Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review

If you follow my blogs and forum posts, you know I've long been a fan of the Micro Four Thirds system. I'm a firm believer that for most photos or end uses we have reached a point where full frame cameras are an unnecessary expense (each to their own, of course!). I've been putting my Canon dSLR and micro four thirds bodies to the test over the last few months and they come out very close. There were a few things keeping me from fully committing, however. The Olympus E-M5, released in the last few months, has dealt with most of my hesitations. There are a few limitations (AF tracking being the main one), but it also brings with it a host of benefits as well.

The bottom line for me, was literally the bottom line. I found my dSLR kit to large too bring with me traveling and on family outings. It isn't that it is actually too large to bring, but I found I reached for a smaller camera to take with me. In both of those situations I had a micro four thirds system to fill in. Ultimately I asked myself if there were any situations where the dSLR was actually required. If not, I could eliminate the duplicate system, pocket some money, and stop buying overpriced L series lenses :)

How does IQ compare?

Side by side in controlled light there is frankly so little difference I could not tell images apart - especially if shot with the same lens (advantage Micro Four Thirds on that point!). Lenses are everything, and that is where micro four thirds can really shine. They seem to have covered off the common focal lengths with excellent prime lenses, that don't break the bank. Plus, unlike the APS-C systems the lenses are designed around the sensor size, so you have 'true' 28mm, 50mm, and 90mm equivalents. With an APS-C camera you really have to work to get those focal lengths. There isn't one prime lens other than the 60mm macro designed for APS-C Canada cameras. Canon just released the new pancake lens - a 40mm f/2.8, clearly made for full frame bodies. In APS-C it is an odd focal length of 64mm. If you want a true 28mm equivalent prime lens for Canon APS-C you are out of luck, zooms are your only option.

In low light, the larger sensor has the advantage, but in practice I don't use high ISO for stock - so it is only for personal shots that I lose out. The reality is that I don't need the ultimate in IQ for my personal shots as they are unlikely to be printed large enough to make a difference. Keep in mind that the sensor size difference between APS-C and Micro Four Thirds is something like 30% if you are shooting 4:3 aspect ratio (and 4:3 gives you a larger thumbnail on DT!).

I'm also very impressed with the highlight recovery of the E-M5 versus other Panasonic bodies I've used. An example is here on my personal blog: Highlight recovery in Lightroom.

What does MFT do better?

A key aspect of the micro four thirds standard is the lack of a mirror, and as a consequence the viewfinder is electronic. On one hand that is too bad, since a good optical viewfinder is great to use. On the other hand, though, there are few compact sized dSLRs with good viewfinders. Full frame bodies have excellent viewfinders but are consequently even larger, and definitely more costly.

The benefits of the EVF are many. One is that you can shoot movies at eye level, not just on the rear LCD. Another is that the viewfinder can show you the scene live in black and white, at any aspect ratio, histogram overlay, with level guides, etc. May favorite feature is that the LCD and EVF experience is exactly the same. On my old Canon 7D it was a totally different mode of operation to switch to the rear screen. One can argue that newer dSLRs are getting tilt/swivel rear screens and even phase detect AF for video, but they still suffer from not being able to use those modes via the viewfinder - a problem in bright light or if you need the connection to your eye to steady the camera.

Size and weight are probably the most commonly touted advantages of a micro four thirds system. Certainly my Olympus body and a few prime lenses together weigh close to what my dSLR body alone weighed in at. That comes in handy, and means I bring it with me everywhere. In a recent trip to Korea I found myself carrying the camera out for dinner, or just walking around. My dSLR would have remained at the hotel on many of those occasions. As well, a top of the line MFT body (such as this one) gets you a lot more control than an entry level dSLR of similar price (and larger size).

Another great feature, though not specific to micro four thirds (see Sony and Pentax), is that Olympus bodies have built in sensor based image stabilization. On the E-M5 it is particularly good, and works very well in video, too. Canon only makes three prime lenses (to my knowledge) that are stabilized, and all cost $800 or more. The Olympus IS works with my $170 28mm equivalent prime lens.

Face detection AF is another key benefit. With the Canon you must select an AF point, or rely on the camera to choose, but you are limited to where the AF points are defined, and face detection is slow or not available in the viewfinder. The Olympus allows you to choose which eye to focus on: left, right or nearest! Very slick. Speaking of AF, I can magnify in the viewfinder for focus, not possible on my dSLR in the viewfinder.

