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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.

 

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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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Akira

Posted (edited)

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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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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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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      Getting back to the intended sports user of this camera, there is the not-so-insignificant Pro Capture mode to consider as a lure for the photographers who want to simplify their lives and get great action every time. Basically with the mode active the camera writes continuously to the buffer while you are holding the shutter button halfway down. As soon as your critical capture moment arrives you trip the shutter and the camera will record whatever it has currently in the buffer to the card(s). This is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel really, especially if you have the patience to sit with your finger on the trigger waiting for a bird to take flight. You can’t miss the shot. Unless you’re like me and you get tired of waiting and the bird chuckles at you as you put down the camera just before it flies away.
       

      I'll settle for stationary birds
       
      On the subject of Pro Capture, this mode is set by changing the drive mode in Super Control Panel (SCP). However, the thing is you may (like me) forget to switch this back to a regular drive mode after failing to record the wretched lilac breasted roller taking off, and then at your next sighting you will end up with dozens of images of a stationary buffalo. Or worse still, you’ll be wanting to shoot a sequence of something happening, but after you accidentally trigger Pro Capture you will have to wait for the camera to write its buffer onto your card. If you have a not-so-fast card like me this could be a few seconds, followed by several more trying to remember where to switch off the Pro Capture mode. Ideally I’d love to be able to have Pro Capture activate by holding down a custom function button together with the shutter button. A Fn button on the PRO lenses would be an ideal setup for this pretty cool feature. While I had the E-M1X I couldn’t see a way of being able to assign that particular feature to any of the custom function buttons, so hopefully Olympus’ engineers will read this criticism and work out a way of doing it in future firmware upgrades. I did manage to set up a quick switch between normal and Pro Capture by using the Custom Modes, but that requires remembering to change modes between sightings. Duh.
       
      Regarding Custom Modes there are four of these that are assignable to the PASM dial, so if your memory is better than mine you can set up each custom mode for a different type of shooting simply by changing the mode. However, you’re going to have to have a Gary Kasparov like mind because the sheer number of custom settings on a camera like the E-M1X is mind-boggling. There are pages and pages and more pages of custom settings in the menus and if you’re not used to the way Olympus does menus, you’re either going to go stir crazy or require a lot of patience (and batteries) to get the better of it all. It’s not insurmountable though and experienced Olympus users will probably be able to set up their custom modes quite easily after a few weeks with the camera in the field.
       
      One thing I really liked about the X is that there is a Custom Menu area where you can save up to 5 pages of menu items that you regularly need to access. Storing an item in there is as simple as pressing the Record video button while the item is selected in the menu. That’s a very big plus for me and goes a long way towards personalising the Olympus menu system.
       
       
      Stabilisation
       
      The IBIS and lens IS combine in the E-M1X to create an extraordinary amount of stabilisation. I was using the 300/4.0 PRO on this body almost exclusively for the duration of our 7 days in Sabi Sabi and occasionally I would shoot birds sitting on nearby branches. When I do my focus and recompose technique the subject does what I can only describe as a “moonwalk” glide from one part of the frame to the other. There is absolutely no camera shake at all handheld, which when you consider that you are using a 4.1˚ angle of view is bonkers! Olympus claim a 6 stop advantage in handheld photography and I have no doubt that this is true. Given my sloppy technique this is yet another Godsend to make my images look much better than they should.
       

       

      Stabilisation with long lenses is incredible.
       
       
      Battery
       
      Battery life was pretty decent. The camera comes with two batteries and typically I only exhausted about 50% of the one each day. Granted I don’t shoot as much as everybody else. On this safari I took a total of 1726 images with the E-M1X, averaging 288 per day. So, assuming I were to exhaust both batteries in a day I would be able to shoot over 1000 frames before having to recharge them.
       
      However, it is also possible to charge the camera via USB-C, so if you did get trigger happy enough to shoot that many in a day on safari, you could recharge from a  power bank between sightings. Or just buy more batteries.
       

       
       
      Low Light
       
      Right, this is where the rubber hits the road as far as getting 35mm power-users interested in switching to MFT. I’ll say it at the outset, I was disappointed in the low light performance of the E-M1X sensor.
       
