Adventures in Asia...Part I - Exploring Japan and Korea

At the close of our summer wedding season, we took advantage of a rare and wonderful opportunity to visit several countries throughout Asia. It's crazy how quickly the time flew by. As the weeks passed, we were immersed in new cultures and experiences, travelling from Japan to Korea, Hong Kong to China. Along the way, we encountering sights both interesting and beautiful, juxtaposing the ordinary and the extraordinary. It has been an enriching and rewarding experience on many levels--one of which we are happy to relate here in part one of our photo travel journal:  Japan and Korea. 

Before starting our journey, we were challenged with keeping our load "light" when it came to photography gear. Why? Because we love our gear! But traveling with all of our pro camera bodies, lenses, lights and modifiers would be impossible. So we (Tim) spent several months researching a travel camera that would be lightweight, functional and "discreet" enough, yet produce beautiful images. We decided on the mirrorless camera format which is known for its compact size and ability to shoot stealthily, while still allowing flexibility with interchangeable focal lengths. Since this was our first introduction to this format, we wanted to start with a more "consumer level" than "enthusiast" system. In the past, we had photographed with Olympus 4/3 systems, and really loved the way it rendered colors. So we were curious about the Olympus Pen series of cameras. There was a wealth of information to be found on the micro 4/3 systems. Long story short, we chose the Olympus Pen Lite E-PL5 fitted with the kit Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC lens (the equivalent focal length of a 24-84mm full frame), and also picked up a prime Olympus 25mm 1.8 MSC lens (the equivalent focal length of a 50mm full frame). We also brought along one reflector, an Olympus flash, and two PocketWizard Plus III trigger/receiver units for one off-camera flash. (Side note - we have interspersed in our travel post some shots taken with our Samsung Galaxy Note III's, such as the first image below. We were pretty impressed with the photo quality these devices could produce in decent light.)

We will touch on the pros and cons of the Olympus mirrorless system as we go through the post, showing some of the beautiful images the system is able to produce. 

The opening shot below was taken at Chicago O'Hare during the first layover of our departing flight to Tokyo. The cowboy hat silhouette poetically set the tone for our ensuing adventure!

Chicago O'Hare Airport - Samsung Galaxy Note III

After one day lost traveling over the International Date Line, we had a short night's sleep, rising early the next morning to catch the bullet train to Kyoto. Immediately we were off to the races, touring the manicured parks and ancient structures of the city.

Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Thanks to the awesome in-body, three-axis image stabilization available in the E-PL5, we were able to shoot the above image using slow shutter speed of 1/60 sec, capturing the motion of the scene with excellent clarity. In some instances, we were able to push the limits of this system even more, capturing images with speed as slow as 1/10 sec, with good clarity. (Needless to say, we were impressed.)

Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Kyoto Nijō Castle - Top two: Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC - Bottom: Samsung Galaxy Note III

Kyoto Higashiyama - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

The above images were shot with the Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC, which has great sharpness and clarity, fast focusing speed, and beautiful contrast. With its 50mm equivalent, this quickly became our "go-to" portrait lens with simple setup.

Kyoto Higashiyama - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Kyoto Higashiyama - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

From Kyoto, we took a day trip to Osaka, which also had its fare share of impressive architecture.

Osaka Castle  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Osaka Castle - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Osaka Castle - Samsung Galaxy Note III

Osaka Skyline - Samsung Galaxy Note III

While in Kyoto, our friends and hosts took us to a local community farm to pick some fresh vegetables for the morning meal. What a treat!

Kyoto Farming  -  Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

After Kyoto, we returned by bullet train to Tokyo, and spent a day in the Asakusa section of town. The contrasts between old and new were very striking here. We (Tim) have always had an interest and love for street photography. Tokyo was the perfect venue to really explore this style of shooting.

Tokyo Asakusa  -  Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  -  Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Tokyo Asakusa  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Tokyo Sumida River Cruise - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

As dusk fell upon the city, we were really surprised how well we were able to shoot under rapidly changing lighting situations. Here, the Olympus image stabilization feature really shined. 

Tokyo Sumida River Cruise  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Tokyo Sumida River Cruise - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

After visiting Tokyo, we flew to Seoul, Korea. Our scenic images are limited here, since the primary reason for our visit to Seoul was to fellowship as delegates of the 2014 International Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses. While we didn't see much in Seoul from a tourist's perspective, on a personal level, it was an amazing experience that we'll never forget. Below is just a quick glimpse into the stadium that hosted locally over 51,000 and nationally via tie-in over 110,000 attendees for this momentous event. (For more on this convention, visit www.jw.org).

Seoul World Cup Stadium  - Top: Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC. Bottom: Samsung Galaxy Note III

We did manage to tour the Bukchon Hanok Village and the famous Korean Folk Village, shown below.

Seoul Korea  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Seoul Bukchon Hanok Village  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Seoul Bukchon Hanok Village  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 II R MSC

Seoul Korean Folk Village  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

Seoul Korean Folk Village  - Left: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 - Right top: Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC - Right bottom: Samsung Galaxy Note III 

Seoul Korea  - Olympus E-PL5 - Olympus M. 25mm 1.8 MSC

The images shared above represent only a small portion of the frames we shot during the weeks we spent in Japan and Korea. We were blown away with the image quality attainable with our simple camera setup. It was liberating to shoot with such a light and compact system. Before shooting one, we would not have thought the mirrorless system ready for street and travel photography. But after experiencing the results, we really can see why so many are attracted to the mirrorless systems for these styles of shooting. Of course, as with every system, there are pros and cons. Below is our summation of the pros and cons of shooting with the Olympus E-PL5 system.

Pros:

  1. Lightweight and compact body
  2. Excellent image quality (sharpness/color) borrowed from the Olympus OM-D E-M5
  3. Very good high ISO performance (up to ISO 6400 in medium-low light)
  4. Three-axis in-body image stabilization
  5. Fantastic out-of-camera JPEG images and RAW files
  6. Complete compatibility with Eye-Fi cards (more about this in future posts)

Cons:

  1. Inability to compete with full frame Canon 5D Mark III or 6D in extremely low light
  2. Lack of EVF (very much missed for composing images!)
  3. Lack of Wi-Fi control (note: newer models of mirrorless systems have this feature)
  4. Lack of direct control dials
  5. Ultra-sensitive arrow pad control dial

In all, the E-PL5 was a great introduction into the mirrorless camera world--specifically the micro 4/3 systems. After using it in multiple countries, we found it to be a very capable system for our style of shooting. As anticipated, our shots with the prime lens produced far finer results than the kit lens. With superior lenses, we can definitely envision replacing one of our crop-sensor cameras with a mirrorless system in our professional arsenal. The lack of EVF and direct control dials, however, argue for replacing the E-PL5 with a camera in the OM-D E-M series.

Our journey continued with travels to China and Hong Kong, which will be featured in future posts. Please check back - and thanks for journeying with us!