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.
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).
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.
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.