with the Olympus Pen

Last Sunday, I met with a Bunch of creative photographers on the South Bank, near the London Eye. Sunset was just after 8:30 so we met in a cafe and started our photo walk-a-bout at 8PM sharp.

I travelled by train and thought this would be a good opportunity to test my Olympus Pen on a night shoot. I bought it for travels when I don’t want to carry around a huge back-pack and tripod. My Pen has a 14-42mm pancake lens which makes it even more compact with wide angle capability. For stability, I took a small Gorilla Pod for compact mirror-less cameras – which meant that I had to find a flat surface in a good position to capture the longer exposures.

I know what my bulkier Canon 5D can do at night, but this was The Pen’s trip to London. Night photography is a really good test of your camera gear. Both your camera and lens will have all their faults multiplied when you start looking up close to the resulting photo. Stars and street lights will test your lens for sharpness, chromatic aberration, coma and the quality of the aperture blades. High dynamic scenes and long exposures will show any shortfalls in your sensor and iso range.

Big Square Ben

It seems more and more regular to see Big Ben under wraps. This trip was one of those times. The famous bell tower was clad in a massive block of scaffolding which hid, not only the architectural textures, but the over-all shape. I tried some shots, but they really didn’t communicate ‘Big Ben-ness’ in any way. So we spent a lot of the blue hour photographing the palace of Westminster. Here, my Gorilla Pod is allowing for a vertical composition – balanced on a wall.

The Pen does quite well here. The scene has quite a big dynamic range. The dynamic range is the range between the highlights and shadows. For example, the brightly lit building and the unlit building. A camera with a poor dynamic range sensor would struggle to get details in both the highlights and shadows.

This scene has blue hour at the top, lights in the middle and much reduced luminosity in the river. The unlit building are rendered as silhouettes and the flood-lit parts don’t burn out.

Westminster at night
Olympus Pen
6 sec @ f/11 iso 200

Westminster Bridge

We we all excited about the city skyline to our left. The skyline to the South includes the St George Wharf Tower at Vauxhall, which is the 9th tallest building in London. We decided to walk along Westminster bridge so that we could compose with the reflected lights in the river Thames. We had to go right in the centre of the bridge to place the boats correctly in the scene.

Night scene from Westminster bridge
6 sec @ f/6.3 iso 200

As a standard for tripod work, I use the camera’s self timer with a 2 sec delay. A good tip for telephoto lenses is to use the 10 sec timer because it can take more than 2 seconds for the lens to settle. I was using manual focus, which is not necessary for lots of street lights, but it does prevent accidental focus on the wrong point.

As it got darker, I felt less and less courageous about balancing my camera on the bridge. This meant, I was reluctant to let go of it once I pressed the shutter. I wanted to keep my nervous hand hovering over the leg of my pod. My first coupe of shots were shaky. I did feel the bridge shake occasionally, but I am sure this was due to me being too slow to take my hands off the camera. My Third shot (above) was sharp.

Up close in Adobe LR

Viewed @ 100% in Adobe Lightroom.

As you can see the image is sharp with good details, but the red lights look like they have been added with a lipstick. They are like red and white fried eggs! What has happened here is that the actual lights have blown out (over exposed) leaving only the glow. Conversely, the glow has over saturated with the long exposure. So these are ugly, high contrast blobs. The glow is actually made by dust and pollutants in the air between you and the lights. On a slightly foggy night, the glow would be much larger. I saw this in my viewer at the time and was disappointed.

If you look at the Histogram in the Lightroom Window, you can see that the shadows are exposed adequately because the mountain (the peaks on the Histogram) is nicely away from the left edge. The over exposed lights, however are shown to the far right on the histogram. So if I tried to expose the red lights properly, I would be losing all the details on the building. A more expensive camera would have preserved both the details on the building and the colour in the red lights.

The Fix

Unfortunately, the red was one of the main reasons for taking the photo because of the way it was reflecting in the Thames. For this reason, I didn’t want to eliminate the reds in the whole image because I will be losing the Reds in the water. So my first step is to apply a Gradient Filter to reduce the, highlights, and to balance the colours towards the blue spectrum. With Lightroom’s gradient filter, I was able to apply the effect only to the top half of the image.

Lightroom Gradient filter
Using the Gradient filter in Adobe Lightroom.
Adjustment brush in Lightroom

Lightroom’s adjustment brush allows you to make changes to small parts of your photo. Here, I reduced saturation, highlights and contrast, but only to the red lights. You can see before on the left and after on the right. I could fix this much better in photoshop where I can adjust individual pixels.

On the positive side, the lens has coped quite well with the scene apart from the red lights. There was very little noise reduction needed.

Comparison

Copyright 2019 Univer Shi

Univer was stood next to me with his Canon 5D mark 4 and the 16-35mm lens. He is on a sturdy tripod. It is easy to see the difference in quality, even at this small size. Univer Shi’s camera and lens handled the lights much better than the Olympus Pen. The red lights have a neat star-burst effect which is much nice than my fried eggs effect. Having a proper tripod, meant that Univer could easily take longer exposures which enhanced the reflected colours on the river Thames.