Why I keep the Olympus OMD EM-5.2 cameras around. "It's not the horse it's the arrow!"

OMD EM5.2 shot with Nikon D610 and Sigma 50mm Art.

Oh sure, I love the big Nikon full frame cameras, especially when I have the time to put them on a tripod and take test exposures and chimp. Seriously though, it would be hard to dispute that for many applications that require very high resolution and very high sharpness the combination of the D810 or even D610, coupled with a killer lens (like the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art), is tough to beat. But that presupposes that every shooting situation requires those very structured and measurable performance attributes. Your jobs with a camera may the same day-after-day and year-after-year but mine sure aren't. And when I'm off the clock and shooting for pleasure my mind wanders into other areas. Other camera system strengths. On most routine jobs the bigger cameras are overkill.

Don't get me wrong, I love overkill as much as any other red blooded American male who grew up driving big block V8's too fast. Always nice to have some in reserve in case you need to pass...

The flipside  is that I also sit in the other chair. The editor's chair. The post processing strato-lounger. The Eames chair of file enhancement. And setting there for a long time takes the creative starch right out of you while making your butt bigger.  I re-discovered this yet again on Tuesday morning when I sat down to convert about 900 D610 raw files into Jpegs and Tiffs. The fast SD cards (UHS3) and the quicker buffers of the newest generations of cameras make it easy to shoot fast, and shooting fast generally ends up meaning, "shooting a lot."  I could have shot less but you never know what you'll get next and....the cameras make it so easy. Hand me another slice of pizza...

But dang! Processing those files took longer than I'd like and in the end I'm going to guess that 98% of the images won't make the final cut into the two or three ads that are planned. And in the same vein once the client finds those three killer images they'll probably abandon everything else from the day's take and use the "keepers' over and over again. In this instance I felt like I needed the high ISO performance that the D610 provides. It's no little deal to pull off ad-ready images while hanging out at 6400 ISO.

When I shoot for myself I mostly come right back to the Olympus micro four thirds cameras and the motley assortment of Panasonic, Olympus, Sigma lenses, and the weirder, third party lenses I have adapted to the format. And I sat down today to figure out why.

I started shooting with the micro four thirds Olympus cameras the minute they got the first EVF enabled body ( the EP-2 ) into Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. The size was perfect and it was the first camera I could really use the Olympus Pen FT lenses from my half frame collection on. While we'd never call the 12 megapixel sensor "state of the art" the camera made mighty good images from day one. In fact, when I go back and look at work I did with that camera in 2010 I find that I love the color and really can't see the visual manifestation of lower dynamic range the way I thought I might. The color is as gorgeous as I remembered.

The full frame Nikons are great for things like theatrical photography where I need to make images during a dress rehearsal performance of a play.  The size of the sensor and the speed of available, long lenses makes subject isolation easy while the high ISO performance of the same sensors makes getting good, rich exposures with low noise easier as well.

The Olympus OMD cameras make nice enough images of stage performances but they have lose out to the high ISO performance of the D610s by at least two stops. The alternate reality is that the OMDs have great EVFs and that means every bit of action I shoot during a show comes pre-chimped and well corrected before it's even been shot. And the 16 megapixels on the sensor is the absolute sweet spot for almost every application while keeping editing from being a full time, cave dweller job.

Where the OMD cameras come into their own is travel. Whether you are traveling from your house to downtown and then walking around for hours at a time or when you are traveling to faraway places and need to pack and carry what you'll be wearing and playing with for weeks at a time the smaller cameras just have it all over the bigger, heavier ones. I can pack two cameras and three small lenses in one of my smallest bags and have everything I want in a package that camera be carried across my shoulder for an entire day without screaming for a chiropractor to fix my lower back, shoulder and neck as a result (not that I would ever willingly see a chiropractor...).

The OMD is much more at home sitting on the edge of the restaurant table at lunch and
it's much less intimidating when used to photograph strangers and skittish dogs. There are trade-offs in both directions but I am unable to reconcile the need to narrow down to one system with my need to be happy and comfortable shooting in different styles and in different ways. Unless you are operating the at the bleeding edges of low light or needing to print enormous prints in most cases you just won't see a difference in image quality.

