Photoessay: Hong Kong, City of Contrast by Martin Siggers

Hong Kong is a city caught in transit, teetering on the edge of any number of boundaries. Is it a modern metropolis or an aging slum? A city of leisure for the wealthy, or one where the poor go downtrodden? Looking to the future or still bound to the traditional ways? Even the bright lights of downtown clash with the seedy neon glow of the shopping districts. That tension lies at the heart of its fascinating culture, and it's something I've tried to capture in this photoessay.

Warning: Contains scenes of animal slaughter.

Photoessay: Mull, Iona, and the Scottish Isles by Martin Siggers

I'm lucky enough to have a friend whose family own a cottage on the Ross of Mull, a remote peninsula in Western Scotland, and recently I've had to opportunity to spend a little time out there. The Scottish highlands have a uniquely bleak, windswept beauty, but they can be a harsh environment to work in, especially if the weather is inhospitable. Fortunately, we were blessed with bright sunshine and clear skies, and shooting was an absolute joy as a result. Here's a few samples from the fortnight I spent out there. You can find the full album on Flickr here.

All photos shot on an Olympus OM-D E-M1, with 12-40/2.8, 40-150/4-5.6R, and 45/1.8 lenses.

Review: The Olympus M.Zuiko PRO 12-40mm f2.8 by Martin Siggers

Although there's obviously a wide range of opinions on the subject, I tend to follow the old-school train of thought that zoom lenses are necessary evils. They're much more convenient and accessible than fixed focal lengths, especially on reportage style jobs where timing is everything, but they can't match the bite, separation, or just the sheer tactility of a prime lens. Still, they're essential parts of every pro photographer's toolkit.

Over the first few years of the Micro Four-Thirds system, one of its defining characteristics was an abundance of great prime lenses in the normal to short-telephoto range, such as my much loved Olympus 45mm f1.8, or Panasonic's excellent 20mm f1.7 pancake, which became a staple walkabout lens. These primes fitted the early days of the system down to a tee, making good on the 'smaller, lighter' ethos which was the main draw of M4/3 and had never really been achieved by the legacy Four-Thirds DSLR system. Even today one of the advantages M4/3 has over other mirrorless system is the prevalence of these high quality primes, whereas other systems tend to be loaded with slow consumer zooms (Canon EOS M, we're looking at you).

As M4/3 matured though, the high end of the system grew aspirations to move into the pro space, with cameras like Olympus's OM-D range and Panasonic's GH models offering top-end features and build quality to match the best SLRs. if you're going to play in the pro leagues, you need pro-level glass to match your bodies, and Olympus to their credit realised that. Released alongside the OM-D E-M1 in 2013, the 12-40mm f2.8 was the first of Olympus's PRO series of lenses, designed as fast aperture zooms for the working professional, built to offer the quality and withstand the beatings such users expected. The 12-40 (equivalent to a full-frame 24-80mm) has since been joined by a 40-150mm f2.8, a 7-14mm f2.8 and 300mm f4, creating a full suite of wide to telephoto options.

The 12-40 was designed and released alongside the OM-D E-M1, so that's what I opted to test it on. First impressions were incredibly positive - the lens has a reassuring weight to it, probably due to the fact that almost every surface you touch is proper metal, a beautifully machined black aluminium finish. The fat zoom ring and slimmer focusing ring are both nicely smooth and well damped. Olympus are notoriously stingy on their lower end lenses, never including hoods and sticking to old-fashioned edge pinch caps, but that trend is defied here, as you'd hope for a lens which hits an RRP of £849. The cap is a lovely metal number while the hood is a solid, bayonet locking affair. Overall, the lens is one of the most well put together bits of photographic equipment I've ever used, oozing solidity and quality. Part of this might be because, as a PRO lens, Olympus advertises the 12-40 as extensively environmentally sealed - it's meant to be shock, dust, splash, and freeze-proofed to the same level as the E-M1 body. I haven't dared test it myself, but reports from braver photographers seem to indicate it's the real deal. Olympus has a pretty good history in this field too - the E5 famously bordered on being indestructible - so I'm confident that if I ever do have to take the lens into a hostile environment, it'll hold up OK.

One super neat feature that instantly makes the lens stand out from a lot of the more consumer level option available is what Olympus refers to as the 'manual Focus Clutch'. Like all M4/3 lenses the focusing ring is fly-by-wire (there's no actual connection to move the elements) and manual focus can be enabled my toggling to appropriate setting on the camera body, something I normally bind to a custom button. On the 12-40 however, you can pull back on the focus ring and it'll click into a new position. This automatically enables manual focus and reveals a distance scale, as well as giving the focus ring hard stops at either end (20cm and infinity). Pushing the ring back forward instantly returns to autofocus mode, but pulling the ring back again will remember your last point of focus, making it incredibly useful for pulling focus between too points, something videographers are sure to appreciate. The clutch also works in conjunction with the body so that functions like zoom and focus peaking are automatically enabled in the same way as selecting manual focus on the body would do. It's a really neat mechanism and a nice way to add some feel' back into the manual focusing process.

