It has been a couple of months now since I've switched entirely to Micro Four-Thirds with the OM-D EM-1. I cannot say that I am disappointed in any way. It's solid, light and has amazing image quality for the sensor size. I'd say that the quality is indistinguishable to me from my work with the D700. I have never used a D800, and I am quite sure the quality on that camera is mind-blowing but I've never had the need for 36-MPix - not up to the sizes I print anyway, and the advantages in size, versatility and silent operation are certainly not to be ignored.
As some of you will know, my recent work has mostly centred around nature abstracts, and I have found some great advantages in the EM-1 that were hard to come by with the DSLRs. First off the live bulb function allows me to compose my images more accurately during long exposures, particularly at night with multi-second exposures. The ability to use the screen for this also allows me for more freedom of movement which makes the work even more daring, if I may use that word. I have already seen some evolution in my style using the OM-D, and I hope this will continue as I become more acquainted with this little gem.
It has now been a few weeks since I've put my D700 and full frame equipment on extended leave to go mirrorless. While I have not yet had the opportunity to give the camera a real-life stress-test, I am confident enough to give some detailed first impressions about what I like, and what I don't like so much about this little gem.
First off, let me say that overall I do not regret my choice. I knew there would be some compromise moving from what is possibly the best DSLR ever produced to a camera with a sensor half the size. There was a significant financial risk involved, but I can say that until now, things have worked out quite well.
I've taken the camera out a few times and shot under different conditions. I've spent hours navigating a very complex menu and flipping through a not-so-well written menu, and finally I think that I'm starting to warm up to the new system. This is definitely a camera which has been designed with the professional or semi-pro in mind, and it is reflected in the myriad blog posts out on the net from pro photographers who have dumped their heavyweights for featherweights and have not regretted it. I can almost hear backs around the world rejoicing in chorus from the weight relief, and I must say mine is one of them. But let's get down to the details.
In terms of image quality, I have to say that although it doesn't quite match my D700, it's impressive to say the least (keeping in mind my adulation of the D700). The sharpness is astounding - sometimes I feel it could also be just a tad too sharp but that will certainly be of benefit when blowing up images to exhibition-size. In terms of ISO performance, the positive is that it is almost as good as the D700 up to ISO1600. I probably wouldn't push it over that for images which are to be heavily post-processed. Further to that, the noise is quite elegant (for lack of choice of a better word), and similar to the D700 in nature. It is quite film-like and easily controllable in ACR. The bad news is that even at base ISO there is some noise present, and I have ended up giving every image a little luminance noise reduction. However the amount needed does not really affect detail and makes the image much more "processable".
In terms of RAW images, I must say I was equally impressed. Also keeping in mind that the final ACR profile for the EM-1 has not reached production yet as of writing, what I have seen is quite awesome. The dynamic range is excellent, and recovery of both highlights and shadows are very good, with good detail retention and acceptable noise levels. I can possibly say the two cameras are head to head on this, with the EM1 possibly having an edge. In all this, one should also keep in mind that the D700, while still current, is about 4 years old. Having said this, my view is that apart from improving video functions and ISO vs Megapixel performance, little has been done in these 4 years in terms of sensor technology.
The autofocus is snappy and accurate, the camera is incredibly responsive, and coming from SLRs, sometimes shockingly so. The one thing that bothers me slightly is that I could leave my D700 on all the time without draining much battery, while the OM-D is less nifty in waking up and unless you want your battery drained, you'll have to let it turn off after a while, which could catch you off guard having to switch it off and on again. However if it's going to be and intense day of shooting, I suggest just letting it sleep without turning off. Which brings me to another point. I still can't get used to the combination EVF and back-screen. To clarify - I absolutely adore the EVF. It's impressive and easy to get used to. However, I have had to switch off the eye sensor as it wouldn't let the camera go to sleep continuously switching from one to the other as I walked with the camera around my neck. This is one thing that needs some tweaking. One other thing I miss, is the shoot-from-the-viewfinder-and-review-on-screen method from DSLRs. I've had to take down image preview to half a second, since every time I was shooting, it would show the image on the viewfinder and obstruct my next shot. It would be fantastic to be able to set it to preview images on the screen rather than the viewfinder. The D700 had this great thing that you could see a short preview of every image after a sequential burst to get an impression of what you got. I guess that's one of the little compromises, and the way of the future. I feel old already.
There's much more to say about the EM-1, however I'll pause there for now and give some more time for practical shooting and editing before I move on to more detailed analysis. Over all, until now, I can't say I regret my choice to move to featherweight at all. I said this and will say it again. This is the future. I just pity the big guys out there still clinging onto their DSLR roadmaps shooting out blanket statements such as "mirrorless is for amateurs". I don't know if they're trying to convince us or themselves, but this feels so much like the film-switch and the full-frame switch. I guess we'll have this conversation again in two or three years tops.
The full collection of images from the "Fringe" Jazz Photography Exhibition are now uploaded. Enjoy!
Click on one of the images above to go to the exhibition collection.
A few weeks ago I was in Paris. I love that place, and I'm not a big city guy. But Paris has got something special - it feels homely, accessible and doesn't overwhelm (not in the big-city-atmosphere way, at least). Paris is nonetheless large, and as many have stated previously, best seen on foot. The point here is that for almost ten days, I left the apartment in the morning, caught a tube (ahem, Metro), and spent the rest of the day out and about on foot.
