Walker’s Tools: A Review of the Olympus OM-D EM-5

November 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment




In this, the first in a series of blogs reviewing the tools of a walker, I will take a close look at my current camera of choice, the Olympus OM-D E-M5.


A Brief History of Weight Loss


I have a serious history of carrying overweight camera bags. I won’t even get into my collection of art project cameras, which includes 4x5 view cameras and vintage Cirkut panoramic cameras. Kits that could weigh as much as I do, or so it seemed. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the cameras I have used for travel photography, cameras that were at least nominally geared to walking. 


Since the mid-1970’s my travel camera brand of choice has been Nikon, starting with a film-based kit consisting of Nikon FE and FM single lens reflex (SLR) camera bodies and four Nikkor prime lenses ranging from 24mm to 200mm. It was a heavy load to be sure, packed in my rigid rectangular shoulder bag with its narrow leather strap digging deep into my increasingly slumping shoulder. 


It was a camera kit that served me well…until the digital age arrived (for me) in 2004 with the purchase of the sexy Minolta DiMage 7i 5.0 mega pixel (MP) camera for a trip to South America. Sexy because I have never had so many people ooh and aah over a camera. It was a barely adequate camera for a serious photographer but, at the time I would never have thought I could afford a digital Nikon. Sure enough, a few years later, decent Nikons with large sensors became available at an affordable price.







Then in my forties, I really craved a lighter load, leading to what seemed at the time like the most minimal travel kit possible, a Nikon D90 DSLR body (digital SLR) with an 18-200 mm super-zoom. These were used on lengthy  road trips across Russia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian train route and throughout India. 


In Search of the Minimalist Camera


In the summer of 2012, I was busy preparing for our 900 kilometre walk on the Camino Frances route of the Camino de Santiago. Walking the Camino for 38 days with a backpack that had to weigh no more than 20 pounds and contain everything I needed for the duration of the trip demanded an even smaller and lighter photo-taking package. So I jotted down a list of requirements and went about finding the best solution. 


Here’s my must-have list:


  • The lightest possible camera/lens package.
  • As large a sensor as possible, preferably in the APS-C (cropped sensor) range like my Nikon D80 or D90.
  • Low noise at high ISO 'film speeds'.
  • A viewfinder (somewhat rare in compact digital cameras)).
  • RAW file output.


Fortunately, by 2012 a few innovative camera manufacturers were starting to release lightweight, serious cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Sony NEX 6 and 7, the Sony RX100 and the Fuji X100. Nikon and Canon did not - and still do not - have a camera worth considering. A shame.


Finally, The Camera


The camera that best ticked all my needs was the Olympus OM-D E-M5 paired with the compact Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 IIR zoom lens, equivalent to a 28-82mm full frame 35mm lens. Being accustomed to a greater zoom range at the telephoto end, I was a little concerned that this modest lens would be adequate. I needn’t have worried. Working with a limited range of focal lengths becomes part of the creative exercise. And it is so darned light! 


The Olympus uses a 16.1 MP sensor in the micro four-thirds format, slightly smaller than the APS-C sensors in Nikon, Canon, Fuji and Sony cameras but with very little difference in terms of image quality. The lenses are more compact and lighter in weight as well, an important consideration. 


The Olympus sensor performs admirably in low light situations. Noise is well controlled. Shots at ISO 3200 show some noise but it can be reasonably controlled in Lightroom or Photoshop without significantly degrading image quality. That high ISO in combination with the excellent 5-axis stabilization in the E-M5 body permits good quality handheld images in dark interiors or while walking before sunrise and after sunset, a significant advantage for long distance walkers wishing to avoid the additional weight and bulk of carrying a tripod. 


My Olympus camera and lens weighs in at 536 grams. Compare that to the 1184 grams my D90 and 18-200 mm lens. To make the comparison more fair, if I were to buy a M.Zuiko 14-150 mm lens for the Olympus camera (equivalent to the Nikkor 18-200), the total weight would be a mere 705 grams, still well under that of my Nikon package.







The lightness and compactness of the micro four-thirds format camera bodies can be attributed to the lack of heavy pentaprisms and flapping mirrors required for the optical viewfinder of DSLRs. Instead, light goes straight from the lens to the sensor. The downside is that many micro four thirds cameras, also referred to as mirrorless cameras, require the image to be composed and focussed on the rear screen with no provision of a viewfinder.


Only a few mirrorless cameras have a viewfinder and it is necessarily an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Using one takes a little getting used to. The image is coarse, making focussing more of a challenge. Colour and contrast are also ‘off’ and rarely match the actual scene. I’ve learned to trust the camera to capture scene colours accurately and not as I see them through the viewfinder. Which it does, of course. 


The main value of a viewfinder, whether EVF or optical, is that I can better isolate and compose an image the way I want, focus accurately, ensure the horizon is actually horizontal and that the perspective of the scene is as I want it. Pressing the camera against my face also adds a level of stability and allows small compositional adjustments to be made and held until the shutter is pressed.


The E-M5’s EVF nicely meets my need for a viewfinder. It offers as much information about current camera settings as I want, yet I can customize how much and where this information is displayed. It also allows me to cycle through several useful information displays - a histogram, horizontal and vertical levels or a clean, information-free display - simply by pressing the Info button on the back of the camera.


