Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Canon 5D Mark II vs. the Olympus OMD E-M1 - It's not a matter of what's the best camera, but what's best for you

Not too long ago, I was recruited by a friend to take some studio style shots for an upcoming jump rope competition. To create a uniformed look, he requested that I shoot with one of his Canons, particularly the 5D MarkII.  A little part of me was really excited at the opportunity of shooting with a full frame camera and another part of me was afraid if this will have an ill effect on my wallet. Long story short, I am not convinced DSLRs are the right camera for me. This post is not an exhaustive comparison of the two cameras in terms of image quality, noise levels or other DPreview test factors, rather an explanation of how it fits or doesn't fit into my workflow and personal preference.  I will qualify my statement by explaining below what I do like about using the Canon 5D Mark II or 5D2 for short.

The tiny yet mighty Olympus OMD E-M1
Let’s start with the things I like. I know one of the selling points of a mirrorless camera is the form factor and size. The battery grip is permanently attached to my E-M1 because it not only improves the functionality of the camera, but also prevents my pinky from awkwardly dangling beneath the body. The 5D2 I am borrowing has the battery grip attached to it and I love how secure it feels in my hand even with the 24-105 f/4 lens attached. The buttons also have an amazing tactile feel to it, something that was definitely missing in the OMD E-M5 (but improved tremendously with the E-M1).  I dedicated all of my time shooting manually with the 5D2, since I will be doing so at the competition and I found changing Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO effortless.  Even more significant was the ability to change said settings including the focus points without having to take my eye away from the viewfinder. Ergonomically and functionally speaking, Canon just hit this camera out of the park.

The RAW files from the 5D2 retain so much information even at the small RAW setting. What people say about full frame cameras are definitely true.  The ability to recover shadows and highlights with very little degradation to the image was evident as I pushed the limits in Lightroom 5. I would typically see additional noise and/or artifacts with OMD RAW files, but saw very little in Canon’s with heavy edits. At base ISO, files are extraordinarily clean. Although noise becomes evident around ISO 1600 at the pixel peeping level, you will be hard pressed to see it on the web or at normal viewing distances. Post processing latitude really is the selling point for full frame cameras, especially when you get to low-light shooting.

Canon 5D M2 with the 24-105mm f/4 L Lens at f/6.3, ISO 100.
At ISO 100, the files are CLEAN

Olympus OMD E-M1 with 75mm at f/5.6, ISO 200.
At base ISO, you will see notice noise in the sky at 100% crop

Unfortunately, this is where my love for the Canon 5D2 ends. As much as I like the grip and ergonomics, the weight differential relative to my E-M1 was significant. I honestly would not want to cover an event lasting more than a couple of hours using this camera.  I recall feeling fatigue in my hands after covering a 10 hour Brazilian Beauty Pageant with a gripped E-M5 and FL-600r. I would hate to imagine the feeling using a gripped 5D2 and flash. The saying “the best camera is the one you have on you” feels more and more like a cliché nowadays, but I could see myself leaving this camera behind for weight reasons alone. I will be sure to update this section after I shoot the Jump Rope Competition this coming weekend.

Update: I was not asked to shoot with the 5D2 during said competition. The JPEG files coming out of the Olympus E-M1 were up to my employer's standards for studio portraits. 

My new friends at RPM - JPEG straight out of camera - OMD 12-40mm pro lens

I am sure I will lose a lot of people here when I say that I just don’t like optical view finders. This aspect just boils down to personal preference and I would never try to convince someone who has adamant feelings about view finders that one is better than the other.  As for me, I think OVFs are a technological step backwards. The gear head in  me is drawn to EVFs largely due to efficiency gains. Because I rely on flash and monolights more and more these days, having that live preview through the view finder makes exposing for the background so much easier. I had to chimp a number of times to get the exposure I wanted with the 5D2. In cases where my subjects are back-lit, exposing for the shadows takes quite a few shots to get it right. I understand we can circumvent this issue with spot metering, but that takes an additional step and if you’re charged with capturing that fleeting moment, the last thing you want to worry about is getting it right in the camera or doing heavy post processing to “save” an image. 

Additionally, I personally love getting a preview of an image through the EVF after pressing the shutter. It's my way of chimping without  overtly chimping. Taking the camera away from my face to check an image is far less efficient than getting a preview that only lasts 0.3 seconds (duration of preview is adjustable). Of course I would disable this feature for fast moving action shots, but I would rather have this feature and not need it than want it and not have it.

