Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Introduction

[Image Credit: Olympus America]

[Image Credit: Olympus America]

Since I know that many people are still anxiously awaiting a shipping notification for their own OM-Ds, I’m going to forgo my usual policy of delaying gear reviews until after I’ve used the equipment for several weeks, and share whatever I can with you in hopes that, when you do receive your shipments, you’ll know what to expect. (Or, at the very least, maybe this will keep you entertained while you wait!)

I’ve had my OM-D for two weeks now and during that time I’ve begun putting it through a series of test situations to evaluate its performance. The main purpose behind these evaluations is to prove the viability of the m4:3 system to myself. I’m buying into it as a replacement for my Canon EOS kit; however, until I’ve spent a little more time with the m4:3, I’ll be maintaining a pared-down version of both systems.

My decision to leave Canon didn’t come lightly and I’ll admit, there are still times when I think about it and break out in a sweat. After spending 6+ years with a system, you start to feel like it’s part of who you are; “I am a Canon shooter.” Ridiculous as this may be, it comes from knowing the system so intimately that you can find the buttons without looking, can navigate the menus in your sleep, and know how it will respond to almost any situation without having to ponder it. That’s a lot of comfortable security to be giving up.

But here are the downsides, in my view:

  • The Canon system is big. Shooting wildlife with the 7D and 300L f/4 IS was heavy and, after several hours, tiring. With the 1.4x TC included, the whole setup was well over a foot in length and weighed upwards of 5 lbs. I started buying different neck straps to stay comfortable. I kept having to purchase bigger bags to accommodate the growing gear. The cabinet I bought specifically to house my photography equipment can barely hold it all.
  • The cost is rising. Looking at Canon’s newest lens releases, the prices are climbing steadily. Dream lenses, like the 200-400L, are always going to be just that – a dream. I will never be able to justify a $10k price tag. In fact, I have a hard time trying to justify the price tag of a 70-200L f/2.8. But for me, I think the chincher was the new 24mm & 28mm USM lenses from this past winter: $800+ MSRP for a basic, consumer-level lens.  Aside from IS, they have no real perks of any kind, just a basic prime. I find that ridiculous. And I won’t buy into it anymore. And honestly, I cannot afford to.
  • The technology is evolving. I’ve spoken to this point during the past few months, so I’ll be brief here. My 7D is an amazing camera, but it’s also based around old technology. The OM-D and it’s m4:3 brethren represent a new direction for photography, one that takes advantage of the latest tech. And the benefits are already clear – in-body IS that works with all lenses, EVFs that show your exposure changes in real time, plus all the usual selling points like magnesium bodies and weather seals.
  • The Canons are obvious. Take my trips to NYC, for example, where I am already out of my element and uncomfortable. Adding a Canon DLSR and big white lens makes me feel like I have a target painted on my…backside. Heck, there are parts of my own community where I realize that such a rig makes me especially visible. And as a result, I stop bringing the camera with me. “It’s too big, too unwieldy, too visible,” I tell myself. And so it stays at home (where it doesn’t do me any good at all). I know this is lame, but it’s also true for me.

The m4:3 system addresses all of these issues in a way that strongly appeals to me, and the Olympus OM-D does so specifically. It is already cheaper, lighter, and more comfortable for me to work with. In some ways it is easier – although there is most definitely a learning curve. It will take hours of experience with it before I reach the same level of comfort that I have with the EOS system. But having already taken it out into the marsh in search of wildlife, I can say for certain that I had more fun using it because it was less work to use it. And to me, that’s priceless – that puts some of the fun back into photography.

So here’s the deal… I’ve setup a series of review posts based around my own experiments with the system. I’m not interested in shooting test patterns and measuring lens sharpness at different apertures – what I want to see is real-world results. That’s where the useful data is at. And that’s what I’ll be doing, and sharing here. Real-world applications, setups, shooting procedures, and then the results, be they good, bad, or ugly.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be working off the schedule below – or at least some approximation of it. As always, I welcome any comments or questions you have, and if there’s something I’m not covering in my tests, please let me know and I’ll see about adding it to the list!

  • General Overview – my thoughts on the physical aspects of the camera, menus, layout, ergonomics, etc.
  • General Shooting – starting simple, using the OM-D in a general setting to capture “snapshots.”
  • Studio Work – using my existing Speedlight kit with static subjects (food, products, etc).
  • Portraiture – a combination of ambient & flash lighting with one or more models
  • Wildlife – using the OM-D & Panasonic 100-300mm lens in the field for birds (and any other critters I can find).

There’s good stuff to come! Stick around.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. I know what you mean about the Canon system. I’ve owned half a dozen bodies and about the same number of lenses in the last few years. I’m now down to a single 60D body, 85mm 1.8 and 28-135 zoom. They generally stay at home and I carry a couple of m4/3 cameras mounted with AF primes and legacy MF lens.Sure there are differences in image quality between my 60D and my E-p2 but portability easily makes up for that. Just try carrying a big black camera in a Honky Tonk sometime. “You ain’t from around here are you boy?” is a common question.
    Looking forward to the E-M5 when B&H gets around to shipping it. I can’t wait to try it out in Luckenback which is one dusty place in the summer.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks for the comment, Ken! I agree that the portability more than makes up for whatever loss of quality exists between the two – although I think that the E-M5 is easily on par with the Rebels I had. I’ve never tried walking into a honky tonk with an SLR before, but I can imagine the response – not cool. Hope that yours ships soon!

