As many of you will know there is currently a huge amount of interest when it comes to both of these exciting compact system cameras. On the basis of the many questions we’ve been asked I thought I’d summarise my current findings in a Fujifilm XE1 vs Olympus OMD EM-5 question and answer session. I’ll preface this by saying it is in no way a technical discussion but is rather a general statement based on the kind of practical decisions a buyer would normally make – and of course my own personal preferences too. This is key – my needs and wants may be different to your own. I’m sure that more findings and articles on both cameras will follow as I continue to test them in differing situations (look out for some portrait sessions in January or February). I’m a full-time portrait photographer (who also undertakes a variety of subject matter as personal projects) and what matters to me is real-world performance and real-world results for the kind of stuff that I do. I’m not interested in data charts or obsessive pixel peeping, since that rarely reveals anything useful to the user. For a camera system to find its way into my kitbag will depend on a number of variables. First and foremost, what will a particular shoot involve – will it be static portraits, commercial work, pets and wildlife, or street and travel photography? Both the Fuji XE1 and the Olympus OMD EM-5 are very different beasts in performance and handling. Depending on what you shoot, you may be better advised to choose one over the other. The OMD is like a little DSLR, whereas Fuji X cameras are elegantly simple and well suited to those who prefer a less technical experience.
Which camera has the best image quality?
They are both capable of absolutely superb output, I find both equally impressive. Which you prefer will simply come down to personal preference, since we all see things slightly differently.
Which camera is best in low light?
Again, they are both brilliant in low light/high ISO situations. But many commentators who have not tried the latest micro 4/3 offerings will still insist that the XE1 is far superior to the OMD at high ISO values. I have not found that to be the case, in fact they are fairly close and any edge the XE1 has is too slight for this particular parameter to be a determining factor in my choice of one body over the other. Given that we are talking mostly about JPEG output (since currently the X Trans RAWs are not well supported), the amount of noise reduction which your camera applies can be controlled to suit your own personal preferences. I tend to switch the noise reduction down a notch since this gives a good balance between detail and noise control. I will however say that the XE1′s ISO values appear to be set a little higher than the OMD’s. The OMD’s IBIS can often mean that you’re able to shoot at quite slow shutter speeds, thereby keeping ISO levels very low, enough to nullify the perceived advantages of a larger sensor.
Which camera has the best JPEGs?
You guessed it, they are both great. But once again the particular “look” from any given camera may differ and may appeal to different people for different reasons. Earlier incarnations of micro 4/3 cameras used to be quite savage on the highlights, in fact highlight clipping was commonplace. That has been greatly improved and is no longer a problem on cameras such as the OMD. Remember that you can tweak contrast settings in camera to suit your tastes. Another thing to mention is sharpening, in past years Micro 4/3 images appeared over sharpened and often slightly gritty as a result. That is also a thing of the past, however I do recommend turning down the sharpening a bit on your OMD, this helps the files to look smoother and more film-like.
What about white balance?
When shooting JPEGs I normally stick with auto white balance, since these days most cameras will do a good job in most conditions. For more consistency you can choose a white balance setting appropriate to the colour temperature of whatever scene you find yourself in. But in terms of auto white balance I think it’s fair to say that Fuji have nailed this, both in consistency and accuracy. The XE1 runs slightly cool and the OMD runs a little warmer outside, the reverse tends to be true indoors. Both cameras can be tweaked in their menus to suit your personal tastes and you can bias your preferences towards either the cooler or warmer end of the spectrum. Quick tip – when shooting RAW a fixed white balance setting will make batch colour corrections much quicker and easier when you process your files.
What about RAW files?
Given that both cameras produce exceptional JPEG files you may find that you shoot RAW less often than you used to. As a professional photographer I normally need to shoot in RAW format, such as when I have to extract lots of fine detail from the picture, or if I find myself in mixed or challenging lighting. Wedding photographers in particular are more likely to shoot RAW because this gives them additional highlight recovery should they need it. I’m afraid I can’t compare the RAW output at the present time or even comment on the XE1′s X Trans RAW images because there is currently no effective mainstream RAW support. (Edit 1st January 2014: there have been improvements in the RAW algorithms within the leading processing software, but in my opinion it’s still not quite there).
Which camera is the prettiest?
Yes, I do get asked this question. Honestly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so I can’t answer this for you. I happen to think they both look great, but the EM5 has the edge to my eyes. I have both cameras in the silver option because I like the more old-fashioned look, but the black is also popular because it is minimal and sleek.
Can I go out and shoot in the rain?
You can with the OMD which has a good degree of weather sealing (you’ll need to make sure that your chosen lens does as well) as demonstrated by some reviewers throwing buckets of water over their OMDs (not something I would want to do). The XE1 is not weather sealed, however some photographers use freezer bags which can be used to help protect your equipment from light drizzle.
Which camera focuses faster?
