A Review of the Olympus E-P5 From a Street and Travel Photographer’s Perspective
Reviewed by Gordon Lewis
Part 1—Initial Impressions
When Mike asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing the new Olympus Pen E-P5 with a 17mm ƒ/1.8 m.Zuiko and VF-4 viewfinder, I jumped at the chance. I travel a lot. I also consider myself a street photographer. A small, lightweight, yet sturdy camera that accepts a decent variety of small yet fast lenses, has in-body image stabilization, and better-than-average image quality is exactly the type of camera I’d be interested in. (You can check out the complete specs elsewhere if that’s of interest to you.)
I already own one such camera: the Nikon V1. I also own a Canon EOS 60D, so I have two points of comparison. Can the E-P5 outperform the smaller sized and smaller-sensored Nikon V1? Can the 16 MP micro four-thirds E-P5 perform as well or better than the EOS 60D with its 18 MP APS-C sensor? Are you expecting an answer to both questions in this sentence? (Think again.)
Here’s how the E-P5 compares in size to the Nikon V1, which has the standard 10–30mm kit lens attached. Although the lenses are of similar size, the 17mm ƒ/1.8 m.Zuiko is roughly 2–3 stops faster than the Nikkor. On the other hand, the V1 body, which has a built-in viewfinder but no movable LCD, is considerably more compact than the E-P5 with VF-4 attached.
Back in the ancient times before autoexposure, autofocus, and firmware, there was no need to "set up" a camera. The only things you could adjust were the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus, and that was it.
Cut forward to today, when you can, and often must, program a camera’s functions to suit your preferences. You gain a lot in flexibility, but you also have to deal with a corresponding increase in complexity. This can be a challenge for someone who simply wants to pick up a camera and start shooting. If you don’t know how the camera is programmed or how to change it, you can have the disconcerting feeling that the camera is in control, not you, and that the odds of your gaining control are slim. I was concerned that the E-P5 might fall into this category. Fortunately, within 30 minutes after reading the "Basic" printed owner’s manual that comes with the camera and exploring the menus I was able to:
- Figure out the default functions for all of the buttons and switches
- Set the date and time
- Format the memory card
- Set the file type to RAW+JPEG
- Confirm that the color space was set to sRGB
- Re-program the Fn button on top of the camera to access ISO settings Set the maximum Auto ISO to 1600
- Re-program the video record button on back to lock autofocus and exposure and thereby prevent accidentally recording video while shooting stills
I didn’t change the default ESP/matrix metering pattern because I wanted to see how well it performed. (Quite well, by the way.) This was by no means the full set of available parameters, nor does it imply that you would or should use the same setting. These were just the minimum I needed to feel comfortable with the camera and ready to shoot.
All that being said, Olympus doesn’t make setup easy, especially for novices. For example, the page reference numbers in the Basic manual actually refer to pages in the Full manual, which Olympus supplies only on the CD-ROM that comes with the camera, or as a PDF you can download online. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the manual is the only way to see the full list of options. Without it you have to scroll through each menu parameter one-by-one while trying to decipher what each particular piece of Olympus marketing jargon (such as "Art LV Mode") means.
The good news is that once you’ve set the E-P5 up to your liking you probably won’t need to do it again. If, however, you’re the type of photographer who likes to use different settings for different situations (sports versus weddings, for example), the E-P5 can save different groups of settings as "Mysets" that you can then switch between. You can also press the OK button on the back of the camera to access a Quick Select menu screen populated with the most common functions. I didn’t have much use for either, but others might.
Control layout and usability
Usability is of particular concern with a camera as compact as the Olympus E-P5, where the amount of real estate available for controls is minimal. The controls on the back of the E-P5 fit into an area 3cm wide by 5cm high (1.25" x 1.87"), which I can literally cover with my right thumb. The control area on top-right of the camera is roughly the same size. The designers therefore had to walk a fine line between providing enough physical controls for quick and easy adjustment while still allowing enough space for you to grip the camera without accidentally pressing a button or turning a dial.
Here’s the E-P5 from the back. You can probably figure out most of the button functions simply by looking at them. The magnifier button (just above the Menu button) provides instant 10X magnification for critical manual focusing. Just above that is the 2X2 mode switch. At the center of this switch is a programmable button, The default is record video. The dial at the upper-left is the Main Dial.
Olympus did a remarkably good job in this regard. The buttons are small yet well-positioned, well-spaced and easy to press, with good tactile feedback. No mushiness here. The dials and switches are also generously sized. Just as important is that they have strong detents to prevent accidental movement. By comparison, the mode dial on the back of Nikon V1 is so easy to move by accident that I and others resort to taping it in place.
