Cheerio, old pal: five years with the Olympus E-M5

I first visited Top of the Rock in New York in 2012 and was blown away by the high-up, skyline view over a busy city. Since then, for work and travels, I’ve been in New York many more times and have often taken in another trip to Top of the Rock – always at night when the skyline shines.

On that trip in 2012, armed with my Canon Powershot SX230 HS, I came back with photos that were great memories but with a whole lot of disappointing skyline night shots from the Rockefeller viewpoint.

After that I decided to look into photography a lot more as a hobbyist and find a camera that would 1) help me learn more about what cameras can do and how to use them; and 2) help me capture some better night shots. I ended up with the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Back in 2012 the reviews for the new range of Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras were fantastic. The E-M5 won ‘Camera of the Year’ in some polls. It was the first time that the MFT system was considered to be taking on the big boys of Canon and Nikon with their full-frame DSLRs. In hindsight, the MFT picture quality and capability was still far behind but the cameras offered something different. They offered a great balance between capability and quality but in an ultra compact body.

Like any enthusiast with a new camera, I was snap happy. At first it was skyline photos I was aiming for but on each trip I’d come back with hundreds of photos of anything, everything, trying – and sometimes succeeding – in recreating the type of shot I had seen online and liked.

As a light traveller (my 28L is my only bag on any trip) the E-M5 was perfect. Even gathering together a few lenses to go with it, it was still light and took up so little space. It was ideal.

In the early days, succumbing to technology lust, I ended up with a few lenses which were quickly moved on and eventually settled on the wonderful trio of the 12mm f2.0, the 25mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8, all of which were, and remain, outstanding in terms of picture quality. And the 12mm f2.0 set the standard for future Olympus pro lenses with build quality and the manual focus clutch.

So with my camera and trio of lenses in hand, I set about reading about and learning as much as I could about taking photos and getting out and about to put it into practise. And my E-M5 was the first item packed for any trip.

Over time, my favourite type of photos became low-light and night shots. MFT sensors are not designed to work as well in low light as their larger and full-frame equivalents, and the E-M5 really starts to show its limitations in low light. But despite that, I’ve ended up with some night shots – taken with a tripod and handheld – which I’m really happy with. And that includes some Northern Lights shots which have really pushed the E-M5 to its limits in terms of controlling noise, capturing the aurora and having a reasonable foreground under near total darkness. I’ve learned so much from this over the years.

What’s more, the camera has been pushed to its limits in horrendous wind and rain, in -28C at the top of a mountain in Greenland, and in the unbearable heat of Southern Texas. It has always coped perfectly well.

More recently I ended up selling the trio of lenses and replacing them with the 12-40mm f2.8. This was due to the stupidity of swapping lenses and exposing the sensor in the Arctic wind, which I didn’t want to do again, and wanting the simplicity of one lens.

A few years ago I agreed with the consenus that a fixed focal length prime lens was better than a zoom lens. Certainly in terms of the MFT suite of lenses at the time, the utter gems of the prime lenses were better than the zoom lenses on offer. But more recently I don’t agree with this and the MFT zoom lenses offer image quality that is easily on par with the best of the primes, and which are only lacking in comparison if you’re looking for a particularly fast lens.

Now, after over five years with the EM-5 and a few months of digging around reviews and playing with cameras in shops, I’ve settled on a replacement: an Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark ii, with the 12-100mm f4.0 lens. It’s far bulkier than what I started out with but will see me well for the next few years.

 

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