12.22.2013

The VSL Five Star Award of the Year goes to a camera I don't (currently) own. The Olympus OMD EM-1







The new Millennium Falcon of cameras. The EM-1.

I'm being silly this year and doing silly awards for cameras I think brought cool stuff to the table. I've already made a plug for my favorite economy priced camera, the Panasonic G6 but it's only going to appeal to the kind of practical people who make their own coffee at home and drive no nonsense cars for ten years at a time. It's a sensible choice. There are lots of other cameras this year that deserve some kind of mention for moving the game forward for their loyal band. In the Canon camp I think the full frame 6D camera is a great way to get into a professional system at a much lower cost than ever before. As a high ISO machine it's pretty much right there in the top ranks. And I'd say the same thing about the Nikon D610. It no longer seems to squirt industrial waste onto the sensor like the camera it replaces and that, coupled with great sensor performance, is a good thing. Even the Pentax K3 deserves some kudos for being a rock solid and very advanced last decade sort of camera. 

But the reality is that there are two cameras that have captured the fascination of the camera cognoscenti and the battle between them for dominance is as unexpected as can be. After handling and researching both cameras I am even more fascinated by the logical results of an in-depth comparison. There is a clear winner if your objective is to find a camera that feels like a perfect artist's brush or a well broken in pair of running shoes. There is a different winner if you are in a race for bragging rights for maximum horsepower and maximum straight-line acceleration. But the Devil is in the hairpin turns...... (enough car analogies, it brings out the real car nuts and then things heat up quick....).

The two cameras I'm talking about are the two cameras that come from antithetical extremes of camera philosophies and yet the same company makes the sensors inside of both cameras. One is the highest res tool one can buy today in the FF format while the other is perceived as the lowest pixel count class of what might be considered as professional quality instruments. I mean cameras. I'm am, of course, writing about the Olympus OMD EM-1 and the Sony A7r. 

On paper the Sony has everything but in reality it's all a compromise in terms of usability. The Olympus camera seems like a staid upgrade of a decent predecessor but one cobbled with a low pixel count, and much smaller, sensor. One is priced like a pro-tool while the other is priced just in the middle of the hobbyist-indulgence category. But in real world use the Olympus is a svelte, alluring seductive temptress that combines a tactile rightness with a wonderfully muted and understated shutter noise and action. It's EVF finder is probably the best in world and all in all the files are just what most photographers are looking for.  Right and thick and ready to be used with little heroic effort. It's the charming kind of package that emulates what the introduction of the Leica M3 must have been like to image makers working in the 1950's. Quiet, quick and disciplined. 

I first used one at a dinner with the president of Olympus USA while I was in New York and, like some insidious addictive drug once I got some on my skin I've been orbiting closer and closer to the camera with each passing cycle. In point of fact I had no interest in the camera before I used it in the flesh. None. And now I'm making lens buying decisions with the near certainty of that camera's acquisition in my overall plans. 

My experience with the Sony A7r is quite the opposite. I learned about it ahead of the initial announcement and my excitement built by the day as my introduction to the camera at the Photo Expo show drew nearer. My first thoughts were that this camera would be a wonderful partner to the Sony a99 I already own while adding more resolution, sharpness and more lens flexibility at a much lower initial price. In fact, I had liquidated my cropped frame Sony cameras and lenses in anticipation. And then the day came. I was supposed to be in the Samsung booth but before the show started I walked over to the Sony pavilion and played with the product. It was then that my whole plan began to fall apart like wet cardboard box.

