One year with the E-PL5

It’s been a year since the Olympus E-PL5 showed up at my door, and I want to give a report.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

The E-PL5 is the first nice camera I’ve ever owned. A year later, as I look back at how often I’ve used the camera, the pictures I’ve taken with it, and what my opinion is of the camera itself, the short answer is that I still use it regularly and often, and I’m still very happy with it.

It was the fall of 2012 that I began researching mirrorless cameras to find a setup I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000 (for the body and a nice prime lens). I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I needed to (I still am a beginning photographer, and don’t always know which manual adjustments to make to get the exposure right). I also wanted an Auto mode so I could hand the camera over to a family member to let them point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The setup I went with was the then-new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

As I mentioned in my official review, it was the iPhone that actually led me to getting a better camera. I was taking more and more and more pictures, but wasn’t doing much with them other than keeping them on my iPhone. A year later, I still couldn’t be happier about my decision to get a nice camera and I am still very happy with the camera I chose.

I’ve had and used the E-PL5 through Thanksgiving 2012, Christmas, my son, Noah’s, first birthday, a few trips to Colorado, a trip to San Francisco, a camping trip, a trip to New York, the birth of my second son, Giovanni, and countless other weekend and weekday excursions.

Last year we bought several new photo frames to put around the house. And every couple of months I order a few new 8×10 photos printed from Shutterfly and we swap out all the pictures in the house. It’s inexpensive1 and it’s so wonderful to have high-quality photos of our kids and family.2

Something we did last year, and which we’ll do again this Christmas, was get a few of Apple’s iPhoto photo books. Photo books make great Christmas presents to parents and grandparents. Last year’s book was half photos from my iPhone covering January through October, and then half photos from my E-PL5 covering November and early December. This year the photo book will probably be 90-percent (or more) E-PL5 photos.

I still consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the mirrorless camera landscape. For the body only, it’s very reasonably priced. And it’s fast, has great battery life, works with all the micro-four thirds lenses, is well built, has 4-axis in-body image stabilization, and has the same sensor found inside the critically acclaimed Olympus E-M5. It’s a beast and it won’t break the bank.

On Twitter I was asked if a better camera in this space has come along. For the same price as the E-PL5, no, I don’t think so.

Of course, since I got my E-PL5 a year ago, the mirrorless camera landscape has improved quite a bit. There’s now the Fuji x100s and X-E2, the Olympus E-P5, and the new Olympus E-M1 (to name a few). These are all really great, but they’re also all more expensive than the E-PL5.

You can get the E-PL5 body and a very nice prime lens for about $800-$900 (depending on the lens you pick). The E-P5 is $900 for the body alone; the Fuji x100s is $1,300 and comes with a great lens (that cannot be swapped out), but it is not a beginner’s camera.

In my opinion, someone looking to get a great camera and a great lens (where by “great lens” I mean “a prime lens” — not the kit zoom lens), can’t go wrong with the E-PL5. It’s compact, it’s easy enough to use that a beginner could pick it up and take decent shots with it (no comment about technique), and it has most of the same internal components (same sensor, similar IBIS) found in Olympus’ top-of-the line cameras, the E-M1 and the E-P5.

Here are answers to a few other questions I got from folks on Twitter:

  • What’s the best first lens? The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. It’s one of the less expensive among the good prime lens selection; it’s a pancake lens, so it takes up very little space; it takes wonderful photographs; and the 20mm focal length (which is the 40mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) is in the sweet spot range for all manner of photos. So, if you don’t know which lens to get, get the Panasonic 20/1.7.

    Other great lenses include the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8, and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8. I’ve rented the 25/1.4 and the 45/1.8 and they are both fantastic.

  • What is your most-used lens? Just the one I have: the panasonic 20/1.7. It’s a fantastic lens for the price and size. My favorite lens of all the ones I have used is the Pany 25/1.4, but I like the size of the 20/1.7 pancake too much. And, since the 20mm and the 25mm are so close in focal length, it seems silly to keep them both.

  • Have you been tempted by any other cameras? Yes; the E-P5. It has all that’s awesome about the E-PL5, but in a nicer body with more manual controls (without giving up automatic modes), and with an even better sensor and IBIS. However, the E-P5 is several hundred dollars more expensive, and I honestly don’t know if that increase in price is worth it for me at my current skill and usage levels.

  • How do you travel with it? For outings, I use my DSPTCH strap. As for a case, I don’t have one yet because I haven’t yet found one I like (well, the Hard Graft camera bag looks gorgeous, but I’d rather buy a lens).

  • What do you wish was different? What annoys you about the camera? The same thing that I’m tempted by with the E-P5: I wish the E-PL5 had better manual dials. You can set it in Aperture or Shutter priority modes, but you have to use the menu dial to quickly change the aperture / exposure / shutter settings. This can be a bit awkward or inaccurate. But… It doesn’t bother me so much to dislike the camera, and like I mentioned above, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost for me to buy a more expensive camera right now. I’ll probably keep the E-PL5 for a few more years and invest my money in lenses instead of upgrading my camera body.

  • Has your frequency of use decreased since you first got the camera? Yes and no. I’m not forcing myself to take it out like I did when I first got it. But I still use it often around the house and at family events, trips, and other things. Since the first day of owning it I have always felt silly taking it out and using it. But, looking back, I wish I would get out with the camera more often.

  • What about ergonomics? The camera feels great. It’s very light, it has incredible build quality, and it’s very easy to hold with one hand. The flip-out view screen makes it easy to take photos at all sorts of angles.

  • Auto-focus and other settings? The E-PL5 with my Panasonic 20mm lens does hunt a fair bit in super low light, but in my understanding it’s no better or worse than most other cameras like this. When I was renting the Olympus 45/1.8 lens, the auto-focus was a bit quicker, but not significantly so.

