The EM-5 and GH2

As you probably know (I’ve talked about little else lately) I recently purchased an Olympus OMD EM5 to replace my well-worn Panasonic GH2, which appears to have died of immersion at the bottom of D’Alton Falls. Oh well, at least it was somewhere pretty…

I shot solidly with GH2 for almost two years, travelling extensively through seven countries and undertaking countless hikes in Tasmania. I doubt I went for more than a couple of days during that period without taking some shots. Since I received the EM5 last week quite a few people have asked what I think of it after using the Panasonic, and after giving it a thorough workout during my last Overland Track trip (see the shots ) I’ve compiled some thoughts…

Now just to clarify, this isn’t a review, or even a proper comparison. I wouldn’t even call it a user-review – a google search will show you more of them than you can poke a stick at. This is just some preliminary thoughts on one camera with regard to another, while both of them are fresh enough in my mind for the thoughts to be relevant.

I’ll begin with some context. I shoot mainly landscape, travel and street/documentary, and I do a lot of alpine hiking in rugged and wet country. The GH2 was my first mirrorless camera and I came from an Olympus E-3 with Zuiko HG zooms, making the move in an attempt to downsize my kit without a loss of quality. In this sense the GH2 was the first mirrorless from anyone that convinced me that it was a ‘do-anything’ camera; not perfect but good enough for my use. Since moving to mirrorless I’ve become almost purely a prime lens shooter – the only zoom I use frequently is the 7-14mm and it remains a specialist lens.

I’m also hyper-critical. This doesn’t mean I don’t like something, rather I just notice poor design. Just so you know from the beginning, I love the EM5. The criticisms below are about making a very good camera great.

I was interested in the EM5 from release. Coming from a Pentax K20D and the E-3 I’d grown accustomed to weather-sealing and realised it’s worth as a photographer in Tasmania. I’d killed a body with moisture before (Sony A100) and the lack of sealing was always my least favourite element of the GH2. So when Olympus released a gorgeous looking body that appeared to work like a gem and was sealed to boot, I almost bought one pre-order. However, a lack of funds and my lack of any sealed lenses delayed the purchase, and after having a good play with a few models I eventually decided that the GH2 would do for a while. I also got a bit sidetracked by a certain 75mm…

So anyway, when the GH2 died the EM5 seemed the obvious choice. Some people have asked why I didn’t go for the GH3 and to be honest I’m not really sure. Ditching the multi-aspect sensor (my favourite and constantly used GH2 feature) got me a bit offside with Panasonic generally, and the increase in size took the GHx series in a direction I wasn’t interested in. Plus the EM5 just looks and feels …sexy. To me. Especially in silver with the silver Zuikos. Sexiness matters, to me.

Feel

Playing with the EM5 out of the box a few things struck me. It’s compact, very very compact and noticeable smaller than the GH2. It fits more snuggly in my Domke F10 and I like this. However, despite it’s compactness it feels much denser – it has a heft that makes it seem much more solid than the GH2, which feels like a bit of a toy in comparison. Likewise the things you touch and press are much more positive (eg. GH2 control-dial). This was always a complaint of mine with the GH2 – it’s a $1000 camera that felt like a $500 camera. The EM5 is a $1000 camera that feels like a $1000 camera…

UI + ergonomics

The user-interface and ergonomics aren’t quite so rosy. Some things are great – notably the twin control dials (I love how you can rotate the rear dial from either the front or back) and wonderful rubber thumb rest. I also like that the landscape half of the HLD-6 grip gives you the option of a compact half-grip or a more comfortable but larger full-grip. I’m a big fan of Oly’s decision to leave this choice to the user.

However, other elements aren’t so great… The button layout is cramped and awkward. I get that this is an unavoidable side-affect of the EM5’s size, but that doesn’t excuse plain bad design. For instance, the ‘Play’ and ‘Fn1’ buttons are recessed in such a way that they could only have been designed to be as difficult as possible to press. There is nothing to distinguish the very similar-feeling and closely spaced shutter button and ‘Fn2’ – a simple raised-indent on ‘Fn2’ would solve this. As has been mentioned a million times, the on-off switch position is just dumb – I want one that’s operable from shooting position, I don’t want to have to go searching for it…

For some reason Olympus has had this ‘thing’ with the E-series (both classic Four Thirds and MFT) in that they just don’t like physical, lever-style controls. With the GH2 I can look at the camera while it’s turned-off and I instantly know that it’s in AF-S, centre focus point, single-shot drive and C1, which means every other shooting parameter is precisely how I’ve set it. With the EM5 I know it’s in Aperture Priority.

Thats it.

In this sense it’s always surprised me that for an electronics giant rather than a photographic company, Panasonic created a user interface for the GHx series that just screams ‘photographer’. Their insistence on mechanical dials, ‘Custom’ modes and direct, assignable buttons means that I haven’t delved into the GH2’s menu system in about 12 months. With the EM5 I have to go into the menus just to put the bloody thing into one of my MySets. This system is idiotic and needs to be fixed – Olympus please, please stick the MySet selection on the mode-dial or allow it to be permanently assigned to a Fn button. And can we give them names, please.

