Olympus PEN E-P5 Review: Insect Macro Shooting

Important Notes:
1. This is a user experience based review.
2. All images were shot in RAW and converted directly to JPEG (High Quality) via Olympus Viewer 3.
3. General camera settings, Noise Filter = OFF, Contrast/Saturation/sharpness = 0, White Balance = Auto (with an option maintain warm color = OFF), Gradation = Normal
4. No post-processing applied to the images, except slight brightness/contrast balance tweak. All images were as good as straight out of camera, with minimal cropping for better presentation.

This is a continuation from Part 1 of my Olympus PEN E-P5 review series, if you have not read Part 1 please do so here (click). In this Part 2 review, I have brought the Olympus PEN E-P5, together with the amazing M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 macro to KL Butterfly Park for some insect macro shooting. 

The reason why I always brought a camera for macro shooting, was because this is an all rounder test to gauge a wide variety of the camera's performance and aspects. Pixel peeping insect macro images can review fine details which are important, and handling of camera becomes an important factor. This also provided me a chance to test the manual focusing by using the external viewfinder VF-4 and the newly included feature focus peaking in E-P5. 

For this particular macro shoot, I used the exact same technique as I have blogged before, the shoebox flash bouncer experiment here (click), and here (click). All camera, lens and flash settings, down to how I execute the shots with manual focusing, were similar to the descriptions in the previous mentioned blog entries. 

So how does the new Olympus PEN E-P5 fare in macro shooting? 

All images were taken with Olympus PEN E-P5, M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 macro, with External viewfinder VF-4 and external flash FL-50R held wirelessly. 

1/30sec, F2.8, ISO200 No Flash

1/125sec, F5, ISO200, Wireless Flash

1/250sec, F6.3, ISO200, Wireless Flash

Olympus Image Quality

It is no secret now, and almost universally agreed by all reviewers and also end users that the highly acclaimed Olympus OM-D E-M5 matches even the best of APS-C DSLR in terms of image quality. Although Olympus did not include a new image sensor for the E-P5, or mentioned about any improvements or tweaks done, they claimed that the E-P5 has the "OM-D image quality", which is still respectable by today's standards. As I was shooting at Butterfly Park, reviewing the images on the E-P5's image screen, as well as on my computer monitor at home, what I was seeing coming out the E-P5 was very, very similar to what I have seen in OM-D. The color rendition, the fine detail capture, the sharpness, everything seemed almost identical, and even if there was a difference, I would not be able to tell the difference between files from E-P5 or OM-D. 

Using the macro lens, M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8, which itself is possibly the sharpest lens for micro 4/3 system at the moment (the only one possibly sharper is that 75mm F1.8), it was not difficult to be amazed by the images E-P5 captured. The files are richly packed with generous amount of fine details, and the signature Olympus color (which is open to much debate since many people prefer Fuji color, but lets not go there now) which many have come to love, being true to life and vibrant are all there. Some may argue that what is the point of having a new camera if there was not even a noticeable image quality improvement? I cannot disagree with that question, but Olympus is maintaining TWO separate lines of micro 4/3 format system now: the PEN line and the OM-D line. The fact that the OM-D got the amazing image quality first, and then it trickled down to the PEN line strongly suggested that the OM-D takes higher order in terms of camera hierarchy placement. Of course this is just purely my own opinion, but it was not hard to see what Olympus is doing. Looking at it in this light, it is actually a good thing having the OM-D sensor (and many other important features such as the 5-Axis Image Stabilization!!!) stuffed into the new E-P5 body. 

Inspecting the 100% crop images, I was actually more blown away by what the M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 macro lens, which I have reviewed before, can do. The E-P5 does not necessarily offer anything new in the image quality department from what we have seen the previous OM-D can do, but the overall shooting experience were further enhanced by a few other factors: 1) Using the new VF-4 Electronic Viewfinder 2) The new LCD Backscreen on E-P5 for better viewing and pixel-peeping, and not to forget 3) Focus peaking for manual focusing. 