    I mostly shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but when I’m having trouble I’ll switch to Auto and the camera does a great job at deciding what sorts of settings I want.

  • To what degree does the camera’s physical size impact when/where you use it. How often have you wished you had it but didn’t? The size of the camera is fantastic. It’s small enough to fit in my winter coat pocket or my small laptop bag without bothering me. It’s also light enough that when I’m wearing it with the shoulder strap I can have it on for hours and never consider its weight.

    There are often times I wish I had taken it somewhere but didn’t. This, however, has everything to do with me not being in the discipline of taking the camera and using it. It has almost nothing to do with the size of the camera.

  • What is the most important thing you’ve learned about photography since getting this camera? That I regret 100% of the shots I don’t take. Too cliche? Okay, fine. But it’s true. Like I said above regarding frequency of use, I want to get out with the camera more often.

  • What is your usage of the E-PL5 compared to your iPhone camera? I certainly use my iPhone more often than the E-PL5 just because of the fact that my iPhone is with me all the time. But I don’t often take “great photos” with my iPhone. Usually they are cool snapshots that I will then share on Instagram, email to friends and family, or put into Day One. And that’s exactly why I got the E-PL5. I didn’t want to all-out replace my iPhone, but I wanted something I could use to take much, much better photos when it mattered most.

  • What are your favorite pictures taken with the E-PL5? This one is probably my most favorite:

Anna and Noah reading

These are also favorites:

The B&B Cafe


You can see more of the photos I’ve taken on my Flickr page.

* * *

So. If you’re in the market for an awesome and pocketable camera, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, there are a lot of really great options. The bad news is, there are a lot of really great options. Good luck!

  1. 8×10 prints are normally 3.99 each, but Shutterfly seems to have sales all the time to get things for 40-percent off or more. I’ve also heard great things about WHCC’s pricing and quality, but haven’t yet used them myself.
  2. I’ve also been using the camera to take “fancy” hero images for use on this site and on The Sweet Setup.

My official review of the Olympus E-PL5

It was the iPhone that convinced me to buy a better camera.

My son was born in February of 2012. Later in the year — some time after our summer vacation to the Colorado mountains — as I was looking through the photos we had of him, I realized I wasn’t giddy about hardly any of them.

There were many great snapshots of some very fond memories. But none of the images were of a quality where I wanted to print them out and frame them. They pretty much only looked good on the small screen of my iPhone.

That’s when I decided my iPhone shouldn’t bear the burden of being the best and only camera in the house.

I began researching mirrorless cameras looking for a rig I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000. I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I wanted to, or so I could hand it to a family member to point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The rig I chose was the new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

After 6 months shooting with the E-PL5, I continue to be impressed and pleased by the quality of the images this small and sturdy rig is capable of.

(Note: Click the images to zoom them.)

The B and B Cafe in Castle Rock, CO

Though my skill behind the lens still leaves much to be desired, my slow-growing collection of great images has long since proven to me that getting a nice camera was a good idea. The photographs I’ve taken with the E-PL5 juxtapose themselves against my iPhone pics because the images from the E-PL5 are ones which look better when on a big screen or printed out and framed.

This isn’t something exclusive to the E-PL5, of course. Any decent camera with good sensor and quality glass will take some great shots. At $900 — the price for the E-PL5 body and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens — I would be upset if this rig did’t produce some great images.



Siphon Coffee

There are a few reasons I went with the E-PL5 instead of the many, many other options out there in the mirrorless category:

  • I didn’t go with the RX-1 because its price tag is 3 times what my budget was.
  • I didn’t go with any of the Sony NEX line because I wanted a better lens selection and smaller camera body.
  • I didn’t go with the Panasonic GX-1 because I could afford a better camera if I could find one.

In short, the E-PL5 was the smallest camera I could find with the best possible sensor inside and most features.

As I’ll talk more about below, this camera is basically the guts of the E-M5 put inside a smaller body with a few less pro features on the outside. And that, my friends, is why I consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Micro Four Thirds category.

Aside regarding the King of the M4/3 Hill, the OM-D E-M5

I didn’t want to write a review of the E-PL5 without at least a little bit of context and experience with some of the other offerings out there. So I rented the Olympus OM-D E-M5 along with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens for a few weeks.

The E-M5 is widely regarded as the best Micro Four Thirds camera out there.

When I bought the E-PL5, it was so new to the market that I could hardly find any hands-on reviews. But what made it so special is the fact that its sensor and processor are the same as what is found in the E-M5. Because of all the great reviews I’d been reading about the E-M5, I felt confident buying the E-PL5 on blind faith, trusting that it would be able to perform admirably.

I rented the E-M5 to give myself some context for how the E-PL5 compares against the best M4/3 camera out there, and also to find out for sure if I had made the right choice in getting a smaller and cheaper camera with a few less features and controls.

The most significant differences between the E-M5 and the E-PL5 are the pro-level features the former has which the latter does not. The E-M5 has a built-in electronic viewfinder, two manual dial controls, and a slightly larger hand grip. The E-M5 is also weather proof (meaning you can take it out in the rain without fear of ruining it), while the E-PL5 is not.

On the inside, the E-M5 and E-PL5 are much more similar. They have the same 16MP sensor and image processor that made the E-M5 so famous. They both have in-body image stabilization (though the E-M5 has 5-axis IBIS, while the E-PL5 uses conventional 2-axis), and they both have a dust reduction system that silently vibrates the sensor each time you turn on the camera to help “fling” any dust which may be there.

In my usage and comparisons, the two cameras produced nearly identical images. In several situations I took images with both the E-M5 and E-PL5, even switching lenses so as to try and take the exact same image with both cameras. To my eye, the shots look like they’re from the same camera.

