Olympus OM-D E-M1 review updated with thoughts on RAW quality

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Now that ACR has preliminary support for E-M1 raw files – amongst a whole load of other cameras – in ACR 8.2 (available here for Mac and Windows), I’ve gone through and reprocessed a few to assess the RAW quality of the E-M1’s sensor; I expect to have more thoughts on this in the longer term after I have a chance to put the camera through a greater variety of scenarios. Sadly, my loaner went back yesterday, so further updates after this one will have to wait until my own cameras arrive in October.

The full updated review is here. MT

Lens review: The Olympus 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO

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Announced and available together with the new OM-D E-M1 (reviewed here), the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital PRO (24-80mm equivalent) is the first in a new line of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses. Development of an equivalent-grade f2.8 fast telephoto zoom was also announced, with a 2014 release. Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to use this lens together with the new camera for some time now. Read on for my review.

Advanced warning: Flickr will apparently be down for maintenance for a little while on Friday 13/9, so if some images don’t appear, it’s because they’re hosted there…

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The 2013 Olympus OM-D E-M1 review, part two: some comparisons

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In part one yesterday, I looked at the camera as a standalone device with few references to its predecessor or competition; today we’re going to examine some of the technical differences in a bit more detail against two benchmarks: the outgoing OM-D E-M5, and the Nikon D600. Both are 2012 cameras, and cameras that I’m intimately familiar with because I use them heavily in the course of my normal work – the E-M5 as my travel/teaching camera, and the D600 for video and backup to the D800E. The former is a no-brainer; the latter is perhaps a bit more of a stretch: not only is there a significant price difference, but the sensor goes up in size by two whole notches – it’s effectively four times the size of that in the E-M1. Surely this is an unfair fight?

Update: ISO comparison chart mislabelling fixed, and I am checking on the 12 vs 14bit issue. Olympus confirms files are 12 bit.

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The 2013 Olympus OM-D E-M1 review, part one: the camera

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The late-2013 OM-D E-M1 is the successor and upgrade to the very popular early-2012 OM-D E-M5. It’s now clear why the camera was launched with a mouthful of two names: OM-D is a line of products, E-Mx is the model. In this review, we will refer to them as E-M1 and E-M5 respectively to avoid confusion. As you all probably know, I’m very familiar with the E-M5; this camera has served as my travel and teaching camera for the last year, and has now clocked somewhere north of 40,000 exposures (I also reviewed it here). What’s changed in a year? Quite a lot, it seems: certainly enough to get excited about. There’s also a new confirmed lens – the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO, available with the camera, and a matching f2.8 telephoto for next year.

This review will be in three parts for ease of reading (this part is already north of 4,400 words) – the camera itself, today; a relative comparison with two other benchmarks, tomorrow; and a review of one of the two lenses announced with the camera shortly thereafter – the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO. A quick note on testing methodology: a range of lenses were used for the review, including the new 12-40, the 50-200/2.8-3.5 SWD for 4/3rds, the 12, 45, 60 and 75mm primes, and the Panasonic 14-42X. You won’t find full size images here due to image theft/ IP issues; go by what I say not what you see – there’s an enormous difference between a small web JPEG that’s been attacked and oversharpened by Flickr’s downsizing algorithm and a full sized one or a RAW file in any case, plus of course the monitor matters. There will be 100% crops where noted, however.

A set of images shot with the E-M1 will be here on my flickr page, and continuously updated as I use the camera more.

Review updated 18 September to include comments on RAW file quality, post ACR 8.2 release.

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FD Shooting with the legends: The Olympus [mju:]-II

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I suppose it’s possible to call this camera the epitome of film point and shoots; it was, after all, quite possibly the Volkswagen Beetle of its generation. Made in huge numbers (3.8 million for this model alone, 10 million of all Mju variants), not especially expensive, but by all accounts incredibly reliable and delivering consistently excellent results. I certainly remember lusting after one while growing up, but through some strange turn of events landed up buying a rather useless Fuji 1010ix APS camera instead, which I still regret to this day. Thanks to some blind luck and the quick actions of a friend, I managed to eventually get my hands on one – new in box, for not much more than a brick of film.

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Just updated the Olympus E-P5 review…

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I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with a final production Olympus E-P5 for the last week or so, which means I’ve been able to update the image quality section of the review. You can find the whole thing (including the update, of course) here. MT

Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia for making it happen.

Photoessay: New York street cinematics

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Possessiveness of taxis is a New York thing

I found the people and streets of New York to be eminently suited to a bit of cinematic street photography. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many movies have already been filmed in New York, or it’s the quality of light filtering between and reflecting off buildings, or it’s the various diverse characters that live in the city. These are little moments, vignettes and slices-of-life; I don’t want to use the word ‘stolen’, but it does sometimes feel like one is peering into a pre-coreographed scene and simply borrowing a frame. I sincerely apologise in advance for having some fun with the captions.

