Olympus E-5: Highlight Retention

People have been questioning Olympus cameras' capabilities in handling dynamic range in demanding situations, especially on the highlight retention. I admit, in comparison to generally superior and much more expensive camera systems auch as full frame, Olympus having smaller sensor size does have limitations in this regard, and would not have as much flexibility and buffer safety zone. Highlight clippings happen in harsh, contrasty regions of the photographs. Yes, we know there are better cameras out there, and the comparisons never ends. The question I am asking myself: is the highlight retention on the Olympus E-5 sufficient for my shooting requirements? My answer is absolutely, yes. Allow me to illustrate with an example, more appropriately put, a mistake which I have made.

In one of my actual day wedding assignment from earlier this year, I screwed up one of the most important shots during the wedding dinner, well almost actually. It was during the wedding dinner march of the newly wed form the entrance of the hall towards their main dining table. I set the camera settings manually to gather as much ambient light as possible, with the aid of my flash to boost up some additional fill. I considered the available dim light, and the single spot light shining on the couple. Everything went well in the first half of the walk, until somewhere in the middle of the path, the spotlight suddenly intensified and the become extremely bright. In the midst of shooting I have failed to consider the change of lighting condition to set my camera accordingly to compensate for the extra brightness due to the intensified spot lighting on the couple. The result? A disaster, overexposed image, overblown skin, and highlight clippings all over the bride's dress. When I previewed the results on E-5's LCD screen, I went "Oh SHIT !!!!!"

Thank goodness I shot the photographs all in RAW.

ISO1600, recovered by Ev compensation value -2 in Olympus Viewer RAW development.

The original image, all blown out. Mistake in manual exposure setting I have made. Critical mistake I must say. Thank goodness this was shot in RAW.

A tighter crop of the previous image to show how seriously burned out the overblown region was. In JPEG this could have been beyond salvation.

The rescued photograph. Take a close look at the maintained skin tone color, as well as the details on the white dress. This truly is impressive coming from Olympus, and shot at ISO1600.

To view more photographs from this wedding assignment, kindly go to my PORTFOLIO Page here (click).

As I got home, I loaded the Olympus Viewer software (yes I am one of the few people in the world who actually used and depended on the original bundled Olympus software, while everyone else is using Lightroom and the much more powerful Photoshop). As I come to the particular image shown in this entry, I quickly went to the exposure compensation (EV setting) and slided it down to minus 2 EV (-2 EV). To my surprise, the image did not come out too bad at all !! Do take note that the image was shot at ISO1600, and at such high ISO, the E-5 still managed to hold in the details which could be salvaged even after being OVEREXPOSED by 2 EV. I certainly did not anticipate this, and knowing I have this much flexibility, I would be shooting RAW more confidently, and trust the E-5 more. I know this camera could have done much better, but seriously, if I lower down the ISO setting, I could have achieved even more highlight retention capability with the E-5, perhaps a additional stop at ISO400 or lower.  I am not greedy, and for now, this shall be more than sufficient for all my shooting needs.

I have come to realize the importance of shooting RAW especially for paid assignment and any crucial shooting sessions that require technical perfection without compromise. As much as we rely on our own ability and consistency to make sure all controls and settings are right on camera during shooting, there are times when the situations can turn out to be rather unexpected and disaster is not possibility to be overlooked.

I know how frustrating it is, having easily burned out whites at bright and harsh lighting conditions. Yes, it is a valid issue for most Olympus cameras, but have you tried the latest cameras from Olympus such as the DSLR E-5 and the PEN E-P3? They may not be as bad as what most Olympus haters have published all over the internet. Recently, thanks to one of my blog-friends, I have spotted a possibly FAKE image supposingly taken with the E-P3 and being used in a review site. I do think somehow the haters have gone too far to tarnish Olympus. This, shall be a story for another day, if I see the need to blog about it.

Share your thoughts on Olympus dynamic range and highlight retention issues. I know many have plenty to vent out !!


  1. This is indeed impressive, as almost every camera loses higlight DR with higher ISO! Shooting RAW saved you there for sure.

    The thing is: I thought Olympus camera squize evry bit of higlights information coming out of the sensor into JPEG (that is in itself impressive). Could you comment on that? I've read somewhere there is not much headroom when shooting RAW.

    The main advantage of using cameras like Olympus and especially Fujifilm is in my opinion very strong JPEG engine. I'm constantly blown away with fantastic quality of JPEG files coming out of Fuji X100, F200 EXR etc.

    Would love to hear more about "that" review site I've written you about. It is indeed controversial.

  2. One more question: will you now shoot on the streets using RAW format to protect higlights or are you still mainly JPEG shotoer? :)

  3. Bartosz,
    JPEG will always be JPEG, simply means, a compressed file format from RAW, throwing away some data. Hence RAW contains all data, and will always have more details in the highlight region. Olympus has good JPEG engine for sure to optimize the highlight retention, but still, its RAW capability is nowhere near more capable camera systems such as Canon and Nikon full frames.

    I will continue to shoot JPEG on the streets. Nonetheless, I would not care too much about technical perfection on the streets, because my main focus would be on the "decisive moment" and the subject content. However, when I shoot macro, I do use RAW, not so much for the dynamic range, but more importantly the amount of fine details.

    I shall be talking about that review site, but I have to becareful because it means I am talking down about some other review sites. I certainly do not want people to talk down about my blog !!

  4. Good demonstration of just how much data the E-5 raw files have. Thank you.

    I know Olympus' JPEG engine is excellent, but I capture only raw files anyway. Storage space is cheap, processing raw files these days with all the excellent tools available (Lightroom, Aperture) is no burden.

    One thing I've found is that Lightroom's defaults for processing E-5 .ORF files is a bit too aggressive on sharpening, contrast, etc. I normally apply a simple preset that neutralizes everything so I can start with the baseline data. That nets the most dynamic range ... up to 11.5 stops in my casual experiments at ISO 200. I've made many ISO 3200 exposures with the E-5 that process beautifully.

  5. hello Godgrey,
    thanks for sharing the useful info, especially processing with lightroom and aperture bringing out the best in dynamic range, and you managed to squeeze out more than 11 stops which is really impressive.
    wow, I dare.not even go that much further beyond iso1600 in my shooting, but you went up to iso3200 and still get good output, that is good to know!!

  6. I was very impressed with your post Robin. I do shoot both jpeg and RAW, when the job calls for it. In my studio I shoot jpeg&Raw together with the jpeg being B&W adjusting the contrast to +2 and slightly over expose for a dramatic result. Then I still have the RAW to convert to color if the client prefers it such.

    I was thinking that since you have an over exposed image as well as a RAW corrected image, did you consider doing a HDR with the two? Would make an impressive image having the detail in the ceiling as well as the couple properly exposed as well. Just thinking.

  7. Hello Carl,
    Thanks for your kind words. It was nothing to be proud of really, a very grave mistake I made during shooting, which I should not have done so in the first place.
    I did not try the HDR, because it still comes from a single RAW file, and certainly the benefits would not be much of use, mainly because it was shot at ISO1600. If it was ISO200 or 400, perhaps a HDR rendition would be helpful.