About 18 months ago, maybe a little more, I started seeing references to EVIL cameras on the web and I had no idea what was meant by the term. After the third or fourth article about them I googled the acronym and discovered that it stands for “Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens”. It is a relatively new breed of camera designed as a sort of half-way house between your typical point-and-shoot, which has no viewfinder and an irremovable lens, and a digital SLR, which has an optical through-the-lens viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. The idea behind an EVIL camera is to remove the mirror assembly of an SLR, capture a preview image from the sensor and display it on a small high-resolution screen within a viewfinder casing for easy viewing in any light, and build a camera with a small sensor that capitalises on the associated size reduction by being physically smaller, lighter and more portable. And the lenses for that smaller sensor can be smaller, lighter and more portable also. So unlike your traditional point-and-shoot the EVIL format allows you to build a system consisting of a body and multiple lenses, and unlike the SLR format, it allows this system be, relatively speaking, small and light. When I started looking at a replacement for my X100, this format seemed perfectly suited to my needs. And when I looked at the range of EVIL cameras, one stood out from all the rest – the Olympus OM-D EM-5 (to give it its full and unnecessarily long name). And while it’s still early days I can say that I love it so far – not least because it, together with a trinity of prime lenses and a capable (if slow) kit zoom lens, has finally given me a camera system that really is ‘go anywhere’. Take a look above, for instance, at my new EVIL-based system alongside comparable* kit from my Nikon bag. And before any of you start jumping into the comments to question the use of “comparable” in that previous sentence, let me clarify that yes, the * qualifying the word is important. However, it’s possibly not as important as you might think.
My requirements for a replacement for the X100 were fairly simple. I needed something small, controllable, with good image quality and a viewfinder – all boxes the X100 ticks – but also with the ability to accept different lenses. The Micro 4/3s system has been improving generally over the last few years and has itself been ticking more and more of these boxes, but the controllability and the inclusion of a viewfinder haven’t been commonplace. The arrival of EVIL Micro 4/3s cameras took care of the viewfinder, and while an optical one would be preferable, I’m ok with an electronic one if it’s clear and bright. By controllability I mean the ability to adjust aperture and shutter speed via dials as opposed to using the screen or digging through the menu, and that is what the Olympus OM-D brought to the Micro 4/3s party.
It’s not out that long, and truth be told it was only recently I came across it – around about the time I started to think about selling the X100 in fact – and on paper it looked good, but I wondered if the image quality would live up to the X100. For what I intend on using it for, I don’t need the image quality to be as good as the X100, but I want it to be pretty good all the same. My D700 spoils me in that regard, and it’s hard to downgrade. Thankfully the internet is great for getting a feel for image quality from a newly released camera, and I was able to see real world high res examples (RAW and JPEG, low and high ISO) with a little bit of searching, and was suitably impressed by the image quality. Also, getting my hands on the camera to try it out, I was even more impressed with how it handled than I expected to be. In short, this camera was moving to the top of a very short list of contenders to replace the X100. A list of one, in fact. And when the X100 sold on ebay, I dived in and bought it.
The OM-D comes with a kit lens which is a 12-50mm zoom. It’s a slow lens, though, with a max aperture at the long end of f/6.3 which is two and a third stops slower (6 times less light) than the f/2.8 at which I shoot a lot of my images, but it has two redeeming features – it’s weather sealed (as the OM-D body is) and it has a power zoom as well as a manual zoom, which gives smooth control for video – something the OM-D may well allow me explore more. In fact I captured a little video with it at a recent wedding before realising that it was work enough getting stills without trying to get video too. But it’s redeeming features don’t make up for the aperture, and so as well as the kit lens, I invested (via some fortunate second-hand purchases online where, frankly, I got myself a bit of a bargain) in what you might call a holy trinity of lenses – all of them f/2.8 or faster.
The three I bought are:
- Panasonic 14mm f/2.5
- Sigma 30mm f/2.8
- Olympus 45mm f/1.8
On the Micro Four Thirds sensor, these are equivalent to 28mm, 60mm and 90mm, so between the three of them are virtually a complete set of (fast) primes. Note the three different makes – one of the beauties of this system is that Panasonic and Olympus lenses are compatible with any body, and Sigma and others make lenses too, so there’s quite a good choice out there.
What really gets me about the lenses though – and indeed the entire system – is their size and weight. Look again at the annotated photo above. The f/2.5 14mm (28mm* equivalent) prime lens on the right is tiny, and weighs 75% as much as the battery for the Nikon D700!
I lined my new system up against my existing Nikon kit in the shot above, comparing like with like for focal lengths, as much as possible. So Nikon gives me a 24mm, 50mm and 105mm prime, and a 24-70mm zoom. The MFT system effectively gives me a 28mm*, 60mm* and 90mm* prime, and a 24-100mm zoom. Comparable in terms of reach, I think you’ll agree. Aperture-wise, the 24mm and 28mm* are comparable (f/2.8 v f/2.5) as are the 105mm and 90mm* (f/2 and f/1.8). If anything Olympus wins here. What’s not so comparable is the 50mm f/1.4 and the 60mm* f/2.8 – they’re over two stops apart – but swap in a 50mm f/1.8 and things get a little more equal, with not a huge reduction in size or weight on the Nikon side overall. And finally the 24-70mm is far superior to the 24*-100* kit zoom but it’s also far heavier and more expensive. And it’s the only comparable lens I own, so I had to use it. But here’s the thing – with my Nikon primes I’ve already started to rely less on less on zooms – I have an 80-200mm f/2.8 which is beautiful and sharp, but barely comes out of the bag since the 105mm f/2 fell into my hands. And the 50mm became my default lens for photographing my daughter when the X100 started to show its limitations for that particular subject. So while I did get the zoom (as a holiday-friendly all-rounder in the continental summer sun, or for its video capabilities) I’ve learnt from my Nikon system in terms of what else I got. And for 99% of what I’ll shoot with the OM-D I won’t need the superior image quality of the D700, or the optical quality of the 24-70mm, or the sharpness of the 105mm. [In fact, in terms of sharpness, already I'm finding the 90mm* is a great performer.] And if I do need the image quality or the colour reproduction or the noise performance or the sharpness for the other 1%, I still have the kit on the left hand side.
All that said, the biggest problem with the Nikon system is the size, and more specifically the weight. Have you ever gone on holidays with your camera gear in a back pack and lived in fear of having it weighed at the gate? Because I have. I’ve become good at making my bag look lighter as I carry it. I went to Sydney once and was nearly crippled with the weight of my carry-on luggage, such was the amount of camera gear I brought. With a 10 kg hand luggage allowance, the Nikon gear in the photo above alone takes up 3kg. Add in batteries, cards, lens hoods, the bag itself, a laptop a book and overnight clothes and you’re not long reaching the 10kg limit. The OM-D buys me a 66% reduction in the amount of my luggage allowance taken up with camera gear and saves my back too! And that, in a nutshell, is it’s best feature.
So having ticked the boxes regarding controllability, image quality, interchangeable lenses and viewfinder, the size (or lack of) is really what resulted in the OM-D finding its way into my camera bag. Except of course it hasn’t really been in my camera bag yet – it’s been in my jacket pocket along with a trio of lenses suited to almost any occasion. And I look forward to putting the entire system through its paces over the next few months, both for stills and video. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.