The E-M5 doesn't have a built-in flash but does come with a clip-on unit that connects via the hot-shoe and accessory port. This method of keeping body size down, while still offering a flash in the box has become fairly common in the mirrorless sector and your attitude towards it is likely to depend on how often you shoot flash - just the occasional bit of fill-flash and you probably won't mind throwing the clip-on unit in your pocket, but frequent users are likely to get frustrated with having to repeatedly clip it on, or risk it being knocked off. (The Olympus implementation does at least have a small catch mechanism to reduce the chances of the flash being knocked off as you walk around with it).

The clip-on flash can be used as a controller for Olympus' RC-branded infrared remote controlled flashguns, including the relatively small and affordable FL-300R, for more flexible lighting.

The flash performance is pretty good, considering how small the clip-on unit is. Exposure is good, resulting in pleasant skin tones. Obviously direct, on-board flash isn't the most flattering lighting but the E-M5's doing about as well as could be expected.

JPEG Sharpening/Noise Filter settings

With its last generation of cameras, Olympus appeared to have prioritized prints over on-screen viewing, when it came to choosing the default JPEG settings (not an unreasonable decision, since almost nobody makes a monitor capable of showing an entire 12MP image at 100% view). This involved quite a lot of noise reduction and subsequent sharpening, which wasn't the optimal setting for screen viewing.

The E-M5 takes a more moderate approach, with more subtle noise reduction and less exaggerated sharpening, at least at base ISO.

Here we show three of the sharpening levels offered by the E-M5, starting with the default, (0) level and also showing the minimum -2 setting.

As is often the case, careful sharpening of a RAW file generally yields the best results.

(ISO 200, 45mm F1.8, F3.5, Noise Filter Low)
JPEG, Sharpening = 0 (default)
JPEG, Sharpening -1
JPEG, Sharpening -2

At higher ISOs, the noise reduction (called Noise Filter on Olympus cameras), is more detrimental to image detail. For our tastes, particularly as the ISOs rise, we found we preferred setting the camera's Noise Filter to 'Off' and then dialing back the sharpening to -1, which gives a good level of detail at most settings, without then over-sharpening the additional noise you're leaving in the image.

Here we compare the default Noise Filter level (Standard) to turning it to the 'Off' position. We've also turned the sharpening down on the second image because the default sharpening tends to over-sharpen the noise.

(ISO 6400, 45mm F1.8, F1.8)
JPEG, Noise Filter = Standard, Sharpening = 0 (default)
JPEG, Noise Filter = Off, Sharpening = -1

Shadow Noise

The E-M5 is the first Olympus to push beyond using the rather dated 12MP Panasonic sensor and it appears to be a considerable step forward. Pushing the exposure in post-processing to see how much latitude there is for pulling detail out of the shadow regions shows there is more detail to be found without revealing excessive noise.

This scene has had the exposure pulled up by 3EV in Raw-processing, to show how noisy the shadow regions of the images are. Click on the left-hand images to view the full-size versions.
Olympus E-M5 - ACR+3.0EV (ACR NR: 0) - 100% crops
Sony NEX-5N Panasonic DMC GH2 Samsung NX200 Sony NEX-7

These images are all processed with noise reduction minimized in Adobe Camera Raw, so it's possible to clean these results up better than has been done here. Trying to push-process our dynamic range test shot shows the E-M5 is able to capture a similar range of tones in the shadows as the NEX-5N, suggesting it's not simply giving cleaner shadows by clipping to black sooner than the Sony.

The result is a big improvement - allowing greater flexibility in post-processing. However, for JPEG shooters, it should also mean that the clever Auto Gradation setting (a context-sensitive processing system that attempts to produce balanced images without damaging local contrast) can pull more information out of the shadows without introducing too much additional noise.

Auto Gradation (Shadow Adjustment)

Here we've taken a shot where backlighting had confused the camera's meter and the subject was left slight under-exposed. Re-processing the image with Gradation set to 'Auto' attempts to pull detail out of the shadows, to offer a more balanced image. The result is a greatly improved picture, without excessive introduction of noise, as can be seen from the crop taken from the inside of the subject's hood at the lower left of the image.

Both images are based on a single Raw file shot at ISO 800, F2.8, 1/80th seconds using the Sigma 30mm F2.8 DN lens. Roll over the titles to switch between the two images.

Gradation Normal Gradation Auto

Overall image quality

The E-M5's image quality is impressive - whether giving punchy, attractive JPEGs or pretty clean, malleable Raw files. It's certainly a big step forwards for the Olympus's mirrorless cameras. The noise and dynamic range levels are a fraction behind the very latest APS-C sensors, if you analyze the images at a 1:1 level, but in most circumstances you simply won't notice. The Micro Four Thirds system now features a handful of useful and reasonably-priced fast prime lenses, which in concert with the E-M5's in-body IS means you'll often be able to shoot in low light without resorting to the camera's highest ISOs. Frankly, the quality of the camera's JPEGs and color rendition will outweigh any theoretical numeric differences between the E-M5 and its competitors for many people.

The price you pay for the E-M5's small size and small lenses is a a slightly smaller sensor than its APS-C peers. This can result in less light capturing ability at the same aperture and equivalent focal length, meaning a bit more noise in some situations. But, with the high quality of the E-M5's output (not to mention accessible bright lenses), it's not a trade-off with much of an impact in the final image. Even if you have the images printed beyond home-printing sizes, you're still unlikely to notice the compromise that you've theoretically made.