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Stepping across the great DSLR divide into the land of mirrorless cameras always requires some compromise. Focusing speed, image quality, lens compatibility and battery life are frequent casualties, but for everyone except professional shooters, the size and cost benefits of swapping a full-grown beast for a compact ILC surely help soften the blow. The latest Micro Four Thirds model from Olympus, the OM-D E-M5, adds functionality that expand that list of betterments even further, allowing more versatility than larger DSLRs have to offer. These perks include a water-resistant design, for starters, along with a nifty lens that offers macro shooting and both manual- and powered-zoom in one compact package.

One area where the 16-megapixel E-M5 does match the footprint of its full-size brethren is in price: you'll drop a cool grand for the body alone, while the 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens kit will bump that tag up another $300. Make no mistake, the E-M5 is a fantastic camera, but $1,300 is mighty steep for any mirrorless model, especially one with a Micro Four Thirds sensor. This, however, is no ordinary MFT camera. As the first model in Olympus's OM-D line -- taking design cues from the company's popular line of OM film cameras -- the E-M5 is in a class of its own, at least as far as Olympus's portfolio is concerned. Besides physical appearance, perhaps, the most notable selling point is its focus speed: press the shutter release, and your subject comes into clarity with rapid-fire precision, whether you're shooting in bright sunlight or a dark restaurant. But though the E-M5 has already received accolades for its powerful focusing, you might be wondering how the whole package performs. Meet us past the break to find out.

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

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Olympus

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Pros

  • Incredibly fast autofocus
  • 5-axis image stabilization
  • Manual/auto-zoom kit lens

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Battery meter issues at launch
  • Poor focus accuracy in low-contrast scenes
Summary

Olympus's OM-D E-M5 is the company's best camera yet, but battery meter and focusing issues may be a dealbreaker for some.

Hardware

Simply put, it's beautiful. If you've ever wistfully eyed a mid-twentieth century 35mm SLR, hoping that manufacturers would once again adopt the elegant designs of yesteryear, you can stop dreaming. The E-M5 invokes a crafted feel unique to that model, that's reminiscent of select über-pricey rangefinders. We're particularly fond of the silver-and-black flavor, though we sadly had to settle for all-black, or risk delaying this review. Of course, the black version performs equally and is a perfectly fine choice, but if you have an opportunity to pick up the two-tone version, chances are you won't regret it.

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Simply put, it's beautiful.

Serious photographers care more about design and durability than the unrelated matter of color scheme, and both the black and silver models alike offer solid specs in these key areas. First up is the camera's "splash-proof" build. What exactly does it mean for a camera to be immune to splash-related damage? For starters, you can shoot with the E-M5 in the rain without having to concern yourself with an umbrella or fussy hood. Seals throughout the body also keep out sand and dust, and there's a Supersonic Wave Filter on board to assist in the rare event that a speck or two manages to make it past the camera's measures. You'll of course be subject to droplet accumulation on the front element of the lens, which you'll need to wipe off regularly depending on the conditions, but you don't need to fret about damaging the camera or kit lens when water pours down from the sky. "Splash-proof" doesn't mean waterproof, however, so don't you dare take this thousand-dollar body into the sea.

With the body out of the way, let's circle back to those capture specs. There's a 16-megapixel Live MOS Micro Four Thirds (4/3) sensor on board, but with a twist -- 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization. What this means is that the camera can compensate for shaky hands on both the vertical and horizontal axis (just like many of its competitors) as well as on the rotational axis. What can we say? It really does make a difference. You'll still be subject to motion blur if your subjects move and you're shooting with a low shutter speed, of course, but Olympus's new stabilization technique does help to minimize the effect with still subjects. It will also come in handy while recording video, keeping the picture steady even as you walk down the street, change position or maintain a long focal length. Movement is not eliminated completely, but you may even consider leaving that tripod behind on your next video shoot.

Another feature that we're seeing more frequently in the mirrorless category is a built-in 1.44-megapixel electronic viewfinder, providing a 100 percent field of view and an x/y-axis level gauge, along with direct feedback for all key settings. Like the Sony NEX-7, we've noticed that the proximity sensor can be a bit too sensitive, triggering the EVF when you hold the camera too close to your body, for example. We'd like to see an option to tweak this, but in the meantime you may want to flip off the auto-switch mode and opt for the dedicated button to the right of the EVF instead.

