“The best camera is always the one that’s with you.”

An adage for an Instagram generation, where we photograph everything and anything and make our daily lives the subject in our work. It’s a style that was born directly out of smartphone photography – the shots people took when they left the heavy weight of their DSLR and associated lenses at home. And as smartphones improve, it seems increasingly tempting to forgoe a “real camera” altogether.

It’s something I often consider when leaving the house. I look at my  heavy old DSLR, considering it’s bulk and weight against the potential images I might happen to snap. A rainbow en route to the supermarket, a chance deer signing on the way to collecting Orla from school. If I’m honest, it rarely seems worth it any more. In fact, my DSLR has started to gather dust.

But what if there was something in between? Famed for its beautiful vintage styling and Insta-friendly features, the Olympus PEN is lightweight enough to be thrown in a handbag, but all the power and functionality of it’s heavier camera counterparts. It’s been on my radar for years, of course, but I never got around to testing one before now.

Olympus challenged me to put their latest offering, the PEN E-PL10 to the test, so I thought I’d compare it with my other ‘always handy’ camera, the iPhone XS.

Scroll down to see the results, and my eventual verdict on this battle of the cams.

The Challenge

For a week, every time I picked up my phone to take a picture, I used the Olympus PEN E-PL10 too. I gave each device the same amount of time to get the picture; these are quick snaps, and so both cameras needed to be able to capture the moment for me easily without too much tinkering.

All photos were edited in the VSCO app on my phone, which is my usual routine for all my photographs.

The Jackdaw

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens, Auto mode

iPhone XS, Portrait mode

I shall call him Jack and he shall be mine. I thought I saw a dead blackbird on the side of the road and doubled back to get a photo, because you all know how I love a beautiful dead bird photo. Sadly (or happily, really), it turned out to actually be a discarded glove, but on my way back from this disappointing misadventure I bumped into this guy – the tamest Jackdaw I’ve ever met.

I used the iPhone on portrait mode, and it coped admirably. In fact when I first saw the picture, I thought there’d be nothing between the Olympus image and the iPhone one. But – well, take a look.

The colour and definition in his feathers in the PEN shot feel so real that I want to reach out and stroke him. Also, note how the iridescent petrol blue colour of his plumage is lost in the iPhone version, but captured gorgeously by the PEN.
Way nicer than a soggy pavement glove.

The Last Flower

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens, Aperture Priority mode

iPhone XS

The last flower in all of the village, as autumn starts to drift into winter. Orla ‘accidentally’ picked it, so I took a picture to preserve it for internet posterity.

flower - photo olympus PEN and iPhone comparison

I actually have some affection for the lo-fi feel of the iPhone shot here – there’s definitely a time and place for this kind of finish. But the PEN brings undeniable beauty to this casual snap, transforming the black asphalt road in the background into a dreamy deep blue haze. The sharpness on the petals and stamen, especially considering how much the little thing was blowing in the wind, is something special, too.

(Luckily Orla managed to pull the flower up with roots intact, so after this picture we tucked it’s feet neatly back into the earth and snuggled it with dry leaves.)

Rainbow Glasses

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens (kit lens), Manual mode

iPhone XS

I came downstairs on Sunday morning to find my husband looking tense, and Orla’s latest invention – gel crayons plus water equals rainbow!

Our home is glorious in sunlight but the days have been dreary and grey in Yorkshire these last few weeks, so I was interested to see how the cameras both faired with this splash of colour in the gloom.

Yikes. This is enough to make me question every iPhone photo I ever took, in all honesty. Look at the difference in sharpness on the lines of the glasses; the depth of colour and shadow. Even the dark areas have a richness and warmth in the Olympus image that can’t be matched by the phone.

I think this one was especially striking to me because it reflects the conditions and subjects so many of us photograph: products or possessions indoors, often in less than ideal light. For the same amount of time and effort, the results couldn’t be further apart.

A Window full of Lanterns

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens, Manual mode

iPhone XS

A shop in nearby Hebden Bridge devoted to selling Moroccan (or perhaps Morrocan-esque?) lanterns, I waited until the sun was nearly down to get the glow of the window on the wet pavement outside.

I feel like the difference here is more subtle, but pick any lantern and compare it between the two shots and that difference in colour, tone and clarity is stark again. Some of the highlights are a little overblown in the Olympus version, but my settings are to blame there – the street was busy and I had to rush to snap a picture between crowds of window shoppers.

Princess Dress

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens (kit lens), Manual mode

iPhone XS

Back inside, in the darkest room in my home, to compare performance at low light levels. You’ll notice the shoes and tiara move between pictures: the dog tried to get involved, so I had to recreate the look for the second shot 🙈.

This is another one with a more subtle distinction, but there are still some important differences that make me prefer the PEN shot. Look at the sparkle on the shoes – flat and grey in the iPhone, silver glitter with the PEN. The feathers and tulle layers have definition with the PEN, too, that the iPhone missed, and the warmth and softness the PEN adds to the wood makes this picture the difference between an iPhone shot I’d delete, and a camera photo I’d keep and probably use somewhere online.

Self Promo Shot

Olympus E-PL10, Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens, Auto mode

iPhone XS

It was another gloomy day when I came to shoot the free prompt cards I’ve made for 15 Minute Magic (get them here), so I had to drag my kitchen table over to the window to get some light.

I wanted the main focus of image to be the ‘15 Minute Magic‘ branding on the back of the card pile, with everything else out of focus and soft.

When showing these side by sides to my husband, he mentioned her preferred the iPhone shot here, because you could see more of the background cards. I could have done this easily enough with the PEN and a different lens, but I was aiming to direct the viewers eye to the wording on the card, as this was intended to be a promo shot for the freebie. It’s interesting to see the difference in size between the cards, too – on the iPhone, they look wider and bigger, while the PEN shows them true to size.

The Verdict

This is a sponsored post, but there was never any pressure for me to fall down on either side of this challenge in my verdict. Olympus were very open in their brief – they just wanted me to try it out, and may the best camera win. I think it’s fair to say that it happened here, with the PEN winning every round, albeit with some a little more close than others.

Where it really showed its value and distinction for me was in the details – sat side by side, everything shot on the iPhone looks dull, less defined and a little bit lifeless. Placing the images together like this really made me appreciate the tactile, human texture the PEN captures in every scene; that reach-out-and-touch quality that’s likely to be especially useful for product-based businesses, food bloggers and anyone trying to stop the scroll of an audience on Instagram. It’s enough to make me decide to stick soley to the PEN for all my day to day images in future – you’ll see me using it from now on for all of my out-and-about Instagram shots.

Of course, there is a small trade off in switching to a separate camera – mainly, having to charge it independently, and transfer the images via the app. But this whole exercise has been a timely reminder for me that sometimes convenience has to come at a cost.
Photography for me is about storytelling, about human communication. Like writing a poem in white ink on a yellow page, our message will always be most clearly received when we stick to the best tools for the job.

Get 20% off

The new Olympus PEN EPL-10 complete with pancake zoom (14-42mm F3.5-5.6) lens is available for £649 now direct from the Olympus web shop, here. Right now, to celebrate the launch, it also comes with the 45mm portrait lens included for free!

Use the code SARA20 to get 20% off, making it just £520 for everything in my kit!
Oh Santa, are you listening? 😉🎅🏻

What do you think of the side by sides? Are there any ‘tells’ that you spotted between how the two cameras compare?

{ This post was sponsored by Olympus, and I was provided with the PEN E-PL10 and 45mm 1.8 lens free of charge. All thoughts and viewpoints are entirely my own.}

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