Choosing the Right Travel Camera Part Three: What I Shoot

In my first two posts in this series (part 1 and part 2) I went over the theory behind choosing the right camera for your trip, or even just for every day use. In this post I’m going to talk about the camera I chose and why, and how it’s been working out after three months of travel. I’ll also detail my complete kit and talk about the choices I made regarding lenses and accessories.

There are a lot of choices out there, and they are growing by the day as camera manufacturers are realizing that the market for small, versatile, high image quality cameras is one of the fastest growing segments in the photography world. A small, unimposing camera that takes great photos has always been the ardent desire of any photographer, especially for travel or street photography. When film was king, there were a few great options, but when digital came around it took years to get to the point where even a modest sized camera could compete with even the worst film cameras. Some argue that not all digital cameras have caught up to film yet, but for all intents and purposes that argument is moot as we are fast approaching an age where film will simply not be any sort of option. In any case, I am finally satisfied that there is a camera that is, for what I need, better than film. It’s small, versatile, sturdily constructed, weather sealed and has great IQ (image quality). It’s also part of a large and steadily growing system of cameras and lenses that is quickly outpacing any valid competition. So what camera did I choose?

Fits in the palm of my hand

If you haven’t guessed by now, I chose the Olympus OM-D EM-5. That’s a mouthful, so I just call it the OM-D. The OM-D is a member of a system called Micro Four Thirds, which is partially in reference to the sensor size that the system uses. It’s been around for several years now and has grown in leaps and bounds recently, at a pace that is frankly amazing. I have been shooting the MFT (Micro Four Thirds) system ever since the release of the Panasonic GF-1. The GF-1 was the first digital camera I saw that really had the potential to be everything I was looking for in a setup: small, light, well-built, high IQ, all with removable lenses. In fact, until the OM-D was announced, the GF-1 was going to be the primary camera for our trip (and came along as Steph’s camera and backup). That’s how good it is, even after two years.

It's surprisingly small

It’s surprisingly small

Why the OM-D?

Before any talk of the OM-D, Fuji announced their X-Pro 1 camera, to much buzz and excitement. I was immediately hooked by its extensive feature set, old-school control layout and retro good looks. The only caveat at the time was its hefty price tag. Despite this, I waited with baited breath for more reviews and details. In the meantime, Olympus announced the OM-D and suddenly I was on the bubble. When I first saw the details about the OM-D, I was impressed. Olympus had been making some really interesting moves with their cameras around this time, and the OM-D seemed like the natural result of what they were doing with the rest of their line. It was small (impossibly small!), made of metal, weather sealed, adorned with more external controls than seemed possible and boasted impressive image quality. The built-in electronic viewfinder was a nice bonus, and I liked the idea of the swiveling touchscreen (though there is no reason to use it if you don’t want to, thanks to the comprehensive external controls). I already had a few lenses to fit the camera, so the temptation was even greater.

When push came to shove, the Olympus ended up winning out over the Fuji for several reasons, not the least of which was cost. The X-Pro 1 body alone cost more than the OM-D with the weather sealed 12-50 lens, and the 14mm pancake, and the 20mm pancake. Beyond that, the autofocus speed of the OM-D was one of the fastest available in any camera and its movie capabilities were light years ahead of the X-Pro. Add to that the weather sealing and the fact that I had already bought in to the MFT system, and it seemed like a no-brainer. I knew that with both Olympus and Panasonic making lenses for the system, the potential for longevity and high quality lenses was already being fulfilled. This is not to say that the X-Pro is a bad camera, in fact some people think it is the ultimate travel camera. In the end it comes down to how you like to shoot and what you want your camera to do, for me the OM-D was and still is an easy choice.

The OM-D in Practice

The best thing I think anyone can say about a camera is that it makes taking pictures easy. My ideal camera simply gets out of the way and lets me shoot however I want, making adjustments easy and never making me focus on anything other than the photograph.

The twin control dials

The twin control dials

Controls and Operation
The control system of the OM-D is almost infinitely customizable, allowing nearly every switch, knob and dial to be assigned to the function of your choosing. The camera is very small, yet the dials and buttons are easy to use without accidental presses. At first, I found the buttons on the back felt a bit squishy (for lack of a better word) when I pressed them, but once I got used to them, that stopped being an issue. Some people have reported that the buttons are on the small side, especially for those with large hands, but as someone who falls into the large hands camp, I don’t find I have any issues. The shutter is quiet and there is no delay between shutter button release and firing. In high-speed continuous mode, the camera fires at nine frames per second, which is far faster than I would ever require. The single autofocus is shockingly fast, even in poor light (though the lens you use does affect focus speed to a degree) however, the camera does suffer from poor focus-tracking, making this a less than ideal choice for sports photography.

Vertical swivel only, though better than nothing!