I think most of us know the answer to this one. The Olympus has one of the most sophisticated and fastest autofocus systems out there and it is extremely snappy and responsive in all the conditions I have so far tested it in. However don’t expect the tracking focus to be up to much, that is currently too much of an ask for any compact system. On the other hand the XE1 is quite slow, disappointingly so in my view, with none of the speed improvements we were led to expect in the pre-release hype (Edit: firmware updates since then have improved things a little, but it’s still nowhere near good enough for my needs). It’s not so much that the XE1 fails to focus, it’s just rather slow and I have lost quite a few shots because of this (and I am not talking about fast moving targets). We can of course employ zone focus at times and experiment with AF-C (not much use if you must focus and recompose, as I do most of the time), if we have the opportunity, and if our subject is moving in a predictable manner. One thing to consider here is relative sensor size – because the OMD has a Micro 4/3 sensor it has just under a stop of additional depth of field when compared to the APS C sensor of the Fuji, this means you can maintain a relatively wide aperture on the Oly and leverage the extra light gathering capability without sacrificing depth of focus. Focus speed partly depends on which lens you’re using – a wide to tele zoom will normally focus faster than a prime, and a long zoom lens with a variable aperture will probably focus more slowly than a shorter faster zoom.
Is the increased depth of field on the OMD a problem?
Not in my view, in many instances it is a benefit, as I mentioned above. You can still achieve very shallow depth of field when using the Micro 4/3 system simply by attaching one of the many excellent fast prime lenses which are available for this particular format. Remember that depth of field is governed by a number of factors, with sensor format generally being the least applicable in most situations. What matters more is the focal length of the lens you’re using, how close you are to your subject, your chosen aperture, how far your subject is from the background, and your sensor size. Those elements can be juggled accordingly. If you want ultra isolation of your subject that it’s hard to beat the Micro 4/3 75mm f1.8 prime lens, which gives an effective focal length of 150 mm. This is a niche lens, but for shallow depth of field it is staggeringly good.
Both cameras are well made in my opinion, but I would lean slightly towards the ‘feel’ of the XE1, the buttons in particular feel lovely (the OMD buttons are a bit too squishy). But the EM5 is tough and is of course weather sealed, so it gets the prize for build. The fujinon lenses are also beautifully made. Many of the most popular micro 4/3 lenses are mostly made of plastic, however that does mean they are small and light which can be a real benefit at times. You should also be aware that on X system lenses the aperture control is on the lens itself, and in my experience the aperture ring is a little too loose and is easily displaced – quite often I find myself having to adjust this prior to taking my next shot, which in turn often results in missed opportunities. A small piece of electrical tape can come in handy, if you’re not going to be adjusting your settings too often. But to me, I found this irritating.
What is the EVF like?
Both cameras have a good quality EVF but it is possible that one will appeal to you more than the other. I happen to much prefer the EVF on the OMD because regardless of the light I’m in it gains up or down in an instant and it is almost as good as looking into a DSLR. The XE1′s viewfinder on the other hand is not so good in very bright sunlight, and in extremely bright light it can be hard to see the details of the scene in front of you (cupping your hand around your eye will help considerably) and it is also a little laggy and slow at times.
How is the handling?
This is a great question and I cannot stress enough the importance of ergonomics. It’s no good desiring a particular camera if you don’t like how it feels when you finally get the thing in your hands. Balance, the location of the buttons, the menus …. these are all important points which you really need to think about. The XE1 has a fairly basic minimal layout which I find very pleasing and simple to use, the menus are few and quite basic which I also like. The OMD is more complex because the camera has a great many features and it is also one of the most customisable cameras on the market, so you will need to spend some time getting to know where everything is. One of the great things about the OMD is the fact that a good number of the buttons can have your favourite functions assigned to them, for quick access. Another thing I enjoy on the OMD is the flip out rear screen which is (optionally) touch sensitive – this is a fantastic way of taking stealthy pictures, you can appear to be scrutinising the back of the camera on your lap and all you have to do is tap the screen on the part of the image where you want to lock focus and the camera will quickly take a beautifully focused picture. But it’s not all perfect on the OMD – the buttons are tiny and are quite fiddly, I can imagine this will be a source of frustration to men with large hands. It’s not a problem for me, because I’m female with tiny fingers, but even I have to sometimes glance at the camera to check where the buttons are. Otherwise the balance of the OMD, whichever lens I have on it, is pretty close to perfect. The XE1 tends to feel a little front heavy even with the new 18-55 zoom lens mounted.
What about lens choices?
There is no doubt that the dedicated micro four thirds lens lineup is nothing short of fantastic, with everything from fast primes to the latest f2.8 zooms. Generally speaking they’re not cheap, but there are some affordable gems which are optically superb. These include the 45mm f1.8, PL25 f1.4 and the 40-150 zoom. If funds are not an issue you might prefer the 12-35 f2.8 or the 35-100 f2.8. The Fuji X lenses are, as you would expect, a bit bigger and heavier (given that they must cover a larger sensor) but they are beautifully made and optically excellent. The Fujinon 18-55 zoom represents fantastic value when purchased with the XE1 as a kit. However the X lens lineup is small and this may restrict you depending on what you shoot. Be aware that putting together an OMD system may prove more costly than the Fuji system.