Image Sample 1: to illustrate two things - 1) The advantage, and the need of using wireless flash OFF camera. 2) focus peaking, under such circumstance, with poor contrast, was almost non-usable. 
Will discuss this in detail in later part of the blog. Flash was not fired, and the subject was under heavy shade.

 Same spider as previous image, but with wireless flash, fired from bottom, pointing upward. 
1/125sec, F9, ISO200, Wireless Flash

Image Sample 2
1/125sec, F9, ISO200 Wireless Flash

100% crop of Image Sample 2

Image Sample 3
1/125sec, F5.6, ISO200 Wireless Flash

100% crop from Image Sample 3

Focus Peaking for Manual Focusing

I shot almost ALL images in the butterfly park by using manual focus. Not that I do not trust the autofocus of the camera, but for extreme magnification where even the slightest of movement (down to milimeters margin here) that can throw the entire image off the frame. Even after you have locked the AF down, if you made just that tiny bit of movement your image will be completely out of focus. Therefore, it was more practical to employ the manual focus, and trust my eyes to decide if the part of the insect (eyes, usually) is in perfect focus. 

In my older review of Olympus OM-D Part 3 where I also brought the camera to butterfly park for macro shooting, I made a comment on Sony's focus peaking, mentioning that it was not suitable for hand-held macro shooting with high magnification. That statement held true, even for Olympus' own version of focus peaking. 

The focus peaking on E-P5 has to be activated by a press of any custom buttons, and I assigned the focus peaking activation to Fn1 button located directly next to the shutter button. I have tried the focus peaking rather extensively shooting insects in the butterfly park, and halfway through my shooting, I have decided to TURN IT OFF completely. Here are my reasons why:

1) Laggy and Choppy display
When focus peaking is enabled, the entire refresh rate of the live view display dropped significantly, resulting in very choppy and laggy viewing, which was not a good experience. In contrast to Sony's implementation, in Sony cameras you do not suffer drop in refresh rate, but of course you will see noticeable loss of resolution, which was alright. My biggest complain here was that the lag was bad enough to create discomfort, and imagine when you are shooting at 1:1 magnification where the screen kept jumping up and down (every tiny movement is exaggerated at high magnification, if you shoot extreme macro, you would understand, and this issue gets worse the higher the magnification goes), the jaggedness just got worse with the laggy/choppy focus peaking display. I believe this should not be a problem shooting with normal lenses without high magnification power. It actually borders to almost unusable to me as I was shooting the insect macro this time. 

2) Focus Peaking deactivated at the half-press of shutter button
The main purpose of having focus peaking was to "approximate" the zone or area in focus. I set the focusing to the desired magnification power (1:2 which is half of the maximum magnification of the macro lens) and I rocked myself back and forth, judging from my view through the viewfinder or camera LCD backscreen, to see appeared in focus (shown in patched and blotches of white, or black if you set the peaking option to your preference). However, as I half-pressed the shutter button, the focus peaking was gone! If you are shooting at programme mode or aperture priority, you do need to lock the focus, and as you do so with the half-press of shutter button, you lose the ability to use focus peaking. Yes, you can quickly press down the shutter button if you do everything manual but as I have mentioned, even the slight movement can throw the entire subject out of focus. I believe it is crucial to have the focus peaking active at all times, until the image is captured. 

3) Focus peaking does not work hand in hand with live preview of Image Stabilization
One of the biggest joys using the incredible 5-Axis Image Stabilization initially introduced in OM-D E-M5, and now available proudly in E-P5, is being able to have live image stabilization shown on live view display, while shooting. This live preview of Image Stabilization only happens as you half-press the shutter button, and you will see that the 5-Axis IS tries its very best to steady the frame from jumping around too much, and creating smoother, steadier display through both the VF-4 exlectronic viewfinder and the camera LCD backscreen. This actually made shooting macro a lot easier, and fun! However, as mentioned in point 2), at the press of shutter button, the focus peaking is gone! You get the 5-Axis IS working but no focus peaking. Why can't we get BOTH previews, focus peaking AND the live 5-Axis together? With reduced lag (discussed in point 1), having both focus peaking and live preview of the 5-Axis IS will surely be a hand-held macro shooting dream come true. 

