Olympus OM-D EM-5 Review

Design & Features

The Olympus OM-D EM-5 is a compact interchangeable lens camera with a design that hearkens back to the OM film cameras from the 70's and 80's. The body is made of a magnesium alloy and feels solid and relatively light at the same time. All the buttons, dials, and doors are sealed against dust and moisture, so the camera can survive out in the elements.

Ergonomically speaking, the EM-5 leaves something to be desired, at least in this reviewer's opinion. First off, there's very little room for your thumb on the back of the camera, especially if you don't want to accidentally press a button. The front grip is quite small, and doesn't provide a lot of confidence. You also need to watch where you put the fingers of your left hand, as it's fairly easy to block the AF-assist lamp. Attaching the battery grip, even just the first "section", makes the camera much easier to hold. The E-M5 is a poster child for button clutter, with twelve miniature buttons crammed tightly together on the top and backside. The most frustrating buttons have to be those making up the four-way controller. I may have larger fingers than most, but I found myself pressing the wrong button frequently, especially when using the menus. I also found the playback and Fn1 buttons to be hard to reach, and the Fn2 and movie buttons on the top of the camera are easy to mistake for one another. The twin dials, on the other hand, are well placed and don't require moving your hand. I highly recommend trying the OM-D in person to see what you think about its ergonomics.

Image courtesy of Olympus

As I mentioned earlier, the OM-D is available in black and silver. The silver model seems to bring out more of the retro feel than the black one, but that's just my opinion.

Now let's see how the E-M5 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus OM-D E-M5 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.7 in. 28.6 cu in. 369 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.0 in. 51.5 cu in. 392 g
Pentax K-01 4.8 x 3.1 x 2.3 in. 34.2 cu in. 479 g
Samsung NX20 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.6 in. 26.9 cu in. 341 g
Sony Alpha NEX-7 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7 in. 22.8 cu in. 291 g

The table tells the story: the E-M5 is right in the middle of the pack in terms of bulk and weight. While you may be able to squeeze it into a large pocket with a smaller lens attached, I found that it travels much better over your shoulder or in a camera bag.

Let's start our tour of the OM-D now, using our tabbed interface:

Front of the Olympus E-M5

Here you can see the OM-D EM-5 without a lens, showing off its Micro Four Thirds lens mount and new 16 Megapixel Live MOS sensor. I already told you quite a bit about the lens system in the preceding section, but if you weren't paying attention: you can use any of the growing collection of Micro Four Thirds lenses with a 2X crop factor. Original Four Thirds lenses can be used as well, with the appropriate adapter. To release a lens, press the button located to the right of the mount.

Like Olympus' PEN-series interchangeable lens cameras, the OM-D has sensor-shift image stabilization built in to the body. That means that every lens you attach to the camera will have shake reduction. This isn't just any image stabilization system, though -- it's the world's first 5-axis shake reduction system. It corrects for the usual up/down and left/right movement, plus movement along the X and Y axis, and even rotational movement. This movie that Olympus produced shows it in action. This system is controlled by magnets, and they make a distinct "hissing" noise, almost like there's a fan inside the camera. This sound even when the IS system is turned off. I didn't seem to get picked up by the camera's microphone, which is a good thing.

Like all of Olympus' interchangeable lens cameras, the OM-D features their Supersonic Wave Filter dust removal system. This uses ultrasonic waves to literally blast dust off of the sensor when the camera is turned on. I've been using Micro Four Thirds cameras for years and am yet to have a dust problem.

Above the Olympus logo is the FL-LM2 external flash, which is included with the camera. This flash mounts via the hot shot, but actually connects to the camera via the Accessory Port. The flash has a guide number of 10 at ISO 200, which is equivalent to GN 7 at ISO 100. This flash can also be used to control other flashes wirelessly. To turn it on, just lift it up. Pushing it down will disable it.

The last thing to see here is the AF-assist lamp, located at the top-right of the photo. Do watch your fingers around this lamp, as it's pretty easy to block with them.

This back-angled view of the OM-D shows its 3-inch OLED display, which pulls away from the camera and tilts up and down. The screen tilts up 80 degrees, and down 50 degrees, which comes in handy when the camera is above or below you.

