Inside the 2011 Vail Film Festival (w/ exclusive video)

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the 8th annual Vail Film Festival to check out Olympus’s new initiatives in digital filmmaking and photography. As someone that loves independent films, experimenting with digital cameras, and snowboarding; the only way I would have been more anxious to pack my bags and fly to Colorado would’ve been if Lindsey Vonn had personally offered to escort me to the slopes and give me ski lessons upon arrival.

I’d never visited any Colorado ski resorts, so all of my preconceptions of the town were summoned from an exaggerated mix of pop culture references to Aspen (think Dumb & Dumber, Southpark or Family Guy). Just before touching down at Eagle Airport, I imagined that I would have to sift through hoards of stiff yuppies draped in mink furs and Burberry scarves scoffing at me for participating in the barbaric sport of the mono-ski.
But after settling into the newly remodeled Sebastian Hotel and taking a walk through the quaint cobblestone streets, I was relieved to find a proportionate balance of twenty-somethings on spring break from the nearby CSU Boulder, mild-mannered family crowds, and even a few polite young urban proffesionals sipping chardonnay and enjoying the afternoon’s aprés-ski.

Olympus came to Vail as one of the primary sponsors of the film festival and host of the 48-hour “PEN Your Short” competition. This contest gave teams of filmmakers the chance to shoot a 3 to 5 minute long video in just 48 hours with the PEN EP-L 2, a compact digital SLR camera that boasts interchangeable lenses and an array of in-camera ‘art filters’. The participants of the contest ranged from tight teams of young but experienced production buffs to a pair of local radio hosts that desperately began to search for a video editor moments after the countdown kicked off.

In theory, it was a great chance for everyone to showcase their ability; a level playing field of equipment, a list of specific shots & techniques to be incorporated in the videos, and the freedom to showcase any topic or narrative feasible within the given deadline.

Shot with the Olympus PEN and Olympus Tough TG-610

After meeting the 48-hour teams & getting familiar with the PEN, the impressive XZ-1, and Olympus’s Tough TG-610, myself and the handful of other journalists had the chance to participate in the weekend’s festivities and catch the various festival events and screenings. In its 8th year, the Vail Film Festival has yet to reach Telluride or Sundance proportions; but the stars that came to support the event and quality of the films shown lead me to believe it will eventually grow to be associated within the weight class of the bigger festivals over the next 5 years.

The films screened ranged from a charming low budget love story titled Falling Overnight, to a quirky Sideways-esque film about a female scientist that refuses to give up control in every aspect of her life, to a fascinating documentary about legendary skier Bill Johnson.

There were festival parties held across several ballrooms inside the Sebastian, with intimate musical performances by artists like Cary Brothers & Meiko. Representatives of films in the festival rubbed elbows with Vail’s socialites and a few celebrities (that had been lured to the festival by handing them awards) like Kate Bosworth, Michael Imperioli & Oscar Nunez; Lindsey Vonn even made a brief appearance, but I got the impression that my ski lessons would have to wait.

One of the biggest highlights of the weekend was chatting with Kris Krosskove, a Hollywood cinematographer and camera operator that had used the Olympus PEN to shoot several of the racing scenes in Disney’s 2010 horse-racing film Secretariat. Krosskove took advantage of the PEN’s small profile to capture angles that wouldn’t have been possible with full sized cameras, using it to shoot fast-paced action sequences that were then intercut with standard 35-mm film shots. It was both fascinating and reassuring to speak with a professional that was using the same tools that everyday consumers have access to; proof that a typically slow-to-adapt industry is in fact willing to incorporate new, inexpensive technology.

The founders of the Vail Film Festival are well on their way to establishing a legacy in Vail, and for travelers interested in independent film but reluctant to join the masses at Sundance it’s certainly a viable mountain festival alternative. The good snow, great venues throughout the town, and an overall charming and pleasant setting to mingle with the creative class and see a unique selection of films will certainly bring me back.

To check out the unique variety of finished films from the Olympus 48-hour film competition, visit the Olympus Youtube channel and see if your favorites match up with the contest winners.

Stephen traveled to the Vail Film Festival on a trip sponsored by Olympus. No editorial content was guaranteed and he was free to openly experiment with Olympus’s cameras while snowboarding, bathing in picturesque hot tubs, and rubbing elbows with A-list celebrities.

Travel Photo Tips: using a 50mm F1.4 lens to redefine low-light shooting

If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other when it comes to DSLRs, it’s usually one dealing with low-light shooting. Being able to effectively capture a scene in dimly lit situations (or at night altogether) is one of the toughest things to do in photography. Even if you have a flash, you have to be careful when firing it if you don’t want to simply blow everything out and ruin the “mood” and “feel” of a night shot. The most common problems with night images are this: too much blur, too dark of a shot overall or too much noise in the shot. How do you solve those issues? It obviously depends on the camera and accessories you’re using, but one surefire way to make your existing DSLR entirely more capable at night is the purchase of one single lens. The 50mm F1.4 is as close to a magic bullet as there is in the photography world, and if you travel, you can bet you’ll end up wanting to take photographs after sunset.

