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Olympus E-5 Digital SLR Review

John Riley reviews the Olympus E-5, aimed at professionals and higher end amateurs.

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Olympus E-5 front
John Riley reviews the Olympus E-5, aimed at professionals and higher end amateurs.

Here is the new flagship Four Thirds DSLR from Olympus, and depending on whether or not we believe the reports rampant on the web, possibly the last of the conventional models with mirror and pentaprism. Looking to the higher end of the amateur and the professional users, this new camera offers a host of features in a heavy and robust package, including a splashproof construction that suggests all-weather use. However, does the smaller sensor disadvantage the newcomer, or have Olympus indeed pulled a real winner out of the hat? Setting off into the rain and wind of winter, we shall see.

Olympus E-5: Features
We have a fairly heavy and bulky but undeniably robust DSLR with a 12.3MP Hi-Speed Live MOS Sensor. The magnesium alloy body is splashproof, as is the Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4 SWD zoom lens that is supplied with the camera. The lens mount is the standard Four Thirds mount.

The viewfinder is a glass pentaprism with an enlarged 1.15x magnification view and a coverage of 100%. An alternative is Live View, via the Dual Axis Swivel 921,000 dot Hyper Crystal LCD.

Image Stabilisation is achieved using two dimensional sensor shift and the specification states up to a 5 stop advantage. A supersonic wave filter is used to remove unwanted dust.

A variety of focusing options use an 11 point array and exposure is taken care of with a 49 zone multi-pattern sensing system. Shutter speeds run from a generous 60 seconds to 1/8000 second. In terms of exposure modes, only the basic Programme Automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter priority and Manual modes are selectable, making this a very traditional package in some respects.

Movies can be shot at a resolution of up to 1280 x 720 pixels (16:9) and a maximum recording time of around 14 minutes, representing 2GB of information. Stereo sound recording is possible with an external microphone.

Ten Art Filters are provided to enable some creative effects in-camera. These include Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Pop Art, Gentle Sepia and Cross process. There are also additional image editing options that allow resizing and some limited image adjustments.

Image processing is handled by the TruePic V+ processing engine and images can be recorded in either RAW or a very wide choice of JPEG compressions. RAW and JPEG files can be recorded at the same time. The E-5 uses both CF and SD cards, so the options are increased considerably.

Olympus E-5 Key features: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 front lens   Olympus E-5 rear
The Olympus E-5 was tested using a Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4 SWD zoom lens.   The screen is a Dual Axis Swivel 921,000 dot Hyper Crystal LCD.
Olympus E-5 battery compartment   Olympus E-5 memory card slot
The E-5 is powered by a BLM-5 Li-Ion battery.   There is a slot for both SD and CF memory cards.

Olympus E-5: Handling
The E-5 instantly inspires confidence. It appears to be robust. It is however heavy and bulky and in a sense that is at odds with the reduced sensor size of the Four Thirds system. There is no size or weight advantage to body or lenses and in fact the camera is rather more bulky than many APS-C models. But the quality of construction is there and the finish of both body and lens is impeccable.

The body sculpture fits the hand well and the distribution of buttons does not interfere with the grip. It is as good as any other arrangement and after a few hours shooting soon becomes familiar and effective. Interestingly, Olympus provide a sensor plane indicator mark on the side of the pentaprism, giving further clues that they are at heart a traditionally photographic company.

The dual axis LCD monitor swivels and turns, providing a useful range of viewing options and angles. This is probably most useful for using Live view at very low angles, perhaps shooting forest-floor fungi and similarly located subjects. This swivel mechanism seems more robust than many and is likely to be less susceptible to damage.

The E-5 is a well made and well designed camera.

Olympus E-5: Performance
In terms of exposure, the camera is not susceptible to errors from bright light sources and backlighting. It performs exceptionally well in this respect. It does have a tendency though to make slightly light exposures. There is little or no clipping and the histogram distribution is good, but I find myself routinely dialling in -0.3 to -0.7 EV exposure compensation. As this is entirely predictable it is not a problem. Photographers can compensate and adjust to taste.