Vertical swivel only, though better than nothing!

Screen
The main screen on this camera is nothing short of fantastic. Clear, bright, and sharp, it has great color and contrast and is hands-down one of the best main screens I have seen on a camera. The touchscreen is a nice bonus, and is well implemented and unobtrusive. The fact that it is a super high resolution capacitative OLED screen means it is responsive and viewable even in bright sunlight, and has plenty of resolution to allow accurate manual focusing. The built-in EVF (electronic view-finder) is acceptable, and good when the sun is so bright you can’t see the rear screen, but definitely feels a bit low-fidelity compared to the main screen.

It feels surprisingly heavy for its size

It feels surprisingly heavy for its size

Construction
Overall the camera is built like a tank, and feels like a little rock in your hand. It is surprisingly small, tiny enough that I can nearly conceal it with the palm of one hand, though not so small as to be unwieldy. I have the black model, and after three months of continuous use there is a small degree of brassing (paint rubbing off exposing the metal below) at various contact points. Despite being the kind of person who likes to keep my things in “like-new” condition forever, the brassing doesn’t really bother me. It doesn’t affect anything beyond the aesthetics of the camera, and I even think it adds character. I have yet to test the weatherproofing, and hope I don’t need to, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Image Stabilization
This gets its own section for this reason alone: the 5-axis IS (image stabilization) in the OM-D is nothing short of magical. When you shoot video with it, it’s like using a steady cam. It’s fluid to the point of being disconcerting. It allows me to capture sharp shots in situations I would never have considered shooting in before.

Image Quality
Much ado has been made about the OM-D’s high-ISO capabilities and I’m not here to argue. I feel totally comfortable shooting up to ISO 3200 without fear of losing too many details to noise. Overall the color is exceptional (though, to a large degree color and contrast depend on the lens) and the level of detail the sensor records is impressive. I find that the OM-D outperforms my old Canon APS-C camera in every regard (which is why I sold the Canon to finance the OM-D!). Again, this isn’t based on any exhaustive tests or “pixel peeping” or anything like that. In all honesty, if what you need to do requires more image quality than this camera can provide, you are a working professional and don’t need to hear what I have to say anyway. For the rest of the world, you will never need a camera with more resolution than the OM-D. Never.

Overall
In practice I find the OM-D to be as close to flawless as I could wish for. It very rarely misses focus, it’s fast and accurate in every regard, it’s been durable, reliable and complaint free. The only issue I’ve had was a sensor problem that I discovered was endemic to some of the black-body OM-Ds. Fortunately, Olympus support came through and gave me the address and contact information of their repair facility in Hong Kong (the problem appeared while we were in Japan). After some kerfuffle over a warranty card, I was able to get the camera fixed in fours days and am happy to report the problem is gone.

If you are travelling abroad, bring your warranty card and keep it safe! If something happens and you need to repair your camera, you’ll be paying out of pocket unless you have that little card. Despite the fact that my camera was less than a year old and was certainly in warranty, I ended up having my parents mail the card to friends in Hong Kong. A copy was NOT acceptable. It’s unclear what I would have done had we not had a contact in the city.

My Travel Setup

Camera and bag

Thus far on our trip, the only gap remaining in my kit is a good macro lens. Otherwise, I have yet to find a situation where I feel like I couldn’t get the shot I wanted (apart from my own lack of foresight). My kit is small, thanks to the MFT format, and fits in a modest sling bag that is less than 14 inches long.

Cameras
Obviously I have the OM-D, but we also brought the Panasonic GF-1 because of its small size (and my inability to sell it for anything near what it is worth). Initially it was a back-up for the OM-D, but as Steph began to take more interest in photography she has started to take the GF-1 out with us and shoot her own photos, with great success.

Lenses

Not shown: the lens used to take this photo, the tiny Panasonic 14mm pancake prime

I find the lens I use the most is the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake prime. The image quality of this lens is excellent. It is sharp as a tack, with a fast minimum aperture for low light and great color and contrast. The only complaint is that it is probably one of my slowest lenses in terms of autofocus speed, especially in low light. Anyone who uses MFT needs to own this lens, no exceptions. My second most go-to lens is the Olympus 45mm f1.8 prime. This lens seems a little pricey at first, but when you shoot it you’ll quickly forget about the price once you see the sharpness and color it produces.

Here’s a list of my lenses in the order I use them (from most to least) with some notes on why I purchased them and my thoughts on their performance.

Panasonic 20mm f1.7pancake prime — This lens is a fantastic all-purpose shooter. Great color, sharpness and resolution, it will get the most from any MFT sensor and will let you get those low light and bokeh-heavy shots you want.

Olympus 45mm f1.8 Prime —
This is a standout portrait lens. If it’s people you want to shoot, this is the lens to use. It also lets the shy among us get more intimate street photos than they may otherwise with a more “standard” street lens. In terms of image quality, it is unimpeachable.

