Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Olympus E-M5–An Unbiased Review

Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by Olympus (I wish they did though, for I am helping their cause!). So I am not interested in making them rich. This is an unbiased review based on my experience alone. The cameras, lenses and any accessories that I mention here are owned by me and not given to me by Olympus.

The Question: Why I bought E-M5? I already have E-5, E-P2 & E-30, so why on earth I need another camera?

The Answer: Before buying, I did extensive research on the performance of E-M5 in various blog posts and also on the various forums and photography sites.

I was drawn in to E-M5 for following reasons -

  1. Brand New Sensor and High ISO Performance
  2. Weather sealing in a compact body
  3. Much matured IBIS
  4. EVF with sensor
  5. Pro DSLR Like Button Layout and Controls
  6. Touch screen operation
  7. Fast AF and 9FPS

I was not too concerned about image quality and stuff like that, because I am a long time Olympus user and I know what to expect. IQ, if anything, can only go up the scale.

So lets get on with the review on these 7 points

Brand new Sensor and High ISO performance: Sensor in E-5 was essentially same as in E-P2. But in my opinion E-5’s High ISO performance was much better than E-P2. From personal experimentations, I find that, in E-P2, I could dare to go MAX up to ISO 1600 (with a lot of caution). But in E-5 I could go up to 3200 easily. I have shot very frequently at ISO 2000 both indoors and outdoors with pretty good result .

But one issue always nagged me. I was still afraid of getting unwanted Chroma noise at ISOs over 800 on E-5 and E-P2. So I never put my camera on Auto ISO in these 2 cameras. If light was low, then I would test out the output at various ISOs by zooming in on the frames, and many times I would end up deleting the picture because of smudgy Chroma noise, especially in E-P2. E-5 performed much better, but I was still unsure of leaving it on Auto ISO from say 200-3200 because I knew at the back of my head that the sensor is same, although E-5 is much better at handling ISOs over 1600 upto 3200 (Don’t ask me how or why though!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

E-5, ISO-2000, @283mm of 50-200 + EC14, 1/250s f/4.9

But the situation changed with E-M5. One of the first tests I performed as soon as I got the unit home was its performance at high ISO. I generally hate using strong adjectives for anything (be it humans or things), but the pictures from E-M5 upto 6400 ISO were simply amazing and absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I double checked the settings a few times to see I was indeed shooting at 6400 ISO. To put it mildly, ISO 6400 performance of E-M5 simple blew me away. Very little luminescence noise (nothing which cannot be removed using Lightroom or Noiseware) and ZERO Chroma noise. In fact, there is very little smudgy Chroma noise even at 16000 ISO. So now you can imagine why I was impressed.

I have now reached a point where, on my E-M5, Auto ISO is always set at 200-6400 and I always shoot in Auto ISO (unless I am shooting on tripod). I now know that even if I get noise, I can always remove it in Adobe Lightroom easily. So, my worries about high ISO shooting have been laid to rest. Fantastic Job Olympus!! Hats Off!!

 


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
ISO 6400

E-M5,  @56mm, 1/6s, f/4.1  ISO-6400

Noise reduced in post processing

E-M5, @50mm, 1/8s, f/6.3 ISO-6400

Noise reduced in post processing

ISO 16000

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

E-M5, 1/15s, f/5.5, 32mm ISO 16000

Yes you read that right, it is ISO sixteen thousand

Noise reduced in post processing

E-M5, 1/30s, f/4.9, 32mm ISO 6400

Noise reduced in post processing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

E-M5, 1/10, f/5.6 ISO-25600 @33mm
Noise reduced in CS4
Chroma noise visible, still pretty usable

E-M5, 1/20, f/5.6 ISO-6400 @300mm (Lumix 100-300)

IBIS on and Mega OIS Off

Noise reduced in Post processing

 

Weather sealing in a compact body: Looking at E-M5 you would be excused for thinking its just another point-and-shoot camera. Its only when you hold it that you realize how sturdy it is. For such a small thing, it is quite heavy when you actually lift it. You can immediately see how well its built and whatever Olympus claims about its weather sealing must all be true and more. However, and this is just my personal apprehension, I would still say there is nothing like E-5. That tank can take anything. So I wont be doing to E-M5 what I did to E-5 in this video anytime soon. Having said that I know I can rely on its weather sealing as much I rely on E-5’s weather sealing. I have already taken E-M5 on heavy shower a few times and didn’t even bother to wipe it. Olympus has done what it does best, impeccable build quality!

This picture was taken under heavy rain. I was then standing in the rain with raincoat on and adjusting the settings while the rain poured all over E-M5

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E-M5, 1/80s, f/11, ISO-320 (Pouring Rain)

 

Much matured IBIS (In Body Image Stabilizer): My first camera with IBIS was E-30 and it’s a beauty, never let me down. Then came E-P2, although E-P2 had same IBIS mechanism as E-30, it was miniaturized to fit into E-P2 body. While it did a good job, I am still sceptical about claims of 4stop advantage by Olympus. I think that was a bit overrated. In fact when using Panasonic lenses (45-200 and 100-300), I prefer turning off IBIS on E-P2 and turning on MEGA OIS on the lenses. I feel IBIS on E-P2 worked, albeit with short comings.

Circa 2010 – Enter E-5- I think Olympus did put in quite a bit of work on the IBIS unit and I feel it had matured quite well. They just didn’t tout it as “All New IBIS” because, I think, it was essentially same as that in E-30 but with bug fixes. But I was impressed with those bug fixes, especially reset noise and the reliability. I truly believe it can provide upto 5 stop advantage as claimed by Olympus, although I have no scientific way to prove it.

