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May 13

Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5

A New Flagship?

Olympus OM-D E-M5

When Olympus announced their latest camera, the OM-D E-M5, there was more buzz among the photographic community for this release than there had been for probably any other Micro 4/3 camera since the original E-P1.   Olympus resurrected their legendary ‘OM’ system name for this camera, creating a new line of Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras to sit above the popular Pen series which it has dubbed ‘OM-D’.  Olympus has seemingly tried to do it all with this camera.  A great blend of retro and modern styling, a high resolution tilting capacitive touch screen, blazing fast autofocus, 9fps burst shooting, full weather sealing and an improved 16 megapixel sensor.  It’s positioned as the ultimate in the Micro 4/3 system.

Now, we’ve all heard these types of promises before.  Sometimes cameras live up to the hype, most of the time they don’t.  It can be difficult to read between the lines of the marketing speak, but that’s what I’ll attempt to do here.  If you’ve read my reviews before, you know I don’t do resolution tests or charts or graphs depicting every exact timing.  There are plenty of quality sites out there for you to get that information if you like.  I discuss all the major aspects of the camera as it relates to shooting in the field, from a photographer’s perspective.  So, does the E-M5 live up to the hype?   Let’s find out.

Body and Ergonomics

Olympus OM-D E-M5, Rear

Olympus went back to its roots with the E-M5.  The camera has a retro styling evocative of the old OM series SLRs.  In fact, from the front, the E-M5 looks very similar to the OM-4.  However, Olympus did throw in some modern refinements to the styling.  The front grip isn’t flat like those 80s SLRs, but has a nice contoured surface.  The camera is available in both Silver and Black, with the Silver version having a more retro leatherette grip and accents, while the black has a more modern grip that looks almost like a textile carbon fiber.  In both cases, the camera strikes just the right balance in my opinion, and I think it’s one of the most attractive cameras to come out in the past 10 years.

The back of the camera is all modern, however.  The most prominent feature is the 3″ OLED semi-articulated capacitive touch display.   The rear has a host of buttons, most of which are programmable.  The right and down arrows and the Fn1 button can all be programmed to a variety of functions, as can both the record button and the Fn2 button on the top of the camera.  The buttons are a bit squishy and soft, presumably from the weathersealing.  They aren’t quite as pleasant to use as many other cameras I’ve used, and the tactile feedback isn’t as sure, but I have had no difficulty operating the buttons, and I feel the layout of them is quite nice.  Some people have reported difficulty pressing the Play and Fn1 buttons due to their slightly recessed nature, but I have not had any issue.  There is a lovely sculpted rubber thumb rest that really aids in a secure grip.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 in the hand

About that grip.  There has been a fair bit of debate about Olympus’ choice of location for the neckstrap lugs.  They are positioned much the way they were on their old OM SLRs, and depending on how you grip the camera, the right lug may prove to get in the way.  Since I shoot with a wrist strap instead of a neck strap, I removed the triangular lug piece and secured my wrist strap directly to the post.  This has helped a fair bit.  I also hold the camera in a way that is comfortable, allows a sure grip and easy access to controls, while completely avoiding the strap lug.   You can see how I hold the camera at the right.  This also gives you a good idea of the size of the camera.  Due to the retro SLR styling, I feel the E-M5 looks bigger than it really is in pictures.  In actuality, it’s almost the exact same size as the Olympus E-P3 and the Panasonic GX1, just with a protruding viewfinder hump on top.  It’s quite a small camera.

On top, the camera has a mode dial on the left and dual, programmable function dials on the right side along with the two programmable buttons and the shutter release.  I generally use the ‘rear’ dial with my thumb and the one surrounding the shutter button with my index finger, though they are positioned in a way that the rear dial can easily be operated with your index finger as well.  These dials can be customized to operate a variety of parameters.  I changed the default settings when I got the camera to make the front dial control aperture or shutter speed in their respective priority modes, with the rear dial set to exposure compensation.

Overall, the camera construction is very solid and feels good in the hand.  The shutter release has a nice feel and a sure half and full press.  As I mentioned earlier, this camera is the first Micro 4/3 body to feature weathersealing, though at the moment the only weathersealed lens to go along with it is the 12-50mm lens that is one of the kit options.  I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test the weathersealing, but from all reports, it does its job quite well.