Here's the OLED display in a more traditional position. The screen has 610,000 pixels, and is sharp and bright, with vivid colors (an OLED trademark). Outdoor visibility was never an OLED strong suit, and that's the case on the OM-D. Low light visibility is better, with the best results seen when Live View Boost is turned on. This display is also touch-enabled, and I'll tell you what you can do with it after the tour.

Straight above the OLED display is the camera's beautiful electronic viewfinder (EVF). This viewfinder has 1.44 million dots, which translates into top-notch sharpness. The viewfinder is large, with a 1.15X magnification and, as you'd expect, 100% of the frame is shown. I found the EVF very easy to use outdoors, and you'll again get the best low light results by using the Live View Boost feature. An eye sensor detects when you put your eye up to the EVF, and there's also a button to toggle between the two. You can focus the image on the screen by using the diopter correction knob on its left side.

Just above the EVF is the Accessory Port, which is normally protected by a plastic cover. It is here where you'll plug in the included flash or optional microphone, Macro Arm Light, or PENPAL.

Now let's talk buttons. The first two of note are the playback and Fn1 (custom) buttons, which are wedged into a crevice just above the thumb grip. In my opinion they should have been larger and more prominently placed.

Moving downward, we have more small buttons, which include those for opening the menu, toggling what's shown on the LCD/EVF, and deleting photos. The four-way controller is also here, which is used for menu navigation, focus point selection, and replaying images (among other things).

The last thing to see here is the power switch.

At the far left, you'll see the E-M5's mode dial, which is a mirror image of the one found on the E-P3. I'll tell you more about the options on the dial after the tour.

Moving to the right you can see the camera's hot shoe. As is usually the case, you'll get best results with the various Olympus flashes out there, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. You can also take advantage of the flash's zoom feature, AF-assist lamp, and high speed x-sync capability. The included flash only uses the hot shoe as a mount, and communicates with the camera via the Accessory Port. The included flash (and most modern Olympus flashes) can be used as "masters" to control wireless slave flashes. If you're not using an Olympus flash, you'll have to set the exposure manually, with a x-sync limit of 1/250 sec.

They're hard to see here, but the two tiny holes just above left/right from the hot shoe make up the E-M5's stereo microphone.

Continuing to the right, you'll see both of the camera's dials, with the smaller one having the shutter release button inside it. You can use both of these dials for a number of things most notably adjusting manual exposure settings. The smaller dial handles exposure compensation (by default), in case you're wondering where the button for that is.

The final items of note here include the movie recording and Fn2 buttons, with the latter being the second customizable button on the camera. I'll tell you what kind of functions you can assign to these buttons after the tour.

Here's a look at one side of the camera. I want to first point out the two buttons on the 12 - 50 mm kit lens. The L-Fn button's function (no pun intended) is customizable, just like Fn1 and Fn2. If you hold down the macro button and move the lens ring to the left (in this photo), the lens will be able to focus down to 20 cm, instead of the standard 35 cm. The catch is that the focal length is locked just shy of full telephoto.

Moving to the camera body itself, you may be able to spot the speaker, which is three holes right next to the I/O compartment.

Speaking of I/O compartments, you'll need to pull the LCD back from the camera in order to remove the rubber cover that protects it. Once that's done you'll find a multi-function port that handles USB, A/V output, and wired remote input, as well as a micro-HDMI port.

On right side of the camera you'll find its memory card slot, which is kept under a sealed plastic door of decent quality.

Over on the 12 - 50 mm lens is a window with words that you probably can't make out inside it. It shows what the current zoom settings is: electronic (E-Zoom), manual (M-Zoom), or macro.

On the bottom of the OM-D EM-5 is a metal tripod mount, which is surprisingly not in-line with the lens (no room?). If you attach the optional grip (just the first part), the tripod mount will then be lined up properly. The battery portion of the grip again puts the mount off to the side.

To the right of that, under a rubber cover, are the contacts that digitally connect the camera to the optional battery grip (they're physically connected by the tripod mount). The two parts of the grip are connected in the same way.

At th far right of the photo is the battery compartment, which is covered by a door of decent quality. Speaking of batteries, you can spot the new BLN-1 battery at the lower-right of the photo.