That the E-M5 can produce RAW files (in addition to RAW plus JPEG files) is not unique. Any high-quality camera should be capable of this. Often referred to as ‘digital negatives’, RAW files allow the photographer to have full control over contrast, brightness, saturation, highlights and shadows and any number of other image parameters when post-processing the image in RAW-aware applications such as Lightroom or Photoshop. By comparison, JPEG files are ‘baked’ in-camera. All image parameters are determined and locked into the image when the camera shutter button is pressed. There is very little you can do to improve a JPEG image after the fact without degrading image quality.


It’s now November 2014. I have toted the Olympus across Spain and, just this fall, across the Czech Republic, a total of 1500 kilometers of walking. In between, it has been used for many of my current photographic projects. Based on over two years of experience, here are my opinions of the good and the not-so-good features of the camera.


The Good


That the camera is diminutive and unobtrusive is one of its best qualities. It does not draw attention to itself, making it easier to use for candid street photography than a DSLR.


The E-M5 has a plethora of buttons and dials that allow quick access to all the controls you would quickly need when taking a picture, without needing to scroll through menus on a screen. There are two function buttons that can be customized to do what I need, exposure lock and depth-of-field preview in my case. Even the ‘dedicated’ movie shutter button can be reprogrammed for a different function, as I have done so I can quickly switch between manual and auto focus.


Most important are the two control dials on top, each of which can be used to control shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation. I can program which button controls which variable. For example, in Manual (M) mode I set the front dial to change aperture settings and the rear dial to control shutter speed. 







The rear LED screen is touch sensitive. By pushing the OK button on the camera back, a menu appears on the screen displaying a grid of all essential camera controls, such as image stabilization mode, white balance, metering mode (eg. spot metering) - 21 controls in total - each quickly accessible by touch.







Image noise is very well controlled up to ISO 800 and acceptable up to 3200. With a touch of luminance noise reduction in Lightroom, those ISO 1600 and 3200 images look very good. So good that I keep the camera on Auto-ISO with a default ISO set to 200 and a maximum of 3200.


The rear LED screen tilts up and down, a feature I find very useful for capturing images from a low point of view or when reaching above the heads of a crowd.







The EM-5 has excellent in-body image stabilization that works on 5 axis and greatly contributes to the quality of images captured handheld in low light. Because stabilization occurs in the camera body, lenses can be lighter and, in theory, less expensive.


The camera is very quiet when taking pictures, great for street candids or in churches.


The Not-So-Good


The small size of the camera means the many buttons are packed into a very tight space. When gripping the camera, my thumb tip rests on a small rubber grip at the top right corner on the back of the camera. Unfortunately there are a number of buttons directly below this and I find that the rest of my thumb is constantly pressing these buttons accidentally. In particular, the four small arrow buttons which, by default, control important functions such as autofocus target area, can accidentally be depressed. If not noticed, image quality could be affected (eg. an incorrect focus point). To prevent this, I dug into the camera menu and turned off the functions for these four buttons. The Menu and Info buttons can also be depressed accidentally. But I need these functions, so I put up with the problem. Fortunately, they do not affect image parameters, only what is displayed in the EVF or on the LED screen.







Battery life! I quickly learned that carrying two backup batteries is essential for a day of shooting. 


The camera will go to sleep after a length of time (which can be controlled via the Menu), a good thing considering its short battery life. However, I occasionally find that the camera will not come out of its sleep mode with the press of a button or by turning the camera off and on. Instead I have to open the battery door, partly remove the battery, slide it back in and close the battery door. It works, but it could mean a lost street or action photo opportunity.


The supplied battery charger defies logic. Why provide such bulky charger unit and long power cord that, together, are not much smaller than the entire camera and lens? As soon as I opened the camera box and found this albatross, I went on the search for a more compact charger. In the end, I purchased an UpStart Travel Charger (upstartbattery.com) and two UpStart compatible batteries from Amazon. The charger is not much larger than two batteries, including its retractable wall plug. It has served me well for two years and I would recommend this accessory to anyone using the camera.







The Future


Since 2012, the compact, lightweight, mirrorless camera market has grown substantially. If I were considering a camera today, there would be several viable options. I still like the Olympus OM-D series, which now includes the slightly more basic E-M10, and the slightly more professional E-M1. The E-M1 is 72 grams heavier and marginally larger but has a very good built-in grip that looks like it would mitigate the accidental-pressing-of-buttons problem. It also has a higher resolution EVF. Both new models have WiFi connectivity, great for getting photos to my iPad while on the road. The original EM-5 model - my camera - was released almost three years ago so a refresh of the product should be coming soon. Here’s hoping they rejig the button locations and include a more compact charger.


The micro four-thirds format lens mount is rare in that more than one camera manufacturer supports it. Panasonic has its own range of excellent camera bodies and lenses, all compatible with the Olympus camera system. Panasonic currently offers the GX-7, weighing in at a mere 402 grams and, feature-for-feature, similar to the OM-D series. And I could mount my petite 14-42mm Olympus lens on it.


Wrapping Up


Walking is a gentle, lyrical activity demanding a camera that responds lightly to that movement. The Olympus OM-D is one of the best walk-friendly cameras out there. It offers the creative controls necessary for serious photography but in a package that is not a burden on a good, long walk.


My next post will show what’s in my camera bag, a surprisingly compact package of photo goodies. See you then!





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