Olympus E-5 £1499.99

30th Mar 2011 | 13:00

Olympus E-5

Does this DSLR have enough to tempt Four Thirds photographers?

TechRadar rating:

3 stars

Like:

Good picture quality at low sensitivity; Fast and accurate autofocus; Customisable controls;

Dislike:

Smaller than normal sensor; Still quite large considering small sensor; Autofocus lacks some high-end features; Steep price in comparison to competition

Olympus E-5: Overview

A 12.3 million pixel sensor borrowed from the E-PL1, a new TruePic V+ processing engine, 720p movie recording and an electronic level are all improvements that the Olympus E-5 has on the E-3, but is that enough to tempt Four Thirds photographers to buy an E-5?

It's unusual for a camera manufacturer to announce a camera and say that it may be the last in the line, but that's just what Olympus has done with its E-5 release, the replacement for the E-3.

With this Olympus E-5 news, the company isn't saying it will be the last top-end E-series camera, but it may be the last one with an optical viewfinder and reflex mirror.

Olympus is also keen to point out that removing the mirror from DSLR doesn't have to result in a smaller camera; it could be done to create space for new, previously unthought of features. After all, the company has a history of developing features such as full-colour live view and articulated LCD screens for Olympus cameras that initially some thought gimmicky, but have now found favour and have been adopted more widely.

So, having whetted our appetite for the future, Olympus gives us a relatively minor upgrade to the E-3, with a 12-million-pixel sensor instead of a 10-million-pixel device, a new processor, a larger LCD with a higher resolution, 720p movie recording capability, an electronic level and a switch to SD and CF slots instead of xD and CF ports.

Again rather unusually, but with refreshing honesty, Olympus UK's Mark Thackara tells us that the company isn't really expecting to persuade many photographers to switch brands: the Olympus E-5 is intended to keep existing E-series users happy. But is there enough to keep them faithful to the brand, we wonder?

Olympus E-5: Build quality and handling

Olympus e-5

Although Olympus likes to bandy the word professional around in connection with the E-5, like Nikon's D300S, it's really more of a semi-pro or serious enthusiast level model. Its build quality, however, is very high, it is splash-and dust-proof and it feels tough enough to survive the rigours of semi-professional use.

From the rear the Olympus E-5 body is quite angular looking with lots of straight lines, however, it is very comfortable to hold with plenty of grippy-textured patches that help keep it safe in your grasp.

Moving up from a 2.5-inch LCD on the E-3 to a 3-inch device on the Olympus E-5 body means that some button rearrangement has taken place and the buttons that are beneath the E-3's LCD have been redistributed above and also the right of the Olympus E-5's screen.

On the whole, the E-5's controls are logically laid out and sit within easy reach, but there are a few quirks. Those with small hands may find the rear control dial a bit of a reach with their thumb, especially when their index finger is on the heavily recessed exposure compensation button on the top plate.

As with other Olympus cameras, namely the E-series DSLRs and the Pen micro system series, it is odd that the manufacturer chooses to bury the option to set JPEG files to the highest quality via the custom menu. Why this isn't located with the other image quality options in the first page of the shooting menu is a mystery. I'm sure many Olympus cameras shoot Fine Quality JPEG images for quite some time before they discover the Extra Fine option.

On the subject of the E-5's menu, Olympus has added coloured tabs to the custom menu options, but the overall look is quite dated. Unlike Nikon and Canon cameras, there's no option to allocate a selection of frequently used menu features to a 'My menu' type screen. Also, there is some wasted free space in the first two shooting menus, that could be used more sensibly to house one or two of the custom options. Why are the metering and white balance options located in the custom menu for instance?

Although the Olympus E-5 has a fair smattering of direct control buttons the LCD can also display the Super Control Panel which allows the user to select and adjust up to 20 settings using the navigation and OK buttons. It's quick and easy to use (even if there is quite a bit of button pressing) and is a great way of assisting those progressing up from Olympus's other cameras. It would be nice if it were possible to customise the display though.

Like the E-3 before it, the Olympus E-5 doesn't really deliver the smaller camera promise made for the Four Thirds format. It is similar in size to the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S, yet it has a smaller sensor. Olympus's retort to this comment is that the Four Thirds lenses are near telecentric, so the light rays hit the sensor at an angle that is very close to perpendicular, which helps to improve image quality and reduce vignetting.

We certainly found there was a significant improvement in image quality when we switched from shooting our lab charts with our standard Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens to using Olympus's Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD optic. This is mostly likely because Olympus's lenses have a near telecentric design and are specifically designed for use with Four Thirds sensors.

