Six months with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

It’s been approximately six months since I made the switch from an APS-C camera (Nikon D7000) to the Micro Four Thirds system. During this time I’ve also used another APS-C camera, the Sony NEX-5n, but m4/3 has been my main system, and the Olympus E-M5 my camera. I’ll cut to the chase, for those with short-ish attention spans – I don’t regret the switch one bit. In fact, I’d rank it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My experience with the E-M5, and the m/43 system as a whole has been almost entirely positive…

E-M5

A word about this user report – I’m not a big fiddler when it comes to cameras. I don’t change settings often, and generally don’t make use of the many features today’s cameras offer. I’ve not shot a second of video, and experimented very little with features such as art filters. Mostly I set my camera to aperture priority or manual, and the only settings I change with any frequency are white balance, ISO and exposure compensation. Therefore, this report will cover only the basics, the qualities related to stills shooting that I deem to be most important in a camera.

Design

The E-M5’s design was somewhat controversial when the camera first appeared, though the overall appraisal of it’s appearance now seems to be generally positive. This mirrors my own experience with the camera. At first I felt rather ambivalent about it’s design, not being a huge fan of the retro look. Over time, I’ve warmed up to the camera’s appearance. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the cameras really delivers in terms of performance. Too many times we’ve seen products introduced with a retro look that were all style and no substance. That’s certainly not the case with the E-M5, a camera that talks the talk and walks the walk. Something I’ve mentioned before regarding the design bears repeating – the oft-derided faux prism hump is not for style alone, but rather contains the elements of the image stabilization system. Kudos to Olympus for doing an excellent job of melding style with technology.

Menus

Long and confusing. Olympus is not alone in having menus that are something of a mess, as this seems to be an industry problem. A large part of the problem is that cameras today are jam-packed with features – most of them of questionable worth, in my opinion… but that’s another discussion altogether. On the positive side, thanks to the extensive menu system, the E-M5 is a hugely customizable camera. Also, it’s generally not necessary to dip into the menu once you’ve configured the camera to your preference, thanks to the numerous external buttons and dials, and the Olympus Super Control Panel which allows you to quickly change the most common settings. Digital Photography Review has posted a helpful article for E-M5 users looking to customize their settings – E-M5 User Guide.

Build Quality and Handling

The E-M5 feels like a camera that’s built to last. The magnesium alloy body feels reassuringly solid and hefty, not light and hollow like many plastic-bodied cameras. Fit and finish is very good. The control dials feel firm and positive. Some have complained of “squishy” buttons, but this is no doubt due to the weather sealing which allows the camera to be used in difficult environments. Speaking of buttons, unlike others I’ve not found their smallish size to be much of a problem. This opinion may change when using the camera while wearing gloves. I’ll update as necessary. Would I prefer larger buttons? Well frankly, I’d prefer a larger camera in general. Handling is not as poor as some have suggested – the E-M5 handles decently enough with the small Olympus and Panasonic prime lenses. It’s certainly no worse than any other mirrorless camera I’ve used. However, with longer lenses, the optional HLD-6 grip becomes almost mandatory. In the race to make cameras smaller, common sense has been something of a casualty. Unlike others who’ve criticized the larger size of the recent Panasonic GH3, I was pleased to see a camera with a slightly larger body. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Small is definitely good, but the E-M5 has about 20% too much good in the “small” department.

Features

Some may find the E-M5’s tilting touchscreen useful – and indeed, it’s a very nice LCD, and a very responsive touchscreen – but I’ve not really made use of either feature. Old habits die hard, and I still find myself using the viewfinder to compose my images. In this case it’s an electronic viewfinder, and quite a good one. Contrary to what I first reported, I’ve come to prefer the Olympus viewfinder to the one I use on my Sony NEX-5n. The EVF in the E-M5 has very little lag, and is less prone to “block up” the shadows in high contrast scenes. The Olympus EVF also seems slightly easier to see in extremely bright ambient light.

In terms of shooting features, the one standout is Live Bulb, which allows you to see an image “develop” while making a long exposure. Long exposures used to be something of a guessing game, but the E-M5 allows you to view the image being captured at select intervals from .5 to 60 seconds. This is a great and highly useful feature.

The Art Filters are… well, art filters. Personally, I don’t believe they belong on a camera like the E-M5, but if they’re something you’re interested in, Olympus seems to do art filters about as well as anyone.

Performance

Overall responsiveness – The camera powers up quickly, and the menus are quite responsive. There’s no lag in the menu system, as there is in the Sony NEX-5n ( a camera I’m quite fond of, but which can drive me a bit batty from time to time with it’s quirks). Shutter response is quick, and the shutter itself is very quiet.