      For starters, it doesn’t seem possible to be able to set Auto-ISO to go above 6400 on the X. None of the expanded ranges are available when using the auto mode while shooting RAW, which I think is just silly. This is how I shoot these days. I always use Auto-ISO. On the original E-M1 I sometimes let this go as high as 12800 and while the images may appear grainy they have a certain film-like charm to them. You can’t do that on the X. You have to set ISO 12800 or above manually.
       
      As far as graininess goes, 6400 on the E-M1X is very grainy and there is also a major loss of colour fidelity. To be honest I was expecting much better performance from the sensor at high ISO, so for me this is a deal breaker. Since the camera is intended to compete against the likes of the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D series (where higher ISO is a forte), it sadly falls well short in this area.
       
      Having said that, I think that if you buy this camera and invest some time in learning how to deal with the grain and colour issues in post production you could probably get some very good results.
       

      Shot at ISO 6400, you can see the grain in the background, plus there has been a general loss of colour saturation.
       

      But then in good light you'll get rewarded.
       

      Gorgeous colours from the Olympus. No adjustments in post.
       
       
      Cool Things I Liked
       
      The sound of the mechanical shutter is really soft. It’s a lot quieter than my old E-M1 and if you are in the business of shooting in quiet places (churches, meetings, etc) you may not even have to switch to electronic shutter and risk the rolling effects thereof. It’s nice and quiet.
       
      I really appreciated the built in GPS and weather sensor on the E-M1X. This camera will tell you what the barometric pressure, altitude and ambient temperature was on every shot you take. I wish Lightroom would pick up those EXIF fields, alas you have to use the Olympus Workspace software to read them.
       
       
      A Couple Of Nit Picks
       
      There are a couple of things that I didn’t like, most notably there is no loop for a grip strap in the base of the camera so you would have to put a plate onto there to accommodate one (I used the Peak Design Clutch with its little plate). That seems like a daft omission to me because the moment you have to put a plate on the grip you lose the comfort of shooting with it in portrait mode.
       
      I was also a bit disappointed with the EVF. The refresh rate and colour was all good, but it just seemed to lack a bit of bite. The EVF on my old original E-M1 seems sharper to my eyes, which is a little weird. I did try adjusting the diopter a few times, but it didn’t seem to improve things. It could have been a contrast setting in the menus that I missed?
       
      The one thing I really don’t like (and I have expressed my dislike of this before) is the flip out LCD screen. This is something video producers want, but as a stills photographer I truly don’t want this as it’s a very weak point of the camera just waiting to snap off in the right circumstances. I much prefer the tilting screen of the original OM-D’s. Olympus should make it an option for this kind of premium camera: which type of LCD screen would you prefer, Mr. Customer?
       
       
      Conclusion
       
      I wish that I could have kept the camera for just a little bit longer as there are many other areas I would have liked to explore its performance in, especially my daily bread and butter work of property and product photography. Alas, they are in short supply around here so it had to go back post haste.
       
      My overall impression is that it is quite an impressive machine. It offers the photographer a lot of very cool features, excellent customisability and ergonomics. It is a specialist camera, however, and as such I think that the intended market for it is going to be a hard nut for Olympus to crack, especially given its lack of high ISO performance, which is something the sports photographers demand.
       
      If you’re a day shooter or you shoot action in well lit arenas then the advances this machine brings in terms of auto-focus and customisability, plus the sheer plethora of outstanding MFT lenses available for the system makes it a very attractive option, especially for those who travel a lot for photography. You get the ruggedness, heft and weather proofing of a pro body and the lightness and compactness of much smaller lenses.
       
      For me personally I would love one, after all I got more keepers on this most recent safari than in all the 10 years of safaris preceding it, but… there is the matter of that not-so-insignificant $3000 price tag to consider. With the recent firmware upgrade to the E-M1 Mk II now bringing its feature set closer to that of the X, it is going to be much harder for Olympus to pitch this camera at the wider market and existing MFT users with that price tag. If it were closer to $2000 I might be a lot more interested in buying one.
       
