By TAN KIT HOONGbytz@thestar.com.my
The Olympus E-M5 is an all-new series of Micro Four Thirds cameras based on the company's classic professional SLRs.
IT IS no secret that I'm a fan of retro cameras - to me, those old rangefinder cameras and SLRs have a special charm and simplicity not found in modern, more "organically" styled digital cameras.
It looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so either, since Olympus has had quite a bit of success with cameras that ride partially on nostalgia for the company's venerable line of cameras from yesteryear.
The original OM SLRs built a reputation for being both hardy workhorses as well as being technically excellent, so it's no surprise that Olympus would eventually introduce a line of cameras based on the company's classic (and very elegantly-designed) OM series of cameras.
For example, the best of them all, the OM-4Ti, was not only hardy (titanium top and bottom plates) but also featured an advanced multi-spot metering system where the photographer could take multiple spot meter readings from various parts of a scene and specify if each reading is of a highlight or shadow area, something quite revolutionary for its time.
So now we have the E-M5, the first in a planned series of OM-D (or Digital OM) cameras that brings back the styling and quality of those old OM models.
Retro style, modern features
So how do you design a retro camera yet keep all the functionality and controls of a modern digital camera?
While the E-M5 is essentially a Micro Four Thirds camera, Olympus has cleverly made some of the controls hidden or look like it was something else - for example, there are two command dials on the top of the camera, but one is cleverly styled to look like part of the shutter button, while the other looks like a shutter speed dial.
There are some minor drawbacks to this design - for example, the command dial under the thumb is a tad too high up for your thumb and instead of a pop-up flash, you get an add-on flash. But overall, the design actually works.
At first glance the E-M5 looks a lot like the classic OM-4Ti, but the E-M5 is slightly smaller than the original film SLR it's based on.
Personally, I would have liked it to be the same size as the OM-4Ti, but the E-M5 is comfortable and feels really solid in the hands, thanks to its magnesium alloy body.
In fact, the E-M5 is actually a lot heavier than it looks (though still lighter than most DSLRs) and is finished and weather-sealed to Olympus' usual very high standards for their high-end cameras.
It may look like an old SLR from the front, but turn the camera around or look through the viewfinder and you'll immediately see that it is a digital camera - the back has a large 3in touch-sensitive OLED screen and the viewfinder is not optical, but a 1.44-million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF).
The OLED screen is tiltable but you can't rotate it, i.e. you can angle it for low- or high-angle shooting, but not flip it around to face forwards.
Inside the retro exterior, Olympus has packed in the very latest technology that the company has to offer - there's a new 16.1-megapixel LiveMOS sensor, a new five-axis sensor-shift image stabilisation system and an improved autofocus system that works faster when in continuous autofocus mode.
The five-axis image stabilisation system works really, really well, especially when you're shooting videos - I shot a number of handheld videos and was amazed at how silky smooth videos were even when I was walking and shooting at the same time.
If you find the camera a bit small, you can also buy the optional HLD-6 battery grip - I'd call it a transforming grip since it actually works a bit like a two-stage rocket.
For example, if you just want a more substantial grip, you can simply add a section which gives you just that, which feels larger and has its own shutter release.
However, if you also want a vertical grip and more battery life, you can add another section at the bottom of the first grip, which gives you a vertical shutter release and a compartment for a second battery which will effectively double your battery life.
I'm not one for add-on vertical grips but I did find the first stage grip useful.
Professionals and portrait shooters will probably be happy to go for the second-stage attachment with the vertical grip and shutter release though.
New kit lens
Also worth mentioning is the new kit lens - the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-f/6.3 EZ, a Micro Four Thirds lens that has a few interesting tricks up its sleeve.
For one thing, this 12-50mm (24-100mm equivalent) is a bit wider at the wide end and a bit more telephoto at the tele end than Olympus' usual 14-45mm kit lens, which is always good.
