Like many other camera geeks and micro 4/3 system fans out there lately, I’ve been reading up on anything that I can find on Oly’s new flagship micro 4/3 camera. It touts some pretty impressive specs, but how does it come across in function? I pulled the trigger, and while happy that I did, I do find that there are some things about the camera that seem to have been overlooked or neglected. There are many articles outlining the spec sheet and testing the features, this is my own personal feel coming from someone who uses this camera as a daily tool and has been doing so for the last couple weeks.
First, I must admit that the throwback design didn’t initially catch my eye, and still to this day having handled the camera isn’t one of the features that I’d count as being instrumental in me choosing to spend a pretty penny on this camera. This is my very first Olympus camera of any type having bought into the micro 4/3 system as a Panasonic user. I purchased the OM-D with 12-50mm lens kit mainly because A) it was available, and B) because I was wanting to have a weather resistant lens to mate to the body if and when I choose to get out into the elements with this camera. I am not a fanboy of or for any company. I am a fan of certain companies and their products, but until someone pays me a large sum of money to speak on their behalf, all my opinions will be just that, my opinions. With these disclaimers out of the way, here are my personal pros and cons on the Olympus OM-D E-M5…
I’ll break this into a couple categories. First, design and interface and then camera performance.
Design and Interface:
Like I’d mentioned above, the ‘retro’ throwback design wasn’t a huge deal to me. If you’ve read my blog before, you may have seen that I recently traded my GF1 in for a G3, largely due to a boost in performance and the fact that the GX1 was gouging (in my opinion) a bit when it had the same sensor as the G3 and required a $250 add on EVF, putting it over $1000 when the G3 kit was just about half that price. (Being that the G3 is a bit of an ugly duckling in its own right, only really gaining “pretty girl” status when sat directly next to a Pentax K-01) you can say that physical looks aren’t exactly my biggest priority when buying a camera. I prefer to purchase based more on the interaction with and performance of a camera over how cool it will look on my wrist or around my neck. Not that I don’t appreciate great design, or like cool looking cameras, I just tend to put that in the back seat. I’ve come to find that an EVF is important to me when using these compact system cameras as I tend to really enjoy using various lenses from other manufacturers via adapters. The OM-D’s EVF is great. Still not up to a quality OVF in low light, but it’s as good or better than anything I’ve used as far as electronic finders are concerned. Even with the pronounced viewfinder hump the fact that I can still fit this camera into a coat pocket with a lens attached is pretty awesome.
Okay, the design CONS in my opinion:
- One big gripe I’ve heard, and read much about, is the cramped button layout. Yes, it’s cramped, and the camera is much smaller than I’d anticipated, but I knew the buttons were going to be crammed into a tight space. No issue for me that I didn’t anticipate. If you hate buttons close together, maybe a compact system camera isn’t for you. There is a pretty minimal amount of physical space on these cameras, and you can’t have overall size reduction AND keep a 3″ LCD screen AND have a bunch of real estate for buttons. The alternative is the Sony NEX approach, and I for one vastly prefer cramped buttons over soft buttons that require 7-10 button pushes to get to a menu that allows me to alter the drive mode, or change my ISO. Trade offs. Not really a “CON” but a potential drawback for those who go into this unaware.
- The thumb rest on the OM-D is superior to that of the G3 as is the physical design of buttons directly below said thumb rest, even though these two cameras feel almost identical in the hand, size wise. That said, I greatly prefer the front grip on the G3 to the OM-D E-M5. I know a lot of folks disliked the Panasonic finger hump, but for me, a person with much larger than average hands, I loved the ability to curl my middle finger over that hump properly and effectively securing the G3 in my hand, but then came the less than great thumb rest which had me constantly, inadvertently changing my ISO setting, so again, not quite a “CON” but chalk this one up to realistic tradeoffs. (If any Panoly designers happen to be reading, PLEASE look to integrate a lock button/toggle that could effectively disable buttons on the rear of the camera when shooting or in a bag/pocket… it would easily solve a huge chunk of the “cramped” button problem by disallowing noses or thumbs to accidentally press and change settings inadvertently.)
