It’s the newly released Olympus E-P5 PEN. A 16.1MP Micro Four Thirds retro-styled pocket shooter capable of 9FPS. But will it raise your heartbeat to 100BPM? Let’s find out.
Specifically this is a review of the E-P5 kit, which includes the all metal, brand new M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens and also newly released 2,360k-dot LCD resolution VF-4 electronic viewfinder that would make even the most hardened of optical viewfinder holdouts — that’s me — just a little tight in the pants. I’m going to tackle this in three parts. Primarily this is a review of the E-P5, but as we also have the new VF-4 and 17mm f/1.8, we’ll touch on those first.
The VF-4 Electronic Viewfinder
The EVF is great. That is all.
Well OK there’s a little more. It may in fact the best I’ve been witness to. It is good, damn good. It’s snappy and the image is remarkably crisp. Quicker again when you adjust the E-P5 to reign in the image processing allowing for an even more accelerated frame rate. Handy if you’re shooting fast subjects or get annoyed (or sick) with a the low frame rate commonly found in electronic viewfinders. The VF-4 allows tilting to 90° — a little redundant on the E-P5 with its rear articulating LCD — and includes a diopter adjustment and positive lock to keep it in the hot shoe.
My only criticism is that the tilting EVF is kept in check only by a resistance clip that has a tendency to pop loose with the camera slung over your shoulder, bouncing as you walk.
The New 17mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko Lens
Like the VF-4, the lens too is wonderful. Effectively a 35mm lens, it is the tops. Contrasty but requiring a slight step down to f/2.2 to begin seeing true sharpness, I was chuffed to bits that this lens able to match the quality of the E-P5 itself.
Heck, it even has a distance scale for zone focusing during street photography or that family garden party your grandmother begs you to take pictures at every year. The lens switches into manual focus as the ever popular pump action focus ring pulls back to reveal the distance scale.
Olympus calls this the “Snapshot Focus Mode”, which combined with the distance scale is perfect for when the kids hit sugar overload and no amount of autofocus can track them (though I must say the E-P5 does a damn good job of trying, more on that later).
The dampening of the focus ring actually improves when it is slipped into manual mode. Becoming a shade firmer to swing and stopping hard at both ends. For a focus-by-wire lens it really is quite nice.
I tried shooting situations where this lens would flare. And it did. Subtle enough for anyone looking to fake
UFOs swamp gas or weather balloons photos but nothing to write angry letters to Mr. Olympus over.
The light falloff is rather hard to notice and what is apparent disappears in post. For $499 by itself, it’s a heck of a lens. It’s easy to see why the 17mm is one of the more expensive of Olympus’ available MFT lenses.
Oh and it’ll focus pretty close to, a tight 9.84″ to be precise. Perfect for that food blog.
The only knock being a slight wobble in the focus ring, which only becomes noticeable when or if you ever use manual focus. It’s such a non-issue that it’s barely worth mentioning, except that it proves how little there is wrong with this lens.
The E-P5 PEN
To pick one word to describe the E-P5’s body itself, it would have to be ‘impressive’. It just feels rugged, strong and like it could take a few smacks off the kitchen table. The front and rear 2×2 dials have perfect resistance and the rear buttons, including the Custom Lever are just bang on. The button spacing too is very well done, everything is within a single thumb’s reach save for the flash popup trigger.
And I struggled to find anything bad to say about it, except for maybe the lagging experienced when quickly adjusting an exposure value via the a control dial. Spinning a dial very quickly will just not register any adjustment to your settings — frustrating when in the thick of it and you need to get from f/1.8 to f/8 as soon as possible. Just like the human statue below, slow and steady will win every time.
Aside from that, everything is brilliant. The rear thumb grip has just enough of an angle and traction to function as it should. Even the touchscreen which one might expect to suffer from little lag itself, had worked its way so well into my routine when reviewing, that I found myself swiping the back of my Nikon’s more than once after a week of shooting primarily with the E-P5.
On the topic of battery life, I tried to give the E-P5 a tough test for one battery: four days of hiking, camping and capturing family memories. It passed. I even gambled by leaving the charger at home on this excursion and it wasn’t until the early evening of day four — on the way home — that it finally gave up.
It had shot almost 400 frames and 45 minutes of video, and was accidentally left on more than I’d care to admit. However I will admit that I was impressed as I’d changed my Nikon’s battery twice already.
But let’s rewind to the day I removed this Micro Four Thirds gem from its box.
Within my first hour of picture making with the E-P5 one thing popped into question almost immediately. Weather sealing. The answer? It has none.
Above me an air conditioner dangerously dripped water nearby as I began testing the E-P5. It was at that point that I became a little paranoid about the its lack of weather sealing. It’s not like it was a lot from that air conditioner, but one single drop could and would, according to Murphy’s Law, find its way past the E-P5’s defenses. Any kind of weather resistance would be nice.
I became even more concerned when I got caught in a thunder shower later that day. The inability of the E-P5 to repel any of this water had me quickly tossing it in my bag and switching back to my trusted Nikon for the couple photos I had to make.
Weather sealing is something rarely found in cameras of this ilk and price point, making it hard to nitpick Olympus too much for this infraction. Except that, if you open up any magazine this month you’re bound to see adverts for Olympus’ submersible line of point and shoot cameras. Furthermore, the E-M5 — the E-P5’s big brother — also includes water resistance. So it begs the question: why not just adopt a little of that tech for your brand new top-o-the-line Micro Four Thirds do-everything-in-a-small-package camera? I’m not asking to be able to go swimming with the sharks but to simply be able to get caught in a down pour and not be too concerned about getting it the slightest bit damp. I don’t think that’s asking too much from Olympus.
