The Olympus OM-D E-M5 takes its design cues from Olympus’ much-loved 35mm OM SLR range and is the first of a new line of Micro Four Thirds OM-D series cameras. Find out if the E-M5 is a natural successor to this line of classic cameras in the What Digital Camera Olympus OM-D E-M5 review.
With the PEN range of Compact System Cameras, Olympus looked to its rich heritage for inspiration, and they’ve done the same with their new OM-D line, of which the E-M5 is the first model.
The original OM series is fondly remembered amongst photo-enthusiasts who loved these, small, high-quality and well-featured 35mm SLRs. The new E-M5 takes its design cues from classic OM series SLRs of old, and while it may be quite a different beast underneath from its film camera siblings, the philosophy remains the same – to be a compact, high-performance, quality camera for enthusiast photographers.
Is the OM-D E-M5 a natural successor to this classic line of cameras? Let’s find out in the What Digital Camera Olympus OM-D E-M5 review.
Olympus OM-D Review – Features
While the design may reference film SLRs, the OM-D E-M5 is actually based around the mirrorless Micro Four Thirds system, just like the still-current Olympus PEN series. But the OM-D E-M5 is more than just a restyled PEN with an electronic viewfinder.
Rather than sticking with the 12MP resolution of the current PEN range, the new E-M5 sports a new 16.1MP sensor – the highest resolution of any Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera or DSLR to date. On top of that, the ISO range is also very impressive, running from 200-25600 – the highest seen on a MFT camera, though a baseline ISO of 100 would have been nice to see and would probably be more versatile for most shooting situations.
With the mirror removed, this means there’s no optical viewfinder. Instead, there’s a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) with a coverage of 100% and a resolution of 1.44m-dots – similar in spec to the optional VF2 viewfinder for the PEN range. While the resolution is strong, its not quite a match for the EVF found on some rivals such as the Sony NEX-7, which features a resolution of 2.4m-dots. As well as the EVF, there’s also a 3in wide, 610k-dot tiltable OLED touch panel screen at the rear of the OM-D E-M5. OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode technology, delivering better white and blacks and also consumes less power as well.
Olympus has also developed a new built-in anti-shake system for the OM-D E-M5. This 5-axis image stabilisation is designed to counter for pitch, yaw, vertical and horizontal motion. On top of this, it can also compensate for rolling movements as well, which can occur when the shutter button is pressed.
The OM-D E-M5, like all Compact System Cameras, uses a contrast-detect AF system, rather than the more traditional phase-detect system in a DSLR. Olympus has improved the FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF system first seen in the Olympus PEN E-P3. While there’s been an overall improvement in AF speed acquisition, the most notable changes are when it comes to continuous AF and tracking. In conjunction with the new 16MP chip, the OM-D E-M5 has a refresh rate of 240fps that results in a 2x speed increase in continuous AF over the PEN E-P3. There’s also a new 3D tracking AF system that follows the subject through the X, Y, and Z axes to improve focus on moving subjects.
The burst mode is also impressive, with the OM-D E-M5 capable of shooting up to 9fps (frames per second) in Speed H mode, though if you want to shoot with continuous AF, Speed L is required, with the frame rate dropping to a still respectable 4.2fps (3.5fps with IS switched off).
The body itself doesn’t feature a built-in flash, but the OM-D E-M5 is bundled with the FL-LM2 flash that attaches to the hotshoe of the camera. A nice addition is the inclusion of remote flash control, so you can trigger flashguns positioned off-camera for more creative lighting.
The range of Art Filters on offer has also grown – there’s now twelve filters on offer, with a new Key Line filter that enhances the edge lines of the image, while Cross Process II and Dramatic Tone II offer new variations on popular filters. If you’re undecided which filter to apply, you can now bracket your filters – fire the shutter once and a series of shots will be recorded, each one with a different filter applied.
Along with the OM-D E-M5, there’s also the new 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens that’s bundled with the camera. This offers a 35mm focal length equivalent of 24-100mm, and rather than your traditional manual twist zoom, this new lens sports an electronic zoom mechanism for a smooth transition through the lens range, making it suited to video recording.
Sticking with the MFT system does mean that the OM-D has access to a pretty impressive lens range, with optics available not only from Olympus, but also Panasonic and now Sigma as well. This makes it easily the largest lens range out of all the Compact System Cameras on the market. Not only that, but for potential buyers who already have a set of OM lenses and haven’t been tempted by the PEN range, there’s the MF-2 lens adapter to connect OM lens to Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Olympus OM-D Review – Design
Thanks in part to the Micro Four Thirds system that the OM-D E-M5 is based on, its a very compact piece of kit. Measuring just 121(W) x 89.6 (H) x 41.9mm (D), its small without being fiddly – in the hand, there’s a comfy grip and the thumb rest is well positioned.