Grip

The E-M5 has an optional grip available, the HLD-6, which is unique in that it’s a two piece grip.  The first piece is a horizontal grip that attaches to the bottom, making the camera slightly taller, but adding a prominent hand grip with extra shutter button and front dial.  This is great for keeping the size of the camera small but adding a bit more purchase for your hand while shooting with larger lenses, or any lens if you’re so inclined.  The downside to the horizontal grip is that you have to remove it to replace the battery.  You also can then add the portrait grip to the horizontal grip, giving you the option to add an additional battery of capacity and providing a deep portrait grip with front and rear dials and two new programmable function buttons as well.  The addition of both pieces of the grip can transform the very tiny E-M5 into a still small, but chunkier and more ergonomic machine. Since the publication of this review, I have had a chance to fully evaluate the HLD-6 battery grip.  Click here to read that review.

Next: Operation and Menus

About the author

Jordan Steele

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Admiring Light; Photographer; Electrical Engineer and Dad

39 comments

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  1. cosinaphile

    one of the best reviews ive read and accurate , i own the em5 too

  2. David S

    Jordan,

    Thanks for doing this. A very comprehensive and thoughtful review. Now, if my E-M5 would only arrive, I’d be a happy guy.

  3. Jonathan

    Nice review. I’ve been wanting to order one of these since I first saw them, but was unsure how it compared to the Panasonic G3, which I currently own. Have you used a G3 and if so, would you think an E-M5 would be a good upgrade or would waiting until Panasonic releases their next salvo?

  4. Steven Tryon

    Really nice review – thorough and based on a shooter’s perspective. Thank you very much.

    I’ve ordered the OM-D E-M5 to complement my Pentax K-5. I was really hopeful that Pentax would provide a small-sized shooter that would fit my wide array of great Pentax glass. However the K-01 is an absolutely grotesque device and lacks any type of viewfinder. So, with a Pentax-to-4/3rds adapter also on-order, I am really looking forward to working the Olympus through its paces with the Pentax glass.

    Thanks again for a real shooter’s review!

    Steven

    1. Steve Solomon

      Hi Steven.
      As a Pentax K-5 shooter, I too, am strongly considering the OM-D EM-5 as a “travel” system. The one thing I am concerned about is if the OM-D (with a good Olympus primes and possibly the new Panasonic 12-35 f/3.8 zoom) can replicate the fine image quality (particularly sharpness) that I am getting with the Pentax system.
      Thank you.

  5. Peter Arbib

    A very well thought out review, and although not a “Technical Review”, which we have plenty of. This review takes a look at the user valued observations. And gives us a good idea of the advancement of m4/3 Technology.

  6. rob waters

    Very nice review.

    It would be interesting to know if it is or isnt a new sensor over the lumix G3.

    According to dpreview versus this sensor there is about a 2/3 EV advantage at the top and just over a1/3 at the lower end versus the G3. I estimate an overall DR of around 11.7. the human eye sees around 22 EV most APS-C DSLRs are around 12. Like you I am not getting much clipping from the OMD but the great metering system and live histogram helps as well. Additionally ISO is kept down by the image stbilisation – better DR is found at lower ISO

    Looking forward to seeing DXOmarks review!

  7. rob waters

    It would be interesting to know if it is or isnt a new sensor over the lumix G3.

    According to dpreview versus this sensor there is about a 2/3 EV advantage at the top and just over a1/3 at the lower end versus the G3. I estimate an overall DR of around 11.7. the human eye sees around 22 EV most APS-C DSLRs are around 12. Like you I am not getting much clipping from the OMD but the great metering system and live histogram helps as well. Additionally ISO is kept down by the image stbilisation – better DR is found at lower ISO.

    Looking forward to seeing DXOmarks review!

  8. Anders Berggren

    Thank’s Jordan for an excellent review!
    I just found your site and I have bookmarked it to come back for more reading.
    Love your photos too, and it is a joy to read a test from a photographer’s point of view instead of just the technical side!

