Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Portraiture

Sara Tomkins models at McDade Park in Scranton, PA, on the evening of 10 June 2012.

Alright, so after an embarassing couple of weeks filled with delays, we’re back on track to finally finish up this never-ending review series! So let’s talk portraiture. I saved this one until last for a few reasons, logistics being one of them. But also because portraiture has become one of my favorite kinds of photography and I was really looking forward to using the E-M5 in that capacity, having spent enough time with the camera to be completely at home with it. (Fumbling with a camera never looks good in front of a model, after all.)

Well no surprises, I spent an hour shooting with the fun & lovely Sara and when we called it a night, I went home happy, with some great shots on the card. I’m well beyond the point of having any doubts about this little camera, but I’ll count this as one more formal vote in its favor. Paired with the right glass, the E-M5 is a portrait machine.

Yes, it handles well, blah blah, whatever. These are the important things:

  • it’s small, which means that it takes up less space on the shoot. And not just in the bag or on my shoulder between shooting spots, but also when it’s in use. Think about this for a moment – one of the biggest disconnects between a model and a photographer can be the camera, which becomes a temporary wall between them (if the photog isn’t careful). It’s easy to hide behind a DSLR, even by accident – and especially if you’ve got a case of nerves and maybe the shoot isn’t going as well as you hoped. The E-M5’s smaller size works in our favor here. It’s easier to maintain a connection around it while you’re shooting, as strange as that may sound.
  • it’s fast. I stuck to AF lenses for this shoot and never had any issue with the AF locking onto Sara. Granted, the face detection didn’t always recognize her, but there’s nothing new there. As nice as face detection is, it isn’t perfect. But since I had the AF points configured in the box mode, whenever face detection didn’t work, the AF defaulted to my pre-set focus points and locked right on.
  • the EVF makes ambient-light shooting a breeze. We spent the first half of the shoot with the sun just above the hillside, so there was plenty of golden light. I left the strobes in the car and let my VAL wrangle a reflector instead. I could see the whole scene, the ambient and reflected light, the way it would appear in the exposure, which made it easier to make adjustments on the fly. This is the real strength of the EVF, the immediate readout exposure across the scene, and the ability to adjust it in real-time.

Sara Tomkins models at McDade Park in Scranton, PA, on the evening of 10 June 2012.

Most importantly, the photos look awesome. Granted, this has as much to do with the glass used as it does the camera. I shot with the Leica 25mm and the Olympus 45mm lenses; the Leica continues to make everything look great, while the 45mm continued to make great images but still felt awkward in use (it’s on it’s way out this weekend). But the photos were blissful. I shot wide-open the whole time I was working with the ambient light, which gave all the shallow focus and bokeh I could want. Not to mention amazing detail and beautiful skin rendition. I always know when I have the right camera and lens combo on a portrait shoot, because the files take less editing to finish up.

Once the sun fell behind the hill, we switched to flash, a single Yongnuo 460II through a white shoot-through umbrella, triggered by the Cactus radio slaves. Just as with the indoor studio test, the whole flash system performed perfectly. Naturally the EVF loses it’s real-time edge when you’re shooting flash. But I still found it superior to an optical viewfinder, if only because I can see the image review right there a split-second after the shot. Since I’m shooting Strobist-style, I chimp to get the flash exposure nailed down – no light meters here. So it saves me a few seconds and some button pushing. Nothing world changing there, but it is nice.

100% crop, Oly. 45mm f/1.8 @ f/4 – click to view larger

So what didn’t work just perfectly? Only one thing comes to mind, and it’s an extension of the face detection AF. Olympus touted the E-M5’s ability to focus not only on faces, but the eyes themselves, and specifically on the ability to tell the camera which eye to focus on: left, right, or nearest. The premise for this is just great, since the eye is nearly always our desired focus point in a portrait. But it can be tricky, and if the camera can help me nail it, all the better.

