Epic Olympus E-M5 OM-D User Review
I’m not technically a professional photographer. Yet, I take pictures daily as part of my job and occasionally sell my personal images on SmugMug and Getty Images. Over the past 10 years I have progressed from point-n-shoots to professional-level DSLRs- all in a never-ending quest for better image quality and greater creative freedom. Back in January, after a rather exhaustive decision making process detailed here, I decided to throw all caution to the wind, and give the hottest new Micro Four Thirds camera a try to see if it could replace my full-sized Canon pro gear. Following is my detailed user review of the Olympus E-M5 OM-D camera system.
First, a little background:
But before that a warning: this is my first full-on camera review. My goal was to write it from my own unique perspective. The process took a couple of months and has turned into a rather lengthy tome. I considered editing it down to something a bit more “palatable” but then decided that wouldn’t accurately convey all of my thoughts about this neat little camera. So, make sure you have a comfortable seat, a fully charged battery or whatever and a cold beverage or three…
I work in product development and travel a lot for work. I average around 100,000 miles of flying each year. Destinations so far have included domestic US locales as mundane as Ohio and more exotic places like China and Europe. I always take my camera. Obviously I take a few pictures of the places I’m visiting for my personal enjoyment, but I also typically take considerably more photographs for work that don’t get shared publicly online. These work-in-progress and other documentation photos get used by me and my colleagues at work. So, while I have around 2,200 images on Flickr I also have over 30,000 work-related images and another 30,000 or so personal photos in my archives- the vast majority of which have been collected since 2005.
My travels have me shooting in factories, makeshift whitespace studios, trade shows, back alleys, inside retail stores, and just about anywhere else you can think of. The hugely varying conditions I need to take pictures under demand a lot from my equipment. It also has demanded a lot from me lugging all of it around. Up until I found the OM-D I had just resigned myself to having to carry a full-sized DSLR along with a collection of heavy lenses in order to achieve the results I desired.
This resulted in a couple of consequences. First, I eventually realized that I had to limit myself to only a couple of lenses in order to keep things manageable. With my last Canon kit I had settled on a pretty good combination of a Canon 17-40mm f/4 L zoom lens and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM prime. I chose the 17-40 because it has phenomenal image quality, is Canon’s lightest L lens and has a zoom range that provided good coverage for the majority of the work-related photography I do. The f/4 maximum aperture was a bit limiting both creatively and in dimly lit environments. The 50mm lens was my go-to lens for creative shallow depth of field, low-light and portrait work. I added a battery grip to improve the handling and provide a more stable grip for hand-carrying the camera all day. I had managed to make this kit all fit in the bottom section of a Lowepro CompuDaypack. Add my 13″ MacBook Air, iPad, chargers, extra batteries, a paperback and a Mojo bar or two and that was as much as I could make work in one bag.
My “ideal” camera system:
So, now you know where I’m coming from. As detailed in my previous post about the decision making process leading up to my OM-D purchase, I had developed a wish list of features for my next camera system. Here’s a quick re-cap:
- Compact and light body with high-quality build, multiple manual controls and decent ergonomics, weather sealing a plus
- Megapixel count wasn’t an issue (actually, the smaller the better) but the sensor needed to be usable to at least ISO 6400
- In-body image stabilization highly preferred
- High resolution LCD (900K+ dot) with articulation
- High resolution EVF (900K+ dot) or optical viewfinder with electronic assist
- A good collection of compact and fast prime lenses
After reading dozens of online reviews about cameras and lenses and pixel peeping as many images I could find, I came to the realization that the OM-D was pretty much the only camera system on the market today that meets all of my needs and wants. Of course, my individual needs and wants may not be exactly the same as anyone else’s. However, I suspect that they are similar enough to just about everyone’s who is tired of lugging full-sized professional grade DSLR gear and thinking of downsizing. Here is what I bought (pictured above):
- Olympus OM-D body (silver)
- Olympus HLD-6 Power Battery Holder
- Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens
- Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens
- Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens
- Wasabi Power wall charger w/ flip out prongs
- 2X Wasabi Power BLN-1 replacement batteries
I chose the silver and black OM-D body because I liked the retro styling (reminds me of my first film SLR, a Pentax K1000.) However, I’m finding it to also be the stealthy choice. People absolutely pay me no attention when I am shooting with the EVF. I have had several people comment about my “old” camera, only to be surprised when I showed them it was actually a very modern digital camera. No DSLR I have ever owned before has garnered less attention on the street. Not a bad thing these days.
