Olympus OM-D EM-5 Review

The Olympus OM-D E-M5

Contrary to public outcry, I don't think I made enough 80's pop references in the OM-D preview so standby for some more strained nostalgia. I can't do it all with OMD titles so I'll let myself stray... but perhaps it would be best if I limit them to the headings!

Everything Counts (Depeche Mode, 1983)

Appropriately, the OM-Ds are a band not just a single model, eventually intended to become a range like the Pens. While the EM-5 is currently a solo act, rumour suggests it will eventually become the middle rung of a three camera range. Whatever takes over as the range topper will be some camera as this one is a tiddly tour de force with a weatherproof, cast magnesium chassis crammed full of new things.

There's a clue in the lengthy nomenclature that the E-M5 succeeds the OM-4 but it's more like the evolved child of a much more recent coupling. It revives the 'small is beautiful' philosophy of the E-400 series (still the smallest dSLRs made) and adds the inscrutable outdoor build of the E-5. This produces what is in effect a SuperPen which looks and feels like an SLR but can use its mirrorless giblets to do clever new stuff – even out in horrendous conditions.

Silver Dream Machine? (David Essex, 1980)

One of the hottest debates in the mirrorless camera world at the moment seems to be whether the black or silver OM-D bodies look best. Apparently silver is winning and so the black review example that I was delighted to greet is off trend and as usual I'm a fashion failure. I like black because it's subtle and ever since reading The Restaurant at the End of the Universe I've understood its inherent cool.

However, the decision is one to make with an eye to the future. Many of the new micro 4/3 lenses are arriving in silver only (notable the f2.0 12mm, f1.8 45mm and incoming f1.8 75mm) and if you're Captain Coordinated you may want the whole ensemble to go with your lamé space pants and tin foil hat. Seriously though, I can see the attraction of both. If you're moved one way or another by the two body choices leave me a comment, I'm intrigued!

A black outfit goes with everything

Here comes the rain again (Eurythmics, 1983)

Mirrorless cameras have been clever, small, creative and stylish before, but this one does all that with a bonus slice of 'professional'. Olympus have chosen to present it just short of being a Pro model but it is the first mirrorless which has the build to brave monsoons. There are environmental seals around the openings you can see and the ones you can't. The sealing is reputed to be as good as that on the big E-Series single digit SLRs, anecdotally the best thing short of submersible.

The weatherproof kit lens has manual and power zoom available

The lens mount is sealed and the 12-50mm kit lens is the first weatherproof micro 4/3 lens. It's decently sharp and covers a very handy 24-100mm equivalent range. The barrel is quality polycarbonate with a metal mount. It doesn't really set the pulse racing like the camera itself but as an entry level weatherproof kit lens it does the job very nicely.

The new lens is significant in other ways too. It allowed the EM-5 to claim the title of fastest focussing interchangeable lens camera. These days that's almost a weekly occurrence, but never fear it's mighty snappy. It's not a bright lens though so it's just as well that the tricks don't end there. The most unusual is that sliding the zoom ring forward pops it into macro mode – locked at 43mm and able to focus down to 3 inches from the 52mm filter thread. It's oddly difficult to extract the close up credentials from the specs but that will give you a capture area of about 27 x 35mm – nigh on 1:1 equivalent. The zoom ring gives the option to power zoom smoothly for shooting video in the mid setting and is  conventional in the rearward position, closest to the body.

The little hump on top doesn't have space to stash a pop-up flash, it's full of the EVF and the sensors for the image stabilisation, hence last major item in the toy box is a clip-on flash unit. The FL-LM2 is bigger than the Pen clip on flash (Guide No.10 at ISO200) and weatherproof too. Although it sits on the hotshoe it runs from the accessory port, powered by the camera, and is thus able to act as a remote control for Olympus' remote flash system. As with the E-PL3 it can control the usual three remote channels and itself as a fourth. The port can also run microphones, Bluetooth widgets and even a tiltable EVF instead of the built in one.

Pop-up, clip-on flash – remote controller and fill-in fodder

Don't you forget about me (Simple Minds, 1985)

The styling is classic Olympus but not pastiche. It thankfully eschews the amorphous, melted outline of current SLRs and cuts a crisp, clean reminder of a time before plastic ruled the earth. To me, it doesn't look old and feels tightly tailored over dense innards. There's not a hint of flex, even when mounting big lenses, which is lucky. The supporting cast includes the MMF-3 adapter which maintains weatherproofing when using full size 4/3 glass. The full size lenses work in all respects but AF is pedestrian. At present the contrast detection of mirrorless cameras doesn't suit these phase detect lenses – a real shame, I'm not selling my collection but I'm not holding my breath either!

