Olympus OM-D E-M5 First Impressions Review
This past weekend I was able to spend time with some folks from Olympus to pick up an OM-D E-M5 for review. I get to play with a lot of cameras due to my job running Photo.net, and that’s something I appreciate. But there are cameras and there are “cameras!” and I will admit that the E-M5 was one of the ones I had been looking forward to trying out. I had been favorably impressed with the pre-production sample I had seen at CES in January. But the proof would be in the pudding.
When they first started popping up, the mirrorless systems in general were mostly aimed at the “bridge” user who is between a p&s camera and a full-blown SLR. While there are a few exceptions (the Ricoh GXR and the Fuji ProX1 to name two), this has remained true into the present day. But there have always been a market segment of those of us who longed for something like a digital version of the old Contax G2. Another way to say is was that we were looking for the “digital” version of what the rangefinder gave us back in the film days. Many of us are advanced users who have either long ago made the switch to digital and found the results good but the user experiencing lacking, or are still film users who won’t change to digital until we find a camera that suits us. Here we had systems with compact sizes and high image quality. But they were crippled by the slow zooms and square body styles that the “bridge” user seemed to demand.
But then here was Olympus at CES 2012 telling me that the company had polled some of its most serious and advanced users in Japan as to what they would want to see out of a high-end micro four-thirds camera. Features like a built in viewfinder, weatherproofing, grip options, and so on were listed. Olympus listened and created a new OM-D line in their micro four-thirds world with the E-M5 as the first body in that line. Was this just a neat package with nothing inside? Or would it live up to its promise of being a micro four-thirds camera that performed and handled at a level that satisfied the “advanced photographer” market that it was aimed at? While I am working on a longer full review, here are my “first impression” thoughts after using the camera for a few days.
EDIT: This turned out to ramble on longer than I had thought. My apologies to anyone who was hoping for a USA Today type 250 word article.
My initial experiences with the E-M5’s image quality is very good. As with last year’s PEN E-P3, the LIVE MOS sensor and TruePic IV image processor perform admirably. However, I’ve done more shooting and playing with the camera than I have looking at the files it has produced. So this “first impressions” article is heavily weighted in the “experience” rather than the “results” direction.
Appearance & Style
We’ve all seen the photos, some of us even got to handle the camera at CES or another press event prior to launch. That having been said, now that I’ve been around the camera for a few days and seen it sitting on the bar at the pub or hanging off my shoulder or being pulled out of the bag, I have to admit that I’m just as smitten with its styling. Maybe I’m just the right age to have had an OM series camera be the first “serious” camera in my life (mine was an OM-10 of my father’s). Still, given that the OM series was produced from the early 1970’s to the early 2000’s, that spread of 30 years makes for a lot of photographers who might have the same feelings as I do about the E-M5’s styling.
I just think it’s a neat looking camera. For too long, the photographic world was stuck in a morass of rectangular chunky boxes. That’s not to say that these cameras didn’t make good images, because they did. But I think a lot of us appreciate the idea that a product could be both functional and stylish. The silver has the most “retro” vibe to it, since black paint cameras always seemed to be more rare. However, I personally think that the black version is the perfect blend of retro and modern. Still, the Olympus people tell me that the silver version is outselling the black based on initial orders. Go figure. Of course, as with all styling, some will love it and some will not. But I find myself firmly in the “love it” camp.
EVF and LCD
I’m not one of those photographers who requires a viewfinder. I’ve spent too much time with p&s cameras, iPhones, and various video recording devices to be too critical of using an LCD for image making. Still, the fact remains that putting your eye up to a viewfinder has many advantages for a lot of us. Glare can be a serious problem for rear LCDs as can external distractions. Holding a camera out at arms length is inherently a less stable platform than with elbows tucked in to your sides and an eye to the viewfinder. With these and other facts in mind, a viewfinder is a big plus for most people. So how does the E-M5’s viewfinder perform? Very well in my opinion. I think many of us have memories seared into my head of the early generations of EVFs. These were, in a word, terrible. And while we aren’t to the point yet where the best current EVFs are like watching a small window to reality, they have progressed to a point where they are very VERY usable. The E-M5’s EVF did not give me any eye strain, the shooting info was easy to read, and the resolution was high enough for me to manually focus should I want to. Though it should be noted that, like all Olympus micro four-thirds cameras, the E-M5 does not have a ‘focus peaking’ feature to assist in manual focus.