My first impression was the sheer noise and intensity of the shutter. Prescient I think since we are now finding that this Howitzer inspired shutter also causes a profound lack of sharpness with longer lenses at certain shutter speeds. The feel of the body was off. The focusing much slower than that of the $600 Panasonic G6 in an adjacent display area. But the whole impression was that Sony checked the boxes they thought the power users would want (horsepower) but forgot to engineer in any √©lan when it comes to tactile luxury. Both the A7 cameras feel somewhat like Russian cold war manufacturing discovered plastics.  (edit: from time to time the blog has visitors from other forums. Many of them have reading issues with anything that is not written in a very literal fashion. I feel duty bound to add to the above that I have spent many hours with the A7 and A7r in addition to time spent at a trade show.... I also have ready access to both cameras for testing and re-testing. ed.)

Now, let's admit that there are a number of great divides in the cult of the camera world. There are the linear rationalists and on the other side of the tug-o-war rope are the artists. One group loves metrics and provable performance while the other loves the feel and the user experience. No question which side I come down on. A camera can have all the rational stuff under the hood and still be a totally loser to operate.  That would be the a7r. 

Bottom line? I just can't bear the thought of buying that camera. What do I gain? A few more megapixels over my a99? But do I even get that if the recoil of the Howitzer shutter smudges away all of the sensor gains? I get a Borg camera that is ready to assimilate all the lenses but in order to use it I must bow to fully manual implementations and still understand that fluid use may be a crap shoot. 

The people who love that camera are the ones who are willing to put it on a thousand dollar Gitzo tripod and then weight down the whole assemblage with bean bags. Well, I don't know about you but I spend a lot of time shooting hand held and shooting on the very edge of what might be possible. Just not going to happen with the A7r. You'll need some time to get it to focus. You'll need some time to stabilize the system before initiation and you'll need a lot of time to work with the files to get the same color you can get out of the Olympus product used in an almost cavalier mode. 

I won't belabor the whole point. I read a post on Luminous-Landscape.com by a respected fashion photographer who wanted to buy the A7r based on the hype and went into a store to try one. He ended up walking out with an EM-1 and I'm pretty sure I would too. In his estimation and based on three "real world" tests he ran the EM-1 didn't just handle better in a direct comparison, it also trounced the more expensive camera (discernibly) in image quality and it was far ahead on usability. 

I've used a lot of cameras and I've come to believe that there are only a handful of good camera designers working out there. Yes, there are many, many camera engineers who can stuff a camera with features and generate impressive specs. Sadly, many times these cameras lack a haptic feel or ergonomic design sensibility to such a degree that I call them "soul-less." I don't really believe cameras have a soul in the traditional sense but you are certainly hard of feeling if you can't touch a camera and sense the aesthetic and genius of a good designer or step back at the dissonance of a camera that just feels (or sounds) wrong.  Even within the same company. 

My favorite example now is the tactile and handling differences between the Sony a99 and the A7. The former flows while the later punches the time clock and sits dead in your hand. 

Olympus found their stride with the last two generations of the Pen (EP) cameras and now with both the EM-5 and the EM-1. All these cameras tend to disappear and merge with me when I use them which, in turn, means my mind is uncluttered by rational and linear thought and open to creative expression when I use them. The EM-1 even more so than its predecessor. 

In fact, of all the cameras I've handled this year the only one that comes close to the handling+performance combination of the EM-1 is the same company's EP-5 with the finder. And believe me, I've handled and tested a bunch of cameras.  

The only thing that keeps my from buying an EM-1 (besides the specter of putting a kid through four years of college starting next Fall) is the video performance. But with the GH3's firmly in place here at the VSL video production stages it seems like resistance to the camera is futile and that I will be assimilated. 

That means it gets the VSL Five Star Award of the Year for a Camera I don't currently own (yet). 

And I had such high hopes for the Sony. Just goes to show: Never let your prejudices impede your appraisals. Cameras are more than boxes full of specifications they are also expressions of industrial design and industrial art. You can't (comfortably) have one without the other.

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....


Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any tablet or OS out there....




45 comments:

Rodney said...

But what lenses would you use with your EM1? The 12-40mm f/2.8 for general purpose use and the 75mm f/1.8 for portraits? An expensive combination!

Dave Jenkins said...

