I'll start with the typical disclaimer: I am not an Olympus employee. I have never been an Olympus employee. I have never received free or discounted equipment from Olympus. I have never written a review of an Olympus product in exchange for money or equipment. I currently own two Olympus OMD EM-5.2 cameras and a smattering of lenses, all of which were purchased at Precision Camera for the same retail prices everyone else pays. If I link any of the products I review to Amazon.com, and you click through and buy, it a small amount of money, based on the item and pricing, will be paid to me from Amazon.com. It's not enough money to cover the cost of a review or to make a dent in the ever declining college fund for the boy. Don't worry, I can guarantee you that your purchases are not making me wealthy. But it's nice to get enough in affiliate fees from my writing to be able to buy premium coffee instead of the older, surplus stuff we were getting from the ship channel salvage company in Houston....
My Review of the Olympus EM-5.2 cameras.
Added after publication/glorious video sample: https://vimeo.com/137964319
Chrome EM5.2 sitting on the Manfrotto Hybrid Fluid Head.
A bit of history. The first Olympus product I owned was a used, black Olympus Pen FT, half frame film camera. I still have it along with four other copies, one black and three chrome, that I collected over the years; usually for less than $100 per body. I also have an almost complete set of the jewel-like half frame lenses that were made specifically for that system. The lenses, with the right adapters, work remarkably well with the current micro four thirds systems and this makes me very happy. It's wonderful when a new product can bring renewed usefulness to an older product line.
The original Olympus Pen FT. This is the one that started it all for me.
Smaller and lighter than the full frame cameras of the day it featured an
optical view finder, a vertical film frame and a titanium rotary shutter
that sync'd at all speeds from 1 second to 1/500th of sec.
72 half frame images on a roll...
At any rate I bought my first Olympus micro four thirds format camera, an Olympus Pen EP-2, in 2010 specifically with the intention of using with the older Pen FT lenses. That experience started my off again, on again relationship with the Olympus mirror-free system.
Apples and tangerines. One thing you need to know
if you are on the fence about buying an interchangeable lens camera in 2015 is that they are all good enough for most of what most people do but there are reasons; good reasons, for such a wide range of cameras to be offered on the market. While the Olympus EM5.2 is a very, very good camera there are some things that bigger, more expensive cameras can do better. Conversely, most of the time people will be much happier with the smaller, lighter and more entertaining OMD system than they will be toting around a big, full frame camera like the Nikon D810 and the assorted lenses that allow it to shine.
Trying to compare the OMDs and a camera like the D810 is just a bit odd in that they have totally different strengths and weaknesses. One is the ultimate resolution machine (at the moment) while the other is the ultimate, take everywhere, shoot everything and don't break a sweat over the amount of freight you are toting camera. Any comparison that doesn't take the photographer's use and goals for the camera into consideration is like car nut trying to tell a mother of five that she should buy a Porsche 911 or telling a needy, divorced industrialist that he could really do well driving a nice Chrysler mini-van while hitting the dating scene.
I think we'll do this review in a straightforward way and just make comparisons with cameras in a similar niche rather than making sweeping comparisons. If we do make comparisons with full frame cameras we'll also note the disadvantages of the bigger cameras. While I may be spoiled by having two different systems I think it does help me write, objectively, about valid differences between them, and in a way that also looks at the strengths of each camera type.
One of the improvements on the new version of the EM5 is the inclusion
of nicely machined, big fat dials that move well.
What's it all about? The OMD EM5-2 is the fifth generation of interchangeable lens, micro four thirds, mirror-free cameras from Olympus. The first being the EP-1 launched back in 2009. That first camera was a disaster for me and I never would buy one. The issue? It didn't have an eye level viewfinder or even the option to add one via a camera port and accessory finder. No matter how good the camera might have been at the time that lack of usability made it the ultimate non-starter for me. If you have to hold your picture taking machine out in front of you, grab for your reading glasses and use one hand to shield a rear mounted screen image from the sun ( and any manner of intruding light )you might as well use your iPhone to take your shots. The EP-1 set the first body style (based on the original half frame Pen) and introduced a decent, but not great, 12 megapixel sensor that stayed in the Olympus camera line-up for three generations.
There are several reasons to shoot with the Olympus OMD cameras and with the m4:3 Olympus interchangeable lens cameras in general. It's the perfect system camera for anyone who must have a small camera. An older working photographer whose back is shot from toting bags full of heavy equipment will find comfort in the much lower weight per gear ratio. Photographers who travel by air frequently will appreciate the diminutive size of a completely functional system. A full system that can fit under an airline seat. There are many great lenses from Olympus and the other signatories of the micro four thirds consortium that are small but very, very good optically. But putting aside considerations of weight and bulk I think the foremost reason to shoot with these cameras is the wonderful image quality and very appealing color that they produce. The balance of sharpness, contrast and rich color is a great argument that supersedes mechanical considerations. What good is a small and light system if the images aren't convincing? For that matter, what good is a camera of any size with massive amounts of resolution if getting well balanced color and tonality is a constant struggle?
For most people it will be a combination of the attributes above that will push them to invest in this system. But they'll keep coming back for the color and tonality. Believe me.
The original OMD EM5 camera was the first in the family to use a newer and much better imaging sensor, and, along with a great electronic viewfinder, ground breaking image stabilization and beautiful color rendering it was really the first paradigm shifting, highly disruptive mirror free camera to hit the camera market. I owned four of those cameras and was always amazed at the great low light performance of the sensor and the fact that I could slam four shot lattés and still hold the camera steady enough to use shutter speeds as low as 1/8th of a second without seeing image degradation. It was truly a camera that changed peoples' shooting habits and style and seems to have relegated the tripod to the role of a specialty device.