In short, I used the E-M5 EVF as if I was using any of my SLR viewfinders. I never found myself annoyed that I was using an EVF. I will say that the light sensor that activates the EVF when you bring the camera up to your eye is a bit more sensitive than I require. I found it to activate inadvertently a few times when I was using my left hand across the camera to press buttons, most often when I was using the HLD-6 vertical grip.. But this was, at worst, a minor annoyance and I could solve it by turning the auto-sensing feature off. I find the auto sensing feature to be useful, so I will live with a few shadow caused mistakes.
One neat feature is that the E-M5 allows you to choose to have the info in the EVF displayed in the common LCD style, with the settings and icons superimposed over the image. But it also allows you to choose to display the info in a bar underneath the image in a style much more akin to a DSLR. I personally have gotten used to the superimposed style, and have no real reason to change it. But I know that some folks will really appreciate the ability to change to the other type of display.
As I said, I am not at all militant about viewfinder use. LCDs, particularly articulated ones like on the E-M5 are just too useful. Just today I was out shooting a waterfall photo and had the camera down at a low level on the tripod. Rather than lying on the ground or bending over and craning my neck at an ungodly angle, I just tilted the LCD up and used it to compose and make adjustments. Thus, obviously, I’m pleased with the E-M5’s articulated LCD. The LCD itself is as good as anything else out there in current generation cameras. In addition, as with the previous PEN E-P3, the touch LCD is a bonus in my mind. The focus by tap feature is really neat. It may not lead to the most solid shooting grip on the camera, but it’s still going to come in handy. However, the coolness of the touch screen is balanced by the annoyance that you really can’t do all that much with it. Focus, scroll through playback, and a few other things. But you can’t make changes to settings or even tap icons to change white balance. Yes, the icons on screen are small, but so are the on-screen keyboard buttons on an iPhone. I love the touch LCD, I just don’t know why it can’t do more.
Grip System & Handling
The handling of the E-M5 alone is, in general, as good as anything in the mirrorless segment. It has a few real pluses such as the rubberized “thumb hook” on the back for your right hand, which gives a very solid grip on the body. But it also has a few minuses such as the location of the play button, sadly small and blocked a bit by the corner of the LCD. But neither are game changers or deal breakers. Suffice to say that while there will, of course, be some who don’t like the way this camera feels or handles in real-world use, I think for the most part people will be very satisfied. I know that I am.
Where the E-M5 really shines is the excellently designed two-part HLD-6 grip system. It really allows you to have a couple different options as far as size vs features. Essentially, you have one piece that adds a much more positive feeling right hand grip and shutter button/dial while only adding a little bit of height to the camera. This is very much in the style of the old OM film camera motordrive/grips. Then you have a second piece that adds a more contemporary styled vertical grip (and extra battery) with a vertical shutter button and two additional Fn (custom function) buttons. The second piece does add more bulk and weight to the camera. But it also gives the camera the same sort of handling that many of us are used to when using a “pro” level camera. And the best part is that you can choose to use one, both, or none of them depending on how light you are looking to travel. I have found myself leaving the smaller of the two grips on virtually all of the time. While I wouldn’t hesitate to take it off if I needed to get my kit as small/light as possible, I do appreciate the better grip that I get on the camera when it is mounted. And I would say that 40% of the time I add on the second grip. The extra battery really adds to how long you can use the camera (though the second battery it isn’t required to use the grip) and I love the vertical shutter and Fn buttons. I have gotten away from vertical grips and “pro” sized cameras for my personal SLRs in recent years. But using this grip reminds me just how much I enjoy having that option.
While the $300 list price isn’t a giveaway by any means, I would highly suggest that anyone buying the E-M5 budget that money into their purchasing cash. The HLD-6 is a real strength of this camera and is an accessory that I think everyone should consider buying.