The trade-offs are easy to list:

The OMDs are smaller, lighter and easier to carry around than my FF Nikons.

The Nikons have far longer battery life than the OMDs.

The Nikons make subject isolation with a wider variety of focal lengths easier. 

The OMDs have a much nicer sounding shutter.

The Nikons lock focus on quickly moving objects better (by far) than the OMDs
The OMDs have more accurate focus on people in portrait situations and other slow moving subjects.

Nikon has done a better job in the current generation of cameras when it comes to getting the video files right.

Olympus is unbeatable if you want in body image stabilization that beats the crap out of everything else out there.

Because of the different sensor sizes the two cameras have very different looks to their files when it comes to angle of view as it relates to the fall off of focus in front and behind the main, focused subject plane. There are advantages in both directions. As I'm learning when shooting full frame video files sometimes a deeper depth of field for the same angle of view is a wonderful blessing. 

Used properly both systems have good on camera, ttl, flash capabilities. I used both of full automatic at a large, five hour long function last week and my percentage of keepers with both cameras, while using their respective flashes, was high. The flash for the Olympus was half the size. The flash for the Nikon was one stop more powerful.

With the Nikon professional series cameras one can use just about any "ai" (auto indexing) lens from 1976 onward without modification. And there are a wonderful range from which to choose. But to trump that the Olympus can use just about any lens from any system and still get perfect auto exposures, full image stabilization and focus peaking (in the Olympus EM-5.2) which makes focusing older, manual focus Nikon lenses from as long ago as 1959, easy as pie. 

The Nikon D810 has a really big, really juicy optical viewfinder that makes everything look cool when you look through it.... but you'll still need to chimp and chimp to dial in the exposure you want and the overall look of the files you want. The Olympus has a really nice (but not yet perfect) Electronic viewfinder that lets you easily see the relative exposure, with color balance information before you even mash down the shutter button. It allows you to instantly magnify your finder view for deadly accurate focusing. The same finder allows you to select different image formats (like a nice square) and see it accurately and exclusively defined in the viewfinder. The same EVF also allows you to shoot movies at eye level without having to add a big Loupe to the back of the camera.  I know I can use the Nikon in live view, with a big loupe and everything will workout okay in video but darn them for not thinking beyond the rudimentary and allowing us to have focus peaking as well. 

The Nikons are currently the working man's cameras in the field of professional photography. You'll pretty much be able to find the camera body and lens you need to do any sort of still photography well. You can put your big D810 on a healthy tripod and trip the shutter electronically to quell the impact of the mirror slap and you can walk aways with great images. But you'll feel it at the end of the day (and that's not always a negative thing---). By the same token the big Nikon is also a working videographer's camera to a greater extent than the Olympus. Sure, you'll probably want to tether it to a field monitor so you can get a bigger live view and one that gives you focus peaking so you can actually see in and out of focus areas while shooting. You'll also want to put the rig on a tripod because, with the right lenses on the front the whole package becomes heavy really quickly and you'll have trouble getting a steady and watchable image from the shaky cam. But the bottom line is that the look for the files you'll get in movie mode will be better. 

The Olympus on the other hand brings to the table the reality of high quality "snapshot" video. The IS means you can do lots of short takes with the camera handheld and not pay too much of a penalty. I love using the EM5.2 for video in which the subjects are moving around and never stationary. Like during a tour of a corporate facility where dragging a tripod along is just a nuisance. With a camera planted on a tripod, surrounded by a crew and ministered to by a sound engineer and a team of lighting grips there's no doubt that the Nikon rules. By the same token the Olympus makes solo film making more likely and likable, mostly because the camera can move with you and do its part to keep everything from flying into a kinetic chaos. 

The bottom line, to couch things in a Texas-centric venacular, is that the Nikon D810 is like a Chevy Suburban. You use it to haul the kids, haul the mulch for the garden, cram the extended family in for a long drive vacation and stuff it full of crap when you are moving from house to house. It's big. It's crappy to park. It sucks gas but for some stuff the Suburban rocks it like nothing else. A variant of the analogy is that the D810 is the Ford F250 pick up truck. Load it all up and haul big, stinky stuff from one place to the next. Haul your boat. Pull stumps. But would you really want to drive one for the fun of it? Naw. 

