Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 @ f/7.1, 1/100s, ISO 200
Prejudice. We all suffer from it, whether we like to admit it or not. For years I've been prejudiced against micro-4/3 cameras. Yep, I said it.
It's a curious thing that I should love small, mirrorless cameras yet dislike the original format that launched this now-popular segment of cameras, but that's the thing about prejudices, they're mostly irrational. That's not to say I didn't have real issues with the format, namely the lack of primes and a sensor that performed poorly in low light, not to mention I didn't gel with the Panasonic's G series DSLR-like bodies, and those were the only options available to someone like me who likes integrated EVFs. But things have changed over the past year with Panasonic and Olympus opening up the prime lens tap, and Panasonic finally producing a 4/3 sensor that didn't suck in low light. I stood my ground, though, because I didn't like any of the bodies, remember? Then Olympus had to go an release the E-M5
. Damn those Olympusians! Now I had no option but to put my prejudices aside and try this camera out. Lucky for me, Amin was kind enough to get me a review unit from B&H, and here you'll read my thoughts on it.
The camera came with the new weather-sealed kit lens, 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3, and I also received a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 so I could compare with previous cameras I had used this prime lens with.
All images you will see in this review have been shot in RAW and processed manually in Adobe ACR 5.6. None of them are straight from the camera, as that's not how I make my photographs. If you want in-depth analysis of out-of-camera JPEGs, there are other places to read about that. Instead, I report here on my experiences producing personal work with the E-M5, which I treated as if it were my own camera for the 4 weeks I had it. Whenever I went out photographing my aim was to take real photos, though some test photos did creep in. I used no other camera during this time and the E-M5 became my "main camera" for a month. That's not to say all the photos I took were amazing, but my aim was to take photos I'd be happy with.
I apologise in advance for mentioning my Samsung NX10
so often, but it's been my workhorse street photography camera for the past year and is my reference right now when using a new camera that might take its place on my shelf and in my pocket.
I had looked at lots
of photos of the Olympus E-M5
online, but I was still shocked by how small it was when I took it out of the box. It feels sturdy and comfortable to hold, with the rear thumb-grip helping stability and giving a sense of safety (though it comes at a price, see next section). Weight wise, it allows me to carry it with a wrist strap, which is what I prefer, so excellent news for me. The SD card cover is sturdy and won't open accidentally despite lying beneath your right hand. The battery compartment also locks securely. What seems a bit flimsy is the rubber cover for the USB and micro-HDMI ports (on the left side of the camera) and it feels out of place with the rest of the well-put-together body. The much maligned EVF hump (which houses the IBIS sensors) doesn't look so big or protruding in person.
Let me preface my following statement by letting you know that my hands are large enough to just about
palm a basketball, so they're probably on the larger side of average.
I found the E-M5 to be too small. Please put the pitchforks down and take two steps back; thank you. What can I say? I kept thinking that a little bit more height and width (not depth) would help it fit my hand better. But my worst issue was the thumb grip. I thought it was an excellent idea when I first saw it in photos (and I know Leica shooters spend good money for a Thumbs Up
) but when I set the custom Fn1 button to AF I found I couldn't press it comfortably because the thumb grip got in the way. To press it I had to arch my thumb, thus losing stability in my grip as I had to change it in order to do this; it also meant I couldn't press the button properly if I was shooting single handed. I was so frustrated that after a week of trying to work through the issue I gave up moved AF to the shutter release button. So you understand how much this annoyed me, I'll tell you that one of the features that sold me on the E-M5
was that I could assign AF to a button I could operate with my thumb, which is how I've shot my DSLR for years (and many mirrorless cameras don't let you do this).
Two horizontal control wheels on a compact mirrorless camera? Sweet! Makes shooting in M mode a pleasure instead of a hassle. What I found strange was that the rear wheel was carved from a solid block of metal (Magnesium?) while the front one, surrounding the the shutter release was plastic. It's like your thumb is driving a Mercedes while your index finger is driving a Yugo. Nevertheless, both offered reasonably solid clicks and I didn't have issues with inadvertently changed settings. The (plastic) shutter release button had an adequate feel; nothing more, nothing less.
Back to the control wheels; it's nice that their functions could be customised a bit as that meant that in S and A modes one of them served me as EV comp, which I love. It's also possible to set the direction in which the controls must turn in order to increase/decrease a setting's value (clockwise or counter clockwise); unfortunately, this cannot be done for each control individually, so I found that if the rear wheel turned the way I liked it to increase value, the front wheel turned the wrong way (for me). It sounds silly but this left me disorientated the whole time I used the camera. I strongly urge Olympus to allow setting each control wheel individually, which wouldn't add more than a few lines of code to the firmware while adding huge versatility to the camera.