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 45mm lens, 1/100sec at f/1.8, ISO 500 Taken with E-M5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm, 1/80sec at f/1.8, ISO 400 Taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 20mm, 1/60sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-M5 and 20mm

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm, 1/50sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm lens

In my opinion, the advantages of the E-M5 over the E-PL5 are almost entirely in the bells and whistles and not in the end-product capabilities. For photographers who have used bigger DSLR rigs, or who really want a viewfinder, then the E-M5 will probably feel more comfortable. But for everyone else, the $400 you’ll save by buying the E-PL5 instead of the E-M5 is probably better spent on a nice lens.

E-PL5 Overview

With the Panasonic pancake lens attached, the E-PL5 is small enough to fit in my coat pocket, the glove box in my Jeep, or alongside my MacBook Air, iPad, and Moleskine inside my extra small Timbuk2 bag.

The build quality is excellent. The camera is sturdy but not heavy, weighing just 1 pound with the 20mm pancake lens and wrist strap attached (body only, the E-PL5 weighs a mere 12 ounces). And because of its smaller size and lack of a viewfinder, the E-PL5 doesn’t look too intimidating.

The humble appearance of the E-PL5 is one of its best features. With it I feel less like a “wannabe pro photographer” and more like a “casual photography enthusiast” when I have the camera out in public.

My goal with the E-PL5 wasn’t to get my toe in the waters of professional photography. I just wanted a high-quality camera nearby for when I would have otherwise reached for my iPhone.

Having a non-giant camera makes it far more likely that I will take it with me when I’m leaving the house and to actually use it while I’m out. Coat-pocketable means “it will get used” in this case. And isn’t that the whole point?

Sans Viewfinder

The E-PL5 does not have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) — to frame your shots, you use the view screen.

For some people, this may be a deal breaker. What’s nice about having a viewfinder is that you can hide behind it, and also you can steady your camera a bit better by holding it up to your face. But in my few weeks with the E-M5 (which does have a viewfinder), I found myself using the E-M5’s view screen instead of its built-in EVF.

For me, sacrificing a viewfinder is worth the tradeoff because it means having a smaller camera body. However, since the E-PL5 supports add-ons via its hotshoe connection, you could buy the Olympus VF2 or VF3.

The View Screen

On the back of the camera is a 3-inch, tilting, LCD touch screen.

You can tap to focus, tap to adjust color settings, and more. There is a dial control “d-pad” placed just to the right of the screen which also evokes the menu and is used to navigate through all the levels of settings.

The screen isn’t stationary either — it flips out and can tilt.

The Flip-out view screen on the E-PL5

I was worried about the fragility of the flip-out screen. But to my relief, the hinges are incredibly sturdy and well built. I am often taking shots with the camera held down near my waist, and it’s easy to just flip the screen up 90 degrees and look down into the view screen. In short, it moves easily, holds in place just fine, and is a considerably useful feature.

The quality of the display itself is excellent as well. Though Olympus does not say what the actual screen resolution is, they do say it’s a 3-inch diagonal screen with a 16:9 aspect of approximately 460,000 dots. If “dots” means “pixels,” then the view screen would have a resolution somewhere in the neighborhood of 904×507 pixels with a PPI density of 345. Now, the view screen is certainly nice, but it’s not that nice.

On Twitter, Milosz Bolechowski pointed out that the “dots” are likely referring to each of the 3 RBG dots in a single pixel. Which I agree is most likely the case. Meaning the 460,000 or so dots in the view screen equal approximately 153,333 pixels.

Thus, the view screen most likely has a resolution of 533×294 with a PPI density of 200.

To protect the screen, I bought one of these plastic screen covers. It’s sized for the NEX cameras, but it’s a near-perfect fit for the E-PL5 as well — I never even notice that it’s there. Highly recommended.

The Grip

The E-PL5 comes with a small, removable hand grip. Without the grip attached, the camera has a bit more of a classic look to it, akin to the thin and simple rangefinder bodies of old.

But I can’t imagine not wanting to attach the grip. It adds hardly any size and makes the E-PL5 significantly easier to hold with one hand. When attached, the grip stays quite secure, as if it were built in as part of the camera body from the start.

Manual Dials and Shooting in Manual Mode

As expected, the E-PL5 has several different shooting modes: Auto, Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual. As well as Movie, Scene, and Art modes.

I mostly shoot in Aperture-Priority mode and am happy to let the camera pick the shutter speed for me in order to get the right exposure.

The Movie and Art modes allow you to choose an artsy filter to apply to your movie or photograph — it’s like having Instagram built in to your camera. I’ve never used these in real life (I prefer to edit my images in Lightroom 4), but here are two sample shots I took for this review: one using the Pin Hole filter and one using the Grainy Film filter. Both of these shots are the out of camera JPGs, but the E-PL5’s in-camera filters are applied to the RAW image file as well, so I could take remove them in Lightroom if I wanted.

What I most wish the E-PL5 had was a few dedicated manual dial controls. When shooting in Aperture-Priority Mode, Manual, or the like, having a few dials that give you quick and instant access to adjust the aperture, shutter, and/or ISO are very nice. The E-M5 had these dials and I found myself using them all the time.

On the E-PL5, when I’m shooting in Aperture-Priority mode (which is the most common setting for me), adjusting the aperture number requires a tap “up” on the menu D-Pad to highlight the aperture setting, and then a tap left or right in order to increase or decrease the aperture. Moreover, the D-Pad is pretty small (smaller than a Dime) and therefore is not easy to navigate. This is not nearly as nice or fast as having a dial that you can click left or right without having to lean back and look at the camera for a few seconds.

Battery Life

Battery life is absolutely fantastic. On the very first charge, after 4 days of shooting and about 500 images, it was low on battery. After that first charge I didn’t need to charge the battery for over 2.5 weeks, and that was with near daily use.

