The Pen Is Mightier Than The dSLR

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The Olympus Pen EP5 compared to the EP2. The family resemblance is obvious, but the EP5 is a much more refined product.

Perhaps a bit of hyperbole but depending on you your usage the Olympus Pen series of cameras could suit you better than a dSLR.I mentioned in my blog post Olym-Puss that I had got an EP5 and I thought that I would write about my experiences with it. This is not a review, it’s a little late as the camera is probably about to be discontinued as it is being heavily discounted. So if you want a cheap second body for your m4/3 system or a newbie considering dabbling your toes into the m4/3 pool then it would be a good choice.

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The camera has a flip-up touch screen that is nice and clear which is just as well for unless you pony up for an optional LCD viewfinder it’s all you’ve got.

A little history. Regular readers will know that I’ve had a long-term relationship with Olympus cameras since I bought my first in 1982. I ceased to use them long after the company dropped the OM range of film cameras and I could no longer get them repaired as there were no longer any available parts. I moved over to Canon, not because I thought that they were any better than other brands but because my father in law very generously gave me a Canon EOS3 film camera and two zooms that were surplus to his requirements and I stayed with the brand well into the digital age. While I liked the results my 5d gave me, the user experience was somewhat bland and dissatisfying, so when Olympus announced the micro four thirds concept with Panasonic in 2009 and unveiled its first camera the Pen EP1 I was intrigued. I found a local dealer and had a long look at one. The camera felt lovely in the hand but there were two major problems that stopped me buying one:

  • there was no viewfinder just a rear LCD screen and that was for me at the time a major sticking point
  • I was financially embarrassed at the time and so could not afford it.

In 2010 Olympus released the EP2 which had provision for an optional LCD view finder. So my major objection to owning one had been overcome. In 2011 I was kindly given an EP2 kit consisting of the body, the LCD viewfinder, a 14-42 kit lens and the 17mm f2.8 pancake lens. I was smitten, it quickly became my favourite camera. The 12Mp sensor was not the greatest, but the experience of using it made want to wring the last drop of image quality out of it. I still have it and use it.

Busking
Busking in Salamanca, Hobart. I intend primarily the camera to be used for street photography and travel with small primes.

In 2012 Olympus announced the OMD EM5 a camera that harked back to my beloved OM4 film cameras. The major features of that camera were the new 16Mp sensor and the 5 axis in body image stabilisation (IBIS). This camera ignited the imagination of the photographic community and it was a deserved success for the company. A year later the Pen EP-5 hit the market and it was essentially an EM5 without the built in viewfinder. Unfortunately the camera was poorly received, and after the website DPReview gave it savage write-up exposing the problem of shutter shock sales tanked and rumours have since circulated that the EP5 would be the last premium Pen camera. So given that why would I recommend one? Well Olympus was stung into action and issued a firmware release for the camera which enabled an anti shock setting, which is a kind of ersatz electronic first shutter and this helped enormously, in fact it inclusion makes it an entirely different camera. This and the same 16 MP sensor as the Olympus OM-D E-M5, an improved 5-axis in-body image stabilization, 9 frames per second continuous shooting, and a tilting rear touch screen, a HDR bracketing mode, a minimum shutter speed of 1/8000 sec, a maximum shutter speed of 60 seconds, focus peaking to assist manual focus, and built in Wi-Fi for connection to smart phone or tablet. Put this into a beautifully crafted body that feels absolutely lovely in the hand (confession time – I know its wrong but I could just sit and fondle the EP5 for hours on end) with a bloody good sensor and you have a delicious photo taking experience.

Mount Wellington
Mount Wellington viewed from the rivulet. No HDR here folks just one exposure and a good dynamic range from the sensor.

Talking of the sensor, the 16Mp sensor used by Olympus has as many conspiracies about its origins as the birth of President Obama does. Some believe it made by Panasonic and others by Sony. I don’t give two hoots as to who made it, all I know is that it is packed full of goodness. For a small sensor the dynamic range is impressive and you can pull up shadows and recover highlights nicely. There is noise at the base level ISO of 200, but it doesn’t look too digital, some would say it has an organic quality akin to that of film. I wish this aspect were better as I do a lot of copy work of paintings and illustrations and feel that the ability to render fine detail is a little compromised. The Olympus True Picture imaging processor gives this beautiful colours that Olympus is famous for and it would be entirely possible to just shoot jpg with it and get excellent results straight out of the camera. When I got the camera I thought that primarily I’d use it as a street and travel camera with a small prime like the afore-mentioned 17mm f2.8 or the wonderful 25mm f1.8. I have changed my mind on that and use it for landscape and macro work. Noise is well controlled up to 3200 and the sensor handles long exposures very well.

Moonrise
Blue Moon. Long exposures such as this cause no problems.

The AF system is largely good. Single point AF is faster than a whippet on ICE and being a contrast detect system reading straight off of the sensor there are no front or back focus issues which makes using fast glass wide open incredibly accurate. It’s so good that I’ve not bothered using face detect or eye detect AF modes. The continuous focusing with subject tracking is absolutely pants, a sports beast this camera ain’t, but having said that I have photographed the local surfers using ordinary continuous AF and set to the low frame rate of 4.5 fps it does a very good job using the cheap but sweet 40-150mm lens. The touch screen enables you to select an AF point and trigger the shutter making tripod work for landscapes, and architecture a sublime experience. While on the subject of tripods it’s a shame the tripod bush is not located on the lens axis, no big deal if you don’t shoot panoramas or stitch, but it is an inconvenience if like me you do.

Park Beach Surf #1
The continuous AF was able to keep up with this surfer using the cheap 40-150mm f4-5.6 lens.

IBIS is bloody fantastic. In fact it is so good there must be magic involved. This makes handheld macro and telephoto work a delight. Shooting in low light with static subjects is a breeze. With moving subjects bump the ISO and deal with the grain once you go over 3200.

Cabbage White Butterfly
A cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on a lavender flower. A combination of IBIS and HSS flash makes macro a breeze.

Video performance leaves a lot to be desired. Lets be honest and up front here. Olympus suck big time when it comes to the implementation of video and the EP5 is not an exception to this. The codec is nasty and not good for any subject that has a lot of movement or fine detail and it is NTSC centric only offering 30fps. There is 1080, 720 and VGA, the best quality 1080 is 24MBps which is not really going to cut the mustard if video is your thing. The video clip below was shot with the EP5 and clearly shows its short comings. I’m seriously hoping that since the release of the EM5 ii and with Australian cinematographer John Brawley on board as a tester and advisor that the video side of things will improve in later models.

 

 

So to sum up. The EP5 is a very fine camera. Now it is being discounted at the $400 AUD mark it is a steal. If you already have a m4/3 camera system snap one up as a second body. If you are m4/3 curious then get one and explore the world of mirrorless photography. I bought mine as a back up to my EM10, the EM10 has now been relegated to back up duties, or occasions where I need a built in viewfinder. This is a camera which on release should have got a lot of love. Unfortunately Olympus shot themselves in the foot by releasing it with such an obvious shutter shock problem. I think had they sorted the camera properly prior to release it would have sold like hot cakes. Now the problem is fixed and it is at bargain prices I think it should go on to become a cult classic. I think about buying another Canon dSLR but honestly now I’ve gone mirrorless with all that entails I can’t go back.

The Olympus Pen EP-5
The Olympus Pen EP-5 compared with the OMD EM-10.
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