The Roving Photographer


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

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6 Comments to Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Portraiture

  1. Oat's Gravatar Oat
    July 2, 2012 at 20:52


    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?


  2. Oat's Gravatar Oat
    July 3, 2012 at 12:35

    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.


  3. Oat's Gravatar Oat
    July 3, 2012 at 18:47

    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.


  1. By on June 16, 2012 at 09:04
  2. By on June 19, 2012 at 11:10

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