These two have gone toe to toe, and we’re all tired. If you’re not, believe me you will be, this final round is a long one, and really the reason I needed to break this into three parts. Now it’s time to see which, if either can really pull itself ahead and prove to be a better choice. I use the word choice because, it will come down to a personal preference, or needed feature for any given shooter because both are great cameras. I’m finding that it is a decision based more on what each camera doesn’t have as opposed to the qualities that they do. Both are great, but what can you live without? Here’s round three, the round to end all others…at least for me and my decision making process.
This gets a little more interesting. The current Sony sensor being utilized in the Olympus cameras has been lauded as the best micro 4/3 sensor currently being produced and for good reason. It does a good job, period. I’ve found that the EM5 files don’t sharpen as nice in post, and the reds are overly saturated and harder to correct for which makes it a more difficult file to work with for lighter skin tones comparatively. That said, there’s no denying that the Oly files do very well for many applications.
Panasonic says that the sensor in the GX7 is a new sensor, and while I don’t doubt them, I’m not seeing as huge a difference between it and the previous sensors as I did between the Oly/Sony sensor and the 12mp Oly sensor of yesteryear. One area where I need to applaud the new Panasonic sensor is how well a job it does at color accuracy and consistency at any given light temp setting, where in most every camera I own, even the full framers, there are marked color shifts as the ISO, and s:n increases.
Here is a boring, static scene, shot at identical exposure settings, in RAW, converted in ACR with settings as listed for an apples to apples comparison at different ISO settings. Scene lit by that single 60w incandescent bulb and the in camera white balance setting, set to the default incandescent (light bulb) setting. These are full sized files, so feel free to click on any and pixel peep to your hearts content.
One area that is apparent to me is how well the GX7 does at keeping color fidelity throughout the entire ISO range. The default, in camera incandescent settings are what they are, cooler on the Olympus EM5 side, and warmer by default for the GX7. Where the shift really sets in though is from 12,800 up, and granted these are pretty unusable settings (or are they? see below) but that the EM5 shifted noticeably and the GX7 hasn’t, is something to note. This is the first time I’ve seen a camera (any camera that I’ve used) do such a good job in this type of test. While the higher ISO settings are certainly messy, I’ve run the ISO 12,800 and 25,600 shots from each through Topaz DeNoise 5 (which is absolutely awesome, read more here) using the same exact, un-adjusted preset, and included 100% crops following each. Have a look (click on any to see full size files)
How about that? While I wouldn’t want to use ISO 12,800 or 25,600, I know that in an absolute pinch, I could and that’s kind of nuts. To me, I feel the GX7 files handle the higher ISO’s better both in color fidelity and in overall grain structure. I’ve found the Sony sensor to be much more aggressive with file sharpness, which has its ups and downs. Great when you get what you want sharp, sharp, but not so good in post as it has continually created more artifacts when trying to work with any post processing sharpening, especially as you start to get into ISO 800+ (as I do with files from all my various cameras). Not bad necessarily, just requires a different approach in post in many cases. After the noise reduction run through, I feel either of the 12,800 files could be useable (again, in a pinch) and while it comes at the sacrifice of some of the finer detail, it’s still impressive the amount of actual detail that remains, but comparing the 25,600 files, the GX7 didn’t exhibit the same level of banding and cleaned up noticeably better to my eye.
This has just as much to do with Topaz DeNoise (it really is badass) as it does with the files though, and kudos to all parties involved. That I’m even talking loosely about a semi-usable file in this ISO range from a micro 4/3 sensor is pretty awesome to me.
Let’s have a look at a simple setup to see how each camera’s RAW files handle in regard to detail. Everything has been shot in RAW, with the in camera white balance again set to incandescent, converted in ACR with no adjustments made whatsoever. While I could have gone through and shot at every ISO setting, I didn’t want to, and just wanted to see what each camera was able to do at its native, base ISO with the M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 lens wide open, and stopped down to f/4 for comparison. All shots manually focused. All are full sized files, click on any to see them larger.
Both sharp, both seem very comparable.
