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Adopting the Olympus OM-D System Pt. 3


Dallas

What Will I Compromise On If I Move From A DSLR to Olympus OM-D?

 

This is a fair question.

 

As photographers we spend a lot of time researching lenses, camera bodies and other accessories so that we can get the best possible results. In my opinion the only way to find out the truth about how something performs is to try it out yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have bought a lens or a camera based on the recommendations of others only to find that I hated it. The opposite is true too, where I have bought lenses that other reviewers have pasted but I ended up loving them. OK, so not everyone can afford to drop a few thousand Dollars on every new camera or lens that comes out in the hope that it meets expectations (especially not me), but if you’re going to use a review site to form an opinion, at least make sure you check with one that delivers actual results in the form of images you can relate to. Stuff that you're going to make yourself.

 

I have never and I will never look at scientific charts to make a decision on whether a lens or camera is going to cut it for me. I will look at photos of real subject matter and wherever possible I will go out and make photos of subjects I like to shoot, assess them and decide for myself if the gear meets my expectation. If I need the camera/lens for action photography I will look for sites where the authors show actual action shots using the equipment, or I'll borrow the lens/camera and go and do some of my own work. If I want the camera/lens to do portraiture I will look for a site that shows actual portraits taken for real world use or go and do it myself. You get the picture? If the reviewer is not showing photos like the ones you want to take, how can they make a decision on how it performs in that situation? Conjecture? Well, personally I don't go for that. Show me the shots I will probably want to take. Don't show me charts and make inferences from them.

 

So when I first got interested in m43 I didn’t get my information from the likes of dpreview, DXO or any of those scientific sites. I went to Flickr and some other image hosting sites where there were actual photos I could look at taken with the kit I was interested in. What I found on Flickr when looking at shots taken with the OM-D system kind of floored me. Surely it couldn’t be that good? Why aren’t more people using it? I had to know more, so I got involved and what I discovered is that the so-called disadvantages of smaller sensors that are constantly being debated online didn't affect my photography at all.

 

In my opinion the micro four thirds image quality has advanced to the place where under normal viewing conditions you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between photos taken with the big expensive DSLRs and those taken with something like the Olympus E-M1. So what was I losing out on? These are the main compromises you'll read about online.

 


Compromise #1: Depth Of Field Is Increased
(often interpreted as "you can't get shallow depth of field from a small sensor")

 

As the camera’s sensor gets bigger while aperture stays wide open, the depth of field decreases. According to scientific calculations the m43 system is about 2 stops different in terms of d.o.f. when compared to the same photograph taken at the same focal length and perspective of the 135 system. This is explained very nicely on this page, so I won't go into it here, but If you’ve ever had a look at the effects of this on a very fast lens you’ll see that 2 stops doesn’t make an enormous difference to the out of focus areas of your frame at all. However, something to consider very seriously is that when you are shooting a very fast lens on a large sensor at wide aperture, you have to absolutely nail the focus otherwise your image is going to look soft all over. You're going to be stopping down anyway, so why not enjoy more depth of field with wider apertures and the resulting faster shutter speed in the first place?

 

This is just the nature of the fast lens on a bigger sensor. How often do you actually find yourself shooting them wide open and nailing the focus? In my experience the phase detection autofocus systems used in these big DSLR’s are just not always accurate enough for this and unless you spend a lot of time calibrating your autofocus you’re going to run into this problem over and over again with ultra-fast lenses shot wide open - almost everything looks soft. It takes a lot of practise and technique to get it right.

 

So, very short depth of field is not as short on m43 but this is to a large degree dependent on the shooting situation, distance to the subject and distance from the background. I have seen some amazing images shot on m43 that have very short depth of field - just go and visit Robin Wong’s blog to see what I mean. I’m totally fine with the depth of field of my fast glass on m43 - I'd rather have more depth of field at wider apertures than less.

 

Click on the images to enlarge them.

 

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Compromise #2: The Resolution Is Lower

 

The resolution of the current generation of m43 cameras tops out at 16MP, which is significantly less than something like the Nikon D800 and slightly less than the 22MP Canon 5DMk3.

