Image Quality – Dynamic Range and Color
Olympus has claimed improved dynamic range for the E-M5. This is a claim we’ve seen before, but on the E-M5, Olympus has delivered. You can take a look at a comparison test I did with the Panasonic GH2 here. The expanded dynamic range is also quite evident in day to day shooting. With previous Micro 4/3 cameras, you really had to be careful about the highlights. They would clip easily, and there was very little RAW headroom. With the E-M5 I am finding it very difficult to clip highlights. The highlight headroom in a RAW file is close to two full stops. Luckily, this highlight headroom is not at the expense of shadow detail, as that too is better than in previous Micro 4/3 cameras. While I don’t do scientific measuring of the dynamic range, I can tell you that in practice, it seems the E-M5 has about two extra stops of dynamic range compared to the previous best Micro 4/3 cameras, which puts in on par with most APS-C DSLRs.
The color response on the E-M5 is typical Olympus. That is, it’s outstanding. Colors are rich, vibrant and accurate. Combined with the deeper dynamic range, the E-M5 has a richer file with better tonality than I’ve experienced on other Micro 4/3 cameras. It’s the first Micro 4/3 camera I’ve used that truly feels like a modern DSLR when looking at the images. They have that depth to them that was basically the only thing missing in the previous best cameras in the line.
The E-M5 does a very good job with Auto White Balance. It’s not always perfect, but it’s better than most cameras I’ve owned. Even under fluorescent, it is often more correct than not, and only minor tweaking in RAW development is generally needed, if at all.
Image Quality – Noise
The E-M5 has an expanded ISO range of 200-25,600. It’s the first Micro 4/3 camera to have an ISO this high. It leads you to believe that the E-M5 has improved noise control over previous Micro 4/3 cameras, and indeed, I have found it to be best in class, besting the Panasonic GX1 at the highest ISOs.
At low ISO, the noise profile is very similar to Panasonic’s 16MP cameras. There is a fine grain noise at base ISO, though it won’t show in any size print. The E-M5 noise at base ISO appears to be a little finer grained than the GX1 or GH2, but it’s not a lot different. The differences first start to be visible at about ISO 800, where the E-M5 shows less and finer grained noise. The E-M5 takes a bigger lead at every higher ISO until ISO 12,800 where the improvement is about a full stop.
Shots up to ISO 800 are very low in noise, while 1600 and even 3200 are quite usable most print sizes. In my opinion, ISO 6400 is easily fine for prints up to 8×10 while ISO 12,800 is OK for small prints and web use. In fact, I’ve noticed that a properly exposed ISO 12,800 shot with a little noise reduction makes a very clean 4×6 print, and might even be able to be used at 8×10 with not a whole lot of grain showing. While ISO 25,600 is a little noisy for most things, it’s still good enough for smaller prints and web use, especially if converted to black and white. The E-M5 maintains color accuracy all the way to ISO 16,000. Above that, a magenta color shift becomes visible.
All in all, the E-M5 isn’t going to match the best full frame cameras in noise control, but it is competitive with most APS-C offerings and, when combined with the E-M5’s outstanding in body IS, will allow you to capture usable images in the dimmest of light.
Overall, the E-M5 sets a new benchmark in image quality for the Micro 4/3 format, and delivers images with the clarity, color, dynamic range and noise control typical of the larger APS-C format.
JPEG Quality and Art Filters
I am a RAW shooter. I have been since shortly after I started shooting with my first DSLR. You get better noise performance, wider dynamic range, better color depth and more flexibility in processing. I shoot 99.9% of my photos in RAW, usually switching to JPEG only if I’m shooting a lot of fast action. However, since the E-M5 doesn’t lag in RAW mode when shooting a bunch of shots simultaneously, I likely won’t ever find myself shooting JPEG unless I want to take advantage of one of the camera’s built in art filters.
I shot a few test JPEG images in my time with the camera thus far, and in typical Olympus fashion they are quite good. As I mentioned, Olympus’ Auto White Balance is quite good so that makes shooting JPEG less risky. There are multiple tone curves that can be used, and I recommend shooting with the “Auto” curve, which provides the widest dynamic range and will give the most flexibility in post processing. Colors are vibrant and contrast is punchy, providing a high quality JPEG output. At high ISO, noise is well controlled, but like most JPEG engines it can look a little too ‘digital’ for my tastes.
The E-M5 features a variety of art filters, and they are actually quite good. They provide some dramatic changes to the output processing, but it’s done in a way that it can really enhance the photo in the right circumstances. The Soft Focus effect is intended to give that dreamy look, which originally was popular with portrait work, though it’s out of style nowadays. Still, the way the effect is done, it’s quite nice when used sparingly. The shot on the left is right out of camera, handheld at night with the Soft Focus art filter. The Dramatic Tone filter and the grainy black and white give some neat effect as well, though they are both rather drastic tonal adjustments, and I’d prefer to keep them from permanently affecting the image. You can shoot a shot with the art filters on while in RAW mode, though the effect will only transfer to the RAW file when developed in Olympus’ RAW software. When using something like Lightroom 4, it ignores the metadata for the art filter and treats it like a normal image.
This section will be a little less detailed than the others as I am primarily a stills photographer. I have shot the occasional movie here and there, though almost all of it is for simple recording of life events. Therefore, I’m not the best authority on dissecting every little detail in the movie mode.
The E-M5 does offer a fair degree of control over the video mode, offering P, A, S and M modes, shooting in 1080i/60 at 30 fps off the sensor. It uses a 20Mbps bit rate for the high quality movie recording. You can also shoot in 720p or lower resolutions.
Video quality is quite good with the typical Olympus color and JPEG engine on display. While good, it’s not quite up to the level of the video quality that comes out of the Panasonic GH2. It also lacks the GH2’s 24p mode. Still, it’s a capable video machine that puts out sharp detailed video, though occasionally there will be visible compression artifacts in out of focus areas of solid color. As I mentioned in the IS section, the camera’s in-body stabilization system is excellent for video work and keeps the video looking smooth and steady.