Saturday, 15 August 2015

Building up my Olympus MFT (Micro Four Thirds) kit

Ok - I now have the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk2 body with the 12-50mm WR kit lens. This will form the basis of my mirrorless micro-four-thirds system. I want to build on this basic kit now, but one restraint is always unavoidable: budget. I don't have a lot of money, and need to get the best 'bang' for my buck - without compromising (too much) on quality.

Aftermarket BLN-1 spare battery
I'll assume that the SD Memory card is a given, although this time around I did decide to buy a new card for the OMD-EM-5 Mk2 (a Sandisk 16GB Class 10). But generally speaking most photographers will have a few of these floating around. So the first additional purchase is unavoidable really - for any digital camera system. A spare battery (or batteries). I ordered a spare battery as soon as I purchased the Em-5 Mk2, and I'm probably going to purchase a few more.

BUT - I certainly didn't go out and order a second Olympus branded battery, not at $120NZ for one battery! I ordered a much cheaper aftermarket no-name rip-off, that is much cheaper ($25NZ) and actually more powerful. Go figure. It's rated at 1750mAh, whereas the Olympus battery is only 1220mAh - so in theory (at least), the aftermarket battery should last longer?

Yes, I am nervous about using cheap batteries - but this one seems fine. It does work, it does charge (in the Olympus charger), and it does seem to last as long as the Olympus battery that came with the camera, so I'll probably end up getting a couple more. With these smaller mirrorless, you can never have too many spare batteries.

Aftermarket lens hood.
Next up on the must-have accessory list; a lens hood for the 12-50mm kit lens. Again, I've already bought one - and again, I chose to get an after-market hood rather than the Olympus branded option. And, yet again, this was purely for budget constraint. The Olympus LH-55B is $90NZ!! Not quite as expensive as a spare battery, but just about! Seriously, that's just ridiculous! Apart from the fact that it really should be included with the lens in the first place, to have to spend $90NZ on it is criminal. So an after-market lens hood it is. For $35.00NZ - which I still think is pricey for a bit of plastic, but there you go.

It arrived just the other day, and the one thing I will say about the third party hoods is that they tend to be rather stiff to twist on and off. I'm always scared that the twisting is going to wrench the lens and ruin some internal electronics, so I usually get a craft knife and scrape away some of the inside plastic first so it gives a 'looser' fit. Not too loose - but looser. Helps with my piece of mind, and the hoods do come on and off better.

With SD cards, spare batteries and a lens hood sorted, which is really just the basic components to any kit, attention now turns to the big ticket items. Usually, this would be another lens. But this time my first big purchase isn't going to be another optic for the camera. This time I've got my sights set on the most important (for me) accessory for the EM-5 Mk2; the HLD-8 Grip.

Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk2 with 2 piece HLD-8 Battery Grip. SEXY!
I'll just come straight out and say it - I'm a battery grip fanatic. I always purchase the grip for every camera I own, so the EM-5 Mk2 will be no exception. I don't have big hands (they are probably medium to small for a 48 year old male) but I still find that no matter what camera I've owned, adding a grip to it has always made the ergonomics more pleasing and the handling more comfortable. There is also always the added bonus of better portrait oriented shooting (I shoot in portrait a lot on weddings) and doubling of the battery life.

The truly great thing about the HLD-8 is that it actually comes in two different pieces; the 'grip' portion and the 'battery/portrait' portion. Cleverly, you can configure the camera to have a bigger grip just with the first section attached, or extend the battery life and include a portrait shutter button by attaching the second half. I think that's genius, and really shows the level of thought that Olympus's engineers put into these cameras. Some, if not all of them, must be serious photographers as well.

Many would argue that adding the grip defeats the purpose of switching to MFT and mirrorless to cut down on weight and size. Others question why camera manufacturers make cameras so small that they then need extra grips on them to make them useable?

In response I would say that the addition of the extra weight of the HLD-8 is 'relative'. For example, I've come from a Canon EOS 1D Mk3 which, with battery and lens attached, is about 1.7kgs (3.7 lbs), whereas the EM-5 with grip attached will weigh in at about 700gms (1.5 lbs) - less than twice the weight (and size) of the system I've moved from. I'd say that's a weight saving, wouldn't you?

And second - I don't find the EM-5 Mk2 'too' small to use without it actually. I just prefer to use a grip. In the same way that I don't find a Canon 50D or 7D too small, but still prefer to add the grip. Do I think the handling and ergonomics are improved on the OM-D EM-5 Mk2 with the addition of the accessory grip - yes I do, absolutely. As much as I think they are also improved on the 50D. I do think there are some mirrorless cameras that are too small. But the EM-5 isn't one of them.

Is there anything I don't like about the HLD-8? Yep, sure is. The price! At $400NZ it's about a third of the price of the camera itself (ouch). But even so, I still think it's worth it. Even though that's most of my budget now blown.

Finally, we get to the lens question. This is always the big question you face when looking to add to a basic one-camera, one-lens kit. Many reviewers and users say that the best lens to get after the kit lens is a fast prime - something like the 17mm f1.8 or 25mm f1.4 from Panasonic. These 'smaller' MFT camera systems are, arguably, most suited to using small primes - so it makes sense that this is what you should opt for after the kit lens, doesn't it?

Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6 telephoto 'kit' lens
Maybe. But for me, I think that will happen a bit further down the track. What I'm actually going to get instead of a fast prime, is the 40-150mm kit telezoom - the small, light, plastic, cheap, additional zoom that often comes bundled with Olympus MFT cameras in a two-lens configuration.

Why? For two reasons really (okay, maybe three). First, it will give me a carry-around kit that covers every focal length I could hope to use in a day of shooting - from 24 to 300mm in conventional 35mm terms, so I will have almost every scenario covered. I know from personal experience that if I have a system that contains big gaps in reach, then I get a bit frustrated. I may not use a telezoom all that often, but when I want to, then I want to (if that makes sense?). Sure, a 25mm f1.4, or an 18mm f1.8 would be lovely - but I already have them covered with the 12-50mm kit lens. What I don't have, at the moment, is extra telephoto coverage - which the 40-150mm will give me in spades.

Second, despite it 'only' being a kit lens, and 'only' being f4/5.6, and 'only' being made of plastic, by all accounts the IQ of the lens is pretty amazing. It's 'better' optically than it has any right to be for a cheap plastic lens (although the lens elements are glass, and it does use an ED lens for image correction), and as long as you isolate your subject effectively from the background, the bokeh can be very pleasing. No, it's not a low-light lens. But the OM-D EM-5 Mk2 has very good high ISO performance, and one of the best (if not the best) image stabilization systems on the planet, so even at the telephoto end of the zoom range in lowish light, good sharp images should be achievable. But it is what it is.

And third, it's cheap :-)

So that will be my 'kit' for a while. The Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk2 with 12-50mm and 40-150mm kit lenses, HLD-8 battery/portrait grip, spare batteries and SD cards. While I'm in Christchurch next week getting the HLD-8, I may have a look at camera bags to keep it all in. The ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 30 looks good, but I may also just keep using my Crumpler 6 Million Dollar Home for it. It does look a bit lost in there at the moment, but adding the grip and another lens might just help with that. If I get a new bag, I will definitely do a post on what I got and why.

What's missing from the above (apart from the fast primes)? Well, if I'm going to use it to shoot weddings seriously then I will need another body as back-up, a larger flash (the flash supplied is cute, but not really for serious work), and then yes - some of those fast primes. Or maybe even the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens? Now that would be sweet.

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