Olympus OM-D E-M5 at a glance:
- Four thirds (17.3x13mm) sensor
- 16.1 million effective pixels with 4608×3456-pixel output
- Weather-resistant magnesium-alloy build
- 3in, 610,000-dot, tiltable LCD touchscreen
- 1.44-million-dot EVF
- Up to 9fps or 4.2fps with continuous AF
- Street price around £1,150 with 12-50mm kit lens
Since the introduction of the Olympus Pen E-P1 in June 2009, the compact system camera (CSC) has taken the world by storm. The compact-sized Pen E-P1 was a clear homage to the original Olympus Pen series – a half-frame camera that spanned more than two decades – but with the added benefit of digital imaging technology. The CSC has rapidly become one of the fastest growing areas in the camera market, although many of the more recent models have a much more contemporary style than Olympus’s original offering.
Now, with the OM-D E-M5, Olympus has once again tapped into the style of one of its past camera systems. As its name suggests, the OM-D E-M5 is heavily influenced by the styling of the company’s hugely popular OM range of 35mm film SLRs. However, whereas the digital Pen series emulates the half-frame format of its film predecessors through its (half-frame) four thirds format, the new OM-D E-M5 does not feature the 35mm full-frame format of the original OM cameras, instead making use of a four thirds sensor.
Olympus states that the E-M5 is the first of the new OM-D series. As with the Olympus Pen range, and indeed cameras like the X-Pro1 in Fujifilm’s X series, the reaction of press and consumers to the E-M5’s launch show there is much enthusiasm for the style and charm of film cameras with digital technology. By these standards, the E-M5 looks as though it might be a resounding success, as it is a beautiful-looking model.
However, a camera must be judged by its performance and not solely by its looks. After all, you can’t just look at it – you have to take pictures with it. The camera’s high build quality and specification mean that it sits at the top of Olympus’s micro four thirds range, which is a good start, but I am keen to see whether the E-M5 is capable of producing images to match the high quality of its construction.
The main appeal of the OM-D E-M5 is its stylish body, but there is much to talk about regarding what is going on inside the camera. Olympus has opted to use the existing four thirds-sized (17.3x13mm) sensor found in its digital Pen models and E-series DSLRs. Employing the existing micro four thirds-system lens mount means there is a wide choice of lenses already available for the E-M5.
Olympus also announced 75mm f/1.8 and 60mm f/2.8 macro optics at a similar time to the camera, bringing the total number of lenses in the Olympus range to 11. Add to this Panasonic micro four thirds lenses and third-party models, three Olympus lens converters, adapters for four thirds to micro four thirds and OM to micro four thirds, and the system is a large one.
There is a good debate to be had for four thirds versus larger formats such as APS-C or full frame, but for many photographers and situations the four thirds format is perfectly capable of producing excellent images. It also comes with several benefits over larger-format systems, namely a more compact size (especially when it comes to lenses) and a 2x focal-length magnification, which is great for users of telephoto lenses, as well as for increased depth of field when compared to a larger format.
Considering the 35mm styling of the E-M5, however, many would have loved to see it feature a full-frame sensor. Judging from past four thirds models, the sensor could be a sticking point for those desiring the utmost in image quality, low-light performance and control over depth of field. That said, image quality and performance improve with every generation and, as the latest model, the E-M5 may well do enough.
A major step forward is the camera’s 16.1-million-effective-pixel sensor, which is the highest resolution in any Olympus four thirds model and matches that of the flagship Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3. The 4608×3456-pixel output produces 15.3×11.5in prints at 300ppi, compared to the 13.6×10.2in prints of the previous 12-million-pixel (4032×3024-pixel) models, such as the Olympus Pen E-P3.
Unlike any other Olympus micro four thirds model, the E-M5 includes an electronic viewfinder. It has the same 1.44-million-dot resolution as the company’s VF-2 external viewfinder, which costs around £230 and is compatible with models such as the Olympus Pen E-P3.
The 3in, 610,000-dot LCD screen can be tilted for low- and high-angle landscape-format shooting, and features touch control. Touch shutter, metering and AF cover the large central portion of the frame, which is very useful for accurate focusing, exposure and quick control.
In what is a world first, Olympus claims its image stabilisation system works on a five-axis basis, which includes vertical and horizontal axes like many other systems, and a further three axes around rotational movement such as that caused by pressing the shutter release button. I have tested the effectiveness of this stabilisation, and my report can be found in the Build and handling section.
The drive mode includes a high 9fps burst for up to 11 frames, and a 4.2fps burst with continuous AF. The high-speed burst can be changed to lower rates, all the way down to 5fps, for a more extended burst. For example, a 22-frame capture is possible at 5fps.
