Before I begin, I want to note that these are the reasons why I… me…. RE Casper… chose the EM5 and why my old 550D will become my backup from now on. Its the camera for me… For you, no clue, only you will know… but maybe this will help. This isn’t technical, I didn’t conduct any comparison tests or extensive studio lighting experiments. I’m just a guy with a camera and thought I would simply sit down and begin typing what comes to mind as I look back over the last couple of weeks of shooting.

So… In my recent hunt for a new camera, I chose the Olympus OM-D EM-5.

Update 5/12: Added function button map diagram.

Part 1: Review and Reasons for Purchase

(Part 2 Review Here)

I have been using a Canon Rebel 550D/T2i for quite a while now. It’s been an absolute work horse since day one and some of my favorite photos were taken with this underestimated beast. I’m no professional photog. I’m an appreciator of the craft. An enthusiast who is an artist first and a shooter second. I cut my teeth on graphite, oil paints and for the last 10 years, Graphic Design. If in fact the latter can be referred to as “art.” In the final half of my time pushing around a mouse, I would likely lean toward “non-art.”

I adored various art forms growing up, but Graphic Design did “pay the bills.” Eventually though, I got burned out and desired to get back to my roots. Showing people the world through my eyes, rather than marketing yet another useless piece of garbage that we do not need. So I picked up a camera with a focused directive this time.

While trying to decide on a new system, I looked back through my past imagery. I found street photography (shutter therapy) shining the brightest and being the most prevalent. Followed by architecture and landscapes. Mostly though, people are the most fascinating subjects one can find and I needed a camera that matches my style.

The files may be half the size of those my 550D spits out. But the quality is just as good or better and post-production goes even faster now. Big Smile!

As I was intending on downsizing my gear size and bulk, I found myself standing in front of the Fuji X100, Fuji XPro 1, Sony Nex 5n, Sony Nex 7, Olympus E-M5, Samsung NX200 and lastly the Pentax K-01. Virtually speaking.

The Olympus E-M5 actually appeared on my radar just as a friend convinced me to purchase an x100 in February. I halted and for a short time, found myself back at the drawing board voraciously researching this little gem. Gear obsession can be an evil wench. Regardless, the announcement of the E-M5 came as a surprise and I pondered for a few days before I pulled the trigger on what became a futile pre-order attempt with B&H, but eventually a highly satisfying decision when I found one online through Glazer’s Camera in Seattle..

The following are the most important factors driving me toward this purchase and I figured I would add a little review-y-ness to the rambling.

Mirrorless, Non-DSLR

Needed the lightest “semi-pro” camera out there, that would still meet my IQ, ISO and AF speed needs

After researching the tech of the last couple years, I am of the camp that believe the age of the mirrorless camera has began. The discrepancy between the IQ and feature set of DSLRs and their presumed subpar brethren have narrowed considerably recently. So much so I believe, that the best of the bunch (NEX7, Fuji XPro1, E-M5) are in many ways, on par with the mid-level DSLRs (Canons 60D, Nikons D7000, etc…) of recent years.

In my honest opinion, the whole debate over sensor size should be tucked away with a warm shot of whiskey and laid to sleep, albiet kicking and screaming. In all seriousness, just because the general accepted norm of a full frame sensor is akin to 35mm, does not the best camera make. Sensor technology has become remarkably good whether its m43, APC, Full, Medium, Large… Each have their advantages and with the image quality of today’s cameras… it really didn’t matter to me. All of the above are fully capable of professional quality work, whatever the means and the needs.

Trey Ratcliff, who inspired me to jump back into photography, also inspired me toward the mirrorless realm and its growing future. Now I will admit, the smaller m43 system I chose (and my initial assumptions of the smaller sensor) had me a bit skeptical at first with the E-M5, but eventually I stumbled upon www.mu-43.com and www.seriouscompacts.com. Those guys helped build my confidence in this scrappy little system. Explaining the misconstrued reality proclaimed by the m43 naysayers all the while answering my inquiries for info. Not to mention the many hours I spent looking over the imagery created by way of m43 on Flickr and the forums of these sites (I was previously ignorant of this entire spectrum of gear),. Additionally, in reading the personal accounts by users of Olympus and Panasonic for professional work, I lost all doubts and reservations. Frankly, when you get down to it, all sensors are full frame. Each use the extent of what the sensor can offer, so “full frame.” The difference is the physical size, which adds some advantages, but sacrifice at the expense of bulkier bodies and lenses. After my research, m43 just happened to be the one I thought had the best compromise of features and IQ, even for (holds up two hand/two finger quote gesture) “professional work”.