You'll need to shift over to the main 3-inch 610,000-dot OLED tilting display to review images and tweak settings. In addition to adjusting downward up to 50 degrees and upward to 80, the display also includes touch support, letting you select the AF area, release the shutter and advance during playback by tapping the screen. Just like on the Sony NEX-5N, touch is there if you need it, but it won't get in the way if you don't. Naturally, the hardware controls duplicate this functionality, though toying with the five-position buttons is often less efficient than using than the touch-to-focus feature.

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Completing the tour, on the top of the camera there's a full-size hot shoe (a tiny external flash ships in the box) with a proprietary accessory connector below. Lifting the OLED display reveals a recessed notch, which helps you open a side panel with HDMI and USB/AV connectors. The SD slot sits on the right edge, while the 1,220mAh battery lives in a slot on the bottom. Adjacent to that compartment, you'll find another proprietary connector hidden below a rubber door. This port is used to communicate with an optional accessory, which provides an extended camera grip with a second control dial and shutter release in one section and a battery compartment with vertical controls that can be added on below. We preferred shooting with just the grip portion, which enables the E-M5 to retain a slim profile while still allowing for some more comfortable handheld shooting.

User Interface

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What good is having beautiful hardware if it's not easy to use? Fortunately, usability should be of little concern here. As always, you'll need to spend a few minutes flipping through the menu before you're able to declare that the camera is configured to your liking, but finding those key items isn't much of a chore. The main menu is divided into five tabs: playback, setup, custom settings and two shooting menus. That custom menu is by far the most complex, with sub-tabs for settings like autofocus and dial direction.

Speaking of those dials -- you'll find two up top, with one controlling aperture and the second adjusting shutter speed in manual mode, for example, similar to what you can do on the Sony's NEX-7 competing "Tri-Navi" interface. In the center of the forward dial is a shutter release button, with an adjustable control to the right (we set ours to change the ISO) and a video record button just below it, which isn't in the most convenient location, to be perfectly honest. We'd prefer to see the function and video record buttons reversed, but it's a bit too late for that at this point. There's a second function button, along with a playback control right below the rear dial. To the right of the OLED display, there are dedicated controls for launching the menu, info panel and a delete key, along with a four-position panel with an OK selector in the center. At the bottom of the rear control panel, you'll find an On/Off toggle, taking the guess work out of the camera's current power status.

Performance and battery life

When the camera works, it's peerless, but you won't have to wait long before stumbling on a scene it can't master.

We can't talk about performance without revisiting the camera's focusing system. The ILC is so capable in this regard that bringing a subject into focus almost becomes an afterthought -- most of the time, anyway. At its best, the E-M5 can adjust in a fraction of a second, and when it works, it does so with epic speed. It's not without flaws, however, and we've so far run into issues with several Olympus lenses. While the camera does a top-notch job with wide framing in good conditions, it has significant difficulty focusing in scenes with little contrast.

Take it to the ski slopes, for example, and the E-M5 will clam up, only occasionally capturing a sharp frame. We experienced the same during a rainy day beach shoot with that 12-50mm kit optic zoomed all the way in. When the camera works, it's peerless, but you won't have to wait long before stumbling on a scene it can't master. The same is true of video capture: you'll want to steer clear of continuous autofocus while shooting in snow, rain or any dark or flat scene, lest you end up with a blurry mess. (You can avoid the continuous focus hunting by using single- or manual-focus modes.) For this reason, we're not confident in the camera's abilities as a video shooter -- at least not until this focusing issue is addressed.

One area where the E-M5 offers consistent speed and accuracy is in high-speed consecutive shooting mode. Opting in nets you a cool nine frames per second, for 15 shots. After the buffer takes a few seconds to unload (depending on the speed of your SD card, of course), you can fire off another burst. A lower-speed sequential mode gives you the option of shooting at 3 fps for nearly two dozen consecutive frames. The camera can power on, focus and shoot its first image in as little as 1.2 seconds, while re-framing, adjusting focus and capturing a different scene takes just 0.3 seconds. Once a subject is already in focus, there's virtually zero lag between shots.