Well, it sort of helps. Sometimes. I had the camera set for “nearest eye” the whole time and when reviewing the files on the computer, it became clear that the camera’s like a first-grader, who isn’t always sure of left from right. Sometimes it gets the nearest eye and sometimes it gets the farther one. Maybe about 70/30. In other words, it gets it wrong just often enough to frustrate me. I’ll probably put it through another shoot and, if it’s still hit or miss, I may just switch the eye detection off altogether.

Another think to try next time will be my MF lenses, just to see how easily I’m able to work with them. Given the other MF lens work I’ve done, I’m not anticipating any trouble. And it may help me slow the shoot down a little, which can be a good thing for everyone.

Sara Tomkins models at McDade Park in Scranton, PA, on the evening of 10 June 2012.

This was also the first time I used the E-M5 with another person in on the shoot. I’ve worked with Sara before, and in addition to being familiar with my previous Canon rig, she’s an amateur photographer herself. So she knows her way around a DSLR and noticed when I showed up with something different. For whatever it’s worth, she didn’t suddenly think I was somehow less of a professional just because I had a smaller camera. Instead, I spent a couple of moments answering her questions and showing her the E-M5, letting her look through the EVF, before we started. She thought it was cool, and then we got down to business as usual. Which is the response I expect from the majority of clients and models I work with – they don’t care too much about what I shoot with, so long as I know what I’m doing and can get the results they expect.

This was the last shooting-specific review in the series. Tuesday’s posts will include a final conclusion to this whole experience with a few final thoughts on the pros and cons, and then it’ll be back to the regular stuff. Which is, you know, pretty irregular anyway.

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. Hi,

    Great review, just wondering Nout the bokeh, is it as nice as canon or is it enough to make the background blur?

    Have you try any canon to Olympus adapter with the om-d?


    • Brent Pennington

      Hi Oat –

      Thanks for the comment! Good bokeh depends as much on the lens, how it’s used, and the physical setup as anything. So it’s not a question I can really give you a definitive answer to, in terms of whether or not it’s “as good” as the Canon lenses. I find the bokeh to be plenty good with the Leica 25mm and Olympus 45mm lenses – and not as good with the zooms, which is no surprise. (I hear that the new Olympus 75mm lens is especially good.) What you see in my post photos gives you an idea, although I wasn’t shooting to maximize bokeh at the time.

      I do use a Canon FD lens with the E-M5 via adapter and find it very useful (First shots with MF lenses on m4:3). Focus is easily achieved and good old optics are still good. If you’re asking about adapted EOS lenses, however, I can’t give you any first-hand advice, only my opinion, which is that it’s a pointless pairing. Since the EOS lenses are entirely electronic, without any viable way to change aperture, I consider them useless on anything but EOS cameras.

      Hope this helped!

  2. Thanks Brent,
    By bokeh, I mean if it’s compatible with the Fuji X100, then that might be okay. Understood about EOS lens on m4/3. Does anyone make electronic adapter?

    25mm = 50mm right? That might be okay. 45 or 75 might be too long for my use.

    If you could have just 2-3 lens with OM-D, what would you choose? I’m not looking to replace my canon, but as something lighter to move around with or act as my go to, point and shoot that I can take with me. After having been using the x100 for a few week and travel overseas with it, I do like the portability but not the focus. Hence I am looking at mod and found your review to be very useful.


    • Brent Pennington

      My pleasure. Don’t know how the OM-D relates to the Fuji, as I’ve never even held any of their cameras. But as far as the EOS to m4:3 adapter goes, there’s no electronic version that I know of, although I think Fotodiox makes a manual version that’s essentially got an aperture ring in the adapter itself that’s manually configurable. No idea how well it works, and it seems like a needless extra hassle and expense when there are so many fully-manual lenses out there already – Canon FD, Takumars, older Nikons – that have excellent optics, are cheaper, and are much (much!) smaller than any of the EOS glass. That’s my take on it – but my needs/wants may be different from yours. For me, ditching the huge, heavy Canon gear for something smaller and lighter was a big selling point of the OM-D.

