Michael Rammell

First Impressions: Olympus OM-D EM-5

Review, Product, Gear, OlympusMichael RammellComment

It's been two weeks now since I took receipt of the OM-D E-M5 from Olympus. Initially, the E-M5 I had was on loan from Olympus UK who were kind enough to send me a camera so that I could review it for the Ready Steady Pro Photography Podcast and Blog, which I will be doing in due course. But I'm not going to write a full review and release my video review until late March. At that point I'll have had the camera for 5 or 6 weeks and I'll have had ample opportunity to to put it through it's paces fully: I'll be playing with it at the Photography Show in early March, I'll be out in Boston in the US in mid-March and I've got a day of Street Photography In London too between all that, so plenty of opportunity to really see what it can do.

Now, before I go any further and tell you about the camera itself I just want to let you know that I was personally quite skeptical about the mirrorless movement in general. Sure, the lightness and size of these cameras appealed to me, but I had serious doubts about their performance and ability and credentials before I decided whether or not I should jump on the bandwagon. My view was that they were an expensive fad almost, appealing to those people who shot film and were lured by the retro styling of cameras such as the OMD range from Olympus as the Fuji's.

However, I'll be clear and tell you now that I have fallen in love with the OMD in particular. At the time of writing I do still have the E-M5 on loan from Olympus UK, but it only took a week of using the loan camera before I put down the cash and bought my own, along with the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8. The pull for me, as well as the performance, as I talk about below, was also a great deal that Olympus are currently running whereby if you buy the kit E-M5 (Body + 12-50mm lens) you get a free 45mm f/1.8 and 2-stage HLD-6 Battery Grip. Those retail at a combined price of over £430 and Olympus were offering them for free. So, I jumped at the chance. (check out the deal and all the details on the Ready Steady Pro Blog)

So, today I want to give a first impressions style review. My thoughts so far on this extremely tidy package and to give you a real honest opinion of what the camera can do, what it can't do and ultimately a conclusion.

The Build Quality

The reason I want to start by talking about the build quality is because it truly was the first thing that blew me away when I took the lease camera out of the box: It's weighty, it's very sturdy and it's all-metal body gives for an amazingly solid build. It is nothing short of impressive and that goes a long way to making this feel like a very serious camera, rather than just a little compact point and shoot with an EVF, which some people have often mistaken it for.

As someone who is used to shooting with a Canon 7d, which you may know also has an all-metal weather-sealed body and is built incredibly well by Canon, I was pretty much expecting something mostly plastic when I got the E-M5 out of the box. I was however pleasantly surprised to find that it feels as solid as any high-end DSLR when it's in your hands. The only thing I can add to this - and this sounds odd, I know - is that the E-M5 doesn't feel hollow. It feels very much like every millimeter of space inside the camera is packed with technology and that it all holds together very well.

Being a weather-resistant body though, I should have guessed that it would be well built. I guess I just didn't know what to expect seeing as it was the first time I'd held an Olympus camera.

To be honest it's not worth me saying too much more about the build quality because you genuinely do have to feel it to believe it, so to speak. If you're at your local camera store or a trade show be sure to pick one of these things up. I'm sure you'll be as impressed as I am.

Ergonomics - How does the E-M5 feel in your hands?

Now, this will be subjective depending on who is holding the camera. I know that for sure. Personally for me though, it feels superb. That solid mass in your gripped hand feels great. It's heavy enough that you feel the quality and that weight gives it a sense of balance. So far I've only tried the kit 12-50mm and the ultra-lightweight (yet, all metal) 17mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko lens. This prime has hardly come off the E-M5 since I got it. When I talk about balance though I'm referring to the way the camera feels when you're walking around with it, when you're holding up to your face to shoot with it. For example when I'm out and about with the Canon 7d and the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS USM II the camera feels extremely front heavy for obvious reasons. Add an extender to that and the feeling is amplified. Now, I know that's not comparing apples for apples: One is a micro-four-thirds system with a compact prime and the other other is a Large DSLR with an L Class telefocal lens mounted to it, but it illustrates the point I'm trying to make. Albeit in an exaggerated manner. At the end of the day what I am saying is that it feels great.

Some may say that it's too small and that you don't have enough grip or body to get a decent and comfortable purchase on the camera when it's in your hands, however you do have the optional 2-stage battery grip for the E-M5, the HLD-6. The beauty of this grip is that the 2-stage setup means if you can screw in the first part of the grip to add the desired 'bulk' to the front of the camera so that you have something more substantial under your finger tips. The bonus however, and I'll admit I'm yet to experience this first hand as my grip is still in the post from Olympus, is that the second part of the grip is the dual-battery part with portrait-oriented controls. Effectively, this makes the E-M5 much closer to the feel of a DSLR. I think I may be right in saying that no other compact system has this (Fuji, Panasonic, Sony etc?)

