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Trying Out an Olympus OM-D: Why Are These Cameras Not That Popular?

Trying Out an Olympus OM-D: Why Are These Cameras Not That Popular?

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 Olympus OM-D E-M1 II compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

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.

Capturing a rainbow in the sky and in the fountain (MZuiko 12-40mm at 34mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/125)

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 Olympus set I used for almost a month.

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.

Part of the button layout of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II.

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.

The menu is quite extensive. If you don't know where to find a setting, it can take some time to find it.

The buttons can be customized to your needs.

One of the amazing capabilities of this camera: the live bulb. See your image gathering light live on screen.

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 Olympus has a M43 sensor. Yes, it is small.

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 25mm f/1.2 lens is perfect for portraits. The camera has eye-AF, and it works fine. (M.Zuiko 25mm, ISO 200, f/1.4, 1/2,500)

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.

Noise Levels

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.

The European Pied Flycatcher. The autofocus had some difficulties focusing on the bird's head. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm at 300mm, ISO 2,000, f/6.7, 1/125)

European robin (M.zuiko 75-300mm at 300mm, ISO 2,500, f/6.7, 1/125)

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.

A misty sunrise. Just use filters or bracketing for the exposure and you don't have to worry that much about dynamic range. Nevertheless, this is a single shot without filters. (M.zuiko 25mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/60)

Sheep on a dike. (M.zuiko 12-40mm at 40mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/125)

Just before the rain (M.zuiko 17mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/100)

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.

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Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I use my Oly during hiking, biking or exploring cities. I never print larger than A2 and do not shoot moving subjects in dim light. So for me its the perfect tool. Interesting that DR difference was so perceptible for you. Both cams are not too far away from each other (dxomark: 12.8 vs. 13.6).

I don't look at lab results like dxomark. Real live tells a better story, I think

photographers, the one using the camera, makes big difference in photos, but at the same time, having good gears help in many ways is also a fact.

I found light weight camera and gears such as olympus more enjoyable when travelling, hiking and even a walking. Comparison with like Canon full frame cameras, when I put mine side by side with their photos, I do notice the differences in the shallower dept of fields or dynamic range, but looking at each photo and not by side by side comparison, it seems to make little practical differences to me. So I still stick to my MFT gears for now.

I mostly moved from Olympus to Sony five years ago, but I've kept my E-M1. One big reason is that nobody does weather sealing like Olympus does.

ONe of my participants of the Lofoten trip dropt his Olympus in salt water. It didn't hurt the camera. Just washed of the salt under the tap. :)

Weather sealing is very important to me. I have been rather satisfied with the weather sealing and overall durability of the Canon 1 series DSLRs I have owned ..... but if Olympus weather sealing is even better, then it may be worth looking into the Olympus system ..... (although I don't like small cameras and would probably prefer to stick with cameras that are larger and fill my hand more comfortably).

Imaging Resource has an eleborate set up for testing weather protection that they detail here: https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2020/03/13/how-to-really-weather-s...

EXTREMELY impressive! It is freaking awesome that Olympus takes weather sealing so seriously. Now I really wish they would make a larger, heavier cameras with much larger sensors (but not medium format).

I want Olympus weather sealing, Canon user interface, Canon lenses, either Sony, Nikon, or Sony image quality, and Sony autofocus.

I use my Oly for everything. Don't have or need other systems. And I'm quite happy with it. The lenses are amazing and the body's full of features.

This month in Europe Olympus has a good deal. When you buy a Olympus E-M1 Mark II you can get a free f/1.2 prime (17, 25 or 45) with it.

It isn't that popular because of marketing. And the FF police on places like DPR who can't accept some people make other choices.

Indeed, the sensor size is one of the reasons. People are fixed on full frame. Just like me, to be honest.
Ah well... not really fixed, but I prefer the larger sensor.

It's hard to ignore the 2-stop difference in real world shooting favouring FF over MFT, and then in post you get 1-2 added stops. That makes a HUGE difference in quality of files. If all you do is web share, then MFT works. If you are a commercial or large print photog, MFT is not acceptable. It should be priced much lower to compensate for the lesser sensor quality. Other than that, excellent systems, priced and managed wrong.

