My camera has been slowly shrinking over the last 5 or 6 years....
I used to own a 1Dmk2. I loved that camera. I felt physically ill when I sold it, but it did really have to go - I did get tired of lugging it around, and it also attracts a LOT of attention. I loved it, and looking at the image of it below, I still think it's one of the best looking cameras ever made, but deep down I knew we just weren't really right for each other...
Then I moved onto a D700. That was a great camera too. I didn't love it quite as much as the 1D, even though it was quite an upgrade from the canon in many ways. I liked the photos out of it better, but I just didn't have quite the same emotional connection to it. Odd. But either way, eventually I got bored of lugging that too. It was still big and heavy.
So I started to think about something much smaller - something I could carry all day and not get tired, and use in crowded public places without everyone staring..
I thought that maybe I could find a camera small enough not to need a camera bag at all. In the end I bought a Canon G12, which was great, except that the depth of field was way too deep even shot wide open. It was quite limiting for a lot of portrait work. I did take a lot of great photos with the G12, but in the end I just couldn't cope with the depth of field issue and I sold it after about 9 months.
I've always been a a great fan of of fast primes over zooms, and in particular the good old 50mm f1.4. This is my favorite lens regardless of camera system. It's pretty much the only lens I used on the D700.
I had looked at micro four thirds back before I'd bought the G12, but there were two issues - it wasn't pocketable and I'd got it into my head that I didn't want to carry a camera bag at all. The second issue was that when I'd looked at m43 (around the beginning of 2011) there we no fast primes available, so to me it looked very much like a system aimed at people moving up from a compact camera, not down from a serious pro DSLR. And with only zoom lenses available, the m43 cameras didn't have a lot to offer that the G12 couldn't compete with - both cameras were a compromise on the fast prime thing, but the G12 went in a coat pocket and a m43 camera didn't.
But then during the time I owned (and didn't really get along with) the Canon G12 - ie the first 9 months of 2011 - two very important lenses got announced for the micro four thirds system - a 50mm (equiv) f1.4 and a 90mm (equiv) f1.8 (yes I know the 12mm f2 got announced too but that's not so relevant to me). So at about the time I sold my G12 and was looking for something better suited, the m43 system matured into something really useful for me. I bought the Olympus E-P3 and the Panasonic 25mm F1.4 (which is the equivalent of my beloved 50mm f1.4). So have I found it? Is this the perfect combination of light weight & portability AND nice fast prime lenses??
I'll talk about the lenses themselves in a different review. I have the 45mm f1.8 as well now, so I'll be reviewing that and the 25mm f1.4 separately. I bought the VF-2 recently too, so I suppose I'd best review that as well ;)
I'm also not going to list all the technical specifications - they're available all over the internet. I'm going to talk about how well this camera works for me as someone that wants to use all the time as a tool to get my photography done. I've had the camera for a little over 5 months now and I've done a lot of photography with it so this isn't an 'after 10 mins with the camera' first impressions review.
Now this might come as a surprise, especially given the high end cameras I've owned, but how great the image quality is zoomed in at 100% on a computer screen is not necessarily the most important thing to me. Don't get me wrong; I will not put up with poor image quality, and prints have to look excellent, but that's not the same thing to me as whether or not the corner of the fame (which is not normally where I'd place someones head) is sharp enough to make your eyes bleed on a computer screen art 100% or whether it a camera is noise free up to ISO 1 million. I say 'to me' in bold because this is all highly subjective depending on yours needs - I work in good light and I shoot portraits. Someone that shoots landscapes / cityscapes in the dark may well need sharp corners and ISO 1 million...
Also when it comes to online model portfolios, facebook profiles, etc etc, well the photos that we all use online are generally, at most, around 800x600 pixels because that's the biggest size that comfortably fits on a computer screen with some room around it for writing or menus, and they're often much smaller - this photo here is 800x600:
That's a 5:1 downscaling from the original on a 12mp camera like a D700 or E-P3. Sharpness, noise and all the other things that people in internet land get so hung up about become almost completely irrelevant so long as they were half way reasonable in the full sized image; most serious cameras with a reasonable size sensor, from a £350 entry-level DSLR up to a £40,000 medium format camera will look broadly similar at 800x600 or smaller. If your photo is so boring that people notice such subtle technical differences at that size then there's really no camera that will help you!
Having said that, the image quality out of the E-P3 especially with the 25mm and 45mm lenes is excellent; it's pretty much on a par with the 1Dmk2 and while it's not as good in the dark as the D700, in decent light or in a studio there's not a lot to choose between them either! Wow!
So what is important to me? Well, I've talked about a few already - it had to be small, light and unobtrusive, and have a 50mm prime lens. But that's a given, so what else matters?
What matters a lot more that pure per-pixel image quality to me is how well and how quickly the camera handles - whether or not it gets in your way and make you spend half your time fiddling with it, searching though menus and looking like you don't know how to use it in front of a client, or whether it just lets you get on and make great photographs.