Excuse me for asking, but isn't that a picture of an E-M5 at the top of your post? :o)

Anonymous said...

Very nice picture of the EM-5. I really want an EM-1, but I don't think my wife would be happy with another camera purchase so soon since I bought the EM-5

Michael R

atmtx said...

I certainly agree with you, Kirk.

The Sony just didn't excite me at all, as I mentioned. The Olympus is a masterful precise instrument by comparison.

Daniel said...

Terrific point of view, Kirk. Where do you feel that the Fuji XE-2 fits within usability for photographers, good design, and excellent focus peaking? It seems to be a good alternative for legacy lenses too especially in combination with a Speed Booster. I compared the peaking on the Fuji vs the Sony A7 and I found it to be much easier to use and (intuitively) felt more precise than the Sony. Since I'm in a bit of of a quandary about my next camera, I may instead go for the EM1 with the 17mm f1.8 qnd 45mm f1.8 and adapt my 11mm-22mm lens to the new Olympus.

Eric said...

If you have any local friends with an E-M1, you might also want to play with one for a more extended period of time. Spend a week with one (particularly one equipped with the 12-40 lens), and you'll have a hard time parting with it.

Or give me a shout the next time you're in Denver, and you can borrow mine for the duration of your stay.

Yoram Nevo said...

Regarding the Luminous-Landscape post. He was comparing the Sony A7 with the em1, not the A7R. There are some ongoing reports over the A7 (not A7R) focusing problems. It is possible he was encountering exactly those problems.

Yoram Nevo said...

Regarding the Luminous-Landscape post. He was comparing the Sony A7 with the em1, not the A7R. There are some ongoing reports over the A7 (not A7R) focusing problems. It is possible he was encountering exactly those problems.

Michael Matthews said...

I agree with great enthusiasm, even though there's no chance of affording either.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, read.

Anonymous said...

Looking at sonyalpharumors site, there is a link to shutter shock issues with the A7R and telephotos. also a link to the unboxing of the sony 70-200 2.8 G lens. This lens is huge compared to m43 lenses. Yes, I want more megapixels, but for what I do, m43 is the perfect fit for resolution, size, camera features, handling, etc. m43 has really matured into a fantastic system, but it took a few years for this to happen. It will also take a while for sony's FE system to also mature as long as they stay with it. The one thing that won't change with FE is the size of their faster glass. This is where m43 will always have the advantage.

Michael R

ramboorider said...

I had the same experience with the EM1 Kirk. Had an EM5, wasn't interested in what looked like an incremental upgrade. Then I shot with one and it was all over. Now I'm a happy owner of one. Minor upgrade in quantitative ways, but HUGE in terms of the intangibles, the feel, usability, etc.

I can't get worked up about the A7/7r. I have the RX1 and absolutely love it. I knew I'd like the IQ, but the shooting experience surprised me - a blast to shoot with. But I'm gonna need to see some refinement and some wider prime lenses before I give it a serious look. Even if the sensor is amazing (as I'm sure it is). Thanks for the great write up.

Peter F. said...

I voted for the E-M1 and bought one. The smaller sensor (compared with FF) is a boon to us landscape photogpraghers who eschew tripods. Rather than shooting at F16 on a FF like Sony 7, I can shoot at F8 to get same DOF on the equivalent focal length and focusing distance. And with a super IS, well....

Frank Grygier said...

I felt the connection as soon as I held the EM1. It has been connected ever since.

Mike Mundy said...

I have an EM1 and like it. But my main concern with it is that it seems to be "overteched."

I'm wondering about the longevity of all those exquisite internal features.

jim said...

I've got an A7, had it since the first of Dec and taken quite a few shots below 1/25( with both satbilized and manual lenses) It hasnt been on either of my Gitzo tripods and I doubt it ever will. I'm very happy with it. The interesting thing to me is that this is the first time that your assessment of a camera was totally different from mine! I guess I'll have to rethink reading VSL in the future! :) Merry Christmas!

