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..."
"It's just been revoked" quips the Olympus OMD-EM5.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.
However in the wings await a few pretenders to the throne. While Nikon and Canon have more or less split the consumer DSLR market between them, and have been loath to impinge on their own success with a smaller professional camera, other manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Pentax, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Samsung have all seen and seized hungrily the opportunity for a compact, professional camera with interchangeable lenses.
Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.
The actual SLR part of a DSLR refers to the mirror and prism system used to show you in the viewfinder what the camera is looking at, and to allow the light path to be redirected to the sensor when you press the shutter release. Olympus had a series of cameras back in the 70s, called the OM series (You can see Mac Es OM10 in this post), that tried to make as compact an SLR as possible (and basically aped the design of a Leica M1 a little too). This new OMD is an m43, and like the Fujifilm X mount, the Pentax Q & K mounts, Samsung NX mounts, Sony E mounts and the Nikon 1 mount, is designed for a generation of cameras that omit the mirror and prism. Instead, you take a sensor, changeable lenses and make a nice professional body around them, but instead of an optical viewfinder, you have an electronic viewfinder that shows you a video stream of whatever the sensor is seeing. The lack of the mirror system means you can cut size and weight, as well as taking out one of the last remaining moving parts (by the time I sold my D80 it had taken well over 25,000 pictures, which means it was halfway to its rated 'end-of-life' for the mirror actuator).
Pick of the bunch.
My mate Michi is big into photography (in a kind of full frame analogue, home negative scanner kind of way), and he one day announced that it was time to sell our DSLR gear, that prices would soon start dropping as DSLR begins to lose popularity, and that the best camera out there at the moment was the EM5. And after a little cynicism and a lot of reading, I decided he was right.
First off I think he's right to pick m43, the biggest advantage of the m43 system is that because the sensor is smaller than with the systems still using APS-C sensors, the lenses can also be much smaller. You can see this with the Sony NEX cameras, which are remarkably compact in the body, but have these massive DSLR sized lenses attached. We're used to our gadgets getting smaller every year, but it's near impossible to minaturise the optical path parts. The idea with the NEX was to have a minaturised camera as much as possible, without cutting corners on image quality by using a smaller sensor, so they still have the APS-C sensor found in amateur DSLRs. The EM5 is riding the (thus far, and with guys like Stefan Hell around...) never-ending improvements in optical systems, one of which is the quality of image that can be wrung out of a certain sensor size. (The CCD sensor manufacturers for a microscope I work with used to make their sensors by buying intel 286 processors (134,000 transistors), and scraping the back off the CPU to allow light to fall on the transistors, using them for image detection. That was back in the early 80s, today they have similar sized sensors with over 6 megapixel resolution). With the smaller, but still powerful m43 sensor, lenses can be made ridiculously small, allowing for a really full on minaturisation.
The other, perhaps bigger advantage of m43 over the competition is that it's going through the same 'success breeds success' firestorm that the Apple App store went through. The early launch of m43, and the joint forces of Olympus and Panasonic meant there was a fairly healthy selection of lenses to choose from for m43, and that attracted buyers, and so more lenses came from third party manufacturers (Sigma, Tokina, Tamron and recently Cosina have joined the m43 group), which attracted more buyers, and so more lenses and so on. Today there are over double the amount of lenses for m43 compared to second place Samsung NX system, and more in the pipeline (including soon an insanely attractive Voigtländer Nokton 17.5mm F0.95).
Finally, the big advantage of the OMD-EM5 over other m43 cameras is how premium the body is. It has a sensor that finally delivers professional level picture quality despite its smaller size, a fantastic anti-shake system, a weather sealed body with a selection of weather sealed lenses, as well as a very rugged and solid magnesium casing. Coupled with a quality lens, such as the Panasonic-Leica 25mm prime, the image quality can be staggering.
The OMD EM-5 in the field.
I've had the EM5 out on quite a few trips now (coming up to 4000 pictures), it's had its first few falls and it's been rained on and so on. I've just started to flick the aperture and exposure dials around with the same unthinkingness as I did on my Nikon. It feels like I know the camera a little. So what's the verdict? (This won't be a very technical overview, if you want that, check the glowing review at Dpreview here).
The camera is actually one of the heaviest mirrorless cameras around, which sounds a little like I missed my main goal of reducing weight. However I still am very forgiving to the camera in my pack as far as weight goes. The solid build, weather sealing and small size, as well as the great battery life (my chief worry moving from SLR to something with a continuously running EVF) all mean that I find the 425 gramme weight light enough. Add in the ridiculously low weight of these primes, and you can see how magically light this system is compared to the DSLRs. For example, the wideangle pancake and body come in at less than 500 grammes.
There are also plenty of cool features, one that sounds very useful to a guy who loves winter hiking in Scandinavia, called live view. It's basically a method of allowing for very long exposures while intermittently updating the screen with pictures of how the exposure is going thus far, allowing you to fine tune nighttime pictures with ease.
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.
However after some use, it became clear that the main advantage turned out not to be the weight, or the massively improved image quality compared to the D80, or the video capabilities, but the tiny size. The D80 was so big, chunky and awkward that it never felt at home slung around my neck, and either it was out ready for action and annoying me, or buried down in a pack somewhere. The joy of the EM5 so far, especially with the weather sealing, is that the camera can hang around my neck for hours without getting in the way. With one of the tiny pancake lenses on, it's almost ludicrously dainty and fits easily in a jacket or hipbelt pocket. I take way more pictures with it than I did with the D80, and I am very much one of those people that follow the "take 1000 pictures and 1 of them might turn out nice" school of thought. Michi sold his Fujifilm DSLR and also bought the EM5, but he's more of a "keep it in the box and take it out once a week to take one, single, perfect picture" guy (an example below). Probably also why he shoots JPEG and I shoot RAW, I often need to 'fix it in post'.
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.