Olympus E-5

The E-3 Reloaded?

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

A swan song?

Olympus has always been cautious and deliberate in introducing its flagship digital SLRs: first the revolutionary E-1 of 2003, then the E-3 of late 2007, reworked from the ground up, and now (more exactly, in January, 2010) the E-5.

With the body construction and most of the specifications unchanged (or improved just a little), this may look like a minor, incremental update, but this is only partly true. In addition to the changes which are instantly visible (see the next section), the internal imaging engine has been significantly improved, and so was the entire Live View mode (adding sensor-based autofocus). Some people I trust see a significant improvement in image quality (which was outstanding in the E-3 anyway).

The camera was highly anticipated by (mostly) Olympus users for a reason: with the company putting more and more resources in the development of the Micro Four Thirds line, many feared Olympus may be winding down its Four Thirds operations. In spite of three new (or not-so-new) models released in 2009, there were serious doubts regarding the survival of the Four Thirds line. The E-5 alleviated these concerns a bit, also providing at least one new, top-class body for those who invested into the Four Thirds lenses — among the best (but also often most expensive!) in the industry.

In retrospect, when I'm cleaning up this article in 2013, we know that the concerns were justified: the E-5 was the end of the Four Thirds line. While the Four Thirds lenses can be used on Micro Four Thirds camera bodies (with an adapter), it is not quite the same: only some of them will actually autofocus (these are newer models, designed with Live View AF in mind), and even those which do, suffer in AF speed and accuracy, especially under low light.

There is some hope — the upcoming E-M1 of the OM-D line. In this camera, there is a provision for phase-detection AF off the sensor surface; this may bring some of your Olympus glass investment back to life, but I will write more about it only after I try this option out.

The new old body

Both cameras share mostly the same magnesium alloy body (~800 g w/o battery; 143×117 mm), splashproof and beautifully finished, which means that the E-5 is still missing the physical mode dial, my major complaint.

When seen from the front, the new camera is indistinguishable from its predecessor:

Out with the old (E-3)... ...In with the new (E-5)

The top deck also seems identical in both models; differences begin only when we have a look at the back, and they are due mostly to a significant increase in the monitor screen size: from 2.5 to 3 inches; obviously, this required some major reshuffling of external controls.

Changes in the camera back from the E-3 to E-5 (on the right). The picture shows the E-5 with the monitor folded out, too bad. Major control reshuffle can be seen.

In spite of less space available for controls now, I like the new layout better than the old.

First of all, the row of four identical buttons below the monitor is gone; this was one of my complaints about the E-3. The Menu and Info buttons are now at the far left, and the Live View one above the right end of the screen. Better. The Delete button (having nothing common with those three) is now under the cursor cluster (like in the '620), just fine with me. That spot was previously occupied by the IS mode button, which is now gone; fine, too, this is not a setting I'm changing often, and it can be easily accessed from the Control Panel.

Last but not least, the battery cover release no longer occupies the valuable real estate on the camera back; it has been moved where it belongs: to the camera bottom.

Oh, yes, the ambient light sensor was moved from the top left of the monitor box to the body proper, just above screen center. In the E-3, the automatic display brightness adjustment worked erratically for me, so I don't really care where the sensor is. Additionally, the thumb grip has been slightly re-sculpted because of less space available to the right side of the monitor

New monitor screen

The screen is not only larger (3"), but also has much better resolution: it changed from 230,000 RGB points (equivalent to 77,000 pixels) up to 920,000 (307,000 pixels); in other words, the linear resolution has been doubled. This is exactly what the Nikon D300 or Sony A700 have; nice, if not essential.

Operational changes and refinements

The new processing engine is referred to as TruePic V+ (as opposed to TruePic III in the E-3, but this means exactly nothing except that some changes have been made. Putting the names aside, let me try to enumerate the changes I was able to find.

  • Imager-based autoexposure and autofocus (contrast detection) in the Live View Mode.

    The camera no longer has to exit and re-enter that mode just before the picture is taken — in order for the AF and AE to be done with use of the dedicated sensors. This somewhat simplifies the sequence, reducing the shutter lag, noise, vibrations, and annoyance considerably. The bad news is that the imager-AF option works only with a few ZD lenses (most recent), so that with older ones it will not be used. This was actually introduced in the E-420 and E-520, and used in all E-System SLR since. My E-620 review includes a detailed description and discussion of this feature.

