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 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 @ 34mm, ISO400, f/11, 1/125)

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 could use for almost a month

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.

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 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

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

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 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, ISO200, f/1.4, 1/2500)

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 focussing on the birds head. (M.Zuiko 75-300mm @ 300mm, ISO2000, f/6.7, 1/125)

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 @ 300mm, ISO2500, 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, ISO200, f/8, 1/60)

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 dyke. (M.zuiko 12-40mm @ 40mm, ISO400, f/8, 1/125)

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

Just before the rain (M.zuiko 17mm, ISO200, f/8, 1/100)

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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Josef Wimo's picture

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).

Nando Harmsen's picture

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

SPEE DING's picture

A better story of no difference. I shoot multiple formats on assignment, I have to look at EXIF to see what shot was taken with a particular camera. This is why phone cameras have decimated ILC's. Subject, lighting, moment - the camera matters very little. All are more capable than 99.9999% of photographers using them (self included).

Michael Aubrey's picture

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

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. :)

SPEE DING's picture

Yep, rinse it off and keep shooting. The only other cameras I do that with is Pentax.

Tom Reichner's picture

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).

Michael Aubrey's picture

Imaging Resource has an eleborate set up for testing weather protection that they detail here:

Tom Reichner's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

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.

T. S. Low's picture

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.

Jami Kays's picture

Why dont you recommend for weddings?

Nando Harmsen's picture

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

Deleted Account's picture

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.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

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.

Jami Kays's picture

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.

Tom Reichner's picture

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.

David B's picture

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.

Rich Bind's picture

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

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.

Josef Wimo's picture

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.

John Nixon's picture

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

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.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

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. :)

Graham Moore's picture

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.

Eivind Larsen's picture

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

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.

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