HandlingAnyone who made their début in photography with a 35mm film SLR will soon succumb to the charms of the E-M5, as the camera's basic design is quite similar to Olympus' original OM SLRs which helped build the firm's reputation in the 70s.
This OM reincarnation is available in black or with a two-tone sliver/black finish (which we tested), and, on the whole, it's nicely designed and made. Build quality is good and the all-weather finish is a reassuring touch. In fact, loaded with the 12-50 mm weatherproof lens, you'll be able to snap away in adverse conditions without a second thought. The OM-D E-M5 probably isn't as sturdy as its predecessor, but the digital version does have the advantage of being a fair bit lighter thanks to its magnesium alloy chassis.
The E-M5 is a nice camera to handle, with a short grip handle and an indent on the back of the body that makes a handy thumb-rest. If that's not enough, you can always invest in the HLD-6 optional grip handle (see inset). With a design that resembles a mini-SLR, you'll soon fall into the habit of putting the camera up to your eye to line up a shot. That's no problem here, though, as the viewfinder doesn't disappoint. Although Sony's electronic viewfinder (EVF) has a higher resolution and much higher contrast, this EVF is still pleasant to use and easy to line up shots with in most situations. Images in the EVF are smooth, have a good level of detail and a decent dynamic range. The only slight blip is a magnification factor that's only just acceptable. However, the next generation of EVFs is likely to put that right. Note that a selection of image settings is displayed directly in the viewfinder (white balance, exposure compensation, shutter speed, etc.) which is an excellent idea.
The OLED screen is good quality, with decent colour fidelity and a handy vertical tilt function. However, we still prefer full swivel screens, as in this model you can't flip the display around to face the camera for protection when it's not in use. The screen also boasts touch-sensitive controls, which are always useful for quickly selecting a focusing zone with your finger before taking a picture.
All in all, though, using the E-M5 can be something of a mixed bag. Although it's generally very pleasant to use, we did notice a few irritating features—like the fact you have to flip out the screen to access the connections on the side of the camera. Plus, the buttons next to the viewfinder (Play, Fn1) are hard to press and are a bit bunched together. While fast access to the creative filters can prove interesting, we're a little more dubious about seeing the scene modes on the exposure mode selection dial—fast access to Custom modes would have been more useful. We're also disappointed to see that there's no built-in flash. While a removable flash unit (NG 10) is supplied as standard, an accessory is never as practical as an integrated flash. Plus, it hogs the hot-shoe so you can't hook up additional accessories.
The Olympus menus are now easier to read (thanks to the boosted screen def), but the GUI could use a bit of a makeover. Some options still seem pretty obscure, such stabilisation modes with the not-so-helpful names: off, mode 1, mode 2 and mode 3.
Battery life is announced at 330 images, but we had trouble reaching that during out tests—we measured nearer 250 shots with about 10 minutes of video.
ResponsivenessWhile the first Olympus Pen cameras were generally a bit slower than Panasonic's G-series models, things have changed with the E-M5, which is a particularly speedy snapper. The autofocus is certainly responsive, and is still perfectly usable in low light. Only the 3D tracking function didn't work consistently well in our tests, but that was the only real problem we noticed.
The start-up time could be faster, but at barely over one second, it's still perfectly acceptable. However, while the continuous shooting mode is announced at 9 fps, it only reaches this kind of speed (and even faster speeds in some of our tests) with AF tracking switched off. With the continuous autofocus and mechanical stabilisation active, you won't be able to shoot over 4 frames per second.
Picture QualityFor a long time, the 12-Megapixel sensor used in Pen cameras struggled to compete with the likes of Panasonic G-series cameras or Sony's NEX range. In terms of electronic noise, the new 16-Megapixel sensor (probably equivalent to the Panasonic G3 sensor) performs much better than previous models. Up to 1600 ISO, the results are very good, and pictures still come out looking fine at 3200 ISO. The E-M5 starts to show its limits at 6400 ISO, and ISO settings higher than that should only really be used in extreme conditions. And even then, they'll probably need touching up afterwards.
The dynamic range has improved compared with Olympus Pen cameras, in particular the E-P3. Colours all look nice and neutral and the automatic white balance works well in most situations. Jpeg shots are nicely accentuated by the image processing system and can be printed straight off with no need for post-editing. Note that a RAW format is also available for photo-editing buffs. The 12-50 mm f/3.5-6.3 lens supplied is a decent enough trans-standard zoom with a handy macro setting.
The new mechanical stabilisation system works perfectly, shooting sharp images at 1/4 ths with no tripod in our Barbie without flash test, which really isn't bad at all!
VideoThe video mode in the E-M5 is fairly standard stuff, with 1080p HD video at 30 fps and stereo sound. And it does the job well enough, even if focusing could be bit smoother (it's a bit jumpy in video mode). Note that Olympus has introduced a new movie effect filter called 'Echo', which adds ghost images behind moving subjects.
Finally, we we can't help thinking it's a bit of a shame that the E-M5 doesn't have a headphones socket and stereo microphone jack.