The camera seems to go forever. The battery is one thing I’ve never once worried about, nor have I been out shooting and had the battery die on me. If I know I’ll be using the camera a lot over the weekend or something then I’ll charge it up ahead of time.

The only thing I don’t like about the battery is that it comes with its own charging station. This means when traveling there is one more cable and trinket to pack. I’d prefer to be able to charge the battery by plugging a USB cable into the camera itself.

Low-Light Performance

For what I know about low light performance, the E-PL5 performs wonderfully. Low-light images have very little noise, and can generally be doctored just fine in Lightroom.

With the default white balance settings, I’ve noticed that images straight out of the camera tend to have a bit of a warm tone to them, giving portraits a bit more orange-colored skin tone than is to my liking. This can be adjusted in the camera’s white balance settings to have a more “cool” tint to them, or the orange skin can be easily fixed in Lightroom.

The biggest downside of low light shooting is not the image quality, but the autofocus. The 20mm lens already has a tendency to hunt at times, and in low light situations you can sometimes wait 2 or 3 seconds for the autofocus to find a contrast point and snap the image.

There have only been a few low-light situations where the lighting was so dark that I was frustrated with the E-PL5’s ability to focus and snap a shot. One of those times was when we all went out to dinner for my dad’s 60th birthday. We were at a fancy steak restaurant where the lighting was extremely dim.

The E-PL5 comes with a flash that attaches via the hotshoe port on top, but I’ve never used it. In a setting like the steak restaurant, using the flash would have been rude; in most other settings the flash isn’t even necessary.

For most low-light settings (such as indoors in the evening), the camera does great with very little noise in the images.


  • Startup speed: From the time I press the power button to when the camera is ready to snap a picture, it’s less than 2 seconds.

    The E-PL5 is usually up and ready to go before I even have the lens cap off. Which means if the Olympus is nearby, it’s actually faster for me to grab it, turn it on, and snap a shot than it is for me to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and launch the Camera app. Even when racing against the Lock Screen Camera app shortcut, the E-PL5 wins by about 1 second.

  • Shot-to-shot speed: If you want to manually shoot several shots in succession, in decent indoor light or better, the the E-PL5 takes just 1.5 seconds to autofocus, snap a picture, write to the card, and then be ready to focus again.

  • Autofocus speed: The Olympus is well known for its fast autofocus. As I mention below in the section on lenses, the autofocus on the Olympus 45mm lens is so fast it seems instantaneous; with the Panasonic 20mm the autofocus is a bit slower.

    You can hold the shutter button halfway down to have the camera autofocus on either an area within the viewfinder grid, or the camera can automatically find a face and focus on the nearest eyeball. Then, pressing the shutter button all the way down snaps the image. But, if you want the camera to snap a photo as soon as it’s grabbed focus, you can press the shutter button all the way down right away and it will snap as soon as it has focus. In decent light, this is almost instantaneously.

    Moreover, you can focus and shoot an image using the touchscreen. You can set the camera to tap to focus on any area of the screen, but you can also configure it to snap the shot as soon as it locks the focus.

    Using the E-PL5’s touchscreen reminds me a lot of using the camera on my iPhone. The camera’s software is responsive, clever, and useful. Well done, Olympus.

Camera Straps

The stock camera strap is lame. It’s not detachable, nor is it long enough to let the camera rest at a comfortable distance when over one shoulder and under my other arm.

DSPTCH makes some pretty awesome shoulder straps. I ordered one from them that I really like, but after a couple months of use I felt like I didn’t always want a shoulder strap attached. In fact, I often don’t — most of the time the camera is in my bag or in my jacket pocket and I’m not walking around with it around my shoulder. (Of course, now that summer is approaching, that may change.)

So I ordered yet another strap. This time a small leather wrist strap from Gordy’s. The wrist strap is small enough to not be in the way when just grabbing the camera, and I think it looks great.

I probably should have ordered one of DSPTCH’s wrist straps which use the same clip that their shoulder straps use. This would have made it easy for me to swap out the shoulder strap and the wrist strap depending on my need. But the leather straps at Gordy’s were too cool to pass by. Whatchagonnado?

One of Gordy's leather camera straps


A Micro Four Thirds sensor has a crop ratio of 1/2. So, for example, a 20mm lens on a M4/3 rig is actually a 40mm equivalent when compared to a full-frame sensor. Which is why shooting with the 20mm as my daily glass is not as fishy as it sounds, because it’s just a bit bigger than shooting with a good ole 35mm lens.

I’ve used 3 of the most popular Micro Four Thirds lenses:

  • Panasonic 20/1.7 lens: This is the lens attached to my rig. Though this lens is certainly no slouch, perhaps it’s greatest advantage compared to the lenses below is its size. The pancake lens looks great on the small body of the E-PL5 and affords the rig to easily fit in coat pockets, etc.

    The disadvantages of the 20mm is that because of its compact size it doesn’t grab quite as high-quality images as a “regular sized” lens. But, at least to my eyes, the difference is barely noticeable and the advantages in both size and cost far outweigh the very slight disadvantages in image quality.

    Unless you know that you want a different lens, this is the one I would start with.

  • Panasonic 25/1.4 lens: Compared to the 20mm pancake, this 25mm produces higher quality images, has faster autofocus, and is capable of a better and creamier depth of field. But it’s also a larger piece of glass and it costs $150 more (so, obviously it had better take better images).

    Though this is my favorite lens of the 3 I’ve tried, the size turned me off to the 25mm as my daily glass — it is too big to allow the camera to easily fit in my coat pocket. And the focal length is too similar to the 20mm to justify owning both lenses (as much as I would love to own them both). So I returned the 25mm and kept the 20mm.

