October 3, 2012

Review | Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mirrorless Micro 4/3 Camera


Olympus OM-D E-M5 courtesy of Olympus

You’re giving up Canon??? Well… not quite. As our son Miles continues to grow up, he continues to move faster than our trusty iPhones (yes, even the iPhone 5) can keep up with. Being wedding photographer parents, we just HAVE to record his life one photograph at a time. As we grew increasingly frustrated with our iPhones giving us blurry shots of Miles running through the condo or the park, we started looking into a new camera. You may think to yourself “Zac, you have tens of thousands invested in top of the line cameras for weddings, just use that!” and believe me I have for some great photos of Miles like these recent favorites for his 18-month photoshoot:

Miles at Chattahoochee River

Miles at Chattahoochee River

Miles at Chattahoochee River

Those photos? Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III & Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II lens… large, heavy, expensive… but a really great photo!

However, I don’t always want to carry a minimum of 5-10 pounds of a huge expensive DSLR camera equipment with me when we’re just walking around the corner to Dunkin Donuts or Centennial Park. Being wedding photographers, we also don’t want to settle for *just* a point and shoot camera, and still demand a relatively high level of functions and image quality even from a “smaller” camera. So, we looked at a camera system that was created to fit exactly into this niche of higher level than a point-and-shoot digital camera and just below your larger single lens reflex SLR cameras: mirrorless. Basically, they pack the features of a SLR into the camera body of a point and shoot and reduce the bulk by removing the physical mirror that has to flip up and down in a traditional DSLR. The sensors inside are not the large highest quality sensors you’ll find in a DSLR but they are much larger than your point and shoot camera and MUCH larger than the iPhone’s pinhole sensor, giving you a higher image quality. Lastly, they benefit from also having interchangeable lenses like a traditional DSLR, though scaled down smaller for the smaller body size, giving you more control over the image quality than a point-and-shoot’s fixed zoom lens. With Canon releasing it’s first mirrorless camera shortly we actually had the Canon EOS M pre-ordered from Day 1, however after reading some compelling reviews for the E-M5 we ultimately went with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a variety of reasons over the Canon EOS M…

Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Canon EOS M (and others)

Micro 4/3 Lens Format
One of the principal reasons to go with an Olympus camera over any other system (Canon EOS M, Nikon 1 V1, Sony NEX, or Fuji X100/XPro1) is the lens selection. The Micro 4/3 format is pretty mature now and only getting better with more primes and high quality lenses. Yes, their are a lot of dud lenses in the lineup clearly aimed at the casual shooter, with variable apertures and super-zoom ranges. However, having matured a bit in this space some high level prime lenses that put this on par with DSLR quality glass (and yes I am drooling at the Voigtlander 17.5mm f/0.95 & 25mm f/0.95 lenses). Also, the Micro 4/3 standard is supported by not 1, but 2 companies: Olympus and Panasonic (in addition to speciality lenses like Voigtlander). Both companies make cameras and lenses that are 100% compatible with each other, unlike having to use an adapter which typically means you won’t be able to auto focus or even change the aperture.

Electronic Viewfinder & Tilting LCD Screen
This may be the biggest reason we went with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 over the Canon EOS M. The E-M5’s electronic viewfinder is really snappy and works great, allowing you to use the camera like a DSLR in bright light and not rely on the LCD. The LCD is really great as well though because it tilts up and down. It’s not a full flip-out LCD like some DSLRs have, but it does tilt down enough to allow me to hold the camera parallel to the ground and take photos of Miles running around without having to crouch down to his level all of the time.

Dedicated Dials
Lastly, we wanted a bit of the control that a DSLR would offer. The EOS M was a bit scary in the fact that everything is handled through the menu screen from changing aperture to shutter… to everything. The E-M5 offers you “DSLR-like” dials on the top which will allow you to change your aperture and shutter speed (or exposure compensation) quickly without having to put the camera down and dig into a menu. The Sony NEX series and Fuji X’s offer these features, but for some reason the Nikon and Canon mirrorless cameras don’t. Not that their is anything wrong with not having these dials, it just forces you to make a decision and stick with it if something is happening or risk missing the moment.