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Review: The OIympus PEN E-P5 (updated)

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Not so long ago, Olympus updated both the E-PL series (E-PL5 reviewed here) and the E-PM series with the OM-D’s sensor and other trickle-down technology. Thus it only made sense that it was also about high time for the E-P3 to be refreshed, too. They’ve taken a bit longer over this one; in fact, the new E-P5 has so much of the OM-D’s technology (and a few other things) that picking one over the other is no longer such an easy decision.

Updated 18 June: I’ve had the chance to shoot with a final production E-P5 and VF-4, and have added conclusions on image quality below. The camera looks and feels physically identical to the earlier prototype I tested. In the intervening time, an update to Adobe Camera Raw has also been released that natively supports the E-P5, so I’ve had the ability to evaluate RAW file quality on a comparable basis to the OM-D.

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Sony and Olympus: what does it mean?

Following the accounting scandal that saw former CEO Michael Woodford ousted, Olympus’ coffers were looking decidedly empty; at that point, many potential suitors were rumoured. It turned out that Sony was the one whose offer was accepted. In a share transfer and cash deal – completed about a month ago – Sony pumped US$645 million into the company, to hold a total of 11.5%. What’s more interesting is that on most of the major business sites, this wasn’t reported as a transaction to invest in the cameramaker; rather, Olympus was frequently referred to as a ‘world leader in medical imaging’.

Although photographers know and love Olympus as the manufacturer of various quirky cameras and small systems, the truth is that margins in the medical industry – anything with ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ in its name means an extra couple of zeroes on the end of the price tag – are much, much higher than the camera business. Like Nikon, it’s been making a good chunk of its income from something other than cameras for a long time. (I don’t know how much it makes from dictaphones these days, though.)

I’m going to take off my photographer hat now and wear my analyst/ M&A/ consultant one, for a bit of change of pace. Let’s put the pieces together.

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Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2

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Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option for Micro Four Thirds users. (It was also recently re-released as a limited edition all-black version, which now includes the lens hood as part of the kit.) In fact, there’s been remarkably little competition in this arena – just a manual focus offering or two from SLR Magic, and the upcoming (and stratospherically priced) Schneider 14/2.0. Panasonic has the 7-14/4, and the 14/2.5; the latter which is perhaps the 12/2’s closest competition.

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My initial experience with this lens and its optics on the E-P3 and E-PM1 were enough to convince me that Micro Four Thirds had come of age, and would make a worthwhile compact system without major compromises for the majority of situations in which I’d want to use a compact system camera. This impression held, wavered, and changed again – to be honest, until the last Tokyo workshop, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to use the 12/2 on the OM-D (full review here) for a serious evaluation. The last time I used the lens on the OM-D was also the first time I’d taken out the camera for a serious bout of shooting, and definitely wasn’t a good way to benchmark performance of either camera or lens – simply too many variables and unknowns were in play here.

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Spiral. E-PM1, ZD 12/2

The lens is one of the Olympus Super High Grade line, impeccably built and finished with all-metal construction, and one unique feature (for a Micro Four Thirds Lens) – the focusing ring clutch. Sliding the focusing ring backwards a notch puts the lens in manual focus mode, and also reveals a focus distance scale: unlike every other lens in the system, the 12/2 has hard stops at each end of the range. Together with the depth of field scales, the lens should theoretically be the ideal tool for street photography – fast, wide, zone-focusable, and with more depth of field for a given aperture and field of view than its 35mm equivalent.

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In AF mode (left) and scale-focus MF mode (right)

Except, this isn’t quite the case. Sadly, the clutched focus system isn’t really mechanically linked to the position of the lens elements; it too is a fly-by-wire simulation – albeit a very good one, with the right amount of tactile feedback and everything. The problem is to do with the resolution of the distance scale/ mechanism: there aren’t enough divisions.

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Reflections, Tokyo. OM-D, ZD 12/2 from a moving train

It seems that there are perhaps five or six discrete distances to which the focusing group moves, instead of a continuum. The only thing that could cause this is if Olympus used a form of rheostat in the construction of the the focusing ring/ clutch. Although 12mm is a very wide actual focal length with plenty of depth of field for a given aperture, f2 is fast enough that more critical control over your focus point is required. Sadly, though the idea of the ring is a good one, the execution makes it of marginal utility for the photographer in the real world – unless you are willing to use a small aperture – f4-5.6 or smaller – to use depth of field to cover the lack of manual focus precision.

