Cameras that perform like DSLR’s (well, almost) but without the weight, the bulk, and the backache are a welcome breath of fresh air in an industry that was starting to stagnate in a war of megapixels.
And while I still think the Fuji is an astonishing camera — near perfect in many ways — its few shortcomings have sent me searching for an alternative, or at least an additional, small camera.
With so many options to choose from, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin, but I have one criterion that slashes the list:
I can’t stand trying to frame a photo in bright sunlight using the LCD on the back of a camera. For one thing, it’s all but impossible in bright light. And for another, I’d have to put on my reading glasses (yeah, I’ve reached that age).
So I’ve eliminated many candidates, and probably some excellent cameras, from my consideration by insisting that they have a real viewfinder (electronic, or optical, or both, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is something to put my eye up to).
Olympus OM-D E-M5
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is part of the well-established “Micro Four Thirds” family of cameras. Cameras in this class have an image sensor slightly smaller than the APS-C sensor found in the Fuji (and in most crop-sensor DSLR’s), but still very large by comparison to traditional point-and-shoot cameras.
I chose the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for my second mirrorless camera because it fills some gaps left by the Fuji in my camera lineup.
- Image Stabilization (in-body, 5-axis stabilization to reduce camera shake)
- Interchageable Zoom Lens (as compared to the Fuji’s fixed 23mm lens)
- Face Detection Auto Focus
Faces in Focus!
If you read my previous Fuji reviews, you know my chief complaint was its frequent failure to autofocus on the subject.
I’m happy to report that the Olympus does a much better job — and it even helps you by automatically detecting faces in your frame and focusing on them. Nice!
It’s not perfect, but it’s a big improvement over the erratic performance of the Fuji.
Zoom Lens (and the option for more)
The Olympus allows interchangeable lenses, so it’s far more flexible than the Fuji with its fixed 23 mm lens. There’s a whole spectrum of micro-four-thirds lenses made by Olympus, Panasonic, and others that will fit on the OM-D E-M5.
So far, I’ve only used the kit 12-50mm (f/35.-6.3) lens, which is roughly equivalent to 24-100 on a full frame camera. This is a versatile range which serves nearly all my needs.
Of course, the downside to a zoom lens is you’re just never going to get the quality you can in a prime lens. And when compared to the near-miraculous prime lens on the Fuji, this Olympus kit lens comes up a little bit shorter on quality. But that’s not really a fair comparison, because the Fuji can’t zoom.
And for a kit lens that zooms, the Olympus 12-50 is really quite good. I’d like to try a wide-aperture prime lens on the Oly (perhaps a f/1.2 of 1.4) to see what it’s really capable of, and I’ll expand this review in the future if I do.
Meanwhile I’m basing my opinion on the 12-50 kit lens.
You know I’m a fan of stabilization. Every one one of my Canon lenses is stabilized, because I have shaky hands, and I find it greatly improves my images.
Olympus took a different path and stabilized the camera a body (actually the sensor), rather than the lens. This has a couple advantages. The lenses are less expensive and smaller without the extra moving parts. And any lens you mount, from any maker, still benefits from the in-body stabilization.
Some users complain that the Olympus makes a humming noise when stabilizing, but frankly I don’t find it noticeable.
I configured mine to stabilize then the shutter is half-pressed (rather than the default instantaneous stabilization when the shutter is clicked) because (a) I like to see the effect in the viewfinder to know it’s working, and (b) I don’t really trust it to be able to stabilize that fast.
Of course, I pay for this option in battery life, but I always carry a spare, and still find I can usually get a normal day’s shooting from one battery.
The biggest benefits of the olympus are three mentioned above:
- Image Stabilization
- Interchageable Lenses
- Face Detection Auto Focus
Other great features:
- Tilt-out rear LCD screen (great for framing high or low angle shots)
- Touch-screen control
- Compact body size (slightly smaller than the Fuji — until you attach a lens)
- Ridiculous name (come on Olympus, “OM-D E-M5”? Really catchy. Why not THX1138?) I still have to look it up the spelling every time I write it.