If you're thinking all this ergonomic goodness sounds too good to be true, there is a flipside, and it's size and weight. The 12-40 weighs 382g, which is nothing by normal standards but makes it something of a brick for M4/3. It's also pretty thick and long by the standards of the system, and when mounted to an E-M1 the entire thing approaches the size of an entry level DSLR. Of course, it's important to bear in mind that there's still a huge advantage when it comes to like-for-like comparisons. For example, the 24-70 2.8G I use on my full frame Nikons weighs more than twice as much (900g) and is noticeably larger in every dimension. The 12-40 balances really nicely on the E-M1, although on the smaller OM-Ds and PENs I'd recommend an additional grip piece to counter the front heaviness. Still, the point remains that you'll definitely feel this thing if you plan to lug it around everywhere.

Optical formula courtesy of the lovely people at LensRentals

Mechanically the 12-40 is a pretty complicated design, utilising 14 elements in 9 groups. There's a bunch of ED glass in there, and nearly every surface has some sort of exotic treatment, including Olympus's top end ZERO coating tech. I don't claim to be an expert or the technology, but whatever they're doing is clearly working - the 12-40 is one of the most optically stunning lenses I've used in quite some time. Even wide open at f2.8 it's razor sharp across the field, with only the very tiniest hint of softness at the extreme edges of the image. At f4 and f5.6 it's basically flawless, and only the beginning of diffraction prevents f8 being just as good.

Colour is richly saturated, without any major shift towards warm or cool, and the lens feels very natural and transparent in its rendering. Flare is very well controlled, and although you'll still need to stop down to avoid excess coma that's hardly a fault unique to this design. Being a 2.8 lens on a smaller sensor the 12-40 is not a bokeh bravo but it can still produce nice smooth backgrounds at the longer end, with very little evidence of the 'onion' shapes which often characterise aspherical elements, and none of the nasty jitter that can sometime be seen on the Panasonic 12-35 f2.8. Focusing is lightning fast in S-AF and continuous focusing on the E-M1 feels better than it does with some of the primes, though still not up to the standards of the mid-to-high end Nikons.

One unexpected bonus of the complex design is that the 12-40 has a near focus limit of just 20cm, even at the telephoto end. This makes it a surprisingly viable macro option, with a 1:3 reproduction ratio and all the optical goodness of regular shooting concentrated down. It's never going to replace a dedicated lens but again, the purpose of a zoom, especially in this range, is flexibility, and the macro aspect adds yet facet to lens's multi-talented nature.

In fact, I'd probably go as far as to say that the 12-40 represents the very best one lens solution currently available for the system. As a Swiss Army Knife for photography it's pretty much unparalleled. Pretty much the only things you can ding it for are size and price, and fast zooms of all shapes and sizes tend to suffer from both of these issues - it's just the nature of designing such an optic. Considering I use my M4/3 cameras mostly for travel and street work the 12-40 seems an excellent option to replace a couple of primes, and paired with a lightweight telephoto option (I've got the cheap 'n' cheerful 40-150mm on order) it could be the perfect portable pairing. Highly recommended.

City of a Thousand Spires: Prague 2016 by Martin Siggers

Prague is renowned as one of the great photographic cities of the world, and after my first visit there it's easy to see why. Largely untouched by military action during World War II, it remains a magnificent spread of medieval, renaissance and enlightenment architecture, crowned by its magnificent hillside castle and cathedral. packed full of back-alleys, hidden gems, and friendly people it's a must for any travelling photographer in my opinion.

Above is a brief sample of my latest week-long journey to the city, mostly comprised of shots hurriedly grabbed between sightseeing activities. As is custom for travel work, I took the Olympus O-MD E-M5 with me and it was once again a sterling performer, though I did occasionally yearn for the greater resolving power and dynamic range of the Nikons. Perhaps I'll look into an all-in-one travel lens and take the D600 next time. For now enjoy these shots, and if you're interested you can find a more comprehensive version on Flickr and Facebook

A day in London and thoughts on the Nikon D3S by Martin Siggers

              Pretty much the only way to tell from the front that there's new hardware inside

              Pretty much the only way to tell from the front that there's new hardware inside

As the years go by, the beginner/enthusiast/pro gap between digital SLRs has narrowed considerably, especially when it comes to image quality. Rig them up in a studio and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference in output between £300 worth of camera and £3000 worth, all other things being equal. But there are still reasons why those of us who earn a living with our pictures prefer the single digit models. Be it their incredible responsiveness, bulletproof build quality or just general ability to handle any scenario thrown at them, the kings remain the kings.

As some of you will know, I've owned a Nikon D3 for about a year now, and though it's old I've come to rely on it in a way I seldom have with any camera before. Its combination of excellent focus, terrific shooting speed, and unparalleled ability to take a beating has made it my go to camera, despite it being practically vintage tech in the ever-advancing digital world. So why would I want to replace such a stalwart? Well, how about with something the same but better?

         While the D3 begun to get a little ropey at ISO6400 it's not a problem for the D3S,                            allowing us to stop right down even in dimly lit environments                                 (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @ f/11, 1/100, ISO6400)

         While the D3 begun to get a little ropey at ISO6400 it's not a problem for the D3S,  
                         allowing us to stop right down even in dimly lit environments
                                (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @ f/11, 1/100, ISO6400)

  First introduced in 2009, the D3S was Nikon's mid-life upgrade for the D3, and one that was widely unexpected given the D3 was still king of the proverbial hill, even two years after it was announced. The 'S' version bought several small changes (a Quiet shooting mode, improved live view iteration, and a poorly implemented video mode that was bad even at the time) but one big one - a new sensor. Rather than jumping up in resolution, Nikon instead stayed at the rather modest 12.1 megapixels of its forebear and concentrated on pushing out low light performance. The net result is a camera which not only gains an extra stop of ISO performance at the high end (up to 12,800 from the D3's 6400) but produces smoother, more noise free pictures at every setting.

This is the kind of picture the D3S excels at. Low light with fast unpredictable movement? No problem when you've got a superb tracking autofocus system and 9 frames per second burst mode (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO3200)

This is the kind of picture the D3S excels at. Low light with fast unpredictable movement? No problem when you've got a superb tracking autofocus system and 9 frames per second burst mode
(Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO3200)

Indeed, professional testing claimed a 1.5 to 2 stop advantage, and that certainly seems to be the case in my testing. Whereas on the vanilla D3 I was always wary of moving beyond ISO1600, I'll happily push the D3S all the way to 6400 without much reservation. Even the top end rating of 12,800 is very usable with a little cleaning work in post production, and the result is a camera which truly feels like a go anywhere, do anything tool. Hand-held shooting in awful light is not only feasible, but it's actually possible to obtain great images even in near total darkness.

It's not super clean, and the banding in the sky is noticeable, but even the ultra-high range ISO 25,600 setting can be roped in when necessary to get the shot                              (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/8, 1/320, ISO25600)

It's not super clean, and the banding in the sky is noticeable, but even the ultra-high range ISO 25,600 setting can be roped in when necessary to get the shot
                             (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/8, 1/320, ISO25600)

Elsewhere this is effectively the same camera as the D3 - and that's a very good thing. That means a hefty, fully weather sealed body that feels like it would survive if a bomb hit it, a huge viewfinder that's a pleasure to look through, blazing fast 51-point autofocus and 9 fps shooting and a battery which just goes and goes forever (officially claimed life is a staggering 4,200 shots). The build quality isn't a joke either - there's a famous video of a D3S being subjected to some truly horrifying punishment and still ticking over just fine afterwards. The one I acquired has done over 170,000 shots in its lifetime, but that's barely a concern. It clicks just as smoothly as the day it was born.

                               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/800, ISO400)

                               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/800, ISO400)

Shooting with a D3S is not an experience to be taken lightly, and that's not just a play on the camera's huge heft. Making the most of its gargantuan ability requires a quick hand and even quicker eye. You're aided by double grips and pretty much every manual control that one could hope for, but there's no safety guard or automatic mode to fall back on. Even the Auto-ISO implementation is basic compared to modern cameras and certainly isn't trustworthy enough to depend upon full time. Despite its foibles though, when everything slots into place it's an incredibly rewarding experience. The D3S is so responsive, so quick and precise and sure, that it's never going to be the weak link in the equation. Just as you have to fight to bring out the best in the camera, it'll surely bring out the best in you.

               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO1600)

               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO1600)

Does it make sense in 2015? I think if you need one you already know the answer to that. The D3S's children, the D4 and D4S, exist and are better cameras, though the gap gets smaller and smaller every generation. The D3S is not a camera for those who earn their living in landscapes, where every megapixel counts, not is it for street work, where its huge size and weight aren't as big problems as its utterly conspicuous appearance. Yet even after all these years it remains an incredible photographic tool, capable of turning out high-quality pictures under nearly any circumstances. You already know if you need one. But even if you don't, it's difficult not to fall in love with it.