  9. Nic

    “Jordan” said it perfectly:

    “Thanks for doing this. A very comprehensive and thoughtful review. Now, if my E-M5 would only arrive, I’d be a happy guy.”

  10. Bill

    Thanks for the great review but I have one question, you wrote about the optional grip, “You also can then add the portrait grip to the horizontal grip, giving you the option to add an additional two batteries of capacity … ”

    I was under the impression the added grip only allowed for one additional battery. Are you saying the grip will hold two batteries plus the battery in the camera for a total of three?

  11. Zack Jones

    Regarding the grip are you saying you can add two batteries to it along with the one already in the body for a total of 3 batteries? That seems to conflict with all of the specifications I’ve seen on the Olympus and other web sites. It would be great news if that were the case.

    1. Zack Jones

      Oops seems Bill beat me to the punch regarding the battery grip.

  12. Jordan Steele

    It appears you are correct. I mistakenly thought the HLD-6 could hold two batteries..it appears it only holds one, plus the one in the camera for a total of two. My HLD-6 will be here sometime this week, I hope, so I will add more information when its received. As for now, the review has been updated.

  13. acahaya

    Thanks for this very thorough review and sample pics worth looking at. Having used the camera for a month now, i almost fully aggree.

    What puzzles me is your problem with the underexposed images when using the strobe, because i don’t have this problem and i have used my E-M5 with (and without) different strobes for a month now. Might be related to camera settings or maybe something is wrong with your strobe or hot shoe. Check your settings in the strobe menu to make sure you did not accidentaly change something in there. If using the small strobe on your E-P1, are all images correctly exposed?

    For using C-AF, try to change the JPG settings to have maximum contrast, a good start is Vivid with Contrast +2. You also need to change the shutter priority to On for C-AF (by default this is Off, i.e. the camera uses focus priority and hunts forever), smallest possible AF field size, IS Off and use Burst L with 4FPS. Due to the JPG settings you need to shoot RAW+JPG.
    Once you get focus confirmation, keep on shooting and try to remember where your focus field was, because unfortunately it disappears after the first shot. Results do vary with different lenses and focal length (my 45/1.8 is OK, the Panasonic 100-300 is usable up to 150mm, everything above is just pure luck).
    I tried this with river surfers, race horses, cars … and while i would never suggest to buy an E-M5 for sports and action shooting, using these settings will help you to capture the occational action shot well enough … although you have to develop the RAW or create another JPG with your default settings afterwards.

    Do NOT use C-AF+T (3-D tracking) unless for macro shots. The tracking cannot follow a black horse slowly moving on a green meadow ;-/ With the kit lens in macro mode, the tracking plus IBIS works amazingly well.

    Regarding face detection and (any kind of) eye priority: You need to wait until a small green rectangle appears around the eye, otherwise the camera will try to simply focus on the face.

    :-) acahaya

    1. Jordan Steele

      Thanks for the tips on the C-AF…I’ll have to give them a try. As to the flash underexposure, it’s an issue when bouncing flash. I’ve confirmed the behavior with a professional portrait photographer who uses the E-M5 in her work…same behavior with different a different flashgun.

      I’ve taken side by side shots with the same flash on my E-M5 and on my GX1, and I always shoot manual for flash. The GX1 needed +2/3 stop of FEC for a good exposure on that scene, while the E-M5 needed +2 on the FEC dial to bring exposure up to where it was.

      It doesn’t seem to present itself for direct flash as much.

      As to the small rectangle on face detect. I’m aware of that, though the thing is, it takes so long to appear on a 3/4 turned subject that it might as well be useless. I find it curious that it defaults deeper into the photo instead of taking the closest contrast in the focus point as well. Ultimately, it’s not a major issue, but it is something I noticed.

      1. acahaya

        Regarding the flash underexposure: Why manual exposure only? Did you ever try TTL with an external strobe? Same behaviour?

        BTW: I just spent the weekend in a studio, shooting manual with Richter strobes. Same exposure settings for the E-M5 as with the D700 and D3 (at ISO 200), resulting in equally well lit pictures. According to your experience and your pro photographer friend, my E-M5 should have required different settings. This is strange.

