I have met a lot of photographers who are using an Olympus camera. They are often very enthusiastic about their gear. A lot of their functions cannot be found in other cameras, which makes Olympus quite unique. If these cameras are so unique, why aren’t these more popular? I tried an Olympus for a few weeks to find out.
The Olympus OM-D cameras are compact and lightweight. A camera with a set of lenses can be carried in a small camera bag, perfect for traveling. When I guided a tour at Lofoten, the Olympus photographers in my group were the ones that traveled with only a small camera bag, while carrying more lenses than the Nikon, Canon, Fujfiilm, and Sony users.
The thing that struck me the most were the amazing options that were built into these small cameras: live star tracking, seeing a long exposure gathering light live on screen, image stabilization that rendered a tripod unnecessary, and more. Often, I understood why the Olympus photographers were so enthusiastic about their cameras.
But at the same time, I wondered why Olympus cameras aren't more common. When I talked to the local camera shop, they said Olympus isn't selling very well. A lot of secondhand Olympus cameras were available. So, why is a Olympus camera not that popular, while it seems to be so great? To find out, I borrowed a Olympus OM-D E-M1 II with a nice set of lenses.
I wanted to try an Olympus for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to learn more about this small camera. Making myself familiar with it would make it possible to assist the workshop and masterclass participants that were using Olympus much better. But it would also give an idea of the capabilities of the camera itself.
One Camera and Four Lenses
I received the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II together with a M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.2 lens, a M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 lens, a M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, and a M.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7. It is a wonderful set for both portrait photography and landscape photography. The lenses are great quality, although the 75-300mm lens is a cheaper, lesser model. Unfortunately, the current crisis made it not possible to arrange more than a single portrait session, for which the 17mm and 25mm lens were perfect.
The camera itself has a great design. Although it is very small, it feels very comfortable in my hands. The button layout is also very good. I don’t know if other Olympus camera models have the same feel, but I hope they do. There are two SD card slots available, something I find important. The one thing I did not particularly like was the rotation wheel around the shutter button, but it is something I could get used to. Although the PSAM wheel has the three custom settings, the Olympus also has a special handle to switch between two different states. It allows the user to customize the camera even more.
I haven’t been able to adjust the camera completely to my own needs. There wasn’t enough time for that. But it became clear how the settings of this camera can easily be changed completely with just a single switch. If you like to perform different kinds of photography like I do, it is very easy to change the camera into a completely different one.
Browsing Through the Menu
The menu structure of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is very extensive. It has six main categories, covering most standard settings. But it is the custom menu that offers an enormous amount of pages, each having up to seven settings. The pages range from the letter A to J, some of which are divided in different numbers, like A1, A2, A3, A4, and so on. In total, there are 21 different pages, making it time consuming to find a certain setting. There is some logical order, but it will take some time to learn to find the right setting very quickly. In particular, the more exotic options are located far away, and it might take more time to reach a certain setting. Some options are somewhat cryptic, requiring the manual to find out what they do.
Unfortunately, Olympus does not provide a personal menu option, which would allow you to gather a selection of menu options that will be used very regularly. Although a lot of buttons can be customized, a custom menu option would be more than welcome.
It Is So Small Because It Has a Smaller Sensor
Using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is a lot of fun. But taking it with you is even more fun. Compared to my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, it feels almost like a small compact camera, while offering more options than the Canon. The size and weight of the Olympus system makes it very convenient for travel or to take the camera with you on a long hike.
The M43 sensor of the Olympus is the reason for its reduced size and weight, of course. The sensor is about half the size of a full frame, which makes it able to minimize the dimensions of the camera and lenses. On top of that, it is a mirrorless camera, which has to be taking into account also when comparing it to a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. The crop factor of the M43 sensor is 2x, making it possible to reduce the focal length. That is why the 17mm and 25mm f/1.2 lenses are perfect portrait lenses, resembling a 35mm and a 50mm on a full frame. But instead of being large and heavy lenses, these are very compact. The 75-300mm lens is an equivalent of 150-600mm on full frame, while the size is similar to a 24-105mm lens.
The sensor of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is about 20 megapixels, which is more than enough for most types of photography. It produces a great image and nice colors out of the box, although I change every photo to my liking in Lightroom. Because of the small sensor, noise is likely to occur more easily when the ISO levels are raised and when more extreme post-processing is performed also. I believe this is the biggest issue when it comes to Olympus cameras.
How bad is the noise? Well, I was shooting small birds with the M.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 lens, which needed a higher ISO level because of its small aperture at 300mm. I bumped up the ISO levels to 2,500 and 3,200 and found out it wasn’t too bad at all. Yes, it has some noise compared to my big DSLR camera, but it can be reduced very well in Lightroom. This way, you end up with an image that can be used for a lot of applications.
Also, the dynamic range of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is not all that bad. Underexposed areas can be recovered reasonably well. Noise will occur more easily, of course. But then again, with the right amount of noise reduction, the result is acceptable.
An Olympus Camera or Not an Olympus Camera?
I do like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II very much. Its possibilities are amazing, and it handles very well despite its small size. But its small sensor makes it more difficult to shoot with high ISO levels. Also, the dynamic range of the camera's sensor is less than I would like to have, although I did not test it very thoroughly. For my landscape photography, I wouldn't care too much about the dynamic range of the sensor. On most occasions, it is better to use gradient filters or just plain old HDR. It is a completely different story when it comes down to my wedding photography. For that, I wouldn’t be happy using this Olympus camera.
Bottom line, the Olympus is not the right camera for me. But I envy the users of the Olympus system for its small size and how easy it is to carry a camera and set of lenses with you. It is a very capable camera, with amazing possibilities that could benefit a lot of photographers. It is strange it isn’t more popular. I wonder, is it just because of its small sensor? Or is there another reason?
What do you think about the Olympus camera system? Are you using one? Please share your opinion or experiences in the comments below.