The Review Olympus Didn’t Want You To See

The title of this post is a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

I bought an Olympus E-5 a few months ago, and like the good consumer drone and Oly fanboy that I am, went to the Olympus website to register it, and in the process gave them my e-mail address. A week or two later they sent me a very nice e-mail, inviting me to return to their site and submit a review of my shiny new camera. I crafted a review very similar (although substantially shorter) to the one posted below, adhering closely to their guidelines (don’t say where you bought it, don’t say how much you paid for it) and turned it in.

Sometime after that, I got another very nice e-mail saying they had looked at my review and decided not to post it. Yeah, that’s right. The bastards turned down my review. But that’s fine. I have alternatives. Oh, and since this is my site and I don’t give a shit about their guidelines, I can say I bought it at Biggs Camera in Charlotte and while I didn’t pay MSRP, I still paid too damned much for it.

By the way, all of the photos posted with this article (except the pics of my camera) were taken last weekend at the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA. If you click on them, they get bigger.

Regular readers may recall that I bought an Olympus PEN E-P1 back in September of 2009. It was my first interchangeable lens digital camera, and I fell in love with it the minute I took it out of the box. Compact, solid, simple and powerful. Easily adaptable to all sorts of lenses. Great image quality. It was the perfect next step in my development as a photographer.

I was especially intrigued by the newness of it. See, the PEN series from Olympus, along with the compatible G-series cameras from Panasonic, were the first of a new wave of digital camera technology. They were the first mirrorless cameras that could use different lenses, combining (at least in theory) the best aspects of compact point-and-shoot cameras, and digital SLRs.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve covered a lot of ground with that E-P1, picked up a bunch of used lenses to try out on it, shot thousands of photos, and learned a lot in the process. I still love it as much as (if not more than) I did when I got it, and I expect I’ll be happily shooting with it for years.

Unfortunately, there are some things it’s just not very good at.

I don’t want to get overly technical here, but I need to cover some basic stuff in order to talk about this.

The autofocus system in your average compact camera is based on a ‘contrast detect‘ mechanism. In a nutshell, when you push the button halfway down, the camera looks at what is in the focus box, and then moves the lens back and forth until the pixels in there are at the point of maximum contrast. Under normal conditions that system works pretty well, although it can be kind of slow as the camera hunts for the right point.

A dSLR has a different autofocus system called ‘phase detection‘, which does all sorts of clever things with the mirror in there to accomplish the same thing, but it’s a lot faster and (generally speaking) more precise.

Since the E-P1 (and all of the PEN cameras) are mirrorless, they (duh!) don’t have mirrors, so they are forced to rely on contrast detect autofocus. That’s not really a problem unless you’re shooting something that’s moving, or you’re using a big telephoto lens, or you’re shooting in low light. I love wildlife photography, so I spend a lot of time walking around with a big telephoto lens, trying to shoot things in low light that are moving. So you can sort of see the problem here, right? My little PEN camera is awesome for landscapes and people, but for wildlife? Not happening. A great camera that isn’t very good at the things I like doing the most.

None of the PEN cameras are weather-sealed either, and that became more and more of an issue as time went on. I like being out in nasty weather, and I spend a lot of time tromping around on dirty, dusty construction sites. The PENs are tough little buggers, but they don’t have much protection against water, mud or dust, and I just wasn’t confident that the camera could go where I go.

The thing is, I probably sound like I’m complaining about the E-P1, but I’m really not. It’s a great camera that’s capable of taking some stunning pics. It’s just not the right camera for me.

As it turns out, the Olympus E-5 is the right camera for me.

Most of the reviews and comments you see about the E-5 contain the same five words: “It’s built like a tank!” – which is true, but personally it reminds me more of an assault rifle. Black (naturally), solid metal, armored, practically waterproof, with big chunky buttons, clicky dials and levers and things. In fact, the on/off switch is virtually identical to the safety on an M16.

It’s all designed so you can get it to your face, turn it on, and adjust any important setting without moving your hands or taking your eye off the viewfinder. More to the point, it’s designed so you can do all this with gloves on, in the dark, while hanging upside down in a hurricane being attacked by rabid flying monkeys.

It’s not like I take a lot photos under those conditions, but you never know.

Since this is technically a review, I should probably mention something about the image quality, but I don’t get too worked up about that aspect of it. Any decent dSLR on the market right now can take better pictures than you can, so why worry about it? The guts are essentially the same as what’s in my E-P1, so I expected the photos to look great, and they do. In my opinion you don’t choose a camera based on image quality these days – you choose on the basis of features and lenses.

So what are the features that make me stick with Olympus? Well, image stabilization (vibration reduction) is a big deal to me, and Olympus and Pentax are the only companies that build that feature into the body of the camera. Everybody else builds it into some (but not all) of their newer lenses. With Olympus, you get the benefit of it with any lens you slap on there, and I love used lenses so that means a lot. Olympus also has the best sensor cleaning feature on the market, with a little system that vibrates dust off of the sensor every time you turn the camera on. That’s a nice thing to have when you find yourself changing lenses in places where you shouldn’t even think about exposing your camera’s innards.

There are downsides, of course. The camera is amazingly customizable – you can change virtually any setting, change how it behaves, change what some of the buttons do, you name it – but in typical Olympus fashion all these capabilities are hidden in a system of menus and submenus so bewilderingly complex it would piss off a Byzantine politician. You always have a nagging feeling that you’ve screwed up some setting deep within a nested submenu somewhere, and you’ll never, ever be able to find it again. In fact, there’s not a single thing on the E-5 that you’d call ‘user friendly’. Whoever designed this thing was told “No frills. Make it hard. Make it dense. Make it unforgiving, intimidating, and complex.” It’s a camera that pretty much requires you to keep the manual handy at all times.

But of course, this is Olympus, so the manual sucks.

Fortunately, like many things that are hard to master, the rewards are great when you get on the downhill side of the E-5’s learning curve.

But have my pictures gotten better? On the wildlife side, absolutely. I’ve taken more ‘keepers’ in 2 months with the E-5 than I got in almost 2 years with the E-P1. The autofocus is amazingly fast, and since I calibrated all my telephoto lenses (another cool E-5 feature) to the camera, it’s also amazingly precise. When it comes to landscapes, people, and other stuff, I don’t know that my photos have gotten much better than they were, but I’m comfortable taking it in a lot more places and conditions, and that’s led to some cool shots I wouldn’t have gotten before.



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