Pretty-light photography, the Olympus OMD EM-5.

Skip to section; DSLR is dead, The OMD EM-5 in the field or The Lenses.

I did a post about electronics for hiking here, with the conspicuous absence of the 800 lb gorilla in almost every hikers pack list, the camera. I know damn well that for all my non-blogging hiking friends (the lazy scum), bringing a camera is as important as bringing a tent. And for the wonderful blogging/hiking community the camera is both the capturer of memories and the peephole that allows our astonished audience (Hi!) to witness our rainy adventures through our eyes.

My camera lived outside the shadow of my surgical blade, a blade that without remorse carved the fat away from my pack-list, shaving grammes from tent, rucksack, clothes, sleeping bag alike. The camera laughed from its pedestal, immune because I want a camera with high image quality, tough construction that can shrug off the occasional shower or whack, and a manual mode. I did give the whole ‘phone as a camera’ thing a try at one point to save weight, but that just ended in a load of shitty high-res noisy JPEGs and me hating my 4S a little bit more. And the couple of waterproof digital compact cameras I’ve had tended to just take flat, boring pictures regardless of subject. So my rugged, heavy and fantastically fun Nikon D80 continued to scorn my attempts to cut-weight, like that racist South African ambassador in Lethal Weapon 3 scorned Danny Glover. When fellow hikers gasped at the leaden 600+ gramme D80 coupled to a 550 gramme Tokina 11-16mm wideangle, the camera smirked, lifted up its passport and sneered “Diplomatic immunity…”

BANG!


“It’s just been revoked” quips the Olympus OMD-EM5.
This is the camera that finally persuaded me to quit DSLRs, and move to a relatively new, exploding format called micro four thirds (m43). My sad old worn D80 and all its lenses were sold and just about covered the cost of an OMD-EM5 and a handful of lenses, so financially it was an easy move. Let me give you a little quick background on why I went to m43. (BTW, any photos that aren’t of camera gear in this post were taken with the EM5).

DSLR is dead.
The DSLR has just totally and utterly dominated prosumer cameras for the last few years. Ever since the release of the Canon 300D and equivalent Nikon D70, people have started to realise that they can have a near-pro experience with one of these low-end DSLRs for a decent cost. I had the 350D and was amazed at how, with a nice lens, I could take excellent pictures with this tough, small, and modestly priced body. The progressive successors were better and better, cheaper and with greater resolution and then with excellent video capabilities. And today it’s impossible to go to anywhere populated by people with cameras, without seeing a very high ratio of DSLR to compact pocket cameras. They are immensely popular and have democratised photography in the same way Gutenberg democratised knowledge.


The software is also insanely customiseable, there seems not to be a button or a dial that cannot be reassigned to some other switch, and not a sub-sub-menu that cannot be brought instantly to screen with some shortcut. The abundance of clicky dials and function buttons (more can be added with independent actions if you pick up the battery grip) make manual mode a pleasurable, intuitive experience. Even the manual focus mode is a pleasure to use, a twist of the focus ring causes the EVF to show a 5x to 16x crop of the FOV, allowing for really fast, accurate manual focus. I should also briefly mention the vivid colour reproduction, low noise at high ISOs and the anti-shake sensor that allows shake free exposures at relatively slow shutter speeds.

The Lenses.
Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 (Reviewed nicely here)
Michi briefly had the weather sealed kit lens (12-50mm F3.5-6.3, check out some nice pictures taken with full advantage of the weather sealing here), and by all accounts it seems like a decent jack-of-all-trades that would be perfect for hiking. However I’ve had bad experiences with kit lenses, and decided to go prime only with this camera. I went for a Panasonic 14mm F2.5 pancake (55g!), which is adorably small and dainty, and takes acceptable, fairly wide pictures, such as below at the wonderful Finnsvedsberget.

Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 (Review here)
Then I picked up the very hard to find Panasonic 25mm F1.4, (200g) which has just set up its home on my camera. With the m43 2:1 crop it turns into a ‘nifty fifty’, and if there was ever a lens that could steal my heart away from the Tokina 11-16mm that made my Nikon days so wonderful, it’s this piece of sexy (gl)ass. It is very, very difficult to take a boring picture with this fast lens. Feels great, fast focus and wonderfully sharp.


Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm f/1.8 (Reviewed here)
Finally I grabbed the lovely Olympus 45mm F1.8 (116g), which also manages to pull of pretty amazing pictures. Very easy to do the old razor sharp portrait with tons of blurry bokeh with this, and suitable also for recording a little bird-on-snake violence.

There are some niggles – because of the weather-sealing the buttons are a little… ‘squishy’ feeling, and an EVF can never hope to be as good as an optical viewfinder (although the ability to apply S-curves and see their affect live in the EVF is fun, and the manual focus system mentioned earlier is genuinely useful). I would also say that it takes some time to get used to how small it feels in the hand, compared to the nice grips of a full sized SLR. Overall though, I can take along this camera, with three or four lenses, some ND filters, gels and a spare battery, all for a fraction of the weight of my previous set-up. All that weight lost, with nothing but better image quality to show for it. (Below you can see the 45mm on camera, the 25 with its beautiful lens hood, and the svelte 14mm).

