THIS IS A ROLLING REVIEW
Sometimes, things just don’t happen the way you expect them to. As I picked up my little Olympus OM-D E-M5 a few days ago, simultaneously letting go of my very dear Sony NEX-5n, I was expecting it to be a better camera with a worse sensor than the Sony. Better handling, greater hand-holdability, better ergonomics, but also reduced dynamic range, reduced resolution, reduced high-ISO performance and possibly a lesser tonal finesse.
So much for expectations.
As the shot above illustrates (technically, a sunset, but the camera’s actual first light), dynamic range is crazy good. The sun was below the horizon, painting the white sandstone cliffs a magenta goodbye, and the sky’s yellow-orange to blue gradient is surprisingly well captured here. While at the same time the dark foliage at extreme left is placed in dark shadow but retains all its detail and colour information. Impressive performance indeed and something I would have thought only HDR could have managed using a sensor the size of an ant’s scrotum.
But that’s not all this picture tells us. On the upside is colour reproduction. This is nearly untouched out of camera JPEG. I simply sharpened (badly), increased saturation slightly and added a very slight soft grad filter (-0.4 stop) to the sky. Hues are absolutely spot on! Auto white balance, auto ISO, auto focus (on the lowly Panasonic Lumix 14mm f/2.5 pancake), auto everything.
On the downside, I think it looks much more “digital” than the NEX … Granted, I over sharpened. But still, there’s something gritty and over analytic about the rendition that reminds me of the first ultra-fi CD players that used diamond powder and unicorn feathers to improve the purity of their output but felt worse enough than a 200€ Rega turntable to make you want you scratch your eardrums out. It’s not that bad here, but there is something about the pictures I am getting that makes that (costly & unpleasant) sound ring in my mind again.
And the little beasty has more paradoxical oddities that make it hard to fall in love with yet cannot fail to stun.
Let me explain.
Look at this second picture. It won’t win me any awards, but technically, it’s good enough to make me want to grow nails and scratch my head. How that camera manages to get so much dynamic impact on the front tree leaves in sunlight, yet retain so much soft highlight detail in the white cloud, is really a mystery. If you’ve ever shot that sort of scene with Velvia and no grad filter, you’ll know how I feel. The result – again an out of camera JPEG with just a bit of highlight exposure lowering – feels like what the best negative films had to offer, without the wait at the lab and the six hours of dust spotting.
The lens helps. This was made using the Olympus Digital Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 (hereafter The 45 ;)) and what a little smasher this is.
Razor sharp, natural and creamy bokehlicious, just like Kai loves them. It lets you do what all good lenses do : chose distance and aperture purely by artistic design, not forced by technical imitations. I’ll talk about lenses in more detail in the next instalment.
A bit of a surprise, this. Again, the camera seems to play Janus here. IBIS is incredibly effective. You can set the lens focal length for which you want it to optimize its action. I’m not sure whether this adapts automatically to the lens attached (in the case of m43 lenses) or not, but that would be a plus. Suffice it to say I got 3-4 stops of improvement using the 45mm lens !!!!
But, and this is a a big but (grin) it seems to me that stabilization is more needed with this camera than with others … Have any of you noticed this at all?
The fact is that I’m used to keeping shutter speed at about 1/focal length on the Sony NEX-5n. With Lill’Ollie, it’s more like 1/3f for consistent sharpness! Hmmm! I’ll repeat my experiments with other lenses soon and will post a complete report.
Still, even if this is indeed the case, we’re looking at at least a 1.5 stop improvement with respect to the NEX-5n, all things considered.
If this section makes you think I’ve gone all soft and flowery it’s because it’s true. I spent all afternoon in a garden center looking for plants to fill the void left by those devastated by the coldest winter in gazania memory. Brass monkeys are still painfully healing and my emigration lust still twitches there and then.
But the pretty flowers are also there to show colour fidelity. And that really is a very strong positive with this lens (45mm f/1.8)/camera combination.
And for a hint of what Zuiko sharpness means, here’s a quick 100% blow-up.
Just for a quick comparison, here are two pictures of the same patch of irises. The first picture is from the Sony NEX-5n, the second from the Lill’Ollie OM-D.
Two things strike me : First, the colours or the irises is totally off on the Sony. This variety is a pale mauve hue, not deep blue. The OM-D wasn’t absolutely perfect (a tad too pale) but so much closer. Second, the Sony pictures feels more like a photograph while the Ollie’s looks more like a drawing. Am I imagining things or do you share this opinion ?
How about skin tones to round things up? Pretty convincing, believe me. This is a face I see daily and the hue is spot on.
Focus is very quick and, as you can tell, very accurate (click image below to see my reflection in the eyes). That’s the good news.
Not so impressive is the tendency to hunt when your subject is way out of focus, as if the camera wanted to stay in a preset focusing distance range that doesn’t include your target. For instance, if focus is at infinity and the flower is very close, focus will not try anything closer than a couple of meters. Focusing on a more distant object then on the very close flower works well. It all takes a second to do, but it feels like a bug to me.
