|Olympus OM-D E-M5 body only with Panasonic Lumix 20mm|
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: The last Olympus camera I'll probably buy.
The Long Version:
This is a review that has been a long time coming. The Olympus E-M5 was introduced nearly two years ago on March 2012, and went on to become anointed as Camera of the Year on many photo web sites.. It took me nearly a year to finally purchase my copy in January 2013.
Since that time I've taken about 10,000 images with the E-M5. It has traveled with me down to Key West and half-way across the world to Japan. In all that time the camera has done yeoman duty, delivering images that I've been more than satisfied with. Other cameras have been introduced since (the E-P5, E-M1, and most recently the E-M10), but the E-M5 stands as Olympus' real breakthrough µ4:3rds camera, where everything finally "clicked." Olympus may tweak the design as it has with the newest OM-D cameras, but Olympus will be hard pressed to release the kind of camera the E-M5 represents unless there's a substantial leap in sensor technology, the kind of advance that led to the E-M5.
In the past I've harshly criticized Olympus, specifically their E-P3 Pen and their Four Thirds E-5 cameras. I felt at the time of their release (and still feel to this day) that those two cameras were thrown out as a weak sop to their existing user base. They were DOA cameras, iterations built with ageing technology from a camera company that appeared to be growing more irrelevant in a stiffly competitive market.
All that changed abruptly in February 2012 with the announcement of the OM-D E-M5. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is the complete antithesis of the E-P3 and the E-5. Here was the camera I'd been hoping for, waiting for. It didn't just merely meet my expectations, it exceeded them in so many ways.
The µ4:3rds Olympus E-M5 is the embodiment of the best of Olympus' legendary camera creativity and engineering. It is in my not so humble opinion the best digital interchangeable lens camera that Olympus has ever built. It is an "instant legend", a camera to rank with the OM series of film cameras (specifically the OM-1 through OM-4) as well as the FourThirds E-1, the E-M5's "distant" digital ancestor.
Before we go further let me make one thing perfectly clear: The E-M5 isn't a perfect camera. No camera ever made or currently being made is perfect, regardless of price. The E-M5 can't do everything. But what it can do is does exceptionally well, especially for the price being asked; the E-M5 is worth every penny.
|OM-D E-M5 body cast magnesium alloy frame. Photo courtesy of Gakuranman|
The E-M5 is built around a cast magnesium alloy shell in much the same way as the top-end FourThirds E-1, E-3, and E-5 were built. It's also weather sealed, many say to the same high level as the aforementioned E-1, E-3, and E-5. I have yet to push my luck with the E-M5 in Florida's rainy weather as I once did with the E-3, in part due to the lack of a complete stable of weather-proof lenses in µ4:3rds native mount.
The only weather-proof Olympus µ4:3rds lenses to go with the body are the M.Zuiko 12-50mm zoom, the M.Zuiko 60mm macro, and the PRO 12-40mm zoom. Panasonic makes two zooms they claim are dust- and moisture-resistant; the Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.8. With these five lenses you can build a reasonable weather resistant system, one that's highly portable. Of the five that I mention, the M.Zuiko 12-50mm is the only one I own.
Olympus has a much wider weatherproof lens selection in Four Thirds. For a number of years I had the Zuiko Digital 12-60mm and 50-200mm High Grade lenses out of that collection. Olympus has, for whatever reason, yet to release native µ4:3rds versions of these lenses. While I've certainly missed those lenses, the mitigating factor for me has been the jewel-like µ4:3rds primes I've purchased as alternatives. The emphasis for FourThirds was all zooms, all the time. The µ4:3rds emphasis seems to have shifted back towards a major dependence on primes, such as the Panasonic 14mm and 20mm, the Olympus 12mm, 17mm, and 45mm, and many super-fast primes from third-party manufacturers like Voigtländer and SLR Magic. The only problem is that, with the notable exception of the M.Zuiko 60mm macro, none of the primes are weather sealed.