      On m4:3 there is a 2x crop factor so yes, 25mm has the equivalent of a 50mm field of view. I actually found the 45mm to be too short for my taste as a portrait lens and think that for my style, the 75mm might be about right.

      Just 2-3 lenses? The first would be the Leica 25mm I mentioned – just an amazing little lens. Then the Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8 (which is supposed to be released in the fall), since this fills the role of the traditional 70-200mm lens, which is one of my favorites. And perhaps the Lumix 7-14mm f/4. Those three lenses would cover the majority of my professional work – although my ideal kit would include both a wider and longer fast prime, as well as a super-telephoto for wildlife work. (Right now I find the Lumix lens line to be more interesting than the Olympus lineup – Oly seems to be focusing on kit zooms with slower apertures, while Lumix is making a push on “pro” type lenses. But both Oly and Lumix lenses are interchangeable across all m4:3 cameras, with full functionality – another reason I like the system.)

      If you’re looking for portability and performance, m4:3 is worth checking out. I can’t say how well the Panasonic Lumix cameras compare, never having used them. But the OM-D gives me everything I want in a camera in a very small package. Traveling with it is much, much easier than with the EOS gear. In fact, all of my bags (leftover from my EOS days) are too big for most of my uses.


  3. Thank you again Brent. Keep up the great work 🙂
    Yeah I can understand about the size of gear. I have pretty much swap all my big lens for smaller lens with canon now for the ease of travel but I will now seriously look at the OM-D.

    Lastly, how wide can the lens for m4:3 go? I like shooting wide.

    Oh, could you please name a few old manual lens manufacturors that I can look out for? I started in digital and do not know much about manual lens, let alone companies that make them.


    • Brent Pennington

      You’re welcome! 🙂

      The widest m4:3 lens I know of is the Lumix 7-14mm (which is an effective 14-28mm). It’s a constant f/4 and pricey. There’s also an all-manual Rokinon 7.5mm fisheye as a close second. I’ve never even heard a rumor of anything wider and don’t know if it’d be possible or not. The other popular wide-angle lens is the Oly 9-18mm. Not quite as wide, not a constant aperture, but it’s somewhat smaller, lighter, and cheaper. It also accepts filters, where the Lumix does not. Kind of a toss up there…not even sure which I’d want, if I had the cash to buy either.

      For old manual lenses, I suggest going about it backwards. First, find some old lenses. Flea markets, thrift stores, pawn shops, garage sales – all are likely sources of good, cheap manual glass. There’s so many different brands and options out there that there doesn’t seem to be a single good, coherent source of info on which are good and which aren’t – you kind of have to find some potential lenses, then research them individually. Then check out the Adapter pages at Fotodiox and see which adapters you’d be willing to buy (some are cheap, others not so much). I’ve tried to keep to just the Canon FD and m42 screwmount lenses, so I can re-use the adapters I already have instead of buying entirely new kinds. But that’s just me…

      As I mentioned before, sticking with some good known brands can help. Canon FD lenses that were good on film cameras are still good on m4:3, as are the older MF Nikon lenses. I also like the Pentax Takumar line of screwmount lenses. I’ve heard good things about the Contax G system from another reader who left a very informative comment about his thoughts on MF lenses.

      I’m essentially in the same boat as you – I started in digital, so what little I know about MF lenses has come from things I’ve picked up online. That, and the few that I’ve found locally (and cheap), picked up, and played with. Here’s the one downside to MFs – there are very few wide-angle options, with the widest generally being around 17mm (at least that I’ve seen that are reasonably priced). So you can’t really get a cheap MF ultra-wide that makes up for the lack of native options there – and it’s too bad, too! On the other hand, there are tons of different standard and telephoto options in MF.

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