The Olympus E-M5 is the first of Olympus's brand new Micro Four Thirds OM-D line. Can the latest digital model bring as much excitement as the first OM-1 film camera did? What Digital Camera's Olympus OM-D E-M5 Hands-On First Look Review...

The Olympus OM-D is the latest re-imagining of a classic camera in digital form. The first release in the series, anticipated this April, will be the OM-D E-M5, a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera that will co-exist alongside the Olympus PEN range.

OM-D E-M5: At A Glance

–   16-megapixel (Micro Four Thirds) Live MOS sensor
–   TruePic VI processing engine
–   ISO 200-25,600
–   5-axis image stabilisation system
–   World’s fastest autofocus system
–   9fps burst mode (4.2fps with C-AF)
–   1.44m-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF)
–   610k-dot, tilt-angle OLED screen
–   Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body
–   Detachable flash unit included

Olympus OM-D: It’s Micro Four Thirds

Fans of the original OM series may be surprised that the latest digital incarnation uses the same Micro Four Thirds sensor size as found in the PEN E-P-series, not a larger sensor that would mimic the original film camera’s 35mm film frame size. The OM-D’s biggest difference, however, is in the resolution: the 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor is the highest resolution that Olympus has ever used in any of its interchangeable lens cameras, seeing an end to its ’12-megapixel threshold’.

WDC did not have permission to reproduce images from the pre-production version of the E-M5 that we saw, but anticipate that quality will be very similar (if not the same) as the Panasonic Lumix G3 or GX1. The E-M5’s ISO range will start at ISO 200 and extend right through to ISO 25,600 – still no ISO 100 setting to be found here.

The obvious benefit in maintaining sensor size in line with the existing Olympus standard is with regard to lenses (and, one would presume, cost). The stack of lenses available for Micro Four Thirds cameras is far greater than any other Compact System Camera (CSC) on the market. The OM-D will not only feature a new 12-50mm f/3.5-5.6 dust and splash-proof kit lens, but seems to be the catalyst for Olympus to start launching higher-spec lenses. A new 75mm f/1.8 portrait lens and 60mm f/2.8 macro will also arrive later in 2012.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Fast Autofocus

Whether disappointed or not about the sensor size, there’s no doubt that the E-M5 brings some rather exciting features to the fold.

The first such feature is the sensor’s super-fast 240fps refresh rate. This benefits not only the autofocus system – which Olympus claims is the world’s fastest – but also the continuous autofocus ability. When the Olympus PEN E-P3 was released in 2011 the autofocus may have been fast, but the Subject Tracking and C-AF modes weren’t up to scratch – something the OM-D E-M5 looks set to improve upon.

The camera’s burst mode is also capable of an impressive nine frames per second (9fps), which is held at an impressive 4.2fps while continuous autofocus is activated.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Viewfinder and Rear Screen

Unlike any of the PEN models, the OM-D series will also incorporate a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). The E-M5 features a 1.44m-dot version, much the same as the VF2 accessory viewfinder available for the PEN series, albeit with optimised optics for a bright and clear image and an optional large eyecup for extra comfort. The viewfinder, like the original OM model, is positioned to the centre of the body. It’s about time Olympus produced a model with a built-in EVF, though the resolution will seem dated upon launch, particularly in comparison to the Sony NEX-7’s 2.35m-dot OLED EVF.

On the rear of the E-M5 there’s also a 3in, 610k-dot, tilt-angle OLED screen, the same size and resolution as found on the Olympus PEN E-P3. Clarity, colour and fluid movement are a given, our only criticism is that the screen isn’t attached via a side-mounted, vari-angle bracket as per the likes of the Canon EOS 600D.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Retro design

The first digital PEN was testament to Olympus’s design ethos, something that’s been kept to a high standard for the first OM-D release.

The E-M5 has many of the original OM-1’s features such as a dual dial system next to the shutter on top of the camera. Each dial protrudes from the camera – one to the front and the other, larger dial, to the rear – to make for easy use in the hand.

But it’s not all retro. The E-M5’s magnesium alloy body feels solid and well built, plus the dust- and splash-proof design gives the model a premium edge.

Olympus has excluded a built-in flash, instead opting for a hotshoe-mounted model that’s included in the box. There’s also a new and more powerful FL-600 clip-on flash (sold separately) with a Guide Number of 50 (at ISO 200). 

An HLD-6 Power Battery Holder that’s dust- and splash-proof will also be available. If you pre-order the E-M5 prior to its release date then this accessory will be included free of charge (in the UK) – a nice pat on the back for investing in the system.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Revolutionary 5-Axis Stabilisation System

One other Olympus-only and exciting feature is the new 5-axis image stabilisation system. This sensor-based system can counter for pitch, yaw, vertical & horizontal motion, plus rolling movements. Olympus’s analysis of image blur concluded that subtle motions from pressing the shutter button can add a rotational-type of blur that no system was able to counteract with total accuracy. That’s where the latest 5-axis system comes into play. It sounds impressive, and is effectively three-dimensional in its movement. 

Olympus OM-D E-M5: In Conclusion

From what we’ve seen the E-M5 looks like it should be a great Micro Four Thirds camera. It’s an oddity that the secondary ‘E-M’ name convention has been added, however, as we’d much rather the camera was brandish as the ‘OM-D1′ or another similar title.

Sticking with the Micro Four Thirds standard is a great way to not alienate an existing customer base, and that’s something Olympus will be acutely aware of, not least due to recent headlines of fraud scandal that has set shares on a rollercoaster ride in recent months.

But for those hoping for a larger-sensor or even more DSLR-like system, it seems that the Olympus MFT bubble is one that’s set to hold strong. The 2x crop factor is here to stay and, on the upside, there are plenty of lenses to choose from.

Otherwise the design, introduction of new lenses and overall feature set all point to the E-M5 being a top choice. Here’s hoping that the price will be held to an affordable level which, at the time of writing, isn’t something Olympus has been able to comment on. WDC‘s guess? Close to or just above £1000 for the 12-50mm kit option is realistic. It’s not cheap, and has a lot to live up to considering the likes of the Fujifilm X-Pro1 is imminent, but the OM-D looks like a mighty fine camera.