By Richard Chomko
When I read Mike's note a few posts back about how he was still not getting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 he'd pre-ordered, I emailed him and offered to write about my own first impressions of the camera, since I'd gotten mine just the day before.
I didn't even have to pre-order. I just walked into my local Henry's and asked to look at one. As it turned out, they didn't have one in stock, but further checking revealed they'd be getting three the very next day. Did I want them to hold one for me? Yes.
Like many of you, I'd been following the camera rumours and reviews for many months before deciding which camera I'd spring for next. Of course it's not like I really needed a new camera. My Nikon D7000 and Sony NEX-3 were still doing fine. So, was I looking for something bigger and better like the Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark III, or Pentax 645D? While that would be nice to have as well, the idea of a better smaller camera seemed a more compelling priority. Not to mention less expensive.
Now, the NEX-3 is pretty good—I like the tilt screen and big sensor, the light weight and small size. But there is no eye-level finder, and I'm not comfortable taking it past ISO 1600. Also, there is not much to chose from in the way of lenses that aren't huge relative to the camera. In comparison, the OM-D is actually a bit heavier, and, thanks to the faux pentaprism on top, a little bigger as well. But it still fits easily into the laptop pocket of my backpack, which is where I'd been carrying the NEX.
The last two times I bought new cameras they sat around for a few months before I started using them. Not so with the Olympus OM-D. I started using the OM-D the very same day I bought it, although it was late by the time I stepped out under the streetlights...
...Which is where I discovered the first minor annoyance with this otherwise enjoyable camera. While using the rear tilt-screen finder to frame my night shots, I found that that finder would periodically black out. Eventually I figured that it must be because it was so dark out, the camera assumed I had put the eye-level finder to my eye.
The built-in eye-level finder of course is one big new thing that differentiates the OM-D from previous Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras. The OM-D's eye level finder refreshes much faster than the Panasonic add-on finder for the GX1, and it's less position-sensitive than the admittedly more hi-res finder on the NEX-7. What I mean is, particularly if you're an eyeglass wearer, the position of your eye relative to the finder is less critical on the OM-D. That's a good thing. For me, the Olympus finder is detailed enough, colour-accurate enough, and refreshes quickly enough. When I pan the camera, the finder image holds together well enough to be useful for following action. Most of these are not things I could have said about the previous generation of EVF finders.
Workflow-wise there are trade-offs with an EVF. You get to see the picture you took immediately in the finder, for an adjustable length of time. Which is better than checking it on the back of the camera, because you're not troubled with ambient light. But checking every picture after you take it does compromise your ability to take follow-up pictures quickly. No doubt that post-view could be turned off if you wanted.
Autofocus on the OM-D seems to involve almost no perceptible delay in most situations, although it was challenged somewhat outdoors at night. But in normal picture-taking it seemed as fast or faster than my D7000, with the added bonus of face detection. In the 500 or so pictures I've shot I never felt I had to manually choose the focus point. Not that the camera always chose the right point, mind you, when there were faces at different distances.
My most intensive test shoot with the camera was at a farmers' market last Saturday morning. I often shoot there with my Nikon, and it was great to be able to get a higher point of view with the OM-D just by tilting the screen and holding the camera up over my head—which is how I took the shot at the top of this post. With a regular SLR I'd have needed to stand on a chair to do that. Looking at the pictures afterwards in Aperture, I don't notice any camera shake in spite of shutter speeds in the realm of 1/40th. Thank you, in-body image stabilization.
At one point on Saturday I showed the camera to a friend. He noticed that it was warm. From the heat of processing all those pictures I'm sure. Still, it wasn't anywhere near uncomfortably hot to hold. I had shot maybe 250 pictures within the space of an hour or so. Which brings me to another downside of this camera—battery life. I managed to drain the battery taking some 400 pictures in the course of two or three hours. Of course it wasn't fully charged when I started, so I don't really have an accurate fix on how many shots it's good for. But with my Nikon I can go for weeks without charging the battery and have never run it dry. I think for traveling especially, an extra battery or two would be important.
I like the shutter sound. It's a nice quiet thunk that will go unnoticed in most situations. Exposure compensation is easy, using a wheel just below the shutter release. Auto ISO seems limited to the 200 to 1600 range which works well for all but fairly dark situations. I haven't found it easy to go into the menus to crank up the ISO beyond that, but that'll improve with practice. If you're using the eye-level finder you can set the rear display as a menu screen to choose one of several parameters to adjust in a fairly direct way. ISO is one of these.
The 12–50mm kit lens option was a factor in helping me choose this camera. I like being able to go as wide as 24mm equivalent (on a full frame 35mm camera) and 100mm (equivalent) is enough telephoto for me. On my Nikon DSLR I use the 16–85mm zoom to cover a similar range. (Thanks to Sony for pioneering that particular zoom range on their R1 and again for their Alpha DSLRs a few years later.) Of course the Olympus lens is rather slowish (ƒ/6.3) at the tele end. Interestingly, the lens doesn't change length while zooming, and can be zoomed either manually or with a servo motor (mainly good for video). The manual zoom feel is not the greatest, but that's a minor quibble about an otherwise sharp and inexpensive lens.
All in all the OM-D is a fun camera to use. It has just about all the features you'd want in an everyday carry around camera, aside from maybe a Leica M style range/viewfinder. But with its tilt screen, in-camera stabilization, built-in eye level finder, state of the art high ISO performance, vast range of Micro 4/3 lens options, retro styling and ergonomic functionality, it's easily worth the $1,000 price to me.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Dennis A. Mook: "A stunningly sharp image of a whitetail deer I made this week that matches anything I have done with my 'full frame' DSLR. This was a 'grab shot' from the driver's seat in my car. My wife and I were on Skyline Drive in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains when the deer appeared at the edge of the woods. I slowed, stopped, picked up the OM-D with the Panny 45–200mm set on aperture preferred at ƒ/5.6, and made the photo. ISO was 200 and I believe the shutter speed turned out to be 1/640. No exposure compensation used. Color, white balance, contrast, saturation, etc. are right out of the camera. I used some export sharpening (normal setting for screen viewing) in Lightroom. Other than that, the OMD and lens performed well. I'm a happy guy."