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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.