Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5

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E-M5 with Olympus 12mm f/2

120813 124559 25mm f1 4This year, with the help of some sponsorships — B&H Photo in particular — I’ve had the opportunity to test pretty much every hot camera that’s come down the pike. I’ve been amazed by all the new technology this year coming out to serve professional and advanced photographers. So which of these cameras did I decide to keep for myself (and thus pay for) at the end of the review period?

None.

Every camera had new advantages, but also trade-offs that made me happy sticking with my trusty D3s and X100 for a while. Go with what works, and nothing seemed to out-and-out transform my photographing experience in a way that made it worth the hassles of change.

Until now. Not to give away the ending of this review, but I’ve already bought the E-M5 for myself, along with the Olympus 12mm f/2 and Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4. I also tested the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, which was a delight in its own way but which I did not keep. Why, out of all these fantastic cameras, did I make these choices?

First, let’s understand some context

The search for the perfect little camera, and the Micro 4/3rds universe

For a long time, I’ve been faced with a dilemma — I am a photographer who walks around without a camera. I have this amazing camera system that I love, but it’s way too big and cumbersome to take everywhere, and when you do, you’re always “that guy” with the giant DSLR — it feels more like you’re a photojournalist covering your own life than a person actually living it. Yes, I’ve got my iPhone, and yes, you can take compelling photos with that, but I want more versatility, a LOT more control … and, of course, I want RAW. And I wanted as big a sensor as possible in as small and unassuming a package as I can get.

Lots of great things are happening on that front. The RX100 is truly pocketable and has great image quality from its one-inch sensor. Sony’s NEX-5n looks like a point-and-shoot, but it has the same sensor size as the old big, honking D2x (and MUCH less noise.) But I was also looking for a versatile system, and that means high-quality lenses. This has been the Achilles heel of the NEX system so far, which is mostly variable aperture zooms. Meanwhile the micro 4/3rds system, led by Olympus and the Panasonic-Leica team is pumping out these beautiful little gems of fast, light lenses left and right. But none of their cameras seemed too tempting to me, largely because of the relatively high levels of noise of their sensors.

Enter the E-M5. I’ve been using it for the past few weeks in a mix of my personal life — hanging out with friends and family as I travel between jobs — and on wedding days and portrait shoots when appropriate. And even in casual snapshots it impresses me. Take this photo (with the 25mm f/1.4)…

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Not too bad … a little noisy but pretty clear, especially since it was taken in very warm light. Whaddaya think it was shot at? ISO 800 maybe? No. ISO 8000.

While this is a particularly good example, it’s clear that this sensor is a game-changer for micro 4/3ds the same way that the Nikon D3 solved Nikon’s noise problem back in 2007. Even if it was in a mediocre camera these results would be turning heads.

Luckily, the E-M5 is far from a mediocre camera. After all, the Fuji X1 Pro also has extremely good high-ISO quality and a really nice and growing lens line-up — but it’s also a bit quirky, especially in the autofocus department. The photo above was taken at EV 0.6, well below candlelight, and the AF system had no problem at all. For snapshots like this, with the increased depth-of-field of the smaller sensor, even face-detect autofocus works surprisingly well even at f/1.4. Continuous tracking isn’t nearly as good as on a phase-detect autofocus DSLR system, but otherwise this is a camera that works with you to take in-focus photos at a moment’s notice, not against you. Combine that with a body that’s smaller than it looks in photos and a very quiet shutter, and you have a camera that’s a dream for catching moments without calling attention to yourself:

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The AF is so good that I decided to send the 25mm f/0.95 back and get the 25mm f/1.4. For a camera I use mostly casually, I’d rather have the speed of photo acquisition over the stop of light.

Other things I love:

A great EVF: I am a huge fan of EVFs (electronic viewfinders). I keep my X100 in EVF mode about 98 percent of the time, and cannot wait for professional DSLRs that have a similar EVF option. Once the refresh rate is negligible it solves one of the biggest technical problems in photography — as cameras get better and better, the lagging factor is the human eye. The E-M5 can see in the dark better than I can, especially with the 25mm f/0.95 mounted. When I dial in the white balance, I can walk around the darkest of wedding receptions and through the EVF it looks like daylight. I can see the nuances of expressions better than I can just walking around. The EVF introduces a tiny bit of extra delay, just enough that it takes getting used to but not so much that you can’t get used to it.