Now we come to the buttons, which have received much criticism for their mushy feel. I agree that a camera like this deserves better feeling buttons, and weather-sealing isn't an excuse because I've used plenty of cameras with weather-sealing that had nice, clicky buttons. But even more than the mushiness I was annoyed by the small size of the Play and Fn1 buttons, and their bad (for me) locations above the thumb grip. The Play button isn't a big deal, as you don't use it during shooting, but the Fn1 button was relegated to some useless, 2nd grade function as it was useless to me for any type of shooting function. The rear 4-way and surrounding buttons are also small, but given I used them with the camera away from my face it didn't matter so much. That said, had the 4-way arrow buttons been easier to use with the camera to my eye, I would have used the option to move focus point a lot more; as it was, I only changed focus point while shooting when I was using the rear screen. The Rec and Fn1 buttons were fine and easy to use.
Finally, the Mode dial is another solid chunk of metal and a please to use.
There are lots
of them, and I found myself forgetting where many of the settings were. Not necessarily a problem because it's much easier to use the rear screen, where the most used settings show up in a grid; as the screen is tactile, selection is made even quicker by the press of a button on your setting of choice.
Olympus promises 13 stops of image stabilisation, or is it 9? I stopped caring about the numbers promised by any brand because reality never lives up those numbers. From my use (and without any rigorous testing, mind you) I found I consistently got 3 stops under 100mm-equiv. and 2 stops above. If I was especially careful I could squeeze out another stop. Could I tell the difference between other image stabilisation systems and Olympus's new 5-axis IBIS? Hmmm... not really. I find a consistent 3 stops of stabilisation is very good and I was happy to have it in many situations.
Third Party Lenses
Focal 135mm f/2.8 @ f/4, 1/1600s, ISO 200
I was so sure I'd love this camera that I'd bought a Pentax-to-m4/3 adapter ahead of the E-M5
arriving. I tested a few of my lenses in my office, but ended up taking only 2 on photographic outings: a Tokina 400mm f/5.6 and a Focal 135mm f/2.8, both old, manual focus glass. Let me tell you the best thing about using old, long lenses on this camera: IBIS. I use old lenses on my NX10 often, but manual focusing is a pain for anything other that stationary subjects. IBIS gives you a stabilised image in the viewfinder (because it's an EVF), making manual focusing so much easier!
If you use longish, manual focus lenses often, this alone could be a reason to buy the E-M5. With the image stabilised (and even at 400mm the stabilisation was helpful) I never found a need to use the image magnification for focusing. If Olympus were to add focus-peaking to the E-M5, it would become a killer manual focus camera.
A gripe: You enter the lens's focal length into the IBIS menu, but this value doesn't get written into the EXIF data. Very annoying if you use a variety of manual lenses and would like to later identify pictures taken with them by the focal length. It would cost Olympus nothing to include the focal length in the EXIF data.
Tokina 400mm f/5.6 @ f/8, 1/320s, ISO 500 (handheld!)
Wow, wow, wow. Lightning fast. Can't-believe-it's-not-phase-detect fast. Drop-your-pants-and-pick-them-up-again fast. Designed-by-the-roadrunner fast.
That's with the kit lens, anyway. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 was a bit sluggish. With either lens it was also accurate; there's no point in having really fast AF if the picture ends up out of focus, right? Definitely not the case with the E-M5
Now for the bad: Focus tracking. I've yet to use a contrast-detect AF camera that tracks well. I tried the E-M5 a couple of times, saw how unreliable it was, and never went back. Luckily, I rarely need focus tracking, but if you do, take my words into account.
12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 Lens
This article isn't meant to be a lens test, but I thought I should give you my opinion of this new kit lens. First of all, the Olympus 12-50mm lens
is a lot smaller than it looks in pictures, which unlike for the camera body, is a good thing. It's a light lens and is easy to carry in a jacket pocket. I didn't care much for the motorised zoom so I used it manually, which had a good feel. Lens flare was not an issue and appeared only occasionally in extreme cases. Manual focusing was OK; par for the course with focus-by-wire. The lens doesn't change length when zooming or focusing. As for IQ, I was happy with the results I got. If you want corner sharpness comparison at various apertures, there are other websites for that. All I can tell you is that I didn't find any glaring issues with the images I made using this lens, and I did use it quite a lot (despite me being more of a prime lens guy) because the focal length range is very useful. At the long end the maximum aperture is f/6.3, which some have criticised, but it's just 1/3 of a stop slower than f/5.6 and it was never an issue for me.
