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(Pocket-lint) - Olympus has pioneered the compact/digital SLR hybrid camera over the last 2 years with its Micro Four Thirds system Pen series, and to some critical acclaim too. But it now returns to a slightly more conventional digital SLR styling and original Four Thirds system with its upgrade of the competent E-3 in the generation-jumping E-5.

We wonder whether Olympus’ heart is still in this older system, dating back to 2002. The selling point (like Micro Four Thirds) was always supposed to be smaller camera bodies and lenses than 35mm film-heritage based DSLRs. Yet the 12.3-megapixel E-5 is a chunky beast and a close size match for Nikon’s D7000 or the Canon EOS 60D. At the same time the E-5 is dearer than both of the “big two” at a body only £1,500. So is the E-5 conceivably a last roll of the dice for Four Thirds and Olympus?

Let’s not pen an obituary just yet however. Pick the 800g camera up, attach the heavyweight and pricey 12-60mm (24-120mm equivalent) zoom lens that came with our review sample and you have a robust specimen that feels built (like the proverbial outhouse) to out-last any current fad or trend.

The lens itself proves a superb general-purpose tool, helping to deliver bags of detail despite the sensor’s apparently modest headline resolution. Versatility is such that we were able to achieve some lovely shallow depth of field effects ideal for portraits, as well as more expansive landscape shots at maximum wide angle. As with its predecessor the E-5 is splash and dust resistant to boot, for added semi pro-standard tough-ness.

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Apart from its tank-like construction the Olympus E-5 also matches the Canon EOS 60D via its inclusion of a tilt and swivel 3-inch LCD monitor with Live View facility and dedicated activation button, which here can be turned screen inwards to the body for added protection when not in use. A high 921k-dot resolution ensures that in practice it comes into its own for high or low angle shooting, helping to check manual focus with greater clarity than the 100% field of view optical viewfinder above it will allow, and recording 1280 x 720 pixel high-def movie clips at 30 frames per second (fps), a new feature of this latest generation model.

Also showing its semi pro mettle is the fact that a second LCD window is provided on the top plate, with dedicated buttons for adjusting the likes of white balance, ISO and exposure on the fly in conjunction with a twist of front or back plate command dials and without having to delve into back screen menus. This is very useful as a shortcut and for at-at-glance reading of settings.

Like its predecessor the E-5 is commendably fast with its responses. A thumb flick the on/off switch, located out of harm’s way on the bottom right hand edge of the backplate, and we were able to be up and shooting with the DSLR as fast as our forefinger could reach the shutter release button. We found that in auto focus mode its 11-point AF system locked onto target within a speedy second or so too, RAW or JPEG files committed to a choice of CompactFlash or Secure Digital media cards, separate slots provided under a side flap for both.

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Processing speed is also such that up to five frames per second shooting is offered in burst mode, while the incorporated TruePic V+ image-processing engine is further claimed by Olympus to provide enhanced detail over cameras with larger sensors. For those who want to shoot in low light without flash, up to ISO 6400 equivalent light sensitivity is offered – modest at this price when most mid range DSLRs are now boasting ISO 12800 or even ISO 25600. There’s not only a chunky pop-up flash with a dedicated activation button, but also a vacant hotshoe resting above for an accessory flashgun. 

A feature that Olympus arguably originated that has been picked up by all and sundry since is the provision of built-in digital effects filters, here named Art Filters of which there are now ten. A feature that we enjoy, these include our favourites of pop art, pinhole, and toy-town effect diorama mode. Featuring in the same menu as these effects, Picture Mode settings allow for more subtle image enhancements, such as making colours more vivid, or alternatively muted, as providing well as providing the default of natural, plus monotone and custom setting. The effects of the filters are shown pre-capture if you’ve got Live View deployed, and applied at the point of capture, which slightly slows down the writing time, but not prohibitively. They are a bit of fun and you may only ever use a couple but at least provide a creative extra.

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As we said at the outset, with our test lens affixed to the E-5’s Four Thirds mount we managed to get some very impressive results shooting in daylight without flash that are a good match for cameras such as the Nikon D7000 with a higher headline pixel count. Images have real punch and should the natural setting not deliver the colours you’re looking for, the vivid or pop art options will. The E-5 then comes across as a very capable if not the most affordable option for anyone looking for a top quality return from a very durable DSLR body.

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To recap

The chunky E-5 is big and bold, its weather resistant body, Art Filters and tilting screen being for us its main plus points

Writing by Gavin Stoker.