Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Generations - GH1 vs E-M5

Every now and then I wonder about my choices in life (and my camera gear choices too), so with a recent visit to the UK to see a friend I took the opportunity to compare his Olympus OM-D E-M5 with my Panasonic GH1.

Quick Summary

Depending on where you stand the outcomes of my exploration show that either:
  • not much change (almost none) don't upgrade just for better images {or if you have nothing now and want to dip your toe into micro4/3 then buy a used GH1 for peanuts}
  • bucket loads of image quality development and the E-M5 is a truly great camera
To make sence of these opposite views a perspective that matters is which side of the RAW vs JPG divide you stand on.

I prefer to use RAW and then have the capacity to work with the digital version of a negative as I wish. I can't think of a renoun photographer from the film days who preferred to use Polaroid (unless they were after an effect). To me RAW offers the capacity to (at least) recover from oopsies (like forgetting to change white balance) as well as allowing me to bring forward my images captured years ago into the future as higher quality post-processing comes around. Were I to use JPGs (as I did for many years before RAW was even available) then my images would essentially be stuck in the past quality standards.

My phone now does for many images where I just want a quick and snappy shot (and is often better than my Point and Shoot camera)[or is that PoS camera?].

What I did and found

One of the things camera makers have been doing for a while is iteratively smartening up their JPG engines and dailing in more parameters into that processing such as knowledge of the lens (to fix its design shortcomings) aperture and focal length. Compared to just a few years ago the differences of 'out of the camera' images are chalk and cheese.

It also happened that I wanted to see what my Pentax 110 70mm f2.8 (legacy) lens looked like on the OM-D (to see if any difference was observable). This as it turns out is also a helpful lens to use as the camera has no knowledge of it and therefore can't do anything dreadfully cunning (but still does amazingly good things to the JPGs).

So lets look at overviews:
JPG from the GH1

JPG from the OM-D

Clearly no two cameras (by make and model) produce exactly the same images all other things being equal, however even at these sizes its perhaps clear to you that the OM-D image has an edge. If we zoom in a fair amount (not 100% pixels, but 50%) its even clearer. GH1 on the left OM-D on the right.


The OM-D image just leaps off the screen as being sharper and more contrasty, better handling of colour and tone and captures the elusive small bits of RED often missed by cameras (look for the red new growth leaves towards the stems of the plants). The Panasonic GH1 by contrast looks murky and flat. You may also notice a small variance in feature size, this is because the OM-D is 16Mpixels and the GH1 12MPixels. It is at least to me bugger all difference.

So, if you have zero interest in RAW (and you are sure you will never have an interest in RAW) then that's it, the newer camera makes better images out of the box. No need to read more

however

.. if you don't want to have to use bracketing for white balance, bracketing for "film type" (isn't that a laugh of a name) and generally want to do more things with your image, lets follow the white rabbit a bit further.

The first thing I did was convert the images with DCRAW (to avoid any fancy processing just yet) and just did a plain convert using dcraw -w -T -g 2.4 12.92 to get an sRGB gamma and use the camera white balance. Suddenly the stunning differences vanished, in fact I was totally unable to get an image from the GH1 RAW file which was as shitty as the camera JPG (good one Panasonic)

The differences just vanished more or less immediately.

Panasonic on the right this time (just to keep you observing)...

Seems like there is really bugger all differences between the data captured by the cameras when presented this way. If anything I reckon the GH1 has a slightly better amount of actual data (when looking at the data dump) than the OM-D does.

I noted that the highlights of the leaves (for instance) were not as well handled in the plain RAW conversions, so its clear that more cunning processing is done in camera than just a straight demosiac.

So, from there I thought I'd try to do some cunning tricks myself in software and using a few filters and some adaptive masking, this is what I got when I applied that to the GH1 (on the left) vs the camera JPG from the OM-D.


Which now closes the gap between the OM-D camera JPG and the GH1 RAW. Personally I actually prefer the processed GH1 image, but then that could be the maker bias ;-)

Processing was quite simple actually, it was just run through Photomatix to add a wee bit of adaptive masking then sharpening mask was added twice (once at 0.9 pixel radius and again at 25 pixel radius). I now see better bokeh from my lens too! The white clover flowers in the background grass had nearly vanished in the OM-D image.

That image for comparison with the OM-D


I encourage you to open them in their own tabs (center button mouse click works in Firefox on a PC) ad see what you think.

For reference the OM-D image was processed in the same manner and got this:


Conclusion

If what moves you is images and you are unafraid to (or even tempted to) process the data yourself, then my view is that Panasonic got the hardware right back then nearly 5 years ago, and that Olympus has only just now caught up. If you have a GH1 (or newer Panasonic) I see no compelling case to upgrade camera to improve image quality unless you use JPG from the GH1 and are unwilling to learn about image processing. To me the OM-D does not make a worthwhile case for upgrade of my 4 year old camera which is a little tragic if you ask me. As an aside, this reminds me of the concept of software by subscription. Back in the 90's when I was doing my Software Engineering degree we were taught about the idea of don't sell software lease it. This allows the company to get a better income stream by forcing upgrades on the clients (delivered in subscription form). In some ways I see a parallel here in that by getting owners to purchase new cameras to get better images (while the GH1 data output enables the user to take advantage of software to really tune their output).

I see no significant developments in sensors (also covered recently in noise areas) and (as a commenter suggested) the only developments are in processing. Looking at the physics and electronics I see little real chances for sensor improvements and I think there will be few developments in processing to take us past here. The low hanging fruit has been picked and pretty much all the makers are now equal.

As to other issues, I was totally unimpressed by the operation of the Oly, and feel that the dolts who developed the camera should go buy an OM-1 and hold it and use it ... back in the 1970's Oly made great cameras which were easy to use and felt good. I still have and love my OM-1 ... I can't say I feel that way about the OM-D (but that's another blog post).

3 comments:

Yu-Lin Chan said...

A lot of people base their image quality assessment on jpeg files but the underlying quality in RAW hasn't changed all that much, except in Sony sensors, which have marked improvements. To me, the advantage of the E-M5 is in body stabilization. I don't particularly like the way the camera works either.

Noons said...

The EM5 needs an add-on grip like we need air to breathe. Since I added the grip to mine, it's been a world of difference. That little thumb-notch on the back is just simply not enough to properly hold the camera.
The newer EM1 seems to have corrected that problem, although I have not yet handled one.
As for the RAW vs jpg choice, I have yet to see one camera that does always a good job of in-body jpg processing. So I use RAW all the time.
Corel's Aftershot Pro (the old Bibble Pro) seems to always work out a better image from RAW than anything else I've tried, in or off camera.

Charles Maclauchlan said...

there are easily as many opinions on these subjects as there are photographers...perhaps more. I like to shake things up from time to time...part of being a curmudgeon I guess. In my defense (defence?) I think I do this to remind myself that a camera's purpose is to make images.

Although the marketing ink is spilled praising pixel increases and feature enhancements the revolution in digital cameras over the last couple of years has been in the processing engines inside them. Almost all modern cameras produce quite acceptable JPGs.

The way I work is that I shoot RAW + JPG 'till my skills at post processing reach approximately the same level as the camera JPG's and then shoot RAW only. In some cameras (my Fuji's) it's a bit of a stretch for me to get that good,