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E-M5 with 25mm f/0.95

An EVF also allows you to see the effects of shooting at exposure settings that differ from the normal ambient reading. You can actually see a silhouette or high-key effect before you shoot it, and the position of the exposure compensation dial makes this extremely easy to do in aperture mode, making sure you have the exact exposure you want before taking the shot.

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As a not inconsiderable bonus to people like me who’d like to do this for decades to come, it also means you can shoot backlit into the sun — silhouette or not — without burning holes in your retinas.

•The unobtrusiveness: When I started mixing it in for part of the wedding day, I thought I would attract more attention than normal simply for the “Uh … why is your photographer using such a tiny camera?” factor. But given its unassuming profile and a shutter than is almost inaudible in a room with normal conversation in the background, I noticed people immediately paying less attention to me. As a photojournalist, this is invaluable, allowing me to get real emotions and unforced moments even from very close to my subject:

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•Great colors: This is actually a great JPG camera. For almost all of these shots, using the RAW was more a matter of general principle than something I felt the files desperately needed. Throw in an Eye-Fi card, and you have a camera that can output very good photos straight to the Web. There are also lots of “art filters,” but those aren’t really my scene, man.

•Perhaps the best in-camera image stabilization of any camera, anywhere. I’m so used to not having this (and shooting moving people) that I haven’t used it much, but expect me to talk about it more as I review m4/3ds telephoto lenses.

The back screen pops out for off-angle review, but still feels sturdy. So sturdy that I didn’t even realize it popped out until I read the manual. Good when you need it, and not flimsy the rest of the time.

Anything I didn’t like?

The RAW isn’t raw: Like a number of recent RAW-using point-and-shoots, Adobe seems to have partnered with the camera-maker to automatically hide some of the worse defects of the lenses. I really like the sharp, speedy, and light 12mm, but it definitely has barrel distortion, and Lightroom corrects this without even letting you know it did. Here’s the same file processed by Lightroom on the left and Capture One (which shows the original distortion) on the right. This is a worst-case scenario for barrel distortion, but for other scenes I’d like to be able to choose how much I want to correct:

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•The menus are a bit wonky: There is a very handy Info menu overlay that allows you to quickly change common settings, but the way you interact with it isn’t completely user-friendly — including having to press different buttons to do the same thing depending on which camera mode you’re in when you call up the menu. I’ve definitely spent more time accidentally turning the interface on and off than skillfully navigating it, and camera menus are basically my first language. More casual users may be stymied for a good while before they get used to it.

•Battery life is OK, but way less than my other DSLRs. This is a case of me being spoiled by big honking batteries. But especially if you like to use the Live View, stock up on extras.

•A built-in flash would have been nice: I never use it for professional stuff, but this is also a very handy personal camera in between serious work. Sure I can mount an SB-900 on it and shoot manually, but that kind of defeats the whole portability thing.

These are fairly niggling details, though, and I know I’m going to continue to love this bad boy. Expect more micro-4/3rds lens reviews to come!

Some more photos with the E-M5:

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Buy it here!

The Garrison wedding: Uvinie and Gniewko

Even after more than 250 weddings, I’ve had surprisingly few repeats of couples’ name combinations … but I could probably do a million more without getting another Uvinie and Gniewko.

Their day itself was just as unique, blending together Sri Lankan, Polish, and modern American traditions surprisingly seamlessly. Gniewko himself drew all the table numbers with intricate designs, he followed the Buddhist drummers perfectly, and Uvinie was perfectly willing to play the Polish game of “vodka or water?” (The glasses are switched randomly, and the one who gets the vodka supposedly has the upper hand in the relationship. Or at least looser dance moves at the reception.)

Every time I shoot along the Hudson it seems like the weather does crazy things — wind or cold or searing heat. We started with a taste of Sri Lanka with the blistering weather, but as it cooled it changed into a sunset so dramatic that the entire reception stopped to gawk at it. I had to tone down most of the images of it, because out-of-camera the colors looked too brilliant to be believable. If anyone out there is planning a wedding at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, I think I’m properly trained for it now.

Thanks to Jashim Jalal, who did a fantastic job helping me out.