John L Mathis

Railroad Photography

Camera and Slide Copying Information


The short... or long story.

Before we get into what I use and why, a quick note is important: All reputable cameras today are excellent devices, regardless of make or model. They are all capable of making wonderful images. in most cases the limiting factor is the photographer not the equipment. Another consideration is the completeness of the system, i.e. lenses and accessories. One problem with digital cameras is the seemingly ever increasing tempo of "newer", "better" equipment. Before you have learned the intricacies of your new camera, its replacement is already out. This can cause "GAS" (Gear Acquistion Syndrome).The best thing is to find the camera that best suits your goals and your budget, buy it, and then stick with it and learn it. With interchangeable lens cameras a factor that is often overlooked is that the availability and price of the lenses you need is more important than the body (Sony take note!) as a camera body without the lenses that you need for your requirements is useless. With a good system, when you do replace your camera body, your lenses will continue to perform just fine on your new one.

First...the short story....just the facts.

I now use a mirrorless interchangeable lens micro 4/3 camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1. It has a 16MP 4/3 sensor and 5-axis in body stabilization. While this camera can make excellent hd videos, it is primarily a camera designed with still photography as its forte. However, one fact lost among some camera manufacturers (such as Sony) is that lenses are equally as or more important to a system than the camera. For railroad photography, the main lenses I use are:

Olympus Zuiko 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD(35mm equivalent 100-400mm) lens. This is my "main" lens. I purchased this lens used from KEH and it is a great lens. It is also weatherproof. I generally use it with a monopod. (Most of my photographs are done with a monopod). As this lens is a 4/3, not micro 4/3 lens, I use the MMF 3 adapter for this lens. This lens produces really nice images. Here is one example. Here is another.

Olympus mZuiko ED 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 (28-300mm) lens. I am generally not a fan of "all purpose" zooms, but this lens has changed my mind. While it is a compromise lens with its10x zoom range, it is really a nice "one size fits all, lens". When traveling I normally have this lens on my camera so I can get a quick shot if I need it. This image is an example. Here is another.

Olympus mZuiko MSC ED-M 75-300mm II (150-600mm equivalent) f/4.8-6.7 lens. This lens is good for long reach. Because it is a relatively slow lens, I generally only use it in bright conditions where fast exposures are required. It is a small and light for its "reach" lens, and it is reasonably sharp. This is an example.

Olympus mZuiko Pro 12-40mm (24-80mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens. This is a beautiful, but pricey lens. It is weatherproof and well built. Images are excellent. Here is an example.

Olympus mZuiko ED 75mm (150mm equivalent) f/1.8 lens. An outstanding prime medium telephoto lens. Not cheap but a solid well built fast lens with, as one reviewer put it "wickedly sharp" images. An example. Another example.

Olympus mZuiko MSC ED M 60mm (120mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens. A very sharp medium telephoto macro lens. Not as expensive as the 75mm lens but a solid well built fast lens. I'm now using it for my digital slide copying. An example of a copied slide.

While I have other lenses, they are used for other purposes, such as the Zuiko 50mm f/2 ED Macro lens for slide copying, and, others I'm still evaluating.

Now the complete story. Facts plus opinions.

In 2013 I completed a full circle digital journey. My first digital camera, purchased in December 1990 - Merry Christmas - It is alsowas an Olympus Camedia E10 4MP mirrorless camera with a non removable 35-140mm equivalent lens. Here is an image from it. In september 2013 I ordered the new mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M1 micro four thirds camera along with several lenses. This, after I sold all my Sony gear to KEH. Why, well, I'm 75 yrs old and I'm tired of lugging full frame gear and lenses around. As a glasses wearer, I also was disappointed in the Sony NEX7.The advances in the 4/3 sensor and micro 4/3 gear brought me to the conclusion that it was time to change. My explanations below are general and not meant to take up too much time and space. If you need more specific information, there are many web sites and forums that go into very excruciating detail about any aspect of digital cameras and lenses. Some of the features I feel are significant are:

First of all: mirrorless design. Traditional DSLR's have a mirror which, when focusing reflects the light through a prism and out through the optical viewfinder. When the camera takes a picture, the mirror snaps up out of the light path to the sensor. This mirror assembly requires space and a complex mechanism. A mirrorless camera dispenses with the mirror. Some mirrorless cameras also dispense with the viewfinder and just have an LCD screen for live view. Others split the light beam using a pellicle (transparent membrane) and send a fraction of it. My 1966 Canon Pellix used such an assembly. Sony's SLT cameras also used this beam splitting. The "cost" was about 1/3-1/2 stop of light transmission to the lens. The current mirrorless viewfinder cameras use hybrid Electronic Viewfinders (EVF's) just as older video cameras, except that their quality now rivals optical viewfinders. While perhaps still not quite as "good" as optical viewfinders, they now offer excellent images which can be boosted in poor light, and also show such extras as live histograms and camera horizontal and vertical level indicators. A major advantage of mirrorless cameras is that without the mirror mechansims they can be smaller, and the lens to sensor distance can be decrease. The difference between four thirds and micro four thirds cameras is this lens-sensor distance. The sensor size is the same. This is also why four third lenses can be mounted with the proper adapter which merely restores the lost distance between the lens and sensor to mimic the mirrored full four thirds design. Please note that there are mirrorless cameras in all sizes, from full frame, through APS-C to micro 4/3. It's interesting that in Asia and Australia mirrorless cameras make up a sizeable portion of total sales. While european adoption is starting to grow, in the USA and Canada the large DSLR still is king of the hill, although awareness here is increasing as people become aware of the Panasonic Lumix brand as well as Olympus, and in APS size, Fuji, and now in full frame - Sony's A7 and A7R