The 50mm F1.4 has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s available for nearly every DSLR out there. You can find dedicated versions (either first-party such as Nikkor or third-party like Sigma) for Nikon, Canon, Sony and Olympus DSLRs, with plenty of aftermarket solutions out there for even more brands. Secondly, it’s incredibly small. My D3S camera body dwarfs the 50mm F1.4, and when I’m trying to conceal my camera and get it into concert venues and the like, having a “stub-nose” lens like this makes it much easier to get through. Thirdly, it’s relatively cheap by FX (or full-frame) standards. And finally, the shots you can get from this lens are truly amazing, and they can enable you to capture memories of a trip that you’d otherwise never be able to. Read on for a few examples and suggestions on how to best make use of this low-light masterpiece.

%Gallery-116211%First, you’ll need to understand a little about why this lens is so cut out for taking low-light shots. The trick is its aperture. For a refresher on how aperture affects your photographs, have a look at a prior article here. This lens can “step down” to f/1.4, which is a fancy way of saying that it can allow a flood of light in compared to most lenses, which can only step down to f/3.5 or so. When you’re shooting with limited surrounding light, having the ability to let your lens pull more light in from practically nowhere is vital.

This allows your shots to be brighter, your shutter speed to be faster (which lessens the chance of unwanted blur) and your trips to be more memorable. The 50mm aspect is also important; this is not a zoom lens. It cannot be zoomed at all. If you aren’t familiar with “prime” lenses this will probably be strange to hear, but you literally have to walk forward and back while holding the camera to get closer / farther from your subject. 50mm, however, is a solid distance that’s useful in the vast majority of circumstances, and since there’s no zoom to worry over, the lens is the easiest in my collection to travel with.

Using the 50mm F1.4 at night is pretty simple. Regardless of what DSLR body you have, I’d recommend setting the aperture down to f/1.4 (using Aperture Priority or Manual Mode) and firing a few test shots. Compare that to shots with the aperture set at f/3.5 or higher, and you’ll notice an immediate impact. The flood of light that is allowed in by the F1.4 lens is really incredible, and in many cases, it allows a shot to be taken that would never be possible otherwise. Of course, all of this is assuming that you’re trying to avoid using a flash in order to retain the mood of your scene; lowering the aperture all the way to f/1.4 is simply an alternative to using a flash, and it’s one that natural light lovers greatly prefer. The gallery below gives you an idea of why — retaining the low-light vibe while still letting in enough light to capture a bright, sharp and blur-free image is reason enough to consider one of these lenses for your collection.

Owning this lens most definitely isn’t the only way to take low-light shots. You could use a flash, purchase a new body with a higher ISO range (something like the Nikon D3S) or move your shot into a place with more external light. But if you’re unable to move your shot (the Grand Canyon is a little hard to relocate, especially after sunset), you aren’t willing to spend thousands on a new DSLR body and you aren’t fond of how a flash distorts the vibe of a night shot, there’s hardly a better and more affordable alternative than the 50mm F1.4. For Canon owners in particular, there’s a 50mm F1.2 that allows even more light in, but of course it’s over four times more expensive; the 50mm F1.4 for Canon bodies is around $350 on the open market, whereas the F1.2 version is over $1,600. It’s hard to justify that increase.

I should also mention that while the average 50mm F1.4 lens will cost around $350 – $400 regardless of what brand or body you’re buying for, there’s a bargain alternative even to that. Many companies also make a 50mm F1.8 lens, which allows nearly as much light in, but not quite as much. The good news is these are usually around half as expensive as the F1.4 variety, but in my experience, it’s definitely worth saving up and getting the F1.4. It’s a lens that’ll never leave your collection, and will likely follow you around for as long as you’re into DSLR photography. $350 or so is a low price to pay for the ability to take blur-free images in dimly-lit restaurants, at outdoor sporting events and in concert venues, not to mention millions of other after-dark opportunities.

Curious to learn more about travel photography? See our prior articles here!

Shopping for a new 50mm F1.4 lens? Check here:

Test-drive the Olympus E-PL1 through the power of augmented reality

Interested in testing the Olympus E-PL1 without leaving your desk? If you have a computer with a webcam, you can head on over to the Olympus PEN 3D site for the first online augmented reality camera test-drive.

To get the test-drive started, you’ll need a “camera card” – these will be included in the June issue of Wired and the July issue of Popular Photography. Alternatively, you can just download the PDF and print one of your own.