For good reason, when travelling (and not only), one of my main rules is to carry as little equipment as possible. For Paris, as for many trips before it, it was one camera and one lens, plus a compact for casual events and evening drinks. I was fine with this setup photographically, but my back wasn't, after lugging around a D700 (1Kg) with a 24-120 F4 (700g). That's almost 2Kg on my shoulder (I use a sling-strap) most of the day for 10 days. By the end of it I didn't want to grab a camera again for a while. Granted I'm not getting any younger, but I am pretty sure anyone would experience this in pretty much the same way. Fact is, DSLRs are huge and heavy.
To be fair, I'm a big fan of 35mm sensors. I ditched DX when the D700 was released and have had no regrets at all. Image quality is superb, ISO sensitivity is impressive. Still, it's a 5 year old technology, and a great deal has happened since then. Back in 2008, FX was the only way to achieve the kind of image quality needed for fine art photography, particularly if shot under not-so-favourable conditions such as indoor handheld, requiring some pushing of the ISO sensitivity. The D700 did (and still does) an amazing job at it, and I have printed images up to 24"x32" without any qualms. The camera was so good that Nikon didn't replace it until last year - an unprecendented occurrance in the previously high-speed-development world of digital photography - and in reality, it wasn't even a replacement since the camera is still being produced.
While the photographic technology has advanced significantly in the past years, DSLR development has been negligible, really and truly. Megapixel count has been increased consistently, an arguable benefit in itself, but ISO sensitivities have remained quite stable, and apart from the introduction and development of DSLR video (clearly a big step for film-makers) nothing much has changed. What has happened mostly in the the past years is miniaturisation. Clearly manufacturers have realised that the ceiling has almost been reached in the development of DSLRs with current technology, and have rightly started looking in the other direction, taking the current technology and making it smaller - and as often happens with new technologies and directions, everyone did it differently (and incompatibly).
As also often happens, the big manufacturers took their sweet time to get onto the bandwagon, and messed it up completely. As a Nikon guy I waited for a while until they decided to create their mirrorless lineup, and when they did, started looking elsewhere. The fact is that there is one key point in this shrinking race - the balance between size and image quality. It also depends very much on who is being targeted, and how flexible to platform should be in terms of producing both entry level and professional grade cameras. Sony did an impressive job with fitting a huge sensor in a tiny body, and Samsung also opted for a larger sensor. The main issue with this approach is that larger sensors require larger (and more expensive) lenses, apart from being more expensive to produce in their own right. Sensor production cost is exponential to size, not linear. Nikon went the other way, opting for a very small sensor. Way too small in my view - too small to ever support a professional or art level standard. I can somewhat see their point - they wouldn't want to cannibalise on their other product lines, however I think that this is a very narrow and short-sighted point of view. Canon, on the other hand, just went nowhere but into a coma for a few years, then produced something that everyone hated. Geniuses.
Naturally, in the end it is the market that tends to dictate which formats will rule the world, and although it is still a little early to say for sure, my bet is on the two remaining ones: the Fuji X system and the Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds. Fuji has developed a great system, and went about releasing it in the best possible way, launching the X100 fixed lens camera first, winning the hearts of everyone. Simple is beautiful (if you can afford it). They followed up with a system which had the same sensor but an interchangeable lens. The main drawbacks being a limited lens lineup (which will improve with time) and a poor AF, which unfortunately has not improved much yet. It's targeted towards the nostalgic street photographer, focusing on a rangefinder look and an array of mostly prime lenses. I am confident that this platform, given some more time and work, will become the standard for street photographers and landscape artists, and with the next generation soon to be released, this might happen soon. From the little I've seen, the image quality is exceptional, although RAW support is still dodgy, and I'm not a big fan of the colour rendition (although the latter is purely a personal view, besides being something that can be adapted).
The great thing about Micro Four-Thirds is that the sensor size is large enough to provide decent image quality (as long as they don't try to cramp more pixels onto the sensor, which I think they've realised, freezing the count at 16MPix since a couple of generations) which should be good enough for any professional, and probably for any artist too (to be seen!), and small enough to be able to produce a full range of cameras based on the same platform, from entry-level to pro, meaning photographers can start from the lower levels and end up with the top-of-the-line without having to worry about making their lens investments redundant. And on the subject of lenses, M43 has several advantages. Foremost, it has the widest range of lenses of any mirrorless system, especially since multiple producers are adhering to the platform. That on its own would be enough to sway many towards it rather than wait for others to catch up, and if played well, by the time they do, M43 will already be the dominant system. Secondly there is also a slew of older 4/3rd lenses which can be used on M43 with an adaptor, and with the latest OM-D EM-1, these can now also be used with phase detect AF, making the focusing much faster. On paper, I'm quite impressed, and that doesn't happen often.
If I'm right, DSLRs will become the new medium formats, increasingly relegated to studio environments and high end work. My guess is DX might survive for a while but will soon take the mirrorless route too. Nikon and Canon will hopefully finally realise that their best option is to convert their DX users into mirrorless DX users, making the cameras smaller, cheaper and able to use the many DX lenses available with an adaptor until new ones are created specifically for the mirrorless format. Oh, right - that's what Olympus just did with Four-Thirds! I'm betting that mirrorless cameras will rule the future. The technology is maturing fast, and will very soon catch up with SLR performance. Indeed I believe it's already nearly there. I've read of a myriad of pros switching to M43, and the main reason is size and weight. Of course there will be some compromise, but the gap is closing very fast, and I personally think that I can live with the compromises to save a kilogramme of weight on my next trip to Paris. Now, I just have to try it and see for myself.