By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Olympus’ newest camera, the OM-D, is receiving rave reviews, with early stocks selling out quickly, and deservedly so. There’s an emerging consensus that the OM-D is the best compact-system camera now on the market and that its runaway success will save Olympus as an independent company.
Readers may recall that Olympus was rocked in late 2011 by revelations of a long-running corporate accounting and governance scandal that resulted in the resignation of all its top officers and most of the board of directors. Olympus’ balance sheet was none too healthy, particularly at its camera division. At the time, many observers publicly wondered whether Olympus would survive.
I’ve not heard such speculation in months. Instead, Olympus is the happy possessor of the hottest new camera on the market, the OM-D, a Micro Four-Thirds (M 4/3) camera that’s among the smallest yet most capable compact-system cameras. The OM-D (also confusingly called the E-M5) is very similar in design and appearance to the company’s fondly remembered OM series of compact film SLR cameras sold during the 1970s and 1980s. The new OM-D carries on the tradition. It’s pleasing to the eye and comfortable in the hand (well, at least in my hands).
Why is the $999 OM-D considered to be such a good camera and such a good buy? It’s very compact and light, no larger than an Olympus E-P3, yet it’s a fully featured, professional-grade camera, solidly constructed of magnesium alloy metal, weather- and dust-sealed, and with class-leading image quality. Oh, and the OM-D includes a number of really cool technical innovations, like a magnetically suspended sensor that can correct for camera shake in five different directions, including three types of rotational motions not corrected by any other brand’s image-stabilization hardware. No other compact-system camera matches these features.
I recently had the opportunity to work with an OM-D kindly lent by local professional photographer Bill Heath, of Kenai. Heath, who doubles as a photography instructor at Kenai Peninsula College, is certainly a good judge of image quality.
His opinion, and mine, is that images made with the OM-D show all-around excellence from the ISO 200 base sensitivity through ISO 1,600 to 3,200. That’s as high a sensitivity as most of us will ever realistically need. At lower ISO sensitivities, OM-D files are certainly as good as those from the best APS-C dSLR cameras, and approach the very high quality of images made by top professional cameras built around full-frame sensors. That’s amazing for a small camera built around a 16-megapixel Micro 4/3 sensor.
I compared test images from an OM-D with identical test shots made with its most direct competitors, the Fujifilm X-Pro1 ($1,699, body only) and the 24-megapixel Sony NEX-7 ($1,299, body only).
- I thought that the Sony NEX-7’s images had a lot more image noise and loss of detail, even at low ISO settings. That’s not surprising, considering the NEX-7’s high megapixel count. At higher ISO settings, on the order of ISO 800 and above, the NEX-7’s images quickly become too noisy to produce exhibition-quality enlargements, at least from my perspective. The NEX series is also impeded by the limited selection of quality optics made for that mount.
- Fujifilm’s X-Pro1 sensor showed better manners, especially at higher ISO settings where image noise and overall quality continued to be excellent. At sane, normal ISO sensitivities, though, images from the OM-D and X-Pro1 showed very similar quality.
Unfortunately, the X-Pro1 also has a number of drawbacks, at least for the average serious photographer. It’s rather larger and heavier, costs $700 more for the body alone, and is not weather- and dust-sealed. Most importantly, the Fujifilm X-Pro1 system has a very limited selection of lenses — three, to be exact — and does not include any sort of image stabilization. These last two are deal-breakers for me.
The OM-D felt really nice in my hands. Although it makes a dandy, if expensive, point-and-shoot camera when set to the P program mode, the OM-D is aimed toward photographers who want a high level of control and configurability. There are plenty of exterior buttons for quick, direct control of important functions and two dials on the top plate, minimizing your need to slowly navigate through a bunch of menus and submenus to change settings.
I found its built-in electronic viewfinder to be bright and responsive. Focus speed is faster and exposure more accurate than previous compact-system cameras. The OM-D is quick, too, shooting up to nine frames per second. The LCD panel tilts up nearly 90 degrees, allowing easy low-level photos.
Even if a camera body is weather-sealed, that’s only half the battle. You’ll need to use a similarly sealed lens when you’re out in foul weather. Olympus’ upper-end kit lens for the OM-D, the M. Zuiko 12- to 50-mm zoom, adds another $300 to the purchase price, but is weather-sealed and optically better than most kit lenses. Although not as sharp as the many excellent single-focal M 4/3 prime lenses, it’s versatile and the least-expensive, good-quality, weather-sealed zoom lens on the market.
- OM-D was the least-expensive weather- and dust-sealed, interchangeable-lens camera on the market until May 21, when Pentax announced its newest model, the $849 K-30, a midlevel weather- and dust-sealed dSLR camera using an improved version of the famed 16-megapixel Sony sensor built in Pentax’s K-5. I expect the K-30 to produce quite excellent photos when used with good optics. Pentax makes a range of matching weather-sealed lenses. With good optics, either the OM-D or one of the Pentax models should prove very satisfactory and economical for serious outdoor photography under harsh conditions that would ruin other cameras and lenses. Don’t change lenses in the rain or dust, though!
I also had the opportunity to try a number of other lenses recently. There’s one big hole in the M 4/3 lens lineup: top-quality, high-magnification telephoto lenses.
Both Olympus and Panasonic make zoom lenses that cover the higher magnification range between the 35-mm equivalent of 400 mm to 600 mm. Olympus makes an $800 75- to 300-mm, four-times zoom lens that’s equivalent to a 150- to 600-mm lens, a very high magnification lens indeed. Panasonic’s comparable, $500 high-telephoto lens is a 100- to 300-mm three-times zoom lens. Generally, the less-ambitious three-times Panasonic lens does better than the Olympus 75- to 300-mm lens in objective optical tests and reviews.
As a result, I had an expectation that the Panasonic lens would be acceptably sharp when I made two series of test exposures. I was disappointed with the results of both tests. At 200 mm and above, the Panasonic lens simply did not deliver acceptable sharpness. Even though I braced the cameras against a post when shooting and used a high shutter speed and image stabilization, sharpness was poor. It’s possible that using a tripod would have helped but this is not a lens that will be easy to hand hold in the field.
In the end, I concluded that my inexpensive Olympus 40- to 150-mm zoom lens (80- to 300-mm 35-mm equivalent magnification) was still a lot sharper than either of these high-cost, high-zoom lenses. Unless you really need the extra reach of an ultratelephoto lens for subjects like distant wildlife, I’d stick with the 40- to 150-mm Olympus kit zoom for the moment. I know that I am.
Finally, Panasonic’s also released its new high-end kit lens, a 12- to 35-mm f 2.8 lens costing a cool $999, camera body not included. Is any 12- to 35-mm kit zoom worth that price? To some extent, yes. Sony, Nikon and Canon make optically excellent (read: expensive) equivalent 24- to 70-mm prograde zoom lenses for their APS-C and full-frame pro cameras.
Is the Panasonic lens similarly worthwhile? Probably not. Panasonic’s X series lenses promises prolevel optical performance but hasn’t fully delivered on that promise, and the 12- to 35-mm follows that pattern. Center sharpness is superb but sharpness definitely falls off toward the corners, resulting in uneven performance.
The Panasonic 12- to 35-mm lens is weather-sealed, even though there’s no prograde sealed Panasonic compact-system camera yet on the market. It’s clearly a harbinger, though, of prograde M 4/3 cameras yet to come from Panasonic. I’d be very surprised if Panasonic doesn’t introduce a direct competitor to the OM-D by September, in time for Photokina, the most prestigious international photo show, held every two years in Germany.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.