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A small and lightweight camera with a grown-up feature set, delivering professional results – that’s the holy grail of digital photography. With the OM-D E-M5, Olympus aims to get close: the camera, touted as “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary,” offers many features of a full-fledged SLR in the small package of a Micro Four Thirds camera. Weighing just 425 grams (0.94 lb), the E-M5 accepts a large number of different lenses, takes photos at 16 megapixels, shoots videos at full HD resolution and offers serious photographers a variety of extras – such as wireless flash control, quick touch-screen access to many settings, sophisticated anti-shake technology, and high ISO sensitivity for clean images even when there’s little available light.

All of that sounds impressive on paper. Can the E-M5 deliver? Let’s find out.

Technical highlights

  • Micro Four Thirds system camera with electronic viewfinder
  • 16 megapixel Live MOS sensor; max. resolution 4608×3456 pixels
  • HD video recording at up to 1920x1080i (AVCHD, H.264, Motion Jpeg)
  • 35-point, contrast-detection autofocus with face recognition
  • 5-axis image stabilization built into the camera body
  • Water and dust resistant body
  • Continuous shooting up to 9 frames per second
  • 3-inch OLED monitor, tilts up and down; 610,000 pixels resolution
  • Touchscreen controls for autofocus and many settings
  • 8 kinds of art filters
  • ISO range 200 to 25,600
  • Image ratios: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 (square), 3:4 (portrait)
  • Detachable flash included; camera can control Olympus wireless flash system
  • Compatible with any Micro Four Thirds lens
  • Kit lens: Olympus Zuiko 12-50 mm, 1:3.5-6.3; equivalent to 24–100 mm full-frame
  • Dimensions: 4.8 inch/12.2 cm wide x 3.5 inch/8,9 cm high x 1.7 inch/4,3 cm deep
  • Weight: 0.94 lb/425 grams (body only, with battery)
  • Price (Jan. 2013), body only: ca. $1,000/€1,099; with kit lens: ca. $1,199/€1,299
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 specifications

 

Product design

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Right out of the box, the E-M5 signals being special: the camera’s design goes back to the classic system of Olympus OM film cameras, and clearly this new OM-D model is intended to be the first in a line of digital heirs to the throne. Available in silver or black, the E-M5 is elegant and small, yet comfortable to hold. Despite its compact size, this is a camera for serious photography, as both the feature set and the price make clear.

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Image Aspect Ratio

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See the original pictures from the graphic above in this Flickr Album (RATIO)

The 16 megapixel sensor can be set to record images in five different aspect ratios, including square and panoramic, even when photographing in RAW format to maximize image quality. (Any other format than 4:3 is, technically, an in-camera crop.)

OLED screen and viewfinder

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The OLED screen folds out and can be flipped up/down, which is utterly convenient for shoooting pictures from various angles

The 3-inch OLED screen is crisp and clear. It serves as command-and-control center for the camera, showing settings, helping to frame images and presenting the results. In bright sunlight, the electronic viewfinder is a welcome addition. Automatically activated when the camera is lifted to the eye, the EVF gives a reasonably good impression of what the camera sees. Still, while perfectly usable, the EVF has notable limitations: the resolution, at 1.44 million pixels, is relatively low, colors are often washed out, highlights can seem blown out even when the image is correctly exposed. Overall, the electronic viewfinder is clearly inferior to its optical cousins found in traditional SLR cameras.
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Image sensor

Then again, the mirror system in SLRs makes these cameras bulky and heavy. Challengers like the E-M5 try to offer similar functionality in a much lighter, more compact body. This requires the sensor to shrink as well: The Micro Four Thirds sensor in the OM-D measures 17.3 x 13 mm, which is about 40 percent smaller than the sensor in a typical consumer SLR camera, such as the Canon EOS 60D or Nikon D5100.
A bigger sensor, in theory, has two advantages: it can capture more light indoors or in the evening, so images tend to be less grainy at high ISO settings. It also helps when taking portraits, as the blurry background that many photographers desire is easier to achieve with a big sensor, which delivers a more shallow depth-of-field. Conversely, compact-system cameras like the Olympus E-M5 need very good, expensive lenses with small f-numbers in order to accomplish the same effect.

Kit lens

Unfortunately, the kit lens is rather mediocre, starting at f3.5 when zoomed out to the wide-angle 12 mm (24 mm equivalent) and dropping down to f6.3 when zoomed all the way in. Very often, this limitation means higher ISO settings in order to prevent camera shake or motion blur. Also, shallow depth-of-field is much harder to achieve in many situations when the lens stops at an aperture of 6.3 or even 3.5. Thankfully there’s a wide range of alternative – if significantly more expensive – lenses to choose from , such as Olympus’s 14-54mm F2.8-3.5 II or Panasonic’s 14-50mm F2.8-3.5.