As I touch on above, there are a few real winners and a few losers as far as the camera’s controls are concerned. But overall, I’m pleased with them. Olympus continues its recent path of letting the user customize many of the cameras buttons and controls. Though this does fall down oddly in a few areas. By default, the four-way toggle buttons are set up like a higher end DSLR to control focus point. Okay, but I don’t need that. So I switch the setting to “direct function” which the camera describes as “Each arrow pad button can be assigned a direct function when they are pressed while shooting”. Great. But the camera only displays options to allow me to assign functions to the right and down buttons. The left button appears to be hard wired to bring up the AF point selection, which is okay since that is one of the things I would want to assign. And the up button seems to bring up the option to use the arrow buttons for over/under exposure and program-shift, which is fine, but those two things are already controlled by the two command dials on the top of the camera. I’m not going to tell you that I was really bothered by this, I just found it odd. Thankfully, it’s one of those things that can and probably will be fixed with a firmware update.
Speaking of the two command dials, those are great. I love having them available. Particularly in manual mode, nothing makes a camera feel like a “pro” model like having two control dials so you can chance shutter speed and aperture without having to press a button and turn a dial at the same time. I think it was a very good decision to include them. Something that isn’t as great is the playback button that I mention above. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unusable. But I would have rather seen it be switched with the “trash/delete” button. This would have made the play button easier to hit and the trash button more difficult, something I think most of us would appreciate.
In general, the controls on the E-M5 are at a minimum “good” and some are “very good”. Perhaps a bit cramped as far as spacing, but no more so than many cameras in this class. You just don’t have that much real estate on a camera body this size and balancing how many controls to include with how much room you have is always going to be a zero-sum game at some point. Suffice to say, I like the controls on the E-M5 as much as I have liked those on any camera of this size, and I like them significantly more than the controls on many of those cameras. In short, the E-M5 is the first mirrorless camera that I feel handles like a “real” camera. There have been others that have come close (the Panasonic GH2 comes to mind), but this is the first one that I lived up to that statement for me.
My experience has been that the battery life on the E-M5 is quite good. Now, these are brand new batteries. But even with liberal LCD usage, I haven’t felt like I was running them down quickly. They are on par with most battery performance out there today. One thing that is odd is that, if you are using the HLD-6 with a low battery, there seems to be something that makes the camera want to tell you that fact even if you have a fresh battery in the camera itself. But if you have a fresh battery in the HLD-6 and a low battery in the camera, the camera tells you that you’ve got plenty of battery. Now, it’s not really lying to you in either case. It’s just an odd choice of information to pass on. You can tell the camera to use up the battery in the HLD-6 first or the battery in the camera first (a neat feature), so that may dictate which battery level the camera displays. In any case, I’ve got a question into the Olympus tech people to see if I am misunderstanding something.
Something else to keep in mind is that, due mostly to changing safety laws in Japan, the E-M5 does not use the same battery as any previous micro four-thirds cameras. This actually caused a few laughs among the Olympus crew when I was talking about how well I thought the battery life on the E-M5 was doing and pointed out that I had tossed a PEN E-P3 battery into my bag and hadn’t even needed it. The joke of course being that I hadn’t realized that the E-P3 battery wouldn’t fit in the E-M5 and that I should really try to be better at reading spec sheets. Such is life though, sometimes you miss the trees because you are trying to pay attention to the whole forest.
Ah, such a small thing in the grand scheme, since we know it’s coming eventually. But it still annoys me to be using Bridge or Lightroom and see the little icon that tells me Adobe Camera Raw doesn’t support a file. Grrrrrrr…..be more faster Adobe. Don’t make me drive down to Seattle and shake my fist at your office building.
