Overall handling and operation

Note: because of the similarities between the two bodies, some of the following text is adapted from comments previously made in our in-depth review of the Olympus E-3.

The E-5 is, like most cameras in this class, pretty big and relatively heavy, but overall handling is very good. The camera sits comfortably in the hand and the excellent grip and shutter release / control dial positioning combine with a well balanced distribution of weight to give a solid, stable impression in use. If the definition of good handling is that the camera feels like an extension of your arm, then the E-5 is a very successful design. It's unfortunate that the initially excellent impressions the E-5 gives 'in the hand' are spoilt somewhat once you start trying to change settings on the fly, but more of that later. For now we'll stick to giving Olympus credit for producing (another) professional grade camera that sits very well in the hand.

The E-5's rear control layout has changed slightly from the E-3, but will be familiar to anyone who's used one, or indeed the original E-1. We're all for keeping important controls easily and quickly accessible, and thanks to its generous number of external controls the E-5 scores points for allowing almost totally menu-free operation most of the time. We prefer the menu and info buttons in their new positions to the left of the viewfinder, because it makes them easier to get to (especially with the camera mounted on a tripod) and the same goes for the live view and delete buttons as well, which are easier to manipulate now that they have been liberated from beneath the LCD screen. The E-5's control layout might cause a little head-scratching amongst photographers migrating from other systems, but nothing is in the 'wrong' place. Our only lingering concern is about the accessibility of some control points (see 'specific handling issues', below).

Comparing the E-5's viewfinder directly to the Nikon D300S and the Canon EOS 7D it's obvious that Olympus has done a superb job of overcoming the limitations imposed by the smaller format - in fact, the viewfinder size of the E-5 is comparable in size to both.

One of the big differences between the E-5 (and E-3) and just about every other Four-Thirds SLR ever made is that Olympus has put a huge amount of effort into producing a viewfinder that doesn't suffer from the 'looking down a tunnel' problem arising from the smaller sensor format. And to its credit the result is very impressive; with a true 100% field of view and 1.15x magnification the E-5's viewfinder is as good as most APS sensor cameras, and a good deal better than many. There is an eyepiece shutter (for ensuring accurate metering in live view mode) and a diopter adjustment dial just to the right of the eyepiece.

Specific handling issues

The E-5 has a generous number of external control points, but like the E-3, some of them can be a little tricky to manipulate in certain situations. On the upper right of the rear of the camera the AEL/AF-L button and secondary control wheel, for example, are very close together and very close to the eyepiece. Most of the time this isn't a problem, but it can cause problems if you're wearing gloves in cold weather. Likewise the dual-purpose Mode and AF buttons on the top left of the E-5. Both buttons are positioned very close together and awkwardly close (approx 2mm) to the pentaprism 'hump'.

On the top right of the E-5, the exposure compensation and ISO buttons are recessed to prevent accidental operation but - again - their small size, proximity, and the very fact that they are recessed makes them hard to manipulate with gloved hands. Without wanting to overstress the point, it is worth remembering that Olympus markets the E-5 (like the E-3 before it) as an ideal camera for use in tough conditions. Arguably, all the weatherproofing in the world is of limited use if the camera's key shooting parameters cannot be adjusted when shooting outside in cold conditions.

Our other main complaint about the E-5's handling also dates back to the E-3, and relates to its menu system. As with so many aspects of the E-5's ergonomics, existing E-series users probably won't care, but for anyone coming to the E-5 from another system, its menus might appear intimidating and occasionally downright illogical.

The setup menu is a good example, containing as it does, 73 options ranged within ten color-coded sub-menus. Most custom options are located where you'd expect to find them, but some - like 'picture mode settings' (which can be found in the teasingly abbreviated disp/release/PC menu tab) are quite well hidden. Others are simply obscure - 'aspect shooting' for instance, and 'anti-shock' - both are useful functions, but to the uninitiated their purpose might not be clear from their names alone. The majority of our frustrations would be salved by the addition of built-in help screens, to explain the more esoteric options without the need to dive into the E-5's user manual.


Overall Performance

The E-3 was a pleasantly responsive camera, and the E-5 offers a very similar performance overall. That said, Olympus has made some improvements, the most important of which are a significantly better buffer, and the addition of contrast-detection autofocus in live view and video modes. The E-5's maximum framerate of 5fps is unchanged from the E-3, and poor compared to competitors like the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S, both of which can shoot up to 8fps. However, with a high-end CF card burst depth at this speed is now so great as to be effectively unlimited in JPEG mode. Contrast-detection AF is a welcome addition to the E-5's feature set, although neither speed nor accuracy are up there with the best of the competition, either DSLR or mirrorless.

The E-5's SSWF sensor-cleaning system operates when the camera is first powered up, and as such the E-5 takes roughly 1 second from the moment that the switch is turned until it is ready to take a shot. Shutdown isn't instantaneous either, but in this instance, the delay is caused by the E-5's image stabilization system recallibrating itself, which it does with an audible (and haptic) juddering. The shutdown delay is inconsequential, but it would be nice to have the option of setting SSWF to operate either on demand, or at shutdown. A delay of one second before you can take a picture doesn't sound like much, but it could potentially lead to missed shooting opportunities in some situations.

Continuous Shooting and Buffering

The E-5's 12MP sensor produces larger files than the 10MP E-3, but it offers the same maximum framerate of 5fps, and features a significantly larger buffer. With a top-flight Compact Flash card installed, the E-5's buffer is essentially limited by the capacity of the recording media alone.
  • JPEG (Super Fine): Max 5 fps for unlimited frames.
  • JPEG (Normal): Max 5fps for unlimited frames.
  • RAW: Max 5 fps for 20 frames, then 3-4 fps until card capacity is reached.
  • RAW+ JPEG (Normal): 5 fps for 10 frames, then around 2fps until card capacity is reached.

All tests conducted at 1/250 sec in AF-S mode with a 32GB Sandisk Extreme Pro 90MB/S CF card.

Autofocus speed / accuracy

The E-5's 11-point phase-detection AF module is unchanged from the E-3, and our experience of using it is precisely the same. Autofocus speed in single-point AF mode is good - very good with the useful 12-60mm SWD zoom mounted - and AF accuracy is very high in most situations, only dropping when multi-point AF is in use and in poor light. When the E-5's AF pattern is set to all 11 points, both AF acquisition speed and AF accuracy drop, and like the E-3, the E-5 occasionally seems to 'panic' over which AF point to use. Whilst the E-5 normally finds its mark in dim conditions, it can take a while to do so. The difference in AF speed in a dimly lit room as opposed to a bright exterior is painfully obvious, and indoors, especially, the E-5's AF can be downright sluggish.

The E-5's built-in flash can be used as an AF assist light, which helps with AF speed and accuracy in poor light, but this isn't an option for certain situations (such as any time you want to be discrete, inside a church or performance venue, for example).

The E-5 also offers contrast-detection AF in live view mode - a system adapted from recent midrange E-system cameras. Our experience of using CD-AF with the E-5 is mixed. Whilst in good light, with a 'standard' zoom it is fast and accurate enough for most purposes, speed and accuracy drop significantly with certain (impetiginized) lenses, and in dull interior lighting. Occasionally, with whatever lens, even in what should be favorable conditions, the E-5's CD-AF gives up completely and refuses to find its target. This is a particular problem when shooting video. For these reasons, when shooting in live view or video mode with the E-5, we much prefer to focus manually.

For still shooting, the E-5's magnified manual focus mode is excellent. Obviously, this mode is less suited to snapshots, but we suspect that E-5 users who are interested in live view are more likely to be using the camera on a tripod, for accurate focus and framing in either studio or landscape photographs.