4/3 System 2X focal length factor (vs full frame). Because of the smaller 4/3 sensor size a 50mm 4/3 (or micro 4/3) lens has the equivalent field of view to a 100mm full frame lens. My 50-200mm lens is the equivalent of a 100-400mm full frame lens. Another factor of this relationship is "increased" depth of field for a given aperture. A 50mm 4/3 at f/4 has the depth of field of a full frame 100mm lens at f/8. While this can be a disadvantage if you want a razor thin depth of field, it is great if you want a deeper depth of field. For example: the depth of field while taking an image of a fast moving train using f/4 and a low ISO is equivalent to using f/8 and a higher ISO with a full frame camera.

Lenses that are sharpest at or near their widest aperture. It is possible to use f/4 - 5.6 and achieve sharp images with the depth of field of a full frame f/8 - f/11 equivalency. The ability to "stop" a 70mph train using f/5.6 at 1/1600 sec. with the camera's base ISO of 200 and having the depth of field of a full frame equivalency of f/11 is nice. One should remember when taking pictures of fast moving trains that a train moving at 60mph will travel 88 feet in one second. A sharp image will require a very fast shutter speed.

Both Panasonic and Olympus are micro four thirds system manfacturers and thus a wide range of camera bodies and lenses are available in all price ranges. If video is a major consideration, then Panasonic is presently ahead of Olympus, although Olympus is useable. Olympus, on the other hand has excellent in body stabilization: 5-Axis stabilization is the E-M1, E-M5 and Pen5 and 3 axis stabilization in the new less expensive OM-D E-M10. Panasonic is now also providing some cameras with in body lens stabilization.

What led me back to Olympus and to micro 4/3. Although I was very satisfied with my Sony SLR's (actually mirrorless SLT'S), I had, for some time, been looking to downsize. When Sony released their NEX7 in late 2011 I thought that that looked great. However their electronic viewfinder had quirks that caused me problems, not the least of which was trying to keep the EVF from shifting to the LCD screen when wore glasses. I use a viewfinder for composition. I do not like LCD's for this purpose, although I do review images on them. The NEX7's problem could be solved with a piece of tape over the eye detection sensor, but that was only one of the problems. The placement of the viewfinder on the side rather than in the center was also a problem. This combined with the button placement made it awkward for me. The menu system was a total mess. Although the kit lenses were ok, they were not in the class of better lenses. The only solution was to use my full sized Alpha lenses with the adapter. This meant no lens stabilization. Not good. By August 2013 I decided to sell my NEX gear before the next round of Sony cameras appeared (the A7 and A7R).

While doing some research I read about the just released Olympus OM-D EM-1. The more I read the more I realized that the system was exactly what I was looking for. Small, lightweight (in comparison to full frame). For example, the EM-1 with the 50-200mm lens (100-40mm equiv.) weighs about 3.3 lbs whereas the A99V with the 70-400mm lens weighs 5.6 lbs. This difference after a few hours of carrying them adds up. In addition, the 50-200mm lens is much faster f/2.8-3.5 vs 4.0-5.6 and is only half the price. The majority of other lenses are much smaller and compact, and even the "large" M>Zuiko Pro 12-40 f/2.8 lens, which is larger or heavier than most m4/3 lenses weighs ony 40 percent of what the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 lens weighs (382gm vs 961 gm). It is also half the price. Both Zeiss and Panasonic have a nice lineup of excellent fast prime lenses at reasonable prices. In addition to Sony's better lens lineup being expensive, it was essentially non-existant for the NEX emount. Rather than expand the lineup, Sony has now moved to the full frame FE mount for its new A7 series, again with promises of "more lenses to come".

After looking at image samples from the earlier Olympus EM-5 (the EM-1's predecessor), I elected to shift to the micro 4/3's system. I sold all of my Sony gear to KEH which more than paid for the switch. As part of this, I bought a used 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens in EX+ condition from KEH. It is now my most used RR photo lens.