It's hard to ignore the 4-8 stop practical advantage of Olympus versus most FF when you factor in image stabiization. That's what ultimately won me over from Canon FF back in 2016. Yes, there is less room for sloppy exposure choices.

Why dont you recommend for weddings?

Because of the noise levels. I often shoot at high ISO.

The professional award winning wedding photographer I hired back in 2010 used a Canon 450D (or maybe even a 400D) paired with some L lenses. The results where great, and they still are.

I've shot a few weddings with the original E-M5 and no one ever complained about the noise - even though 90% of the photos were high ISO ones. And the noise is much less noticeable with the newer 20MP sensor so I'm all set for the next ~5 years with my E-M5III.

Yes, generally people get too hung up on noise. Unless you really need noise free prints (important for a very small group) , the 20mp M4/3 cams like Olympus are totally fine.

The concern over noise is often warranted.

Many of the stock agencies have an EXTREMELY demanding review process, in which images are scrutinized by a review panel at far beyond 100 percent views. This is pixel peeping at the highest level, and if the images you submit show any noise grain, or any signs of having used noise-reduction software, then they will be rejected by the reviewers.

The same is often true when submitting directly to magazine, calendar, and fine art publishers. They have very stringent submission guidelines, and technical image quality lies at the very core of their extreme standards.

I've used the original E-M5 for events. Having a faster prime lens really saved me because I was shooting 6,400 ISO and above. While noise levels weren't great, nobody else would know the better.

for well light. environment, and well. lit party scenes, I have no issues using Olympus MFT. However when it gets dark and bump up ISOs to like 3200 or higher, I wish for a bigger sensor, thinking, a bigger sensor with a fast prime lens would do a better job, especially in a dark lit party scenes, and people are moving and not still.

Olympus an excellent camera but it faces competition from every direction. Professionals have been well served by Nikon and Canon; more so now by their new mirrorless cameras. Sony cameras launched frequently with improved sensors. Fujifilm following a more traditional path with LEICA stylling. The key point how retailers view Olympus looking at sales turnover. Maybe Olympus seen more as an amateur camera. Perception is everything.

I remember the old Olympus cameras from the previous millennium. It has always been a less popular brand, even back then.
Strange, if you think of it.

In deed. Visited a church some months ago where you were supposed to buy a voucher for taking photos. Showed my small Oly and didnt have to by one. Great captures for our family book thanks to IBIS.

Yes, I agree. Perception plays an important role, not just for camera buyers but also by the subjects and clients. I felt people who are photographed, photo subjects seem to think big camera and lenses would make better photos of them than smaller gears like Olympus. A group of us, viewing and comparing photos taken by different size formats but from a same scene, a few people get surprised to notice similar or comparable quality of photos coming of small Olympus cameras.

I had an Olympus outfit until a few years back when I switched to Nikon DSLRs. Main reasons? Battery life, start-up time, viewfinder lag, low light performance (both noise and acquiring focus) and ergonomics. The good points were size, weather-sealing and general build quality. I really liked using them. About a year ago I almost bought an EM1X but I bought D850 instead.
I’m probably going to reduce the amount of photography I’m doing, very soon, and I’m seriously considering an E-M5.

Battery life, startup time, viewfinder lag, ergonomics... they addressed these issues, I think. Only the low light performance doesn;'t keep up with the full frame camera's of today.
If you don;t need low light performance, it is a very capable camera.

It is funny that the biggest complaint is the noise in high ISO. It almost starts to seem that everyone wants to shoot in pitch black conditions and want the photos to look like they've been taken in daylight. :)

I agree. It's not difficult to expose and post process to minimize noise in most situations. I've never had a problem producing images that accomplish what I want with my E-M1 Mk.2 or Mk.3.
It wasn't that long ago that the best of Canon or Nikon didn't have any more dynamic range and any better high ISO performance than the current m43 sensors. Go back only 25 years and look at the best color films for DR and 'high' ISO performance, then have another look at the newest m43 cameras. If I was really worried about noise and all the other 'weaknesses' of the format, I'd go right past FF to MF.

No, it means shooting people in the evening at iso800 you will start losing texture and details of the clothes and skin. This may or may not be important for your photographic styles.

