Camera Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5

June 19, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a positively “adokarble” little camera and I mean that with no disrespect. Though the camera’s name is awkward—it’s a digital updating of Olympus’s OM line of 35mm film cameras from the Eighties—the E-M5 has enough retro style, cool features and superior imaging chops to make photo geeks drool.

The 16.1-megapixel E-M5 is also tiny and cute and will conjure up all those good times you had shooting with its precursors while studying photography back in high school. (OK, maybe that was just me.)

But the E-M5 also reminds me a bit of that wacky Eighties comedy movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids except with the E-M5, it’s more like “Honey, I Shrunk the Camera.” And some users—including yours truly—will find this mirrorless, Micro Four Thirds, compact system camera’s cuteness to also be its biggest liability.

Take, for instance, holding the camera for long periods of time. If you have large hands, you’ll find having two fingers dangling off the side of the E-M5’s small, rubber textured grip will cause wrist strain. It’s sort of like holding a teacup full of Earl Grey for an hour.

The buttons on the E-M5 are also tiny, hard to press and, in some cases, strangely configured. For instance, why are the miniscule Playback and Function 1 (Fn1) buttons placed side by side, at an angle, making them appear to be a zoom toggle? Why does pressing the shutter button also cause you to put pressure on the Function 2 (Fn2) button? But most of all, why is everything so dang small?

There are many people who will say, “But that’s the point of the E-M5!” And they do have a point. The camera is designed small to make it more discreet and portable and it’s both of those things. Even with the longish 12-50mm (24-100 equivalent) f/3.5-6.3 kit lens attached, the E-M5 fit easily into my laptop bag. While its dust- and splash-proof magnesium alloy body is solidly built and fully weather-sealed, the camera weighs only 15 ounces with the battery inserted.

Risks and Some Rewards
If you remember to turn the annoying beep off, the EM-5 is a quiet customer and it’s quick contrast, detection-base autofocus system (dubbed FAST for “Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology”) combined with its rock-solid 5-axis image stabilizer, made it a nimble performer for on-the-fly candids and street photography.

You’ve got to admire Olympus for taking risks. The company was the pioneer of many features that are now ubiquitous on digital SLRs including Live View; flip-out, articulating vari-angle screens; and dust reduction. And in some ways, the E-M5 is another risk.

Many photographers will be charmed by this camera, which looks like a shrunken film SLR but is not an SLR at all. Others will find some of the digital extras distracting, such as the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is sharp and offers lots of detail (1.44-million dots of resolution) and 100 percent field of view, but is still an EVF. (Don’t be fooled by the DSLR-like “pentaprism” on the top of the camera, which houses the EVF.)

I’ve grown accustomed to EVFs but will take an SLR-style optical viewfinder over them any day. I also find the split second it takes for the E-M5’s infrared sensor to detect that I’ve put my eye in the eyecup to be a drag. The camera’s 3-inch, tilting OLED rear display, however, is wonderful for viewing images and videos in playback or for composing over-the-head and down-low shots.

The aforementioned 5-axis image stabilizer is great for keeping your shots steady but since it’s constantly moving as it adjusts, it makes the camera give off a white-noise type sound that, while not noticeable to anyone aside from the photographer, was distracting to me. (Others might not be bothered by it.) Thankfully, the sound is hushed during video recording—the E-M5 records at full 1080i HD—so it’s not picked up by the camera’s mic.

In terms of image quality, the E-M5 is one of the best Micro Four Thirds-based cameras I’ve ever shot with. There was an excellent tonal quality to the JPEGs I shot with this camera and Olympus has clearly worked on the “special sauce” to get the most out of this 16.1-megapixel sensor. Dynamic range was lovely and film-like. RAW images were noisier but very manageable, even at up to ISO 1600, making the E-M5 one of the best high-ISO/low-light shooting Micro Four Thirds cameras I’ve tried.

While I quite liked the sharp 12-50mm kit lens (which is helped, no doubt, by the camera’s 5-axis stabilizer), I just couldn’t get used to its zoom function. If you slide the zoom ring forward, the lens offers you a slow, smooth zooming feature, which, I suppose, is designed for shooting video. Pull the zoom ring back, and it becomes a somewhat rough mechanical zoom. Again, some photographers will have no problem adapting to this and actually might like it but it never felt comfortable to me.

The Bottom Line
Maybe, in the end, that’s the best thing I can say about the Olympus OM-D E-M5. It’s a cute-looking, retro-style camera that’s capable of taking some fantastic quality images and HD video but like its awkward-sounding model name, it just never felt comfortable to me.

Pros: A cute little camera that’s packed with features and offers excellent image quality

Cons: Just never felt comfortable shooting with it

Price: $999 (body only, in black or silver); $1,299 (black or silver body with black M.ZUIKO Digital ED 12-50 mm f3.5-6.3 EZ lens);

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