- Being that this is my first Olympus camera, I must say, their menus are crazy to someone that doesn’t speak Oly, or at least they are for me. I get what they’re trying to do, I can normally find what I’m looking for, and I do appreciate the amount of customization, but sometimes a direct function button or a streamlined menu cache makes a world of difference. Not to compare, but I never needed to open a manual for the G3. Direct access buttons and a simple menu system had me up and running within an hour of getting the camera home with all my customization nailed down. Granted, the OM-D offers much more function packed under it’s hood, but I’ll get to that next. It’s great that I have 4 buttons that I’m able to link to a specific function on the OM-D, but what about the other stuff that I would like to access regularly without having to assign another custom function button kicking another feature out (White balance, ISO, drive mode, Flash control, AEL/AFL, MF assist, IBIS on/off, etc?) Aside from the obvious omission of IBIS, the G3 has a single, direct button for each of these features, or can be customized. I’m getting used to it, but I wish I didn’t have to.
- The fact that camera companies seem to feel that a printed manual is now surplus to need is ridiculous. I don’t want to have to sit at my computer, scrolling through a 130+ page (very poorly defined) PDF to try and find how the wireless flash control functions (which isn’t completely defined or outlined in the manual, or the flash manual either…?), or produce a magnified zoom to aid in manually focusing legacy optics, et al. For those who say “Then print it out…” I say, no. I paid over a thousand dollars, the least Oly could do is provide instructions (no matter how poorly outlined they are) to those wanting to pay good money for their cameras who want to properly learn to utilize its high performance functions. Why should I have to pay to print out instructions? I shouldn’t, and while a small thing, it is one of a few small things that seem to be becoming a commonplace in certain sectors and that is a shame. Same goes for most manufacturers now so this isn’t a shot directly at Oly, but a larger gripe I hoped I wouldn’t have to express when buying a high spec/”pro” level body. Give us a printed manual.
- Has anyone seen the on screen histogram when reviewing information via playback on this thing? Olympus, 1984 called and said it’s suing for defamation of image and character. Seriously, the histogram (luminance and color channels) in playback makes Q-bert look like a James Cameron 3D box office smash hit. If you aren’t old enough to know what Q-bert is, you should be more pissed off than I am. Photographers use this and as is, it’s nearly unusable (at the very least, unreliable). Fix it.
- The off lens axis tripod mount is a pain for situations where you need to be on axis.
- Maybe for shooters who are used to Oly cameras, the menus and interface offer a different experience, but I’ve been frustrated setting the camera up and consistently remembering where certain functions are buried if and when I need to change them. In fact, maybe someone can help me with this… I’ve not figured out how to produce a zoom assist in the electronic viewfinder when manually focusing using a legacy lens (without having to change to the LCD, zoom in by touch, and then change back to the EVF which then disappears and I lose the benefit if handholding. I admit, I may have missed something, but I’ve been through every millimeter of the custom menus for both AF/MF functions and EVF/LCD along with all the custom button assignable functions, and the MF zoom/Magnifying glass function which is what I’m assuming is what I need. It will not work with third party lenses as far as I can tell. Panasonic has “Shoot without Lens ON/OFF” in their menus which is what enables the use of non proprietary lenses, and it works with that one toggle. Please help me, I’m going nuts trying to figure this out and will gladly retract this grumpiness once I get this resolved. ***UPDATE*** Okay, so, feeling a bit like an idiot, I will admit that after a gracious, and patient group of flickr friends (join the OM-D User Group Here) has helped resolve this issue (particular thanks to AOI-Alt for the help, to whom I now owe two beers). When set up as listed below, first, I had no problems with the Focus Assist function when using my micro 4/3 lenses, worked like a charm. When I’d mount a non m4/3 lens (my FD, EF, Contax, etc) I couldn’t get the MF/Magnify Assist to work, until it did randomly and seems to be somewhat consistently doing so. For anyone potentially coming across this same problem, make sure these custom functions are set as follows:
- Cust Fn A – AF Mode – MF (or S-AF + MF if you’d like to use AF with lenses that enable this)
- Cust Fn A – MF Assist – ON
- Cust Fn B – Button Function – Fn2 assigned – Magnify (I have also successfully assigned to Fn1 as well)
- Cust Fn J – Built in EVF style – Style 3 (not sure if this is necessary, but it seemed to help me)
- Now, you need to quickly/lightly press or almost tap (this is the key as a full/harder press will not work) the custom function button (Fn1 or Fn2, whichever you’ve assigned to Magnify) to see the “green box” which indicates the area that will be magnified, quickly/lightly press the Fn1/2 button again and you should zoom in. Press the Fn1/2 button again to zoom back out, or merely a half press on the shutter button will bring you back to full screen view.
