The Olympus OM-D E-M5 mirrorless camera was released on February 7, 2012 right before the CP+ Camera and Photo Imaging show in Japan. Along with the camera, Olympus also released two lenses for the Micro Four Thirds mount – the 75mm f/1.8 and the 60mm f/2.8 Macro. The E-M5 generated a lot of buzz among the photography community when it was released, because of its impressive specifications, compact weather sealed body and a beautiful retro style design – all to satisfy the demanding needs of the enthusiast and professional crowd. Within a relatively short period of time, the camera became a huge success, thanks to raving reviews from respected photographers. I did not pay much attention to the E-M5 at the time, because I was too busy with the Nikon D800/D800E announcements and tests. However, I really wanted to check it out sometime later, after all the dust settles. Summer and Fall were very busy seasons for me professionally, so I had to postpone my plans even more. The camera finally arrived in mid November, along with a bunch of other mirrorless cameras from Sony, Nikon and Canon. It only took me a week with the E-M5 to realize that it was exactly the camera I had been longing for.
While I love my Nikon DSLRs for serious and professional work, they are just too heavy and bulky to carry around for those everyday moments. If you own a full-frame DSLR with a professional lens, you know exactly what I mean by this. I was just getting tired of missing great moments just because I left my huge “professional” camera at home. Sometimes those precious moments happen everywhere – in a store, on the street, while driving a car. Yes, my iPhone sometimes can be handy in those situations, but what am I going to do with those images aside from putting some crappy Instagram filters on them just to make them look better? I know I won’t ever be printing those. So I had been wanting to get something between my phone camera and a DSLR, with a condition that it is small, has amazing image quality, great lenses and a working autofocus system. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 easily fit those requirements and it clearly stood out from the crowd of all mirrorless offerings. While many other mirrorless systems had great features, they all lacked something important or had serious drawbacks. The Fuji X-Pro 1 is amazing, but its terrible RAW support from Adobe, comparably weak AF system and high price were the reason I dropped it as an option. The Nikon 1 cameras have an amazing AF system, but the small sensor, lack of good lenses and a few other annoyances like proprietary flash shoe also dropped them as an option for me (although, I must admit, I almost bought the Nikon 1 V1 when its price dropped to $299). The Sony NEX cameras were amazing, especially the Sony NEX-6 that I absolutely loved, but the lenses were just too big and bulky for my taste. And the Canon EOS M is not even in the same class to look at it as a serious option…
After my wife Lola took the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a spin a couple of times, then worked on images in Lightroom/Photoshop (that part was extremely important for her, because she works with colors and skin tones quite a bit), she told me that she loved everything about it. So without hesitation, we decided to buy the E-M5 with a couple of lenses (more on lenses further down in the review). I am happy to say that I have no regrets whatsoever for our decision and the E-M5 continues to amaze us to date.
1) Olympus OM-D E-M5 Specifications
- High resolution 1.4 million dot Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
- 16 MP Live-MOS sensor & TruePic VI Image Processor
- World’s fastest contrast-detect AF system with 35 focus points
- All new “5 axis” in-body Image Stabilization
- Dust and splash proof 3″ 610,000 dot tilt/touch OLED screen
- Magnesium-alloy and aluminum construction body with advanced splash and dust protection
- Built-in art filters
- Self-cleaning ultrasonic sensor dust reduction system
- Durable shutter mechanism tested to 100,000 cycles
- SDHC/SDXC memory card compatibility for ultra-fast data transfer speeds
- Nine aspect ratios to choose from, from the standard 4:3 to the cinematic 16:9
- Wireless flash control and a built-in ISO standard hot shoe
- Built-in digital leveler function
- Up to 1080/60i full HD video recording capability
- Battery life for up to 360 images
- Face Detection Capability
- Computerized focal-plane shutter
- Up to 9 fps continuous shooting at full 16 MP resolution
Detailed technical specifications for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 are available at Olympus.com
2) 16 MP Live-MOS sensor
One of the most important attributes in a digital camera is its sensor – the heart of the camera that is responsible for capturing images. For the first time in Olympus mirrorless cameras, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 features a sensor made by Sony. As you may already know, Sony is one of the largest sensor manufacturers in the world. Sony makes sensors not only for its own branded cameras, but also for a number of other manufacturers – including Nikon, Fuji, Pentax and others. The excellent sensor inside the Nikon D800, for example, is also made by Sony. Because of Sony’s vast experience in sensor manufacturing, they made some of the best sensors in the world. So I applaud the decision by Olympus to use Sony sensors. If Olympus continues to use Sony sensors in the future, it will surely keep up with the competition in terms of image quality, colors and noise – rather important factors when comparing sensors. To date, sensor technology was one of the weaknesses of Micro Four Thirds cameras. See my Nikon 1 V1 review from last year, where it did really well against the Olympus E-PL3, which has a bigger sensor. In comparison, the E-M5 performs on par with the competition, as can be seen from the next several sections of this review.