That's why Texans who can afford it have two vehicles. One for work and one for play. A Suburban in one side of the garage and a Porsche on the other. A more practical Texan may choose a pick up truck and a little BMW or Mercedes sedan. Something that drives well and feels good when you are heading out to grab a bite to eat at Franklins or zooming to the lake house for a weekend off. 

That, to me feels exactly like the difference between the Nikon and the Olympus cameras. One for work and one for play. One for art and one for commerce. 

After a week of working with the Nikons over both shoulders, followed by a full day on a video set with one in each hand I found the Olympus cameras today to be wonderful and just as capable. As long as you don't need to be quite as rezz-y or running in the ISO stratosphere. And that's why I'm keeping both.

Final call?  The D810 is the best imaging camera on the market for an accessible price. The Olympus is the most fun camera on the market extant. They make a remarkable team. Hmmmm. Maybe Nikon should buy the Olympus camera division and inter-breed them. Could find a sweet spot between them that's just right....


Cpt Kent said...

I think from that last sentence, theirs a fair chance you'd end up with the worst of both!
Glad to see you've got a combination you're happy with - I had a hunch a few months back you'd end up with a Pentax 645 / olympus combo, but the Nikon is probably more practical.
Have you ever done a piece on workflow? I went looking for one where you tell what happens at the end of a shoot, but couldn't see one? Topic for another day, or nothing interesting to write about?

Alan Fairley said...

As a (former) happy E-M5 owner, I feel I'm entitled to say this Kirk: if you want to have fun on the street, try out the Fujifilm X-E2 plus 27mm f2.8!

Wally said...

i comletely agree with your comments. both my wife and I carry sony RX 100, wifes throw arounf, or my Panny GX7. less and less do we take oir Nikon DSLR anywhere! Small mirrorless gear seems to be supplanting serious DSLR shooters.

Anonymous said...

I just really like the picture of the camera at the top of the article.

Govis said...

Olympus worries me. Small is great, but is good enough really good enough? Looking at their history through the years suggests not.

Small is great, but perhaps they should have gone APS-C. Their 16 megapixel sensor is getting old and is being outclassed in ISO by sensors with significantly higher resolution. Micro 4/3rds relatively premium lens pricing probably isn't helping either.

Gary Heppell said...

I'm wondering whether mirrorless camera users wouldn't be just as happy (apart from the retro-cool factor which I certainly understand)with a Nikon D3200 as their "fun" camera. It's small and light, you can use all your Nikon lenses, and it has a much larger sensor than the Olympus.

Anthony Bridges said...

I used my Canon 5D3 for the first time in a long time as a walkabout. I slapped my 28 f/1.8 on it and shot away at f/8.

Most days I'm walking out of the house with my X100s or Fuji X-E2/35 f/1.4. Both are great cameras. I've taken them to Paris, Florida, New York City and my hometown in Alabama. I really only use my Canons now for paid assignments.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I'm on the Olympus side since starting to shoot digital (late 2009 in my case), but can fully understand your comments about those Nikons. Since I also like primes and small packages, I think the Df would be a nice choice, with its D4 sensor and all. But yeah, from a working pro's side of view, a D750 would probably make more sense, and be cheaper as well. Hard to tell; I've only handled a friend's D800 for a few minutes until now. And I liked it a lot better with her 50mm prime than with her 24-70mm/2.8.

Until I can afford one of those, I'm happy to sometimes use my OM-2. Wonderful camera, nice results. A bit expensive if you shoot lots with it.

Grant said...

Please don't wish for Ford to take over Porsche and make a sportier F250. :) Or a 911 pickup.

Dave said...

I've had the same feeling but with the wonderful, little(ish) RX10. It was supposed to be my "run and gun" video camera but I find myself falling back into my photography crutch with it. For snagging captures of daily life and ham & egger class video shorts it is an amazing tool. Sometimes I doubt myself when firing up images on my 4K monitor, but then I remember the other camera in my bag, the A6000.

Having read your insights on the EM5.2 I'm really pondering it. I miss the Oly IBIS and truth be told I've been an M43 addict since laying hands on my first EP1.

Since you've run with both how close do you think the video from the EM5-2 is to the RX10?