Honeybadger said...

Kicking my Sony NEX 7 out of bed. I never loved you. Waiting for my EM-1 with the mighty 12-40 2.8 kit lens Some kit! $200 off if bought together.

Anonymous said...

But the video is just so bad...
It's good otherwise, but that (being in a 50Hz country and understanding they still haven't sourced a decent codec IP) just stops it being the best for me...

Ron Nabity said...

I bought my first E-M5 in June and it arrived in the same box as my also-newly-purchased Canon 5DM3. The E-M5 re-ignited some crazy photo passion for me; the 5DM3 was JAFU (just another __ upgrade).

Cut to six months later, I just sold the 5DM3 with only 713 actuations on it. In fact, all the full frame stuff is going/gone in favor of using the Olympus M4/3 line. I just took possession of the E-M1, which I consider my 5DM3 replacement.

With the money I made in my Canon liquidation, I'll be able to pay for a very nice trip. Can't wait. And I'll be packing light.

If ever a commercial client demands an image file with "5DM3" in the EXIF data (this has happened once) I'll rent one.

I'm very happy with the M4/3 gear. I can't wait to hear about your inevitable acquisition of the E-M1.

Smitty said...

I did nearly the *exact* same thing - I sold off all my Fuji X mount stuff and my Canon 5D3 to fund a refurb 6D and a preorder A7.

The more (and more, and more) I read about the A7s, though, the less I started to like about them. Then I'd read (and read, and read) more about how the E-M1 was awesome and the 12-40 would change my life, so I bought the combo.

Absolutely no regrets, it's a sharp camera. A few complaints (that I detailed on my review), but overall a very keen camera.

Well done, Olympus. Now give us minimum shutter speed in AutoISO, EV Comp in Manual, and mapping flash comp to a proper button and all's good.
(and I wouldn't mind a native ISO 50 or something either)

Kirk Tuck said...

I changed the photos at the top of the article. Many times I run images that aren't painfully, literally, exactly about the subject of the article. But in this occurrence there was one mindless and out of breath linear thinker who was about to wet himself with outrage on one of the major forums. I thought it was easier to just change images than to read acres of self righteous stuff. Here's a new rule for VSL: I get to post whatever the **ck picture I want to go along with the articles.

Dave Jenkins said...

Don't get me wrong, Kirk. I liked the E-M5 picture you showed. It looked exactly like one of mine. :o)

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, your question was fine, nice and right on target. But right now there's a raging torrent of mindlessness over on DP Review and some guy is trying to make a big deal out of the fact that the photo didn't match the article. I figured I'd just go to the path of least resistance. I actually pay attention to what you write! And I'm glad you're here. (by the way, Happy Holidays!)

Anonymous said...

I liked the EM5 picture you posted. I find a black version so much nicer looking. I do own the a black EM5.

Michael R

Anonymous said...

I agree completely that there is something about the OMD that just makes one want to take photos. I have had the E-M5 for about a year and a half and take it with me with a prime lens or 2 in a ratty old bag almost everywhere, never know when a great photo will appear. I would love to try out the new E-M1, but given your experience I'm going to avoid temptation for just a little bit longer. Thank you for your insights.

Racecar said...

Finally found an EM that suits you. This piques my interests. I liked the EM-5 so much I bought two of them, but the EM-1 doesn't appeal to me. Maybe picking one up and playing with it is the tipping point. Thanks for the provocative post.

Frank Grygier said...

Why would any reasonable person torture anyone over something as trivial as a photograph of a camera or even care to point it out. The photomob mentality on some blogs is abhorant.

Doug said...