Lack of Flash
There has been some amount of grousing on the internets about how the E-M5 doesn’t have a built-in flash. I personally think that there couldn’t be a more overblown bone of contention. Are these same people grousing that high end DSLRs don’t have built-in flashes? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a built-in flash being included on a camera, a few of my DSLRs have them and I’ve even used them once or twice. But for the target market of a camera like the E-M5, a built in flash shouldn’t be a “make or break” feature. This is a camera aimed at advanced photographers. Most advanced photographers I know avoid built-in flashes like the plague. They are underpowered, harsh, and can’t be used for bouncing. If one has to use a flash, it should at the very least be a larger more powerful hotshoe version such as the Olympus FL-300. At best, a built-in camera flash falls into the “better than nothing in an emergency” category for me. Given the choice between a built-in flash and a smaller or better body design, I’ll toss the built-in flash every time.
Speaking of flash, yes, Olympus does give you a little camera-powered hotshoe flash with the E-M5. It pretty much is just a hotshoe version of a built-in flash. It works, it’s light/small enough to carry most all the time, and I would use it in a pinch. But any serious E-M5 owner who has a need for a flash should look into a real shoe mount flash like the FL-300.
Default Settings and Other Nitpicking
The E-M5’s biggest problems come from the fact that Olympus has stepped up to the plate and has created a camera that is aimed squarely at the advanced photographer. As such, their target market is much more likely to have some strong opinions about how a camera should operate than a less experienced or knowledgable market might be. So you are going to hear some amount of complaining about various things that could or should have been done differently. For example, why isn’t “superfine” compression enabled by default? Why is “fine” compression the highest choice out of the box? Don’t you figure that most of the target users are going to want to use superfine? Yes, you can assign WB or ISO to any of a number of buttons. But why aren’t there default WB and ISO buttons to begin with? Aren’t WB and ISO two of the most accessed settings for advanced photographers? But stuff like this is almost a marketing decision rather than an engineering one. Sure, we can argue about it if we like, and more power to you if you enjoy doing so. It’s like baseball sabermetric stats, some people just like to debate that kind of stuff. But for me, the fact that superfine compression exists is enough. As long as I know I can go in and turn it on, then what do I care if Olympus set “fine” as the default or if the buttons don’t have ISO or WB printed next to them? I’m an intelligent guy who knows how I want to use my camera. And smart experienced people like me are the E-M5’s target market. So while I understand why people would bring it up, I personally don’t put a lot of value in the kvetching about this kind of stuff.
The Funny Noise
Something that is worth mentioning is the fact that the E-M5 makes a very slight hum noise when it is on. In fact, “hum” probably isn’t even the right work. It sounds like a very quiet cooling fan of some sort. It is quiet enough that I didn’t notice it at all when I was with the Olympus crew, nor when I was out shooting. It wasn’t until after I had gotten home and had sat down this evening in the quiet house (kids in bed) to write this article that I actually noticed it. The sound isn’t a fan and actually comes from the camera’s IS system. This is the way the camera is supposed to operate and if you are hearing it, you do not have a defective camera. Here is the official explanation from Olympus:
The sound being produced by the camera is caused by the 5-Axis Image Stabilization which is active even when IS is turned off to insure that the sensor stays in the center of the image circle.
I will admit, it’s odd that a camera makes a noise like this. Yes, it’s going to weird some people out. But for the rest of us, it’s just going to fade into the background. I literally can’t hear it even with your eye to the camera if you are in a room with a normal amount of little background noise. And after just a short while, you start to think of it like the small noises from many other devices in your life. It wouldn’t cause me to not buy the camera and it wouldn’t stop me from highly recommending it to others. But it is something that buyers should be aware of before they place their money on the table.
My overall initial impressions are very positive. I really enjoy using this camera. It is the first mirrorless camera that has made me say “Hmmm, do I really need my APS-C DSLR any more?”. No, it’s not going to make me personally get rid of my full frame DSLR and bag of high end f/2.8 zoom lenses. But it sure could become my “family/friends/travel/serious-photography-where-I-don’t-want-to-haul-a-huge-kit-around-but-still-need-a-good-camera” camera, and for me, that’s saying something. Every other mirrorless camera that I have liked so far has been a "I’ll add it to the bag because it will be useful for ________ " situation. However, none had yet been able to threaten to become a “replacement” for existing gear. The E-M5 has a chance to be the kind of camera that replaces gear I currently use, and I think that’s kind of a big deal.
More Sample Images
There are more OM-D E-M5 images in this gallery here.