 

How important is this? Some photographers have genuine needs for the extremely high image resolution, like making large, highly detailed prints, whereas many others need it mainly for having the ability to zoom into a small part of an image and marvel at whatever detail they might find there. Yes, it’s cool to be able to do that, but in reality it’s not a good reason for buying camera X or lens Y. Not in my opinion anyway. Besides, if you’re shooting something like a landscape you can quite easily obtain a high resolution file by stitching several images together.

 

I have made a conscious decision to assess images I take as an entire thing as they would be seen by a non-photographer (ie, client) and not to nit pick about micro contrast, chromatic aberrations or or how much tonality exists at a 100% crop of any given image. The only reason I zoom into an image at 100% is to check that I have got the parts I want to be in focus nice and sharp. Other than that I make my decision on image quality by looking at the whole image. If it looks great when you’re looking at the whole thing do I really care what it looks like when I am looking at a tiny part of it? No. I don’t care at all.

 

Not everyone agrees with this approach and I dare say that if the resolution aspect is that important to you, then perhaps the micro four thirds system is not the thing that will satisfy you right now. For me 16MP is plenty. I can make good prints out of them and I can still crop away significant parts of an image with decent results.

 

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Compromise #3: High ISO Is Not As Good As DSLR

 

I’ve seen some photos shot on cameras like the Nikon D3S and the new Nikon D4S and Df. They’re undisputed kings of the high ISO world and you can comfortably shoot them at ridiculously high ISO values over 25600 and get perfectly acceptable image quality by any standards. However, I have to say that the Olympus E-M1 is producing very acceptable images for me at ISO 12800 too. I am actually quite often startled at just how well this particular camera deals with noise at such high ISO values. This is something we couldn’t do with the E-M5, where 3200 was about as high as I liked to go. Anything higher resulted in banding and a general loss of image aesthetic.

 

I don’t think you can really call the E-M1 high ISO images noisy so much as you can call them grainy. And in my book grain is good. It adds atmosphere to images. The grain on the E-M1 at ISO 12800 is not anything like the kind of pain I often felt from looking at images shot on certain lesser DSLR cameras at significantly lower ISO values in the past. There’s no luminance noise that shouts at me and while the graininess becomes quite visible the higher up the scale you go, it’s not affecting the sharpness of the images as much as you’d expect it to. I run a slight noise reduction preset over my images in Lightroom, just enough to drop the grain a bit without affecting fine details and I’m very happy with what I see. Convert it to black and white and you might be forgiven for thinking you’re shooting with old Kodak Tri-X pushed a few stops. Tri-X was the staple film stock used by generations of photojournalists in the 20th century and its ISO rating is 400. Imagine the shots the journos of the day might have been able to get if they could have shot at 12800, had the fast glass and a built-in image stabiliser on their film?

 

So is it possible to use an E-M1 at high ISO values? Oh yes, it certainly is. But you shouldn’t expect results quite as good as those found on cameras that are known to excel at high ISO, such as the likes of the Nikon D4, etc. I’d put the high ISO aesthetic performance of the E-M1 about a stop above that of the Nikon D700 (which I used for 5 years in many a low light situation), so if you’re using that camera as a benchmark you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what the E-M1 does. It’s a whole lot better than the E-M5 too. I use the word aesthetic because while the D700 might have less noise at the same ISO values, the grain of the E-M1 just looks better to my eyes. I would never shoot the D700 at 6400 on purpose, yet I am quite happy to shoot the E-M1 at 12800 - it just looks better. Your mileage may vary depending on your tastes.

 

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Compromise #4: Auto Focus Tracking is Inferior to DSLR’s
The E-M1 has made huge strides in the auto focus tracking department compared to its forerunner the E-M5. This is because they added phase detection auto focus sensors on the imager. It makes a big difference because it is now possible to get decent auto focus using the older 4/3rds lenses.