  • Olympus 45/1.8 lens: This is the portrait lens of the Micro Four Thirds world. One thing Olympus lenses are known for is their lightning-fast auto focusing, and it’s true. This lens hunts far less than the 20mm, and its images are so clear and crisp.

    If and when I decide to buy a second lens, it will likely be the 45mm. Compared to the 20mm pancake, the 45mm is not nearly as compact or attractive (seriously, a silver lens on a black body?). If the 45mm were my only lens, I know I’d be using the E-PL5 less often.

Editing Workflow

So far my editing workflow is simple and straightforward. I plug my camera’s SD card into my MacBook Air, import the photos into Lightroom 4, and then make some minor edits using one of VSCO’s Film packs.

During one of our B&B shows, my pal Ben Brooks told me how he uses a 0-based rating system which I’ve also adopted. When going through the latest lot of imported photos, I flag all the blurry, crappy, or duplicate images for deletion. Then I go through and rate what I think are the best photos with a 3-, 4-, or 5-star rating.

I then upload my favorites to my Flickr account. We’ve had a few printed and framed so far, and I think it’s just great to have my own pictures of my own family up and around in my home. Printing through Shutterfly is cheap and easy enough that with a few easy-swap frames, we can change out our 8×10 prints pretty much as often as we like.

Perhaps a more-detailed writeup on this subject is in order because there are a few things about my editing workflow that I’m still not happy with. Primarily:

  • Archiving old images — right now they’re all on my MacBook Air and quickly encroaching on my disk space.
  • Posting my favorite images — while Flickr is nice, I’d like a spot that’s a little bit more my own. I’ve been considering setting up my own image portfolio website just so I can have a spot that encourages more regular posting of images.

Real-Life Usage

One of the most rewarding parts of photography is when, after a lot of shooting, I plug the card into my MacBook Air, import all the most-recent photos, and begin to look them over. If there are 1 or 2 (or even 3) shots that turned out awesome, then all the energy that went into capturing those few photographs was worth it.

When I find those few great images from the batch, I lean back in my chair. Looking at one of them, I take a deep breath and smile. Then I call my wife to come downstairs and check out the latest photos, and we talk about what it is that we like about it. Maybe it’s an image of our son, Noah, that captured one of his many funny faces. Maybe it’s a shot that’s framed just right, or has light that’s doing some incredible thing.

I’m still learning, and so right now maybe 1 in 500 shots turn out that good. But when they do, I love it that the quality can be there to match the times when the composition is just right. When I compare moments like that with the times I’ve gone through my iPhone’s photo library, though I have lots of pictures, they are all more like snapshots and not photographs (if that makes sense).

Shots like this are the rare ones which justify my camera purchase a hundred times over.

Anna and Noah reading

Images like these are, of course, not going to be exclusive to the E-PL5. There are many other amazing cameras out there. For me, going with a small rig instead of a large DSLR (or even a medium-sized NEX) means I’m much more likely to actually take the camera with me.

And that is the entire point: The E-PL5 is an extremely capable and delightfully portable camera.

First impressions of the E-PL5

Olympus E-PL5 with Panasonic 20mm pancake

After 24 hours, my first impression of the camera is that it’s great. Really, really great.

Here is a Flickr set with the 31 photos I thought were good enough to share with the Internet after my first day of shooting. All the images were shot in RAW and edited a bit in Lightroom using the default presets.

* * *

  • Hardware: It’s a dense and heavy camera. Heavier than I thought it would be which makes it feels expensive. But it’s not so heavy that it’s difficult to hold or operate. With the front grip attached I can comfortably hold and operate it with my right hand.

    The movable / tiltable touch screen has sturdy hinges and I don’t feel like I’m going to break it. As a feature, the adjustable screen is very welcome. I found myself frequently holding the camera at waist height to take a shot and then tilting the screen up towards me so I could see to frame the picture. It makes taking shots at or near ground level as easy as kneeling down.

  • Speed: I have two Panasonic lenses I’m trying out (see more below). Olympus cameras are known for their super-quick auto focus, and my E-PL5 lives up to its reputation. Focusing seems near-instantaneous most of the time, but in lower light it can take up to half a second to focus (even with the “slower” focusing 20mm pancake). And speaking of focus, the tap-to-focus-and-then-snap-a-photo feature of the touch screen is great. Very useful for auto-focusing on something not in the center of the frame.

    Not only does the E-PL5 focus quickly, but it turns on in about one second. After I press the power button, it’s up and ready to go before I have the lens cap off. One of the reasons I bought this camera is so I could take better shots of Noah. Assuming the camera is nearby it would be ready to take a picture nearly as fast as my iPhone would be.

  • Point and Shoot (but only if you want): After my first day shooting, I felt like I got several high-quality images that turned out great and all I did was point and shoot. The E-PL5’s Automatic mode is great at detecting what sort of image your taking and what the lighting is like and then favoring the best settings. Thus this camera will allow you to take some great photos without having to do much more than frame the shot.

    But it’s not all auto. The E-PL5 has priority modes and full-on manual mode — I can adjust all sorts of stuff that I don’t yet understand.

    This is exactly the sort of camera I was hoping to get. It will allow me to learn how it works and learn about the finer details of photography, but not require it of me. I could give this camera to anyone and tell them to just point and click and they’d likely get a pretty decent image, if not a great one.

  • Battery Life: I took a little less than 300 pictures yesterday and the battery indicator says it’s still at full. I don’t yet know for sure how long the battery will last, but it’s obviously much longer than a good afternoon of shooting.

  • Preconceived Notions: I’m trying hard to remember what I’ve always told myself when it comes to print and web design: tools do not a designer make. In my dreams I tell myself that after 5 years of avid iPhone photography, I’ve slowly grown in my composition skills as a photographer and that I’ll pick up this new high-quality camera and instantly produce jaw-dropping photos.

