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.

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