Olympus E-5 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is the image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For a digital SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, contrast and exposure are properties of the camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness depends on the weakest link. So, the camera cannot capture more details than the lens lets through. Conversely, it is possible for a lens to transmit more details than the sensor can capture.
Image quality from the Olympus E-5 is really quite good with a very consistent and reliable performance. Image noise, which is usually the biggest concern of digital camera owners, is well controlled with an impeccable base ISO of 100. There is a very gradual increase in noise at each ISO but it only becomes noticeable in common print sizes at ISO 1600. ISO 3200 and 6400 are still usable but they should be kept for small prints or web use. The complement of noise is image detail. Digital cameras have to strike a balance between the two. Olympus seems to have favored smooth results at the expense of details as the default settings, so much that we were surprised at first how soft images were even at relatively low sensitivities. Luckily, this is simple a default choice and overriding it once and for all is easy. With noise reduction turned off, the Olympus E-5 produces highly detailed shots and noise remains unintrusive until ISO 1600.
This is an excellent performance, particularly since they managed to do it with a sensor which is smaller than most DSLRs. Setting the Noise Filter to Low in the custom menu is quite good as well and probably ideal for those who shoot more often at higher ISOs. For those who shoot in RAW mode, noise-reduction settings do not affect the RAW files themselves but do affect both the image preview and the default conversion. If you shoot extensively and therefore lack the time to tweak images individually, then it would still be best to reduce noise reduction and choose a sensible picture style.
The Olympus E-5 has more picture styles than any DSLR we have seen to date which can seem daunting, even more so since they can all be adjusted. A custom function allows to simplify the interface and leave only a handful of pictures styles in the menu. Among all 18 styles, only one produces colors which closely resemble reality and that is the Natural setting. At its default, this picture styles produces images with a slight punch, just a bit more saturated than reality but not disturbingly so. Note that when adjusting saturation and color, it is important to do so using a calibrated monitor as the camera's LCD and most displays will not show images accurately. The default sharpness setting is good too but boosting produces more pleasing results with very little artifacts.
The automatic white-balance system is surprisingly good but not flawless. What greatly helps the E-5 is its external white-balance sensor which measures light falling on the camera. This removes the guesswork out of selecting the correct white-balance but relies on the camera being lit by the same light as the subject. We do not know how the camera determines when to use the external white-balance sensor and when to guess but you can force it to guess all the time by turning off the sensor. Outdoors the E-5 performed beautifully. It was particularly great to see it nail white-balance in night photography of cityscapes, something that most cameras have trouble doing because of all the bright colored lights around. Indoors it also works most of the time, even correcting for difficult incandescent lighting. When shooting a scene lit by incandescent light from another type of lighting, it did leave a noticeable yellow cast sometimes. This is obviously not a common case, so we are happy to report that you can expect white-balance to function correctly in the vast majority of cases.
There are five metering modes on this camera, with the multi-segment one called ESP. There are two distinct version of ESP metering, the normal one which uses 49 segments and one with 324 segments when shooting in Live-View. Despite the difference in segments, ESP metering was very consistent during the review period but there are bound to be cases when results would be different. Exposures chosen by the ESP metering systems are very good and rarely blow out major highlights. They are also very stable and provide consistent results. Center-weighed metering favors exposure for a centrally placed subject. Spot metering works just as expected. Highlight spot roughly corresponds to spot metering with EC set to +2 and shadow spot corresponds to spot metering with EC set to -3.
There is an optional function called Shading Compensation that removes vignetting causes by poorly designed lenses. When it is enabled, the overall brightness of an image does not drop towards the corners. The nice thing about this implementation is that this feature does not appear to slow down the camera by much, something that cannot be said about most cameras that implement something similar. Since there is no provision for eliminating distortion, this feature does not affect framing either.
This DSLR is incredibly fast and responsive. Startup has a very shot delay. Shutdown is a little longer because that is when the E-5 shakes the dust off the sensor. It takes less than just over 1s to take the first shot from power off. Autofocus speed is top-notch. Olympus claims the fastest autofocus speed of any camera and it is believable. Keep in mind that there is always some variance in focusing speed depending on the subject, lighting conditions and the lens used. That being said, the E-5 has certainly one of the fastest, most sensitive and most accurate AF system among digital cameras. This is probably the most impressive aspect of this model.
