Shooting with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 / by Martin Siggers

Anybody who knows me knows it's no secret that I love SLRs. To me even the latest generation of electronic viewfinders hasn't gotten close to the accuracy and precision of optical, and the bigger sensors and more robust bodies of SLRs have always seemed like insurmountable advantages to me. However, mirrorless is definitely the wave of the future and the advantages are difficult to deny - smaller size and lighter weight are vital for those out and about with their cameras every day. I've maintained a small mirrorless system  since the early days of the format, relying on  Olympus's 2010 E-PL1 as my walkabout camera. The format has undergone huge shifts since those early days though and the result is the E-PL1 is now something of a dinosaur. Enter the  E-M5.

Truth be told, the E-M5 isn't cutting edge tech either, originally breaking ground back in 2012. But it was an incredibly important camera, both for the Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds family to which it belongs, but also for mirrorless cameras in general. For the first time Olympus had produced a mirrorless model that could go toe-to-toe with professional equipment. With a then-new 16mp sensor, state of the art in-body stabilization and plenty of chunky manual controls, the E-M5 shouted its serious credentials. It didn't hurt that it was wrapped up in a gorgeous chassis that paid homage to its namesakes, Olympus's film OM range.

Three years on Olympus's gamble proved to be a success, with the E-M5 spawning both bigger (E-M1) and smaller (E-M10) brothers as well as its own successor. With used prices looking highly attractive, I bit the bullet and picked a beautiful example up for just under £300. To test it in the field, I embarked with my girlfriend on a journey to London's much loved alternative district, Camden Town.

First impressions of the E-M5 are extremely positive. Looks are completely irrelevant to my purchasing decisions, but dear god this is a wonderful looking piece of kit. It's a smart piece of retro inspired design that pays homage to the film OMs while at the same time not compromising the ergonomics needed for digital. It's also a lot smaller than you might think, and superbly built - everything which looks metal is metal. Its resemblance to a 35mm film camera also means people are automatically less paranoid of it, a useful fringe benefit.

For this trip I paired the body with two of Olympus's own brand lenses - the 17mm f2.8 wide angle pancake, and the 45mm f1.8 short telephoto. Since the M4/3 crop factor is an easy to remember 2x, this gave me 35mm equivalent lengths of 34mm and 90mm, hopefully all I'd need for an urban shoot. The camera and both lenses fit into a compact shoulder bag smaller than the body of a D3, and weigh together just a shade over 600g. Needless to say, it's highly portable and it was delightful to have basically an entire system in a tiny bag.

Immediate impressions upon picking it up are mixed. The E-M5 feels well put together and has a reassuring heft that belies its tiny size. That same tiny size is a problem is you have big fat hands like me though. The grip is practically nonexistent and the camera is small enough that I have to cramp my hands a bit to get all my fingers in the relevant positions. It's light enough that one handed shooting is not necessarily an issue, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd prefer a deeper grip. Of course, that would make the camera itself bigger, which sort of defeats the point. Speaking of which, the absence of a built in flash is a little disappointing as it means you'll need an unwieldy clip on if you want to do any fill work.

Otherwise, the ergonomics of the E-M5 are overall good. The twin control dials are excellent, notchy yet easy to spin. It's also very gratifying to see programmable buttons on a camera of this size, with the E-M5 offering Fn1 and Fn2 buttons that cna be customized for a variety of functions. I have the top panel Fn2 set to ISO and the back Fn1 as the manual focus toggle. Speaking of buttons, they've got an odd feeling, a little soft and overly squishy. Nothing too bad but they definitely require a bit more of a firm press than I'd prefer.

The E-M5 is also blessed with a couple of excellent displays. The main screen is a 3" touchscreen on a tilting bracket, which has excellent brightness and good response. I initially wrote off the tilting screen as a gimmick but it's actually supremely useful for inconspicuous waist-level shooting. There's also a bright, sharp OLED viewfinder which is very usable. I still can't say I'm completely sold on the idea of the EVF but it's definitely way more usable than the majority I've seen (though I'd still say Sony's Alpha 7 range is the champ in this regard).

One thing that Olympus haven't fixed since the days of the E-PL1 is their software, which remains as frustrating as ever. There's a huge amount of customisability and flexibility tucked away in the menus, but the menus themselves are still annoying. Key features are buried deeply or are sometimes in completely illogical places. The key to operating the E-M5 smoothly is to enable the Super Control Panel option, something else which is not immediately available. Once it's enabled though it gives you a lovely grid view of all the major functions on the camera which can be scrolled about with the dials, the d-pad or the touchscreen, making changing settings extremely convenient.

So far, so much fluff. But what's it like to actually shoot with? In a word - fantastic. Autofocus response is crisp and sharp and the camera simply feels extremely responsive, jumping to your command with no discernible lag. The E-M5 produces great looking images, with strong colour and wide dynamic range, though the ability to recover shadows is notably less than the latest generation of Nikon DSLRs. The Olympus claws some of this back though with its excellent implementation of in-body stabilization. The company claim 5 stops can be pulled back and while I'm sceptical you can get that much it's a definite godsend for people with shaky hands like me.

High ISO performance is also impressive, with noise being extremely controllable all the way up until ISO1600. I'd definitely be OK with using anything up to 3200, and maybe 6400 if I had to push it. It's about a stop behind my FX Nikons but considering it has a sensor fully half the size that's quite an achievement. One thing that's disappointing though is the implementation of Auto-ISO. Nobody has yet done this as well as Nikon, who allow you to set a minimum shutter speed based on the length of the lens and then tweak it for faster or slower depending on your own steadiness. Here we don't even get the chance to set the minimum shutter speed, and the camera often forgets it has a stabiliser and pushes ISO rather than slowing to still acceptable hand holding speeds.

I had a very different impression of the two lenses I chose to take by the end of the day. The 45mm is a delight, focusing incredibly fast and offering razor sharp images. Even at f/1.8 it's crisp and clean all over, although you have to be careful of exaggerated flare and coma if shooting directly into light. Stopping down only makes it sharper and the 90mm equivalent length means it's perfect as an unobtrusive street photography tool.

By contrast, the 17mm is kind of a mess. I love its tiny size but optically it's not great. Very soft wide open, it doesn't really get appreciably sharp until about f/5.6 and even then it can't get close to the 45. It's also loaded with chromatic abberation and very slow to focus. Once I save up a little I'll probably be replacing it with Panasonic's 20/1.7 but for now it'll have to do.

If the camera has a weakness, it's in its continuous autofocus performance, which still remains far below the abilities of even a mid-range DSLR. Tracking is sluggish and the system has definite trouble locking onto and tracking subjects. Given the lightning performance of the single autofocus with certain lenses, I'd be incliend to simply keep shooting and recomposing rather than attempt to track. This is definitely a camera more suited to street and still life work rather than sports or action.

Overall though, I had a fantastic time shooting with OM-D E-M5. Most importantly, I never felt my photography was compromised or diminished in any way by the pocket-sized equipment. It really does feel like big camera power in a small camera body. I definitely think it'll be my walkabout weapon of choice in the future, and maybe even serve as a backup on some full shoots. Highly recommended.