Olympus is one of the pioneers of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) category as we know it. The PEN series has been one of the most popular sellers of this segment, and the E-P3 has made its way to the top of more than a few “best of” lists over the past year. This year, Olympus introduced a beast of a different yet similar nature, the OM-D E-M5.
At first glance, you might want to loop it in with DSLRs. When outfitted with a battery pack and flash accessory, it looks bigger and boxier than many of the MFT models on the market. But it is indeed the latest MFT model from the manufacturer – only it’s so tricked out, you might forget it.
The E-M5 has many “best of both worlds” elements about it, an undeniable benefit to buying and shooting with this $1,000 camera (it’s $1,300 with the kit lens – another $80 for the battery accessory). But the OM-D series is a new one for Olympus, and with it come some unavoidable growing pains.
What’s in the box
Provided you buy the kit lens, in addition to the camera and lens you get the flash accessory, USB cable, A/V cable, li-ion battery and its charger, shoulder strap, CD-ROM, instruction manual, and warranty card.
Look and feel
To put it most simply, the E-M5 feels like a smaller DSLR plus battery pack – which for hardware purposes, is exactly what it is. Without, it feels incredibly similar to the E-P3, which it’s only slightly larger and heavier than. We think the battery pack is worth the extra $80 for a couple of reasons. First, you’re already shelling out at least $999, so you can probably afford the additional cost. Second, it offers the freedom to shoot as much as you want and makes holding the E-M5 far more comfortable.
The size and weight of the E-M5 is everything we’ve come to expect from MFT: small, but strong, sleek, but filled with features. This thing is an homage to Olympuses of yesteryear. Really, its general weight and shape are par for the course. The E-M5 deviates from the subtle S-curve the top of the PEN series cameras sport with its center-weighted shape, in order to support and center the EVF.
It’s all very eye-pleasing and feels good in your hands, but there is a sacrifice to pay and it applies to button sizing. Thanks to the EVF and the camera’s 3-inch, vari-angle OLED touchscreen display, the navigation buttons, power switch, and a few other controls are somewhat crowded off to the right-hand side. This isn’t a major complaint though; it’s a fairly common problem we’ve come to accept in next-gen cameras. It’s their touch and feel that’s less than fulfilling. There’s no satisfying click to these buttons – they have a soft, pliable feel. Sometimes we couldn’t tell if we had brushed or pressed a button the feeling was so indistinct.
We’ve never heard people ask where the power button is more times than when handling the E-M5. Unlike nearly every camera on the market, it uses a switch instead of a button. That’s just mean. While we didn’t love the choice, it’s an attempt to do something different that many users very well might prefer.
UI and navigation
Olympus’ in-camera interface has always seemed to deviate from more traditional setups, and the main Menu button still seems an unfortunate labeling to us. It’s the most difficult to use, and for the most part you’ll rely on the mode dials to determine shot settings while you’re shooting with the camera. The Menu really is about customizing the E-M5, and assigning duties to your function buttons. Silly you, you’re used to digital cameras that have some semblance of shooting settings inside the Menu designation; well let go of that now and move on.
Luckily, the mode dials to the right and left atop the camera are where you’ll spending most of your time. This means you don’t have to deal with those horrible “buttons” (we hesitate to call them that) on the back of the camera. Inside the camera, you have all the manual controls you could dream of, in addition to plenty of other features.
Is it the easiest in-camera navigation system? No, but it’s a relatively simple system that you’ll catch on to quickly. What really matters is how quickly you can manage it when you’re actually shooting, and once you’ve acclimatized to some of its quirks, this is a breeze. That matters more than immediately picking up the thing and moving through screen after screen with ease.
As you should expect, the E-M5 is chock full of features, some that you will live for and others that you won’t touch. So let’s start with the good, and the move on to the lackluster.
For starters, the E-M5’s EVF is its big sell. Olympus has been busy refining the MFT segment for a while now, and the PEN series has been incredibly well received and included a lot of variety. But one thing that it did not have was an attached EVF. Now the manufacturer can say that it has such a camera with the E-M5.
This, however, is not a hybrid viewfinder like the Fujifilm X-series boasts. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad – it’s just not quite as good. It’s bright and gives you a 100-percent view of what the sensor will capture. An automatic sensor quickly switches off the OLED display when you put your eye to the EVF, and refresh rate is fast. The only qualm we had with the EVF was that the positioning of it with the side controls must have been made for people with the tiniest hands: It was something of an endeavor to use the EVF while simultaneously setting up a shot. Overall, the EVF deserves a solid B+.
The hardware in general boasts one very important feature: durability. It’s easy to see it and all its buttons and think: One fall and it’s game over. In reality, it’s an incredibly durable, tough, splash-proof unit. The E-M5 can withstand (most) drops, dust, and rain, making it more applicable for real-life use. Too often with MFT cameras, they look pretty on shelves and in your hands, but design takes precedence over usability – and thus, they break or malfunction. Or you end up carrying them around like they’re made of glass. That shouldn’t be the case, and it’s one of the things we’re happiest to say doesn’t apply to the E-M5.
