I found myself spending two weeks in Italy and decided that in the best tradition of m43 to travel as light as possible with regard to photographic gear. I also believe that you should never bring your main camera … because it might be pick pocketed or dropped into a canal. I contemplated bringing my old E-PL5 because it does have the detachable EVF which is a must in bright outdoor conditions but I ultimately chose to bring the much maligned YI M1 with the excellent 20mp sensor. I felt the much better noise characteristics of this sensor would trump sensor stabilization and EVF of the old 16mp E-PL5.
I always bring the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens because it fits my leather case perfectly and it is also a superlative prime lens. I thought long and hard about whether I should bring other lenses, and decided to bring two more very small lenses. The Laowa 7.5 mm f/2 super wide field prime and the Lumix Vario G 35-100mm f/5.6 zoom. Interior shots often need a wide angle lens and you need additional reach when crowds prevent you from getting proximal to your target. All three lenses are the right scale in size to perfectly suit the small M1 body and not overbalance it when being held in hand. All three lenses also happen to have the same 46mm filter size and I brought along a circular polarizer and a B+W 1.5 ND neutral density filter. With one lens mounted onto the YI M1, the other two were carried in a vintage leather case designed for a small telephoto film lens. I also carried a very compact half height tripod.
One of the lesser known YI accessories is an extremely compact battery recharger using only a micro USB cable. You will need at least two batteries to last a busy day of travel shooting and then the ability to recharge both simultaneously overnight (recharging the second battery directly in the camera body). Some USB cables don’t seem to work for recharging purposes if you happen to lose the OEM one.
I used the camera continuously for 10 days and it never failed me. I thought the strange and fragile appearing power switch would break after hundreds of operations but it did not. I shoot in aperture priority and occasionally the aperture adjustment would not work and the f/ stop displayed value would be blank but a hard reset by removing the battery would always solve the problem. Before I left home, I had updated the firmware to the latest version (v3.2, released Sept 05/18!) which promised more responsive AF performance and reflects Xiaomi’s commitment to the product since firmware has been steadily updated over the past two years.
The camera has a built in grip which makes it comfortable and secure to hold one handed. Its lightweight and diminutive PEN size makes it an innocuous street photography camera, especially if you just point it and shoot without checking the image framing. Besides, in bright daylight the rear display cannot be clearly seen and that means difficulty framing and changing settings. Bright daylight is also an issue since the fastest shutter speed is only 1/4000th s and I often over exposed after emerging from a building and forgetting to alter the ISO. You could select auto ISO but I prefer to control that as well so that I can dial the aperture into each lens’ maximum sharpness which is between f/4-f/5.6 for most m43 lenses.
S-AF performance is typically adequate and only sluggish in dim light. There is face detect focus but I could never get it to recognize any faces since the lit up AF square would never coincide with a human face.
In Italy, a lot of visits will be made to famous cathedrals. Some will not allow photography, some will allow it if you pay a fee and some have no restrictions. The lack of a uniform standards is interesting since officially all these buildings are extraterritorial regions of the Vatican which is itself a sovereign state outside of the jurisdiction of Italy. To photograph any of these interiors will require the Laowa 7.5mm for its speed and for its wide field coverage.
And sometimes you need that extra reach because you simply can’t get close enough to an object because of the crowds or because of security precautions. Michelangelo’s La Pietà is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican but at the time the chapel not open and I could only shoot from the doorway some 10 meters away.
This is a good example that with some mild post noise reduction, the m43 sensor is capable of detailed high resolution images at low light even to ISO3200. I also always shoot with continuous drive (5 fps) especially at 100mm focal length since some will be blurred but a few sharp depending on how well the braced the camera body is to something like a door frame or a pew. The continuous drive is also very useful for candid photos of people since it gives you the opportunity to select the most photogenic ones.
It can be a hassle to change lenses, especially when you are part of a hard charging tour group that have ambitious goals to achieve on a daily basis. I rarely had the time to consider and plan my shots before my group left me behind so I also rarely had the chance to change lenses safely with a clean tabletop to place items. Usually I just had to keep the body strapped into my carrying case, remove the lens, hold both lenses in one hand to swap end caps, and place the new lens onto the body.
Despite the budget pricing, the Lumix 35-100mm is a decent performer. Pixel peeping, it can out resolve the people details of the Lumix 20mm, here at the crucifix found inside the Colosseum memorializing the Christians who died on the stage.
There is a HDR function on the M1 which only performs at ISO200 and uses the electronic shutter to take a series of images and combines them into a high dynamic range image. I find the image lacking in contrast and I think a better composite could be constructed by the using the camera exposure bracketing function and making your own HDR in post. This is the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna which to my astronomy friends will know is famed by the median line inlaid into the floor by Cassini himself to show exactly when midday occurs and the exact length of the solar year.
I did not use the circular polarizing filter and in real life I rarely use it either, the Sun has to be in the right position for it to have an effect. The ND filter was useful. It can be used to lengthen an exposure and reduce the apparent number of people in a crowded scene but I can’t stand still that long to make it work!!
An ND filter is also very useful for daylight photography when the sun is so bright that you simply can’t take those f/1.7 bokeh filled portraits without one. Night photography means long exposures which automatically clear crowds without the need for an ND filter. But of course you need a tripod. Every city I visited in Italy had a very safe downtown core. The Carabinieri were present everywhere but not visible. Elements of the Italian Army were prominently stationed at high density tourist attractions to ward off terror attacks.
Even though AF speed is not a strong suit of the YI M1, you can pull off some action shots with some careful preparation. Vespas no longer dominate the streets of Italy, but scooters still are the preferred mode of transport for hundreds of thousands.
In conclusion, I found the YI M1 to be a camera capable of excellent images if you take the time to understand and compensate for its weaknesses. It makes a decent and certainly affordable travel camera.
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