The company also tells us that the E-M5’s AF system is the world’s fastest, with continuous AF employed so that the AF point is rarely far off before the shutter button is depressed. As in the current micro four thirds models, the E-M5 uses a 35-point AF system, which covers most of the frame.
In common with other Pen models, there are a number of art filters on offer, including dramatic tone, cross process, grainy film and a new key line for graphic-style effects. Added to the five colour modes, monotone and custom, this makes 18 colour modes.
There is the option to buy the camera with the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 ED kit lens, which has manual and electronic zoom, and macro settings.
The macro mode is set to a 43mm focal length and gives a close-focusing distance of approximately 6.5cm. There are a host of lenses in the system, and I also used the camera with the M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 (90mm equivalent) optic. For the test I had the HLD-6 grip and battery pack to use with the camera. For more information on these two items, see Features in use on page 46 .
HLD-6 grip and battery pack
During this test, I used the OM-D E-M5 with the HLD-6 grip and battery pack. The first thing to note is that the battery pack is attached through the grip and does not slot directly onto the camera.
The grip makes holding the camera with one hand much more comfortable, and duplicates the shutter release and exposure dial on the body of the E-M5 for an easy reach. With the grip in place, the battery pack can be attached.
Like other battery packs, the HLD-6 transforms the handling of the camera, providing a practical balance for portrait and landscape orientation.
The controls are mirrored in portrait format, with two exposure dials, a shutter release, two function buttons and a lock. Activating the lock prevents the accidental taking of pictures when using the camera in landscape format, which can occur because the palm of the hand naturally rests over the extra shutter release.
Furthermore, with a second battery inserted into the pack (the same BLN-1 type used in the camera, costing £59), the battery life is extended to a claimed 650 shots. Without the pack, the camera is capable of a relatively modest 330 shots.
Both grip and battery pack are weatherproofed and made to the same high standard as the body. I am not in the habit of recommending camera extras, but in this case I’ll make an exception.
Build and handling
For quite a few photographers, the body of the OM-D E-M5 will be enough to justify a purchase, without even considering its capabilities. Even those who don’t ordinarily use Olympus equipment may feel a little tempted. It is truly a well-crafted camera. As with the E-5 DSLR, Olympus claims that the magnesium-alloy body of the OM-D E-M5 is weatherproofed to withstand water splashes and dust. I was caught in a rain shower during a morning out with the camera, and the droplets pretty much ran off the body and sealed joints.
True to the styling of the Olympus OM film SLRs, the body of the E-M5 is small, with a defined and angular viewfinder box and textured front panels. I predict the black and silver version will be the most popular, although the all-black version still looks slick. Without the grip or battery pack, the camera measures 121×89.6×41.9mm. Placed next to an OM10 film SLR, the E-M5 is virtually identical in height and depth, but not as wide. With an OM lens attached to the camera via the micro four thirds to OM adapter, the feel and aesthetics of the OM series are even more apparent. Handily, OM lenses still benefit from aperture control.
One must rely on the well-defined thumb rest for a good grip when holding the camera with one hand. Brought to the eye and looking through the viewfinder, the E-M5 feels like a ‘proper’ camera. As with the OM film models, a handgrip is available separately for the E-M5. With the grip and battery pack in place, the handling of the camera is transformed, and I opted to keep them on for most of the test.
The LCD screen on the rear of the body gives away the fact that the E-M5 is a digital camera. Despite offering touch control, I mostly used the actual buttons to control the camera, which is a testament to the level of control on the body rather than a criticism of the screen, which is bright and clear. The on/off switch is true to the styling of the film OMs. Handily, there are twin dials for exposure adjustments.
I found myself visiting the viewfinder more than I referred to the screen. By offering both, images can be viewed and composed easily in any conditions. Manual-focus assist gives up to a 10x magnification on screen or through the viewfinder to ease critical focusing, and there are a few features to help achieve accurate AF, which I will go into later.
The effectiveness of image stabilisation differs depending on the focal length of the lens and just how much movement there is during handheld shooting. With IS set to auto, I found that with a steady hand I could achieve sharp, blur-free results from shutter speeds as slow as 1/10sec.
White balance and colour
Although most white balance systems in today’s cameras are accurate in the majority of situations, I have been impressed by the quality and control of Olympus models in this area for some time.
There are no individual colours that really fool the system, and the extensive range of white balance settings includes a manual Kelvin adjustment and an underwater preset.
As with most systems, scenes with any single colour dominant in the frame can throw the colour balance. In such a situation, taking a custom white balance is best, and doing so is about as simple as it gets. You simply select custom white balance, take a photograph of a white card and then accept the suggested adjustment.
The colour modes total 18 in all, including 11 art filters. For single-frame shooting, the vivid preset adds a welcome bit of saturation to colours, especially in low light where the colour depth decreases. Natural, though, is a good option for lifelike colours in most situations. A really handy feature is bracketing, and it is available for both white balance and colour. Recording all 18 colour modes in a single press of the shutter release button does hinder the speed of the camera, as it processes the high volume of data.