So what has the second version, the type two, brought to the marketplace that we didn't already get in the original? There are two things that made me rush to trade in my previous models and snap up both a black and a chrome version of the new model. One was the improvement in the electronic viewfinder. The new camera nearly doubles the resolution of the old finder and yields a much more lifelike and convincing finder image. It's obvious that in addition to adding more resolution Olympus have also increased the performance of the processor that drives the EVF because the image in the finder is especially resistant to the stuttering at lower shutter speeds and lower light levels that has always plagued other EVF endowed cameras. It's a pleasure to look through the finder window and see an image that's crisp and clean. It's also a pleasure to see, as you compose, a completely stabilized finder image. Older cameras with in body stabilization (especially those in optical viewfinder cameras) were not able to show the stabilized image which made composition with longer lenses much less sure. (The original EM5 also showed a stabilized image...).
exposure compensation while the back button (closest) sets the aperture.
Once learned the moves become second nature.
The second reason for me trading the older model for the new wasn't about stabilization (which I thought was really, really good in the older 5; one stop better in the new type 2) it was for the additional video features. I know many of you refuse to believe that video is going to be increasingly important to clients and even to our own personal audiences but the numbers tell the tale. While it's depressing to some of us the latest figures show a quick adaptation of phone delivered video programming to be the primary way consumers are eating their data these days. You can rail against the move from still images but you'll be screaming at an audience that's already gone on to something else. It's good to have cameras that let us create content that we can use to engage an audience in demographic flux. I like having the tools that allow me to go in either direction with one device.
To be clear, I upgraded because I wanted a headphone jack so I could monitor my audio. I wanted microphone inputs with manually settable levels and I wanted a set of more powerful video codecs so I could do more corrections in editing without having the fragile moving picture files fall apart. These were the things that made the new camera most valuable to me. Was the upgrade worth the extra money? I definitely think so or I would have returned the cameras, gotten my money back and moved on.
So, this camera (the EM5.2) is the newest and highest spec'd of the OMD line and, in my mind, the most useful. It uses a 16 megapixel imaging sensor along with a faster processor than it's predecessor so the files are just a little cleaner and the colors just a little better. The camera is small and light. The lenses are also smaller and lighter than anything comparable in the APS-C or full frame catalogs. It all adds up to a very good system for anyone who wants a great combination of portability, all day long handling comfort and great optics in a small and, relatively, inexpensive package.
Menus. I have often groused (mostly in jest) at the incredibly complex menus in all of the Olympus cameras. In fact, I think the menu designers (and the endless button designers) of the Olympus cameras are diametrically opposed to my vision of how a camera should be set up. If I designed a camera menu the camera would only shoot in RAW, would only have four major settings and would be easy for anyone to pick up and shoot. You'd have your three useful shooting modes (Manual, Aperture Priority, Program), then you'd have a menu for ISO and finally a menu for color settings (auto, daylight and tungsten). All of these settings would get you reasonable files which could then be corrected in a post processing program. The advantage is that there is no interface clutter and limited need to make decisions in the shooting phase of the whole photography workflow.
This is the Super Control Menu and it is the antidote for the
tedious and sometimes opaque full menu. Here you can
get to the controls that normal people use the most and
change them with very little trouble.
Seriously though, the top two levels of the menu are very sensible. These menus allow for things like card formatting, selection of custom settings, aspect ratios, file size, bracketing and HDR settings and even the high res shot settings.
It's really the custom menu that give most people problems. If you get into the custom menu and you don't understand what the function does you can always hit the "info" button and a bit of copy comes up with a description----which is usually helpful. I find that going through the custom menus a couple of times to familiarize oneself is sensible. I also think making notes about your settings is also sensible. Setting file sizes and quality levels is a particularly opaque part of the menu for me but I think I've got it down.
The menu that makes the most sense to almost everyone is the setup menu (wrench icon) and it is also the menu you are most likely to touch once and not need again until such a time as when you want to upgrade the camera's firmware.
Once you've set up the camera the way you like it you'll be able to depend mostly on the super control panel to make use of more frequently visited controls. I get to the SCP menu by pushing the "OK" button in the middle of the four way controller although, if you've made modifications to the custom menu then the way you access the SCP is anyone's guess. The SCP menu has the major stuff you are likely to change on it. This includes ISO, WB, imaging profile, AF spot in use, flash controls, AF settings, IS settings, file size and quality, aspect ratio and the contents of whatever you've set the function one button to. You can also fine tune gradation as well as the contrast and sharpness of the profile you've chosen. Very straightforward and very helpful.
There are many ways to put most commonly used control items under the sway of the function buttons, of which there are many. I set them but can rarely remember which ones are which and then, in frustration, I dive back into the menus.
In a final statement about the menus I would say that the way to enjoy the Olympus cameras to the highest potential is to shoot with this brand exclusively! That way you learn and practice the same human and machine interface and are able to memorize it. To try and operate other camera systems in parallel with the Olympus units, and make full use of the menu, is --- overwhelming.
Since I am a simple shooter I use the camera most often in aperture priority and this is a very comfortable camera when used that way. The back dial ( big, nice and well designed) allows you to vary the apertures while the front dial, just in front of it, allows you to dial in plus or minus exposure compensation. Nice. It reminds me of what Sony tried on the Nex 7 (which was my favorite of the Nex cameras...).
One of the major benefits of the micro four thirds cameras is their short lens mount flange to
sensor distance. This allows lenses from just about any system using a larger lens to sensor
distance on these cameras. You'll need an adapter but most can be sourced
inexpensively. This camera is set up with a Nikon 55mm Macro lens.
The difference in system formats means that the lens becomes the
equivalent of a 100mm macro when used on the OMD EM5.2.