Classy Olympus 😉

Some are scoffing right now. “Why in the hell would the style be so important?” Well, the truth of the matter is, I will admit that which most will not. The look of the camera plays a much larger role in our purchases than we care to acknowledge. Take note the stark contrast of style between the Nex7 and the Pentax K-01. These cameras, like cars, are built for two distinctly different tastes. In truth, no matter what, a look is going to be either in the front or back of a buyers mind. But never out of it. 😉

For me, the Sony and the Samsung cameras seemed cold and lifeless. The Pentax was simply a big ass Fisher Price Brick of a DSLR.

Both the E-M5 and the Fujis’ harkened back to old film bodies… something I personally enjoy and see as very classy. I was not a shooter in such days and hold no sentimentality to the OM series of yore. But I do appreciate the lines and retro stylings of these old cameras and their new rekindled brethren. As for the Oly hump, it bothers me Not. I feel the retro look gives off a sense of soul and I do love the look of the old OMs. Thinking about snatching one of those up too.

The Oly and the Fujis both gave me this feeling and thats what its all about, right? A camera that just feels right when you gaze upon it. Frankly speaking, the E-M5 is absolutely gorgeous. I would have preferred the silver, but like Nessy, they were a rare beast to find and I was far too impatient.

Body Quality and Size

In my desire to step away from DSLRs, I mainly wanted to toss the heavy, bulky weight of the flippy mirror systems to the side. I do most of my work as I walk or travel and the size of my 550D has played a major disadvantage in this. I find myself more often than not, leaving my old Canon at home because I simply don’t feel like carrying around the damn thing. Its a hassle and far too much trouble. But the m43 (or many other mirrorless systems) looked like they would remedy this problem and Ohhhhh did it EVER!

Even though its small… I needed Quality imagery. I am not disappointed

I didn’t have much experience handling any m43 bodies prior to my purchase, so the Oly turned out to be MUCH smaller than I anticipated. Its about half the size of my 550D w/lens, so I was certainly concerned at first.

Something that really made me happy was how heavy it feels in the hand. You really feel like your handling a quality item when you slap the battery in and hit the streets or leap into a project. Its well balanced and adapts itself properly (even with its small stature) to older weighted glass. Gets a bit off balance however with my Minolta 135mm though, so bare that in mind with big lenses. The weather sealing is very comforting, but likely not something I will be testing often. If its raining, I’m likely chilling inside. The rubberizing does however give the buttons a squishy feel, leaving them a bit unresponsive at times. Something else I noticed was the mode dial is wobbly and gives a bit when pushed around. I believe this too has something to do with the sealing gaskets beneath. Its not really that big of a deal and as long as it holds, I’m good.

The thumb chin thingy is refreshing and the subtle front lip lends itself for a little extra real estate. It helps lock in your grip, but for bigger hands the controls can get a bit cramped. Regardless, once I got used to the dials and the feel of the squishy buttons, it became an extension of my hand.

Battery Life

Funny enough, I received mine a couple hours before I had a photo shoot across town, so I had very little time to dwell. It left me just enough to toss the battery on the charger, handle the body to get accustom to the buttons, all while I continued to study the manual like I was cramming for a final exam.

I did get enough juice in the battery before heading off to shoot a local band during their practice for a full night. Initially I figured I would just pump out some test shots and then rely on my old trusty dusty 550D for the duration and majority of the shoot. Hell I knew my old camera, why compromise a project where I am relied upon?…. things did go quite differently… 30 from the Canon over 330 with the EM5. Winner!

The battery life, was exceptional. A couple days later, I passed my 550D to a friend for a causual photo walk. While the 550D batteries have seen a heavy life, I still found it amazing that one EM5 charge lasted out 2x Canon 550D batteries for around 400 shots. Bravo lil man, Bravo!

Low Light

Taken from the Shoot. Great in low light with handheld flash.