 

When I say “decent” I’m not talking blazing fast like you’d get on a top of the line pro DSLR body with lens to match, but decent in the sense that your lens isn’t going to take forever to acquire focus. Depending on the lens you’ll experience something not unlike what you would get from the older Nikon screwdriver type auto focus lenses. I have the Olympus 7-14mm f/4 and the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5. The 50-200mm is the lens I’d most likely be using to track objects (sports and wildlife) and it focuses really quickly for me, even in poor light. It’s snappy, but there’s a very brief adjustment (back and forth) when it first locks on. Once it does lock on, it doesn’t let go easily.

 

Bird in flight photographers would not like this behaviour. I don’t do a lot of bird photography, so for me it’s not a deal breaker. I think it’s good enough for me to use on the types of action photography I am more in tune with, namely surfing, motor sport and land based wildlife.

 

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There are a few things you need to be aware of when it comes to autofocus performance with the E-M1. The E-M1 makes use of a dual AF system, namely phase detection and contrast detection, but it decides on its own when to switch between them based on the type of lens mounted. It’s not a user setting that can be changed. When you’re using a micro four thirds lens it will only deploy CDAF, even when its in AF-Tracking mode. The only time it uses the PDAF mode is when there is a four thirds legacy lens mounted. You will notice when it’s in this mode because the AF point layout in the EVF changes from the wide grid to a diamond type layout typically found in a DSLR.

 

AF-Tracking performance in the CDAF is a lot better on the E-M1 than it is in the E-M5, but the only m43 telephoto lens I have been able to try this out on is the Olympus 75-300mm, which admittedly I am not all that fond of. I did use it once or twice to do surfing shots with and it worked fine in AF-Tr. I can imagine that once the PRO telephotos for m43 arrive (the 40-150/2.8 and the 300/4.0) the tracking performance will get better.

 

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TTL Flash - Compromise or Embedded Memory Confusion?

 

I will admit to being a little less than thrilled with the way Olympus do TTL flash. It’s complicated but once you do understand how it all works, it is certainly very capable. It offers everything the Nikon CLS offers, but just in a different way.

 

My biggest gripe is that the interface on the FL-600R flash units is fiddly. You have to contend with buttons and a dial to adjust things and getting used to it takes some time. With the Nikon CLS it was pretty much “plug and play” whereas with the Olympus flash system it’s “plug and pray that you have the correct settings on the flash AND on the camera”. Yes, you also have settings on the camera that you need to fiddle with in order to get the exposure right. I find this very counter intuitive and its especially problematic when you want to bounce flash in TTL mode during an event. I’ve had to resort to putting the flash into manual mode and adjusting the output by compensation dialling the power. Very old school. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by the new school where thinking about flash settings isn’t hard wired into my brain and Nikon iTTL became a crutch.

 

On the plus side once you get used to the interface there isn’t much you can’t do with the Olympus flash system. For wireless use indoors it works very much the same way that Nikon CLS does and you can also control up to three groups of flashes from your OM-D using the little clip on flash as a commander. The pop-up flash on my Nikon D700 only allowed me to control 2 groups.

 

I bought two of the FL-600R flash units and while they are diminutive compared to the likes of a Nikon SB-910, they pack a punch. If I need to produce head shots on a white background it’s an easy setup and using manual output on both the background light and key light, I have been rewarded with pretty good results.

 

gallery_1_436_1397556699_359.jpg
Shot with two FL-600R units, one into an umbrella and the other bounced onto the background

 


In Conclusion

 

As far as I can tell, what I’ve described here are the only tangible compromises I’ve encountered where a DSLR may have an advantage over the OM-D system. For me none of them were critical enough to prevent a complete switch over to OM-D from my fairly well equipped Nikon eco-system and if I am honest with myself and my readers, there are too many advantages to OM-D that cannot be reproduced on a DSLR for me to consider a DSLR as being a better option. Not for the kind of work I do anyway.

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Dallas, this three-part article is written very throughly!

 

I also agree that 16MP is plenty enough for most of the applications.  In a way, E-M1 is one of the most ground-breaking m4/3 cameras: its sensor performance exceeds most of that of APS-C sensors, according to the DXOmarks test.