Hardware isn’t the only area Olympus really paid attention to, however. All your favorite filters are built right in, and there are a slew of customizable elements. It’s a tool that more and more camera makers are paying attention to, but many are missing the mark. Olympus has really led this, and they continue to with new additions, like High Key.
One disappointment when it comes to in-camera features is the panorama shooting. It’s seriously time to introduce sweep and shoot, Olympus. The stitching mechanism is cumbersome and requires more work on your part than sweep panorama does.
Next on the feature list is the E-M5’s OLED touchscreen. Olympus incorporated this with the E-P3, and while we’re still not huge fans of cameras using touchscreens, it’s still a noteworthy and well-done effort. Still, we can’t help but feel like this is a misplaced feature that just jacks up the price: It’s not something the majority of shooters will end up heavily using. Until we fully transition to cameras with touch interfaces that match the quality of smartphones (it’s coming, and quickly), this isn’t a big sell.
Performance and use
To be brief, the E-M5 boasts superior performance and top-notch image quality. Seeing as you’re paying at least $1,300, though, it should be. Saturation and color reproduction were spot on; the warmer hues that some MFT models are guilty of creating were nowhere to be seen here. Blurry images were hard to come by, but not impossible; The new image stabilization worked its magic in action and high-movement photos – but in poor lighting, photos were slightly prone to blur.
In general, however, the E-M5 handles dark shots like a beast – and it does this exceptionally well for a MFT camera. You can push ISO up to 25,600, which you might see and assume the camera will crap out somewhere around 1,600. Luckily, that’s not the case, and shooting at 4,000 is still an option provided you aren’t going to create a large printout of the photo.
You have to thank the E-M5’s speed for good low-light performance as well. And it’s not just shutter – it’s all-around fast. Turn on, capture, AF, and refresh rate are all quick. We couldn’t help feeling like the E-M5 was working overtime, though: A handful of times in playback, the screen froze while trying to delete an image. Turning it off didn’t work, and we actually had to take the battery out to return it to working order. The camera also makes a faint but noticeable whirring sound after it’s been in use for awhile, although this only happened shortly after turning it on and then would eventually stop. This wasn’t bothersome personally, but worth noting.
The customization built into the E-M5 was another joy of shooting with it. While Olympus might not have the camera set up for manual use like you might prefer. For instance, in order to bump ISO above 1,600, which the E-M5 defaults to, you have to wander through the Menu to change this instead of having immediate access… but that’s a UI issue, not a performance issue. However, you are able to assign pretty specific functions to the camera so you can literally grab and go.
HD video capture is impressive and offers a variety of options – you can record at either 1080p or 720p at 30 fps. You can use manual settings or art filters, and autofocus works throughout filming, as does zoom – although you can’t adjust exposure while shooting. Still, you’re going to get that warp, wave effect from time to time when the camera refocuses. Don’t be fooled: this thing does a great job shooting video considering it’s a MFT model, but it’s not going to do what DSLRs can. Those cameras are increasingly being made to appease videographers and photographers, and just a reminder, they have bigger sensors. All things considered, however, you’ll get quality camera footage. The dedicated-record button also streamlines things, although it’s a feature you should very nearly expect at this point.
Conclusion: Should you buy it?
If you can afford the EM-5 and you’re in the market for a MFT, yes, you should buy it. That might sound a little niche, but MFT cameras are becoming insanely popular and insanely expensive, so there’s real demand for what Olympus is offering here. The OM-D E-M5 is an incredibly capable, fun camera that you won’t easily tire of. Images are impressive, using it is (eventually) a breeze after determining your custom settings, and its shortcomings are comparatively small and easy to overcome.
So if you’re eyeing this thing, there are a couple of things you need to do. You should definitely read up on the E-M5’s best competitors for your dollars (the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and Sony NEX-7 stand out among the crowd) and weight some of the features that differ between them. How important is the viewfinder to you? A battery-pack accessory? Durable hardware? Sensor size? Price? Available lenses? Next to these two units specifically, the E-M5 is more affordable, arguably has the most durable hardware, a nice selection of lenses (it’s compatible with Olympus’ line of MFT lenses, which continues to grow), and produces comparable images. It’s not breaking sensor size records for an MFT camera or introducing new EVF/OVF technology, however. If you’re decided between this and a DSLR, however, that’s an entirely different story. The breeds are too different, so if a couple hundred dollars are what’s making you consider this instead of the Canon EOS 7D, then you should probably just save up.
At the end of the day, the OM-D E-M5 is a great culmination of what Olympus has been doing so far in the MFT space. If you’re going to jump into this arena, we would almost advocate you skip on less expensive models you’ll outgrow in favor of something like the E-M5. In the end, the image results will speak for themselves.
Ideal buy for: Photography buffs, hobbyists, MFT lovers
- Great battery life
- Superior image quality, even in low light
- You can really push ISO without sacrificing resolution
- Very powerful auto-focus and image stabilization technology
- Button design
- No pop-up flash – accessory only
- There can be some in-camera digging before you get your customized settings up and running