The OMD’s IBIS system is incredibly effective and will enable you to shoot at remarkably slow shutter speeds. It will allow you to use non-stabilised lenses at lower hand holding speeds (tip – switch any lens stabilisation off if in-camera stabilisation is on). The zoom lens which often accompanies the XE1 is also stabilised, and it works well, but not to the extent of the in body stabilisation on the Oly. IBIS can enable you to get pictures where you would probably have no hope with any other system, aside from cranking the ISO still further.
How are both cameras for portraits?
They are both good for portraiture but with autofocus and lighting caveats where the Fuji is concerned. It is often argued that Fuji produce the most pleasing skin tones, and they are certainly good. However this is often because users do not understand how to customise the OMD, and I happen to think that the colour output of the OMD is very pleasing. The zoom lens on the XE1 is ideal for portraiture, the f4 setting at full zoom is plenty adequate for shallow DOF, or the 60mm prime might appeal to you more if you can cope with the slower focus over the zoom. The OMD with the 45mm f1.8 is a great combination. But once again, the blazingly fast and accurate autofocus of the OMD will nail pretty much everything you throw at it. On a more personal note, I find the X Trans sensor renders a slightly ‘plastic’ look to skin (in both JPEG and RAW) which for me is a turn-off, especially when photographing men.
Are both cameras suitable for professional photographers?
The OMD is a high performer capable of coping with a vast array of subject matter. The Fuji much less so. The image quality of both is more than good enough, equalling or bettering the output from most current APS-C DSLR cameras. Both cameras are good choices for landscapes (the OMD having the slight advantage of increased depth of field at any given aperture). But this is where things change ….. if you shoot moving targets then the OMD has distinct advantages given the fast autofocus and responsive EVF (though don’t expect tracking focus on any CSC to be all that great). The OMD will also focus more quickly in low light so you might prefer it for concert photography for example. If you shoot wildlife the OMD is a good choice thanks to the availability of so many lenses (once again, you can shoot at a slightly wider aperture on this camera without sacrificing too much depth).
Will my clients be concerned that a small camera is not good enough for the job in hand?
I expect that some clients will think that, but you can easily put them straight. There is a post just down from this one where we discuss that very topic: Big Camera Syndrome and Clients
So what can we conclude from all these questions? It’s quite simple – don’t agonise over image quality because these cameras are so close that it is not, in my opinion, a determining factor (unless you clearly lean in one particular direction). Instead, think about what you’re going to be shooting and with that in mind look at the performance attributes of each camera and the available lenses. And don’t forget about handling, it’s quite common to hanker after something only to dislike it as soon as you have it in your mits. For this reason I do recommend that you try and get to a camera store where you can have a good play, shoot some images, and generally decide whether you and the camera will be a good match. My conclusion is that the OMD is a stunning all-round performer but if you’re a casual shooter and you don’t need speed and the other DSLR-like features then you may prefer the styling and easier handling of the (slightly more affordable) XE1. Budget-wise the OMD can work out to be fairly expensive if you have a preference for fast zooms. But I can’t tell you which one to buy. When speed and reliability is important, or RAW shooting, I grab my OMD. On a relaxed personal outing where a wide to tele zoom will come in handy the XE1 would be fine. The heart does occasionally rule the head and the personality of the individual should never be underestimated. As I keep telling some of the more indignant commentators (some of which I cannot publish) it is not a crime to prefer one piece of equipment over another, or to list the documented features of one camera versus an alternative – if we were all the same it would be an astonishingly boring world.
By the way I also own and love two other Fujifilm X cameras which I keep for personal projects – the X10 and the X100. There are plenty of pictures from both scattered around the Blog. The X10 is a terrific all round travel/personal use camera which is great fun to use, and the X100 is a purist’s joy with exemplary image quality and beautiful 35mm (equivalent) optics.
UPDATE: By way of a January 2013 addendum I can confirm that I have now sold the XE1. Test shoots following the usual format of my professional location portrait assignments revealed that the autofocus did not meet our performance benchmarks and in general this camera was not fast enough for the way in which we work. We were not engaging in sports photography or fast moving subjects, so we were quite disappointed that the camera could not keep up with the proceedings – fashion shoots and family photography is normally dynamic, but the XE1 struggled. That does not mean that it will not be ideal for you if you’re a hobbyist taking general travel pictures, but I do receive an awful lot of e-mails from XE1 owners who are rather disgruntled by its behaviour. I always recommend that you try and get to a camera store to test whichever equipment you’re considering, rather than relying on the manufacturer’s marketing hype. It’s also a good idea to make your purchase after any given piece of equipment has been out for at least a couple of months whereby there will be a reasonable body of feedback from current owners.