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Olympus OM-D E-M5 hero (1024px)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 hero (1024px)

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

Do the 1970s have something to teach 2012 about cameras?

Micro Four Thirds cameras are coming fast and furious, and getting better and more technically impressive all the time. For its latest offering, however, Olympus looked backward for inspiration rather than forward. The OM-D E-M5's design harkens back to the 1970's, to Olympus' old OM-1 film SLR. The OM-1 was introduced in 1972, and was a revelation in both size and build quality; the E-M5's petite stature isn't quite as game-changing this time, but it's still awfully small, and still awfully nice-looking. It's the first in a new line of Micro Four Thirds cameras from Olympus, designed to be more premium products than the PEN line, which includes cameras like the E-PL3.

It may look like 1972 on the outside, but internally the E-M5 is all 2012: it has a 16-megapixel sensor, ISO range up to ISO 25,600, a weather-sealed body, and plenty of in-camera filters and scenes to help you take cooler and better shots. The OM-1 was beautiful to look at, and so were its photos; can we say the same of the E-M5? Read on.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The belle of the Micro Four Thirds ball



The E-M5 isn't quite as retro-gorgeous as a device like the Fujifilm X10, but it's still seriously easy on the eyes. Its magnesium-alloy body is available in black or silver, with black synthetic leather wrapping around the center of the body on each model; having seen both, I prefer the silver, but my all-black review unit has its fair share of charm as well. At 4.8 inches wide and 1.7 inches thick (minus the lens, of course), it's quite easy to hold, though I do wish there were a slightly larger grip — there's a nice raised spot on the back for your right thumb, but the bump on the front barely registers at all. At 15 ounces, the E-M5 isn't the lightest Micro Four Thirds camera I've tested, but it's a featherweight compared to the DSLRs I typically lug around.

The front of the camera is extremely sparse: there's an Olympus logo and an OM-D logo, a lens release... and that's it. On top you'll find a handful of controls, along with the pentaprism hump that's a distinctive part of old OM cameras like the OM-1, but feels like a vestigial appendage on a mirrorless camera in 2012. The extra real estate is at least put to good use, with an electronic viewfinder, accessory port and hotshoe occupying the space, but it feels like this camera's a bit larger than it has to be for the sake of being old-looking. There's no flash built in, but the E-M5 comes with a flash accessory that plugs into the hotshoe and accessory port — it's a good flash, too, bright and more diffuse than I expected, plus all you have to do to activate it is tilt it upward.

Underneath the viewfinder is the 3-inch LCD (more on both of those down below), and a few more buttons and controls. Weather-sealed flaps on the right side cover Micro USB and Micro HDMI ports; the battery door and tripod mount rest on the bottom, and there's a single SD card slot on the right side. Everything's a little more difficult to access than I'd like thanks to the weather-proofing (you have to tilt the screen out before you can access the HDMI and USB ports), but I'll gladly take that in exchange for not having to fear using the camera in a bit of rain.

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LCD / viewfinder

LCD and viewfinder

I'll take an OVF over an EVF, but I'll take an EVF over nothing
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Since Micro Four Thirds cameras don't have a mirror, they also don't have optical viewfinders. So Olympus added a 1.44-million-dot electronic viewfinder to the E-M5, and as EVFs go it's a pretty good one. The tradeoffs with an EVF are almost always the same: you get lots of information on the viewfinder itself, but you don't get as accurate a look at what you're shooting. An EVF's refresh rate also means you'll get blur and ghosting if you move the camera quickly, and on the E-M5 I also saw violent exposure shifts as the camera caught up to what it was looking at. EVF's are fine, and I'm glad Olympus included one here rather than foresaking viewfinders altogether, but make sure you can live without an OVF before you buy the E-M5.

The 3-inch LCD, on the other hand, is good by any standard. It's filled with only 610,000 dots, so in theory it's not as sharp as the 921,000-dot screens on the NEX-7 and other cameras, but I can't say I noticed the difference. The LCD's colors were incredibly accurate — more so than the viewfinder — and viewing angles are fantastic, meaning there's virtually no way you can hold the camera and not be able to see the display. That's made even more true by the fact that the LCD tilts almost 180 degrees up and down, so you can flip it out and frame a shot even while holding the camera above your head or down at your waist.