A standard PASM mode dial is on top, along with the on-off switch and a programmable Function (Fn) button. The "main dial" on the back falls naturally under the thumb. The "sub-dial" on the front is directly below the shutter button. Main- and sub-dial functions are modal. A 2x2 mode lever on back lets you switch between two modes, both of which are programmable. I used the default settings, which work as follows:
Program mode: Rear dial controls aperture/shutter speed combination. Front controls exposure compensation (EC).
Aperture preferred: Rear dial controls aperture, front dial controls EC.
Shutter preferred: Rear dial controls shutter speed, front dial controls EC.
Manual: Rear dial controls shutter, front dial controls aperture. Exposure scale shows on LCD and in accessory viewfinder.
Front dial adjusts ISO
Rear dial adjusts white balance.
Although I understand why Olympus chose this design, it’s still problematic for the same control to do one thing in one mode and something entirely different in another, especially if you forget what mode you’re in. It causes confusion and delays, which in turn cause lost shots. I found myself frequently checking to make sure the mode switch was set to Mode 1 and used other options for adjusting ISO and white balance.
One such option is the E-P5’s touchscreen feature. This not only allows you to access and adjust camera functions, you can focus and release the shutter simply by tapping the screen. The camera will instantly focus on wherever it is you tap. You can even adjust the size of the focusing point with an onscreen slider.
I played with this feature enough to confirm that it works and is remarkably fast. The drawback is that it limits you to shooting with the LCD rather than the eyelevel viewfinder. Although it’s possible to use the touchscreen with the camera held vertically, it’s a lot easier if the camera is held horizontally. Also note that the LCD flips upwards to slightly less than 90 degrees and downward 45 degrees. This can be useful for shooting at waist-level or overhead. The LCD won’t swing to the side though, which would be handy for self-portraits or remote shooting.
VF-4 electronic viewfinder
The E-P5 has no built-in eye-level finder. For that you have to buy the accessory VF-4 electronic viewfinder. The view through the VF-4 is wonderfully large, bright and sharp, even in the shadows. Better yet, it senses when you’re looking through it and automatically shuts off the LCD. One downside is that it’s difficult to see the full frame if you wear eyeglasses. Another is that it adds significant bulk above and behind the camera. On the other hand, you can always remove it when you need to save space in your bag.
The VF-4 slides into the hot shoe and has a lock to keep it attached. You can use it in the normal position or swivel it upward 90 degrees. Even when it’s locked in, there’s a bit of wiggle at the base. I had the impression that a smack to the side could do irreparable damage. (I didn’t test this, of course.)
The 17mm ƒ/1.8 m.Zuiko
This lens is a street shooter’s dream. It’s tiny, weighs only 120 grams, and has a moderate wide-angle field of view (34mm-e). It also has a manual focus ring and even a functional depth-of-field scale! All it takes to access them is to pull back on the focus ring. Focus is electronic rather than truly manual, and thus a bit laggy but adequate.
Equally good news is the fast ƒ/1.8 aperture for low light shooting. In theory, a fast aperture lens combined with reliable IS and good high ISO performance would make the E-P5 a beast in low light. The reality isn’t quite that wonderful, but close enough that you won’t have to dread shooting indoors without flash.
Other design compromises
Here’s a quick list of the other, more minor design compromises I noticed on initial inspection. It’s up to you to decide how significant they might be for how you shoot.
If you mount the VF-4 you can’t use the hot shot to attach an accessory flash (the built in flash is tiny and weak), wireless radio flash trigger, or accessory microphone for video.
The button for the pop-up flash is on the back on the camera. It’s very easy to press by accident, which I did quite often. Tripod socket is 10mm to the left of the lens axis. Those of you who shoot panoramics will need to attach a camera plate that you can then center on your quick-release tripod head. Just be sure that whatever plate you buy doesn’t interfere with the movement of the rear LCD.
Ports for HDMI, USB, and AV-out are on the right side of the camera, which means that any cables you connect will get in the way of your gripping hand.
As you can see, the top is remarkably uncluttered. The only controls are a well- detented PASM dial, shutter release button, programmable function (Fn) button, and on-off switch. Immediately below and in front of the shutter release is the Sub-Dial.
That’s it for now. If can’t tell from what I’ve written so far, my overall impression was positive. In part two, the final installment, I’ll show you a sampling of the photos I shot with the Olympus E-P5, describe how it handled, and share my final impressions. Stayed tuned.
Olympus 17mm lens at Amazon (silver is in stock, black is available for pre-order; just click on the color you want).
Philadelphia family man Gordon Lewis, who also writes the photo blog Shutterfinger, has many published articles in photo magazines to his credit. His other interests include guitar, writing, escrima, and martial arts (kali and tai chi). In a former life he was a writer of television sitcoms.
©2013 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
No featured comments yet—please check back soon!