Some New Gear: First Impressions

Introduction

During the past month, I’ve acquired a few interesting new pieces of equipment. I’ve eagerly anticipated getting some of them (such as the Olympus M. Zuiko 40-150/2.8 PRO) for quite some time, while others (including the Vivitar 120-600/5.6-8) came under consideration for purchase a lot more recently. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the time to try most of it out, so I thought I would share some of my first impressions of, and photos taken with, the new equipment.

The rest of the post is divided into four sections, covering the new gear which I’ve spent the most time with: an Olympus M. Zuiko 40-150/2.8 PRO and cognate MC-14 1.4x teleconverter; Metz 15 MS-1 Digital macro flash; Vivitar 120-600/5.6-8 MC, with an inexpensive eBay gimbal and Arca-Swiss style mounting plate; and a Metz P76 power pack. Each section is “self-contained”, so there won’t be an overall conclusion at the end.

 Metz 15 MS-1 Digital Macro Flash

My very first ring flash was a Meike FC-100, which I found lacked the power to be genuinely useful, and suddenly stopped working – due to an untraceable fault – after less than two years of light use.

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Inside a cactus flower at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 60 mm Macro. 1/125 s, f/8, ISO 320. Metz 15 MS-1 flash used for primary illumination.

I had been eyeing up the Metz since before I bought the Meike – buying the Meike was purely a cost-based decision. The features I liked on the Metz were the variable flash ratios from 1:0-1:8 between the left and right flash head (versus the Meike’s option of left, right, or both at once), wireless TTL control (versus the somewhat haphazard manual control of the Meike), variable angle reflectors (versus a fixed LED array on the Meike) and 2 AAA batteries for power (versus 4 AA batteries in the Meike).

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A fuchsia flower. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 60 mm Macro. 1/125 s, f/4, ISO 100. Metz 15 MS-1 flash used for primary illumination.

Since obtaining the Metz, I’ve found that it hass lived up to expectations. It has more than enough power to cover subjects from 0.2-3 m from the camera, and I haven’t seen any bad exposures in the more than 100 photos I’ve taken with it so far – the amount of use it’s already has is testament to how amiable I’ve found it thus far. The included case is very well thought out, with good belt loops, and separate compartments for the included adapter rings and the flash, plus a pouch in the main compartment which can hold two sets of batteries and the FL-LM2 flash for the E-M5. Wireless TTL setup was straightforward, and the ratio adjustment is simple to use. My only concerns so far are that the infrared diffuser clip is a little too large to fit safely on the pop-up flash of the E-P5 whilst an EVF is in use, the reflector angle adjustment feels a little stiff (but may free up with use), and it sometimes takes a little while to recycle, due to the small number of lower capacity batteries versus most other flashguns.

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A bumblebee taking the nectar from a lavender flower. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 60 mm Macro. 1/60 s, f/5.6, ISO 100. Metz 15 MS-1 flash used for primary illumination.

Taken as a whole, the 15 MS-1 seems to be performing well, and seems to have largely been well engineered and manufactured.

Metz P76 Power Pack

I bought the P76 power pack to replace my late P50 power pack, which suffered from severe battery leakage after discharging too heavily while in storage. Besides the NiMH chemistry of the P76 (versus NiCad in the P50) and more modern font, the packs are identical, and even use the same charger and connector cables.

So far, the P76 has performed better than my P50 ever did. I’m yet to get a circuit overload in the flash (I had a few with the P50), and the exposures have been a bit more consistent, with far fewer inadvertent full-power discharges. Recycle time has been excellent, and the charge seems to be holding far better – I’ll see how this goes as the unit ages.

Overall, the P76 has been working very well. It is performing as expected, and hopefully, will continue to do so.

Olympus M. Zuiko 40-150/2.8 PRO and MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter

Looking back over all the gear I’ve ever owned, the one thing conspicuous by its absence is a good quality telephoto zoom. Ever since the 40-150 PRO was announced, I’ve been hankering after it; reading the reviews describing how good it is simply strengthened the feeling. I decided to get it with the optional MC-14 1.4x teleconverter, since it reportedly didn’t have much of a negative effect on sharpness, and would add a bit of flexibility to the lens.

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The railway station at Pukerangi, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO. 1/320 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.
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Old shearers’ quarters at Pukerangi, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO and MC-14 1.4x teleconverter. 1/400 s, f/5.6, ISO 800.

