Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

Olympus’s latest Micro Four Thirds release - the OM-D E-M5 - builds on the brand’s heritage. Like the digital PEN (E-P) series that came before it, the OM-D is a digital reimagining of the original Olympus OM series - a 35mm film camera series that was born 40 years ago, and continued to run in one form or another for the next 30 of those years.

So, a decade on from the last film-based OM model, what has the brand new OM-D E-M5 got to offer; and what makes it stand out amid a growing compact system camera market?

It’s Micro Four Thirds

Despite its historical links to the OM-series of old, the OM-D E-M5 uses the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens mount and, therefore, isn’t compatible with OM-mount lenses. Well, unless using the MF-2 adapter (sold separately).

This also raises an interesting point: the OM-D’s sensor size is the very same as other MFT cameras, including the Olympus PEN series. This latest release isn’t so much about “better” image quality based on larger sensor technology, and certainly doesn't mimic the original OM's frame size, but instead nestles itself in what's become the most successful of compact system cameras. A shrewd move considering the range and number of up-to-date lenses available.

In fact there are more MFT lenses than any other standalone manufacturer has in this category, plus the OM-D can make the most of Panasonic’s MFT glass too. Add to that that the relative size of lenses will not only be smaller than the competition but also proportionate to the camera’s body size too and there are plenty of advantages to be had.

King of retro

Just one glance at the E-M5 and we were already hooked. This is one good-looking, well-oiled machine. But then with a price tag upwards of a grand we’d expect no less.

Available in black or - our favourite - silver, the EM-5 really does pick out the best parts of the classic OM design, yet gracefully merges it with some DSLR-like modernity. It’s the most DSLR-like compact system camera we’ve ever seen, that’s for sure.

But it’s not all just for show, as the layout ensures ease of use too. A stacked front and rear set of command dials sit atop the camera to control the main settings such as aperture and shutter speed, and although arranged in a "designery" fashion, manages to remain both comfortable and functional. However, add the optional battery grip to the camera (sold separately) and we did find the rear command dial less comfortable to reach when in the landscape orientation.

As well as a main mode dial also on top of the camera there are two programmable function (Fn) buttons. Dig into the menus a little and there are bags of options that can be adjusted with fine detail: from the direction of the dial rotation down to whether the shutter can fire with or without autofocus confirmation – these are the kind of features that are associated with high-spec cameras.

Master of modern

It may not seem obvious to look at, but the EM-5’s entire body is splash-proof, as is the latest 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens. There’s no other compact system camera that can claim that, which certainly gives it an angle.

But there are plenty of other top spec features too. The rear screen is a 3-inch, 610k-dot, touchscreen OLED panel - the smoother, richer-looking technology that’s slowly beating LCD into its grave. The touchscreen means it’s possible to press on to the screen to focus, jump through images in playback, and other actions, although selecting options from the menus via touch isn’t possible.

Above the screen is a built-in electronic viewfinder. The 1.15x magnification equates to 0.58x in 35mm terms, so although not huge the 1,440k-dot resolution ensures a detailed view. Extra features such as a level gauge and accurate exposure & white balance preview are advantages compared to an optical viewfinder, although this is “the Marmite” of the camera world: you’ll either love it or hate it. We don’t warm to it as much as an optical equivalent, and it’s a shame a larger, higher-resolution technology hasn’t been implemented, such as that found in the Sony NEX-7. But hum ho, it’s still a decent standard nonetheless.

One E-M5 exclusive feature – at least for now – is the inclusion of a brand new five-axis image stabilisation system. The sensor can counter for pitch, yaw, vertical and horizontal motion, as well as rolling movements. How does it do this, we hear you cry? The boffins at Olympus have mounted the sensor in a magnetic field, so it is “floating” in order to compensate for any direction of movement. Very Back To The Future. Not only is it clever but it also works brilliantly, in particular when using the 1080p30 movie mode. The only downside to the technology is an ongoing subtle “hissing” sound, irrelevant as to whether the stabilisation system is on or off.