Real World Performance

That’s all well and good, and it’s hard to compare a camera that is in my hands versus other cameras that I’ve never even used! My only basis here is this camera versus old point and shoots in the past, my iPhones, and of course the big huge DSLRs we use for weddings. So far, I’m happy with my purchase. Focus is relatively fast, not as fast as a 5D Mark III of course, but reasonably fast. I started trying to shoot just jpeg to reduce editing after reading that people are really happy with the way Olympus handles their jpegs. However everything looks a little “off” to me in the white balance, and I switched back to shooting RAW files which give a lot more flexibility in editing. I’m able to get the colors I’m looking for after a few seconds in Lightroom. I LOVE the tilting screen! I use this feature all of the time! Ok, of course I’m taking photos of Miles about 80% of the time, so having easy access to different angles is really helpful. Of course, I’m not using this when I’m taking “normal” photos, but it’s a great feature to have. Also, from a technical perspective, the ISO performance is great, you can pretty much see in the dark with this camera. Of course you’ll get some noise/grain in the photos – but you’re taking a photo in the dark without a flash! Lastly, built-in in-camera stabilization is a wonderful thing! Ok, most of the lenses we use for weddings (except our Macro lens) do not have any sort of stabilization in them, so having this feature available with any lens you put on the camera is a really cool thing and allows for slower shutter speeds and a bit more leeway in balancing the camera and chasing Miles around.

So what do I not like about the camera? For one, I would say the battery life and the lack of available batteries. The E-M5 has been available for months now and the Olympus official battery is still backordered. I bought an off-brand Wasabi Power Battery BLN-1
from Amazon and it’s amazing, half the price of the Olympus battery and it came with TWO batteries (and a charger)! Battery life in general is pretty low, so it’s nice to have a spare with you at all times. It’s probably due to the fact that the image stabilization is always on, and that the screens are big and bright even using just the EVF. That’s really the only complaint I have at the moment, I wish we had more lenses but that’s not the camera’s fault =)

Example Photos
Here are some sample random photos taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Olympus 17mm f/2.8 and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus 17mm f/2.8 in Aperture Priority Mode at 1/400 f/2.8 ISO 200. JPEG straight out of camera with no editing.

Miles & Leo | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Same day as the Canon DSLR photos above. Olympus 17mm in Aperture Priority Mode at 1/500 f/2.8 ISO 200. JPEG straight out of camera with no editing.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus 17mm in Aperture Priority Mode with +0.3EV at 1/60 f/2.8 ISO 640. RAW edited in Lightroom 4.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus 17mm in Aperture Priority Mode with -0.3EV at 1/60 f/2.8 ISO 500. RAW edited in Lightroom 4.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus 17mm in Aperture Priority Mode with +0.3EV at 1/60 f/2.8 ISO 1000. RAW edited in Lightroom 4.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus 17mm in Aperture Priority Mode with +0.7EV at 1/500 f/2.8 ISO 200. RAW edited in Lightroom 4.

Of course, with any Mirrorless Camera and with living in Downtown Atlanta, you have to do some street photography, right? Most of these were “shot from the hip” without looking where the camera was pointing and hoping the autofocus works.

Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5 Miles | Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5

Olympus 17mm lens at f/4 in Aperture Priority Mode.

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Ok, autofocus didn’t work here, oops! Panasonic 20mm at f/4

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Panasonic 20mm at f/4

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Panasonic 20mm at f/5

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Panasonic 20mm at f/4 (in color!)

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Panasonic 20mm at f/1.7 to show off that bokeh (out of focus area) at 1.7!

In Conclusion
I highly recommend this camera! The E-M5 really has made photography fun again. Well, the iPhone has really made photography fun again because I always have it with me. I always have the OM-D E-M5 with me now too. I carry this camera with me about 75% of the time even if we’re just walking down the street to Dunkin Donuts. We bought the Oylmpus 17mm f/2.8 with the camera because Olympus had a rebate available at the time, but we recently switched to the slightly more expensive Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. Besides the increased sensitivity to light, the files are much more contrasty and crisp, so even if you’re not shooting at f/1.7 the photos look great! I really want to get at least one nice wide angle lens for travel and landscape photos, and the new Olympus primes look really sweet! The Olympus m.Zukio Digital 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8 lenses look amazing! I would LOVE to add both of these lenses to the Panasonic 20mm we already have and get a really complete kit with a wide, medium, and telephoto portrait lens. Also, the new Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens that is on the horizon looks amazing as it’s the same new high quality m.Zukio Digital design as the new 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8. I’ll try to post more pictures on the blog here in the future but I wanted to get this general review out there first!

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