Panasonic 14mm f2.5 pancake prime —
A strong wide-angle choice, good for landscapes and tight spaces. This lens is tiny and nearly disappears on the front of the camera. In terms of image quality, it is slightly less wide and slightly less sharp than the excellent Olympus 12mm. It also suffers from some minor purple fringing, but it costs over $600 less than the Olympus alternative, so I was willing to live with the minor flaws.

Olympus 12-50mm weatherproof zoom —
This lens came with the camera, and to some degree it suffers the usual kit-lens failings such as a slow maximum aperture, problems with sharpness and less than impressive color and contrast. That said it is a better than average kit lens. Though not well-suited for low light, it offers acceptable IQ in most conditions. It has a nice macro setting that allows for some surprisingly close shots. It also has a power zoom function that is nice for video and was, at the time of purchase, the only weather-sealed lens available for MFT.

Panasonic 45-200mm zoom —
Considering the low price of this lens, it is surprisingly good. I rarely use it, but in the cases where I have it has performed well. It’s a little soft at the most extreme zoom levels, and it strictly for good light only, due to its painfully slow maximum aperture, but if you need the reach there isn’t a better lens for the money.

Accessories
Apart from lenses I carry very little with me in terms of accessories. I have the clip-on flash that came with the OM-D (used once), some lens cloths, a small brush for cleaning the outside of the camera and that’s about it. When I was a working photographer I shot nearly everything with flash, and considered a speedlight (flash) indispensable. Now, thanks to the fast primes I use I can shoot nearly in the dark, and I generally find portraits without flash more pleasing since I am no longer aiming for a “commercial” look.

Camera Bag

The smallest camera bag I have ever owned that could carry my whole kit


I started the trip with a fancy Lowe Pro bag that I really liked (and still do) but for various reasons I had to send it home. My replacement bag was 12USD in a Hong Kong night market and is perfect. It looks nothing like a camera bag, and has the added bonus of holding my wallet, cell phone and other sundry items I may want to bring with me when we go out for the day. Thanks to the diminutive size of the MFT system, I can put every piece of gear I have in this bag and still have space to spare.

Wrap-up

I know there are people who won’t necessarily agree with my assertion that the OM-D is the best thing out there for travel, and that is fine – I’m not here to proselytize. I’m perfectly aware that it is a relatively expensive camera, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend nearly any MFT camera in its place for the more budget conscious among us. Honestly, I would even say go buy a used GF-1 and save a bundle on a camera that is still excellent. Obviously, the camera you choose depends on your needs and your limitations, but I still think that MFT is the best game in town when you balance cost against image quality and portability.

I’m not going to list every camera out there that could make a good travel camera, because that could be any camera you want, depending on what you’re willing to sacrifice. What I am saying is that when you consider the best balance of every factor, I believe the OM-D is the clear winner, and I have been happier with it than any camera I have used in my 12 years as a photographer. This isn’t light praise considering I used to sell and repair cameras before I switched to the other side of the counter and began shooting for a living. For my money, the OM-D will be the last camera I buy for a long, long time.

 

Connect with us

If you enjoyed this post and found it informative, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, via Email, or even through Google+ (does anyone use that? Seriously?) using the icons below. And remember: if you want to know what we’re up to RIGHT NOW, make sure you’re following us on Twitter and check out our daily photos on Facebook!

About Tony

As a designer by trade and a former professional photographer, there isn't much in the world of visual communication that I haven't worked on. From web projects, to museum interiors, to weddings and portraits, my career to this point has run the gamut of visual media. Born and raised in a sleepy town in southeast Minnesota, I moved to Nashville to pursue my education. I ended up meeting the love of my life and adopting the two best dogs this side of the Mason-Dixon line. I love two-wheeled transport, trying new food and am a bit of a gadget freak. I love a good book, and have music playing almost constantly. After over a decade in the same city, I'm quickly getting used to the idea of having no fixed address, and hope all of you enjoy my ramblings about our ramblings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



CommentLuv badge

11 Responses to “Choosing the Right Travel Camera Part Three: What I Shoot”

  1. Eva November 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm # Reply

    OMG, best timing ever! I’m getting a Panasonic G3 for Christmas (only $399 on Amazon right now!), and I’m already saving up for my first fast prime lens. I still haven’t decided whether to go for the 20mm or 45mm, but I’m thrilled that you’ve been shooting w micro 4/3rds. :D I’ve also been eyeing that Panasonic 45-200 as my eventual zoom lens choice, so you’ve mentioned all the lens I’ve been looking at, making this post the perfect resource for me. W my health issues, a regular DSLR is just too heavy, even for a day outing much less travelling, and I wasn’t sure if I’d end up having to compromise on shallow field depth due to 4/3rd’s smaller sensor. *happy dance*

    And yes, I know even getting your fancy pants camera wouldn’t magically make my photos look like yours. ;)

    Ahem, that is to say, I’m excited you did a part three and am even more impatient for Christmas now.
    Eva recently posted..Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood

    • Tony December 3, 2012 at 8:24 pm # Reply

      I’m so glad this helped you! I definitely think your first prime lens should be the 20mm, it’s by far the best multi-purpose lens available for M43, though Olympus is about to release a 17mm f1.8 that would be pretty good as well, though more expensive. The G3 is a good camera from what I have read, I think you will really like it!

