My circular tour from Olympus to Sony to Olympus, in search of the perfect traveller’s camera.
History and Need
Like most photographers, I’m not unreasonable: if anyone made a camera that weighed 50g, had a zero-noise, huge resolution sensor, a fast zoom range from nose to infinity at Leica quality, infallible metering, instant autofocus under all conditions and a battery life of several years, I’d buy one on the spot. And if it cost a couple of hundred quid, so much the better. In the real world though, the deeply unreasonable attitudes of both the laws of physics and of camera manufacturers trying to eke out a living mean that we have to pick our own compromise between sensor size, bulk, performance and price.Mine lies where I get the usability and image quality that satisfies me, but with the minimum of weight and bulk – I travel a deal by foot, bicycle, ski, motorcycle, air and yak, and my back and neck are feeling the strain from several decades of lugging full-size SLR gear around.
When I first invested in a DSLR system in 2004, my choice was Olympus’ 4/3 system. It was new and shiny then, the E-1 was notably more compact than the DSLR opposition of the time, was built like the proverbial very solid thing and had fantastic ergonomics. With just three excellent, if slightly bulky, digital Zuiko lenses, I could cover a continuous focal range from 14 to 400mm (in 35mm terms) and was definitely un lapin heureux.By late 2007 though, 5MP was a tad passé, so I ‘upgraded’ to the 10MP E-3. Note the use of ironic quotes there: The E-3 was certainly a step forward in raw resolution and kept the lovely subtle out-of-camera colour rendering that characterises Olympus digital cameras, but everything else about it was a at least a hop backwards: it was as large as any competing DSLR and ergonomically inferior to the E-1. The dynamic capabilities of the 4/3 sensors were also at that point falling somewhat behind that of the APS-C competition. But the lenses were as great as ever and the build quality still good (I once actually had to use it to concuss an attacking Ned, to considerable effect and without consequences for the camera), so I stuck with it and bought a lovely little Ricoh GX100 as a pocket camera.
The big change came in 2011 when I bought the newly-introduced Sony NEX-5 with the 18-55mm kit lens, initially as a travelling camera and then found, because of its portability and image quality, I simply wasn’t using either Olympus or Ricoh. So both sat gathering dust in my attic while I amassed quite a collection of NEXs and E-Mount lenses.
Sony: Adoption & Disillusion
But all has not been quite well: Sony’s market strategy and customer support has proven somewhat confused and inconsistent, bringing out new bodies (often with only minor changes) at several times the rate of new lenses and failing to provide needful firmware updates for their existing product. Fast primes and zooms are thin on the ground; there’s no in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) to support legacy lens use or even some of their own lenses and their autofocus has tended to be moderately slow, even on the later NEX-6 with its magic phase detect pixies.
Sony also now seem to be marginalising their top-end E-Mount APS-C cameras in favour of the new full-frame FE cameras.The latter, whilst impressively compact in the body, remain compromised in ultimate usability by their ergonomics and the physics-constrained bulk of the FE lenses. The A7/A7R give the impression of Sony having fitted the most minimal camera they could around the sensor, without huge regard for usability. That does mesh with my prior experience from the NEXs, where the overall product ergonomics – hardware and software – are notably inferior to those of current and many past Olympii. I do sympathise with the school of thought that describes Sony as an excellent electronics company still learning to do high-end cameras, whereas Olympus are culturally where they’ve always been – a photographer’s company. That consumer electronics company view of the tech as essentially disposable may also go some way to explaining Sony’s poor support for existing customers, something I’ve suffered from every time I’ve needed a repair or maintenance.
I’ve been waiting for three years now for Sony to come out with stabilised, high-end, fast primes and zooms. To date, the score is between zero and two, depending on how you rate the Sony 35mm & 50mm f1.8 primes. The 24mm f1.8 Zeiss is a lovely lens, but isn’t stabilised and the 10-18mm and the 16-70mm zooms, whilst very good indeed, are optically not as consistently stellar as you might hope for the price.With Sony’s roadmap now appearing to firmly favour development of the FE lenses with the concomitant size penalties, those of us looking for a truly portable and intuitive camera system need to look elsewhere – at the current Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 ranges or at Fuji’s APS-C offerings.
