Best Serious Mirrorless Camera of 2012
I've been shooting with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for most of 2012 and early 2013. I'm certainly not the first to review it. However, this is one of the more complex products on the mirrorless market and deserved a great deal of actual use and thought before rendering a verdict. One benefit of using the camera for so long before reviewing it is that I'm not infatuated by it as some were in initial reviews; I'm not perplexed by it as others have been in trying to review a highly complex product quickly; and I've come to figuring out my own optimal use of the camera.
I will say up front that, as I write this the E-M5 is my go to mirrorless camera. More so than any previous mirrorless camera the E-M5 provides a fairly DSLR-like experience, and its performance qualities have been at the top of the heap during 2012. (The GH3 may change my mind a bit, but I'm early in my evaluation of that camera.)
I need to speak to why I refer to the camera as the E-M5 in this review rather than the OM-D name most people use for it: OM-D is a family of camera, just like Pen is a family of cameras for Olympus' earlier and original mirrorless offerings. It's a group name, not an individual product name. The actual product name is E-M5. This implies that there may be other OM-D cameras in the future. Indeed, I'm certain there will be. So we need to refer to the camera by its correct name: E-M5.
Just a warning: if you're expecting to get through this review a minute or two, you won't. There's a lot of ground to cover here. This is probably the most detailed and complex review I've written so far for sansmirror, and there's considerable verbiage involved. If you came for a quick, snap opinion, you came to the wrong place.
What is It?
The E-M5 instantly evokes memories of Olympus film SLRs, in particular the OM series. Thus, it's not surprising that Olympus has named the new series of cameras the E-M5 fits into the OM-D (D for digital).
Like the original OMs, the E-M5 is smaller than traditional SLR/DSLRs. Olympus was well known for its "small cameras" in the film era, and we're starting to see their true return to form now in the digital era. One of my complaints about the old 4/3 Olympus DSLRs was that they used a smaller sensor but didn't benefit much in size, if any, from that choice. The E-M5 (and the Pen cameras, too) have fixed that.
Next to even a Nikon D5200 the E-M5 looks small. It's thinner (mirrorless, after all), about the same width, a slightly less tall, thus making for a lot less bulk than a consumer DSLR. Indeed, if you took off the viewfinder hump, the E-M5 is about the same size as the E-P3. Those of you looking at the Panasonic GH-3 should know that it is a bigger camera. Olympus understands small and has produced one of the first smaller, full-featured cameras we've seen.
Yet it looks DSLR-like, with a prism-like hump and an eyepiece at the back (which leads to a view of an EVF). The controls look DSLR-like, too, with multiple dials and lots of small buttons.
"Small" is actually a problem for some. A lot of folk bulk up their E-M5 with the accessory grip. I personally prefer the half-grip, which makes the camera feel just about right in my hand, but doesn't bulk it up too much. We'll return to this thought in the handling section, below.
While the prism "hump" is a bit large and suggests that there might be a built-in flash, there isn't. What we have is the Pen series hot shoe/accessory slot up on top of the area needed for the electronic viewfinder (EVF), and that exaggerates the size of the prism outline a bit. While some have criticized the "big hump", I think it actually lends a bit more of the DSLR-ness to the camera: it absolutely isn't a plain jane mirrorless camera without EVF. The hump says there has to be an EVF on that thing, and there is.
The EVF itself is pretty good. It's a 1.44m dot display refreshing at 120 Hz. Neither of those things are outstanding, but neither of those specs are poor, either. For 800x600 pixels, the EVF is decidedly not "crude" in view, though not as high-end as some of the Sony EVFs. Eyeglass wearers can see the full screen in the display, a nice touch, and the overall brightness is quite good, too.
You don't have to use the EVF: the E-M5 also sports a tiltable 3" 610k dot OLED display. The OLED part makes it quite usable in bright light, unlike a lot of displays. The 610k dot bit is a bit behind some other LCDs, but I don't find it to be an issue given the clarity of the display. The tilt manages about 80° up and 50° down. That's not as flexible as some, but it's enough to make ground level and over-the-head work easier.
Inside the E-M5 Olympus has moved to a Sony sensor. The sensor has been the weak point of previous m4/3 cameras. That was very apparent when the m4/3 Pen models got bracketed by the smaller sensor Nikon 1 and the larger sensor Samsung/Sony APS models: the old m4/3 cameras performed closer to the smaller sensor Nikon 1, which means they were sub-optimal performers.
Not so with the E-M5. We'll get to performance aspects later in the review, but Olympus is now using a state-of-the-art sensor design, and they've made a couple of design decisions that tweak it closer to the larger APS sensor cameras. In essence, the change in sensor has moved Olympus from "under performer" to "over performer" when considering what the likely impact of sensor size should be.
