I’ve mentioned in the past that as an extension of my game development work, I began to explore photography. I’m a big fan of the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras, and I recently purchased the newest iteration in the line: the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I thought I’d go ahead and do a review, since a number of people have asked me about the camera. To make a long story short, Olympus has finally gotten serious and this camera is a force to be reckoned with. Much more importantly, the E-M5 is a lot of fun to shoot with. I enjoy photography much more with it than anything I’ve ever used, and for an enthusiast that’s crucial.
This review is not meant to be all encompassing; see DPReview for that. Rather, I want to focus on the things that I feel are often lost in normal reviews, and provide some introduction to these cameras in general.
I’ll start with a quick prelude for those of you who aren’t in the know, since this isn’t really a photography blog (not yet, anyway). Until recently, there were two kinds of cameras that the mainstream public knew and cared about: digital compacts and digital SLRs. A compact is an integrated package with a sensor and lens all together. They’re typically priced anywhere from $50 to $500, and they’re a one shot purchase: camera, done. They almost always use small low quality image sensors, on the scale of 5-8mm diagonal. This helps keep the size of the optics down and the overall package small. They also tend to have low end processing hardware and limited control over the result. Compacts also eschew viewfinders, running their sensor in video mode to the LCD to display an image preview. Most people take this functionality for granted. Some have electronic viewfinders, lenses onto tiny LCD screens of varying quality and size.
On the other end, we have digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. The SLR design became big in the sixties as a compact film camera that allowed a photographer to see precisely what the film was going to see via a mirror/prism arrangement, and set exposure parameters based on that information. Modern “pro” cameras are identical in most ways to the film cameras of the late nineties, with the film replaced by a digital sensor and guts. DSLRs use large sensors (21mm-55mm diagonal), and feature large interchangeable lenses. They also have high end processors on board, lots of memory, and sophisticated controls. Until a few years ago, DSLRs could not run their sensors in video mode; they were unable to record videos and unable to display a live feed on the LCD. This was a limitation of the sensor hardware, and using the optical mirrored viewfinder was the only way to preview your shot. Although modern DSLRs have overcome this limitation and now support “Live View”, they are not well suited to this mode of operation and it’s generally not how you’ll want to use the camera.
Mirrorless cameras split the difference. By designing a compact-type camera with a video-compatible sensor and interchangeable lenses, these cameras try to compromise between the bulk and limitations of a DSLR, while boasting far more powerful processing and far better images than any compact camera. The idea was really pioneered by a cooperation by Olympus and Panasonic called Micro Four Thirds. This shared format came to fruition in 2008, and sent off a shockwave in the industry. Sony, Samsung, Fuji, Nikon, Pentax, and Canon have all stepped into the arena with their own competitors in this new class.
Micro Four Thirds
When the transition from film to digital happened, the vast majority of consumer equipment was designed for the 135 (35mm film) standard. Companies ran up against a problem: nobody knew how to create a digital sensor quite that large (“full frame”). Canon managed to produce one in 2002, the 1Ds, for $7,999. Nikon would not release one until the D3 in 2007, for $4,999. It was necessary to experiment with smaller sensor standards to produce consumer priced digital cameras, and most settled on the APS-C size with a diagonal of about 28mm on a 3:2 aspect ratio, versus full frame’s 43mm. APS-C sensor cameras only see the middle of the image projected by a 35mm lens, cropping the image off into a narrower field of view. APS-C has a “crop factor” of around 1.5, meaning that film lenses are effectively 1.5x narrower than they would be on a full frame camera. Despite the common sensor or film formats, each manufacturer makes their own lens system and are for the most part incompatible.
Olympus, meanwhile, decided to go with a smaller sensor format called Four Thirds, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and an image diagonal of about 21.6mm and a crop factor of 2x. (A 25mm lens is considered “normal”.) They did this to try and produce more compact DSLR cameras, similar to their old OM film SLRs. They tried to share this standard with several other manufacturers of cameras and lenses, but it never really caught on as a mainstream lineup. The Four Thirds options lagged their bigger competitors in performance and nobody really wanted a fairly big camera with fairly mediocre performance.
Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) was announced by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008 as a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) line. The m4/3 cameras used the same sensor, but a mirrorless design to cut back dramatically on overall size. They leveraged tricks like digital image correction to reduce size, and boasted promise of high quality video support. The first cameras were the Panasonic G1 and the Olympus E-P1. The bad news is that price was not particularly different from full blown DSLRs and the cameras were small but not pocket-small. Combined with a wide range of technical and performance limitations, the cameras basically sucked in terms of bang for the buck. The value was in the flexibility of size and interchangeable lenses, supposedly. I’ve been very fond of these cameras for a long time, but that was due to personal quirks: I hate viewfinders, and DSLRs are fairly awful at video.