The body feels very solid and well made. I remember handling my girlfriend's favorite instrument, her Olympus OM-1 film camera, and the feel of its solid construction and compact density is well replicated in the OMD EM5.2. According to the advertising and marketing propaganda the camera is "weather resistant" or "splash resistant" but I'll just have to take them at their word for that. I am so old school that I can't imagine an electronic device that likes water ---- or even tolerates it. But I've seen other reviewers pour bottles of water over the top of the cameras and have seen the cameras come away with no ill effects so I guess it works. Have fun shooting in the driving rain with it (and one of the few weather sealed lenses), I'll be in the coffee shop testing the roasts. Nice to know though, that if I spill my coffee the OMD EM5.2 will probably survive...
Making the camera ultimately useful: I think the camera is just a bit short to be truly comfortable in use over long periods of time and that's why I started adding battery grips to each one in my inventory. In the time I shot with the first generation EM-5 the added grips were strictly for handling and extending the time between battery changes. In the latest model the separate part of the grip that sits closest to the camera body adds functionality to the camera as well as better handling.
The grip (product name: HLD-8) is composed of two parts, the HLD-8G + the HLD-6P. The HLD-8G attaches to the bottom of the camera and extends the grip. It also adds a headphone jack to the camera system so that one can monitor audio while shooting video. This is really a very nice addition because it's important to monitor audio when making video masterpieces and there really isn't much room left of the body of the camera alone to add one more feature or plug receptacle. The HLD-8G will be available as a separate unit and it does not add a second battery to the system. The HLD-6P is the same battery pack that was used on the original EM-5 and it connects to the bottom of the HLD-8G without any issues. In fact, it is still the current product for the new grip system. If you have one for the EM-5 (original) it will work just as well on the new camera along with the HLD-8G.
EM%.2 shown with the (not in my opinion) optional battery grip set.
The grip set comes in two parts and the bottom part, which contains the extra battery,
is usable on the previous generation EM-5.
Adding the HLD-6P to the HLD-8G and installing an additional battery gets you into the ballpark of 600 to 700 shots before you need to look for a wall socket for the battery charger. But even with both parts of the grip attached the camera is still less than half the weight of my naked Nikon D810. With the grip in place on the Olympus camera it becomes almost an extension of your hand --- if your hands are reasonably normal, like mine. Wrong side of the hand Bell Curve? Try before you buy. The bottom line is that I wouldn't think of using the cameras without their full grip configurations. It's just too comfortable and useful when set up that way.
Since the square footage on the camera body is limited anyone using this camera to create video is probably best advised to get a cage or bracket on which to hang the paraphernalia of moving picture creation, including (but not limited to): external monitors, microphones, audio mixers and LED lights. There's really no room on the camera for anything more than one device in the hot shoe. I'd opt for an inexpensive cage with handles...
Happy days for people who want to use these cameras to also shoot
some video. The top half of the battery grip provides a headphone jack
which allows you to monitor audio as you record video.
A good use of space.
The rear screen: While the OMD EM-5.2 is supposed to have a very nice screen (and the first one in the system that tilts and flips instead of just pulling out 90 degrees) I only use it to make changes to menu items and to review images while I'm out shooting stills. It's good for that but no real shooter, pro or amateur, is going to able to use a rear screen in all kinds of illumination effectively. Some will say that the rear screen is advantageous for video shooters since it can be positioned at just about any angle but I'll argue that the finder image is better when using the camera up near eye level for video and if you aren't using the camera at eye level you'll probably want to use a bigger, external monitor so you have enough image magnification to ensure sharp focusing and good composition right out to the edges of the frame. In the studio, if I am shooting video or even lots of product, I'll hook up an HDMI monitor and use it for the most comfortable eye view methods.
So, the camera is comfortable to hold (addictive) and can be configured to be a nice shooting machine but the ultimate test of the cameras comes from shooting them and looking at the results. You don't really need reviewer to tell you about this, you can take a memory card to a camera store and test it out yourself. If you want to spend the money on the camera then bring along someone who is very beautiful and take your time to light her (him) carefully and shoot a lot. If you want to stay with the camera system you already own then sabotage the whole adventure by bringing one of your homeliest acquaintances and shooting "test shots" quickly and under crappy light. Then maybe you'll overlook all the cool features of the camera and stick with your current gear. But really, in the end it is all about image quality, isn't it?
Image Quality: This one is a loaded category for several reasons. We can talk about color, noise, tonality and balance regardless of the size of the sensor or the number of pixels on the sensor. When we do that the Olympus camera (really the combination of the sensor, the processing chip and the firmware) is a wonderful image maker. The engineers have knocked themselves out to stuff a smaller sensor with as much good stuff as all the other sensors. Especially if everything is shot at an ISO that is the intended sweet spot for all digital cameras: 200 or 100 (or, in the case of the Nikon D810, 64). At those settings the Olympus EM-5.2 is as good as anything on the market with two caveats. That would be a comparison between cameras at the same ISO settings and at sizes of 16 megapixels or less. There's really no magic bullet that will make a lower resolution sensor compete in terms of detail rendering with a much bigger and higher pixel count sensor.
The other elephant in the room is always the way in which the different total surface areas of the chips, the height and length of the chip, cause lenses with different focal length but similar angles of view to render images; especially when it comes to what I call focus ramp or, how quickly the image comes into and then falls out of focus. When we talk about how three dimensional an image from a large format sensor looks we are mostly talking about that focus ramping characteristic rather than any of the two dimensional characteristics of the imaging chain. Even with faster lenses the focus ramp will never look the same between cameras of different sensor geometries when using lenses with the same angle of view. That three dimensional characteristic is enhanced in full frame and larger cameras because focus planes become more and more distinct and isolated while the smoother focus ramp make the images look to our eyes similar to the way we subconsciously perceive images. We humans let our brains fuse together slice after slice of image planes, concurrently, to make our visual reality and the larger cameras manifest this effect more convincingly.
Talking about characteristics of the flat sensor is less important than talking about the way different lenses render different looks to the sensor. That's the expressive part of the mechanics of imaging.