I was interested to see how the E-P3 would compare from a useability perspective to the Canon 1Dmk2 and then Nikon D700 I used to own - both of which are high-end cameras with great handling, and both of which I instantly felt at home on. I felt like I was taking a bit of a gamble buying the E-P3; Olympus wasn't a manufacturer I'd had anything to do with and the camera looks more like an overgrown compact than a miniaturised DLSR. I was worried that handling would not be anywhere near the top of the design considerations list for a camera like this.
But, I'm really, really impressed; the camera is a joy to use. It's a camera that you want to take photos with. Lots of photos! It gives me the shots I'm after extremely quickly with minimal fuss. All the controls I need are on the outside, while all the ones I don't need are buried in menus, which suits me just fine. It feels like a real photographers camera - I can shoot all day without needing to go into the menus once, which is great. Too many buttons can be just as bad as too few, but the E-P3 gets the balance just right for me.
It's also one of the most customisable anf flexible cameras I've used (in useful ways), so well done to Olympus there - it would have been very easy to dumb-down the Pen line to help it appeal to the compact camera market, but they haven't and all the settings that should be there are there. The G12, despite being marketed as a serious camera is significantly dumbed down in some places. Take manual flash exposure for example - on the G12 you can have 'high', 'medium' or 'low'. Yeah, thanks, that's really helpful! On the E-P3 you can manually adjust it all the way from full power down to 1/64 in 1 stop increments. You can also set whether or not flash adjustment is added to exposure compensation, which is great; Nikon does this one way, Canon does it the other, neither lets you choose. You can also pick whether you want to the auto WB to compensate fully for tungsten lighting or leave it a bit orange.
It's a joy to carry - the body plus a couple of lenses seems to weigh nothing - I can carry it round all day in smallish bag and hardly noticing I'm carrying it. This is a relative term I guess - some people would call my camera bag bigish! For someone used to needing a backpack to move many kilos of camera system around it seems tiny!!
The face detection focusing is brilliant - it's fantastic not to have to select focus points, and this is a HUGE upgrade from a DSLR in my opinion. I know that people who've upgraded from a compact cameras are probably quite used to this, but for me it's great and it just makes shooting so much faster; no need to fiddle with focus points, or focus and recompose. In general it seems to work really well, and occasionally when I does struggle or lock onto something random, I have the big red movie button on the back assigned to select the center focus point, so it's easy enough to use that and recompose like I used to on my DSLRs. (I don't do movies)
The exposure metering is extremely good and on the occasions it misses by a little bit, the RAW files have enough information that I could pull back every single blown highlight and shadow, which is great.
The kit lens is also a great lens. Ok the depth of field is quite deep, but if you can work around that you can take some stunning photos with it and I carry it with me in case I fancy using the wide end. I also put it on the camera if I'm going out for the day with my wife rather than doing a portrait shoot - it's a really nice little walk-around lens and then I don't take my camera bag at all.
One thing all interchangeable lens camera owners hate is dust. Dust gets onto the sensor and makes black dots on your images. My good old 1D didn't have any kind of self-cleaning. Seemed like every time I changed lens outdoors there would be dust on the photos after. It was just a fact of life back then and it needed fairly regular cleaning by hand (quite a nerve wracking experience the first few times!!) The D700 had sensor cleaning and that was a huge plus - it did need cleaning from time to time, but only rarely.
On a DSLR the sensor is pretty well protected when the lens is off - it's behind a closed shutter, which is behind a mirror. I was a little nervous about changing lenses out and about on the E-P3, what with the sensor being so completely exposed - madness!!! It's obviously going to be caked in dust after the first lens change and be useless for the rest of the day! What a stupid design....
...But I've never had to clean it! I've never been more happy to be wrong about a camera!
The cleaning system clearly works very well and I guess not having a big mirror box to collect dust in and a big mirror flapping up and down to blow it around must help too. I can't believe how good this little camera is at not collecting dust!
I've only found dust once when looking for it (shoot a cloudy sky, blank white wall or something like that at f22. Long shutter times and waving the camera about a bit is good as it blurs everything but the dust. If there's dust it'll be easy to spot) but then running the sensor cleaning a couple of times shifted it. And I'd imagine that when I do eventually need to clean the sensor, it being so exposed will make it a much easier job!
Another plus is the in-built stabalizer, which is a really, really great feature, especially as no-one bothers to build this into the fast prime lenses I like to use. But combine it with a fast prime and any worries about ISO noise quickly go out the window. To give you an idea of how useful it is, assuming it's about a two stop stabalizer, that means you can use ISO 400 when you would have had to use ISO 1600 without it. That's a big difference, and really helps narrow the gap between what this camera can produce and a full fame camera with no in-built stabalizer like the D700. I find I almost never have to use the camera above its base ISO 200 for my portrait work.
So onto the bad...
There is some bad news too. The 1Dmk2 and D700 don't have mode dials - they are press a button and use the command dial affairs. The G12 did have a dial, but it was so stiff it was never going to get nudged out of position. I didn't think I had a preference, but now maybe I do!
It's much too easy to turn on the E-P3 and the first shoot I took it to, it kept getting nudged to different settings as i got it in and out by bag.