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The E-M5's battery life is phenomenal for a mirrorless ILC; we were able to snap more than 600 stills and 22 minutes of 720p video on a day-long shoot around New York City. The camera's built-in power meter is seriously flawed, however, only providing an accurate reading when completely charged or fully depleted. For roughly 90 percent of a cycle, the camera displays a full power indicator, dropping to two out of three bars for the final 50 or so shots, then flashing fully depleted for the next 50. Power cycling early during the depleted state will result in a full battery indicator for the next few shots, though as we approached the end of the battery's life, the cam consistently displayed empty. Olympus reps were unaware of the issue, but said that the company will investigate, and may be able to correct the meter with a firmware update.

Image quality

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The E-M5 delivers excellent image quality for a camera of its size, but at $1,300 with a kit lens, you'd be right to expect perfection.

The E-M5 delivers excellent image quality for a camera of its size, but at $1,300 with a kit lens, you'd be right to expect perfection. There's no 51,200+ high-ISO magic at play here, but we weren't disappointed with image quality -- whenever the camera was able to focus, at least. One side effect of that low-contrast focus hunting is a slew of blurry photos, assuming you follow through with a capture after an un-sharp preview. The camera can focus in snow and sand, but it's definitely hit or miss, especially at longer focal lengths (where flatter details fill the frame). Professionals who focus on sea and snow sports will definitely want to steer clear of crowning the E-M5 their star shooter, but it is a winner if complementing a pricey high-end DSLR. Amateurs spending much of their time on the slopes or the beach may also share that sentiment, which is a slight letdown considering that "splash-proof" build.

With a native ISO range of 200-25,600, there's quite a bit of flexibility in the sensitivity department, which will certainly come in handy for long-zoom captures with the f/3.5-6.3 kit lens. Images shot throughout that spectrum are usable at any size. ISO 25,600 looks quite fantastic, as you'll see in the 1:1 pixel views below. As with most mirrorless cameras with a MFT or larger sensor, you could quite comfortably leave the E-M5 set to ISO 3200 for casual shooting without any significant quality loss, but we'd even be willing to push that limit to 6400 or higher if shooting in low light. 16 megapixels won't prompt any sticker shock, but it's perfectly sufficient for most photographers, and well worth the tradeoff in order to achieve low-noise images at high ISOs.

Gallery | 249 Photos

Olympus OM-D E-M5 sample shots

The competition

Pricing a mirrorless ILC above $1,000 doesn't come without deliberation -- that figure is too high to make a significant dent in market share, but not low enough to cannibalize the Olympus PEN models, which is obviously a concern here. The camera's incredibly fast focusing, high-ISO quality, 5-axis image stabilization and built-in EVF make an obvious pick for potential PEN E-P3 owners with a bit more cash to spare, but if you're in need of a sub-$700 Olympus kit, it'd be tough to argue against the E-PL3.

If you're looking to stick with the Micro Four Thirds format, Panasonic's Lumix GX1 is a solid pick, with a $700 street price for the 14-42mm kit. More in line with the E-M5's $1,300 kit tag would be Sony's NEX-7, which can be had for a cool $1,350 with an included 18-55mm lens. Many photographers have gripes with Sony's lens selection, however, arguing that the kit optic simply doesn't offer performance to match the camera's 24.3-megapixel sensor. If you can invest in higher-end lenses, like the $1,300 24mm Carl Zeiss Sonnar T f/1.8, and need to capture larger images, you may still consider Sony's NEX flagship, but if you're simply comparing both kits, the E-M5 seems like the winner here as well. You may also be considering Fujifilm's X-Pro1 (pictured with the E-M5 above), but that mirrorless ILC's $1,700 body-only price tag, size and incredibly narrow lens selection limit its appeal.

Wrap-up

Simply put, we love the E-M5. It's a solid shooter -- literally, thanks to its "splash-proof body" -- with excellent image quality throughout the ISO range and a slick, versatile lens. That 5-axis stabilization is innovative as well, as is the incredibly fast focusing system. While powerful, that focusing system isn't perfect, often slipping with low-contrast sand and snow scenes. Still, that issue is arguably minor, considering that this camera isn't designed for sports-shooting pros, and, like the battery meter, it may be corrected with a firmware update. The $1,300 kit price will be a tad too much to swallow for some, but with a solid body and a diverse collection of lenses, there hasn't been a better time to hop aboard Micro Four Thirds.