How the seasons have changed. It was the height of summer when I posted Tales From The River Bank and now we are at the end of autumn. We’ve had a lot of foggy mornings which always makes me think of Captain Mark Phillips the ex-husband of Princess Anne. Rumour has it that Prince Charles nicknamed him Foggy because he was thick and wet. Well the fog has certainly been thick and wet here lately.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We went to the Greek Island of Santorini in 1987. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with the white buildings contrasting with the incredibly blue sea and sky.
Going before the start of the tourist season also helped – it meant that most of the island was deserted. Many of the locals would not winter on the island preferring to move to the mainland.
It was as though we almost had the island to ourselves and we walked around taking in the scenery and photographing with gay abandon. By the standards of the digital age we didn’t shoot very much, but then shooting twenty rolls of film while on a weeks holiday was a big deal.
My entry for the Nepal Earthquake made me look closely at my slide and negative archive, and what I found was not pretty. Most of the images from the 1980’s are in pretty bad shape. I’ve been meticulous about storing my images but the dyes used in the E6 and C41 films were not stable and they have faded. The Kodachrome images have fared significantly better. So I’ve embarked on a scanning frenzy. I’m using an old Canon flatbed scanner which allows me to batch scan and gives sufficient quality to make an A3 print. At present I’m only restoring a few of the pictures, the important thing at the moment is to digitize them, and get them into Lightroom with captions and key words. These pictures went through Lightroom and Photoshop, but I still wasn’t able to completely restore them so I thought I’d embrace the “distressed” look so I ran them through the desktop version of Snapseed.
I opened the door the other morning to find this little fella sitting on the door step. Photographed with the Olympus EM-10, Olympus Zuiko 60mm f2.8 macro and the Olympus FL-600R (which I’m currently testing and I’ll be writing about it and the Olympus and m4/3 flash system). Exposure 1/30 s at f/8.0 at ISO 3200 aperture priority mode with -1 stop FEC. No animals and more importantly me, were hurt in the making of this photograph.
The other day I was sitting at my desk just idly surfing the net when a courier van pulls up and leaves a small box. Once unwrapped it revealed an even smaller box containing the Olympus m.Zuiko Digital 25mm f1.8 lens. Now for a long time I’ve always believed that every photographer should own a fastish standard lens. In fact I also believe that if should ever find yourself in the photographic doldrums then just committing to use a standard lens for a period of 12 months will see your photography improve no end. I had one for my OM film system (and still have and use it) and I have one for my Canon EOS digital kit, but a little while back I had a dalliance with film range finder cameras and I eschewed the fast 50mm in favour of a pancake 35mm moderate wide-angle. In fact I was so smitten with the focal length that when I adopted the m4/3 system the Olympus 17mm f2.8 pancake was a must have, and if I look through my Lightroom catalogue over half the picture I’ve taken with my Pen and OMD have been with that lens. So now I’m in possession of a fast standard again.
My initial impressions are that although it has a plastic body it is well made, although not as well made as say the 60mm f2.8 macro. It continues with the clean modern lines that Olympus adopted with the launch of the EM-5 and it feels well-balanced on both my EP-2 and EM-10. The other small thing that makes feel very positive about the lens is that Olympus have finally stopped being tight and are including lens hoods. The hood is hard plastic and bayonets securely on to the lens after the front cosmetic rim of the lens has been removed. Nice – a good lens should have a lens hood to get the best out of it. After a couple of days of shooting stills out and about I found that the focal length took a little adjusting to, it is a bit narrow for my tastes, but I quickly adapted and started looking for subjects that would play into its strengths.
So optically how did it fare? Very well. There is no distortion worth talking about and although shooting wide open there is some slight chromatic aberration but this disappears very quickly and by f4 it is gone. Sharpness is good with the centre of the lens performing very well wide open with some softening towards the corners again things improve quickly as you stop down, but get down past f11 and things start to soften up again as diffraction rears its ugly head. Diffraction isn’t a fault of the lens it is a problem with the size of the sensor, and all sensor and film sizes suffer from it. The lens isn’t what I would call “clinically” sharp in the way a lot of modern lenses are, it renders nicely and has a nice fall off from sharp edges to the out of focus areas. I’m not by any means a bokeh slut but this lens does render out of focus specular highlights in a very pleasing way. It made me want to go out and look for images that would give me those velvety smooth transitions.