My lens choices were very much budget driven. I had a fixed amount to spend and wanted to make sure that I had the wide/normal/telephoto bases covered with fast primes. The 14mm is a great little lens. Sure, I would prefer the Olympus 12mm f/2.0 but not at the expense of one of the others. I had owned a copy of the 20mm before and knew it was a terrific little lens that would cover 90% 0f my needs. The 45mm gives me a little more reach and really is value leader of the kit.
The 3rd party charger and extra batteries? The OM-D comes with a charger but it uses a “pig tail” cord which is cumbersome and takes up way too much room in my bag. The batteries came with the charger. The extra batteries have proven to be most useful.
OK, so how does the OM-D stack up? Let’s take a look.
Size, weight & ergonomics:
First of all, my new Olympus OM-D kit- the entire list of items above- weighs only about 1/2 a pound more than my Canon 30D body and battery alone. Add the 17-40mm and 50mm lenses, battery grip + extra battery, and charger and the OM-D kit comes in closer to 1/4 the total weight of my old Canon DSLR kit. Staggering is the word that first comes to mind. But that reminds me too much of what I did under the weight of my old DSLR kit. I suppose “liberating” is a better word. The small size and light weight of the OM-D makes it immanently portable which immediately solves my primary complaint with my full-sized DSLR kit. However, that small size comes with a few ergonomic tradeoffs.
First, the horizontal portion of the two-piece HLD-6 battery grip (aka: “Power Battery Holder”) should have been built into the OM-D body in the first place and NOT a three-hundred-effin’-dollar accessory! Without it I started experiencing hand cramps from trying to maintain a firm grip on the camera after less than an hour of holding it. I was immediately reminded of what made my earlier E-P1 such a love/hate relationship. The bottom line is that the ergonomics just plain don’t work on these relatively thin bodied cameras with the shutter release positioned on the top plate. The only way these types of cameras come close to working is if you’re holding them up at eye level. Holding the camera at any angle other than about 45º down results in an unnatural wrist angle with finger tips straining to find grip on the slick camera body. Accessing any of the rear buttons or dials immediately requires the left hand to support the camera since the right thumb is critical to maintaining a grip on the camera.
“Purists” might claim that one should always use the viewfinder and shoot with two hands in the classic 35mm SLR style. I have done that for years and can tell you that the OM-D works great like that- even without the grip add-on, but the ability to shoot it one-handed from any number of crazy angles is a huge creative benefit to me. What’s the point of having a fabulous articulating high resolution LCD that allows complete freedom of camera placement and framing if you can’t comfortably operate the camera from those angles? Also, grip comfort isn’t just for shooting. I hold the camera in my hand while walking more than I do up to my eye while shooting so a secure and comfortable grip is paramount. For that reason alone a battery grip has been standard equipment on my last 3 DSLRs. This review I wrote a few years back explains why pretty well.
Unfortunately, the vertical grip portion of the HLD-6 has its buttons in all the wrong places. Holding the camera in the horizontal position with the vertical grip attached results in the knurled metal rear control dial on the vertical grip grating against the heel of your hand. It’s rather uncomfortable and often results in unintentional adjustments. This means you have to turn the vertical grip controls on and off every time you switch shooting positions. To add insult to injury the function buttons on the back of the vertical grip are pretty much unreachable by your right thumb while shooting in the vertical position. What’s the point in that?! Olympus obviously must have realized all of this because they had the foresight to make the HLD-6 in two sections. Unfortunately, the horizontal grip section has to be removed to access the camera’s battery compartment (which one has to do quite often with the OM-D.) My recommendation: do what I did, buy the grip, leave the vertical portion in the box and get used to taking it on and off. A lot.
