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.

Coming soon: Uvinie and Gniewko

If I had a nickel for every Sri Lankan/Polish union I’ve seen… I’d have a nickel.

Since people have asked, we are on the final round of Brenizer Method contest judging … but that requires three extremely busy photographer teams in very different time zones to be available at the same time as we hash it out. We’re working on it, and can’t wait to show the results.

Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens: 70-image “Brenizer method” panorama with the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G (equivalent of 25mm f/0.4 according to Brett’s calculator)

Boston Public Library Wedding: Erika and Chip Tear Up the Place

You may remember Erika and Chip from their first wedding, marred by Hurricane Irene.

Well, they gave it another go at the Boston Public Library, and it was fantastic.

No Photoshop compositing here. Normally I would enjoy any debates on this, but my mother is a super-powered librarian, so I’ll note that I visualized this shot the second I walked into the reading room, and had my second Jason Kan go to Barnes and Nobles and buy some books we could use for this.

Lens: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G
Camera: Nikon D3s

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Wedding, Kansas City: Asma and Mohsin

As a New Yorker, if I had to picture a Kansas City wedding, I’d likely list through “barbecue catering” and “blues band” long before hitting “Pakistani Muslim.” But one of the best things about this job are the constant surprises, and also working with clients as gracious and accommodating as Asma and Mohsin, and their families. It’s one thing to make sure your wedding photographer gets fed, and quite another to demand they get an amazing home-cooked meal before taking a photo. Despite the bistering heat of a Kansas City summer, it was a total pleasure.

The wedding was a two-day affair, with the mendhi at a conference center and the wedding reception at the gorgeous Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In between were a thousand great moments between Asma and Mohsin’s loved ones, the increasingly groan-worthy jokes of Asma’s brother as emcee, and enough comments about Mohsin’s fanaticism for typography that I wish I could give them their own special font for this post.

The Strength of Film

I shoot a high volume and am always trying to turn things around as quickly as I can, so I’ve been on the digital train since the bad old days of terrible color, low resolution, and insanely high prices. Digital has come a long way and turned film into a niche market … but it’s a beautiful niche.

dSLRs have come a long way with dynamic range in particular — the D800 is startlingly good, in particular. But when you reach the very ends of it, you’ll always come down to the ones and zeroes that make for harsh roll-offs. So, when I was faced with the extreme contrast of this scene with Kelsie — direct Boise sun beating on the light sand with her face in reflected light and the background in shade — I turned to film, with the Mamiya 645 and the 80mm f/1.9. The sand is overexposed by more than two stops, but film retains the information.

This is as good as I could get the scene with the D3s:

Not horrible, but the highlights are still garish. The D3s (and the D800 even more) keeps a remarkable amount of dynamic range in the shadows, so if I’d really wanted to get the absolute best out of it, I would have exposed for the highlights, underexposing her face by as much as three stops, and then dodging it back in post (*very* different than the optimal way to shoot the scene in film). But in a scene like this, that would take a lot of work to make it look right, while film nailed it in one shot.

Film is on a bit of a downward spiral — getting more and more expensive as less and less people use it, which causes even less people to use it, which makes it more expensive — but I do hope the niche stays more active than, say daguerreotype enthusiasts.

(More Kelsie — showing off the strengths of digital — here)

Long Island Aquarium Wedding: Andrea and Richard

This was not your normal wedding. First of all, unless you’re my Mom, Andrea has probably been following my work longer than you have. She first asked me to photograph this wedding years ago. And this was an official, “Are you free that weekend?” booking, not the fairly-common compliment of “I want you to photograph my wedding someday … now I just have to meet someone I like!”

So yes, it’s a compliment that after years of searching and planning, they never changed their mind about me having to document the day. But there’s also something unique about them simply knowing, years before they wanted to get married, that they would be together forever and this was the sort of way they would celebrate it.

Rogue fish, glasses flourished before a first kiss … even a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, it was geeky and fun and uniquely them throughout. Most impressive to me? Those flowers below … they’re not flowers. They’re incredibly delicate ceramic clay, both the bouquet and the boutonniere. Beautiful.

