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Hands-on with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

Andy Westlake | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Feb 21, 2012

Olympus as a company may have had widely-publicized problems recently, with its very future threatened by financial scandal, but this doesn't seem to have adversely affected its camera designers at all. After the classically-styled PEN series, they've again looked to the company's film camera heritage, in the form of one of its most fondly-remembered lines: the OM series of 35mm SLRs. The result is the OM-D E-M5 - a camera that looks like an old-fashioned manual focus SLR but which is as modern as it gets, under-the-skin.

The OM-D is still a Micro Four Thirds camera, but Olympus says the line is distinguished from the existing PEN range by the type of user expected to buy it; being aimed more towards the enthusiast who wishes to engage with manual control. In practice, the E-M5 differs from the E-P3 by having an inbuilt electronic viewfinder and tilting rear screen, plus weatherproof construction, upgraded 5-axis image stabilization and an improved 16MP sensor. The cameras are still built around very similar features and controls, though. Olympus says that the OM-D line is likely to be expanded to multiple models, with higher- or lower-spec (and price) versions equally possible dependent upon the E-M5's market acceptance. Despite its high-end features such as weather-sealing, the company is not calling the E-M5 a pro-level camera.

The E-M5's firmware isn't quite finished, and the camera is still a few months away from being available in the shops, but Olympus invited groups of European journalists to try it out at a series of press events in Amsterdam last week. The cameras we used were essentially finished in terms of hardware, but running non-final firmware (v0.95) and offering not-quite-finalized image quality. Sadly this means we can't bring you a gallery of full-size sample images as we'd have liked, but can only show downsized samples. Instead, I'm going to offer some thoughts in how it handles, and a few subjective thoughts on speed and image quality. 

For our previously published in-depth hands-on preview of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 click here

Design and Handling

The E-M5 is a small camera - probably smaller than you think from looking at pictures. It may look like an OM-4, but it's noticeably smaller, and that camera was one of the most compact manual focus SLRs. Despite this its magnesium alloy shell offers a good heft in your hand and its metal top-plate dials which offer satisfyingly positive click-stops as they rotate. But because the camera is small, its buttons are tiny too. Thankfully they have a long and positive travel, which means they're more usable in practice than they look when you first pick the camera up. Users with large hands might still find them fiddly, though.

The camera is notably well-set up for eye-level shooting, indeed its ergonomics are comparable to high-end DSLRs such as the Pentax K-5. The two overlapping top-plate dials offer quick access to the main exposure controls - shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation - and can be customized to work exactly as you'd like. The four-way buttons on the rear are used directly to move the AF point around the frame - a notably quicker solution than on other mirrorless cameras with EVFs such as the Sony NEX-7 or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 (at least in its default setup). Notably there's no direct ISO button, but you can customize a button to access this if you wish.

The E-M5 is comfortable to hold even without the accessory grip - the rear thumb 'hook' offering a solid grasp - but you'll want the added security of a wrist strap at least. As a left-eyed shooter I found the rear dial to be a little awkward to reach with my thumb, but sufficiently close to the shutter button to be easily operable with my forefinger. The add-on grip changes things slightly - it certainly provides a much more positive hold, but in doing so moves your hand away from the Fn2 and REC buttons, making them distinctly less-easy to reach.

Olympus's excellent on-screen 'Super Control Panel' is still available, with the added bonus that you can now use the touchscreen to select the parameter you want to change (although you still have to spin a dial to set it). Oddly though it's not enabled by default, which we'd have thought would make sense on a model at this level - you have to delve into Olympus's labyrinthine and not-especially-intuitive menu system to turn it on. This won't faze existing Olympus owners, but new users may well find it bewildering; the E-M5 has one of the longest menus we've ever seen.

Viewfinder and screen

The E-M5's electronic viewfinder has the same spec as the add-on VF-2 for the PEN models, which means it's very good indeed, if perhaps no longer absolutely class-leading. Its central positioning makes for a very SLR-like handling experience, particularly compared to the offset EVF of the Sony NEX-7.

The rear screen is the same excellent bright, highly visible OLED touch-sensitive unit as the E-P3, but now it also tilts up and down for waist-level or overhead shooting. Because it doesn't swivel, it doesn't work so well when you turn the camera to portrait format, but in practice its wide viewing angle makes this less of a problem than you might expect. The touchscreen has the same tricks as the E-P3, most notably the ability to position your focus point by touch. 

In amongst the excitement about the E-M5's 5-axis IS system, one other feature has generally gone unremarked - the ability to activate IS with a half-press of the shutter button, which allows you to see the effect in the viewfinder just like working with a stabilized lens. It's a really helpful feature, and one we hope will be helpful for manually-focusing adapted lenses where magnifying live view exaggerates hand-shake.

Operational speed

With the E-M5, Olympus is reclaiming the title of 'world's fastest autofocus', from the likes of the Panasonic DMC-GX1 and Nikon 1 cameras which surpassed the E-P3. But this is notably only for static subjects - not for tracking moving objects. With fast internal-focus lenses such as the matched M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm F3.5-6.3 kit zoom or the lovely M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm F1.8 portrait lens, the E-M5's autofocus  is impressively quick (although to be honest these cameras have reached a point that it's very difficult to tell a difference any more).

