Olympus OM-D EM-5

The Olympus OM-D EM-5 made a bit of a stir among the photographic cognoscenti in 2012, getting rave reviews and winding up one of the few camera products that Olympus could crow about at the end of a very dismal fiscal year ($190 million in losses). Although Panasonic had been squeezing fairly decent performance out of the sensors in its micro-four-thirds cameras, Olympus had clearly fallen behind. Their sensors produced noisy images even at low ISOs. The EM-5 changed all that. It immediately allowed Olympus to leapfrog Panasonic in sensor performance. But it was not just sensor performance that distinguished the EM-5. The camera fulfilled the promise of compact interchangeable lens cameras in a manner none had done before it. While Panasonic had produced some find camera, particularly in its GH series, the EM-5 quickly became the standard by which all mirrorless ILCs would be judged. For the first time photographers found a mirrorless camera that provided both the quality and the experience of an SLR in a compact package. At last, a camera that could be used for serious work, without the usual sort of compromises in terms of handling and final output. Having had the opportunity to try the camera out and get to know it, I will attempt to gauge my own reactions, cutting through the hype and ill-informed criticisms that, like barnacles, have festered about the EM-5.

Quality of output. No hype here. The EM-5 delivers the goods, producing rich, detailed, stunning images at lower ISOs all the way to ISO 1600, if not higher. I’m not much of a high ISO shooter. But I’ve had occasion to push the ISO to 1600 and have not lived to regret it. Here’s an example of ISO 1600 in rather poor light:

Given the poor quality of the light (a huge amount of shadow recovery had to be used with this image), this is pretty good. And it cleans up nicely in post:

Dynamic range is also very good — although here we don’t quite reach the levels of the latest generation of APS-C cameras, such as the Pentax K-5. Consider this image, of a rock, with the setting sun behind it:

Very challenging for any camera. Here’s the rock, illuminated by aggressive shadow recovery in Lightroom:

This is not bad. The Pentax K-5 could do better, but the K-5 was the dynamic range king among all cameras, regardless of sensor size, for a year and a half. I would place the EM-5 on par with older APS-C cameras. It’s dynamic range performance is very close to that of the Pentax K200D.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the EM-5 is as good, in terms of potential image quality, as the best APS-C DSLRs, differences in quality would only be noticed under special circumstances, particularly when more dynamic range is called for. I wouldn’t be surprised that for most photographers, the EM-5 would be found “good enough,” if not better. It’s good enough, in any case, for probably 90 to 95 percent of the type of images I normally take. Or let me put it this way: it’s good enough that the lens used is really the more important part of the image quality equation.

One other thing to note: I suspect, but do not know and cannot prove, that Olympus is sharpening the raw files produced by the EM-5. We know that both Panasonic and Olympus tamper with their raw files. Both Olympus and Panasonic add distortion correction to their raw files, and Panasonic corrects for chromatic aberrations. I suspect some Olympus is using optimization algorithms fashioned to get the most out of each of their lenses. I say this because (1) images taken in the EM-5 tend to be considerably sharper than images taken with the same lens on the E-PL1; and (2) images taken with mid-level zoom lenses on the EM-5 tend to be as sharp, if not sharper, than images taken high-end Pentax primes on the K-5. I have difficulty believing that such lenses as Olympus 9-18, 12-50, and 40-150 are as sharp as the Pentax DA 15, the Pentax K 50/1.2, and the Pentax DFA 100 macro. Consider, as a kind of test, the following two 100% crops, the first shot with the Pentax DA 15 f4 Limited on the K-5, the second with the Olympus M. Zukio 9-18 on the EM-5:

The EM-5 crop, if anything, looks sharper the the Pentax K-5 crop. Is the M. Zukio 9-18 really this sharp? I doubt it. Of course, there can be a whole host of explanations for this other than sharpening of the EM-5 raw files. It could be an aggressive AA filter on the Pentax K-5; it could be greater autofocus accuracy on the EM-5; it could be the rendering of the lenses: perhaps the Olympus lenses just render lines with a bit more acutance, making them seem sharper, while Pentax opts for more artistic rendering, with finer gradations. Or maybe the Olympus zooms really as sharp, if not sharper, than the Pentax primes. (I will note that Pentax primes are sharper along the edges and in the corners.)