4) Focus Peaking does not work with insufficient contrast
Looking at Image Sample 1, the spider was under the leaf, and the leaf was under a large tree. The heavy shade rendered the spider in mostly black shadow, and the focus peaking DID NOT WORK at all. This was the problem I have initially highlighted with the Sony's version of focus peaking (and much to my surprise I got attacked by DPReview forum members). Sadly, this problem happens to Olympus' own version too. 

I treasure the use of live Image Stabilization preview, it was so amazing that the experience of seeing smooth, steadied, non-jumpy display, while shooting at high magnification ratio, was such a joy, in comparison to older, non stabilized view of my DSLR Olympus E-5. This has allowed me more flexibility when I wanted to pin-point the exact focus area/zone of the subject. While I have the IS preview, I did not have the focus peaking to help me! I decided to just turn the focus peaking OFF in the end. I much prefer smoother, lag-free view, and steadied by Image Stabilization-live preview. 

The good news?

Oh that AWESOME VF-4 electronic viewfinder. I can judge my focus zone very accurately with the higher resolution LCD display inside the VF-4. It was as good as using optical viewfinder now, or possibly even better. With "live boost" turned on, even the darker areas under shadow, can be "boosted" to brighter and focus judging through the electronic viewfinder got even better with the brighter display. This surely was a huge improvement from the older OM-D's built in EVF. Even without the help of focus peaking or "zoom in magnification 7x or 14x, I can nail my focus rather confidently with just looking at normal display of the VF-4. 

Old methods worked best. Now that the VF-4 is so awesome, it was even better. 

I am not a fan of using the 7x or 14x zoom in magnification focusing aid thingy, unless, I have a tripod to work with, or I have no other choice (when I was using the E-PL1 of course). For my shooting  by handheld insect macro, the magnification preview thing is quite impractical, and at 7x magnification live view, everything which was already VERY jumpy and shaky, became 7 time over even more shaky and jumpy!

If you own a PEN and wonder if that VF-4 will make any difference, I am here to tell you it is WORTH getting, and it trumps the VF-2 hands down. If you want to get an E-P5, please consider the bundle with the VF-4. It makes a whole world of difference. 

Another good news?

That 5-Axis Image Stabilization. If you have read my blog entry here (click) on how I execute my shots, you will know that ALL my images were shot hand-held, single handedly. My left hand was holding the external flash FL-50R, and my right hand was holding the E-P5 with the 60mm macro lens mounted. Using the camera with lens, single handedly, and slowing down the shutter speed to even at 1/30sec, I still get blur-free, tack-sharp images. Evidently, this was something that the 5-Axis Image Stabilization did so efficiently well. This 5-Axis Image Stabilization could be Olympus' greatest innovation up to date.

If you think that Image Stabilization does not make any difference and is not an important feature, obviously you have not tried the OM-D E-M5. If you have, you will know just how much it can help improve your shots, and this same capability is now also available in that E-P5.

Image Sample 4
1/125sec, F5, ISO200 Wireless flash

100% crop from Image Sample 4. Amazing how even at top right corner of the frame, the image still remains amazingly detailed and sharp. Surely one of the many advantages of using micro 4/3 system over other systems. Uniform sharpness across the frame, from edge to edge. 

1/60sec, F4, ISO320, Wireless Flash

1/40sec, F4, ISO200, No flash

1/60sec, F4.5, ISO800 No Flash

1/160sec, F14, ISO200

1/160sec, F14, ISO200

Speaking of using the camera and lens mounted single-handedly, somehow the handling of the E-P5 was surprisingly good. It is not better than the OM-D E-M5 (which can be further improved with addition of landscape or vertical portrait grip), but I was quite comfortable using the E-P5 shooting for 3 hours non-stop. I did not feel any strain on my wrist and the camera did a good job balancing the 60mm F2.8 macro lens. 