Another cool mode that’s a little tucked away in the menus is Live Bulb mode. Anyone that’s made a long exposure using the usual Bulb mode will know it can be a bit of a shot in the dark. Not any more. Live Bulb updates in real time so you can see the ongoing exposure of your shot progress on the rear screen. When Olympus wants to innovate it really does it with style.

Add to that a burst rate of up to nine frames per second (9fps), or up to 4.2fps with continuous autofocus activated and this is one feature-packed bit of kit.

World’s fastest autofocus: OM-D, OMG?

Now here’s a claim we’ve heard many times of late. There are a few factors to consider when assessing the E-M5’s autofocus performance and speed.

First up is the camera’s design. This isn’t a DSLR as there’s no mirrorbox to reflect light onto either a phase-detection focus system or an optical viewfinder. Instead the mirrorless design entails that the light lands onto the sensor where contrast-detect autofocus takes place and the signal can also be sent to the rear screen and/or the electronic viewfinder.

Secondly the type of focus (single or continuous), lighting conditions and the lens used and at which focal length will all have an impact as to how responsive the autofocus system is.

We’re pleased to report that autofocus is darn quick for the most part. In "single" autofocus subjects nip into sharp focus in no time, though, arguably, the Nikon V1 and Panasonic G3 might give the Olympus a run for its money.

Things are less rosy when using continuous or tracking autofocus or trying to shoot in dim conditions. Although the tracking system is good at identifying, and locking on to subjects, fast-moving ones are a struggle to keep up with. There’s no doubt that the OM-D is a big improvement over the continuous and tracking autofocus in the recent PEN models - in part due to its 240 frames per second refresh rate being double that of the PEN E-P3 - but it’s still not quite there.

In dim light – though not that dim – the camera can also struggle to obtain any focus at all. There is an AF illuminator lamp to offer an extra injection of light, though it won't work for all given situations.

Compact system cameras and contrast-detection autofocus as a whole perform differently from DSLR systems, and it’s here that the OM-D’s hefty price tag may prove too much for certain snappers. In general the OM-D will better its compact system camera bredren, but the type of subjects you intend to shoot will determine whether the OM-D is the right camera for you.

Image Quality: Highest resolution Olympus yet

Despite all the fancy features and design, can the E-M5 take a decent picture? It’s the first Olympus camera (outside of compacts) to break the long-standing 12-megapixel barrier, offering the same 16-megapixel sensor as found in the Panasonic Lumix G3.

Of course Olympus has put its own stamp on the hardware: the latest TruPic VI engine can process images from ISO 200-25,600.

The increase in resolution compared to other Olympus cameras is no cause for alarm either - in fact, we’d say that the OM-D produces among the best quality images of any current Olympus camera. It’s impressive, though the lack of an ISO 100 sensitivity is a frustration.

Shots at ISO 200-400 are clean and clear and image noise isn’t an issue at ISO 800. Thereafter, noise is handled well and shots up to ISO 6400 are more than usable. The highest ISO 12,800-25,600 settings feel somewhat wasted, however, as image quality deteriorates to excess.

Considering the size of the sensor compared to its larger rivals, Olympus has performed some magic with this slice of Micro Four Thirds silicon.

As well as the usual auto and manual modes, Olympus has a range of art filters. Ranging from sepia to dramatic tone and soft focus to diorama, there are dozens of in-camera options. It's possible to art filter bracket and use the mode when using Raw + JPEG (though the raw file will remain unchanged). Some are quirky, others are fun, most are of genuine use rather than some of the gimmicky modes offered by other competitors' cameras.

Verdict

Sleek, stylish and a classy performer – there’s not much to dislike about the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

It’s not problem-free though: the battery life is, as per all existing compact system cameras, poor. Continuous autofocus won’t beat a DSLR and in dim conditions will struggle or fail entirely; an electronic viewfinder won’t suit all tastes; there's no pop-up flash; and, let’s face it, the £1149 price tag is serious money.

But you do get a lot for the cash: the innovative image stabilisation system is excellent, autofocus is fast, the body is rugged and splash-proof and image quality is decent considering the sensor size.

We like it, we like it a lot. But with a taller asking price than the Nikon D7000, and at just £200 shy of a Canon EOS 7D kit, there’s a lot to consider.