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Conclusion - Pros

  • Very good resolution at low ISO sensitivity settings (rivaling higher pixel-count cameras)
  • Reliable metering and white balance systems
  • Excellent JPEG color
  • Tank-like body that feels like it can take years of abuse.
  • Large, bright viewfinder showing 100% coverage
  • Useful pitch/roll electronic spirit level
  • Exceptional amount of customization
  • Versatile and fun Art Filters
  • In-camera RAW editing
  • Twin card slots (CF/SD)
  • Good video image quality (but see 'cons' below)
  • Access to excellent Four Thirds lens range.

Conclusion - Cons

  • Uncompetitive high ISO performance (when compared to APS-C peers
  • Between 0.5-1EV less highlight dynamic range than APS-C competitors (but better than E-3)
  • Unpredictable AF in multi-point mode
  • Maximum framerate of 5fps unimpressive compared to competition
  • Slow AF in poor light
  • Contrast-detection AF slow and unreliable in some situations (and with some lenses)
  • Some key control points hard to manipulate precisely with gloved hands
  • In-built microphone very prone to picking up background/handling sounds in video mode
  • Very little customization/control available in video mode
  • Framerate in video mode drops considerably when some Art Filters are used

Overall conclusion

Judged purely on its own merits the E-5 is a good and capable camera in most situations. But is it good enough to warrant swapping systems from Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony to Olympus? Or good enough that an uncommitted photographer wanting to get into DSLR photography for the first time might choose the E-5 over competitive offerings? Sadly, our answer to both questions has to be 'no'. But, perhaps more importantly, is the E-5 better than the E-3? Yes, definitely. Should E-3 users with a solid investment in the E system consider upgrading? Again, we have no hesitation in saying yes.

Let's make on thing very clear from the outset: the Olympus E-5 is the best Four Thirds DSLR ever made. It offers a better feature set, better baseline image quality, better ergonomics and better build quality than any previous E-series camera. Although at its heart is a relatively old 12MP CMOS sensor, Olympus has managed to squeeze more resolution out of it than we would have thought possible. Low ISO shots taken in good light are outstandingly detailed, and in these conditions the E-5's AF, metering and WB settings (coupled with a very good JPEG engine) work well together, and make the E-5 a pleasure to shoot with.

There are frustrations though - for one, the E-5 is priced too high. Also, its sensor is relatively noisy, dynamic range is good but not as wide as we'd like, and the maximum continuous shooting rate is relatively slow. The E-5's menu system is a bit fussy, the lack of any meaningful customization in movie mode is frustrating, likewise unpredictable AF in multi-point mode. None of these issues is fatal by itself, but taken as a whole, they add up to a camera which just isn't quite good enough to compete in this market segment, especially given the strength of fresh-faced competitors like the Pentax K-5.

Image Quality

As we've noted previously in this review, the E-5 has something of a split personality in terms of image quality. I decent light, at its lowest ISO settings images are clean and virtually noise free, and extremely detailed. The resolution of the E-5's sensor in ideal conditions is higher than we'd expect from a camera with this sort of pixel count and, viewed at 100%, the quality of some of our samples is simply breathtaking. Something that often gets overlooked is JPEG color - Olympus has traditionally been very strong in this area, and the E-5 is no exception. Outdoor shots from the E-5 taken at default settings have a 'pop' that we really like.

The E-5 struggles much more in low contrast situations, where luminance noise can be an issue as low as ISO 200. The trouble really starts above ISO 400 though, where the limitations of the E-5's sensor start to become very clear. At the higher ISO settings, in JPEG mode, you have a choice: noisy detailed images, or smoother, less detailed ones. There is a direct correlation between the intensity of noise reduction applied to the E-5's JPEG output and the amount of fine detail that is lost. This issue is not unique to the E-5, but unfortunately noise - and the effects of noise reduction - are problematic at lower ISO settings than we're used to from cameras with larger sensors. The drop in critical sharpness and detail resolution from ISO 400-800, for example, is more pronounced than we've come to expect, and by the time you get up to ISO 1600 and beyond, noise levels are disappointingly high.