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Diagonals, Shibuya. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Curiously, this is most definitely not the case for either manual focus with the ring in the AF position (i.e. selecting manual focus on the camera body) or when using autofocus. Here, the lens is precise, moves in as many infinitesimally incremental steps as one could desire, and has no trouble finding critical focus. While on the subject of focusing, it’s probably a good time to talk about autofocus performance. Like all of Olympus’ other MSC designs, the 12/2 is an extremely snappy lens – even more so on any of the recent bodies. I haven’t experienced any gross focus misses, but it’s worth noting that some care is required at f2 – the plane of focus isn’t quite as deep as you’d think.

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Taxi rush, Shinjuku. OM-D, ZD 12/2

The lens is not weather sealed or gasketed, and once again, Olympus has decided not to include a hood – this is excusable for a $250 economy kit item, but not on a $800 premium lens. It just smells too much like penny pinching. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the optional hood is rather cumbersome; it increases the bulk and visual size of the lens hugely, requires a thumb screw to attach, can rotate freely and requires a different cap – why can’t they just use a bayonet hood? Zeiss lenses are a great example of how bayonet hood mounts should be constructed.

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Shadows, Otemachi. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Over a good year of use with this lens on the E-PM1 and OM-D, those are my only two complaints: the inaccuracy of the pseudo-manual focus clutch, and the continued minor farce of the lens hood. If you read this carefully, it means that I don’t have any major criticisms of the optics.

The 12/2 uses a rather exotic optical design with 11 elements in 8 groups; one of these is aspherical, one is made of ED glass, and another two of exotic Super HR and DSA glasses. It’s a non-symmetric, telecentric design whose optical formula honestly doesn’t look familiar to me – the closest thing I can think of are the Zeiss Distagons, insofar as they use several extremely dome convex front elements and a rear telephoto group. The lens also employs Olympus’ ZERO coating to minimize flare and maximize contrast and transmission.

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The overhang. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Let’s get the most popular question out of the way first: yes, it’s sharp. Bitingly so, at all apertures, across the entire frame in all but the most extreme corners. There appears to be a small amount of field curvature, but nothing overly serious; enough that for optimal sharpness you’ll want to move the focus point over your subject rather than using center-focus-and-recompose, though. The lens has a slightly odd MTF chart that is indicative of a significant dropoff in microcontrast about halfway to the edges; I don’t see this in practical use, which suggests that the field curvature is probably responsible – and more complex than a merely spherical surface. In the real world: sharpness will not be an issue.

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Fuji TV building, Odaiba. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Though some of you might think that a little nice bokeh might be obtainable from the 12/2, you’d be mistaken; you have to be very close indeed to throw anything significantly out of focus. Fortunately, the lens focuses down to 0.2m, so this is actually possible. If you have enough distance between subject and background, then bokeh is actually fairly pleasant; however, if there isn’t a lot of distance, and the subject is a bit farther away from the camera, nothing really gets out of focus enough to begin with – in fact, you have to be a bit careful of double images in the out of focus areas. There’s a bit of spherochromatism, too.

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Star. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Although the lens in general well corrected, you do get the feeling that it’s on the extreme edges of what was possible with the design constraints put upon the optical designers: there’s visible CA against high contrast subjects, especially in the corners where you can get up to 2 pixels’ worth; there’s also very noticeable distortion. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in nature – barrel with no sombrero/ moustache – and is easily correctable in ACR. Flare exists but the ZERO coating does a good job of keeping it to a minimum – even without the hood. Stopping down to f4 on the OM-D makes everything but the distortion go away, leaving you with an excellent optic. It doesn’t quite have the transparency of the 75/1.8 or 60/2.8 Macro, but it’s fairly close if used stopped down. It is definitely the best wide option for M4/3 users at the moment. One interesting use of the lens is for handheld long exposure photography – due to the short focal length and excellent stabilizer in the OM-D, shutter speeds of anywhere down to 1/2s (consistently) or 1s (occasionally) with critically sharp results are possible, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.

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Commuters. OM-D, 12/2

As always, I suppose the litmus test for a lens is if you’d buy it a second time – I think the answer for me would be a qualified yes. I have since had the chance to shoot with the Panasonic 14/2.5; thought I prefer the 28mm field of view over 24mm, and believe that M4/3 lenses should be a compact as possible to play to the other strengths of the system, I would still pick the 12/2 as the optics are better – they simply render in a more three-dimensional way due to better microcontrast, as well as better edge sharpness. Interestingly, the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 runs it very close at f2.8; however, the T stop of that lens is about 1/3-1/2 stop slower too, for a given physical aperture. What qualifies my opinion is the upcoming Schneider 14/2; it remains to be seen if it performs as well as its price suggests it should. In the meantime, the best way to judge the 12/2 is on its pictorial results – construction, expensive accessories and the imprecise focus clutch are just distractions. And on that basis alone, I think the lens deserves a place in a serious M4/3 shooter’s bag. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12/2 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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