You said it exactly as it is. When I shoot weddings, I need to be able to shoot without flash at ISO6400 without problems.

It does seem that the high sensitivity sensors have made photographers "lazy" in terms of lightning and getting exposure right. My wife and I were sitting in a new restaurant and the "photographer" from the local paper was in photographing the place for an article. Looked to be a Nikon D4/D5 (not sure which) and a 70-200 VR 2.8 lens (that I recognized as I still have one from my Nikon kit) so a combination that should be "good" in low-light. So they start bringing out food for her photograph and she is taking photos with just ambient light. Not even a speedlight. I turned to my wife and said "I wonder how those are going to turn out?" Needless to say, when the article ran, the only photo was of the owners (husband and wife) in front of their restaurant (outside). None of the food pictures were used (and I wonder if they were even usable). If I was the owners, I would have been disappointed that not one of those meals I prepared for them to take photos of ... not one was used.

On the flipside, what this guy is doing with the Lumix G100 (which the Youtube posse has declared Panasonic's worst camera) is incredible, sometimes even with the kit lens.


It's not the camera, it's you.

"It's not the camera, it's you."

Exactly! The cameras have been good enough for years already.

Your right

It's the guy who brings along $2000 worth of lighting for a 45 second clip!

And it is lit correctly....people bring more lighting to a 30 second ad. Correct technique is correct technique.

Would you rather be the photographer who brought $2000.00 worth of lightning to a 45 second clip and got what was needed / wanted or the photographer who brought $5000+ worth of camera and lens and got little to nothing in one hour?

Well yes, that is what I want. I submit my images to publishers who receive hundreds of photos from other wildlife photography professionals. The images I submit are in direct competition with hundreds of other photos, and the Director of Photography who makes final selections is extremely concerned about technical image quality.

Many publishers do not allow any editing - we must submit unedited "as shot" image files. So we must have images that are free of noise grain in the first place, because we are not allowed to use any noise reduction software.

And of course, many opportunities with wildlife happen at dawn and dusk, when animals are most active and light is at very low levels.

So yes, I/we do want to take photos in very low light, and have them be completely free of noise grain ..... because they are being scrutinized by potential purchasers, and in direct competition with images that were taken in daylight conditions.

That's am interesting switch! What kind of shooting do you do?

The reason I no longer use Olympus products is that every last product I owned from Olympus (except lenses) died at the most inappropriate time starting with my OM-2 whose shutter curtain hung up on a trip to Europe in '81. End of story.

So it's basically like someone ate an awful-tasting hamburger in the 90s and decided to never eat one again. =)

No, it's like having bought several pieces of equipment over 25 years, all of which failed. "Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me. Fool me 7 times; all optimism for the company goes out the window like a power fart." ( 8*{)}

didn't you carry a back up? I never had 1 go out but I used my M1 as back up.

I started out with a second hand Canon EOS 7D mkii and have acquired a reasonable set of mostly second hand lenses. I then bought a second hand EOS sl2 200D because of the smaller size and 24mp sensor lifted from the EOS 80D. I preferred the smaller camera and started photographing birds. I've since bought the entry level OMD E-M10 mkiii plus two kit lenses brand new and a second hand 75-300mm MFT lens.
The 7D mkii is best for birds in flight with excellent tracking focus. The sl2 200D was better for photographing Auriculas a plant with a startling white circular centre next to a darker velvety high contrast and darks outer margins on the same flower without blowing out the white. Both the canon cameras have anti aliasing filters which can yield slightly less than tack sharp fine detail.

The OMD without an anti-aliasing filter gives me more tack sharp photographs and is becoming my go to camera, it is definitely my holiday travel camera. The only way I would use the OMD for portraits would be in its portrait mode as this provides the sort of image smoothing that the Canon's with their anti-aliasing produce all the time.
The cost of Olympus OMD is such that I may upgrade within that system and slowly back out of the Canon system as the cost of RF is too much for my hobbyist pocket and the range of their M series lenses is too small.
The E-M10 mkiii with two lens kit in silver livery was the most popular selling camera in Japan last year. The all black version was also in the top 10 best sellers. So they are more popular than other brands in that market.

I would like to think there is no single best tool that can do multiple jobs. Thank you sharing your thought. I thought it is very well balanced opinion.

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