Olympus has been on a retro roll since the first PEN camera was released three years ago. While the Micro Four Thirds PEN cameras hewed closely to their PEN film camera predecessors, the OM-D E-M5 follows after the original OM film cameras, looking like a new model which has just rolled out of the factory. There's really nothing much to say about the E-M5's looks – it had us at hello.
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a fun camera to use. That's not a technical term, but it's how we felt as we were using it. The camera feels good in the hands, with essential controls within quick reach. It's fast and responsive, reacting promptly to our demands. While the camera is slightly bigger and heavier than the E-P3, it still feels small and light. That said, it feels like the camera could have used a bit more breathing room, as some of its controls feel claustrophobic.
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 feels solid in the hands with a comfortable grip and balanced heft. The camera is dust and splash-proof. And while Olympus doesn't say it, it's probably quite knock-proof as well. That's because the interior cabinet is made of magnesium-alloy, as is the camera top, while the bottom is made of aluminum. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ kit lens is dust and splash-proof as well; combine it with the E-M5 and you've the most rugged mirrorless system camera in the world today.
The E-M5 feels good to hold, thanks to the front grip and the back thumb-rest. The thumb-rest may look exaggerated, but after using it we wouldn't want it any smaller. The flip-out OLED back monitor is excellent, while it may not provide the freedom that a side-articulating screen does, it's still better than a fixed screen. The screen is, like the PEN E-P3's, touch-sensitive and can be used to tap to shoot. It's a useful feature to have; it's much faster to simply tap on your subject to set focus and snap than to fiddle with the physical controls. You can also tap to set tracking AF on a subject, but best of all, you can tap to disable all touch controls altogether. This is more useful than you think, especially since it's easy to accidentally tap the screen from carrying the camera.
A first for Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera is the built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the E-M5. That large block on top of the camera doesn't house a flash, in fact the E-M5 doesn't have one built in. Instead, you've a hot shoe and adapter rack on the top plate, while the back of it houses the LCD viewfinder. It has a 100% field of view and 1.44 million dots, with an eye sensor to detect when your eye is on the EVF and automatically switch between activating the rear-panel monitor and the EVF.
The benefits of having an EVF include the ability to see in brightly lit environments where the rear-panel monitor would be washed out. The E-M5's EVF works great. It refreshes quickly so the image always feels responsive, it feels up to date even in low light where there is little to no lag. While it'll never be as bright or as detailed as an optical viewfinder, an EVF brings several advantages – you can see more overlay information, browse menus inside of it, review images discreetly and see a live exposure preview before you shoot.
The E-M5 handles beautifully for photographers who like to shoot manually. Settings can be accessed quickly via two methods; through an overlay menu and what Olympus calls the Super Control Panel (these two options should be quite familiar to PEN owners as they're essentially the same). Pressing the OK button in the middle of the d-pad brings up the overlay menu which will still let you watch the scene, and pressing the Live View button by the side of the EVF will bring up the Super Control Panel. Both menus give you access to important settings like ISO, white balance and AF drives.
If quick access via menus isn't enough for you, the E-M5's physical controls are highly customizable. It comes with two customizable Function buttons to set off specific commands like ISO and AF/AE lock. But that's not all: Other buttons' default functions can also be switched, for example the movie Record button can also be customized, so can the right and down arrows on the d-pad (they trigger AF point selection by default).
One of the best features on the E-M5 body is the front and back control dials which overlap slightly on the top plate. They operate much like the control dials found on professional DSLR camera bodies and let you change settings on the fly. By default the back dial will control aperture or shutter speed when set to the respective priority modes, and the front decides exposure compensation. In Manual mode, the back dial controls shutter speed, while the front takes over aperture settings.
These functions can also be customized, but to a lesser extent than the other controls. They can also be used to set a highlight and shadows curve (akin to the Curves tool in Photoshop), offering a different way to control exposure. The two control dials may feel a little stiff, but that helps to lock them in place and not have them pushed around accidentally. Otherwise, it's pretty incredible how DSLR-like these two controls make the E-M5 feel.
While the placement of these two dials may feel inspired, the placement of the camera strap lugs are not – and this is crucial. In all our testing, we shot without a camera strap, because the strap will get in your way while you're holding the camera and trying to manipulate the shutter and front dial. While we're perfectly comfortable using a camera without a strap, we know not many will, and it's worth trying the E-M5 first with the strap on before you decide to get one to see if you can tolerate it.
Another feature you'll have to learn to tolerate is the ridiculously small buttons on the camera, the most obvious of which are the Play and Function 1 buttons. They're not just small; they sit recessed within a ledge and are difficult to press. The arrow keys on the d-pad are minute, even though they offer easy direct access to AF points (a very good feature, by the way), using them is always uncomfortable. Compared to the PEN E-P3, the E-M5's back controls feel cramped, and while it helps make a smaller camera, we feel we could have tolerated a slightly bigger body if it had meant more comfortable controls.
One last area of concern is the rubber covers which come with the E-M5. The one covering the EVF feels filmsy and we've knocked it out more than more just by glancing off it. The rubber strip covering the ports on the left side of the body is held to the body by a thin rubber strip which feels like it could snap off if twisted too far. The one covering the accessory port is the best-fitting one, it sits tightly on top of the port and needs a little effort to pry off.