When Olympus asked if I’d like to have a test of their new OM-D E-M5 I jumped at the chance. Being a fan of the Micro 4/3rds camera standard I just had to see what Olympus were offering in this very retro analogue styled camera.
I was surprised by a few things. Build quality being top of the list. I expected a very plastic feel to the camera but was pleasantly surprised by the robust and well thought out design and build quality. Proper big camera feel but in a much smaller format. Fitted with the optional grip the camera not only looks like a baby full bodied DLSR but it also feels a lot like one. It is quite a good handful compared to the Panasonic GX1 or the Olympus PEN models.
The camera setup I tested was the hit version that included a 12-50mm zoom lens. Fitted with power zoom for video work and manual zoom for photography this lens is a good ‘all-round’ lens but it does feel and look very large on the camera. With the maximum aperture of F3.5-6.3 it is certainly no stunner in the light catching capabilities. This lack of large aperture on an already small sensor camera also makes it very hard to play too much with depth of field. Zoomed to 50mm and F6.3 you really need to push the ISO’s up pretty high to get a stable shot indoors. Although the camera’s built in Image stabilizer works well, it won’t make your subject stand still. I much prefer using primes on these small cameras. Both the Panasonic 20mm 1.7 and the Olympus 45mm 1.8 are 2 of the best lenses I own. And that is saying something if I glance over to the case of expensive DSLR lenses sitting next to me.
Button and controls:
All pretty intuitive for anyone used to a DLSR or similar serious small format camera. The ‘play’ and ‘fn1’ buttons are a little fiddly and plastic though compared to the rest of the controls. Nice big dials for aperture and shutter adjustment felt great to use. very grown-up for a small camera. It was great to see the full control relayed onto the optional grip too. By comparison I find the small dial on the rear of GX1 very fiddly, especially with cold hands.
I liked the Electronic viewfinder on the OM-D. The very fact that it is built-in puts it in a league above the Panasonic GX1 and it’s optional big-black-lump. Saying that though, the LVF2 that Panasonic developed for the GX1 previews and refreshes faster than the OM-D. So although integrated, it does take 2nd place in performance. The OM-D offers an auto eye detection on the EVF, it can be set to switch the display from the camera LCD to EVF if it detects your eye coming close to the viewfinder. This was very handy but I did find it a little frustrating when I selected an AF area on the touchscreen, lifted the camera to my eye and discovered that my nose had moved the AF point before the EVF took over from the LCD. Big nose or moving too fast? Either way it caught me out a few times.
Limited touch screen capability might be a problem to some. To me it was just right. I turn off all the bells and whistles in the GX1 touchscreen and simply use it to set the AF points if shooting without the LVF. The OM-D’s screen also tilts up and down. This is a winner in my books. Covert street shots are easy like this. Overhead shots in crowds have never been easier. Lovely crisp and rich colours make this screen a pleasure to use.
The usual first question, ‘yes, but what’s it like at high ISO?’ No surprises in the high ISO range. You’re going to be hard pushed to find a bad performer in any camera nowadays. Clean images can be expected right up into the 1000’s. Not a problem in 2012 and certainly not on this camera. Compared to the GX1? You’re really going to have to get pixel peeping to spot any difference. I’m sure the tech reviews will do so but to me, in general use. <shrug> It’s all good.
Throw a spare one in the bag or load a spare into the grip and you’ve a whole day shooting in there, no problem.
Better than expected battery life but no wow on long life either. Olympus have a good balance there.
The OM-D is noisy. More precisely it constantly makes a whirring noise. Without searching online, it sounds very much like the image stabilizer whirring away inside the body. Even when I switched off the stabilization the whirring continued though. If it is the stabilizer, and when I turn it off, I want it off and silent. That must have a detrimental effect on the battery life?
Shutter noise is surprisingly subdued compared to the GX1, a much softer sound comes with each shot. Very handy for discrete candid shooting.
No real problems here as long as there is enough light. The lighting fast AF is affected quite a lot in low light situations. The normally very accurate focusing did give a fair few false focus locks indoors and in low light shooting. I just had to be more careful really and give the AF a chance sometimes. Handing a camera that feels like a small DSLR can be deceptive in areas like this. Not all the DSLR functionality is or can be carried over to this format.
I did find the AF tracking a little lax too but again, I was probably expecting too much from that.
I didn’t set out to compare the OM-D to the GX1 but it is hard not to. I know a lot of people are waiting for me to say buy one or the other. That’s not going to happen. Both cameras are strong at what they do, they are both batting in the same league. Both using the same system format and both going for the same target audience. Neither camera is perfect, both have their own qualities and quirks. I like the simple yet comprehensive controls on the GX1 but I like the in-the-hand feel of the OM-D. I love the fact the OM-D has a built in EVF but to me, the quality of image in the Panasonic LVF2 wins. The GX1 has no tilting screen, OM-D does. GX1 has a simple and efficient menu structure, the OM-D is a little more complex.
You can see where I’m going with this. For one plus on one camera, there is a plus to compete on the other. From the feedback I’ve had and heard from people, a huge part of the decision making is going to be made on looks. The GX1 with the LVF2 stuck on top does look a little odd. The OM-D looks finished and refined. In a professional situation, where either of these cameras can operate, looks are very important. Or rather, client perception is important. Standing in front of a group at a wedding for example: I can’t permit myself to hold out a camera at arms length and look like I’m being serious. I can inject humour into the situation and get away with it but still the feedback from the crowd is that the camera makes me look like an ‘Uncle Bob’ with a point and shoot. The OM-D on the other hand can provoke discussion with the crowd. It looks like an old OM analogue camera, classy and stylish, but cuter. Instant smile, instant success.
The style comes at a premium though. The OM-D does cost a fair wedge more than the GX1 with optional LVF2. Is it worth the premium? on features and performance. No. On looks, yes. Then again, the blocky nature of the GX1 design stealthily disguises the fact that it too can produce killer images.
Pretty much the bottom line when it comes to anyone moving from or adding to their DSLR arsenal…. Everyone is concerned with the final image quality.
Neither the GX1 or the OM-D are going to disappoint. I shoot the GX1 predominantly in Black and White with a 1:1 crop factor. Just because I want to differentiate the images I make with the micro 4/3rds from the DSLR images I make. Moreover, I usually just end up using the B&W square JPG’s as the come out of the camera.
Used ‘properly’ both cameras can shoot RAW files that can be edited alongside DSLR images. There is a difference between the species, but honestly, it is very small.
My bottom line is: (and I stress this as a very personal and gut feeling that I get from these 2 cameras)
When shooting with the OM-D I think ‘wow, these images are amazing’
When I get the images onto the computer I think, ‘hmm, I thought these were better’
When shooting with the GX1 I think, ‘ok, that’s not bad’
When I get the images onto the computer I think ‘wow, these look better than I thought’