I feel that with this camera, micro four thirds has finally reached the level of being serious competition for APS-C dSLRs. It can't keep up with AF tracking, or telephoto lens selection, but for the lenses I use for stock and street/family shooting it is a great system. My main hesitation to using micro four thirds as my primary camera was for studio work - but the E-M5 has an optional grip that turns the camera into a unit that handles very well with a portrait grip and twin control dials. Plus, Olympus has in body wireless flash control - and these days I'm moving to LED lighting for product shots and the EVF allows you to preview your work very well... With any camera system there are compromises, and this system now has the right mix: missing things I don't use much, and adding things I do.

Photo credits: Brad Calkins.

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Nice to read your article. Its exactly the same thinking like me. I feel like I do more images then ever since I have the mirrorless camera. It gives me more freedom. I shoot with the Sony Nex 6. I know friends that also have a Olympus and they are all very happy.


@Bradcalkins Right now I am reaching for the E-M5 so nice to carry something so light but not sacrificing image quality . I find I am now taking my camera to work and getting shots on my lunch walks that i would have never taken before. I also find my self picking the d200 instead of the 60d unless i need iso over 800 but that was before the E-M5


Nice shots @Mikericci. I see you have a 60D, D200 and the E-M5 - which one are you reaching for when you head out?


latest images accepted taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

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just bought one this past week still getting used to the settings. So far it looks like this is the DSLR replacement i have been looking for .

It isn't the best camera I've ever owned, but it is the best so far at getting the closest to what I'm trying to achieve in an image...


just bought one this past week still getting used to the settings. So far it looks like this is the DSLR replacement i have been looking for .


@matrin - I really can't comment on telephoto performance other than to say I don't shot that much with teles. It is definitely the weakness in the lens lineup. There is a 70-200mm f/2.8 equivalent coming, which is promising.

@waxart - I find the GH2 to still be pretty competitive to the E-M5. There are are few things that I think make it a better stills camera (particularly the added grip, twin control dials and much better highlight recovery) but otherwise there are still some things I like better about the GH2. Continuous AF and tracking, video, are still better on the GH2, for example. With good light and the right exposure there isn't much to choose between the two. The GH2 takes more work to get the same color, in my experience, and tend to over saturate purples/magenta shades.


I have a Panasonic Gh2 which I use for video and stills. I also shoot with a Nikon D7000. I can honestly say that after using Nikon DSLRs for 10 years, I am now about ready to sell. I use many of my Nikon lenses with an adapter on my Panasonic. The noise level is very well controlled on the GH2, about the same as on the D7000. Thanks for the article. My husband ordered his EM-5 weeks ago, but it's still on back order here in the US.


Good to hear that - especially because I haven't heard of any tests yet with longer teles, so we are dependant on feedback of users - especially so successful ones :)


Martin - what speed aspects are you referring to? Other than tracking (which I don't do much of) I find the Olympus and Panasonic cameras very fast. AF is as fast as my Canon 7D (depends on lenses, though), and faster than an entry level dSLR like a Rebel. The Olympus is very fast at writing to cards, with the right cards as well. Personally I put a lot of stock in the camera being responsive, but don't really care about high fps... I suspect there is quite a difference between the micro four thirds cameras and the G1-X...


I really enjoyed reading your article - many thanks for sharing this. I just lately wrote about my Canon G1X and the truth is, the longer I'm using it, the less I take my DSLR with me - which starts to worry me. Here the sensor is also smaller and the quality is really superb - I just started wondering if I shouldn't have gone from the beginning to a more compact system - and then I read this :) I'm glad that Olympus has success with their different way to do things and good on you that you have chosen to go with them. Probably it is speed and the ISO limitations which still holds me back.


Very good article and I totally agree with your conclusion. I want to add that for me the tilt LCD is enormously helping when taking pictures of people in a crowd. Also being able to do over the head or waist level shots.
I have a GH1, which I use also for studio work. (OK not really work since I am not a pro). I put the camera on a tripod, find the proper angle for the LCD and I can speak with the subject, maintain eye contact and in parallel look at the LCD to find the moment to press the shutter.
Regarding the lenses I read somewhere that smaller lenses are sharper then lenses built for larger capture area.
Two major drawback: 1) noise -but for stock we are suppose to properly light the subjects and in this case it becomes a non issue. 2) focus speed for sports, which I guess is true and there is not much one can do about it.

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