It's a very pretty camera when paired with a matching chrome lens.
My overall take on image quality after having used the cameras fairly extensively for several months (and, after years of using their immediate predecessors) is this:
1. No camera on the market comes close to providing almost magical image stabilization. This allows me to handhold great lenses at crazy low shutter speeds which provides a whole different shooting experience. This also profoundly effects image quality when working with the cameras handheld.
2. The color right out of the camera, in Jpeg or raw, is the best I've worked with. Especially where flesh tones are involved. Under most light color temperatures the camera white balance is very accurate and if there are errors they are mostly in favor of making human subjects look better rather than worse. There is a balance and richness to the color spectrum that I've never been able to duplicate when using Canon and Panasonic cameras. I can almost match the look with my Nikon D810 or D610 cameras but it's a struggle and takes some work in post processing. I can't speak to the Fuji cameras because I haven't spent enough time using them to have an informed opinion.
Anecdotally, I shot a portrait today in my studio and I lit it with three of the fluorescent fixtures I use for the bulk of my video projects. If I shot on the Nikon I would have done a custom white balance or included a white reference in the first few frames and shot the project in raw. With the Olympus EM-5.2 I am confident enough to shoot a set up like this in Jpeg SF and use the auto white balance. When viewing the images in Lightroom CC the color needed just a little adjustment in the shadow area green/magenta slider and the flesh tones looked really good.
3. I am constantly surprised at how well these smaller sensor cameras now handle higher ISO settings. While some reviewers seem to be happy at 3200 ISO and some talk breathlessly about shooting well at 6400 ISO I'm more cautious and I think that 1600 is a good limit. At that setting (and of course, at all settings above) you'll really need to nail the correct exposure to make it work without seeing noise. I find that 1600 with faster lenses is just right and works well for most of the jobs I end up doing. I find that most of my personal work is rarely done above ISO 400.
The trade off for the lower performance of smaller sensors at higher ISOs is the fact that one can use faster lenses and use more of the wider f-stops while gaining enough depth of field to somewhat mitigate the advantages of a larger sensor used in conjunction with smaller f-stops to render images with the same general zones of sharp focus. Shooting a tight portrait at f2.0 with an m4:3 camera will yield a similar effect to that of shooting a full frame camera at the same relative angle of view at f4.0. There is always a certain depth of field one will want to use to make sure that the things you want in focus are actually in focus.
Blanton Museum photographed with Sigma 60mm dn art lens.
4. We all tend to be reductionists and we like to distill the attributes of cameras down to a very few, easy to digest, metrics. Usually, the common man is drawn to resolution and sharpness along with ISO performance. These are parameters that can be measured with a high degree of accuracy and, in the beginner's mind, are thought to be most important in the creation of a "good" image. Characteristics like dynamic range, tonal response and perceptual color quality are more ambiguous, harder to define, test and see in a very obvious way. I would argue that they are much more important in establishing a sense of image quality. While no m4:3 camera on the market right now will rival a full frame, 36 megapixel file size when making large prints that will be seen close up, the overwhelming use of 95% of all interchangeable cameras is to put images up on the web for sharing or as illustrations for websites. Of the people who print work and show it the vast majority of them are printing at sizes of 13x19 inches or smaller. In a statistical view there are probably fewer than 1/100th of a percent of photographers who are printing larger and who really require, on a consistent basis, files prepared for that use. Those photographers will have accessed their needs and will know which cameras they will need.
If we stay within the envelope of quality defined by the resolution of a sensor then we should compare the cameras we are interested in within that envelope. The 16 megapixel sensor in the OMD cameras yields prints with a long side measurement of about 16 inches at 300 dpi. Figure the print size at about 12 by 16 inches. If we size images from cameras with bigger file measurements down to this size we'll be comparing the actual images in the space where 99% of the users live. If we eliminate overall resolution from the equation then the second set of metrics I described; color tonal rendering, perceptual color quality, and dynamic range become the important measures that dictate quality. In this manner the EM5.2 is superb.
But I rush to say that this is not the result of some breakthrough technology coming just in time, from the future, for this camera's debut. In fact, the general results of the previous generation in these parameters are pretty much identical which means this level of superb imaging, up to the limits of the camera's maximum resolution, has been available in this system for the better part of four years now.
While arguments rage on the various forae about comparative image quality between brands I would say that as of right now, given that one doesn't exceed the resolution of the sensor at 300 dpi, all cameras are good and the common denominators of the best cameras are now dynamic range and color tonality and richness. If you need the extra resolution you buy a different camera but if you always work in and around the max resolution of this camera then you'll find it matches up well with cameras costing thousands of dollars more.
The history of recent digital photography is littered with people radically overbuying camera capabilities in one category or another. The same people who demand outstanding performance of huge resolution cameras which can also shoot at 12,000 ISO and at blazing fast frame rates are probably those least likely to ever take advantage of those features. Much like the middle aged men who bought Dodge Vipers with v10 engines.
It's much more fun to haunt museums with a small and discreet camera than to
haul along a big, obvious and loud one.
This is not to say that there is no use and no market for larger cameras like the Nikon D810. My experiences of being asked to produce 24 by 36 inch posters immediately comes to mind as do the frequent requests from clients for enormous (48 inches by 96 inches) trade show graphics. But that comprises maybe 5% of my professional, commercial work. Of my close friends who are not doing this work for money very, very few make prints, and even fewer make prints over a 12 by 18 inch size. They have systematically weaned themselves from the large camera camp and settled happily in the smaller-lighter camp with very good results. Results that, apart from differences in visible focus ramp, are indistinguishable except when it comes to dynamic range and pleasing color. And in that arena the two leaders of the m4:3 camera camp (the EM5.2 and the Panasonic GH4) are equal to the rest of the pack, regardless of actual sensor format. What it comes down to for most people is this trade off: Are you willing to pay more and haul more for the few times when you might want a little extra resolution? Are you willing to trade great color rendering for other performance parameters?
