Support me by shopping at Amazon!
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Ken McMahon & Gordon Laing, June 2012
 
   
 

Olympus OM-D E-M5 verdict

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 marks the start of a new line for Olympus. Like the PEN range it's a Micro Four Thirds mirrorless CSC, but, with a built-in viewfinder and styling that's inspired by the 70's OM 35mm film cameras, it looks and feels more like a miniature DSLR.

The OM-D E-M5 shares the Magnesium alloy body and weather sealing of Olympus's flagship DSLR - the E5 - and is in fact a more capable camera all-round, from its new 16 Megapixel CMOS sensor to it's 5-axis image stabilisation. Contrast the wealth of innovation and design ingenuity that goes into new and updated Olympus Mirrorless models with the leisurely pace at which the company updates it's Four Thirds DSLR range and the direction of travel is clear. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the new OM-D E-M5.

To recap on some of the highlights, the OM-D E-M5 has what Olympus claims is the world's fastest contrast detect AF system. Its 1.4 million pixel EVF is combined with a 3 inch 610k pixel OLED articulated touch-screen. Physical controls include twin dials, two programmable function buttons and a third on the 12-50mm kit lens which, like the camera body and add-on flash is dust and splash-proof. The body has built in 5-axis image stabilisation, and the Truepic VI processor provides continuous shooting at speeds up to 9fps, or 4.2fps with continuous AF. The best quality video mode is 1080p30, full PASM exposure control is available for movie shooting and stereo audio is recorded with the built-in mics.

There will be those for whom the OM-D E-M5 will mark the welcome return of a distinguished Olympus line which was once seen as the synthesis of the best that design and technology had to offer. Even if you're not one of them, there's no denying the OM-D EM-5 is a very capable, very desirable camera and one that marks an auspicious beginning in what promises to be an interesting new development of the mirrorless CSC concept. And as my results show, the quality from its 16 Megapixel Four Thirds sensor may be closer than you think to rivals with 24 Megapixel APS-C sensors. So before my final verdict, here's how it compares to what I see as its two main rivals in the CSC market.

   
 

 

Compared to Sony NEX 7

     
 
 
     
     

The NEX-7 is Sony's flagship mirroless CSC and possibly the biggest competitor for the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Though it adopts a completely different design ethos to the EM-5, these two cameras are similarly priced and compete in the same market sector.

The NEX system is based around the same-sized APS-C sensors at the heart of most consumer DSLRs and it boasts impressively high 24.3 Megapixel resolution - that's 50% more pixels than the E-M5. But is its image quality any better than the smaller, lower resolution 16 Megapixel resolution Four Thirds sensor in the Olympus? The short answer is no, at least not with the kit lenses where there's certainly not enough in it to make a decision on the basis of image quality alone. The OM-D EM-5's in-camera JPEGs actually enjoy better high ISO noise performance in my tests, albeit lacking the NEX-7's low light stacking modes.

The NEX-7's electronic viewfinder has nearly twice the resolution of the E-M5, is slighly bigger and widely regarded as the best EVF currently available on any camera. In its favour the EM-5's OLED screen is of a higher quality than the NEX-7's (though lower resolution) and its 3:2 proportions sit mid-way between stills and movies, whereas the NEX-7's 16:9 screen may be a good fit for HD movie shooting but result in wide black bars down either side when shooting stills. Perhaps most importantly the EM-5's screen is touch-sensitive and can be used to focus and fire the shutter as well as making menu selections.

Lens selection is an important factor for cameras in this market and the Micro Four Thirds system currently has a much broader native range to choose from than Sony's E-mount: 31 vs 7 at the time of writing. Another factor to consider is stabilisation - the EM-5 has a 5-axis image stablisation system built-in that will work with any lens, whereas if you want stabilisation on the NEX-7 you'll have to buy optically-stabilised lenses. And while we're on the subject of lenses, the OM-D EM-5's 12-50mm kit zoom outclasses the NEX-7's 18-55mm kit zoom with a twin manual/motorised zoom ring, macro position and function button. It is however only fair to note that a shallow depth-of-field is easier to achieve with the larger sensor of the NEX system, whereas on Micro Four Thirds, you'll need longer or brighter lenses for a similar effect.

The NEX-7 has a built-in flash, with a proprietary hotshoe, while the EM-5 opts for an add-on unit. The NEX-7 also has a wider range of video modes with a best quality 1080p50/60 mode as well as an external mic socket. To use an external mic with the EM-5 you'll need the optional SEMA-1 microphone adapter set. In my view this all gives the NEX-7 the edge for movies, but if Olympus enables touch-screen pull-focusing with a firmware update, it'll enjoy a key advantage over its big rival.

Lastly, both cameras are solidly built with Magnesium Alloy bodies, but the OM-D EM-5 is weather and dust proofed with a sealed body as well as the kit lens and flash unit and so a better option for photography in the rugged outdoors. Indeed when you consider all the features and the quality in practice, the E-M5 competes very comfortably with the NEX-7, despite the perception by many that the larger, higher resolution sensor of the Sony gives it the advantage.

See my Sony NEX-7 review for more details.

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix G3

     
 
 
     
     

The Panasonic Lumix G3 provides an interesting comparison with the OM-D E-M5 because it has a very similar 16.1 Megapixel Four Thirds sensor (there's been speculation that the sensor is identical, though our RAW noise comparisons don't bear this out.) and shares many of the newer camera's features, but is substantially cheaper. It also has a built-in Electronic viewfinder, a flip-out screen and of course shares the same Micro Four thirds lens mount as the EM-5. The G3 lacks built-in image stabilisation though, so you have to fit lenses with optical stabilisation if you want that feature.

Announced as the world's smallest and lightest system camera when it was launched, the Lumix G3 body is actualy a little larger than the EM-5's, the construction is plastic, so it's not as tough as the E-M5 and neither is it weather or dust-sealed. The G3 does have a built-in pop-up flash though which is slightly more powerful than the EM-5's and also offers a conventional hotshoe for fititng an external unit.

The G3's EVF is slightly larger than the EM-5's and it shares the same 1.4 million pixel resolution, but it doesn't look as good and isn't as responsive as the Olympus. Its screen shares the E-M5's 3:2 proportions but its 610k pixel LCD design doesn't look as good as the newer OLED technology of the EM-5, but it is fully articulated and can flip and twist to face any direction including back at the subject. It also has a crucial advantage over the OM-D E-M5 in that you can touch to pull-focus during movie recording, whereas the OM-D E-M5's touch-screen is unforgiveably disabled during movie recording.

The G3's shooting modes are somewhat eclipsed by the OM-D E-M5. Its full-resolution continuous shooting tops out at 4fps without continuous AF which the EM-5 can manage with continuous AF enabled, increasing to 9fps with focus and exposure locked on the first frame. The G3 does, however have a selection of fast reduced-resolution continuous modes. If you like effects modes, the EM-5 has them by the configurable bucketload compared with four rather pedestrian options on the G3. The G3's ISO sensitivity tops out at 6400 ISO compared with 25600 on the EM-5 and lacks its long exposure shooting features.

The G3's best quality movie mode is 1080i25/30 compared with 1080p30 on the E-M5 and its best quality files are saved in AVCHD format rather than the E-M5's H.264 encoded .mov files. Both record lower resolution formats using the Motion JPEG codec. More significantly, the G3 lacks manual exposure control for movies and has no means of attaching an external mic. Going back to effects, you can use the OM-D E-M5's Art filters for movies and its kit lens has a motorised zoom, though you could buy the G3 plus the motorised Panasonic PZ 14-42 lens with ample change to spare from the price of the OM-D E-M5.

There's no doubt the G3 doesn't stand shoulder to shoulder with the OM-D E-M5, but mostly it doesn't lack too many of the E-M5's features, it's just not as highly specified. To be fair it's over a year older and you're still getting a very capable camera with blisteringly fast AF and superb image quality at a bargain price. Indeed the G3 is one of the best value budget cameras around right now and holds its own at the lower-end of the market. It'll be interesting to see what Panasonic offers with a successor which is sure to come this year.

See my Panasonic G3 review for more details.

 

Olympus OM-D E-M5 final verdict

The OM-D E-M5 marks the beginning of a new strand in mirrorless CSC cameras that poses the strongest threat yet to the dominance of DSLRs in the higher-end of the consumer market. It cleverly combines a retro SLR design (which is still widely held in affection 40 years on) with the best that modern technology can offer.

It looks good, handles beautifully, produces superb quality images and is great fun to take pictures with. It may have a tough rival in the form of Sony's NEX-7, but boasts a considerably broader native lens catalogue (31 vs 7 models at the time of writing), and all become stabilized thanks to the built-in sensor-shift system - and as my results show, the image quality is closer than you might expect.

Any downsides? Well I'd have preferred the screen to be fully-articulated like the Lumix G3 and also to support its rival's touch-screen pull-focusing capabilities while filming video (please can you address this in a firmware update Olympus?). A built-in mic input would also have been nice, as would interval timer facilities, and some may find the supplied flash unit not being built-in a bit inconvenient. It's also worth noting that while the single AF speed is very fast indeed, the continuous AF tracking is still not as confident nor consistent as the phase-detect systems on traditional DSLRs, Sony's SLTs and the Nikon 1 models. But overall the pros far outweigh the cons with Olympus delivering one of the most compelling higher-end compact system cameras to date - and if you haven't already, I'd urge you to check out all of the results pages if you assume the Sony NEX-7 has an advantage in quality due to its bigger sensor.

Indeed it all adds up to a killer combination that's hard not to fall in love with. It's hard to think of a recent camera more richly deserving of a Cameralabs Highly Recommended award.

 



Good points
Tough weather-sealed build quality.
Outstanding High ISO noise performance.
Great quality viewfinder and tilting OLED touch-screen.
5-axis image stabilisation which works with any lens.
2, 3, 5 and 7-frame auto bracketing.

Bad points
Screen only tilts and there's no touch functions in movie modes.
Distracting whirring noise from stabilisation motor.
No built-in mic socket.
Flash unit clips-on rather then being built-in.
Continuous AF not as consistent as a phase-detect system.




Scores

(relative to 2012 compact system cameras)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

18 / 20
18 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20
17 / 20

88%


   

If you found this review useful, please support me by shopping below!
All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

/ How we test / Best Cameras / Advertising / Camera reviews / Supporting Camera Labs