 

In addition, I also think that the DOF offered by the formats smaller than FX is just right for most cases.  Actually, the reasonable amount of DOF with a fast lens wide open is rather preferable especially when shooting snaps in a dim room.

 

As for the flash, given the high-ISO performance of current cameras, the improved LED lightings and the integration of video functions, I would suspect that the flash as the mainstream lighting system could be obsolete in the meantime.

Edited by Akira

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Thanks Akira. Yes, I agree, the E-M1 is a game changer, but if photographers want to be in the new game they need to get their heads out of the old game. That's a hard nut to crack for producers like Olympus and Fujifilm. 

 

I think it's great that there are more systems to chose from now, so it's my hope that readers of these articles I write will be able to use my experiences to make their own decisions and lessen the hold that the big DSLR makers have on the industry. If you look at these "compromises" with an open mind you'll see that in reality they are insignificant when it comes to making photos. 

 

I'm working on a conference from tomorrow for the next 4 days and while I use ambient for most of the lectern and room shots, I sometimes get asked to provide the cheesy happy-snaps the corporates like to use in social media. I used to use the SB-900 on my D700 for those and never even think about settings, so I guess it is something I will miss if I have to do that again this week. Not that I can't do those shots with Olympus and FL-600R, it's just that I have to think about them a little more carefully. 

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Guest Airee

Posted

Concerning high ISO : the good thing is that, for static subjects, you do not need them; the stabilizer works (exposure times of 10/FL are easy, handheld). I have spent a week-end in Rome, shooting by the way organs and paintings in pitch-dark churches, and usually at 400 ISO, exceptionally 800... icing on the cake is, the color quality remains usually very good despite the mixed lighting (incandescent light, windows, stained glass...).

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Guest bjornthun

Posted (edited)

This is why I don't understand why Nikon didn't include VR in the new FX-format 28/1.8 snd 35/1.8. IBIS actually eats the two stop sensor performance of the FX-format sensor when we compare to Olympus 12/2 and 17/1.8 with IBIS. Canon did include IS in their new 35mm format 35/2. Canon stays ahead, Nikon not so much.

In practice IBIS and the zero-shock works very well for macro with the 60/2.8. Even AF with that lens remains functional for macro use.

Since Dallas present some images of delicious food:

Focus by wire allows you six full turns from infinity to 1:1 magnification with the Olympus 60/2.8. This is unprecedented by regular manual focus macro lenses or AF macro lenses with a mechanical clutch. Olympus focus-by-wire gives the best manual focus experience among AF lenses. Only real manual focus lenses beat them, but for macro it will be a close call.

Edited by bjornthun

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In addition, I also think that the DOF offered by the formats smaller than FX is just right for most cases.  Actually, the reasonable amount of DOF with a fast lens wide open is rather preferable especially when shooting snaps in a dim room.

 

It's the kind of bokeh that is problematic.  Some is better than others.  On m43, to achieve good 3d effect, you have to use an extreme lens like the nocticron.

 

An A7 with a cheap Ais 85/2 will destroy the nocticron because the dof will have less nervousness.  Not to say that m43 nocticron isn't a good lens... but it brings into light the weaknesses of m43, and the fact that 1.2 or .95 lenses are needed to complete the system drives the price of ownership well past the Sony FE with cheapo lens.

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I like the shot of the surfers with the huge vessel in the background.  As far as how many MP goes, this has been debated endlessly with one group saying use the right lens and get it right in camera with the other saying the ability to crop is extremely useful.  I probably fall into the later group as I crop D800 images a lot.

 

It would be nice to have a second camera, and possibly something small would do the trick.  When I managed to crack the back of my D800 (and my ribs as well) I was without a camera for three weeks.  That hurt.

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You should try one, Ron. Be forewarned though, this might be a door that you close behind you, as many have found themselves doing once they enter the mirrorless room. :)

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Guest Airee

Posted

Not my case. The OM-D makes me appreciate the fantastic sensor of the D800 even more ; the D800 makes me appreciate the size, weight etc. of the OM-D even more.

