It was some time in 2012 that a friend of mine suggested I should go and have a look at the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 micro four thirds camera that had been brought into stock at a local retailer. At the time I was shooting professionally with two Nikon D700 bodies and a slew of big zoom and prime lenses, some from Nikon and some from Sigma.
I had expressed an interest to this friend in getting into a smaller camera system like micro four thirds because whenever I wanted to take a camera with me somewhere it involved dragging this big camera backpack along, something that made me look (and feel) very conspicuous. But the problem wasn’t so much the back pack, it was that I couldn’t always fit everything I wanted to bring with me into the backpack for fear of injuring my back due to the weight I would end up carrying.
I was looking for something lighter and a bit more more manageable to take with me on outings. I didn’t want a 1-lens-does-all solution either. I wasn’t expecting to do professional work with it but I did want to get results that I’d be happy with. Prior to me checking out the Olympus E-M5 I had owned both the Olympus Pen E-P1 and E-P2 cameras, plus I had just recently picked up a Panasonic GF-1 with a couple of decent Panasonic micro four thirds lenses on a special. I loved those little m43 cameras, but the image quality, while good, just wasn’t quite in the league of a DSLR and once you’re used to a certain pay grade going down from there is seldom something you aspire to. Those early m43 cameras were good for most things, but not that good in low light or situations that required solid auto focus performance, which is where I often found myself wanting them to be good.
So off I went to this shop where they had the OM-D E-M5 on display. I asked the sales assistant if I could get hands on and on touching it for the first time my immediate thought was something along the lines of “Oh, that’s a solid piece of kit”. It really was. Compared to the PEN series cameras this one wasn’t that much bigger, but something about it felt a whole lot more substantial. It felt like a serious photographic tool. Tilting touch screen? I was hooked!
You can’t really tell a lot about performance from playing with a camera in a store, so I left it there and of course the first thing I did when I got home was begin searching for online reviews and more importantly sample images that could show me what the camera was capable of producing. I especially wanted to see how it fared with tricky shooting, such as low lit rooms and back lit situations. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found.
There were a LOT of people talking about the OM-D E-M5 online. From the usual reviews and bench tests to the field reviews everybody was unanimous: the camera was great and it was going to be a question poser to DSLR users, for sure.
It was still a hard decision for me to make, because I had two copies of one of the best DSLR’s ever made and I was about to go off on safari to Sabi Sabi in a month’s time. I needed both D700’s for that trip. Or did I? One D700 would be used for telephoto shots taken with my Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens. The other would be used for… What was the other one going to be used for? Wide angles? On safari? Well, I might as well use the OM-D for that my inner logic said.
I eventually bit the bullet and ordered a silver and black OM-D body only from a local dealer. A few days later it arrived and while I still had both the Nikon D700’s in my possession, only a few hours later I was quite certain that I would be able to not only use this camera in conjunction with my D700, but I would also be able to use it in many situations where the D700 simply wouldn’t perform well. I already had a buyer hanging on for one of the D700’s so all it took was a phone call and a financial transaction for me to bid one of them goodbye.
The one good decision I made with this change was that I didn’t go crashing 100% into it the way I had done twice before when I moved from Nikon to Canon and then back to Nikon over a period of about 4 years. I ran both the Nikon and the Olympus systems side by side for well over a year before eventually moving over entirely to the Olympus system after the E-M1 came out. That gave me the safety net I needed in my photography career to be able to use a system I was already very familiar with (Nikon), as well as being able to experiment with a new system (Olympus) to see what I could use it for and how effective it could be in any given situation.
The things I have learned along this path of change might be quite helpful to other photographers who are considering making a similar change to their setup. Initially I had intended to write an eBook about this move, but I have now decided to write a series of freely accessible articles for potential Olympus users instead. The purpose of this series of articles therefore is to help you understand a little bit more about how the Olympus system works and also how it compares to DSLR systems like Nikon and Canon in various shooting situations. By the end of this series you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the system (based on my experiences).