The EM-5 body is petite, even with both HLD-6 grips installed.
|Olympus OM-D E-M5 decked out with the HLD-6 grips and Panasonic Lumix 20mm|
|E-M5 with rear touch screen swiveled out|
|Right-rear edge showing rear controls|
In practice I tend to use the camera with just the horizontal grip installed most of the time to gain a bit more purchase with my right hand. I still have to remove the grip to change the body battery, but that's not a problem. I appreciate the side door loading of the SDHC/SDXC card instead of having to get it out of the battery compartment, like you have to with the newest E-M10 and every other Pen I've ever owned. That's a feature that Olympus has kept only with the E-M1.
Many have complained about the squishy buttons. The buttons are not squishy; they're soft. What they lack are the solid detents that non-weather-sealed buttons have. In my case, I've just learned to push until the button stops or else some other visual cue shows that button contact has been made. It's not that big a deal in reality. The only button that really matters on a camera is the shutter release, and all those buttons (on the body and both grips) have the classic half- and full-press detents, which is all that really matters. Reading some reviews you'd think the camera was critically flawed because of its other buttons; trust me it's not.
The shutter is remarkably quiet, as quiet as my one remaining FourThirds E-1. That sounds almost like high praise until you realize that the E-1 is nearly 10 years older and is flipping a mirror as well as tripping a shutter. The E-M5 should actually be quieter than the E-1, almost silent. I wish some times the E-M5 shutter were totally quiet, but it's not. Regardless the sound coming from the E-M5 is what the Brits might call "refined", with absolutely no vibration to be felt in the body.
The five axis image stabilization actually works, especially with video. And that's something of a waste on me as I seldom shoot video. As for still images I tend to shoot in fairly bright light with a fast lens, and let the camera auto-select the ISO. The shutter speed thus stays at 1/focal length or faster, negating the need for IBIS. As I said, it really does work if I force it to pick a very slow shutter speed, but for the most part the feature is a waste on me.
As for IBIS noise, I really had to work to hear it, and once firmware upgrade 1.5 landed, I set the IBIS to turn on only when pressing the shutter half-way down. From that point forward it became, for all practical purposes, totally quiet.
My copy of the camera has developed tiny cracks around two of the three screws along the bottom edge of the swing-out LCD. This was the source of yet another Internet fiasco about the E-M5. It hasn't effected the operation of the LCD in the least, and unless you stick your nose right down into the camera you can't see them. I forgot where I first heard this, but my camera doesn't live in a museum, it gets used in the real world. If it develops a few dings, scratches, and cracks along the way, but continues to operate just fine, oh well...
The most productive way I use the camera is with the external LCD swung out so that I can carry the camera at waste level, and touch set up so that I can touch the rear screen to both focus and trip the shutter. Oddly enough I seldom focus through the eyepiece any more, preferring to use the larger back LCD to compose and then touch to expose. I no longer focus, then recompose. The only time I use the eyepiece is in very bright sunlight because the back can get washed out, and in very dark venues to make sure light from the LCD doesn't cause a disturbance. Because of the design issue with the eye-level sensor, I don't have the E-M5 automatically switch. Instead I use the button on the side of the eyepiece to switch manually. Some complain, but I personally prefer it that way anyway.
And the one key feature I like about the rear LCD screen is that it DOES NOT pick up finger grease. Every other camera with LCDs does.
What I'm about to say will probably annoy the few true Olympians who come across this review, but here it is:
(Maybe) Don't buy Olympus.
Why? Because, after nearly a decade using Olympus equipment, from my first E-300 to my E-M5, I think I've had enough. Yes, I do love my E-M5 and won't give it up. But Olympus is now in the exploitative phase of their camera development, and I truly hate that phase. Since the release of the E-M5 they've been dropping a new variant of the E-M5 every six months or so.
I'm tired of being bombarded with how superior/more fun the next release is, and how this specific feature trumps the E-M5's equivalent, etc, etc, etc. Olympus will work really hard to deliver an innovative product (E-1, E-3, E-P1 and E-M5) then spend up to the next three years between innovative releases riffing the same thing over and over again. I consider the E-M1 and E-M10 to be little more than riffs on the E-M5.
