UPDATE : Rolling review on the way
I am writing these initial words in Notepad, tearing along the vineyards of Burgundy at 200mph in the fast train taking me from Paris back to my homeland Provence. They are just my meandering thoughts but I think and hope they can be useful for anyone investigating mirrorless in general or the Olympus m43 in particular.
So, in that TGV, I have no WiFi, no Internet. At this moment, my cellphone provides my ony shaky contact with the outside world. Gruelingly shaky, if such a word exists 😉
“We have two OM-D bodies in black and one M-Mount adaptors left […]” The email comes in as I simultaneously scan the mirrorlessrumors, leicarumors, TOP (The Online Photographer) and Luminous Landscape websites for updates on the Leica announcement. It is May 10th, 7.30 PM.
There is very little hope that anything interesting (to me) will come out of this but I have to check, just in case that X2 turns out to use interchangeable lenses, or some mirrorless camera able to use my R-mount lenses is announced.
Painfully slowly, pages load, offering nothing new except for reports of the dinner reception (who, in the Galaxy, cares ? ;)). Until the first specs come in, revealing … blah.
Yes, I would sell a lung for that M-Monochrom. But one lung is not enough for the insane asking price. As for the rest, as I said … blah. Boys will be boys, expensive Leica will be expensive Leica (except that boys will always be boys, whereas Leica might not always be … at all. They’ve gravitated close to extinction before).
Rant over. Decision made. Olympus OM-D EM-5 it is! Quick mail back to the shop and now I can relax.
Fast forward to May 15th. Back in Paris. I’m trading in the absolutely wonderful Sony NEX-5n in part exchange for the Olie.
“Only two there are, the Master and the apprentice.” So goes the legend of the Siths. And so goes my photography. It’s all about me and my only camera. “But who is the master and who is the apprentice ?”, would continue Master Yoda 😉
But the important thing is that I do not want to own multiple cameras. Only one and a couple or three lenses. That’s all I care to carry around, all I enjoy using and I make a point of selling old stuff to acquire new stuff. It’s not (only) that I’m cheap, but this actually forces me to be careful about my choices.
It also makes for fusional relationships between my gear and myself. I’m not a pro, I can afford to fall in love (not that pros don’t love their cameras, but they have to be at least a little rational about their choices).
And now that my mind is set, I cannot help remembering what an extraordinary little camera this NEX-5n is (all images on this page were made with the little Sony Pocket Rocket, as co-author Philippe calls the NEX line). I just love it. I wonder worry about making a mistake.
It has only been a few months since I wrote my #64. Welcoming the NEX-5N post, in which I explained how liberating the first few days with this little beasty had been after 6 claustrophobic years trapped in Canon and Nikon grey boxes. Well, the feeling of joy never left me and, although some limitations proved strong enough for me to make the move today, it remains one of the most pleasant cameras I have ever owned.
What this camera does best – with manual lenses – is to let you slow down, adapt exposure, focus and depth of focus, prior to pressing the go button and capture the desired image with a really lovely quality (meaning great dynamic range, nice colour, nice tonal subtleties and good resolution). The “look” of various lenses shines through to the final images and the sensor is well up to what 99.9% of amateurs will ever need. In other words, the keeper rate is higher with this camera than almost any other I have used before (see how well it handled the luminance range in the second picture, the sunset picture and the picture below, for instance, or the insane ISO 25600 4 pictures below). And what pictures I did fluff were often by my fault. That’s my definition of a great camera, whatever test benches think of it.
Well done Sony, I wish you well.
Hmmm … good one …
Objectively, I miss a viewfinder. On a tripod, not at all. But hand-held, I do. I really do. Some 30-year-old reflexes (behavioural, not cameras ;)) just do not want to die and I continually find myself bringing the camera to my eye. When the sunlight is too strong, for portraits, for fast action … I could have bought the Sony EVF, but it seemed too expensive at the time.
Secondly, as described in my previous post, Sony doesn’t give me the impression of taking photographers as seriously as pure players do. We are a psychotic bunch, not your average consumer-electronics John and Jane Doe. We care, probably too much. Sony doesn’t or not enough.
It was no fault of Sony’s that my NEX died on me right in the middle of Kalbarri National Park, WA, the one place I had been wanting to photograph for months. But not being to repair or exchange the camera back in Perth, in the largest Sony Center within 2000 miles, was a definite let down for me ! Not good, really not good, if you want to succeed as a serious camera manufacturer. Remember the pro segment makes money for no one and the entry-level trash is being eaten away fast by cellphones. What does that leave you with, Sony? The serious enthusiast … And that bugger will want his camera repaired when it fails. Nuff said.
