I’m a travel addict. My wife (and business partner) make it a point to travel each year for at least a month to some far flung destination(s). My camera is always in tow on these trips. Over the last 8 years I’ve traveled far and wide, shooting a mix of city, rural and remote locations. In one week we may be exploring the markets of Bangkok or the small alleys of Jerusalem, and the next week we may be trekking the “W” in Torres del Paine or trying to catch our breath over the stunning views of the Simien Mountains. This experience has helped me hone my travel photography gear to a kit that I now think perfectly suits my needs and shooting style: fast, intimate & minimal. I recently picked up the Olympus OM-D E-M5 before our latest trip to Ethiopia and Kenya. Turns out it’s the near perfect travel camera. It’s small, unobtrusive, fast, reliable and produces amazing quality images. I’m not a camera tester, so I don’t shoot charts or pixel peep. I review a camera based on how it handles in the real world, and how the pictures look after some post-processing. By those standards, the E-M5 excels.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I traveled to Italy for about 5 weeks for a summer program. I brought a small film SLR, a couple lenses and a woefully uncomfortable shoulder bag. Oh yea, and a bag of film! The kit wasn’t too big, but it certainly wasn’t light and minimal. I remember hiking through the Cinque Terre with the hot leather bag gauging a nice groove into my lower back. “Never again,” I thought. Fast forward two years and I went to New Zealand for 4 months to study abroad, this time with an even bigger bag in tow, replete with a couple extra lenses. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson. Two years ago during our trip to Patagonia, I finally scaled down a bit when I brought a Panasonic GH1, a 20mm pancake lens and a medium zoom, all of which fit into a small top-loader bag. Much improved. On this most recent trip, I replaced the GH1 with the E-M5 (which is actually smaller but weighs slightly more) and used the same 20mm lens as well as a 14-140mm lens. But this time I didn’t use an extra camera bag. I just threw all of the gear into my small daypack, and brought along a small fanny pack to hold the camera when out and about. The tiny E-M5 with a 20mm pancake attached fit perfectly into my fanny pack, and I barely even noticed I had it on most of the time.
My style of photography is to be as unobtrusive as possible, yet close and intimate at the same time. Having a low profile camera goes a long way in creating an immediate comfort level with a subject, necessary when you don’t have much time with the same subject. This is where the E-M5 shines. The silver E-M5 has an extra level of retro looks going for it, so coupled with it’s tiny size, it almost looks like a point & shoot or an old manual film camera. This works in your favor as potential thieves size you up, but more importantly, it makes your subjects feel more comfortable especially when paired with a small lens like the Panasonic 20mm pancake. The shutter is also nearly silent. While shooting I can hear the release, but the few times I handed the camera to a stranger to take a “me in front of” picture, I didn’t even know if they had pressed the shutter all the way down because I never heard the release. All these factors work to create a truly inconspicuous camera that allows me to shoot the way I like best.
The RAW files that come out of the E-M5 are simply stunning. I’ve been able to push the files quite far without any major break downs. Additionally, I find that the noise pattern of the sensor is quite nice, almost emulating film grain. I rarely pushed the ISO above 800, but in cases that I did, the noise remained under control even up to 3200. The out of camera JPEGs are also quite nice, but I like to process my photos in Lightroom, so I rarely ever use the JPEGs. What I really like about the OM-D’s image quality is the dynamic range. I haven’t shot with an APS-C or Full Frame DSLR in years, so I can’t really compare it. But I do know it’s light-years ahead of my old GH1, and in many shots that I thought I had lost all detail in the shadows or highlights, I was pleasantly surprised to find that both had plenty of information hidden in them. The camera is also very sharp, especially with a lens like the Panasonic 20mm. I rarely have to add any additional sharpness to the RAW files in Lightroom. Image quality can be subjective, but I do feel like the E-M5 images have that extra something that makes them special. I’ll let you be the judge.
Overall, I’ve been quite pleased with the camera’s auto-focus. In a few cases in which there was challenging lighting or contrast, the AF did suffer. However, those occasions were quite rare, and often times just taking a few more snaps solved the problem. The EVF is very good, so I would usually know right away if I had missed focus. The zoom-in function works quickly, so if I ever did have to double check for focus, I could do it easily. The rear LCD is also high quality, and the touch screen function is a great addition. Many times, I would pop out the LCD, hold the camera at waist level and simply touch the point at which I wanted focus and the shutter would snap. This allows for both low-profile shooting and a unique shooting perspective. I did find that the AF missed more often shooting this way, as my finger may not have pressed the exact spot I had intended, or the screen may not be sensitive enough to allow for pin-point accuracy. I also really love the 9FPS shooting mode.
I usually don’t “spray and pray” but on a few occasions (shooting wildlife in Kenya or boys jumping off a pier, for example) it really helped to have that fast motor drive to capture the right moment. The near silent shutter helped me stay inconspicuous in those moments. I didn’t find the small camera size to be an issue in terms of handling, and never once had it slip out of my hand. Perhaps the right front grip area could jut out a bit more for a more firm grasp, but otherwise, I was pleased with the design. The customization of the camera is another huge positive. Before leaving for the trip, I was able to configure all the buttons to my specifications which made for a much more pleasant shooting experience.
I’d highly recommend the Olympus OM-D E-M5 to any travel or street photographer that craves a low profile camera that works quickly and produces great image quality. I know my back is grateful that I no longer lug around a larger DSLR, and I don’t think the images I shoot suffer at all for the smaller sensor size. Now I just need a weather sealed lens so I can go out in the rain and shoot!