Olympus OM-D E-M5 Impressions

A nice write up from my friend Adam that I received recently…

Hi Jacob, thought I would share with you my impression of the Olympus OMD EM5 after one month of use. The following review will compare the Olympus EM5 mostly with a Pentax K-5, since that is what I am familiar with. [Jacob: I’ve included some additional comparison to the NEX7 since I have talked about it in the past and it’s a close competitor in the EVIL mirrorless camera world)

A Quick Intro

Backpacking and photography are two of my main hobbies and they complement each other perfectly. The only problem is that the lightweight conscious side of me always wants to bring less while the photographer side of me wants to bring more, so there has to be some compromise. I would love to bring an arsenal of lenses, filters, tripod and accessories but just the thought of carrying all that gives me a sore back. Because my primary photography interests while backpacking are landscapes, macro, and people, I have narrowed my lenses down to three; a wide angle lens, a “fast 50” and a macro lens, plus a tripod and ballhead. These allow me enough versatility to do most of what I want without a huge weight penalty.

When I decided to move away from Pentax, I strongly considered going to a full frame camera. With the new Nikon D600 and Canon 6D available for a relatively affordable price, it seemed that the full frame dream was within my reach. I could make the switch and have a decent versatile kit that weighed more than my Pentax gear, but not a lot more. However, the problem is that for the photography I do while backpacking, a full frame set up was not going to give me much of an advantage. It is great for the things I like to photograph in my daily life such as events, urban exploration and people. But for landscapes and macro photography, you do not generally need very narrow depth of field and often you are shooting in decent light. In fact, for these two types of photography increased depth of field is usually more desirable. This is where a camera with a smaller sensor such as APS-C or micro 4/3’s has the advantage. It is much easier to get that increased depth of field and all the equipment can be much smaller and lighter. After a lot of consideration and because I can’t afford two systems, I realized that it made more sense for me to go with a smaller system that requires some compromises in certain areas but offers a much lighter and more portable package. And that is what led me to the Olympus EM5.

OM-D vs. NEX7 at a glance

[Added by Jacob: I’ve included some additional comparison to the NEX7 since I have talked about it in the past and it’s a close competitor in the EVIL mirrorless camera world]

Side by Side Comparison
OM-D NEX 7
MSRP: $1000 $1000
Size: 4.76 x 3.53 x 1.65 in 4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69 in
Weight (no batt): 13.2 oz 10.3 oz
Sensor: 16mp Micro 4/3 2x crop 24mp APS-C 1.5x crop
Video: 1080i 60/30 1080p 60/24
Video Mic: Internal or External Internal or External
Viewfinder: Built In EVF Built In EVF
Controls: SLR-Like SLR-Like
Flash: Accessory Built in
Hot Shoe: Yes Yes
LCD Screen: 3″ 610k touchscreen 3″ 920k touchscreen
Battery Weight: 1.8 oz 2.0 oz
Battery Life: 350+ photos 400+ photos

 

OM-D vs. NEX 7
OM-D vs. NEX 7 courtesy of camerasize.com

Handling

The camera is small but probably slightly larger than your Nex 5n [Jacob: Yes, though it lacks a grip], it is also a little heavier and feels very solid. The weight is surprising actually as the body is so small. It has two control dials which I use and prefer and I have it set up so that I can access almost everything I need without having to go into the menu. The buttons are customizable, not with all the options I wanted but almost everything. The only thing I would like to control via a programmable button that I can’t is changing the metering method. Not a big deal but I prefer to not delve into the menu if I don’t have to.

The menu system is confusing and not very intuitive but I am starting to get used to it. Once I understand the layout it will be fine but Olympus could definitely make an improvement here.
Despite that, I am really enjoying using the camera. It is certainly smaller and lighter than the K-5 and I can control most of what I need without having to take my eye from the viewfinder.
Some people complain that the buttons and controls are cramped, I agree somewhat but it will be an issue mostly for people with big hands. I have small to medium sized hands and I find that I can access the buttons without too much thought.

Focusing

The electronic viewfinder (“EVF”) is great, it is similar to the Olympus VF-2 I used previously and I prefer it over the optical finder on my K-5. The magnified view for precise focusing is awesome. It has a different look than an optical finder but I find it much easier to focus and I can see the exposure change as I adjust the aperture and shutter speed. I have had a lot of trouble focusing with the K-5, especially in low light but really in all conditions and so this is a definite plus for the EM5. Two issues to be aware of though, which effect all cameras with EVF’s, you cannot frame the picture with the camera off or in standby because the viewfinder and live view are off. If the exposure is really off then the viewfinder can be either very bright or very dark and hard to view until the exposure is adjusted.

Fold out screen is very cool, I use it a lot and really like it. Touch screen is also cool, touch and focus is fabulous for autofocusing. Screen resolution is less than the K-5 but I can’t see a noticeable difference.

In body image stabilization (IBIS) works really well, for non-moving objects I can shoot pretty stable down to ¼ second handheld. It is better than the IBIS in the K-5. I don’t know why but perhaps the mirror slap affects stabilization in the K-5. Autofocus works really well. I have not tried focusing on rapidly moving objects, and there have been complaints about this but I don’t normally do that type of photography. At first I was put off by the large size of the focus area. This can be controlled but it is more like a work around than real control. However, focus accuracy is very good, a big improvement over the K-5.

Lenses

Lens selection appears to very good (a nice benefit of the Micro 4/3 system) and accessories are widely available. Overall a very well established system and this is one of the main reasons I am trying it out. I like to have the option of good autofocus lenses and Olympus (with help from Panasonic) has it. There is also a weight advantage; the lenses for Micro 4/3 cameras can be made smaller and lighter. Of course you can adapt pretty much any lens to it as well, which is cool, as you know. [Jacob: Yes, although 2x crop factor does hamper adapted wide angles, while improving the reach of adapted telephoto lenses].

OM-D + Panasonic 25/1.4 Lens
OM-D + Panasonic 25/1.4 Lens (credit: David Wage)

Image Quality

As for image quality, this is where I have been slightly disappointed. Many reviews claim that the EM5 sensor is as good as an APS-C and close to full frame. My real world conclusion is that this is not the case. At least for noise, which is really the only thing I am able to see a noticeable difference. I would say that it is about 1 – 1.5 stops more noisy than my K-5 after ISO 400. I can’t tell a difference up to that, but starting at 800 I can start to see a difference. It is still useable up to 1600 with a little noise reduction thrown in, or doing some BW conversion. However at 3200 it starts to degrade and at 6400 is falling apart, maybe useable for some applications but I would not be comfortable using it if I had to. I have been happy with Pentax up to 1600, very useable 3200, so this is a disappointment, I was hoping for a better show from Olympus. Obviously there will be a performance difference due to sensor size but I was thinking it would perform better.

I have also noticed, in certain interior lighting situations, “banding” in shots taken at 1600 ISO and above. This was not something I was looking for but I noticed it in some shots. I have since done some research and found a few posts online about this. The funny thing is that I never saw this with the K-5 but when I tried to induce it I could do it easier on the K-5 than with the EM5. I went over all my shots at ISO 1600 up to 12800 with the K-5 and never saw a hint of banding. But then I easily induced it in my living room, and it showed up easier than with the EM5. Strange and I am not sure what to think. I am still not sure what the deal is with the banding, it is rare and only seems to happen randomly. I was worried about it at first but I find that it is uncommon enough that I can live with it.

Banding phenomenon at high ISO
Banding phenomenon at high ISO

So how big a deal is the performance gap? There are some nice fast lenses, the IBIS also helps with stationary objects, so I can keep the ISO lower with low shutter speeds. But that will not work in every situation. I like to shoot indoors, at parties, events, bars, friends’ houses, ect. Being limited to 1600 ISO, even with fast lenses makes it difficult in many lighting situations. The other thing that I have been reading is that Olympus is overestimating its ISO ratings and that they are actually lower, for example ISO 200 is more like 160. This appears to be true as it under exposes when I set the same settings on it and the K-5. So, ISO 1600 is closer to like 1200 and that further limits usefulness in darker situations.

I also am hesitant about doing stacked star trails as I like to shoot at ISO 1600 for this. Of course with faster lenses I can probably get the same effect with lower ISO than with my K-5. And, I think I prefer to do single long exposure star trails rather than stacking, in which case I use a lower ISO. But for moving things (like people) in lower light situations, this is challenging for the camera. There is certainly the option of using a flash, and this would really help. However, I don’t always like to or feel comfortable using a flash. It is not very discreet.

A Few Minor Gripes

The other thing that I am disappointed with is that the EM5 does not go below 200 ISO (or 160 equivalent). I very frequently use ISO 80 on my K-5. Do I notice an iq difference? No, but it does help for those long exposure shots during the day. This is probably not a big deal, as the expanded low ISO typically comes with reduced dynamic range, but it is something to be aware of.

Lastly, battery life is also a disappointment, you are probably use to this on the Nex but. Coming from Pentax, I get about 1/3 the battery life out of the EM5; maybe 350? I don’t count so I don’t know exactly, and it depends on if I am shooting a lot of long exposures. I find it annoying but I think it is pretty standard for mirrorless cameras.

