Olympus’ latest offering in their Micro Four-Thirds camera lineup takes it cues from the venerable OM line of SLRs instead of the more compact PEN series. The result is a small easily handheld camera that feel solid in the hand and is light enough to be used all day. Coupled with a brand new sensor, weather-sealing, an optional (but really necessary) battery grip, the OM-D E-M5 scores a home run for Olympus.
When Olympus and Panasonic first announced the Four-Thirds Alliance, I was intrigued as to why an established company like Olympus would want to venture out into left field like it did. Panasonic I could readily understand, not having any legacy in the SLR market. But Olympus, with it’s long and storied history, a sizeable user base, and a reputation for high quality imagery stood to lose a lot. Or did it?
The DSLR market has been dominated by Canon and Nikon, with Sony making a strong show for third (some would argue second) place. Olympus’ desire to grow in this space was roadblocked by the stark reality that the top three could out-spend them at any turn, had a user base that was (and is) far larger than any they ever entertained, and were the darlings of pro and amateur photographer alike. Instead of playing their game, Olympus teamed up with photography upstart Panasonic and decided to play their own game.
By introducing an entirely new sensor size specification, Olympus sought to free itself from trying to compete with the Big Three on their terms. Four-Thirds (and later Micro Four-Thirds) allowed Olympus and Panasonic to create a new paradigm for camera design and ultimately ushered in what Trey Ratcliff referred to as the “third generation of DSLRs.”
I happen to agree strongly with Trey’s assessment. The OM-D E-M5 represents the Third Generation of DSLRs. The OM-D E-M5 is a mirrorless design and uses an electronic viewfinder, which sort of removes it from the DSLR category (the “R” referring to the word “reflex”) but this does not make it any less a “pro” camera. For purposes of this review, I consider any camera that you can make money with a “pro” camera.
There have been technical reviews ad-nauseum all over the web. Many have gone over all of the features and flaws of the system, so I am going to say this up front: the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is not perfect, but it gets a lot of things right.
So let’s take a look at what Olympus got right for me:
The OM-D builds on all of Olympus’ work with the Digital PEN series, their first Micro Four-Thirds camera line. Keeping with the retro-styled design cues, the OM-D is modeled after the highly successful OM series of film SLRs. Having used the Olympus PEN E-PL1, the Sony NEX-7, and the OM-D in a very short period of time, I can safely state that the ergonomics of the OM-D are a very good fit for me. YMMV.
The PEN and NEX cameras use a design that is similar to compact point-and-shoot cameras. In the case of the NEX-7, the design is reminescent of rangefinder cameras with the viewfinder offset to one side. The OM-D eschews this trend, favoring an SLR inspired design including a pentaprism hump where none is needed. The “hump” houses the electronic viewfinder that, while not up to the level of excellent viewfinder in the NEX-7, performs quite well in the OM-D.
The clincher, for me anyway, is the optional grip + battery holder. With that one accessory, the OM-D becomes a perfect size for handheld work. However, I am a bit ham-fisted. Someone with more petite hands than myself might not agree. Again, YMMV. When used with larger legacy lenses, the OM-D + Grip combo balances out quite nicely. [Editor's note: at the time of publication a "Palm Grip" was introduced for the Sony NEX-7. This third party add-on addresses some of the ergonomic issues I encountered with the NEX-7, but the lack of IBIS in the NEX-7 still keeps me firmly planted with the OMD.]
For those with smaller hands (or who don’t want to shell out $299 for the Oly grip) there are some excellent alternatives: Grip+L-Plate combos from Mr. John Milich and the gang at Really Right Stuff. These two add-ons provide a very nice grip combined with Arca-Swiss style quick release plates for tripod heads. The John Milich Grip has a textured surface and provides a lug on the bottom for attaching hand straps (like the excellent Camdapter strap). The RRS Grip allows for unencumbered access to the left side door on the camera. John’s grip is shipping now while RRS is taking pre-orders for theirs. Both grips cost under $200.
Another very nice feature is the generous tilting rear display on the camera. I have not been a fan of tilting displays until recently. The NEX-7 has an excellent tilting display and the OM-D goes one better by making theirs a touchscreen. Chimping for the iPad generation.