Olympus keeps making "fastest focus" claims with their cameras. The E-M5 is definitely the fastest focusing m4/3 camera Olympus has made, and probably the fastest of the m4/3 cameras in acquiring focus with S-AF (single servo autofocus). This is a system improvement, by the way, not just a single focus component. Lenses have been redesigned for faster contrast movements, the image sensor is running at higher frequency (thus giving more data points to interpret in the same time period), and the focus processing itself has been improved. For static subjects, the focus is indeed something that can be characterized as fast (see performance section, below), but I have to chide Olympus on their constant marketing claims of "fastest." There's always an asterisk leading to a footnote, and the footnote in this case is fairly considerable.
The Nikon 1 cameras will outperform the E-M5 on focus overall. True DSLRs will, to. But not many other cameras can match the E-M5's performance, not even the E-M5's not-so-great continuous autofocus (C-AF).
One of the big claims to fame on the E-M5 is the so-called five axis image stabilization, done at the image sensor. The first time I saw that marketing claim I thought perhaps the Olympus engineers had solved String Theory. The "strings" in that theory can exist in ten dimensions, after all (some versions of string theory require 26 dimensions).
Apparently a thesaurus isn't a common desktop tool in Japan. What Olympus means is that the sensor-based stabilization of the E-M5 uses five different sensor motions to compensate for camera movement. Those motions would move the sensor up/down, left/right, tilt it up/down, swivel it left/right, and rotate it.
One curious aspect of this stabilization system is that, when it is on, the camera hums. Hum isn't a perfect word for the sound. I'm using the word much like when you live near a freeway you can hear the "hum" of traffic. In other words, it's a rather indefinite sound, it's constant, and it's not silence. If you hold the camera up to your ear, it's a bit like white noise, or perhaps the ocean echo from a conch shell. In a quiet room, I can clearly hear the sound several feet away from the camera. Outdoors, I rarely notice it, probably because white noise that low in volume is completely masked by just about any noise as our brain tries to make sense of what it is hearing.
Coupled with that hum is a little bit of a ker-chunk sound when the IS system shuts off.
None of these sounds are objectionable except for one thing: video. My good microphones clearly pick up the sound when positioned near the camera, and they definitely pick up the ker-chunk if the camera goes inactive (I often shoot video with multiple cameras).
As with previous Olympus stabilization systems, you have a choice over the type of stabilization being done, and you can tune the stabilization to focal length if you're using a non-coupled lens. I've actually spent some time testing that latter bit with some non-m4/3 lenses, and it indeed works pretty well, out its max of 300mm (actual focal length).
Here's one thing about the stabilization that doesn't seem to get talked about much: Olympus says that manual sensor cleaning by users is a no no. As in don't do it because you can screw up the five-axis stabilization (oh no, Mr. Bill, I've lost an axis and I'm in another dimension now!). Olympus says that if you should ever get anything on the sensor that isn't removed by the anti-dust mechanism, you need to send the camera to them for cleaning.
I've had a long-running argument with mirrorless folk, especially the early Olympus Pen users. My contention is that you will eventually have something you need to manually clean off the sensor. Others seem to have 100% faith that everything in the world can be shaken off or that they're always using fast enough apertures where the items on the sensor don't show (yeah, but did that lower the sensor's ability to capture contrast?). Unfortunately, I've now got nearly four years of mirrorless use under my belt and I can tell you: you will get something on your sensor that the shaker doesn't shake. Pollens. Condensation. Heaven help you if you change lenses in misty/rainy environs and even one drop of water gets past the lens mount. The sensor is exposed with the lens off, so all those cocky folk that think they'll never have a dirty sensor are living in a dream world.
So I'm going to make a claim here that will upset a few of you: if you buy an E-M5 you're going to need to budget for a trip to Mount Olympus for manufacturer-provided cleaning every once in a blue moon.
I've used the word DSLR-like several times so far, and this becomes more obvious the further you explore the E-M5. The menu system is deep and wide, like a DSLR. The additional image quality choices (raw options, Scene modes, Art filters, etc.) are DSLR-like. The shutter is DSLR-like (60 seconds to 1/4000, with a nice 1/250 flash sync). The flash system is DSLR-like in that you can get optional flashes that perform multiple, wireless flash capabilities. The continuous drive is DSLR-like (9 fps with enough buffer to handle several seconds of JPEGs).
Olympus' accessory slot allows for a few interesting add-ons: better microphones, LED lights for macro photography, etc. You do get a small accessory flash with the camera that fits into the hot shoe and accessory slot on the top of the camera (the flash draws power from the camera through the accessory slot).
The notorious omissions are: no time-lapse capability, no WiFi, and no GPS support. The latter two could be easily added via the accessory slot and firmware changes if Olympus got around to it.
Olympus markets the camera as "splash proof" and shows pictures of a very wet camera in their marketing materials. They don't, however, make a specific standards claim about how resistant to water it is. There are plenty of gaskets, but there are plenty of vulnerabilities, too. For example, if you lose the rubber cover that hides the contacts for the extended grip, the camera is incredibly vulnerable to water damage. That said, things like the battery compartment door are gasketed, which is unlike some DSLRs. Overall, the camera should perform decently in wet conditions as long as you pay attention to keeping the protections intact (see also, performance, below).
