The Olympus OM-D E-M5: 10 Months Later

Originally featured over on Michael Rammell’s blog, @ www.michaelrammell.com


All relationships start out with a honeymoon period where you can easily, and often unconsciously, forgive all those annoyances: not squeezing the toothpaste from the end of the tube, not putting the toilet seat down or the eye cup constantly falling off… That’s right. Now my honeymoon period with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is over I wanted to give another review with a bit more of a harsh and honest light being shone on this camera.

The initial review of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 was posted back in February 2014. That ‘review’ was a first impressions type post about my immediate thoughts having used the camera for a few weeks. Naturally I was excited to have my hands on a new camera. In general I was very impressed with the E-M5. In fact, that’s an understatement: I went out and bought my own after only a few weeks of having the loan camera from OlympusUK. At the time of that review there were a few quirks that sort of bothered me and upon reflection my initial excitement may have paved over those quirks a little. So I’m not going to hold back in this review. I’ll tell you about the good, the bad and the ugly. No holes barred.

One thing I would like to say before I begin though is that most of the issues are physical things, some of them practical things, but almost none of the issues I’m about to point out with the E-M5 are related to picture quality or the ability of the camera to produce photographs. Let me be clear in that respect: the E-M5 is a stunning camera. I talk more about the picture-making ability of the camera more towards the end of the post, but for now, here are my updated thoughts on the E-M5. The review starts off as a bit of a rant, but becomes more positive, so stick with me until the bitter end:

The Eye Cup (Olympus EP-10)

The first issue with the OM-D E-M5 is the eye cup. The reason I point this out first is because it was the first thing to go wrong. In fact there are two issue with the eye cup:

  1. It doesn’t offer enough shade to the EVF and it isn’t comfortable enough when pressed up against your face.
  2. It always falls off the camera when you take it out of the bag or even if you’re just carrying it over your shoulder. I’ll admit it took about 3 months for it to fall off for the first time, but once it was off there was no stopping it. The little piece of rubber spent more time in the bottom of my bag than it did on my camera!

So, the first of the two issues is that the eyecup just isn’t sufficient in terms of offering you shade enough to comfortably look into the viewfinder, particularly in strong light. It’s acceptable in most conditions, but in London on a sunny day I found myself having to sometimes use my left hand to actually provide additional shade. A baseball cap would have also done the trick, however I don’t look good in hats!

Secondly, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve put the camera up to my eye only to realise that the eyecup is nowhere to be found! Most of the time it had fallen off into my bag and was recovered, but on one occasion I was shooting a birthday party for a client and after packing my gear away I had to go back to search for it in the last place I remember seeing it. I found it, thankfully.

Now this may not seem like such a big deal to many, but the fact that the official replacements retail at around £25 from most places seems absurd to me. (this is for an EP-11 replacement. I’ll come to that in a minute). The fact also that it comes off of the camera so easily is crazy! You only have to look in the Olympus groups on Facebook to know that Olympus users are purchasing cheaper alternatives from Ebay in packs of 3 or 5 and using them as some sort of consumable.

Call me a fool but I’m not one to purchase cheap alternatives for a camera that I’ve spent good money on, so I personally took the plunge and purchased the EP-11 from Park Cameras. Part of the reasoning for this was that I was leading a photowalk in London on a sunny Saturday and the eye cup that comes with the E-M5 came off again but this time it broke (one of the parts that helps the eye cup clip (poorly) onto the E-M5 snapped). I used the E-M5 for much of that day without an eye cup. When we were near to Park Cameras I popped in and picked one up.

What I would say about the EP-11 that I bought though is that it’s solid, doesn’t come off and offers all the shade the factory eyecup should have offered. My advice here would be to start shipping the E-M5 with the much improved EP-11 and discontinue the EP-10. It’s problematic. You’ll have to go into a store to see why, or have a look on Google Image Search for the EP-11 to see the difference. I’ve included some shots of the EP-11 on the E-M5 right here:

(Click to enlarge)

 

The price of the replacement eyecup conveniently brings me to my next gripe:

The Lack Of Lens Hoods

Okay, so this issue isn’t actually an issue with the E-M5 as such, but it deserves a mention as I’ve spent a fair amount of money on lens hoods already, when really, given that the flange distance between the sensor and the rear element of the lens is much shorter than a DSLR, the E-M5 is quite susceptible to sun flare if you’re shooting towards the sun. The official Olympus LH-40B Lens hood for the 45mm f/1.8 for example costs £29.99! (it’s only a 7th of the price of the 45mm lens itself!) Again, like a fool in need I did actually purchase that official Olympus lens hood on the same day I picked up the replacement eyecup from Park Cameras.

