Most of you will be unsurprised to learn that I took the path of least resistance and bought the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (henceforth to be referred to simply as the OM-D).
I'd already decided that the Fuji X-Pro1 was not going to be the camera for me. That experience made it especially unlikely that I was going to buy any camera I couldn't work with first. Then Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, a great full-service camera store that understands folks like me who want to spend an inordinate amount of time handling equipment, got a new shipment of OM-D's. After an hour handling it and checking out test photos on my laptop, I bought it. I haven't experienced one bit of buyer's remorse.
(In case folks are wondering, I didn't explicitly reject the Sony NEX-7. For all I know it would suit me even better, but if I waited around for the opportunity to test out the camera with an appropriate kit of lenses, it was going turn into of those cases of better being the enemy of good.)
The OM-D user interface sucks, but I've said that about every digital camera I've worked with. At least the UI in the OM-D is very similar to the Olympus Pen's, which I learned to live with. In contrast, the UI in the Fuji was never going to be compatible with my work style. Fortunately, the OM-D UI is sufficiently customizable that I can circumvent many of its irritations, but it is a daunting camera to learn. I spent most of a full evening studying the 133(!) page manual, and a copy lives in my iPad.
Mostly I reconfigured the controls. By default, the INFO button brings up the "super control panel" (SCP). It's a good place to do initial setup and change the color space setting from sRGB to the much higher quality Adobe RGB; which is otherwise hidden in the menus. Beyond that I don't use it. Either I'm looking at settings I never want to change again or ones I change frequently enough that I want more speedy access. So, under Custom Menu D ("Disp/PC")/Control Settings, I changed the INFO button so that it brings up the Live Controls, not the SCP. (It took me over five minutes to find that again, so I could point you to it. %&^# menus.)
The OM-D has five customizable buttons, even more with some lenses and the auxiliary battery pack. I can do a lot with five buttons. See Custom Menu B/Button Function. The fn2 button, right next to the shutter release, became a manual/autofocus toggle. The record button, right behind it, now zooms the viewfinder for more accurate focusing. I changed the compass arrows to Direct Function and assigned the down arrow to bring up the ISO settings and the right arrow to bring up the exposure mode (single frame, high-speed burst, self timer, etc).
What to do with the one remaining button, fn1? I'll get to that.
The OM-D has an excellent 12-stop (give or take) exposure range, with a very attractive rolloff in the characteristic curve highlights. That's Raw of course, but I only do Raw photography, so that's all I'm gonna be writing about in these two posts. In Figure 1 the direct reflections of the sun in the glass of the greenhouse and the cars of the Ferris wheel are far beyond the exposure range of any medium, silver or silicon, but they fade out gracefully without looking artificially clipped.
Still, given the uncontrolled lighting situations I photograph under, there are often times when I want to bracket exposures to hedge my bets or to be able to merge frames later for an extended exposure range. The Olympus UI includes a substantially useless exposure bracketing function. It's buried in the menus with no easy way to toggle it on or off. Once it's turned on, every exposure you make (single frame or burst mode) from then on is part of the repeating bracketing sequence. To get back to normal mode, you need to dig through the menus. A useful auto bracketing function would be one that I'd call up for one-time use to fire off a single sequence of bracketed exposures. Is that so hard? Apparently it is for this UI.
Ah, but I can program it! The UI lets me create five custom sets of settings (called "Mysets"). First, I saved my normal configuration as Myset1. Then I set the camera for slow burst mode with image stabilization and autofocus on, ISO 400, ƒ/4.5, and a 5-frame 2/3-stop-increment auto exposure sequence. I saved that as Myset2 and assigned Myset2 to the fn1 button. Then I reverted to Myset1.
Now, if I want a bracketed sequence, I hold down fn1 with my thumb and press the shutter release. The camera starts firing off the auto exposure sequence at four frames a second. When I've counted off five frames, I release the shutter release. Voilà, it's done! I let go of fn1 and my camera is back in normal operating mode. I can even do this handheld, because modern HDR programs are good enough to compensate for modest differences in framing between exposures. I generated Figure 2 from such a handheld sequence.
Whew! That was a lot of work. What it's got me, though, is a camera that fits my working style much better than the out-of-the-box interface.
Now to put this to use.