At a bit less than a pound (15 ounces, 425g), the E-M5 is distinctly not DSLR-like in size or weight, especially if you're comparing it against higher end DSLRs as you probably should be (it slots up nicely against a Nikon D7000 in terms of features/performance, for example).
How's it Handle?
One of the downsides of the E-M5 is handling. One of the upsides of the E-M5 is handling.
How can that be?
Well, first off the E-M5 is a bit of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in its personality. I've noted before that Olympus needs to do something about its menus, both in naming and in organization, and that's part of the Mr. Hyde aspect of this camera. More so than any other of my main cameras, I keep finding that the menus are a nuisance, not a help. We'll come back to that in a bit, but let me flesh out some of the other Jekyl/Hyde aspects.
The E-M5 is a very small camera. In terms of more traditional DSLR-type designs, it's about the smallest you'll find (the Nikon V1 and the NEX-6/7 are more modern EVF-type designs, and handle a little differently due to their non-traditional controls and menus; and even at that, the EM-5 body is about the same size as the Nikon V1).
Some folk will have a problem with that small size. Even my modest-sized hands dwarf the grip position on the right side and very little of the camera is in my palm. Some people will have a problem with that and move to optional grips, including the two-part one that Olympus sells. Using the full optional grip makes for a much larger camera; but even using the smaller sub-portion of the grip buries the battery in a position where you have to remove the grip to change the battery. The Really Right Stuff Arca-style plate plus BOEM5-G grip gives you battery access and a bigger hand grip, but doesn't provide the better-situated shutter release of the Olympus grip. Finding the right handling option for the E-M5 is therefore a little tricky and has that split personality thing getting in your way. I'm comfortable in guessing that you'll find the right combination for you, but just be aware that a lot of people have a love/hate relationship with the barebones body due to its smallness.
Some people also complain about the small buttons on the E-M5. Yes, they're a little on the small side, but I don't find that to be an issue, even with thin gloves on. Olympus has made most of the buttons such that they're easily found by the fingers and pressed. The one exception might be the Fn1 button, which really needs a bit more size or a bevel of some sort to find and distinguish it.
The Jekyl/Hyde nature of design shows up in other aspects, as well. The two command dials (front around the shutter release, the larger rear one towards the back of the body) are not marked. Why? Because they change in what they do. For example, you control the aperture in Aperture-priority mode with the rear dial; in Manual exposure mode you use the front dial. Nikon users will have a particularly difficult time with this if they don't first change the defaults in the menu system, as they're used to a particular function always being controlled by a particular dial, not shifting around like it does on the E-M5 as it comes out of the box.
As in their previous mirrorless cameras, Olympus hasn't actually solved the accidental control touch issue, either. Here's how that happens: if you accidentally touch the OK button with the camera active and then accidentally touch any of the arrow buttons, which stick out considerably, in the defaults (and my preferred settings) you can end up changing random settings if you're not careful. The good news is that the camera has to be active for this to happen (some previous Olympus cameras just immediately went into set mode), but touching the OK button puts the camera into active mode and now you're vulnerable to those random settings. Likewise, if you've got focus set to Single Area, touching the arrows when the camera is active moves the focus position in the defaults, something I find that I keep doing accidentally because those buttons stick out a bit; easy to find, but easy to accidentally touch. While these things don't seem like huge issues, they are real issues. A camera should be exactly how you set it and expect it to operate it every time you pick it up, otherwise you lose a bit of spontaneity in shooting. It doesn't happen as often as it did on the Pen cameras, but I still keep finding that the camera isn't quite set the way I thought it was, or the AF point has shifted on me, when I pick up the camera to shoot.
The "cap situation" in regards to the flash is a bit of a mess. The hot shoe has one cap you need to remove. The accessory slot the included FL-LM2 flash requires for power has yet another cap over it (and one that's more difficult to remove quickly and easily). And the flash itself has a foot cap you need to remove. Okay, people have enough trouble keeping track of lens caps and hoods, now we've got three more smaller and easier to lose caps to keep track of. Couple this with the fact that, with extended use in the field, the viewfinder eyecup tends to get loose and come off at random times, and I'm always having to look to see if I've got all four small pieces with me. (Notably: as I write this, B&H is out of the US$10 EP-10 Standard Eyecups. Gee, I wonder if that's because people are losing them?)
Okay, some of the major Jekyl/Hydes out of the way, let's drop down a bit into some individual aspects of the handling.
As I noted, the E-M5 is very DSLR-like. Mode dial. Command dials. Programmable buttons. A Quick setting mode. Good information in the viewfinder and color LCD (including a live histogram if you want it).
The EVF isn't perfect, but it's good. It has good definition that doesn't quickly crumble into a noisy mess in low light, and it has a high refresh rate so it doesn't have that jerky problem that some EVFs do on motion or panning. Overall, it's one of the better EVFs I've encountered, with no bad flaws. However, many polarized sunglasses will make the EVF unusable. Personally, I don't believe in using sunglasses while shooting unless it is absolutely necessary (on glaciers, for example), as it distorts both your contrast and color perception from reality.
