#Camerathursdays: Olympus OMD Review

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Olympus OMD

#Camerthursdays is our chance to show off the cameras we love. When the series first started, our Content Manager, Forrest, showed off his Olympus E-PL1. Now, a year later, he’s the Senior Content Manager and he’s upgraded his camera too. This week he brings us a full Olympus OMD review – along with some beautiful shots of SF Bay Area jazz.

Photographer: Forrest
Camera: Olympus OMD E-M5
Job: Senior Content Manager

This is my second camera in the Micro 4/3 mirrorless format, replacing an Olympus E-PL1. The E-PL1 was the camera that first really gave me the photography bug. It took fine photos, but I quickly outgrew it. That was very much a camera for casual shooters, but I found myself wanting more and more manual control, which meant fiddling around in menus when I should have been getting the shot. So as soon as the E-M5 was announced, loaded with customizable dials and buttons, but in the format I was already used to, I knew it was going to be the camera for me.

If you haven’t played with a camera like this, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (sometimes known as EVIL cameras because of their electronic viewfinders) have most of the features of DSLRs, but in a compact, easily handled body that makes them feel more like an update on the classic rangefinder-style camera. They do this by eliminating the SLR’s optical viewfinder, which relies on a mirror and prism system to accurately reflect what the lens sees. In a mirrorless camera, that’s all done electronically, right through the sensor. The format has really come a long way in just a few years: originally envisioned as a step up for the point-and-shoot market, instead they’ve proven popular amongst serious enthusiasts and even many pros who want something smaller than their usual bulky kits. Micro 4/3s is the most popular format so far, but everybody’s getting into the act: Sony has some excellent models, Nikon just entered the market with the J1, and even Canon has a mirrorless camera on the way. It looks like these cameras are here to stay.

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There are tradeoffs to the size, though. The sensors in micro 4/3 and other mirrorless cameras are quite a bit smaller than their DSLR counterparts, meaning fewer pixels (and less control over depth-of-field). The small screens and electronic viewfinders have limited resolution, and every manufacturer has a unique lens mount, except for Micro 4/3 which is used by both Olympus and Panasonic. This means you either have to buy all new lenses specifically for the format, or use an adapter to attach a non-native lens, thus sacrificing features like auto-focus. But to me, those limitations are a small price to pay for the convenience, friendliness, and portability of a mirrorless camera.

Let’s put aside the hype for a moment and look at this thing objectively. Yes, the design is gorgeous, with retro styling and solid construction. It’s weather-sealed, too, so I can take it out on those drizzly winter days without fear. But those things won’t help me take better pictures. What should help are the 16-megapixel sensor, the excellent JPG image processing (Olympus is known for that), the unique 5-axis stabilizer that compensates for minor shakes in pretty much any direction, and control, control, control. As I already mentioned, the E-M5 is highly customizable. I can assign the functions I like to use to the buttons and dials that are most convenient to reach, so getting the shot I want is a breeze. The E-M5 ships with a pretty decent kit lens, and I also have some excellent glass in a Panasonic 25mm lens, which gives the same angle of view as a 50mm “normal” lens in a full-frame or 35mm film camera. This lens was designed by Leica (yeah, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to owning one of those), and it makes a killer combo with the E-M5, yielding some gorgeously balanced and sharp images.

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So far I’ve focused on putting the E-M5 through its paces by shooting live bands and some architecture shots, but I’m looking forward to using it for street photography too. You can follow my adventures on Flickr.

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