Get ready to be shocked. I’m not using my 1D MK IV or my D3s for portrait photography. I’m not using my Leica M9 either. Instead, I am using my Olympus EP-3 with 45mm, f/1.8 lens. (See my E-P3 review here.)
I know, I know – you’re thinking something like, “how can a pro use a camera like that and still get great shots.” The answer is quite simply – very easily.
I use the E-P3 more and more for reasons I’ve already discussed on these pages. It’s small and lightweight and performs very well in almost every situation. As also previously discussed, I am a big fan of the 45mm F/1.8 lens Olympus sells for use with this and other micro 4/3 cameras.
But lately, partly as a test, partly on a dare and partly just because I can, I’ve been shooting almost all of my portrait sessions with the E-P3 and 45mm lens. The results are stunning.
The 45mm lens on a micro 4/3 body has an effective focal length (EFL) of 90 mm, which just happens to be a perfect focal length for shooting portraits. It’s a flattering field of view and since this is also a fixed, focal length lens, it’s very high-quality glass. Couple that with an amazingly fast aperture of f/1.8 and you get the chance to shoot smooth, lovely, creamy backgrounds that really help set your subject stand out in the image. Oh yeah – this lens costs less than $400!
The camera is small enough and light enough, that I can hand-hold it all day without getting tired. In a studio environment, using my Chimera Triolets, I am able to control the illumination well enough that ISO 200 works out perfectly. ISO 400 works too, and gives me a faster shutter speed, but I’m having no trouble getting super sharp images at 1/60th of a second.
With the camera set to 1/60th of a second and the ISO 200, combined with the 45mm lens set to somewhere between f/1.8 and f/2.2, I am able to get wonderful portraits. The mirror-less camera body contains built-in image stabilization so there’s no blur caused by camera-movement. When looking at the prints, there’s plenty of detail on the subject’s face and no background issues. Even working close to the background, as I was in these images, there’s no shadow or distraction on the background.
Since most of the portraits I make end up as 8×10” or 11×14” prints, the micro 4/3 sensor is more than enough to provide sufficient resolution. I’ve even printed 13×19” prints from images made with this setup that are spectacular in every way.
There are three other reasons I like this combo.
1. The smaller camera/lens is less intimidating to my clients. They are universally more relaxed around the smaller cameras than the monster DSLRs. (Some photographers might say they need a “professional-looking” camera to convince the clients that they know what they are doing. Sorry, but if you’re relying on LOOKING cool rather than being able to do the job, you’re in the wrong spot.)
2. The optional (but expensive) electronic view finder allows me to shoot the camera like an old-fashioned Hasselblad 500C. I can hold the camera chest-high and look down into the viewfinder to compose the shot. This means the camera isn’t between me and the subject quite as much. In all my experience there’s nothing like a solid connection between the subject and the photographer for making great portraits. Removing barriers between the photographer and the subject, no matter how small, help accomplish a better connection in my opinion.
3. The autofocus really is fast – and accurate – oh and did I mention it’s fast? It really is. When I first tested the camera briefly for my initial mini review, the autofocus seemed quick but it took months of daily use, side-by-side with my big DSLRs to see just how fast. It’s DAMN fast. One other thing I like about it is the ability to detect a subject’s eye. When you turn on face-detection in the camera, the AF will place a box around what it thinks is the subject’s face. The E-P3 gets this part right 99% of the time. About 90% of the time it finds the eye, and puts a smaller, different colored box around the eye to let you know that’s the precise zone of focus. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about. When you’re shooting at F/1.8 you’ll soon realize that it offers a wafer-thin depth-of-field. Since most DSLR AF systems default to the closest thing in the scene for determining the zone of focus, you often end up making tack-sharp pictures of people’s noses, not their eyes – when shooting at f/1.8. This Olympus system helps you get past that problem. It does it well. It’s brilliant.
For all the reasons you’d expect – the E-P3 is probably my favorite camera period (unless I am shooting wildlife or motor sports) and it’s certainly my favorite for portraits. It has fast, accurate, reliable focus. It’s compact, light weight and easy to carry. The 45mm lens is sharp (stopped down to f/2 it’s as sharp as any Canon “L” glass,) even wide open and the color as well as the contrast are spot on.
How much do I like this camera? Get ready to be floored (and angry if you’re a Leica fan) – I am selling my Leica M9 and my 35 and 90mm lenses. While the bokeh on the Leica glass is better, it also cost 10 times as much and it’s not THAT much better. I also admit to my old eyes having trouble focusing the LEICA 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M. With the PEN I have great autofocus.
So I am selling my Leica kit in favor of my E-P3/45mm lens combo. I will be assailed from all quarters and disowned by the Leica elite. I don’t care. I am making portraits that my clients love and finding myself able to concentrate on the subject, not the camera. That’s a good thing.
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