I’ve been pulling for Olympus to release a great digital SLR for pros since the company launched the excellent if flawed E-3 back in 2007. Yes, it’s been over three long years since that 10.1MP model, a tank of a digital SLR with lightning-fast autofocus and many of Olympus’ trademark bells and whistles including a vari-angle LCD screen, which Canon only now has aped on its 60D (see first review in this issue), hit the streets.
There was a lot of tech that was ahead of its time in the E-3 including its live preview with autofocus (what camera doesn’t have that now?); its shadow adjustment technology which presaged all the cameras now with built-in HDR; and camera-body based image stabilization which helped steady your shots. Most of all, I loved how quickly the E-3 focused and how sure and stable its tough, weatherproof body felt in my hand.
The flaw? The E-3, with its smaller than average Four Thirds sensor, fared poorly in my testing when shooting in low light without a flash at high ISOs. A nice camera, for sure, but when stacked up against competing DSLRs of the day that could capture clean images at ISO 1600 and above, the E-3 trailed the field.
I’m sad to say not much has changed with the Olympus’ newest entry into the DSLR sweepstakes, the 12.3MP E-5, which is a surprisingly conservative follow-up considering the number of innovations the company has brought to the digital camera market in recent years. The E-5 looks and feels almost exactly like the E-3—which, to me, is a good thing—but the only two new major features of note are a slightly higher resolution Four Thirds Live MOS sensor and the ability to shoot 720p HD movies at 30p.
In terms of image noise, in my testing I got relatively clean shots at up to ISO 3200 with the E-5 which is an improvement over the E-3 but a step short of most competing DSLRs in its class. For example I got slightly better results from the 60D (also reviewed in this issue), which sells for about $600 less. The improvement in low-light image quality from the E-5 most likely comes from its ramped up TruePic V+ image processor but it’s no match for competing models such as the Nikon D7000—reviewed here last month—which is a veritable low-light killer.
In good light with a top-quality Olympus Digital Zuiko lens—such as the 12-60mm f/2.8 (which converted to a 24-120mm because of the Four Thirds sensor’s 2x magnification factor) I shot with—there are few cameras that can do better than the E-5. Thanks to a modification to the low-pass filter in the E-5 to lessen moiré correction—the adjustment is now made by the processor—the optics of Olympus’ lenses can render more detail from the sensor. Images I shot on an overcast day in December were rich with color and detail. Later when I went indoors and turned the lights down, however, my photos at ISO 6400 (the maximum available on the E-5) were riddled with ugly chroma and luminance noise.
Other additions to the E-5 are helpful if not groundbreaking. The camera’s 270-degree swiveling LCD screen is now bigger at 3 inches with 920,000 dots of resolution. It came in handy while shooting a foot-level HD movie with the E-5 of an adorable Bull Terrier puppy. But while the high-def movie mode of many competing HD-DSLRs is at the full 1080p—again see the 60D review—the E-5 caps out at 720p.
Olympus has done well by adding built-in art filters to its cameras—a feature the 60D also apes—and there are a bunch on the E-5 including the painterly Dramatic filter, which adds a crunchy, HDR look to photos. Cute but, as I said, not exactly earth-shattering.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s a lot to like on the 12.3MP Olympus E-5, much of it carried over from its predecessor, including a tough but comfortable weatherized build, blazing fast autofocus speed when paired with Olympus’ Zuiko lenses, and some of the best image quality I’ve seen when shooting in good light. At the same time, this long-awaited camera is a surprisingly cautious follow-up to the E-3, with the addition of a 720p HD movie feature and a slight increase in resolution as the two main new features. And while Olympus has improved the low-light shooting capabilities of the E-5, the quality of the camera’s high ISO images lag behind the competition.
Pros: Many of the features you knew and loved from the previous model plus HD video.
Cons: Not a lot else.