To sum up this section on quality I think you'll find that within the resolution envelope that the Olympus EM5.2 outperforms most current cameras in the realms of pleasing color, aesthetically superior tonal rendering and useful dynamic range. The files are sharp, the camera's ability to white balance is very, very good while the colors in the files are class leading--- from a perceptual point of view. Need to go bigger for prints and special projects? You'll need to jump up to a 36 megapixel (or more) camera. That's your real choice.
Still Camera Handling: If you have big mitts you might be more comfortable with a camera that gives you more square inches of surface space on the body and more distance between buttons. If you are lucky enough to have average to smaller hands you will, after a few weeks of shooting, find this camera (with at least the HLD-8G part of the grip --- the part that connects to the camera) to be very, very comfortable and to feel good in your hand.
While I grouse about menus and not being able to remember what functions go with which function buttons the reality is that most of us set up a camera and use it the same way over and over again because, over time, our style of shooting dictates the controls and functions we use. Once I set up all of my custom menu items it's very, very rare for me to go back into that menu and change anything. From that point on most of my interaction with the camera is through the Super Control Panel menu which is brought up by (at least on my cameras) pushing the "OK" button in the center of the four way controller. Everything I want to change during day-to-day shooting experiences is generally found there and it's very straightforward to use change or fine tune frequently accessed settings.
One of the things I get called upon to photograph for money are big trade shows for major corporations and big, multi-day conferences like the yearly math conference that's coming up in June. In each of these situations I am called on to cover the events like a journalist. This means getting there before the shows start to record the trim of the show (signage, stage sets, technical showcases) and then spending ten or twelve hour days covering every facet of the events from the look and feel of typical break out sessions to the main tent, keynote speakers, to the quiet dinners where leaders from different companies gather. I now use the m4:3 systems for all of these events.
In the past I used full frame cameras to provide the same coverage but with similar lenses and the same inventory of batteries, etc. I can now cover the same events with a collection of tools that weighs about 1/3 the total of the bigger systems. The difference might be six pounds versus eighteen pounds. That twelve pounds adds up quickly when it resides in one bag full of gear over one aching shoulder and an additional heavy camera and lens over the other shoulder. In the early days of smaller, m4:3 cameras I couldn't justify the hit in image quality. It wasn't that 12 megapixels limited my ability to deliver a high quality product, it was the fact that the noise of the files when the cameras were shot over ISO 640-800 were just nowhere close to the file quality I could get out of some of the bigger, full frame cameras. Now the combination of new, fast zooms and a much better sensor, with a much cleaner high ISO output, has effectively eliminated most of the differences and allowed me to use the smaller stuff.
Last year I did a math conference with two Panasonic GH3s and one GH4. Under all light levels the cameras performed well. Once I got over my old school reticence to use lenses at close to wide open apertures the ISO disparity vanished. While a D610 might give me one and a half more stops of low noise than the current EM5.2 the trade equals out if I am able to use faster apertures and hand hold the stabilized camera at much lower shutter speeds.
This year I'll be covering the same conference with two Olympus OMD EM5.2 cameras and a very small selection of lenses. I know I'll be using the Panasonic G 12-35mm f2.8 zoom because I have it in the gear bag already and I think it's a wonderful lens, and every bit the match for the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 lens. I'm waffling about which longer lens to use but will most probably buy either the 40-150mm f2.8 Olympus or re-buy the Panasonic G 35-100mm f2.8 lens (that I traded away in a moment of avaricious weakness). While the Olympus is, by all accounts, a wonderful lens and has 50mm more reach at the long end the Panasonic is smaller, lighter and has built-in I.S. for those times when I might want to use it on a GH4 or a G7 for a video project. We'll see in June which way we go and I'll let you know how it turns out.
Essentially, whichever way I go on long lenses this means I'll be able to cover the entire conference, from wide to telephoto, with just two small bodies and two relatively small lenses. Since we hit our quality performance measures/goalposts last year with the Panasonic gear I have no qualms that the Olympus cameras will perform just as well --- or better.
The things that make this camera system a good choice for these kinds of shows are the small and nimble nature of the cameras, coupled with performance features. Small is good because I get less fatigued or can carry more stuff ( I choose less fatigued !!!) and the gear fits in a smaller bag which reduces my profile. Small is also good because, in the end, people are people and most people are camera shy and somewhat intimidated by huge equipment stuck just a few feet from their faces. The Olympus cameras don't project the same almost mercenary vibe that a big D810 and a 70-200mm f2.8 lens does. The EM5.2 is understated in black and almost whimsically retro in the chrome finish. Neither is scary.
I also spoke about performance features and to my mind there are two which stand out. The first is the inclusion of the EVF (a very, very good EVF). This allows me to "pre-chimp" my shots and also is a constant check on over and underexposure and color issues. A really good EVF changes one's shooting style by removing some of the need to reflexively keep checking the images on the rear screens as we art apt to do on traditional cameras. I would love to have good EVFs on my Nikon cameras. For the moment though I think having EVFs is a big selling point for the better mirror-free cameras. I've come to much prefer shooting with them over optical finders.
The stabilization is so good you might feel that the image is
just floating on a cloud of puttis.
The second performance feature is the in body image stabilization. Olympus pioneered this and their system continues to improve. It's the best in the business. Since acquiring my two EM5.2 bodies I'm ready to leave the tripod at home for events and fast moving, available light shoots. The camera is just eery when it comes to stabilization. It's almost as if it freezes the scenes in front of the camera. With a fast lens and a good stance you can depend on (non-moving) subjects to be sharply imaged at shutter speeds down to 1/4 of a second. Of all the things that the camera can do this feature seems most like magic to me.