Olympus: Dereliction & Rediscovery
Which is why I’ve flipped again: After looking at everything from the Sony FE to ‘old school’ FF Nikons, I’ve finally taken the plunge and bought Olympus’ new OM-D E-M1 with the HLD-7 battery grip, the new 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens, the 75mm f1.8 prime and with the tantalising promise of the the rest of the new Olympus m.Zuiko Pro range to come. I’ve also bought the MMF-3 adapter so that I can continue to use my lovely olde-worlde 4/3 Zuikos until the native (and rather more compact) M4/3 Pro equivalents are shipping.On the morning after the camera, lens, battery grip and a couple of spare batteries arrived, I was wandering around the old quarter of Seville, on a road trip through the history and nature of Southern Spain and Gibraltar. I was travelling with a friend with her APS-C Nikon gear and top-end fast zooms: even with my ‘legacy’ 4/3 lenses, I was carrying half the weight of kit. A week later, with a side trip to London under my belt as well as some wandering around my home glen, I’ve given the E-M1 a several thousand frame workout.A sample gallery from my E-M1 ownership to date is below, remembering that I’m still learning how to get the best out of the thing.
That’s not to say that the Sonys haven’t proved useful and adaptable – the NEX-7 in particular is highly configurable. Unfortunately, it’s highly configurable in what appear to be most ways except the ones you need most often. So, no matter what you think you want, it’s likely to require rather too much ploughing through screeds of options and menus to get there. I’ve had my NEX-7 for more than two years now and still don’t feel I’ve got my head around the design logic. All of this though, plus a few unreliable elements, could have been fixed with firmware upgrades from Sony, but these just haven’t happened, ibid.
Just one example here: the Olympus includes 4 settings that save all current settings for rapid switching. I’ve got these assigned for all the settings I need for ‘normal’ walkaround shooting, high-speed focus tracking, night-time handheld and tripod work. Changing all these settings on a NEX takes minutes and I invariably forget something. On the E-M1 I’ve assigned these to one of the function buttons — switching takes no longer than a second or so.
If you want a point-by-point and feature by feature shootout between cameras, this isn’t the place for it – head over to dpreview.com or any of the other sites that go into immensely anal and betimes useful detail – this is the largely subjective view of an experienced photographer trying to get on with with the whole photography-as-an-art thing.Now for a few specifics from my point of view as an E-M1 arriviste:
- It’s fast. Very fast. Pretty damn fast. Got it? All except the bringing up of EVF option lists during shooting, which comes with an irritating half-second of sloth.
- The focus tracking largely works, unlike the NEX-7, whose tracking appears to operate using lottery mechanics. Unsurprisingly, it’s way better with native M4/3 lenses than with the legacy 4/3 glass.
- It is, in the high-end Olympus tradition, built like a tank and claims a decent level of weatherproofness. Not only that, it claims to be freezeproof to -10°C. This is non-trivial and probably means it’ll actually go a deal lower than the headline figure before packing up. That’s relevant: I’ve had to give up shooting in Moscow in winter due to my E-1 completely freezing up, despite armpit-warm batteries. For comparison, I’ve also had a play with an A7 (I haven’t yet encountered an A7R) alongside the E-M1 and the Olympus definitely has more reassuring build quality and handling – in fact, even including pro market Canonikons, the Olympus’ build quality is exemplary.
- The out of camera image quality is typically Olympus: well-balanced, with an identifiable house style. That’s perhaps surprising, given that pixels are pixels are pixels and that we can shuffle ’em around as we choose in post but my experience has always been that there’s a subtle punch and delicacy from Olympus images, both JPEG and RAW that is both satisfying to behold to work with. Even at the clinically OCD level, technical image quality differences between the 16MP M4/3 sensor and APS-C cameras are subtle and marginal (there’s another post coming on just that). Subjective image quality – for me – goes with Olympus, certainly in the normal ISO working range.
- Although some luminance noise is apparent in shadow areas from fairly low ISOs, it only takes a very small tweak of noise reduction in Lightroom to remove it. Chroma noise is almost entirely absent. In comparison, my NEX-7 shows a tad less Luminance noise and a deal more Chroma, which is much harder to deal with.
- The Olympus JPEG engine is excellent, and well ahead of Sony’s offering in the NEX-7. Despite the significantly higher resolution of the Sony (24MP vs 16MP), both JPEGs and (surprisingly) RAW images from the E-M1 are of much higher quality. I wonder if the latter is due to Sony’s unforgiveable use of lossy compression in their RAW files?