For those of our readers that do not know much about Micro Four Thirds, the term “Four Thirds” comes from the physical size of the sensor that measures 4/3″ and from the 4:3 image aspect ratio. This means that the physical size of the sensor is smaller than APS-C sensors used in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras (about 40% smaller), and the image is not as wide, since APS-C and full-frame sensors use a 3:2 image aspect ratio. If APS-C sensors have a 1.5x crop factor relative to a full-frame sensor, Micro Four Thirds sensors have a 2.0x crop factor (more on this under “Lenses”). So a 12mm lens would be equivalent to a 24mm lens in terms of angle of view (12mm x 2x crop factor = 24mm). You can read more about Micro Four Thirds on Wikipedia. Here is a chart that summarizes sensor size differences (courtesy of Wikipedia):
It is important to know that when it comes to sensors, the physical size of the sensor dictates a few important factors. The first one is image quality and ISO performance. A sensor with a larger physical area would typically yield better noise performance and dynamic range than a smaller sensor (assuming both are of the same generation and image processing pipeline). This puts larger sensors at an advantage when compared to smaller sensors, because they have better overall image quality. The only thing that small sensor cameras can do to compete with large sensor cameras, is to improve the image processing pipeline, attempting to reduce noise via software algorithms. Nikon, for example, knows how to do this quite well on its Nikon 1 cameras, providing excellent image quality in RAW images, despite the smaller sensor size (as shown in my Nikon 1 reviews). Sometimes you will hear people say “Cooked RAW”, which is often described as something negative, almost like cheating. I personally see nothing wrong with tweaking the RAW output to make it look better. In fact, I believe every manufacturer does this to a degree – some more aggressive than others. Otherwise, image quality on most cameras would be the same, especially when their sensors are made by the same manufacturer. Nikon often edges out Sony in noise performance, despite the fact that Sony manufactures sensors for many Nikon cameras. If it wasn’t for Nikon’s ability to tweak the output of the sensor, there would be no image quality differences between the two. Similarly, Olympus engineers were able to achieve great results with the E-M5. As you will see on the next sections of this review, the camera produces excellent image quality that matches some of the best APS-C sensors on the market, except maybe at extreme ISO levels. That’s pretty remarkable, for a sensor that’s 40% smaller than APS-C.
The second factor is resolution. A larger sensor has more physical space, which means that more pixels could be crammed into the sensor. While a smaller sensor could have the same number of pixels as a full-frame camera, its pixels would be significantly smaller, which means more noise would show up in the images. Again, the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor is at a disadvantage here when compared to larger APS-C sensors. Because the physical size of the sensor is smaller, there should be either less resolution, or smaller pixels. Since the E-M5 has a 16 MP sensor, which has about the same resolution as the Sony NEX-5R that has a larger APS-C sensor, the pixel size is also smaller. The Sony NEX-5R has a pixel size of 4.8µ, while the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is at 3.7µ. However, despite the smaller pixel size, the Olympus offers very impressive performance in comparison, as I stated above.
The third factor is depth of field – smaller sensors translate to larger depth of field. In very simple terms, a smaller sensor would bring more “in focus”, which can be both good and bad. Good for landscape and architectural photography, where maximum depth of field is often needed. But bad for portraiture, where shallow depth of field is often desired for subject isolation. If you have been wondering why your cheap small sensor point and shoot camera or your mobile phone can never really properly isolate subjects from the background, resulting in flat images with everything in focus, now you know why – it is primarily because of the small sensor. Hence, the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor on the E-M5 can be considered a disadvantage when compared to APS-C sensors when looking purely from the perspective of depth of field. However, as I demonstrate further down in this review, not being able to achieve shallow depth of field and beautifully isolate subjects on Micro Four Thirds sensors is a myth. It is certainly doable – I have used a couple of excellent fast aperture lenses on the E-M5 and I was able to create beautiful portraits with smooth backgrounds. Now I am not here to state that you can achieve the same results on a Micro Four Thirds camera as on a full-frame camera – there are practical limitations to things like lens design. At the end of the day though, how much subject isolation capability one truly needs? For many of us out there (including myself), the E-M5 would be more than sufficient in most situations, even with the above depth of field differences.
The fourth factor is diffraction. When the lens aperture is shrunk or “stopped down” too much, the light rays start bending and interfering with each other, causing image quality to drop. The smaller the aperture, the worse it gets. And unfortunately, the smaller the sensor, the more visible diffraction gets at larger apertures. For example, on full-frame cameras, diffraction can start to appear above f/11-f/16. On APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, it is visible above f/11. And on smaller systems like Nikon 1, it is even smaller, at f/8 and above. While diffraction differences between APS-C and Micro Four Thirds are not huge, they are still there. I performed a number of tests on different Micro Four Thirds lenses using Imatest and the decline in image quality was more rapid on the E-M5 than on the NEX cameras.
Judging from the above list, it looks like a smaller sensor pretty much always loses to a larger sensor on the grand scale of things. However, there is one serious advantage to a small sensor that I have not talked about yet – lens size. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the lens. With small sensors, it makes no sense to design large and bulky lenses, simply because only a portion of the optical surface can be used. Again, if you look at most point and shoot cameras with tiny sensors, you will also often see tiny lenses, not chunky SLR-like lenses. And that’s the biggest advantage of Micro 4/3 cameras in my opinion. Many of the Micro 4/3 lenses are incredibly small and compact, when compared to APS-C mirrorless lenses and especially DSLR lenses.
So when I was in the process of evaluating a mirrorless system for my needs, I paid a lot of attention to all of the above factors. Noise performance and dynamic range were impressive on the E-M5 when compared to NEX systems. 16 MP of resolution was more than plenty for my needs (considering my old Nikon D700 has a 12 MP sensor). I knew that if I needed more resolution, I would be using my Nikon D800 instead. Depth of field was an issue at first, but after using a couple of fast primes and seeing the results, I told myself that I rarely would need more than that. Diffraction is not a big deal either, as long as I can remember to stay below f/11. Lens size was a huge plus for the Olympus – I absolutely loved using the Olympus 12mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8 and the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 lenses. They felt tiny, light and provided excellent image quality (again, more on this below under Lenses).
Therefore, sensor size is not always the most important factor in a camera. Sometimes it is best to look at everything as a whole and then make a judgement. Overall though, I congratulate Olympus on choosing a very balanced sensor for the E-M5.
3) Camera construction and handling
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 looks and feels nothing like other Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras. It was designed with a DSLR shooter in mind, which means that the camera body, ergonomics and construction are designed to satisfy even advanced photographers. Out of all the mirrorless cameras I have tried so far, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is the only one that actually feels like a compact DSLR camera. Its fully weatherproof and dustproof camera body has magnesium alloy shell, not cheap plastic as on some mirrorless cameras. The controls are also DSLR-like, with a traditional PASM exposure dial and two rotary dials for adjusting the exposure on the top of the camera. In fact, the dual dials that can be rotated from the front and the back of the camera remind me of my Nikon DSLRs that also feature a similar dual dial system. Two programmable function buttons can help simplify camera operation by allowing to quickly adjust camera essentials like ISO, White Balance, etc., without the need to adjust those settings in the camera menu:
One of the advantages of Olympus mirrorless Micro 4/3 cameras, is that they do not come with a proprietary flash shoe that can only be used with manufacturer-specific accessories. That’s a huge plus, because an ISO standard flash shoe allows using all kinds of flashes and accessories on the camera without having to mess with adapters. This was one of my main criticisms of Nikon 1 cameras and Sony NEX cameras. I love being able to use on-camera and off-camera flashes and various flash triggers. I used the Olympus OM-D E-M5 with my Nikon SB-900 flash in manual mode and it worked great. I also mounted a PocketWizard Plus III unit in a studio environment and I was able to take great studio shots, which is great. All mirrorless camera manufacturers should make cameras with ISO standard hot shoes, period. Even Canon is smart enough to do it (Nikon, I hope you are listening!) and Sony finally fixed its mistake with the Sony NEX-6 (and will continue to do so on all future NEX cameras). As for the lack of a pop-up flash, that does not bother me a bit. Most pop-up flashes on mirrorless cameras are small and weak anyway, so I never use them. Olympus supplied an accessory flash (FL-LM2) with the E-M5, but I have not taken it out of the box, because I know I am not going to use it most of the time. Although at times, this flash unit might be usable as fill flash when taking portraits. Keep in mind that the E-M5’s flash sync speed is limited to 1/250th of a second, which is pretty good, as other cameras are often limited to 1/160 sync speed.
The front of the camera has a very simple, rangefinder-like design with only a single lens release button. The back of the camera, on the other hand, has a number of interesting features and controls. The 3″ OLED camera touchscreen is nice, but doesn’t quite match the 910K dot LCD screens in terms of resolution (limited to 610K dots). However, the ability to tilt the screen upwards or downwards is a great plus for those moments when shooting up or down with limited visibility, or when shooting video:
I personally don’t care for the touchscreen capability, since I am very used to the camera controls. But it is certainly not nearly as good as the touchscreen on the Canon EOS M.
Camera controls are good, but I do have a couple of complaints though. Because of the thickness of the articulating screen, the back of the camera where the controls are is slightly protruded. Olympus placed the Playback button along with the Function 1 button on the metal plate of the camera shell, which makes it quite inconvenient to press these buttons, despite their sizes, as seen in the below image:
I tried to press these buttons when wearing gloves on and I could not do it. The Menu and Info buttons are located nicely, but the four way dial is of an old type and design – I wonder why Olympus did not use a multi-function rotary dial, similar to the one on Nikon 1 and Sony NEX cameras. It would have certainly made it easier to navigate through the menus and change settings, instead of constantly hitting the four way buttons. The trash button is where it should be – on the bottom of the control area. However, Olympus screwed up with the On/Off button. I do not understand the point of putting an On/Off switch on the bottom right side of the back of the camera. It should never be there. When I first picked up the E-M5, I had no idea how to turn darn thing on – I was looking for the On/Off switch on the top of the camera, where it is typically found on most cameras. It is not a huge inconvenience, but certainly not great in terms of ergonomics. I would rather trade the video record button on the top with the On/Off switch, since it does not have to be a lever.
As for the size and bulk, while the E-M5 is certainly bigger than Olympus E-PL series mirrorless cameras, it is not much bigger than the Sony NEX-7, as seen in the picture below:
The length is about the same, so it is only the height that makes the E-M5 look bigger, thanks to its SLR-like viewfinder shape. But note the size of the Olympus 12mm prime lens and compare it to the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 on the NEX-7 – that’s what I mean by “small and compact” lenses. Most Sony lenses look huge and bulky when compared to Micro Four Thirds lenses – that’s the cost of the larger sensor size.