I'm used to using my 7d with a grip because I honestly believe that it doesn't feel quite right without it, so for me this option ticked a huge box. Although, I will probably only use the first stage of the grip for street photography. I'm going for incognito. Not obvious. I certainly will have te battery/portrait grip on it at all other times.

This is another part of the reason I'll be doing a more full, in-depth review in the middle of March; by that time I'll also have my 45mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko and Battery Grip to talk about.

In summary though - for me the E-M5 is a masterpiece of manufacturing from Olympus and it feels great in your hands, grip or no grip. It doesn't bother me either way. A one word summary would be "Quality.

Here, take a look at the the E-M5 in all it's glory:

The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Honestly, the EVF and the Focusing were the only two things that were making me nervous about the E-M5 before receiving it from Olympus (we'll come to focusing in a minute). But I'll tell you now that the EVF is a dream to use. I find that there is hardly any lag at all, to the point where it isn't noticeable and doesn't have any negative impact whatsoever. It's absolutely fine. I don't have any other EVF experience to compare it to,  again, if you're coming from the world of DSLR's, like myself, I think this EVF does a great job of making it easy to adjust to.

There is no doubt though that the EVF is different if you're used to using a mirror, but that isn't an issue with the OMD, that's just a trait of EVF's in general - they are different to mirrors: after all you're effectively looking at a tiny magnified screen, rather than a reflection.

If you're unsure about Electronic Viewfinders and what they are and what they do - don't worry. They're pretty much a digital viewfinder. Think of them that way. The fact it is showing you a digital representation of what the sensor is seeing though, does offer some very distinct advantages over their mirrored cousins. For example: What you see in an Electronic Viewfinder is the end result once you've pressed the shutter. That's right, when you press that shutter button what you're seeing in the EVF is the picture you'll end up with. It's really cool.

Further more, with the EVF being an actual screen inside an eye cup (if you will) means manufacturers can actually overlay information on the picture and show effects in real time. For example, you can have an in-EVF histogram and you can see everything in black & white whilst you shoot. There are more features and benefits, but for me personally these are the only things I'm interested in as bonus features of using the EVF.

Focusing Speed & Accuracy

This was another one of those elephants in the room that was stopping me from pulling out my wallet and diving into the world of mirrorless: focusing was rumored to be slow on mirrorless cameras, but this was a reported issue with Fuji's, Sony's and Panasonic's too. It wasn't an OMD-Specific report. However, having been fortunate enough to have a unit on loan from Olympus for the sake of this review, it meant that I didn't have to open my own wallet to find out what the camera was like.

Quite simply: this is not an issue with the E-M5 at all.

Olympus claim that the E-M5 has the fastest auto focusing in the world. Whilst that is a bold claim, what I wouldn't refute is that the focusing is darn fast and very accurate, despite only having contrast auto detect. (You'll find that most DSLR's also have phase auto detect). Whatever Olympus have packed inside this thing to make it focus so quickly is simply wonderful.

With regards to the focus accuracy so far when I've used full auto focus (allowing the camera to select the focus point) it's hit the nail on the head 9 times out of 10. I'd say that it's no more or less accurate than a larger DSLR with both phase and contrast auto detect. It's odd, but I can certifiably say "It just works".

What I find though is that I've setup my E-M5 to be as close as possible in terms of it's function button and control dial layouts as possible to my 7d. I haven't the time to re-learn an entire system and I'm not keen on the idea of missing a shot and it being the fault of any camera. As a result, I also use the E-M5 in the same way I use my 7D: Single point, manually selected Auto focus point. This means I use the directional buttons to pick a point to focus on. This may be bad practice as they Olympus seems to snap-on to the correct focus point most of the time, however it's just me and the way I like to work. In a busy scene with a lot going on or when shooting a close-up potrait, I haven't the time or the inclination to risk having the camera focus on the tip of a nose instead of an eye.

But, this does speak to another amazing feature of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 - the customisation options are amazing. I'll talk a little more about customisation shortly, but you'll be pleased to know that the OM-D captures focus extremely well each and every time. This is a total non-issue.

Touch Screen

More and more cameras today are coming packed with touch screens, in fact everything today comes with a touch screen. My daughter, who is two years old always tries to select her favourite programs on Apple TV by touching the TV screen. Oh how the world has changed.

I digress.

The touch screen on the Olympus is simply fine. You can scroll through the photographs using an Apple-esque swipe motion, but it doesn't feature a pinch to zoom gesture.

