Olympus OM D EM-5 is one of the latest premium mirrorless cameras in 2012 that deserves a special note. Following the immense positive reports and reviews from various publications and online blogs, I’ve decided to test it myself to see if it is any good.
Before the EM-5, I’ve never used any mirrorless cameras. As a professional photographer, one of my main requirements for any cameras is their image quality. Even with EM-5’s point-and-shoot beating large sensor, it is still a lot smaller than any APS or Full Frame camera sensors. Even with a few years of dedicated development in the M4/3 sensors, my gut still tells me that perhaps these sensors are more of a high-end consumer toys or amateur tools at their best.
So I was sceptical. Yes, it took me a long while to convince myself to do a review and to test this ‘so-call’ the best M4/3 camera to date. Not that I wanted to discriminate anything other than DSLRs but since I conduct my work around the traditional 135 format or even some 120’s (medium format), I couldn’t satisfy myself with anything less.
So why this camera?
Ok, enough convincing, I finally decided to spend my hard earn cash on this little camera a few weeks ago and I had been shooting with it intensively over the past few weeks in order to write this review.
Like my previous posts, I am not going into any technical details or studio test to prove how good or bad this camera is but I base my conclusion around how it handles in the real word with some photos that I took with this camera during my trip in Hong Kong.
From the outside, the EM-5 has to be one of the best looking cameras around and for a long time too, well that excludes the classic Leica’s digital M cameras. It’s so sexy that it certainly looks like Audrey Tautou, petit, elegant and well.. sexy. The Olympus also reminds me of all those great looking film cameras during the 70’s ~ 80’s. The camera is constructed in metal and my silver copy features a leatherette that mimics the 60’s SLRs (the black version has a more modern carbon-looking fabric covering). With it around my neck, I actually feel trendy for once. Olympus does a great job in differentiating its OM series from any other SLR-like mirrorless competitors like the box standard SLR-look Panasonic G and GH series, even its own E series and Samsung’s NX series, more so when it compares to the easily dated Sony’s funky tricorder NEX series. It simply steals hearts from any photographers. Whether you are a casual shooter, amateur photographer or even a professional photographer, you will fall in love with its look.
But good look doesn’t make a great camera. Appearance only helps sales but Olympus also did a great job by mating one of the best M4/3 sensors with its latest image processing engine. Together with the first 5-axis body image stabilisation and lightning fast autofocusing system, the EM-5 is capable in producing some amazing photos during my shoot around Hong Kong. I have shot with various different ISO settings and a combinations of lenses (including the supplied kit lens and with adaptors, some Leica and Canon L lenses) in order to assess the image quality of the sensor. The combination of these images tells me just how good the sensor really is. It may not match the DSLR at high ISO but from the base ISO 200 to around 1600, it’s definitely comparable with any APS-C sized camera and at 200 and 400, it’s a good match with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II too! This was impressive.
Image quality aside, like any other mirroless cameras, it’s small. It’s tiny if you are a used to DSLRs or bigger cameras but it’s big if you are coming from a point-and-shoot background. Apart from my wedding and portrait assignments, I don’t like lugging around my 5Ds because of its size and weight. And for my street stuff, I love my Leica for it’s simple and elegant handling. The EM-5 is kind of the hybrid of the two. It certainly packs with features like a full blown SLR but small and light enough to be a street tool. I didn’t choose the more discrete black version just because the silver one looks so much better, a selfish option. But having shooting virtually non-stop with the EM-5 in Hong Kong, I learned just how lovable this camera really is. I didn’t feel tired carrying it all day, it slipped right into my small Billingham Hadley, no one felt intimidating by it because it’s not really a noticeable thing, unlike my 5D. I just love it.
Even with it’s small size, its metal body is considerably heavier than any other M4/3 cameras around. It is solidly built and you will definitely feel its quality once you pick it up. Though, it may not be as brick-solid as my Leica or even the Nikon FM-3a but definitely good enough to equal any APS-C DSLRs in terms of construction. It’s also weather sealed against rain and dust. I did use it in a couple of occasions when it was raining without any problems. This is a very good news if you are always exposed to different elements while hanging around the street or traveling.
Sadly, Olympus doesn’t make its camera in Japan, unlike Panasonic’s M4/3 cameras or top DSLRs from Canon or Nikon. However, you have nothing to worry about because Olympus’ mirrorless cameras have been tried and tested in the last few years. I have nothing against non-Japanese made cameras but just like old-time-sake, you wouldn’t want your Leica to be made from anywhere else other than Germany right?
I have tried the black and silver versions and their hand grip coverings are made of different materials or different texture materials. The silver one has some leather-like texture, which to me, feels better when you are shooting. The black version has a more modern carbon-look texture and is virtually smooth surface. But whether you choose black or silver is completely a choice of preference rather than a functional affair. The black version is a more discrete camera but I much prefer the leather grip and silver match. I would choose the black if it has a leatherette cover however.
Overall, the construction justifies the hefty price tag, even though it’s much smaller than DSLRs.
Using it in practice, good and bad
This is my first mirrorless camera and I haven’t chosen the smallest. There are many other choices with larger sensors such as mirrorless cameras from Nikon, Samsung, Sony and the latest Canon EOS-M. But what makes me choose the EM-5 is its form factor and overall package. It’s light, small and solidly built. More importantly, it has a EVF and I love shooting with a viewfinder just like a DSLR. Apart from learning the new menu system and the button layouts, I feel just right at home.
There are two scroll wheels at the top of the body for you to control various things but in manual mode, they are for aperture and shutter speed, pretty similar to any SLRs I’ve used before. Another good thing about the EM-5 is the configurability of buttons and switches. There are endless possibility to taylor the camera to your liking. For instance, you can change one button to record movie straight away while the other to change ISO. Brilliant. This sort of flexibility is normally reserved for professional grade cameras and the EM-5 clearly shows where Olympus is placing it in the market.
I found shooting with it is a delight. Each button is clearly laid out and easy to find. The EVF and playback buttons might be a little too spongy for my liking but they worked. The tilting OLED screen was brilliantly bright and full of contrast and colours. However, the resolution may not be good enough for manual focus use, though there’s a magnify function allowing you to ‘zoom’ in to check the focus point but in practice, it’s cumbersome. Nonetheless, I’d managed to capture many good photos by using manual focus via the EVF.
With the kit lens, the auto focus was very snappy and fast. Almost instant and I liked it. If you are coming from a point-and-shoot background, you would really appreciate the faster focus action which allows you to capture more photos when things are happening and not after. But for me, I was a little worried about the focusing speed as I come from a more traditional and professional SLR world. But you would be glad to hear that it’s nearly as fast if not the same. There are many funky focus options you can have with this, such as full auto, face detection, smile detection and right or left eye detection in portrait mode. Wow…
I also got the optional handgrip as I prefer a larger grip even though I don’t have a big hand. The build quality of the grip is equally impressive and weather sealed but it did move a little when a heavier lens was attached. Perhaps the grip was not meant to support too much weight.
The best feature to me had to be the 5-axis stabilisation. It was so effective in combating camera and hand shakes. I was using the Leica 90mm Summicron M via an adaptor (in M4/3 it became 180mm in full frame terms) and it did a fantastic job. However, the stabilization only works in photo mode and not video if you are using anything other than dedicated M4/3 lenses you have to note this if you intend to use this camera for video works.
Talking about video, it’s pretty good too. There might be some criticisms about the frame rate and compression but if you were not producing some Holywood movies, I guessed it’s more than enough for general use. General tracking focus worked in bright light and it did track object or faces if you tap and select the focus point. It did a decent job but I found it a hit or miss sometimes.
I will be using this camera to conduct my future video reviews. My own criticism in the video mode is the lack of customisation and sound in/out. There’s no mic point nor a headphone jack. To record better audio, you have to get the optional audio accessory, Olympus SEMA-1 Microphone adaptor, which uses the hotshot and accessory port at the top of the camera and because of this, you will not be able to attach a light or microphone. Umm, something that I think Olympus will review and may add to future OM-D series. To me, it’s probably the best video capable M4/3 camera from Olympus but in terms of video features, it’s a little shy from the aging Panasonic GH2.
There hasn’t been a perfect camera because everyone’s needs is different. To buy or not to buy a camera is solely depends on what you want to do with it. Pricy it may be, but to me, the OM-D EM-5 is a perfect street tool and travel camera for me. It may lack the ultimate picture quality of my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, but its portability, flexibility and durability certainly make up for its shortcomings. The ability to use the built-in stabilisation for any lenses you throw at it is a brilliant bonus. Olympus has finally turned the corner for me. I am embracing the mirorrless sector. Even with Canon’s latest EOS-M system is out, it’s still too bulky and not too SLR like for my taste. And to me, if the OM-D EM-5 is a full frame camera, then it will be my PERFECT CAMERA.
Any products mentioned in this review can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk