Olympus OM-D E-M5 and micro 4/3 system user report. One year on
I previously began writing a user report about 6 months after buying into the micro 4/3 system but decided I hadn’t had adequate time and experience to really get a good handle on things. With another 6 months under my belt, for what it’s worth here’s a user report with all the subjective opinions that come with one. There won’t be a lot of technical details nor side-by-side comparisons, only my honest opinion on how it performs in real life for my style of shooting.
In late January of 2013 I bought an Olympus OMD E-M5 with the 12-50mm kit lens and subsequently added an Olympus 75mm/f1.8 lens as a compliment to my existing Nikon FX set up.
The intended use was holiday and casual outing shoots to reduce traveling bulk and weight.
For some, the micro 4/3 system will be their only system of camera that they own and use. The system has really grown with a well fleshed out line of lens and accessories, spearheaded by Olympus and Panasonic but have also garnered good support from third party manufacturers. So anyone considering it as a sole system should be reassured but will need to make their own assessment as my comments relate primarily as a light and portable adjunct system.
In short, it was a sensation when first announced and well received when it reached the hands of photographers, and for good reason.
The Olympus faithful really needed a state of the art sensor update and they got a really nice Sony unit that put IQ performance close to many (and dare I say, exceeding some) APS-C units and thereby closing many image quality performance deficiencies, whether real or perceived.
I have found image quality to be excellent, even compared to a D700. But contrary to many online reports I have found the D700 maintains a discernable lead in most IQ parameters, which is really a compliment to the E-M5 considering the sensor size is roughly one quarter the surface area of a D700 sensor.
Shooting only in RAW, the E-M5 files are very malleable in post processing allowing me to shoot in the manner that I prefer, which is to maximize data but not necessarily get the output I envisioned straight out of the camera. So I’m unable to comment on JPEG quality straight out of camera because I simply don’t use it.
For my taste ISO performance is good to 800, usable at 1600 and 3200 can be used in a pinch when necessary although care needs to be taken to expose properly.
Shadow detail is good and without banding for the amount of shadow lifting I normally do (no 4+ stops heroics here). Grain is present but not unpleasing.
Highlight recovery is ok, though not as good as the D700 (nor the Fuji S5 Pro I’ve had in the past) so I’ve learnt to protect the highlights well since I feel shadow lifting is less detrimental for this sensor in high DR situations.
Trickier high DR situations, exposing to protect the highlights and lifting shadows in post.
With respect to the images produced, the biggest difference I’ve found has little to do with noise since I seldom operate at stratospheric ISO ranges. It’s the way the images look and this has a lot to do with perspective and DOF isolation IMO. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t isolate subjects well because the 75mm/f1.8 lens is wonderful at doing just that. It’s hard to put into words other than that the look is different. The same way that the perspective and look of large format is different to medium format which again is different to 135 format. Conversely when deeper DOF is required, there is less need to stop down greatly, thereby keeping the lens near its aperture sweet spot (usually one or two stops from maximum) and reducing the need to bump up ISO for adequate shutter speeds. The same goes for shooting groups of people (multiple rows) in less than ideal light.
The 75/1.8 has no trouble isolating subject, not just up close but also full length people subjects.
The ergonomics took a little time getting use to. I still can’t operate it at the same speed as my DSLR but it has improved immensely since first buying it.
I erred and ahhhed for a long time about purchasing the accessory HLD-6 grip but decided in the end it wasn’t worth the money to me, given that I would only use the horizontal grip extension which didn’t add an extra battery compartment and impinged on easy access to the existing one.
The extra grip does improve the ergonomics but in time, I’ve become quite accustomed to the ‘naked’ E-M5 as is.
The entire camera is well built and weather sealed. Nothing rickety to complain of really. The weather sealing worked as advertised and rain and snow weren’t issues (when paired with a weather sealed lens).
Shooting the E-M5 with 12-50 kit lens in full snow, Hokkaido, Japan.
System weight was a big factor in choosing m43. There are similar-sized larger sensor-ed compact system cameras, most notably the Sony E and FE mount ranges but whilst cameras bodies have undergone a remarkable process of miniaturization, lenses remain similar to their DSLR counterparts to cover the required image circles of their respective sensors. So in my opinion, m43 has a distinct size/bulk advantage and likely to maintain this barring any breakthrough optical technology.