Unlike with the Fuji X-Pro, I can use the OM-D's eye level viewfinder! It has built-in diopter correction, but more importantly the eyecup is centered over the LCD screen and a full centimeter back from it. Between that and my glasses, my nose doesn't even touch the LCD glass unless I mash my face against the camera. Even then I leave a nose print only on the extreme edge of the screen, outside the image area.
Fig. 3. These two eagles were way up there, engaged in courtship or combat. Photographed with the Panasonic Lumix 45–200 mm lens at 200mm. The eye level viewfinder was critical to me being able to track the subjects.
Most of the time I'm entirely satisfied with the LCD back screen, even in bright daylight. The eye level viewfinder's important when I'm working with a long lens. Four decades of practice have given me a near-instinctive ability to raise an SLR to my eye and center it on the subject. I haven't developed that skill with back-screen viewing. Eye-level viewing was invaluable in catching figure 3 with the Panasonic 45-200mm Lumix zoom at the 200mm setting. The two bald eagles were swooping all over the place as they engaged in aerial battle or courtship (with eagles it can be hard to tell).
Figure 4 is a 150% blowup from that frame. High art it ain't, but it's a birdwatcher's delight. We couldn't see anywhere that much detail even with binoculars. The enlargement in figure 5 shows enough detail in the feathers to tell us that these were juveniles and the aerobatics were play, although whether playing at love or combat is something we'll never know.
As a pertinent aside, I can't figure out why so many reviewers are lukewarm about this lens. Maybe I just got a cherry sample, but it's always been a great performer for me.
As another pertinent aside, the improved image stabilization in the OM-D works. I couldn't handhold at 200mm with the Olympus Pen unless the shutter speed hit a millisecond. Now I'm pixel-sharp at 1/400th of a second. The OM-D stabilizes beautifully even when tracking fast-moving "birds," as in figure 6. This is full frame, so you can't really see how sharp the original is, but I tell you it looks like those planes are frozen in solid glass.
Next week I'll start pushing the camera's limits.
Ctein—yes, he has just the one name, and it's pronounced "kuh-TINE"—writes weekly for TOP. His column appears on Wednesday.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Neil: "Had this camera for a while. Read a lot of reviews: some good, some indifferent. It just makes me smile when I pick it up!"
Ken White: "I was just looking at an architectural shot I made last weekend at the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Antonio. The image was made with a 45mm ƒ/1.8 lens handheld at 1/13 sec. @ ƒ/3.5 ISO 400. When viewed at 100% in Photoshop there is no motion blur. The detail in the image is remarkable.
"The E-M5 has plenty of user interface quirks. It took me some time to get everything set for my purposes. I also added an RRS L plate/grip to improve handling. Now I have a small, light and extremely responsive camera that works well for me. Makes me smile every time I use it."
Roy: "Since buying the OM-D (that's what I call it too) my D700 hasn't had a lot of work. Much of what's been said about the UI I'd endorse.
"One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the fact that the extremely small buttons are very easy to disturb inadvertently whilst handling the camera if it's powered up. I've actually had it erase the card accidentally by this means.
"Additionally the eyepiece plastic/rubber whatsit slides off very easily. It had detached itself and been retrieved many times before I eventually lost it. Amazingly Olympus U.K. sent a replacement (the wrong, deep, non-standard one, admittedly) within 24 hours. It's now taped on with insulating tape. In its absence wearers of spectacles can expect scratched lenses. The horrible, cheap plastic doodads that plug the flash shoe are likely to vanish pretty swiftly too if you're in the habit of using flash.
"Whilst not a show-stopper, it's a noisy little beast after using a D700 for years, too."
FW Scharpf: "It has taken me a while to be comfortable with the UI. I love the DR (ER), the detail and the lower weight (compared to my 5DII) And I am particularly happy with two features:
"One, the fact that I can now visually judge and control exposure when shooting (in the EVF or on the LCD). I only wish over/underexposure warnings (the 'blinkies') would also be available when selecting small AF areas on the touchscreen.
"Two, the fact that face recognition works perfectly when shooting portraits. In a session a few days ago, perfect focus on the eye lashes on the model's nearest eye was achieved in 90 percent of the shots taken with the Olympus 75mm at ƒ/2. A similar hit rate had seemed utopian when I was doing portraits with my 5DII. But you need to have face recognition turned off when not doing portraits. Otherwise the focus area will jump all over the screen in the search of faces.
"And since A3+ prints from the OM-D and from the 5DII are indistinguishable, I am now about to sell all my Canon gear."