Yes I have been complaining about the not-quite-perfect implementation of focus peaking, which was not very helpful for my macro shooting this session. 

However, I still think that the focus peaking is useful for general manual focusing works. I can see how it can help achieve manual focusing faster, especially when shooting in street. I shall use the CCTV lens 25mm F1.2, with focus peaking on to see just how well it works. I also acknowledge that NOT everyone is into insect macro that requires extreme magnification shooting. Thus, for general manual focusing works, perhaps the focus peaking in E-P5 may just be good enough. We shall find out in my coming shutter therapy session with the E-P5. 

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  1. The photos are insanely good... Enjoyed it.

  2. nice review Robin, too bad about the focus peaking. nice crisp and sharp images ! did you already bought the EP-5 ? no EP-5 release here yet. have a nice weekend Robin . looking forward to your CCTV test. cheers !

    1. Thanks for the kind words. The E-P5 is a loaned unit from Olympus Malaysia.

  3. Macro is not my favourite photo style, but those are very nice macro photo. Do you think the color rendered differently compare to OMD? Or just my eye?

    1. Kelvin, I find the color rendering to be very similar to OMD

  4. Very nice and helpful review Robin.

    I think for studio work with controlled lighting (off-camera, but non-TTL) I would still prefer an OM-D E-M5 because of the built-in viewfinder. I need a radio remote in the hot shoe, so with a Pen that means no VF at all. Or you have to trigger your external studio strobes optically, which I usually don't like that much.

    But on the streets or elsewhere, the fact that these external viewfinders all tilt upwards up to 90 degrees is very useful, and it can give you an easy and comfortable different perspective. So the best would be a combo of both the E-M5 *and* an E-P5 with that VF-4.

    Very nice and helpful test, with the usual brilliant photos as always. Thanks man!

    And cheers,

    1. Hey Wolfgang
      Thanks for the kind words. I agree with the tilted viewfinder it is very useful on the street!
      I guess for your studio works, I am sure whatever newer OMD that is coming soon will offer you the best of both worlds!! New built in viewfinder and ability to adapt your studio flash trigger.

  5. Hi Robin! I can't wait to read the rest of your reports. As you know, I like macro and closeup too and was hoping the EP5 would implement focus peaking that would be a generation better than the sony (in addition to OMD I am shooting a NEX6). I look forward to reading how peaking works for you on the street.

    Since this is the first implementation by Oly for peaking, here's hoping the larger viewfinder and even better peaking will be introduced on the new OMD.

    Peter F.

    1. Thanks Peter!
      Indeed, hoping for the better implementation of focus peaking in the next OM-D!

  6. Thanks, wonderful interview I have been using the 75mm f/1.8 for some "close-up" photography - not macro, but close-ups of flowers, etc. Definitely have to use manual focus as you mentioned and it's very difficult (but doable) on the E-PL5. Look forward to trying it out on E-P5.

    1. Hello michael,
      75mm F1.8 is surely not the best lens for macro or close up photography. The minimal focusing distance is also not that great. Nonetheless it is very sharp and if you do crop a little I think you still get very good image.

  7. Help!!! I'm upside down! Love that jumping spider - very funny. Love that 60mm - that lens is intense.

  8. Thank u Robin for putting so much energy in to the EP-5 review.:):)

  9. hi,

    awesome images as usual.

    i currently have the zd 50mm f2.
    are the bokeh n telephoto compression effect significantly better on the zm 60mm f2.8 ?

    1. xmen,
      Thanks for the kind compliments. The compression effect is surely better on 60mm since it is longer than 50mm.
      However, I personally prefer the bokeh at F2 on 50mm as opposed to F2.8 on 60mm.

  10. Informative info Robin... question about your shoebox method... do you use manual or TTL? I am not sure if TTL properly exposes if bounced. Right now I just have manual 3rd party flash and a FL36 but not wireless. Wondering if I should invest in a wireless TTL model of flash for my OM-D.
    And second, do you think one of those small softbox attachments that strap directly yo the flash will work too?