The lens focuses insanely quickly on the EM-10, which is as it should be on the latest generation of m4/3 cameras and is no slouch on my first generation EP-2. The worrier of DPReview now obsess over centring and on the micro four thirds forum the hysteria regarding the Olympus 25mm is something to behold. A few people there are expecting lens perfection from this lens and unfortunately no lens is perfect. Does the lens suffer excessively from being de-centred – well according my exhaustive testing of just one sample lens the answer is no. The lens is well within acceptable and I have seen much worse on lenses that cost ten times the amount this one does. My advice is that if you spend all day shooting pictures of brick walls and sheets of newspaper right way up and upside down then blow the resulting shots up to 3 or 400 % and then worry continually that you have a bad copy, or your rate of return rate of “faulty” products is so high that the customer service people know who is on the line just from the sound of your voice then you need a new hobby, therapy or both. Life is short, hobbies are supposed to bring enjoyment and fulfilment not create endless gear angst.
For video the lens is a very good choice. I shot the video clip below to test the lens’ resistance to flare, how it coped with continuous focus in video, close focusing and bokeh rendition.
Now there are some lenses which are so good that people buy into the system just to have a copy of that lens. Is the Olympus 25mm one of those? The short answer is no, but that is a disservice to this lens. It is a very capable performer and I think it should be given serious consideration by anyone who is already invested in the micro four thirds system. I really must say I was pleasantly surprised at how well the 25mm performed. It’s not the fastest lens, it’s not the most expensive, nor is it the cheapest. There are other m4/3 lens that are optically superlative and there are those whose performance is less than stellar to put it mildly. The Olympus m.Zuiko Digital 25mm f1.8 lens is a “Goldilocks” lens – just right.
It has been a very exciting two weeks here at Paul Amyes Photography Towers. A little note from the Fed-Ex man turned up in the mail box saying he wanted to deliver me something. To say I was perplexed was an understatement as I hadn’t been bashing the plastic in an orgy of online shopping. So I dutifully walked up to the depot (its only 500m) up the road, and collected it. On getting it home I found inside a was a shiny new Olympus OM-D EM-10 (which shall just be referred to as the EM-10 henceforth) and an offer to have for long-term testing and evaluation. Woooohooo! A new toy to play with.
So two weeks later I’m siting down and trying to marshal my thoughts about the experience thus far. I think that I should give a little background. My first 35mm camera was an Olympus XA2 and since then I have owned OM1, 2, 4, 20, and 40’s, an XA4, an AF10, a C720 UZ and more recently an EP-2. I was shooting weddings professionally with my OM4 up until 2005 when one sad day it broke down and the repairman said there were no more parts to fix it. I then had an expensive dalliance with Canon, which no matter how hard I tried I could not turn into fully fledged relationship because the spark just wasn’t there. I’ve used other cameras and I really enjoyed them – Voigtlander Bessas, Pentax 645, Panaonic LX-5 all spring to mind, but I have to confess that the EM-10 is the first camera I’ve ever used that has made me want to hurl it across the room and then jump up and down on the pieces in sheer frustration. My EP-2 is my all time favourite camera to use. I accept its idiosyncrasies and can work round them because the whole process is so enjoyable. I use it as my travel camera and for multimedia projects. The EM-10 I thought would be an ideal replacement.
Well lets talk about the good stuff. The camera looks drop dead gorgeous and it feels just right in the hands. My father always used to say that I had hands like bunches of bananas yet this small camera feels just right. In fact it such a tactile experience I’ve found that I often just pick it up to fondle and just hold. I know, I know it just sounds so wrong, but for me a camera has to actually feel good in the hand. I like cameras that become transparent and don’t get in the way of taking photos.
Olympus when they introduced the 16Mp sensor with the EM-5 were onto a sure-fire winner. Its origins were, and still are hotly debated on internet forums and while most accept that it is from Sony a few diehards are like the Birthers in the US arguing that it comes from Panasonic. Personally I don’t care where it comes from, all I know is that the latest iteration in the EM-10 is very good. The dynamic range and the pixel amount are just about perfect for my needs. If you want more details then DXO or DPReview can shed more light on the technical aspects.
