This is probably the toughest of the reviews to write, just because I want to cover a number of different points. You can probably think of this one as a catch-all, the place for anything that doesn’t exactly fit with the other, more specific posts that are coming (I’ve been writing them out of sequence). But anyway, here goes…
Although many of us may end up using the E-M5 for professional applications, there’s no doubt that we’ll also be using it for our own captures and side-projects. And from time to time, DSLR or not, pro or P&S user, we shoot landscapes or even revert to snapshot mode, so I’m going to be talking about things from this kind of standpoint here.
The E-M5 really makes things easy when it comes to this general kind of shooting. There are a lot of features to help with capturing quick snaps – viewfinder overlays, face detection AF, and of course the ability to switch between the EVF and the rear screen itself. In fact, using the rear screen may be easiest in some instances, especially via the touch-to-shoot function, which bears a lot of resemblance to taking photos with an Android or iPhone.
Even indoors in basic tungstun light (which is usually dark by camera standards), the AF is snappy and hasn’t had any trouble locking onto something – although it isn’t always the subject I want in the auto-AF point mode. The face detection seems to work well, although I have yet to try it extensively for portraits, but rather have used it in a room for quick family captures. As with all face detect systems that I’ve seen, it is occasionally confused and finds faces where there are none, but this is pretty minor.
I’m still stuck working with JPGs, which I hate (UPDATE: as of 27 April, limited RAW support is available from Adobe via Lightroom 4.1 RC 2), but even from them it appears that noise is very well controlled up to ISO 1600 (the highest I’ve gone so far). White balance is similarly well balanced; the Auto WB seems to adapt well to changing conditions and the specific WB modes have all looked good as I’ve tried them. This is, again, a point where the EVF shines, since having an immediate view of how the WB changes will look in the final image lets you know if the colors are right, or if they need adjustment. It’s worth nothing that the E-M5 has excellent WB adjustment options as well, with two custom WB settings (touch to set) and the ability to manually dial in a Kelvin value. All of which is great for landscape shooters, who can now work both exposure and color in real-time, before tripping the shutter.
For simple indoor shooting, the accessory flash is also useful. I was curious about the flash since I first saw it in the ads. The idea is brilliant, a pocketable flash unit that is essentially the same as a built-in flash, but doesn’t take up any permanent real estate on the camera. (I’m not sure why no one else has done this, actually.) There are two covers on the camera to remove before using it, and one on the flash itself, but then it clips into the hotshoe & accessory port and locks in place. The flash head itself is on a slight hinge; when down, it’s deactivated, but flipping it up turns it on.
There is a definite lag as the flash charges, just like you’d experience on a point & shoot camera. This lag occurs after each use, unfortunately, so you’re not going to rip through shots using the flash. But it is surprisingly powerful for such a small unit, and best of all has multiple controls, such as the standard red-eye reduction and rear-curtain sync, but also a fully manual mode. When it’s not needed, it fits easily in a camera bag or pocket, and comes with its own (slightly tacky) velvet case.
You won’t get anywhere near the performance of a battery powered, dedicated flash unit – but you also don’t have a giant honking flash mounted on top of the camera when you use it. A trade off that, in my opinion, is more than fair.
I want to wrap up this general (and somewhat rambling) review with a few words on lenses. I’ll no-doubt be writing full lens reviews at some point in the future, after I’ve had time to further evaluate them. But for the moment, I have two lenses: the 14-42mm kit and the Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm. As with the rest of this review series, I don’t spend time shooting test patterns. I want to know how a lens handles in the real-world. Much more of that to come, but here’s a few thoughts on the lenses I’ve been able to work with so far:
Olympus 14-42mm – this is a kit lens that adds $100 to the price of the body and, as you might expect, you get what you pay for. Aside from being the smallest lens I’ve ever seen (it takes 37mm filters), the tiny 14-42 is also one of the most plastic. Think “Canon 18-55” as a close comparison; plastic lens mount, plastic body, and somewhat loose build. Except for it’s trick of retracting to half-size when not in use, it’s fairly uninspiring to look at. However, it’s just the right size for the E-M5.
Its image quality is likewise similar to the Canon 18-55 IS – more than you’d expect, but nothing to get too excited about. I expected as much when I bought it, but decided it drop the extra $100 on the kit anyway, just to have a wide-to-standard lens to start with. It’s a decent landscape and general-shooting lens, and one of the cheapest wide-angle options for the m4:3 system. Moving forward, I’ll likely replace it with higher-performance optics, but for the time being it’ll stay in my bag.
Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm – this is the first lens I bought for my kit, and for one true use only: wildlife. With the 2x crop factor, this is a 200-600mm effective lens, and replaces my Canon 300L f/4 IS. I’ve only had limited time to test it, but I’m already gaining confidence in it. Its performance is definitely several steps above that of the 14-42. One of the perks of the m4:3 system is the cross-compatibility between the Olympus and Panasonic systems, where lenses from either can be used. The compatibility means that both AF and IS work with the lens – in fact, in this case there are two IS choices, as both the E-M5’s in-body IS and the lens’s built-in IS are available (but only one at a time, of course).
As m4:3 lenses go, it’s pretty big – almost as big as the Canon 70-300 IS. But it feels solid on the camera and balances well during use. And as I continue to get used to it, my number of good captures continues to increase
A final thought for this section – manual focus. There’s a combination of camera/lens tech at work here and the overall result is pretty good. Here’s why: on the camera side, using the MF ring requires one of two selections in the AF options menu. You can either opt for full-time manual focus, or AF with MF override (which is what we’re all used to with Canon’s USM lenses). As soon as you turn the MF ring on the lens, the screen (EVF or rear) blows up the center of the image, providing a zoomed view to help get the focus right. Hand held, this is still a little tricky to see, since camera shake becomes an issue. Tripod mounted (like for macro work) I think it would be excellent. The zoom display falls between the tech that we’re already familiar with; it’s not quite as good as a split-prism screen, but much better than the standard DSLR screen.
On the lens-side of things, MF is all fly-by-wire. It feels a little different that we’re used to, and the MF ring will pretty much rotate endlessly and isn’t quite as sensitive or smooth as some of the great, older glass. On the other hand, even the direction of turn is customizable in the menus, which again is nice for users of any system moving to the Olympus, as they can program in what they are used to.
From here on, I’ll be getting into more specific shooting situations. Stick around!