The other negative ergonomic issue I have found are the tiny, cramped buttons on the back of the camera. That big screen, coupled with the 3/4 scale body and dedicated thumb rest do not leave much room for secondary controls. This sometimes gets in the way of my shooting. For example, I have my Fn1 button set to AEL Lock. Occasionally I accidentally invoke image review while trying to lock exposure. Sure, I could re-program one of the other buttons to AEL lock, but I find the Fn2 button (custom programmed for depth of field preview) and the one-touch video record button (re-programmed for center focus point set) on the top of the camera too awkward to comfortably reach with my right index finger while shooting. So, I live with it. And to be honest, since I can easily adjust exposure in the preview by moving the camera around slightly while framing my shots I rarely need to actually use the AEL function anyway.
While the AEL lock is not such a big deal, trying to select a focus point using the arrow pad while shooting with the EVF is semi-maddening. The arrow keys are so closely spaced, so tiny and so near the edge of the camera body that it pretty much requires two hands and way too much concentration to select a new focus point. I find this particularly irritating since one of the most brilliant features of the OM-D is that you can place the focus point just about anywhere within the frame and then zoom into that point to perfectly manually dial in the focus (using the S-AF/MF setting).
Auto focus performance:
I have traditionally only used the center focus point on my DSLRs via the focus/recompose/shoot technique. The reasons being that A) the focus points on the periphery of my DSLRs were generally not very accurate and B) they were pretty much clustered around the center of the frame anyway. The OM-D’s 35 standard focus points cover 76% of the frame width and 73% of the height with equal accuracy. Compare that to the 53% and 33% respective coverages of the new Canon 5d MKIII’s 61 focus points. I find this particularly useful since I rarely place my point of focus in the center of the frame. I don’t use it much, but the touch-to-focus feature using the touchscreen elevates this whole experience to a whole new plane by allowing complete freedom of focus point sizing and placement. I’ve never used focus tracking so I can’t speak to that. From what I’ve read, the OM-D is no Nikon D4 in that respect. Although it does shoot at 9FPS. So there’s that if you need it. I don’t.
One new-to-me focus mode of the OM-D that I have found quite useful is the face detection feature. I’ve always thought of face detection as a gimmicky feature found on point-n-shoots and smartphones aimed at people who have never learned the half-press technique. Putting that stereotype aside, I decided to give Olympus the benefit of the doubt and gave it a try during the annual family Christmas melee. In the end I took over 500 shots of family and friends during the holiday using the Face & Eye Priority focus mode and 100% of the images turned out. All I had to do was put the camera where I wanted it in order to frame the shot, look for the square around the subject’s face and press the shutter. Hell, it worked so well I got to where I didn’t even have to look at the LCD when shooting. The thing that separated me from the folks who documented their holidays with their smartphones was the short depth of field I got at f/1.7 that made sure my subjects’ faces stood out. Not something I use every day but definitely good to have when you need it. Is it still spray-and-pray if all your images turn out awesome?
While we’re on the subject of focus features, let’s talk about auto focus performance. On average I would rate the OM-D on par with my old Canon 3oD for AF speed and accuracy. Granted, that’s a 7-year-old camera I’m comparing to, but that’s what I know. The Pany 20mm lens is maybe just a touch slower than my Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens was on my 30D. The Oly 45mm is noticeably faster than any DSLR lens I have ever owned. It reminds me of the kind of focus speed I have experienced when testing Canon’s and Nikon’s flagship full-sized DSLRs with their top-of-the-line lenses. The OM-D’s focus speed isn’t likely to put any of the professional speed demons to shame but it never gets in the way of my shooting like it did with the E-P1. Focus accuracy is excellent most of the time. Occasionally, I have experienced hunting with extremely low contrast scenes and an occasional random non-specific run from near to far and back a time or two on the 20mm. The typical fix is to find an area of slight contrast to focus on then recompose and shoot. It’s really not any different than the way my 30D worked and definitely better than any other camera I have owned.