For those who own a DSLR and want to know how small the E-M5 is in comparison, take a look at this image that shows the smallest Nikon entry-level DSLR, the Nikon D3200 next to it:
As you can see, while both cameras are somewhat similar in length, the Nikon D3200 is much bigger and bulkier in width, thanks to the mirror and the required distance from the mount to the sensor. Interestingly, I thought the E-M5 would look bigger when I first saw pictures of it on the Internet, I guess because of its SLR-like looks. The camera is indeed very small and compact when compared to the smallest DSLR cameras on the market. You can imagine what the comparison is going to look like when you put it against something more serious like the Nikon D800. I won’t even go there with weight differences…
4) Camera Menu System
One thing that I am certainly not excited about on the E-M5 (and this actually concerns all Olympus mirrorless cameras) is its menu system. When I first handled the Olympus E-PL3 last year, I absolutely hated its overly complex to navigate user interface (UI). I do not mind a text-based interface, since Nikon and Canon also provide text-based menu UIs. However, Nikon and Canon menu systems are much easier to understand and navigate through than Olympus’. Similar to Nikon cameras, the menu is vertically grouped by “Shooting Menu 1”, “Shooting Menu 2”, “Playback Menu”, “Custom Menu” and “Setup Menu”. The Shooting Menu 1 and 2 are cluttered with a bunch of random menu options.
For example, “Card Setup” that is used to format or erase a card, sits as the first option here. First of all, what is the point of having “All Erase” and “Format” in a camera? Formatting a memory card is all we need, the All Erase option is redundant. Second, most cameras I have used so far will have the memory card formatting option under “Setup” – that’s where it typically belongs. Next, we have the option to Reset the camera or Create/Choose a Preset. I don’t mind this one to be there, since having quick access to Presets can be quite useful. However, the rest of the menu options are either completely useless, or are in the wrong place again. For example, the third option is “Picture Mode”, which allows switching between different camera effects for JPEG images. Who cares? I never shoot JPEG, so none of this stuff matters. Next, we have an icon that looks like triangle with a bunch of dots, with no text to describe what a heck it is. For a person who has never shot with an Olympus camera, does it make it clear that this triangle with dots is supposed to mean “Image Size/Quality”? Seriously? Why couldn’t Olympus just use text Image Size/Quality instead of this stupid icon? Plus, this setting should be under Setup – it is not something I would change every day. The next two menu options are again useless for a RAW shooter – Image Aspect and Digital Tele-converter. The Shooting Menu 2 is a little more useful in comparison, but it is also filled with a bunch of random stuff. And the “IS 1”, “IS 2” and “IS 3” options under “Image Stabilizer” do not make it easy for a novice to understand their differences. Why not use something more descriptive and easy to understand than a bunch of numbers? While one could press the Info button to get help in the menu, some things like IS 1/2/3 are not explained well. The camera just says “IS 2 and IS 3 are used for panning with the camera” and nothing else to actually describe what each setting does. So if you want to learn more, expect to spend some time on Google or reading the camera manual (not that there is anything wrong with that).
I do not have any complaints on the Playback Menu, since I rarely go there. Custom Menu is logically grouped, which is nice, but I would still do away from icons without text and replace them with text fields instead. A lot of the menu items are unnecessarily abbreviated, sometimes because of a combination of icons and text. Instead of these, Olympus should have used smaller and more narrow text letters – a lot more would have fit on the 3″ screen.
Unfortunately, there is no focus peaking feature available either, which can be extremely useful for manual focusing. Some people posted a workaround using an art tool that emulates focus peaking, but I tried it and it is certainly not even close to a real focus peaking implementation. In short, from the UI and menu system perspective, the E-M5 is rather weak. Olympus should hire a good menu designer that knows how to make a useful menu system and add focus peaking to make the E-M5 much more compelling.
Not all is lost though, since Olympus does provide a couple of shortcuts to make it easier to use the camera. They are just not enabled by default, oddly. There is a great “Super Control Panel” that gives access to the most widely accessed settings such as ISO, Exposure Compensation, AF mode, Image Stabilization, etc. It is buried under section “D”, “Control Settings” option in “Custom Menu”. Once enabled (Live SCP set to On), you can press the OK button and the Super Control Panel will show up as an overlay. If you hit the Info button once, the overlay will change to occupy the whole screen and you will be able to use the touchscreen to change camera options. Also, the E-M5 gives you a lot of customization options – some that you won’t even find on most DSLR cameras. For example, the camera allows choosing custom functions for pretty much every button, including the video record button. This is great, because you can customize these buttons to give you quick access to different settings. As far as I know, no other mirrorless camera comes close to the E-M5 in this regard.
While the Olympus OM-D E-M5 does not have the same rich set of in-camera features such as Panorama and HDR as on Sony NEX cameras, its responsiveness is certainly much better. Many of the Sony NEX cameras suffer from strange lag effects that periodically occur for no reason. The E-M5 is much better in that regard – I have never seen it lag, whether changing camera settings or shooting pictures. The only real bummer is that there is no built-in intervalometer, so you will have to resort to third party accessories if you are into timelapse photography.
5) Micro Four Thirds Lenses
Unlike some of the new mirrorless camera systems, Micro Four Thirds has been out on the market the longest. Because of this, and the fact that several manufacturers such as Panasonic, Cosina/Voigtlander, Carl Zeiss, Sigma and Tamron produce lenses, the selection and variety is huge by now, with close to 50 lenses in active production (and many more lenses can be used with adapters). No other mount comes even close to this number. And with more manufacturers joining the Micro Four Thirds alliance, it looks like we will be seeing plenty more in the coming years.
