Thursday, July 04, 2013

A triumph: Olympus E-PL5 at high ISO (updated)

A small giant

I yesterday watched a short review (which I can't find now) of the new Olympus E-P5, Micro-Four-Thirds camera.
The lady, sitting behind the desk, said words to this effect: "image quality is good until ISO 800, from 1600 and up it begins to get a bit blurry". (ISO of course being the setting of light sensitivity of the sensor. The higher you push it, the more quality suffers because of the signal boosting.)

This didn't fit with my feeling about it. Okay, my old Panasonic GF1 did not do at all well over 800 ISO (basically unusable at 1600), but things have improved immensely recently, so I tested it today. Well, I tested the E-PL5, which has the same sensor and is a bit older and cheaper than the E-P5, so if anything it should be not quite as good.

The result surprised me. I don't know what that lady had been looking at (or smoking), but my test images were sharp and baby-bum smooth up til at least 6400 ISO! Astounding for a M4/3 camera.

Not only that, 12,000 ISO is pretty good too! And even 25,000 ISO wouldn't be unusable in some situations, though barely.
[Note, earlier I had written "1200" and "2500". I'm not used to using 5-digit numbers about ISO sensitivity! We're not in Kansas anymore.] [Note two: normally people use "12,800" and "25,600", but this is misleadingly precise numbers in such an area.)

Why is this so exciting? Well, young people are getting used to developments like this in electronic, but those of us who photographed before the millennium, the only one way to get just one stop higher sensitivity (a doubling of ISO) was to either accept a dreadful degrading of quality over 400 ISO, or to get a faster lens. And a faster lens, say two stops faster, was, and is, much bigger, much heavier, and much more expensive (so much so that they were and are out of the reach of most amateurs). And then you got to deal with the much shorter depth of field (depth of sharpness), this is not the case with sensor improvements. So you may see the improvements in recent years as getting a 1.5-kilogram, $2.000 lens for free, plus getting the faster film without the quality hit. Heady stuff.

I even tend to forget, except when trying to photograph with a phone camera, but the ability to freely photograph hand-held indoors or after sunset and get top-notch quality is new, and very liberating indeed.

You can download full from-camera files of those three settings from here. (Click on the three dots in lower right when looking at one of them. (Three dots is new-speak for "Menu".).)

At 6400 ISO:

Same one, about 100%, detail:

... Perfect 6400 ISO on one of the smallest exchangeable-lens cameras in the world! Dang. People who think M4/3 is still not up to pro use haven't looked at recent results.

In fact, personally I think that M4/3 is the future format for enthusiast and professionals. You can make the cameras so small that they are almost too small for some photographers. And the format is big enough, especially with future development, that you can accomplish any technical quality anybody would want, including shallow depth of field for portraits and such.
I think bigger formats will become reserved for special purposes. And smaller formats will be reserved for pocket cameras and phone cameras.
So it seems Olympus was right when they chose that sensor size originally. Although it took over a decade for the quality of it to become truly pro. Just a few years ago they had serious limitations in dynamic range and in low-light capability, and focus speed. In the past 3-4 years they have blasted through those barriers with a vengeance.

This is no idle prediction, because if I'm right, it means that Fuji, Leica, Sony, and the others which have bet on the bigger APS-C format for their mirror-less cameras, have bet on the wrong horse. Already now, and especially in just a couple of years, the format is simply unnecessarily big, and they'll be stuck with big and clumsy cameras and especially lenses all the while the party is on all night in the M4/3 camp.

A note: the E-PL5 (and a couple similar cameras) is a dream camera for street photographers. After waiting impatiently all through the "noughties", we finally got our digital street camera: compact, rapid response and focusing, and image quality good enough for gallery pictures. And this specific one has a tiltable screen, which I feel is very useful for a more flexible viewpoint and for not spooking the natives.
(If you want a pocketable camera with zoom and outstanding image quality, look at Sony RX100, which has just been announced in a M2 version with tiltable screen.)


David Evans said...

That is impressive. It looks to be one or two stops better than my E-PM1, which I am quite happy with.

I think when you write "1200 ISO is pretty good too! And even 2500 ISO wouldn't be unusable" the files you refer to were actually taken at 12800 and 25600 ISO. Which makes them even more amazing.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thank you, yes. I've corrected the error.
Five years ago I could hardly have imagined using 12800 iso with a compact camera! Awesome. Just for one example, it makes my beloved 10X Panasonic zoom so much more versatile. (They have a new version of the 14-140mm, which is smaller and lighter, and still really good optically.) I almost almost "catch many more fish" when I'm out with a superzoom.