(Click to enlarge)

For my 17mm f/1.8 however I picked up a lens hood from Amazon from popular cheap replica camera accessory maker JJC. I was a little reluctant as I genuinely didn’t want to ruin the actual aesthetics of the E-M5. Call me vein, but it is a marvellous looking camera and I didn’t want to put something nasty and tacky on the end of the lens. However, I was pleasantly surprised: the JJC lens hood that I purchased for a grand total of £6 is actually all-metal and has a brilliant screw mechanism that you hand tighten onto the end of the 17mm f/1.8. It actually looks better than the official Olympus lens hood. It’s superb!

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My plea here to Olympus would be to suggest that lens hoods are either included with the lenses (given that on an MFT camera they actually are more necessary than on most other cameras) or, alternatively at very least make them reasonably priced thus encouraging us to at least purchase a genuine Olympus Hood instead of looking to other companies. Lowering the price of the lens hoods may actually make Olympus more money.

I understand that the Pro lenses coming out (following the splendid 12-40 f/2.8 Pro) will have lens hoods included. Smart move Olympus, but please extend the same courtesy to the rest of the M.Zuiko lenses!

Button Size, Feel and Position

Generally speaking I’m happy with the number of buttons, their positioning and the quality of them, however, a couple of the buttons could have been more intelligently thought about to make them easier to use.

I’ve turned off the review photograph option meaning that I don’t get to see the photograph I just made automatically appear on the back of the LCD for a few seconds just after I’ve pressed the shutter. It stops me chimping and lets me continue shooting (it also saves battery). However, when I’m leading a photo walk of 5 – 15 people at one time it’s often handy to press that play button to then show others the back of my camera to demonstrate what I have just photographed. However, I find the pressing of the play button to be an adventure all in itself. It’s in the correct position – I’m happy with that – but actually pushing the button can be a challenge as the screen and the play button are so close together and the button is in a sort of crease if you like, meaning you really have to give the button a poke to get it to work. I am often found pressing it a few times before my photographs actually appear on screen.

Looking at the new EM-10 that Olympus released this year it looks as though Olympus have spotted this (or received feedback from their groups) and made amends with the release of their entry-level OM-D offering. That’s a good thing. A great thing in fact! But it would be nice for the play button to easier to press on the EM-5. It’s not a deal breaker, just a minor inconvenience. I would imagine it would be a nightmare when wearing thick gloves!

The next buttons I would pick fault with on the E-M5 are the directional buttons. Again, for me personally their positioning is fine. However, they’re a bit spongy. A bit soft. Rather than ‘clicky’ buttons they seem too soft under the finger to me. I’m being very pedantic here and I’ll be honest the only reason I realised I was harbouring a little frustration with these buttons was after using an E-M1 for a short while on a photo shoot. Which I’ll talk about shortly. I’m sometimes not sure if I’ve pressed it as I don’t get a reassuring click when I press it. Again, I’m being very, very picky here.

The mode dial does not feature a dial lock, meaning it’s easily knocked from Manual to Bulb or something different. This has been a frustration for me. The E-M1 fixes this. The E-M5 should have it too. Lets lock that mode dial into Manual mode!

The Battery Life

A problem not just with the EM-5, but with mirrorless cameras from other brands too. The battery life is like that of an iPhone: if you don’t use it it’s not awful. However, like me if you’re out all day making photographs you’re going to need some spare batteries. A few weeks back I was in London for the day only for the camera to flash the horrid ‘Camera Low On Battery’ warning sign after about 450 frames. (again, pretty much not looking at the screen). Having used DSLR’s for so long the low battery indicator is something I’ve only really ever seen a handful of times in the past few years! However, because mirrorless cameras have the EVF you need to remember that it is effectively a tiny LCD screen, so with a DSLR you’re looking through a mirror, which requires no power. This is not the case with the E-M5 and other mirrorless cameras.

One of the things I’ve done to preserve battery even more is to have the EVF auto-switch off and the live-view LCD off at all times, meaning my LCD doesn’t display anything at all unless I press play, an option button or go into a menu. The EVF is also switched off until the moment I bring the camera up to my eye. The EVF is responsive enough so that by the time it’s up at my eye it’s on and showing me the screen (I love that about the E-M5). The idea with all of this is that unless I have the camera up to my face to make a photograph it’s not doing anything.

In summary the battery life is just not good enough yet. Again, Olympus batteries are expensive, but unlike with the lens hood and the eyecup I have gone elsewhere in the market to source my spares. With the Olympus official battery being in the region of £50 and other brands being £10 it made sense to me to go for something else, particularly seeing how often I would need to change batteries.