Kirk: I recently handled the Nikon Df, Sony a7 and the Olympus EM1 one after the other. I've used Nikon equipment for decades with a romp or two into Rolleiflex, Canon and Panasonic land along the way. I must say, the Df felt simply horrible in my hands, being boxy, cumbersome and awkward, the great sensor notwithstanding. The Sony felt pretty good, actually, but the shutter was a bit clunky and what about the lenses, or lack thereof? They had a Nikkor Ai 50mm f1.4 attached to it which I think underscores my point. The EM1, on the other hand, fell to hand nicely, had an amazingly subtle shutter, its EVF was great and it seemed beautifully made. One caveat is the price. With the 12-40, it's about $2500. Apparently, there will be new announcements in January-February of several new cameras. The best part of this is that prices on existing models will most assuredly drop!

theaterculture said...

Sensible writing, as always.

On a tangential note, any news about what University will be taking your hard-earned camera money for the next four years?

Kirk Tuck said...

The short list is all out of state. The boy seeks to pauper me...

Brian Caslis said...

I have no issue if someone prefers the E-M1. However unlike most of the posts here, I have owned both the E-M1 and the Sony A7. Both are excellent cameras. But at the end of the day I sold the E-M1 and kept the A7. The images from the A7 to me are excellent and clearly better than the E-M1. I also like the controls and displays better on the A7 but that is a personal preference. Chose the camera that works the best for you. For me that was the A7 not the E-m1.

dan said...

I didn't get the a7r for production use, that's for sure! heck, the flagship sony flash has serious overheating problems, there's practically no native glass for it, and it just doesn't fit right in the hand... i asked myself, wtf were you thinking??

the doubt begin to subside when i started using the old manual glass on it; lenses that i could never have touched with a closed platform camera were such a delight to work with!

once i started pixel peeping, it made me a believer... i'll be shooting toroweap point this spring, thanking my lucky stars that i didn't settle for a camera with a kiddie-sized sensor in it :-)

thanks k for another great column!

John Mason - Lafayette Indiana said...

Much like Ron said above - I sold off all my Canon gear including the 5d3 and 85 1.2 which was a favorite portrait combo for me.

I'd been shooting Canon and Olympus for years and got my first EM1 in October. I consolidated all the Canon and Olympus (3 4/3 bodies) and the em5 to a 2nd EM1 body and more lenses.

It's not that I didn't love my 5d3, it's simply that I wasn't grabbing for it anymore.

I must say the 75 1.8 has perhaps the dreamiest smoothest bokeh of any lens I've ever used.

I like the write up, Kirk, and personally hate clunky shutters. I really liked that new 's' mode on the 5d3 shutter btw. The OM1 was one of the first bodies with a shutter designed to be nearly vibrationless.

And, yes, Olympus finally got their grove back. I've not have a camera that got me going so much as the EM1 has since the OM1 and the E1. All three were just pure pleasure to use.

I bet within 2 years we'll be seeing an EM2 with a 24mp sensor and even better EVF keeping the same body design. It's just like OM1-2-4 days all over again!

Peter said...

Had the same experience. As a NEX7 user i was excited about the A7. Went to the Photo+ expo to get my hands on one. So i did and also the camera was not disappointing i was not excited. Was it because it felt a little sluggish? Was it that i felt Sony put all their focus on getting a FF sensor into the small body behind an e-mount? No real improvement of AF compared to the NEX7. And when will native lenses be available?
Anyways ... i decided to take the opportunity and walk over to the Olympus stand. I did so and played with an EM1, initially with the 17mm lens and then with the 12-40. I absolutely loved how the camera handles. And liked the lenses too.
A week after the show i ordered and EM1 and a few lenses. I have the system now since a few weeks. Just love to use it.

Dave Jenkins said...

Thanks, Kirk. And Merry Christmas to you, too!

Jack said...

Here's hoping that Oly will incorporate many of the fine features found on the EM-1 into an EP?(whatever #) with an BUILT-IN EVF (ala Panny GX7). That's what I'm talking about.

Don't need no bell tower on top, especially when there's no "bell" in the tower. WTF?

Happy winter solstice!

