[Part I is here]
While I was satisfied with my Olympus Pen E-P1, there were two areas where I felt it could use improvement. The most important was exposure range, which was down in the 10+ stop region. That was just barely acceptable for me. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 (henceforth to be referred to simply as the OM-D) got me over 1.5 stops more exposure range, which made me happy.
The other was speed. Up through ISO 400 was great on the E-P1, and ISO 800 was usable, although it was pushing the limit for my really serious work (i.e., being able to make 17 x 22" portfolio-quality prints). Above that I ran into problems with large-scale chroma noise, related in this column. In a few situations where image quality wasn't the paramount concern, like roller derby photography, I could get away with ISO 1600, but mostly not.
The technical noise measurements do not hint at how much better the OM-D is. As I explained in the aforementioned column, it's not just about the quantity but quality of noise. The OM-D noise is extremely uniform and fine-grained. Up to ISO 800, it's essentially ignorable. When it becomes bothersome, the faintest whiff of noise reduction will take care of it.
At ISO 1600, noise becomes visible, but the image quality is still excellent. Figure 1 includes the full frame width and figure 2 is a 100% crop from that frame. Yes, you can see the noise, but there's no hint of large-scale patterning. It's very fine and even. The "grain" in a 17x22" print looks very much like what I'd expect from high quality 6x7 cm negatives. It's distinctly better-looking than the Pen at ISO 800. If the subject matter demands a truly grainless look, I can achieve that with an amount of grain reduction (figure 3) that is so modest that it doesn't visibly compromise real subject detail or texture.
At ISO 3200, the overall noise level is still acceptable, but very faint pattern noise appears in the values just above zero. I've brightened and exaggerated a 100% section of an ISO 3200 photographs in figure 4 to make this more visible. If you look carefully, you can see faint horizontal lines in the darkest tones, as if alternating rows of pixels are slightly lighter than their neighbors. Even a modest amount of shadow clipping to get solid blacks renders them invisible. It's not observable with the default settings in Adobe Camera RAW; I can only see it when I've extracted the maximum amount of shadow detail from the file.
With that caveat, it's still portfolio quality. Prints look like very fine-grained 35mm enlargements or moderate-grained 6x7cm enlargements. In practice, what's more likely to inhibit me working at ISO 3200 is the diminished exposure range rather than noise. I'll always keep the ISO as low as I can, but I'm not even going to think twice about cranking it anywhere between 200 and 1000, and I'm not going to think all that long if I need to push threefold beyond.
That's not my limit, although it is nearing the camera's. ISO 6400 and above is what's called "extended ISO." Really, it's just 3200 scratched out and 6400 written in crayon on the dial. Ditto 13K or the ultimate 26K. What the camera's doing is making underexposed photographs that get automatically brightened during processing to look normal.
To put it another way, if you make a photograph at ISO 3200 that's underexposed by two stops and render it with +2 stops exposure adjustment in ACR, it's going to look remarkably like one made at ISO 13K. Why even bother with such faux-ISOs? Because then the compensation's handled for you automatically and the review image you'll see on the camera's display will look normal instead of drastically underexposed.
Given that, is ISO 6400 usable? Surprisingly, yes. It even looks pretty good, if you don't go digging into the darkest shadows for that linear noise pattern. And, it's useful. Figure 5 was made under heavy overcast, and the mischievous lynx cub was moving mighty fast while trying to precariously balance on some too-thin branches. Submillisecond exposures were where I wanted to be.
Figure 6 is a 100% section of the photograph. The slight haloing and lack of sharpness is because I was shooting obliquely through thick glass; it's not inherent in the camera performance. I'm surprised it turned out as crisp as it did. Grain is now clearly evident, but remember that the on-screen image is much like looking at a section of a 30x40" print. I've dropped below medium format quality, in my judgement, but it's not dissimilar to a 35mm print from pull processed Tri-X. Ignoring the color business.
This is more noise than I can safely eliminate with filters, but I can suppress it. Figure 7 is about as far as I'd want to push without compromising subtle subject detail. It's still noisier than unfiltered ISO 3200, but I could go there. If I had to, that is, not really by choice.
But, wow—usable, halfway decent ISO 6400 that's better than the ISO 1600 I got out of my old camera? I'm okay with this.
What if you really need to pull out all the stops? 26K, anyone? You will get a usable photograph; see the 100% section in figure 8. It's not going to have much to recommend it: drastically reduced exposure range and very high noise levels, along with the now-omnipresent linear pattern and large-scale chroma noise (the blotchy color in the neutral gray car). There are two situations in which I could imagine using this setting: either I've stumbled across a First Contact or the Second Coming. Short of that, I can't think of anything that would make me go there. But it is there.
Summary? This is so much better than my old camera that I've retired the Pen. I don't even care about it as a second body. If I want a spare, I'll buy another OM-D.
What will I do with the Olympus Pen? Well, I've been toying with the idea of seeing if I can talk someone into hard-converting it for monochrome work. That would be a whole 'nother adventure, doncha think?
Ctein pushes the limits every week on 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.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Patrick Perez: "Am I correct in assuming that 'hard-converting it for monochrome work' would require not only removing the color array, but also rewriting the Raw software to remove de-mosaicing? I'm just trying to wrap my brain around the problem."
Dennis: "I have had the same experience with the OM-D vs. the E-P1 I've had for three years. I put the E-P1 up for sale on Amazon, but when you can buy relatively new Micro 4/3 bodies at steep discounts all the time, it wasn't going anywhere. So I'm just going to give it to a cousin who's looking to get into digital photography."
Mark Kinsman: "Thanks for a great hands-on real-world impression of the OM-D. I've had mine for a few months now, debating whether to go deeper into better glass. The Olympus 45mm and the Pany 25mm really reinforce what good glass on this body can deliver. Your bridge print is what convinced me to try Micro 4/3. Now, if only you would test the Panasonic 12–35 ƒ/2.8...."
Colin Work: "Although I still have some niggles with the EM-5, high ISO performance is not one of them—especially when converted to B&W. Twenty-five years ago I used to roam the streets of Dublin shooting Ilford's FP-4 and HP-5. The other weekend I went back with my EM-5 and went walk about. I was more than delighted to find the 'look' of the images was very similar to my old film work. But I also discovered this is a camera I can safely trust to use auto-ISO...in the 200–1600 range, it doesn't really matter what ISO the camera picks—it all works beautifully. That, coupled with the discreet size and tilt screen, may make this the best street camera ever."