It's all in the eyes
Although I do some sports photography, 90% of my jobs are portraiture. I rely heavily on single autofocus points to obtain critical focus on the eyes. There’s just not enough AF points in the 5D2 for my taste. In my opinion, if your critical focus is anywhere BUT the eyes, you have a bad portrait, period. The focus and recompose technique is typically fine with smaller apertures or wider focal lengths, but as soon as you get to those fast primes, especially at the longer focal lengths, where your focal plane can get paper thin, you risk losing critical focus with this method. Where the OMD really shines is the face detect feature with left, right or near eye priority. The sensor detects both the face and eye within a split second and it covers nearly the entire frame of the camera. The accuracy in detecting faces and freedom to compose anywhere in the frame is a luxury I simply can't live without. [As a side note, I am aware of servo mode, but was told by the owner that it is not as reliable for portraiture and that the focus & recompose technique has a higher hit rate despite it's limitations. My hit rate at the photobooth during the jump rope competition using the OMD E-M1 was well above 95%]

Now that I have pivoted my photography business to lean more towards studio headshots, I find the extra depth of field in m43 cameras much more appealing. I want most of my model's face in focus and not just one eye (or part of any eye). For example, f/4 on my OMD is equivalent to f/8 on the Canon 5D2 due to the crop factor of the sensor. At f/4, I can lower my flash output, while at f/8 I would need two stops more power from my flash (more on how flash output relates to aperture/ISO in another post). What this essentially means to me is that I can get greater use out of my speedlights (typically lower output) and will not have to defer to my monolights as often. This factor is more critical on the field than at my home studio, but trust me I have no desire to lug my monolights and c-stands outside of my home simply to get that extra bit of power.

A day at the beach with the OMD and some Godox V850 speedlights
Below is a studio shot I had taken of my incredibly adorable niece. Both cameras were set to ISO100, f/5.6 and 1/200th with the L lens set to 105mm in an attempt to match the focal length of the Oly 75mm (a full frame equivalent of 150mm). With the white balance was set to around 5400k, I noticed slightly different skin tones between the two cameras. While to my eyes Olympus depicts her olive/brown skin tone more accurately, Canon seem to win out in the reds. This is of course purely subjective and I encourage you to judge for yourself. Additionally, the Canon file appears washed out. I wouldn't knock Canon for this as I would have made slight adjustments in exposure had I focused solely on using the 5D2, but the one objective take away from this test was the focus accuracy. I had set the focus point on my niece's camera right eye, yet it appears I obtained critical focus on the nose. Either way, I believe the additional depth of field in micro four thirds cameras helps tremendously.      

Canon 5D Mark 2 with 24-105m f/4 L lens
Olympus E-M1 with the 75mm f/1.8
At the end of the day, I just find DSLRs are simply not for me. Are they bad cameras? Absolutely not. In fact, these cameras check off many of the things I want: fast autofocus, dense raw files for available light shooting, fantastic ergonomics, a slew of phenomenal glass, great image quality, reliable professional and third party support and it's a strobists dream with so much TTL compatibles. However, what was greatly lacking was my ability to "connect" with a camera since it was missing certain things that I simply could not live without. Given I was in the market for a Canon 6D as full frame camera to supplement my OMD, I was glad I had an opportunity to test out the 5D Mark II.  It solidified the notion that the perfect camera on paper probably is not always the right camera for ME. Renting high-end cameras with quality glass has not only gotten more and more affordable, but also more accessible. It would behoove you rent a camera to see if you connect with your future investment. Sometimes the littlest things like the placement of the shutter release can make or break your experience. My unsolicited advice to you all, try before you buy.  

Additional Observations 

  • Flash sync speeds are 1/200th and 1/320th for Canon and Olympus respectively (possibly attributed to the physical size of the sensor though I am not sure). Not at all a deal breaker in studio, but helpful to have for midday shoots.
  • The 5D2 is showing it's age and I noticed significantly better files coming out of the 5D3. The OMD may have a harder time competing with the Mark 3, especially with low light photography in terms of autofocus and overall image quality.
  • Tethering, oh how I want to tether my OMD to Lightroom. This is a another selling point in Canon's favor.  Until Olympus' OI Share app becomes available on the desktop, I am hard pressed to call the OMD a true professionals' camera
  • The absence of dual card slots also precludes Olympus from reaching that professional status. For those very important events, having that additional memory card slot would help ease my mind that I will not lose data due to a corrupted card. As the saying goes, it's not a matter of if, but when.
  • If you have any kind of interest in using vintage glass, you do not want to use DLSRs. Until you've tried focus peaking or zoomed focus, you will not understand the joys and ease of using mirrorless/SLT cameras with these old lenses. 

So say we all,