In the meantime, my wife has just acquired an Olympus OM-D E-M10 along with the m.Zuiko ED14-150mm f/4.-5.6 zoom lens. She likes small cameras, and the although the E-M10 lacks some of the features of the E-M1 such as weather sealing, and 3-axis instead of 5-axis stabilization, it has the excellent 16MP sensor and the E-M1's image processing chip. It's a smaller camera and has received good reviews. She had previously tried the NEX7 but was totally frustrated by it's quirky EVF-LCD transitions, and failure to recognize eyeglass wearers when attempting to use the EVF as well as its overall ergonomics.

A word about used equipment. There are many reputable used camera dealers such as Adorama, B&H Photo Video, and KEH. I have found KEH to have a great selection of used equipment at reasonable prices. Their equipment is as good or better than they rate it.

Digital Slide Copying equipment and setup:

I am utilizing this technique because, once figured out, it is significantly faster and, in my opinion, gives more realistic images for 35mm slides than my Nikon LS9000ED Coolscan. On my first day of use, I digitally copied 23 slides in less than 15 minutes. Scanner images must be previewed and adjusted on a slide by slide basis for optimum scans. Then, once scanned, normal post processing still must be done with Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, or equivalen software. It takes me no more time to post process a copied slide than a scanned one. Digitally copied slides also must be individually framed and adjusted, but this is faster than with a scanner. The scan can also be cropped by adjusting the field of view. Usually, the digitally copied image retains more of the original slide "flavor" than the scan. This is often because if one brightens the slide image to open up the shadows, the light source "blooms" the highlights. A digitally copied image may be slightly softer, but this can be corrected with software such as NIK's raw presharpener or the PhotoKit Sharpener's capture sharpening options. Here is my scanning setup:

  • Olympus OMD EM1 16MP micro four thirds camera.
  • M. Zuiko MSC ED M 60mm f/2.8 macro lens - a very sharp lens.
  • 52mm extension tubes. The focusing distance on the 50mm lens requires some "spacer" tubes between the lens and the Nikon ES1. The tubes are 52mm so they don't require step up or down rings. I purchased these tubes through Amazon. They are shipped from Hong Kong and so they take a while to arrive.
  • Nikon ES1 Slide Duplicator (a small tube with a slide holder - it has a 52mm diameter)
  • gitzo tripod
    • This setup allows the use of the EM1's autofocus system which has excellent focusing, along with enlarged manual focus peaking which highlights what is in focus. Using a Giotto "blaster to blow particles off of the slides, the post processing requires less effort than with the scanned output. (The scanner allows heavier use of Digital ICE to remove dust spots, but the image is significantly degraded). The slide image's flavor is retained more than with the scanner. I am doing more work with this copying setup, but I think that it now is ready for production. The only pain is inserting and properly positioning slides in the ES1, but, the slide is held securely in place and although it's one slide at a time, the results are worth it. As with duplicate slides, the copy process increases contrast, so contrast must be reduced when processing. More as this goes on.

Previous Digital Gear:

  • 2011-13 - Sony Alpha SLT cameras A55, 77 and A99V. Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 AF lens, Sony 70-400mm SSM G f/4-5.6 lens, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 AF lens.
  • 2008-11 - Canon 5DMKII, Canon 50D replaced by 7D.
  • 2005-2008 - Canon 1DS MKII, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lens, EF24-105mm f/4L IS lens, EF70-200mm f/4L IS lens. Rebel xTi.
  • 2004-2005 - Canon 20D
  • 2003-2004 - Canon 10D
  • 2002-2003 - Canon D60
  • 2000-2002 - Olympus Camedia E10

Middle Ages:

1966-79: My fiirst SLR camera was a Canon Pellix - 35mm SLR with a pellicle instead of a mirror. 50mm lens. 1979-83: Nikon F2. 50mm lens, Tokina zoom lens, Nikkor 200mm lens, Tokina 24? mm lens. In 1983 it was stolen and was replaced with a Nikon F3HP. Lenses included 50mm, 300 f/4.5 EDIF, 80-200mm f/2.8 EDIF, 55mm macro, 35-105mm. 1985: medium format: Hassleblad 500cm, 80mm /f2.8, 150mm f/4. 1988 - Autofocus with Nikon N8008 - my first Autofocus, 1990: Nikon F4 50mm, 80-200 f/2.8AF ED, 300mm ED IF lens. 1999: Traded in Nikon gear for Canon A2, 24mm f/2.8, 50mm lens f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 70-200mm f/2.8L.

Films used over the years were primarily slide films mainly: Kodachrome 64, Kodachrome 200 (faster than 64 but the grain - ouch), Ektachrome 100EPP, Fujichrome 50, 100, Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia - 100. Occasionally used others on trial.

Ancient (!?) History:

My first camera, around 1950, was a Kodak Baby Brownie Special a little plastic camera which used 127 roll film. This was followed in 1952 by a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye when I was a freshman in high school. This camera used 620 roll film. In early 1954, a Kodak Pony became my first 35mm camera. This had a 44mm f/4.5 "Anastar" lens and a top speed of 1/200 sec. (tough for high speed trains, but still a neat camera for me at that time). The early color photos on this site (1954-58) were taken with the Kodak Pony.

last revised 2/26/2014