Once you have the paper camera, install the browser plugin and hold it up in front of your webcam – augmented reality will turn the flat paper card it into a 3D model of the E-PL1, and you’ll be able to play around with all the features of this amazing camera.

Once you’ve learned about the features on the camera, you can even enter to win one of five E-PL1 cameras and $5000 cash! One lucky winner will be invited on an all-expenses paid trip to New York, where they’ll get to show their creation on a giant video screen at the US Open! The contest (and rules) can be found here.

Olympus announces the E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds camera

Olympus just announced their latest Micro Four Thirds digital camera – the E-PL1.

The E-PL1 combines the high quality 12.3 megapixel image sensor of the E-P1 and E-P2 in a more compact body, but also manages to find room to add a pop-up flash.

In addition to the flash, the E-Pl1 also features the accessory port found on the recently released E-P2 allowing for users to add the optional viewfinder and microphone adapter.

Best of all, the E-PL1 is the first sub-$600 Micro Four Thirds digital camera, retailing for just $599.99 when it hits store shelves in March.

The camera loses some of the metal bulk of the first two PEN cameras, opting for a little more plastic in its exterior. While the camera feels a little cheaper, it still has plenty of weight to give you sense that you are holding a semi-professional camera.

One other cool feature worth pointing out is an array of “live guide” tips. If you are just beginning to enter the world of digital photography, you’ll love these. The tips assist with every aspect of making good photos, explaining how to control brightness, focus, white balance and more.

As can be expected from any camera in this price range, the E-PL1 shoots video in 720p HD, and offers a one-click way to switch to video mode, making it really simple to capture spur of the moment videos.

The E-PL1 weighs just 10.4 ounces (about three ounces lighter than the E-P1), and measures 4.51″ x 2.84″ x 1.63″.

The $599.99 package includes the camera body, the fantastic M. ZUIKO 14-42mm Micro Four Thirds lens, a battery with charger, usb and video cables, shoulder strap and software CD. It’ll be available in three colors; black, Champagne Gold and Slate Blue.


Four new travel friendly cameras from Olympus

Good tech news tends to happen in the middle of the night. Take for example these four new digital cameras from Olympus. Not only did they make four good looking shooters – they made four great new cameras for travelers.

Two of the new cameras offer ultra-zoom lenses, and two of them let you take your camera underwater for some fantastic photos of HD video. Best of all, two of them will be available later this month!

The four new cameras are:

  • The SP-800UZ 30x ultra-zoom
  • The SP-600UZ 15x ultra-zoom
  • The Stylus Tough-6020 waterproof / dropproof / freezeproof camera
  • The Stylus Tough-8010 waterproof / dropproof / crushproof / freezeproof camera

The SP-800UZ 30x ultra-zoom

The first of the new cameras in this lineup is by far the most impressive. Olympus managed to design the world’s smallest camera with a 30x optical zoom. The SP-800UZ makes photos in 14 megapixels, and video in 720p. Its 5.0 – 150mm (28 – 840 35mm equivalent) lens is built with 15 separate internal lenses in 10 groups.

Photos can be enhanced with a variety of “magic filters”. The filters include the following effects: Pop Art, Pin Hole, Fish-Eye and Drawing (creates sketch outline photos).

The camera features a built in pop-up flash, MiniHDMI output for watching HD content on your TV and 2GB of internal memory (memory can be expanded with SD/SDHC cards).

The SP-800UZ will be available in March for the surprisingly low price of $349.99.

The SP-600UZ 15x ultra-zoom

The new SP-600UZ offers most of the features found on the SP-800UZ, but with a 15x optical zoom and a 12 megapixel sensor. One other handy difference is its ability to operate off regular AA rechargeable batteries. It will also be available in March, for just $249.99.

The Stylus Tough-6020

Olympus has always been at the forefront of tough cameras – their waterproof, freezeproof (down to -14F) and crushproof cameras are world-renowned for their durability.

The new Stylus Tough-6020 shoots in 14 megapixels, with an integrated 5x optical zoom. This camera is also the first in the Stylus lineup to offer HD video recording (720p). It is waterproof up to 16 feet of water, and can survive drops up to 5 feet. Thankfully, the Tough-6020 takes SD and SDHC cards – I was never a fan of the xD cards used in previous models.

The Stylus Tough-6020 will be available this month for $299.99.

The Stylus Tough-8010

The Stylus Tough-8010 is the tougher brother of the Stylus Tough-6020. It takes waterproofing down to 33 feet of water, drops up to 6.6 feet and is crushproof up to 220 pounds of pressure. It also adds an extra gigabyte of internal memory (2GB).

The Stylus Tough-8010 will be available this month for $399.99.