Friday, May 2, 2014

Second Opinion on Micro Four Thirds; Next Camera

E-M5 + Olympus 25 1.8

My friend MShafik just doubled down on Micro Four Thirds with his recent purchase of the OM-D E-M1.  Meanwhile, I just started using Micro Four Thirds a little more than two months ago.  This post is an update on my experience with it.

I previously specified my reasons for trying out Micro Four Thirds (see Exploring Micro Four Thirds).  Briefly, they are:
  • Compact size: the cameras are not much larger than my LX5, and are much more inconspicuous than a DSLR.
  • Lens selection: specifically, the availability of reasonably priced compact prime lenses with wide aperture, both for wide angle (such as the Olympus 17 1.8, Panasonic 20 1.7, Panasonic 25 1.4, and Olympus 25 1.8) and telephoto (Olympus 45 1.8).  It even has specialty lenses (the inexpensive fisheye body cap lens, and a very affordable top-performing 60 2.8 macro).
  • Fast and accurate autofocus: DSLRs have fast autofocus but my experience with them has been somewhat spotty.  A contrast detection camera (like most point-and-shoot cameras) is accurate and immune from front- or back-focusing, however it is much slower than the phase detection of a DSLR.  Olympus' Micro Four Thirds seemed to have the best of both worlds - the accuracy of contrast detection, with almost the same speed as the phase detection of a DSLR.
  • Usability: the E-M5 has very good controls (although the menu is counter-intuitive at times), has a tilting touchscreen, and automatic near-eye focusing.
So I got an E-M5, which I later traded up to an E-P5.  I've had the following lenses: Olympus 17 1.8, Panasonic 20 1.7, Panasonic 20 1.7 II, Olympus 25 1.8 and Olympus 45 1.8.  Here are my observations (coming from Nikon DSLRs): first, the size does have an impact on my photography.  Both the E-M5 and E-P5 are small and convenient to carry, so I bring it nearly everywhere, and it's never out-of-place.  The lenses are so small and compact, I can bring several of them with me in a very small camcorder-sized bag.
The E-M5's usability is superb.  It's very convenient to control, because of the touchscreen and the customizable controls.  I also found the tilting LCD to be very useful.  I often used it to take shots from unusual angles.  The E-P5 also has a tilting touchscreen and a high degree of customization.  However, the button placement was not as good as that of the E-M5, in my opinion.
Although I didn't like the E-P5's controls as much, one function that I was impressed with in the case of the E-P5 was Wi-Fi.  I used to think that Wi-Fi was just a gimmick.  But because of social media, it has become a very useful feature.  Photos that are not timely just don't have the same impact.  Wi-Fi allows you to share images within a few minutes of having taken them (in addition to functioning as a remote live view).  Other camera manufacturers have Wi-Fi as well.  I've only tried Nikon's and Olympus', but Olympus' Wi-Fi is very well implemented.  If social media has any relevance to you, I would strongly recommend at least trying out Wi-Fi (with the E-M1, E-P5, or E-M10).
Let's talk about image quality.  Although image quality is largely objective, its significance is subjective.  In my case, I don't shoot as a pro, nor am I looking to make museum prints.  Most of my shots are just family pictures that have little significance outside of my family, and usually we just view them on a laptop LCD screen or a mobile device and I look at the image at a whole, and not zoomed in to 100%.  In my case, therefore, image quality is important but not critically so.  For my purposes, the E-M5 and E-P5's image quality is more than adequate.  Indeed, with respect to color, bokeh and acutance (qualities that are noticeable even at laptop viewing sizes), they excel with the lenses I've tried.  I don't have anywhere near the depth of field control of a full frame, but with the lenses I got, I was able to create adequate separation from the background as long as the background was at a reasonable distance from the subject.  I also found that the E-M5 images had pretty good exposure latitude for postprocessing.
In low light, I found the E-M5 and E-P5 were ok.  For sure, they cannot hold a candle to the D600 or RX1.  But I'm just not as obsessed with low light photos as I used to be.  I would say it's almost the same as a D7000, i.e. a step behind the current generation of Nikon APS-C DSLRs (based on my experience with the D7100).  It is possible to take a decent shot at a typical restaurant at night even without flash (please take note I am using fast primes).  But for a candlelit dinner it really needs a flash.

E-M5 + Olympus 25 1.8. ISO 6400 (from JPEG)
As for image stabilization, I've heard great things about the E-M5's in-body stabilization.  However, in practice, I haven't noticed it making that much of an impact for my kind of photography.  That's because I usually take photos of my kids.  And for me, I usually use as high of a shutter speed as possible in order to minimize blur from subject movement.  Another factor is I wasn't using telephoto (I didn't use the 45 f/1.8).