Autofocus – In good light, extremely fast. Even as the light fades, autofocus speed remains surprisingly good. As with most contrast based systems, accuracy is excellent. The autofocus system does have a few limitations of which you should be aware. Autofocus can struggle in extreme low-contrast scenes. I find manually focusing to get the system “in the neighborhood” often helps it to lock on in these situations. As I’ve mentioned before, when attempting to focus on very small subjects in front of bright or high contrast backgrounds, the system can sometimes be fooled into locking on to the background rather than subject. The best solution is to reduce the size of the focus box to exclude as much as possible the bright contrasty background. Unfortunately it’s not possible to permanently re-size the focus box on the E-M5. This feature has been added to the new Olympus Pen cameras, so hopefully we’ll also see it added to the next generation OM-D cameras. I don’t know if it could be added to the E-M5 as a firmware update, but it would be a most welcome addition. In fact, the inability to permanently re-size the focus box is my biggest gripe with the E-M5. My second biggest gripe is the lack of focus peaking. Focus peaking highlights the areas of the image that are in focus, in a color chosen by the user, making manual focusing swift and easy. In other words, when using focus peaking on the Sony NEX-5n, the areas of the image in focus will be outlined in red (or yellow or white, depending on which color the user has chosen). Manual focus on the E-M5 is rather tedious, and really only practical when shooting static subjects from a tripod. Focus peaking is not fool-proof, but it is an important and invaluable tool in my opinion. I’ve used it enough on the Sony NEX-5n to know that I miss it greatly on the E-M5. Overall I’m quite pleased with the E-M5’s autofocus system. It rarely misses, and when it locks on, it almost always locks dead on. The number of critically sharp images I’m making with the E-M5 is far greater than with any DSLR I’ve ever used. The only situation where the E-M5 autofocus system trails a DSLR is in continous autofocus mode. DSLRs use phase detection autofocus systems which tend to be less accurate, but provide better continuous autofocus and tracking abilities than contrast based systems. This is really the last major hurdle for mirrorless cameras to cross. As with most mirrorless cameras – the Nikon series 1 cameras being the exception – the E-M5 is poor at tracking moving subjects. If you’re a sports shooter, this is not the camera for you. Not yet anyway. I expect this gap to be closed in the next 12 to 18 months, at which point it’s going to be difficult to come up with a legitimate reason to choose a DSLR over a mirrorless entry.

5-axis stabilization system – The E-M5 has a sensor-based stabilization system, unlike some systems where the stabilization takes place in the lens. This means that any lens you use on the E-M5 – even old manual focus lenses – is stabilized, allowing you to potentially shoot using slower shutter speeds, avoiding blurry images or the need to bump up the ISO. On shorter focal lengths, the system works extremely well, consistently giving me a 3 or 4 stop advantage. As focal length increases, the system’s effectiveness decreases. However, it still does a fine job even with the Panasonic 100-300mm lens. Racked all the way out to 300mm – 600mm equivalent – I’m able to get consistently sharp results at 1/250 of a second, especially if I’m able to brace myself a bit against a tree of fence rail.

Image Quality

My comments regarding image quality pertain to RAW files. In a word, I consider image quality, both objectively and subjectively, to be excellent. In terms of noise and dynamic range, I’m not seeing any appreciable difference between the E-M5 and cameras with larger APS-C sensors. I don’t hesitate shooting at ISO 800, feel quite comfortable at 1600 when necessary, and will even push to ISO 2000 in a pinch, with very useable results in most situations. The E-M5’s ability to hold detail in both the shadow and highlight regions of a high contrast scene is impressive. Color is something of a subjective thing, but I prefer the colors I get out of the E-M5 to both the Sony NEX-5n and Nikon D7000, especially when it comes to photographing nature. Skin tones are another area where the E-M5 excels, producing the most natural and pleasing tones I’ve seen from the any of the digital cameras I’ve used. I continue to be impressed with the way the E-M5 renders highlights in an almost film-like manner. The switch to a Sony sensor, along with Olympus’ processing engine has finally made the m4/3 system a viable alternative to bigger, bulkier APS-C DSLRs. If you want better image quality, the only way to get it is to move up to a full frame camera. Most of the time, you won’t need better image quality than you’ll get from the E-M5.

E-M5

E-M5

E-M5

E-M5

E-M5

E-M5

E-M5

To get the very best image quality from the E-M5, I would do two things. First, obviously shoot RAW. The jpegs from the E-M5 are very good, especially if you dial down the default sharpening and noise reduction a bit, but maximum quality is obtained from RAW files. The second thing I’d do is ignore the E-M5’s meter, and let the live histogram be my guide. By using a technique called ETTR (expose to the right), you can increase the quality of the images coming from the E-M5, or any RAW-capable camera for that matter. Basically, ETTR means rendering the image as brightly as possible without losing detail in the highlights. This can mean adding as much as two stops or more to the exposure via the exposure compensation dial. You want to push the histogram as far to the right as you can without it bunching up against the right side – when that happens, you’ve “blown” the highlights. What you’re attempting to do is maximize the signal to noise ratio. When you load an ETTR image into your editing software it’ll look too bright, but that’s okay. Simply use the software to adjust the levels to create a pleasing, low-noise image. With this technique the E-M5 is capable of producing exceptional images.

Video

I won’t even try to kid you. I have no idea. As mentioned, I’ve not shot a second of video. I know some of you care about this though, so for what it’s worth, the E-M5 has apparently been used to shoot sequences in the new Mad Max film “Fury Road,” starring Tom Hardy. Hey, if it’s good enough for George Miller, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

Intangibles

One of the best things about the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is that it’s part of what’s becoming a true camera system, just like in the old days. As I write this, there are approximately 47 lenses available in the m4/3 mount, about twice as many as are available for the Sony and Samsung mirrorless systems. All of them are at least good, and many are outstanding. The systems from Fuji, Canon and Nikon aren’t even close in terms of available lenses. In fairness, Fuji is moving at a fairly rapid pace to fill out it’s lens lineup. Nonetheless, m4/3 is clearly well ahead of the other systems in this regard. Not only does m4/3 have lenses, they’ve got lens adapters, extension tubes, flashes, battery grips, etc, with many more lenses and accessories to come. Clearly Olympus and Panasonic are working hard to build a system that will allow a photographer to meet any photographic challenge presented to him. It’s this versatility, combined with the small size and light weight that in my view sets the m4/3 system apart from all other systems. It remains to be seen just how good the Panasonic GH3 is, but for right now, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is king of the m4/3 hill, and a landmark camera for a system filled with great potential.

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