It does mean though that very dark subjects need more compensation every time if they are not to be reproduced as a light grey. For very dark subjects at least -1 EV seems necessary to maintain a realistic tonal range that reflects the scene as viewed.

Exposure also depends upon the metering pattern used and with the E-5 both ESP and Centre Weighted metering patterns seem to give all but identical results. Spot metering is equally accurate for those who know how to use it to advantage. The highlight and shadow metering patterns also do the job, but need to be properly understood. Whatever metering pattern is chosen, the end result is accurate, making this an effective metering system.

Olympus E-5 performance: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 6 seconds   Olympus E-5 exposure compensation
A fantastic result using AWB in mixed daylight and fluorescent lighting.   Very dark subjects need exposure compensation.
Olympus E-5 shade correct   Olympus E-5 outdoor portrait
(Above) The Shade setting here gives us back the true colour of these tiles.

(Right) Skin tones are smooth and accurate, here at ISO

Focusing in all modes is crisp, fast and accurate. Very impressively, the camera seems able to focus upon almost featureless dark subjects with the same snap as more normal ones. Smooth blue surfaces eventually foxed the system, but it is not easy to defeat. Focusing in Live view is understandably slower, but still very acceptable for the sort of subjects that might be tackled using this feature.

I have no complaints about colour reproduction either. Colours are accurate and correctly saturated at the Natural setting. Whether the original is subtle or garish, the spectrum of colour appears well handled. Skin tones are handled well, rendering good accuracy and a pleasing smoothness at modest ISO settings. At higher settings noise becomes more apparent and for smooth portraits the ISO200 base setting is probably the option of choice. The question of colour is however very closely allied to the question of White Balance.

Obviously RAW capture will provide plenty of opportunity for post-capture adjustment, but for those shooting in JPEG some care in the selection of presets may pay dividends. Much of the time AWB is perfectly satisfactory, providing natural colours and avoiding any strong casts. Unfortunately this means that the results of many subjects are rendered bland and the natural colours do not shine through.

The exact colour recorded is unfortunately not rendered very well by the LCD monitor, so it can be difficult to judge in the field. What can be said though is that where a dominant colour is present in an image, it is well worth using the alternative presets to preserve the proper flavour of the scene. The weather here is very overcast at present and the shadow setting seems to be the most appropriate for many outdoor scenes. Experimentation is suggested so the photographer can be sure that the colour is recorded as he or she sees it. This seems to be more critical with the E-5 than with most cameras I use.

Having said that, AWB deals very convincingly with mixed lighting sources and low light levels, so it is a mixed bag of settings to achieve the best results. Most of the time AWB does the job well, but dominant colours do potentially cause problems. Indoors, tungsten lighting is clearly outside the range of AWB, but the Tungsten preset does a good job. Fluorescent lighting is always tricky, not having a continuous spectrum and exact colour temperature, but both AWB and the presets are effective.

Olympus E-5 White-balance test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting   Olympus E-5 Incandescent preset in incandescent lighting
Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting.   Incandescent preset in incandescent lighting.
Olympus E-5 Auto white-balance in fluorescent lighting   Olympus E-5 Fluorescent preset in fluorescent lighting
Auto white-balance in fluorescent lighting.   Fluorescent preset in fluorescent lighting.

The dynamic range of the sensor is not a problem. Highlights and shadows are recorded with detail over a surprisingly wide range. The camera recorded the detail beneath a dark bridge and the detail in distant brightly lit foliage with little difficulty. This is one area of camera performance that these days seems extremely well managed.

The E-5 battery is an Olympus BLM-5 rated at 7.4V and 1620mAh. No figure for battery life is quoted in the specification sheet, but it is quite apparent that after two days heavy use the battery is nowhere near exhaustion. It is still registering full power and I would suspect that over 500 shots per charge will be easily achievable.