I would reiterate though that other manufacturers mirrorless offerings are also failing on this as well. DSLR’s solved their battery issues a long time ago: I can make 1,500 shots on my Canon before needing to change batteries.

Also, the more you use the camera the better you’ll get at preserving battery: you’ll spend less time in the menus and reviewing photographs and more time shooting.

The Electronic Viewfinder

The EVF is wonderful. There is no doubt. It’s refresh rate is sublime so you simply do not get any of that lag that you had with some of the earlier mirrorless cameras from other manufacturers. What I particularly love about the viewfinder is the information overlay you can have – the live histogram, live shadow and highlight clipping and more. And of course the what you see is what you get feel. It just makes sense. Going back to a DSLR pentaprism viewfinder now feels odd to me! But, again, having seen the viewfinder in the X-T1 from Fuji and the Olympus EM-1 I am left with EVFE – Electronic View Finder Envy! I do love the EVF on the EM-5, it’s excellent, but compared to the E-M1 I feel very much like that’s how it should be. It’s perhaps a little unfair of me to say that I prefer the EVF of another camera and mention that in this review, but the reason I have to mention this is because the EVF in the E-M5 just isn’t quite as good as those others. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, in fact it’s excellent. But this is reason I am going against what I said in my initial review of the E-M5 and will be upgrading to the E-M1 in a few weeks time from now. (Again, we’ll come to the E-M1 in the summary)

The In-Body 5-axis Stabilisation

The stabilisation in the Olympus was what sealed the deal for me. It pushed me from ‘Mmmmm’ to ‘Oh Wow’. Nothing has changed. The stabilisation in this camera is immense. You may have heard others mentioning the stabilisation before, but you have to feel it and see it to believe it.

DSLR manufacturers have in the past tried to implement in-body stabilisation, but without any great degree of success. Olympus have however worked their magic and put together a stabilisation system that doesn’t just work, I’d say it’s as effective as the IS in my Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM II (£1,600 worth of lens!).

But the benefits of in-body stabilisation don’t stop there. Of course, having this feature built into the body, rather than into the lens, means that the lenses themselves need only contain glass and any focussing motors. Which means they can be tiny (really tiny!) light weight and left to do just one job: let light through the glass with as little distortion and refraction as possible. Olympus lenses win here time and time again. Thanks largely in part to the stabilisation. I can’t fault Olympus at all when it comes to lenses for the O-MD’s. Wonderful.

Lack of Focus Peaking

Again, another feature that I wish the E-M5 had is focus peaking. It may seem odd to some to need focus peaking with auto focussing lenses (that also happen to focus rocket-fast!) But, there are so many incredible lenses available for Micro Four Thirds and not all of them from Panasonic or Olympus. You can also use a wonderful series of mounts and adaptors, but as is often the case with these things you can often lose the auto focus feature. With a DSLR and someone not so seasoned in auto focussing this may be an issue, but if there was focus peaking on the EM-5 you would be able to attach a stellar piece of glass and use manual focus to ensure perfect, tac-sharp crispness.

I spent some time with Neil Buchan-Grant in early June and Neil uses a selection of older lenses (including some amazing Leica lenses) that do not feature auto focus. With focus peaking on his E-M1 that just isn’t an issue though. In fact, it revolutionises manual focus entirely! It’s a shame it doesn’t feature on the E-M5.

I’m very hopeful it will be delivered in a Firmware update.

Focus Tracking

Focus tracking is average at best, but fine in good light. As I mentioned in my initial review the E-M5 contains only contrast detect, not phase detect, meaning it looks for the contrast in a scene. Maybe I’m asking for too much from this little camera, but I would love it if the focus tracking were just that little bit better, whether that means the inclusion of phase detect I don’t know, but it would certainly go someway to plugging that now awkward gap between the E-M10 and E-M5. The E-M10 seems a capable camera, featuring many things the E-M5 does not, almost diminishing the value of the E-M5 somewhat. Then again, the E-M5 features some things that a photographer such as myself is more concerned about (weather resistance, 5 axis stabilisation). The 3 models of camera do sit nicely in a podium formation (1st: E-M1. 2nd E-M5 and 3rd: EM-10) but there are some blurring of the lines between the three cameras.

Enough of the negatives

Okay, so I’ve been pretty harsh on Olympus and the E-M5 so far, but don’t get me wrong I still adore this camera. It’s still my go to camera for most of what I shoot. That’s probably why I’ve been so critical of it. I want it to be better.