Olympus OM-D E-M5
Nevermind the ridiculous name; the Olympus OM-D is the real deal at long last. This is my fourth Olympus and my sixth m4/3 body. Olympus’ previous m4/3 cameras, the PEN series, were designed as compact cameras on steroids. Plastic build, simplified interfaces, mediocre sensor performance, and in many cases mediocre autofocus. This new camera is the genesis of a semi-pro lineup and it has the spec sheet to match. Magnesium build with full dust and splash proofing. An integrated high resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF), physical control dials, an accessory battery grip, and most welcome of all: a brand new 16 MP image sensor by Sony that is now able to compete with the DSLRs on even footing. Olympus has finally given us something that isn’t a toy, for $999 body-only.
The body’s available in silver or black. Olympus is going for a retro-throwback here, and I find the silver to be a beautiful look that stands out from the crowd in a good way. The viewfinder hump is a bit goofy thanks to the physical size of the stabilization system and accessory port, but the body is extremely compact overall. The handling is good, but not great. Olympus continues an unfortunate affectation of minimal grips on their cameras. Handling with larger lenses is compromised as a result, and large hands won’t appreciate the form in general. The battery grip supposedly makes a dramatic difference, but at USD $300 it’s a steep price to pay. The strap lugs are also the stupid compact-style with keychain type D-rings to actually get a strap on. Pointless inconvenience. The front of the viewfinder holds stereo mics with better than usual separation, and a normal hotshoe on top. Olympus has included their accessory port here, which makes the viewfinder hump comically oversized for something that shouldn’t be necessary. But since there’s no mic input and no built-in flash, you’ll need the accessory port often to drive those accessories.
The buttons are tiny, because the screen takes up most of the tiny body’s space. They’re also squishy thanks to the weather sealing. Olympus’ buttons have continuously shrunk over the years, and the OM-D is really starting to test the limits. I don’t find it to be a problem, but this is getting ridiculous even for my Asian hands. The dials are very nice, and something about Olympus shutter buttons is just so much nicer than other cameras I’ve tried. So is the actual shutter noise, a nice subtle click that doesn’t carry. The camera has a trio of customizable function buttons, and completely arbitrary restrictions on which button can be set to what functions (underwater mode yes, bracketing mode no). Haphazard half-backed customization is a theme that continues throughout the camera; the customization menu contains 87 different settings, some of which branch further off into sub-settings. For the most part it’s possible to things up exactly as you want, and equally as easy to screw them up in weird ways. Olympus offers a “Myset” system to save camera settings, but I don’t find it to be useful since the only way to get to them quickly is to assign a function button. I’d rather set the button to something useful, thanks.
The viewfinder is a large and beautiful 800×600 RGB LCD panel. It isn’t a color-sequential display like some manufacturers (*ahem* Panasonic), and the contrast and brightness are way punchier and more pleasant than some competitors (*ahem* Panasonic). It’s also not quite up to the spec of the Sony NEX-7, sadly, but it is wonderful to use. There’s a built in proximity detector to activate the EVF, and it works very smoothly. There’s no sensitivity adjustment, which can mean a lot of accidental switching, but as a nice extra touch you can toggle the sensor and active screen simply by holding down a button on the side of the viewfinder. The rear screen a large tilting OLED panel with excellent color and brightness, albeit at a lower resolution than the EVF. Again not at the standard of Sony but Panasonic should be taking notes. A flip out swivel screen would’ve been nice, though.
Let’s start with that new sensor: it’s fantastic. The dated Panasonic chip used in previous Olympus bodies has been replaced with a state of the art Sony unit. It is able to keep pace with the NEX-5N and 7, considered the standards-bearers of APS-C quality. ISO 3200 is clean enough to print, and I’m getting perfectly decent screen-resolution shots at ISO 12800 with RAW processing in Lightroom. Stunning. The Olympus JPEG engine has always been stellar, but it visibly disintegrates at 6400 and above — process RAW files yourself in high ISo situations. Dynamic range is traditionally a severe limitation of the m4/3 cameras, and the new Sony supplied sensor seems to do a fantastic job. There’s also something about the Olympus color rendition even in RAW that I find extremely pleasant and far nicer than any manufacturer out there except maybe Fuji.