 

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Find the original resolution photos shot with the OM-D E-M5 in this Flickr Album (Noise-ISO-Zoom)

With the kit lens, the E-M5 is easy enough to bring along in a bag – but it does not fit in a jacket pocket. You need to switch to a small, fixed-focus lens for that trick, and even then the Olympus feels a bit too bulky. Like many other compact-system cameras, the E-M5 is not meant to be a point-and-shoot for all occasions – it’s intended for deliberate photography and demands to be taken seriously. For good reason, as we’ll see.

How I use it

As a multimedia reporter , I’ve been using a variety of cameras and camcorders over the years. Currently, my main camera is a Nikon D7000 with a collection of different lenses when I photograph professionally, but I also like my Panasonic LX-5 as a walk-around pocket camera for everyday use.

This review is the result of several weeks of photographing with the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Given the camera’s complexity, I would not claim to know every function inside out, but I’ve taken thousands of pictures and dozens of videos under a variety of different circumstances – mainly using modes such as Aperture and Shutter Priority, Program or Manual. The camera offers Scene and Art modes as well, but I prefer to use my computer for filter and other post-production effects if I ever want them.

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A variety of software filters can be applied when shooting in ART mode. Here an image taken at San Francisco’s Cable Car Museum

Find the original resolution  photo  in this Flickr album

Handling

True to its aspiration of giving photographers total control , the E-M5 offers a myriad of settings, buttons, displays, menus, and ways to customize every possible function. This can be overwhelming at first, and confusing at times, even after weeks of usage, but ultimately it allows buyers to make the camera truly their own.

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It’s possible, for example, to change the function of the main dials, which control settings like aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation, until your instincts match the camera’s behavior. Similarly, there are often several ways of achieving the same goal: want to quickly view and flip through a large number of images on the memory card? No problem, the arrow keys work – as do the control dials. Take your pick.

In addition, the OLED screen is touch-sensitive, meaning that various settings can be changed with a quick finger tap and a flick of the mode dial. You can also pick the focus point by touching the screen where you want the camera to concentrate its attention. Naturally, the touch-screen function can be deactivated, and if you’re wearing gloves in cold weather it does not work anyway.

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The OLED screen folds out and can be flipped up/down, which is utterly convenient for shoooting pictures in various positions

Tiny as the buttons are, many people may find changing the settings a bit fiddly. My main gripe is the lack of dedicated controls for some essential settings: there’s no ISO button, for example, no switch for exposure and autofocus settings either. All of these functions can be user-assigned to various controls – but it takes a while to memorize these custom settings, and you’d better not forget them.

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Settings: ISO 200 – f/8 – 1/800 sec – focal lens 19 mm

Find the original resolution of this photo alongside the other photo samples shot with the OM-D E-M5 in this Flickr albumplease note that all the rights of the photos shot for this review are the property of Karsten Lemm.

Performance

In a world of smart phones taking pictures with eight, ten or twelve megapixels, the OM-D’s 16 megapixels may not seem like much, but the image size leaves plenty of room for cropping, and picture quality goes far beyond the pixel count, of course.

It is here that the Olympus E-M5 truly excels: in various light conditions, the camera delivered very pleasing results right off the memory card. Exposure, white balance, sharpness, noise control – the OM-D’s TruePic VI image processor handled all these variables well, most of the time, so that the images hardly required any tweaking in the computer to look good.

That said, you can also shoot RAW alongside Jpeg without slowing the E-M5 down too much, allowing you to decide later which files to keep and edit more thoroughly. This may pay off in low-light situations in particular, as the in-camera software has a tendency to reduce noise at the cost of smudging fine detail. Admittedly, this becomes apparent mostly when pixel peeping on high-ISO shots.

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Overall, the E-M5 does a very good job at delivering images that look natural, lively and balanced. While the camera offers ISO settings up to 25,600, I found anything beyond ISO 6400 to be a stretch. Still, that’s very impressive, given the relatively small sensor.

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Find the original resolution photos shot with the OM-D E-M5 in this Flickr Album (Noise-ISO-Zoom)

The flash is not built-in, but it’s part of the package and attaches quickly to the hot shoe. While this makes the camera a bit bigger, it adds a lot of flexibility without extra cost. The flash head does not tilt sideways or upward, but as it sits a bit higher above the lens than usual, the results tend to be above average, in my experience.

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Find the original resolution  photo  in this Flickr album

The autofocus, however, turned out to be hit and miss. In good light, with people or static objects, I found it to be fast and accurate, as promised. In low light, however, or when tracking and panning, anything that was moving fast was often blurry and disappointing.