One way that Olympus have utilized the touch screen to full effect though is by implementing a touch screen focus and shutter function: You touch the area on the screen where you want the camera to focus and it quickly snaps into focus and then fires off a shot. I can't see myself using this a great deal, at least I haven't done so far, but my wife however loves this feature.

We went to Paris a few years back with a Sony NEX-3 and she loved it. Broke her heart when I sold it. Now she's back in love with the Olympus because she doesn't have to feel like a photographer and use the EVF. The quality of the display is such that it is perfectly feasible to obtain focus, compose your scene and make a photograph. So, the Touch screen gets a huge thumbs up from me personally and from my wife also.

I can see myself using the tilt feature of the screen when on the Tube in London. Looking down at the screen whilst it sits on my lap, then pressing the screen to make a photograph. I can see some benefits if truth be told. I'll have to talk more about this when I do the full review.

But, in summary the screen is lovely and bright, refreshes incredibly quickly, is packed with detail and all sorts of customization options. Of course it also titles up and down too, which is a nice feature. It's a great screen. Well done to Olympus!

Note: if the touch screen bothers you simply disable it in the menu.

Dials, Controls & Customisation

After only a few weeks of using the Olympus I'm at the point now where I'm very familiar with the button and dial layout. As I mentioned I use single focus points which I manually select. I've become accustomed to this in the same way I did on the 7d meaning I don't have to pull away from the EVF to figure out which buttons to press, which for me is very important as I don't want to miss a shot.

When I first received my own Olympus the aperture and shutter speed dials were already allocated as I wanted (you can swap them so that the front dial surrounding the shutter button can be aperture or shutter speed and the dial at the rear can be changed too). So, no matter what DSLR system you're coming from you can set the dials up to be closer to what you've become used to on those systems.

You can also adjust the direction of the dials. Rotating clockwise will increase the shutter or aperture if you like, or, change that setting so that anti-clockwise increases them, or vice-versa.

The E-M5 also features two Function buttons (fn.1 & fn.2) and a record button for instant video. You can also re-assign the functions that these buttons activate and deactivate. I personally have ISO set to the top function button, meaning when pressed I can then quickly change my ISO using one of the dials or the directional buttons. I then have the back function button set as my White Balance button. I have left the record button as the video button.

With these settings in place I can now really quickly change all of the settings I need in order to achieve the shot I want. Just like I can with my Canon 7d.

The dials themselves seem relatively well placed and are very solid, continuing the theme of the great build quality. If you add the body grip you get an additional dial and shutter button, but this is simply a duplicate of those that are already on the body of the camera. This is a nice addition as the shutter button and the shutter speed dial (as I have mine set) are then further out on the front of the camera under your index finger. It's a great addition. Furthermore add the second stage grip and you've got the same again, this time on the vertical axis.

Image Quality

Perhaps I should have touched on the image quality earlier on in this review. After all it doesn't matter how much of a masterpiece the camera body is if it doesn't make great photographs, right?

Well I'm personally extremely impressed with the files I'm getting out of the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I actually let Neil Graham borrow the camera for a day and he made the same observation as me - and that is that the files seem to be very forgiving in post-processing. You can really push them.

I'm personally a sucker for a black and white photograph, as you may be able to tell and to be honest the files are lovely and silky in Black and White, you can really push the blacks and the whites for a lovely high contrast monochrome finish.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing this post there are no camera profiles in LightRoom 5 for any Olympus lenses. That doesn't matter too much as you can still take the RAW's into LightRoom and do what you want with them, but it just means you can't use the profile options. But, until I see a before and after with a profile enabled, I'm non-the-wiser as to what imperfections there are with the Olympus MFT lenses. I love them!

High ISO Performance

Before making my own purchase I watched a few hours worth of YouTube videos to see what the OM-D was all about in terms of it's ISO performance. I'd not really heard too many bad things, and the bad things I had heard were in my opinion flawed arguments as most of the time people were comparing the Olympus to top of the range DSLR's such as the 1Dx and D4. Fine, they're all cameras, but the bodies of the Nikon and Canon alone are upwards of £5,000. That's like comparing a Ferrari to a tuned-track car. Sure, the Ferrari isn't cheap and is a very capable car, but those track cars are designed specifically for what they do. As i said above when I was referring to balance (7d with 70-200 vs E-M5 with 17mm) it's not comparing apples for apples. Why would anything that costs 8 times as much be a fair comparison?

Analogy and rant over I'll tell you in my own words about the ISO performance: suffice to say I don't want to talk technical and I haven't done a side by side lab test, but from a practical perspective - I mean actually going out with the camera and shooting at high ISO's of 3200 plus, I can say that I am extremely impressed yet again. The Micro Four Thirds sensor packed with 16megapixels. I found at ISO 3200 I still have very clean pictures. Add a little hint noise reduction in Lightroom and they come out even better. I can honestly say that coupled with a good technique, such as Exposing to the right the results are very clean.