Most of the E-5's peers offer significantly higher pixel counts, but this doesn't concern us too much. The most crucial area is not resolution - we're actually perfectly happy with 12MP for everyday use - but overall image quality. In terms of both dynamic range and noise, the E-5 is better than the E-3, but recent releases from the likes of Nikon and Pentax have really pushed the bar in these areas, delivering excellent, low-noise images with an astonishing amount of latitude for adjustment, especially in shadows. The E-5 simply cannot compete with the much lower noise floor (and hence wider dynamic range) of these newer sensors. Naturally, if you're a bright light, low ISO shooter (and let's face it, many photographers are) the E-5's comparably high noise levels at high ISO settings won't bother you that much, but in these conditions the restricted dynamic range of its (aging) sensor might.

Handling

The E-5's ergonomics won't be to everyone's taste, but like the E-3 before it, we've grown to really like using the E-5 over time, and of the current crop of DSLRs, the E-5 is one of our favorites to actually go out and take pictures with. The exceptional amount of customization means that the E-5 can be closely tailored to your particular shooting requirements and the body has a reassuring heft that we really like. It does seem perverse, however, that a camera with such advanced weatherproofing should have such a proliferation of small, closely-spaced control points. A portion of the shooting for this test was performed in cold weather, and we found it disappointingly hard to manipulate some of the E-5's key shooting controls when wearing gloves.

Cold weather woes aside, like most DSLRs, the E-5 becomes a less likeable camera in video mode, but the articulated LCD screen and lack of any manual control during video shooting are gains in terms of ease-of-use. Our most enduring frustration with both live view and video is the contrast-detection AF system, which most of the time works just fine but occasionally fails completely, and refuses to acquire focus. In live view mode this is merely annoying but during movie shooting, especially outdoors, focus is hard to judge accurately on the E-5's rear LCD screen, making AF errors hard to spot. We have a lot of defocused video clips to prove it. Speaking of video shortcomings, the sudden 'zooming' effect when switching from live view to movie shooting is immensely frustrating too and makes accurate framing prior to commencing video recording impossible without a degree of trial and error.

The Final Word

One of the initial promises of the Four Thirds system was that it would make camera bodies and lenses smaller. This has come true to an extent, but mainly for lenses. There is no denying, for example, that the super compact 9-18mm f/4-5.6 is much smaller and much lighter than an 18-36mm lens of the same nominal aperture range would be for a full-frame system, and the same goes for lenses such as the excellent 12-60mm f/2.8-4. Depth of field is a separate issue, but purely in terms of coverage, Olympus's Four Thirds lenses are generally smaller and more compact than equivalents designed for APS-C or full-frame systems. However, despite their smaller sensors, the top-end Four Thirds DSLRs - the E-1, E-30, E-3 and E-5 - have all been big, heavy, and comparatively expensive for their specification.

In terms of bulk, the E-5 is comparable with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which sports a sensor four times as large. Obviously the 5D II costs a lot more, but for the extra money you get more pixels, better high ISO image quality, better dynamic range, and a considerably better video mode. Yet the E-5 isn't a 'budget' camera - it is closer in cost to the Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 7D (albeit more expensive than than all of them). Like the 5D II, the D7000, K-5 and 7D offer more versatile sensors, as well as plenty of customization and a degree of weatherproofing.

So what is the E-5? Ultimately, as we said in the introduction to this review, it is a camera aimed squarely at the Four Thirds faithful - those photographers with a solid investment in the system that can't, or simply don't want to abandon it. We suspect that this narrow band of consumers will be extremely happy with the E-5, and they should be. The E-5 is a tough and capable camera that is fun to shoot with, and makes a very agreeable companion for Olympus's excellent range of lenses. However almost a decade after the inception of the Four Thirds system, the E-5 isn't the game-changer that we always hoped Olympus might come up with. Arguably, that was the PEN series.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Olympus E-5
Category: Professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Low ISO, bright light shooting, and working in tough conditions
Not so good for
Anything where speed, dynamic range or high ISO image quality are critical
Overall score
75%
The E-5 isn't meant to appeal to the mass-market, and we suspect that it won't. However, as a flagship for the established Four Thirds system it succeeds brilliantly. The E-5 is capable of excellent results, and its tank-like body should take years of abuse. Unfortunately, comparably poor image quality at high ISO settings, and restricted dynamic range make it less competitive than it could be.

 

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