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Guest bjornthun

Posted

I sold my D800 and indeed all the Nikon AF stuff, but I did keep my Zeiss ZF, T/S lenses, Leica and some MF Nikkor lenses and got the Sony A7 (the one without the shutter issues). Thus I have a viewfinder I prefer to fully exploit my lenses. So, much like Airy, I'm in two camps, with both the m43 and the 35mm format cameras and lenses.

The m43 system has AF, is lightweight, small and can be taken everywhere, and is the fastest to use.

The 35mm format is for when I have the time and want the very best technical quality.

The only door I shut is the DSLR door, and now there are no more mirror slaps and no more shutter slaps.

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Guest Coreopsis

Posted

 

 

I also agree that 16MP is plenty enough for most of the applications.  In a way, E-M1 is one of the most ground-breaking m4/3 cameras: its sensor performance exceeds most of that of APS-C sensors, according to the DXOmarks test.

 

DxOMark gives the E-M1 an overall score of 73. The Nikon D90 using a 12 MP Sony sensor also receives a score of 73. The D90 was introduced  5 years before the E-M1. The Nikon D7000, with a 16 MP Sony sensor, and introduced 3 years before the E-M1, scores 80 on the DxOMark scale. Three different 24 MP APS-C sensors used subsequently by Nikon all score more than 80.

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16MP dimensionally  serves me perfectly adequately most of the time as well, just that sometimes I wish I had just that bit more flexibility of a slightly larger resolution. It's not critical, though, but just as 12MP was at best only barely adequate, 16MP is fine and 24MP would be a sometimes-nice luxury.

 

Personally I prefer the film-like image quality of the Fuji X-Trans, and the eye-watering sharp definition of the Sigma Foveon as far as sensors go. Both provide images that are 16MP dimensionally, but as DXO can't adapt their tests for these sensors they simply haven't tested them, and as such their testing holds no relevance for me either.

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      The two most widely talked about lenses in these circles are the Canon 17mm and 24mm T/S. These are both incredible pieces of glass, but they are also fairly expensive. The reason why they are so highly sought after has less to do with keystone correction than it has to do with being able to shift perspective without having to move the position of a camera. So, for example, if you are in a room and you set up your camera for a one point perspective shot, but decide that you would like to see less of the ceiling and more of the floor, simply shifting the lens downwards instead of re-positioning the camera will allow you to keep the same one point perspective height but obtain more floor than ceiling in your frame. It’s a great way to adjust things in-camera rather than in post.
       
      Sony A7 users are able to not only use the Canon EF lenses with an adapter, but some adapters made by Metabones will also provide you with full metering and auto focus support (down to eye-focus) on the whole Canon range of EF lenses. This means that you can get all the camera features of a Sony and the benefit of Canon’s best glass without really losing any functionality.
       
      This discovery had me really thinking about whether I should add a 35mm mirrorless camera from either Sony or Canon and the 17mm TS to my arsenal for architectural work (an area I am most comfortable working in). The costs would have been justifiable, in fact I would be able to purchase an EOS RP body and the lens for about the same money as an Olympus E-M1X. Alternatively I could buy a new old stock Sony A7ii with a kit lens for less than the price of the Canon RP and if I wanted to, I could build up a collection of 35mm glass that could include the Sony Zeiss range too.
       
      I had been thinking about doing this since midway through 2019. In fact, while on holiday in Cape Town last year I visited Orms camera store the day before Black Friday and got hands on with both Canon RP and Sony A7iii (they didn’t have the ii). The A7iii felt fantastic in hand compared to the RP, but it was quite a lot more expensive and they weren’t including the 28-70mm kit lens that the A7ii usually gets sold with.
       
      A part of my brain that I have never truly understood when it comes to rationalising gear purchases began sending an urgent pulse pressing me to buy the thing anyway and worry about the financial impact later. After all, I would be able to make it up quickly in work that would surely pour through the door the moment the world learned that I had upgraded my camera. This other conservative part of my brain was telling me to stop fooling myself about parting with such a large sum of money for something that would simply serve as a gateway to much more expense in the form of lenses I would not be able to resist if I added this new system to my gear.
       