The "view" in live view, with the electronic level activated

Before I start talking about features, let me remind you that since the OM-D E-M5 is a mirrorless camera, all photos are composed with live view on the OLED or electronic viewfinder. There you'll get super-fast contrast detect autofocus, face detection, a live histogram, real-time shadow/highlight adjustment, focus point enlargement, and much more. A handy electronic level, which works for both pitch and tilt, is also available.

There are several contrast-detect focus modes available on the OM-D. There's 35-point auto, 9-point area, or 1-point spot. The face detection feature is so elaborate that you can choose which eye the camera focuses on.

You can adjust the tone curve using the OM-D's two dials

Ever wanted to adjust the tone curve in real-time? The OM-D can do just that. First you need to have the multi-function feature assigned to Fn2. Press that once and the tone curve appears on the display or EVF. From there you can use the sub-dial to adjust highlights, and the main dial to handle shadows. The results are seen instantly.

The OM-D's 3-inch OLED display is touch-capable, and here's what you can do with it:

  • Touch focus: tap the area of the screen on which you want to focus, and the camera will do the rest
  • Touch shutter: similar to the above, but the camera will take a picture too
  • Touch menus: you can use your finger to work with the Live Guide as well as the Super Control Panel (both described below)
  • Touch playback: swipe your fingers to move between photos; tap to zoom in and scroll around

Olympus has done a nice job of making the touch interface as unobtrusive as possible. If you want to use it, it's there. If not, it won't slow you down.

Now it's time to talk about the items on the OM-D's mode dial, which include:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection and Live Guide (described below).
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access; a Program Shift option lets you use the main dial to select from various shutter speed/aperture combos.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached. For the 12 - 50 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - F22.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. The bulb and timer modes can be used to keep the shutter open for as long as you'd like.
Movie mode While you can take movies in any mode using the red button, this dedicated spot on the mode dial allows you adjust the exposure manually.
Scene mode You pick the scene, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from portrait, e-portrait, landscape, landscape+portrait, sport, night scene, night+portrait, children, high key, low key, digital image stabilization, macro, nature macro, candle, sunset, documents, panorama, fireworks, beach & snow, fisheye lens, wide-angle lens, macro lens, and 3D photo.
Art filter mode Shoot photos with unique effects, which include pop art, soft focus, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film, pin hole, diorama (miniature effect), cross process, gentle sepia, dramatic tone, key line, and Art Bracketing.

As you can see, there are options on the mode dial for just about everyone.

The Live Guide can be opened using the touchscreen or the four-way controller Adjusting exposure (including shadow/highlight detail) using the Live Guide

If you want a point-and-shoot experience, set the mode dial to the iAuto position, and the camera will do the rest. It'll pick a scene mode for you, enhance colors (more so than in other modes), and detect any faces in the scene. If you "pull out" the tab on the right side of the display (with your finger or by pressing the OK button), you'll find the Live Guide interface. This allows you to change the saturation, color image (white balance), brightness (with individual controls for shadows and highlights), background blur, and motion freezing (for lack of a better word), without having to know any technical jargon. Here you'll also find shooting tips that will help you take better photos of kids, pets, food, flowers, and more.

Art Filter menu

The E-M5 has the usual assortment of scene modes, plus a slightly new assortment of Art Filters. The only new filter is key line, which you can see in action in this photo. Most of the Art Filters can be tweaked. For example, you can change the color tone of a pinhole filter photo. You can also apply the soft focus and pin hole filters to other Art Filters, as well as add borders, white edges, or a starlight (light trail) effect to them. Not sure what Art Filter you wish to use? Turn on Art Bracket and get all of them in one shot!

Naturally, the E-M5 has full manual exposure controls, as well. You can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, or both. There's also a bulb mode, and I'd recommend picking up the optional wired remote if you plan on using that. A "bulb timer" lets you select how long the exposure will last, which will give your finger some rest. The RAW file format is supported, and I'll have more on that later when we get to the photo tests. While there's no spot on the mode dial on which to store your favorite settings, you can keep up to four sets of camera settings in memory, and recall them easily via one of the customizable buttons.