While working with the Olympus ISO 12800 files, I’m finding something unexpected: I don’t mind the noise. Don’t get me wrong, the shots have plenty of noise to go around and we’re still not getting quite as clear results as the best of the new APS-C sensors (though it is better than any APS-C sensor from a year or two ago.) No, it’s not the amount of noise at play but the pattern, which has a very natural smooth feel to it after just a kiss of chroma noise reduction — Lightroom’s 25 default does just fine. It doesn’t interfere badly with the image at normal magnifications, and for many purposes I’m finding that I’m happy without going through the careful NR-sharpening balancing act that high-ISO shots typically require. This is something you won’t get from the test charts or DXO numbers. Camera sensors show noise in different patterns and types; many degrade into a color-splotched mess particularly in the shadows. This sensor degrades cleanly and elegantly into a film-like look that is easy to correct in post and easy to live with.
Here’s a secret that people don’t often mention: Olympus and Panasonic have stellar autofocus systems, better than what you get out of a typical midrange DSLR and kit lens. The other mirrorless systems, like Sony NEX, cannot compete. The basic entry level m4/3 kit lenses are basically able to match expensive supersonic drive DSLR lenses in speed, with dead silent video compatible internal focus mechanisms. Focus is also dead accurate, since it’s driven by the sensor and tolerances don’t matter. The only downside is that Olympus doesn’t offer resizable focus zones. The default is large enough to pick the wrong object to focus on, which can be an unpleasant surprise. The real bad news comes in with continuous or tracking autofocus, which basically don’t work even in 120hz high speed mode. In reality, single acquisition is so fast that you can often use it to replace continuous mode in DSLRs. For photos, the OM-D won’t be able to match the speed of a Sony SLT or pro DSLR with high end lenses. Kit lens users with DSLRs will discover that they were lied to about what m4/3 focus performance is like, but sports shooters relying on AF-C will be sorely disappointed. Caveat emptor.
For those interested, Roger Cicala wrote about DSLR AF accuracy.
Did I mention it can fire at 9 fps? Because it can, with a fat buffer that will go for 14 JPEG+RAW shots and full stabilization. I’ve seen it take 20 JPEGs on a fast card before running out of steam. (Compare to the GH2 at 5fps and a buffer of about 7 shots.) Continuous AF only becomes available at 4 fps, although it probably won’t actually work at that speed. Want to shoot fast action? Dial in your focus and wait for the target to come to you. At 9fps, your odds are very good, about as good as it gets for a consumer level camera. Only the Sony SLT line will go ever so slightly quicker, if you really need even more.
Olympus offers a sensor-shift stabilization system integrated into the body. The stabilizer can stabilize any lens, including adapted lenses from other systems. Sony Alpha and Pentax DSLRs offer similar systems. These systems traditionally suffer several flaws; they can only correct for translational motion, correct is not always as good as lens-based optical systems, and they have a tendency to overheat which makes them useless for long exposures or video use. Olympus has conquered all of these problems with a new 5-axis system that electromagnetically floats the sensor full time, compensating for rotational and translational motion even during video recording as well as in the viewfinder. The sheer ability of the 5-axis to lock the sensor down defies belief. Hand-held long exposures are possible, and video gains a silky smoothness that can trick a viewer into thinking a rig was used. Here’s a video from Engadget showing the stabilizer demo unit:
Of course Olympus giveth and Olympus taketh away; the camera refuses to stabilize non-electronic lenses in video, for no readily apparent reason. Let this be your first hint that Olympus does not understand high end video. UPDATE: Olympus has added stabilization for legacy/adapted lenses in firmware 1.5.
Battery life, however, is not good. Buy a spare battery or two…or more, if you’re a heavy shooter. Chinese generics from eBay work just fine although they seem to have slightly shorter lifespans than the OEM version. In general I find it’s best to keep at least two batteries for a high end camera, but this thing works through them fairly quickly. It’s not so bad if you only use the viewfinder and leave the main LCD off, but your battery times are going to be much closer to a compact than an SLR. Olympus ships a dedicated charger with an awkward cord; no USB charging here, so don’t lose the charger or forget it on a trip. You won’t find a spare. Might want to pick one up with those extra batteries.