While the ability to stabilize the frame is the coolest part of the feature the ability to show the effect in the finder is almost as cool. It's a feedback loop that shows you exactly what you are going to get. Funny how these two features; the EVF and I.S., are synergistic. You couldn't see the effect of in body I.S. without the EVF and the EVF makes the feedback loop complete.
The latest rev of the Image Stabilization has multiple settings. The first is a combination of physically moving the sensor to compensate coupled with digital computational enhancements to the file to further reduce shake. It's formidable. I have no way to really measure the overall effect but Olympus claims five full stops of reduction and I have no reason to doubt them.
The next option is for physical stabilization only. I think they made this separation because the digital corrections do seem to have an effect on the video files, especially when panning. There is an occasional wobble to the frame that's downright disconcerting. Nice to have options!
The other settings are for vertical shake only, horizontal shake only and "auto". I haven't used these settings so I can't speak to them. I can imagine that the vertical shake would come in handy when panning in video but I've always turned the IS off when shooting on a stable video tripod. I'll talk more about video handling below.
Three additional features you might find handy: We can't talk about the camera in a complete way without mentioning some of the new stuff it can do that other systems haven't matched. One semi-useful feature is the hi-res mode. This is a mode that is used with the camera locked down on a stout tripod and aimed at a subject that is not moving! When set to high res mode pushing the shutter button initiates eight shots in fast succession. The sensor moves half a pixel between each shot and the camera calculates and blends all of the information to make nice, large 40 to 60 megapixel files with detail that rivals the 36 megapixel full frame cameras and does so without the aliasing and moiré caused by the bayer patter demosaicing process. Bottom line it means very high resolution still images with very accurate, artifact free color. For studio work and architectural work it represents a whole new ballgame for Olympus users. With the right lenses you can go toe to toe with the high res, full frame camera users in applications where there is no subject movement.
The High Res. mode is easy to get to and easy to use but you MUST
use a tripod to get any sort of usable result.
To make the function even cooler Olympus has designed the controls for high-res to engineer in user settable delays between shots to allow electronic flash units to recycle. So, yes! you can use this feature with flash. It's really very cool. I've used it on still life set-ups and it does work. One note though, with high magnification set ups you'll want to use an electronic remote to trigger the shutter as any movement can degrade the image quality. The feature is available in both Jpeg and raw files.
Composite setting: While introduced on the previous camera generation this camera feature is so useful to people who routinely do long exposures that I have to mention it. Here's the scenario: You've decided to put your camera on a tripod and do a long exposure of the city lights. You've chosen a small aperture because you want a long exposure for tail light trails and neon glows. But you don't know exactly how to expose for that. With this feature once you push the shutter button to start the exposure the image starts to build on your finder screen. It goes from dark to less dark to almost exactly what you want to great. You end the exposure and you have just shot AND pre-chimped a long exposure shot--- perfectly. What else can one say about such a useful feature?
And then there is keystone compensation. To understand this feature you have to remember the last time you stood in front of a building and tilted your camera up to get the whole building in the frame. When you got back to your computer and looked at the shot it looked as if the building was tipping over backward. The base of the building (closest point to your camera) was much bigger than the top of the building (furthest from your camera) and while you may have liked the effect your client, the architect who designed the building, will probably not be as pleased by the obvious distortion of his design. With the OMD EM5.2 you can fix this issue with the keystone compensation control --- while you are looking at the image on the back screen of your camera. You line up your shot, tilt your camera to get everything in and then initiate the control which allows you to watch as you use one of the two adjustment dials on the right side of the camera to correct for the effect. Once you've gotten the effect you want in the finder you complete the exposure and you are done. It's much easier to get this right on a tripod but you can go either way. It's up to you. It's a feature I might use when shooting still life work. It's especially appropriate with computer chassis that have known straight lines.
Handling errata: There are many things I haven't mentioned that are more of less about handling but are more or less on the yawn side of my radar. You can set fast frame rates and you'll get to about 7 fps before you lock focus and shoot blind. That's more than fast enough for anything I shoot and, truthfully, I'm nearly always clicked into single frame because my problem is that I already shoot too much. Shooting faster just means more time editing for me.
One binary issue will be the auto focus. I mostly shoot people in everyday life (offices, hospitals, shopping malls, restaurants) and most of them are not moving around very quickly. The OMD cameras (even the previous ones) lock onto stationary and slow moving targets very quickly (and even more importantly) very accurately. Back in the "wow" category is the ability to set your camera to do face recognition focusing and to also tell the camera which eye on the subject you prefer to have sharp focus on. This is a great thing and for people shooting with the faster, longer lenses ensures a much higher keeper rate in a portrait session.
I think a lot of us that survived the last ten years with traditional phase detect AF optical viewfinder cameras have our own horror stories of cameras and lenses that back focused and front focused. And I'm here to tell you that few things make a commercial photographer queasier than doing a session with a CEO and then checking the images at higher magnification in the studio only to find that while you thought you were focusing on their eyes your camera and lens were conspiring together to put the point of sharp focus just a few inches further back. Like just behind the subject's ears....
I would gladly give up the ability to track someone running across the frame while shooting at ten frames per second for the ability to always hit sharp focus exactly, exactly where I expect it to be.
So when it comes to auto focus performance I will tell you that you'll have to make a system choice. The OMD cameras are fast and accurate when focusing on the stuff I like to shoot but won't lock on a track fast moving sports subjects and especially fast moving sport subjects that are moving erratically as well. If your work is predominantly about tracking speed skaters, shooting professional football or basketball or hockey, or shooting your kid's soccer matches I have to be honest and say that this might not be the system for you right now. But be aware that in order to get the best AF performance you'll need to spend real money. The difference in AF performance between a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3200 or D3300 isn't worth overlooking all the other benefits of the Olympus system. To get the real sports pay-off you'll want to look at the new Canon 7Dmk2 or the professional sports cameras like the Nikon D4s. And then you'll need the fast lenses to support that better AF.