I won't get into discussions about the "loss" of DoF; if you're buying into the 4/3 system, you know what you're getting into. I believe razor thin DoF is mostly used by photographers who don't know how to shoot properly and I don't remember wishing I had less
DoF while using this lens. Thin DoF is a tool, not a style.
I apologise for not having more to say about this lens, but I'm not as bothered about lenses
as other people are. It's a great all-around optic and it's weather-sealed; whether it's worth the asking price will depend on each person's taste and pocket. All I can say is that I'd be happy to use it as my walk-around lens when in a zoom mood.
Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 @ 50mm, f/6.3, 1/100s, ISO 2000
I was trying to remember the Panasonic's G2 EVF, which is the last micro 4/3 EVF I used, but that was a few years ago. The EVF looked nice, big and refreshed quickly. I compared it with the EVF in my Samsung NX10 and it beat it clearly in clarity and when panning. It was also miles ahead in low light; the E-M5
's EVF would still be crisp while the NX10's would be coarse and slow. As for the image size, they were similar, which is to say it's slightly larger than what you get with most consumer-grade APS-C DSLRs.
Those with glasses should be able to use this EVF without too many problems. One issue I did have was with the very sensitive eye-detector; when shooting from the waist, using my finger to trigger the shutter via the rear screen, the screen would turn off if my finger wandered towards the right of center and towards the top of the frame. Knowing this, I couldn't have my finger hovering over the screen when my subject was in that area of the frame.
Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 @ 50mm, f/6.3, 1/20s, ISO 25,600
This is far and away the best 4/3 sensor I've used (note I haven't tried the latest Panasonic G or GH sensors). It's the first time I've shot a micro 4/3 camera that I wasn't afraid to use it in low light or high ISO. No, it's not comparable to a Nikon D4, but it's damn good given the size of the sensor. As usual, RAW gives you better IQ at high ISO, but I couldn't see major differences when shooting JPEG below ISO 3200, and the JPEGs look as gorgeous as only Olympus JPEGs can. If I were a colour shooter, I'd consider switching to JPEG for daylight shooting.
Dynamic range appears good too, though I never found DR to be an issue with any of the other micro 4/3 cameras I've tested. Below is a beach scene, which I always find useful for DR tests as it includes bright sand, bright-to-midtone sky and dark sea; in this case I even managed to get a white dress, whose highlights were well preserved. I did no recovery or anything special to this image, simply applying my "colour image" ACR preset; image is as metered (Pattern metering) by the camera (no EV comp), which did a good job of balancing the scene.
Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 @ 50mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 200
The RAW files are better than previous micro 4/3 cameras I've tested, but aren't as malleable as those of, say, the Pentax K-5, which uses Sony's magic 16MP CMOS sensor, but that's an unfair comparison. At lowish ISO (below 800) you can extract detail from shadows whithout much noise penalty, but shooting above ISO 3200 I found I needed to get the exposure bang on because bringing up shadows would create some nasty noise. Below is an example of a photo I underexposed and then tried to recover in post. Even scaled down to web size the noise in the lady's face and legs is apparent.
Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 @ 50mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 12,800
There really isn't much more I can say, sorry! Just search Flickr for examples and see for yourself (or go to the usual suspects to see 100% crops at all ISO settings). It's simply that this camera isn't held back by lousy IQ, quite the contrary!
I normally wouldn't have a section just for this, but after reading so many superlative comments regarding the beautiful sound of the E-M5
's shutter, I had high expectations. And I was let down. I don't like the shutter sound, plain and simple. It's reasonably quiet, which is good for street photography, but there's nothing attractive about it to my ears. What shutter sound do I find attractive? That of my Samsung NX10. I've described it in the past as a soft stick of butter being hit by a tennis racquet. Your mileage may vary.
Shooting with the E-M5 in the Real World
First thing you need to do when you get the camera is read DPR's User Guide: Getting the most out of the Olympus E-M5
. I wasted almost an hour of my life fighting against the E-M5 because I hadn't read it. After reading it, we got along just fine. I don't understand why the camera comes set up the way it does from the factory.
Second thing you need to do is not panic at the hissing sound emanating from the camera. I opened the box up in my quiet office at home, late at night, and the camera sounded like it had a gas leak. You can't hear it in the street, or even in an ordinary work environment, so some owners may not have noticed it. I've read that it has to do with the IBIS, but you'll hear it whether stabilisation is on or off.