I will also cover various shooting situations I have encountered with the camera and show you photos from paid and non-paid jobs I have done with the equipment I have.
The company Olympus has been around since 1919, which means right now it’s just 5 years shy of celebrating its centenary. That’s a long time to have been in business and despite the recent financial irregularity issues that saw 11 of their executives arrested and charged criminally for contravening various business laws in Japan, the company still continues to operate independently of any dominant shareholding. The largest shareholder currently is Sony Corporation who hold an 11% stake in Olympus.
I was attracted to the brand for two main reasons:
1. they’re innovative (5 axis in body image stabilisation -IBIS- is such a brilliant idea, and so is the touch screen LCD).
2. their products are excellent quality, especially the optics - in fact the professional grade lenses are renowned for being amongst the very best you can get and there are many very fast lenses that you don’t get from other manufacturers.
The Lens Selection
Another major selling point for me wasn’t so much the brand, but more the fact that micro four thirds is an open standard, meaning that any manufacturer can produce cameras and lenses for it and this is probably why there are so many lenses available for m43 today. At the time of writing this guide there are over 45 different lenses available for m43 from a range of different manufacturers including, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Sigma, Voigtlander and Samyang. This large range includes everything from fisheye lenses to macro and telephoto, as well as some extremely fast prime lenses. There are three manual focus Voigtlander lenses with maximum apertures of f/0.95. Expensive at over $1000 each, but if you’re looking for speed they don’t come much faster than that!
Something else that needs to be taken into consideration is that all the excellent lenses that Olympus developed for its 4/3rds DSLR system are now fully compatible with the Olympus E-M1 using an adapter (MMF1, MMF2, MMF3). If you look at the range of Super High Grade lenses on offer you’ll start to get an appreciation of just how significant this development is, especially if you’re after telephotos. Olympus makes some of the finest fast telephotos and tele-zooms you’re ever likely to encounter. They’re all weather proof and most of them have very fast apertures. An example of this would be the 150mm f/2.0, which offers the equivalent field of view of a 300mm lens on something like a Nikon FX body. Then there is the 90-250mm f/2.8 (180-500/2.8 equiv.), as well as Olympus’ own 300mm f/2.8 (600/2.8 equiv.) that offers you the equivalent field of view of lenses with double that focal length in bigger systems (who makes a 600mm f/2.8 or a 180-500mm f/2.8?).
Combine this selection with the amazingly effective IBIS of the E-M1 and the options for nature photography begin to step well off the plane of what is possible using bigger systems. Smaller lenses mean less weight and IBIS means less need for expensive physical camera stabilisation such as gimbal heads and ballheads. For those interested in nature photography or birding it is a compelling system to investigate.
My interests in photography and the work I actually get paid for are fairly dissimilar. I’m drawn to landscapes and cityscapes as well as action and stage work for my personal stuff, but my paid work lies in event coverage and sometimes product photography. For all those areas I probably relied on 3 different lenses for the Nikon FX system. There was the incredibly wide Sigma 12-24mm FX lens, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS. So for the Olympus system to work for me I would need to have lenses that could do the same kinds of things.
Initially I was using the Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens on my E-M5 which is a great kit lens, it really is. But because it’s not so fast and a lot of the time I am shooting indoors, I wanted something that came close to the quality of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. My options at that time came down to the very capable and super fast Olympus primes, such as the 17mm f/1.8 (35mm equiv.) and the 45mm f/1.8 which are the two focal lengths I use most of all. Or the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.8 zooms. Unfortunately I would have to import those due to lack of brand presence here in South Africa, so I gave the primes from Olympus (who do have very good representation here in SA) some serious thought.
I do like shooting primes, but I don’t like changing lenses in the field, so I decided to bite the bullet and get the Olympus PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom lens for about $1000. This turned out to be a very good decision as it is a brilliant piece of glass. Prior to getting it I had always said that the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 was the best zoom I have ever used, but after seeing the results I was getting from this guy I changed my mind and the king of the zooms for me now is definitely this Olympus lens.