Some will find the command dials slightly oddly positioned. If you're a one-hander (e.g. try to take pictures with only your right hand in a death clutch on the camera), you're going to find the positions non-optimal. As a long-time Nikon shooter, I find that I'm "reaching" my thumb up and out to find that rear dial; it's not in a perfectly natural position like it is on many cameras. Likewise, the front dial is so close to the rear dial that they overlap a very small amount. That, too, doesn't quite feel right, as it forces your thumb and index fingers into a very narrow position and moves your index finger off the shutter release. Technically, I can get my middle finger on the front dial and leave my index finger on the shutter release, but that feels very, very cramped and awkward.
Aside: every time I critique hand position on critical controls on non-Nikon bodies people think I'm being really picky and a total Nikon fan boy. Not really. Here's my personal feeling: your eye should never leave the viewfinder, your index finger should always be on the shutter release, and you shouldn't be moving your right hand around to make settings. Why? Because photos are about moments in time. You want to control the camera fully while still being able to press that shutter release when your eye/brain says "go". Nikon worked with famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to get this right many, many years ago, and continues to work with him on new cameras. With most Nikon DSLRs I can keep my eye at the viewfinder, my right thumb on the rear dial, my index finger on the shutter release, my middle finger on the front dial and still grip the camera. Because the pro Nikon's have buttons on the left or lower edge for common functions and use a button+dial setting method, you can literally set almost anything without changing your right hand position or moving your eye from the viewfinder. Canon DSLRs don't work this same way. I've watched many a Canon pro move their index finger in order to set something, and I argue that this makes them slightly less likely to get every moment in time they should. Olympus' implementation of dual dials is even more likely to cause you to move your eye and/or hand, especially since buttons that you might want to push to change something are all on the right side of the camera. There's nothing fan-boyish about my like of Nikon's control positions and my dislike of other cameras' control positions: it's my contention that functionality—getting the shot—is directly attributed to design. Good design gets you there; bad design doesn't. Olympus' design isn't totally bad, but it's not optimal for keeping your eye at the viewfinder and your hand positioned on the shutter release.
As I noted, the EP-10 rubber eyepiece on the EVF is not adequately retained. Under heavy handling of the camera, it will come off. If you're not always watching for that, you will lose the eyepiece. At US$10 a pop, that's an expensive thing to keep losing. In almost a year of shooting, I've lost count of the number of times mine has come off. Fortunately it's something I watch for and a few times it's just come off when extracting the camera from my bag (so the eyepiece falls into the bag). Still, it's irritating, and something I don't expect on a top-of-the-line camera.
The MySet option (essentially setting up the overall camera configuration with a single setting) leaves much to be desired. It doesn't work with the touch screen, and you can't label them to say what each MySet contains (hope you have a good memory). One of the bigger problems with it is that it is a "while button held" setting, not a toggle. Overall, not nearly as useful as it could be.
One nagging issue throughout the camera is the extensive menus. Now, normally, extensive menus should be a plus, not a minus. But the Olympus menu hierarchy leaves a lot to be desired, and their English wording leaves a lot more to be desired. For example "Enable SCP." What the heck is SCP? Why that's Super Control Panel. What the heck is Super Control Panel? It's an uber setting capability that's a little more straightforward than the LCV, uh, Live Control View. Huh? Different names for similar things. Basically both are iconized major settings you can scroll through and reset directly rather than having to menu-dive to find them. You might prefer one of those over the other, but their names don't seem to imply that they're related. Heck, since the E-P1 first appeared with this capability, Olympus has had a frequently asked question on their support sites: "how can I access the Super Control Panel?" Guys, if it's really a frequently asked question and takes an 11-step answer, you probably designed it just a wee bit wrong.
But don't let me dissuade you from the E-M5 just because of a lot of irritating small traits. Overall, the handling on the E-M5 can be quite DSLR-like and much as you'd expect. You will go nuts trying to figure out how to customize the camera to the way you want it to operate, but once you do, most of that menu haze and nomenclature just goes away and you shoot. And directly control. And shoot.
I call out all these irritants because they will come up in trying to get used to this camera. Some of them can cause you to lose a shot, which means you need to be doubly aware that they exist and be looking for setting changes each time you pick up the camera (especially if you leave it powered on when you set it down or put it in/out of a bag with the default settings intact). Each of them detract a bit from what would otherwise be a great camera.
