A friend, who uses a Canon 5D, wrote to ask me if I am now using my Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras full time as my “only” cameras. Since I am doing just that I started thinking about how answering him could be turned into a blog entry. Since I am sponsored by Olympus this may appear to be obviously biased. But in my defense, I was using Olympus gear long before they started sponsoring me. As I have blogged about before, I evaluate cameras based on how well they solve the problems that I face as a photographer. The question is, in what situation is an Olympus OMD EM5 a better camera than a Canon 5D?
First, lets define the problem. I think all photographers face essentially the same essential problem. There is something in front of the camera, found or contrived, that they want to either document as it is or they want to interpret the subject as they choose, in order to end up with a final bit of media (usually a photograph.) Subject matter may differ as does location and philosophy but at its core, this is what I think of as “the photographer’s problem.” Another aspect of that same problem is the question of how little gear can the photographer get away with buying, carrying or owning as they solve that same problem.
Lets look at the technical specifications. Purely on the basis of specifications alone the 5D is a “better” camera in almost every category. I can’t deny that nor can the folks at Olympus. Look at the side by side comparison of the Canon 5D III and the Olympus OMD EM-5 at http://www.dpreview.com/products/compare/side-by-side?products=canon_eos5dmkiii&products=oly_em5 Right off the top, the imaging sensor on the Canon is twice as big as the Olympus. That is one of a number of big differences.
Having said that, there are (in my experience) three areas where the OMD is a notably better camera than the 5D.
1) The OMD EM-5 body weighs less than half of what the Canon 5D weighs. 425 g (0.94 lb / 14.99 oz) vs Canon 5D III weighs 950 g (2.09 lb / 33.51 oz)
2) The Canon 5D III costs almost three times as much as the OMD EM-5
3) This is not on the spec sheets but for me, working right now in India, I am reminded over and over again how the Canon 5D screams out “professional” while the OMD EM-5 makes me look like a tourist. In a world filled with quick moving thieves and nosy cops, looking like an amateur is increasingly a good thing.
My particular variation of the photographer’s problem that I described above is that I travel a lot, I work in low light a lot and I work in the third world a lot! Since I use fixed focal length lenses that are (after the conversion factor) 24mm f/2, 40mm f/1.7 and 90mm f/1.8, I usually have plenty of light so I am able to make 90% of my exposures at 200 ISO, which is the native ISO of the sensor in my cameras. I use a table top tripod constantly, even when doing street photography and reportage, so I am able to make longer exposures and still use ISO 200 almost all the time.
Setting my camera at the native ISO is one way that I work to make sure my OMD works just as well for me as the 5D. Another is that I work very hard to get good histograms on my RAW files so the information I bring to making the final images is the highest quality possible. I am having a show of the Foreclosed Dreams work at Artspace http://artspacenc.org/view/galleries/current-exhibitions/exhibition-2/ All of that work was made with Olympus cameras, and I am very happy with the big 16 x 20 inch prints that I am showing.
Another part of my “problem” as a photographer is that I am doing more and more video as well as time-lapse animations and other kinds of multimedia work. The OMD EM-5 allows me to change formats in camera instantly so I can seamlessly merge animations (made of hundreds of JPG stills) with real time videos, both of which are shot in the same 16 x 9 format. Try that with a Canon 5D. :):)
Look, you can read the reviews and the reviewers will tell you how the Canon 5D III is so much better technologically than the OMD EM-5. The same reviewers will also tell you that the best aperture on most lenses is F/8, which is true. But that fact is of almost no value to me since I almost never shoot at f/8. I shoot either wide open to get the most light and the least depth of field or I shoot at f/16 or f/22 to get lots of depth of field.
The Holy Grail for camera manufacturers is a camera that has the same resolution and low noise at high speed as the 5D does, with less weight and volume to carry around at significantly lower price. No camera does that, though I am guessing that in ten years they all will. That is if we aren’t all using our cell phone cameras full time. In the end, all cameras are technological compromises. Even the 5D has numerous shortcomings for certain kinds of photographers.
No question that on paper, the Canon 5D III is a far superior camera. If you want to carry all that weight around, pay all that money and look like that much of of target of thieves and nosy cops, then use a Canon 5D III. The OMD is the best set of compromises for me. In the real world of street photography and editorial publication photography, which is where I live and work, the Olympus OMD is a better camera than a Canon 5D III. That is my opinion. Nothing more. Your mileage may vary.