Hands-on: Olympus PEN E-P5 review

The Olympus Pen E-P5 is all about its pro-spec quirks and build quality charm. The successor to 2011's E-P3, the latest Olympus Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera has a mixture of headline features to set it apart from the ever-busying crowd.

READ: Olympus Pen E-P3 review

First impressions are that it's all about impressing. The E-P5 comes brandished with "Olympus Pen" across the camera's brow in a delicate typeface, while the build quality is at the core of what the camera is all about. It feels sturdy in the hand, although the white finish model that we used has a bit of a more plasticky-like sheen to it which is something the silver and black finish - our preferable model - avoids. Still it does look like one cool cookie and seems to have adsorbed elements of the original Pen system from over 50 years ago - this is all about Olympus targeting the unconventional style-conscious crowd.

There is an abundance of physical dials made from shiny metal to adjust options and dip into the menu - which, as it happens, is about as deep as they come and easy to get lost in. Existing Pen users will find it all a relatively familiar experience, while newcomers will find the variety on offer an attractive purchase prospect despite its sheer volume taking some getting used to.

There's a rear thumbwheel and an additional front thumbwheel - no rotating d-pad to be found here - that are positioned perfectly to the fingers for quick adjustment. It's a rare feeling to have that constant connectivity to settings, or at least it's something that few other compact system cameras take advantage of in the way that some more premium DSLR cameras do.

These thumbwheels have a dual function now too. In what Olympus is calling a "2x2 dial control" a flick of a physical switch to the rear adjusts, say, aperture priority's aperture and exposure compensation functions to ISO and white balance instead. Boom - brilliant, we love the idea.

The only shortcoming is that these secondary stage settings are predefined in four possible groups - ie, it's ISO and white balance positioned across both thumbwheels, or autofocus mode being available to the front thumbwheel instead of the default mode's setting, among others. Full user-defined programmability isn't possible as would have been preferable, but this dual function is undoubtedly still a top feature in its existing state.

At the heart of the camera is the same 16-megapixel sensor as found in the top-spec OM-D E-M5 which is coupled with the very same TruePic VI image processing engine. That right there, according to Olympus at the company's secret unveiling in Berlin, Germany, means the very same top-flight image quality.

Even though we've not been able to take final image samples away with us from the pre-production model that we've used, we think there's one very welcome new setting that many an Olympus user will clap their hands at seeing - an ISO 100 (extended) option. Okay, so it's not the full-on dynamic-range option as per the rest of the standard ISO range, but at least it's finally made the cut this time.

READ: Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

But considering the E-P5's anticipated price will start at the £1,100 mark for the standard kit we'd expect nothing less. It sure is pricey.

It's in the details that the E-P5 shows much of its worth. One standout feature is a 1/8000th of a second maximum shutter speed - a first for a compact system camera - the likes of which you'd only usually find in top-spec DSLR cameras. This means it's possible to utilise wider apertures - if you have the lenses of course - in brighter lighting conditions, or seize a fast-moving subject in frozen-motion to bring out the crystal clear, stopped-in-action detail.

We chatted to Olympus representatives who confirmed that the maximum shutter speed would be available at all given apertures including the f/1.8 opening of the company's own 75mm lens, for example.

There are all manner of other OM-D-pinched features on board the E-P5 too: 5-axis image stabilisation makes the transfer, as does "Fast AF" autofocus which, from our use with the camera, feels just as speedy as the OM-D was. There's a new pinpoint autofocus option which enables one-touch zoom right into the focus area's centre for focus refinement, while the image stabilisation system can now auto-detect panning direction and adjust the type of stabilisation accordingly.

Manual focus also adds what's known as "focus peaking" where in-focus edges are highlighted in an embossed-like style for increased accuracy. We've seen such features in other cameras before, so it's good to see Olympus taking the plunge too.

But all this does begin to raise the question as to how long the OM-D E-M5's life span will now be? Given that the E-P5 is at least as advanced across the board - it even includes a 9fps burst mode with better-than-OM-D 5fps continuous tracking option - it seems like the E-P5 is Olympus's new top-tier flagship camera. There may be no viewfinder built in, but that is covered too to some degree as there's the new optional VF-4 electronic viewfinder (EVF).

Now we're fairly sure that this will be one pricey EVF - Olympus declined to release any official price expectations or even guesstimates when we pressed it - because it's the best standalone EVF that we've ever had the pleasure of using. Why? Because despite being only a couple of millimetres larger than the existing VF-2 EVF, it's got a massive display, all 1.48x magnification (0.74x equivalent) of it. It's as big as the optical finder in something like a Nikon D800. Now that's progress.

READ: Nikon D800 review

The finder also has little lag by electronic standards and preview quality is tip-top. The EVF comes complete with a locking mechanism, large dioptre adjustment to the side and a tilt mechanism for below eye-level use. The auto eye-sensor was a little sloppy to jump from the rear LCD view, but it seems that's just pre-production "nerves" - according to Olympus the finished article will switch from one to other in under 0.4sec.

If the EVF will pinch budgets too hard then the older VF-2 and yet lower-res VF-3 will also function with the E-P5. And for those other Olympus owners wondering if the VF-4 will be compatible with their existing models the answer is yes, albeit minus the use of the auto eye-sensor.

Or stick with the E-P5's rear LCD screen which is the same 3-inch, 1.04m-dot, capacitive touchscreen in its design as per the OM-D, albeit with one major new feature - it's mounted on a tilt-angle bracket. You wouldn't think so to look at it as it's seamlessly streamlined against the body. Even when it's pulled out the screen itself is thin which makes for one of the tidiest looking tilt-angle screen implementations we've seen - nothing like the sort of bulk you'd typically find in something like the compact Pentax MX-1.

READ: Pentax MX-1 review

We've only seen the E-P5's LCD screen indoors thus far, and despite bright German sunlight beaming through the windows we didn't find it to suffer from excess reflective problems. That's something we'd like to test more, of course, but it seems like a sound screen from what we've seen.

Among the usual mix of Olympus's in-camera art filters there's one brand new feature that the Japanese company has been slow to introduce: Wi-Fi. But we're rather glad given the amount of whines all other competitors' Wi-Fi systems have made us utter. It looks as though Olympus could have cracked it with its implementation which, instead of using tiresome password entry instead generates a QR code via the downloaded smart-device software - available for Android and iOS only, with no current plans to extend outside of these major two markets - which can be read via the camera and then auto syncs the devices.

From what we've played with it's a clever way of speeding up what would otherwise be a slow process. It's just a shame Olympus has missed out in keeping some of its features as forward thinking. Take, for example, the ability to GPS track, or the feature where a smartphone can control the camera's shutter. There's no on-board GPS so a date and time sync attributes data when synched up to a smartphone, while there's no full control available via a smartphone beyond positional touchscreen autofocus. Both those things are good to have, but on both counts competitors offer more detailed or built-in solutions.

The E-P5 is distinctive and stylish. It's a nudge forward for the E-P-series, and looks as though it's pushing into the OM-D's territory. But this is fairly specialist kit based on its build quality alone - it's hovering around in the mid-level DSLR spectrum both in terms of features and price too. Pricey yet designer-esque - the E-P5 seems to us to be the strongest Olympus Micro Four Thirds release to date, particularly with that VF-4 electronic viewfinder attached. But at over a grand it's got nowhere to hide.



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