In Summary…

Having said all that, my overall impression is that it is a fun camera to use, it is fairly light and has nice light, quality lenses. There are some great features and I only miss a few from my K-5. The only real issue is the image quality above ISO 400. I think this would be a great landscape and macro (I am finding it exceptional for macro photography) camera but it is lacking in low light applications.

Lady Bug
Lady Bug

I think that the micro4/3 sensors are always going to lag a bit behind their larger cousins. However, it is also important to consider what your needs are. Personally, most of my photos go on the internet and at those resolutions there is very little difference between sensors. It is really about usability and enjoyment. I am really enjoying using the EM5 and I am happy with the results I am getting, so I think I will stick it out with the EM5 and see where it takes me.

Sunset at Freemont Lake, Hoover Wilderness
Sunset at Freemont Lake, Hoover Wilderness

One more thing to note, the EM5 RAW files are not supported by Lightroom before version 4. So, if you are planning to shoot RAW and Lightroom is your editor, keep this in mind.

I will also give a quick comment on the lenses I am using for the EM5. I have two inexpensive manual lenses left over from my EPL-1, they were cheap but are surprisingly good, especially on the EM5. They are surprisingly good, especially on the EM5. I have a 60mm f/2.8 macro and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. They are both very sharp and fun to use. The other lens I just bought was the Panasonic 7-14 f/4. Reviews were really good and I found a reasonably good deal so I bought it. It is wide and fun but with some reservations. Really bad purple fringing, I can correct it in Lightroom but I don’t want to have to. Also really strong distortion and I am not sure how to correct this. Supposedly Lightroom automatically corrects for it but it still bothers me. This may be an ultra-wide angle lens thing, I have not used lenses this wide before. But, it is super sharp, throughout the frame from f/4 up. I am really impressed with the sharpness, it blows away all lenses I tried for Pentax and I had some good ones. I am not sure I will keep the 7-14, there is a 9-18 from Olympus that is supposed to be about as good at half the weight and cost.

My camera kit consists of the following:

  • Olympus OMD EM5 + 13.2 oz
  • Battery + 1.8 pz (I would carry 3 if I had them, right now I only have one)
  • RRS mounting plate + 3 oz
  • Home made hand strap + 0.1 oz
  • Panasonic 7-14/4 + 11.1 oz (probably switch to Olympus 9-18/4.5-5.6 at 5.5 oz)
  • Panasonic 25/1.4 + 8.1 oz
  • Vivitar 55/2.8 macro w/ adapter + 14.3 oz (probably switch to Olympus 60/2.8 at 6.5 oz)
  • Gitzo 0531 tripod with RRS BH-25 ballhead + 31.5 oz
  • 16gb memory card + 0.1 oz
  • Lowepro carry case + 6.7 oz (will be changing this to something much lighter)

Total = 89.9 oz (about 5.5 lbs.) I don’t like adding it up, haha!

So, that is my first impression, hope you find it useful.

About the Author

The Author and Bandito, The Lost Llama
The Author and Bandito, The Lost Llama

Adam Criswell lives with his lovely wife Lori in Davis, CA. Since childhood Adam has enjoyed and explored the outdoors. In addition to pursuing his passion for adventures, Adam also spends his time breeding plants, gardening and learning photography. In his quest to lighten up and walk farther, he has abandoned his Pentax DSLR and embraced mirrorless cameras. Adam has also recently started a blog about his life and adventures which can be found here: http://danceswithangiosperms.blogspot.com
Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

5 Comments

  1. Brad
    December 13, 2013
    Reply

    I will be taking my brand-new E-M5 on a three night backpacking trip and am trying to figure out how many batteries I’ll need. With my old EPM1 it used ~1 battery per day on hiking trips, but I’m not sure how the EM5 will fare. Do you have any advice?

    • March 16, 2014
      Reply

      Hi Brad,

      Sorry, didn’t see your post sooner. A 1 per day average is a good rule of thumb, I can get two days if I am more careful with what I shoot and not too many long exposures. But I would say the battery life will be about the same as the EPM1.

  2. Eric L.
    July 18, 2013
    Reply

    I had the chance to take a few shots with Adam’s OMD on a recent trip. What surprised me the most was how nice it was to look through the viewfinder and how quiet the shutter was. Compared to the NEX shutter ‘cannon’, the OMD was nearly silent. Much better for sneaking in candid photo shots.

    • Jacob D
      July 27, 2013
      Reply

      Hey Eric. Yes, the NEX shutter is a bit jarring. There’s definitely no hiding the fact that you’re snapping photos in a quiet setting!

  3. Jacob D
    June 7, 2013
    Reply

    Adam, thanks for the in-depth first impressions! Although I still prefer the less-traditional ergonomics of my NEX the OM-D is clearly a solid choice for a backpacking camera with an outstanding native lens selection.

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