    While I’m sure that the photographic eye I’ve developed over the past few years is better than starting from nothing, it’s also likely that since I’ve been using one camera for so long I’m now somewhat pigeonholed into what the iPhone is and is not good at. There is now a whole world of options and styles that the Olympus and it’s different lenses will open me up to.

    Simply having a nice camera does not mean my shots will be what I want them to be. And that’s okay — I’m here to learn.

  • Voice: I am as excited about editing images as I am about taking them. Just as a writer, over time, develops their writing voice, so too does a photographer. But with photography you develop your voice not just in composition but also in post processing. And those two come together.

  • Lightroom: I bought Lightroom 4 when it came out and have been using it to post-process some of my iPhone photos. Mostly to clean them up and make them pop a little bit. There is still a lot I have to learn about post-processing.

    One thing to note is that Lightroom 4.2 does not support RAW files from the E-PL5. Adobe recently made available the beta RC1 for version 4.3 that does.

    The shots from yesterday I took in RAW and edited with Lightroom’s stock presets. For my first day shooting and editing with what could be considered “pro” gear, I am thrilled with the results. But I’m not blown away — I know I can do better. The good news is that I feel only held back by my own skill and knowledge.

  • Lenses: Though I only plan to keep one, I ended up ordering two lenses: the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 and the 25mm f/1.4. Because I’ve read and seen so many good things about both I wanted to use and compare them side-by-side and determine for myself which I wanted to keep as the daily shooter. The lens I decide not to keep will just be returned or sold.

    Panasonic 25mm and 20mm lenses

    The 20mm f/1.7 is a pancake lens, which, in terms of size, is ideally what I want. Not only does the pancake make the camera more portable, it also makes for a less intimidating camera. People who aren’t used to a fancy camera, tend to act awkward or look funny when there’s a giant camera pointing at them. A small camera that looks like no more than a humble point-and-shoot I got at Walmart may help friends and strangers alike to pay no mind and thus allow me to capture some great candid shots.

    However, the 25mm f/1.4 is a bit faster and is slightly higher-quality glass. It gives a creamier depth of field than the 20mm, and it’s auto-focus is quicker as well. And so it has me wondering if the tradeoff in portability and incognito-ness may be worth it.

    But it’s impossible to conjecture about which lens is the better daily driver without using and comparing the two. All throughout the day I tried to take the same shot twice — once with the 20mm and then again with the 25mm. As I was later going through all the photos in Lightroom, most of the shots which stood out to me as being better than the others were the ones taken with the 20mm. (Perhaps this is because the focal length of the 20mm seems more akin to that in the iPhone, and so I’m naturally used to framing shots in such a way that the 20mm shines more?)

    Down the road I’m planning for my 2nd lens to be the Olympus 45mm f/1.8. It will make a fine companion to the pancake 20mm, and so, though I haven’t made my final choice yet, my gut instinct is that the 25mm — as nice as it is — will not make the cut.

  • Is it fun? I felt like a dork walking around with my camera and taking photos. I’ve never thought other people with cameras were dorks, but I sure felt like one. I’m just going to assume that this is something all photographers feel and that once I get over it I’ll have a lot more fun taking photos, and the quality and style of my photos will increase as well.

    As they say: just relax.

* * *

My favorite two photos from yesterday are this one of Noah laughing (though that picture would have looked good no matter what camera it was taken on), and this one of Anna and Noah playing:


Anna and Noah

It is tough to say after only one day of shooting, but I’m feeling extremely happy with the E-PL5 and the Panasonic lenses. So far, it looks like I made the right choice for the best compact, mid-priced, Micro 4/3 camera.

Hunting for the best mirrorless camera

A few months ago something bizarre happened. I got dissatisfied with my iPhone as my only camera. This never should have happened. But it did. And it’s totally the iPhone’s fault.

Nearly 8 years ago, before leaving on our honeymoon, Anna and I bought a Kodak point and shoot to take on the trip. And for a couple of years it was the camera we used here and there. But it wasn’t a sensational camera and we weren’t all that into photography anyway and so it was usually low on battery or we wouldn’t feel like grabbing it when heading out of the house.

Therefore, when I got an iPhone in 2007, it became the new default camera. Even though the camera in the original iPhone was pretty poor, it was always in my pocket ready to snap a shot and so it took over.

And because I’ve had an (iPhone) camera on my person every day for the past 5 years I’ve slowly developed an affinity for photography. Instagram sure helped. Also, in January of this year I bought an olloclip for my iPhone 4S and that helped a lot as well.

It turns out, photography has become something I’m enjoying as a creative outlet and as a hobby and not just as my way of capturing every potentially-cute moment of my son’s life.

A few months ago I reached that point where I felt that the iPhone wasn’t enough for me. I want to do more with my pictures than post them to Instagram or iMessage them to my parents.

Marco Arment also articulated this exact same frustration about six months ago:

Most of my favorite photos from the last two years only look good on small screens.

Not only would I like to become a better photographer, I’d also like to have better images to show for it. A few months ago I decided I wanted a dedicated, high quality camera that could exist alongside my iPhone. And so I began researching cameras. Uh oh…

Maybe you feel the same way. Well, the good news is, if you’re in the market for a mid-range camera there are a lot of fantastic options. The bad news is, if you’re in the market for a mid-range camera there are a lot of options.

I am of the sort of unreasonable and particular consumer who, when he buys something, tries to get the best possible version of that product. Defining the best is subjective, because it rarely is as simple as “highest quality materials” or “the most expensive”. Each person has a slightly different version of what is the best for them.

In my hunt for the best camera, I’ve defined “the best” as a rig which will be fun to use while providing results I’m proud of at a price I’m not embarrassed by.