- Cumbersome flash – The E-M5 has no built-in flash. Instead, it comes with a little hot-shoe flash that you can mount on top. When it’s mounted it works well enough, but attaching it requires removing three (three!) little plastic widgets from the camera and flash (little widgets which you must then keep track of). The flash comes in a little velvet carrying bag which can be attached to the camera strap, and I use it to store the little fiddly bits when the flash is mounted. But overall, it just seems like too much of a hassle to mount the flash.
- Non-Intuitive Controls – I’m still struggling to get familiar with the E-M5, despite having read the manual (much of it twice). For some reason, it just doesn’t want to gel with me. Of course, the Fuji also has a steep learning curve, but somehow it’s easier to just pick it up and do things with than the Olympus. My shooting-partner Julie also finds the Olympus a bit frustrating. For example, we couldn’t figure out how to delete all images from the memory card without consulting the manual. I often feel like, “I just want to do X! Why should I have to look at the manual to do X?” Of course, if the Olympus were my main camera, I’m sure I’d come to know it backwards and forwards, and this problem would go away. But for now, I still struggle with it.
Compared to the Fuji X100S
So, now that I own two of these little mirroless wonders, which do I prefer? Well, the answer of course, is:
If your primary photography need is shooting quick, reliable snapshots of people, especially on the move, then the Olympus beats the Fuji, because its face-detection autofocus is simply more reliable. And the stabilization helps avoid shake. So for family vacation photos, shots of the kids in action, etc., you might prefer the Olympus.
And if you want a zoom lens, or to attach different lenses for different purposes (especially telephoto), then the Olympus wins hands down. Because the Fuji is always fixed at a fairly wide 23mm.
But if your main concern is image quality, or the convenience of a self-contained one-piece camera (even if you have to spend a little more time getting the shot) then the Fuji still reigns supreme.
There is a good reason why many expert photographers and gearheads (such as David Hobby, Zack Arias, and Ken Rockwell) call the Fuji X100S the best digital camera they have ever owned. The image quality of the Fuji is simply astonishing.
So, I would summarize the strengths of each camera as follows:
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Strengths:
- Easy people snapshots
- All-purpose walk-around versatility (zoom lens)
- Ability to use telephoto and other lenses
- High/Low Angle shots (tilt-out-screen)
- Stabilization prevents camera shake in stills and video
Fuji X100S Strengths:
- One-piece camera. No extra lenses or flash needed.
- Super-sharp photos (especially with manual focus)
- Tricky flash situations (leaf shutter = sync at any speed)
- Low light shooting (f/2 lens)
How I Decide Which One to Carry
Here’s the way my decision process is starting to go when I’m running out the door and have to decide which camera to grab:
If I’m going to be primarily shooting people, I go for the Olympus. For example: Recently my daughter and I went to Comic-Con, which is all about getting photos of costumed people, most of them in motion, frequently shot while I’m also in motion. The Olympus is a no-brainer for this, because the Fuji would miss the focus on half of these moving people. The Olympus, with its face-detection auto-focus, makes these rapid-fire moving snapshots much more reliable.
On the other hand, when I want to shoot an object, like a flower, or a plate of food, especially in low light, and I have all the time in the world to focus, I choose the Fuji. Especially if I want a really shallow depth-of-field for an artistic look, because the f/2 lens gives a beautifully soft background.
So, as with all things in photography, it’s a trade-off. I think that if the Olympus 12-50 zoom lens had an aperture of f/2.8 throughout its range, it would be almost the perfect camera. Or, if the Fuji could zoom and had more reliable autofocus, then it would be the perfect camera.
I love shooting with both of these cameras and wholeheartedly recommend both of them. If you are in the market for a compact camera with great performance, you can buy either of these with confidence and expect to get a lot of joy from it.
But I still don’t feel like I’ve found the “perfect” small camera for me — if such thing even exists. Maybe I’m on a unicorn hunt and doomed to be disappointed.
But for now I’m going to keep hunting, and I’ll let you know the results as I go.
Price these cameras on Amazon.com
(And by the way, if budget is no obstacle, Olympus has subsequently released a newer model in this camera line, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which reportedly has better image quality. Add the Olympus Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 lens and you have what sounds very much like my fantasy scenario described above, but the total cost is about $1,000 more than my Em5 package.)
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