Sunday, August 12, 2012

Olympus OM-D Page 3 - Body Features

I'm Sexy and I Know It.
(Page 2 of review - click here)

Major body features of Olympus's new flagship m43 are as follows:

  • Twin control dials and dedicated mode dial
  • Built-in EVF
  • Tilting rear LCD (touch-screen capable)
  • 5-axis stabilization in the body, working for all lenses.
  • Weather sealing

Bullet lists are nice and all, but let's explore a little bit about the handling of the camera in the field.

The grip (body):

I mentioned this in another post - the rear thumb rest is awesome and provides great leverage, but unfortunately it doesn't have a capable partner - that being the front part of the grip, where one's righthand fingers would "grab".  It's not the end of the world, and with something like a simple wrist strap this is mostly avoided, but I did find it an annoyance when shooting with the Panasonic 25mm 1.4, and less so with the smaller/lighter Olympus 45 1.8.

The mode and control dials : 

The control dials (or, thumbwheel and fingerwheel) fall nicely within range of their namesake digits while gripping the camera, though the thumbwheel does require 'reaching' just a bit with the thumb to get to, which means the thumb must briefly leave the comfort of the thumb rest .

Both dials have distinctive clicks, without being too hard to turn.  The  fingerwheel has a bit higher-pitched "click" sound to it, which would be quite noticeable during video and is easily the loudest part of operating the camera (including the shutter sound, documented below!)  The thumbwheel is more muted and similar to the Big Wheel sound on the back of Canons.

The mode dial is just that - a dedicated left dial with the typical PASM modes, a dedicated video mode, and your modes inherited from the P&S world - iAuto, Art, and Scene.  I can't knock the OM-D too much for this, though - even the Canon 5D2 has 'creative auto' and 'green box' modes on the dial.

Mode dial resistance is good - so far in real shooting (10 days), including some in-and-outs from a photo backpack, I've had exactly one accidental mode change, and I think that was when I pulled the camera from my shorts pocket.  This is pretty good performance.

The buttons:

The shutter button is very good, with a distinctive resistance "break" required to trip the shutter - no mushy shutter buttons here, though theoretically there is more chance for shutter-induced vibration because of this slight click-resistance.  There is no forward angle to the shutter button - it points straight up.  This requires, at least for me, a slight arching and retraction (toward my body) of the index finger in order to trigger the button, but this hasn't resulted in any cramped and is easily forgotten - for the most part a very natural feel, and it allows my index finger to rest on the camera body, just slightly touching the shutter and avoiding most accidental actuations.

All other buttons are quite mushy and lack any tactile click response whatsoever - people theorize this is a side effect of the weather sealing.  The buttons don't feel cheap per se, but in comparison to the rest of the body they feel a little out of place perhaps.

Buttons are generally easy to hit with my largish hands, except the 4-way controller with its centralized "OK" button - this can be rather finicky to operate and requires one to be careful with thumb presses during menu navigation, as it can be a bit tricky to press exactly what one needs to press (and Olympus requiring the pressing of "OK" for commands to take hold doesn't help).  Operation during shooting is a bit easier, as the buttons are spaced far enough apart that accidental or incorrect activation is rare.

The LCD:

The rear LCD is for the most part a very nice panel that tilts either up or down for those off-angle shots I'm so fond of.  Unfortunately it doesn't swivel, so off-angle portrait shots are about as difficult to pull off as with a camera with a fixed LCD.

The top bevel of the LCD has small ridges molded into the left and right sides - this allows a decent finger grip (from the left index finger) when tilting the screen up or down.  In a rather nice touch, the top/rear of the LCD has very small "rub nubs", for lack of a better phrase.  These are just tiny raised portions of the LCD that make contact with "rub strips" underneath the LCD housing, on the back of the camera body.  These nubs provide ease and stability of movement and prevent camera marring, should one decide to tilt the LCD upward without first pulling it out slightly (which some people claim must be done - not true - just push down and pull outward simultaneously and let the rub nubs/strips do their thing).  A very nice attention to detail from Olympus.

In bright sunlight, the rear LCD can be a bit difficult to see, but I'm mostly talking direct, perpendicular angle sunlight (about the worst case scenario).  I'm using a screen protector, which may also be contributing to this issue, but I thought I would mention it.  In non-horrific conditions (sun off to the side but still bright), the LCD seems fine for composing, and it's mostly how I use the camera.