Images: The four thirds format has a greater depth of field than larger formats, which makes it ideal for macro photography. This image was taken with the 12-50mm kit lens in its macro setting at f/16 (equivalent to f/32 on full frame)
Like all current Olympus Pen models, the OM-D E-M5 uses a 324-zone multi-segment metering system. The evaluative mode in the E-M5 performs as I expected. I tested the system in a scene with a wide dynamic range, tilting the camera down from a frame dominated by a bright sky to the same scene dominated by the duller landscape. There is a gradual shift in exposure as the camera is tilted down, neither underexposing nor overexposing too soon.
Spot metering works via the 35-segment AF points, which can be individually selected using either the arrow controls on the D-pad or the touchscreen. The inclusion of spot meter modes for highlights or shadows is useful for quick and accurate control.
The ‘world’s fastest AF’ is a bold claim, and it’s one we’ve heard before. The clause to this statement from Olympus is that continuous AF must be active.
Certainly, in good light the system is near instant for static and moving subjects. Any one of 35 AF points in the large central portion of the frame can be individually selected, which is handy for precise focusing. In fact, like the metering, it is quicker to select the focus point by touching the relevant area of the frame on the touchscreen rather than using the arrows on the D-pad. This feature, which is also present in the latest Panasonic Lumix G-series models, makes critical focusing instantly achievable and is a real plus point.
Contrast-detection AF systems will always be compromised in low-contrast light, so this was one area where I was keen to test the camera. By and large I am pleased with its performance. A powerful AF assist lamp activates below a certain brightness and aids AF in low light no end. Successful focus is slower in low-contrast light, but in one slow movement rather than hunting back and forth on either side of the focus point. Careful selection of the AF mode helps in low light – spot AF over the subject, for example.
As well as manual focus, single AF and continuous AF, face priority is included. This ensures that a subject’s face is in focus. Interestingly, there is also face and eye priority, face and right eye priority, and face and left eye priority.
For portraits where the subject is not square on, the latter two modes are indeed useful. It is possible, for example, to ensure that the eye closest to the camera is the area in focus, and not the other eye, or, more commonly, the eyebrow. Focus tracking now works on a 3D basis and can be combined with face priority, which is a greathelp when the tracked subject is a person.
Images: Face and left-eye priority mode ensured that the closest eye is the point of focus
We have not seen any four thirds cameras offer a dynamic range much over 10EV. This performance falls short of most APS-C cameras, which typically have dynamic ranges of over 12EV. We do not have the official figures for the OM-D E-M5, but looking over my images there is no reason to suspect that the E-M5 is any better than its peers. Using a smaller sensor means the dynamic range is compromised more than a larger sensor would be when using higher ISO ratings in low light.
In recognition of its limited dynamic range, there are a number of exposure bracketing options and a shading compensation tool to give extra detail in shadow areas.
Image: Here the OM-D E-M5 struggles to record the range of tonal information in a single frame. On the right is a ±2EV bracketed sequence over five frames, processed through basic HDR software. Another option in-camera is the image overlay, for up to three frames
Noise, sensitivity and resolution
The OM-D E-M5 has an ISO range of 8EV at ISO 200-25,600, which is an extra stop over other Olympus models and class-leading in the four thirds format.
With the highest pixel count of any Olympus digital camera, it comes as no surprise that the E-M5 resolves the highest level of detail. The 16.1-million-pixel sensor is able to reach the 26 marker at ISO 200 in raw and JPEG images using the 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, and the 28 marker in raw and JPEG files with the 45mm f/1.8. This performance matches the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 and other cameras with the same number of pixels, as the best-performing four thirds unit.
With more pixels to be fitted on the same-sized four thirds sensor, each pixel on the E-M5 sensor must therefore be smaller. If previous cameras are anything to go by, the pixel pitch of 16-million-pixel four thirds models is approximately 3.7 microns compared to 4.2 microns in 12-million-pixel models like the Pen E-P3.
We would expect each pixel to collect less light, which would in turn affect the saturation, dynamic range and levels of noise in low light. However, as we have seen when Panasonic jumped from 12 to 16 million pixels, and now in the E-M5, improvements to the sensor and image processing, among other things, make it possible to maintain the performance of the camera.
The E-M5 uses Olympus’s TruePic VI processor, as does the current generation of Pen models. For images taken in low light, our resolution charts indicate that despite the increase in pixels, and their resulting smaller size, the E-M5 is as capable as other Olympus models in low light in terms of saturation, dynamic range and levels of noise. However, it is not any better. Luminance noise affects resolved detail, and by ISO 12,800 the camera reaches the 20 marker on our resolution charts. Detail and saturation at the maximum ISO 25,600 rating are decreased, which means this setting should only be used as a last resort.
