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No Regrets: Living Small in a Big Camera World - My Olympus E-M5 Review

Carrying a "man purse" for my photography is no shame...

When Things Go Wrong: Getting a Lift
When Things Go Wrong: Getting a Lift
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 "kit" lens

Originally published October, 2012

"The camera's only job is to get out of the way of making photographs." - Ken Rockwell

What? Another post about small cameras?

Yes, I'm afraid so, lol.  Now listen: if Ken Rockwell ever sees my quote above I'm sure he'll have a cow.  He considers micro four thirds a "junk" format -- but I don't think he's tried out the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and he may never.  But I think small can be a valid choice in photography with modern technology.

This is a "user experience" type of review -- I'm not an optical scientist.  What I care about is how usable the camera is and whether I can get my images or not.  I will dwell a bit though on the cult of sensor size.

Some of you may be impatient with my verbal excesses and if so I encourage you to just look at the pictures and captions to see what I've done with this camera and why I think technically it is an excellent system.  Generally, I never print larger than about 16x20 inches with occasional excursions to larger sizes and this camera does that and more. 

There are really two things I want to do here: present the case for a smaller camera and show why the OM-D E-M5 is really the first credible mirrorless with a small sensor.

But, isn't a bigger sensor all the rage?

Yes, actually it is.  But think about this as a continuum: if full frame 35mm is good, isn't medium format better?  Wouldn't you be better off with an 8x10 sensor?  Maybe one the size of a truck? 

Each size comes with a set of "boundary conditions" and really ALL photography is a compromise of some sort.  Those who say their approach to photography is "No Compromise" are either willfully prevaricating or wishfully thinking.

Let's look at the pros and cons of the various formats, in case you haven't been listening to the various arguments.

Larger Sensor Pros
  • Larger photo-receptor sites allow better low light performance and require less processing to achieve high image qualities
  • Wider dynamic range overall
  • Easier to obtain very low depth of field in an image without very large apertures
  • Diffraction blurring of photos does not occur until much smaller relative apertures.
Larger Sensor Cons
  • Higher costs due to lower yields in manufacturing (a single bad sensor wastes more die space)
  • Larger and heavier weight cameras and lenses required for equivalent performance

Grounds for Sculpture: Trust Me

Example of Larger Sensor DOF: Trust Me
Nikon D7000 with Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF lens (127.5mm focal length equivalent)

You can see an example above of the very small depth of field you can get on this sculpture at "Grounds for Sculpture" in Hamilton, NJ.  Dramatic effect which would be harder to reproduce with a small sensor.

Smaller Sensor Pros
  • Lower cost
  • Smaller and lower weight cameras and lenses
Smaller Sensor Cons
  • Smaller photo-receptor sites more prone to noise and require more processing at low light levels diminishing image quality
  • Lower dynamic range overall
  • Requires larger apertures to achieve a very low depth of field
  • Smallest relative aperture is limited by diffraction effects
Lotus Borealis
Lotus Borealis
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens (150mm focal length equivalent)

The image above pretty clearly demonstrates that you CAN get nice background blur with the correct application of lens and subject position, even on a small sensor.  In other words: there are ways to apply your photographic skill to achieve the same type of results.

Each sensor size can assist or impede your photography in some way.  I can now easily and unobtrusively carry a small kit capable of very high quality photography even to lower light levels.  It's with me all the time.  Some do manage that with a full size DSLR and kit of lenses but in my experience most don't sustain it and end up in a situation where they so wish they had their camera with them.

Really, the dynamic range issue is the biggest headache if you shoot by available light since you can't control your light range.  But the OM-D- E-M5 is now comparable to some of the best APS-C cameras so it is far less of  a problem.  In fact, with only a 12-bit RAW file and less than 13 stops of dynamic range, I'm actually amazed at what I can tease out of a photo from the E-M5.

Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras have long been hit on this issue, but have a look at this link shared by Robin Wong about his friend Sanjit who won second place in a nature photo contest using an older 4/3 camera, the Olympus E-3.  Definitely a challenging light situation, but Sanjit nailed it even with the limitations of his gear.