I don’t find it cumbersome bringing the E-M5 to events such as weddings and I can get fairly decent results whilst remaining discreet.
Shooting discreetly at weddings.
Candid moments are a little easier when you don't draw much attention to yourself.
Even for my hands (S sized gloves) buttons are small, too small in the case of the playback and AE-L/AF-L button pair, I find. It is difficult to isolate just one button in quick operation. IMO there should’ve only been one large, easy to press, customizable button. The playback button can be moved elsewhere as it doesn’t form part of shooting operations.
There are two command wheels, something that’s essential to me, one at the front and the other at the rear. Both are well placed, within natural, easy reach and adequate amount of resistance.
I occasionally mix up the top Fn button and Rec button since they are in close proximity and similarly shaped.
The ON/OFF switch at the rear needs a lock since hanging the camera off your neck or shoulder can sometimes inadvertently turn on the camera, wasting valuable battery life.
Battery life has been a little deceptive. I was initially a little disappointed, only getting 300-400 shots per charge. But I’ve learnt the battery life indicator is either not particularly accurate or the battery itself has peculiar characteristics. It would sometimes bounce from full green (3 bars) to red bypassing the middle (2 bars). But an OFF/ON or leaving it OFF for a short period would allow it to ‘rejuvenate.’ If this is ‘normal’, I’ve had the pleasure of not experiencing this with any of my previous cameras that I’ve owned. This behavior gets worse when used in cold environments.
So it’s likely I haven’t completely drained a battery before but I can safely say it should exceed 500 shots per charge, and this is with some modest chimping and using the EVF mainly.
The EVF is the subject of much debate online. I personally still prefer an OVF but I don’t object to the E-M5’s EVF.
I’m not a spectacle wearer and I prefer shooting at eye level as oppose to arm forward. Whilst I loose some emotional connection when composing through an EVF, the ‘what you see is what you get’ and live highlight/shadow blinkies help me get accurate exposures with less accidental erroneous exposure settings.
I find the auto eye-level detection sensor too sensitive and no way to reduce it with annoying accidental triggers when I’m in playback mode chimping.
I have to leave the eye-level sensor on because there’s no way to permanently enable the EVF whilst also enabling the rear LCD for exposure parameters, the only way to do this is to let the camera auto switch using the eye-level sensor.
The reason I would want this setup is the EVF start up is too slow and there is a noticeable lag to come on when held to the eye.
What Olympus should have allowed is for both the EVF and LCD to be on at the same time with the eye-level sensor switching the EVF from a low power standby to full operations mode as well as turning the LCD off, when the camera is held to the eye.
The tilt-able LCD is useful for the occasional ground level and above head compositions. The lack of swivel doesn’t bother me much but I guess it would be more useful if included but that will likely increase camera bulk so I’m happy with the trade-off.
Gangnam Subway, Seoul. Shot overhead.
Street shooting at waist level.
AF is fast enough and accurate. However by default the AF boxes are quite large. Although there is a work-around that I’ve assigned to one of the Fn buttons, it would have been nice to have the smaller AF boxes by default, thereby freeing up one Fn button.
I rarely AF track so can’t give you much low down on C-AF other than it seem to work well when combined with auto face-detect, and using the 75mm prime.
There is an accessory flash that comes with the camera. The camera and flash both have port covers that need to be removed to attach the flash. They are easy to loose and the flash lacks any bounce or swivel features. IMO if the flash is not on-board, you need to add additional useful functions to be worth the hassle of carrying an additional accessory. I rarely use the flash because of this reason.
The IBIS is excellent. Can’t say enough good things about it. It just works. Subjectively it’s more or less as good as the VR on my Nikkor 70-200mm/f2.8 VR2. This is very useful for impromptu nightscapes if you’re not carrying a tripod. Still life/food photography in low light also benefit greatly. I haven’t really used adapted legacy lens but it’s a great feature that stabilization becomes available on any lens you can mount on the camera.
75mm/1.8 (150mm equiv FOV) @ 1/10s with IBIS ON
On the subject of adapted legacy lens or any manual focus lens for that matter, there have been some criticisms of the lack of focus peaking support. There is an art line filter work-around but no dedicated focus peaking. This doesn’t affect me personally as I don’t currently use any MF lens on my E-M5 and secondly, I’ve tried focus peaking on other bodies but have found the experience displeasing as it further removes the emotional connection in composing a frame. Rather than concentrate on the subjects in the frame, you’re looking for colour peaks. Along the same vein, I have a love hate relationship with the live highlight/shadow blinkies. Its great that I can have that information in real time but it’s also annoying and affects the joy and concentration when composing an image.
