The Olympus OM-D, micro 4/3 grows up

Olympus OM-D E-M5 (courtesy of dpreview)

Olympus OM-D E-M5 (courtesy of dpreview)

This week, we saw the introduction of two major cameras. On Tuesday, Nikon announced their long-awaited 36 megapixel, full frame D800. The next day, Olympus took the wraps off the well leaked OM-D E-M5 (kind of a cryptic product name, why couldn’t they call it something shorter like the OM-D5), the most sophisticated micro 4/3 camera to date. While I have no doubt that the Nikon will be a fantastic camera, I’m really not going to talk about it much. Since I shoot with Canon, Olympus and Sony I’m not wed to any particular brand. Rather, I find a camera like D800 catering to a high-end clientele or high-end wannabes. Sure, for some people 36MP will be a necessity and will give them a competitive advantage but for the serious amateur is this over kill? I think so. Of course, if you’ve followed this blog, you know my bias. It’s not a brand bias, I have nothing against Nikon. Rather, I’m scaling down my interest to smaller, more practical cameras. In fact, I’m more interested in the Nikon 1 series than their high-end SLRs. Given this background, you might have guessed that I’m more excited by the Olympus OM-D announcement.

Spec-wise, there is a lot to love about the new E-M5, part of the new Olympus OM-D line. A lot of sites have published the E-M5 specifications so I won’t repeat them here. Keep in mind that all we have right now is marketing copy, written in the most enthusiastic and exciting way. That is what marketers do, right? We will have to wait for the actual test results. So I’ll take statements like the “fastest auto-focus” with a grain of salt. However, it is evident that this model has improved over the previous Pen line in some significant ways. With the magnesium, water-resistant build, the focus speed, the new sensor and the advanced image stabilization, this is the most serious and high-end micro 4/3 camera to date. Besting even the well regarded Panasonic G line.

Here are the 2 most exciting features for me.

New 16MP sensor The previous 12MP sensor is probably the weakest part the current Olympus PEN system. I love the quality of my Olympus but only up to ISO 800. I will be happy if Olympus could squeeze another stop of performance out of this new sensor. Basically getting the same quality at ISO 1600 that I get at ISO 800. The Panasonic G3 and GX1 uses a 16MP sensor with better high ISO performance, and some speculate that Olympus maybe using a modified version of this sensor. And, I want true sensor performance, not just better JPEG processing. I will be looking at this very closely.

5 Axis Image Stabilizer One of the key strengths of Olympus is the in-body image stabilization. This allows any lens, even old manual ones, to have the advantages of a stabilized image. This allows me to take photographs at a higher quality (lower ISO) because I can shoot with a slower shutter speed. The OM-D claims to have a super sophisticated stabilization that can be used for stills as well as video.

There are other great features but they are less important to me. This includes the weather resistant, magnesium body, the built-in high-resolution electronic viewfinder and finally the fast focusing speed. If I didn’t already have my Canon 7D, these features would probably excite me more. But for people who want one do-it-all camera these features would weigh more heavily.

Initially, the $999, body only price was a big, pleasant surprise. I expected, with all these features, Olympus would price the camera higher. Indeed, if you add the inexpensive 14-42 kit lens, the total package comes to $1,099. That is only $200 more than the E-P3 kit with the same lens. For a $200 price difference, it would be a no brainer to get the superior OM-D. The external viewfinder alone for the Pen series runs $200. Add to this you get a better sensor, better build, water resistance and a host of other features and benefits. The pricing does not make sense to me. If anything, I’m wondering if Olympus will drop the price of the E-P3.

Then, I really started thinking seriously about the pricing. Yes, while the price difference between the E-M5 and the E-P3 makes the new camera, relatively speaking, a bargain. $1000 is still a lot of money. Keep in mind that the current Olympus PEN line consists of 3 cameras. the E-P3 at $899, the E-PL3 at $699 and the E-PM1 at $499. All 3 cameras have the same sensor and image quality. Sure the more expensive camera has a better build and more manual controls but this is a wide price range. When I consider that my current two camera setup, where the camera and basic kit lens runs for a true bargain price of $230, all the other cameras seem pricey by comparison. Also consider that my older model E-PL1 has the same image quality as the current Pen line. Yes, there are certainly difference in focus speed, among other things, however, if you know what your requirements are, you might be able to get a true deal on your camera.

Ultimately, for me to be interested, at $1000 and beyond the new OM-D needs to take noticeably better quality pictures. Sure, I love the feature set and styling. I’m excited to try it out and I will reserve judgement until I see some reviews and hold the new camera in my hands. But remember, don’t be seduced by the camera, know instead what you need out of the camera. It’s important to keep this in mind whether you get a $230 bargain, a $1100 top of the line micro 4/3 camera and especially a $3000 full frame Nikon D800. Easily said when I’m calm and rational at home. I’ll see how I react when I have the new camera in my hands at the camera store.

17 thoughts on “The Olympus OM-D, micro 4/3 grows up

  1. My thoughts exactly. I just wish this model had been available before I bought the P3. But then again, there’s a good chance the new one doesn’t really provide more real value for my purposes than I’ve already got iin the PL-1 and P-3. I too will wait and see! Not exactly ready to plunk another bundle of bucks down. But I have hopes for the 12-50mm new lens. A little wider and a little faster and that may be worth more to me than the new body!

    1. The E-P3 is a fine camera and more than enough to make great photographs. There is 100% chance that a better camera will come out than the E-M5. I have not used the new 12-50. It has a nice range but I want a faster zoom. I will stay with my primes for now.

      1. I want a fast, wide angle lens that isn’t a fish-eye. So far, anything I’ve found, if it’s wide enough — around 10 mm — it’s too slow. If it’s fast, it’s not wide enough. So I look, I ponder, but I don’t buy. I think about the Panny 20 which is fast, but isn’t wide, though I may get one anyway just to have a good “normal” fast lens, but otherwise, nothing I see for this system is what I want. I have a premonition that when finally someone creates exactly what I want, it will be so expensive I won’t be able to buy it anyhow. Meanwhile, I dream. I love shopping online. I can shop for months — even years — and never spend a penny!

        Just a question: do you know why wide angle lenses are so much more expensive than normal and long lenses? It seems to be universal across systems, so there’s got to be a reason.

      2. I guess the Olympus 12mm f2 is not wide enough for you? It’s pricey at $800. I don’t know too much about lens design but I’m guessing that wide angle lenses are more difficult to build, particularly in high quality, which makes them more expensive. Normal lenses are easy. That is why manufactures can offer them with large apertures for a reasonable cost.

  2. These last sentences made me smile – because I remembered when I was at camera stores last year, handling the Nikon D90 and D7000 for a few moments. That OM-D could have the same effect on me, because with an adapter, even my weather-sealed ZD 50mm Macro would have a nice companion…

    Oh, and if that sensor in the E-M5 is in any way related to those from Panasonic (and I think it is), then ISO 1600 should be good with them – Jordan Steele compared two Panasonic µ43rds against his older full frame Canon, and they did real well in that regard. Together with nice and fast primes, they make awesome bar and club cameras IMO.

    I also top the ISO of my E-PL1 at 800, that gives it an extra stop over my E-520 already. The E-M5 would be 2 stops better then. Tempting.

    1. wolfgang, I’m certainly just as excited as the next guy, playing with new equipment. It’s just that U’m fugal enough to think twice before pulling the buying trigger. Interesting comparison. It seems like the most impressive part of the test is the performance of the Leica lens. Of course the noise performance is great considering the sensor size. I doubt that the E-M5 will be two tops better, maybe in JPEG but not in RAW. If it is, the camera would be extremely tempting.

  3. “…don’t be seduced by the camera, know instead what you need out of the camera.” Very wise words! I’m going to be curious to see this one in person myself. I think I’m more curious about the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. It’s considerably more expensive but if they managed to improve on the already stellar sensor in the X100…someone might need to hold me back! Still, I’ve rarely been an early adopter of any technology. My X100 was almost a year into its life before I picked it up and every other camera I’ve bought was a generation or more old when I got it. At the very least, I think it’s wise to wait until after the first firmware fix comes out. Let other folks pay to be beta testers!

    1. I know people who paid $400 for a digital watch! We were laughing then and laughed even harder when the prices dropped to nearly nothing in less than a year. It always pays to wait. I won’t buy a car in its first model year either! OR a computer operating system.

    2. Mike, Being an early adopter has some disadvantages at times. X-Pro1 is off my radar for now. Do you really think it’s going to allow you to take images that you can’t take now? I’m sure the quality will be better but $2300+ is some big bucks. Maybe in the future when they go on clearance or used. I’ll consider it.

      I am looking forward to see how good these images will be. Fujifilm needs to improve their firmware and focusing. Let’s hope the X-Pro is solid in this area.

      1. “But I find the E-PL1′s price performance even more seductive”

        How true. I got my E-PL1 for under 250€ including its kit lens, and new – I wouldn’t know any better price/performance ratio than that one.

  4. So far, so good. I saw some test images today and they look pretty nice… very good colors (as usual) but also the typical heavy Oly jpeg noise reduction going on. But still a very nice improvement over the E-P3 to my eye. While I’m tempted by this new Oly camera, I’ll wait to see what Panasonic comes up with for a GH3… this fall… sooner??

    I’ve been using some old manual lenses with my GH2 and E-P1 and lately I’ve been less than satisfied with my results. The old Nikon and Minolta lens images seem to produce a glowing effect in many of my photos. Sometimes it is a nice effect but mostly I don’t like it. So I think I’ll concentrate on replacing them with M43 glass while I await Panasonic’s next move in the grand digital camera chess game. it’s all fascinating, isn’t it?

    1. Hey Bill. Thanks for stopping by. Good to know about the new Olympus. The question for me is if their RAW high ISO image is any better? We will see soon enough. I once considered playing with old lenses and manual focus but decided against it. I don’t have much of a collection of old lenses and I figured it won’t be worth buying these old lenses to test out. The new Olympus and Panasonic lenses are so good, why bother with old manual focus lenses.

      1. I agree. When I compare my old manual Nikon and Minolta lenses with the Pan 20mm f/1.7, the 20mm is far better…. maybe it’s the cheap adapters. I don’t have that same problem with my Olympus 4/3 lenses and the Oly MMF1 adapter. They may be slower in AF but they are very nice. So my plan is to buy the Oly 45mm and maybe the Pan 100-300mm. The new 75mm f/1.8 looks interesting but I’m guessing it will be expensive.

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