The EVF:

The EVF is a pretty good screen, and on a likability scale I place it a bit above the EVF of the A77 (which should be the same as the NEX-7 or NEX-5N add-on EVF, neither of which I own).  

While the resolution of the view is lower than that of the Sony, overall usability is better.  The EVF doesn't seem to "crush" blacks or blow highlights as badly as the Sony EVF does, and seems to have just as smooth as an update rate as the Sony.

To be fair to the Sony, it's actually possible to lessen this "crushing" of the EVF by changing the JPEG mode of the camera to something very neutral, with low contrast, etc - unfortunately, this affects those who are JPEG shooters, so it's something to consider if one occasionally dabbles in the dark arts of minimal post-processing ;)

EVF brightness is pretty good and seems less "muted" than my A77 was in bright light, but this could just be my memory fooling me - I don't have a Sony EVF to do an A/B comparison with.  It still can't touch a good OVF on bright days, but in dark conditions it's great and completely devoid of "the sprinkles" that grace the Sony EVFs in low light conditions.  I never really cared about "the sprinkles" but I know they drive some people crazy - not to worry, I can't find any on the OM-D (tested down to ISO 3200, f/1.4 1/20s light - that's dark people!).

In typical fashion, the EVF eyecup is a bit too shallow and allows light leakage, a nuisance on bright days and affecting both glass wearers as well as those who aren't.  Something to consider if one uses the EVF heavily in bright conditions - you might budget for a deeper cup if you can find one.

The EVF has an eye sensor, allowing automatic switching between LCD and EVF if one so chooses -- great for most people, but horrible for waist-level shooters - the sensor is too sensitive for waist-level shooting and rear touch LCD operation when its tilted upward.  I've written about it here.  Luckily, the auto-switching can be easily disabled.

Battery Door, Memory Card Door, Port Doors:

The battery door sits on the bottom of the camera and has a locking lever.  Unfortunately, this door is blocked by the use of the HLD-6 add-on grip, which is a shame because the HLD-6 is otherwise awesome (review coming soon) and using part 1 of the grip fleshes the handling of the camera out nicely.

The memory card door sits to the right side - it requires a decent amount of force to open and is very secure.  Consequently, it's much less prone to accidental opening than other cameras that have the large memory card doors on the right side of the body.  I have yet to accidentally open the door while shooting, and I'm not even sure it's possible to open the door with one's palm unless you're really trying to prove you can do it.  Awesome.

There are two (really just one) port doors on the camera - the left side includes a fixed-in-place rubber flap-style cover that opens downward to reveal HDMI and USB ports.  While the flap is a bit easy to remove, it can only really be gripped (and hence removed) if the rear LCD has been moved away from the camera.  If the LCD is flat against the body, it's virtually impossible to unseat the flap/door.  The second of these doors is really just a rubber cover on the bottom of the camera, which protects the pin contacts used for the HLD-6.  It is held in place by friction and so far has proven firm enough to not worry about.

Next page - coming soon

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympus OM-D Review Page 2 - Intro to m43

A quick explanation of the Micro-4/3 (m43) system
(return to page 1 of review - click here)

Around 2002, Olympus (and others) basically invented a new sensor format called 4/3, or Four Thirds.  Read about it here.

This system used a sensor slightly smaller than the reigning enthusiast champ at the time, the APS-C sensor (such as used in cameras like the Canon Rebel series, or the Nikon D3000, D5100, etc).

It was meant to be an open or standardized system, but for the most part the only people that really invested into it were Panasonic and Olympus.

On a pure performance level, the 43 system was pretty darn good, especially the lenses.  In fact, Olympus High Grade and Super High Grade lenses are some of the best lenses in the world, regardless of the format.

Unfortunately, this was a time where engineering expertise didn't listen to the marketing guys, and for once, they should have.

The 43 system had a smaller sensor than the APS-C and full framed cameras, but the cameras and lenses were just as large (and heavy!) as the competition - they used optical viewfinders and mirrors and bulky bodies, just like any other DSLR.  Often, the performance of the 43 sensors just couldn't match the other systems when it came to noise, dynamic range, or focus tracking in fast situations.

In essence, the 43 system offered no real benefits from the 'other guys'.  While, optically speaking, the 43 lenses were incredible performers, that wasn't enough to really sway lots of people away from their APS-C and FF systems or invite new people to the system.

