Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Studio Work (static)

Although the majority of my personal work takes place outdoors, my professional ventures are split about 70/30, with the smaller portion taking place in an indoor studio setting, be it with models, products, stock, etc. Although I’m really dying to get a model in front of the E-M5, I’m taking this one step at a time and starting with static subjects. (Who am I trying to kid – I just haven’t gotten around to booking a model yet!)

This is a simple series of test shots, but it proves several important points and has gone a long way to furthering my respect for this little camera and what it’s capable of. Since we’re working with small items here, in a static setup, what better to use than the last of my Canon gear? Not only do I get the test shots I’m looking for, but I’ve also got pics for my sale ads online now.

Here’s the first thing about the E-M5 and lights – it works with the YN-602 radio slaves. This was one of the first things I tested with the E-M5 and it was one of the biggest reliefs. There’s no reason why the radio slaves shouldn’t have worked, but with a brand new system, and no information available online, you never know for sure until you try it for yourself.

But there’s a flip side: the maximum sync speed is slower than the Canons. According to the manual, the E-M5 is capable of a max sync speed of 1/250, but I’m assuming this is only with Olympus flashes. With my YN-460 IIs via the RF-602s, 1/250 loses about ⅓ of the frame to the shutter and even at 1/200, the top edge shows a dark, graduated band from the shutter. Pure sync speed isn’t achieved until 1/160.

Click to view larger

This isn’t an issue with static subjects in a controlled setting, but that 2/3 stop in shutter speed could be an issue when you’re shooting outdoors with flash and trying to keep the lens as wide open as possible.  (I say 2/3 figuring that it’s easy enough to shoot a little bit wider at 1/200 and crop out the top edge.)

This is the kind of situation where a continuous light source would really play to the camera’s strengths. With flash, the EVF can’t accurately preview the exposure the way it can with a continuous source. I suppose that in this regard, flash lighting is “old” tech, just like optical viewfinders are “old.” (I’ve been hearing a fair amount about LED lights lately, and suppose they’re either a fad or the “wave of the future,” although I haven’t dipped my toes in that pond.)

What I found most surprising was the AF accuracy. My studio in this case was my living room, and the only ambient light came from the TV on one side, and a table lamp in the corner – so it was dark, by photography standards.  As in, not much faster than a full second exposure and certainly out of range of hand-holding, even with the new IBIS system.  Shooting black lenses, I know for a fact that my Canon 7D would have hunted for focus and, in the end, I would have had to either turn on more lights or use a flashlight to lock focus. Not so with the E-M5, which was able to lock focus on the first try, each time.

I’m going to throw out here that the E-M5’s autofocus system has impressed me every step of the way, from the day I got it. After all the online hoopla about contrast-detect vs. phase-detect, I had my worries over how well the AF would perform. And while it may not (yet) be perfect, it is very damn good. The AF is fast and thus far, I have never had a lens hunt. It just locks focus on the target, or if it misses that, then it may lock on the fore or background, but there is no more hunting. (Thank goodness.)

Even the 14-45mm kit lens impressed me in this test. Since I’m shooting relatively large objects at close-range, I set the aperture for f/5.6. DOF is deeper on the m4:3s cameras, and at it’s longest, this is the lens’ maximum aperture, so it seemed a logical point for good DOF and balance of flash power requirements. Now, lacking one of the primes at this point, I haven’t had a chance to test of the DOF and bokeh capabilities of the camera yet, but I was amazed to see that even in this application, there was noticeable (and pleasing) focus fall-off in the images. In fact, I probably could have (should have?) shot at f/8, just to keep the items in better focus from front to back.

But the real point here is that there is good focus fall-off, especially in situations where the physics play to it (camera → short distance → subject → long distance → background). Having seen this with the kit lens, I no longer have any concern about the ability of m4:3 to capture a sharp subject with a great OOF background, which is usually what I’m aiming for with my portraiture work.

Notice the shallow DOF and quick focus fall-off from the lens hood back.

On a final note, I changed the Picture Modes setting for this shoot. The camera arrived with the Neutral setting applied, but I switched to the i-Enhance mode. The manual is wonderfully vague about what this actually means, saying only, “Produces more impressive-looking results suited to the scene.” Who knows what that actually means, but the resulting JPG files were more “impressive looking” I suppose, so I guess it worked. (Note that the Picture Modes only apply to JPG files, not RAW images.)

UPDATE: I wrote this post last week, before the ACR update was released, so the photos were shot as JPEGs, with limited editing done to them (hence the backgrounds not being completely white).  With the ACR update, we can now shoot and edit RAWs, which is the best way to do it.