Craig Lee said...

This is the general combination that I've settled into as well. In my case the D800 and EM-5 Mk.1. Your reasons pretty much mirror mine. Well, except for video. I haven't dipped my toes in to that rabbit hole yet.

I keep thinking of trading one or the other. But when I run the calculus, I come to the same conclusions. They are good tools for different situations.

The owner of my local camera shop had an interesting observation. He sees a lot of Nikon DSLR users getting Olympus OMDs, while keeping their Nikons. So, this might be something of a trend.

Mike Rosiak said...

"It's not the horse it's the arrow!"

"All hat and no cattle" makes perfect sense to me, but I'm puzzled by that horse and arrow thing. Is that a unique Austin expression, or is it that I'm just uncommonly dense?

Vu Le, DDS said...

The article makes so much sense, except I'm moving in the opposite direction. Micro 4/3 in the dental office where I like to shoot one handed with the rear screen and more DOF. I moved to full frame at home where I need more ISO and shorter DOF.

Kirk Tuck said...

Mike, Naw, you're not dense. I was just trying to conflate two weary and hackneyed, endlessly trotted out hoary sayings in order to mock them. The phrases are "Horses for courses" and "It's not the arrow it's the Indian."

The idea that you chose just the right camera for each type of images mixed with "no camera matters because the success is all up to the person at the controls." They, of course, are as contradictory and they are pervasive. And neither really applies to what we do...

Kirk Tuck said...

Gary Heppell, I tried the D3200 when it came out and while it is light enough the finder is smaller and dark and not very inviting and the camera had a strong AA filter in front of the sensor that made the files look soft. Also missing were a lot of controls that made diving into menus an ongoing thing. The Olympus cameras are better.

Kirk Tuck said...

Govis, I agree with you on the lens pricing. I'm not agreeing on the sensor constraints. I think the sensor in the 5.2 is very, very good.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave E. The video in the RX10 is better and the IS in the RX10 is close enough. The RX10 is also better set up as a video camera from an ergonomic point of view. If you already have the Sony I'd work with that for video. Ah, the luxury of a built-in ND filter....

Hugh said...

I've ended up in a similar situation.

The EM5 (mark 1) is my "35mm film camera" equivalent with a pair of tiny primes (17/1.8 and 45/1.8). The image quality is good enough, and I've never taken if off Aperture priority and auto-ISO.

The Canon 5D3 and L lenses (including the 24mm TS-E which is a reason on its own to buy Canon) has replaced medium or large format. Moving up to the 50MP 5DSR is a no-brainer.

Two setups with completely different roles.

John F. Opie said...

This reminds so much of the time back in the day when I was doing weddings: the 'blads did the formal work, my OM1 took care of the reception. Right tool for the right purpose and no one gets hurt. Aunt Thelma gets her formal portrait package of the bridal pair and the bride's friends get their album of drunken partying during the reception. :-)

No one camera can do everything. Or, more exactly, one camera will never make everyone happy. Each of us has their own preferences, prejudices and biases. The fanboy obsession with their gear means nothing less than insecurity that their choice might have not been optimal.

The 4/3 format - remember, it was deliberately designed by a consortia, led by Oly and Panny, to meet as many consumer needs as possible as a digital format, rather than being cobbled together by manufacturers (APS in all of its incarnations) - is not everything to everyone. It's simply a marvelous sweet spot of sensor size, lens size and design (telecentric!) and as such is a wonderful piece of kit.

But it wouldn't make a large-format guy happy. It's overkill for the phone camera user.

I'm just happy I can put three camera bodies (EM1, EPL2, EPM1) and 7 lenses (12-60, 70-300, 50 macro, 14, 14-42, 180 APO via adapter, 600 Solid CAT via adapter) into a moderately small backpack for traveling. It still weighs a lot - there's a lot of glass in there - but if I did the same thing with FF, the backpack would be three times larger.

Right tools for the job. Everything else is, fundamentally, irrelevant.

Dave said...

I gave up my EM5 and a few lenses for the Fuji x100s. I love that thing. Never any worries about what lens to grab. Just grab it and a spare batter or two and I'm good to go.

Brian Keairns said...

