From the archives, vol. 46

From the archives, vol. 46“Gold Digger”
Nikon D80
Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro

The recent firmware update for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has, for me at least, transformed a good camera into a great one. The new LOW ISO setting definitely delivers a small but noticeable improvement in image detail. However, the real news is the option for smaller focus points. I’ve been hoping for this since I began using the camera, as the large focus points would occasionally lock onto a high contrast area behind the subject, when attempting to focus on small details. Before the recent firmware update there was a workaround, but it was cumbersome at best. One could use the magnification feature to create a smaller focus point, but each time the camera was turned off, or you needed to change other settings, the small focus point would disappear, and you’d have to go through the procedure all over again. Worse still, when the small focus point was engaged, the live histogram in the viewfinder would vanish. To check exposure, you’d have to return to the large focus point, and then back to the small one. I became rather adept at doing all this somewhat quickly, but the process still slowed me down enough that I’d occasionally miss a shot. On top of everything else, the workaround required dedicating one of the camera’s customizable buttons to selecting the smaller focusing point. That meant dedicating the buttons normally used to move the focus point around the frame to other things like white balance and ISO, to avoid repeated dives into the menu, which would have further slowed down shooting. Moving the focus point then required a two-step process, rather than a single button press. Got all that? Probably not. Don’t worry, I’m not sure I do either. The point is, as much as I like the image quality, the E-M5’s usability wasn’t always great.

The new firmware update allows small focus points to be selected via the menu, and once selected, the size of the focus point doesn’t change, even when you change settings or turn off the camera. The focus points are even smaller than the ones created via the pre-firmware workaround, allowing for greater focusing precision. The histogram is visible in the viewfinder at all times. Perhaps most importantly, I no longer need a dedicated button to change the focus point size, meaning I can reassign button functions and eliminate the two-step procedure for moving the focus points. All this results in a quicker and far more enjoyable shooting experience.

This is the sort of thing I was referring to when I said image quality is one of the least important considerations, when choosing a camera. Every current 16 megapixel, interchangeable lens camera is capable of excellent image quality. Today, usability is a far more important concern. If a camera gets in the way of your image making, it doesn’t really matter how good it’s files are. Photography is about moments, and if the camera slows you down, you’re going to miss those moments. Some have raved about the quality of the images from the Sony a7/a7R cameras, but autofocus performance has proven to be less than stellar. The a7R appears to have a shutter vibration issue, causing slight blurring at certain shutter speeds. The a7 may have a sensor reflection problem, causing odd artifacts with night time shots and bright light sources. With the new firmware upgrade, the E-M5 now has excellent usuability. The Sonys may have slightly better image quality, but I’d be more confident of getting the shot with an E-M5 in my hands. I’d be even more confident with an E-M1 in my hands.

As a side note, the E-M5 may be replaced soon, perhaps before the end of the year. We’ve already seen some occasional discounts, with body-only prices dropping as low as $799. The deeper we get into the year, the deeper the discounts may become. At $600-$700, the E-M5 would be a steal, especially if another firmware update gives us focus peaking. Right now, you can grab a special E-M5/45mm f/1.8 kit at Adorama for $999. The lens alone sells for $400, and that doesn’t include the lens hood, which is part of this kit. I don’t know how long this deal will last, but if you’ve thought about getting into the m4/3 system, there are worse places to begin.

P.S. ~ I get nothing if you click that link, as I’m currently not a part of any affiliate program. I simply share good deals I find, as a service to my readers.

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