When choosing lenses for the E-M5, I wanted to make sure that I get only the top performing lenses that I would actually use for my photography. So despite its attractive bundled price, I chose to skip on the 12-50mm / 14-42mm kit lenses, even during the holidays when additional discounts were offered. I knew that I would be using the camera with one primary lens for everyday needs and one or two additional lenses for specific needs. So I bought the excellent Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 lens that I played with and loved before as the primary “everyday” lens. I find fast 35-50mm focal length prime lenses on full-frame cameras to be ideal for everyday needs, because they are fast and wide enough for most situations. So the 25mm f/1.4 lens is equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full-frame body in terms of angle of view. I do not regret my decision, because the 25mm f/1.4 stays pretty much glued to the E-M5 and only gets detached when I need to go shorter for landscapes or longer for portraits. For wide angle photography, I chose Olympus’ own 12mm f/2, which is also superb. Lastly, my choice for portraiture is the compact Olympus 45mm f/1.8, which is equivalent to a 90mm lens on a full-frame body. My future plan is to get the new 17mm f/1.8, which will probably compete with the 25mm f/1.4 for the “primary” lens spot on the E-M5, and the insanely sharp 75mm f/1.8 for all things macro and telephoto. As you can see, I am very much into prime lenses with Micro 4/3. I am not trying to say that Micro 4/3 zoom lenses are bad – I just want to take a full advantage of the system and fast aperture primes with excellent wide open performance are right up my alley.
6) Image Stabilization
The Olympus OM-D E-M5, similar to other Olympus mirrorless cameras comes with in-body image stabilization. This means that you can use any Micro 4/3 lens and image stabilization will work – from wide angle lenses to telephoto. This is a great advantage, especially when using fast prime lenses that normally do not have any kind of stabilization. As I have numerously stated before in various articles and reviews, image stabilization is very useful on ANY kind of lens, not just telephoto. Some people state that IS is redundant on fast aperture and wide angle lenses, but it is not true – it is very useful at any focal length and aperture.
The in-body image stabilization technology on the E-M5 is a reworked, 5-axis system that allows for vertical and horizontal movement compensation, as well as rotational movement around 3 axes. Olympus claims to have up to 5 stops of advantage thanks to this 5-axis IS, but in reality, I found it to be around 3-4 stops max. Which is still very good, considering that it works on all mounted lenses. The Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 is not an optically stabilized lens, but it becomes stabilized on the E-M5, which brings up the topic of IS across the two main brands.
An interesting fact on Micro Four Thirds, is that while both Olympus and Panasonic jumped on the format bandwagon initially, agreeing to jointly develop lenses that could be cross-used, the two companies chose completely different routes in image stabilization technology. Olympus went with in-body stabilization, while Panasonic’s choice was lens stabilization – two completely different technologies (see my camera vs lens stabilization article that explains the difference). This makes lenses somewhat compatible between the two brands, but not fully. For example, when mounting an optically stabilized Panasonic lens on the E-M5, you would need to turn one of the image stabilization modes off, or the two will conflict with each other and result in blurry images. When mounting non-stabilized Olympus lenses on Panasonic cameras, you obviously lose any kind of stabilization. So it only really makes sense to use Panasonic lenses on Olympus cameras, but not the other way around. Also, because of optical stabilization and other reasons, Panasonic lenses are generally larger than Olympus lenses.
All firmware versions prior to 1.5 caused the Olympus OM-D E-M5 to emit a constant humming sound (due to the way the 5-axis stabilization works), which almost sounds like a small fan inside the camera. Before I found out that it was IS to blame for the sound, I thought that Olympus had some sort of a fan installed inside the camera to cool the internal components or maybe even the sensor. To significantly reduce this humming noise, you should update to firmware 1.5, which can be done through the Olympus Digital Camera Updater (big thanks to our reader David B for pointing this out).
7) Autofocus / Manual Focus Performance and Metering
A key advantage of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 when compared to other mirrorless cameras from other manufacturers, is its fast and accurate autofocus system. While others are struggling with autofocus performance, bringing hybrid autofocus innovations to improve the speed of autofocus systems, Olympus figured out a way to make contrast detect autofocus work incredibly fast. Autofocus, by far, has been my biggest frustration with other mirrorless cameras on the market. The only cameras with acceptably fast AF have been the Nikon 1 cameras – the rest have AF issues, some more serious than others, with some failing to acquire focus even in broad daylight situations (Canon EOS M). After the Nikon 1, it was hard to get used to any other mirrorless camera in terms of autofocus speed. So after hearing all the praises of the E-M5’s autofocus performance from fellow photographers, it was the first thing I decided to test. My first test took place in a dimly-lit living room – I pointed the camera at the lens box and half-pressed the shutter. The camera acquired focus immediately, without any hesitation. I then tried refocusing on other objects in the room, some of which were in darker areas and less contrast. Again, the camera did not even hesitate. This already impressed me, because I have not seen such quick and accurate AF performance on any mirrorless camera. The Nikon 1 cameras are very fast in broad daylight, when its hybrid AF system kicks in. But as soon as you step indoors to a dimly lit environment, Nikon 1 starts to suffer badly, with contrast detect going back and forth trying to acquire focus. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 did not seem to care whether I shot outside in daylight or in a dim environment indoors – focus was very fast and dead on each time in single shot (AF-S) mode.