Handling. This is more of a mixed bag. In terms of the ergonomics, I contend that Olympus hit a home run with the EM-5. It’s as good as a camera of its relatively diminutive size can possibly be. I’ve handled some other micro-four-thirds cameras, such as the Panasonic GH1 and the Olympus EPL-1, and I find the EM-5 to be better. The camera is very comfortable to hold with the right hand. Is it ergonomically as good as a DSLR? No, not necessarily. But here size works against the EM-5. Keep in mind: all cameras involve tradeoffs. The small size of the EM-5 brings many advantages; but also some disadvantages. A small camera can be much easier to transport and carry around. But it won’t necessarily handle as well as mid-sized camera like the Pentax K-5, which you can grip with your entire hand. The EM-5 is held with one’s fingers. That works quite well, but it’s not the same as holding something with the entire hand.

The other part of handling is accessing buttons. Here’s where the EM-5 doesn’t do so well. The two scroll wheels on the top are terrific, particularly the one on the right, which is easily accessed by one’s forefinger. The other scroll wheel, although it’s wonderful to have it, is not reached so easily. Many of the buttons are worse, particularly those on the back of the camera, next to the LCD. The two buttons near the top of the camera, the playback and FN1 buttons, are too close together. Since one will generally try to press these buttons with one’s thumb, mistakes are bound to happen. The “OK” button along with the four arrow keys are another source of trouble. I’m constantly pressing the wrong button, not merely because the buttons are so small, but because they’re not marked and I keep forgetting what does what. Pressing the “OK” button brings up an info panel which allows one to access the control panel. That’s all well and good; but honestly, I have not found it all that useful. I use it almost exclusively for turning image stabilization on and off. The other functions accessed in the panel can either be changed more easily in other ways or I haven’t found a pressing need to change them.

The EM-5 is often praised for the ability to customize it, particularly the buttons. There are five buttons that can be customized. Sounds impressive, right? Well, I found many of the customizations are not all that useful. You can program buttons for ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, AEL/AFL, REC (for movies), electronic preview (for judging DOF with aperture), Choosing Focus point, Moving Focus Point to a specified position, measuring white balance, toggling between JPEG and RAW, test picture, “Myset1 through Myset5, underwater settings, live guide, digital teleconverter, magnify, AF stop, select drive mode, flash, and off. I find the ISO and drive mode absolutely essential. The others I really don’t have much use for. In fact, I choose “off” for the function 1 button, because I kept accidentally pressing it. I can think, however, of a bunch of options that should have been included yet are missing: face detection, image stabilization, bracketing (which can only be accessed in the menu system!), Pentax green button functionality, and, most necessary of all, a sleep function. If there is one thing I really dislike about the EM-5 is lack of a way to put the camera to sleep manually. Here’s the problem. The EM-5 features an electronic viewfinder. While I prefer optical viewfinders by a wide margin, an electronic viewfinder is much better than no viewfinder at all. However, electronic viewfinders eat up batteries. The EM-5, being a compact camera, features a small battery without a huge amount of juice. It would be very nice, as a means of conserving the battery, to be able to put the camera’s display or EVF to sleep with the touch of a button. The EVF has a sensor which detects the presence of one’s eye, so that it turns on when one puts it up against one’s eye. Great feature. The trouble is if you are one those who like to carry the camera around your neck via a neck strap, the EVF will light up from being pressed up against one’s chest. That means you either have to turn off the camera or turn off the sensor which triggers on the EVF. Neither solution is optimal. If you turn of the detector, you can’t use the camera as you would a DSLR. If you turn off the camera, that means the camera has been turned on again whenever you wish to use it. If you are walking around with the camera, this could mean you might end up turning it on off dozens of times within a few hours. That hardly seems optimal for the life of the camera. All this could be solved by simply allowing one to program one of the function buttons to put the camera to sleep. Touching any button could wake it up again. This seems like a pretty useful and elementary feature, and I can’t figure out why Olympus or, as far as I know, anyone else, has thought of adding it to their EVF camera. Olympus does allow one to put the display to sleep on the E-PL1: a most useful feature which, if used properly, really helps get more shots out of a single battery. Why not on the EM-5 as well?

Prior Criticisms. One of the biggest criticisms essays against the EM-5 involves the menu system. “One nagging issue throughout the camera is the extensive menus,” complains Thom Hogan. “Like many cameras sold today, the OM-D has a bunch of nested menus that can drive even a calm person batty,” notes Scott Bourne. These are merely two complaints from reviewers who like the EM-5 and who use it regularly. Are the menus really that bad? No, not really. It’s not so much the menus that are the problem; it’s the non-menu interface. It’s the fact that despite all the customization options (you can even customize the warning icon for the battery!), there’s too many things left out, like the manual sleep control I mentioned earlier. Despite all the options, I cannot customize the camera to work like my Pentax K-5, which is a pity considering the K-5 is, in terms of the interface, about as well thought out as any camera on the market.