Web pictures don't convey just how small the E-M5 is, you really have to encounter it in the flesh. If that's a big deal for some people they'll just have to grow up! I was struck by a forum response to another size discussion which distilled the situation very nicely:

“I have big hands, but I don’t use a broom to brush my teeth so I think I can manage a smaller camera”, many thanks to 'Rahul' for that nugget of rational thinking.

Wearing the grip; part 1 stops at the base of the vertical grip, part 2 provides portrait controls

In fact it's the same size as film cameras used to be but if you really need more to love there's a very natty two part accessory grip (HLD-6) which adds first a prominent righthand handhold with forward shutter release and then a deeper base with a portrait mode shutter and a compartment for a second battery. Both extra shutter releases are surrounded by duplicate forward control dials and the base sprouts another rear dial and a couple more programmable buttons. Once wearing the whole outfit there's plenty of grip in both orientations and you have a tiny papparazzi cam. There aren't a huge number of buttons and labelling is simple – because the majority can be assigned custom functions and those will be yours to learn – though you can crib off the Super Control Panel uber shooting menu.

Opportunities (Pet Shop Boys - 1986)

The familiar whinge that Olympus always overdo the menus will surface when meek folk break like waves over the choice of ways they can configure the E-M5. Rather than feed their fears let's calmly start at the beginning: as it comes out of the box it has the simplest shooting menu and reduced  menus selected. There's still plenty there through a slimmed down, compact style UI.

There are plenty of controls but enough real estate is set aside to hold it securely

Of course only fraidy cats should stop there. Real heroes should dive straight in and engage just about the best shooting menu there is. The 'Super Control Panel' requires a trip into the display menus but brings a massive amount of control under your thumb and because the OM-D is mirrorless that's all on tap without taking your eye from the viewfinder too. That can include live previews, inclinometers, curves or simpler data displays. If you want to compare the menus, turn them all on and then you can cycle through them with the 'INFO' button, this works for the playback modes too. Once you know what suits you the others can be turned off.

Senses working overtime (XTC - 1982)

The exact provenance of the new 16 Megapixel sensor remains an enigma but no one disputes it's a step up in resolution and high ISO performance from the chip which has served faithfully in all the Pens. As I'm an Olympus man my opinion of low light/high ISO performance is worth zip but I luckily had a chance to discuss the OMD in detail with some seriously well informed Nikon folk and they were very complementary – rating it on a par with current APS bodies from Nikon and Canon. That's all you could ask for really, that there's no excuses needed and the smaller sensor stigma has been buried. For my part I can see that improvement too. I rarely use high ISO but there are other benefits to a clean low light sensor and one is that it can see to focus better in dingey conditions. It will still enjoy distinct detail to focus on but it's yet another area of improvement.

Kit lens macro – a bonus feature on the standard lens

It's not just the sensor itself which is new, it is suspended by a new 5 axis image stabiliser. There's a hushed hiss when it powers up and it fully engages when you go to shoot. Suddenly whichever view you're using calms down as you can see it working. It works with any lens you fit so it even helps manual focus with legacy lenses as you can settle on a detail to make fine adjustments. It seems to be amazingly effective and when combined with the pair of exotic long exposure settings I was aghast that it appeared possible to handhold acceptable (not razor sharp obviously) evening shots for over 10 seconds! It appears to be more effective at macro distances than simple systems too so that's all the excuses for blurred pictures gone :-)

A shot snatched from a car window ISO6400 at 60mph on a bumpy road – a real IS test!

Those two long shutter modes; Livebulb and Livetime appear when you spin the shutter dial beyond 60 seconds. Both allow you to see how your creations are building up over time. You can set the rate of the updates and then sit back and watch as light works its magic. I can't wait for Guy Fawkes night to play with some fireworks. Livebulb exposes whilst you press the shutter while Livetime starts and then stops with separate presses. They are a gift for astrophotographers.