Once the camera was set up how I wanted it (well, not quite, remember the Fn1 button issue discussed above) I enjoyed shooting with it a lot. I practice about 50/50 viewfinder/rear-screen shooting, and I found both equally good. The E-M5
's tilting rear screen, however, offered a new possibility that my NX10 doesn't, and that's waist level shooting. Street photography is what I do most, and I found it a joy to walk around the camera at my belly, stopping every now and again to peer down at the screen and take a shot, usually by pressing my finger on the part of the frame I wanted to be in focus. It couldn't be easier, nor more discreet. This alone could be a reason to buy this camera. But speaking of discreet, one problem I ran into was that people would see the camera, and find it attractive enough to stare at it and even come up to ask me about it. The conversation usually started with "is that a film camera...?" Most other mirrorless cameras I've used say "point-and-shoot" to the casual observer, but the E-M5 seemed to say "real camera".
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 @ f/2, 1/200s, ISO 200
Its blazing fast AF with the kit lens made catching the moment easier, and points towards a bright future for contrast-detect AF. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 was slower to focus, and I sometimes found myself getting impatient; in just a few short days I had been spoiled by the kit lens! I've read Olympus's new primes all focus quickly and I wonder if the older primes (from Olympus or Panasonic) can be sped up through firmware or if a lens redesign is needed. If they can get all their older micro 4/3 lenses to focus as fast as the new kit lens, it will be a huge selling point for them.
As with every camera I've used, I find the best way to shoot is by having the camera set up to minimise any access to menus. The Fn2 button accessed ISO; the Rec button switched between manual and autofocus. The Fn1 button did nothing. Shooting in either Av or Tv I had the front control wheel set for EV comp, and this set up got me 99.9% of my shots. I can't stress how useful two control wheels are.
The mushy buttons were a bit annoying, but I eventually stopped noticing. Luckily, the shutter release isn't mushy. Being Summer, I didn't get to try it out in heavy rain, but I did endure a brief Summer shower and had no issues beyond getting drops on the front lens element. A lens hood would have resolved that issue...except Olympus doesn't include one in the box. Shame on you Olympus.
One thing I can't comment much on is shooting speed; I'm a one frame kinda guy, not a machine gunner. The E-M5 wasn't as fast as most DSLRs when flushing files to the card, but it wasn't so slow that it got in my way.
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 @ f/4.5, 1/4000s, ISO 200
Olympus have a winner here. With the E-M5
they've managed to address most of the complaints photographers had of their cameras: No integrated EVF, slow AF, weak at high ISO, only 12MP sensor, no high-end body, no weather-sealing... Of course, haters will complain the price is steep ($1,000 body only at time of writing), but I think it's reasonable, considering what you get, and that the camera will probably last you many years. Current sales numbers tell me many photographers agree with my assessment, and I hope this encourages Olympus to keep investing into this line of advanced cameras. I already hear rumours there's a more advanced camera in the works, which makes me wonder what more they can offer that the E-M5 doesn't...maybe the buttons aren't mushy?
The question you'll want to ask me is whether I've decided to buy an E-M5 myself or not. The answer is "no". How can I praise a camera and yet not buy it? At the end of the day (or rather, the month) I just couldn't make myself comfortable with it. If my hands were smaller or if the thumb grip and rear buttons were set up differently, I'd reconsider my decision, but as it stands my Samsung NX10 is so much more comfortable. I am annoyed by this because I really thought the E-M5 was the street camera I'd been waiting years for, but that doesn't mean it won't be the camera you
have been waiting years for. Just make sure you hold it before buying!
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 @ f/7.1, 1/160s, ISO 200
- Can set Auto ISO in M mode.
- Excellent IQ, even at high ISO
- Extremely fast AF with kit lens
- AF + shutter release using tactile screen
- Quick settings access through rear screen very helpful
- Highly customisable controls and buttons
- EVF eye sensor is way too sensitive.
- Camera body might be too small for some hands
- AF will be slow with some older lenses
- Low hissing sound when camera is on.
- Buffer could clear faster
- ON/OFF switch in inconvenient place
- Focus tracking is unreliable
is a scientist by day, which is why he tries to keep his photography passion as non-technical as possible. Having attempted almost every genre, he has settled on Street Photography as it provides a mixture of sleuthing, gymnastics, law, psychology and random smiling that keeps him entertained. While mostly a B&W artist, he occasionally uses colour, if nothing else to make sure his camera still works properly.
Miserere's photography can be seen at World of Miserere
. He is also founder and editor of Enticing the Light
, a Photography website dedicated to interviews, opinions, reviews, news and more, all of it doused with good humour. He also wrote a great review of the Ricoh GXR
for our sister site SeriousCompacts. For the last few years Miserere has lived just outside Boston, Massachusetts (USA).