      My final advice? If you want the very best camera that MFT can currently offer you for stability, video features, ruggedness, crazy feature set and customisability, get the E-M1X. If you are expecting par performance with a 35mm pro camera for low light, rather save $1500, wait for the sensor technology to improve and get the E-M1 Mk II for now.
    • By Dallas
      Olympus South Africa very kindly loaned me an E-M1X for my recent Photo Safari to Sabi Sabi and while I only had a few days before leaving on the trip to become accustomed to the camera, I did manage to produce some great images (by my standards) while using it in conjunction with the Olympus 300mm f/4.0 PRO.
       
      The first thing that struck me about this camera when taking it out of the box is the sheer size of it. It is huge. If you’ve been using Micro Four Thirds bodies to get away from the bulk of traditional DSLR’s then you will not want this camera. I was quite shocked at its size initially, especially when compared to my gripped E-M1 (original) which I have been shooting since 2014. The Nikon D5 is only 15mm bigger in terms of depth, height and width all around, so for a small sensor camera to be so close in size to a flagship 35mm camera begs some serious questioning of the makers.
       

      Side-by-side view of the E-M1X and the original E-M1 with its grip
       
      So why did Olympus make this camera so big? When you begin handling it the answer falls into place. It’s designed for sports and action photographers who are used to the speed and heft of cameras like the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D series. That’s the user market Olympus are targeting with this machine. It feels substantial in the hands and the ergonomics are such that if you’re used to a bigger camera, moving across to the E-M1X will be much easier for you to adapt to, especially since the Olympus is so highly customisable that you could easily set it up to pretty much emulate the ergonomics of your big DSLR. Well, maybe not the Canons which often require simultaneous button presses to activate certain things, but most certainly it would be easy for a Nikon shooter to make the change.
       

      Not much in it, dimension wise, is there? 
       
      So we now have a giant MFT camera that feels like a Nikon D5. Why didn’t they do what Panasonic has done and make a bigger sensor too? Good question. Why stick with MFT sensors if you want to attract the sports and wildlife shooters of the world? This is where the concept of MFT begins to make sense. The main advantage to be had when shooting this small format as opposed to 35mm is that MFT lenses are comparatively diminutive. For example, on my safari I packed in the Olympus 300/4.0 PRO as well as my older 50-200/2.8-3.5 SWD and a third un-gripped body with the Olympus 12-100/4.0 PRO. I also had the Pan/Leica 8-18mm lens in my bag because I wanted to make some photos of the lodge while I was there. Those items I took as a carry on in the ThinkTank Airport Advantage roller and while the bag was not exactly light once my laptop and other peripherals were in it (about 15kg total), had I wanted a similar focal range shooting a 35mm system, I would have had to pack a 600mm f/4.0, 200-400mm f/4.0 and a regular camera with professional wide angle and ultra-zoom lenses. There is no way you could take that as a carry on with 35mm, so you’d have to bring a hard case and pay for the extra baggage. You then also have the added stress of wondering if your precious gear will make it to its destination. Having been in this exact situation many times before moving across to MFT from Nikon 35mm I know exactly what the challenges of travelling with large lenses and heavy gear are.
       

      This is the gear I took on the safari in the ThinkTank Airport Advantage.
       
      Conversely travelling with MFT is easy. Even with the giant E-M1X body, the space and weight savings of the incredible Olympus PRO and Panasonic/Leica lenses is a Godsend. Also consider the not-so-insignificant overhead of having to bring along a support system for your big 35mm glass because I doubt you’re going to want to hand hold a 600/4.0 lens if you’re going on a photography trip where such a lens is wanted. You’ll also need to pack a monopod and probably a gimbal head too. MFT systems like Olympus don’t require any support other than your hand, even when shooting the 300mm f/4 PRO. The IBIS and lens IS combine incredibly well.
       
      Given its considerable girth, for the E-M1X to make sense as a photographic tool that is intended to win over 35mm users it also needs to have some other things going for it. It will need to have seriously fast and accurate auto-focus, plus it will need to offer decent image quality in low light. This is where things get interesting. Read on!
       