      On the day the conservative brain won out and I breathlessly retreated back to my Airbnb to re-absorb our amazing view of Table Mountain (which tends to calm most people’s troubled minds). After returning from my Cape Town holiday to Durban I couldn’t get this potential system switch out of my mind and this wasn’t helped by commercial emails from suppliers landing in my inbox advising me of price drops on the Sony A7ii with the kit lens to levels that are mouth-wateringly tempting.
       
      I watched video after video on YouTube about the A7ii and it’s hard to find anybody not happy with that camera, even though it is now about 6 years old. I thought about my own carefully crafted MFT system and forced myself to truthfully evaluate what it was that I found lacking that would prompt me to go in a different direction.
       
      I thought long and hard about it and after doing a few more successful shoots in a variety of different fields, including real estate, product photography and (new to me) commercial lifestyle with real models and off camera flash in the field, I began to remember why I had moved across to MFT in the first place.
       
      I have been using two E-M1 bodies with a variety of different lenses since my move from Nikon FX in 2014. One of these bodies has had to have its shutter replaced, a process that wasn’t particularly bothersome, even though the camera had to be sent to Portugal for the work to be done. When it came back about 3 weeks later it looked like a brand new camera because they replaced all the rubbers, as well as the entire top plate. Well worth the expense.
       
      When I bring images into Lightroom from my Olympus E-M1 cameras I barely have to do anything to them before delivering to clients. I do have some presets that recover highlights and shadows and these days I can’t seem to stop myself from applying the dehaze filter by at least +10 on everything I shoot, but that’s really it as far as pixel massaging goes. I don’t ever sharpen and I don’t typically use noise reduction on client work either. Since my first jobs after moving to this system professionally (I have used MFT cameras personally since about 2011) I have not had a single client ever question the quality of my images. Not one. In fact I get compliments about my work all the time, even from other photographers.
       
      When I look at the 8 lenses I am presently using, apart from the “mandatory”  tilt shift lenses that architectural photographers wax lyrical over, I have everything I need, from 7.5mm fisheye, all the way up to 280mm telephoto (560mm angle of view in 35mm terms). All of the lenses I use are exceptional performers and honestly I could not wish for anything more from them. I know that if I was to move back to 35mm I would have to spend a huge amount of money to get the same as what I currently have in lenses.
       
      And what would I be gaining if I made that move? For sure, I would get better low light performance, shallower depth of field and maybe better AF-C, but how critical is that to what I do? Not very. A lot of the work I do actually requires more depth of field than can reliably be obtained by a 35mm system without engaging some trickery, such as focus stacking, especially in architectural and product photography. I would also have to carry much heavier equipment than is the case with my existing MFT system. Not to mention an entirely new camera support system with new tripods, heads and thicker Peak Design straps.
       
      Despite the click bait fringe elements you will find online who predict the impending demise of the MFT system, there appears to be more development going on with it right now than there is in most other systems. There is quite literally something for everybody in MFT, be it smaller compact camera bodies like the Panasonic GM or Olympus PEN series, giant action cameras like the Olympus E-M1X, serious video and film making capabilities with the Panasonic GH5 and Black Magic Pocket Cinema 4K, alternative lighting that offers HSS and TTL from Godox, plus scores of different lenses from a variety of makers ranging from ultra wide to super telephoto to enormous fast apertures from Voigtlander. It’s pretty much a honey pot for gadget freaks like me, so why would I want to pigeonhole myself with another camera system that is nowhere near as versatile?
       
      I’m sticking with Micro Four Thirds. It just makes a whole lot of sense in spite of that radical part of my brain that usually falls victim to the FOMO GAS.
    • By Hugh_3170
      This anticipated new model in the Olympus E-M1 line up has been released.
       
      Some links:
       
      https://www.dpreview.com/reviews/olympus-om-d-e-m1-mark-iii-initial-review
       
      https://www.olympus.com.au/product/dslr/em1mk3/index.html
       
      It will be interesting to see how this new comer stacks up against its predecessors, especially in the stills IQ department.
       
      (Meanwhile Nikon have released their new D6 - in good time for the summer Olympics in Tokyo later this year.)
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