REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1

I have not done a gear review in a frightfully long time.

Over the past year I have moved away from the constant gear upgrade-cycle (despite what I was upgrading was generally not to the latest-and-greatest, but old film cameras), and my gear has not changed a lot. As many people who take photographs are, I was focusing more on equipment than actually taking photographs, and often relying on gaining inspiration to go take photos from the excitement that having a new camera can provide. Photography relies on gear, but that can often become a crutch. All artistic pursuits rely on gear to make art–painters need paints and brushes, musicians need instruments, and photographers need cameras–but to have one’s vision eclipsed by the constant need for new equipment is not healthy for any artist.

Camera companies rely on people buying constantly new cameras to boost their bottom line, and marketing is designed to urge people to consume more and more. The internet is full of message boards, review sites, and forums, and all of these reinforce the idea that whatever the newest camera is will be the magic bullet:

This next camera will be the one that makes your images better.

Except that it won’t. Your images will only get better through practice, critique, and dedication to your craft. I would argue that greater familiarity with the gear you use will do more for your images than the newest sensor from your friendly camera manufacturer. That’s a hard thing to understand, I think–I know it has been for me.

I have done a number of reviews of various types of equipment over time on this blog, and they are always wildly successful. Almost all of my top-viewed posts of all time are camera reviews. What does that tell me? Does that mean my photographs are not anything special? Or perhaps that my gear reviews are particularly amazing? Maybe I’m reviewing cameras that are especially interesting to readers? Actually, I suspect it’s none of those. Like I did, people read gear reviews incessantly. Most of the time now, when I do read reviews it’s idle curiosity more than a desire to actually purchase; I follow the trends in camera technology, but don’t plan to really purchase any of them.

So the title of this post is “REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1”. I suppose I should actually talk about the camera in question at some point, so here goes: the camera is great. It is small and light, it has so many customizable functions and buttons I can’t even use them all, Olympus has a great selection of lenses to use with their micro four-thirds bodies, it has fast autofocus, it is weather-sealed, it has an app for your phone or tablet that allows you to control the shutter remotely and transfer images via built-in wi-fi, and it makes great images. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. Dedicated review sites have dissected the camera to a degree that I have neither the expertise, time, or interest to do. If that is what you want, I’d encourage you to google one of them. Except that you probably won’t, because this is an “old” camera now, released almost two years ago. In digital camera terms, it is positively ancient.

Ever wonder why there are so few negative camera reviews? Most camera review sites make their money by contributing to the hyperbole created by marketing departments, and they get paid when you–spoiler alert!–buy the cameras they have reviewed so well. They generally have a convenient link within their review to find the camera they are discussing on Amazon, B&H, Adorama, etc. By clicking the link in that page, and buying something, they get a cut of the money you spend. Some reviewers are open about this, some are not. Other review sites take perks from camera companies (free access to new gear, review samples, preferential treatment or access at events) and review things well in a quid pro quo arrangement. There are also many people who simply review things because they like to, which is what I do. I don’t get a penny from this blog in any way.

Rant over. Now back to previously scheduled programming…

I have really enjoyed this camera, and have used it for months. The only limitation to making great images with this camera is my own talent with photography and skill with this camera. I have yet to come upon a situation where I thought the camera was somehow inhibiting my creative output. Far more often are situations where I have discovered yet another capability of the camera that opens up new possibilities for what I can create–I suspect that is the case for the overwhelming number of camera users.

This review is most likely not what you were expecting, and if you made it this far, I’m surprised. I had intended to write a more “normal” review of the camera but as I wrote, the words didn’t seem to want to come out that way. I have really enjoyed using this camera and would recommend it to just about anyone who is looking for a camera; for some people it is surely even too much camera: it has so many settings and functions that some users would surely find it overwhelming. But to someone with a background in photography, this is likely all the camera they would need.

On that note, let me address two real issues with this camera. First of all, there is no way around the price: this is an expensive camera. Olympus released the camera with a retail price somewhere around $1300, which is expensive. Even for what you get with this camera, I’d say it’s overpriced and should have come in a bit lower. That said, I got mine used and saved some money, and I don’t regret the purchase. It’s a great camera.

The second thing is not an “issue” so much as a perception of the sensor. For those who don’t know, this is a micro four-thirds camera, which means the sensor is half the size of a traditional 35mm-sized (“full frame”, the size of a 35mm negative) sensor. There are some trade-offs which come with a smaller sensor. First, the effective focal length and depth of field must be double from their full frame equivalents; a 35mm f/2 lens becomes a 70mm f/4 lens in real terms, but retains the visual properties of a 35mm perspective (for more on this, or to clarify, try Google). This means getting super shallow depth of field is very difficult, and many photographers use this (often as a crutch) to establish subject isolation in images. It also means that extreme wide-angle lenses are rare–since all focal lengths are doubled–but not impossible to find. Again, wide-angle lenses are often not used well, which makes me often discount this as a valid issue. Both aforementioned trade-offs do have legitimate uses, but they aren’t huge problems, and can certainly be overcome.