The E-M5 can shoot at an equally impressive 9 frames per second. In this mode focus and metering are fixed, and there's understandably no live view view between frames (although the screen doesn't black out completely, but instead plays back your recently-captured frames to help keep track of what's happening). The rollover below, which covers 1 second of action, illustrates how this can work in practice.

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If you drop the continuous shooting speed to a still-pretty-rapid 4.2fps the camera will attempt to track focus during shooting, and maintains a live view feed between frames in the process: the first Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera to do so. In principle this should help track your subject when panning.

Image quality - initial impressions

We can't show full size images from the E-M5 or make any definitive statements on image quality, but we can share some initial images and impressions. Perhaps most importantly, despite the switch to a new sensor, Olympus's signature color rendition appears to have been retained. This means that the camera outputs attractive images with slightly warm and saturated, but crucially pleasant color, shot after shot. This may not matter so much to committed RAW shooters, but we're always pleased to see it, as it means you don't necessarily have to shoot RAW to get really nice results.

First impressions of the camera's high ISO output are pretty favorable too. It looks like the E-M5 should be quite useable at ISOs where the 12MP PENs would really start to struggle. Obviously though we'll look into this in more detail when we get a production camera to review.

The images below were shot using either the M.Zuiko Digital 45mm 1:1.8 for the various portraits, or the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm 1:3.5-6.3 EZ (the E-M5's weathersealed kit zoom). For any of these samples, click on the thumbnail to see a down-sampled 1600x1200 px version.

On a dull grey day, the E-M5's signature 'Olympus color' has livened up a scene that many cameras would render as drab and unattractive. The E-M5 also offers the kind of warm, flattering skin tones that we've become used to from Olympus.
In this ISO 1600 shot, colors retain saturation and noise is well-suppressed. I'm not claiming this is any kind of artistic triumph, but it was shot at ISO 8000 at twilight, yet still maintains decent color.

Art Filters

We've long been fans of Olympus's Art Filters, which have been widely imitated but never really bettered. These image effects make far more sense on mirrorless cameras than SLRs, as their effects can be previewed live in the viewfinder and taken into account during image composition. This actively encourages a bit of creativity, and lets you tailor your composition to the desired processing effect rather than vice versa. The E-M5 allows you to record a normal RAW file alongside your Art Filtered JPEG, and you can reconvert this in-camera to other Art Filter effects too (or simply use normal image processing).

As is the Olympus way, the E-M5 offers a few new filters and variants; there's an entirely new 'Key Line' filter which apparently is inspired by the Japanese Manga style of drawing. It's one of those filters that works quite well for the occasional shot, but you probably won't be setting as default. The existing 'Cross Process' filter gets a strongly magenta-toned variant which, equally, is effective at times but overall of less-than-universal utility.

Keyline gives a rather graphic effect, with somewhat muted, posterized colors. Cross Process II adds a strong magenta tone, particularly to neutral areas of the frame. Like several of the filters it's not especially suited to everyday scenes.
The old favorites are still in place, of course; this is Diorama mode... ... and this is the slightly eye-watering Pop Art, with Pinhole effect added on top.

However, there a couple of more positive changes. Dramatic Tone now has a monochrome variant that gives interesting results, offering a rather different high-contrast monochrome 'look' to the familiar Grainy Film filter.

Dramatic Tone II gives a high contrast black-and-white look that's particularly well-suited to graphic subjects, retaining far more detail then the existing Grainy Film filter.

Art Filter bracketing  - the ability to save a single shot using multiple different effects - can now be accessed much more easily, as the final option in the filter selection menu. It still has to be configured in the main menu, but if you have a few preferred filters you regularly use, then you can set the camera up to process your shots accordingly.

Art Filter Bracketing lets you record multiple versions of the same shot. This is a Grainy Film variant of the Dramatic Tone shot above...  ...and here it is in Pinhole. If you record RAW files then you can apply all also these after the event, either in-camera or using Olympus's supplied software.

Summary

I may only have had my hands on the E-M5 for a relatively limited period of time on a dull day in Amsterdam, but that's still enough to leave a very positive impression. It's the kind of camera that long-term Olympus users will recognize - small, solid, and highly capable - and its high-end spec such as weatherproofing and fast continuous shooting is the icing on the cake.

The only potential banana skins we've identified to consider before placing a pre-order are the tiny buttons and the way that the optional larger grip makes certain controls less-easy to reach - perhaps most notably the movie record button. But in key areas such as speed, access to essential controls, and most importantly image quality, the E-M5 appears very promising. We'll obviously need to wait for a fully-reviewable sample to really get to grips with it, but the omens are looking good.

Oh, and a few more shots...

The highlight of the various events Olympus laid on to showcase the E-M5 was a studio portrait shoot, under the genial direction of photographer Paul Schirnhofer. This gave an opportunity to experiment with different styles and Art Filters, with a professional model and lighting setup. Here are some of the resulting shots.

'Soft Focus' Art Filter 'Natural' Picture Mode
'Sepia' Art Filter with Frame effect 'Grainy Film' Art Filter
'Diorama' Art Filter 'Cross Process II' Art Filter
'Dramatic Tone II' Art Filter 'Natural' Picture Mode

For our previously published in-depth hands-on preview of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 click here