Olympus E-M10: A keeper

This is the second part of my post about my experiences with the OM-D E-M10 camera. Though my initial reaction was negative, I’ve found many things to love about this tiny but powerful camera. Most importantly, it makes me want to take pictures and I’m back to filling up my hard drive with images.

Electronic View Finder: On the whole, pretty cool.

This was my first shock when I got this camera, and possibly the biggest change I had to adapt to. I am used to the optical viewfinders found in Nikon SLRs and DSLRs and the EVF struck me as a cruel joke. Though part of it was simply adjusting to this new idea of looking at a computer screen rather than the actual scene, there are real issues with the EVF, mostly noticeable in low light: it blurs when you pan, you can sense the refresh rate and at low enough light – it simply stops working.

However, in most shooting conditions, once I got used to it, I stopped thinking about it and just shot naturally. And then the advantages of the EVF over an optical view finder began to dawn on me.

When I got my first SLR (A Nikon F-65) I was really excited about the depth-of-field preview button. Not only could I see the framing of the scene exactly, I could now check what the focus slice was! Well, the EVF is depth-of-field preview on steroids. It’s a preview of almost the exact image you will capture!

This realization first struck me while I was taking photos of my daughter indoors at night. I hit the white balance wheel and switched to incandescent, and the view finder updated to reflect this! Then I realized that I had noticed, but had not really remarked on, the fact that the effects of exposure compensation were, similarly, visible in real time. This is so much better than making these adjustments and then shooting a few frames only to find that the white balance is all wrong and your subject has a ghastly blue color cast.

The OM-D also has an online histogram display (I’ll write more about this later, but this is one of the features that make me think the OM-D is a camera designed by engineers who love their work and a management that keeps out of their way) and you can also see this through the EVF and use it to guide fine tuning of exposure.

Saving the best for last: the E-M10 was my first introduction to focus peaking. I had read wistfully about focus peaking as I scoured e-bay for a cheap split-prism focusing screen for my D40/D5100 because I was sucking at using my Nikkor 50mm f1.8 and I wanted it to be like the SLRs of old. With the EVF you can focus manual lenses just as you would have in the old days, with focus peaking replacing the split prism and ground glass.

Can you tell, I’m a convert! You need to take my effusiveness with a grain of salt. This is my first and only experience with EVFs. I’ve read reviews that say this EVF is small, and low resolution and dim compared to others. Whatever. I like the concept of the EVF and I am satisfied with the implementation of it on this camera.

Touch screen shooting: focus point selection and focus/recompose made obsolete

When I was comparing cameras, the E-M10’s touch screen did not factor into my decision. I considered it one of those things, like art filters, that were useless gewgaws added on to please the masses. The touchscreen, though, is a game changer.

The traditional way to get an off center target in focus is, of course, focus and recompose. There are people who will tell you that this causes problems because the focal plane of lenses is not flat and an object in focus at the center of view is not going to be in focus when moved to the edge of view. Though this is a physical fact, it’s importance has been artificially inflated by camera manufacturers eager to get people to upgrade their perfectly good cameras by dangling ever more focus points in front of their nose.

Let me tell you a bit about focus points. By the time you have used your dinky little cursor keys to hop your little red rectangle ten focus point squares across your viewfinder to sit on top of your subject, the moment has passed and the subject has left. The only real solution is to have the camera focus where you look, and that, surprisingly, has been tried, though, even more surprisingly, has been discontinued.

The next best thing is this new fangled live view + touch screen shooting. You view the image on your touch screen, tap on the screen where your subject is and Click! The camera focuses and shoots. We live in the future, my friends.

I removed the Sony A5100 from my shortlist partly because it did not have an EVF. I’m glad I insisted on an EVF, but I’m no longer opposed to just having a screen, as long as it is a touch screen. On the negative side, the LCD indeed is hard to see (washed out) even in moderate light and I prefer the D5100-type fully articulating screen to this semi-articulating one.

 

Face detection: A mixed bag

I’d seen face detection in point and shoots and again, did not think too deeply about it’s advantages. The reason for this is that invariably I got to see face detection when some one handed me their high end compact for a group photo and I would look at the display and see a few faces outlined, and I would think: “Great, I already know where the faces are, thanks”. The D5100 also had face detection in live view mode. I never really used live view on the D5100, because of it’s poor contrast based focusing system so, again, did not really see the use for it.

On the E-M10 (they really need more snappy nomenclature) face detection – when it works – is awesome and invaluable. Many scenes involve a person facing the camera and a busy background. The face is often – for a nice composition – NOT in the center of the frame. Face detection works marvelously to allow me to take the shot without thinking.