All the ergonomics in the world won’t help you take good photos if the rest of the system isn’t up to snuff. Happily, the OM-D performs very well in this area too. Up till now, Olympus MFT cameras have all sported a 12 megapixel sensor that was a tad weak in the high ISO department. The OM-D has a brand new 16 megapixel sensor with excellent noise characteristics all the way up to ISO 3200. The noise profile at ISO 3200 show very little color noise, favoring luminance noise that appears as a “film grain” effect in those images.
Autofocus has been a sore point with MFT cameras when compared to their DSLR counterparts. This is with good reason. DSLRs use dedicated phase detection sensors to provide rapid autofocus and the tracking of moving subjects. MFT cameras, by virtue of their mirrorless design, use contrast detection in the imaging sensor itself to achieve focus. Historically, phase detection systems have always been faster than contrast detection ones, but the OM-D defies this trend as well.
The single shot AF system on the OM-D is the fastest I have ever experienced in this class of camera. Previous MFT autofocus systems tended to hunt a bit even in some brightly lit situations, but in all the time I have used the OM-D I have rarely ever seen it hunt for focus. Bravo Olympus! Coupled with the touchscreen interface, you can select a focus point and the camera will focus there near instantaneously. You can even trigger the shot from the rear screen with a touch (a very big plus for macro work).
However, continuous autofocus still leaves a bit to be desired. I actually get more keepers using single shot AF in action situations where continuous AF would traditionally be used. The single shot AF is that good. It is my hope that a future firmware update will improve continuous AF speed and accuracy.
On the subject of color and white balance I am also pleased to report that the OM-D performed better than I expected. I have always liked Olympus’ color rendition, but the OM-D takes it a step further with an Auto White Balance sensor that performs extremely well even in difficult mixed lighting situations.
I used the OM-D as a backup camera for a wedding I had been hired to photograph. The images coming out of the OM-D looked far more accurate that the ones coming from my Nikon D700 (which tended to be very warm). I will mention here that there is a default setting in the OM-D to warm up their images which I have turned off, preferring a more neutral cast to my shots.
The list of features that Olympus has packed into the OM-D is very long and well documented in their sales brochures. Here are my favorites:
- 5-Axis In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) - Image stabilization in other cameras has been with lens-based (Canon & Nikon) or sensor based (Sony, Olympus, & Pentax). The advantage of sensor based image stabilization is that it applies to all lenses, regardless of make, model or focusing method. Regardless of the place of the stabilization, those systems could only counteract movement in 2-axes (vertical roll, horizontal roll). The OM-D takes this to the next level by counteracting hand movement in 5-axes (vertical roll, horizontal roll, z-axis roll, vertical movement, & horizontal movement) in both still images and video. The effect is startling and immediately visible in the viewfinder. And it applies to all lenses.
- Weather sealing - while I still guard my cameras like they are prize roosters, it’s nice to know that the OM-D can take a splash or a drizzle and keep on truckin’ (assuming, of course, that you mount weather sealed lenses on the camera). Do not chuck your OM-D in the pool unless you have one of these or you want a new camera.
- Auto ISO in Manual Mode - surprisingly not all pro level cameras have this feature. Sony has not incorporated this into their Alpha SLTs yet. But Olympus has and it works very well, especially when I am shooting ballet.
- Access to Legacy Glass - while this is not a feature that is exclusive to the OM-D (any MFT or NEX camera can do this), the combination of 5-Axis IBIS plus the hi-res EVF breathes new life into old lenses. Adapters are needed for all non-MFT glass and there are scads to choose from. My favorite adapters are from Fotodiox and Novoflex (albeit the Novoflex adapters are 2-3x the price of the Fotodiox ones). Most of the photos shot for this review were taken with legacy OM lenses and a Fotodiox adapter. When I was getting ready to travel with my OM-D, the folks at HP Marketing sent me a Novoflex adapter to use for the trip. Olympus responded in kind and sent me one of their OM adapters as well.
Living Up To The Legacy
Olympus tapped into its long and storied history again to make the OM-D. As previously mentioned, this camera is modeled after the legendary film OM cameras. Through the use of adapters, legacy glass from practically any lens mount can be used on the OM-D. The best part about this is that you can add to your stable of lenses with out having to break the bank.