Livebulb mode is fun – watched this build up over 11.5 seconds

Speedfreak (Motörhead, 1982)

Any reservations about focus speed were happily laid to rest for Olympus with the Pen 3s. The OMD is faster, it's very fast to acquire lock and practically instantaneous to shoot. Top stills rate is a claimed 9fps (and tested at nearly 10!) after single focus lock or 4fps if asked to refocus between shots. Beyond that you have the option to shoot FullHD 1080P video where the 16:9 rear screen comes into its own but I loved shooting through the EVF which was way better in bright sunlight.

One thing that will strike you when you get the chance to take a shot is how quietly and softly the shutter releases. It's not silent but it is subtle, markedly less noticeable than the Pens.

Black faced blenny – close up with the Panasonic 45mm Macro lens

I have the touch (Peter Gabriel, 1982)

The big buzz around the launch was around the EVF but every single non-nerd who picked it went straight for the OLED rear screen. It looks great, and makes your results look good too. A very neat touchscreen implementation is a pleasure to use for playback and now we have iEverything it doesn't need explaining to anyone.

The 3” OLED display is a hit, and it’s a touchscreen too

Using the touchscreen for shooting is more of an acquired taste but not without its uses. Of course you can swipe the focus point to almost anywhere you like. You can also shoot at very odd angles since you can prod the tilting display in a most unphotographer like way – which is great for street shooting or candid snaps. If that doesn't appeal you'll be pleased to know that disabling it is one of the simplest things to do from the touchscreen. That's sensible since hanging from a neck strap the camera would snap away as it bounced off the rock hard abs all we photographers have.

The EVF may not be the star attraction for everyone but for serious folk it is the way to see the world. The view is smooth, bright and shows a live preview of your current settings, including white balance of course. If you are out in the dark (or using manual mode with flash light) selecting Live View Boost will demo composition without worrying about your exposure settings.

Southwold in June! – The EM-5 includes yet more art filter options and my old fave dramatic tone

One thing you just have to try through the viewfinder is live curve adjustment. If really like to think about your eventual images and want to refine each exposure then this is a great way to play with the graduation of the incoming image. The challenge would be to beat the in-camera settings for a straight out of camera JPEG, this is your opportunity to do battle with those cunning shadow and highlight strategies cameras have... you always can sneak a RAW away too so you can see how you did! The .ORF RAW files are losslessly compressed but will still consume around 15MB per shot.

The Final Countdown (Europe, 1986)

The evolution of the mirrorless camera has driven a coach and horses through a market which was getting too comfortable and complacent. Before they arrived compacts were stagnating and SLRs getting ever larger. Now the middle ground is where some of the fastest, fiercest development is taking place and new ideas are coming from thick and fast. Whether you buy into it there's no denying every vendor has had to raise their game, benefiting us all.

The E-M5 is an outstandingly smart and ultra capable camera. It marks the point beyond which any lingering pretence that micro 4/3 is a junior format is dismissed. It comes to the table with aces up every sleeve, and plenty of sleeves! As one of a trio of top rank mirrorless models (the others from Sony and Fuji) to sail deep into SLR territory it is the only one which cuts the mustard as a tool as well as a hipster's plaything. If you are going to make a statement body it needs to meet the competition toe to toe and the E-M5 does. Lovely pieces of man-bling that the NEX-7 and X-Pro1 are, they cannot cross the line like the Olympus can. There are pros and cons of the layout of these three but the tsunami of micro 4/3 lenses is an unassailable advantage. The Starbucks set can shuffle the streets with a one or two cute primes but most of us need a better roster than that.

Olympus and Panasonic have kept up a fearsome pace of releases and the success of micro 4/3 as a platform is drawing third parties in. Within that virtuous circle the E-M5 is well placed. It can be the retro tribute act, enthusiast indulgence, family favourite or willing workhorse. My initial spell with the OM-D was intense but it kept rewarding me later when I had more time to explore it. I think we'll be seeing quite a few of these around and I look forward to spotting them out in the harsh, testing environment of an English summer!

Ratings

Build 10/10 Sharp, small, seriously solid. Not afraid to go out in a monsoon
Handling 8.5/10 Fast, responsive and compact yet good to get to grips with
Operation 9.5/10 Formidably flexible, with a huge feature set
Image Quality 9/10 Sharp, dynamic, accurate and not afraid of the dark

Overall score:

Well rounded, stylish and maverick. At the centre of a real system