On the wide angle zoom side there were two options for me to look at; the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 and the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6. The Panny is a lot bigger than the Oly and it runs a constant f/4 maximum aperture throughout its range where the Oly loses a stop at the longer end. The good thing about the Oly though is that it is a collapsible lens, so when it’s not in use it is very small, which fits well with my whole philosophy and primary interest in wanting to move to this system - size and weight.
I read quite a few reviews on both lenses, as well as several comparisons and the general consensus was that unless you had to have the extra stop at the long end and the much wider wide end, you’d be happier with the Oly. Image quality between the two was neither here nor there. One thing that the Oly does have in its favour is that you can use screw in filters on it whereas the Panasonic lens is pretty much like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 - there is no filter thread.
So I ended up getting the Olympus 9-18mm and I am very happy with it. It was a lens I ended up doing some satisfying landscape work with in Namibia last year, plus of course I could use the very cool LEE filters Seven5 system on it.
The only thing I couldn’t replace with an Olympus lens yet was my Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8. Yes, there was the very good Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8, but as mentioned it’s unavailable here where I live. Then I began reading about the Olympus 75mm f/1.8. It gives an equivalent field of view of 150mm on the Nikon FX system, which is not that far from the 200mm I would mostly be using on the Nikon system. If you’ve read my review of the 75mm Oly you’ll know how I feel about it. It’s a piece of glass to cherish. I’ve never used anything quite like it and the shots I got with it during my coverage of two major conferences last year got me high praise from my clients. The people at ICANN being one of them.
With this lens I have all three of my main requirements covered and instead of being burdened with a rucksack, I can take them all in a tiny bag like the ThinkTank Retrospective 5 and still have space for other lenses.
What Other Lenses?
The really cool thing about m43 is that there are some fun lenses you can pick up for very little money. One of my favourites is the $300 Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye. I use this little lens everywhere I go. It’s manual focus but it has such incredible depth of field that if you set it to f/5.6 and infinity focus, you are pretty much assured of everything from around 20cm in front of the lens to the horizon being in focus.
Recently I was loaned two other fun lenses that I am having a great time with - the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 30mm f/2.8. The 19mm is a super little lens and I will be writing a more in-depth review of it soon. On the macro side there are two native options: I have the Panasonic/Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit which I like a lot, but there is also an Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro that has many macro users all atwitter regarding it's outstanding sharpness and overall optical performance. Some people are even saying that it is in the league of the legendary 125mm f/2.5 APO Lanthar by Voitlander.
The long telephoto options are plentiful when it comes to Olympus. You can spend a boatload of cash and get the legacy 4/3rds glass for use on the E-M1, or you can wait for Olympus to bring out their new PRO lenses later this year and early next year. In the pipeline are the long awaited 35-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens and the 300mm f/4 PRO telephoto. The latter will give you an equivalent 600mm f/4 in FX terms but at a fraction of the price. If the optics of the rest of the Olympus range are anything to go by it’s going to be a very desirable lens for the person buying into the Olympus OM-D system.
There are also a plethora of slower and cheaper telephotos to chose from, such as the Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7. I have this lens and while I am not particularly gushing about it, it does provide the amateur photography enthusiast with a very useful zoom range (150-600mm FX equivalent) in a relatively small and well finished package.
Olympus recently also introduced a long awaited 25mm f/1.8 prime, which has been very well received and rounds out their fast prime selections really well. You now have the 12mm f/2, 17mm f/1.8, 25mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8 and of course the grand daddy 75mm f/1.8. All of them are stellar performers.
So there are lots of lenses to choose from in the OM-D system and unless you have exotic needs for things like tilt and shift, the eco-system is well populated. In the next article I will be looking at the photographic gains you will make as an Olympus system user.
Edited by DDFZ