The styling is a success – the retro look is bound to get many admiring glances, and as well as being available in black, is also available in two-tone silver and black finish which would have to be our choice. Especially if you’re going to pair it with Olympus’ growing range of high-quality prime lens also finished in silver. We were fortunate to have both examples to test, and not only does the silver/black model look better, but the grip, with its more textured retro finish is more comfortable than the black model’s more modern offering.
To back-up this styling is a very impressive build-quality. The body is constructed from magnesium alloy to provide a quality, high-end feel when you pick the camera up, while the OM-D E-M5 features a host of internal seals so make it plash and dust proof. This level of sealing also extends to the 12-50mm lens, so you’ve got a pretty tough package when it’s exposed to the elements.
Body mounted controls are kept to a minimum on the OM-D E-M5. On the top-plate, there’s a mode dial position to one side of the viewfinder, where you’ll be able to access the camera’s shooting modes, including video. On the other side are the main command dial and sub-command dial with the shutter button placed in the middle. The main command dial is used for a range of applications, including setting aperture or shutter speed, as well and zooming in and out when reviewing your images, and is easily reached with the thumb. When shooting, the sub-command dial is used for dialling in exposure compensation if needed. If you prefer, these two controls can be swapped over in the menu if you naturally use your index finger to set aperture/shutter speed. There’s also a programmable function button and record button.
Moving round to the back and the 3in screen is hinged at the base of the camera and pulls outwards, making it suitable for waist-level shooting and raised shots, though it doesn’t quite have the same freedom of movement as some screens that are hinged on the side of the camera body.
There’s also the optional HLD-6 if you want a larger handgrip. This screws into the tripod socket on the camera and features an additional shutter button and sub-command dial that’s linked to the OM-D E-M5 via contacts at the base. This does provide a more substantial grip in you’ve got large hands, while the second part of the HLD-6 is an attachable battery grip which attaches to the handgrip via the tripod thread. This provides secondary controls that when shooting in portrait format, mirror the controls when shooting landscape format images.
Olympus OM-D Review – Performance
In Single AF, the OM-D E-M5 is fast and accurate at acquiring focus – we only experienced hunting in very low-contrast scenes.
The OM-D E-M5 offers a broad 35-area selectable AF coverage, though this does not stretch all the way to the edge of the frame. The desired AF area is selected via the 4-way button layout on the rear of the camera, though thanks to the touchscreen technology on offer, it’s also possible to tap the area of the frame on the rear screen where you want to focus. There’s also a touch shutter release as well, so you can focus and fire the shutter just by touching an area on the rear screen, though if this doesn’t appeal, its possible to deactivate both these settings.
If you’re going to be taking a lot of portraits, then the Face Priority feature will come in handy, with four options on offer: On, Face & Eye Priority, Face & Right Eye Priority and finally Face & Left Eye Priority. So depending which way your subject is angled towards you, focus priority can be given to the eye closest to you.
Switch to Continuous AF, and compared to the E-P3, there’s a noticeable jump in performance – the AF reacts quicker to changes in the scene, while the subject tracking is much more successful than on the E-P3 and it has to be one of, if not the best AF system in a Compact System Camera.
Raise the camera up to your eye and the feed automatically swaps from the rear screen to the electronic viewfinder (EVF) – while there’s only a minimal delay while it does this – a refreshing change compared to a lot of EVFs where there’s a noticeable delay. As well as this, the display feels far from tunnel like, offering a large display when raised to the eye, while there’s a dioptre adjustment positioned just to the left of the EVF.
While most people would have had a preference for an optical viewfinder over an EVF, this is just not possible with the removal of the mirror. Its absence also means that the OM-D E-M5 has been kept relatively compact, especially when compared to traditional DSLRs, so it does have it’s benefits. In use, and the EVF is one of the best examples about, though it can’t quite match the clarity of the EVF found in the Sony NEX-7.
The OLED screen at the rear is lovely – bright and crisp, with rich blacks and whites. The touchscreen is responsive, and while one of the best seen on a camera to date, still doesn’t provide the same level of control as many smart phone devices.
The menu and interface isn’t a million miles away from the one found on the E-P3. While the exterior controls are kept to a minimum, the two function buttons can be set-up for frequently used controls, such as ISO, AF area selection and White Balance. To get to the rest of the main setting, simply hit OK and then toggle through the array of settings displayed – most are covered here, so you shouldn’t have to dip into the main menu that much.
The image stabilisation system in the OM-D E-M5 has three modes – Auto, vertical IS or horizontal IS. In Auto mode and even shooting as slow as 1/2.5th sec handheld, the OM-D’s IS system delivered sharp shots, allowing you to shoot with confidence in low-light conditions.
At 9fps, the OM-D E-M5 is capable of capturing 15 Raw files in succession before the buffer slows, while it’s a similar story for JPEG files, again shooting a maximum of 15 files before the buffer slows. Switch to Speed L and at 4.2fps, the OM-D is capable of 25 JPEG frames and 20 Raw frames. This all compares well with the competition, making it one of the fastest CSCs out there.