    1. Hello Dwight,
      There are numerous ways to do macro, and I am still on the experimentation path. My technique still requires lots of refinement, thus it should not be used as the best example.
      Using a softbox may be impractical, because it is huge, and when you hover that thing around the insects, they would be easily scared.
      I use Wireless TTL. As I have pointed out in my previous blog entries on this subject, it is all about adjusting and fine-tuning the flash as necessary, on the spot, which differs from situation to situation. If the first shot was underexposed, I then bump up the TTL exposure compensation to +0.3EV, or +0.7EV, depending on how much underexposed the shot was. Similarly if the shot was too bright, I would tone down the flash intensity via the TTL. If you find that manual control would allow you better control, go ahead, I believe it is better if you have full control of the flash. The reason why I use TTL is to eliminate that one variable in my many equations: I do manual focus, manual exposure, and holding two things at once (camera and flash). There is only so much a man can multitask, hence the TTL helps.

    2. Thank You...guess I need put a TTL wireless on my budget....have to take too many practice shots with manual flash and insects move so much need to quicken my process....

    3. No worries, the key is to keep trying and experimenting, you will find what works best for yourself. That is the fun of macro photography, so many different approaches and techniques to get the best shot!

  11. Robin,

    AS usual, your method of review is exactly spot on for someone like me who cares to hear as much about the experience as the gear. I bought the E-P3 after reading your review. It is still, in my opinion, a remarkable camera, and use many of lenses you feature in your reviews...The E-P5 is tempting, but I am going to stay with what I now know and love.

    Thank you,

    1. Hello Tim,
      I agree with you that the EP3 is still a wonderful camera! No worries and I am sure the investment is wiser placed on better lenses!

  12. Having the 60mm myself, I'm impressed that you get ANYTHING in focus at f/2.8! With so little depth of field I never seem to get the focus spot on when I shoot macro, and even if I do, all the stuff that is not in focus dominates. I usually stop down to f/8 or more to get some depth of field.

    1. hello Rasmus
      I did not find any issues for my macro shots mainly because I use very small aperture, which in some shots I stopped down to F14 out of necessity.
      Also for such large magnification shots I used manual focus! I think the only shot I used AF was the first one and probably one of the few butterflies that was large enough.

  13. enjoy with ur pic..remember back when i shoot with u at d park during macro session..really miss to shoot with u..anyway nice pic..dunno when i get d time to shoot with u..maybe after hari raya..see u soon robin..

    1. Thanks for the kind words Nick Hadi! No worries I am sure we can find time to shoot.

  14. Another triumph, Robin. Some spectacular shots there. Also, again very enjoyable, objective, honest and instructional report. Too bad about the focus peaking, but that's asking -at these magnifications- too much processing power of the processor to keep the refresh rate up sufficiently. No doubt the next generation will be better - change is the only constant in the Universe! And technological development is going extremely fast these days.

    All in all very impressive. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Andre for the kind words.
      Do not worry, surely the focus peaking will be improved. Yes, technological development is going too fast!

  15. wow amazing picture, nice macro photography
    first time visitor to your blog I am very impressed.
    thank you :)

  16. Hi Robin, like your presentations and reviews style. Need your expertise on the oly ep5. I just bought one silver with 17mm 1.8 f and vf4 viewfinder. Love her BUT , an issue with a whirring sound when I half press to focus

  17. Cont.. Question is : is this normal for oly ep5 when focussing to make whirring sound? Can it be rectify or I've got a faulty unit and should I exchange for another? Close to ear - it's audible. Try it out! Please advice!

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  19. Hi Robin, just a question please.
    I still use my EP5 and also find the Focus peaking limitations also annoying. Especially #2: "Focus Peaking deactivated at the half-press of shutter button"
    I'm thinking about upgrading to EM1.2, but before I pull the trigger, can you tell me if those annoying things are still present with EM1.2 or if they somehow improved the implementation of focus peaking?
    Thank you