Fine-tuning white balance in the amber-blue or green-magenta directions

White balance in numerous ways. There are the usual presets, two custom spots (for using a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. You can also fine-tune the white balance for each setting (or all of them), or just bracket for it.

Speaking of bracketing, the E-M5 supports five different types of this feature. You can bracket for exposure (2-7 shots), white balance (3 shots each in the amber-blue or green-magenta directions), flash exposure (3 shots), ISO sensitivity (3 shots), and Art Filter.

The Live Control Menu is a quick way to adjust camera settings. It's the Super Control Panel, now sort-of touch-enabled!

When you're shooting in the P/A/S/M modes, you can use the Live Control Menu shown above left. This shortcut menu saves you a trip to the much more complex main menu. I'll tell you more about some of the items in this menu in just a moment. Old-time Olympus users may miss the Super Control Panel, but don't worry, it's there -- you need to turn it on first via an option deep in the menu, and then hit the Info button when the Live Control Menu is displayed. The Super Control Panel is compatible with the touchscreen, but you can only select an item on it with your finger -- actually changing the setting requires buttons or dials.

Shooting menu, with help screen Top level of the custom settings menu

All of the other photo-related features that I want to talk about are in the E-M5's menu system. The menus are attractive, though some items are buried way too deep in the custom settings menu. Speaking of which, you'll need to turn on the custom settings menu -- as well as one for the Accessory Port -- via an option in the setup menu. By pressing the Info button, you can see a brief description of the selected menu item, which is a nice touch. Alright, here are the most interesting features from the menus:

  • Picture Mode: each "mode" contains a set of image parameters, which include contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, plus black & white and monotone filters; there are six preset modes -- including an i-Enhance mode (only used in iAuto mode) that enhances the primary color in a photo -- plus a custom mode, each of which can be tweaked to your heart's content. This menu is also how you'll access Art Filters in the manual shooting modes.
  • Image quality: there are numerous resolutions and quality settings to choose from, plus RAW and RAW+JPEG support. A RAW image takes up about 17 MB of space on your memory card, while a Large/Fine JPEG weighs in at 7.5 MB. There's a Super Fine JPEG option that you can turn on, which uses less compression and creates files 11 MB in size.
  • Image Aspect: choose from 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 1:1, and 3:4; while JPEGs are cropped, RAW images have the cropped area selected, so you're not totally committed to the chosen ratio
  • Drive mode: here's where you'll get to the low and high speed continuous shooting modes (more on this later), as well as a 2 or 12 second self-timer
  • Bracketing: as I mentioned earlier, the E-M5 can bracket for exposure, white balance, flash exposure, ISO, and Art Filter.
  • Multiple Exposure: combine up to two exposures into a single image, with auto gain adjustment; you can also overlay a new photo over an existing RAW image
  • Flash RC mode: turns on wireless flash control, assuming that you have a flash attached to the hot shoe!
  • AF mode: select between single, continuous, manual, or a combination of two of those, for stills and movies
  • Full-time AF: camera is always focusing, even when the shutter release isn't pressed; puts an extra strain on your battery, though
  • MF-assist: the image is enlarged on the display/EVF when manually focusing
  • Button function: here's where you can set the function of all the custom buttons on the camera and grip, as well as the four-way controller; see below for more
  • Dial function/direction: choose what the main and sub-dials do in the various shooting modes, and which way you prefer to turn them
  • Burst speeds: choose the frame rate for low (1-4 fps) and high speed (5-9 fps) burst shooting
  • Burst + IS: whether the IS system is disabled during continuous shooting (it's off by default)
  • Record Control settings: turn on the Live Control Menu, Live Guide, Super Control panel, and more
  • Playback/Info settings: choose what information is shown during recording (histogram, level, highlights/shadows) and playback (same)
  • ISO settings: you can select from ISO 200 and 25600 (in either 1/3 or 1EV step), or use Auto ISO. You can choose the minimum and maximum values used for the Auto ISO setting
  • Live View Boost: brightens the view in low light on both the OLED display and the EVF
  • Noise reduction: you can turn long exposure NR on or off, and adjust how much NR is applied to high ISO images by playing with the Noise Filter
  • Shading compensation: supposed to reduce vignetting
  • EVF settings: choose what information is shown and how it is presented
  • EVF Auto Switch: turn the eye sensor on and off
  • EVF frame rate: select from normal or high refresh rates
  • Exposure shift: you can manually tweak the exposure for each of the metering modes
  • Battery priority: choose which battery is used first when the grip is attached
  • Touch screen settings: turn touch features on or off here