- After trying this exact set up multiple times (going back and forth between settings, custom functions, etc) it did not work for me. I couldn’t get the green box to show up. I pressed the Fn2 button, I held the Fn2 button, I pressed the Fn2 button multiple times in succession and still, no workey. I cycled through the different “Info” settings on screen to see if that somehow adjusted things, nope. I tried again and randomly it worked, so, just stick with it. Apparently the camera is much smarter than we give it credit for and really likes to eff with it’s human user. Whether it is entirely down to user error (me) or a deeper problem with my Fn2 button, I don’t currently know, but I’ll be sure to update if anything further presets itself. (see the “quickly/lightly press” explanation above)
- ***UPDATE to the UPDATE*** – I’ve now switched the Magnify function to the Fn1 button and it works as well, enabling me to keep the Fn2 button for my ISO adjustments (why ISO isn’t available to assign to Fn1 is strange to me and would be better for me to switch these two functions, but whatever.) I’ve also been able to assign the AF mode to S-AF + MF so that I don’t have to switch when I want a proprietary lens to auto focus. What I have found, that I can also not find any reason nor explanation for, is that to enable the magnify feature, one must lightly push, or tap if you will, the Fn button while a full press/push seems to disable the function, in my use anyway and was the original source of my frustration. Odd as a full push/press allows these buttons to execute the other custom functions I’ve assigned (AEL/AFL, ISO, WB, etc) so just a weird, and undefined quirk as it were. Thank you again to those continuing the conversation via flickr, and to Olympus, it would really help if this were explained more clearly in the manual coming from someone who has a pretty decent relationship with high functioning cameras and is brand new to an Olympus camera. I doubt it would have been as much an issue for me as it has been if one of the main reasons I chose this camera wasn’t to gain access to the 5 axis IBIS for use with my legacy lenses.
- The touch screen is far better than the touch screen on the G3. While the G3 is pressure sensitive (or feels it) it is difficult to press on screen options or scroll, etc leaving the experience muddled and sloppy. The OM-D E-M5 screen has a smart phone feel to it’s LCD. Much better.
- Well, the camera itself is nicely designed in that it fits, and feels well in the hand all things considered. The two control wheels are wonderful allowing you to control both shutter speed and aperture without taking your eye away from the viewfinder or screen. This is a biggie for those used to a more direct interaction with pro level dSLRs and a wonderful feature as far as I’m concerned.
- The ability to enable an auto switch between the viewfinder and LCD by way of an eye level proximity sensor is great. I tend to turn it off so that when carrying the camera around my neck, it isn’t constantly changing between the two, but with the camera in hand, it is really cool.
- The OM-D E-M5 is solidly built and feels every inch of a pro built camera in the hand. The tilt LCD is also very, very handy for video and waist level, or overhead shooting. I kinda like the swing out, full swivel LCD on the G3, but this one is far more solid and there are arguments against the swivel screens moving the eye away from the camera axis which is valid to an extent.
