Olympus OM-D E-M5 – First Impressions

M5-OM-D Test

Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens at 1/3200s, ISO 200.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the advantages of the micro four thirds system, especially for travel where the size and weight advantages of “going mirrorless” are most clear-cut. Having recently booked a holiday to the Maldives and realised that the sea-plane transfer would come with a 6kg cabin baggage restriction, I started to look into the options with more purpose.

After an enjoyable few days researching gear (always a guilty pleasure), the Olympus OM-D E-M5 stood out as being the best match with what I was looking for, which was a camera system that gave me the weight reduction I was looking for whilst making the fewest compromises on image quality compared to my Canon 5D MkII. I’ll have to admit that having been a proud owner of an Olympus OM-1 as a teenager many years ago, the retro styling was a clincher.

After a few days testing out the camera, my overall impression is very favourable. On the weight front it certainly delivers. The body and lenses are generally around half that of the Canon full frame equivalents. The benefits at the telephoto end are particularly striking, given the 2x crop factor of the smaller sensor. The Olympus 70-300mm has a full frame equivalent focal length of 140-600m, giving it slightly more reach than the 580mm I get with my Canon 400mm DO lens plus 1.4x extender. However, it weighs in at a mere 620g, compared to the Canon combination’s 2.2 kg, 3.5 times heavier.

OM-D vs 5DMkII

Comparing Canon 5D MkII with Olympus OM-D E-M5

It was pretty straightforward to find lenses which covered the range of focal lengths I was looking for, in a mixture of zooms and prime lenses. Generally, the zooms are more versatile but to get the sharpest image quality, best low light performance and shallowest depth of field, you need the fast prime lenses. These have the added benefit of being very small and light. Here are the lenses I selected after a few hours studying the forums (I know it should be fora, but nobody would understand me if I said that).

Olympus lenses

Front to back: 45mm f1.8, 9-18mm f4.0, 12-50mm f3.5-6.3, 40-150mm f4.0-5.6, 75-300mm f4.8-6.7

The only lens that I bought which is not pictured above is the one I used to take the picture, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. As you can see, it can give you great shallow depth of field shots, although not quite matching what can be achieved with my Canon 50mm f1.4 on a full frame camera.

Overall, the image quality of the body and lens system is excellent. I haven’t really tested low light performance properly but it looks to be not far off what can be achieved with the 5D. In good light, the gap reduces further so on the primary objective of reducing weight with minimal compromise to image quality, the OM-D really delivers everything I was hoping for.

In addition to weight, there are several other ways in which the OM-D improves over the 5D. The fast sequential shooting mode is very impressive at 9 frames per second, compared to only 4 fps on the Canon. Likewise, the exposure bracketing mode seems nearly instantaneous. I love the ability to view a live histogram whilst framing the shot, making exposure issues much easier to avoid “in camera”. Horizontal and vertical level meters are another useful addition. Finally, the art and picture modes are a great source of creative inspiration, enabling you for example to shoot black and white photos and see what you are going to get in the viewfinder. If shooting RAW, you get a jpg with the effect added and an unaltered RAW file, giving you the best of both worlds.

Grainy Film art filter

Testing out the ‘Grainy Film’ art filter

Video is another key area for me. After discovering the beautiful quality of footage that you can get from a DSLR fitted with quality glass, it is really hard to be satisfied with video shot with a consumer camcorder. However, the lack of autofocus in movie mode on the 5D makes shooting video a real challenge. From what I’ve seen so far, the E-M5 can shoot video which comes close to matching that from the 5D, with the added advantage of autofocus. I found the autofocus to be generally good, but it did have a tendency to hunt a bit when presented with a moving subject, especially when shooting with a wide aperture. But overall, great quality and much easier to use. The main shortfalls on the video front are a lack of frame rate options (you are stuck with 29.97 fps if you want 1080p) and the lack of an external mic input. I’ve ordered the SEMA-1 microphone adapter which will rectify this, but at the cost of occupying the hot-shoe, which means you cannot mount an external microphone to the top of the camera.