The Price Point

I'm even more impressed with the price of the E-M5 now that I know the camera better: The outstanding build quality, the impressive customisation, the superb selection of lenses and ultimately the superb quality of files that you get as a result of all that. It's a camera that has come down in price quite a bit since it's launch. You can pick up a body only for a little over £500, but as I eluded to at the start of this post right now Olympus are running an offer giving you over £430 of accessories (a 45mm f/1.8 lens and the 2-stage battery grip) for free. This was a hugely deciding factor for me.

The E-M5 can only be described, in my mind, as amazingly capable, fantastically solid and great fun as well as being a perfectly feasible tool for 'proper' work (Portraiture, weddings etc). So, given all that it can do I'd say that the £899 I paid for it with the 12-50mm kit lense from Park Cameras was decent value. (I will say I chose to purchase from an authorized UK stockist for warranty reasons and so that I could make use of Olympus' fully loaded deal). You can pick up an E-M5 Body only for £749 from Park, and I've seen it for around £650 elsewhere.

The amazing thing is that the E-M5 does pack in many of the features, but not all of them, that the E-M1 contains, yet the E-M1, body alone will set you back £1299 from Park.

So, as far as I can see if you're looking for a extremely capable, interchangeable lens, compact camera with EVF the Olympus represents superb value. As do the lenses available. But I'll review lenses separately to this post.

Just for fun: E-M5 shutter in slow motion

E-M5 or E-M1

Okay, I'll start this off by listing the things that the E-M1 has that the E-M5 does not:

  • Phase Auto Detection
  • Weather Sealing
  • WiFi
  • Mic-In
  • TruePic VII sensor (E-M5 packs a TruePic VI)
  • ISO Starts at 100 instead of 200 on the E-M5, but the next firmware release for the E-M5 is supposed to give the E-M5 access to ISO 100 as well
  • Focus Peeking
  • 81 Focus Points instead of 35
  • A higher resolution with over 1,000,000 dots instead of the 600,000 that the E-M5 has

Or you can take a look at the DPReview Side-by-side comparison tool.

Now that I've listed it, it does seem as though the E-M1 packs a lot that the E-M5 does not. However, note that really the only actually features it has in addition to the E-M5 are the Wi-Fi and Mic Input. Sure, I mean the auto detect is phase as well and it has focus peeking and more focus points, but to be honest, from what I can gather and from what many other blogs have said, the resulting picture quality is only marginal.

Now consider that  you're going to have to spend out an additional £550 to get all these things that the E-M1 offers, I'm of the opinion that we arrive at the point of diminishing returns. DPReview themselves give the E-M1 an impressive 84% score. That's Great. But the E-M5 scores an impressive 80%. Both achieved 'Gold Awards'

4% difference between the two cameras for £550? Diminishing returns indeed if you ask me.

Furthermore if you're convincing yourself you need the built-in Wifi - Go and buy an Eye-Fi SD card instead for the cost of £32. I don't know about you but I can't see the need for Wireless shooting 90% of the time, perhaps only in a studio location. For this thought the Eye-Fi is perfect and represents actual value for money.

At the end of the day if my clone and I went out to do some street photography or were at a wedding and one of us had the E-M1 and the other the E-M5 - I'm not convinced the photographs on the E-M1 would be £550 worth of better, if much better all.

This is not to say that the E-M1 is rubbish, but more a nod to how amazing the E-M5 actually is.

My verdict is that if you're a photographer coming from the world of DSLR's and you're looking to dip your toes into the mirrorless waters then the E-M5 represents a great value choice. But don't let the word value trick you into thinking 'it's decent for the price', I mean value as in you're getting a hell of a camera for the price. My inclination was to spend the £550 difference on lenses and accessories. After all you're going to need additional batteries and if you're used to shooting to Compact Flash you may need to go and buy a few quality SD cards too now.

That's it. That's my First Impressions and thoughts on the E-M5. In the coming weeks I'll be talking much more about this camera on the blog including why having a smaller camera encourages greater creativity, how having a smaller camera enables me to shoot more than ever, I'll have lens reviews of the 17mm and the 45mm lenses (both f1.8 M.Zuiko Micro Four Thirds lenses from Olympus. I'll also be reviewing the HLD-6; the battery grip and then there will be a full, in-depth video review of the E-M5 too.

I'm so looking to get an E-M1 from Olympus once in send back the lease E-M5 and I've also agreed to take a look at the PEN E-P5, which looks quite cool as well.

So I hope you found this review useful, keep an ear to the ground for more E-M5 updates and be sure to subscribe to the blog for future updates too!

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