In my search, I did fall hard as an innocent victim in the ISO wars. Looking for a camera that pushed that sensitivity number to a printable and awe inspiring 3200/6400 range. I quickly found solace and satisfaction in my decision the very night I got it. It’s actually quite amazing how beautiful these images look when you bump the ISO up while in those much-to-be-desired interior lighting situations. Even better when using an off camera flash, which the clip on flash can trigger with absolute ease. Very reliable, but I may snatch up one of the NPT wireless trigger/receivers from Amazon. I do want to note that the noise starts jumping in around 1600 and far to much above 6400. But seriously… 6400 ISO and Usable! That is Handy-Dandy.

AF Speed

Quick hip shot heading up the steps for the Train

The camera I chose had to be able to hit the streets quick and on point. I shoot a lot from the hip or in-the-moment. So I wanted to avoid a fidgety or much-delayed auto focusing system. The E-M5 was marketed as the best AF speed of the bunch and since using it, it has proven to be a remarkable speed demon. Now do remember, its speed is best with the native Olympus lenses. The Panys still haul ass once you press that button, but I want to make it clear that from my experience… the Panys spin fast, but native Olys are near instantaneous.

In low light, I found the Pany 20mm and EM5 combination more than adequate. Searching sometimes due to the contrast detection system, but it still got the job done quickly. I had to get adjusted to the new system and familiar with where I set my focus points which was easily forgotten. It is very easy to miss a lock point when firing fast. I ran into this issue often while hip shooting until I got acquainted with the settings.

Oh, I nearly forgot… 9 Frames a Second folks. Me, I’m coming from barely over 3fps with the Canon, so this was like someone added a bump of cocaine to the hardware for insanely fast clickity clack. In a good way… :-)… Unfortunately the AF-C fails to work in this setting. But it works great for snagging that perfect frame out of many.

Price Budget

My initial package purchase. Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic 20mm 1.7 and YN560 Speedlite

Ah, now here is where a couple of the cameras lost their footing and fell from my list. While I had money set aside that I had saved for a prolonged period of time, it did not open up the door to all the options on this list. Taking into consideration that I was completely jumping ship on my Canon DSLR path and moving toward a new system, I needed to keep in mind the extent of additional purchases beyond the body alone (aside from the X100, which is fixed lens). The Olympus was a bit on the steep end of my budget. But with the wide reaching capability of the m4/3 system with lens adapters, I already had some 30 year old lenses that I could put back into commission. The XPro1 and its $1600 price tag skyrocketed out of my range and the Sony Nex7 found itself a smidgen over my firm numbers at $1200.

Yes its considerably higher than the Nex 5n or NX200… but for the price and what you get with the EM5 ($1000)… I say its MORE than worth the steep tag. At worst you’re investing in a system that is smaller and faster, but just as capable as the D7000 and 60D. There were some slight disadvantages using contrast detect rather than phase detect auto focus, the DOF is different and the common but non-deal-breaking setbacks of the differing sensor sizes. But at that point it’s splitting hairs. To boot, the EM5 is cheaper than its comparable DSLR equivalents. Let’s think of them like sister cities. Not the same, but mostly similar in comparison.

Lens Selection – Legacy Adaptability

Of the mirrorless camera choices out there… Fuji and Sony are relatively lite in regards to native lens selection, not to mention rather ho-hum on the ones that are out. Samsung is trying hard to get new glass out there, but still pales compared to Pentax and (m)4/3s. Both of which offer up a mass array of options. The m4/3 system is humongous and with the addition of one of the things I adore about the E-M5 the most… Adaptability! I found new life for my old glass. A couple of which hadn’t had an image cross their path in over a decade and I intend on grabbing more on the Ebays in due time.

Minolta 135mm f/2.8

With adaptors (personally I use Fotodiox, not too bad), nearly any lens ever manufactured can be attached with little issue (as opposed to EF-S on a Full Frame problems). The caveat, as there is always at least one, is the fact that the AF is generally disabled and the aperture is sometimes compromised. Just wish there was some focus peaking– something the Nex and Pentax K-01’s have over Olympus [at the moment – firmware update please].