Finally, the size of the sensor puts a restriction on the number of megapixels which can be crammed into the small space. The more megapixels that are put into a sensor, the more it can exhibit noise. Olympus has managed to pack in 16 megapixels into this sensor, which seems plenty for anyone, especially since most people only exhibit their work on computer monitors anyway–I know I do. What printing I do is generally limited to 8×10 or smaller, meaning my phone does a fine job, let alone the Olympus OMD-EM1. There are certainly people who need the 36 megapixels in the Nikon D800 or Sony A7R, or even the more than 50 megapixels announced in the upcoming Canon DSLR, but for most of us, 12-16 is more than enough.

I find the advantages of a small sensor–smaller, lighter camera bodies and smaller, lighter lenses–to outweigh the advantages of larger sensors. Additionally, I like the weather-sealed body and the electronic viewfinder (EVFs have advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years and are now more advantageous than OVFs in most circumstances for most users). I find Olympus’ suite of lenses to be excellent as well, easily surpassing those offered by Sony at the moment for their a7-series cameras.

Having used the OMD-EM1 since late October 2014, I can say I am happy with the decision I made. This “review” was non-traditional to say the least, but hopefully some will find it useful, and maybe some will realize that the constant desire for more, newer cameras is a facade–the real issue is not a lack of satisfaction with your gear, but with your images. Getting a new camera won’t fix that.

That’s all for now.

-Trevor

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Wrapping up 2014

Standing Guard

It is the time of year where all sorts of “Year in Review” posts start popping up. I know, that makes this all a bit tired and cliche; however, bear with me and we can get through this together.

The following is a collection of some of my favorite photos I’ve taken in 2014. I hope you enjoy them!

Winter

Sense of Wonder

Warm

Winter Landscape

Nature

Family Day

Wildlife

Fresh Snow

Dance

Lake Superior

Snow

Landscape

Smile

Archive, 2014

Mannequin

As the year winds down, I’ve been looking through the archive a bit and seeing what I’ve taken over the last year. After finding a few that I hadn’t blogged before, I figured I’d share them. There is really no rhyme or reason to this set of photos; they are simply photos taken over the past 12-14 months that I hadn’t shared before and like to varying degrees, for one reason or another.

I’ll have some new posts up soon, I hope. I’ve added some new gear to my arsenal and I have a few things to say about that, and hopefully some other things as well.

As always, thanks for following along!

Midwest

Run

Summer

Frozen

My Photographic Memory

Summer

I was just going through some photos from this year and remembered how much I liked this photo when I took it, and how much I still like it.

I began thinking about the compulsion that drives me to make photographs, the way I see them everywhere, and how I see different ones from most other people. People who don’t know anything about photography and aren’t particularly interested in it are always fascinated with my need to make images constantly, and when I show them the images I make, they are often full of equal parts praise and bemusement. “How did you see that? Wow, that’s cool.”

I don’t say this to slap myself on the back about my own photographs; in fact, I’m generally the most critical of my own images. A fellow blogger (who I very much admire) has, over the past year or two, moved away from making images that appeal to others and focused instead on making images that are meaningful to him. Isn’t that what we’re all doing? Isn’t that the point of images generally?

Light

For me, the image-making progress is about much more than simply recording a moment. It’s about more than capturing an image that I found appealing. It’s also about more than creating something someone will like. Sure, we all go through the phase were praise is of utmost importance; the stage of photographic development where “likes” and “faves” are the gold standard. Many of us graduate out of that and go back to what made photography interesting and attractive to begin with.

For me, photography is about experiencing life. It’s about interacting with my environment and the people around me. My wife constantly reminds me how bad my memory is, but I find that I can recall virtually every photograph that I’ve ever taken: the place, the situation, the camera/lens/film used, the story of the image, etc. It’s not because I obsess about camera equipment (although I went through that phase, and yes I am a recovering gearaholic) but rather than creating an image burns that moment into my brain. So making images is how I experience and enjoy moments that are important to me and those around me. Rather than being detached by having a camera in front of my face, I’m actually more involved by being behind the camera. It’s as if being behind the camera allows me to really be who I am, and really open up.

Reflected

Abrupt Return

Evening Light

Every time a new post happens on my blog, it begins with the same words: “I haven’t been blogging lately, but…”; this time I won’t do that. I won’t say that I haven’t been blogging. I won’t say I have been busy. I won’t give any number of reasons as to my absence, but will simply post some photos I’ve taken since my last post.

I hope you enjoy them.

Seeing Double

Shadow Box

Autumn

Broken Web

Exposed

MN United

Biking Together

White Balance

Halloween

Dinosaur Man

Vintage

And here are a few that don’t fit the square theme, in case that got old:

Caught

Play

Stripes

Greater Minnesota #3: Interstate State Park

Welcome to the Jungle

We took a weekend camping trip to the nearby Interstate state park, located just outside of Taylor’s Falls, MN. It is relatively close to the Twin Cities, has nice facilities, access to the St. Croix River, and some fun hiking. And as a bonus, it has some pretty cool glacial potholes to explore. The park is pretty urban, however; there was traffic noise from the highway as a pretty steady background noise throughout the weekend. The river also has regular cruises going, and the megaphone on deck explaining to the passengers what they are looking at also echoes if you are right on the river. On the bright side, we were in a great campsite, with access to everything.

Once again, these shots were all taken with my phone. I haven’t gotten around to looking through the shots I took with my “real” camera yet. Settle in for a line of pictures, with no text breaks in between!

Enjoy,

T

Tenting

Meg

Wings

Light

#6

#7

Hobitat

Tall Tales