I thought it would be interesting to have an informal Olympus OMD EM-5 vs Fujifilm XE-1 discussion, simply because both of these cameras are fantastic but may appeal to different users for different reasons. It could be argued that both these machines are too different to warrant comparison, but you’d be surprised by how many people have contacted me asking for a summary of features and benefits, simple because they can’t decide which of the two might suit them best. I’ve only recently taken delivery of them both so this represents my initial impressions only. I will also say that I’m not particularly interested in wading through technical data and charts, what matters to me is real life performance in the conditions under which I shoot, with the optics I use. For that reason this report should generally be regarded as unscientific. We know the difference good glass makes and so the lenses placed on each camera for the purpose of this test are optically similar in quality. Autofocus speeds are dependent on factors such as whether or not a zoom or prime lens is being used, the chosen aperture, and focal length (in other words, longer zooms with smaller maximum apertures tend to be a little slower to focus than fast aperture wide to tele zooms). Let me preface this blog post by stating that this is not an equipment review, what I have to say here (and elsewhere on my blog) is nothing more than my opinion based on my own particular preferences and shooting style. I need equipment which will perform to professional standards in a wide range of scenarios. Your needs, wants, and likes may be different.
Edit: I’ve just read a disparaging comment on a well known photography forum where a reader is expressing some disgust that I’ve failed to provide a spectrum of full resolution images and a range of comparative ISO tests. As I have said, that is not the purpose of this post. If I ever get the chance to retire I may well do some formal testing but until then this is my business site and I need to engage my readers in a particular way. If you’re looking for large samples with in depth comparisons and data then I advise that you seek out the leading review sites or better still make an effort to visit a store and spend a little time testing your chosen camera before making your purchase (that’s what I do) - it’s always far more helpful to assess your own images rather than somebody else’s.
As I mentioned in my last blog post (which can be seen here: OMD EM-5, Object of Desire choosing cameras can be a minefield. We’re tempted to read everything we see on the Internet and this is where things can go a little pear shaped. I advise sticking to the mainstream review sites and to take user reviews as little more than points of interest, unless the reviewer has established credibility within their profession. In fact the majority of comments seem to be drawn from people who have never used the equipment under discussion and still others may be novices whose images are unlikely to demonstrate the best capabilities of the camera. Not to mention loss of quality when photographs are uploaded poorly or viewed on uncalibrated monitors. In short, to determine if a camera or lens suits you the only course of action is to either try it out in the store, rent it first, or simply bite the bullet and buy it.
Why do I need both the OMD and the XE1? Because I’m a full-time portrait photographer who, after a few years of intensive graft, now has RSI and damage to the nerves in my hands and a fair amount of arthritis in my neck, fingers, and back. What fun. What I describe is actually quite common in my profession, particularly if you’re female. I simply can’t carry big kit all the time anymore, and now that the top manufacturers have brought us some truly amazing compact systems we can confidently scale down our equipment. That’s not to say that I’m not keeping a couple of good DSLRs – these are invaluable when it comes to photographing fast moving targets such as wildlife, sports, pets, and active children. The tracking focus currently available on compact rangefinder style systems isn’t up to professional standards yet in my opinion. Both the OMD and the XE-1 differ in characteristics and behaviour, not to mention performance. Based on my own particular requirements the pros and cons most relevant to me (you might differ) are as follows:
Olympus OMD EM-5
- Fast snappy autofocus even in dim conditions
- A wonderful array of Micro 4/3 lenses including fast primes and fast zooms
- A very high level of in-camera customisation
- Highly efficient IBIS ( in body image stabilisation) which allows me to shoot handheld as low as 1/8 of a second in static scenes
- A superb electronic viewfinder
- Quiet operation, the shutter sound is quite soft
- Weather proofing (I’m often out in damp conditions here in the UK)
- This camera is beautiful to look at and the silver lenses look lush
- Excellent lowlight capability
- Excellent overall image quality
- Tiltable rear screen and touch sensitive controls – perfect for street shooting
- Micro 4/3 sensor size renders wider depth of field, meaning you can shoot at a very wide aperture and still maintain more of your chosen scene in focus
- Micro 4/3 sensor size renders wider depth of field, meaning it’s harder to render an out of focus background (for the commentators who are thinking I’m confused, I am repeating this for a reason – this point may be either a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it – you will need to invest in fast lenses to gain very shallow DOF on the Oly, though it should be noted that the difference in DOF between u4/3 and APS-C is only around 0.75 of a stop)
- The buttons are rather small potentially making operation fiddly if you have large hands
- This camera is about purity and superlative image quality
- Best in class ISO performance, produces clean images at ISO 6400 (however there is some evidence that the ISO values are inflated)
- Beautiful retro looks and excellent build quality
- EVF much better than previous X Series cameras
- Not weather sealed
- Shutter sound is a little louder than expected, don’t expect this camera to be as stealthy as the X-100 (which has a leaf shutter)
- X-sync speed only 1/180 (versus 1/250 on the OMD)