- The E-M1’s 5-axis IBIS is awesome. Just gob-smackingly good. But do read the manual about the naming of the various modes – they’re slightly counter-intuitive.
- The manual focussing clutch mechanism on the 12-40mm Pro zoom is sheer genius: just sliding the focus ring backwards switches to manual focus AND reveals a distance scale. I’d also say it slightly shades my previous reference for standard zooms – the 4/3 Zuiko 12-60mm f2.8/3.5 – for image quality, if not for reach and convenience.
- The 75mm f1.8 is probably the finest lens I’ve ever owned, full stop. Again, more later on that…
- Usability of my older 4/3 lenses has been very good – the focussing is not as fast as that of the native M4/3 lenses but has proven entirely usable in (for instance) bird photography, at least when the birds are of decent size. The 50-200mm and 7-14mm have a slight tendency to hunt focus in low-contrast situations but then my E-3 was worse for that with the same lenses than the E-M1.
- Wi-Fi/iOS integration just works, with very easy setup thanks to the QR code display. This is in contrast to the NEX-6, where what could have been a useful Wi-Fi, app-driven interface, just hasn’t delivered – usability and reliability are very poor and, by not opening up the OS to third-party developers, we’ve been reliant on Sony themselves, who have managed deliver a small number of largely fatuous apps. Not a promising product strategy from the Big S.
- There’s no built-in GPS in the E-M1 (or the Nexen for that matter), but the iPhone-based GPS logging and in-camera geotagging iOS App works very well indeed. If of course you remember to switch it on.
- The viewfinder is tremendous: people who’ve tried it have trouble believing it to be an EVF. Whilst the resolution of overlays is slightly better on the NEX-6/7, the overall quality of the viewfinder is better on the Olympus – the slightest change in settings is instantly visible and it’s even possibly to manually focus by eye, even without invoking focus peaking – a first for an EVF in my experience. Just for a little information, see below for a gallery of through-the-finder images for the NEX-7, the E-M1 and, for fun, the OM-2n.
- The E-M1’s focus peaking works, but it is little undiscriminating – it could do with variable thresholds and more colours than just black or white: I always use yellow on the NEX because there isn’t that much yellow in most subject environments. So the NEX gets a slight nod on this point.
- The two pieces of plastic that cover up the accessory port and the hot shoe are just silly: rubbish and eminently losable – it’s just a matter of time…
Once you set aside pixel-peeping obsessions and just consider the ability of a camera to help you concentrate on the world you’re imaging and turn what you see into photographs (rather than spending much of your time perforce engaging with the process of taking pictures), the Olympus is ahead of the NEX – any NEX that I’ve tried, certainly.
Like others in the photographic testiculation community, I was at first scandalised at the apparent lack of support for Olympus’ lens profiles in Lightroom 5 – I’ve gotten used to the tedium of waiting for Sony or a third party to create profiles for their lenses that I could download and use. Then I discovered that the M4/3 standard simply embeds the lens profiles in the RAW image metadata (JPEGs are of course corrected in-camera) and any RAW converter that properly supports ORF files will apply the relevant corrections. See what I mean about Olympus being a photographers’ company?If the best camera is the one you have with you and the best photograph is the one you’ve actually been able to capture, then I’d rate the E-M1 ahead of the NEX on both counts – in the first, marginally, where the slightly greater size of the E-M1 is balanced by the relative bulk of some of the NEX lenses and in the second because of the notably greater responsiveness and superior handling of the E-M1. YMMV.I now can’t wait for the rest of the Pro M.Zuikos – the 40-150mm f2.8 should arrive this year, with the 7-14 f2.8 and the 300mm f4 to follow. Meanwhile, I’ve got quite a lot of kit to sell…
Olympus M4/3: OM-D E-M1, HLD-7. Lenses: 12-40mm f2.8 Pro, 75mm f1.8. 4/3: 50-200mm f2.8-3.5, 7-14mm f4.0, 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.Sony: NEX-5, NEX-7, NEX-6. Lenses: 18-55mm f3.5-5.6, 16-70mm f4.0 Carl Zeiss, 24mm f1.8 Carl Zeiss, 10-18mm f4.0, 18-200mm f3.5-6.3. Assorted Voightlander, Olympus, Canon & Tamron legacy lenses.