Brian Allan said...

I've been a Canon person for years and recently bought a Sony A7R. Based on the A7R's performance and features I'll probably never buy another Canon! I don't own nor do I plan on owning an Olympus.

To this point I've used Canon, Pentax, Sigma, Tamron and Samyang lenses on the A7R and love it!

Noons said...

I've been attached to m4/3 since an EPL1 with an EVF2 found its way to my bag. And now with an EM5, things are just getting better and better.

Tempted to trade it in for an EM1. Will likely happen if the lack of a proper extension grip accessory plate continues.
(Yes, I know about the power handle. But I like the EM5 the weight it is now!)

Fact is: in a recent holiday, I took a stack of Nikon and CZ ZF lenses, 1 Nikon dslr, 1 Nikon F6 and the Oly EM5.
Which one was most used, with ALL lenses? By a country mile, the EM5.
Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

I say you should devote a day to trolling them. Review the EM1 and post pictures of all your other cameras (that you took with your new EM1).

Happy Holidays,
- Dave H.

John Krumm said...

I've been using one for about a month and a half now. My only frame of comparison is other 4/3 and m4/3 cameras. Compared with the the rest, it is my most well-rounded, high performance, enjoyable camera ever, and with the battery grip attached, my most comfortable. I was a little worried at first about the raw files looking kind of strange in Lightroom, but with the latest release of 5.3 things are good.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk there is no doubt that the E-M1 is a fabulous machine for taking photos.

Unfortunately for many purposes, the bottom line is image quality and the E-M1 lags behind even the bets APS models from Nikon,Pentax,Sony & Fuji in this critical area never mind FF models.

your post will no doubt bring you plenty of response from the rather rabid Olympus fanboy tribe.

Anonymous said...

Great write up...I have not handled an M1 just yet...but I am sure that everything that Kirk says is true. I know because I decided to buy an EP5 (w/VF-4)..I had not owned a Pen before....Well ....in using the E-P5...I was SURPRISINGLY overwhelmed by how fluid the shooting experience was after setting the camera up to my needs.
The experience with the camera was so profound that I unloaded my E-M5 within a month as I had stopped using it. It ashamed that this camera is soooooooo overlooked.
Kirk rightly praises it at the level it deserves...now perhaps I SHOULD get my hands on an M1?!?!?!

Kirk Tuck said...

To the second anonymous poster upstream here: No, you are absolutely wrong. There are very, very few instances in photography where ultimate image quality is necessary. That's a totally "last decade" techno response to making images. The order goes, idea, vision, content, point of view, craft, follow through. "Highest quality" is somewhere down the line near cup holders.

I presume you knew you were wrong and that's why you posted anonymously.

Chris Pattison said...

I recently purchased an a7 and I am using it with Canon FDn lenses. I find it a joy to use with these lenses utilising peaking and the great EVF. I have had an E-M5 since shortly after their introduction, but I will wait for 'new camera euphoria' to wear off before I do my own compare /contrast on the pair.

Anonymous said...

I have an EP 5 and am presently reminding myself, daily, how ridiculous the notion of having both the EP 5 and the EM1 is. However......

My current argument, against myself, for getting the EM1 is the "color creator" feature. Problem is, I am not sure how much utility the feature presents. I mean, I haved live this long without it.

Is it just the newest gimmick to sell cameras? One of my major beefs with camera makers has to do with the color red. Is this the sort of feature that will allow you capture the actual color of the rose?

I have not seen a whole lot written on the subject

Wayne

Citizen # 8111 said...

To the FF snobs who feel its their duty to proclaim the ultimate superiority of their tools. I Suggest you look up British Olympus shooter Damien "big dog" Mcgillicuddy's page.Tell me his images are lacking impact because he uses m43. Sorry; you just don't get it... No paper spec ever brought an emotion to the viewer .I believe Cartier Bresson would also beg to differ. or he'd have shot everything in 8x10.