If you have already invested in a well rounded camera system from any manufacturer, why would you want to look at getting an Olympus mirrorless camera and a bunch of micro four thirds lenses?
It’s a fair question and I think that you need to weigh up your options quite carefully before you go splashing down all your hard earned money, or selling off your old system and then regretting it later. You need to assess the advantages you'll enjoy before you do that. This series of articles is based on my own experiences and if you are looking to do a system change perhaps my needs might intersect with yours.
Size & Weight
The biggest and most attractive aspect of this system is that you’re cutting down the weight and size of your equipment by a considerable margin. If you consider the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 ED lens, the closest lenses to it in terms of light transmission and field of view from the big 135 system cameras are the Canon 200mm f/2.0 and the Nikon 200mm f/2.0.
The Canon lens weighs 2.54kg and is 208mm long. It costs $6,000. The Nikon weighs a little more at 2.93kg and is 203mm long. It costs $5800.
Now these are both incredible high performance lenses from the big names in photo gear and I’m not suggesting for a second that the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 is their optical equal (I think it’s pretty close in terms of sharpness though), but the angle of view from the Olympus lens is very close to what the other two offer. It’s the same as a 150mm lens on the bigger sensor and its aperture is faster than both those other giant lenses. The main difference you may notice between the two big lenses and the Olympus comes down to the depth of field observed. The big lenses are awesome in this regard, completely blurring out the background, but I’ll tell you what, the Olympus 75mm can hold its head up very high too. The really big material difference between these lenses? Well, the Olympus 75mm will cost you $900 (+ $75 with the hood) and it weighs a mere 305g. That is slightly more than 10% of the mass of each of the two other lenses. It is only 69mm long, which if Mens Health is to be believed, is less than half the length of the average male erection.
While you’re mulling over those numbers in your head and looking at your nearest ruler, I want you to think about when you’d use a lens like a fast 200mm or equivalent. As a highly specialised short telephoto lens they’re typically used for indoor sports or stage performances. If you’re shooting live shows you’re probably going to pair this up with something like a full bodied pro DSLR like a Canon 1DX that weighs in the region of 1.5kg. You’re up to almost 5kg in your hands now with just one lens and camera body. Handholding that combo for the length of a 2 hour long live concert is going to result in arm fatigue, even if you’re fairly gym strong. If you’re not handholding you will have to bring along a monopod or tripod with a decent head. More weight. More things to look after. Those of you who have done photography at live shows will already know what a pain it is to have to try and use dedicated camera supports in the places where you have to shoot from.
If you go to a show or indoor sports event with the big system your camera bag is going to be large. You’re going to need a lot of personal space around you to take things in and out of it and as somebody who has tried this before, it’s not always possible, especially if you’re in a theatre where other people who have paid to see the show are now having to put up with your enormous camera presence. Try walking into an arena concert with a DSLR and 200mm fast lens. You won’t get in, simple as that. But with an OM-D and a 75mm f/1.8 you’re looking way less conspicuous. Yes, you could use a different lens, such as a 70-200/2.8, but then you've already lost a stop and a third of light, or you could put an 85mm f/1.8 on an APS-C body, but that's probably as close as you're going to get. How good are the 85mm f/1.8 lenses out there compared to the Oly? In my experience of shooting both Nikon and Canon versions in the past... not even in the same sport, let alone ballpark. You just don't get lenses like this for DSLR's without paying huge money for them and making enormous trade-offs in convenience.
The example of the 75mm f/1.8 lens is just one of many where the physical advantage of a smaller system is obvious. Travel photography is an area where the advantage is huge. Anyone who’s ever had to travel by air with a lot of camera gear knows just how stressful that can become. Over the past few years I have travelled domestically within South Africa for safaris and each time I have had to rationalise my kit just so that I could avoid being detected as a carry-on “over-loader” by the airline ground staff. The thought of having your precious camera gear checked in and falling prey to airport baggage handlers and automated sorting systems is enough to leave you sleepless.
(this shot was taken in near darkness at very close range in a Himba hut in Namibia)
A system like micro four thirds is physically minuscule when compared to larger DSLR systems like Canon and Nikon, and to a fair degree even the APS-C systems. You are able to pack a lot more gear into a much smaller space without giving up much photographically. I am well known for using the ThinkTank Retrospective bags and I can get 6 lenses plus one of the OM-D bodies (with a battery grip) into the Retrospective 5’s main compartment. If I really want to I can also put a second OM-D body sans lens into the front pouch, or I can slip a couple of flash units in there. If you’ve ever seen the Retro 5 bag you’ll know how small it is.
Electronic View Finder (EVF)
For me another plus of the system is the Electronic View Finder (EVF). It’s a big change to using optical view finders, but it is the way of the future and in my humble opinion it will make you a better photographer if you know how to use it properly.
The EVF found in the Olympus E-M1 is awesome. It really is. Imagine you’re shooting something backlit. You need to increase your exposure by compensating if you want your subject to be properly exposed. Any good camera will have compensation on it, but you’ll have to chimp at your results to see the effects of it when using an optical view finder. With the EVF you’ll see the exact results before you’ve even taken the shot.
The E-M1 has what they call “Adaptive Brightness Technology” built in. So what this does is it adjusts the brightness of the EVF depending on the ambient light, but it does it in a way that doesn’t trick your eyes into believing that the image in the EVF is brighter than it actually is. What you’re looking at in the EVF is fairly representative of the scene in terms of its brightness and contrast.
You will also see what areas of your image are going to be blown out or blocked up detail wise by activating the highlights/shadow warnings. It works just the same way it does in Bridge or Lightroom, red marks the blown highlights and blue marks the blocked shadows. Again, you’ll see your results before you take or potentially mess up your shot. If you’d prefer to not see big blobs of red or blue, you could opt to use the live histogram instead.
Another advantage of the OM-D EVF is that you can activate the level indicator in the EVF to show you when your horizon is going to be skew, or you’re introducing key stoning by tilting the lens upwards or downwards. I find this pretty handy when shooting interiors.
Focus peaking is another very cool EVF feature you’ll find on the E-M1. I have set mine up to be activated with the Fn1 button, which rests just below my right thumb when holding the camera. If I am using a manual focus lens via adapter on my E-M1 I can get it into focus simply by looking for the brightly highlighted edges of my subject as I move the focus ring of the lens. It works very well. If you would prefer more precise control then you’d probably want to use the magnifier feature of the EVF. This takes a small portion of the scene and magnifies it so that you can manually focus more accurately.
Another E-M1 feature I have discovered that lends itself to being helpful is the HDR modes. Wouldn’t it be great to see what your HDR is going to look like before you make the exposures? This is what happens when you select one of these modes - you’ll see an expanded HDR preview in the EVF. As soon as you hit the release the camera will make its exposures, combine them in camera and then give you a single image. Too cool.
Something else that I have found to be an amazing advantage is that if I am outdoors I can look into the EVF to see my shots, zoom into them and also change the displayed information about them. If you've ever tried to see what's on the back of your LCD in daylight, you'll know how tricky that can be.
This feature of the E-M1 is nothing short of remarkable. It was good on the E-M5, but now it’s ridiculously good and it is possible to hand hold exposures up to a couple of seconds and still get perfectly sharp images. For low light work where you don’t have a tripod handy it’s an advantage that can be the difference between a useful shot and something you throw away.
The real beauty of the IBIS is that you get stabilisation with any lens. Yes, even that old Nikkor 105/2.5 from the 60’s I have in my collection of old lenses is stabilised and unlike optical stabilisers where the jiggling of lens elements produces weird artefacts in the out of focus areas of your image (double lines for instance), the IBIS doesn’t seem to exhibit the same behaviour since its the image sensor that does the jiggling. It’s also very effective in video mode.
You can switch off the IBIS but I leave it on all the time. Why risk camera shake when you don’t have to? However, something I recently discovered is that you can also set the IBIS to only work in a certain axis if you want it to. For instance, if you are panning horizontally you can switch off the horizontal stabilisation and use only the vertical stabiliser. I wish I had thought of that when I was making panning shots of fast moving skateboarders recently.
Wifi Camera Control & Sharing
Several years ago when I got my very first iPod Touch I wrote a review of the OnOne app that allowed you to tether your camera to a laptop and control it from your iPod. It actually worked quite well, but the problem was that you had to have the laptop in the vicinity of the camera. It was a bit gimmicky, but seeing your camera’s live view being transmitted to your iPod was pretty darn cool.
Things have evolved a bit since then and one of the features of the E-M1 is the built-in wifi capability that lets you do the exact same thing as the OnOne Camera Control app did, except you no longer need a laptop to create a wifi network for the app to connect to. The camera now creates its own network and when you connect your smart phone or tablet to it, it allows you to not only control the camera, but also send its images to the controlling device for onward transmission to another location, be it a social network, image sharing service, or even Airdrop it to another Apple device. That applies to any images you have stored on the SD card - you can import them to your iPad or iPhone.
How is this useful? Well, here’s a real world example; when I am shooting tabletop product shots in my small home studio and I want my client’s opinion on whether they are happy with the way the products are arranged, I import the shot to my iPad’s Camera Roll via the Olympus Image Share app and I can email them a small version of the shot. I also prefer to see the larger Live View on my iPad than what's on the camera LCD screen.
Now, with the addition of Lightroom for iPad I can even do minor edits to the shot before I send them a sample. This is a real advantage and the screenshot you see below was done in exactly this manner. In the past I would have to copy the file to the computer, add it to the Lightroom catalog , edit it there, create a small version of it and only then could I send it off via email to my client. Bit of a rigmarole.
Screen grab of Lightroom for iPad - I will be writing a more in-depth assessment of this app soon
The OIS app is still a bit of an infant though and in the future I hope to be able to send files to a service like DropBox or iCloud directly from the app instead of having to import them to the Camera Roll. I’m pretty sure that could be done in future upgrades.
The Tilting & Touch Screen
A lot of people think this is very gimmicky, but it's actually quite a useful thing, especially if you don't want to go crawling on your belly to make exposures of things at that level (think macro, etc). You can tilt the screen upwards to use it as a waist-level finder, then tap the screen like you would an iPhone to make an exposure. This is a nifty trick to use if you want to make candid shots of people who are unaware that they are about to be photographed. Street photographers will be in their element with this feature.
These are just some of the big advantages I have experienced with the OM-D system. In part 3 of this series I will talk about the compromises you will have to contend with if you are considering a switch to OM-D. That will be published next week Monday.