I must confess that I have been postponing this review for many weeks. Out of laziness, certainly. But most of all because it was a boring task. Writing one's harsh criticism about a photo product everybody sees as perfect is definitely funnier (for me, at least) than commending a camera which is up to (almost) all expectations.
I'm under the impression that the Olympus OM-D E-M5, notwithstanding its ludicrous name, is one of the most reviewed camera of the Internet era. And despite being aimed to the enthusiasts' market, it has quickly gained popularity also among people who see photography more as a leisurely activity than a serious commitment. This is probably due to Olympus' marketing strategy, which is more based on compactness and lightweight -easy to describe in an advertising campaign- than in image quality and operation responsiveness -a far from easy task-. Such a strategy is the only reason I can find to explain why Olympus chose to launch the OM-D in kit with the M Zuiko Digital 12-50mm, a mediocre lens that I put back in the box as soon as I made a couple of test shots. As a matter of fact I had to try the OM-D with a couple of good Panasonic Micro Four Thirds zooms I already had at home to convince myself that I wasn't looking at the umpteenth cleverly-launched-yet-definitely-disappointing digital camera, but only at an inadequate lens. So if you are planning to purchase the OM-D, do yourself a favor: buy the body and skip the crappy kit zoom.
If you need a transtandard zoom you better look for a used Panasonic G Vario 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 (remember to switch the optical stabilization off), an unpretentious, compact and lightweight lens with outstanding optics -and a 52mm filter thread which will be appreciated by those who started serious photography in the film era-. Or go for the new Panasonic Vario 12-35mm f2.8, a more ambitious unit which is gathering very positive reviews. One thing must be kept in mind: like any high-pixel-pitch sensor, the OM-D's simply needs to league with the best available glass. No compromise is allowed, unless you want to downgrade the awesome (repeat: awesome) image quality the OM-D is capable of. So be careful about the lens(es) you buy. Micro Four Thirds is no more in the 12 megapixel realm, where average glass could do a fine job anyway. We are talking about a grown-up system here, and grown-ups are more demanding than they were in their youth.
At present my kit consists in the following lenses:
- Olympus M Zuiko 12mm f2.0: a very good wide-angle, sumptuously built, with a clever mechanical focus-switch allowing a confortable use of the hyperfocal distance;
- Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f1.4: magnificent optics, slightly bulky and suffering from aperture-blades rattle when standing-by in certain lighting conditions;
- Olympus M Zuiko 45mm f1.8: magnificent optics, very compact and lightweight, unbelievably unexpensive, a must-have;
- Olympus M Zuiko 75mm f1.8: magnificent optics and sumptuous build, the ultimate medium-tele;
- the aforementioned Panasonic G Vario 14-45mm f3.5-5.6: very good optics, unrivalled cost-effectiveness;
- Panasonic G Vario 14-140mm f4-5.8: far better than expected (considering its huge focal range), a leader in its class; too bad it has been seized by my wife Daniela, a Panasonic G3 user.
You may have noticed that I didn't list any manual lens (modern or legacy), even though they seem to be the trendiest photographic thing those days. And I can assure you that, thanks to its sharp and bright electronic viewfinder, manual focusing is a no-brainer task with this camera, even without activating the focus-assist digital loupe. Well, despite their indisputable fetish value, I couldn't find any lens among all the Leitzs I already owned, plus a couple of Ai Nikkors and OM Zuikos, which could at least measure up to the OM-D's sensor requirements. Generally speaking, they all delivered soft, murky, vignetted and contrast-lacking images. Not to mention the frequently odd color rendition. I'm aware that many will disagree but, like it or not, side-by-side file comparisons sadly confirmed my first impression. Therefore I don't suggest the purchase of legacy glass+adapter ring for this kind of camera, unless you are in quest of special renditions like the softness found in some vintage portrait lenses, or the vignetting delivered by certain old-school "triplets": shortly, if you are in a Hipstamatic mood. There is nothing wrong with that of course, I simply don't see the point. At most, you better find an unexpensive first generation Micro Four Thirds body for this purpose, and save your hard earned cash.
Which leads us towards the core of any camera evaluation: image quality. I already used the "awesome" adjective. Yes, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is simply astonishing in this respect. Period. Professional reviewers posted tons of samples in the last months which will persuade even the most mistrustful pixel-peeper. If you are among those who appreciate the distinctive Olympus color rendition, along with crispness, huge dynamic range (up to more than 12 EVs, according to DxO), low-noise high ISOs and widely tweakable pixels, this camera won't disappoint you.