M.Zuiko 12-50mm Kit Lens
The OM-D is available with a new weather sealed kit lens, the 12-50mm. It’s also available with the old 14-42mm kit lens, that lens isn’t sealed and doesn’t have the range. It IS a lot smaller, which brings us to the real problem with the 12-50mm: it should have never been made. It’s not a bad lens; sharp, weather sealed, wide range (24-100mm equivalent), mechanical AND power zoom modes for photo and video, plus a macro mode that gets to about .75x. The trouble is that it’s unreasonably large, unreasonably slow (f/6.3 at the long end), unreasonably expensive ($300 in kit, $500 standalone) and solves problems no one ever asked to be solved. It was a total waste of Olympus engineering time. A $1,500 kit with a new native conversion of the 12-60mm or 14-54mm would have been an absolutely incredible kit to offer. As it is, the kit is useful but mediocre.
Taking the lens on its own merits, there are some positives. Optically it is excellent for a kit zoom type lens with the ultra-sharp look that is standard for Zuikos, even wide open. The lens is not only internal focus but also internal zoom, which brings a welcome subtlety to candid photography work versus the telescoping monstrosities most people are used to. The zoom ring slides forwards and backwards to toggle lens modes, and can be bumped easily but works well overall. The electronic zoom is legitimately useful for video. The mechanical zoom is a bit odd though, as you can hear and feel the internal zoom motor being dragged along and there’s a weak hard stop that allows the ring to continue spinning. A macro button allows the lens to be locked to its maximum magnification and a limited focus range. Macro mode is very sharp and gets in very close.
If it was really necessary to produce a slow consumer kit lens, I would’ve preferred that Olympus spend time on producing a more compact weather sealed zoom. But a semi-pro camera deserves a semi-pro lens, and this isn’t it. The range is useful, but the lens is slower across the range than the normal Panasonic and Olympus 14-42mm lenses by about a third of a stop. What’s the point of having a wonderful new sensor sunk into noise because the lens is wide open at f/6.3? That’s a cruel joke. A 12-60 f/2.8-4 kit could’ve shaken up the entire industry.
The Nikon F mount for their SLR cameras was introduced to the world in 1959, and for the most part you have always to mount your Nikon lenses on newer cameras. The Canon EF mount was introduced in 1987 and again, lenses from then on have always been fully functional. Buying into a popular SLR system has always meant an enormous range of available lenses created over the course of decades. Even now, most of the Nikon and Canon lenses (including the entire L series) are designed for full-frame rather than APS-C formats and are often awkward on crop formats. Micro Four Thirds was created in 2008, and other mirrorless systems were introduced even later. Sony and Samsung’s entries appeared in 2010, Nikon in late 2011, and Pentax/Fuji/Canon in 2012. Lens choice and pricing are a soft spot for all of these lines. (Most can adapt SLR lenses, with varying degrees of success.) Micro Four Thirds has a few unique advantages over the other manufacturers, though.
Not only is m4/3 the oldest system, but it also has two manufacturers committed to producing both bodies and lenses that are all mostly cross compatible. By building largely complementary sets of lenses, the system has gained a large set of lenses in a very short time. The system isn’t “complete” yet, in that there are still major holes which need to be filled for general purpose use. It is however far, far ahead of the competitors. They’ve also focused on producing very good quality lenses at consumer prices; if you want something dirt cheap or ultra high end, you’re likely to be disappointed. (Panasonic is just rolling out their first constant aperture pro zooms this year, and there are barely any sub-$300 lenses.) On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to make a bad choice with the lenses that are available. All of them are optically stellar, even the relatively poor and very dated Olympus 17mm pancake. Lenses like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake, Panasonic-Leica 25mm f/1.4, and Olympus 45mm f/1.8 are considered practically classic.
One of the stated goals of mirrorless was to decrease the size not only of the camera bodies, but also of the lenses. m4/3 accomplishes this in three ways. First, the very short flange distance (the distance between the sensor and the lens mount) allows lenses to be designed more simply and mounted much closer. Second, the smaller and closer-to-square Four Thirds format sensor allows for smaller image circles that are used more efficiently than the traditional 3:2 film format. Third, m4/3 relies heavily on digital corrections of lens issues like distortion and chromatic aberration, which would previously have required heavy and expensive glass elements to fix. The 20mm pancake (shown right) is actually one of the sharpest lenses for the system, an inch deep and under $360.