A pocket camera is only good for so much... at least at current technology levels.  If you want to carry a camera everywhere you have choices to make.  Furthermore, if you don't want to have to support several different "systems" with duplicated lenses and so forth, you are further constrained.

But since all photographic systems pose some constraints, can you find a way to make the images you want with a different system?  That may in fact be a measure of your skill as a photographer.

Mushroom Festival: Pondering Summer's End
Pondering Summers End
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 lens

The image above was a "stealth" shot with the camera hanging down at my side.  Small camera, not looking at the subject -- all these things made me rather invisible to the young man allowing me to catch his expression.

Making a case for the OM-D E-M5 as a complete camera system

Since my last post on this camera, which you can see here, I discussed making the radical decision to dump my Nikon D7000's DSLR's and commit fully to the micro four thirds system.  I've had some chances to shoot a few different situations since I got the camera and lenses and been able to reflect and either regret or be glad.  

I liked the Nikon system a LOT, but I've found everything I need in the Olympus system now and the advantages (for me) are so great that I'm even more enthusiastic than I was when I began this risky journey into a totally different system.  Sort of "working without a net" as they say.  I really, really wanted to be able to carry a lot of capability, with high image quality, in a much smaller and lighter kit.

Here's a series of images shot with the E-M5 and various lenses under very different conditions, with some relevant commentary about things that make that image significant to the argument for using the E-M5 instead of a larger DSLR.

The Ancient One
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 
(Hand held, 1/40 sec, ISO 4000 no noise reduction)

This particular shot above is unremarkable except for the obviously low noise in the shot at such a high ISO sensitivity.  The stabilizer is working here at about 2 stops better than a 1/f guideline which in this case would be the effective focal length of 150mm.

As always, you can click through these to my flickr page and look at larger versions, though I don't post originals sizes.

Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Tests: Loader by Night
Loader by Night
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 
(Hand held, 1/10 sec, ISO 1600 no noise reduction)

The shot above begins to show just how good the E-M5's 5-axis stabilizer can be.  I took this not long after the previous shot and decided to get the ISO down by going into shutter priority mode and pushing the shutter speed down another two stops.  What I ended up with was a surprising ability to get a sharp shot with a telephoto lens at a 4 stop equivalent longer shutter time.  

Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Tests: Machinery by Moonlight
Machinery by Moonlight
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 
(Hand held, 1/5 sec, ISO 1600 no noise reduction)

So, I decided to really go for it and see if 5 stops was possible.  The shot above is again handheld but now at 1/5 second!  The color in the sky is "light pollution" from the cities of Chester and Philadelphia, PA which were in the direction I was facing.  Stars are visible in the sky.  Again no noise reduction applied to the ISO 1600 shot which perhaps is not so remarkable these days but in a camera this size and resolution is quite good -- and in fact it is as good as my D7000 was.

The E-M5 Does Urbex: The Remains of Empire
The E-M5 Does Urbex: The Remains of Empire
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 9-18mm f/4-5.6 lens 
(Tripod, 3 shot HDR merge at base ISO)

I really like capturing Urbex (which I whimsically call Industrial Archaeology) shots using photo-realistic HDR techniques.  Here is one of the classic "big empty room" shots (of which I am not a true devotee) typical of Urbex using the OM-D E-M5 and the very tiny ultrawide from Olympus.  I used my cheapest lightest weight tripod for this excursion and why not?  It's more than adequate to hold the little E-M5 and lens motionless.  The clarity and contrast of the Olympus gear is wonderful and I have become very confident in my ability to capture what I want to with a very lightweight kit.

Saturday Drive with the E-M5: A Real Doll
A Real Doll
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 

Nothing special about exposure, ISO, etc. -- just showing again how a small sensor does not exclude (contrary to some opinions expressed out there) the potential for a creamy bokeh.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 

Here we have a bit of crop, but still the image holds up and I could easily print it to 16x20 inches and again we see an image which doesn't suggest a too-small sensor -- quite the contrary.

Late Summer Colors: Watching the Skies
Watching the Skies
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens

I post this in praise of the much maligned kit lens from the OM-D.  It's really very useful and the quality is better than average for a bundled lens.  Here it's in macro mode, but not used too closely and provides a nice bokeh (though not like the 75mm f/1.8 obviously).

