The mirrorless Micro Four Thirds format was developed between Panasonic and Olympus and is the oldest of the mirrorless formats and – between the two brands – is also the most comprehensive. It is strange then that up until now, Olympus (arguably the brand with a longer and stronger photographic history over that of Panasonic) have not quite taken as much advantage of the format. When compared with Panasonic who have a far more extensive range of mirrorless cameras from simple, almost compact camera like models, to more advanced models with built in viewfinders that are designed for more serious users, Olympus have had a much simpler range. But to Olympus’ credit, they have seen the light (so to speak) and have taken advantage of what is a very capable system and decided to enter the pro camera segment with a mirrorless camera, featuring some seriously impressive specifications in a very small package.
When I saw the first press photos of the EM-5, the images did not do the camera justice. It might look like a normal vintage film SLR size-wise, but looks are deceiving and it is amazing to see just how small the OM-D is once held in your hands. At first glance, it can be hard to believe that a camera so small could be as good as Olympus claim it to be. And it’s especially hard to believe that it can be built as well as a pro level camera should be. Normally, small cameras tend to be fragile. But if you think about Olympus’ history back to their film generation OM bodies, Olympus had a knack for making the smallest and some of the strongest cameras available. If anyone can do it, Olympus can. And they definitely succeeded with their digital homage to the OM. The build feels more solid than many cameras twice its size. The construction of the body is made from very strong metal and the dials and knobs are extremely smooth and solid. In order to keep the camera as small as it is, many switches are thin. For example, both the battery and memory card compartment have very thin covers, yet they still give the impression that they could stand up to abuse. Another testament to how well the E-M5 was thought out is how Olympus still made two separate compartments for the battery and memory. Most cameras of this size would have compromised in this area by putting both in the same compartment; meaning that the memory card would have been difficult to insert and remove with a battery grip attached.
Another area that was surprising to me is just how many buttons and controls Olympus have managed to fit into such a small space. There is no shortage of control on the EM-5, although, if I had one complaint about it, it would be that there are one or two buttons that are so small that they can be difficult to press easily, especially if the user has large thumbs.
It came as a relief to me to find that the electronic viewfinder is a very bright, high contrast, high res and responsive viewfinder. Many companies have just not utilised electronic viewfinders of a high enough quality and I’m glad to see that Olympus did not fail here. It is a big jump up in quality from the optional EVF that attaches to their PEN series of cameras.
One could easily get lost in the menu system, as it is extremely extensive. For every drop down menu you go into, you find another two more like it. The amount of options available for tailoring your OM-D to yourself are almost endless and – with time – once you’ve familiarised yourself with the menus and set it up correctly, it should fit the different styles of all shooters. The quality of the visuals of the menus are also quite impressive and it’s nice to see that camera manufacturers are starting to pay attention to menus by making them attractive to look at.
The pro level quality shows through easily with the E-M5. For example: the autofocus is extremely quick and accurate. Olympus claims that their Micro Four Thirds system has the fastest autofocus of all the mirrorless cameras; though I can’t tell how much faster it is in comparison to the likes of Sony’s NEX system as, though I believe Olympus’ claims, the difference is too small to measure. Importantly… it is fast.
As far as image quality is concerned, the E-M5 has tack sharp images (as is customary with the PEN series). But my main criticism of the PEN models was that they suffered terribly at high ISO’s. For any of the PEN models, 800 ISO started becoming unusable due to noise. Olympus fans will be glad to know that the E-M5 is by far the best performing low light Olympus by quite a margin. Though Olympus still have quite a way to go before they will have caught up to the rest of the industry (still showing that their weakness lies in low light) it is good to see that they are making advances in this area, and – as a whole – the low light capability is one of the few weaknesses of the camera. I started seeing unacceptable amounts of noise at 1600 ISO and personally wouldn’t use the camera any higher than about 2000 ISO as it would become unusable; despite the camera being able to shoot at far higher ISO’s.
The OM-D does not feature a built in flash, though it does come supplied with an external one within the kit. I am glad that they did not design a built in flash as the kind of user to whom the OM-D E-M5 is targeted would rarely find a use for a pop up flash and it would just take up valuable space on the body.
Ergonomics wise, it is hard to ignore that the OM-D is a very small camera and (as is normal with small cameras) they can often be difficult to hold. But fortunately, Olympus has an extensive range of accessories for the E-M5; some of which I found to be of great help and almost a necessary feature to be coupled with the EM-5. If you get the optional battery grip, it comes as a two stage kit: the first of which acts as a hand grip and resembles a motor drive from a film SLR (another great touch by the design department) and adds much needed hand support to its tiny dimensions and importantly repositions the shutter button to an easier to grasp position. This grip only adds leverage as a horizontal hand grip. The second stage of the grip (which attaches to the horizontal hand grip) adds vertical compatibility as well, for shooting in portrait format. It is nice to see a battery grip that has been thought out more than your usual grip and as such, the user can add comfort without necessarily adding much more size to the camera. Whilst I don’t think the vertical grip is necessary, I do believe that the horizontal grip would be welcome by most as it just makes the camera far easier to handle and far more comfortable and yet adds very little to the overall dimensions of the camera; keeping its size small.
Button configuration-wise: other than the play button being a little hard to reach due to its small size and awkward location above the LCD screen, the only other complaint with the ergonomics would be with the power button. It is positioned in an unusual position on the bottom right of the rear of the camera, away from the normal position of most cameras, which is close to the trigger button. I found that I often forgot to look there when turning the camera on and off as it is not the first place most people look for a power switch. Furthermore, annoyingly, it was also very thin and took some getting used to in order to flip it quickly.
Surprisingly again, Olympus have managed to fit a vertically articulating screen onto the body’s small frame; something that small cameras rarely have because there just isn’t the space for it and – if there is – they would not be made solidly. The E-M5’s articulating screen still feels solid.
It’s hard to ignore the fantastic job that Olympus have done with their flagship mirrorless model. It is a thoroughly well thought out camera, which is important when making small cameras. It is properly built, with an extensive set of features that won’t leave even the fussiest pros wanting if they’re looking for all the bells and whistles. Apart from the high amounts of noise at higher ISO’s and a few ergonomic issues (albeit it, some of which can be remedied by the battery grip), it is a camera that is hard to fault and – personally – one of the cameras I’ve had the most pleasure testing. It is certainly a great looking camera with its original OM inspired design and it’s not difficult to let one’s heart do the decision making, though with a camera as good as this, one need not let the decision lie purely with one’s heart. If you use your head, you will still find that it is a great camera that deserves serious consideration. In its price bracket, it falls under the same price range and with similar specs to its competition (the Sony NEX 7 and Fujifilm X-Pro1) and importantly, because of the Panasonic and Olympus extensive range of lenses, it is a vastly larger system than with either the Sony or Fuji alternatives. Whilst my DSLR kit becomes increasingly larger and regrettably heavier, I am finding capable pro level mirrorless cameras like the OM-D to be far more appealing. They are now just as capable as a mid to pro level SLR, but at a fraction of the size and weight and I am seriously considering the switch.