Some people get hung up by things I don't really find all that annoying. For example, the On/Off switch. First, it's a switch, which I prefer over a button. It's indented, so you really have to want to move the switch to move it. But many just don't like the location. Given that the top of the camera is already a bit cluttered with controls and there's a dial already around the shutter release (the place many camera makers put the On/Off switch), Olympus' choice strikes me as a fairly wise one. One thing people are objecting to is having to learn a new habit (moving your thumb down to the switch and up when you pick up the camera to use it). Doesn't bother me at all, and becomes reasonably natural over time. On the other hand, there is a point some make: you can't one-hand the camera and turn it on easily. Thus, when you pull it out of the bag you generally need two hands to turn the camera on. Olympus wisely completely shuts down the camera after a time-out period, so if you leave the switch in the On position, you don't tend to drain battery and you can just press one of the buttons to re-activate it.
The EVF/LCD switching also seems to bother some (especially since if you set the camera to have both on, you use battery life and you can't change what's displayed in the EVF, an odd design decision). The automated switch as you bring the camera up to your face is indeed a bit slow; there's a moment when both displays are off for a fraction of a second. But I personally don't find this to be objectionable, and it's not nearly as bad as on some EVF-equipped cameras.
Overall, the impression I get is that Jekyl/Hyde thing again. The designers of the E-M5 are clearly photographers and mostly of the Dr. Jekyl variety. There's little they missed in terms of features and options for controls. They got a lot of the basic handling things right (probably because there's a very OM-4 aspect to this camera, and the OM-4 was a very nice handling film SLR). They included plenty of options to allow you to tune the camera to your needs. The Hyde engineers, unfortunately, were put in charge of naming and organizing things.
How's it Perform?
Battery: I'm going to go out a bit on a limb here and suggest that I can probably guess how familiar and comfortable you are with your E-M5 based upon how many shots you get per charge. There are plenty of things that can draw power, including the sensor stabilization, the touch screen, and the EVF. Rooting around in the menus trying to find something will keep the camera active for long times, too. Thus, one thing I've noticed is that, as I get more and more comfortable with the camera, my battery life has improved. The CIPA figure is 360 shots per charge, and I struggled to get anything close to that in the early days of using this camera. But as I customized the camera to my liking and stopped menu diving (and thus could turn off the color LCD while using the EVF), suddenly I was right in the ballpark, maybe even a little better, on average. On a good day I get 400+ shots per charge.
One thing that drives some to the optional grip is that you can have two batteries in the camera at once, giving you more of a DSLR-like shooting capability (e.g. well over 600 shots before changing batteries). But remember, you'll have to take the grip off to get to the second battery. I know that some think this is no big deal, as it only takes a few extra seconds, but it's additional wear and tear on the camera, in my opinion, and I don't like things that might make me lose a shot (time is a precious commodity for a true photographer).
I've used a number of third party batteries with the E-M5. Some won't charge with the Olympus charger (but they tend to come with their own charger). In practice, I find that most of these batteries don't live up to the BLN-1's capability. I've got two third party batteries that tend to only get 2/3 the shots that the Olympus batteries do. A few others come closer. But none equals the Olympus battery. Bummer.
Waterproofing: Oops, not waterproofing, but splash proofing. Olympus shows images of the camera all speckled with water drops in their marketing literature, advertising, and brochures. This implies that it handles water really well.
In practice, that's about right. I've used the E-M5 in and around water, in fog, mist, light rain, and snow. While I'm unsure about driving rain (or getting splashed with a wave, or walking under a waterfall), I can vouch for the fact that the camera does tend to be impervious to light, casual water. Of course, that's with all the caps on. Don't lose the hot shoe cap, bottom cap, or the accessory port cap or all bets are off when exposed contacts are present. Generally, if I can keep my glasses free of water and fog, I can keep shooting with the E-M5 with no apparent issues.
Olympus conspicuously doesn't state an IP standard for their "splash proofing." This is a little disingenuous, as the IP ratings speak directly to splashing water (IPX4 standard: 10 liters a minute at a pressure of 80-100kPa for a total of five minutes, and from any angle). Suffice it to say that the E-M5 is resistant to casual water splashing against it, if all caps are in place, but we have no guarantee of continuous rejection of water. Also, note that submersion is not something Olympus suggests the E-M5 would survive.
As I note, I've had a chance to test the E-M5 in lots of tough, wet conditions, including a week on a boat in misty Alaska and another week of near continuous snowfall in Wyoming. I didn't do anything special to protect the camera, and continued to shoot with it in very challenging conditions. It survived.
Autofocus: Olympus' claim is that the E-M5 is the fastest autofocus camera (there are specifics to their claim, such as the lens used). If your subject is static and you're in good light, they're certainly right up there with the best autofocus systems. In those conditions the system is very fast to lock on and very accurate. Even in low light (1/4 second, f/2.8, ISO 200) the system is darned fast, better than many DSLRs. I tend to not quibble on small differences, and I don't believe that any review site has managed to come up with a repeatable, reliable test that can provide numerical comparisons that are accurate. Thus, my conclusion for single servo focus in reasonable conditions is that the E-M5 is DSLR-like, and towards the top of that DSLR heap. In low light single focus on static subject tests, the E-M5 beats my D3200 pretty much every time.