One of two pages worth of button customization options

I want to briefly touch on the button customization options. You can customize six buttons on the camera, two on the optional grip, and one on the 12 - 50 mm kit lens. Most of the major menu items can be assigned to these buttons, such as ISO, manual focus, RAW, drive, and MySet (where you save custom settings). If you want to make the four-way controller handle something other than focus point selection, here's the place to do it. The Fn2 button also has the ability to be handle multiple functions. Holding down this button lets you select from the tone curve adjustment I showed you earlier, plus white balance, image magnification, and aspect ratio.

Let's move on to movie recording. The E-M5 can record Full HD video (1920 x 1080) at 60i (sensor output is 30p) with stereo sound, using the H.264 codec. You can keep recording until the elapsed time reaches 29 minutes. There are two quality levels to choose from at the Full HD setting (Fine and Normal), with the only difference being the bit rate. You can also shoot at 1280 x 720 (60p), with two quality settings available. If you'd rather use Motion JPEG instead of H.264, you can record at 720p30 or 640 x 480 until the file size reaches 2GB.

The E-M5 can focus continuously while recording a movie, so you need not worry if your subject is moving around, or if you've adjusted the focal length. The camera does tend to "hunt" a lot when using C-AF, which gets annoying quickly (see sample movie for an example). Unlike the three Pen models, the OM-D can use its 5-axis IS system while recording a movie.

You can record movies in any shooting mode using the "red button" on the back of the camera. Put the camera into the dedicated movie mode and then you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The microphone sensitivity and a wind filter can also be adjusted. You can use any of the Art Filters in your movies, as well, though the frame rate may drop for some of them. While you cannot take a still while you're recording a movie, you do have the option to take one when the clip ends.

There are two special effects -- one-shot echo and multi-echo -- which are new to Olympus cameras. These effects leave a sort of "trail" (or after-image) behind moving subjects, which looks pretty neat. If you head over to the Features page on the official OM-D site and go to "Full High Definition Movies" and then select the link at the bottom of the page, you'll see some of examples of this feature.

Here's a very long sample movie that I took from the Golden Gate Bridge, at the highest quality setting. While it generally looks and sounds lovely, you will notice that the camera repeatedly hunts for focus. I noticed this in some other movies I took, as well. In hindsight, I should've stuck with S-AF for this one. Since this movie is so large, I've also provided a link to a 720p version hosted by Vimeo. Enjoy!

Click to view original movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 107.7 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to view downsized movie on Vimeo (1280 x 720)

Who's ready for a vacation?

The E-M5 has a pretty nice playback mode, with quite a few editing options (for stills, at least). Some of the notable features you'll find here include:

  • Calendar view: quickly jump to photos taken on a certain date
  • Zoom paging: enlarge an image with the main dial, position the view with the four-way controller, then use the sub-dial to move to the same spot in other images
  • JPEG edit: allows you to brighten shadows, remove redeye, change a photo to B&W or sepia, remove skin blemishes, and more
  • RAW edit: applies the current camera settings to a selected RAW image, and saves the changes as a JPEG; wish this worked like it does on Pentax cameras, where you can actually edit the properties while viewing the image
  • Image overlay: combine up to three RAW images into a single photo

Unfortunately, there's no way to edit movies on the OM-D EM-5.

Something that did drive me nuts about playback mode is that if you happen to catch the attention of the EVF eye sensor with your hand, the camera will exit playback mode. I see the point of this (you can quickly take a photo), but since the camera is so small, it's really easy to do this accidentally.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, a quick press of the info button will give you a lot more, including histograms and "blinking" over and underexposed areas of your photo.

The E-M5 between photos instantly in playback mode. You can use your finger to swipe between images, or just the four-way controller.