But for those manual focus aficionados and wannabes (myself included), the 5-way IBIS system is magical. I’m talking freaking Mickey Mouse Fantasia magical. Seriously unbelievable, and not only is that feature outstanding on the native lenses for general use… its outstanding that for the first time, I can adapt a 30 year old lens on a digital camera with unbelievable stabilization, akin to a pro steady cam. You do need to make sure you have “Half Way Rls With IS” turned on from the c-menu.

BTW: The zoom to focus feature is quite nice, although I do wish that it could be mapped to a different function button than simply FN2.

Oh did I mention… 1/15 (even down to 1/2) of a second HAND HELD! I mean, come on… Straight up Mickey Mouse Magic!

Customization and Feature Set

Being a Canon user for quite a while, I found myself completely LOST in the endless forest that is the Olympus Menu layout. I studied the manual and reached out to message boards in order to get a grasp on adjusting my in-camera IS for my legacy glass, to engage the real time long exposure previews and a few more items of interest that didn’t exactly lend themselves as front and center as I would have hoped. BUT…. once you get your bearings, it’s a breeze and begins to make much more sense as you tinker and toy with the vast, and I mean vast, array of features Olympus has packed into this tiny ass camera.

I do enjoy the multifunction option for the fn buttons. Allowing many custom features at your finger tips. However the function mapping options are very limited and that is an irritation all its own.

The Mysets are nice, but also much to be desired in use. I would like to have the option to set them and quickly switch (push to change, push to change back, rather than button hold for temp use).

Thought I would add this to my review. Hopefully it will help you map your function buttons under the current limitations.

EVF & Articulated/Touchscreen LCD

The EVF is quite beautiful. The clarity is obviously lower when matched side by side with the doubled resolution of the Sony Nex series, but at such a point, it becomes “wonderful” compared to “excellent”. Neither are bad, just one is better, thats all.

Many will cry foul on the Electronic v Optical argument. Some will say its delayed, that it doesn’t feel natural… that the quality is lower. Blah, blah, blah. Frankly, it’s on par with my needs. The EM5, unlike the x100, shows very little delay in real world use. Certainly not to a point where it becomes a deal breaker. After a few days use, you will no longer even notice any delay what so ever and the ability to see your exposures in the viewfinder before you take the shot helps alleviate those common forgetful moments where we neglect to correct our settings after stepping outside after firing some shots at one another over coffee.

An example of the inconspicuous nature of the articulated LCD approach

For street, the most admirable feature I find on the EM5 is the touch screen for direct focus/shutter. The ability to simply articulate the screen up to poke at faces as you walk has been a joy in use. It’s very accurate, but does takes some getting used to. The image above really shows how indiscreet this approach can prove to be. I ended up taking a dozen pictures of these two gentleman while riding home on the CTA. Both were completely oblivious and likely assumed I was just reviewing images from the day as I chatted with a buddy.

Taken with the articulated touch sensitive LCD

The LCD gets a bit dicey outside in direct light. That big yellow orb in the sky at high noon will throw a monkey wrench in using the screen on the street, as it’s quite reflective. Thats where the EVF comes in handy and you can simply slap it to your face and away you go. Balance levels, setting adjustments, after shot previews, etc… the whole lot right there in view with no concerns for glare. The HUD is very Robocop and thats a good thing. I would like to see the ability to view the image library in the EVF though.

I do very much enjoy the use of an Electronic Viewfinder and the EM5 has best in class quality.

While the price is a bit steep, I think the package met the most important standards I required, even exceeding many expectations. In the end, I still needed quality, since it would become my main. So if your looking for the same, you won’t be disappointed.

In recent personal comparisons, its kicked my 550Ds ass time and again. Quicker, higher ISO, IQ and just simply a JOY to shoot.

Pit Falls Because NO Camera is Perfect

Now do not get me wrong. This lil gem certainly comes with its pitfalls and what would my little write up be without an unbiased view. The following are my gripes and cries to Olympus for a change.

Magnify Function: This, when mapped to a function button (fn2 to be exact), becomes an absolute pain in the ass when hoping to establish a half-press IBIS-engaged magnify. Not a problem with native glass, but I like to use legacy glass too, which when combined with the Image Stabilization and Magnify feature helps build the E-M5 into a king of the compact camera realm. But with the limit being only to the fn2 button, I find myself contorting my fingers just to get the half-shutter down and the F2n magnify engaged. This would be so much easier if the Fn1 or any other button were capable of mapping any of the available custom functions. The fact that this varies on the specific button is bullshit at best.