Since I got it, the lens hasn’t been very far away from the OM-D. It’s well built and handles beautifully, especially with the internal zoom mechanism keeping everything so nicely balanced. Image quality wise, it hasn’t disappointed, and it performs just as well (to my eyes) with the teleconverter fitted. It can be handheld at relatively slow shutter speeds with ease, the focus is quite snappy, control rings are well damped, and the tripod foot is strong and well placed.  Size wise, it’s bigger than the Olympus M. Zuiko 75-300 II, but it can still fit comfortably in the pocket of my field jacket. The retractable lens hood has been a hoot, except I wish it locked in the retracted position, not just the extended position.

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Sheep passing a derelict stone cottage near Middlemarch, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO and MC-14 1.4x teleconverter. 1/250 s, f/11, ISO 800.
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Fur seals playing in the water at Pilots Beach, Otago Peninsula. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO. 1/3200 s, f/2.8, ISO 200.

The MC-14 teleconverter has also been a joy to use. It’s very light, adds precious little to the length of the lens, and has the same level of environmental sealing as the other PRO lenses. What I appreciated about it most of all, though, is that the included pouch for it has a carabiner, meaning that I can keep it on the strap of my backpack for quicker access in the field – a thoughtful and practical touch on the part of Olympus.

I’m very satisfied with the 40-150 PRO and 1.4x teleconverter so far. In terms of image quality and handling, they have been everything and more than I’d hoped for.

Vivitar 120-600/5.6-8 MC and Tripod Accessories

Rather than try to save up for the predicted high sticker price of the upcoming Olympus M. Zuiko 300/4 PRO or Panasonic-Leica 100-400/4-6.3, I decided to look at legacy lenses to meet my super telephoto needs. After a month of looking, I’d all but settled on a 600 mm Sigma XQ mirror lens, until I saw the listing for an OM-mount Vivitar 120-600 mm lens. After a quick Google search, it appeared that the lens might be good. However, looking at the tripods people were using, and accounting for the small size of the sample photos, it was a little difficult to tell whether the softness was due to camera shake or poor optical design. Since it was cheaper than the Sigma, I decided to take a chance and order it; I could always re-sell it if I had to. At the same time, I ordered an Arca-Swiss style long lens bracket and inexpensive gimbal mount; the bracket was simple and likely to be good, but I had some reservations about how well an inexpensive gimbal mount would work.

Once it all arrived, I put it together and took it wildlife watching. Initially, I used the E-M5, but I was concerned that too much torque was being applied to its lens mount, as the tripod socket of the battery grip was too offset to screw to the lens bracket, giving the camera a chance to wobble around to the point that the lens would actually start to dismount from the camera. In the end, I settled for using the lens with the E-P5, which was able to screw onto the support bracket correctly.

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A pukeko amongst the reeds at Hooper’s Inlet, Dunedin. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Vivtar 120-600 f/5.6-8 MC. 1/2000 s, aperture unkown, ISO 5000. Tripod mounted.

The bracket and the lens feel nice and solid. That being said, the screws for the lens are chewing up the channel in the middle of the plate a little; this will probably reduce with practice, and once everything is nicely worn in. Handling and build-wise, I have only found three issues with the lens, namely a difficult to reach lens release button, a focus shift during zooming, and a soft outer shell; even though the lens was well packed, the filter thread and integrated lens hood have a nasty dent from the parcel being dropped in transit. Other than that, the focus, zoom and aperture controls are all well damped and provide excellent feedback. The gimbal isn’t quite as well built, which is evident in the lens support arm twisting off axis in its bearings when it’s unlocked for use. However, for the price, I’m in no position to complain.

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A New Zealand fur seal frolicking in the water at Pilots Beach, Otago Peninsula. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Vivitar 120-600 f/5.6-8 MC. 1/1600 s, aperture unknown, ISO 2000. Tripod mounted.

Image quality wise, the Vivitar and E-P5 turned out to be a decent combination – things were reasonably sharp, especially after post-processing – but I think the lens falls a little short of what’s required for the 16 MP sensors in my current Micro Four Thirds bodies. Contrast was a little lacking (in my experience, this is a frequent occurrence with legacy lenses), and due to the slow aperture, there have been a few occasions where I’ve pushed the ISO too far and suffered a lot of noise, made worse by artifacts from digital sharpening. That being said, colour rendition is good, and chromatic aberrations are surprisingly well controlled for a lens of its age. On the whole, the shots have been better than I expected, so my theory about the need for a heftier tripod may have been correct; optically, the lens seems to be quite competent.

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The moon. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Vivitar 120-600 f/5.6-8 MC. 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 100. Tripod mounted.

Based on what I have seen so far, I think this package has a lot of potential for long range photos, especially a I become more accustomed to using it. However, I think a better gimbal mount is on the cards for the future, and possibly even a lower resolution camera body, so that the lens isn’t under quite so much pressure to perform. That being said, I have no regrets about taking a chance and buying it – it looks like it may prove to be a very sound decision to have made.