Other gripes? Remarkably few. The smaller size does present some disadvantages from a handling perspective. I’m considering whether to invest in the battery grip as a result. The electronic viewfinder, whilst good, can still not match the optical viewfinder on a DSLR. The build quality is a bit lower in a few areas, but the price difference is also big of course.

In summary, I’m not going to be selling off my Canon gear just yet, but for the many occasions where size and weight are important considerations, the OM-D E-M5 will be my camera of choice.

Sign of the times

Shop to Let

A couple of days ago, I found myself in need of a replacement battery for my light meter. Less than £2 online… but I needed it now! So I headed off into Wokingham town to see if I could get one.

The battery is a slightly specialised one – commonly used in cameras but not universally available like an AA. As I parked the car, I noticed that Wokingham’s one and only photography shop had closed down. The next shop I tried, which sold batteries but not the one I needed, helpfully suggested that I could probably get it online. Finally, I was saved by the wonderful Wokingham Decor, a good old fashioned hardware shop with friendly, helpful and knowledgable staff. I’d give you a link to their website, but of course they don’t have one.

“Have you got one of these?”, I asked. “Great, I’ll take two” (a spare is always useful and spending a whole extra £4 would be like giving a tip for good service, wouldn’t it?). Oh dear, they only had one in stock… “but we could get you another by Saturday” the shopkeeper said hopefully. “I’ll just take the one” I said, feeling guilty but knowing that I could get it much cheaper online and not wanting to trek back into town a second time.

After accounting for fuel, parking and the high street price premium, my battery cost me more than twice what I could have got it for online. Not an issue for a low cost item that I needed straight away. But for higher value, bulkier items? No way. I guess it is no surprise that Wokingham no longer has a photography shop. But I really hope that shops like Wokingham Decor find a way to survive in the internet age, despite the odds.

Go Pro fun

Bird sitting on Go Pro
I’ve been experimenting with my new Go Pro Hero 3 Black Edition camera. I bought it with the intention of shooting some ski action in Val d’Isère next week, but thought I should practice using the camera first, rather than trying it out for the first time up a mountain.

My chosen subject matter was birds in the garden and I got some great shots. I’m really quite impressed with the image quality this tiny camera can produce. As you can see from the photo above, the birds weren’t at all put off by the camera and regarded it as a convenient new perch. A great feature of the Go Pro is the waterproof housing, which meant that I didn’t need to wait for dry weather to try it out. Without that, I think I would still be waiting, given the lovely British weather recently.

Anyway, here’s a short clip from the session, cropped from a larger high resolution movie file.

The challenges of digital engagement for business leaders

Text100 Report

I woke up this morning to a tweet from Text100, a global PR agency focusing on technology and digital lifestyle. Apparently, I am one of the most ‘digitally engaged’ FTSE100 directors and have been featured in their recent report “How top FTSE 100 executives are engaged in social and digital media”.

Having read the report (well, you would, wouldn’t you?), the most surprising thing is the inactivity of almost all the other directors. Why is this?

The authors comment that “any busy professional who’s tried to regularly maintain a personal blog will understand how hard it can be to find the time to write regular posts”, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that this is definitely a factor. They also point out that “Due to the environment of heavy regulation and intense and public scrutiny that the financial services industry operates in, few executives from this sector are willing to participate in social media since the associated level of risk is deemed too high”. I agree that this is a significant factor for business leaders, and not just in the financial service industry. The downside risk of being found to have “said the wrong thing” can seem to outweigh any possible upside of publicly participating in the online world in a personal capacity (better to leave it to professionals in the communications department, surely?).

But I agree with the authors that this risk adverse approach by executives is very short sighted, placing their own careers and the future of their companies at much greater long term risk. My approach has been driven by a mixture of fascination for the technology, and a strong belief that the only way I can remain current and truly understand how the new social media world works, is by fully participating in it myself.

And of course the reference to the fact that my blog is “infrequently updated” was a bit of a spur to compose this post!

DRM rant

Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

I have a complaint. The media companies and broadband internet companies have consipired to make me break the law and contribute to global warming. They are also wasting my time. And all for no good reason.