Image: At ISO 1600 detail is still pretty crisp, although there is luminance noise in the form of fine grain
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using two Olympus lenses set to their sharpest apertures. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
LCD, viewfinder and video
Unlike any of the Olympus Pen models, the OM-D E-M5 features an electronic viewfinder, which is a real bonus for shooting in very bright conditions when the LCD screen cannot be viewed easily, as well as in the dark. When ambient light is really low, the EVF boosts the signal for a brighter output, and although noisy it gives more visible information than the ‘real’ brightness of anoptical viewfinder. The 10x magnification in manual focus is useful, too.
The EVF has a resolution of 1.44 million dots, which is not quite in the same league as Sony’s 2.359-million-dot OLED EVF, and its contrast is not as strong. However, as in the external Olympus VF-2 EVF unit, the display is clear, bright and crisp. Compared to the EVF in cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, the display in the E-M5 is brighter and beautifully smooth. The refresh rate is equally impressive and not at all restrictive, even when scanning movement.
The 3in LCD screen has a bright, clear display and tilts upwards 80° and downwards 50°. Its touch functionality for shutter release is no quicker than using the shutter release button, but it does speed up controls such as spot AF and metering, determining which part of the frame is the desired subject.
Those interested in video will be pleased to know that the E-M5 features full HD (1080p) recording at 30fps in AVCHD format. The design of the new 12-50mm lens lends itself to video capture because it offers a smooth zoom control, the speed of which is easily brought in slowly without jumping into action.
Images: The Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the Panasonic Lumix
The main competitor to an Olympus four thirds camera is a Panasonic four thirds camera – in this case, the Lumix DMC-G3, as it is closest in specification and style. Both have a 16-million-pixel output, built-in EVF and touchscreen functionality. The build quality and style of the OM-D E-M5 puts it a cut above the G3, although it is more expensive.
For those drawn to the retro styling of the E-M5, another similarly priced option is the Fujifilm X-Pro1, or even the Sony NEX-7. The X-Pro1 has a larger APS-C-sized imaging sensor, and as last week’s test of the X-Pro1 indicated in its resolved detail, it outperforms the E-M5 by some margin.
However, the X-Pro1 is part of a new system and there are not nearly as many lenses available to choose from – not without the use of future adapters anyway.
I consider the styling and build quality of the OM-D E-M5 as being equal to the best compact system cameras around, especially with the grip and battery pack attached. Also, by using the micro four thirds to OM mount adapter, old OM lenses can find a new lease of life on this body. Among other things, the high-class feel of the camera and higher pixel count make the E-M5 the best Olympus model yet.
Some will be put off by the price, especially once accessories such as the grip are added. The camera does include an EVF, though, which would be an extra cost of approximately £230 for users of the Pen system.
At its price point, many people are likely to be disappointed that Olympus chose to keep the four thirds sensor, instead of opting for a new larger unit that would have improved image quality. After all, this is a new line of cameras that could have had a fresh start. However, image detail is crisp and large prints can be produced from fine-quality image files. Furthermore, the E-M5 is part of a large system with numerous optics already available, and the format allows the camera and lenses to be compact in size.
For the utmost in image quality, there are better cameras out there, but for this type of system the E-M5 is, right now, about as good as it gets.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 key highlights
The hotshoe port is the standard Olympus mount, compatible with external flash units such as the FL-36R, FL-50R, FL-300R and FL600-R
As with other current Olympus Pen models, the LCD touchscreen tilts upwards 80° and downwards 50° for high and low angles
Unfortunately, there is no built-in flash, although the FL-LM2 external flash unit is supplied with the camera. This is compact, with a guide number of 10m @ ISO 100. There are extensive in-camera controls for the flash, including manual control for power between full and 1/64, fill-in and three slow-sync flash modes.
Useful information that can be displayed through the viewfinder and the LCD screen include electronic level, histogram and grids divided into 4, 9, 25 or 100. Furthermore, focus magnification at up to 10x aids critical focusing.
Handily, a choice of the entire colour modes collection, totalling 18 in all, can be captured in one press of the shutter, through colour bracketing. In fact, the options available for bracketing, including exposure and white balance, are among the most numerous we have seen in any camera.
Basic image adjustments can be made in-camera, without needing a computer. Edits include an image overlay to merge up to three frames, shadow adjustment, crop, aspect ratio, black & white and sepia adjustments, saturation and the e-Portrait function for images with a face that has been detected.
The OK button in the middle of the D-pad is used to access the quick menu for exposure controls such as white balance and ISO
This sensor detects when you hold the viewfinder to your eye and switches the viewfinder on and the screen off, and vice versa