  2. I used to shoot an Olympus OM-PC. Then I migrated to the Canon A2. Then the 20D, and from there to the 50D. I have become very attached to the nice big control wheel on the back. (which the Rebel series lacks, I think).I’ll be interested in your comments on the OM-D controls, the smal size buttons (so I’ve heard), and how you feel about the lack of a rear control wheel.

    • Brent Pennington

      Like yourself, I was quite attached to the rear control wheel. Having had both XXD series cameras and the 7D, as well as Rebels, I definitely preferred the control wheel over the Rebel’s selection button. Fortunately, the OM-D maintains the dual control wheels. While the placement is different (both on top), I find that it’s easy to control the front wheel with my shutter finger, and the second wheel with by thumb for aperture/exposure comp. adjustments. As for the buttons, they are small, but I’ve gotten used to them – although my fingers still have to search for them sometimes, if I’m trying to make changes without taking the camera from my eye.

  3. Here is how much things have grown http://photodudeimages.blogspot.com/2012/04/zoom-creep.html

    I would love to see the size reduction and hope it comes soon with the larger sensors.

    • Brent Pennington

      Mike, I think that sums it all up perfectly! Both body and lens sizes have grown considerably. I know that, to some extent, lens size is dictated by the physics of the optics. But I think the EVILs are proof that there can be smaller, lighter alternatives (albeit with some trade-offs, of course).

  4. A. Leyland

    RE: “the new 24mm & 28mm USM lenses from this past winter: $800+ MSRP for a basic, consumer-level lens. No IS, no weather sealing, no perks of any kind, just a basic prime.”

    This statement, excerpted from your article above, is factually incorrect. The recently announced Canon 24mm and 28mm EF mount lenses do, in fact, feature Image Stabilization (“IS”). See the Canon USA Press Release of February 6, 2012:


    The decision whether or not to characterize these optical products as “basic consumer level”, of course, is still up to you.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thank you – I stand corrected regarding the IS (and have corrected this error in my post). I don’t know how I made that mistake when writing the post, as I was aware that the IS had been included – guess it was a premature senior moment 🙂

      However, I do stand by my opinion that both lenses mentioned are basic consumer level, with price tags inconstant with their features.

  5. Hi Brent… I’m looking very hard indeed at the OM-D, having a nice set of m4/3 lenses. While I can be confident that the usual matters regarding performance are going to be well shaken out here or there online pretty quickly, since this camera does appear to have been nicely sorted out up front, there’s one aspect that may be harder to judge for awhile from testimonials — the sensor system’s compatibility with adapted manual focus lenses, particularly “rangefinder types”. The wider angle primes seem to present the greatest technical challenges, from reports on their use with NEX and Fujifilm mirrorless cameras.

    My personal interest currently lies with the lenses I have for the Contax G system: 28mm Biogon, 45mm Planar, & 90mm Sonnar. I own both m4/3 and NEX adapters for Contax. If you can somehow get a hold of an adapter and some wide angle lenses for a trial — maybe Leica M mount or M39 — your input on this question would be greatly appreciated. Heck, I’ll settle for some second-hand reports from one or two folks you’d trust! Thanks.

    • Brent Pennington

      Hi Fred – thanks for the question, it’s a great one! You’re right, it’s a lot harder to evaluate how well MF lenses will work with the E-M5, compared to the usual, built-in tech features. The best way, of course, will be to throw the lens in an adapter and go shooting – although that isn’t always practical, especially if you don’t already own the MF lenses 🙂

      Unfortunately, I don’t have any solid answers for you on this one. I’ve been wanting to try this myself – and think I’ll go ahead and order an adapter this weekend. I have a pair of Takumar m42 lenses (55mm and 135mm). Neither of them is very wide, so I know that won’t address your question exactly, but I’ll look into finding a wider MF lens, at least to borrow for some testing. (Any suggestions for good, relatively inexpensive MF lenses?)

      I do know that a lot of folks are really excited about the E-M5’s ability to work with nearly any MF lens, but so far I don’t have any contacts who have tried it. (The limited release of camera bodies is probably part of that.) I’ll keep an ear open, however, and will let you know if I hear anything – I’ll also be sure to post about my own experiences once I get an adapter.

      • Thanks for the interest, Brent. And congratulations on the pleasant, upbeat tenor of your blogsite.