Olympus OM-D Review – Image Quality
Tone and Exposure
The OM-D E-M5 uses a 324 zone Multi-pattern Sensing System, so similar to the one found in the E-P3. There’s a choice of either Multi-zone (ESP), Centre-Weighted, Spot, Spot Highlight and Spot Shadow. It’s a system that works well – exposure is accurate, though in some circumstances could be seen to underexpose ever-so slightly, though this does mean highlight detail is maintained.
White Balance and Colour
Set in Auto White Balance and the OM-D E-M5 performs well, though not as neutral as some may like with a slightly warm cast. As well as Auto White Balance, the OM-D features a range of other presets: tungsten, fluorescent 1, sunlight, flash, overcast, shade and underwater.
There’s a host of Art filters as well, and a selection of colour modes: i-Enhance, Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait and Monotone. The Art modes can be really fun – we especially like the Grainy Film and Dramatic Tone modes, while shooting in Raw/JPEG means you’ve always got an unaltered original that you can always return to should you not be happy with the filtered result.
Sharpness and Detail
The 16MP chip in the OM-D E-M5 eclipses the 12MP sensor used by the E-P3 and other cameras in the PEN range. At this resolution, the OM-D E-M5 is capable of producing an A3 print at 240ppi without an interpolation.
Pair the OM-D E-M5 with one of Olympus’ high-quality primes and the level of detail is excellent – definitely the best we’ve seen from an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera and possibly the best from any camera with a sensor this size. As you might expect, the 12-50mm bundled kit lens doesn’t deliver quite the same kind of detail, but is fine for general shooting.
The OM-D E-M5 is packaged up with Olympus Viewer 2, allowing you to edit and adjust the Raw files. It’s not a bad piece of software and will allow you to make quite a few changes and adjustments to the image, though Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 4 is bound to offer updates to support the Raw files from the OM-D E-M5 soon.
Comparing the JPEG and unedited Raw file side-by-side and there’s very little to choose between the two at low ISOs – the JPEG files may be a touch warmer, but that’s about it. Image noise control becomes more noticeable in JPEG files as the sensitivity increases – the Raw file maintains detail better, but image noise is more pronounced.
While it’s a shame to see no ISO 100 on offer, the OM-D E-M5 performs very well at the lower end of the ISO range, delivering clean and detailed images. Increasing the resolution over the E-P3 could lead some to assume that with more photosites taking up the same sensor area, image noise could be more pronounced, but the OM-D performs very well. At ISO 800, image noise is only just becoming noticeable, but is still very well controlled and images still maintain a good level of detail. Up to ISO 6400, and while image noise is beginning to encroach on the image more, it’s still relatively subtle and not that distracting. At ISO 12,800 and 25,600, image noise is more apparent, but it still looks pretty good considering the sensitivity, with colour noise is kept very well under control to produce a more natural result. Very impressive considering the sensor size and rates very highly against the competition.
The OM-D E-M5 offers the choice of either shooting in AVCHD or M-JPEG. Recording in AVCHD will deliver good quality 1080i MTS files – the recording is compressed to keep file sizes down, though to convert them to a more useable MOV files, you’ll need to process your footage in either Windows Movie Maker, iMovie or similar. Shooting in M-JPEG will deliver a resolution at 1280 x 720 and are outputted as AVIs – these can be used without processing, but the quality isn’t as good and file sizes are larger.
Video quality is very good, and a stereo microphone is built-in, though those wanting to attach an external microphone will have to connect via the mini USB socket on the side of the camera, or with the additional SEMA-1 microphone adapter set that connects to the accessory port just behind the hotshoe.
Olympus OM-D Review – Value & Verdict
This is a high-end Compact System Camera, and the price reflects that. While the body only price of £999 means it’s a serious investment, there’s plenty here for your money. When compared to the combined price of around £825 for the E-P3 and VF2 viewfinder, then the extra outlay is very tempting when you consider the many improvements on offer over the PEN.
This price-point means it’s going to be compared with the virtually identically priced Sony NEX-7 – both are premium CSCs with EVFs and a host of advanced features. And while it may not offer the ultimate resolution of the NEX-7, there’s plenty of this that the OM-D does better, which is backed-up by an excellent selection of lenses.
Olympus OM-D review – Verdict
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a very impressive camera. The retro styling is very much a success, especially if you opt for the two-tone silver/black finish, while the materials and weather sealing deliver an excellent, high-end feel.
There’s plenty of features on offer to satisfy even the most experienced photographer, which is backed-up by a very decent performance. The AF is a noticeable improvement over the PEN series, while the new image stabilisation system works a treat.
This would all be a waste if it didn’t deliver the goods when it came to images, but the OM-D E-M5, with its new sensor, doesn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of detail on offer – especially if you opt for Olympus’ growing number of prime lenses that we’ve already mentioned, while the ISO performance is strong.
The OM-D E-M5 stays true to the original OM philosophy of a compact, high-performance, quality camera for enthusiast photographers and has to be one of the best Compact System Cameras we’ve seen.