Enter Micro Four-Thirds, or m43.

Thankfully, Olympus and Panasonic went back to the drawing board and came up with a different mount specification.  They kept the 43 sensor size, but deemed this new mount m43.

M43 cameras don't use mirrors like traditional SLRs, allowing them a few benefits.

First, they're smaller, typically much smaller than a comparable DSLR.  The optical viewfinders and mirror box assemblies in your typical DSLR take up room, which necessitates a larger camera body.  Without the mirror system, one can drastically shrink the body.

Secondly, the new lenses for m43 are also a lot smaller than their APS-C or full-framed counterparts.  Because these lenses are designed with portability in mind (and not just raw performance at any cost), and because they have to cover a smaller sensor than APS-C or full-frame, they are much smaller and lighter than a typical lens meant for APS-C or FF cameras.  The difference can sometimes be staggering.

Of course, not everything is beneficial - there are always design tradeoffs for any camera system, and m43 is no exception.

First, there is the autofocus performance.

For the most part, AF performance is pretty good with m43.  It uses contrast-detect autofocus (CDAF), which is basically the same type of autofocus used in P&S cameras.  For the most part, though, m43 autofocus is more advanced than P&S cameras and can lock on extremely quickly.

When attempting to track subjects, though, CDAF really loses out to the other type of autofocus, phase-detect (PDAF).  Read a fairly easy-to-digest article about PDAF over at Lensrentals.

There are pros and cons to each type of system.  Typically, CDAF is extremely accurate, more so than PDAF.  CDAF can, in many instances, match or even beat PDAF autofocus when it comes to static subjects in decent light.

In lower light, higher-end PDAF autofocus will beat most CDAF systems.  When it comes to tracking, there's no real competition - PDAF is the only game in town.

Second, there are the (potential) issues of Depth of Field (DOF), Noise, and Dynamic Range.

Depth of Field - in a nutshell, the m43 format cannot attain super-thin DOF, at least in comparison to the full-frame format.  It can, though, still easily blur backgrounds for pleasant photos.  I've included a comparison further into my OM-D review to show this.  Against APS-C, the m43 format loses a smaller level of DOF and is almost moot.

Noise and Dynamic Range - While DXO hasn't, as of 11 August 2012, release their sensor review for the OM-D, my feeling is it'll fall slightly behind in noise in relation to the best APS-C sensors, and certainly behind the best FF sensors.

This isn't to say, though, that the sensor is bad - noise performance is still very good, all things considering (especially since the sensor is at a theoretical disadvantage!) and dynamic range is very much improved with the OM-D, apparently due to the rumored use of a Sony sensor .

On to Page 3 - OM-D Body Features

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review - Page 1

Olympus ups their game.

There are as many types of photographers as there are camera types in the world - from the slow, methodical users of large sheet film cameras to the people just looking for a quick snap with their phone.   No single camera encompasses the needs of every user - such a feat would be impossible.

The 'enthusiast' segment (sometimes called prosumer or semi-pro) is where most of the feature-packing goes on, both in terms of bells as whistles as well as raw performance, where unwavering attempts at packing raw bang-for-the-buck performance happen.   It is also into this category which  Olympus firmly plants their latest micro-43 flagship, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (OM-D).

A note on this review - This review isn't a technical white paper on every scientific theory associated with the properties of light and sensor production, etc.  Plenty of that stuff can be found elsewhere.

Instead, this review focuses on the usability of the camera in a variety of situations from the perspective of an advanced amateur/semi-pro.  To know where I'm coming from, read a little about me here.

If you're a photography neophyte and have no idea what I mean by Micro Four Thirds, you might want to read the introduction.  Otherwise, most people can skip to body features.

Areas which I'll cover:

Introduction to Micro-4/3 (m43)
Body Features
(coming soon) Imaging Performance
(coming soon) Things to Really Like
(coming soon) Annoyances
(coming soon) Conclusion

Next Page/Post - Introduction to Micro-4/3 (m43)

Olympus OM-D Review Incoming

Just a small update.

After having worked with the OM-D for about a week or so, I feel pretty qualified to write up my thoughts in an upcoming review.

