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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Travel Setup
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.