- The customizable function buttons are handy, even if they are small and sometimes hard to find due to the cramped real estate on this small camera.
- Weather sealing = killer, period. No, you can’t take this camera under water, but you can rest assured that it will withstand most any realistic environmental condition when coupled with a similarly spec’d lens.
So, why after upgrading 5 months ago would I be throwing a heavy chunk of change back into a system I’d just recently invested in? The OM-D seems to have the same sensor as the G3/GX1, even if Oly won’t admit it, albeit with a weaker AA filter and it’s own proprietary processor allowing for that Oly jpeg magic (UPDATE: it is in fact a Sony sensor). This spec is hotly debated, and I have no idea if it is true. I don’t really care who built the sensor, but I can say that it is as good in any of the shooting situations that I’ve come across to the G3/GX1 (and rumored G5) sensor. From my eyeball tests, the two sensors seem very similar and to my eye seem to be separated more by firmware than a file output differential. It’s EVF isn’t any higher resolution than the G3, although it seems to offer better performance to my eye initially, perhaps from better refresh rate, or some other technical video based thingamajig. Well, it comes down to a few factors as to why I decided to throw down the coin, the main reasons were the IBIS and the weather/environmental sealing.
First, my CONS:
- I know that these little machines suck up a lot of energy, but have been designed to do so as efficiently as possible. The IBIS, LCD and EVF need constant power when on, but can we please oh please get a proprietary battery that either A) costs a realistic amount (less than $30) OR get one that at the current prices get more than a couple hundred shots requiring a charge after a few hours of continual use? Seriously, the G3 battery is no different and the OM-D battery also sucks.
- Speaking of the battery, Olympus why do you still ship a charger that has a bulky cord? Please do away with the cord and go the route of the folding plug. One less thing to have to carry around and I’d imagine that it’s cheaper to manufacture a singular piece without the cord. If someone needs a cord, they can always use a household extension cord. Problem solved.
- This is also a minor complaint, but I’d really like to see an integrated flash. The included add on is great in that it has a decent amount of power, but having to keep track of four pieces when using it (the flash, its plug cover and the two separate camera body covers) seems like a very poor oversight. I can almost guarantee that I will lose one of them within a few weeks, and then my “weather resistant” body will cease to be so. The Panasonic hot shoe cover/accessory plug is a beautiful little piece of simple design engineering and should be copied, please feel free to do so.
- What is up with the sleep mode? When the camera goes into sleep mode/power saving mode, most of the time, it needs to be turned off and then on again (taking 3-4 seconds to get back to shooting). Even when a shutter press “wakes” it up, it takes at least 2-3 seconds to wake making it amazingly difficult to capture any fleeting moment if the camera has been allowed to go into power saving mode (which, with this battery is very important). This is very, very poor for any camera, let alone one that is touting itself as a “pro-spec” or in any way serious camera. Add to this, the need to even pull the battery when using certain lenses as it actually freezes the camera and a simple on/off switch won’t wake it up, this is inexcusable to me for a camera that costs over a grand. Even with the recent firmware update, it has not properly addressed this issue. Poor form Olympus, poor form. Don’t expect this camera to be a great street shooter, unless of course you keep it from going to sleep at all times. Oly, fix it.
- High ISO banding. I’m sure you’ve read about the banding when using this camera at or above ISO 6400. I’ve personally only seen it when using the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens (which I use about 90% of the time admittedly). I know it can happen which is fine, but it’s been a known problem since this camera came out (and I have had good results using other lenses at or above ISO6400, so I know the camera is capable). It wasn’t addressed in the recent firmware update. Fix it! (you can see an example of it on my G3 vs OMD EM5 article CLICK HERE)
Now, onto the PROS:
- What more can I say about the IBIS that hasn’t been said already. It is killer, and when taking into consideration the equivalent angle of view crop factor, making lenses appear twice as long making for a harder hand held shooting experience, it is now something I’m finding I’m going to really have a hard time living without in my compact system camera, especially when using legacy, or manual focus optics. Kudos Olympus, it really is amazing and aside from any problems I’ve had with the camera, has helped me feel my money was in no way wasted by upgrading to this camera.