The problem is that this is making me lazy. I’m losing the instinct to focus/recompose and losing the deftness to nudge focus points (and this camera has so many) and when the detector fails e.g. when the subject is looking a little away, or there are two faces, it gets very frustrating. And, for a person who takes a lot of pictures of cats, I have to point out, there is no face detection for cats, which is a solved problem …

Twin control wheels: a double win

Another major reason for picking the E-M10 was the twin control wheels and they do not disappoint. My initial thought was that they would be great for M mode for shutter + aperture adjustments, but in A and S mode one of the dials can give exposure comp. With the func button they give rapid access to ISO and WB adjustment. This makes the camera very powerful to operate. On the D5100 I was forever fiddling with the menu to get these four parameters right.

The placement of the two dials looks awkward visually – the body is so small that they had to stack the dials on different levels to maintain a good dial size. I’m happy to report that the engineers have made the correct decision. The index finger works nicely on the front dial and the thumb on the rear. The camera strap does interfere a little and I’ve taken to putting my right index over the strap anchor point, rather than below it.The rear dial is also deceptively far way from the front one. I would be shooting, then reach for the rear dial and invariably not reach far enough with my thumb.

Super control panel. Gripe: Why can’t I change settings by touching the super control panel

The super control panel is very aptly named. I thought the Nikons had a nice summary panel showing you all the important camera settings, but Olympus has them beat. A lot of thought has gone into the panel layout – the controls are grouped such that in some modes a cluster of panels merges into a block, because they are controlled by one parameter. The only usability issue was that it took me a while to figure out that you had to press “OK” to activate the touch mode, where you can select parameters to change by touching the appropriate panel. Yet another win for the touch screen. Only gripe: sometimes a stray finger will activate the EVF eye detector and will blank out the touch screen as I’m selecting.

Startup delay: not really an issue

 

This was another aspect of the whole EVF/Mirrorless world that I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable with. I’m completely used to leaving my D5100 on all the time. I only switch it off to take out the card or change batteries. So, when I see something I like to shoot, I grab the camera, pop off the lens cap, raise it to my eyes (and not always in this correct order ..) and squeeze the trigger. Photo taken!

With the mirrorless, I wasn’t quite sure until I actually got the camera how I would work this. Some posts I had read online reassured me that the slight lag could be handled by hack pressing the shutter, or pressing any button actually, while raising the camera, to wake it from sleep mode. This way the EVF is on and the camera ready to shoot when you have it in position. And this truly works out well. It does feel a little awkward to someone used to an optical finder, but it works well enough, due to the fact that the camera has a sleep mode and does not need to be switched completely off.

Shutter sound

 

Pressing the shutter is followed almost instantaneously by a very crisp shutter sound (once I had turned off the annoying beep that accompanied the focus) and a slight vibration of the camera. It’s a very satisfying auditory and tactile response to the shutter press.  I think this is because there is only the soft kerchunk of the shutter and not the slightly bouncy thunk of the mirror. This is something that, because it is purely incidental and psychological, should not count, but it does.

Battery life: the downside of needing a screen to shoot

At the end of the day, I had taken around 200 photos when the camera declared that the battery was done and stopped shooting. This is a very big difference to the D5100, where I could go for days, shooting like this, even reviewing photos and videos before the battery gave out. I will be needing a spare battery. Perhaps two, to be safe.

Shutter count: an amusing aside. So, like many new camera owners, I asked the question “I know this is new, but how many miles does it actually already have on it. Checking the EXIF info for the photos I took, I found to my surprise that the EXIF did not contain the shutter count, like it does for Nikons. It turns out that shutter count is actually quite hidden, and only really meant for camera technicians to see as part of a larger suite of diagnostics. You have to enter a sequence of arcane keypresses to get to the relevant menu.

A great little camera

I could go on and on, about how light it is, that I don’t feel the weight on my neck even after a whole day of toting it around, about how configurable it is, how the menu structure is actually quite logical, how high ISO, upto 6400, is eminently usable for my purposes, how the kit lens is neat and tidy and does its job, how in-body image stabilization is such a step up for me, and how, in many such ways, it feels like a camera designed by happy engineers who love their job. In short it is a neat, well designed, tiny camera that does its job very well.

Oh, and here is a picture of a cat. I must now go and order some extra batteries.

 

Olympus E-M10: First impressions

I will not lie. My first reaction after unboxing the E-M10 and shooting a few frames was to return it. However, after poking round the menu a bit and trying out things for a while I think I will keep it – maybe.

