Amid the madness of the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of January we managed to extract ourselves from the Las Vegas strip - not for a debauched Nic Cage style party, but instead for a photographic adventure. Olympus had invited us to follow pro photographer Damian McGillicuddy on a shoot out in Death Valley to see how the affectionately named Big Dog performs his magic.
Model in tow, Olympus OM-D E-M1 under arm, lights and reflectors stacked up in the boot of our all-American SUV, it turned into quite the adventure for us wee Brits. Last week in the first of this four-part mini-series we showed off the fruits of that labour, opening with the dramatic finale shot of our Vegas-themed film noire photo-story.
The plot thickens
In chapter two of our tale we continue with that post-modern twist on the tale, arriving squarely at the beginning. We'll blame McGillicuddy for this - a 10-hour flight is, after all, enough time to consume an entire series of Breaking Bad. And short of not finding out the formula to cook the blue stuff and lose ourselves in a 36-hour hippified bender, we instead adopt a playful story of love, loathing and murder.
The lead portrait image says it all, and it was all done in camera, including the subtle filter. But what do you have to do to achieve such great images? Damian uses an Olympus OM-D E-M1 because it's small and light, not to mention hard as nails thanks to dust-resistant weather-sealed body - something that became an essential out in the dusty salt flats of the Mojave desert.
Lenses, camera, action
Part of the message behind this little adventure is to highlight why you might choose a system camera. Some of it is down to pure quality from not only the sensor but the lenses available. Digital zoom compact cameras are great all-rounders but if you want the best, an interchangeable lens camera is the one to go for.
DSLR cameras are fine, but we've always been advocates of the Micro Four Thirds system because it's small, light, and there are a breadth of lenses from both Olympus and Panasonic, with other third party manufacturers producing for the format too. Add Sigma and even Leica-endorsed lenses and there's a huge scope for top quality.
The real quality and excitement comes from fixed prime lenses. Why? They might appear more limited to a newbie because there's no zoom, but the fixed focal length means lens designers can focus on premium quality for sharper results, while wide maximum apertures put more control in the photographer's hands. The f/1.8 45mm Olympus lens (90mm equivalent in 35mm terms) used for the lead shot is a go-to favourite that enables a pin-sharp subject to be revealed against an out-of-focus background. Very pro.
But the key to any good photograph is light, and if you can learn to add your own light to complement the ambient light in the right proportions then that's when the magic begins to happen. We chatted to McGillicuddy after our shooting adventure to get some insight on a few of those tricks of the trade.
"Let's take this portrait [see main image]. This was shot using the 45mm Olympus lens as it's a really sharp portrait lens and allows just the right distance from you and your subject.
"The sun was high in the sky and one issue with harsh light behind a subject is that their face will not be illuminated enough. This particular shot needed some diffused lighting on the main subject and you do that by putting a flashgun on a stand - usually off to one side to add some depth.
"The great thing about digital is that you can build up a photograph and add more flash in if needed and check out what you're doing on the camera screen as you go. If something's not right then you just adjust for that. Flashguns can be very directional and my main advice is to play with the angle of the flash across the subject to create subtle shadows that give the depth to a good image. You can use all sorts of add-on reflectors and panels to control where the light goes. Here it was a brolly to diffuse the light to avoid harsh shadows.
"The shot was set up with the camera held below waist level to add an edgier point of view and a more iconic stance from the model - it gives her a strong, empowering stance. That's one of the things about the E-M1 that's really useful - the tilt-angle screen means I don't have always have to look through the viewfinder.
"Everything was shot inside the camera too. The square format is available natively in the E-M1 and I added one of the built-in Art Filters to give further distinction to the end result."
If you think this all sounds like a lot of fun - because it was - then to find out more about how you can join events and master classes and see the Olympus range in action, visit: www.olympus-imagespace.co.uk
More to come
In the process of this shoot we got to experience some forthcoming Olympus kit. And after waiting for a number of weeks, we can lift the lid on the Olympus OM-D E-M10 compact system camera.
And, lucky readers, your chance to win one along with an additional 45mm prime lens. And there are some runners-up Olympus camera prizes. It's free to enter, all you have to do is follow our three part story to find out the answers to the competition question. It's open until the end play 28 February 2014.
Image copyright Damian McGillicuddy: www.damianmcgillicuddy.com