  • New, 12 megapixel sensor

    The increased pixel count is nice but not really that important (I would expect a phone camera with 30 MP in a few years: the uneducated masses will buy it). There are reports, though, that the sensor has somewhat wider dynamic range that the 10 MP one in the E-3. In any case, my friend Don, who is using both cameras extensively to make really huge prints is raving about the new imaging pipeline.

    Note of 2013: the 30 MP phone camera was supposed to be a joke back in 2010. The recent Nokia Lumia 1020 phone features a 41 MP sensor...

  • ISO to 6400 (up from 3200)

    Lifting the ISO ceiling means Olympus has more trust in their new sensor (or in noise-filtering applied). My impressions: up to ISO 800 images are very clean (with or without NF), usable up to ISO 3200 (with some NF applied) and ISO 6400 may be just for emergencies.

  • Level gauge

    I found this useful on the E-30; it is implemented the same way on the E-5. In particular, the readout can be provided in three places: viewfinder, monitor screen, and top status panel; this makes the feature accessible in both handheld and tripod shooting. For details see my E-30 write-up here.

  • Less intrusive anti-aliasing filter

    The strength (blurring) of the anti-aliasing filter has been reduced in the E-5 as compared to its predecessor. This allows the camera to improve the resolution to some degree, while the danger of Moiré patterns is, I believe, addressed, partially at least, at the stage of image conversion and processing.

  • SD Card slot

    Like the E-3, the E-5 has two memory card slots. One accepts the Compact Flash standard, like before, but the other has been changed from xD-Picture to SD (Secure Digital). At long last: the xD was with no doubt the worst possible choice: slow, limited in size, and proprietary (read: overpriced).

    The E-5 works with SDHC/SDXC (high-capacity/speed) XD cards.

  • New battery: BLM-5 This lithium-ion battery has a larger charge that the BLM-1 used in the E-3 (1620 mAh, compared to 1500). Luckily, both batteries seem to be fully compatible.

Incremental improvements are also reported by users of the new camera; in particular, better tonality and dynamic range of generated images (there was nothing to complain here about in the E-3).

Perhaps more importantly, the autofocus (phase-detection, SLR-type) has been made faster and more accurate; Olympus claims that in this department the E-5 is faster (at the time of its introduction) than any other SLR on the market. Having tried this camera with the 12-60 mm ZD lens, I find this claim plausible. A Digital Camera Review writer, after having tested the AF speed in the E-5 stated: "While I don't feel comfortable making the blanket statement that the E-5 has the fastest AF of any DSLR in the world, I can say that our lab tests show it currently has the fastest AF of any camera we've tested. The E-5 was able to obtain AF acquisition faster than the Nikon D300s, Canon EOS 7D or even the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV." (I believe this refers to the 12-60 mm ZD lens, others will, most probably, be slower.)

Trinketry

Here is a group of new features which I consider of marginal, if any, use in a camera like the E-5, addressed at an advanced-amateur or professional market.

  • Movie mode: 720p, 30 FPS

    I doubt anyone will buy the E-5 for shooting video. Anyway, some people may find this useful. This is not a full HD (1080p), and there is no continuous AF in the movie mode, but you can focus "on demand" when the movie is being shot.

  • HDMI output port

    If you have a movie mode, you better have this as well. Anyway, this can be used for a slide show directly from a camera using an HD TV, so maybe it should not be listed in this section...

  • Art filters (10)

    C'mon, you cannot be serious! I'm at a loss trying to come up with one feature which would be more useless on this camera. Similar Art Modes (just fewer of them) can be found on other recent Olympus SLR, including the E-30; see its review for more.

    Well, at least Olympus stopped short of adding "scene modes" to this camera...

  • Face detection (Live View only)

    This feature tries to detect faces in the image preview, and to autofocus on one of them (not quite clear which one, if more than one). It is clearly addressed at a typical professional photographer who will be shooting group pictures using the LV screen for preview, holding the camera in his outstretched hands for better stability, and who is unable to decide where to choose the focus point.

  • Aspect ratio selection (4:3, 3:2, 16:9, etc.)