Unfortunately, it all goes downhill from there. If your subject is moving, things change. If it's moving quickly towards or away from you, the E-M5 will be slower than most DSLRs, and depending upon the speed of the subject, far less precise. More often than not, while the E-M5 will temporarily focus on a moving subject, continued motion tends to confuse it and focus wanders while trying to re-find focus. That wandering doesn't help, which in turns makes it wander more. Slow moving subjects are generally okay, though the camera may hunt around a bit while trying to follow focus. Fast moving subjects generally never get to focus confirmation without you supplying some help (pre-focusing, for example).
Go one more step and try to track focus with continuous shooting and everything completely falls apart. More often than not I see back focus in numerous continuous shooting sessions, meaning that the camera is losing the subject and finding the background to lock onto. Note also that at 9 fps, focus is fixed at the point of the first frame, despite the camera pretending to try to track focus during the sequence.
All of which makes the E-M5 a great static shooter but not so great as an action shooter. Not that you can't find techniques to help you get in-focus action, but you can't trust the camera in those situations: you need to step in and help. Always.
Stabilization: While I've yet to occupy the world in which there are five axes yet—string theory gives me hope—there's no doubting that the built-in sensor stabilization on the E-M5 is usually very effective. I say usually for a couple of reasons. First, you do have to make sure that you're not mis-setting it, especially if you're going in and making manual changes to focal length to accommodate a lens via adapter and then forgetting to reset the system. I've done that a few times, and it's not pretty. If you want to see what this looks like exaggerated, put the 18mm lens cap on the E-M5 and set IS to 300mm. It's a cardinal sin to not have focal length match focal length: you will get bad results if you manage to make this mistake (normally IS is set automatically via lens/camera communication, so it's not likely you'll make this mistake with, say, the kit lens).
The other reason why I write "usually" is that I've seen just enough incorrectly stabilized shots doing telephoto work with the camera that I suspect that there are some limitations to what it will handle under certain situations. One example was rocking away on a boat in the open ocean shooting whales at 150mm or more. There was something about the confluence of motions that the camera didn't get correct 100% of the time. I've not experienced this issue with shorter focal lengths, only longer ones, and only rarely. Trust, but verify.
Some people refer to this last bit as "shutter shock," implying that the shutter is the culprit. I suppose that's possible, but the shutter doesn't always cause a problem at a given shutter speed and focal length. I have sequences with the same settings in the same conditions where several shots are correctly stabilized and one is not. Most often cited are shutter speeds in the 1/4 to 1/100 range, though I've seen people report (and I've experienced) the same problem at slightly higher shutter speeds. To me, this is an indictment of the IS system itself: it's not correcting (or overcorrecting) certain motions under certain conditions.
IS is not something I believe should be left on permanently. On the E-M5 that's a trickier thing, though, as the sensor is essentially gimbaled (not fixed in position) and it's not clear that it's always in a perfect alignment position and completely still when IS is off.
JPEGs: Olympus JPEGs have long been loved by many, almost to the point of worship. Like Fujifilm, Olympus has their own secret sauce that emphasizes saturation, contrast, and some color shifts over neutrality. JPEGs out of the E-M5 are amongst the most contrasty I've seen at defaults (and you can dial that up if you want).
When the first images started coming off the early E-M5s, several of us who are deep into the pixel data spent time analyzing what Olympus was doing. It actually gets fairly tricky to figure out, as there are lot of intersecting things going on. If you set "Gradation" to "Auto" for instance, you're going to see one of the uglier aspects of Olympus' processing. In this mode Olympus breaks the exposure data up into bands, and then processes each band a little differently. Unfortunately, the deep shadow band is given an extra boost and noise (or the noise reduction processing effects) becomes highly visible, even in the Natural Picture Mode.
Olympus gives you quite a bit of flexibility in tailoring your JPEGs, including a series of special modes like Grainy Film and Cross Process. For JPEG shooters, that's great, but you're going to need to take a great deal of time to learn what all your options do and figure out when and how you want to use them. I tend to find that the default Natural, without any of the enhancements, produces decently punchy results that are visually pleasing.
Raw files: One of the things I keep hearing is that the E-M5 is as good as the best APS/DX sensors. No, not quite. The E-M5 lags a bit compared to my D7000 (both 16mp cameras, one m4/3 and one DX, both using Sony sensor technology). One of the tricks Olympus is using has to do with how they position ISO values. At ISO 200, for instance, the E-M5 is actually about two-thirds of a stop behind the D7000. So one has to be careful when talking about data measurements at marked ISO values.
That said, the E-M5 is quite good. Closer in practice to APS/DX than it should be in theory. Usable dynamic range, for example, is about the same for the E-M5 and D7000 from about ISO 400 onward. Indeed, the way Olympus has engineered the data slope in raw files, it does better than one might expect at high ISO values. At base ISO, though, I'd take the D7000.