       
      Auto Focus
       
      I’m not a back-button focus photographer. I can understand the principle behind this method and I have tried it a few times, but I have been using single point AF-S for so long that trying to change that deeply ingrained behaviour is really hard for me. I’ve also never set up any of the cameras I have ever owned to work in AF-C mode with any degree of success, so I tend to stab at the shutter button rapidly to keep slow moving things in focus (it’s very rarely that I will find myself photographing fast moving subjects). This method has worked for me for quite a long time now. So when I started reading the autofocus section in the E-M1X manual (which itself is a gargantuan 680-odd pages long in just English alone!) I was staggered by the array of setup options for the AF system of the E-M1X. I simply didn’t have enough time before my safari to comprehend all the options it offers, let alone try them out in practical situations.
       
      As mentioned I always set up AF to use a single point in AF-S mode and I recompose once I see the green dot. I don’t use the grouped points, so for me learning something as sophisticated as the AF system on the E-M1X is going to require a specific set of applications, which currently I don’t have in my work. For people who shoot birds in flight, aviation, motorsport and fast action sports such as soccer, ice-hockey and the like, this is probably going to be a winner, especially since they have built in subject recognition for certain things like cars, trains and planes. Apparently these subjects will be added to in firmware as they build up better data on new ones. I can imagine that leopard detection might be a thing in the future.
       
      One feature that I didn’t try but thought was interesting is the Len Focus Range. This setup allows you to define the distances that the AF system should work in. It basically allows you to tell the camera not to focus on objects that are a certain distance away from you. For example, if you are shooting a sport like boxing or ice hockey, you could set this up to avoid focusing on the ropes and/or plexiglass between you and what you’re trying to shoot. Some lenses will have these limits built in, but with the E-M1X you can specify exactly how many metres you want to work within.
       
      Another thing I liked about the X is that you can assign the Home position for the single AF point to be in a different position when shooting in the portrait orientation. This is really handy for events when I find myself having to shift the AF point between shooting people at a podium and then switching to the audience in landscape orientation. Very nice feature.
       
      What I can tell you about the AF system as I used it, is that it’s reassuringly lightning quick and accurate for the wildlife subjects I was photographing. There’s no hunting unless you miss a contrast point, like all cameras I have ever tried. Focus is almost instantaneous, even when subjects are not so close.
       
      In summary, I don’t think that anybody coming from 35mm will be disappointed with the AF capability of the E-M1X. If anything they might be pleasantly surprised given the sheer array of options available to control how the system works.
       
       

      Wildebeest in the misty morning, no problem with auto focus here in spite of the grass
       

      Using my "repeated stabbing" AF technique I managed to get a moderately sharp image, but I reckon had I used the camera's AF-S mode here the shot would have been better. 
       
       
      Speed
       
      One of the biggest advances Olympus made with this camera is the CPU speed. This is a very fast camera in terms of how quickly it processes and reads off data from the sensor. It’s so fast that you can do sensor shift high resolution images handheld. I didn’t really try this out properly, plus Lightroom can’t read the resulting .ORI files so the handful of shots I did take with this mode active, I have to process in Olympus Workspace, which I am completely new to. Sorry! As such I can’t formulate an opinion right now on how useful it is based on such a small sample of images, but what I can say is that on stationary subjects I think it can work quite well. I’d love to try it out in studio doing product photography, but I think there might be some issues syncing it with studio strobes.
       
      Getting back to the intended sports user of this camera, there is the not-so-insignificant Pro Capture mode to consider as a lure for the photographers who want to simplify their lives and get great action every time. Basically with the mode active the camera writes continuously to the buffer while you are holding the shutter button halfway down. As soon as your critical capture moment arrives you trip the shutter and the camera will record whatever it has currently in the buffer to the card(s). This is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel really, especially if you have the patience to sit with your finger on the trigger waiting for a bird to take flight. You can’t miss the shot. Unless you’re like me and you get tired of waiting and the bird chuckles at you as you put down the camera just before it flies away.
       

