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Review: Olympus OMD EM5

by Chris Gampat on 05/30/2012

When the Olympus OMD EM5 was originally announced, I wasn’t very impressed. In fact, I still firmly believe that what I saw in that room wasn’t near the level of amazingness that I spent a good two weeks testing. Yes, the Olympus E-M5 was really quite wonderful and was able to stand up to quite a bit.

But did it stand out in a world where APS-C mirrorless cameras are seemingly trying to take the edge?

Gear Used

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo listing of the camera

Imaging
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Camera Format Micro Four Thirds (2x Crop Factor)
Resolution Effective Pixels: 16.1 Megapixels
File Formats Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: AVI, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, MOV
Bit Depth 12-bit
Dust Reduction System Y
Noise Reduction Yes
Memory Card Type SD
SDXC 1
Image Stabilization Mechanical
AV Recording
Video Recording Yes
Aspect Ratio 4:3, 16:9
Audio Recording With Video, Stereo, Via Optional External Mic 2
Focus Control
Focus Type Auto & Manual
Focus Mode Single-servo AF (S), Continuous-servo AF (C), Manual Focus (M)
Autofocus Points 35
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type Electronic
Viewfinder Coverage 100%
Viewfinder Magnification Approx. 1.0x
Diopter Adjustment - 4 to +2 m
Display Screen 3.0″ Rear Touchscreen Tilting  LCD (610)
Screen Coverage 100%
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity Auto, 200-25600 3
Shutter 1/4000 – 60 seconds
Remote Control RM-UC1 (Optional)
Metering Method Spot metering, Center-weighted average metering, Multi-zone metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Auto, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
Compensation: -3 EV to +3 EV (in 1/3 EV steps) 4
Flash
Max Sync Speed 1 / 250 sec
Dedicated Flash System iTTL Groups: 4 Channels: 4
External Flash Connection Hot Shoe
Performance
Connectivity AV Output, DC Input, HDMI D (Micro), USB 2.0 5
Power
Battery 1x BLN-1  Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack
AC Power Adapter AC-3 (Optional)
Operating/Storage Temperature 32 to 104 °F (0 to 40 °C)
Humidity: 10 – 90%
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.7″ / 12.19 x 8.89 x 4.32 cm
Weight 15 oz / 0.43 kg

Ergonomics

The Olympus EM5 (E-M5 or EM-5) OMD is a camera that is tough on the outside and quick on its feet on the inside. And to be honest, the exterior is also quite beautiful.

The top of the camera is characterized by a couple of key dials. On the right of the camera above the small grip are two dials: one controls aperture while the other controls shutter speed on manual mode. Otherwise, one will control one setting while the other does exposure compensation. To the right of these is a function button that I usually program the ISO setting to. Behind that is a video record button.

To the left of all this is Olympus’s hot shoe that doubles as a proprietary accessory port. To the left of all that is the mode dial. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why there are even automatic modes on this camera.

The back of the camera is different. On the top right is the playback button and another function button. I usually set this to AF point selection of magnify depending on what lens was mounted. Below this is a very nice thumb grip that reminds one of the old film advances.

Below all that are your typical run of the mill direction buttons, menu, info, and delete button. Plus, the directional buttons are all customizable to do whatever you’d like for the most part.

An additional nice feature is the fact that the screen flips up.

Editor’s Note: These product shots were done with the Sony NEX 7 during an actual rainfall. The 7 started to misfunction a bit in the rain, but as you’ll see later on in the review, the OMD survived one of New York City’s most difficult rainfalls this year.

Autofocus

Autofocusing with this camera is extremely quick and it is wonderful to know that it takes the EP3’s excellent focusing and one-ups it. Plus, it has a touchscreen for even faster shooting if needed.

Best of it, it works very well with older lenses like a 17mm f2.8. Bear in mind that this applies to both tracking focus, continuous focus and single AF.

When it comes to manually focusing, you are best off using the viewfinder. It is so extremely sharp and detailed that I had no problem shooting with my Voigtlander 17.5mm f0.95 wide open with it.

In fact, the rest of the staff agreed that they liked the Olympus EM5’s viewfinder more than the Sony NEX 7’s. Me, on the other hand, give a slight edge to the NEX 7.

Metering

The Olympus OMD EM5 followed Sunny 16 metering down to a T. In fact, it is the only camera to date that I’ve found to do this perfectly.

So what does that mean in practice?

Street photographers often shoot using the Sunny 16 method and zone focusing. If you’re used to that style, this is perhaps the only modern camera where your skills will be able to carry over with ease. Additionally, it is much better when it comes to applying the inverse square law in studio photography.