- 9 frames per second. Seriously, nine. Yes, the AF tracking is poor (not really any worse than the AF on my 5DII), and is disabled when shooting at high speed burst anyway, but this is a great feature for those looking to capture the moment. Whether it’s of wildlife (albeit when somewhat stationary) or your kid’s basketball game, if you are properly set up with a workable aperture, your depth of field should allow for a reasonable margin of error, focus wise anyway. I really hope we see some type of hybrid, on sensor contrast/phase detection auto focus integrated in the future which would help make the tracking more accurate and would truly provide a serious argument against more expensive dSLRs for the enthusiast birder, sports shooter, _____fill in the blank. For those wanting to bracket shots for HDR eliminating as much movement due to breeze, et al, the 9fps is beautiful minimizing any environmental movement.
- Speaking of AF, much like the touch screen on the G3 enabling the ability to move the AF point anywhere on the screen, the touch AF assignment via the LCD on the OM-D is wonderful. This is an area I feel beats the pants off of a dSLR when having to manually cycle through, or toggle a set AF point which takes time to do, sometimes causing missed shots. Great for street shooters, or even casually shooting kids, friends, etc.
- The wireless flash feature is cool. The fact that Oly offered purchasers to get a rebate on the FL-300R flash is great, and while very limited, it’s a nice option even if it’s refusal to listen to the camera’s IR signal when outdoors is akin to a teenager taking music advice from their parents. It doesn’t offer much in the way of power, and I wouldn’t spend the $160 on it, but since they were giving it away, I’m glad I took advantage. I’d like to get my hands on an FL-600R unit and would have to if I planned on using it for any outdoor use, but honestly, I have some more powerful flash units and have already invested in multiple pocket wizards so I probably wont. Still a cool feature and one that many may really enjoy using, even if it may require that you do so indoors.
- I know folks love Oly’s jpeg processing. I shoot RAW so I don’t know what to say other than aside from making the A/D better capable by utilizing a 14 or 16 bit RAW file, I don’t expect much more from the RAW files that I’ve been getting out of the OM-D (or G3 to be fair). I’m sure the future will hold even better performance on this front, but for now, these files when properly exposed will do more than most any of us would need. The high ISO (aside from the banding issue) noise performance is great (see ISO comparisons and examples CLICK HERE) and the dynamic range is as good in most situations as the GX1/G3/G5 sensor.
So, in summation, I love the camera, but feel that there are a few areas that can, and should, be improved upon in the future. There is no one way to skin a cat, but I think Olympus could really fine tune a few of these shortcomings which would benefit not only new users, but seasoned Oly aficianados as well. It’s not a perfect camera, but for the cost, it is close and truly offers a micro 4/3 shooter a good all around tool.
PanOly, keep the prices realistic, keep producing quality optics (maybe try shaving lens prices down a wee bit guys) and I think that the system will continue to have a very bright future. I’m happy that I’ve tied my horse to the Micro 4/3 system for my compact system needs and feel most anyone who chooses the OM-D E-M5 will feel the same.
You can see the various body/lens combos for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 via B&H here.
Thanks for the read. I am currently working on an OM-D E-M5 vs G3 comparison post (It’s done! CLICK HERE) as well as a post focused on the IBIS when using older, legacy lenses so check back or enter your email in the box at the top right of the page to subscribe to receive the posts as they drop. Feel free to fire off any questions you may have, I’d be happy to try and help answer them.
*In case you missed them, here are a few recent posts about the micro 4/3 system: