Switching from Nikon to Olympus: Part 2 – Before I make the jump, I’ll test out the system

With a decision made to seriously consider Olympus, as I wrote about previously, it was time to rent some gear and give it a whirl. I looked over my calendar for a period of time that would give me a chance to use the system in a variety of situations and settled on a 6 day period around Christmas. This allowed me to shoot some event photography, some family gatherings, as well as some shooting while hiking.

I placed my order with a local rental company, BorrowLenses. Their website is really slow to return search results, but they had a deal going so I ordered an Olympus OM-D E-M5, and a lens kit that would replace the lenses I used with my Nikon gear. Bear in mind that the micro four thirds sensor is smaller than full frame, so you have to add a 2x multiplier to focal length to get the equivalent framing of a full frame lens. For instance, the standard 50mm lens for full frame, is a 25mm lens in micro four thirds. You get the same light gathering at a given aperture, but deeper depth of field, with micro four thirds.

The Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 Zoom – This is the Olympus equivalent to the standard 24-70mm F/2.8 Pro zoom most manufactures make. This lens works out to be 24-80mm in full frame terms. It’s part of Olympus’ pro line of lenses and offers full weather sealing, dust protection, all metal construction and a manual focus clutch system.

The Olympus 17mm F/1.8 Prime – My favorite way to shoot in the Nikon system, for normal non-photography day trips, family events, etc., was with the Nikon FM body and a 28mm F/2.8 lens. It’s wide enough to photograph people around a table but without too much distortion and a fast enough lens to work in low light. There are micro four thirds equivalent lenses, but not at the purchase price I’m willing to consider. This 35mm full frame equivalent would, I hope, make a good stand in. It’s super compact, and plenty fast.

The Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 – This lens is rated highly for optics and is the full frame equivalent of 200-800mm lens; Huge reach, and relatively compact size.

The equipment arrived the day before a dress rehearsal for a large choir performance I was a part of. When these events happen I usually use dress rehearsal to capture a few images of the full choir for posterity and for use in marketing the event. Normally, I struggle with my Nikon APS-C sensor and some slow zooms to try and capture the full choir. It’s a dark environment, and I didn’t own any fast wide lenses for my Nikons. I’ve never been that happy with the images. They are fine for posting on the web and printing for small materials, but they are noisy and tend to have a lot of distortion at the edges.

During the rehearsal I grabbed the E-M5, mounted the 12-40mm lens and fired a couple shots wide open to see what I could do. The camera was in auto ISO and it chose ISO6400 to get a reasonably fast shutter speed. The image looked fine. On par or better, from the onboard LCD of the camera, than what I would expect from my Nikons. Since I shot slower lenses on my Nikon I had to crank the ISO up to 12800, so the image looking better on the Olympus made sense. I was able to shoot at F/2.8, instead of F/5.6, and use a lower ISO. I’m sure my images in the Nikon system would have looked better as well with faster glass. I wanted to see some real improvement if I was going to make the switch, not just the benefits of faster glass.

I kept the lens at 12mm, F/2.8 and dropped the ISO down to 200, which is the base ISO for the E-M5. I stabilized myself, pressed the camera to my eye and used my best shooting technique to see how much I could get out of the in body stabilization of the E-M5. For proper exposure I needed a shot at 1/6th of a second. With the camera in continuous shutter, I fired off 3 or 4 shots.

When I looked at the back of the camera, every single one was sharp on the LCD screen. That was a surprise for sure. I expected maybe one shot of reasonable sharpness that I could, again, use for small items or the web. Even when I looked back on the PC later, the shots looked great. And, due to the longer shutter speed, the director’s arms are quite obviously in motion. I really liked the shot. And it’s a shot that would not have been possible on my Nikon without a tripod.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 12-40mm @ 12mm F/2.8 1/6th

That next Saturday it was time to pack the kit in my hiking bag and put a few miles in. I hike every Saturday, doing 3-6 miles, and I usually carry around two lenses and my D500. I packed the 12-40mm, and the 100-400mm and set off. It was a cool day, but no snow yet. I hiked over to an open field a mile or so from the road and found that someone had hung bird feeders on many of the trees. With all the birds flying and perching, it was a perfect opportunity to try out the long zoom lens and the AF system on the camera. The E-M5 Mark II doesn’t have as robust a system as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II, but I wanted to see how much I really needed that system.

The big zoom on the small camera was awkward to say the least. The form factor of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II is very similar, if even a bit smaller, than the Nikon FM I loved. In both cases though, I missed having a grip to wrap my fingers around. This isn’t a huge issue for casual shooting, but trying to be stable and supporting the camera with a large lens mounted didn’t feel good, and very quickly made my hand sore. The E-M5 Mark II has several grip options available, but I didn’t rent any.

Beyond comfort, which can be dealt with, I really didn’t like the lens. It was reasonably sharp, but it was a hassle to use. The zoom ring was just too tough to rotate. I thought perhaps my rental had seen some miles and was getting worn out, but many of the online reviews for the lens said the same thing. The lens was too big and too hard to handle. I was willing to make the trade off of an 800mm equivalent field of view at a very slow F/6.3, over something faster but not as long, but this lens was no fun to use at all.

Auto focus performance was on par for what I expected with fast moving birds. I had some shots in focus, but many shots were just barely out of focus; The AF system in the EM-5 Mark II is not designed to handle sports/action and wasn’t able to keep up with birds in flight. This answered, for me, the question about needing to step up to the EM-1 Mark II instead, for it’s superior AF system.

Here’s a couple quick shots made while out walking with the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II, and I think the 12-40MM F/2.8 lens. I shot them in RAW, and then applied some of Olympus’ filters to them in post processing. You can, if you chose, apply these filters in camera and they can be visible in the viewfinder as well while you shoot.

Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II – Pop Filter II

Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II – Diorama

Later that evening we headed over to the seacoast for some Christmas sight seeing and a family dinner. I grabbed my Nikon D500, with the 35mm F/1.8 lens (~50mm equivalent), and my wife packed the Olympus with the 17mm prime lens. I was immediately struck by the size, the HEFT, of the Nikon! We traded cameras back and forth a bit that evening and I was very happy with the abilities of the E-M5 in low light with AF, and the images looked pretty good as well. My only issue was down to my lack of familiarity with the controls of the E-M5, but in time I’m sure I’d adapt. I can operate my D500 by feel alone, and I’m just not there yet with the rental camera.

Then, for Christmas Eve church services I used all three lenses to see what I could do in such low light. Below is a worst case scenario shot with the EM-5 Mark II at ISO6400 and the 100-400MM lens at F/6.3. I chose a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second, which sadly wasn’t fast enough to stop motion in the image. You can see in the image that the subject is moving, but for online viewing, and printing at smaller sizes I think this looks great. Very usable image and a lot of fine detail remains, in the hair, etc. (Please forgive any color casts, I’m color blind and I can’t always make sense of the colors I’m seeing to make them look natural.)

Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II with Panasonic Leica 100-400 @f/6.3 1/80 second

The rental also came with the tiny shoe mount flash that comes with the E-M5 II. It mounts in the hot shoe, and has a extra connector at the base that allows it to use the camera’s battery for power. Super compact. I wouldn’t want to shoot a big event with this small flash, but as fill flash, it’s excellent. I won’t share any images here, but I made good use of it Christmas morning and it worked great. I was really pleased.

So, to sum it all up micro four thirds worked great, and the only thing I feel like I’m giving up is size! I was really impressed with the system over all. Noise wasn’t nearly as big of an issue as I was expecting and I was very happy with the quality of several of the lenses I rented. The long Panasonic Leica zoom lens was too large, too slow, and too stiff for me. And, if I’m honest the EM-5 was too small for me. That brings me to two solid reasons to buy the Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II over the EM-5, size of the body and the AF system.

I really liked the 12-40mm F/2.8 lens. I’ve never shot much with pro level fast glass, and having the the Olympus lens be so sharp, small and light was a real eye opener for me. The 17mm F/1.8 was a great replacement for my ‘walking around’ lens and is definitely on my short list.

All that remains to do now is actually take the plunge and abandon Nikon, the only SLR or DSLR manufacturer I’ve ever used, and step into the unknown!

More on that next time…


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