Image Quality

The out of camera image quality isn’t the best, but it is still very good. If that’s all you want, then you’re better off looking at the Sony NEX 7. However, the Olympus EM5 raw files are extremely versatile and can be turned into some absolutely stunning images using Lightroom 4.

In fact, I never thought that Micro Four Thirds sensors would reach this stage.

Indeed, when combined with the right light and exposures, this camera can absolutely shine. To get the best results out of it, you’ll need to take advantage of the fast aperture prime lenses available in the Micro Four Thirds line up. To be very honest, f2.8 is quite slow when it comes to Micro Four Thirds because a whole lot will be in focus. If that’s what you’re going for, then more power to you.

However, the current lineup of primes offer some absolutely gorgeous out of focus areas that NEED to be utilized on the EM5. With this in mind, the 12-50mm f3.5-5.6 is really quite slow but one does get the tradeoff with it being weatherproof and able to shoot macro images. Still, the system seems very much so designed for prime lenses.

To get the best image quality, it is also a good idea to have previously had a good idea of how to use film. In fact, the new EM5 16MP sensor renders images like a combination of Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro400 film. And to be even more honest, it can sometimes even be tough to tell the difference between the images I shot with this camera and my Canon 5D Mk II after a tad bit of editing in Lightroom 4. By that, I’m talking about moving a couple of slider bars around 7 degrees each. Once again though, you should have a knowledge of film before you even start to use this camera as the metering and sensor seem to work just like it.

And for this photog, this is probably some of the most welcome news I’ve heard in quite a while. The color reproduction is absolutely out of this world. Here are some other image samples.

High ISOs

For the most part, I didn’t really use the higher ISOs on this camera for the sole reason that my Voigtlander has an aperture of F0.95 and I only needed to go to 800 at max if anything. But down below is an image sample at ISO 3200. It hasn’t been edited in any way, shape or form.

Weatherproofing

For many days, New York survived thunderstorm after torrential downpour and really large downpour. In fact, during this testing phase I was splashed by a New York City cabby for the first time in my life. And man was I soaked.

Amazingly, the EM5 took the hard rain like a champ. It was able to focus swiftly, didn’t suffer from any major problems in terms of functionality and even still was able to produce excellent images.

Granted, I tested the camera with the 12-50mm lens while doing this: since it s weathersealed.

However, the focusing stayed on point even remained quite smart about choosing subjects across its plane.

For street photographers that love to shoot in the rain or documentary photographers that need to have gear that is weather resistant, this may be the camera for you to get. Not only do you get a super tough camera body but you also get access to loads of excellent lenses and much, much more accessories that seem to be coming their way.

To be fair, Micro Four Thirds should be making all of their prime lenses weatherproof. I see no reason why the 12mm f2, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8 aren’t weather sealed. If you’re paying that much for a lens, there should be some assurance that the gear will be able to keep up with you.

For Use For Studio Photography

As you probably saw in a previous post, I used the camera with an Impact LiteTrek for a studio type of look.

To be extremely honest, the Olympus OMD EM5 instilled hope for the future of mirrorless cameras in me like no other. The fact that it had a normal hot shoe for me to work with combined with the fact that it readily accepted manual wireless triggers really mixed well.

Add in the fact that I have classical film training and understanding of exposures and lighting and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Even further, the RAW files are super, super versatile. I was able to get some amazing looks out of the camera and raw files.

To be very fair though, Olympus needs to start working with other third party companies, and they need to do it now.

As it stands, the only companies that are very well supported for their flash systems are Canon and Nikon. There aren’t many Olympus TTL wireless triggers out there and instead you’ll need to work with manual flashes. Indeed, I would be ecstatic to have Phottix Odins that work with Olympus cameras.

In the mean time though you can work with PocketWizard Plus IIIs, Hanhel Tuff triggers, Hanhel combi triggers, Phottix Stratos, or Vello Fusion Freewaves. So while there are a multitude of wireless triggers out there available on the market, it would be nice to have some TTL triggers to work with Olympus flashes.

Battery Life

For the period of two weeks, I only needed to charge the battery around once and that was with continuous use every night. As amazing as that is, it pisses me off that the same batteries cannot be used in the Olympus Pen chargers.

Conclusion

So does the Olympus EM5 deserve any awards? It absolutely does. Olympus took what many have said about them and their sensors for years and threw it upside down on its head. The new sensor is terrific and renders images with low noise at higher ISOs. But to be honest, all of their fast primes allow you to not need to shoot at such volcanic ISO settings.

The RAW file quality is just like film…nuff said.

The build quality stood up to some serious weather issues and the camera lived to tell another tale?

In the end, the EM5 wins my absolute top recommendations if you’re an advanced user, but to once again take full advantage, purchase the faster and more expensive glass.

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