I'd been shooting for 10 mins at my third location when I realised i was shooting on F11, in manual mode which resulted in ISO1600 and ruined everything! Ok, now maybe this is somewhat my fault for not noticing, but if I have my camera set on Aperture mode @ F1.4, put it in my bag, walk round the corner and pull it out again i kinda expect it to still be there!
After that I kept an eye on it and it happened another 2 or 3 times during the shoot, which was only about 3 hours long in about 10 locations (so camera went in and out of bag about 10 times I guess). I really wish the mode dial had a lock. Or was stiffer, or something!
After that horrible experience I tried a different bag and it's never happened since despite being used at lots and lots of shoots, so it may have just been the bag-camera combination, but I still think it should be stiffer.
I had a similar issue with the dial on the back the first time I used it in-studio; in manual mode it controls the shutter speed and it's very easy to nudge it. Fortunately that does have a lock buried in one of the menus so it dial doesn't do anything unless you press the exposure comp button first. Great! :)
Also, while the rear LCD screen is amazing in term of quality, I miss the tilting one on my G12 - i thought it was a gimmick before I bought the G12, but it's really nice to be able to brace your elbows in at your waist and look down at the screen rather than holding it out in front of your face, but I'm getting used to it with the E-P3 and fast primes make camera shake much less of an issue anyway.
I've commented on how customizable the camera is, but that's not carried all the way though. The button assignment options just make no sense at all;
- There are three function buttons on the camera to assign things to
- You can also reassign two of the four buttons on the d-pad, but these do have icons on them for their main dedicated function....
great so far...
BUT!!! There are two groups of functions, ones that can be assigned to the function buttons and ones that can be assigned to the two reassignable d-pad buttons.
And annoyingly, useful, normal things are in the two-button group, and stupid things I'd never have even considdered putting in a menu, let alone having their own button, like 'take a photo, but don't write it to the card, just display it' can be assigned to the function buttons! I mean really, what's the point of that??? Maybe with an optical viewfinder DSLR that's useful to review WB etc, but on a mirrorless camera you are getting that constantly anyway on the LCD! It's basically just a pause button for the live-view!
And bizzarely, exposure compensation has it's own dedicated button on the d-pad, which is one of the two which is not reassignable and it's in the only function in both groups. So you can also assign it to any of the function buttons on the camera and to the the two rear buttons as well as being stuck with it having it's own non-resassignable dedicated button. WHAT!?!
ISO has no dedicated button and you can't assign it to any of the function buttons. You can only assign it to one of the two reassignable d-pad buttons already dedicated to something else. And these two funtions cannot be assigned to any function buttons!! I don't use the in built flash, so I've assigned ISO to the flash buttons, but WHY can I not assign it to one of the fucntion buttons when I can put exposure comp on any of them when it already has it's own button that I can't use for anything else??? At least if I could put ISO on the exp comp d-pad button I could put that somewhere else!!
It's possible to have exposure comp on 6 different buttons at once, but if I want to have buttons for ISO, drive mode WB and flash mode (fairly normal useful things to have buttons for!), can't - I have to pick my favourite two because they can only be asigned to the two d-pad buttons!!
But I can have 3 different buttons turning the LCD on and off, or pretending to take a photo but not saving it!! GAAH!!!
Why oh why is there two seperate groups of functions? Why not just allow any of them to be assigned anywhere? Surely this was actually more work to make the camera less usable!!
Some one at Olympus needs a slap round the head for this one!! Please Olympus, put out a firmware fix for this. Pretty please??
Another niggle is that I'd like the auto ISO to let you pick at what point it decides to up the ISO, ie be able to pick that the minimum shutter speed you want compared to lens length - 2x, 1x, or 0.5x the focal length or whatever. It seems semi-randon in the way that it chooses. Again, this could be a simple firmware fix but I won't hold my breath for it.
One more thing - the sensitivity starts at ISO 200 not 100 and that's a pain because it can be hard to get studio lights to go dim enough. With a medium soft box I'm struggling to keep the lenses in the sweetspot of F5.6 - F8 and sharpess seems to drop ff quickly due to defration after F8.
So, have I found the camera for me? Well despite the moaning, I genuinely feel like I have. Yeah there's a couple of things I'd change about it, but they only annoy so much me because they put a little tarnish on what is very nearly a perfect camera for me. Overall, the problems don't actually add up to much in real world usage, at least for me, and I love it; it just works so well and it begs to be picked up and used. I've taken a lot of pictures with it that I really love and I've never found myself missing a big, heavy, 'proper' camera.
In terms of a sample image gallery, anything I post on this blog will be taken with the E-P3, and I update my portfolio regularly enough that 90% of the images on my website are shot with the E-P3. There's a few left from the G12 and one or two from the D700. None from the 1D now. Can you guess which is which? Probably not - as I mentioned earlier, when reduced down to internet sizes, all serious cameras look about the same. It's what you do with them that counts ;) and the E-P3 does a great job of just letting me go out and do.
All the best