The Perfect Travel Camera?

May 7, 2012 · 18 comments

Note: This page was updated on 1/1/16 to link to newer models of the camera’s mentioned, apologies if I send you to an older model if you decide to buy one of these.

I’ve been talking a lot about photography recently, I’ll try to get back to travel stuff from the next post onwards, honest! But I’m so happy with photography and my current camera it reminds me of when I got my first dSLR and saw the quality improvement over a basic point and shoot. I really feel the need to shout about this camera.

I’m talking about the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (or latest model: Mark II version). It sounds much like a computer code rather than a product name, like a lot of cameras do, so what makes it so special and suitable for travel?

OM-D in hand

In my hand - yes it's small

Well I prioritise 2 things above all else when it comes to travel photography. 1. Image quality and 2. Portability. This camera has both to a point where I’m not just taking great photos, but I’m taking my camera everywhere. Something I eventually gave up on with my dSLR.

Why not a dSLR?

It’s not much fun carrying 2kg (body and single zoom lens without accessories / lens selection and a reasonable sized bag) around hot and humid environments for the sake of a few photos. Many of us want to go to warmer countries so carrying around extra weight is unwelcome. And even if you prefer colder countries, who wants to carry that weight anyway?

It’s not just the weight too, it’s the size. As a person who encourages people to travel with the minimum necessary, I’ve written about mirrorless cameras against dSLRs before. The OM-D is not the lightest camera about, due to it’s magnesium alloy construction, but it does have small lenses available (glass weighs a lot) which is probably the main reason to sell your dSLR now if travel is your main photography interest (and they are certainly hobbies that go hand in hand). There was a time when my camera stuff took up 1/3 of my bag space and a similar percentage of weight allowance on cheaper airlines. But no more!

E-M5 photo

A Japanese tsubaki flower

I know a lot of people may claim to be ‘more dedicated’ to photography than myself, and may argue that the weight and (more importantly) size considerations don’t matter when you’re trying to get the best image quality possible. But I say it does… to a point. I post jpegs on the internet (resized down to 500px usually) and seldom print anything out. I’ve had my images used in books before, and so as long as the quality can meet that requirement then I won’t need to meet a much higher quality standard. I’m not shooting billboard advertisements. I intend to sell my images more actively in the future, again the modern micro-4/3 camera like the E-M5 is well up to this job. It’s up to any job professionally. I’ve seen wedding photographers (is there a higher pressure use for cameras?), studio photographers and magazine photographers get more than satisfactory results. So I certainly don’t need any more at this moment in time.

Why not something smaller?

I could go smaller, a non-interchangeable lens point and shoot camera (like a Sony HX10), or a phone camera (bridge cameras like the SX60 are ultimately pointless in my opinion now – don’t bother with them for travel); But these cameras aren’t fast to operate (adjust settings) nor flexible in their use, not to mention the quality isn’t quite there. I see compact cameras as a dying breed now anyway, mobile phones already exceed them in features (with the exception of optical zoom, which is currently being addressed) which are constantly being updated and link to the internet making sharing a whole lot easier. So that just leaves high end compacts, compact system cameras (like the E-M5) or dSLRs.

High end compacts (like the Canon S120 which I think is good or the surprisingly heavy Canon G1X Mark II (which I think is pointless) are something that I would recommend, but are still quite boring and have their limitations, like one zoom range therefore unable to change lenses. It’s not so fun or tailored to your needs, it’s just a tool with a small zoom.

Why the E-M5 over other mirrorless cameras?

OM-D at night result

Night time shooting example

I’ve previously written about different mirrorless systems at the bottom of this post so I won’t repeat the conclusion, except now Fuji have now released a competitor. The Fuji X Pro 1 which renders photos in a gorgeous fashion, but the autofocus is slow, and it was awfully expensive, which is why I chose the E-M5 over it, it’s also not so good at video and needs quite a bit of learning to use well. I think a travel photographer needs a more rounded system for the different needs. Sony have great camera options like the NEX-7 (or newer Sony a6000) which is reasonably priced, but the lens selection is still quite average and the lenses seem to be quite expensive for what they are too.

The EM-5 has some bad points (what doesn’t?) such as the playback and fn1 button being way too small, and certain things being disabled when I want them (like 2 second timer in manual mode), although improved on the in mk2 version.