Here are the f/4 shots after being run though an identical combo highpass/unsharp mask sharpening action in Photoshop which I use as my standard, final sharpening.
Aside from the difference in the temperature, both have done very well in my opinion, and really either is fully useable and has sharpened up pretty nicely. I think that I’d dial it down a little bit, but tit for tat, they both look good to me.
Both camera’s sensors are fully capable, and the differences are mostly going to come down to personal workflow or preference. To me, I judge based on RAW files because that is what I shoot and use. I can always make a RAW file a compressed JPEG with the click of a button or preset so to me, in camera JPEG compression profiles aren’t a huge factor. That said, the IQ between the two is very comparable and comes down to tradeoffs. If shooting Jpegs, I do think that Oly/Sony has the edge, although you may need to try and account for the red channel issue (or at least I have) which requires a bit of tweaking both in camera and in post. As for RAW files, the differences for me come down more to fidelity, accuracy and noise which to my eye, I prefer the Panasonic’s more natural, and consistent profile.
In a real world shooting scenario, either camera is going to be capable of doing well and personal decisions will come into play. I by no means think that the Oly/Sony sensor is a lesser sensor, at least not through ISO 6400, I just personally prefer the RAW files out of the GX7 as they require less in the way of color correction or temperature compensation. A more natural, albeit somewhat less vibrant profile and signature which I appreciate. Again, I can always add color or contrast easily in post, but it can be much harder to get rid of it or correct for it.
Like I mentioned in round 2, I feel the tactile feedback on the GX7 favors a more solid feel operationally, and is really only let down by comparison to the EM5 in things like frame rate, which in the EM5 is a very capable 9fps vs 5fps for the GX7. Neither of those still frame rates translate to a continuous AF, but the tracking struggles anyway in my experience for both cameras, so for tracking I’ve found the spray and pray methodology comes into play. Speaking of, the GX7 does in fact have a 40 fps setting if you’re okay with shooting 3.5mp images.
For me, so much depends on how the camera interacts with me while shooting, and I really never got used to, or liked the way that the Olympus went about controlling the functional parameters. I know (and have certainly heard from Oly fans) that there are those who disagree with me and that’s totally cool. It doesn’t change the fact for me that I have been frustrated with the amount of time I’ve had to interact with the EM5, trying to dig through menus and submenus to try and find the feature I need to alter, or adjust.
The SCP! The SCP! You may hear the Oly crowd cry. Fine and dandy for a quick menu (which most all cameras have) but even figuring out how to turn it on requires a read through the PDF, or just dumb luck at changing the right settings at the right time in the right screen to initiate for those of us that have not used an Olympus camera before, and the fact that it is still a screen based menu required to interact with to change simple parameters, it doesn’t get away from needing to stare at the back of the camera before you can focus on what is in front of the camera, or require many more button presses to access what you may need. That Oly has a pretty poorly written PDF manual didn’t help either.
I can say, without a doubt in my mind, that the OMD EM5 is the most complicated interface that I have ever seen on a camera personally. Some laud the “customizability” and if you’re into that, maybe you’ll enjoy programing your own camera, but for me I like to have direct access to certain features, and feel there are a few that everyone could benefit from having at their fingertips without having to program and remember which button they assigned them to, in which ever mode they happen to be using. There is such a thing as too much customization, and for me, the Oly system is it.
I feel that if an individual were totally sold on the Oly system, and shot only the Oly system, the time necessary to get used to the menus and setup, while programing their camera(s) could greatly benefit from this level of customization. If you shoot multiple systems (like I do) having to memorize where different parameters live in the Oly menu cache, or which functions you’ve assigned to which buttons in which ever mode, can be a difficult task when coming back to the camera after a few days or weeks of shooting with something else. I know that there are those who defend the Oly setup tooth and nail, and to you I say kudos. I don’t pretend that my experience is the same as everyone else’s, but this has absolutely been my experience.
Customization may be your flavor, but buyer beware, because if for whatever reason the camera craps out (as mine did when using the rebate Oly flash that came with the camera) or you inadvertently reset back to factory defaults, you lose all of that customization. I had mine more or less figured out until a faulty flash fried the sensor and internal electrical components. Lucky for me, Olympus replaced my camera’s internals completely (essentially giving me a new camera), but all of those adjustments and customizing went away as it was returned to me reset to factory defaults (as you’d assume it would be). It had taken me days, even over the course of the first few weeks to set the camera up the way I needed and liked it, and I just couldn’t be bothered to go back through to try and remember what I’d figured out and done, much of which had to be learned through forums and the like because the PDF manual sucks, hard. In retrospect, I wish I’d have documented my customization and written myself a map as to how I’d done what I’d done, but as they say, hindsight… Since then, the amount of customizing on mine is minimal and for various tasks, I resort to one of my other cameras.
In this respect, the GX7 wins hands down in my opinion. I have direct buttons for ISO, Frame Rate/bracketing, White Balance, AF Operation, AF/AE lock, Exposure Comp, and with the dual wheels (much like the EM5) I can control both Aperture and Shutter Speed in Manual mode, or exposure compensation in the other modes. Add to that the ability to switch between AF and MF on the camera, and do all of this without needing to take my eye away from the viewfinder or screen is just better in my opinion. A more useful and intentional photographic tool. While spec sheets and buzz worthy features seem to win a lot of praise, for me, more than any of that, it comes down to functionality and simplicity. Getting to the functions and features I want to and need to quickly, easily and intuitively are paramount and for me the Olympus OMD EM5 was the furthest thing from that, that I have ever used.
My ire for the user interface on the Oly cameras has certainly drawn criticism from some of the more fervent Oly fans. I know this reads as if I have my mind made up before any questions were asked, but that isn’t true. It doesn’t help the situation from the Oly standpoint in my eyes, but I’m not completely discounting the camera by any means because it really is a good image making device.
Features like the WiFi/NFC, focus peaking and Silent Shooting mode available in the GX7, are really cool, and should certainly become much more commonplace moving forward. Boasting a 1/8000 sec max shutter speed, 1/320 sec x-sync speed and ISO 125 are all very handy additions as well. The EM5 is condemned by being released just a little early to have gained access to these features, or Oly decided to not redesign the camera to enable the faster shutter and sync speeds or less sensitive ISO settings, so I can’t fault it for not having them. I will say that the WiFi control on the GX7 is easy and very useful. From selfies to long exposures, intervelometer time lapses or remote shooting wildlife or an event, the ability to control it from a phone or tablet is really, really cool. Focus peaking is awesome and I’m sure it will become standard from here on out. Especially when using adapted optics, it makes manually focusing so much easier and more accurate. The silent shooting mode and implementation of access to an electronic shutter for a fully silent shooting mode is wonderful if shooting in quiet environments, macro shooting small moving creatures, or just wanting to minimize every last ounce of motion from a physical, focal plane shutter, it is very nice to have access to.
The EM5 has the environmental sealing and faster frame rate. Until the GX7, the IBIS was a huge benefit, and still is nice, but as I found in Round 1, it isn’t up the Panasonic IBIS in certain situations. It does have the IBIS in video, and live view which shouldn’t be ignored, but now that Panasonic has finally incorporated and IBIS system of their own, this argument is much closer. The EM5 has the anti-shock setting and things like that, but really nothing else for me stands out as a feature that the GX7 doesn’t have in some way shape or form.
With these two cameras we have two different approaches, two different philosophies on photographic interaction one might say. On one hand, the EM5 has a blistering frame rate, rugged body and good weather sealing. It does require a lot more in the way of time spent setting up and memorizing menus and functions. The GX7 by comparison provides newer functionality in features like WiFi, focus peaking and Silent Mode. It’s not weather sealed, nor quite as ruggedly built, it doesn’t have the same frame rate, but it is far more streamlined in its external and internal interface. Either approach could sway any given individual, and having shot with both I feel I’ve gotten a good feeling from the way they each operate.
If you want an environmentally sealed (and well sealed) body, there is no comparison. Sure, you’d need to pony up for a sealed lens, but the option is there with the EM5 and that is nice. The IBIS in both cameras equal each other in many ways and surpass in others. The EM5 does allow for IBIS in video while the GX7 oddly does not. To my eye, the Oly JPEGS are better, but If you shoot primarily in RAW, I think the GX7 is the better sensor, or at least has better overall noise performance and fidelity with a less aggressive file as far as color, contrast or sharpening. While the EM5 was plagued with well documented, early issues (sleeping beauty freeze/lock, various battery issues, screen bevel cracks, mine had to have the sensor and internal electronics replaced for heavens sake) it is too early to say that the GX7 is free and clear of any similar issues. Time will tell, but while I was having issues right off the bat with the EM5, and continued throughout the 18 months I’ve had mine, I cannot say that I’ve seen any hints of those types of issues yet with the GX7…knock on wood.
Below I have listed (with caveats where applicable) where I feel either camera bests the other. We’ll start with the EM5
Olympus OM-D E-M5:
- Weather sealing. (they’ve had problems with the screen bevel cracking though due to the screws, and the multi-piece hotshoe cover is a bit of a mess)
- Frame burst rate. (although, it is challenged at AF tracking, and at 9fps has the focus locked starting at the first frame, while at a lower resolution 3.5mp, the GX7 also can do 40fps with similar performance though…)
- IBIS for live view, and VIDEO. Great stabilized image for viewing on screen or through the EVF. (the GX7’s IBIS has been superior for still results for me though!)
- JPEG output. Files out of the camera have the Oly/Sony Magic (mostly irrelevant for RAW shooters), albeit exhibiting trouble with reds
- More solid feeling body. (heavier, but in this case, heavy can be good)
- The interface is superior. From the menus to the physical controls, the GX7 wins in my mind hands down. (the EM5 has quite a bit of customization, but it is a bit challenging to wrap your head around, and then remember.)
- Off center, tiltable EVF. While I find the idea of a tilting EVF a little weird, using it has justified it’s inclusion. Resolution wise it’s a better EVF, but I can’t tell a huge real world difference between the two. The auto switch (EVF/LCD) sensor is better on the GX7, and can alter the sensitivity. Being off to the side also keeps the screen off of my nose.
- Wi-Fi. Simple, easy and a cool feature for remote shooting.
- IBIS for end results. While the live view isn’t nearly as smooth and steady, the results are better than the OLY IBIS. (as mentioned the Oly IBIS is superior in Live view stabilization AND is included for video where the Panasonic IBIS is not).
- Integrated Flash. People who categorically dismiss an on camera flash don’t know how to use and utilize an on camera flash, nor see the benefits (albeit compromised in many ways). I can optically fire my studio lights, or produce a bit of fill and I don’t have to carry around an extra, bulky piece. Being able to tilt it to bounce is a nice touch as well.
- MF/AF switch. This really could be included in the interface bullet above, but it is cool enough to deserve it’s own. So handy, I love it.
- Focus Peaking. Why have Panasonic and Olympus not worked harder to integrate this feature sooner and for all current models via a firmware update! Seriously, for MF work it is amazing.
- Silent Mode. A very handy feature for shooting in quiet environments, or when wanting to be a sneaky creepy shooter.
ROUND 3 – Decision:
IQ – Split
- I prefer the GX7 and feel it is a better sensor for how and what I shoot. Admittedly, this is coming from shooting RAW files, and the difference is not huge. At low ISO’s, either is really good. Amazing if you look at the Oly and Panasonic sensors from the early generations a mere 3 or 4 years ago. The reason I give the edge to the GX7 is mainly because of its consistency (next to no color shift when changing ISO’s) and the noise is more manageable. If you’re a JPEG shooter, the EM5 will probably give you a better “finished” file straight out of the camera without any tweaking in post.
INTERFACE – GX7
- The interface on the GX7 is better. There are some that will disagree, but for every one of those preferring the Olympus interface, there are at least 3 that seem to feel the opposite (if I go by everything I’ve read or heard over the last couple years), or at least feel the Oly menus and interface are far too complicated, jumbled and counter intuitive. It’s not a universally accepted truth, but for me there is no doubt that the Pana menus and UI are superior and more photographer friendly as far as my interaction with them goes.
FEATURES – Split
- Depending on what is more important to you, either camera offers much that the other does not. I feel as far as features go, it’s more about what you can live without as opposed to buying to have access to. Do you need 9fps? If so, can you live without tracking AF available in that frame rate? Do you need wireless control of your camera? It’s handy, but we’ve gotten this far into our own photographic histories, very likely without this feature. Silent mode and focus peaking are really nice, but so is weather sealing…
THE JUDGES HAVE DECIDED AND THE ROUNDS ARE SCORED AS FOLLOWS!!!
Here’s how it all comes down, round by round:
- IBIS: Split
- EVF: GX7
- LCD: GX7
- BUILD QUALITY: EM5
- ERGONOMICS: GX7
- IQ: Split (GX7 RAW and EM5 JPEG)
- INTERFACE: GX7
- FEATURES: Split
FINAL SCORE (out of 8 categories):
GX7 – 5.5
EM5 – 2.5
In conclusion, I think that both cameras are great cameras. The deciding factors really come down to the interaction with the camera as well as the features as a set of tools for me, and in that, I do prefer the Panasonic GX7. The GX7 has the great benefit of being a year and a half younger though too, so I would certainly assume that it would perform compared to the EM5. That said, with the same sensors being used for generations, it really comes down largely to the features added to these bodies, and while the EM5 is using the same sensor as the EM10, EP5, EPL5 and EPM2, it has unique features of its own, but costs quite a bit more pushing it into a different category. On the other side, the newly announced GM1 boasts the same sensor as the GX7, albeit without the fancy IBIS, EVF and external controls for a few hundred cheaper.
For me, I can forego weather sealing and a faster frame rate for what I see as a better overall photographer’s tool in operability and bells and whistles. On paper, I really liked the OMD EM5, and tried hard to fall in love with it, but it just wasn’t meant to be for me. My experience is just that, and by no means do I think the EM5 is a bad machine, it just didn’t fit me or my style, and this has become very clear when comparing it to the GX7.
Some have mentioned that a comparison between the GX7 and EP5 would have been more appropriate, and to me these again are different categories, or at the very least, require extra equipment to be purchased in the case of an EVF to really compare apples to apples and seeing as the EP5 and EM5 share a sensor, and basic menu layout, I feel the EM5 is still the camera that the GX7 more directly competes against between Olympus and Panasonic.
If you need the sealing, frame rate, or IBIS in video, then the EM5 is the better machine. Of course, if you prefer the Olympus user interface approach, then your decision is that much easier as well, but for me, I do feel that the GX7, while not perfect, has done enough for me to be seen as the best micro 4/3 camera body under $1,000.
I wish that I could take these two cameras and forge one super camera with features and hardware from each, but alas, if the perfect camera existed, and was reasonably priced, we’d all own it and then we’d have to focus on our own technique, and everyone knows that’s rarely fun 🙂 All jokes aside, both of these cameras are fully capable machines only limited by those of us who choose to buy them. They’re not without their faults, but that said, either one, with a little effort is going to have more power packed into it than most any of us will ever truly exploit beyond the boundaries available in these cameras.
I’m happy replacing my OMD EM5 with the GX7, and while I’ll miss the environmental protection and video stabilization, I am happy to move on. Anyone want to buy an OMD EM5? Feel free to contact me if so.
Coming up soon will be a comparison between the new Lumix 20mm f/1.7 lens versus the older model… Kind of an odd update, but we’ll take a look anyway. I’m always into networking and would love to do some collaborating so please hit me up via the contact page, or via Facebook or Twitter.
Below you’ll find my affiliate links to these two cameras via B&H. If you choose to buy one of these machines, I’d always greatly appreciate the link click here to do so.
Thanks all and happy shooting,