Editor’s Choice: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review – Fast, Featured, Fun

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 shines as an example of how the mirrorless camera system can compete with their DSLR cousins.



The OM-D E-M5 is the flagship Micro Four Thirds Camera from Olympus. At 16 Megapixels, the E-M5 has one of the most advanced sensors on the market, rivaling not only other mirrorless cameras such as the Sony NEX-5 and the Panasonic GH3, but even some of its more traditional DSLRS like the Canon T4i and the Canon 60D.

The E-M5 has by far the most dynamic range of any mirrorless camera, able to shoot up to 5000 ISO natively and 25,600 ISO with internal processing. While it can’t hold up against a full frame sensor such as the Canon 5D, the E-M5 can definitely hold a respectable position against cropped frame DSLRs, especially in low light situations.

Being a mirrorless camera, the E-M5 obviously does not have the ability to have an optically real time viewfinder. Fortunately, one of the biggest disadvantages of a mirrorless cameras is a huge advantage in the E-M5 with its built in electronic view finder. With shutterbugs in mind, Olympus gave the E-M5 a gorgeous and crystal clear EVF that actually has a slightly better crop factor than some DSLR viewfinders, such as the Canon 60D.


In addition, being electronic, the E-M5’s EVF allows you to do see things such as focus assist zooms, histograms, and depth of field previews right in the viewfinder, something you definitely can’t do with a normal DSLR. And with the E-M5, the lag between reality and what you see is undetectable, especially in 120Hz display mode.


Additionally, a sensor in the EVF toggles between the viewfinder and a traditional live view on the gorgeous swiveling back display when you move the camera from your eye to held out in front of you, giving you the flexibility to move between both modes as needed.

As for the touch screen itself, it is very responsive and easy to use. What’s even better is this great new Super Control Panel which allows you to change up settings very quickly. Annoyingly, it’s actually disabled by default.

What Makes the EM-5 Special?

Moving on, one of the biggest selling points of the E-M5 is the revolutionary five axis in-camera image stabilizer. Traditionally, Image stabilization is built into the lens. If the lens didn’t have a built in image stabilizer, or a stabilizer that didn’t work with your current camera body, you were out of luck. In the E-M5 though, Olympus decided to go a different direction and built the image stabilization into the body itself.

It works as you’d imagine, with a combination of gyroscopes and smart processing that physically moves the camera sensor to counter the movement of the body, giving you a much sharper stabilized image no matter what lens you are using. This has some great synergy with the other great strength of mirrorless cameras, their ability to easily adapt legacy 35mm film lenses to use.


Now you can use that 30-year-old pristine glass on a modern digital body with a simple mounting adapter. Of course using legacy lenses requires manual focus and aperture control. When using a legacy lens, Aperture and Manual camera modes work well.

The second major selling point of the E-M5 that makes it special is the E-M5 is the first mirrorless interchangeable with a rugged camera build. Made out of rugged magnesium alloy and aluminum, the E-M5 is splash proof, rain proof, and dust proof. Take it outside onto the beach in the rain and you don’t have to worry about liquid and sand messing up the internals, assuming you are using a weather sealed lens. Sadly there aren’t very many of those, and it’s something I really hope Panasonic and Olympus start making more of.

Concert in the Garden

Concert in the Nasher Sculpture Museum

The third major selling point of the E-M5 is it also has the world’s fastest Autofocus system. When paired with its kit lens, the focus speed is nearly instantaneous, and the continuous focus tracking works exceptionally well. While roaming the streets of Dallas, I rarely had a situation where it had trouble focusing instantly. The biggest issues were when it was super dark and there was very little contrast in the scene for it to lock in on.

In addition to the world’s fastest Autofocus, the E-M5 also has a mind blowing 9 FPS full-quality sequential shooting speed, with a 16 shot buffer. Compare that to the 5D’s 6 fps and the 7D’s 8fps, and you can see where an lesser cost mirrorless can shine.

How Does it Feel?

So how does the camera perform when you are actually using it?

Well, the E-M5 is a great feeling camera. It’s about half the size of a standard DSLR, and the light weight reflects that just as well. It never felt flimsy though, and I was never worried about the build quality holding up to a more kinetic photographer.


Looking at the body, you may notice that Olympus decided to appeal to the classic generation of camera design. The E-M5 is greatly influenced and an obvious descendent of its great-great-grandfather, the OMD-1.

It defiantly plays into the nostalgia aspect and disguises well. On more than one occasion, while using my old lens adapted to the E-M5, I’ve had people stop me on the street to ask me if I was shooting with an old film camera.

The E-M5 feels great in the hands. It’s light, and the controls are generally easy to reach for me. I have small hands though, and those with larger fingers might have trouble cleanly pressing all the buttons on the back.