If you want to check out some other takes on m43 as well as the Sony NEX system, check out Hendrik’s blog (Hiking in Finland), he has been reviewing lightweight cameras for ages. Here are his thoughts on the GF1, the GF2 vs.  the NEX 5, and the Panasonic GH2. And here’s Mark’s (at Backpacking North) take on the GF1. And finally, here are some 100% crops from some of the pictures in this review. I love that you can see a single leg of the coffee filter partially eclipsing the sun in this drip of coffee below, really fantastic detail.

20 thoughts on “Pretty-light photography, the Olympus OMD EM-5.

  • August 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm
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    Excellent, passionate argument in favour of m43! The first two pictures are quite spectacular (not to say the others are not, but those two blew me away).

    My first SLR was an Olympus OM20 back in the 80s, so it's nice to see that they've come full circle in a way. This camera looks very tempting, especially as it takes the Panasonic lenses. But I think my GF1 has a couple more years in it yet (thanks for the link, btw).

    I don't think I'm quite ready to give up DSLRs yet, as I have my eye on a full-frame, 36megapixel D800, but I do reach for the GF1 more often than for my D300.

    Lastly, that "live view" feature does sound very useful, and would mean you don't have to freeze your fingers quite so much to get that perfect aurora shot.

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  • August 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm
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    The EM-5 is certainly the most interesting camera around currently. It is of course the best m43 still camera by far and would have been my choice if not for the lacking video capabilities. The image quality, weather proofness and especially the image stabilizer makes it a far better camera than the Panasonic GH2 I chose because of its video capabilities. Hopefully Olympus puts some decent video functionality into the next model in the series.

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  • August 21, 2012 at 12:21 pm
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    Oh, this was a mightylicious review. Further reading shows this might be the camera for me – not at all an DSLR like I was contemplating. I'm not there yet though, must do more photography to prove I'm worth it, plus raise the money. But I just set up a goal for myself. It'll probably be somewhat more affordable a year from now too, plus more available lenses.

    I really liked the rainy shots, second and the balcony one. I like how it seems to use buttons, I'm not really keen on all touch cameras, find it less responsive and painful to set in a hurry..

    Thank's for a great post, yet again.

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  • August 24, 2012 at 7:33 am
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    Still regarding lenses. How does your prime lenses fare outside? It's kind of sad to have a weather-sealed body but standard lenses. I'd prefer prime lenses to zoom, but there are few available, plus you showed a real handy set of primes. I'd recon primes do seal better than a zoom, but how well?

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  • August 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm
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    Superb Tomás! Love it, and you made the EM-5 sound fantastic (I wasn't aware that it has a weather sealed body, something that my NEX-5N lacks, though a bit of rain and some bumps are no problem for it thus far). Oh, and those photos – splendid. I might just need to check it out.

    I'm getting some nice old lenses for my NEX-5N now, which is something I saw and learned from HikeSinatra on the UL Summit. He used also a NEX-5N but had an adapter and an old 49 mm Pentax lens on it, and his photos – superb, mine are rubbish in comparison. So the glass makes all the difference, and your little excursion into lenses here made me look them up =)

    Which makes me curious about the video capabilities of the camera, would it be possible that you showcase some? That's an important aspect for me, and I'm curious to see how it performs in real hiking & climbing use!

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  • August 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm
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    Thanks Tomas for this superb review of the EM-5. Some days ago I had the chance to play around with the EM-5 at a big photo shop. It is a really interesting camera. The weather proofed body is a fantastic feature and the cam has some great other functions, but finally I bought the GH2 with the 14-140, because it was cheaper and I got some more infos aboiut video and photo quality of this cam. Let's see what the Photokina will bring us.

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  • August 27, 2012 at 11:34 am
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    Hey Daniel,

    Not totally sure about the weather sealing on these primes. I think although they are not weather sealed specifically, as they only have the focus ring exposed (all have an internal focusing), I would say they are more than capable of handling some rain without any tears. I have had them all out in bad weather a few times now, and despite getting a soaking or two, so far no problems.

    Having said that I am looking forward to someone coming out with some nice weather sealed primes, and I am also looking out for a nice water-resistant bag/cover for the camera. No point inviting failure

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  • August 27, 2012 at 11:37 am
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    I can see from Peter and your comments that I should probably have mentioned the video a little! I haven't really checked out the video capabilities at all. I am hoping to head out for one final "pre-baby" trip this weekend and will attempt to capture some video for you guys to check out.

    Regarding lenses, I definitely think the glass makes all the difference, in fact it's a little frustrating to see how big a difference it makes, there is still a kind of price tag on really excellent photography, good prime lenses just make it easier to take great pictures.