I am happy with the focusing system and haven't had a single situation in which the AF wasn't fast enough and no situations in which the inaccuracy of the measurement ruined a shot. Being able to move the cursor over 99% of the frame is also a tremendous plus and saves one from the inherent inaccuracy of locking onto a subject with the center focusing spot and then re-composing the frame.
You can program the function buttons to do almost anything.
The hard part is to remember what you've asked each function button to do...
Let's take a breath and sum up what we've talked about so far: The camera is small and light but still feels dense and well built. The controls and overall layout of the camera are great for people with small to normal hands but may be too cramped for people who've mutated to giant sizes.
The image quality and color, within the constrictions of native resolution, are wonderful and not bettered by any other offering on the market. (Again, caveat: I have not tested the Fuji cameras).
There are many features that make the EM5.2 very useful. The EVF, the High Res mode, the amazing image stabilization, the composite long exposure feature, and even the Keystone Correction feature.
The camera is very quick and accurate to focus slow and non-moving subjects but won't rival the best traditional cameras for continuous focusing of fast moving subjects.
Battery Life: In order to make cameras small and light camera makers are constrained to make the batteries inside them small and light. This means that the batteries have less capacity and supply fewer images per charge. On cameras where there are always screens active there is a further drain on the batteries. The battery in the EM5.2 is the same as that in the previous model and also in the current "flagship" model, the EM-1. I'd like to personally thank Olympus engineers for doing this because it means I can use the eight additional batteries I bought to use in the original EM5.
I will say here that I find the Olympus battery prices absurdly high and I immediately ordered aftermarket batteries from Wasabi Power. Two batteries and a charger ran me less than one lone Olympus battery. In fact, I could get four Wasabi batteries and two chargers for the price of one Olympus branded battery!!! Amazing. Head scratching.
Be alert when using the third party batteries that they aren't completely interchangeable when it comes to mixing and matching chargers. Charging Wasabi batteries in the Olympus charger results in a battery that's not fully charged. The same result happens when charging Olympus batteries in the Wasabi chargers. It's to a "mission critical" difference but you need to know about it anyway.
Which ever way you go you can expect to get between 300 and 420 shots per battery, depending on how you use the camera and how you have the power saving options set up. You can make the camera go to sleep earlier or later and shut down quicker or later. I like the camera to be responsive so I aim for the middle settings.
I also equip each camera with a battery grip which doubles the usable time in which I can shoot. If you use the grip you can select which battery is used first. It just makes sense to go with the grip battery because it is so easy to change out. That leaves, in my mind, the camera body battery as your back up reserve.
Use of video modes and continuous use of the image stabilization will suck down batteries very quickly; that's one of the reasons we have eight spares....
Fountain on the UT campus. South side. Sigma 60mm dn Art.
Lenses: A big strength. The vast selections of lenses for micro four thirds cameras is a relatively new thing but it's definitely a strength of the system. Between Olympus, Panasonic and Sigma there are numerous great choices for most of the commonly used focal lengths. Many of the lenses are very, very good. The flagship zooms from both Olympus and Panasonic are uniformly superb and the Sigma art lenses represent amazing value in prime lenses. If you have money to burn (well) you might consider the Leica branded 25mm and 42.5 mm speed lenses. They are really extraordinarily good on the system. It's heartening to see both Olympus and Panasonic rolling out great new lenses even as overall camera sales across brands are dropping quickly. Perhaps they see a near future recovery that the rest of us are not privileged to see yet. I hope so only if to continue the introduction of great new gear.
Beyond lenses specifically designed for the system the narrow bodies allow for the use of adapter to join just about any lens to the m4:3 bodies. I often use a macro lens from my Nikon system on one of the EM5.2 bodies and I often use my favorite Olympus Pen FT lenses with a different adapter. While there aren't a lot of third party wide angle lenses to use the middle and telephoto catalogs of Leica, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and other lenses is bursting with options. All usable with adapters.
Now for the one thing we haven't touched upon: Video. What's up with that?:
When the EM5.2 was first introduced I was very happy to see a lot of features (and a lot of talk) that had to do with elevating the importance of video on the new camera. The EM5 (original) was a mediocre video performer that was hobbled with a weak video codec and very few ways to make the camera fun to use for movie making and web content creation. For example, there was no headphone jack and the microphone jack required the use of the SEMA-1 adapter which also took out the hot shoe for any other use. The files out of the camera weren't as sharp as they could have been and there were artifacts lurking hither and yon.
The new camera, the EM5.2, was launched with a certain amount of fanfare including website stuff claiming that the camera was "professional cinema ready" but they seem to have back pedaled a bit on their current website info by postponing the camera as the ultimate "minimalist" video maker camera, and, "the best camera for run and gun video" because of the combination of video features and the image stabilization. Hmmm. Where does this camera really fit into the video world?
I've got to give Olympus credit because they have done a lot of stuff right with the camera. It's great to have a dedicated microphone input and control over audio levels. It's equally great to provide a headphone jack on the inexpensive HLD-8G and it makes sense because the body itself was running out of real estate for more ports and the connecting cables. Both of those things are right on the money.
Holy-Moly!!!! A headphone jack. My dreams come true.
The real issue comes down to how well the camera makes video files. I was less than kind in an article I wrote after shooting the video in the camera for an entire afternoon. I set the camera to what should have been the highest quality levels, using the new, All-I format along with 60 fps. I shot in manual so I could keep the shutter speed right where it should have been (1/125th) of the frames per second setting. I made sure that the lens was shooting at a middle aperture and not a diffracted, smaller f-stop by using appropriate ND filters. I was shooting outside in the direct sun and in open shade. When I got back to the studio I dumped the footage into Final Cut Pro X and looked at it. I made the rookie reviewer mistake of blowing up the files to the full screen, not taking into consideration that the monitor on my desktop is 2560 pixels wide. In effect I was blowing up the footage well past 100%. It was classic pixel peaking. And of course the footage didn't look it's best.
Since then I've looked at the footage the way it was intended; on an HD TV at 1080p and it looks much better than I originally gave it credit for. It's nowhere near as sharp and detailed as the video from the GH4, or from the GH3 for that matter but it's not bad. Since making my initial test I've also tested the video in the D810. It's sharper, more detailed and less noisy than the EM5.2 video but really, not buy much.
That led me to start really experimenting with video from the camera and led me to a couple of conclusions. I feel like the camera is processor limited as far as the information pipeline is concerned. The camera feels a bit stretched or overworked in trying to get the 72 mbs of the All-I, 60fps frame rate video out the door and onto a memory card. When I drop down to 24 or even 30 fps the video tightens up and becomes better. The optimum shooting set up for me is to use the camera in its highest quality setting and at 24 fps. That's where the quality is best.
I am also coming to grips with the idea that some cameras are indoor cameras and some cameras are outdoor cameras and sometimes it's the broad contrast of a scenes that becomes problematic for the files. If I shoot indoors under controlled light (which is the way I mostly shoot video these days) them the images tighten up yet again. I'm a fan of big, soft lights so I'm happy to bring the camera into the studio space and use the lights to reduce the contrast range. Once I've got it beaten down into a range that the 8 bit files like the video looks really good. Especially with long lenses used in tight.
I have to say though that in some situations I'll gladly throw away "ultimate quality" in favor of ultimate handheld image stabilization. There is something really great about being able to hold the camera in your hand and do a slow, lateral movement that looks like the perfect blend of a slider movement coupled with a "loose" fluid head movement. It looks like handheld but with none of the bumps or jiggles that drive viewers nuts.
One thing the camera won't do (or one thing I haven't figured out) is how to make the camera auto focus a lens while recording video is in progress. With the Panasonic GH4 I liked to make focus corrections while rolling because I knew I would be cutting around the focusing jiggles and it was a pain to stop the recording, refocus and then restart the recording. The flip side is that the EM5.2 now has focus peaking so I can switch to manual focus and use the focusing ring in conjunction with the focus peaking indications to keep my subjects in focus.
I have another restaurant project coming up like this one: Asti Video, and I'm planning to use the two EM5.2 cameras since we generally do these without lighting and without tripods. The image stabilization is the driver for me. We can do two angles with two cameras, pace our moves at the same cadence and come away with some really fun, kinetic restaurant footage. All in tight spaces and all during the times that the restaurant is open for business. No stand or tripod ever has to hit the floor or mess up the flow of the restaurant. It's a sea change, that's for sure.
When we use these cameras to shoot fast moving stuff in the restaurant I'll probably stick mine in a cage which is nothing more than a couple of grip handles and a bar across the top with cold shoes that I'll use to attach a microphone, audio mixer and an HDMI field monitor. All of that stuff is to bulky to be attached directly to the camera and I wonder if the project might be better served by using the cameras naked. No other attachments. They will certainly be much more nimble. And yes, more "minimalist."
Final Notes On Video: The camera is
While the EM5-2 will never match the bigger and more expensive production cameras for ultimate performance in all metrics I don't think it's too much to hope that they will catch up to the image quality that Panasonic is able to get out of their cameras from a very similar image sensor. As the camera is now I am happy to use it in every situation in which fast response and image stabilization is paramount. It's great for that. I would also like to use it more often for interviews where everyone is moving around and we're having to physically follow people. If a firmware upgrade also gives me just a bit more detail and a little, tiny bit less mud in the shadows I'll be ecstatic. And really, it could happen.
Another walking around, slow shutter speed shot with the OMD EM5-2
The wrap up. While I was a late arrival to the OMD scene I was (and still am) a big fan of the original OMD EM-5 camera. I have always been a fan of the small but killer lenses that Panasonic and Olympus have been making for their systems as well. When the EM5.2 hit the market I compared the EVF and that sold me on the value proposition of trading up from one generation to the next. For the EVF alone it was well worth it. There's not a big improvement in the underlying image quality between generations but the other goodies in the feature set make the camera easier to use in order to get those quality images.
There is a visible improvement in the Image Stabilization. The camera overall feels better to use. The shutter is elegantly quiet and refined in its acoustic profile. The new features like Hi Res, and Keystone Correction are fun and ultimately useful. The new accessory grip that gives me a headphone jack for monitoring video audio is most welcome. The ability to use old batteries and the older bottom section of the battery grip instead of obsoleting them is also a polite nod from Olympus to long time customers.
For all but the most demanding and unusual aspects of photography this system is perfect. The images are very good and the operational effectiveness of the good files, in combination with the image stabilization, makes this camera so good at any aspect of handheld photography that it overshadows small differences in resolution that are found on bigger, heavier and more expensive cameras. I say this while owning a competing camera system from Nikon and having used many different digital camera systems over the last ten years.
I use the Nikons when resolution is all important. And I would be dishonest if I didn't say that in their own way the files of the Nikon D610 and D810 are equally good in other measures. But when it comes to the pleasure of handling, the speed and discretion of shooting, and the packing and transport of the cameras the Olympus EM5.2 wins, hands down.
For a hobbyist or an artist who has the luxury of creating photographs or video without clients in tow the Olympus is a wonderfully mature tool that stays out of the way until called upon. It's also a beautifully crafted object that is fun to have sitting next to me in the car or resting on the top of the desk.
My few concerns about video performance do nothing to sully my appreciation of this camera as being one of the best investments in photography I think I have made since the days of film. Thanks for reading the review and please know that your comments are appreciated. Leave one below to let me know how I did and to share your opinion of the camera. Kirk