Other complaints have been raised against the EM-5. Some have complained about the short battery life, the On/Off switch, the noise that the sensor stabilization makes, tracking AF, and, perhaps the biggest complaint of all, the price. Honestly, I don’t think any of these complaints are justified. The short battery life is due to having a small battery — something necessary to keep the camera small. The On/Off switch is really no big deal. The noise of stabilization is also no big deal. The tracking AF issues, while real, involve a false standard of judgment: the EM-5 is not a sports camera. If you need top-of-the-line tracking AF, buy a professional caliber DSLR. And as for the price: well, the complaint here seems to be that you can get a Sony NEX or DSLR with comparable features (such as the Pentax K-30) for less. Well, perhaps. Other than the K-50, I don’t see any DSLR that’s comparable to the EM-5. Yes, you could get a little bit extra quality with one of the Nikon entry level cameras; but you won’t get weather sealing. Same problem with the Sony NEX: no weather sealing, plus the NEX is chained to a mediocre system. The Olympus OM-D EM-5 is the best compact mirrorless interchangeable lens system camera currently available. There’s nothing really all that close. The Fuji X-Pro system, while very good, offers few lenses and accessories. The Sony NEX also suffers from fewer lenses, particularly quality zooms and fast primes. The Panasonic GH3 is almost as large as a DSLR. So if you’re looking for compact system ILC that performs nearly as well as a DSLR, the EM-5 is clearly the best option right now.

Image Stabilization. Olympus is the only company making compact ILCs with sensors 4/3rds or larger that opted for IBIS (in body image stabilization). I find this a bit shocking. IBIS seems to me a no-brainer for a compact system. Let’s be realistic about this: most of these small cameras are going to be used hand-held. How can you not have IBIS? The biggest issue with Sony, Samsung, and even Panasonic is that many of their lenses are not as small as would be optimal (and the few that are small too often involve optical compromises). Sony tried to make their cameras as small as possible, perhaps for bragging rights. But what good is a small camera if it must be attached to a large lens? Olympus decided to make whatever compromises were required in making the cameras just a bit bigger so that they could put stabilization in the camera where it belongs and work on making the lenses as small as possible.

So how does the IBIS in the EM-5 work? Very well. Olympus uses a new “5 axis image stabilization.” It’s much improved over what Olympus featured, say, in the EPL-1. I don’t have many examples to show, as I usually play it safe and put the camera on a tripod. But here’s a couple. The first is 90% crop taken at 1/5th of a second at 10mm:

Obviously, you can attain longer shutter speeds at wider focal lengths. In fact, I think that’s precisely where the EM-5’s IBIS excels. But even at longer focal lengths, it’s not bad. The following is a 90% crop taken at 1/30th of a second at 89mm focal length:

Really not bad at all. I doubt there’s a better hand-holdable camera on the market.

Auto-focus. There have been lots of complaints about the AF performance on mirrorless cameras. I’ll admit to not caring too much about such things. I’m more into accuracy of focus, and here’s where the EM-5 really shines. At least for the sort of images I do (mostly landscape, but a few critters as well), the EM-5’s AF has performed splendidly; better, in any case, then what I get out of my Pentax K-5. And it’s really not that slow. On the contrary, it’s at least as fast as my K-5. Mid-level and professional Canon and Nikon DSLRs may be faster. If you need super fast AF (or tracking AF), buy one of those Nikon or Canon DSLRs. In photography, there are always trade-offs. The EM-5 provides a much more compact system then you will get out of a Nikon or Canon DSLR. That’s the principle advantage of the micro four-thirds system. But that advantage comes with several disadvantages, one of them being that you won’t get professional caliber AF in a body this small. Perhaps later down the road, as the technology improves, we will see a compact MILC that can rival, in AF speed and tracking capability, the Canon 1Dx. We’re not there yet. In the meantime, just get the camera that has the features you need to get the shots you want.

Video. I find the video the EM-5 to be quite respectable. Obviously, it is not quite in the class of what can be produced by the Panasonic GH series of cameras. Those whose priority is video should get the GH3 rather than the EM-5. But for less demanding videographers, the EM-5 is more than adequate:

Conclusion. As I have noted in the course of the review, the Olympus OM-D EM-5 is the best system MILC available right now. For serious photographers, this is the easiest camera to duplicate the experience of a Canon, Nikon, or Pentax DSLR system. Does it quite equal, as a system camera, an APS-C or FF DSLR? No, not quite. The quality of the output is close, but does not quite equal, what is attained in APS-C DSLRs. Nor does the micro-four-thirds system have as many lenses and accessories as a Canon or Nikon DSLR. But it’s as good as you’re going to find in the MILC world, and that’s saying something.