The is an optional focus-assist illumination function but it is rarely needed since the E-5 is able to focus down to very low light-levels and even on low-contrast subjects. There were barely any focus misses during the entire review period. The beep that confirms focus-lock is louder than needed but it always be disabled. The camera has volume control for other sounds but the focus-beep is not affected. The camera also optionally illuminates a focus-point each time it locks focus. In live-view, the camera can also use contrast-detection autofocus. Contrast-detect autofocus is not only very slow but quite noisy, at least with the SWD lens. It seems to quickly shake the focus position back and forth. While it can take 4 seconds or more to lock focus, it does manage to lock in most cases.
The all-important shutter-lag is very short and barely noticeable. The very soft shutter helps in this case get the shot at the perfect moment. During live-view it is slightly longer and the screen blanks out most after taking the shot. Once snapped, it takes about 1½ seconds for the instant review to appear on the rear LCD. This is the only slower than average aspect of the E-5. Shot-to-shot speeds hover around ½ second which is a little slower than expected, considering this camera can shoot at 5 FPS. Even in manual focus mode, it still takes about the same time between shots.
When the instant-review time is set to Auto Play, it takes about 2 seconds for the camera to become responsive to the delete button. In most cases, the E-5 is shooting-priority, so tapping the shutter very quickly makes the camera ready for the next shot. Playback mode is fast too, switching and zooming into images instantly. Panning is generally quick, except at low magnifications, where it is not slow either, just not so fast. The camera's buttons and dials are all very responsive. Most menus and displays change quickly. Entering and exiting live-view and playback modes take about one second.
There is a top continuous shooting speed of 5 FPS and a low-speed continuous shooting mode which is configurable between 1 and 4 FPS. The E-5 is supposed to keep shooting at 5 FPS without a fixed limit but that depends largely on the memory card uses. This model particularly supports all the most popular types of memory: SDHC, SD, Compact Flash and the newer SDXC ones as well. At low ISO settings, the camera has no trouble sustaining 5 FPS until a UDMA Compact Flash card fills up. At ISO 1600, the speed drops to 4 FPS. In RAW mode, the buffer is limited to 16 images.
Although there is no formal procedure for measuring the performance of image stabilization, we can say that the Image Stabilization system in the E-5 appears to be normally effective to about 3 stop of effectiveness. Battery life is good too, with 870 shots according to CIPA measurement standards when using the optical viewfinder. In live-view the number of possible shots is greatly reduced.
This Olympus E-5 turns out to be an excellent DSLR. It has all the makings of a refined product and an advanced feature set which makes it suitable for all types of photography. There are very few cameras which include all the E-5's important features and it even has some unique capabilities. The very effective image stabilization system benefits all lenses at no additional cost, while its incredibly tough body when combined with compatible weather sealed lenses protects it against harsh environments. Shoot anything and take it anywhere should be the motto of the E-5, although its size and weight makes it far from discreet.
Image quality is certainly good. In absolute terms, the E-5 shows more noise at high-ISO than its latest competitors but it not anything to worry about until ISO 1600 and more. Colors are also good and the white-balance system is more accurate than most digital cameras. Metering is top-notch as well. The star of the E-5 is its ultra-fast 11-point double-cross focus-system which focuses at incredible speed with great accuracy and sensitivity, locking focus down to very low light-levels.
This camera remains quick and responsive nearly all the time. The 5 FPS continuous drive keeps up at low ISO sensitivities with no buffer limit. The instant review time, which takes about 1½ seconds, is the only slower than expected aspect of this camera. Live-view is not perfectly implemented but in Manual exposure mode it does quite a good job if you ignore the racket caused by the contrast-detect autofocus system.
As a professional-level DSLR, ergonomics are made for efficiency with dual control-dials and plenty of buttons to avoid going into the tediously complex menu system. Really very few things require going through that menu and one can learn to navigate it after having the camera for a while. The viewfinder is big for a Four-Thirds DSLR but remains smaller than that of other high-end models. The only poor usability aspect is the implementation of video recording which borders on the unusable and is clearly tacked over the design of the E-3 which closely resembles the E-5.
Overall, the E-5 really performed above expectations and makes a very well-rounded DSLR without falling much in any area and producing beautiful images with a solid performance. Anyone with an existing investment in Four-Thirds lenses should seriously consider this camera unless weight is a limiting factor. For users getting into a new system, it is worth noting that choosing a DSLR brand equates choosing a lens lineup. Olympus certainly has some nice and unique offerings there, although there do not cover all photographic possibilities.
Olympus E-5 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 17 x 13mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|12 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-6400|
|2-Axis Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|2 Axis Digital Level||Spot-Metering|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Stereo audio input|
|5 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|1280x720 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Compact Flash|
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