Late Summer Colors: Big Business
Big Business
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens

Another macro shot with the kit lens to show what it can do to make a beautiful photograph.  Don't be afraid of this lens if a kit is all you can start out with.  The wide dynamic range of the E-M5 makes a shot like this possible as you can easily tune the highlights and shadows in post if you expose carefully and end up with a great shot.  I don't think this would have worked with the E-P3 for instance.

Mushroom Festival: Where the Wild Things Are (Painted)
Where the Wild Things Are (Painted)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 

Whether I get a good shot or not, I describe myself as dismal at street photography.  It just feels like work, lol.  The genre generally advises a wider lens and getting very close to your subject when possible.  This shot needed a longer lens as I couldn't get close enough to this cute little girl as she was transformed into a cute little beast.

Mushroom Festival: The Sultan of Funnel Cakes
The Sultan of Funnel Cakes
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens 

Again, using the 75mm for it's reach in street photography to capture a portrait of a vendor at an outdoor street fair in my hometown of Kennett Square, PA.  It was the annual "Mushroom Festival".

The Tower Near the Corn
The Tower Near the Corn
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens
(Hand held, 3-shot HDR merge at base ISO) 

This is an example of using the stabilizer of the OM-D for doing things hand held that might otherwise be difficult.  Usually my hand held HDR is using ultrawide lenses but here I'm using a more "normal" view lens of about 40mm equivalent or so.  Although the HDR software I use can do shot alignment, enough jitter and things go wrong.  Here there is some blur in some of the grasses because of a little breeze moving things around but overall it worked great in the not-bright light of dawn.  I like the little sparkle of dewdrops in the short grass.

Once again: I am recommending this camera now based on using it in variety of situations

There's not much more to say.  I've been on a roll since starting down this small camera path and truthfully I never expected to actually REPLACE my large cameras when I began to try to find a smaller camera that could do MOST of what my larger camera could do.  The quality and usability of the OM-D E-M5 took me totally by surprise as I realized it could replace what I was shooting.

Olympus and Panasonic and their many micro four thirds group partners are doing an amazing job crafting a system with "open" specifications that allows more than one manufacturer to play in the game with full specifications.  

That is one of the things I think that really pushed me over the edge with the idea of changing over: there is a nearly complete system of lenses and more coming out every day from different manufacturers.  It gives one a lot of confidence that this is a system that will persist for some time meaning my investment in quality lenses can carry me for quite awhile through numerous body changes over time.

Are there warts?  Yes and I covered them pretty much in my previous blog post.  They are all insignificant and become something you just get used to and unless you are a total perfectionist I think you should be able to get past them.

Last word: In praise of the 75mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko lens

This is an expensive lens for a prime at $900.  But it's worth it to me and although maybe it isn't to you, I need it.  It's about the equivalent of a 150mm f/4 lens in terms of bokeh but that's actually very good.

One of the best things about it is that it is very sharp edge-to-edge wide open and critically sharp in the middle wide open.  You can use this lens easily up through f/8 to f/11 and still have great shots.

If it has a flaw it is autofocus speed when the lens has to traverse a long difference in distance from the previous shot.  This is not the fastest focusing lens in Olympus recent arsenal -- but this is not necessarily unusual for longer telephoto lenses in any system.  Small changes are very fast indeed.

I'm keeping this camera system, and though I loved my Nikon system -- I'm not looking back.  My "man purse" (Think Tank Retrospective 5 camera bag) now contains a complete system of photography for many, many different situations.

If you wonder if this camera can do it -- it can.

"It is a breath of fresh air when the image quality in the new 16MP LIVE MOS Sensor used inside the E-M5 has spotted a huge jump of improvement over the previous Olympus models. Usable, clean ISO6400 images with minimal chroma noise and still maintaining good amount of details is unheard of from Olympus, until the E-M5 arrived.  In fact, at ISO3200 and below the images appear to be excellent, and I will have no hesitation using such settings when necessary." -- Robin Wong

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