The lenses are also subject to a 2x focal length magnification factor, making the Four Thirds system a great option for telephoto lovers, but less popular with wideangle enthusiasts.

Olympus E-5: Controls and features

Olympus e-5

For the dedicated stills photographer the most exciting upgrades in the Olympus E-5 vs E-3 are the increase in pixel count from 10.1 million to 12.3 million, a 3-inch LCD screen with 920,000 dots, a one stop higher maximum sensitivity setting (ISO 6400) and a new processing engine (TruePic V+) which Olympus claims is able to deliver the best resolution from any 12 million pixel sensor. The addition of an electronic level that can be displayed in either the LCD or the viewfinder is also attractive.

Though by itself perhaps not enough to convince someone to upgrade, it is one of the best implementations of a level that we have seen and it's easy to see in both displays. It is especially useful in a camera with an articulated screen (like both the E-3 and E-5) as it's easy to miss a sloping horizon when shooting from ground level or another awkward angle. When using the viewfinder it's helpful that the level stays illuminated (using the exposure compensation scale) even when the shutter release is depressed.

Though they haven't always had the highest resolution, Olympus DSLR LCDs have usually managed to punch a bit above their weight. With 920,000 dots the E-5's screen is only beaten by those on Canon's EOS 550D and EOS 60D which both have 1,040,000 dot LCDs, and it provides a good clear view of the scene being composed as well as of captured images. There's sufficient detail visible in the enlarged views to enable accurate manual focusing, helpfully the magnified view can be set to activate when the lens focus ring is rotated or when either the depth of field preview or Fn (function) button is depressed.

Olympus has also introduced video technology to its top-end DSLR, but while other manufacturers are starting to feature 1080p capability, Olympus has plumped for 720p (1280x720 pixel) video at 30fps in the Olympus E-5. It can shoot up to 7 mins of footage at this resolution, or 14 mins at 640x480 pixels. Though the built-in mic is monaural, there is a port to connect an external stereo mic.

Although the E-5's custom menu seems unnecessarily populated with features such as the white balance and metering options that you might expect to access elsewhere, there's also plenty of opportunity for photographers to set the camera to their personal preferences. Several button and dial control functions can be swapped or their operation reversed and its worth spending some time experimenting with them. It's the sort of thing that's worth revisiting after using the camera for a while.

For instance, initially it may seem sensible to set the Fn (function) button to 'One touch white balance', to allow the custom white balance to set quickly, but if you only tend to use it in slowly developing situations where time is not absolutely critical, it may be better to use it to access one of the other features.

There's plenty to choose from including activating face detection, depth of field preview, Live Preview, activating the home AF point, switching to manual focus, changing the file format, selecting the exposure mode, taking a test picture, setting the camera to a saved custom set-up (Myset 1-4), zooming in and out, activating the level, magnifying the on-screen image, selecting the AF point or switching IS mode.

Olympus e-5

With an Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) lens such as the Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD mounted the E-5's 11-biaxial point AF system performs well. It focuses quickly and quietly in most situations. In the darkness of a pub music gig it managed to get the target sharp the vast majority of the time, even when one of the peripheral AF points was activated. It's not quite up to the standard of the Nikon D7000 or D300S with an f/2.8 optic in place, but it's not far behind.

However, it lacks the AF point selection options response customisation capability of these cameras, so despite its speed and greater focal length magnification factor, it may not be the first choice of dedicated sports snappers.

Like with most DSLRs, the E-5's live view AF system isn't suitable for use when shooting moving subjects, it focuses the lens just a little too slowly. This makes live view most useful with landscape, still life and macro subjects and although the contrast detection AF system can usually be relied upon to find the correct focus point, it makes more sense to focus manually, assessing sharpness on the LCD with the magnified view enabled.

The Olympus E-5 face detection does a great job of recognising that there are faces with the scene, but it still takes a little while to get them into sharp focus, especially in low light. It's important to remember to set the camera to Auto AF point selection when using face detection as otherwise it focuses on the subject under the last selected AF point (rather than the face) as soon as the shutter release button is pressed.

Like all Olympus DSLRs apart from the most basic E-450, the Olympus E-5 has built-in image stabilisation. This sensor-shifting mechanism claims to extend the safe hand-holdable shutter speed by up to 5 stops. That's the difference between 1/500 sec and 1/15 sec, which is a bold claim and whether or not it is possible to achieve it will vary from photographer to photographer and lens to lens. It is clear, however, that it does help prevent shake induced blur from spoiling images.

Olympus E-5: Image Quality

Olympus e-5

When the Olympus E-5 high sensitivity noise reduction system (what Olympus calls the Noise Filter) is in its default or Standard setting, there is very little chroma noise visible in the images it produces. In fact, even with the filter turned off the interference is primarily luminance noise. The results are very good up to ISO 3200 when the level of detail visible drops.

There's no dramatic smudging, but details just start to get a little fuzzy and merge into one another. Helpfully, the raw development module of Olympus Viewer 2 which is bundled with the E-5 allows the level of noise reduction applied to raw files to be adjusted to other 'in-camera' settings. Generally, the best compromise between noise and detail visibility in ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 images is struck when the in Noise Filter is set to Low.

High sensitivity raw images processed using Adobe's Camera Raw have a much coarser texture than those processed using the supplied Olympus Viewer 2 software. The Adobe processed image has less visible chroma noise, but it also has a fragmented texture.

Although noise often appears well controlled when images are viewed at pixel level, even toned areas in images captured at ISO 64000 sometimes exhibit patches of subtly false colour. In one image, for example, a plain wall shot in low light appears to have very faint broad bands of red.

For a 12-million-pixel camera the Olympus E-5 can resolve a high level of detail and the low sensitivity results looks fairly natural rather than overtly digital when examined at 100% on the computer screen. As a general rule, the greatest level of detail is captured when the in-camera noise reduction system is turned off, but as the visibility of noise and detail varies to some extent depending upon the subject it is best to shoot raw images that can be adjusted later if necessary.

On the whole, Olympus demonstrates a good understanding of colour and exposure, and the E-5 doesn't disappoint, though it has a tendency to make reds a bit too vibrant. Switching to the Portrait Picture mode enhances red even further, which is not especially flattering for most subjects apart from with the palest skin.

While the results can be obtained by post capture adjustment, Olympus is very keen on its filter effects. Conveniently on the Olympus E-5 these can be accessed via the Picture Mode options. For most occasions, however, the Natural Picture Mode is the way to go.

We found that the automatic white balance setting turns out natural looking images in a range of natural lighting situations and it retains the anticipated colour of artificially illuminated scenes. Candle-lit settings, for instance, still have plenty of atmosphere. In some cases, for example, when shooting under an overcast sky, the AWB setting produces better results than the warmer output generated by employing the cloudy white balance setting.

Software

Olympus supplies the E-5 with Olympus Viewer 2, which can be used to facilitate image download, organisation into folders and processing. The range of controls is extensive, and although they are largely limited to in-camera type adjustments (plus a curves control option), it is very good. In fact it gives Canon's excellent Digital Photo Professional software that is bundled with Canon DSLRs a good run for its money and Olympus E-5 users should not over look it when processing raw files.

As part of our review process we've implemented a new testing procedure. To test the Olympus E-5 image quality, we shot our resolution chart, each with the Olympus 12-60mm lens.

If you look at our 100% crops below or download the images and view the central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, at ISO 100 the Olympus E-5 is capable of resolving up to 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in it's highest quality JPEG files. Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEGs

ISO 100

0.4secs at f/8, ISO 100: 24

ISO 100

ISO 100: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 200

ISO 200: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 400

ISO 400: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 800

ISO 800: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 1600

ISO 1600: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 3200

ISO 3200: 20 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 6400

ISO 6400: 16 (Click here to view full-res image)

Raw files

ISO 100

ISO 100: 26/24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 200

ISO 200: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 400

ISO 400 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 800

ISO 800: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 1600

ISO 1600: 24 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 3200

ISO 3200: 20 (Click here to view full-res image)

ISO 6400

ISO 6400: 18 (Click here to view full-res image)

Olympus E-5: Verdict

Olympus e-5

There's plenty about the Olympus E-5 to keep the enthusiast photographer happy; however, it's one of those cameras that has lots of 'buts' about it.

For a start many photographers, apart from those already committed to the Four Thirds standard, are still like to be put off by the fact that it has a smaller than average sensor with no obvious weight, cost or size advantage. Although there's no denying the high quality of the results the camera can produce at low sensitivity settings, a pixel count of 12 million is also decidedly last season and this may discourage some photographers more than it should.

While the Olympus E-5 automatic focusing system is fast and accurate (provide the right lenses are used) in most situations, it lacks a little of the functionality (and complication) of the systems in the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S. The handling is also a little less slick, although there are plenty of opportunities to customise the controls.

It is still very new, but at around £1500, the Olympus E-5 price seems steep in comparison with the Canon 7D price, which is around £1,150 and the Nikon D300S price, which stands at about £1,035. The current Olympus E-5 price is also unlikely to persuade too many users of other Olympus cameras, like the E-3, E-30 or E-620, to upgrade.

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