At first I spent a few hours reading reviews, browsing Flickr galleries, and talking to friends who knew more about this stuff than I did and. After this initial stage of research it seemed the best choice for me would be a Mirrorless camera. And the obvious choice seemed to be the Panasonic GX1.

But, as I am wont to do with bigger choices like this one, I sat on it for a while. Apple is not the only company who introduces new products right before the holiday season. I decided to wait and see if Panasonic would announce a GX2 as had been rumored.

In the meantime I began reading more about Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) cameras. The more I learned about the GX1 and M4/3 cameras the more I realized how much I did not know. I discovered quite a few cameras that might meet my criteria of being small, high quality, and within my budget. Perhaps the GX1 was not the best camera for me after all.

After what has been over 50 hours of learning, researching, studying, and asking my photography friends questions, I “narrowed” my search for a camera down to these 4 rigs:

These cameras are all relatively small and attractive (some more than others), use interchangeable lenses, and are said to be easy to use and yet powerful enough to be grown in to.

Below is a brief overview of the research I’ve done so far and what I’ve discovered to be the pros and cons of each rig. There is, of course, a huge amount of detailed information that I’m leaving out simply because there is no way I could go into all the bits and details and connect all the dots without writing volumes. This post is for those who also feel that their iPhone is no longer cutting it — hopefully I can give you a head start in your hunt.

(Note, links to Amazon are affiliate links. Buy something and I get a small kickback which in turn helps me keep on keepin’ on. Thanks!)

Panasonic GX1

Panasonic GX1

The GX1 came out towards the end of 2011 and over the past year it has built up an outstanding reputation. I have a few internet friends who own one and they love it. And every review I’ve read of it is quite positive. The build quality, image quality, and pocketability all are said to be superb.

It was due to the popularity of the GX1 that I became familiar with Mirrorless cameras in the first place. In fact, I knew so little about mirrorless cameras, I thought Mirrorless and Micro Four Thirds were synonymous. This, of course, is not exactly true. Yes all M4/3 cameras are mirrorless, but not all mirrorless cameras are M4/3.

Of all 4 different rigs I’ve boiled it down to, the GX1 is the least expensive. You can get it brand new with the kit lens for under $450 on Amazon. At this price, the GX1 seems like the obvious entry point into M4/3 cameras. But part of the reason I didn’t buy it a few months ago was because it’s rumored that Panasonic would announce the GX2 sometime in early November. I figured if I had gone this long without a good camera, I could wait a little longer.

In the process of waiting for either a significant update or a significant price drop, I began to research other cameras. I discovered there are a lot of options for someone in the market for a high-quality, portable, powerful camera.

As of this writing, the GX1 has become the last option on my list. In terms of size and image quality, it certainly seems to rival the other cameras I’ve researched, but for a few hundred more dollars you open up options to camera bodies that have some significant upgrades in their sensors, processors, feature set, and/or all of the above. The GX1 is certainly a steal of a deal, but my budget can afford me something a bit nicer and so that’s the direction I’m looking.

Sony Alpha NEX-6

Sony Alpha NEX-6

The Sony Alpha NEX series of cameras are renown for taking amazing images. I didn’t read a single review of the NEX-5, -5N, -5R, -6, or -7 that couldn’t be summed up in one word: “Wow!”

One of my favorite internet photography enthusiasts is Garrett Murray — I’m a huge fan of the style and look of the photos he takes. His website and Flickr stream have some outstanding real-life shots. This is the same sort of photography I’m hoping to grow in — not artsy fartsy shots, but just beautiful everyday shots from living life. Garrett uses an NEX-7. And so he was the original reason I’m even considering an NEX series camera.

Twitter pal, Dan Hawk bought the NEX-5N a while ago and is getting some incredible shots out of it. Like me, Dan was an iPhone photographer ready to move things up a notch. Dan’s review of the NEX-5N is very positive and seeing the results these cameras are producing really make the NEX line enticing to me.

If I were to get an NEX, I’d go with the NEX-6. It’s brand new and, just as the name so subtly hints at, it sits right in-between the NEX-5R and the NEX-7. The few reviews I’ve read say the NEX-6 is like the best of both worlds.

However, results aside, I’ve read that the NEX line is not as “fun” to use as cameras from Olympus (specifically, the OM-D EM-5). The NEX-6’s auto-focus, though fast, is not as fast as the Olympus (see below). And, perhaps the biggest issue of all for me, the NEX line has a relatively shallow selection of lenses. Also the Sony lenses are bulkier (because the NEX uses a bigger sensor), and they are not as affordable as many of the M4/3 lenses are.

Unfortunately, since I don’t have any experience using a camera I don’t know what differences between different cameras are going to be less or more important to me. Would the NEX-6’s “downsides” prove to be diminishing factors in my enjoyment and use of the camera? I don’t know.

One thing I do know, when you look at the images the NEX-5, -6, and -7 can produce, you too will say wow. But I just don’t see myself owning the NEX-6 and using it regularly. As much as I would love the quality of the images my gut tells me I wouldn’t be satisfied with the rig itself. The bigger and more expensive lenses, the dSLR-like size, and the semi-clunkiness of the software all are things that don’t fit into my definition of “the best camera for me”. As bitter of a pill as it is to swallow, I’m willing to get a camera with a slightly smaller sensor in a compromise for a camera that is smaller, more fun, and has a more robust ecosystem of lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Speaking of wow, I have yet to read a bad word towards the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Based on all the reviews I’ve read, this is the top-of-the-line Micro Four Thirds camera; the best of the best; the cream of the crop (no pun intended).

