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Does the Digital OM live up to its film SLR legacy?
Olympus brings back its best-selling SLR line, but as an EVF mirrorless compact. Is it worthy of the OM designation?
The February announcement that Olympus was reviving its legendary OM SLR camera line as a the Olympus OMD-EM5, a Micro Four Thirds EVF interchangeable-lens camera that would compete in the same space as Panasonic's Lumix G line, was greeted with an enthusiastic chorus of OMGs. And with good reason: The OM line had a great run. The brainchild of Olympus chief designer Yoshihisha Maitani, the OM-1 (followed by a series of OM variations from 1973-2002) broke ground in camera design, squeezing a rugged, pro-level camera into a smaller body. Is the Olympus OMD-EM5, which is available at Adorama and is the first digital OM camera, worthy of this engineering and design legacy? I had the Olympus OMD-EM5 along with the new 12-50mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ zoom lens for several weeks so I could field-test it. Here's my exclusive Adorama Learning Center review.
A remarkable family resemblance: Olympus OMD-EM5 left, and classic film Olympus OM10, right.
Fortunately, Olympus has had a three-year head start, having pioneered Micro Four Thirds with the groundbreaking Digital Pen line, the pinnacle of which is last year's relaunch consisting of the EP-3, EP-L3 and E-PM1 Pen Mini. In my reviews of the E-P3 and Pen Mini I found both cameras to be fast and easy to use while delivering very good quality images. With each generation of Digital Pen, Olympus has fine-tuned it into a solid, fast-responding lineup with a growing ecosystem of Micro Four Thirds mount lenses that are all available at Adorama. (Panasonic lenses also work on Olympus cameras, and vice versa, as do a growing number of indie lens maker lenses, although some claim performance is better if you stick with the same-brand lens.) The Olympus OMD can be plugged into a growing system of lenses, flashes, GPS and other system accessories.
For my test kit, I used an Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EX lens, available from Adorama, which is optimized for video thanks to its silent autofocus. Since the OMD-EM5 lacks a built-in flash, I kept the small but useful shoe-mount flash that's included with the camera attached at all times. To activate it, all you have to do is flip it on.
In the hands
When I first got a few minutes with the Olympus OMD-EM5 back in February, Olympus's reps made sure to have an OM-10 in the room as well for comparison (see photo). Indeed, while there are notable differences, the design elements—the look and feel, and the placement of some of the controls—the OMD clearly had the OM’s DNA. The size and weight were similar (the digital camera is oh-so-slightly smaller). The all-metal chassis has a comfortable, solid feel, and the camera felt well-balanced and comfortable to hold.
The top plate's dials and knobs hearken to the design of the OMD's film forebears, but their functions and purposes are different, and purely digital in nature. The top plate (starting from the left side) includes a mode dial that easily accesses the P/A/S/M exposure modes, film capture mode, scene modes, art filters, and iAuto modes. A central hot shoe accommodates a flash.
In iAuto, the Olympus OMD-EM5 recognized this scene had overwhelming red, and left its white balance settings alone.
The right side of the top plate has a couple of unmarked dials; one is used as a general control dial, while the smaller dial, which surrounds the shutter release button, can be used for navigation or enlarging images in preview mode. A fn button can be assigned different functions, while a red button quickly starts video recording.
The back of the camera is dominated by a 3-inch flip-out LCD monitor, which can be tilted down for over-the-head shots or up for waist-level photography. A menu button, info button and an “OK” button surrounded by a four-way array of navigation controls moves you around the menu structure. Finally, an on-off switch decisively powers the camera up and down.
The Olympus OMD-EM5's flip-out LCD monitor made it easy to get ground-level shots such as this one.
The battery compartment is protected with a locking switch, giving a solid sense of security. The rubber cover of the HDMI and USB connectors is somewhat hidden: I found I had to move the LCD monitor out of the way to open it up.
Menus and modes
If you have read my Adorama product of previous Olympus Digital Pen cameras or own one, the menu structure and layout should be comfortingly familiar, with two shooting menus, a playback menu, a custom setting menu, and setup. For more advanced users, the most frequently-used menu items can be quickly accessed via the “OK” button. Key features appear (what they are depends on which shooting mode you’re in) on the right side; using the up/down buttons, you can highlight a feature and then make adjustments within by moving the left-right control buttons to select from the choices on the bottom of the screen.