DXOMark actually rates the E-M5 and D7000 a bit further apart than I tend to find them in actual shooting. Of course, I tend to be mostly a landscape and travel photographer with this type of camera, so I'm not generally pushing into the high ISO values. And then there's this: there isn't a 16mm focal length option on the D7000 that's as good as the 12mm options on the E-M5.
If you happened to read my bythom site during DX Month last October, you know that I've faulted Nikon for making great cameras and then not backing them with enough good lenses. The E-M5 does not have that problem. Olympus knows how to make great lenses, especially those primes like the 12mm, 45mm, and 75mm set. Raw shooters are looking at maximizing all aspects of their data capture (that's what we digital photographers do: capture data), and the combination of a very good sensor that's highly optimized coupled with great lenses makes for a very good capture quality.
I've been shooting in the wilderness with the E-M5 for most of a year now. I'm very comfortable with it as the small, light DSLR option as opposed to my D7000. The raw files I've captured rarely let me down compared to the D7000.
Basketball: We have a few things to look at in low light, which reveals a bit about the character of the camera. First, what the camera actually shot as a JPEG:
Yes, it's a bit dark and blocked up in color. The slightly misleading ISO values are part of the problem (I keep exposure fixed at what I know to be right for the gym, and set that with ISO 3200). But surprisingly, the JPEG can be helped very easily with just a bit of levels adjustment:
That looks more like I expected. But here's something that'll probably shock you:
That's the same exact image (I shoot RAW+JPEG in these tests) with proper raw conversion and processing. Yeah, that's pretty darned good, especially considering the small size of the sensor. I've lost a small bit of detail (note that the texture in the net is starting to go away), but color, exposure, and noise are all very much right where I want them to be. Remember, this is a 600 pixel wide sample at 100% from the 4608 across the full width of the image; you're looking at a very small piece of the overall image. (Reminder: 70mm equivalent [35mm in m4/3 world] from a fixed position on the sideline).
What I've discovered over the year of using the E-M5 is that shooting raw and learning what the camera can and can't do, I'm rarely hampered by image quality issues. At base ISO there's plenty of dynamic range (see image below). Even up to ISO 3200 there's still good recoverable detail in the shadows if you process carefully.
You need to be a little more careful with JPEGs than raw with the E-M5. The Olympus tendency is towards higher contrast and saturation, and at higher ISO values that can block up color and dull up the image. In this gym shot, the Olympus meter is also overvaluing all the light colored wall and picking an exposure that looks dim for the JPEG. But even boosting the exposure doesn't get rid of the blocked up color values at ISO 3200 in most of the JPEG settings.
This was a tough review to write. Indeed, it's taken me longer than it should have because there have been a series of small things that I wanted to be sure of before committing to them on the site.
On the one hand, it was clear to me that I had started carrying the E-M5 instead of a DX DSLR when I needed to go light and small. On the other hand, those menus and options can be frustratingly dense and confusing. Was I perhaps just favoring the light and small and putting up with the complexity? It really takes time to answer that question, and thus the long germination of this review.
In the end, I realized that I had shorthanded the camera: setting it up the way I wanted to shoot and mostly skipping the menu system. That took time to learn how to do and adjust to the way I wanted to shoot, but once done, much of the early frustration I had with the E-M5 just disappeared. Nowhere along the way was I ever really disappointed with the results (images), as long as I avoided fast moving subjects and continuous shooting. Heck, one morning this fall during a dramatic sunrise I found I didn't even bother to get my D600 (24mp FX DSLR) out of my bag but just continued to shoot with the E-M5 I had hanging from my backpack strap. In other words, I trust it for the type of shooting I normally do:
For a serious, disciplined photographer who is willing to spend some time getting to know this camera and figure out where Olympus has hidden all the settings you might want to change, the E-M5 is a contender. A contender that holds its own against most bigger APS/DX DSLRs in all but one area: continuous autofocus.
So there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you jump on board the E-M5 wagon: Are you willing to spend some time learning and optimizing this camera? Can you really live without good tracking of fast moving objects and continuous autofocus? Are you willing to start building a new system, with new lenses, accessories, and batteries?
If your answer to those question are all "yes", then the E-M5 is a tough camera to beat. Well built, well specified, excellent images, and good consistent performance in all those other areas. It's become one of my goto cameras, and rarely am I on a trip where it isn't with me. Given it's small size and weight, it would be a really tough trip where it didn't come along.
So my notes to Olympus are two:
- Add phase detect autofocus to the sensor. And don't add it the way Canon has added it (to the EOS M, for example), look at how Nikon succeeded with the Nikon 1.
- Work with a user interface guru to clean up the menus, the options, and how to make them more obvious and more organized to the user. There's just too much obfuscation going on here, and the nomenclature doesn't help.
