Not so long ago, Olympus updated both the E-PL series (E-PL5 reviewed here) and the E-PM series with the OM-D’s sensor and other trickle-down technology. Thus it only made sense that it was also about high time for the E-P3 to be refreshed, too. They’ve taken a bit longer over this one; in fact, the new E-P5 has so much of the OM-D’s technology (and a few other things) that picking one over the other is no longer such an easy decision.
Updated 18 June: I’ve had the chance to shoot with a final production E-P5 and VF-4, and have added conclusions on image quality below. The camera looks and feels physically identical to the earlier prototype I tested. In the intervening time, an update to Adobe Camera Raw has also been released that natively supports the E-P5, so I’ve had the ability to evaluate RAW file quality on a comparable basis to the OM-D.
I’ve had a prototype to evaluate for a few days now, thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia. The usual caveats apply: this is a preproduction but near-final unit. Due to lack of raw support, and because I was curious to see what the output would be like, and to address past criticisms that my processing masks the camera’s capabilities, these are almost entirely out-of-camera JPEGs. There are some minor corrections on a few images (some straightening, local dodging etc.); most have nothing done to them at all other than resizing and adding watermarks. B&W images were converted from color. I believe it is a first for me, actually. Images were shot with a mix of the 75/1.8 and 14-42 X Pancake.
Aside from the refreshed design, which really recalls the PENs of old – especially in the very fetching chrome/black – one thing that Olympus did get very right with this iteration is the build-feel. Frequent readers will know that haptics and tactility are a very important consideration in picking a cameras now; especially given that image quality sufficiency is pretty much there, irrespective of what you buy. It’s a handsome camera that doesn’t let you down when you pick it up; it’s solid, almost all metal, and interestingly, there aren’t any screws on the top, front, back or sides. Even the buttons have a good amount of travel and a solid click point; this is something very noticeably lacking from the top two buttons on the OM-D (play and Fn). The command dials have moved to a much more sensible position, too – they mirror the OM-D’s position, being under the shutter and on the back. There’s also a two-position switch on the back that lets you use the command dials to quickly set ISO and WB – somewhat reminiscent of the Sony nav system – unfortunately you don’t get a lot of choices as to the functions of those dials; full customization would have been nice. There’s one exception, though – the mode dial should be a LOT stiffer. It’s far too easy to move by accident.
The E-P5 inherits the OM-D’s 16MP Sony CMOS sensor, again with no anti-aliasing filter, and now a low-ISO 100-equivalent option, too. Coupled with the new 1/8000s, 9fps shutter unit, we’ve now got a lot more flexibility to shoot wide open – given the relatively little depth of field control M4/3 affords compared to full frame, this is noteworthy. I personally have come up against exposure limits at 1/4000s and ISO 200 (base) many times with the OM-D while trying to shoot wide open for a cinematic look. More interestingly, Olympus have also managed to stuff the OM-D’s 5-axis gyro stabilizer system into the E-P5, which now also incorporates automatic panning detection. Readers of my previous reviews of the E-PL5 and E-PM1 will know that I was not a fan of their IBIS systems, which just as often caused double images as much as preventing them. I’m pleased to report that the E-P5′s system is every bit as effective as the one in my OM-D, which is to say, the best in the business. Unlike with the previous cameras, I’ll be leaving IBIS on.
What you’ll all be waiting to hear is that Olympus finally has focus peaking. However, it seems that the view is applied as an art filter preview, which means that the frame rate of the display drops a bit, and I haven’t been able to make it work in conjunction with magnification and IBIS – I’m not sure it can, actually. But the good news is that with the new 1.2m-dot LCD or 2.4m-dot EVF (new VF-4), it works well enough and the pixels are fine enough that you don’t really need magnification; it also switches a lot faster than the OM-D and gains an eye-sensor over the previous add-on EVFs. A smoother frame rate for peaking would definitely be nice, though. As for the new EVF, the view is pretty darned huge; it delivers a magnification equivalent to 0.74x for a full frame 35mm camera. It’s roughly as big as the viewfinder of my D800E, for comparison. The difference is especially obvious when you go back to using the OM-D, which has the older EVF and LCD – both appear just a little small and coarse by comparison. I was told that the new EVF will be back-compatible with earlier cameras with a firmware upgrade, and replaces the VF-2; perhaps M 240 users might want to give it a try.
Aside from that, there are the now almost-obligatory software improvements. The E-P5 also has a 5fps C-AF tracking rate (though honestly, I still don’t think any CDAF camera’s tracking system is anywhere close to a PDAF one for reliability) as opposed to 4fps on the OM-D, bulb mode with live preview and live histogram, and a timelapse movie mode. There’s also integrated wifi – it’s aimed primarily at the social media types (requires an app to work) – it’s responsive, fast, and offers live view, too. Personally, not my cup of tea; I’m still waiting for tethered shooting to a PC and transfer of RAW files, not just JPEGs. Hopefully, this is firmware-update material. Finally, there are also black versions of the 17mm, 45mm and 75mm lenses – this time, without the same premium the 12mm version attracted. They’ll be regular production runs and the same price as the silver versions. I’m also pleased to report that the 75mm (finally) has a new center-pinch lens cap that can be used hood on, or off – similar to the Nikon types.
The actual shooting experience was a rather pleasant one – the E-P5 feels somewhere in between the OM-D and smaller PENs in terms of controls, and if you used the VF-4, then the experience is really not that different at all to the OM-D. The rear (touch) screen even tilts, though this is very well hidden via a thin bezel and recessed hinge – it will do the same movements as the OM-D. Unlike the OM-D, however, if the LCD is not in its recessed position, the EVF’s eye sensor is deactivated – which is fantastic news as it means you don’t have to hold it far away from your body to shoot at waist level. The power switch also falls much more conveniently to hand – it’s easy to activate with your shutter finger.
Personally, I thought build quality and tactile feel were both better than the OM-D, but curiously weather sealing was omitted. And like every other Olympus including the OM-D, those darn strap lugs are still in a silly position – I can only come to the conclusion that it’s a deliberately masochistic design, or there’s somebody at HQ who really, really likes them; given the attention to detail paid to every other aspect of the camera, it’s inexplicable. Aside from that: I liked the way it felt enough that I’d seriously have a tough time deciding between this and the OM-D on that basis alone, seeing as (aside from the built-in EVF) – the E-P5 is actually of higher spec, and it’s a little smaller, too. They both use the same batteries, and in my use, delivered comparable battery life with wifi off – I consistently managed north of 500 shots per charge with wifi off, and a full battery gauge remaining.
It would be unfair to form any firm conclusions on image quality for the moment – partly because I’m told what I have is not quite final and there will be some tweaks to sensor output, and partly because there’s no RAW support yet, so all I can see are the JPEGs. However, what I can see suggests that everything will be in line with the (high) expectations we have for that sensor, given the excellent output of the OM-D, E-PL5 and E-PM2. I have no reason to believe otherwise from the JPEG output I’ve been evaluating, which is excellent; for the curious, I used a modified Natural setting for these images, with +1 sharpening, -2 contrast, -1 saturation and auto gradation. In fact, considering the extreme dynamic range the camera had to deal with under our tropical midday sun, I’m very, very impressed with the Olympus JPEG engine – I’ll have to do more testing on this with my OM-D in future…
Update (18 June 2013): I’ve now had the opportunity to shoot with a final production E-P5 for the last week; there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between the E-P5, E-PL5 and OM-D – at least as far as raw files via ACR go – colour rendition, dynamic range and noise properties all appear to be nearly identical. For those of you not familiar with the output of these cameras, we’re basically dealing with very crisp (at the pixel level) output, weak-anti-aliasing filters, and very pleasing color; usable dynamic range at base ISO is on the order of 11-12 stops, perhaps a little more with careful exposure and manipulation of the raw file. (Note that the E-P5 has a ‘pull’ ISO 100 mode; this has slightly less – about half a stop – dynamic range than ISO 200, because it’s not a native ISO.) The camera delivers clean output up to ISO 1600 or thereabouts; there’s some fine noise, but it’s mostly high frequency, luminance-0nly and quite filmic. ISO 3200 is usable with a little noise reduction, and I’m okay with ISO 6400 under certain lighting conditions and some post processing. This is excellent performance for a sensor of this size.
The E-P5 and E-PL5 appear to have a very slightly weaker anti-aliasing filter than the OM-D, but the difference is so minor (and not always apparent) that I suspect the exact distance of the focusing plane may make a difference, especially with very three-dimensional subjects. The good news is that the E-P5 delivers the same excellent image quality as its siblings, and my initial conclusions don’t change. On the JPEG front, I don’t see any difference between the test images from the earlier final prototype and this final production camera; I still think they’re still a hair better than the OM-D in terms of color and tonality, and possibly the best I’ve straight-from-camera output I’ve seen. If you don’t want to postprocess at all, I highly recommend taking a look at the E-P5 over the OM-D (or any other camera, for that matter).
I think the way street prices will shake out will mean that the OM-D body will be slightly more expensive than the E-P5 body, but slightly cheaper than the E-P5 plus VF-4. It’s a tricky choice, because unless you really need the EVF all the time, or weather sealing, or the grip, then I think the E-P5 may well be the better buy. It’s both a little more compact and feels nicer in the hand (I personally also think the all-black is a very stealthily handsome camera, but that of course shouldn’t enter into a real photographer’s purchasing decisions), and has additional technology (wifi, peaking, higher resolution LCD) over the OM-D. Actually, paying a little more for the VF-4 isn’t a bad thing either, because the view it presents is noticeably better than the OM-D’s built in EVF. I’m personally very glad that I’m not entering the mirrorless market now, or upgrading from one of the 12MP bodies – all I can say is good luck choosing! MT
A full set with additional sample images is available here on my Flickr stream. Before anybody complains about oversharpening haloes again, it’s Flickr’s downsizing algorithm. The ‘original’ size is NOT oversharpened.
The Olympus E-P5 is available to preorder via Olympus Malaysia, for Malaysian residents. Various kits and bodies are available from Amazon here. Bodies are also available for preorder from B&H in black, silver and white, and the VF-4 is here. The new black lenses are also available to preorder here (you may have to scroll down a little.)
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