        1. Jordan Steele

          It’s only for TTL flash exposure on bounced flash from a shoe mounted flash. Manual settings on strobes would of course be unaffected. Try putting an Olympus-compatible TTL shoe mount flash and use bounce flash. Those are the conditions seen with regular underesposure.

          I have not seen anything with external strobes, as when I use studio strobes (well, in my case, stand mounted flashguns triggered by PC cord with a sync socket in the hotshoe), I use the strobes in manual mode, which of course would yield the same settings on the E-M5 as on any other camera.

  14. rona oberman

    Hi Jordan,
    Great review – thank you! I have a GX1 and was wondering whether you think the E-M5 should replace it, be a worthwhile addition or whether I should hold off and see what firmware or hardware improvements are made. Your advice is greatly appreciated. (I primarily shoot jpegs and that is why I am interested in switching.)
    Much obliged,
    Rona

    1. Jordan Steele

      That’s such a personal choice. I would say that due to its quirks, I’d try and handle one before buying. Some people have really not taken to the handling, though my hands fell very naturally on it, and it felt great, but it’s definitely personal. The E-M5 has more external control possibilities than the GX1, though the GX1’s touch screen is better laid out. Image quality is better on the E-M5, autofocus is a little more precise on the GX1. If I could only keep one, I’d keep the E-M5, primarily for the outstanding IBIS and the wider dynamic range, but I’m glad I have both, as the GX1 is a stellar camera in its own right.

      1. rona oberman

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply Jordan. I just handled an OM-D today and I loved the way it felt. I decided to take your sage advice and order one, while holding onto my GX1 as well. They seem like different cameras with different strengths and in time, I hope to be able to know what works best for any given situation. I’ve been using my GX1 to take pictures of my kid’s lacrosse games with the Olympus 40-150 and I’m amazed at how sharp the images are. The GX1 has almost instantaneous AF. If the OM-D can come close, I’ll be happy.
        Thanks again for your help and your review.
        Best,
        Rona

  15. Chris Iribe

    Great review, thank you! I strongly support your “bracketing” complaint.

    In that same vein, one thing I would really like is to have the 4 “MySets” accessible and selectable from a handy programmable button. At the moment they are a complicated menu dive to change to/from.

  16. MG

    Thanks so much for your review! It strikes the perfect balance between an enjoyable read and detailed specs. I’ve read a lot of E-M5 reviews, but I still learned several things by reading yours. Thanks for your insights.

    I have one small question. What memory card are you using? I became curious after reading what you experienced when using burst mode: “One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced with my Panasonic GH2 or GX1 is that when you fill the buffer you can sometimes have to wait for a second or two until you can take another shot. This has never happened to me with the E-M5, even when rattling off shot after shot.”

    1. Jordan Steele

      I’m using Kingston class 10 cards right now. They’re not the fastest thing in the world, but they do the job. I’ve heard reports that the E-M5 improves further the faster card you can get, but so far I haven’t had any issues in speed at all (as I wrote) with my E-M5.

  17. Q-Man

    Thanks for writing up this excellent frank review. It has been one of the most useful one I’ve read – You should consider posting a vid on youTube.

  18. Squiz

    Great review.
    It puts the camera in a real world context with some excellent sample images. The asking price on this camera is high. HIGH – you wonder if any residual sensor format reservations would disappear if the price came down 25%? – but this review goes someway to explaining the price of admission. Cheers and thanks.

  19. Johan Grandin

    Thankyou for a very informative review with some interesting insights. I especially enoyed the last sentance. Together with Steve Huff’s review I would rank this the best E-M5 review so far, and I’ve read all I can find in English, Swedish and German…

    I’ve tried a couple of E-M5 bodies at an electronics fair back in the early spring and my desire to upgrade has not exactly decreased since. I find myself reaching for my m4/3 camera (presently E-P3, formerly E-PL1/E-PL2) more and more, m4/3 is such a nice and handy format.