Finally, we have to talk about alternatives. As I write this review, there are several cameras that people consider at the same time as an E-M5. Here's my quick take on the comparison with each:
- Fujifilm X-Pro1 and X-E1 — The same 16mp pixel size with a larger (APS) sensor tends to be the attraction here. I love the X-Trans sensors for black and white work, but the tendency to color smear is something I find annoying and problematic. While there are many that claim the Fujifilm sensors are better than the E-M5's, I would disagree. What one giveth, it then taketh in something else. It's really mostly a wash for my work (again, except for black and white, where I prefer the Fujifilm). A lot of folk get taken in by Fujifilm's attractive JPEG rendering, but I kind of like Olympus's better, mainly because it has less color shift in it. The E-M5 has a lot of lens choice (over 30), the Fujifilm cameras not as much (currently five). The Olympus beats the Fujifilm in focus speed (handily), it's smaller and lighter, it has sensor IS, a tilting screen, and other features the Fujifilm doesn't. The E-M5 is what I'd call "modern retro" (very OM-4 like in many ways) while the Fujifilm cameras are "rangefinder retro," right down to aperture rings (even though the zoom lens' aperture ring is unmarked ;~). I don't think you pick the Fujifilm for superior performance, as other than black and white work it has no clearcut superiority to the E-M5. You pick it because you like the retro simplicity and the organized menu system that doesn't confuse. Some think they're picking the Fujifilm for lenses, but the Olympus m4/3 primes stand up to the Fujifilm primes. I'd say try both and pick the one you're most comfortable with.
- NEX-7 — While the Sony has 24mp, it doesn't yet have the lenses to make those extra pixels shine. At least not many of them (basically 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm at the moment). The aggressively modern style can be as annoying to some as the E-M5's menus, and Sony's menus aren't any help, either. The E-M5 focuses faster. The E-M5's JPEGs are visually more compelling. The NEX-7 is smaller, and if you like the modern UI, handles just as well. While I think the NEX-7 is a very good camera, ultimately it's let down by lenses right now. In some ways, the NEX-6 is closer to an E-M5 competitor, as its 16mp sensor matches the Olympus in count and is a better match to the existing E-mount lens set. Moreover, the NEX-6 is a little less modern than the NEX-7. But still, I can't see me picking either NEX over my E-M5 at the moment.
- GH3 — This camera just showed up so I have very little experience with it yet. If video is part of your repertoire, then the GH3 is probably a no-brainer. Just having broadcast quality codecs makes the GH3 a winner in that regard. The GH3 is really decked out with plenty of videographer features and tricks, where the video on the E-M5 is good but nothing exceptional and decidedly consumer in nature. The GH3 is a bigger camera, and built more like a pro-calibre DSLR than any other mirrorless camera. The E-M5 is a tough camera, as my trips have proven, but I'll bet the GH3 tops that. We've got similar sensors in both cameras tuned similarly, so I really don't expect any imaging differences in raw that would tilt me one way or another. I still have to explore the Panasonic JPEGs, though. Previously, Panasonic (like Sony) has lagged Olympus in JPEG quality, all else equal. If you're coming from a DSLR, the GH3 is extremely DSLR like, even more so than the E-M5. But it's also bigger and heavier than the only slightly less DSLR-like E-M5. My initial impression is that the GH3 will have to excel at something I haven't yet discovered about it in order to knock the E-M5 out of my hands. But that's possible, as I really haven't used it enough to know if that thing exists.
Right now, my choice for landscape work would go: E-M5, X-E1, NEX-7, in that order. For travel work, the NEX-7 would be closer to the X-E1 due to the additional lens choices right now, but I think it would probably still be the same order for me. For action work, ugh. I might be tempted to go with the X-Pro1 in optical view and manually or zone focus. For carrying around all the time, the E-M5 and NEX-7 can travel very small with a nice collapsible zoom, but the X-E1 would be burdened by a far larger zoom lens (though in fairness that lens would be faster in aperture).
If any of these cameras were my only choice, I wouldn't be unhappy. But with all the choices available, right now my pick is the E-M5. For you? Well, these cameras are fairly close in capability. None are bad in image quality, and the tangible differences can be small if you're shooting raw. So here's my suggestion: try them all at the store. One will feel more comfortable to you. If you're a JPEG shooter, set them all to their most natural setting (typically the default) and shoot something complex and colorful, then go home with that card and evaluate them. Finally, check two things: the focus speed for the types of shooting you'll do, and the lenses available now and in the near future (remember, on the main page for each company in the lens section of this site I list known future lenses and lens road maps). Those are the elements you should probably make your primary decision on: ergonomics, JPEG quality, focus performance, and lens availability.
Which brings us back to the E-M5. Lens availability is tops. Focus performance for static subjects is top of class. JPEG quality is proven good and visually compelling, especially at lower ISO values. Meaning that the only category where I feel the E-M5 can lose the vote is in how you like the controls and menus. As I noted earlier, this isn't a camera you just pick up and everything's perfect. If you're the impatient type, the E-M5 might not be the camera for you (try the X-E1, which is simple and intuitive in this respect, at least for seasoned photographers). But there's a reward for spending time decoding the manual and decrypting the strange terminology and studying the options: the E-M5 is highly configurable.
source of review camera: purchased
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