      I'll settle for stationary birds
       
      On the subject of Pro Capture, this mode is set by changing the drive mode in Super Control Panel (SCP). However, the thing is you may (like me) forget to switch this back to a regular drive mode after failing to record the wretched lilac breasted roller taking off, and then at your next sighting you will end up with dozens of images of a stationary buffalo. Or worse still, you’ll be wanting to shoot a sequence of something happening, but after you accidentally trigger Pro Capture you will have to wait for the camera to write its buffer onto your card. If you have a not-so-fast card like me this could be a few seconds, followed by several more trying to remember where to switch off the Pro Capture mode. Ideally I’d love to be able to have Pro Capture activate by holding down a custom function button together with the shutter button. A Fn button on the PRO lenses would be an ideal setup for this pretty cool feature. While I had the E-M1X I couldn’t see a way of being able to assign that particular feature to any of the custom function buttons, so hopefully Olympus’ engineers will read this criticism and work out a way of doing it in future firmware upgrades. I did manage to set up a quick switch between normal and Pro Capture by using the Custom Modes, but that requires remembering to change modes between sightings. Duh.
       
      Regarding Custom Modes there are four of these that are assignable to the PASM dial, so if your memory is better than mine you can set up each custom mode for a different type of shooting simply by changing the mode. However, you’re going to have to have a Gary Kasparov like mind because the sheer number of custom settings on a camera like the E-M1X is mind-boggling. There are pages and pages and more pages of custom settings in the menus and if you’re not used to the way Olympus does menus, you’re either going to go stir crazy or require a lot of patience (and batteries) to get the better of it all. It’s not insurmountable though and experienced Olympus users will probably be able to set up their custom modes quite easily after a few weeks with the camera in the field.
       
      One thing I really liked about the X is that there is a Custom Menu area where you can save up to 5 pages of menu items that you regularly need to access. Storing an item in there is as simple as pressing the Record video button while the item is selected in the menu. That’s a very big plus for me and goes a long way towards personalising the Olympus menu system.
       
       
      Stabilisation
       
      The IBIS and lens IS combine in the E-M1X to create an extraordinary amount of stabilisation. I was using the 300/4.0 PRO on this body almost exclusively for the duration of our 7 days in Sabi Sabi and occasionally I would shoot birds sitting on nearby branches. When I do my focus and recompose technique the subject does what I can only describe as a “moonwalk” glide from one part of the frame to the other. There is absolutely no camera shake at all handheld, which when you consider that you are using a 4.1˚ angle of view is bonkers! Olympus claim a 6 stop advantage in handheld photography and I have no doubt that this is true. Given my sloppy technique this is yet another Godsend to make my images look much better than they should.
       

       

      Stabilisation with long lenses is incredible.
       
       
      Battery
       
      Battery life was pretty decent. The camera comes with two batteries and typically I only exhausted about 50% of the one each day. Granted I don’t shoot as much as everybody else. On this safari I took a total of 1726 images with the E-M1X, averaging 288 per day. So, assuming I were to exhaust both batteries in a day I would be able to shoot over 1000 frames before having to recharge them.
       
      However, it is also possible to charge the camera via USB-C, so if you did get trigger happy enough to shoot that many in a day on safari, you could recharge from a  power bank between sightings. Or just buy more batteries.
       

       
       
      Low Light
       
      Right, this is where the rubber hits the road as far as getting 35mm power-users interested in switching to MFT. I’ll say it at the outset, I was disappointed in the low light performance of the E-M1X sensor.
       
      For starters, it doesn’t seem possible to be able to set Auto-ISO to go above 6400 on the X. None of the expanded ranges are available when using the auto mode while shooting RAW, which I think is just silly. This is how I shoot these days. I always use Auto-ISO. On the original E-M1 I sometimes let this go as high as 12800 and while the images may appear grainy they have a certain film-like charm to them. You can’t do that on the X. You have to set ISO 12800 or above manually.
       
      As far as graininess goes, 6400 on the E-M1X is very grainy and there is also a major loss of colour fidelity. To be honest I was expecting much better performance from the sensor at high ISO, so for me this is a deal breaker. Since the camera is intended to compete against the likes of the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D series (where higher ISO is a forte), it sadly falls well short in this area.
       