Thirdly, the ergonomics are a bit too minimalist. A RAW button would be nice. And, as good as focus peaking is, it gets in the way – it could be switched on automatically when you half-press – and has its limitations. I occasionally back-focus with short lenses and long lenses can be a bit of a battle to get spot-on. And what about the histogram ? It’s there all right, but it took me 6 months to find, and only because readers of this blog told me where to find it. Menus are nice, but they don’t replace dedicated controls.
A troubling question, when you know I how much I’d like to switch to a larger sensor. Repeat after me, Pascal : “BIGGER pixels are BETTER pixels!”.
Yep! I know. Then why ?
Let’s backtrack to that fast train somewhere in Burgundy. That’s the question rushing though my head as I send the confirmation mail to the reseller holding an EM-5 body for me. “Are you really sure about this, or is it just fantasy ?”
When I was 12, over 30 years ago, my passion for photography outgrew my plastic lens point’n’shoot thingie of the period. My parents bought me what photo magazines were available at the time, cautiously removing images of beheaded soldiers in Africa from the photojournalism rag that made my first education. But they left the porn. The camera porn that is. And my first love was the Olympus OM-something (4?). However, my child finances could not stretch that high and I got a Mamiya ZE-2 with 50mm lens instead. And that was my only camera for many years. It made me discover the joys of B&W and the perils of developing slides 😉 It was great, but the Olie was still in my mind.
Not that childhood reminiscence is enough to justify buying a camera, mind you, there are other reasons to favour Olympus these days.
First of all, some utterly despicable human being dealt Olympus an almost fatal blow only a few months ago, potentially depriving hundreds of engineers from their livelihood (and millions of users from their cameras) to satisfy his miserable craving for money (one word to him/her : Karma !) The company has fought back and it deserves our help. I’m simply putting my money where my mouth is, hoping to help these valiant people.
Secondly, it’s sexy. The camera looks really nice. All that retro-styling-fashionista-thing started with the X100 leaves me totally cold. I’d rather see someone pushing ergonomics forwards like Sony does with the NEX-7, rather than turning to the past for marketing appeal. Maybe Europe would be in better shape if it wasn’t so obsessed with the ruins and paintings of its past and a little more focused on present needs and preparing the future, who knows? Anyway, retrogad or not, the OM-D E-M5 looks nice, and feels even nicer. It is solid enough to inspire confidence. Its quiet but chunky shutter sound really inspires confidence. And the dials, grip and thumb rest are just perfect for my hands. The viewfinder is lovely as well. Not as detailed as Philippe’s NEX-7, but more natural and less contrasty. It’s a TV alright, but feels more analog than most I’ve seen. How long I can live with it remains to be determined ;), but having both the flip-up rear mirror and the viewfinder – with little lag in between – is a blessing.
Third, Olympus Digital cameras usually produce lovely colours. The PEN’s do, at least, and there’s no reason the OM-D won’t. Sometimes, it’s nice to know your files will look great without major post-processing. Leica Ms are particularly adept at this and I have high hopes for the lill’Olie.
Fourth, the lenses. Olympus is one of the only manufacturers out there with a lens system as good as Leica’s. And vastly more affordable, at that (well, some lenses, at least ;)). That 12-60mm Digital Zuiko is right up there with the best and can be found for $6-700 on the Bay, if you’re patient. If it’s sharpness you crave, why not try the 150mm f/2, one of the sharpest lenses ever tested by SLRGear. As is that 50mm f/2 macro. The 12mm f/2 is rumoured to be a wonderful lens as wall. Cheaper ? Why not give the 45mm f/1.8 a try ? Cheaper still ? There are millions of non digital Zuikos just begging to be adopted for the price of a few pizzas. Some of which have really nice optics.
Fifth, just like that other brand … What else ? And that’s probably the most important point.
Sixth, IBIS. You know how so many review sites equate high ISO noise with image quality, these days … Don’t get me started on the stupidity of all this. If there’s anything wrong with the ISO range of the OM-5 it’s not going lower than 200. Don’t believe me ? OK, take 20 minutes to find your 10 favourite photographs of all time (made by you or any one else). Go! Now! 😉
How many were shot above ISO100? In my case, not a single one.
Your mileage may vary, but I’d trade anything above ISO800 for a sweet ISO50 or even 25 any day. Fewer filters for long exposures. Greater tonal finesse. Way to go.
If you’re not a wildlife, sports or wedding specialist, chances are you either want high ISO performance because some greedy website has made you think that way or because you think you’ll be able to grab more pictures that are not blurry. Wrong. I’ll write more about this in a future post, but trust me it’s not true.
However, the fact remains that this high ISO madness is doing the OM-D no good because, let’s face it, it’s not as good at 12800 as the Nikon D3s. Heck it’s not even as good as the X-Pro1 at 6400. It barely matches the NEX-5n at 3200, in fact. Gosh what a looser. Except that Olympus addressed the issue intelligently, giving us that IBIS magic which gives you at least 2 stops more (so you should be comparing the X-Pro1 at 6400 or 12800 to the OM-D at 1600, really) AND stabilizes your hand with long lenses and during video (so they say, I don’t even know what video means, except in latin ;)) Go, IBIS!
Seventh, marketing. The traditional drill goes like this : create a flagship that no one can afford/carry execpt some pros that make amateurs drool. Then reduce performance to create a range all the way down to something made of kinder plastic, the can’t focus in sunlight and has the exposure accuracy of a skud (ok, maybe I exagerate, but you get my drift ;)). Nikon and Canon have long been proponents of this strategy that makes you believe that, in following years, you can justify the greater expense of a camera that will make your pictures better. In fact Nikon suffered tremendous backlash from their idiotic “A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses …” campaign in September 2011. Long ago, I placed a bet long ago with co-author Caroline, arguing that Nikon would be the next Kodak (Kodak hadn’t folded at the time, but the writing was on the wall). But I may be wrong, because today the D800 is in no way an inferior D4. Nor is the 1 series a lesser D3x00. They all target niches, which is how product management should be done. Kudos Nikon. And that’s also the case with Olympus. They have always seemed to make the best possible cameras for a certain type of photographer rather than worry whether making a camera better might threaten the bigger brother (hint hint Leica X2 …).
Finally, the therapy
When the Panasonic GF1 was release, I wanted one immediately. When the GH2 was released, I wanted one real bad. When the Olympus PENs were released, I wanted one again. And yet, I didn’t order any of them.
The fact is I was unable to commit to investing into a system with too small a sensor. A system unable to get better.
But too small for what ? Better than what ?
Looking once more at the websites of people such as Robin Wong or Gakuranmanmade me realise what a di..head I had been and how I had been paying way too much attention to the louzy blogs and reveiw sites focusing on all the unimportant tech aspects of modern cameras.
The fact is a well exposed and focused OM-D photograph should withstand a fair deal of post processing and not break down in 20 inch prints. Who prints larger than that ? Not me, certainly. And if I did, I would be for landscapes or other types of pictres for which it is dead easy to stitch.
The cloud picture above (‘The tonal hole’) is a single frame with the NEX-5n and Voigltander Colour-Skopar 35mm II, but I also did a 4 frame stitch with the Elmarit-M 90mm that would cover a wall and proudly sustain close scrutiny.
What the NEX-5n is is a fantastic sensor in an appealing body. The OM-D takes the concept one step further towards in the ergonomics and build quality directions. That’s really what I need. Stuff pixel peeping at 12800 and thanks for the therapy 😉
You bet !
All this is just intellectual reasoning and, in real use, the camera could be a dog! I’ve only held one in my hands for 10 minutes, taking 20 quick pictures inside the shop and managing only one sharp one in the process. Focusing my manual lenses in the viewfinder wasn’t as easy as some have described, and that’s a worry.
Then, there’s the matter of tonal subtelty. To me, that’s far more important than absolute resolution and is where big lazy CCD sensors score easily the over small, busy CMOS imaging chips inside consumer cameras. For all I know, skin tones may be terrible and the natural gradations in clouds may be rendered with all the finesse of an angry rhinoceros.
However, it is too late.
As I write these final lines, I am tearing along the vineyards of Burgundy at 200mph in the fast train taking me from Paris back to my homeland Provence, 4 days later. The OM-D is on my lap. The 14mm Panasonic pancake I bought a couple of years ago (for that GH2 I never ordered) is mounted and a 45mm f/1.8 is still in its box along with a Novoflex adaptor ring for Leica-M lenses. The sun is setting again over this superb landscape, and I’m looking for a tree trunk to bang my head against for not having brought a memory card along with me. Stupid Stupid Stupid 😉
Still, initial impressions are very positive. Exposure compensation at the thumb wheel is perfect. Aperture/speed adjustment at the index finger also. Contrast curve management on the fly is impressive. And the electronic viewfinder is as pleasing as my recollection of it, feeling more natural than others I have used in the past. Pixels could be smaller, but highlight and shadow management really shines and makes this an enjoyable experience rather than a second-best OVF substitute. So far, I couldn’t be happier with Lill’Olie.
In a couple of hours I will be home. A card will be popped in. Let the game begin.
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