All together, there are around 25 current electronically enabled lenses for the system, with a handful of manual focus native lenses as well. 7-14mm or 9-18mm ultra wide angle. Wide angle, there’s the 12/2.0 or 14/2.5. Fisheye? Two of them .Normal lenses, pick from 17/2.8, 19/2.8, 20/1.7, and 25/1.4. If raw aperture is your thing and price is no object, Voigtlander will sell you 17/0.95 and 25/0.95. Macro comes from the 12-50, the 45/2.8, or the upcoming 60mm. The 45/1.8 75/1.8 fulfill portrait needs. The 14-150 and 14-140 OIS are fantastic all-in-one superzooms. And I’m not going to even start naming all the telephoto options, but the 100-300 gives most people as much reach as their heart desires.
With the advent of digital photography, camera companies (Nikon, Olympus, Fuji) collided with consumer electronics companies (Sony, Panasonic, Canon) in producing cameras. The consumer electronics guys make a variety of fantastic video cameras. The camera companies still seem somewhat baffled about what exactly video is for and what video people want. Fuji in particular makes the best film lenses on the planet, but cannot understand what to do with video recording. The previous m4/3 flagship camera was the Panasonic GH2, and it’s such an eminently capable camera that in the latest Zacuto shootout, it was frequently mistaken for the RED Epic and has proven to be one of the most popular cameras in that blind test. The OM-D will not be showing up in any such tests.
Let’s start with features: it writes h.264 files in a Quicktime MOV container to the same directory as photos. Most cameras emulate a very confusing Blu-Ray disc file structure on the card so that you can directly burn your card to a Blu-Ray once you’re done filming. This is exactly the sort of moronic “feature” a consumer electronics company would come up with, and four people in the world have ever actually used. Olympus’ version is a welcome change. It will AF during video, and rolling shutter is decently well controlled. Olympus also offers the amazing 5-axis stabilization with electronic lenses, and the results of that stabilization really cannot be overstated. It is absolutely stellar. Of course you can’t stabilize lenses you’d actually want to use for filming, like the Voigtlander f/0.95 primes.
Trouble is, that’s where the features end. Output is 1080i/60 or 720p/60, both of which are derived from a 30hz sensor readout. Bit-rates suck (20 Mbps max). No 24p, no 25p, no 50/60p. It does 30hz. The camera’s h.264 codec isn’t particularly good, as it tends to degrade into macroblocking when pushed too hard. Unlike the beautiful highlight roll-off in still photos, videos get a nasty burnt look on anything that gets too bright. You can buy an accessory for a microphone input, but there’s really no point since the camera doesn’t have volume control. The microphone has been improved significantly over the old PENs at least, which used to clip quickly. The new mic is completely deaf to bass though. Single clips are limited to 29:59 thanks to stupid laws in the EU, so long-form interview/lecture recordings are out. You can set aperture/shutter/ISO/exposure manually for video, but only before you start recording. I suspect that this is strictly a set of software problems, as the underlying hardware is extremely capable. I’m not the only one who thinks a lot more is possible on the OM-D platform. More than that though, Olympus just doesn’t understand what people are looking for from video.
On second thought, allow me to rephrase that a bit: Olympus doesn’t understand professional video. The OM-D is an extraordinary photography camera for amateur/home video thanks to the excellent stabilizer. It’s miles ahead of any DSLR for video work, including the inexplicably popular Canons. Bolt on the Olympus 14-150mm ($350 refurb) for a video friendly 11x zoom and for casual use the OM-D delivers very good results. Film buffs will need to look elsewhere, probably to the very competent (and now much cheaper) Panasonic GH2.
There are a lot of good mirrorless and DSLR cameras out there. Sony NEX will take absolutely fantastic images with the right lenses. The high-end Panasonic G cameras share many of the same advantages at significantly better price points. A high end consumer DSLR (D7000, A65, 60D, K-5) can be had for the same money, with much wider choices in lenses across the range. So why are photographers like Damian McGillicuddy, Steve Huff, and Andy Hendriksen going crazy over this new camera?
Shooting with the OM-D is effortless. It’s compact enough to carry comfortably; not pocketable, but much more convenient than a DSLR. Use the viewfinder or LCD as you like, hit the button, and the sensor is able to handle almost anything you throw at it. Twin control dials make it easy to tweak settings quickly. The JPEG processing is good enough that I almost never sit down with the RAW files from everyday shooting situations. The stabilizer solves most shutter speed problems and gives video a professional feel. The tough build and weather sealing inspire confidence, while still being lightweight. It’s expensive, but there’s so much to like in this package and so little to complain about that it is worth it.
The bottom line? This camera is much more fun than its DSLR or mirrorless competitors.