The camera is responsive and ready for use almost as soon as switched on. Write times are fast and the buffer only starts to slow progress after around 15 or so shots are made at high speed continuous shooting. However, in the usual way, the camera will stop and take its time to record images recorded at very long shutter speeds. Presumably this is dark frame subtraction doing its work and a 30 second exposure needs a further 30 seconds for this to happen. This is better than noise filled images, so something that we need to wait patiently for.

In summary, the performance was excellent overall, with the caveat that it is worth spending a little time experimenting and getting to know the vagaries of the white balance presets in daylight.

ISO and noise performance
Resolution is a modest 12.3MP, but this seems to be more than adequate to deliver very sharp and detailed images that are clean and clear of artefacts and noise. ISO200 is recommended and up to ISO400 images are impressive indeed. ISO800 sees some deterioration and noise, but control is good here and also at ISO1600. ISO3200 and ISO6400 show quite a bit of coloured noise, but to be fair this is not excessive and for web use or small prints is probably very acceptable. It may make the difference between getting the shot or not, and that will be much more important than this relatively reasonable level of noise.

Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO100
Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO100 Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO200 Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO400 Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO800
ISO100 ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO1600 Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO3200 Olympus E-5 Test chart ISO6400  
ISO1600 ISO3200 ISO6400  

Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO100
Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO100 Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO200 Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO400 Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO800
ISO100 ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO1600 Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO3200 Olympus E-5 Outdoor ISO6400  
ISO1600 ISO3200 ISO6400  

Lens performance
The supplied lens is a Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4 SWD zoom. It comprises 14 elements in 10 groups and is multicoated, with some surfaces single coated. The SWD supersonic motor ensures silent focusing. The lens is described as “splashproof” and it certainly resists rain well enough. The freedom in using weather sealed lenses and cameras is a fairly recent development, but a very welcome one.

Quality across the frame of this not inexpensive optic is commendable. There is plenty of detail and contrast at full aperture, improving on stopping down in the usual way. By f/8 images are very crisp right across the frame and this continues well towards the minimum aperture of f/22. By f/22 there is some softening, but even this aperture is fully usable.

Flare and chromatic aberration are equally well controlled. The lens shows no tendency to flare and produces well saturated images even when shooting right into the light. Chromatic aberration is virtually non-existent in even quite demanding situations. Winter tree branches against bright sky are handled with ease. Even so, a hood is provided and it is wise to use it, if only to protect the front element and keep splashes of rain off the glass.

Distortion is usually where some compromises are found, and this lens is no exception. At 12mm there is barrel distortion that is quite obvious on architectural subjects, but less so on more general ones. At wide angles some barrel distortion is usually acceptable and well established in what we expect to see in an image. By 35mm there is a very modest amount of pincushion that gradually increases as we move towards 60mm. Here it is again quite obvious but it depends on the subject as to whether it becomes obtrusive.

Interestingly the distortion is not just at the edges but appears to cover more of the frame. It is the price to pay for the excellent performance of the lens in all other respects – we have here a crisp, sharp, flare free optic that delivers very pleasing results. Olympus can clearly make very good lenses.

Olympus E-5 lens performance: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus E-5 lens crisp   Olympus E-5 lens flare test
At full aperture sharpness is excellent and even from edge to edge.   Flare is very well controlled, even with bare branches against a bright sky.
Olympus E-5 lens close focus   Olympus E-5 lens distortion
(Above) Full detail is maintained even at close distances.

(Right) At longer focal lengths, pincushion distortion is quite visible, as we can see from the shape of this old telephone box.

DxOMark Logo DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Olympus E-5.