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  • August 27, 2012 at 11:40 am
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    Thanks for the compliments on the pictures Mark!

    The live view thing is fantastic, although so far the raw files it creates are turning out to be problematic to deal with, massive and unrecognised by Aperture and friends. Still, it's going to be a pleasure to explore the possibilities when Winter comes again.

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  • August 27, 2012 at 11:45 am
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    Hey Peter,

    I actually did read a little about how good the GH2 was for video, but high quality video is just not a priority for me. I recently saw your biking video (great!), and like the idea of doing that kind of thing. However for me the Gopro is more the way I want to do video (idiot-proof, press a button and that's it), whereas with photography I am much more open to having everything manual and playing with the parameters.

    Reply
  • October 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm
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    Hi Tomás, new visitor to your site, and greetings from Canada. Loved you take on the death of DSLR. I'm a self-professed weight wienie and backpacker, and do currently lug a ridiculous amount of DSLR gear around with me. Thanks for the EM-5 information and sample images.

    I now need to dig through the rest of your blog. I've visited Sweden a few times and each time the bug to figure out a way to move there bites me harder and harder. Your blog is not making it any easier!

    Reply
  • October 24, 2012 at 1:52 am
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    nice writeup of the OM-D I bought one myself for the same reasons, backpacking light but with Pro-sumer gear

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  • November 22, 2012 at 11:44 pm
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    hello thanks for this bt what is an em-5 compared to an olympus omd-5? is the one your reviewed an older version? also you spoke too much of body and although i heard from very knowledgeable person at B & H that this is a superb camera i came here looking for info on lenses but all of your choices are wide angles also i nevr really heard much of Tokina ??? also thank you for your generous sharing but some of your images are not very provocative making a person want to own this camera why are so many blurry throughout the DOF? also your critique mentions about small dials sounds like a turn off..i better wait until after JanFeb when Olympus heras these complaints and makes an even better model but all of this is getting very annoying..they know what they need to do its almost as if they keep leaving out some important feature so they can come out with a new better one because once they do it all or most of it there wont be a reason to buy for a good number of years i have had a nikon f-100 that is going on like 12 years and it takes gorgeous film pics but I have other leicas, mamiyas film but i love the portability of these new mirrorless cameras just want one that takes gorgeous sharp pictures (thats a lens issue) with faithful colors and accommodates existing lenses because i have several wonderful lenses thank you for your info however

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  • November 23, 2012 at 8:16 am
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    Thanks for your kind words Jason! I too think you should move to Sweden, I basically think everyone should try to live here as soon as possible, and enjoy the peerless quality of life along with all the good skiing and sailing. The people aren't too bad either 🙂

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  • December 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm
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    Thanks for the very practical review. A few years ago I sold my D80 with all the lenses (except my 20mm) and was wondering how the OMD compared to the D80. I backpack and travel and never felt right about shooting pics in foreign areas with the D80 with it's size (though small can be intimidating) Great write up. Unless something changes….OMD here I come! joelmassonphotography.com

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  • January 1, 2013 at 11:58 am
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    I just discovered your blog, while considering buying an OMD… My old friend eos 40d recently committed suicide, and I'm looking for a camera light enough for hiking, so why not the new olympus? With also a good lens for low-light/indoor portrait (45 1.8?), it would be perfect for me.

    By the way I really appreciate your writing style, so I think I'll be back!
    Cheers and Happy New Year.

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  • January 4, 2013 at 5:00 am
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    Fabulous review thanks Tomas.
    The best and most useful I have read.
    Great lens notes also.
    Cheers
    Jane
    From New Zealand
    Some wonderful hiking here also.

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  • January 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm
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    I've had the OMD since the beginning of October and I love it. It comes with me most places. I have now bought a few lenses and I'm having fun using it, which is what photography should be about. I'm pleased I bought the two piece grip/extra battery holder. The in camera stablisation system (IBIS) is extrodinary….I've had some nice sharp hand held night time photo's with it. The art filters are also fun and the image quality competes very well indeed with most full frame DSLR's.

    I can't wait to see how Olympus beat the EM-5 !

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  • June 8, 2014 at 3:49 pm
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    Would you recommend Olympus omd em5 or Sony a6000? Both using kit lens? I am an amateur hobbyist and am looking for something that does both street style shooting as well as casual night time photography. I dont mind carrying an extra flash for the em5 🙂 Not sure which to buy!

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  • June 14, 2014 at 8:30 pm
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    Hey!

    I think it depends on what you're planning to do in future! The A6000 has a bigger sensor, newer sensor, but is let down by the NEX lens lineup. The OMD has a lot more lenses, and a lot more high quality options, and has weather sealing which might be a big factor if you want to use it hiking or climbing or what-not.

    Personally, I'm addicted to lenses and there are a few for M43 that are my favourite lenses of any system I have used, the Voigtlander f0.95 17.5mm and the Panaonic 7-14mm are just stellar. So I would swing that way.

    Reply

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