As you may have realised I haven’t really said much about the ability of the camera to make photographs in terms of the quality it’s capable of producing, but that’s mainly because I can’t fault it. Sure, the ISO is fine up to 3200 and beyond that it’s a bit of a stretch in low light conditions, but really, the files I am getting out of my E-M5 are wonderful. It’s often why I prefer to pick it up instead of the Canon. When it comes to post-processing at the end of a shoot I enjoy looking at the Olympus files much more!

Let’s talk about the technical side of things in more detail:

White Balance

With my Canon DSLR it was pretty decent at picking the correct white balance if set to auto. It’s something I did occasionally. However, if I was shooting a wedding or a portrait the AWB on the Canon 7D would sometimes be a little off the mark and choose a balance that would make the scene either rather blue or a little too warm. Whilst this isn’t really a massive issue as it can ‘Just be fixed in Photoshop’ as people like to say; it all adds time to the post processing work flow. With the E-M5 I’ve only had it off of Auto White Balance a a couple of times. It really does nail white balance 99% of the time. I don’t know what voodoo Olympus have done here, but it works better than any other system I’ve used. If you’re thinking of picking up an E-M5 rest assured white balance issues are basically a thing of the past.

Tolerant Files

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t know what it is about the files that come out of the Olympus Cameras, but they’re superb! I’ve found that they can really take a beating in Lightroom. Not that I over-process (I don’t think) but the files don’t suffer from halo’s, they can take the highlights being reduced dramatically and the shadows being given a little boost without much or any damage to the pixels at all. It seems to me that Olympus truly have found a balance between the quality of the pixels and the number of pixels with their MFT sensors.

Sharp As Hell

One thing I’ve also realised with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is that I’m able to produce photographs sharper than I ever have from a DSLR. I know this is as much to do with the lenses, but with the 45mm and the 17mm (both f/1.8) they’re incredibly sharp

Responsiveness

Again, something I was a bit concerned about when people started talking seriously about mirrorless cameras for the first time a couple of years back was how that you were forced to slow down with your shooting. With some of the Fuji’s in particular. With the Olympus it’s not a problem. The dials all spin and rotate to infinity (they’ll keep spinning and spinning) and the auto focus is incredible. I don’t feel limited, restricted or let down by how fast this camera responds at all. Now, that said slowing down can be a valuable reminder of what you’re doing, but for me I’m more concerned about missing a shot.

The only negative to speak of here is that I have found if you’re going from one extreme to the other, such as reducing shutter speed from 1/2000th to 1/80th (perhaps you’ve gone from outside to inside); rapidly rolling the dials is perfectly possible, but the on-screen reading of shutter speed is a step behind it seems. This sounds odd, so I’ll try to explain: with a Canon DSLR you can spin the wheels and dials in any direction to change the settings: aperture, ISO & shutter etc. The moment that wheel or dial rotates and clicks into the next position the corresponding setting in the Viewfinder has changed – further more no matter how fast you change settings you can see them changing instantly.

With the Olympus, if you scroll quickly you’ll find that you can go from 1/2000th to 1/500th and not see the shutter speeds in between as the camera doesn’t seem to update as quickly.

This is a minor thing, but I would just like these settings to change a bit more promptly, in-time with the clicks of the dials I’m spinning. This is me being hyper critical.

Build Quality

Something I was really impressed with first time round when I first wrote a review of this camera was the build quality. Part of me worries a little that something may eventually start to wear or tear, but so far, after heavy use in different conditions I can honestly say it is still built incredibly well.

If you’ve read my first review, or even part of it, you’ll notice that the first thing I mentioned was the build quality and that was because I was so impressed with it. Olympus have done a marvellous job of making the E-M5 feel solid and well built.

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Even today, after extensive use the camera doesn’t feel like something is about to fall off and non of the colour is wearing from any part of the camera. To give you an idea of the use I’m getting from the E-M5: I take it everywhere with me: every day to work in my bag everywhere at weekends in the camera bag or in the kids changing bag, 2 trips to Boston and back, and a number of times on the beach – sometimes hot, sometimes cold, wet and windy.

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The build quality scores a full 10 out of 10. Well done Olymus.

Black and Whites

One thing I’d like to give a special mention to is the black and white photographs I’m producing with the E-M5. I’ve already spoken about how tolerant the files are in post processing, but the files go to a whole new level in black and white. This somewhat is a repeat of the comment about the tolerance of the files, but I find the range between the blacks and the whites to be greater than what I have been used to with the Canon DSLR’s. LightRoom in particular really allows me to push and pull the files to the extremes of the blacks and whites without the subtle shades and tones in between suffering. ‘Silky’ is probably the most appropriate word that comes to mind to describe the black and whites you can produce from the E-M5.