    I seldom use my full frame Canon 5D II anymore as it is huge, heavy and has no touch screen which I find to be a wonderful way of composing and selectively focusing. I still cannot seem to take the big step and sell off my Canon gear even though it would be good for my personal finances. Sometimes I crave for the ultra thin DOF I can get with my f/1.2 L lenses. I tried several MF lenses on adapters for m4/3 (like FD 50/1.2 L, FD 55/1.2 ASPH) but MF just isn’t for me.

    Compared to the E-P3, which I enjoy a lot, Olympus seems to have fixed almost all of my concerns. The important improvements over E-P3, for me, are:
    – Less noise at high ISO
    – Better dynamic range
    – Tiltable screen
    – Better video output (there is a lot of jelly effect in many situations using E-P3)

    The least important improvement over E-P3, for me, is:
    – Built-in viewfinder (I bought, tried and sold the VF-2 which I guess is about the same quality – I simply do not use viewfinders much and enjoy composing using the screen on the back). I would have preferred the camera without the hump and smaller in size. Maybe I will change my mind on this topic when I upgrade to OM-D.

    Drawbacks:
    – Only one and not a big one at that. I would prefer to have a built-in flash rather than a clip-on. Something I can have as a backup or use in contra-light situations and most importantly – never forget to bring!

    Cheers,
    Johan.

  20. Rob

    I think you’ve made typo: “AEL/AFL” not “AEL/FEL”. No FEL in Olympus sadly. You got me excited for few secs :(

  21. mimstyle

    I have a gx1 + 25mm f1.4 dg and I need this awesome camera !

  22. movers

    Great camera all around. I have is already for 2 weeks and I`m very happy with my purchase. The video quality is also great. Good job Olympus.

  23. Eric Gee

    Jordan, thanks for a great review. I’ve now bought the OMD EM5 and wondered what you’d recommend for a lens converter to use my Canon EF 50mm 1.4 and 70-200mm 2.8? Should I spend extra on an adapter with built-in iris (around £80 in the UK) or just go for a Fotodiox £26 one with no iris? Any advice much appreciated.

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  25. Steve Jones

    Johan, how on earth do you manage to focus and compose in bright sunlight outside WITHOUT using a viewfinder?
    I’m curious because i’ve never been able to manage it. The EVF is one of the major reasons I like this camera ( though there are a lot of others) A camera with no built in finder is pretty useless for outdoor work.You simply cannot see the image in bright sunlight. If you can you must be Superman or have some strange Star Trek type shielding device that keeps sunlight from reflecting on your screen or..you are a vampire and you avoid daytime and only take pictures outside at night!

  26. Dimitris Glynos

    Jordan what a nice review of the E-M5! I’m too a happy owner of this little gem + 3 excellent primes 14/2.5, 20/1.7 & 45/1.8. 90% of shots up to now have being made with the 20/1.7 and the sharpness, the contrast, the colors I get out of the raw files are amazing for a m4/3 system! I believe the most pioneering feature of the OM-D is the 5-Axis IS system! I manage to take impressively sharp images at 20mm, f/1.7, 1/5s, ISO 200!

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  29. Peggy Wang

    Great review & so happy you had some amazing close-up bird shots as samples. Currently I’m still using a Panasonic GH1 & was going to switch to a serious consumer/prosumer DSLR but was v disappointed with the Pentax K30. Now decided to go to the EM5 based on all the great reviews incl yours. My passion is internat’l birding so the 3/4 cameras small size/wt are really appreciated.
    Back to those bird shots: I’m a serious birder who will go for bird “grab shots” when I think I have a chance (as opposed to sitting for hours taking 100s of shots). Nonbirders may not realize that being a birder is v different from being a bird photographer. I’ve gotten many lucky bird shots w/the GH1 (& lots of throwaways of course) but v excited that I will likely do much better w/the EM5. I like doing some macro work as well as landscapes, even some artsy/fartsy stuff (I used to do film incl my own B&W developing–ah, the memory of the smell of fixer under red light!) so I ask a lot from a camera.
    My specific question in this rambling, if you choose to answer, is I noticed you used a Canon FD 50-300mm f/4.5L lens for your lovely bird portraits. What adapter will I need to use this lens I choose to blow the big bucks for it?? Did you have to use a tripod to get these shots?
    Many thx–hope you can answer.

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