Olympus reached back to its design roots when crafting the new OM-D E-M5 micro four thirds camera. The original OM line of film SLRs was known for its rich feature set and stylish, compact design. Now, released as a digital body, the first offering in the new OM-D line is the E-M5. Based on my initial testing, both in the lab and the field, this latest generation is destined to achieve even greater glory than the original. See also Group test: what's the best DSLR?
The E-M5 body measures 4.8-by-3.5-by-1.69 inches and weighs in at just under a pound. It’s available in two colors—black and silver. Because it’s designed to look like a DSLR, but is closer to the size of a Compact System or Interchangeable Lens Camera, many who see it for the first time will exclaim, “Oh, it’s cute!” See also Sony NEX-7 review.
The top panel, as you’re looking down at it, features an exposure mode dial on the left side and what Olympus calls a main dial on the right side. There’s also a sub-dial around the shutter release. You can easily rotate either of the right-side dials with your thumb or forefinger to make various adjustments to the camera. A common example would be to press a programmable button for exposure compensation, then rotate the main dial for the precise setting.
One of those programmable buttons, the Fn2, is positioned next to the shutter release. It can be assigned more than a dozen operations, such as white balance, ISO, and auto exposure lock. Next to the Fn2 is the red record button for initiating movie capture on the fly.
In the center is a familiar DSLR “hump” that typically houses the optical viewfinder. But in the case of the E-M5, the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), accessory port and hot shoe occupy that space. The accessory port accommodates a variety of tools including a macro light, bluetooth module, and microphone adapter. The E-M5 does not include an external mic jack in the body itself.
The camera back houses the 3-inch, 610,000-dot tilting LCD. It’s a touch-control OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode, meaning, really bright), and it is beautiful. In shooting mode, the E-M5 displays the image on the LCD until you put the camera up to your eyes. Then it automatically switches the EVF. The playback button is up near the top, above the LCD, and can be difficult for large fingers to operate. The on/off lever, however is nicely placed in the lower right corner and is easy to use. The other back-panel controls should be familiar to photographers, such as the 4-way controller and buttons for trash, menu, and info. There’s also another programmable button, the Fn1, next to the playback button.
Macworld’s test camera included the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm 1:3.5-6.3 zoom lens, which I recommend over the more-compact ED 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 (both are kit options). In addition to a longer and wider focal length, the 12-50mm is weather sealed, matching the weather-sealed E-M5 body, includes both power and manual zooming, and features a surprisingly good macro mode. When bought separately, the 12-50mm zoom is selling for nearly $500 on the street. When purchased as part of the E-M5 kit, the price drops to $300.
The E-M5 has a subtle grip on the front with a curved thumb-rest on the back. The body fits well in small hands but isn’t as comfortable for larger mitts. Fortunately, Olympus is offering the accessory HLD-6 grip and battery holder. It’s a clever two-part design. You can detach the bottom battery compartment and use just the grip. With it on, the E-M5 is very comfortable in bigger hands. The HLD-6 will cost you $300, but after using it, the camera just doesn’t feel as good without it.
The E-M5 powers up quickly and focuses even faster. With a maximum burst mode of 9 fps, it’s capable of handling sporting events. The new 16-megapixel image sensor provides a maximum resolution of 4608-by-3456 pixels.
The touchscreen LCD is handy when using the Super Control Panel that allows you to tap on a menu option and then rotate the main dial to change the setting. If you don’t like using the touchscreen, however, it can be disabled.
Five-axis image stabilization is built into the body, so any lens that you mount on the camera is stabilized. And unlike other Olympus bodies, you can even stabilize the camera’s preview, allowing you to see the effect while shooting.
You can compose on the LCD or the built-in EVF. Switching back and forth is seamless thanks to the sensor that detects when you raise the camera to your eye. In terms of color and tone, the composition is rendered more accurately on the back LCD. But the EVF is much easier to use in bright lighting conditions. When using the LCD, you can take advantage of Face Detection that works well as long as the face is squared up to the camera.
Unlike the PEN series of cameras, the SD memory card has its own dedicated slot on the side of the camera, with battery access on the bottom. The E-M5 uses a new BLN-1 battery that is not compatible with existing PEN cameras.
For flash photography, mount the included clip-on flash in the hot shoe. Flash coverage was even corner-to-corner with the clip-on unit, with only slight vignetting at the 12mm setting on the zoom. This unit is also weather sealed and can be used as a controller for Olympus wireless flash units.
Movie recording can be initiated on the fly with the red button on the top panel, or by switching to movie mode on the mode dial. Olympus now provides the option of recording in H.264 as well as AVCHD and Motion JPEG. This is great news because H.264 is a much friendlier codec than AVCHD for Mac users, and higher quality that Motion JPEG. The power zoom option on the 12-50mm lens allows for smooth zooming during recording.
There are also plenty of imaging goodies included with the E-M5, such as multiple exposure capability, a wide array of scene modes including 3D capture, and a set of Art Filters that allow you to preview the effect on the LCD or in the EVF before you press the shutter button. So even though the OM-D is a serious photographic tool, it definitely has its fun side.
The E-M5 tops the charts in terms of image quality compared to other micro four thirds cameras we’ve tested. Exposure, Color, Sharpness, and Distortion categories were all ranked Superior. JPEGs look terrific with default settings. And we discovered that by changing the High ISO Noise Reduction setting to Low, they can be improved even further.
Raw files processed with the bundled Olympus Viewer 2, or the latest versions of Corel AfterShot Pro or Adobe Lightroom displayed excellent dynamic range. As of this writing, Apple’s iPhoto and Aperture do not support this camera's Raw files. I suspect that will change soon. Because the JPEGs are so good with this camera, you don’t have to shoot Raw. But if you do, you most likely will be pleased with the results.
The E-M5 has very few flaws, but there are a few potential rough spots. The camera does emit a slight humming sound when powered up. This appears to be the image stabilization system at work. You can’t hear it unless you’re in a very quiet environment, and even then, it isn’t a distraction. But it’s good to know about in case you think your particular camera has a problem.
As mentioned earlier, the physical buttons are small and might be difficult for large fingers. After a few days of shooting I was operating most of the controls smoothly. The only button that remained a challenge was the playback button on the back of the camera.
When shooting in Raw mode, there is a few-second delay before you can review the image on the LCD screen. If you’re accustomed to instant review, this could take some getting used to.