Thanks again to Valerie Sebestyen for helping me on this day in her extremely productive stint as an intern.

Battery Gardens wedding: Marisa and Joe

Marisa and Joe’s Battery Gardens wedding was awesome … a little too awesome.

OK, I’m kidding, there’s no such thing. But really, weddings like these make the rest of human experience look like it needs to try a little harder. Where is the hysterical laughter, the gorgeous dresses, the grandmothers lifted over heads, on a random Tuesday? Where are the private water taxis touring Brooklyn, the breakdance fights, the viral videos recorded on a streetcar?

I mean, Marisa made Call Me Maybe cool, for pete’s sake (and she stuck it in my head forevermore.) They took reception karaoke — usually a dance-floor killer — and made it into an incredibly raucous battle between bride and groom. Incredible.

Life, you need to work a little harder to live up to Joe and Marisa’s wedding.

Thanks again to Valerie Sebestyen for being a great help at this wedding — as a veteran of my workshops, she even managed a few great “Brenizer method” shots of the guys. (I don’t really walk around saying “I have a method,” so most of my couples have no idea about it other than liking the photos from it … but Joe is all about it.)

Guastivino’s Wedding: Julia and Dean

I said that Danielle and Spencer’s wedding was the wildest one I’d ever been to. But what I love about NYC is that you don’t need to go around the world to find splendor and beauty, craziness and fun, when I can walk down the street to venues like Guastivino’s, the fantastic setting of Julia and Dean’s wedding. And I love that there are people like Julia, Dean, and their friends walking around this city, being all respectable and proper Manhattanites … and then, when it comes down to it, oh man, can they dance.

I had a fantastic time with Julia and Dean throughout the whole process, from the engagement shoot where he surprise-re-proposed to her (so he could “do it right” that time) to just chilling and laughing with them in the limo. (What I don’t love about NYC is that it can turn a one-mile trip to the reception into a 45-minute journey.)

It was a gorgeous and stylish day throughout, from the beginnings at the W New York Union Square to their impeccable eye for detail and jewelry (Dean is in the biz). But nothing will stand out more than the all-pervading, ligament-stretching, constant fun they all had.

Thanks again to Valerie Sebestyen for assisting!

No Rain on Their Parade

Generally when it rains on an outdoor wedding and I say “it didn’t faze them for a minute,” it’s a figure of speech. Even couples with the broadest perspective will have a minute of “Oh man, we were going to have a gorgeous outdoor wedding and now we can’t … oh well, we’ll have fun anyway.”

But Beth and Dino literally didn’t stop smiling for a second. If there were any uneasy glances at the thundering sky, any sighs, I didn’t see them. All I saw was a fantastic, hilarious wedding, the sort of day where the officiant lifts his lines straight from The Princess Bride. Brilliant.

Lens: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G
Camera: Nikon D3s

The Sky Right Now

Not Photoshopped to heck; it actually looks like that. 23 images with a new lens I’m testing for B&H (the Tamron 24-70 VC).

You can buy a print of this here. For this I recommend a wide print like the 12×24″. The watermark will not be in the printed image.

Well, hello entire world. Nice to meet you. Here’s another one for people still looking. Single image:

(buy a print here)

NYC Yale Club Wedding: Nicole and Dave

It was an absolutely gorgeous day in midtown for Nicole and Dave’s Yale Club wedding — gorgeous enough that a marching band and gang of dancers got in on the action.

Nicole’s best friend and maid-of-honor Sharrone runs wedding videography studio Fiore Films, so she had some insider help on creating an absolutely gorgeous, elegant wedding. It was the sort of day where laughter flows into crying and back again, where hugs threaten to crack spines. The sort of day I love to document.

The reception was fantastic, largely due to the incredible performances of the Hudson Project wedding band. I can’t wait to cross their paths again.

Valerie Sebestyen was back shooting with me for this wedding, and for most of June. Always nice to bring that Oklahoma cheeriness to a Manhattan day.

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