Further, in mimicking the design of yesterday, the E-M5 also employs three control dials on the top. One for the various camera shooting modes, and two more customizable dials that change depending on the mode. Generally, one will control the primary camera mode, say the aperture in Aperture priority, and the other will control the exposure compensation, allowing you to adjust it up or down as the scene requires.

In manual mode, the dials control aperture and shutter speed independently since there is no exposure compensation in that mode.

Natively, there are two dedicated user-assigned function buttons, one on the top and one on the back, and one dedicated movie record button, which you can reassign to something else.

On the back, you also have a 4-way directional pad, which you can reassign to different functions as well for quick access to settings.

Beer Truck

Beer Truck From the Dallas October Arts District Block Party

While I do love this camera dearly, there are a few nagging issues I wish Olympus would work on for their next revision.

First, the menu system of the E-M5 is needlessly complex sometimes. The menu system is fairly full featured, but all the functionality you get comes at the cost of having deeply nested menus to get to some of the more basic functions. You can assign some of these functions to quick buttons, but there aren’t enough quick buttons to assign everything you would normally want to do.

Police Box

A Police Box near Fisherman’s Wharf

Fortunately, you can access most capture settings though the live preview HUDs, but I still would rather see more options in assigning settings to buttons.

The second issue is the disappointingly limited video recording features. While the E-M5 takes amazingly good AVCHD video up to 1080 / 60i, the E-M5 does not have the ability to shoot at 24fps. Nor does it have an microphone jack, which is a huge oversight in my opinion, and the HDMI port merely allows you to play slideshows back. It isn’t capable of monitoring the video in real time. The E-M5 feels 80% photo camera, and 20% video camera, which in today’s age of cameras that shoot video, is a huge weakness.

Golden Gate Bridge Model

Model of the Golden Gate Bridge to show off how it responds to earthquakes

It’s true that you can buy an adapter to add a microphone jack, but I don’t want to spend another $100 on an add-on that should have been built in.

The third issue is I wish that the display screen, while crystal clear and easy to use, would rotate all the way forward, allowing you to do self-portrait and self-video. The lack of an live HDMI preview means you can’t really do self-capture at all.

Some Notes on the Competition

Now as a disclaimer, I’ve made a few bold claims about the EM-5 that some of you may object to. Most notably, Panasonic, who is actually a partner with Olympus in pushing the micro four thirds system, has taken notice of the EM-5 and how it compares to their hugely popular GH line.

Panasonic last month announced the GH3 as the successor to their wildly popular GH2. According to preliminary testing, the GH3 might have just slightly more dynamic range than the EM-5, with the advantage being about one stop.

Also, Panasonic now claims that the GH3 has the fastest autofocus with its kit lens, coming in a few hundredths of a second faster than the EM-5 using its kit lens. It’s hard to say which of these two is truly the fastest without products in consumers’ hands though, but the GH3 will be out very soon.

Despite these issues, I still think the E-M5 is the best camera I’ve ever used (at least until I get my hands on a GH3). I’ve taken several hundred photos in the last 6 months I’ve owned this camera, and it’s been a true joy to use the entire time.

When using it, I felt like I was back in the 60s and 70s during the golden years of the SLR age, even more so when I was using one of my older legacy lenses.

Final Thoughts

This camera was designed for the shutterbug, especially the street photographer. With it’s high speed, great low-light performance, and exceptional build quality, the OMD EM-5 is definitely on the short list of cameras to consider, and as such the OMD EM-5 is easily an Editor’s Choice in my opinion.

Crowd in the Garden
Now If you get the E-M5, I would highly recommend skipping the standard 14-42 kit lens and getting the upgraded 12-50 weather-sealed kit lens to go with it. While it’s not the fastest nor the best lens in the world, it’s a very sharp lens designed explicitly to work with the E-M5 and the synergy is unquestioned when you use them together.

Additionally, I would highly recommend reading DP Review’s E-M5 Setting Guide with many great tips and hidden features inside the menu system.

Golden Gate Bridge Arch

Golden Gate Bridge Arch

The E-M5 retails for $999 (Body only) in all black or classic silver at most camera outlets.

Comments

  1. ken says

    Thank-you for this review. I have resisted buying a full fledge dSLR because I have a whole line of Canon FD lenses and still use my old Canon film cameras. This camera has intriqued me but I have not found a good user review to assess if this camera would be something I should look into. I just wished somebody would come up with a good digital camera attachement for my old SLRs that would fit the film cover.

    • Kien says

      You can always buy an FD->EF (or FD to anything) mount adapter. They are relatively cheap and some even allow for infinity focus.

  2. Dennis Meinert says

    Well-written and practical. You’ve answered the question that’s obvious to the buyer but not many reviewers: Why would I buy this?

    I’d like to see more in-depth reviews like this. It’s hard for us ex-silver halide users to separate the hype from the practical.