Alex Mustard reviews Olympus OM-D E-M5


Like me, you may well know a M43 bore. Mine’s called Dan and I’ve regularly had to hear his arguments for the M43 format over the last few years: “DLSR matching performance and image quality in much smaller package”. I like his theory and not just for travel. Such small cameras make for housings small enough to be held like cameras, rather than via handles. They are also great for squeezing into tight spots, pushing through the water when chasing big animals and maneuvering close to the seabed when shooting critters on the bottom.

The diminutive E-M5 and housing.

Dan has also demonstrated it pretty convincingly in practice too, with a certain D. Bolt winning the 2011 British Underwater Photography Championship, his M43 Olympus PEN topping a field of more than 50 experienced shooters, including some big names, most using Nikon or Canon SLRs.

My buddy Peter Rowlands is convinced by M43 too, he sold his Nikon D700 and has been happily using a M43 Panasonic GH2 for the last year. And since the E-M5 moves the Micro Four Thirds game on significantly from Dan’s and Peter’s cameras. Surely SLR shooters can no longer put our head’s in the sand over this format?

You really see how small the E-M5 is when you park it next to a SLR, in this case Nigel Wade’s D300, who was along to review the camera for UK’s Diver Magazine. But you may be surprised to learn that I believe that it is the smaller camera than delivers superior image quality.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a serious camera for a serious investment, costing $1000 USD (or €1100 Euros) for only the body, which for comparison is most of the way to a Nikon D7000 or Canon 60D. Not that you get a lot of bulk for your money! The E-M5 is diminutive compared to even small SLRs, but in terms of specifications it packs a comparable punch.

The headline specs include 16MP sensor, 5-axis in body image stabilization, upto 9 frames per second in manual focus (or 4 with continuous AF), full HD video, LCD electronic viewfinder and ISO range of 200-25600. Other useful features for underwater photography include flash synch to 1/250th and Olympus’s excellent pro-level weather sealing, which might just save this camera, when others could perish from a moderate housing leak.

Usefully (and rare in this type of camera) the E-M5 has twin control dials (for aperture and shutterspeed) and lots of direct control buttons will always make a big difference to the speed and ease with which important settings can be changed through a housing. Having to go through menus always slows and frustrates the photographic process. Furthermore, the camera controls offer extensive customizability, allowing you to move important and regularly used controls to where they are most easily reached.

The AF zones cover most of the picture, ideal for off-centre subject positioning, such as the eye of this scorpionfish.

M43 sensors are smaller than DX/APS-C (about a crop factor of 2 from full frame/FX/135, rather than 1.5 for DX/APS-C), but as sensor technology continues to improve the penalty of smaller pixels is not as clear as it once was (as the Nikon D800, among others has proved). With smaller sensors, lenses need less glass to deliver the same quality, perhaps the main failing is with shallow depth of field shots, but this is unlikely to be a concern for underwater shooters.

On land some portrait photographers criticize M43 format for a lack of super shallow depth of field. This is unlikely to concern underwater photographers. In any case, very shallow depth of field is possible (even at standard macro magnifications) by opening up the aperture all the way. Both images E-M5 + 45mm lens + 2 x S2000 strobes. ISO 200, top 1/250th @ f/22, bottom 1/250th @ f/2.8.

With two manufacturers behind it the M43 lens selection covers the important focal lengths with quality options. For underwater use highlights include 8mm fisheye, 9-18mm or 7-14mm wide rectilinear, 14-42mm for mid range and 35mm and 45mm macro lenses (60mm macro coming soon). Multiply by 2 to get approximate 35mm/full frame equivalents.

M43 offers plenty of lens options, which are small and light for travel, but optically good. These Atlantic bluefin tuna were shot at 9mm (18mm full frame equivalent) with the 9-18mm.

The camera feels very strong and capable of a demanding workload. We even dropped one on the floor (accidentally) with no ill effects!! We generally changed batteries after each dive because we didn’t know how long to expect them to last, but they would comfortably do two dives. We didn’t try more dives because we didn’t want to risk wasting limited review time with flat batteries. The only problem I had with the camera was at the end of my final dive of the trip, when the camera locked up in a menu mode. As I had only a few breaths left, I surfaced, popped out the battery and it was fine.

And finally, I should explain that mouthful of a name: OM-D E-45. The OM tells us that its retro looks ape the classic Olympus OM system of 35mm SLRs (D is for digital). It is a handsome camera, but I never felt the original OMs were ergonomic masterpieces that somehow out perform modern cameras (as an aside I still have an original OM-10 and a housing). Lenses are not interchangeable with the old OMs. So the OM link is best though of like VW or BMW reinventing the beetle or mini. Olympus will be hoping the OM-D is their Mini. Anyway, the looks of the body and its ergonomics need not concern us too much – as we will be judging its performance inside the housing.

  1. Introduction.
  2. Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and specs.
  3. The Olympus housing and underwater handling.
  4. Image quality: ISO, resolution, dynamic range.
  5. Lens performance, autofocus & stabiliser.
  6. Conclusion.