Micro Four Thirds camera manufacturers pride themselves on having tiny lenses for their cameras, and the E-M5's two kit lens options are no exception: both would fit easily inside a fun-sized can of Pringles (I know this for a fact). One is a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R lens, which costs $1,099.99 with the body, or for $1,299.99 you get the higher-end, weather-sealed 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens. I tested the E-M5 with the latter, and really liked it. It's incredibly smooth and sharp, and by moving the zoom ring forward or backward into one of three spots, you can enable manual zoom, electronic zoom (where you rock the zoom ring and it zooms automatically), or macro mode. I preferred the electronic zoom, which felt smoother when recording video. It makes the camera feel even smaller and lighter, and it's pretty good glass at the same time.

Controls

Controls and interface

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With some initial setup, you can control the E-M5 almost as capably as a DSLR — its control system isn't quite as good as the Sony NEX-7, but it's close. There are two scroll wheels on top of the camera, which control different things depending on the mode you're in, but are fairly straightforward. There are also two function buttons in reach of your thumb or index finger; by default, one is set to control ISO in manual mode, which I love, but of course they're customizable. The buttons themselves are a little sticky and cheap-feeling, and the wheels can be hard to turn accurately — I'd frequently want to change shutter speed one stop and accidentally go three or four — but I got used to the quirks pretty quickly and was shooting smoothly in no time. There aren't as many buttons as I might like, especially for things like bracketing, but that's part of the tradeoff when you're buying a Micro Four Thirds camera.

The on-screen interface is par for the camera course: lots of light text on dark backgrounds and semi-inscrutable icons leading you around. You'll mostly navigate with buttons, since the touchscreen interface is pretty basic — in Auto mode, you can change things like brightness and saturation using an on-screen slider, but that's about it. You can also tap on a portion of the screen and the E-M5 will snap a photo, though I didn't use that much. The menus are long and deep, so you won't want to spend a lot of time tweaking bracketing or EVF settings — this is a camera you set up, and just shoot with.

The touchscreen is more useful when you're reviewing your photos, since you can swipe through your photos, or zoom and pan around them. It's not the most fluid of interfaces — photos jerk a bit as you zoom in and out, and even the slightest tap swipes to the next photo — but it's definitely better for this purpose than a non-touchscreen.

Take the time up front to set it up the way you want
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Features

Features

Art filters and scene modes galore
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Olympus has jumped full-on into the Instagram craze, and bundles a dozen or so filters into the E-M5, under the Art section on the mode dial. They're all Instagram-y filters, too, from Grainy Film to Dramatic Tone to Pop Art. They're fun and gimmicky, but use with caution — the camera doesn't store an original copy of your photo, only the filtered image. There's one called Art BKT, though, which shoots one photo and then saves it with every filter plus one unfiltered shot, so you can decide later which (if any) you want to use.

There are a bunch of standard scene settings, too, which tweak your camera's settings to shoot better portraits, or better at night. Panorama and HDR both work as advertised, too — pretty much anything you want to do with your photos, you can.

Performance

Quality and performance

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The E-M5 is definitely a high-end camera, and it shoots like one. Using the higher-end kit lens, I was consistently surprised with how sharp my photos were, especially in the corners and in bad lighting. Many cameras shoot sharp photos in the center and get soft as you move toward the edges, but the E-M5 stays tack-sharp nearly the whole way. Dynamic range was the one hangup — it's good but not great when there are dark and bright spots in the same scene, and deep shadows on sunny days definitely gave the camera some trouble when exposing the shot. In really bright light, colors sometimes wash out a bit, but for the most part I'm pleased with its accuracy and richness. Generally speaking, I was thrilled with the images I took on the E-M5.

