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E-M5 review from a previous PEN owner
on April 24, 2012
I've been invested in the m43 format since the launch of the E-P1 in summer 2009, successively moving up to the E-PL2, E-P3 and now the OM-D E-M5. Features have been added and the cameras tweaked with each generation, and it's safe to say that Olympus have produced their best m43 camera yet in the E-M5. But there is a lot of competition out there, and the robust E-M5 with built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) may not be the best option for everyone. Let me walk you through my experience using the camera having upgraded from past models. (Note I'm based in Japan, which is why I have the camera early).
[Size and Weight]
My initial reason for choosing the mirrorless m43 (micro four thirds) format was a desire to have a high quality imaging sensor inside a compact camera body. I did not want to carry around the bulk and weight of a DSLR camera, but was tired of the poor performance from point and shoot cameras, especially in low light. The Olympus PEN series met my needs perfectly in this respect, and have retained their small form factor throughout the range, despite consistently improving and adding features.
The E-M5 is no exception - it is the same width as the E-P3, with a little extra height because of the EVF on top of the camera and 50g heavier, weighing in at 425g with battery. In pictures online, it can look rather large, but after holding the camera in my hands, it became clear just how small it really is. The E-M5 is certainly not a pocket camera (although it will fit into large coat pockets), but the form-factor and equally small, lightweight m43 lenses mean it is an excellent choice for hiking and travelling, especially if you value its robust body and weather sealing.
The E-M5 boasts a tough magnesium alloy shell and weather sealing. Videos posted online showing the camera having water poured on it and shooting out in the rain are testament to its high quality construction, although do note that `splash-proof' is not `water-proof'. You probably shouldn't submerge the camera in water, and note too, that you'll need weather-sealed lenses to fully utilise the benefits (as of today, only the 12-50mm kit lens is weather-sealed, with a 60mm weather-sealed macro lens on the way).
The camera has a lovely heft to it when held in the hand and suitably good grip - certainly heavier than most point and shoot cameras, but lighter than most DSLR cameras. In contrast to the PEN cameras, the E-M5 has a slightly protruding thumb `hook' on the back that really aids stability, as well as a nice grip (with the option of an external grip and additional battery holder available separately to help when using larger lenses).
The biggest departure from the previous PEN models is undoubtedly the bult-in EVF and two dials on top of the camera. The EVF is similar to the VF-2 that Olympus sold separately to complement the PEN cameras and provides a bright and useful display. For users who like viewfinders, this is a long-awaited addition and most people will not be disappointed. The 100% field-of-view 1.15x EVF is, as current technology goes, one of the best (although the magnification is not as good as the GH-2 EVF with 1.42x, providing a larger image).
The two dials on top of the camera allow access to various functions, but most people will use them to change the aperture, shutter and exposure compensation. You can also assign functions such as manual mode or focus zoom to one of 3 function buttons on the camera. The rear control pad is also customisable, meaning it is finally possible to access all of the main settings without having to dive into the detailed menu system.
One of the most pleasing things for me was finally being able to use the camera while wearing gloves (something I could not do easily with the previous PEN cameras). Although it can still be difficult to use the rear control pad while wearing gloves, the main settings assigned to the dials and function buttons are easily useable. Another little tweak that I love is the offset tripod mount (to accommodate for the additional grip the E-M5 is able to use). This means that I can now change the battery while the camera is mounted to a tripod plate. Thumbs up!
The 9fps shooting speed mentioned is without AF and IBIS turned on, but it's certainly a welcome addition over previous PEN models. I've used it for bracketing shots when creating HDR photos. You can shoot a maximum of 7 photos in bracketing mode to capture the dynamic range of the scene and then combine them later in software. Using the 9fps speed, this is done in an instant, and it may even make handheld HDR bracketing possible. It's also worth noting that the E-M5 is compatible with 3rd party intervalometers such as the JJC TM-J that support the Olympus RM-UC1 remote to do timelapse shooting.
The m43 cameras have made incredible progress in improving autofocus speed since their initial launch and are far better than the sluggish focus of the original E-P1. Previous Panasonic cameras like the GH-2 held the crown, but in the latest generation of PEN cameras and with the new OM-D line, autofocus speed matches the Panasonic models and even surpasses it in some tests. The bottom line is that the E-M5 can hold its own against consumer DSLRs in autofocus speeds, with perhaps two caveats: 1) that AF slows down in low light and 2) that AF tracking when shooting sports is still not quite as good as DSLR rivals. That said, the E-M5 has some big improvements in this area, and can quite reasonably track moving objects while shooting at a respectable 4fps.
[Sensor and Noise Performance]
One of the bigger criticisms of the E-P3 and other PEN cameras was the ageing 12MP sensor inside the camera. While it was still perfectly good for shooting at lower ISOs, its performance suffered when moving up, especially beyond ISO1600. The Panasonic GH-2 arguably had the best noise performance of a m43 camera up until now, but the E-M5 can be said to claim this crown. A new 16MP sensor inside the camera offers about 1 - 1.5 'stops' of improvement in noise performance. Basically this means that if you thought ISO1600 on the previous PEN cameras was acceptable, you will likely be happy with ISO3200 on the E-M5.
As usual, Olympus offer lovely Jpegs with gorgeous colours straight out of the camera for users who do not like to post-process their images in software. But for users who do, the Raw files offer more flexibility and noticeably increased dynamic range over previous PEN cameras (also about 1 - 1.5 'stops' improvement), allowing highlights and shadows to be pulled back. Practically speaking this means less white skies and richer colours! Noise is also very well controlled and easily reduced in software afterwards.
[In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS)]
The image stabilisation built into the camera body is, in my opinion, one of the strongest reasons for considering the PEN line or OM-D line over other mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX series or Panasonic cameras. The previous IBIS system built into the PEN cameras was already good, but Olympus have found a way to improve it even further. Marketing tells us it's a 5-axis IBIS system that constantly stabilises the sensor, and indeed it does. You can see it kick in as the sensor moves into position when you power on the camera.
The biggest area this offers improvement in is the video mode (although naturally, still shots also benefit). The E-P3 was notorious for its rolling shutter and jellylike wobble when it received even the slightest bump. The E-M5 and its new IBIS system completely removes this wobble and significantly reduces the rolling shutter effect. What this means is that you can take very smooth videos handheld, so much so that you might even have been mistaken for using a steadicam in some cases. It isn't a substitute for a steadicam however, and walking with the camera will still introduce a minor amount of image `shifting' as the sensor compensates for the movement. But handheld panning and careful walking with the camera is as smooth as could be.
One of the most interesting and pleasing features of my E-P3 was the capacitive touchscreen. Perfectly implemented with just 3 `modes' - off, on to focus, or on to focus and take picture. Some might view this feature as a gimmick, but I found it exceptionally useful. Rather than focus and recompose the shot like in traditional cameras, you can simply compose your shot and lightly touch the screen to focus on your desired area and take the shot. I found it very useful for macro work, as well as general shooting when out with friends. The E-M5 continues this feature, and the beautiful OLED screen works like a charm.
Another reason I chose the m43 format (supported by Olympus and Panasonic, as well as other 3rd party makers) over competing cameras such as the Sony NEX series is the large selection of lenses available. This still continues to be the case. Using a bright prime lens such as the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 and coupled with the improved high ISO noise performance, I find the E-M5 to be formidable in low light. (If you are on a budget, consider the equally-excellent Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens or Olympus 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens).
It obviously will not match a full frame sensor's performance, but the difference between the E-M5 sensor and the larger APS-C sized sensors like the one in the Sony NEX series is very small. A larger sensor means better noise performance (cleaner pictures), but a smaller sensor means smaller and lighter-weight lenses can be made for the camera. All things considered, I find the m43 system to provide the best balance between all these factors, with the E-M5 and GH-2 providing the best sensor performance among m43 cameras.
I do not have any serious criticisms of the camera, but rather a few niggling complaints that I will list below.
- The camera makes a low fan-like/humming noise when switched on that is audible in quiet environments. This is normal and a result of the always-on new IBIS system. Most users will not be able to hear it in regular shooting. Also note that the noise is lowered and essentially gone when in video mode, meaning it does not affect video. However, it is worth noting as many will be surprised when first turning the camera on and it may prove annoying for some people who shoot often in quiet environments.
- The position of the viewfinder and small size of the camera mean that for left-eyed shooters, you may find your nose slightly squashed against your thumb when holding the camera. If concerned about this, it would be best to check at a store first. I found using my right eye avoided this problem.
- No built-in flash. Although an extra mini flash unit is provided in the box, users who value having a flash built into the camera body may be disappointed. I used to value this feature until I realised I rarely use the built-in flash at all (and quite often it isn't powerful enough to improve pictures). For those occasions where I need a flash however, I can take the little flash unit with me.
- New battery. The battery used is not the same as previous PEN cameras, meaning you'll need to buy replacement batteries (I take 2 spares on a heavy day's shoot). Olympus are usually good with this though, and I think we can expect the new battery will be used across the OM-D line in future models.
- High cost and lots of customisability. This isn't really a negative so much as a realistic assessment. For many point and shoot upgraders, the E-M5 may be more than you need. Indeed, the camera is larger than other PEN models and offers lots of flexibility to customise controls (meaning the menus are suitably packed with features). Although you can just use the camera in P or iAuto mode, you can find much cheaper PEN cameras that will still offer great image quality in a smaller package. For those who want the best possible image quality and value the EVF and extra controls, the E-M5 will not disappoint.
I've never owned a m43 Panasonic camera myself, so it would be unfair of me to compare the E-M5 to the GH-2 (its nearest competitor), but for the image quality I've seen online, the two cameras are close, with the edge for the E-M5. You may also find the Panasonic G-3 a cheaper alternative that offers competitive image quality. Similarly, the Sony NEX cameras such as the NEX-5N and the Fuji XPro1 will give you better image quality than m43 cameras, but at the expense of a wide-ranging and small lens selection and at the expense of functionality.
There isn't a great deal I'm left wanting from the E-M5. Perhaps faster AF tracking for sports and full speed AF support for older 43 lenses when used with an adapter (there does not seem to have been much improvement here between the E-P3 and E-M5). Also, 1/8000 second max shutter speed and ISO 100 (the range begins at ISO200, like previous PEN models) would be welcome. A mic-out port for monitoring video using external headphones and 24p mode would also be nice.
It will be exciting to see what Olympus can innovate next to improve upon the camera. But for the time being, I feel happy awarding it 5 stars when compared to other cameras within the same class. If you feel the niggling faults are serious however, feel free to subtract one.