Continuous (AF-C) mode, on the other hand, is not that great – the camera continuously scans for focus back and forth, trying to find any changes in the subject (quite normal for a contrast-detect autofocus, by the way). Very similar to what Sony NEX and other mirrorless cameras do in AF-C mode as well. If you mistakenly end up choosing AF-C for regular stills, you might get quickly frustrated with the E-M5, because it will do this back and forth motion constantly, sometimes failing to acquire focus even on subjects with plenty of contrast. I tried photographing a Taekwondo competition in AF-C mode, even in bursts, and it was tough. Ended up with plenty of out of focus images, because the sport is very fast and erratic – a typical nightmare for an autofocus system. Subject tracking did not work well, constantly losing the tracked subject. This is one of the few examples that was actually in focus:
I quickly got frustrated with the results, so I switched back to AF-S and tried to shoot some more. I ended up keeping AF-S instead of AF-C, because the number of keepers was about the same, but at least I could occasionally take photos of athletes resting between the rounds. With AF-C, that constant back and forth motion just annoyed the hell out of me.
Gladly, I had my Nikon D800 + 70-200mm f/4 with me, so I switched to that configuration instead and ended up with much better shots like this:
Seems like even some of the best mirrorless cameras are still rather weak for fast action photography. So if you are a sports photographer, you will still be better off with a DSLR for faster and more reliable continuous AF + subject tracking. I experimented some more with the AF-C mode on the E-M5, photographing my kids playing soccer later. This time, the results were a little better, probably because they were not running as fast or moving in different directions as often as the Taekwondo kids. It looks like AF-C works better with subjects moving towards the camera, but not so well for side to side motion (just my temporary observation for now).
As for manual focus operation, the E-M5 has the ability to zoom into the image for more precise autofocus accuracy from 5x to 14x and the screen looks great with no traces of interpolation. Once you enable AF-S + MF as the AF Mode and turn MF Assist On, you can acquire focus on a subject, then as you start turning the focus ring on the lens, the camera will automatically zoom in for you for much more precise manual focusing. I used this feature quite a bit and it worked very well every time. The only bummer is that the E-M5 does not have a focus peaking feature, as I stated earlier in the review.
Metering is generally pretty good and nothing to complain about. As for the exposure though, after performing a number of different tests, I found the Olympus OM-D E-M5 to slightly underexpose by about 1/3 of a stop. This has nothing to do with metering – it is the camera that has wrong ISO values. When testing the camera side by side with other mirrorless cameras, I used exactly the same aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and the E-M5 would constantly underexpose. Why am I blaming the E-M5 for this? Because it was the only camera that produced inconsistent exposures when compared to other mirrorless cameras, every single time. ISO 200 is not really 200 – it is more like ISO 160. I am not sure what the source of the problem is, but it did prolong my testing efforts. Since I did not want to mess with exposure differences and modify my setup for the E-M5, I ended up not compensating for this exposure difference after going through a number of different test scenarios. So when you start looking at camera comparisons on the next sections of this review, keep this in mind, as images from the E-M5 will appear a little darker. Do not worry about this though, since the exposure inconsistency will not have any impact on your photography.
8) Movie Recording
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 can record 1080i full HD movies at 60 fps for smooth playback, which is nice, but there is no 1080p mode available. You can also pick lower resolution movie format for smaller movie files. Another advantage of the movie mode is that you can fully control the exposure while recording movies – you can easily adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO when shooting videos in Manual mode. If the scene you are recording is too bright or too dark and you are in one of the P/A/S modes, you can also use exposure compensation to adjust the brightness level. The camera LCD will reflect these changes and you will see exactly what you are capturing. Autofocus and subject tracking both work when recording videos and the 5-axis image stabilization technology helps quite a bit in keeping the camera stable.
9) Dynamic Range
Dynamic range is an important metric of sensor performance, especially for landscape photography. I spent some time measuring the dynamic range of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in a lab environment using Imatest and despite the smaller sensor size (compared to APS-C), it produced very impressive dynamic range staying close to the Sony NEX cameras in performance, as seen below:
As with all digital cameras, increasing camera ISO also decreases dynamic range, so shoot at base ISO of 200 if you want to preserve the most amount of information on your photographs.
Let’s see how the camera does in ISO performance against other cameras.
10) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 200-800)
Some Technical Info:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 4500 Temp, +6 Tint in Lightroom
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Tested with Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Manual Focus
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO HR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Imported images into Lightroom and cropped to 100% – no resizing was performed in Photoshop
- No exposure adjustments were performed in Lightroom (besides White Balance)
- Lightroom sharpening: 25, 1.0, 25, 0 (default)
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
Let’s take a look at how the Olympus OM-D performs at low ISOs. Here are some 100% crops at ISO 200, 400 and 800:
Both ISO 200 looks very clean and ISO 400 adds a tiny amount of noise.
ISO 800 adds a little more noise, but but the image still looks very good with no loss of details anywhere in the image, including the shadows.
11) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-25600)
Let’s see what happens when ISO is boosted to much higher levels:
ISO 1600 increases the amount of noise and the grain size now looks bigger and more noticeable, especially in the shadows. Increasing ISO to 3200 nearly doubles noise and now we are starting to see some artifacts in the shadows. Both ISO levels are very usable though and a single pass of noise reduction software will deal with it pretty well, since most details are preserved.
Further increasing ISO to 6400 adds a lot more noise and now we are at a point, where we are starting to lose details in the shadow area. And by ISO 12800, the image looks pretty much unusable to me, although down-sampling the image might produce acceptable results for the web. The last available ISO level is 25600, which is way beyond my comfort level:
I would never use such high ISO level on the OM-D E-M5, because there is a heavy loss of detail and color throughout the image.
Overall, I am very impressed by the ISO performance of the Olympus OM-D E-M5, especially its high ISO performance. Let’s see how it fares against other cameras.
12) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-6 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 200-800)
Let’s take a look at how the Olympus OM-D E-M5 compares to the Sony NEX-6 with an APS-C sensor. Here is a comparison of both cameras at ISO 200 (Left: Olympus OM-D E-M5, Right: Sony NEX-6):
Both cameras look very clean at ISO 200, with no difference in noise characteristics.
The same is true for ISO 400.
As we increase ISO to 800, we start to see more noise on both cameras. But I can’t say that one is better than the other – despite a smaller sensor size, the OM-D has impressive image quality.
13) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-6 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-25600)
At ISO 1600, there is still very little difference between the two.
Both cameras add plenty of noise at ISO 3200, but neither one has an upper hand. Again, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 shows impressive noise performance at high ISO, despite having a smaller sensor.
Pushing ISO to extreme (for APS-C) values obviously results in significant amount of noise – ISO 6400 is already above my comfort level. We again see a similar situation at ISO 6400 – both cameras perform very well, with perhaps a slight lead on behalf of NEX-6, which seems to retain details better.
At ISO 12800, there is too much noise on both cameras. Hard to tell which one looks better, but it is pretty clear that the NEX-6 seems to retain colors a little better – look at the reds on the ship.
And ISO 25600 is there for fun. Images are too grainy and ugly, with not enough detail and colors throughout the image. Again, the Sony NEX-6 seems to retain colors better than the Olympus.
14) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-6 Summary
As you can see from the above crops, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Sony NEX-6 have very similar noise characteristics. Despite the smaller sensor size, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 performed about the same throughout the ISO range. At low ISOs, both cameras produce practically noise-free images. At ISO 1600 and higher, there is about the same amount of noise added to the highlights and the shadows. The NEX-6 has slightly better image quality at ISO 6400 and above, but that difference is minimal. When looking at image crops, you might have noticed that images from the Olympus OM-D E-M5 look slightly darker. This is not due to a difference in exposure – if you look at EXIF data from all images, you will see that there were shot at exactly the same aperture, shutter speed and ISO. After testing a number of mirrorless cameras, I came to the conclusion that the OM-D has a tendency to slightly underexpose by about 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop (it was the only camera that did it). This means that ISO 200 is not really ISO 200, but something like ISO 160.
15) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-7 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 200-800)
Let’s take a look at how the OM-D E-M5 compares to the higher resolution NEX-7. Here is a comparison of ISO 200 on both cameras:
While both cameras produce impressive, noise-free images at ISO 200, the Sony NEX-7 produces slightly sharper images. This is due to downsampling – the NEX-7 has a lot more resolution to play with.
We start seeing some noise at ISO 400, but there is no clear winner here – both cameras produce about the same amount of noise at the same resolution.
The same goes for ISO 800, although again, the NEX-7 images look sharper due to downsampling.
16) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-7 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-25600)
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 shows a little bigger grain than the NEX-7 due to lower resolution.
Which we see again at ISO 3200. The NEX-7 seems to lose a little bit in the shadows.
The NEX-7 still retains more details at ISO 6400, but its shadow area looks worse with bigger grain.
At ISO 12800, the NEX-7 adds quite a bit of artificial red in the shadows.
Both images look terrible, but the NEX-7 certainly has better details and colors, despite the added red color all over the image. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 lost too many of its colors – look at the reds on the ship that are almost gone.
17) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Sony NEX-7 Summary
When comparing images between sensors with different resolution, the only proper way to do it is to downsample images. Otherwise, sensors with bigger pixels (lower resolution) are always going to show better noise characteristics (assuming both are of similar generation/technology). In this case, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has a 16 MP sensor, while the NEX-7 has a very high resolution 24.3 MP sensor. An 8.3 MP difference can play a huge role when comparing sensors. The NEX-7 has the advantage of a high resolution sensor and its images retain excellent detail even at very high ISO values. It certainly does add quite a bit of red in the shadows at extremely high ISOs, but the amount of detail is still higher. The NEX-7 also seems to maintain colors better at very high ISOs (except for shadows).
18) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Canon EOS M (ISO 200-800)
The new Canon EOS M mirrorless camera has the same APS-C size sensor from the Canon EOS 650D DSLR. Let’s take a look at how it fares against the OM-D E-M5.
As usual, there is no difference in noise characteristics at such low ISO values.
At ISO 400 we start to see some grain on both cameras.
ISO 800 looks equally good on both.
19) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Canon EOS M High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-12800)
Again, it is hard to say which one is better.
