19 September 2013

Weekend with an Olympus OM-D E-M5

Over the last few months our little Canon SD880 has become slightly unreliable. It often complains that it either has no battery or that the battery is empty, while there is a perfectly charged battery in the camera. 

It might have to do with us lugging it around on bikes, in top cases and tank bags, backpacks, and so on. We have been very happy with the picture quality of this little camera and will definitely keep using it as long as it works.

But, given that it sometimes doesn't work, we started looking around for another small(ish) camera with which to complement our Canon DSRL system. The DSLR system is plain a bit too heavy to carry around on the bikes. Andrea had done that during our last vacation, she had the 40D with a 70-300 Canon L lens attached and while this gave us some stunning photos, it was also quite a beast - 2kg just for this setup.

Now, looking around, there are a few nice small cameras, like the Sony RX-100 M2 or the older version of it. This little Sony gives incredible image quality with its very large sensor (for the size of the camera) and the great Zeiss lens. It might just be the perfect replacement for the SD880. 

On the other hand, I have been looking at a smaller system, too. The "Micro Four Thirds" (M43) is a system with a sensor slightly smaller than the DSLRs we have, but with a pretty good selection of lenses from Olympus, Zeiss, Panasonic, Sigma, and others. The bodies for this system are really small and I can easily imagine throwing one of these with a prime lens or a small zoom in the tank bag. As I was curious how I'd like using one of these, I rented an Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a weekend and played around with it.

Here are some results from the camera with the 12-50mm kit zoom.

Trying a Macro Shot

It was very cloudy at the coast, so I decided to play around with the build in ART filters. I really liked the "dramatic colors" setting:

Along HW1, CA

"Dramatic Colors" Filter, right out of the camera

Makes for nice car shots ...

More dramatic colors

There are a few other nice filters, like the "Grainy B&W" which I found pretty interesting:

Waiting for food

Some other ART filter


There are some other filters that I didn't really have good motives for, but I actually liked playing around with them and not doing post processing in Aperture.

Woodside, CA

More "Grainy B&W"

Another Macro attempt

JPEG right from the camera - pretty impressive

I have to say, I really like the image quality and I was surprised how much individual setup is possible with this little camera. 

What I liked (in no particular order):
  • nice electronic view finder
  • tilting touch display with high resolution
  • highly programmable
  • compact
  • weather protected (not fully sealed, but definitely not as problematic in rain as most other cameras)

What I really disliked:
  • heavy for the size
  • the kit lens is really large for a small camera system (although seems good quality)
  • hand grip - or better, the lack of one

Overall, the lack of a handgrip did the camera in. It's surprisingly heavy with the kit lens (~680g), and it's not easy to hold in one hand, it's just not ergonomic at all. The shutter button is also at a totally wrong place, my finger was always going somewhere else. 

Another thing that really annoyed me was the way too high sensitivity of the automatic display / view finder switching. When you get near the sensor, it switches to view finder. Which meant I had to switch this to "manual" as I couldn't take photos with the camera at belly level in front of me trying to take some sneaky shots. The sensor didn't let me get nearer than roughly 15cm to my body without turning off the display - I hated it. But I was surprised how much I loved actually having a view finder as it is much more natural to use for me.

The ergonomic problem can certainly be solved with an optional grip, but, really, come on Olympus, $300 for a piece of cheap feeling plastic? Really? You gotta be kidding me! No way. There are some cheaper ones on eBay, but they don't relocate the shutter button, therefore are not an option to actually solve the ergonomic issues. 


The E-M5 in its current form is not for me. I would have to buy the grip (too expensive) and I think it's slightly overpriced when compared to for example the Sony NEX-6 which also has an electronic view finder, tilting display, but an APS-C sized (larger) sensor. 

Olympus just announced the new OM-D E-M1, which should solve the ergonomic issues, but is also much more expensive (it's targeted at the more professional photographer, which I am certainly not), larger and about 20% heavier. Newer sensor and as it seems even better image quality. Impressive, but way over the top. Mainly also too big to carry around easily on the bikes.

What I find very compelling though is the lens selection in the M43 land - great primes from Olympus and Panasonic/Leica and some others. A M43 camera with 17mm and 45mm prime would be a very interesting package. Just have to find the right camera for it. I'll keep looking.