Equally unimpressive is the ability to track moving objects. I followed my daughter around a sports shop as she tried on various pairs of roller skates and very few pictures were in focus on here face (even though the camera had detected the face). Before you jump to conclusions, I must try this again in continuous focus mode. Here (S-focus), the camera would lock focus on the face and I would press the shutter a bit later. My fault, I guess.
I don’t care much for autofocus. But, since there’s no way around it with some of the Digital Zuiko and Panasonic Lumix lenses, it’s just as well that, for the type of subject that interests me, autofocus is indeed as good as it is.
So can this little camera rival the 8 times more expensive Leica M-Monochrom and its dedicated sensor ?
Not if you wanna print big, it can’t. Why not ? Because there’s grain in images even in good light and at base ISO. In fact, removing it from the picture above also weakened the feeling of sharpness. So I ended up adding artificial grain, a look that matches the subject matter here. But the truth is, unless future tests prove me wrong, I don’t think I’ll ever be printing large in B&W using files from this camera. And this is probably where physics meet chequebook. It’s sad to say, but this won’t be my fina, desert island, camera. As surprisingly good as it is in many situations, it just doesn’t have a lazy-enough large-enough sensor at its heart to pound 40 inch blanc and whites from the hills of Provence.
This is an efficient camera, but not a fast one. You’ll never feel it’s holding you back, because autofocus is very quick, exposure and white balance are almost perfect and the various controls are well laid-out and intuitive.
But there is so much information at your fingertips (or eyelash tips) in the viewfinder that this is not a camera you will rush into bad, hasty, picture-making with. A press on the ‘info’ button at the rear of the camera flicks through several display modes containing absolutely all you need to make the most of any conditions (including : histogram, speed & aperture, exposure compensation, horizontal and vertical levels, IS mode … ) without ever leaving the viewfinder. So that you can think, compose and execute thoughtfully, doing the art while the camera does the maths. Perfect.
As others have reported, some buttons at the rear feel slightly squishy but it doesn’t bother me. The thumb dial could be a tad more accessible and the Fn1 button is too recessed to be easy to use (as is the replay button). But apart from that, it seems perfect. The battery and card compartments are solidly shut, the EVF is very natural and easy to use (could be a bit more colourful, particularly given the colour in files) and the build quality is really very good.
So there we have it. A very elaborate piece of technology that’s a real joy to use and produces lovely images taking care of technicalities and letting you focus on the image making.
A paradoxical camera with a colour rendition and dynamic range that feels more film-like that any other I’ve used before but with good light & base ISO grittiness that makes 100% inspection also feel more digital than any other in my stable before it. Hmmm …
Still, that’s not the final word !! There’s still RAW to explore. And there’s bracketing. Maybe, just maybe, bracketing and compositing could cure the grainy blues ? Stay tuned 🙂
In the next instalments of this rolling review, I will look at lens quality, both with m43 lenses and legacy glass. I will also dig deeper into art modes, advanced features such as the really fun-to-use tone curve adjustment feature, RAW file quality and management, HDR … Most of all, I will investigate how to extract the best B&W quality out of this little sweetheart. I have a few ideas from my astronomy days that would be nice to try. Oh, and Philippe and I will soon be doing a 4-way shoot out between 4 of the best digital cameras of the day. Hope to see you soon.
More sample pictures below. All using the Digital Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 lens. Crazy colours from that combo …
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Like your shots, its awesome! =)
Thanks so much. It’s a wonderful camera !
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Thank you for your balanced, thoughtful comments and sample photographs. I have occasionally struggled with digital, largely because I come to pixels with expectations forged in the film era. More lately I have spent a great deal of time with Olympus Pens, primarily using Canon FD lenses (old breech mounts) and Asahi m42 screw mounts, with an adapter. My general impression has been that the Olympus jpeg engine is very efficient and renders accurate colors, although I usually work with RAW files. Nevertheless, I know exactly what you mean when you say that some images, perfectly rendered, look or feel “digital.” Quite true. And it is more difficult to get the same response in black and white from many digital cameras, than from film. Nevertheless, the OM-D seems like an ideal camera, and perhaps my order will come in soon. Cheers, and enjoy the beautiful flowers in your garden.
John, so sorry I didn’t reply early. Only now have I noticed your kind comment. Have you ordered your OM-D ? After some months of use, it still feels like a wonderful camera. It will not leave me until someone makes a full frame mirrorless. And even then, it better be good. The stabilisation is fantastic, image quality is very good and everything about the camera is pleasing. Couldn’t be happier with it. As for the digital look, it can be ironed our to some extent. Tomorrow, I will be posting pictures of Hong-Kong at night that were processed to give an 80’s llok and the digital feel is almost lost. Wonderful 🙂
Thanks for your comment and, again, apologies for not replying earlier.
[…] then, my gear has been submitted to the greatest period of change ever : an Olympus OM-D E-M5 soon followed. In my mind, this is a better camera than the previous NEX, but doesn’t have […]