When the E-M1 came out, with its built-in grip negating the HLD-6 grip, I knew then what was going to happen. Want to add an E-M1 as a second body? Well, guess what, you can't reuse the grips and possibly other gear. There is no sense of a camera system except at the lens mount.
And speaking of lenses, no matter how many you may have to choose from in µ4:3rds, a lot of them are crap, and duplicate crap at that. Prime example is the 14-42mm kit lens. Just how many 14-42mm kit lenses does Olympus have to keep producing? They're at four right now just for µ4:3rds.
And the 12-50mm kit lens? You can tell how the bean counters got ahold of that design and stripped it down to its bare essentials. Why else do you have macro at 43mm? And f/3.5 to f/6.3? Would it have really killed them to give us f/2.8 to f/4, or possibly f/5.6? And macro at 50mm?
The best all-around lens Olympus ever made in my opinion was the regular FourThirds 12-60mm f/2.8-f/4 lens. We have yet to get that quality of lens in µ4:3rds, the 12-40mm not withstanding. I've given up hoping for a µ4:3rds version that lens, and so many others.
Olympus is in the mode of charging premium prices for very small cameras, and for the kind of money they're asking I'm looking around at other camera makers.
So, if I had to do it over, who would I have bought or who would I buy now, and why?
I've owned Nikon. The last Nikon I bought (and still have) is the N90 in 1989. It was rugged enough to survive my use and disuse, and then when my second daughter got it for undergraduate use in 2008, it still worked just fine.
When I started to really buy into digital, it was in 2006 with the Olympus E-300. When I got really serious about digital it was December 2008 and the Olympus E-3. As they say, if I'd only known then what I know now...
If I had to do it over I'd probably have bought a Nikon D-300 instead of the Olympus E-3. Today, if I were getting started, I'd consider the D3300, D5300, and D7100. I know that Thom Hogan rails against the lack of Nikon-made DX lenses, and Ken Rockwell rants against Sigma, but you can build a quite useful DX-based system with any of those cameras and some excellent quality Sigma lenses to fill in Nikon's gaps. Keep in mind that the F mount goes back to the original F-1 of 1959. That means you can put any F-mount lens, good to trashy, on those bodies and shoot away, especially if you learn how to manually focus.
And let's face it, with 24MP and no low-pass filter on the current APS-C sensors across all three cameras, what you're buying as you move up to the D7100 is better handling and environmental sealing (at the D7100 level). I'm not a big "FF" [sic] sensor fan, don't have the talent to justify spending that much money, and I've never believed in the cost of buying any of the "FF" [sic] bodies from anyone.
APS-C is more than adequate. No matter how much Olympus and Panasonic sensor tech advance, the same advances show up on APS-C sensors, and physics being what it is, the APS-C sensors will always out-perform µ4:3rds. I learned this, ironically, with the Sony NEX-5N, and chose to ignore it (Sony being another brand I would stay away from). Just to further underscore the point the photos of the E-M5 in this review were taken with my Sony NEX-5N and Sigma 30mm f/2.8 at ISO 400. And the NEX-5N has a 16MP APS-C sensor.
I've seen a lot of work produced by the NX-300 and its good. Samsung also has a decent range of lenses to choose from. And Samsung isn't going away any time soon, either. There is a new faux SLR mirrorless coming, the NX-30, which has the NX-300 sensor and a built-in SLR-like EVF. Samsung has the sensor portion nailed, at least at the lower ISOs.
What Not To Buy
There are other brands I would stay away from, and they're listed below.
Don't Buy Sony
Sony's biggest problem is lack of a decent selection of decent lenses across all four of their lens lines. They have the original Minolta 'A' mount (APS-C and full frame) and the NEX E mount (again APS-C and now full frame). Sony has four poorly filled out lens lines. Sony would rather toss out a new body (such as the very recent α6000, their replacement for the NEX-6 and NEX-7) with a given mount and sensor size than some decent lenses. Unless you have the patience of a saint waiting for a given prime or zoom not currently covered, you're better served by just about anybody else, even by the cameras I don't recommend.
Don't Buy Canon
My issue with Canon goes back to 1987 when they switched mounts, and I've never gotten over it. They're certainly a larger camera company than anybody else, including Nikon, but I just get the impression they're the GM of the camera world, and they're selling the camera equivalent of Chevy cars and trucks; boring, poorly made, and asking too much. You may like your Chevy, but the last Chevy I owned was a 67 Nova, and it was so bad I bought an import (Honda CVCC) in 1978 and have never bought domestic since. I dislike Canon about as much as I dislike GM.
(Maybe) Don't Buy Fuji
This will probably engender consider hate on the Internets. But I have my reasons. You're paying too high a premium for smallness in cameras, and not getting all that much back. I'm speaking primarily about all the original X series cameras, which I have held and used, and not the X-T1, which I haven't held nor used. The X-T1 may be Fuji's saving grace, so I reserve the right to change my mind on this one.
Fuji's true saving grace is their growing lens line. Lenses made with the same style throughout, and made of metal. That, and the fact you can buy
I'm emotionally and financially tapped out when it comes to buying camera equipment. I haven't bought a single thing in µ4:3rds in some time, not body nor lenses nor specialist gear. I'll use what I've got until it either breaks or I just give it up. The E-M5 is an excellent camera, and I have more than enough lenses to cover the focal lengths I care about.
And perhaps that's as it should be. Stay off the forums, stay out of the stores, and stay out shooting with the gear.
Update 12 May 2014
Olympus' financial results for the Imaging Group (the groups that makes cameras), for the last quarter and fiscal year, have been reviewed by Thom Hogan on his web site, Sans Mirror. Needless to say they're very ugly. The highlights are:
- Olympus failed to meet its own mirrorless forecast by 41%
- Olympus lost money again, to the tune of 4.2 billion yen, and have forecast another loss this coming fiscal year.
- One third of all Olympus cameras are being sold in Japan, and that was down 5%
- SG&A (selling, general and administrative) were over 50%, meaning it costs more to make each camera than it makes selling each camera.
I love my E-M5 and will use it until it will work no more. But as for buying anything new from Olympus (like an E-M1 or E-M10), I won't unless some miracle occurs at Olympus.
Update 17 May 2014
Maybe I should follow my own advice (see above) about Sony. Or use the same financial yardstick on Sony I used on Olympus. Whether it's Sony's overall corporate losses that have mounted into the tens of billions over the past years, or just the losses in single billions over the past three years in Sony Imaging, Sony isn't doing well.
In imaging alone, Sony has racked up their third consecutive fiscal year loss of $1.29 billion (FY14 ended this past March). They peg that loss to declining sales in video cameras, and an overall decline of 2% in cameras in general.
In the midst of all this they've managed to introduce a refresh of the RX100, the MK III for $800, which is drawing rave reviews for its latest features that photographer's really give a damn about, such as a faster zoom at the telephoto end and a built-in pop-up EVF. And they've announced a selling price of $2,500 for the α7s. But still no new E-mount lenses.
As for Samsung, my definite buy has shifted to a maybe buy. I'm seeing too much flogging of the cameras. I finally got to hold an NX30, and to be honest I wasn't all that impressed with the NX30 in person. I'm a big Samsung booster when it comes to notebooks (Series 5 and Series 7), Android devices (Galaxy Tabs and Galaxy S4) and HDMI TVs. But that's based on personal use. Before I spend the amount of cash Samsung is asking for the NX30 it has to pass the personal feel test, and the NX30 isn't making it.
That leaves Canon, Fuji, Nikon, and Panasonic. And the last two are facing their own corporate fiscal challenges. Photokina is later this year, so Canon may pull off new hardware to excite me. Something worth the financial hit, something more worthwhile than a white SL1. Or I may lay hands upon the Holy and Blessed Fujifilm X-T1 and finally fall under the sway of its Reality Distortion Field and buy it.
last updated 17 may 2014