- Tripod screw is located too close to the battery compartment, meaning the fittings of my slingshot straps foul the battery hatch making it fiddly and time-consuming when a battery change is needed
- EVF dims a little in bright light and exhibits some lag
- Limited lens selection at present
- Aperture ring on 18-55 lens seems quite loose and easily knocked
- Currently no option to set minimum shutter speed when using Auto ISO
- Autofocus slower than expected given this is a second generation X system
- Incomplete RAW support
So as you can see, the cameras are very different beasts and the OMD’s rather longer list of ‘pros’ reflects its additional feature set and user options, rather than any failings on the part of the Fuji. In many ways it’s quite difficult to compare the two, because they’re both so different and quite unique. The XE1 trades very much on its image quality whereas the OMD is more about speed, performance, and fun. That’s not to say that the OMD’s image quality isn’t truly excellent, it is, and I was surprised by how good it is – it’s well up to pro standards for most applications. But there are some right old pixel peepers out there who will find fault wherever they can. Given I do this for a living I need to be pretty fussy, and I shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting good results out of whatever equipment I have in my hands at the time. I say this because I really don’t want to end up in a situation which has cropped up in the past – where a new camera owner has complained that the output from his camera does not match what I post here on my blog, with a little abuse thrown in for good measure (hence fewer equipment based articles this year than intended). We’ve had this conversation a dozen times now, getting high quality pictures is dependent on where the user sits on his or her technical and creative learning curve, and of course some experience in post-processing is mandatory (all images require a little bit of polish, and sometimes the smallest and most subtle adjustments will help to finish off a photograph and bring it more in line with what our eyes saw at the time). For that reason don’t be too hard on yourself, or your equipment, if your output fails to match mine or those of other professionals.
Time for some Olympus OMD EM-5 and Fujifilm XE-1 pictures I think. The key thing with comparisons like this is to try and standardize your settings as far as possible and use comparable quality glass. I’ve seen too many comparison shots where the OMD has been paired with a lacklustre kit lens when played off against an XP1/XE1 with an expensive prime, which makes the whole thing rather unfair and rather pointless. The photographs have all been taken as JPEGs, because JPEGs always form the basis of my initial tests and secondly because RAW support for the Fuji’s X Trans sensor is still not as good as it should be. The first stage is to set up the in camera JPEG parameters. I like my JPEGs to be fairly neutral and I like to turn down in-camera noise reduction (this helps to avoid the smearing of details at higher ISO levels). This produces a slightly flat looking file which is my preferred starting point. I’ve also left the white balance set to Auto so that you can see how both cameras interpret the colour temperature of the scene (this can be adjusted to taste in both cameras with hue and tint controls). Lens-wise the OMD wore the Leica DG Summilux 25 f1.4 and the Fuji the Fujinon 18-55 f2.8-f4. You may be wondering why there are many more images from the OMD that the Fuji, that’s because I’m still waiting on a spare battery and so I restricted the number of images captured on the XE-1. More detailed and more varied images will of course appear here on the Blog over the coming months, but for now I’ve chosen a very bright contrasty sunny day and a few shots taken indoors in subdued light of Charles the snake (the first OMD snake image is at 4000 ISO and the second at ISO 5000 with just a small amount of noise reduction in Lightroom). In terms of post-production, all files have received my standard curve adjustment and a slight boost to vibrance. I do not do capture sharpening on JPEGs.
Olympus OMD Images
Fujifilm XE-1 Images
So how do I feel about my new cameras? Well I’m delighted with both of them, but for different reasons. I was more or less able to predict how the XE1 would perform based on my ownership and love for my existing X cameras and my familiarity with the brand. But the OMD was something of a revelation, I really didn’t expect a micro 4/3 camera to produce images which were often difficult to distinguish from those of the Fuji, even in low light. There really is very little between them. Fuji grain is quite fine and the images are very smooth, but you really only notice that at pixel peeping level or in very large prints, if at all. The native auto white balance of the Fuji is slightly cooler than that of the OMD in bright daylight (and vice versa indoors or under artificial lighting) but both do well and can be tweaked to taste in-camera. I would say that white balance accuracy is one of the strong points of the Fuji X cameras. Much is said of the beauty of Fuji colours and also of the pleasing colour rendition from the OMD. Again, I like both equally and they can be adjusted to suit you, or in my case to match each other on occasions when I’m shooting both cameras together. It should be mentioned that many OMD images floating about the Internet have a rather orange tinge to them – that is easily managed in camera and can be turned down to suit your needs. Overall I found the image quality of both cameras to be quite close in most scenarios, with the Fuji having a small advantage at very high ISO levels. The Fuji applies less aggressive sharpening at standard in-camera settings than the OMD and I will be reducing the in-camera sharpening on the Olympus from now on. The default noise reduction on the Fuji appears less aggressive than that of the Olympus. Dynamic range is a strength of Fuji X cameras and has historically been a weakness of Micro 4/3 sensors – but not any more – even pushing up the in-camera contrast on the OMD and shooting in harsh sunlight revealed no particular weaknesses.