Olympus E-5: Verdict
If this is the last of the mirror type DSLRs in the Four Thirds range that will be a great pity. Olympus have a finely made product that delivers exceptionally good results. Does the smaller sensor compromise quality? Not in the E-5, that's quite clear. We cannot expect ultra-high ISO performance, but that is not the major function of this camera. We have a professional quality tool that can help us make top quality images.

This does not come cheap. £1500 for the body and maybe £750 for the lens is no small amount, but that may well be what this sort of heavy, solid manufacture actually costs. There is not the vast backup of the major systems and not the widest array of lenses, but there is enough to satisfy the advanced amateur. The 2x crop factor means fast long lenses are available and the camera is responsive enough to make them viable in the field.

For Olympus and other Four Thirds users this may well be the camera of choice, for other users the cost and limited range of lenses is unlikely to mean a change of system. But it is a very, very good product.

Olympus E-5: Pros
Olympus E-5 Robust
Olympus E-5 Splashproof construction
Olympus E-5 Reliable and accurate metering
Olympus E-5 Excellent Live View
Olympus E-5 Quality of lens

Olympus E-5: Cons
Olympus E-5 White Balance Issues
Olympus E-5 Very high cost
Olympus E-5 Limited system backup

FEATURES Olympus E-5
HANDLING Olympus E-5
OVERALL Olympus E-5

Olympus E-5: Specification
Price £1499.00
Lens mount 4/3rds
Resolution 12.3Mp
Sensor size 4/3in
Sensor type Hi-Speed Live MOS sensor
Max. Image size 4032 x 3024
Aspect ratio 4:3
Viewfinder Eye-level Pentaprism type optical viewfinder
Focusing system TTL phase difference detection system
Focus types Manual focus, Single AF, Single AF + MF, Continuous AF, Continuous AF + MF
File types RAW, RAW & JPEG, JPEG
ISO sensitivity ISO100 - 6400
Metering system TTL phase difference detection system
Metering types Programme automatic, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual
White-balance Overcast, Shade, Tungsten, Sunlight, Flourescent 1, Flourescent 2, Flourescent 3
Exposure compensation +/- 5 EV / 1, 1/2, 1/3 steps
Shutter speed range 1/8000 - 60sec
Continuous shooting 5fps
Image stabilisation Yes
Movie mode HD 1280 x 720 (16:9) / SD 640 x 480 (4:3)
Monitor 3.0in LCD screen, 920000 dots
Media type SD / SDHC / SDXC, CompactFlash
Live View Yes
Interface USB 2.0 High Speed, NTSC or PAL selectable, Infrared, DC Input, Synchro socket, HDMI (Mini connector Type C)
Power BLM-5 Li-Ion battery
Size (wxdxl) 142.5 x 116.5 x 74.5mm
Weight (body only) 800g

The Olympus E-5 body only costs £1499.00 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Olympus E-5

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Photographs taken using the Olympus Olympus E-5

Mirabelle treehumanoidAlien in the alleycha-cha-chatarabesqueslunatic asylum?Saint Nicolassame, in colourchiaroscuromeet SansaExposition of the Blessed Sacrament IIgazing (through the window)(g)rainy daylooking uprooms, with arabesques

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Paul Morgan 21 19.7k 6 England
25 Nov 2010 5:05PM

Quote:It is however heavy and bulky and in a sense that is at odds with the reduced sensor size of the Four Thirds system. There is no size or weight advantage to body or lenses and in fact the camera is rather more bulky than many APS-C models

Quote:The body sculpture fits the hand well and the distribution of buttons does not interfere with the grip

I guess you have answered your own question Smile

When mounting something like a 50-200 or 35-100 or any other heavy pro grade lens you would be pleased of the extra size and weight of the body, not that I`ve found the E3 body particularly big. Apart from the large penta prism I don`t think the camera is any bigger than any other body at a similar level/grade.

The price dose seem steep.
quark 11 11 Romania
23 Apr 2011 11:30AM
This is a fine camera, sharp images quality materials and zuiko glass. You need a Leica to beat that.

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