Circa 2012 – Enter E-M5 – Just when you thought IBIS has matured and nothing can be improved further, Olympus surprises all of us with 5 axis IBIS! All the previous ones were only 2 axis i.e. vertical and horizontal movements. As we all know those are not the only movements you can have when you have camera shake. So Olympus added 3 more dimension, the pitch, yaw and roll and I must say, it works like magic, as can be seen from pics above. 

All Pictures above were taken handheld. Goes to show the amazing quality of IBIS

EVF (with proximity sensor): While I loved E-P2 for the cute little camera that it is, I have never been a huge fan of shooting through an LCD screen. The VF-2 EVF which I bought is fantastic, but I hate its form factor and also the fact that it sits on top of hot-shoe thus disabling my flash use with EVF. The built-in EVF with E-M5 is just what was needed and it does its job quite well. Suffice to that, I wouldn’t have bought E-M5 if it didn’t have built in EVF, simple as that. Having said that, there are a few bugs;

Things that can be improved

  1. Its not as bright as the VF-2. Provides a less brighter view than VF-2 or for that matter OVF of E-5
  2. The proximity sensor is too sensitive, when you are in review mode and use the touch screen, the screen changes over to EVF because your finger is too close and its sometimes very annoying
  3. When you bring the camera to eyelevel when you see something worthy to shoot, there is about 1 second lag before EVF takes over. This is annoying because once EVF takes over you have to wait till the target AF is acquired (which fortunately is super FAST) before you shoot. So it takes away the quickness that you desire and can have from such a beautiful camera.

Having said this, built-in EVF is definitely a right step forward. I think, it should be part of all Pen cameras. Few minor bugs need to be ironed out in next version.

Pro DSLR Like Button Layout and Controls: While E-P2 had pretty good controls over all. The tiny rotating ring on top of multi direction buttons was hard to use also the dials were not in the “standard” position. This resulted in a learning curve. The dials and buttons on E-M5 are perfectly placed and render it the pro look. It must have been a tough job for Olympus designers and engineers. What with having to work with such a small body and to give it a pro look! but the dials and buttons have been thought out well and they are adequate.

There are a few kinks in the armour though;

Things that can be improved

  1. You cannot set all the arrows of a four way control to various functions.
  2. There is no dedicated AF point selection button, have to use arrow key (that’s the reason for point #1 above, I think)
  3. No dedicated AEL/AFL button. Fn-1 acts as the AEL/AFL by default. Since I use AEL quite often I need it set on Fn1 always. So I “lost” my one function button on camera. E-P2 has AEL/AFL button, why not E-M5?!!.
  4. Although not related to buttons – there is no wireless remote support! Cant believe why you would leave that out!
  5. No direct Access to MySets. Why do you need the video position on the mode dial? You could have easily used this space and added few more entries to have MySets available over there. Or you could have designed Mode as a button as in E-5, which is such a space saver and so easily extensible!

So those are the issues in the design which need to be sorted out to make E-M5 truly professional.

Touch screen operation: First of all, I am not a huge fan of LCD or touch screen for that matter (except to review photos). But when I got my E-M5 I started playing along with it. I soon realized its importance especially in shooting candids, shooting with tripod and macros. its much better using the touch screen than the shutter release button when on tripod or shooting macro. It is definitely an improvement in right direction. I was pleasantly surprised how I have gotten used to using touch screen so much.

Things that can be improved

The issue with touch screen is with its usefulness (or lack of it) when using for super control panel. All you can do is just select an option and that too after you press OK button. For changing the settings you still have to use the dials. I wont say that’s a very good software design. I am a software engineer, If I designed this piece, I would have ensured the user has full control over the changes through touch alone. Not very clever I must say!

Fast AF and 9FPS: Fast AF or F.A.S.T AF as Olympus likes to call it, stands for Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology. Not sure what it means, but it works!

While the AF acquisition system on E-30 and E-5 is very fast and fantastic but the one in E-P2 leaves a lot to be desired. The AF acquisition on E-M5 is really fast and really accurate. And the best part is it works wonderfully even in extreme lowlight. I had NDx400 and CPL on, which is like -10 stop! And still the camera was able to acquire AF in a dimply lit room! Now, for me that is really amazing! Truly a job done well by Olympus!

9FPS – While for most shooting the 5FPS on my E-5 is adequate enough, but when I went to shoot birds in the jungle I found it wanting since I was afraid to up the ISO. Now coupled with High ISO performance and 9FPS I am an extremely happy guy as I am able to capture those fine moments.

Things that can be improved

Only one issue though. The buffer is too small. It fills up after 13 frames and I have to wait another 30 seconds while it clears. I wish it had better buffer.

Conclusion:

Sensor and High ISO Performance

10/10

Weather Sealing and Build

10/10

IBIS

10/10

EVF

8/10

Button Layout and Controls

6/10

Touch Screen Operation

5/10

Fast AF and 9FPS

10/10*

* Although Buffer is not too great, but the 9FPS still works fantastic for me

So, that to my mind covers E-M5. I don’t think I would be buying E-7 or E-9 or whatever Olympus comes up with as next gen pro system in four third (there are quite a few rumours around). E-5 in conjunction with E-M5 should serve me for a long time to come (my guess is at least 5 years). E-M5 has given me everything I needed in a (small, pro) camera.

There are other minor enhancements like inclusion of Anti Shock in the mirrorless system! which can be used in conjunction with sequential shooting to achieve time lapse photography (http://www.Olympusmpusamerica.com/cpg_section/cpg_support_faqs.asp?id=1583#28 )or the Ability to use in camera flash even while using it to trigger remote flashes (not sure if this exists in E-5). But those are icing on the cake for me! :-)

Ciao!

Puru

PS: Let me know if there are an inaccuracies through my Contact Page.