If you favour video quality, then the Panasonic Panasonic GH4 is the best on the market, although very expensive, it’s been the king for a while now too replacing the venerable GH2.
If you don’t want to cough up that much then the Panasonic G7 makes a decent alternative to the E-M5, but I chose the Olympus (despite it’s higher price) for numerous reasons:

  1. It’s gorgeous.
  2. It has great feel and build quality (magnesium alloy).
  3. Weather sealing – not essential, but nice reassurance to build quality.
  4. Flip screen (quicker to use than a flip-out and swivel screen).
  5. Nicer electronic view finder – it’s very clear and doesn’t have the problems that Panasonic have with RGB colours moving.
  6. 5-axis in body image stabilisation. So every lens is stabilised. This works tremendously well.
  7. Dual dials – making it much quicker to adjust the photo exposure without going through a menu.
  8. Wireless flash control – gives me more options in the future for lighting scenes from different angles.
  9. Fast autofocus (like really fast).
  10. Up to nine photos in a second can be taken. Apart from HDR bracketing, I don’t think I need this speed though.
  11. Useful touchscreen – click to focus, track or take a photo. That’s quite a feature. Also useful for scrolling and zooming in on photos in playback mode.
  12. More things are configurable than I thought. Even things like what way to turn the dial to adjust settings can be changed.
  13. It’s quiet to operate with a satisfying thud. Weather sealing quiets it down which assists me in those street shots I showed before.
  14. Fantastic thumb grip – makes it lovely to hold with a nice chunk of rubber (This is starting to sound a bit sexy now)..
  15. It’s FUN.
Food photography of sushi

Sushi

The last point is the most important, this is the most fun camera I’ve ever used, and who can argue with that?

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacob May 8, 2012 at 8:59 AM

Nice review, I’ve been looking at the micro 4/3 cameras for a while, and it seems like the E-M5 is the one that has crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s and is truly competing with dSLR quality now as well as beating it in the size department.

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AdventureRob May 8, 2012 at 9:07 AM

Thanks, you won’t regret it!

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John May 14, 2012 at 2:32 AM

Do you think the 12-50 kit lens is wide enough for street shooting in Japan?

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AdventureRob May 14, 2012 at 3:25 AM

Yes, its a very flexible zoom range. I use the fixed 25mm focal length and find it good for street photography. Some people are happier with the 20mm prime too.

I personally get more use out of the 12mm range than the 50mm for the street, which is why I’m eyeing up the 12mm F2 which I can’t afford over the affordable f1.8 45mm. But the 12-50mm is a great start that has it all except speed, so it’ll struggle a bit when the light goes down (which is where a lot of good photos happen as ‘characters’ tend to come out at night).

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Sugel May 14, 2012 at 8:52 AM

The mirrorless buzz has begun in earnest now, yet many of the cameras really aren’t as compact as we’d like. Sony’s miniscule NEX cameras produce some fantastic images yet the lenses are laughably oversized. Micro 4/3’s cameras from Panasonic and Olympus come closer to a good travel form factor, but nothing compares to Nikon’s J1 and V1. Although using smaller sensors than Micro 4/3’s, the two use very good 10 megapixel CMOS sensors that perform quite well in low light. They also focus very quickly and have a host of high-speed burst settings. The only real difference between the two is the V1’s electronic viewfinder and higher price. The J1, when matched with the 10-30 and 30-110 lenses, is the ultimate in portability without sacrificing image quality.
Sugel´s latest blogpost – No last blog posts to return.

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AdventureRob May 14, 2012 at 3:34 PM

The Nikon’s don’t quite focus so quick in low light, they are also overpriced in my opinion. Lens selection is also small which is why I chose the micro-4/3 format over it. Also the handling is awful on those cameras. No grip at all on the J1. V1 EVF is nice though.

I think the next gen or 2 of the Nikon’s will be much more interesting as the phase detection on chip is nice and the sensors will improve (if the OMD can match APSC quality, then the CX format should be able to get a bit closer too).