(Update: I will keep it)

I guess I had over sold the small ness of this camera in my mind, because when I got it I was like, “Huh,  it’s not THAT small”. But, actually it is. It’s larger than the A510, and with the kit lens it won’t go in your regular pants pocket, but I could probably fit in a jacket or cargo pants pocket. With a pancake lens you could fit it in a slacks pocket.

But what did blow me away with its size was the lens. It really looked like a scale model of a lens. I held it in my hands for a while and marveled at it. You could fit two of those inside the standard Nikkor 18-55 DX kit lens, and it’s not even the “pancake” lens.

I liked the build immediately. The body is metal and feels like it, making the camera satisfyingly dense.  The dials click nicely and all the buttons are well placed.  I was a little disappointed by the battery door and the bulkiness (and ghastly color) of the charger.

I’m ok with the battery and card sharing the same door – especially since it looks like the battery needs to be changed often – but the door is a little clumsy. It has a little latch that you need to push shut to lock and it’s a little difficult to do this while maintaining pressure, since the door is spring loaded. I have gotten used to Nikon’s slim, all black chargers and the peculiar gray of the Olympus charger, and it’s ungainly thickness stands in stark contrast to the elegant design of the camera body.

I charged the battery, keeping my impatience at bay by reading the manual. I loaded the camera, switched it on, lifted the view finder to my eye and had my first disappointment.

I’ve never had a “professional grade” camera. I went from a Nikon F65 to a D40 to a D5100. I think only the F65 had an actual penta-prism. The others have penta-mirrors, which I believe are dimmer. I would read posts by people complaining how small and dim these optical viewfinders were compared to their professional grade cameras, but I never really felt the difference. The optical viewfinder of the SLR was, to me, an indispensable tool. You could see what the film was going to capture! Amazing! 95% coverage? Dim? Whatever!  The EVF, at least this EVF, is no optical view finder.

I was playing with this indoors and the impression I got was that I was peering at the world through an ancient CCTV system. The colors seemed off, there was blurring and lagging when I panned the camera. “I can’t shoot with this! It sucks!”

(Update: I quickly got used to the resolution of the view finder. The lag is imperceptible outdoors, even at dusk and there is a setting to up the refresh rate of the EVF, though I suspect it chews up more battery. See the next post.)

I squeezed off the shutter at a few subjects in the fading light. My biggest worry about this camera was the shutter lag, which really counts the delay between pressing the shutter, capturing focus and taking the picture. Depending on the lens and light conditions, even SLRs can take a while, but the dedicated phase detect focus system of the Nikon cameras allows the lens to spin towards focus in a deterministic and fast manner. The E-M10 has a contrast detect system. This is the same system that the D5100 uses in live view mode and Nikon’s system sucks.

All the reviews, measurements and posts one finds online about the speed of the E-M10’s auto focus are not mistaken. It truly is an effective AF system, despite it not being one of the fancy new hybrid AF systems that incorporate phase detect on the sensor. The pictures were a let down however. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I can stand grain but not blur in pictures. Well these pictures were BLURRY! It was the over aggressive smoothing that’s present in the factory settings. Something that reviews have remarked on.

I went into the menu and switched it off. MUCH BETTER! Especially if you over expose a little bit. I would say that images at ISO 6400 with no smoothing are eminently usable for web/computer viewing, perhaps even for regular sized prints.

Oh, dpreview regularly complains that the Oly menu system is over-complicated. Personally, I found it to be better organized and richer than the Nikon D5100’s menu. I didn’t need to use the manual, and the tips on-hover are great – though they can get annoying when they obscure other text/menu options below them.

You can see a set of test shots in this album. The subjects are not interesting and it’s not very systematic. I was just playing round with high ISO and exposure compensation.

The live bulb mode is awesome, though, as you can see from the super blurred and over exposed photo of Dora the Explorer doll, you need a tripod for this kind of experiment, of course. This brings me to the joys of in body image stabilization. Stabilization is kind of like magic to me. I was shooting 1/30, even 1/10 hand held and was getting crisp photos (again of the Dora doll).

At night,  I was discussing the camera with my wife and making the same sort of summary as I have made here. At then end she said, “Yes, just sleep on it, before making a final decision”. I nodded as I picked out the strap from the box and started to thread it into the hooks. The instructions call for a slightly intricate loop for the strap, not for those with thick fingers. My wife watched me for a second, doing this, and remarked dryly “Well, that looks like kind of a decision”.

I guess it is. I guess it is.