All this can be achieved through a fast and smooth operation. Auto-focus is surprisingly reactive and virtually faultless. The overall responsiveness of the camera allows the photographer to concentrate on the subject, as the unit feels -and actually is- ever ready to his/her demands. This is the result of thoroughly designed electronics along with close-to-perfect ergonomics. Holding the OM-D makes you feel at home since the very first time. Its body is cleverly sized and balanced (and very handsome, I must say). The top-plate design sports two programmable wheels on the right side, while the -useless, most of the times- mode selector has been exiled on the left side. Kudos to Olympus!
For instance, in a typical A-mode configuration, one can select the lens aperture via the bigger wheel and rapidly change the exposure compensation through the one surrounding the release button: a sheer bliss. By the way, the release button is definitely the best sized and engineered I have ever used. It's firm and smooth in the meantime -giving the sexiest shutter sound-, which surely cooperates with the brilliant 5-axis mechanical IS system. Great job. Shortly, as far as overall design and build are concerned, the OM-D is a well-made tool.
Any shortcomings? Hell, yes.
Playback and Fn1 buttons are too small and flimsy. Moreover the protruding tiltable OLED monitor obstructs the way, preventing the photographer's finger to properly operate them. I never managed -repeat, never!- to playback an image at the first attempt; I always have to try at least twice. Quite obviously the back of the camera hasn't been designed by the same people who did the top-plate. They are as different as a pro-camera and a voguish cellphone -alas, how many digital cameras suffer from cellphone-ish engineering and build-. And I can't help thinking that with a fixed monitor the camera could have been slimmer and even sturdier than it actually is (even though I admit the tilt mechanism is very well built indeed). I hate tiltable monitors, as much as I hate having video functions in a stills camera. I would gladly pay an extra hundred bucks if a fixed-monitor videoless version of the OM-D was available. But I'm aware nobody would agree with that.
The battery-compartment door is flimsy and its lock lever is so insubstantial I'm sure I will break it someday. The same must be said about the on/off switch, wich is as much insubstantial and insanely located too. On the other hand the SDcard-compartment door is strong and well built. Too bad the card must be inserted upturned, which takes some time to get used to.
The tiny and wobbly four-way controller on the back is simply to be forgotten: I deactivated mine and that's that.
Pay attention to the rubber eyecup surrounding the viewfinder: when it gets rubbed inside a tight bag or against your clothes it can get easily lost. This is due to the flimsiest and cheapest fixing clip I have ever seen. Shame on you, Olympus!
The menu system is the usual crap. Somebody should loan a Panasonic or a Nikon camera to Olympus engineers, so that they can get inspired on how a good menu system can be designed. The card-format menu item is the exception that proves the rule: it has been cleverly located on the top of the list. Well done. Fellow countrymen beware: the menu Italian translation is so poor and full of mistakes that you better leave it in English.
Oh, if you are among those who conscientiously expose to the right, don't trust the live histogram, as it pushes you towards overexposure. Take it with a grain of salt and estimate one to two thirds EV of extra headroom to be safe. This way you will avoid clipped highlights and your jpgs will be gorgeous and indistinguishable from raws most of the times. When it comes to in-camera image processing, Olympus people know their job. And they know it well. I normally save my shots in both raw and jpg formats, but I seldom resort to the raw and usually keep the latter almost untweaked.
On the other hand the in-camera picture modes offer an interesting "gradation" option aimed at tweaking the curve towards low or high key. I generally use the low key combined with the monochrome mode, which delivers awesome black&white jpgs along with perfectly linear raws (of course).
All in all, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a camera that one can be tempted to build a system around. Which is exactly what I have been doing this summer after selling my whole Leica equipment. No regrets here. Tying-up such a fortune in a system like the Leica M so widely outperformed in many respects by the last Micro Four Thirds generation would have been crazy, especially these troubled days. So I used part of the cash to fund the purchase of the three Zuiko and the PanaLeica lenses, along with the surprisingly useful HLD-6 grip. I warmly recommend it. It's cleverly designed and sumptuously built. So much so that while immediately proving to be very helpful with longer focals, in time it turned out to be profitable with any lens.
The final word: despite its few quirks the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is definitely the best digital camera I have ever used. From now on Micro Four Thirds, thanks to its perfect balance between sensor size and image quality, is no longer a promising beginner but a serious and reliable option for any photographer who wants to build an affordable and long-lasting lightweight system.