Low-light focus with the OM-D is actually better than what I experienced with my 30D. The key seems to lie in the way the LCD/EVF gain up in low-light improving contrast for the AF system (I assume.) I can nail AF with the OM-D in situations so dark that my 30D would leave me squinting through a near blacked-out viewfinder guessing with manual focus. Speaking of manual focus, that’s the OM-Ds coup de grâce. I mentioned the OM-D’s S-AF/MF setting earlier. It works especially brilliantly in low-light situations, allowing me to zoom into the focus point with SEAL Team 6-esque night-vision precision and quickly dial in the focus. Sure the image gets a bit noisy in extreme situations, but it’s still light years ahead of trying to do the same thing through a standard DSLR’s optical viewfinder. Focus peaking is the only missing element I can find. Are you listening Olympus??
In addition to the OM-D’s manual focus magnification there are several other shooting aids I have discovered that I now wonder how I have lived with out all these years. The biggest is the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) viewfinder display in both the EVF and LCD modes. The exposure I see on the display is what gets captured. It’s that simple. I know that point-n-shoot cameras have essentially had this feature since the birth of digital photography. There’s just something about combining this feature with the OM-D’s manual controls, excellent lenses and high resolution LCD/EVF that I find liberating. Now, I can concentrate completely on framing and composition and not spend cycles second-guessing exposure settings in the back of my head. I have turned off the auto image review function and only “chimp” occasionally to check focus and DoF. It’s that good.
Added to the WYSIWYG viewfinder are the informational overlays I can choose from. I love the highlight/shadow warning display for checking exposure real-time. The blue and red overlays showing clipped shadows and highlights match the same display in Lightroom perfectly. The horizontal and vertical digital levels are a godsend since I seem to have a 3º right tilt to my head. The multiple grid overlays are also extremely helpful in composing my shots. My only complaints are that the “Rule-of-Thirds” grid ain’t, and I’d like to be able to combine display features like highlight/shadow warnings with the digital level while also specifying which additional shooting parameters I want to see on-screen. I don’t shoot video so why do I have to look at the video mode setting and minutes available counter ALL of the time? Also, I know I’m in Aperture Priority mode because that’s what the dial on top tells me. That “A” in the bottom left corner I could do without.
One of the places where I have found the most benefit with the OM-D is shooting products in the studio. I have a make-shift whitespace set-up at the office that I use to document product development efforts. I typically shoot hand held and occasionally use a tripod. With my other DSLRs there was a lot of “chimping” required during a studio shoot to make sure I had the exposure, focus point, depth of field (DoF) and framing dialed in correctly. Now I can place the camera where I want to and use the LCD to frame the shot while previewing the exposure, focus, DoF, etc. in real time. Often what would have required 3 or 4 shots before only requires a single frame to get right. I now spend a lot more time setting up my shots than I do actually photographing them. The end result is better photographs.
On to image quality. Today you can buy DSLRs that take wonderfully clean and usable photos at up to ISO 25,600 and probably even beyond. The OM-D isn’t one of those cameras. Sure it has an ISO 25,600 setting, but I couldn’t really see myself ever using it unless I was trying to do something “creative” in black-and-white. Realistically, I have set the AUTO ISO to 6400 max and haven’t looked back. I have also adjusted the AUTO ISO step value to 1/15 second (via the somewhat unintuitive Flash Slow Limit custom function setting) to better take advantage of the excellent 5-axis sensor IS and keep ISO levels as low as possible. If you want to pixel peep ISO settings and such I suggest you do what I did and dig into the dpreview.com review where you can do side-by-side comparisons with any number of camera models. There are also plenty of other OM-D reviews with sample images available online. If you want to see some examples that I have taken just refer to my Flickr stream.
Since I shoot in RAW and process all of my images in Lightroom, I can fine tune noise reduction using Lightroom’s excellent noise reduction algorithm on an image-by-image basis. The key, as with any camera, is to get the exposure right in the first place. That being said, I still find that with images up to ISO 3200 I can “push” them with ease, dialing in more noise reduction as needed. The total amount of noise reduction required is typically less than half what I had to use with my 30D images. Not only does the OM-D have 2X the resolution (read “detail”) of the 30D, but the quality of the noise is much better- showing far less color noise and very fine chroma noise. Personally, I don’t mind a little noise in my images as long as it’s the right kind and doesn’t detract.