For those who like adapting lens from other formats, m43 is great for this but be aware of the resultant FOV due to the 2X crop factor (relative to 135 format).
I haven’t found sensor dust to be a factor at all I must admit. I can only assume that the sensor shake/clean does a good job. I do take care when changing lens, particularly in the field but it probably helps that the camera is weather sealed as well as the kit lens.
The 12-50 kit lens
As far as kit lens goes, this is my first and only kit lens I’ve ever owned and used. So without much to compare to, I actually find it to be quite a useful lens capable of some very good images.
I don’t like variable aperture lenses, period but it has a useful 12-50mm range equivalent in FOV to 24-100mm in 135 format. On the long end and in macro mode (which is fixed at 43mm, activated by pressing the macro button on the lens and pulling the zoom ring clutch mechanism forward) the lens is very slow however.
But the fact that there is a macro mode which works to 1:2 is great.
The zoom ring clutch mechanism (without pressing the macro button) is normally used to switch from mechanical to power zoom. I use mechanical most of the time but the power zoom is very handy in video mode.
The lens is also weather-sealed yet very light but protrudes a fair bit from the camera body making storage a little cumbersome.
On the wide end there’s noticeable barrel distortion but easily corrected in software. The corners are nothing to write home about but generally not a big issue but middle is sharp enough. It lacks the microcontrast ‘bite’ of some of the top lenses I’ve used.
Despite not being the best performer, some of my favourite images have come from the 12-50 kit lens.
The Olympus 75mm/f1.8
This is perhaps the best lens available native to the m43 format currently.
Optically it’s brilliant and gives a neutral, almost clinical rendition with beautiful creamy bokeh from its 9 aperture blades.
It is sharp edge to edge with excellent microcontrast.
Displayed at web sizes, it's difficult to do this lens justice.
About its only downfall is the lack of weather sealing and included hood for the hefty asking price. Construction is otherwise top notch though and beautifully finished.
It’s difficult not to like the images you get from the 75mm. Sometimes I find myself marvelling at the beautiful detail captured in an otherwise boring subject or composition.
The 150mm 135-format equivalent FOV makes this a slightly awkward lens to work with. I find it too long for indoor portraiture but does do a nice job of close-up still life or pet/baby (small subject) shots.
Outdoors it’s a good papzz street lens.
Scenery wise it is fantastic at isolating detail. The flat compression effect gives a painterly feel to many of the shots.
More about the m43 system
Since the E-M5 introduction, both Olympus and Panasonic have all but updated their entire camera body line-up bringing E-M5-like features from entry levels all the way to new flagships.
Undoubtedly the EM-1, Olympus’ new flagship improves on the E-M5 in just about every single way but the camera has grown physically along the way too.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Panasonic GM1 with collapsible kit lens really shows how small the system can be rivalling many advance P&S cameras in size.
Wifi communication has become standard on every new model, something I think should have been the norm a long time ago. But at least the E-M5 is compatible with most of the popular wifi-enabled SD cards.
The Olympus menu system has often been criticised for being too complicated.
There was a learning curve initially but I’ve found once the camera is set up to my style of shooting, I rarely need to look for anything in the menu system. The last Panasonic model I owned but only shot with for a few months was a GH2 so I can’t really comment on the current Panasonic models.
Lens wise, there are some exciting lenses to look forward to.
For me, notable upcoming highlights include the Olympus 40-150/f2.8, Pana-Leica 15/f1.7 and Pana-Leica 42.5/f1.2. However, at the top end the lenses are not cheap. The newly announced 42.5/1.2 is priced at $1599 USD.
Fast normal zooms already exist in both Panasonic and Olympus guise as well as a plethora of excellent fast primes, which IMO is a really strong point of m43.
However, a rectilinear prime wider than 12mm eludes the system and arguably the ultrawide zooms are due for updates.
So there you go. Hopefully some of you will have found this report useful.
I don’t want to sway people into buying the system or otherwise since I’m also continually evaluating the system based on my needs and my opinions will likely change over time. This has only been a snapshot of my limited experience in m43.