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Claire May 26, 2012 at 9:39 AM

So true – I hate lugging around my dslr camera, even in cold weather. But I always feel the need to so that I don’t miss a good shot. I have to agree, your Olympus seems like the perfect travel camera.
Claire´s latest blogpost – Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

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AdventureRob May 27, 2012 at 3:15 PM

dSLR with how many lenses? That’s the killer bit really. I used to travel with the 18-270mm Tamron so I didn’t have to carry a tonne but that restricted quality somewhat. Now I can carry a whole set (when I get the money for that whole set…) and it’s the same weight as that old Tamron. And a flash to boot too.

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Tor May 29, 2012 at 5:37 PM

I just sold my Nikon D700 and lenses – I am all m4/3 now. I am really impressed with E-M5 – and the SMALL lenses. This is a perfect camera not only for travel, but also for nature trekking. One of the big benefits of OM-D system is the size of the lenses (all of them).

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AdventureRob May 30, 2012 at 6:24 AM

Yeah, the lenses are the key bit that people miss. Glass is heavy, so it adds up a lot. The camera bodies themselves don’t save that much in weight (especially magnesium alloy bodies like the OMD) but when most lenses are 100-500g, then it gives far more flexibility to carrying them.

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Nick June 10, 2012 at 12:05 PM

I bought EM-5 stunning camera once you understand the basics its so easy to use. Really well built, i use panasonic lenses as i had the G3 before, but was not comfortable with it. Picture quality is great, love the flip screen as you can be discreet when taking photos of people.Would recommend the flip screen protector cover to stop scratches.
The button size are ok for me,but only average hand size.
What more can i say except good travelling guys and girls

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AdventureRob June 10, 2012 at 3:16 PM

I’ve heard it’s actually pretty good in resisting scratches as standard. I guess cameras aren’t as susceptable as phones to that sort of thing anyway.

It’s worth noting the screen size is identical to the EP3 too. I saw a EM-5 screen protector for 740 yen a month or so ago, the EP3 one was 320 yen, less than half price for the same product (same brand).

I thought the G3 was OK for the money, but not the best camera around. I use the Panasonic Leica 25mm lens about 90% of the time myself too.

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andy July 1, 2012 at 3:45 PM

It’s not quite the perfect travel camera, as I find the battery on mine lasts only about 2 days shooting, though I do forget to turn the camera off now and then. I have a three week remote trekking trip in Nepal coming up, where there is unlikely to be much if any electricity available for charging batteries, so I may be forced back to my big heavy DSLR, even with a few spare batteries.

Do you have any battery life conservation tips? Does turning off the 5 axis stabilisation help?

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AdventureRob July 4, 2012 at 7:24 PM

It’s true it doesn’t have the greatest battery life in the world, that comes from running a electronic viewfinder and constantly engaged sensor stabilisation. But you can always bring more batteries, which probably works out lighter than a big SLR setup (it’s the lenses that really save the weight).

I don’t think turning off the stabilisation helps. If you take the lens off, and look at the sensor when you turn the camera on, you’ll see it ‘jump’ into position, because it’s held there by electromagnets rather than be fixed in place. The only tip I constantly hear is to turn off off via the switch, as the eye sensor is quite sensitive, so people often have the camera running the EVF while they think the camera is sleeping in it’s bag.

I actually find the biggest joke is the battery charger, which is rather large (around the same size as the camera! On the Olympus PEN cameras, the charger was barely any bigger than the battery itself. Also built in plug would be good too, rather than a cord. This stuff matters when you travel, and something I didn’t mention in the original article.

Still it’s been over 3 months now, and I’m VERY happy with the camera, I don’t see my changing it anytime soon.
AdventureRob´s latest blogpost – Tokyo Skytree

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flip July 25, 2012 at 8:57 AM

thanks for the review… i just got a new dslr and now thinking about the weight that it added to my bag.. checking this camera now online…
flip´s latest blogpost – Walking the Streets of Kolkata

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frank August 18, 2012 at 5:45 AM

Just got the O-MD M-5 and am blown away. After buying a full on Maxxum5 system (film) 11 years ago and using (mostly) digi P&S’s ever since. I took the plunge and can report that yours and others reveiws have put my wallet to ease. Learning something new about this camera everyday, and loving the weight/size-, to features ratio! Thank you, j

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AdventureRob August 19, 2012 at 11:17 PM

You’re welcome!

Thanks for feedback, it’s nice to know my review is benefitting others. I’ve started exploring the more deeper functions now, and love the camera to bits still. Just a shame I don’t have more money for lenses.

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