    The saved picture (JPEG only) will be cropped to the selected aspect ratio. Of course, the same can be done in postprocessing, but you can argue that it may be better to take the image proportions into account already when composing the picture. Unfortunately, you can preview the cropped image only in Live View, but not in the optical viewfinder (which was the reason you bought an SLR, right?). In an electronic-finder camera this could be sometimes useful, in an SLR - not really.

  • New Picture Mode: i-Enhance

    The "traditional" Olympus Picture Modes (processing presets): Vivid, Normal, Muted, Portrait and Monotone [sic!] are still there, but the first slot on the list is now taken by a new entry, named (quite moronically) i-Enhance. The Olympus manual, true to the long tradition, does not bother us with details; all it says is: "Produces more impressive-looking pictures matched to the scene mode". Right, our poor little brains could explode overloaded with any more information. Some other sources say this mode can be used for best off-the-camera (no postprocessing) results. I shot just two frames in this mode, with disastrous results.

    2013: the i-Enhance mode made it also to the E-M5, and I used it somewhat more extensively on that camera. The results are quite unpredictable, but generally ugly. Stay away.

So what now?

In case you were waiting for my recommendations, these are not so easy to give.

The E-5 is, no doubt, the best-performing Four Thirds (FT) camera (certainly to-date, possibly ever), and it may successfully compete with contemporary models from other makers, their higher pixel count notwithstanding. But does that justify a significant expense ($1700, body only), especially with the future of the system uncertain as it is?

It is also big and heavy — a drawback for those who were attracted to Four Thirds by the promise of a smaller and lighter system.

You will have to make your own decision here, but my advice, for those who ask, is:

  • If you have, use, and enjoy the E-3, and especially if you have invested in some of the better FT lenses, I would recommend coughing up the $1700 and upgrading. This will give your system a few extra years of productive life.
  • If you are using one of the smaller Olympus SLR models (E-30, E-620), especially with a lens investment, and if you are not sure the E-5 formfactor is for you, wait for two or three years. It is possible that in the coming years Olympus will decide to release (1) an upgrade to one of its mid-line models, or (2) an EVF camera with the FT mount, or (3) a μFT model with an eye-level finder and satisfactory AF performance when used with at least most of FT lenses (with an adapter, of course).

    While option (1) would be most natural (especially if implemented similarly to the E3-to-E5 upgrade), the other options also seem to be a possibility. Note that (3) would require some new development in sensor-based, AF technology (phase-detection or at least compatible), while (2) — either that or, worse, a transition to a beam-splitter, phase-detection AF similar to that used in some Sony models. The latter is quite doubtful, because it would mean building a completely new camera (mechanically, optically, and electronically) from a clean slate.

    Anyway, after two or three years you will be in a position to decide whether to go into the μFT system (with or without the full FT lens compatibility), or to jump ship, playing it safe and moving to a Pentax, Sony, Nikon, or Canon line.

    Looking back from 2013: The recent announcement of the OM-D E-M1 caught me by surprise. The camera uses a completely new imager-based AF system, with some of the photosites have been reassigned from detecting the green component to phase-detection AF. This is the option (3) from the list above, and it should, supposedly at least, allow the camera to focus properly with all FT lenses. I will be getting an E-M1 and checking this claim by myself.

  • If you are currently not using an Olympus digital SLR and are considering jumping on the Four Thirds bandwagon, forget it, at least until the situation becomes clear. If you are unwilling to wait, consider another camera line.

As for myself, I am currently using the E-30 (for more critical applications) and E-620 (to save on size and weight, also as a backup body), so I am in the second group described above. The cameras work just fine and do not limit my photography in any way, so I decided to follow my own advice and wait to see what happens.

Update of 2013: Last year I got an OM-D E-M5, a delightful μFT, EVF camera, and three lenses. This became my favorite all-around setup, although for more serious occasions I also take an E-30 along. The upcoming E-M1 may merge these two lines back together, so I'm glad I waited.

Recommended Web resources

I'm listing here just a few links to what I consider the most meaningful descriptions, reviews, or discussions of the E-5. In a random order, they are:

  • Review at the Imaging Resource by Shawn Barnett at al.
  • Review by Jerry Jackson at Digital Camera Review.
  • Review by Barney Britton at al at DP Review.


My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2010/04/12; last updated 2013/11/18 Copyright © 2010-2013 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak