor reviews were clearly less forgiving on the resort’s accommodation challenges. At least Hannah enjoyed the trip, and I really appreciated the opportunity to put the E-M1/40-150mm f2.8 through extended use at the nightly concerts, and think I have a much better appreciation of the difficulties in concert photography now.

2016 here we come! :)

 

Macro photography is hard and requires a lot of practice for one to be any good in it. I’ve over the years dabbled occasionally in it, including the one-stop flower macro photography spot in Singapore i.e. National Orchid Garden @ Botanic Gardens, over a variety of small sea critters during our Telunas Beach Resort stay, and also at the stunning Butterfly Garden @ Museum of Science in Boston. The half-way decent selection of pictures in those posts though are a result more from a couple of occasional hits from a sizable number of misses with cooperative subjects.

There are several ways of taking macro shots. Serious enthusiasts will typically invest in dedicated macro lenses. The Sigma 150mm f2.8 I owned for a couple of years for my Nikon system then cost a decent sum of money and was well-suited to flower photography but IIRC not for insects. I haven’t yet bought a similar dedicated lens for my m4/3 cameras now, though there are several such for the system at typically somewhat lower price points than say for the Nikon system. The Olympus 12-50mm kit lens that came with the E-M5 comes with macro ability though. Not a very good one by any measure, but it’s still useful when I have to take the odd close-up picture.

A second way of taking macro shots is to add extension tubes. These get attached to the camera mount and before the lens. Without glass and optical elements, tubes are simple in design, and essentially reduce the minimum focusing distance of a lens. Depending on supporting electronics in the tubes (e.g. to support aperture control and autofocusing), extension tubes for the m4/3s range from a very low price point of about $20, to branded Kenko tubes that cost about $160 and more. Finally, the third method is to add optical accessories to the front of the lens – e.g. close-up filters.

I was quite interested to get into macro photography again for the m4/3 system but loathed this time to spend money to buy a dedicated lens for it, though the excellent Olympus 60mm f2.8 Macro sure was tempting. The Kenko extension tubes were a real viable alternative and popular among many enthusiasts. Two disadvantages with this solution though: some of the clone copycats of Kenko tubes have, according to some Amazon reviews, damaged the electronic contact points on the camera body. I didn’t read of similar concerns for the Keno-manufactured tubes – they are apparently made to higher quality specifications and in Japan, compared to the cheap knock-offs which I think are made in China. Still, that got me worried. The other disadvantage lied in the very nature of using extension tubes: you have to dismount your lens, mount the tubes, then remount the lens. Not only is it tedious, any such swapping increases the possibility of foreign elements getting into the camera and landing on the sensor. Ugh, the horror.

So, it was to the close-up type optical accessories. There’s a whole bunch of close-up filers/lenses sold at shady camera shops here that seriously degrade or distort the image information that hits the sensor, so I was quite wary about them. The Raynox macro conversion lenses though are a different breed. These are well-regarded, manufactured in Japan, and have been around for a while now and I’ve been keeping my eye on them for several years. There are two particularly popular models in the series. They cost a mere fraction of what one would pay for a dedicated macro lens, and is also cheaper than Kenko tubes. The series is carried in several stores, but I went with an online reseller of it that’s been carrying Raynox products for several years now.

The Raynox DCR-150 is the model more suited for macro photography dabblers, and here’s the unboxing of the package, alongside some quick shots using the Olympus 12-50mm. I primarily intend for this conversion lens to work with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (hope there’s minimal vignetting!), so will report on that once the cheapo step-up ring necessary to mount the DCR-150 onto a 37mm filter thread arrives from eBay.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

Casual test of the DCR150's magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

Casual test of the DCR150’s magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens' front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens’ front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

More notes to come soon!

It’s been more than two years since I last bought a new lens, having been pretty satisfied with the trio of m4/3 prime lenses – the 17mm, 25mm, and 45mm – that are considered mandatory for serious owners of the system. The two new Olympus lenses picked up this month are labeled ‘Pro’. According to Olympus’ public information of what that descriptor means, their Pro line of lenses are developed for professional use, and provide constant f2.8 apertures. There are currently three such lenses in this line – the 7-14mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm – and the latter two were the most recent acquisitions.

At this point, I’ve put the 12-40mm through a few weeks of use, but not for the 40-150mm. Even then, these are just the first and early handling impressions of both.

The 12-40mm occupies an odd spot among what the focal lengths of the three great m4/3 primes. The 17mm and 45mm roughly offer a full stop’s benefit over it – i.e. not a significant difference. But in the case of the 25mm, the difference is two stops, which really improves upon the range of conditions one has to take a picture. I’m of two minds about this. I imagine that I’ll continue to use primes when weight of the setup is a concern, or if I have time to properly setup a shot – e.g. if Hannah is doing her homework and is largely not moving off her chair and running about. But for catching our kids in action or when they’re running around the house, the 12-40mm is probably a more versatile option.

The 12-40mm is also a more convenient focal length range when we’re traveling. The only times I shoot wide is when it’s for a family photo with everyone in the extended family, or when I’m taking landscapes on vacation (haven’t done that since the Japan trip!). I wished it had some macro ability – similar to the very basic facility on the 12-50mm, but oh well.

No complaints about the center sharpness too. At similar apertures, it’s sharper in the center than all three primes to varying degrees, according to posted MTF resolutions at Photozone. Anecdotally though and from what my eyes can tell anyway, the 12-40mm is obviously sharper in the center than the 17mm, somewhat less so than the 45mm, and about the same as the 25mm. Moving off the center onto the borders of the image circle, the 12-40mm holds up well with smaller resolution drop-offs than all three primes. Amazing!

The 12-40mm is also much larger and heftier than the three primes. The lens’ build quality though is impressive and confidence-building, and not quite like the more plastic-y feel of the 25mm and 45mm primes. The pre-supplied petal hood also allows it to be reversed onto the lens for storage.

As for the 40-150mm. There’s an option to buy the lens without the Olympus 1.4x MC-14 teleconverter – though that’s honestly isn’t really the best thing to do. The teleconverter costs a whopping USD349 if bought separately! Locally, the price difference between the 40-150mm sans TC versus with the TC is a mere USD142. No brainer duh. The teleconverter though doesn’t work with most lenses – at the moment with just (apparently) the 40-150mm. It’s reported to work with the upcoming Olympus 300mm f4 Pro, but nope, no interest in that lens at all. The 40-150mm with teleconverter will allow focal lengths of up to 210mm or 420mm full-frame equivalent. Not as long as that crazy upper limit on my Olympus 75-300 i.e. 600mm, but you get a stop of light advantage, and also reportedly better sharpness all round.

And surprisingly, the teleconverter is reported to work quite well with the 40-150mm, putting aside the expected light loss. More to say on this later on once I put it through good use!

The supplied hard plastic hood is a design marvel. Unlike most lens hoods that have to be reversed for storing onto the lens, the 40-150mm’s hood uses a clever retractable system that does away with needing to reverse it. Basically, you twist the hood and it can be retracted. Voilà!

The 12-40mm with the E-M5, and the 40-15mm/1.4x teleconverter with the E-M1.

Relative sizes: the 12-40mm with the E-M5, and the 40-15mm/1.4x teleconverter with the E-M1.

The 12-40mm's weight and girth is nicely balanced against the E-M1 already, making the grip non-essential if weight distribution is a concern.

The 12-40mm’s weight and girth is nicely balanced against the E-M1 already, making the grip non-essential if weight distribution is a concern.

The two lenses sans hoods, with the 1.4X Teleconverter in the foreground.

The two lenses sans hoods, with the 1.4X Teleconverter in the foreground.

Hoods on. The 40-150mm's hood adds almost three inches to the length of the lens. Still finally not nearly as long as the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 though!

Hoods on. The 40-150mm’s hood adds almost three inches to the length of the lens. Still finally not nearly as long as the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 though.

Lens hood retracted on the 40-150mm, making for a much more compact set.

Lens hood retracted on the 40-150mm, making for a much more compact set.

The E-M1 with the 40-150mm and teleconverter. Long lens, making the grip an essential item!

The E-M1 with the 40-150mm and teleconverter. Long lens, making the grip an essential item!

The 40-150mm f2.8 and teleconverter will be given its first real exercise this weekend at Hannah’s K2 Graduation Concert. I’ll be bringing that, alongside the 75-300mm for a field comparison. We’ve chosen seats at the Circle – we must have been the only weirdo graduating students’ parents not to sit in the normal floor stall seats closer to the stage – and only because it provides an unobstructed view of the stage for these two crazy long focal length lens to work their mojo. More to say after this weekend! :)

I was looking at my tabulation of camera expenditure since 2008 – I am that obsessed over all things tabular – and it’s interesting to see my spending pattern:

Expensive hobby, but the photos of our kids are priceless!

Expensive hobby, but the photos of our kids are priceless!

Broadly, the spending spikes especially every several years whenever I change a camera system or buy substantial new gear. So:

2008: I didn’t track my camera spending before this point, and had owned a bunch of different digital compact cameras, pro-user cameras, and also my first DSLR: the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. I sold that away and in 2008, bought into the Nikon system with the:

D300 – an M1 Abrams Tank-life DSLR, and with a whole bunch of lenses and accessories to follow later including the…

SB600 speedlight

Sigma 10-20mm Ultra Wide Angle

Nikon 50mm f1.8

Hannah and Mommy @ Nikon 50mm f1.8

Sigma AF150mm f2.8 Macro – took some lovely pictures at the Orchid Garden with it

Street cat at Punggol Park @ Sigma 150mm f2.8 Macro

Sigma AF24-60m f2.8 – which is currently with our ang mo bud!

Hannah at three years old @ Sigma 24-60mm f2.8

2009: more lenses and accessories for the D300, which included:

MB-D10 battery grip

Sigma 18-250mm – this was for its time among the first all-in-one travel lenses which could shoot somewhat wide and relatively far along in the focal length too. The lens increasingly faced AF issues, and at this point today, is no longer working reliably.

Hannah @ Sigma 18-250mm

2010: when I bought into a second camera system to accompany the heavy duty Nikon system, starting off with the…

Olympus E-PL1 – which at the end of the year, accompanied us on our Japan trip, and also for my month-long stint in Massachusetts. The camera even survived dunking at Niagara Falls!

2011: no looking back from the m4/3s now! Apart from selling off several Nikon lenses that offset new purchases, the acquisitions that year were:

Olympus E-PL2 – a significant upgrade from the predecessor. The E-PL2 seemed better built, had a bumped up LCD, and the kit lens focused a lot quicker. The camera is a backup-backup m4/3s camera now that I still take out for an occasional spin.

Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 – pancake prime that was extremely sharp in its center image, and capable of lovely pictures. Only issue was that it focused slowly.

Hannah and Mommy in the evening @ Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7

2012: this one was a messy year and also the one where I finally moved away from owning two camera systems. The Nikon D300 was sold away, and in its place:

Nikon D7000 and MB-D11 grip – with hindsight now, a somewhat impulsive buy. The DSLR was a landmark in the Nikon system, offering – at that point – unsurpassed cropped sensor imagery, but it was also at a point where I was seriously considering moving fully onto the m4/3s standard.

Nikon 35mm f1.8 DX – among the most highly rated Nikon primes for the APS-C sensor.

Hannah @ Sigma 35mm f1.8

Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM – my first ‘pro’ f2.8 zoom lens! This lens was considered a much cheaper alternative to the Nikon equivalent that cost almost twice as much.

Hannah and Mommy @ Sigma 70-200mm f2.8

Olympus E-M5 – the real game changer in the m4/3s standard and also for me. The entire Nikon camera system I owned essentially got sidelined because of this camera.

Metz 50 AF-1 MZ 50312OPL Digital Flash – throws up an incredible amount of light. Worked well enough until the camera battery door broke!

Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 – owned this lens briefly, with several of the earlier Minton in construction photos taken with it.

Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN – this prime was longer than the Panasonic Lumix 20mm and weren’t as quick aperture-wise, but it focused a lot faster.

Hannah @ Sigma 30mm f2.8

Panasonic LX7 – highly praised rangefinder-esque camera that I got for dirt-cheap from Amazon. Used it for some of those very nicely wide-angle shots of the Minton.

2013: the prime lens year! Sold away some of the m4/3s gear, picked up the:

Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5G – fun wide-angle prime that’s flat as a pancake. Great for wefie shots.:)

Hannah @ Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5G

Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 – still the best portrait prime I’ve got for the m4/3s. Picked it up from Amazon JP and had it shipped here. One of the three highly-rated prime lenses for the system, with the other two the next two lenses below.

Hannah @ Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.4

Olympus 17mm f1.8 – pretty much permanently mounted onto the E-PL6, and color-matched too. This one’s an all-purpose general photography lens.

Hannah @ Olympus 17mm f1.8

Olympus 45mm f1.8 – the longest focal length prime I’ve got at this point. Capable of rendering nifty bokeh, though best used out of home where there’s space to move around.

Peter @ Olympus 45mm f1.8

Olympus 75-300mm II f4.8-6.7 Zoom Lens – an updated and much sleeker-looking version of a consumer-level zoom lens. Never mind that it’s a slow-lens aperture-wise, but this lens is capable of 600mm equivalent shots on the E-M5. All those crazy zoomed-in pictures of the Minton construction were taken on this one.

Workers at The Minton @ Olympus 75-300mm II. This was shot from an opposite block some distance away.

Olympus E-PL6 – one of the two cameras I tot around these days, and largely as a replacement for the old E-PL2. Uses about the same sensor and processing as the E-M5, and capable of producing images as good!

2014: a lull in spending, finally! No major camera purchases that year, and I sold off most of my remaining Nikon gear.

2015: the year’s not up yet, and at this point:

Panasonic DMC-LX100 – my first (relatively) large-sensor compact with a nice 2.8 aperture. The camera isn’t without its issues, but it still has more strengths to it than weaknesses. As a bonus, works well with the m4/3s flashguns I’ve got.

Nissin i40 – as a replacement for the Metz 50AF-1 flashgun. Perfect in every way – except that the rear dial’s mode markings have started fading off from wear/tear, though it’s only been 6 months.

Olympus E-M1 – got it for a great price, and is really as mint as it can be for a used unit.

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro – from the same seller as the E-M1! A post on the lens to follow soon.

Kids @ Olympus 12-40mm f2.8

Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro – a very recent acquisition, and largely to take pictures of Hannah’s upcoming K2 Graduation concert this weekend. A post to follow on it soon too.:)

Whew – that was a long post. I think I’m pretty much embedded into the m4/3s system at this point, and the only gaps I can think of are:

A macro lens, maybe.

A ultra-wide angle, big maybe – only because I’m not a fan of ultra wide angles.

The stunning Olympus 75mm f1.8, at some point!

 

My first impressions of the E-M1 against the E-M5 after several days of use!

The E-M1’s overall ergonomics and handling surpasses the E-M5, easily. The handgrip makes it easier to balance the camera’s weight against mid-length zooms, and the two configurable front and back dials are slightly stiffer and ribbed, and make accidental turns less likely than the E-M5.

Couple of neat functions not present on the E-M5 – including configurable exposure bracketing, built-in HDR, faster top-shutter speed, and WIFI support though its phone-control implementation seems a little more clunky than Panasonic’s on my LX100. Still, I can finally take family pictures using quality prime lens glass and a smartphone remote!

The image processing software in the E-M1 is also supposedly improved from that of the E-M5’s, though I haven’t pixel-peeped to be able to tell where the differences are. Finally, the E-M1 offers better weather-proofing, though I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be bringing this out in rain LOL.

The E-M1’s 0.74x magnification electronic viewfinder makes picture composition much easier than the E-M5’s 0.58x. and with higher EVF resolution to boot too.

Its eye-cup also feels more securely locked in-place in its holder than the E-M5’s. I’m already on my third E-M5 eyecup, with the last two accidentally dislodged and lost. That it’s slightly protruding is both an advantage and disadvantage though: my nose is less likely to come in contact with the rear monitor (transfer of facial oil smudges onto the monitor – eek), but it’s also harder to see the entire viewfinder without having to pan my eyeball about when peering through the viewfinder.

Large and slightly protruding eyecup.

Large and slightly protruding eyecup.

The mode-dial lock is a nice touch – press once to lock, press again to unlock. The mode-dial on the E-M5 is too easy to accidentally turn too. On more than a few occasions, I triggered severely over-exposed shots because the E-M5 dial had without my knowledge switched to Shutter-priority mode.

Mode dial lock - nice!

Mode dial lock – nice!

Much harder to slide the memory card slot cover open!

The On/Off lever is now on the top-left panel, compared to the bottom right on the E-M5’s back. Not a good change since it’s impossible now to fish-out the camera from my bag and flip it on in a single motion.

Different location for the on/off lever now compared to the E-M5. Bad!

Different location for the on/off lever now compared to the E-M5. Bad!

The E-M1 is obviously heavier than the E-M5 though still fairly light for a DSLR-styled camera. Coupled with the 12-40mm f2.8 though is a very different story; the lens and camera is now inching closer to the weight of my last APS-C DSLR with a similar lens – the D7000 with the Sigma 24-60mm f2.8. Coupled with even a light flashgun like the Nissin i40 will make one nervous about hauling the E-M1 about, even with its handgrip. That makes a handstrap or vertical battery grip almost a necessity.

Some casual shots of Peter and Hannah next:

With the 25mm f1.4.

With the 25mm f1.4.

Heading out of home on Saturday morning; with the 25mm f1.4.

Heading out of home on Saturday morning; with the 25mm f1.4.

Using the 12-40mm f2.8. The two kids totally entertained by a collaborative session of Crossy Road. No, there's no such mode of play - but Hannah laughs when her chicken gets run over, and Peter will, watching his sister's reaction, laugh in sync too LOL.

Using the 12-40mm f2.8. The two kids totally entertained by a collaborative session of Crossy Road. No, there’s no such mode of play – but Hannah laughs when her chicken gets run over, and Peter will, watching his sister’s reaction, laugh in sync too LOL.

I wonder sometimes if I suffer from minor GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome – a descriptor used among photography enthusiasts who love their photographic hardware as much, if not more, than taking pictures. I do take a lot of pictures at least, even if in the last year or so now, I’ve refrained from posting as many photos of our kids as before, due in large part to my wanting to increasingly guard their privacy as they grow older.

I was again tempted by the larger sensor serious enthusiast models, including the Fujifilm X series (the Fujifilm X-T1), and even Sony’s full-frame Alpha series cameras (the A7 Mark II), both of which were at price-points that were broadly within my budget. But I ended up staying again with the m4/3s family for multiple reasons: that neither of the two other camera systems are still offering lenses with the same breadth or depth as m4/3s, that their lenses are for the most part more expensive and heavier, and finally, the generally more shallow depth of field in the m4/3s system also meant that their cameras are routinely more forgiving of focusing errors than say the full-frame systems.

The Olympus E-M1 is widely regarded as Olympus top-dog m4/s camera that is designed for serious enthusiasts and even professional photographers. The camera is a little long in the tooth now, it being announced more than 2 years ago, but pundits still estimate that it’s a year away from being surpassed by the expected second iteration in the line. I’ve had the E-M5 for almost 3.5 years now, and thought long and hard if I should go for the next-up model this year. The E-M1 uses fundamentally the same sensor as the E-M5, but is otherwise very different in build quality, usability, the absence of a low pass AA filter, and overall performance.

The E-M1, alongside the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 ‘kit’ lens – though this lens is anything but ‘kit’ in quality, goes for around S$2.5K in recommended retail price, and about S$2.25K street price. Ouch. I got lucky finding a nominally used set from someone who bought the set 2 months ago and had barely used it, with a shutter-count of less than 200. I picked it up for S$550 less than street-price for what is really a near-mint set. Good bargain!

Three of the four m4/3 cameras I've got now in possession; the 3.5 year old E-M5, the E-M1 with the 12-40mm and the Nissin i40 flashgun, and the E-PL6.

Three of the four m4/3 cameras I’ve got now in possession; the 3.5 year old E-M5, the newly acquired E-M1 with the 12-40mm and the Nissin i40 flashgun, and the 2 year old E-PL6. The E-PL2 is still in the dry cabinet.

The E-M1 makes it the fifth m4/3s cameras I’ve picked up – four are still in possession, and incredibly, all models from Olympus. The E-M5 is wonderfully light and still offers DSLR-styled handling. So, even though the E-M1 offers function that includes all of the E-M5’s (maybe besides size and weight) and then some, I’m thinking of keeping the E-M5 as a second body for primes when I’m asked to do the occasional event photography at work. The E-PL6‘s rangefinder-esque form factor makes it also a joy to shoot, especially using touch-screen AF and shutter release. Coupled with the 14mm f2.5 pancake lens or the 17mm f1.8 (pictured above), the camera makes for a discrete photography tool that I can fish out in public faces like NTUC Fairprice and not feel too conscious!

Impressions of the E-M1 against the E-M5 in the next post.:)

I’ve owned and used almost every one of the Samsung Galaxy Note phablets, with the exception of the Note 4 that was released to retail last year in October. The Note 3 was picked up when I renewed my telco subscription plan in December 2013 – so when it was time to renew again 1 year 9 months i.e. this very week – it made no sense to pick up the Note 4 when the Note 5 had also just hit retail.

Interestingly, the Note 5 is less of an evolutionary step from Note 4 than between the latter and Note 3. Gone are the removable batteries and the microSD expansion slot, and what’s taken its place is premium build, though not without its issues. I was frankly – loathe – to trade-in the Note 3, so asked Ling if she’d like to inherit the Note 3. The Xperia Z2 I bought her in March this year is a nifty premium-built phone that we got at a decent bargain, but the additional screen space offered by the Note series is just that useful, not to mention the Super Amoled screen. So, it was goodbye to the Xperia Z2.

And so – my first notes on the Note 5 after several days of use, and especially in comparison against the Note 3.

Stunningly exquisite build. The earlier generations of Notes had been criticized for build qualities and material use that weren’t commensurate with their routinely high asking prices. There were improvements in the Note 3 onwards – aesthetically anyway if not the materials itself – especially in the faux leather shell, but the Note 5 is the first phone in the Note series to feature the new Samsung design language: glass, metal, and density. This is one phone where the photos don’t do it enough justice. Picking up and holding the phone will make you feel as though this is a phone that’s worth its asking price.

Fingerprint unlock. The scanner in the note 5 in my opinion works just as well as the iPad Air 2’s. I noticed that the scanner takes a lot of prints in the initial setup – at least a dozen – and even encourages you to register your fingerprint in different ways.

Near bezel-less display, making the phone very slightly smaller than the Note 3.

Jotting with the stylus is quicker, especially since the phone doesn’t need to be unlocked.

On the other hand:

The thing feels like a bar of soap! A case is a definite must for this, unless you don’t mind risking the Note 5 slipping out of your hand and hitting a possibly concrete floor. The Note 3 had no such issues, since the faux leather shell provided a good tactile grip against the phone slipping out of your hand.

The glass back, stunning as it looks, is a terrible fingerprint magnet. So, unless you don’t mind frequently fishing out a hankie to wipe those printers off, or wiping it against your pants/skirt/shirt, the glass back is likely gonna be covered by a case – which basically defeats the purpose of having that stunning glass back to begin with.

Slightly curved glass screen edges, making it hard to find tempered glass screen protectors that will fit the screen exactly without bubbles inadvertently seeping onto the edges at some point.

Near bezel-less display takes some getting use to, especially when palm rejection isn’t matching it. In the first day of use and while holding the phone, my palm kept accidentally triggering icons placed on the left side of the screen.

Retrieving the stylus is a slower two-step process now, since you need to first eject the stylus off its spring-loaded mechanism, then use your fingernail to pry it out.

No microSD card slot and non-removable battery. The loss of the microSD card doesn’t bother me since I don’t use phones as media consumption devices nor mobile gaming machines. But the non-removable battery has a real impact, and it came out of a design decision I assume was necessary to get the sleek glass/metal body on the new Note. I was able to buy a new Note 3 battery since the old battery had experienced some visible wear and tear (the battery has slightly bloated from thermal expansion I think), and the phone longevity is now as it was 2 years ago. No such possibility with the Note 5 when it goes through the same usage demands in the years to come.

 

Note 5 (left) and 3.

Note 5 (left) and 3.

The Note 5 is just capable of a tad higher level of brightness (as far as my eyes could tell).

The Note 5 is just capable of a tad higher level of brightness (as far as my eyes could tell).

Very different backs. One is premium-looking but a real fingerprint magnet!

Very different backs. One is premium-looking but a real fingerprint magnet!

Taking a look at their data/charging ports.

Taking a look at their data/charging ports.

The wife was musing that she never gets her own new laptop at home. Oh, her workplace provides her a Fujitsu laptop, but it’s a pretty clunky machine that she doesn’t seem to like bringing to and fro work and home. All the home notebooks she’s used – the Dell XPS 16 (fabulous machine with a beautiful display) and the Macbook Pro Retina – had been hand-me downs. Powerful machines yes, with the latter still the most high-spec laptop I’ve (ever) owned. In any case – probably also in part that it’s a month to her birthday – I went about with the usual vigor to find her one such.

And of requirements: the wife only said she didn’t need it to be mobile. I was already eyeing a beautiful Asus Zenbook UX305, solid unibody construction with a bright and good-contrast matte screen, fitted with a 128GB SSD – and all for just $999… and that option was thrown out of the window.

Her workplace also had a small grant claimable by staff to support them in the purchase of such technological equipment. Since her new notebook was going to mostly sit at home, the other requirements I had in mind were:

14″ to 15.6″ screen. Has to be full HD – none of that 1366×768 resolutions

At least 8 GB of RAM

Preferably non-reflective glossy screen, but even if it’s matte, it needs to offer wide viewing angles

Preferably an SSD drive

At least an i5 processor

Not too cheap looking

Good warranty terms

All for under $1.4K

Of the bunch of requirements, the hardest requirement to meet was really the screen and also the SSD option. Very few notebooks at this price range will offer a large full HD screen with wide viewing angles and an SSD drive to go alongside that. I did think about going for a custom-assembled Aftershock notebook that could had been configured within that budget, but that came sans operating system and would require an additional purchase – an expense I was trying to avoid.

I finally got lucky over the weekend evening when after dinner at Parkway Parade, I chanced across the HP Pavilion 15 at the Best Denki, and of the following specification:

Got it for a lot cheaper than the Recommended Retail Price on the August 2015 HP Retail Guide.

Got it for a lot cheaper than the Recommended Retail Price on the August 2015 HP Retail Guide.

i7 processor – nice. Upgradeable to Windows 10 – check. 8 GB RAM – check. Dedicated if yesteryear generation GPU – don’t need it. 15.6″ screen – check. FHD matte screen with wide viewing angle – all check. And 3 years warranty – nice! I would have likely shortlisted this model for further consideration – but the notebook also was tagged a promotional price of $1099. That sealed the decision pretty much.

After spending a day loading up the usual office productivity software and other applications that Ling typically uses, and forced-upgraded it to Windows 10, what I liked of the new HP Pavilion 15 p257TX:

Full HD screen with a decent viewing angle, and good brightness levels to match. The color gamut isn’t quite as wide as the XPS 16 nor the Retina, but it’s still pretty good for a matte screen.

Comfortably spaced chiclet styled keyboard with a nice tactile and springy touch to its keys.

Properly placed USB ports: the right USB 2.0 port for the mouse, and two USB 3.0 ports on the left.

Large trackpad.

At 2.2 Kg weight, not that heavy for a 15.6″ laptop.

Attractive-looking design. Not a fingerprint magnet.

Dirt cheap for what it’s offering.

And as for the stuff that’s less stellar:

The 1TB 5400 rpm hard disk is slow. Or maybe it’s just that this is my first notebook in 4 years that’s running off a HDD.

Hard disk activity lights situated on the right-hand side and away from immediate view.

Keyboard lid exhibits some flex.

Thick bezel around the screen.

Not a backlit keyboard.

Lots of the usual bloatware, but thankfully – I was able to install all of those I didn’t care for.

Apart from the slow hard disk, pretty minor annoyances, made even more trivial when one considers the low asking price.

The HP Pavilion 15 p257TX.

The HP Pavilion 15 p257TX.

Slightly off-centered keyboard to make way for the numeric keypad.

Slightly off-centered keyboard to make way for the numeric keypad.

Spacious trackpad, though still not with the same tactile feel of a Macbook.

Spacious trackpad, though still not with the same tactile feel of a Macbook.

Two USB ports on the left, alongside a LAN and HDMI port, and air exhaust vents.

Two USB ports on the left, alongside a LAN and HDMI port, and air exhaust vents.

Another USB port, and the optical drive.

Another USB port, and the optical drive.

Attractive if somewhat plasticky chassis.

Attractive if somewhat plasticky chassis.

The Dell XPS 13 is diminutive - while the HP Pavilion 15 is... normal size!

The Dell XPS 13 is diminutive – while the HP Pavilion 15 is… normal size!

More notes to come after extended use!

We’ve been using at home the very office-capable Fuji Xerox M255z printer for more than a year now, and the unit has posed no issues. Of late though, I was tempted to get a personal laser printer to situate at my office. So, the list of possible candidates from Canon, Brother and Fuji got included in a spreadsheet and I started checking out the models in person at the usual electronic and computer accessory shops whenever we were out of home for dinner and outings and the like.

The search for an office laser printer however got a 180 degree change at the start of the week – and largely because we wanted photo printouts of our recent trip to Legoland Malaysia but kept procrastinating in getting them done at the usual photo printer shops, and I figured that that having a second laser printer would be convenient, but would not fundamentally add anything new to what I do at home and in the office. Hannah loves to look at pictures and photos, and I thought why not get something for the home that would enable us to print photos on demand.

I was initially looking at portable photo printers, and learned quickly that there wasn’t a lot of choices there. There was the Canon Selphy C910 that had an attractive price-point for the unit, convenient in usage and using reasonably-priced consumables – but offered only average quality photo prints, and also printed at slightly smaller than 4R sizes. There was also the Epson Picturemate PM245 that was widely appraised to offer better photo prints at the right 4R size, but also slightly more expensive, and harder to find, and let alone the consumables.

So, it was to be typical size inkjet photo printer, and preferably with duplex printing and scanning features. There’s a very large range of photo printers on sale from the major manufacturers which made arriving at the final decision tough. Duplex printing/scanning features weren’t the only considerations though, but also the availability of consumables, same manufacturer photo paper, and also ongoing costs. After a couple of days of exploration, the choices came down to:

Canon Pixma MX727: decently-priced at $259 with a $50 cashback, this printer is fairly short but has a large footprint, and supported duplex printing/scanning. Requires a number of ink cartridges that were fairly expensive. Interesting, one salesperson said that the MX727 is an old model and going to be phased out. Canon consumables are widely available though.

Canon Maxify MB5370: quite a bit more expensive at $459 with a $70 cashback but featuring real office-type functionality, including single pass duplex scanning. Fairly tall unit, using fewer ink cartridges of a different type than the Pixma series that seemed cheaper and also slightly more ink capacity too.

Brother MFC-J2720: average-priced at $368, pretty compact, duplex everywhere, average-priced ink cartridges that were available at stores, capable of printing A3 even. This was initially on the top of my list and I nearly decided on it – but stopped short when I couldn’t readily find manufacturer photo paper for it. Gaah.

Epson L550: average-priced at $359, and after nearly an hour of indecision, that’s what we settled on.

The Epson L550!

The Epson L550!

Why the L550 though? First comments after two evenings of setup and use to print 50+ photos on premium photo paper, and starting off with its limitations and what we didn’t like:

No duplex printing or scanning.

Primitive and ancient-looking 1980s monochrome LCD screen.

Somewhat old model from two years ago.

Does not support borderless printing, or rather, I haven’t found the setting for it. Ling doesn’t mind though and in fact prefers the prints with white borders.

Very slow printer setup. The ink took 20 minutes to initialize, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the excruciatingly slow software installation took another 30 minutes. Or maybe the installation got stuck somewhere without my realization.

Noisy. The L550 printing was like monkeys hammering away on conga drums. Laser printers aren’t noiseless of course, but I guess we’ve been spoiled by the M255z’s relatively silent operation.

And on the other hand:

Stunningly beautiful photo prints, especially at the highest quality settings and using Epson’s best photo paper. Ling took one look at our first A4 photo printouts of Hannah and Peter, and said “Worth every cent!”

Three of our first A4 photo printers. Beautifully rendered colors that look very professionally printed,

Three of our first A4-sized photos. Beautifully rendered colors that look professionally printed.

Very cheap ink. Epson has come up with a clever ink tank system that not only requires just 3 colors (apart from Black), but is refillable at extremely low cost. The printer came bundled with a complete set of fully-filled inks each costing about S$10 for about 70ml volume, and two additional black bottles even – and between them are rated to churn between 4,000-6,000 color pages. That’s cheap ink and able to print a crazy amount of material. In fact, I seriously doubt that we’d ever need to buy ink anymore – the printer will probably die out first LOL.

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Recommend that you peel off the protective sticker in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Recommend that you peel off the protective seal in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Affordable manufacturer 4R photo papers. A stack of 30 Premium Semigloss (251g/m²) costs $7.30 and is available at most places – which works out to a competitive price of about 24 cents per print. The A4 photo papers are a little harder to find, so I’ll have to snap them up when I do find them!

A couple of niggling albeit minor issues too that I’ve developed workarounds.

Photoshop Elements/printer driver doesn’t properly switch between landscape and portrait picture orientations. A batch print job comprising a mix of both resulted in printing errors. The temporary workaround was to reset print area whenever switching between orientations.

Out of the 50+ prints I churned out, one print job canceled on its own, ejected the half-printed photo, then re-did the print one more time. Weird.

All, in – this looks like a great purchase, and Hannah is already getting her favorite pictures printed for her own personal 4R photo album that she can bring around to show off.:)

Edit 5 Aug: Good read here about Epson’s EcoTank printers.