I would also like the ability to adjust the magnify depth while used. Sometimes I really don’t need to zoom in so far in order to fine tune on the fly. Can be changed with the dial.

Strap Hinges/Lugs: This was not an issue for me at first. But after I put together my new wrist strap and hit the streets on a few occasions, I found these lil buggers more and more annoying. Mind you when I get my grip locked in with my right index fingers over the strap and on the shutter, it’s exactly that… locked in. Problem is, it’s not very forgiving if you hold it just about any other way. This isn’t something that can be remedied on a body of this stature, of course, so it’s a split hair.

A wrist strap I made, but not digging the lugs

EVF/LCD button: Coming from the 550D, I was most pleased with this button facing me rather than to the side of the Viewfinder. It’s a rather frustrating reversal as it’s now on the side of the hump and the button and, more often than not, requires multiple pressing due to the weather sealing or delay of the camera. This is certainly not a deal breaker, just a minor gripe.

On/Off Switch and Mode Dial: To me these two items feel flimsy and always on the verge of popping off. The mode dial on the top rocks back and forth and seems like there was far to much play or sealing left in the stem its connected to. The On/Off Switch seems like one solid catch of a string while yanking from the pocket could very well snap it right off. This is likely not to happen, as it stays in my bag rather than my pocket when not in use…. but a fear none the less.

Eye Sensor: Far too sensitive for close hip shooting. I understand this can be turned off and I will probably continue to leave it off. But I enjoy both to the eye and from afar. It’d be nice if this were easier while being simultaneous. An adjustable sensitivity would be a nice update.

Accessory Port: Would be better if it were one single piece. The two pieces equal two times the chance of loss.

My Sets: Now I am not sure what they were smoking when they decided to limit the My Set 1-4 on the function keys to only “while held”. Or that the “sets” cannot be used as a quick mode selection option. Maybe it was the same thing they smoked while confusingly mapping which features are allowed to each of the function buttons. Please, Olympus, bust out a firmware update that will allow for selectable My Sets and push button function use, instead of having to hold it. Whats the point of a 7-point bracketing feature if I can’t have a quick selection option that allows me to not touch the camera while shooting?

Play/Fn1 Buttons: Quite a bit small and difficult to get to while the LCD is in its resting position. Minor quibble.

Priority Mode minimums: As with the max auto-ISO, it would be nice to be able to select the minimum shutter speed in Aperture Priority and the minimum aperture in Shutter Priority.

     — UPDATE: I have been informed that if you set a minimum in the flash slow limit setting (f-Custom)… it will carry throughout the camera settings. Thanks goes to Tony Juliano for the update. I guess my gripe now comes down to the complexity of establishing these limits.

Timed Shooting: This one baffled me, yet became another one of those… “seriously, this was left out,” kind of gripes. Let’s get this option back, please. Ya know, something like setting 3-bracket shot timer for 10 seconds, and after 10 seconds you actually get that “pop, pop, pop”… It would be a wonderful correction.

Focus Peaking: Not much to say on this besides… Please, Oly… PLEASE!…. or you magic lantern gurus’ out there, wink wink, nudge nudge.

Not an issue, but I feel I should touch on it:

The EM5 Hum: To be honest, I merely posted this here to simply say, while it may bother others… I couldn’t give two rabid beavers about this “complaint” as it is. People will always nit pick, but this “issue” is a non-issue. I split many hairs above, but this one (after using the camera for a week before even remembering the complaints of the hum) is just too much. Its not a problem, it doesn’t affect video, and you won’t hear it unless your anal as hell focusing far too much on your camera and not the subject your shooting. That’s all I have to say about that. Get to work and stop holding the camera to your ear. It goes to your eye.

Now these are (so far) the only complaints I have for the EM5. Most of which could easily be remedied by a firmware update. Please hear me [us] Olympus. Small updates could make the EM5 a spot-on piece of perfection… For Me.

If you have read this far along, then thank you for humoring me. Also I will be conducting a cross country 7-day tour using the E-M5 as my primary camera. Follow up reviews of use in the field will be coming throughout the photo tour.


Review #2 Follow-Up

>> Three Years Later (2015)<<