So which camera do I prefer? That’s quite a difficult question, both are capable of producing outstanding images. After all, most people do judge cameras according to the finer points of the pictures they produce, often at the expense of overall performance. But as a professional photographer performance is key to me. And it’s the latter where the Olympus really excels, probably because it’s been designed to act like a small DSLR, whereas the Fuji X cameras are about simplicity and creative expression. A few weeks ago I created a blog post entitled “Fujifilm XE-1 – Will it Be Love?” and in response to that I can say “a fondness”. In the room with the snake the Fuji struggled to lock focus at times and the slight lag of the EVF added to my frustrations. However the OMD nailed the shots easily (despite having a cheap and slow zoom on at the time). And of course the OMD is not only faster but is also weather proofed which is a great bonus for outdoor users. So whilst I greatly admire the XE1 for its outstanding images, classic looks and wonderful build quality, it’s rather like a luxury saloon car – pleasurable to handle providing you’re not in too much of a hurry. The OMD on the other hand is a bit like a highly specc’d modern sports car – a little sharper around the edges but your journey will be fast and memorable. From that statement alone you will see that the two cameras are not really comparable and are likely to appeal to different consumers (or folk who enjoy having both) and that is very much the point of this article. I can see my infatuation with the OMD continuing and thus far it is the camera I reach for the most, I simply love it. But I hope the Fuji will also have place in my kitbag (when a firmware upgrade sorts out the weak autofocus performance and if Adobe can produce decent RAW conversion algorithms then the XE1 will be a winner). So far the XE1 is limiting in too many scenarios to be much more than my recreational camera. I cannot help feeling that Fuji are producing cameras which in some ways are wonderfully innovative but which are not quite ready for the marketplace – a little risky given that other manufacturers are now developing high performing compact systems. I will also say that in my opinion Fuji trade very much on styling and nostalgia, often at the expense of performance, in the belief that many customers will overlook a poor feature set. No doubt some will, but many will not.
A few people have asked “why are you posting loads of mundane landscape pictures when you’re a portrait photographer?” – that’s because I always begin camera testing with landscapes, buildings, streets scenes and low light scenes before I move on to people. The reason is that the “mundane” shots give me a great deal of useful information about a camera’s performance, such as how it handles different kinds of light, different colour temperatures, whether I will see banding in blue skies, and how well the autofocus system works in different conditions. I’ll be doing some portraits in the New Year.
You can see some of the first OMD images here on my pet and animal blog: OMD Initial Tests
Further OMD and XE-1 shots: OMD and XE-1 at Hampton Court
The argument for mirrorless: OMD vs Canon 5D MkIII Field Testing
XE-1 Images: Fujifilm XE1 at the Natural History Museum
XE1 vs OMD Questions and Answers: CSC Q and A
XE1 Travel Images: Fujifilm XE1 at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Olympus OMD for Portraiture: OMD Portraits
UPDATE 16/01/2013: I have decided to sell my XE1. Unfortunately I have not been able to incorporate this camera into my professional kit bag as I had hoped, simply because it is not well suited to the work that I do. Location portraiture is not always static and often my subjects will be walking towards the camera or placed indoors, and focus speed and accuracy has proved a significant issue at times, which can be frustrating and risky if I’m shooting for a client. Further testing has also revealed that I personally don’t like X Trans output, particularly for portraiture which is the mainstay of what I do – skin is rendered badly and given that I often have to print at large sizes the rendering of details is also poor at times, depending on the subject. With respect to RAW output, following a detailed discussion with one of the Fuji heads I can also report that over the coming months we can expect Adobe to introduce improvements to its X Trans RAW algorithms. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my X100 and my X10 as I have done for some time now. But the OMD is proving a real winner and is performing very well indeed in all the conditions I am throwing at it – I’m fantastically impressed with the IQ, the speed, and of course the incredible u4/3 lens lineup, many of which are proving to be on par with some of my Canon L glass. There will be plenty of OMD related blog posts coming up.