Saturday, June 23, 2012

Olympus OM-D E-M5 poor ergonomics

I have had the E-M5 for a bit over 3 weeks and after using it my overall conclusion is the same as it was when I first examined it in Tokyo on 3/31. So many wonderful points, I really like the size/weight of the lenses/camera compared to all the DSLRs/FSLRs I have been using for many years, quite happy with the IQ, S-AF is fast and accurate, but the ergonomics are rather poor compared to what could have been done even without making the camera larger. Olympus chose to make it look like a very small 40 year old film SLR and then shrunk that to make it even smaller and added a tilt rear screen and lots of controls that the larger film SLR didn't have. The NEX 7 is as small or smaller, but has a larger sensor, tilt screen, and builtin flash yet the controls, grip, and EVF are in better positions and are not so small. I am not saying the NEX 7 ergonomics are ideal, but it shows how much better Olympus could do while keeping the size the same. The following is a post I made 2.5 months ago on a forum. I was in Japan for 6 months and in Tokyo at that time for a few months so I had many opportunities to handle the E-M5.


I am almost reluctant to post this because I know from my years on dpreview that there are always some people who think anything that is not a glowing opinion of the product/company that they happen to currently like is an assault on their manhood, worth as a human being, ethics, morals, religion, mother, wife, or child. :) I have something about the E-M5 that I am not too happy about, but please be assured that this is not meant as a personal insult to any of you. We are just talking about an inanimate object, a tool, albeit one that most of us have some interest in. Let's please all try to remember that. :)

After trying out the E-M5 yesterday and discovering that the ergonomics were less than I had hoped for, particularly since I use my left eye, I decided to go back to Shinjuku today to try it again. I spent a fair amount of time holding it and checking to see how it felt with it up to my eye and using the control dials, tiny top buttons, and the 2 tiny rear buttons at the top while my eye was to the EVF. Hmmm, I guess I will say that it is barely acceptable. Of course, in other ways the E-M5 is the sort of camera with the small lenses that I have really been hoping for so that influences my evaluation. Oh, and I don't have large hands (not small either). If I didn't want something like this so much I might put it on the other side of the acceptability line.

As it is, barring anything important that comes up in reviews or user reports I am still thinking I will get one later. The feel of it in my hand and the usability of controls while up to my eye though is definitely the biggest negative point. One might say that one must expect compromised ergonomics in such a small body (it is small), but that ignores the fact that the Panasonic G3 is as small and it feels better to me and the NEX 7 is smaller and it is wonderful. Of the MILCs that have a built-in EVF I would personally rate the feel and access to my most used controls while looking through the EVF with my left eye in this order:

1. NEX 7, Panasonic Lumix GH2
2. Panasonic Lumix G3
3. Nikon V1
4. Olympus E-M5

Using my right eye I would rate them in the same order. The GH2 is bigger and heavier than the NEX 7 so it isn't really fair to also put it in the #1 spot since it has the advantage of the bigger body for controls.

The E-M5 ergonomics suffer a lot because Olympus tried so hard to make it look retro and look like the old OM-1 film SLR. Yes, I know that many people like this look. Actually, Olympus made it smaller/lighter than the OM-1:

OM-1: 510g, 136 x 83 x 50mm
E-M5: 425g, 122 x 89 x 43mm
NEX 7: 353g, 120 x 67 x 43mm

Then with that reduced size they added all the controls that digital cameras need, but film cameras didn't (LCD, control wheels, buttons). And since they wanted it to look as much as possible like a smaller version of the OM-1 they put the EVF directly above the lens and in the center of the body so that it looked like an old pentaprism OVF. Well, once they put the EVF there in the center rather than offset then that meant they had even less space to cram all the controls. Definitely a form over function design. It has the retro look and that is clearly important and a selling point for many people. No disagreement from me there. Olympus, like all companies, makes products in order to sell them and they are probably right that this compromised, retro design will sell well and maybe better than a less compromised, modern design. I can't fault them for that. All I can do is offer my subjective opinion that they went too far trying to do it all: smaller than OM-1, more controls crammed onto the smaller camera than the OM-1, and putting that big EVF hump right in the middle so that there was even less space for the controls. Oh well, it is what it is.

Although there are reasons why I am not interested in the NEX 7 (big lenses, few lenses, no IBIS, slower AF) I couldn't help but be so impressed holding it right after the E-M5. Smaller size and lighter weight, but the hand hold is great, the EVF is over on the left so that it works well for people using the right eye and for people using their left eye, controls on the right side are not so cramped and small and since people who use their left eye have their face moved over to use the EVF there is no problem with using those controls. Sony still manages to get a bigger sensor (1.5x), a tilt LCD, an EVF, and a flash into the smaller/lighter body. Something more like this body with the E-M5 sensor, IBIS, and m4/3 mount would be fantastic, IMO. Even if the E-M5 EVF hump was moved to the left (even just 5mm would help) it would give more space for the controls, more space for your face, and more space for your thumb. If they did that then make the hump smaller and smooth too like the V1 since the camera would no longer look like an old OM-1 anyway. Sounds like a nice Olympus additional body. :)

By the way, I also tried using my forefinger instead of my thumb to work the rear control dial. You can do it, but then you have to take your finger off the shutter button. That is fine for many people and many types of photography. For me though it would mean missed shots. I often find myself making a quick adjustment using my thumb while at the same time my finger is ready to press the shutter release. For many people who use their left eye though using the index finger will help. Using the thumb isn't impossible though, just sort of uncomfortable and cramped.

I recommend that anyone who has any doubts at all about the ergonomics that you spend time holding it and using it before buying. Some people will be fine with it, but for some they will think Olympus just went too far.

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