However, what makes it interesting is that this is the first lens I've seen that offers you both a manual- and powered-zoom option.
The lens switches from manual to powered zoom by simply pushing the zoom ring backwards or forwards - manual zoom works best when you're shooting stills, but when shooting movies, the powered zoom is the preferred option because it gives you a smooth transition from wide to telephoto.
The lens also has a macro mode - if you hold down the Macro button, you can push the zoom ring one more click forward, which will then lock the zoom ring and engage the macro mode for close-up shots.
The E-M5 is quite a joy to use - there may be fewer buttons, but Olympus has redesigned the menu system to be a lot easier to use and when shooting, you can bring up a quick menu of important settings, which allows you to change things like autofocus, ISO and drive mode, amongst others.
Everything was intuitive enough that I never had a problem figuring out where most of the settings were.
At 16-megapixels, the E-M5 is the highest resolution Micro Four Thirds camera Olympus currently produces. Image quality is very good at low ISO settings and the metering was spot-on most of the time.
Despite the bump up in megapixels, a new hardware and software level image processing engine has seen improvements in ISO performance as well.
In my shooting tests, I found the E-M5 to have about a one stop advantage in high ISO performance over the E-P3.
That means low to negligible noise from ISO 200 to ISO 800, with still usable results at ISO 1600.
It's only at ISO 3200 that high ISO noise reduction kicks in harder and there is noticeable loss of detail, although even here it's still usable if you need to get that picture no matter what.
It's only from ISO 6400 and upwards that noise and loss of detail start to become a problem.
If you want to look at our noise tests yourself, you can download the full-resolution photos from our Picasa site at goo.gl/j0xWX.
In terms of battery life, the E-M5 performed admirably - in the two weeks or so that I used it off and on, I only charged it once. Even if you are a heavy user, a single battery charge should last you for an entire photoshoot.
In terms of video recording, Olympus offers 1080i video at 60-frames-per-second (fps) and 720p at 30fps as well as a standard definition option.
However, one big change is that Olympus has dropped AVCHD as the high-definition compression option and replaced it with the more standard H.264.
H.264 is better than AVCHD in that it's supported by more operating systems out of the box, which also means less headaches when editing or playing back files.
Olympus has, however, left the option for you to choose MotionJPEG compression if you want it.
I really like the E-M5 - it is definitely a couple of notches above the E-P3 in build quality and image quality, and all in a very nice retro-styled body.
It's fair to say that Olympus has come up with their best Micro Four Thirds camera yet.
Unfortunately all this high quality comes at a price - the retail price of the OM-D E-M5 with kit lens is RM4,499, which means it's going to see some stiff competition from mid-range cameras from the big two camera makers.
Nevertheless, the E-M5 does have the advantage of looks and small size, so if you're in the market for a solidly built, yet small system camera, the E-M5 is certainly worth a serious look.
Pros: Excellent build quality; relatively small size; five-axis image stabilisation works really well; improved ISO performance over the E-P3.
Cons: Price is a tad prohibitive.
Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera
SENSOR: 16.1-megapixels LiveMOS sensor (4,608 x 3,456-pixels)
VIEWFINDER: 3in (610,000-dots) capacitive touchscreen OLED
LENS: 12-50mm f/3.5 - f/6.3 EZ ED MSC
SHUTTER SPEED: 60sec 1/4,000sec
ISO RANGE: 200 to 25,600
SHOOTING MODES: Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Manual, Scene modes and Art filters
VIDEO MODE FORMAT: H.264, Motion JPEG (up to 1080i 60fps)
BATTERY: 1,220mAh lithium-ion
INTERFACE: USB 2.0
OTHER FEATURES: Five-axis image stabilisation, built-in accessory port, accessory flash included
DIMENSIONS (W x H x D): 122 x 89 x 43mm
PRICE: RM4,499 (with kit lens)
Review unit courtesy of Olympus (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, (03) 6203-3882