I can buy a high quality encoding of the latest films on blu-ray. I like it that they usually include a DVD version and a “digital copy”. When the media companies first started doing this, I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, the dinosaurs have caught up with the fact that increasingly people want to watch their media “on the go”, on laptops and iPads. Or set up a media server at home, streaming content around the house over WIFI. But to my dismay, I then discovered how low the quality of the digital copy is. Let me use the example of a recent acquisition, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (an excellent film by the way).

Format Resolution
Blu-ray 1920×817
DVD 1024×436
Digital copy 853×354

These are the output resolutions on the screen, excluding the black bars. This flatters both the DVD and the digital copy through the use of non-square pixels. The actual number of horizontal pixels in the DVD and digital copy files are really 720 and 640 pixels respectively.

The digital copy maches the quality offered as a purchased download from iTunes, which is worse than DVD. Why? With the latest iPad and Macbook Pro having screen resolutions higher than even the blu-ray file, it certainly isn’t because the quality is “good enough”.

Presumably, one reason is to limit the download sizes. But why make you download the “digital copy”, rather than include it on the disk? Forcing the customer to download the file unnecessarily uses up often scarce bandwidth.

The answer given to these questions by the media companies of course is “anti piracy” and “digital rights management” or DRM. But does all this inconvenience being inflicted on the honest consumer actually prevent piracy? Of course not. It is straightforward for the knowledgable (which certainly includes the professional pirates) to rip the high resolution blu-ray files from the disk. There’s a great guide here for example. It is even easier to rip the DVD.

In my own case, the distance of my house to the telephone exchange forces me to use satellite broadband, which comes with an impossibly constraining bandwidth cap, even with the most expensive plan. So even if I was prepared to put up with the lower quality, downloading movies from iTunes is simply not an option for me. To watch the content I have purchased at good quality on my high resolution iPad requires me to waste time and energy ripping the blu-ray files and re-encoding.

I suppose that the approach of the movie companies does reduce “casual piracy”. Making it hard for most people to make a high quality copy for their friends may result in a few more blu-ray disks being sold. But somehow, I can’t see how taking such a customer unfriendly and backward looking approach can be in the long run interests of the movie industry.

It certainly annoys the hell out of me!

The dematerialisation of Christmas

Endangered species?

Endangered species?

Choosing presents to buy is getting harder as our world shifts inexorably into the digital realm. Old stalwarts such as books, CDs and DVDs are no longer safe bets. If the person you are buying for has “gone digital”, the physical product is now a poor substitute for its digital equivalent. But for the giver, the insubstantial and generic nature of an iTunes or Amazon gift certificate is a problem, barely one step removed from the “I couldn’t think of what to get you” subliminal message of a cheque. For children, physical toys have now been displaced by computer and video games and here too, the preferred distribution model is shifting to digital downloads and away from boxes that can be wrapped up and put under the tree.

The social side of Christmas is also dematerialising, as Facebook and other online means of socialising take over from the old fashioned physical way of doing things. But at least nobody has yet managed to digitise that other great feature of Christmas time, food and booze. Perhaps in future, we’ll all have to concentrate less on the giving and receiving and more on the eating and drinking.

Somehow, I don’t think that is what the people who have long bemoaned the materialism of Christmas had in mind.

Instagram

Hyde Park

Hyde Park

I’ve been having fun taking and sharing photos with Instagram. You can only post photos using the dedicated iPhone app. The low resolution and the creative filters it prompts you to apply really encourage you to concentrate on composition, creativity and interesting subjects. Sharing the results on twitter or facebook is a breeze. Highly recommended.

On safari in my garden

Hover fly

Hover fly

A beautiful sunny morning enticed me out on safari in my garden, armed with my Canon 5D Mk II and 100mm macro lens. This hover fly was particularly cooperative, staying calmly in position whilst I tested how close I could get.

It is incredible the amazing and beautiful things you can find so close to home if you take the time to look closely.

Spring

Spring flowers in Cambridge

Spring flowers in Cambridge

After what certainly felt like one of the harshest winters for a while, Spring finally arrived in the UK this weekend. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit my old University town, Cambridge.

As nostalgic trips go, it’s hard to beat clear blue skies, spring flowers and a pint of Green King IPA at a riverside pub.