I have acquired three Zuiko OM lenses for under $100 each. A 50mm f/1.4, a 50mm f/3.5 macro and a 75-150mm f/4 zoom now sit in my bag. I also picked up a 135mm f/2.8 for just a shade over $100, but I prefer the zoom for its versatility. What I would love to get my hands on is a Zuiko OM 24mm f/2 but those are rare as hen’s teeth and are going for $600+ on eBay.
Using legacy glass on the OM-D is not without its “gotchas”. The lenses are manual focus and you have to use them either in aperture mode (stopped down) or in manual mode. The lenses also do not write any EXIF information on the image files, so take notes. Focusing via the EVF is not too bad, but a “focus peaking” feature like on the NEX cameras would be perfect. As it is, there is an option to zoom in 10x to nail the focus, but that is very tricky with longer lenses and no tripod even with the image stabilization. It has been noted by some photographers that while the OMD does not give any kind of focus confirmation, the image picks up a kind of “sheen” when in focus.
The other main “gotcha” with legacy glass is the focal length. Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sensors have a 2x crop factor, which makes calculating effective focal length very easy. It makes finding legacy wide angle glass very tough. A CV 12mm translates into a 24mm but for the amount of money you would pay for the CV, you could easily pick up the Olympus 12mm lens and have autofocus.
Despite all these “gotchas” I feel that the OMD is one of the best platforms to date for taking advantage of your old lenses.
What would make it a perfect camera?
I have two types of answers to this question: stuff that can be added to the existing model and stuff that should be in the OM-D E-M6.
Stuff they could add to the OM-D E-M5:
- Focus peaking - This where the camera color tints the in-focus parts of the image in the viewfinder. An incredibly useful feature I miss from my NEX-7. The capability exists in the camera – it currently can color tint blown highlights/lowlights Having it tint the in-focus parts should be a snap. Also, please allow the use to select the color of the tint.
- Improved C-AF – Let’s face it the continuous auto-focus in this camera is not very good. This is mitigated by a single shot auto-focus that is so fast and accurate that it makes C-AF almost moot. Almost. Revise the firmware to improve C-AF performance but not at the cost of the single shot AF.
- Pro Glass - Olympus has a stable of SHG (Super High Grade) Four Thirds lenses that are some of the fastest and sharpest designs on the market. PORT THEM TO MICRO FOUR THIRDS! Panasonic has beaten you to the punch with their 7-14 f/4 zoom, 12-35 f/2.8 zoom, and the 35-100 f/2.8 zoom. You have amazing SHG lenses that are even faster and sharper. Port them, please!
Stuff they should add to the OM-D E-M6:
- Higher resolution EVF - 5 megapixel EVFs were introduced at CES this year. Get them into the next model of camera.
- Second SDXC card slot - you want the pros to take this camera seriously? Give them a back-up card slot and allow simultaneous writing, cascading writes, and RAW on one card JPGs (or video) on the other.
- Add phase detection cells to the main sensor - All of the big boys and girls are doing this so you need to get on the ball. This would solve a lot of the AF issues the current model is having.
- Global shutter - current sensor designs activate/deactivate pixels in a serial fashion. While this is done very quickly (fast enough for video, obviously) this leads to a phenomenon known as the “jell-o effect” where otherwise solid vertical objects (buildings, trees, lampposts, stilt-walkers, etc) bend cartoonishly when quickly panned over. Seriously, take your HDSLR and do some fast pans over a city skyline. Dub in the Looney Tunes theme (The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down) and it will provide hours of fun at boring office parties. A Global Shutter fixes this by signaling the pixels in parallel so that they all turn on/off simultaneously.
- Built-in GPS - the camera’s tiny form-factor and weather sealing make it perfect for hiking and outdoor shooting. Add a GPS to geotag the images.
Olympus got pretty close to a bullseye with the OM-D E-M5. Excellent ergonomics, amazing stabilization, a kick-ass sensor, super-fast AF (in single-shot mode, anyway), access to legacy glass, weather-sealing, rugged build and great high-ISO performance all in a small, easy to carry size. All it really needs is focus peaking and better continuous AF performance and they will have a real winner on their hands.