Reviews take a lot of time, but hopefully I'll have it up by this weekend.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a couple of photos to share (click for larger versions):

New Growth

Thunderstorm over lake - 50-second exposure

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Panasonic Leica Summilux 25mm f1.4

No earth-shattering revelations here folks, just a few images to share of this lens with the Olympus OM-D.  I really like the combo.  Some of these are JPEGs from the camera (indicated by the tags at the bottom of each image), some are RAW.  Minor editing done to the JPEGs, if any.

Black and Yellow

100% crop of above.  m43 still can have shallow DOF, but image quality is definitely there

Shoe at the train track


One can induce some 'lively' bokeh, but this is an extremely hard shot.

Lonely flower

Monday, August 6, 2012

Waiting for that rumored Olympus 60mm 2.8 macro

I love bugs.

They're strange, they're cool, they're fun to hunt.  Plus, for someone like me (who lives in a place pretty much devoid of great scenery), they give lots of photo opportunities when I can't go take photos of great, sweeping vistas.

So I, along with a lot of other m43 enthusiasts, await the rumored Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro lens.
Not to down the excellent Panasonic 45mm macro, but I want a bit longer reach for bugs.

Until then, I must say I absolutely enjoy using the Olympus 45mm 1.8 as a temporary solution.  This lens is sharp!

Upward Ascent

The above photo also took great advantage of the rear LCD on the OM-D - the camera was almost smashed against the ground, pointing straight upward.  I missed focus slightly, but still the photo looks great.

Here's a 100% crop of the above scene - No special sharpening routines done to it yet (default Lightroom 4.1)

100% crop

As to why I would want a 60mm macro over a 45mm?  Well, every little bit helps, especially when we're talking things like this!...

Gathering for the nest - very large crop

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympus OM-D MyFrustration

Someone please inform Olympus their new flagship m43 camera has a touch-screen!

You gotta hand it to the Japanese - they're relentless in their pursuit of engineering perfection, whether it comes from well-made cars or precision optics.  They're very tech-minded, which is great for gadget geeks like myself, but horrible for anyone actually wanting to use those gadgets.

I'm beginning to believe "user interface" is a phrase which has no meaning in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Maybe Apple has a patent on "usability" or something.  Let me explain:


The OM-D has about three trillion user options, last time I counted.  Want to completely eliminate that stupid "soft focus" Art style option from even being selectable?  Done.  Want to bias the camera for shadows or highlights or both?  Done.  Want to tell the camera to NOT get rid of a magnified view once you start to use autofocus?  Too easy!  Want to not have a control panel pop up on the middle of the screen but still allow on-screen camera settings to be changed on the side of the screen via scrolling menus but only in PASM modes?  You get the idea.

Want to set up a few of these customizations into easy-selectable options?  Here's a spare leg - please go kick yourself in the groin.  Because that's about the same sensation one gets when attempting to use a Myset - Olympus' sadistic idea of a custom shooting bank.

Let's take a look at the Super Control Panel (SCP).  After toggling about 15 or so options and learning the secret handshake, you can have this bad boy pop up whenever you press "OK" on the back of the camera, touch a setting, modify it with a control dial, and be done in about 2 seconds.   Kick ass, right?

The Olympus OM-D Super Control Panel - Lots of power at your fingertips
The level of control here is pretty awesome.  For crying out loud, you can modify white balance bias and JPEG style modifiers directly from the freaking screen!

What you can't do is, oh, I dunno - select one of your four MySet options...with a touch screen...which has no real physical presence so it doesn't take up room...which could be easily designed to turn "pages" if you didn't want to clutter the main screen with MySet choices...which astounds me.

In fact, the level of customization present on the OM-D is so in-depth, it really surprises me there isn't a menu that lets you modify which 'modules' actually appear in the SCP when it appears in the first place! (are you listening Olympus?)

Instead, we get the awesome option of changing our color gamut on the fly - who the piss is ever going to use this?


Of course, in the end, the OM-D is still a badass camera (and system), so this MySet ordeal isn't too bad.  I'm really, really hoping Olympus changes the operation of the MySet to interface with the SCP somehow, because as of now MySets are almost useless (notice, I said "almost").  They require diving into the menu every. stinking. time. you want to change the Set, they're confusing, and they require a button be constantly pressed while using them.  Absurd.

On the upside, though, the camera has so many cool options that it almost encourages you to try out a few different modes of operation, to see what best works for you - sorta like customizing a car beyond factory options.

I can't pick on Olympus too much, though - anyone ever tried to use a NEX-5N menu or use custom shooting modes on a Nikon D700 or D300?