However, at ISO 3200, the shadow area on the EOS M certainly looks grainier in comparison.
At ISO 6400, the EOS M shows more noise, especially in the shadows. But the amount of detail stays pretty high in comparison to the OM-D.
And at the maximum ISO of 12800, the EOS M has more noise in the shadows and artifacts throughout the image.
20) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Canon EOS M Summary
Again, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 showed impressive performance, considering that it has a smaller sensor than the Canon EOS M. It matched the EOS M at lower ISO values and also did quite well at high ISOs, as evidenced from the above comparisons. I would not judge the performance of these cameras by just looking at images though – the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has many more features not present on the EOS M (such as a built-in viewfinder, much better autofocus, better handling and controls, etc) and it represents a higher-level mirrorless segment. The EOS M is targeted at beginners, while the OM-D E-M5 is for more serious photographers.
21) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Nikon 1 J1/J2/V1 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 200-800)
Again, sensor size and resolution win big time here – the Nikon 1 looks noisy in comparison to the Olympus OM-D E-M5 even at ISO 200.
No need to repeat the same words – the OM-D E-M5 looks very clean and practically noise-free at ISO 200 and 400.
At ISO 800, there is a little bit of grain on the OM-D E-M5, but it still looks very good in comparison to the J1/J2/V1.
22) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Nikon 1 J1/J2/V1 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-6400)
Again, the larger and higher resolution sensor of the OM-D E-M5 does make a difference here – it performs very well at high ISOs, even at ISO 6400 when downsampled.
23) Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs Nikon 1 J1/J2/V1 Summary
As I have numerously talked about before, the only proper way to look at sensor performance is by down-sampling. While the J1/J2/V1 looks great at pixel level, it certainly disappoints when its competition is down-sampled to the same resolution. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 looks exceptionally good when its images are at 10 MP – those extra 6 MP help reduce noise and bring out the sharpness of the image. Again, don’t just look at these image comparisons to make conclusions – lens selection, ergonomics, features and other important factors should all be thoroughly evaluated as well. A key advantage of the Nikon 1 system that is absolutely worth mentioning is its excellent autofocus system. The Nikon 1 cameras work much better in continuous autofocus mode (AF-C), while the OM-D E-M5 suffers quite a bit, as noted earlier in this review.
As I have pointed out in the beginning of this review, I have been looking for a good mirrorless camera for a while now, mainly to complement my professional DSLR gear. While I absolutely love the image quality, speed and capabilities of my Nikon DSLR cameras, my biggest issue to date has been capturing those precious moments that happen every day around me and my family. Due to the weight and bulk of my camera equipment, I have only been taking it with me when photographing professionally or when I know ahead of time that I need to take pictures. Constantly carrying a heavy DSLR like Nikon D800 with a professional lens is not only impractical, but it is also painful (especially when you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome like me). For example, I would not bother taking my DSLR when driving to a local grocery store, when attending a family event, or picking up my kids from school. And yet, I got tired of those “I wish I had my good camera with me” moments, when seeing something really unique or interesting and only having a crappy phone camera in my pocket.
During the last two years, I had a chance to test a number of different mirrorless camera systems from Fuji, Olympus, Nikon, Sony and Canon, and I am planning to continue exploring the world of mirrorless cameras with other brands like Pentax, Ricoh and Samsung later this year. It has been an interesting journey for me personally, going through each camera and exploring its capabilities, features and image quality. While I was impressed by many of the mirrorless cameras (thanks to their small size and image quality), which led me to write articles like “Why DX has no future“, there was always something that I did not like about each mirrorless camera I tested. Whether it was poor autofocus performance, bad ergonomics, poor battery life, bad RAW support or inferior image quality – it seemed like it was a world of compromises. You just could not have it all in a single camera.
Until I came across the Olympus OM-D E-M5. From the day I started using the E-M5, I just fell in love with it. Everything just felt right about it – excellent image quality, incredibly fast autofocus, wide lens selection, superior ergonomics with a boatload of customization options. Suddenly, it just felt like the camera I had been wanting to own and use all these years. My only doubt was the smaller sensor size – for a while I thought that I would go with a larger APS-C sensor system. But after seeing the lens size implications of a large sensor system in several different cameras, I knew there was no point in getting a bulky mirrorless system. My goal was to get a very capable camera that is compact enough to take it with me everywhere – not another DSLR that will prefer to stay in a bag. And the E-M5 just felt right from the start in that regard, once I mounted the tiny 12mm and 45mm Olympus prime lenses on it.
Is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 perfect? No, there are plenty of things I do not like about it, as I pointed out in the review. But I can live with those annoyances, because I love everything else about it.
Can it replace a DSLR? Yes and No. Yes, for those of us that enjoy everyday photography, where things like enormous resolution, crazy low-light performance or blazing fast autofocus are not needed. (which probably hits 80%+ of DSLR users out there). No, for the smaller population of photographers like me that want the best image quality and autofocus capabilities of a full-frame DSLR. For those particular needs, my Nikon DSLRs are here to stay. But even if the E-M5 won’t replace my DSLR gear, I am still very happy to use it as a primary camera for everyday needs.
Without a doubt, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is the best mirrorless camera on the market today. I just wish I checked it out earlier.
25) Where to buy and availability
26) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Olympus OM-D E-M5
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Packaging and Manual
Photography Life Overall Rating