Conclusion?  The EM-5 is a joy to work with in a static studio setting.  While flashes don’t play to it’s EVF strength, I can only imagine that shooting natural light, with reflectors or a constant source, would be a piece of cake.  Especially when combined with the camera’s excellent mid-range ISO performance.

Next time – shooting wildlife with the EM-5.

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. Max Young

    Great article Brent. I can’t say that I have tried pairing my OM-D with cactus triggers yet, simply because my new Olympus hasn’t arrived yet!!

    1/160 max sync speed is indeed what I use with aforementioned triggers and my E-PL2.

    As for my Canon gear, it is just about gone too. Only 1 5Dii body to go and it’s EVIL gear all the way!

    Keep the reviews coming. They’re excellent.


    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks Max! Glad you’re enjoying my review series. (And for the record, I think you’re the first to comment here from Down Under!)

      Sorry to hear that your OM-D hasn’t arrived yet – they seem to be slowly trickling out everyone. It’s the same story here in the States, where I have friends who are still trying to get one. I keep hearing stories about camera stores that get 1 copy, and it’s usually gone within the hour.

      The 1/160 sync speed is a bit of a bummer, as I used to be able to stretch my 7D’s sync speed out to 1/320 if I framed my images a little wide. But it’s one of those little quirks that we’ll get around. It shouldn’t be much of a problem in the studio, although I’ll have to figure something out for when I’m working outdoors. (I sense a side-post brewing here…)

      My Canons are gone as well – EVIL is here to stay!

  2. Max Young

    Brent, my Canon stuff is all gone now. Sadly, there’s not an OM-D in Australia for love or money, although there’s plenty of lens in stock eg 45mm and 12mm.

    Still waiting, learning to be patient.


    • Brent Pennington

      Sorry to hear that. Oly seems to have really fallen behind in meeting the demand; perhaps they didn’t expect it to be this large? I just got in line for my 2nd OM-D (body only), but I hope that you get yours first! The sad thing is, I figure my best shot at getting a second battery is to get a second body, as there’s still no sign of spare batts, either.

      At least you have the lenses in stock. Around here, the Panasonic 25mm and the Oly 45mm both fly off the shelves within a day of coming into stock.

      Patience is a virtue, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it!

  3. Max Young

    Brent, you will be pleased to know that I picked up a nice silver/14-42 kit in Brisbane last week. I already have that lens so I will sell the new one on ebay.

    I have only taken a couple of quick snaps thus far because of my work schedule, but with the 45mm and the 14-42 it looks the goods. I also purchased the grip, which makes for a sensational shooting experience.

    90% of what I shoot is portraits, so I’m looking to being home next week and putting the little Olympus through it’s paces. I have save up for the 12mm, but that will be the next acquisition. (I am hoping they will come down in price, but I’m not holding my breath for that! It doesn’t matter really, because the harder a lens is to find/buy, the better investment it seems to be.)

    Kind regards. Max.

    • Brent Pennington

      Congratulations, Max! I’m thrilled to hear that you’ve managed to land one finally. Be sure to let us all know what you think after you’ve had more time to work with it.

      I’m working on getting a portrait session setup as well, but from the playing around I’ve done already, I think it’s going to excel at them. Personally, I’m saving up for the 75mm that’s supposed to be coming out. It would certainly be nice if the prices came down, but that’s probably just wishful thinking.

      Happy shooting!

  4. David Farquhar

    Hi Brent
    Enjoying your blog which I have just discovered. Can I ask were your RF-602s the Canon version? I’m feeling a bit paranoid about putting my RF-602s that I got for my Canon into my OM-D. Although I’ve read elsewhere that it should work fine it would be nice to check with someone who has actually done it. The Nikon RF-602s have a different pattern of pins on them so I wanted to check

    • Brent Pennington

      Hi David –

      Interesting question, as I never realized that the Canon and Nikon 602s were different – I always thought that was just the way they were “marketed” by the manufacturer. Mine were the Canon version, but the good news is that they have been working perfectly with the E-M5. As I understand it, it’s the centered front pin that actually gets the signal from the camera hotshoe that an exposure is being taken. The other pins are usually for TTL metering, although I’m not sure why the 602s would even have them, since they don’t support TTL…

      I never really thought about it before I slapped the Tx on the camera and started shooting. Communication seems to work fine and it’s not at all likely that the Tx could hurt the camera, since it’s power supply is so small. I think you’re safe to go with it 🙂


  5. On the RF 602’s, the difference between the brand versions (Canon, Nikon, etc) is the wired tether. This matters when you are using them as remote triggers for the camera, or plugging them into lights. The hot shoe will work across brands as they only have the center contact and do 1 thing – fire.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks for the clarification, Mike. That’s essentially what I thought – that they worked across most brands since it’s the center contact that really matters.

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