Low Light Focussing

This has been an absolutely amazing surprise for me. Since owning the E-M5 I’ve had it with me at each and every wedding I’ve photographed. At first I would only pick it up for the odd shot here and there, but as I realised more and more just how capable a camera it was, it started filling in for the Canon at certain parts of the day. For example I find it far better for the preparation shots: it’s quieter, less intimidating and fast auto focus isn’t always required. Further more, balancing the internal ambient room lighting with bright and natural window light is all done as it happens through the Electronic Viewfinder. I find I have a higher keeper rate but more importantly I am am able to achieve the look I want quicker. However, I wouldn’t say at the moment that it is a contender for the church, owing to the fact I may have to stand far back, shoot in awkward and changing light conditions: the constant aperture tele focal lenses (constant f/2.8 for example) just aren’t here yet.  Long story short the E-M5 and Canon DSLR formed a wonderful tag team. One of the things it excels at and beats the Canon DSLR at is achieving focus in low and awkward light conditions, specifically during the first dance; if the couple have booked a DJ with strobes and coloured lights, or the venue is very poorly lit, I found that the E-M5 was somehow able to achieve focus more promptly than the Canon. I used the 17mm and the 45mm f/1.8 primes, so there was no hunting back and forth at all, unlike with the Canon.

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Again, the prep shots in the morning in good light – that was something I truly expected the E-M5 to excel at. I knew what it was all about in those conditions, but to find it actually solved a long-standing problem (for me anyway) with focussing when the guests were throwing their shapes was a real bonus.

Street Photography

Finally, I can’t review the E-M5 without talking about it as a street photography camera, after all that’s what i do mostly. Again it scores full marks here. It’s not intimidating, it’s not obvious and I don’t look like a photographer. So, when it comes to making street portraits I genuinely believe there are shots and situations I can capture that perhaps I wouldn’t if I were carrying a DSLR around with me.

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Having said that, Mirrorless cameras like this haven’t always been the order of the day among street photographers. It’s not to suggest that a DSLR is not capable of street photography, because clearly it is. It’s all about preference really.

Secondly though, the practical element is of course the size and weight. I’m still carrying around a big bag (the Think Tank Retrospective 30) filled with all sort of stuff, but really the E-M5 and Lenses take up hardly any of that space.

Summary

I’m still loving the E-M5. As I said at the top of this blog I love it more now I’ve had it for some time. I’ve become very used to it. It’s so customisable that it really isn’t much different from what I was used to with Canon DSLR’s in terms of button and dial layout etc. Sure, it has it’s limitations: It’s not amazing at tracking moving subjects, but is an improvement on a DSLR when used in low and challenging light conditions because it achieves focus faster and more accurately.

One of the biggest advantages though that the E-M5 and the Olympus range of cameras has though is two-fold: the in-body image stabilisation is simply amazing. It means that any lens you mount to the E-M5 is stabilised, which is a feature not to be overlooked.

In addition, because of the stabilisation being built into the body of the camera it removes the need to have all those motors and complex bearings inside the lenses themselves, meaning they truly can be tiny. So when people talk about moving over to Mirrorless, or picking up a mirrorless as their travel and lightweight option, really Olympus is the brand to go for on that front. There are other Mirrorless cameras available of course from the likes of Fuji, Sony and Panasonic, but the lenses for those cameras are huge, (comparatively) so it really does undermine the idea that they are tiny little cameras. The Olympus wins on size for sure.

I hear it so often that the Olympus is a ‘Solid Little Camera’. Whilst that is 100% true, that phrase makes you think it’s not a serious camera, because it’s ‘Little’. Well, I’ll tell you right now that the Olympus is most definitely serious. It isn’t small, it’s tidy, neat and compact. The technology of this camera and it’s ability to make amazing still photographs totally defies it’s size.

For now, I still have my Canon DSLR and as Tony Northrup has recently talked about, the only reason I can’t really drop it at the moment is because of my beloved 70-200mm f/2.8 II IS USM. But that’s more about the lens than the camera body. The DSLR still wins for action and wildlife or subjects of a fast moving nature. But, Olympus have (at the time of writing this) just released the long-awaited 40-150 f/2.8 (effectively an 80-300mm). If that’s as good as it’s supposed to be then an E-M1 and one of those bad boys may well be on the Christmas list as a replacement for the DSLR. I have written to Olympus and asked for that combination of camera and lens on loan. We’ll see what happens.

The only question then would be “What to do with all these CF cards?

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