I very much like the EVF. When I bought the C720 UZ in 2002 I was convinced that EVFs were the future. The EVF in the EM-10 is not the same as the one in the flagship EM-1 or in the VF4, but it is better than the VF2 and the one in the EM-5. It is crisp, has a good refresh rate, and I find that I can focus manually quite accurately which is better than I can say for the viewfinders on many dSLRs. Where my EP-2 used to frustrate me was that I could not use the viewfinder and a flash, it had to be either or. I like having the EVF built in to the camera. Speaking of flash the EM-10 is the first in the series to have a pop up flash. I can’t see myself using it as a flash, but it can be used as a remote control for off camera flashguns and in that mode it works excellently and I can see myself using the function a lot when I start photographing orchids in spring. The rear screen is nice, it is the first tilt and touch screen that I’ve used and I like both features. The aspect ratio of the screen is 3:2 rather than 4:3 so you have black bars at the edges when shooting in the native 4:3 format. In the strong Aussie sun the screen is hard to see, I think this to do with it being a LCD rather than an OLED as in the other OMDs.
The 3 axis IBIS is a down grade from the previous models 5, but it works very well and the video below demonstrates that. With my 17mm f2.8 I’m able to get sharp images at 1 second which I find amazing. It works very well in video mode in conjunction with digital image stabilisation and it possible to capture steady video without the need for a rig or monopod. Many have poo pooed the video quality of Olympus cameras as being not suitable for serious work because there is only 30fps and a maximum bit rate of 24Mb/s in 1080p. Well I would have to say that while I do shoot a fair bit of video it is only destined for YouTube or converting to SD for DVDs that my elderly relies can play. So for those purposes it is more than adequate. The video clips below are straight out of the camera, nothing has been done to them apart from adding subtitles and a sound track. I’ve uploaded them to YouTube in 1080 so you can see what the camera actually produces. Any artefacts you may see will be a result of the compression YouTube uses. The only thing about the video function I don’t like is that there is nowhere to plug an external mic or recorder in. Yup no accessory port under the hot shoe and no 3.5mm socket. Bad Olympus, very bad!
Ok as I have just started with a fault I’ll move on to them. I like shooting HDR panoramas. I know many will consider that as a crime against humanity, but I like doing it. The EM-10 has both HDR and panorama modes. Can they be used in conjunction? NO! Ah well back to shooting them manually. I’ve programed the function button on my 12-50mm lens to turn exposure bracketing on. Nice it means I don’t have to delve deeply through the notorious Olympus menus. Not so nice is that the bracketing is still limited to 3 frame at -1, 0, and +1 EV. Come on Olympus it is 2014, your sensor has great dynamic range lets at least have 2 stop intervals.
Focus peaking is a very nice feature and it works very well, but as a default straight out of the box it will only work with native m4/3 lenses that have electronic contacts in the lens mount. I searched the manual and there is no mention of focus peaking with legacy glass. I searched the internet high and low and there seemed to be a great deal of confusion as to whether focus peaking could be activated with old lenses. After some fiddling around I found that if you assign a button to activate it you can use it with adapted lenses. Hoorah! But you can’t use it in video. Boo!
Speaking of the manual it deserves special mention. It should be held up as an example to all consumer manufacturers as an example of how not to write a manual. I wanted to test the new live composite function. I shoot a lot of night photos and this looked like it could really be good and save time faffing around in Photoshop with blending layers. Did the instructions tell you how to use it? No. Did Olympus Australia’s website shed any light on how to use it? No. After searching for ½ a day on the internet I found a photo forum in Singapore where one of its members had posted some shots using the function and enough information for me to work it out. Unfortunately since then the local farmers have been burning off their fields and the Avon Valley is choking to death on the smoke haze which means no clear night skies. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I’ll be able to see the stars and photograph them.
I won’t say any more at the moment as I want to use the camera some more. However, I find the EM-10 to be a curious beast. Olympus is going after the first time DSLR buyer with this model, you know the people who buy something like a Canon Rebel or the Nikon equivalent because they want to be able take better pictures while on holiday, or photograph the kids sports day etc. Well both Canon and Nikon know that market very well and they sell their cameras by the boat load because they are relatively cheap, easy to use and can still satisfy the user as their skills grow. The EM-10 is a bit more expensive but thanks to the awful menu structure Olympus insists on continuing to use and poor instructions it is not easy to use. I have a feeling that there will be a lot of EM-10s for sale on EBay in six months time with a lot of frustrated buyers being either put off photography as a whole or buying something from Canikon. I think it is a great shame. The EM-10 could have the makings of a great camera, the sensor is terrific, it looks great, it handles well, but the user interface is absolutely appalling. I’m all for giving people the option of custom configuration, but on a camera targeted at the beginner who doesn’t know their f stops from their ISOs it is not as it just adds to confusion with such a frustrating UI. The EM-10 is like the curates egg – good in parts.