Having spent the last few months getting stuck-into shooting with ultra-compact (compared to my Canon 5d Mark III’s) Olympus OM-D cameras and tiny lenses such as the Panasonic-Leica Summilx 15mm, I’ve kind of had a bit of a rethink on the whole idea.
I’ve touched on some of the enormous advantages of the Micro Four Thirds system and Olympus cameras in general in my earlier posts, and on some occasions I also mentioned the challenges that can go with those cameras. I haven’t however really gone into any great detail around why those issues present problems from a professional perspective, and more importantly whether that represents a bit of a show stopper in terms of using them.
While there are many aspects of the Olympus E-M1 cameras that I love, and some of the lenses such as the Pana-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm are simply sublime, there are other aspects of the cameras which are somewhat problematic in a professional setting.
First however, I thought it might be useful to touch on a bit of background behind why I’d even started thinking about moving away from Canon.
I’ve shot with Canon cameras for years. My first Digital SLR was a Canon EOS 10D, primitive as it is now, and over the years I’ve owned various other Canon dSLRS from consumer and professional lines – culminating in a pair of full frame EOS 5D Mark III’s.
As cameras go, these are good and deliver great images day in, day out. They’re well-built, reliable, and are a massive leap forwards from the previous EOS 5D Mark II with trustworthy autofocus and much lower noise levels at higher ISO levels.
However, they’re also somewhat heavy, often struggle to find focus in lower light, have a relatively limited dynamic range and are exceptionally unforgiving in terms of shadow recoverability and noise. While as a professional photographer you tend to accept that cameras are going to be heavy, when you’re carrying two of them paired with fast lenses around all day, weight is important.
Give them good conditions however and they’ll deliver.
In less than ideal conditions, when the light disappears or if you want to expose for highlights & recover shadow detail in post production rather than reaching for your lighting equipment, you’re rather out of luck. Autofocus tends to become increasingly unreliable and starts hunting for a fix rather than snapping into focus; noise creeps into everything from large areas of colour through to dark areas of the image – and if you need to push shadows for exposure, you end up with what can only really be described as an unholy mess of unrecoverable colour noise – which the best noise reduction tools on the market sometimes struggle to clean up.
As a result you tend to loose a vast amount of flexibility. You effectively have to get every single frame perfect in camera with correct exposure, and add sufficient light via either artificial lighting or reflectors etc. to sort out your exposure if additional shadow detail is needed. Shooting wedding receptions with off-camera flash or on-camera flash with various diffusers becomes normal. There often isn’t an option of only shooting with ambient light simply as you probably wouldn’t get the camera to focus reliably without some sort of assisting light, and if you did, unless you were happy with the shot as captured you don’t have many options to adjust exposure while editing.
Fixing things in post production isn’t often an option – simply as by the time you’ve pushed the shadows to find some detail, you need to add so much noise reduction processing that there’s nothing left of the image to use!
Adding it all up, towards the end of 2015 I reached the conclusion that there really had to be a better option – and started looking for alternatives to my Canon gear. After spending far too much time researching mirrorless systems vs full frame vs crop sensors and the likes of Olympus vs Fuji or Sony vs Canon, I eventually settled on the idea that moving to Olympus E-M1’s was The Way Forwards – and swiftly acquired a pair of OMD E-M1 cameras along with some amazing prime lenses from Panasonic-Leica; the 42.5mm Nocticron and a 15mm Summilx; roughly equivalent to the much-loved 85mm and 35mm-ish primes I’ve used for ages on Canon.
The Olympus cameras were like a breath of fresh air. They have an excellent stabilised sensor technology called IBIS which gives you almost magical image stabilisation for any lens, and has usable autofocus to deliver images in the majority of situations. IBIS also lets you change up how you shoot – as it’s good enough to let you significantly drop your shutter speeds and ISO levels in dark conditions to get the shot.
This is however just as well, as high ISO images on the E-M1’s (well, anything above about ISO 1000 benefits from noise reduction and you really wouldn’t want to rely on ISO 3200+) are not particularly clean – requiring either careful black & white treatment or noise reduction in excess of desirable levels. Sure, you can end up with usable files but only really by sacrificing detail and crispness along the way. The photo above for example was shot at f1.2, 1/80 and only ISO 2000 – but as you can see, it needed a lot of noise reduction in post-production to result in a clean-ish image; clearly visible by the loss of fine detail.
I don’t mind this too much for family photos or casual shots, but it’s not really an acceptable position for my professional work over on Tim Stephenson Photography. I can’t always predict the conditions under which I’m likely to need to shoot, but need my equipment to deliver the best possible images – preferably without needing to rely on a ton of additional lighting equipment all the time
Don’t get me wrong – IBIS is fantastic piece of technology which I dearly wish was an industry standard. However, its main benefit in lower light is enabling you to drop your shutter speed while maintaining exposure; and therefore letting you shoot at a lower ISO setting than you perhaps would normally be able to do. If however you need to stop motion or are perhaps shooting a moving subject, then slow shutter speeds are not always a viable option – making it less of a usable alternative to solid high ISO performance.
Autofocus performance is also a little less than ideal – under good conditions it locks onto your subject and has a good go at tracking, but if you’ve got something moving towards or away from the camera, or not much light to play with, then it’s not what could be called reliable.
I always tend to try new cameras out on my family before using them for anything important, and coming from fairly robust AF on my Canon’s, tracking anything involving movement with the E-M1’s (even in broad daylight) was challenging. Sure, on the whole, AF is definitely usable and single shot AF is nice and quick, anything involving tracking is simply not in the same league as the systems available on DSLRs. Of course you can get good shots, but only if you accept that you’re going to need to shoot a few frames, and perhaps work on the basis of predicting movement and relying on the S-AF speed rather than a DSLR-style approach of establishing focus lock and letting the AF system track your subject.
So, what next?
Well, as you may be guessing by now, after shooting exclusively with OM-D E-M1’s for the last few months, I’m sorry to say that I’m going to switch systems again. I can’t bring myself to go back to Canon simply as the little Olympus system has been delivering more usable images right out of the camera on many occasions – and that wouldn’t solve any of my underlying annoyances with Canon around shadow detail and image quality.
With that in mind, I’ve taken the decision to do something I’m pretty sure I’ve previously said I’d never do… and switch to Nikon.
Through the last week or so, I’ve been steadily selling my Olympus and remaining Canon gear and have bought a pair of Nikon D750 full-frame dSLRs along with 3 awesome prime lenses – Nikon 35mm 1.4G, 85mm 1.4G and 20mm 1.8G.
The exact quote of my first impression of handling and shooting the D750 isn’t repeatable here, but it would suffice to say that I was impressed!
I then shot this, using the other body and a 35 1.4G:
The image isn’t anything special except for being shot in fairly poor light on a D750 with the 35mm 1.4G, at f5.0; 1/25th and ISO 12,800… Yes, that’s not a typo (click the image to go to Flickr & check the EXIF if you’re still not convinced..)
All in all, I think I’ve finally found the camera system I want to move forwards with – and am now wondering why on earth it’s taken me quite so long to get around to switching.
Goodbye Canon, Goodbye Olympus… it was nice knowing you both.
A few examples…
Hello 2016. Hello Nikon.