Now let's discuss autofocus.  Both the E-M5 and E-P5 have very fast autofocus when used with MSC (movie still compatible) lenses.  It's not quite as fast as a DSLR with a fast-focusing lens but it's almost there, and it is faster than some DSLR/lens combinations.  Because of the fast AF, I can capture a lot of candid moments.  Combined with the E-M5 and E-P5's eye detection AF, I get a lot of keepers.  That said, the AF is not perfect.  When the subject is moving, the keeper rate drops significantly.  Basically, if you have active kids and you're expecting to mash the shutter and get the shot, it's not likely to happen (unless perhaps if you use a narrow aperture).  I usually have to tell my kids to stop moving, and as you parents know, that usually kills the energy of the moment.
That leads to my next point, which is what I've concluded from having used Micro Four Thirds these past couple of months:  I think the cameras I've tried are great but I want even better autofocus performance.  So I have looked at other cameras for possible solutions:
E-M1: it does have hybrid autofocus with phase detection, so I think it is possible that it may fit my need for autofocus performance, but it's not exactly cheap. 
Fuji X-T1: I've heard great things about its AF ability but the cost just puts it out of my range.  Moreover the body and lens are too large for me.  If I were to use it, I may as well go back to the D600, which has superior image quality for a similar price.
Nikon 1: the Nikon 1 has phase detection, and its AF performance is supposed to be excellent.  It's also very compact.  However, I think the lenses are quite expensive considering their size, and the lens selection is wanting, in my opinion.  For example, their 28mm prime lens only has an aperture of f/2.8.  The RX100's zoom lens, also 28mm at its widest and for the same sensor size, has an aperture of f/1.8 and is more compact.   Their 85mm equivalent, the 32 f/1.2 is $900.  So, I like the Nikon 1's premise but it doesn't have the sensor performance, lenses, or prices that I want.
Sony NEX 5T: I had not previously considered Sony interchangeable cameras because I didn't think they have enough 3rd party support, and I am not sure how viable the system is.  That said, when I was researching compact interchangeable cameras with fast autofocus, the NEX-5R and 5T, which have a hybrid AF, came up several times.  I decided to try it out at a store and I was very impressed.  I could swing the camera around and it would still be able to grab focus.  The problem though was the lens selection.  They don't have a wide prime with a wide aperture (by that I mean wider than f/2.8).  They only have a 35 1.8.  There's also no fast portrait lens yet, other than perhaps the 50 1.8, or the pricey Zeiss 55 1.8 (for full frame, but works as a portrait lens on APS-C).  However, with Micro Four Thirds, I chose the 25 1.8 over the 20 1.7 and 17 1.8 due to AF speed and depth of field control.  I figured if I was willing to use a 50mm equivalent with MFT, why not with Sony as well?  The cost is reasonable (both the camera body and the lens) and I would get better AF and better image quality.  But then again, it has other quirks like a terrible interface and the proprietary Sony/Minolta hotshoe.
Sony a6000: when the a6000 was announced, I guessed that the sensor was the same as the D3300, and subsequent DXO tests seem to confirm that, i.e., it has a 2/3 stop advantage over the 16mp Olympus MFT sensors.  In tests comparing the a6000 to the cameras with the 16mp Olympus sensor, the difference is not apparent.  That's because Olympus uses a sneaky technique: its real ISO is much lower than its nominal ISO.  Nearly all manufacturers do that, but in the case of Olympus, the discrepancy is 1 stop (!).  Therefore if you compare images at a nominal ISO3200, you might say they have the same noise.  But you're really comparing it to the Olympus' ISO1600.
Anyway enough ranting.  The a6000, besides having a best-in-class sensor, has a hybrid AF just like the NEX 5R and 5T.  Not only that, but the phase detection sensors cover nearly the entire screen, not just the middle portion.  From the reviews I read it seems like it would give me the autofocus performance that I want.
Moreover, it resolves some weaknesses of the 5T.  The quirky 5T menu has been replaced with the same menu used in the A7 and A7R, which are in turn, improvements from the RX1 menu.  I have tried the A7 menu in a showroom and I do like it.  The controls are somewhat similar to the RX1 which I grew accustomed to (I actually like the RX1 interface despite a few quirks).  The non-standard Sony hotshoe has been replaced with an ISO hotshoe, just like on the RX1 and A7/R.  It does have a tilting screen like the one on the E-M5, but it isn't a touchscreen.  I think it's a terrible omission, and it would made the camera so much better if it had it, but it's not a dealbreaker.
Finally, there was the issue about lens selection and system viability.  The only lenses I really need are a fast wide or normal lens for reportage, and a portrait lens.  The Sony 35 1.8 is not as wide as I'd like but is at least decently priced.  The Sony 50 1.8 is not as long as I'd like for a portrait lens, but also works, and is also affordable. 
So, after thinking it over, I decided I will try the Sony system with the a6000.  I did seriously think about getting the 5T because it is more affordable, has a 180-degree tilt screen for self-portraits, and has a touchscreen.  But I was very worried about being frustrated with the interface, and the hotshoe was a serious disadvantage.  I also thought about my objective of getting the best AF performance, which tipped the scale toward the a6000.  I should receive the a6000 next week, and ditto for the 35 1.8.  Hopefully the 50 1.8 arrives soon as well.  I did consider a Sigma 60 2.8 which would be a better focal length for portraits, and has remarkable sharpness, but I wanted the option of having f/1.8 for low light. 
Anyway, I'll post about the a6000 when I receive it, along with how well it meets my expectations.  Wish me luck.

Just posted: Sony a6000 First Impressions