        I think there is a fairly substantial amount of [niche?] interest in adapting MF lenses to these mirrorless cameras. The particular advantage of this class compared to DSLRs is the short flange back distance, which allows for adapting either rangefinder lenses or those originally designed for SLRs. A Pentax K-1, by contrast, offers no more flexibility than a K-5 DSLR in this regard, since a virtual mirror box space is built in so that it can take K-mount lenses directly without an adapter — a somewhat disappointing trade-off, from my personal viewpoint. Read on…

        The point here — and I suspect this is one many photography enthusiasts have overlooked — is that accommodating the mirror action in an SLR has for a long time limited the options lens designers have had for optimizing their designs, particularly at the wide angle end. The retro-focus approach/compromise typical of SLR WA’s tends to make distortion control, for example, a more difficult (and costly) proposition. When you then take into account the crop factor involved when using MF lenses on these new cameras — particularly so, the 2x crop factor of m4/3 systems — such considerations start to loom larger: If you can’t beat what’s out there among the “ready fit” options available, many would rightly ask, what’s the point of a MF “workaround”?

        There are, of course a couple obvious answers to that. NEX and X-Pro 1 enthusiasts and prospective owners know that truly attractive lens options for more experienced or demanding users make a relatively short list at present. Here, Olympus and the m4/3 camp enjoy a distinct advantage, especially when it comes to prime lenses of praiseworthy performance at more affordable prices. The second answer to why is the glut of now generally neglected lenses of many types from the film-dominant era. There are bargains at auction online; but probably much better bargains to be had locally at flea markets and garage sales in many places. Do a search, and you’ll soon find reports of gratifying successes with these lenses from the more adventurous (or impecunious) enthusiasts. And some distinct disappointments, as well — because there seem to be few guidelines being offered as yet to assist in prejudging compatibility with the various sensors. And the manufacturers aren’t helping out, understandably enough.

        It would be great if some enterprising person got up a website to consolidate information about “best buy” legacy lenses for adapting to digital bodies, along with a database on the compatibility issues reported. Meanwhile, one just has to ask around, search ‘flickr’ and other user groups, or dive in and experiment.

        The old argument used to be that some lenses were just “too good” or too expensive for micro two thirds. Rather than argue the point, I can now say that the OM-D E-M5 demonstrates that time moves on, and so does the definition of what these cameras, formerly dismissed by some as “bridge” models, may be (and yet become).

        For specific lens suggestions, then? Well, my own place to start has turned out to be the lenses for the Contax G system. These have a small (?) downside of needing an adapter with a focusing ring which then drives an internal focusing mechanism via a “shaft” or “screw” connection on each lens. The adapters are out there, but so are reports of variability among samples in the smoothness of focusing performance. In general, the performance of a number of legacy lenses has critically depended on the construction quality of the adapters employed, according to numerous reports.

        The upside is the reported Leica-rivaling (and by the claims of some folks, in certain applications, “beating”) performance. In separate auctions, my 3 Zeiss/Kyocera lenses — 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm — came at a total cost well under a thousand dollars. That figure will get you maybe 60% of the way to ONE “second tier” Leica lens with modern coatings and correction on the used market. Not to mention that a first generation G1 body in nice condition can be had for about $160 or less (more interest is focused on the later G2, though the older model retains one or two advantages). If it breaks… buy another! DON”T DISMISS FILM, BTW: If you think a Rebel DSLR in combination with the usual lenses is going to rival a good scan from the Contax’s full-frame 35mm film output right across the frame, well…

        To briefly state it, the 21mm and 28mm Zeiss Biogons have a substantially symmetrical orientation of the internal elements, which leads to extremely low distortion performance plus remarkable sharpness and contrast all across the field of view. And they deliver wide open, or one stop down. Here’s where that inherently lower compromise of the rangefinder design lenses comes into play. Snoop around online and you can see for yourself how hard a time your affordable/lug-able Canon and Nikon WA’s (especially zooms) are likely to have competing on those aspects of performance, especially at wider apertures — IF that sometimes elusive compatibility factor is stacked in your favor.

        Of course, what constitutes a comparatively apples to apples competition depends on what crop factor you’re working with and what’s available in the conventional options. But if you’re interested in landscapes, “rustic’ architecture… subjects that permit you to work deliberately… something like this could be your ticket. I am also looking forward to
        carrying a sharp-wide-open, 35mm-equivalent (on m4/3’s) 180mm f.2.8 narrow body lens weighing 8.47 oz. to complement the tiny, but excellent Olympus 45mm f.1.8 prime. I don’t expect I’ll need to carry a heavy, bulky long zoom too often. Cool.

        So, there are some ideas. I hope I can encourage some intrepid explorers to start experimenting with the OM-D to help us legacy lens fans get the measure of this camera’s sensor system friendliness for taking this approach. Focal lengths shorter than 35mm seem to have presented the most compatibility issues from what I’ve seen online. Too bad about the 2x crop factor for m4/3’s, though, I have to admit. However, when that short flange back design, full-frame sensor body not branded Leica [$$$] finally appears, life could get a bit sweeter in a hurry… Good luck, explorers.

      • Brent Pennington

        Awesome info here Fred – thank you very much for sharing it with my readers! I think there’s huge potential for old glass with these new m4:3 systems, especially as they continue to evolve. While MF glass isn’t ideal for all situations, there are a lot of shooters out there who will be able to make the best of it, and take advantage of a wide variety of superb optics at prices that are suddenly a whole lot more affordable, even with good adapters.

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