In high burst mode – “Sequential H” – the camera will not adjust the autofocus, making the rate of 9 frames per second a rather theoretical feature. Continuous autofocus, following the subject, only works in “Sequential L” mode, which tops out at 4 frames per second.

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Even when autofocus tracking is activated, the results, in our experience, turn out to be hit and miss

Find the original reoslution photos in this Flickr Album (Burst Mode)

In addition, when tracking, the autofocus has a tendency to lock on just briefly before the E-M5 loses interest and decides to concentrate on some other, seemingly random element of the picture. In our test, this happened with a variety of settings and is in line with observations by other reviewers.

Ultimately, the E-M5 is not the ideal camera for car races, football games or nature photographers trying to visually capture fast-flying birds. It does a stellar job, however, in many other situations.

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Tricky shot, nice result – thanks to effective image stabilization and good in-camera processing at ISO 2000, this indoors photo looks crisp and lively right out of the camera

Find the original resolution  photo  in this Flickr album

Video recording

The E-M5 records high-definition video at up to 1920 x 1080 interlaced, making it a good HD camcorder for most general purposes. A nice feature of the kit lens is the electronic zoom, which allows for much smoother zooming than is typically possible by hand. A quick pull or push on the lens grip switches between manual and electronic zoom. The image stabilization, which is helpful for photography, becomes a truly stellar feature for video: many handheld shots look as if they’d been taken using a tripod.

There is an optional accessory to attach a microphone to the camera, to let aspiring filmmakers get a higher sound quality than with the built-in option. The autofocus, again, occasionally shows some visible indecisiveness, which can result in a slightly jittery image. And in several cases, we encountered mpeg compression artifacts, as in the sky and clouds in the video below.

Conclusion

Since its debut last year, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has won many accolades and numerous awards – and it’s easy to see why: this is a camera with a wealth of features, catering to ambitious photographers who are looking to reduce the size and weight of their gear without sacrificing quality.

For the most part, the E-M5 delivers. The 16 megapixel sensor captures vivid, detailed images that are well exposed and perfectly usable even at high sensitivity settings of up to ISO 6400 – which is quite a feat, given the relatively small Micro Four Thirds sensor.

The innovative five-axis image stabilizer noticeably helps to reduce camera shake, which comes particularly handy when shooting videos. And the multitude of dials and buttons, in tandem with a flexible menu system, put many of the important controls at the fingertips of any experienced user. It may take a while to get there, but once you’re familiar with the E-M5’s capabilities and how to use them, this a camera that, for the most part, is fun to use and delivers professional-looking results.

Yerba Buena P1180480 900 640x426Find the original resolution  photo  in this Flickr album

It’s important to consider the camera’s limits as well, though. In our experience, the E-M5 is not the best choice for action photography and fast-moving, hard-to-track objects. In too many cases, the autofocus erred on the wrong side, lost sight of its subject, or failed to keep up with changing conditions in front of the lens.

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In “Sequential H” burst mode, the E-M5 can shoot at up to 9 frames per second – but the focus will not be adjusted

Find the original reoslution photos in this Flickr Album (Autofocus Tracking)

In addition, the kit lens severely hampers what the camera can do. While the electric zoom function is nice for smooth zooming in video recordings, the optical performance lags behind. With a maximum aperture of 6.3 at the long end, it’s difficult to achieve shallow depth-of-field and many situations require fairly high ISO settings. Anybody seriously interested in the E-M5 would do well to consider skipping the kit lens and investing in a better zoom right away.

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The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is significantly smaller and lighter than the Canon EOS-50D SLR, a lot of peple would like to pay for that feature – keep in mind that it is very challenging for manufacturers to deliver high quality image and extensive image controls in a super compact body.

Lastly, the price of $1,000 in the U.S. and almost 1,100 euros in Europe for the body only puts the E-M5 in direct competition with many top-notch SLR cameras. And while the E-M5 may be the best compact-system camera yet, it does have some disadvantages compared with SLRs – notably the electronic viewfinder, which is usable but inferior to an optical one, the smaller, noisier sensor, and a more limited, pricier selection of lenses.

If the OM-D E-M5 were a couple of hundred dollars or euros cheaper I would not hesitate to recommend it as a great all-round camera and masterful feat of digital-image engineering. As it is, potential buyers will have to answer for themselves if the advantage of having a lighter and smaller camera is worth paying a significant premium over many equally capable SLR models.

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Find the original resolution  photo  in this Flickr album

Filed in Photo-Video >Reviews . Tags: Camera, camera reviews, micro four thirds, mirrorless camera and Olympus.
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