By Eamon Hickey
Last week, I had a relatively brief chance to handle the new OM-D E-M5, courtesy of the folks at Olympus America. I thought I'd report a few random thoughts and impressions with an eye towards some things not necessarily apparent from the spec sheet.
Let me just get a business prediction out of the way first. This looks like a good all-around effort from Olympus, and I'm guessing it'll sell pretty well. Making an advanced photographer's Micro 4/3 body with weather sealing and a built-in EVF is a bit of a no-brainer, and the price—$1,000 in the U.S. for a body only or up to $1,300 for the higher-end kit—looks nicely competitive.
On to the camera itself. First, it's really quite small. I think the official product photos make it look bigger than it is, and I'd guess that's because the camera's retro styling tricks the eye. Most of us know roughly how big 35mm film SLRs from the 1970s and '80s were; the E-M5 looks a lot like those cameras; ergo, we tend to interpret it, in pictures, as similar in size to those earlier classics. But in the hand, you notice right away that it's a fair bit smaller than all but the tiniest 35mm SLR bodies. With prudent lens choices, the E-M5 could be the centerpiece of a very small and lightweight, yet capable and well-built, camera system.
The viewing screen articulates up (see top photo) and down. The camera is weather-sealed like the new 12–50mm (24–100mm-e) ƒ/3.4–6.3 lens.
On the other hand, in person it's not as handsome as it looks in the photos, at least to my eye. I like the quasi-retro styling of the top-end PEN cameras (E-P1, E-P2, and E-P3), but I think the Olympus stylists missed the mark with the E-M5. The modern controls, the proportions, and the retro touches just don't integrate all that well. Not awful, but not particularly appealing either. Purely a personal opinion and, of course, it has no effect on the camera's pictures or its performance.
Some other random notes: Olympus says the E-M5's ability to follow-focus moving subjects is "dramatically" improved, able to track a subject while maintaining a 4.2 frames-per-second burst rate. If that turns out to be reliably true across a modestly wide range of real-world (as opposed to test lab) conditions, and the percentage of sharp pictures is reasonably high, that would be a significant breakthrough for contrast-detect autofocus. I'm skeptical for the time being but hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
I asked about AF performance with the standard 4/3 E-system lenses, and Olympus said there was nothing special to highlight on that front, implying it was roughly the same as the E-P3.
On the topic of things that Olympus didn't make much of a fuss about, I'll add expanded dynamic range and high ISO noise levels. Although both are "improved," according to the E-M5 press release, they were mentioned quickly in passing in the presentation I got, which leads me to suspect the improvements are not dramatic. But again, only time will tell; I'll gladly retract this bit of jaundiced skepticism if events so dictate.
The new two-part grip is clever. It has a horizontal component that adds a more solid grip for your right hand and then a second component that can be added to provide vertical position controls and which accepts a second battery for extended battery life. The multiple grips for the E-P3 reflect similar thinking, and I like how Olympus is coming up with nifty solutions to allow their cameras to be configured in a range of sizes and for different handling preferences.
So much for quickie impressions. The rest will have to wait for a longer acquaintanceship. That said, I think it's already safe to say the E-M5 is a welcome addition to the expanding eco-system of small, capable, interesting new cameras, which seem to be sprouting like weeds around us.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.