      Having said that, I think that if you buy this camera and invest some time in learning how to deal with the grain and colour issues in post production you could probably get some very good results.
       

      Shot at ISO 6400, you can see the grain in the background, plus there has been a general loss of colour saturation.
       

      But then in good light you'll get rewarded.
       

      Gorgeous colours from the Olympus. No adjustments in post.
       
       
      Cool Things I Liked
       
      The sound of the mechanical shutter is really soft. It’s a lot quieter than my old E-M1 and if you are in the business of shooting in quiet places (churches, meetings, etc) you may not even have to switch to electronic shutter and risk the rolling effects thereof. It’s nice and quiet.
       
      I really appreciated the built in GPS and weather sensor on the E-M1X. This camera will tell you what the barometric pressure, altitude and ambient temperature was on every shot you take. I wish Lightroom would pick up those EXIF fields, alas you have to use the Olympus Workspace software to read them.
       
       
      A Couple Of Nit Picks
       
      There are a couple of things that I didn’t like, most notably there is no loop for a grip strap in the base of the camera so you would have to put a plate onto there to accommodate one (I used the Peak Design Clutch with its little plate). That seems like a daft omission to me because the moment you have to put a plate on the grip you lose the comfort of shooting with it in portrait mode.
       
      I was also a bit disappointed with the EVF. The refresh rate and colour was all good, but it just seemed to lack a bit of bite. The EVF on my old original E-M1 seems sharper to my eyes, which is a little weird. I did try adjusting the diopter a few times, but it didn’t seem to improve things. It could have been a contrast setting in the menus that I missed?
       
      The one thing I really don’t like (and I have expressed my dislike of this before) is the flip out LCD screen. This is something video producers want, but as a stills photographer I truly don’t want this as it’s a very weak point of the camera just waiting to snap off in the right circumstances. I much prefer the tilting screen of the original OM-D’s. Olympus should make it an option for this kind of premium camera: which type of LCD screen would you prefer, Mr. Customer?
       
       
      Conclusion
       
      I wish that I could have kept the camera for just a little bit longer as there are many other areas I would have liked to explore its performance in, especially my daily bread and butter work of property and product photography. Alas, they are in short supply around here so it had to go back post haste.
       
      My overall impression is that it is quite an impressive machine. It offers the photographer a lot of very cool features, excellent customisability and ergonomics. It is a specialist camera, however, and as such I think that the intended market for it is going to be a hard nut for Olympus to crack, especially given its lack of high ISO performance, which is something the sports photographers demand.
       
      If you’re a day shooter or you shoot action in well lit arenas then the advances this machine brings in terms of auto-focus and customisability, plus the sheer plethora of outstanding MFT lenses available for the system makes it a very attractive option, especially for those who travel a lot for photography. You get the ruggedness, heft and weather proofing of a pro body and the lightness and compactness of much smaller lenses.
       
      For me personally I would love one, after all I got more keepers on this most recent safari than in all the 10 years of safaris preceding it, but… there is the matter of that not-so-insignificant $3000 price tag to consider. With the recent firmware upgrade to the E-M1 Mk II now bringing its feature set closer to that of the X, it is going to be much harder for Olympus to pitch this camera at the wider market and existing MFT users with that price tag. If it were closer to $2000 I might be a lot more interested in buying one.
       
      My final advice? If you want the very best camera that MFT can currently offer you for stability, video features, ruggedness, crazy feature set and customisability, get the E-M1X. If you are expecting par performance with a 35mm pro camera for low light, rather save $1500, wait for the sensor technology to improve and get the E-M1 Mk II for now.

      View full article
    • By Dallas
      I just got word that Olympus has updated the firmware in the E-M1 Mk II and this sees it now getting a lot more of the features that the E-M1X has, including improved AF, expanded ISO range (down to ISO 64) as well as some other stuff that I didn't even know these cameras could do. Here's Robin Wong to run through some of the details.  
       
       
       
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