It seems the E-M5 can do no wrong:

  • It has a classic vintage design that harkens back to the beloved and original OM line of SLR cameras.
  • It has a fantastic M4/3 sensor that produces very high-quality images.
  • There are a lot of excellent, affordable M4/3 lenses (not just lenses made by Olympus, but also many that are made by Panasonic).
  • It has nearly instantaneous auto focus and a clever touch screen that allows you to tap on a target and the camera will focus and then snap a shot.
  • Built-in electronic view finder.
  • A 5-axis image stabilization system that is unlike any other mirrorless rig.

I kept wanting to put the E-M5 toe-to-toe with the NEX-6 and try to justify one over the other. This one has more lenses, that one has a bigger sensor, and so on. I could do that all day and never come to a conclusion. Both are clearly amazing cameras.

However, I will say this: of all the reviews I read of the E-M5, none of them had a big “but, if only…” at the end. In contrast, the NEX camera reviews always ended with: “But, if only there were a better lens selection.” Whereas the E-M5 reviews ended with: “man, this is a lot of fun to shoot with.”

Despite being such a killer camera, I have two problems with the E-M5: its price and its size. The E-M5 is a few hundred dollars more than I have to spend on a camera body, and it’s a body that seems to be just a little bit bigger than I would like (though, I say that with a grain of salt because I haven’t actually held it in my hand).

Olympus E-PL5

Olympus E-PL5

The E-PL5 is the brand-new model of the beloved PEN line from Olympus.

Everyone paying attention to the M4/3 world is raising an eyebrow when they hear about E-PL5. Because this new camera is not just the next iteration in the PEN line. It is more like a junior version of the E-M5. And that is saying a lot.

The E-PL5 has the same sensor and processor that has set the E-M5 apart as arguably the best M4/3 camera out there. The E-PL5 is sleek and packs a whole lot of punch. The fact that reviewers are all comparing the E-PL5 to the E-M5 is just nuts.

It’s not all apples-to-apples, though. When stacked up against the E-M5, the downsides to the E-PL5 are: (a) it doesn’t have a built-in viewfinder; and (b) it comes with a traditional image stabilizer, instead of the mind-boggling 5-axis image stabilization found in the E-M5.

Both of these downsides strike me as being fine compromises which, in exchange, allow the price of the E-PL5 to come down by several hundred dollars. And, what is most important in the E-M5 (speed and quality) has apparently not been compromised in the E-PL5. See for yourself: here’s an excellent Flickr gallery of images taken with the E-PL5 and Panasonic 20mm f/1.8 lens. And here’s a guy who shot an entire wedding with the E-PL5.

It’s a great looking camera and is very aggressively priced for the features it packs and the quality it’s obviously capable of producing.

As of this writing, the camera is still so new that the in-depth reviews of the E-PL5 from some of the more well known sites (such as Steve Huff and DP Review) are scarce. Nevertheless, this is the rig I’m leaning towards if only because it’s in such good company. Meaning, the predecessors to the E-PL5 (primarily the E-P3) are already so highly esteemed as being great and fun cameras, and the E-M5 is arguably the best Micro Four Thirds camera out there.

The E-PL5 seems to continue the quality, fun, and affordability that the PEN line is known for while combining that with the incredible speed and image quality that the E-M5 is known for.

Aside: The Canon EOS M

Canon EOS M

This camera isn’t in the runnings for me. But it almost was. In the mirrorless world, the EOS M seems like the odd one out right now. It has the larger APS-C sensor that makes the NEX lineup so great and its kit lens is a 22mm f/1.8 pancake. It’s simple and sleek, and some of the sample photos I’ve seen look great. On the surface the EOS M seems like the perfect mirrorless camera for me.

But virtually nobody is talking about the EOS M. I didn’t even know that it existed except I stumbled across it on Amazon by accident. And those who are talking about it seem to be underwhelmed by it.

The more I found to read about it here and there, the more I learned that it has a few disadvantages that make it not all that great compared to the competition. For one, there are only 2 lenses specifically built for the EOS M. Of course, with an adapter you can fit just about any Canon glass on there, but you lose some of the auto focus functionality and the lens will then protrude even further from the camera. Really, the adapter is for those who already own Canon lenses (which is not me).

Another disadvantage of the Canon EOS M is its lack of image stabilization — neither the lenses nor the body have it. Moreover, some of the reports I read state that the auto-focus can take as long as 1-2 seconds. My iPhone is faster than that.

In short, Steve Huff’s impression of the Canon EOS M seem to mimic the general sentiment that I’ve read elsewhere in other previews and forums, that it’s “too little and too late.”

The Verdict

There is so much information to wade through I could compare sample images and opinions while charting side-by-side stats all day long. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

If you follow me on Twitter or, you know I’ve been talking about this all week long. And I’ve received many replies from people who own one of the Sonys, or a GX1, or the E-M5, or a previous-model PEN, and everyone says they love their camera. In a way that’s been exceedingly helpful because it means I can’t really go wrong. But on the other hand, it’s been unhelpful because it means there is no clear winner.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a universal consensus that such-and-such camera is the best one and that’s it? But the truth is, all of the aforementioned cameras are excellent in their own ways and that is precisely why there is no universally renown best camera. There is no one-size-fits-all rig.

I decided to go with the Olympus E-PL5 (in black, of course) and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. Everything I’ve read about the E-PL5 seems to confirm it fits the definition of the best camera for me. And the Panasonic pancake is universally heralded as one of the few no-brainer lenses for anyone with a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Ultimately what’s most important to me is a camera that I will want to use and which while produce images I’m proud of. Friction (or rather, a lack thereof) is just as important as image quality because a $2,000 camera that takes jaw-dropping photos won’t do me any good if I leave it in the bag. This is why it’s the iPhone’s fault that I’m even in this mess: it’s the device that got me wanting to take photos in the first place.

Update: You can read my first impressions of the Olympus E-PL5 here.