The only place where I find that the OM-D stumbles in the IQ department is with long exposures. I grew accustomed to being able to shoot creamy smooth long exposure night shots up to 20 minutes or more at ISO 100 with my 30D. A relatively brief 2 minute long exposure test with my OM-D at its minimum ISO of 200 revealed more noise than I am comfortable with (ie: detracting.) I haven’t explored long exposure much since that test but I’m thinking that long exposure junkies are stuck lugging all that big gear around a bit longer. That being said, a big part of the reason why I haven’t experimented more with long exposures is because the OM-D’s combination of great high ISO performance, 5-axis IS and my fast prime lenses means I find myself able to capture more of the shots I’m after hand-held then ever before. Previously, a blue hour shot with the 30D required the tripod to come out so it turned into a 2 minute plus f/16 long exposure shot. Now, I can take the same photo hand-held with a 1/4 second exposure at f/5.6. The only difference is less cloud motion (which admittedly can be a negative at times.)
Micro 4/3 vs. APS-C vs Full Frame:
Comparing a photo shot at f/5.6 on the OM-D with a photo shot at f/16 on a 30D may sound a bit “apples vs. oranges.” It’s really not though, and that’s one of the biggest lessons I have had to learn with moving to the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system. Coming from “old-school” 35mm film I had to adjust my thinking about how different lenses work on each sensor format as I progressed my way deeper into digital photography. My first true DSLR (albeit a quirky one w/ a fixed zoom lens) was an Olympus E-10. It had a 2/3″ 4MP sensor coupled to a 9.0-36mm, f/2.0-2.4 lens (35mm-140mm equiv.) It was really quite a bit ahead of its time technologically with a novel TTL prism-based optical viewfinder and articulating LCD. It didn’t take me long to figure out that there wasn’t a combination of settings on that camera that came anywhere close to the look I got with my favorite 50mm f/1.8 35mm film lens. I just didn’t understand why at the time.
I took some great pictures with the E-10 and it was an excellent camera to start learning digital photography with. When Canon’s Digital Rebel series came out I quickly upgraded to a Rebel XT and made the move up to APS-C for a while. With APS-C came a whole new way of seeing things and I started to understand the impact sensor size had on my images. Finally, I had interchangeable lens choices and could get that “fast fifty” look again, even though it came via a bit-too-tight 80mm equivalent field of view (FoV) on the Rebel XT’s 1.6X crop sensor. Later, I tried a 35mm f/2.0 lens for a while on my Pentax K10D and found that to get closer to where I wanted to be with its 52.5mm equiv FoV- but just not quite right in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. I did dabble with the original full frame (FF) Canon 5D and a 50mm f/1.8 (Nifty Fifty) for a while and that combination was really quite sublime. I actually bought my latest 50mm f/1.4 lens for my 30D with the plan to make the jump to another FF Canon before I made the decision to make the jump to the much smaller and lighter OM-D. I’m sure the 50mm 1.4 on a 5D MKII or 6D would have given me exactly the “look” I was after but I just couldn’t accept the other compromises.
Now, I find myself shooting 14mm f/2.5, 20mm f/1.7 and a 45mm f/1.8 lenses on my 2X crop factor MFT OM-D (28mm, 40mm & 90mm equiv, respectively) and having to learn things all over again. The key conceptual difference for me has been coming to grips with the fact that each of these lenses have the light gathering capability of their respective maximum apertures, but the depth of field (DoF) rendering of approximately 2X the chosen aperture value. Also, each lens may render the equivalent FoV of a full frame lens that is 2X their focal length (e.g.: the Pany 20mm lens renders an image circle on a MFT sensor that is similar to a 40mm lens on a full frame camera), but they still feature the optical properties of a full frame lens with the same focal length. In other words, the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens may shoot like a 40mm lens on a FF camera but it shows the distortion one would expect to see from a 20mm lens on a FF body- albeit maybe just the center of that lens. Just imagine what the center 50% of a 14mm lens shot on FF would look like cropped out and you get the idea what my 14mm lens looks like on the OM-D.