While on the subject of Fn buttons. I hate it when designers allow you free-reign, but then snip it off because they think they know better. Why, for instance, have Olympus decided that certain functions should only be assignable to certain Fn buttons? Why, for instance, have Olympus decided that they know what I really want assigned to the left and up arrows? Why, for instance, have Olympus decided that I don’t really want to assign metering to any Fn button and I’d obviously much prefer to dive into the menus? Once again, please, please allow all functions to be assigned to any Fn button.

Oh and it’s way to easy to knock the mode-dial out of position. Give me a locking one, aka Pentax K-7/5, please.

Viewfinder + screen

A lot of photographers and reviewers that I highly respect have waxed lyrical about the EM5’s viewfinder, more than one claiming it to be the best around. However, while it’s fantastic quality, what struck me instantly was how small it is compared to the GH2. The GH2’s is huge, comparable to a full-frame dSLR while the EM5 is only average, comparable to an APS dSLR. This is one of the potential benefits of an EVF – compact body with a huge viewfinder, and I’d like to see Oly take advantage of it. Also, the viewfinder eye-cup falls off. It did the same on my E-3 and I was kinda hoping Oly had figured out this obviously difficult piece of engineering. Guess not…

The screen is great! Sharp, clear, lovely colours, accurate. All in all a massive step up from the GH2. I’m also fan of the hinging (I much prefer the screen to be inline with the lens axis, rather than out to the side), although I’d like to see it reversible so it’s visible from in front of the camera (important for FB pics…).

Operation

Fast. Very, very fast. A lot of people have mentioned this and I can’t agree more, the EM5 just does everything so quickly you don’t even realise it’s doing it. I love a camera that doesn’t feel like it’s getting in the way to this is a Good Thing. It can also do an awful lot of thing and to be honest I’m still trying to figure out how to set it up to my taste, so I don’t want to comment too much on this. I get the impression it’s a winner 🙂 One thing that annoys me though is the 1/4000 max shutter. There’s a lot of very fast lenses in MFT now and in daylight they need fast shutters. Please give us 1/8000 at least

Something that has really impressed me is the seamlessness of AF/MF operation of my lenses on the EM5. I’m guessing this is probably an Olympus/Olympus compatibility thing but I haven’t had any of the tantrums that the GH2 would frequently throw (ie. occasionally switching to MF with a turn of the focus-ring – occasionally not…). Generally the focus speed (S-AF) is basically instant – very impressive (although to be honest I thought the GH2 was very impressive too).

A few random things I’d like to see. The GH2 shows an exposure counter on the screen during long-exposures and I’d like this on the EM5. Please allow the focus point and spot-meter to be linked – with mirrorless focussing and metering happen right on the sensor so there’s no reason this can’t be done. Likewise, please develop a programmable ‘ETTR’ metering mode, which effectively exposes as far to the right as possible before highlights are blown (user defines the cut-off point). The EM5 already allows live highlights-shadows with programmed cut-offs, so this seems the natural next step. It’d be great for landscape work…

Image quality

I’m not going to pixel peep and give you a DxO-style rundown here so I’ll be brief. It’s good. Notably better all-round than the GH2, particularly noise and DR (high-iso and more importantly low-iso), tonal-gradations and general file-malleability. Colour accuracy is better and it doesn’t seem as prone to the auto-WB tantrums that the GH2 would throw. I’m very happy.

Fast primes and O-rings

Ok so this is a pet rant, because this seems to be the post for ranting. Olympus is selling the EM5 as their premium body, and it would seem a fairly big part of their premium image is weathersealing. This has been the way of it since the beginning of classic Four Thirds and the E-1. Olympus also sells some very, very good lenses. I own several of them. So why, why, why, why, are the m.ZD 12mm, 17mm, 45mm and 75mm not sealed? Why are the only sealed Oly MFT lenses a mediocre zoom and a slow macro prime? Where is the logic that consumers don’t want sealed, fast primes? Olympus must have known they were going to build a weathersealed body when they designed the lenses, especially the later 75mm and 17mm. I like primes and I like shooting in inclement weather. Hence, I want sealed primes to go with my sealed body…

Please, if/when Olympus builds a fast 25mm – seal the bloody thing.

Generally…

Generally I really, really like it. As many people have mentioned the EM5 is a hugely powerful tool, but I think what makes it great for me is how it works at a personal level. Panasonic makes very efficient image-capturing tool and I did some of my best work with the GH2. But I never connected with the tool on a personal level – it never made me just want to go around and shoot, taking a photo just so I could raise the camera to my eye and go through the motions. With the EM5 Olympus has a camera that makes me want to take photos, and because of that it’s foibles don’t bother me in the least…

Anyway, this is a post about photography so here is a photo.

Ed. EM5 + Voigtlander Nokton 25m f0.95

I’m terribly sorry if this ramble is of no interest to any of you 🙂

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