      • Eva December 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm # Reply

        I was going to get the 20mm first, but I’ve been looking at photos taken w the 45mm and realised that its specialisations (sp? anyway, portraits, flowers, etc.) seem to dovetail w the vast majority of pictures I take. Since the kit lens includes a 45mm focal length, I figure I’ll spend a couple weeks trying out 45mm v 20mm on that lens before making my final decision. I suspect the 17mm will be out of my price range!

        Are you happy w portraits taken w the 20mm? The portrait pics I’ve seen aren’t nearly as nice as the 45mm, but maybe that’s because of the photographer instead of lens.

        I hope you’re having a great trip! Off to catch up on latest Hong Kong post. :) (For me, google reader still isn’t showing your photos, fyi.)
        Eva recently posted..The Blue Fox by Sjon (thoughts)

        • Tony December 8, 2012 at 9:28 am # Reply

          The 45mm is definitely a better portrait lens, and I find it to be a good all around performer too. I have been happy with the portraits I have taken with the 20mm, though you do have to get kind of close to get a good head and shoulders shot. The one thing I will point out is that the 45mm (which is a 90mm in the 35mm equivalent) ends up giving a bit too much zoom for anything other than portraits or detail shots and without an image stabilized body (e.g. the G3) you might get more blurry photos than you like if you don’t shoot in good light or at a higher ISO.

          I think your idea of shooting at the two focal lengths is a good one, hopefully you can get a feel that way. I can say for sure that they are both excellent lenses, and you’ll want to own them both eventually. You might also look at the Leica 45mm macro. It’s not as fast as the olympus lens (only f2.8), but it will let you take some really nice close-ups of flowers and has the right focal length for portraits. I don’t know if they are still expensive, but if you hunt around you might be able to find one for around the same price as the Oly lens (saw one on Amazon for a little voer $500, which is close), and the Leica has image stabilization… Something to chew on anyway.

          • Eva December 8, 2012 at 11:31 am #

            Oh, thanks! I definitely don’t have the steadiest hands, so that’s a good point about IS. I’ll keep mulling over it. And I’ll look into the Leica too.

            Right now, I’m stalking both lens at B&H and if one goes on sale that’ll make my decision for me. ;) It doesn’t seem like lens go on sale the same way bodies do though!
            Eva recently posted..The Blue Fox by Sjon (thoughts)

  2. Arti November 23, 2012 at 8:51 pm # Reply

    That is such a comprehensive post on a camera! I own a Nikon, its a simple camera since I am not much of a photographer…
    Arti recently posted..Turning 3 – Our Yatra Continues…

    • Tony December 3, 2012 at 8:27 pm # Reply

      I have found that generally most photographers prefer a simple camera. I use maybe 20% of the features on my camera, beyond exposure compensation and setting the aperture and shutter speed, there isn’t much else you need to do!

  3. Vicky November 24, 2012 at 6:05 am # Reply

    Great to read about the camera you picked out! I brought along my DSLR with me (I had just bought it in Feb 2011 so felt like it was too soon to swap it for a different camera) and seriously hate how heavy it is and how it weighs down on my shoulder and neck all day long! Definitely wish I had this camera with me instead. When I decide to get a new one will be reading through this article again!
    Vicky recently posted..Wild Monkeys at Zhangjiajie

    • Tony December 3, 2012 at 8:28 pm # Reply

      it’s remarkable how much difference it makes! I can carry this camera all day and not ever notice it. And when you’re on the road every kg counts (especially when you fly!). The less weight I can carry around the better!

  4. Jimmy Dau August 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm # Reply

    I use an OMD as well with the Olympus 12mm and Panasonic 25mm lens and I love it. Can bring it on with my carry on luggage along with laptop and other necessary items you don’t want to be seperated with. Still use the kit tele-zoom lens but rarely use it. Do you use a tripod as well?
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..Cutting the fat and living the minimalist lifestyle

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New Additions to Our Carry-On Packing List: The Switch from DSLR to Mirrorless Camera, iPad, Tieks & More - December 17, 2013

    […] see the Twenty Years Hence review of the Olympus OM-D EM-5 for travel or for more detail the DP Review’s writeup. If you want to compare your current camera to a […]