Less experienced users can switch to the snapshooter-friendly iAuto mode. Hit “OK” and icons along the right side give you visual cues that let you make simple images adjustments for contrast, color saturation, “blur background” (chooses a wider aperture), Express Motions (controls shutter speed), and the on-board tutorials, which Olympus calls “Shooting Tips”.
The Art setting offers 11 filters that impose special effects on an image, as well as a new Art Bracket mode, which simultaneously shoots them all, as well as several variations so if you’re not sure, choose this mode and you’ll end up with 19 choices. The downside? It takes time for the camera to process all the images (about 15-20 seconds) and the images fill up your memory card quickly.
Here's the a scene of Boston Commons captured in Art Bracket mode, showing all 11 filters shot simultaneously (but not the additional variations):
Pale Light Color
Dig deeper into the custom control options and you can you can assign functions to the Fn1 and Fn2 buttons (for instance, you can tell the Fn1 button to automatically switch to Manual Focus mode rather than burrowing through menus to find it). You can also change default flash settings, display information, white balance, ISO and metering patterns to suit your needs and shooting style.
Then there’s the touch screen: Simply touch the part of the photo you want in focus; the camera snaps to focus and shoots, with virtually no lag time. Pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t recommend it when shooting handheld in low light, since that could promote camera shake.
In the field
I found the Olympus OMD-EM5 to be comfortable to hold and operate, and although some of the controls were grouped very close together I never felt they were claustrophobically close. Figuring out manual exposure took a bit of doing but was easily mastered. Access to PASM exposure, iAuto, scene, art and movie modes was easy, and the on-screen adjustments were quick to find. One problem is that when you press the OK button once, it activates the focus target screen first, something you might not need at your fingertips at all times; to access modes, you have to double-press the OK button, something that requires a bit of getting used to.
I kept coming back to the Dramatic Tone filter, and found that while it was over-the-top at times, it really helped high-dynamic range scenes like this one. The ship outside the window was completly white when I shot this in regular Manual Exposure mode.
The eye-start EVF worked well. The image quality in the EVF is outstanding with no noticeable jagginess when moving the camera. The LCD monitor flips up and down, a real convenience, and images are reasonably bright even in direct sunlight although I recommend using the EVF in these conditions. The on-screen level for both vertical and horizontal orientation is a useful feature.
The 12-50mm kit lens is excellent, delivering sharp, contrasty images and fast, quiet autofocus that was not picked up by the camera’s internal mic in most video shooting situations. This lens is a great companion for the OM-D!
Under ideal conditions, the camera picked up wonderful detail, but in this direct sunlit scene had a bit of trouble with its high dynamic range—a typical digital camera performance.
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 features an all-new 15MP Four Thirds sensor with an ISO range of 200-25,600, which eclipses all previous MFT sensors. While we eagerly await DxOMark’s lab test results, I did a quick grain comparison at all ISOs and found noise to be well controlled from ISO 200-800, visible but at acceptable levels from 1600-3200, and very noticeable at higher speeds. I would feel comfortable making 8x10-inch prints at ISO 1600-3200 without worries about how the noise will affect image quality, and would easily go larger than that at all of the lower speeds. Considering the camera’s small sensor size, that’s an impressive performance.
ISO 1600 image, shot in the Witch Museum in Salem, MA, shot shows some digital noise but it's not objectionable. See 100% detail, below. Also note the minimal camera shake in this handheld 1/8 second shot. Yes, the image stabilization helps!
Conclusion and recommendation
The introduction of the Olympus OMD-EM5, available at Adorama body only for $999 at publication time, elicited a visceral, emotional response from long-time Olympus OM traditionalists, but is it more than just another digital camera? Its rugged build, diminutive dimensions and packed features place it in the upper echelons of enthusiast-oriented cameras, just as its film forbears did. As a digital camera, it excels: Its fast response in the field, high-quality viewfinder, and wide choice of controls and creative filters make it an awesome tool, and its customizable controls can allow more experienced photographers shoot the way they want to.
While it won’t take your old OM-mount Zuikos without an adapter, which you can order from Adorama, the OM-D’s combination of digital dexterity and a design that not just hearkens its film past but successfully updates it makes the Olympus OM-D E-M5 truly worthy of the legendary moniker “Olympus OM.” It is, in short, a pleasure to use and well worth your consideration.