You can't see in the dark, but you're not far off

Typically the worrisome feature of a Micro Four Thirds camera, or any camera with a sensor smaller than a DSLR's, is low light performance — smaller sensor means less light collected at a time, which usually means worse images. No such trouble here, though: the E-M5 can't quite see in the dark, but it does an impressive job of trying. Its ISO range goes as high as ISO 25,600, and I happily shot up to ISO 3200 without even thinking about it. You get a bit of noise after about ISO 800, but even up to ISO 4000 or so photos are still usable at smaller sizes. Even at ISO 12,800 and to a lesser extent 25,600, I could still read text, and unlike most cameras wouldn't hate sharing the resulting photos. Such great ISO performance makes it all the more frustrating that by default the E-M5's Auto ISO setting only goes up to ISO 1600, and like the NEX-7 the camera instead abuses shutter speed to get good pictures in low light — you can change this in the camera's menu, and I suggest you at least double it to ISO 3200.


Fortunately, slow shutter speeds aren't as big a problem as they normally are because Olympus' Micro Four Thirds shooters use in-camera image stabilization rather than relying on the lens to keep your shot still, which makes a noticeable difference in the sharpness of your photos. I normally try to avoid shooting at less than 1/80th of a second shutter speed, but I went to 1/40th or below on the E-M5 without any problems. It's five-axis stabilization, too, which means it'll correct for almost any direction you or the camera moves.

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Seriously quick for such a small camera

The E-M5's 16-megapixel JPG images weigh in at 4608 x 3072, and run between 6.5MB and 8.5MB per shot (much larger if you shoot RAW images). The camera's able to shoot rapid-fire for about 18 frames before the buffer catches up, after which it grabs one about every half-second; make sure you have a fast card (I used a SanDisk Extreme SD card), because it'll slow you down before the camera itself does. It's relatively fast elsewhere, too. It turns on and captures a photo in about 2.5 seconds, which is only average, but it captures more than nine frames per second and has an imperceptible 0.1 second of shutter lag — with no mirror to flip up every time it takes a shot, this camera flies. It's working hard to do so, though, and you can tell: the camera audibly whirs every now and then, and though the sound never showed up in my videos it's weird to be able to hear my camera.

"Who has the fastest autofocus?" is a constant point of contention between Olympus and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras. Olympus claims the E-M5's autofocus is the fastest on the market, Panasonic says the same of the new GF5. Regardless, the E-M5's autofocus is blazing fast, locking reliably and instantly onto its subject — you can choose among 35 different autofocus points, or use face tracking.

High-definition video can be recorded at either 1080p or 720p, at 30 frames per second. Footage is impressive, too, with rich colors and crisp details. The E-M5 offers continuous autofocus while recording video, and you can zoom as well — the zooming's a bit jerky, though, and video would occasionally flicker as I zoomed in or out. In-camera image stabilization is once again a big plus here, allowing for much smoother video even while you're moving or panning the camera. You'll still want a tripod for shake-free results, but video from the E-M5 is far from the nausea-inducing footage a lot of cameras produce.

The stereo microphone does nicely as well, and picks up a pretty good stereo effect. It's not a replacement for an external mic, and that's unfortunate since there's no input for a microphone (though you can buy one to attach to the hotshoe).

Battery life is pretty fantastic — I shot more than 500 photos and about 10 minutes of video, all without killing the battery. What's weird, though, is that I shot most of those photos with the battery meter reading empty; either there's something wrong with how the E-M5 measures its battery levels, or that last ten percent packs a serious punch. I quickly learned to just ignore the warnings and keep shooting, though, and it lasts a long time.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 does nearly everything right: it's fast, gorgeous, and takes great images and video. Its biggest setback is its price: at $1,099.99, you're definitely paying a premium for the E-M5's gestalt, even over Olympus's own PEN line of very good Micro Four Thirds cameras. At that price this camera is competing with shooters that have larger sensors, too, and if there's one rule of thumb worth following it's that larger sensors mean better pictures. At this level, though, we're only talking varying levels of greatness — the E-M5 is the best and most enjoyable Micro Four Thirds camera I've used yet. It's a much more novice-friendly camera than a DSLR or even the NEX-7 thanks to its size and control scheme, though NEX cameras and DSLRs will serve you more capably once you've gotten used to them. It also plugs into a large and ever-growing ecosystem of lenses, which is another advantage over Sony's NEX cameras. If you're willing to make a couple of very minor tradeoffs in image quality and manual control, most buyers will be very happy with the OM-D E-M5.

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