I started out with FF and APS-C Canon bodies and a mix of great Canon lenses like the 24-70mm, 70-200mm, a few regular primes and a few L Series primes.

When I took an interest in video I bought a Panasonic GH2 and an Olympus EM5. Even though I wanted to use the EM5 for video the GH2 quickly became my workhorse because of the excellent codecs and the general video friendly design.

Though I ended up using the EM5 for photography more than I expected. In fact I felt like I was taking better pictures than I ever had with the EM5.

I big part of that may have been the size and ergonomics. The EM5 with the Panasonic 25mm 1.4 lens was small and discrete. I took it with me more often. I took more shots. And I shot in situations I wouldn't have attempted with my DSLR because the DSLR looked big and professional and implied some kind of serious shooting. People reacted to the EM5 more like they would a P&S.

But unlike a P&S the EM5 with the fast Leica branded lens produced great looking images with wonderful color, contrast and bokeh.

I was equally impressed with the GH2 for video. Panasonic has a long history in professional video and some of that insight and technology found it's way into the design of the GH line. Things like excellent codecs, frame rates, lossless zooming, no recording time limits, video friendly EVF, etc.

Both my photography and video improved with the move to MFT and I was enjoying the experience of shooting more than ever so selling my Canon gear was a no brainer. With the sale of my Canon pro lenses I was able to buy the excellent Panasonic zoom range including the 7-14mm f/4, the 12-35mm f/2.8 and the 35-100mm f/2.8.

I also wanted to cover the same range with primes so I got the Panasonic Leica branded 15 1.7, 25mm 1.4 and Nocticron 42.5mm 1.2.

I also ended up with the PL 45mm 2.8 Macro, the Voitlander Nokton 25mm .95 as well as the Olympus 45mm 1.8 and the 75mm 1.8 primes.

I eneded with more primes than I needed because I started with the Olympus lenses then I decided I like the Panasonic Leica colors on the Panasonic bodies. I haven't been able to bring myself to sell the Olympus primes because the 45mm 1.8 is small and a great value and the 75mm 1.8 is one of the best lenses I've ever owned.

I currently have a GH4, GH3, GX7 and GM1. I sold the EM5 with the expectation I'll be getting the EM5 II soon.

I spent years shooting with FF bodies and Canon L Series lenses and haven't found anything I miss about the larger cameras and larger sensors. Frankly I'm baffled by the pervasive belief in a hierarchy with FF sensors at the top. It seems like a lot of the discussion revolves around the technology rather than comparing pictures or shooting situations.

I much prefer the size, design and ergonomics of the MFT systems. I have fast lenses and convenient tripods that help me deal with different lighting situations and I'm never struggling to get subject isolation. Even with the MFT system I'm often stopping down to get the desired DOF.

I know that mirrorless sales have grown but I'm surprised that more people aren't embracing the MFT world. I know there are specific instances where DSLRs and big sensors are the best tools but I'm often baffled by the importance placed on the sensor over other attributes and a holistic design philosophy. For example, Sony is happy to stick a big sensor in a small box and people flock to buy mirrorless now that there's a big sensor option. By contrast Olympus has a coherent design philosophy that has evolved organically for years. The same with Panasonic with video. I don't have any inherent preference for one manufacturer or system over another. I just find I'm happier shooting and getting better results with my MFT kit.

Govis said...

Brian Kearns- "I know that mirrorless sales have grown but I'm surprised that more people aren't embracing the MFT world. I know there are specific instances where DSLRs and big sensors are the best tools but I'm often baffled by the importance placed on the sensor over other attributes and a holistic design philosophy"

Haven't used the EM-1, but my old Nikon D7000 is ergonomically and functionally far ahead of the EM-10 and Panasonic G3 that I have. So it's not just sensors.

Brian Keairns said...

Govis. Good point. The ergonomic of the GH4 are great but some of the the smaller MFT bodies make compromises for their small size. The GM1 packs a lot of functionality in a small format but it doesn't have the ergonomics of the GH4. And I haven't bought a DSLR since the 5D2 so I'm sure there are improvements.

Olympus OM-D said...

The Olympus OMD cameras make nice enough images of stage performances but they have lose out to the high ISO performance of the D610s ... olympusom-d.blogspot.de