So, what that means for me is that my 40mm equiv lens on my OM-D renders more of a wide angle look to the images I shoot than what I would expect to get from an actual 40mm lens on a FF body. It’s not really a problem per se as long as I remember to switch to my 45mm lens before shooting anything where distortion can be a problem (e.g.: head shots, product shots, copy stand, etc.) Continuing the thought, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens renders images that look more like they were shot with a 50mm lens on FF and less like the 85-90mm f/1.8 equivalent lens it is. I love the 45mm but not so much the relatively narrow FoV and long-ish working distance that comes with it. Naturally, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens would be the go-to choice for serious portrait work, but now you’re shooting at a 150mm equiv focal length- which starts to make working distances really problematic.
The other aspect of MFT lenses I have had to come to terms with is the differences in DoF rendering and control between FF, APS-C and MFT. In general I have found my MFT lenses render a DoF that is approximately 2X what I would expect to see from the same aperture value on a FF camera. Bokeh, on the other hand remains similar in quality to what I would expect to see from a FF lens at the same aperture. However, the size of the out of focus “bokeh balls” tends to be smaller overall than what I have seen from my APS-C and FF cameras in the past. In practice none of this really seems to matter. I get excellent results from all three of my lenses when shot wide open. In fact, my images are typically much sharper than what I would get from most fast FF lenses wide open. And, since I’m shooting wide open, the quality of the bokeh is better than what I would get from those FF lenses stopped down to achieve the same sharpness. Also, that slightly greater DoF means that a higher percentage of my shots achieve proper focus.
Speaking of DoF, I also find that the range of usable apertures on my MFT lenses is not as wide as what I am used to with APS-C and FF cameras. There’s no problem with the lower end of the scale, but I’ve found diffraction really limits the usable upper end of the scale to f/11. Anything above that and things really start to get fuzzy. I guess this makes sense if you apply the 2X multiplier and realize that f/11 on a MFT lens is closer to f/22 of FF. The bottom line here is that it has taken a fair bit of exploration and experimentation to find what works the best for each lens. The majority of my shots are made wide open unless I need to better control DoF. I pretty much limit the upper end to f/8 and have found that works quite well.
So far I’m finding the different rendering characteristics of my MFT lenses, as complex as they sound when all spelled out here, aren’t actually that much of a problem. I can easily correct any problematic distortion and/or chromatic aberrations in LR during post process and the 45mm lens has been great for the little bit of portrait work I have done. I am saving my milk money to give the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 lens a try and the 75mm f/1.8 is on my long-term wish list. I might also have to pick up a dedicated macro lens for product photography (Olympus 60mm f/2.8 vs. Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 anyone??) Hindsight being 20/20 as usual, I probably should have gotten the Olympus 12-50mm ”kit” lens when I bought my OM-D so that I would have a weather sealed lens with macro capability. But at the time I was making the purchase, it just seemed too big and slow and I wanted the 14mm more. All in all, I have always believed that lenses are what make a great camera system and so far I’m finding that to be the case with the MFT lenses I have tried so far.
So, now that I have prattled on for over 5,300 words (!!), what’s the final word on the OM-D? I absolutely find the Olympus OM-D to be a viable replacement for a full-sized DSLR. The combination of excellent image quality, great low-light performance, shooting aids, small size, excellent lens choices and creative flexibility can’t be beat. Granted, there are better camera choices for specific tasks, but the OM-D is the best all-around camera I have ever used. I can recommend it in the highest terms to anyone looking to downsize from a traditional DSLR without giving up performance, and also highly recommend it to pretty much everyone else. It’s not perfect but nothing ever is. The OM-D just makes and requires the least compromises for me of anything I’ve found. In fact, less than one week after taking delivery of my OM-D I listed and sold my entire Canon kit on eBay and haven’t looked back.
To me the Olympus OM-D marks the tipping point where the Micro Four Thirds format made the leap from a good idea in theory to a good idea in practice. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the line goes from here. Meanwhile, I will continue putting my OM-D to work and sharing my thoughts. You can follow my photographs on my Flickr page if you’re interested.