On a slightly more positive note, the noise levels at higher ISOs qualify in the “I can deal with this” category. It’s nothing to write home about but it could easily be worse and still manageable. With an available ISO 25600, detail at distance is maintained up to ISO 3200. Only beyond that will you begin to see any detail loss worth moaning about. We all know that with MFT comes a trade off. Smaller sensor, smaller package but lower quality of the images when compared to a two times larger full frame sensor. The majority of users who will clamor for this will be very happy with the results at those high ISO levels. Oh and fear not, grabbing focus in the dark is made pretty easy when coupled with the big aperture of the 17mm lens.
Sticking with grabbing focus for a second. I shoot a lot of sports, and I love a good tracking autofocus as much as the next guy. It is something I can live without though. I did with the X100 and X-Pro 1 when they first arrived on the scene and I made out just fine. Sure they can do continuous AF, but that isn’t locking onto a subject and maintaining that lock like a dog to his bone.
The E-P5 is the dog and the bone is your subject. It does not let go. Watching that green square dance around the screen makes me smile. My Nikon’s do this too, but it’s not as fun. Not as fluid and most importantly, not as accurate. Precise isn’t a strong enough word to describe how well the E-P5 will hold focus on your requested target. It’s borderline creepy. What does this camera know that I don’t? What can it see that I can’t?
On top of that it will lock focus AND still shoot at 9 frames a second. Doing so with an optional 44ms shutter lag I might add. No slouch when compared to a D4’s 43ms lag time.
It was at this point where my love affair with the E-P5 really began in earnest. Like I said, I love sports and I love action. Though I try to be considerate with my shutter finger, when the s**t hits the fan sometimes you just have to press the trigger and hold on for the ride. As I said, I do enjoy thinking photos through. Instead of just blasting away Willy-nilly it’s time well spent when you take a moment to sit back and watch, digest and compose your photos.
Which is why I love the E-P5 and the VF-4’s waist level abilities. No, really. There’s lots of ways to teach yourself to slow… down… and compose… better… pictures. And one neat way to slow down and think about every photo you take is using a waist level finder. And if you’ve never used one before you might discover that you like it a lot more than you would have thought it.
And that is one of the most beautiful things about the E-P5. It is designed to please everyone and makes little sacrifice in doing so. People who are new to photography, never before holding a camera and people who have shot professionally for years but now want something small and versatile to use sporadically without needing to re-learn how to use it each time, all stand to be quite happy with the E-P5.
It is highly customizable, Olympus’ 2 x 2 Dial Control with Custom Lever assures of it. Unfortunately Olympus hasn’t done anyone any favors with the deplorable menu interface because it will take some digging on occasion to change settings. The tool tips revealed when hitting the info button help clarify some of the more ambiguous menu options. But things like having two sections for WIFI setup, separated by several pages of options, is just wrong. So wrong, it kind of makes you chuckle.
While the menu interface is a bit confusing, you are not going to spend a lot of time in there anyway. They’ve done a fantastic job of pushing any of the most used settings onto the “Live Control” slider which will pop out instantly with a quick press of the OK button. Without moving your thumb you can then navigate the menu up or down while adjusting settings with the left or right toggle. For example you swiftly go from Single AF to Continuous AF (with tracking) in two ticks.
The Live Control slider function is far more fluid than much lauded Q button that Fuji placed in an obviously daft location: underneath your right thumb. The very thumb you’ll be holding and bracing the camera with while you’re shooting. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve picked up my X-Pro 1 and launched the Q menu accidentally before even putting the camera to my face, I’d have $28 now. Furthermore, the Olympus Live Control menu does not block my view through the lens when it appears. It slides in. I make a change. I take a picture. It couldn’t be easier.
Better still, all of that mess disappears if I choose. And all that remains are exposure settings, allowing for a nice large, clean and clear viewfinder. What is not to love.
As a settings tweaking junkie I absolutely loved the ability to change what seemed like every little adjustment on the camera to match my style. It was nice to be able to change the front and rear dials to multiple options but most important was setting them the same as my Nikon’s with aperture and shutter speed front and rear respectively, spinning in the same direction. Add to that there’s a Custom Lever to swap the dials and buttons to another set of options and the control granted without digging through the onscreen menu is highly convenient.
To be clear, these are minor gripes. Very minor gripes.
I hate to say this, but even with my average sized hands I wanted more size to this camera. The weight of this camera sits in the Goldilocks zone, just right. But its dimensions left me — well mostly my right pinky and ring finger — grasping for air every time I’d grab the E-P5. It’s going to be a common complaint until the eBay hand grips make their appearance from China. When they do however, this may become one of the more comfortable cameras I’ve held.
Yes it is kind of silly to nitpick a purposefully small camera for its small size but my hands are not giganticsauraus hands yet they feel strained holding this camera for too long. As I was only really holding the camera with my index and middle fingers, it was actually a bit of a trick to spin the front dial with my index finger while essentially only holding the camera with my thumb and middle finger. A grip of any sort will fix this.
The lack of a PC sync port will prove very, very annoying for a few but most won’t even notice it’s missing. The unfortunate side of it, is those who do find it troublesome are so bothered by it that they just won’t make the purchase. Trigger an off camera flash when you have the EVF mounted? You can’t.
Olympus has a pretty neat App available for both Android and Apple. I tested it on the iPhone and it was good. It does live stream the camera’s view (great for remote work) but simple things, like using your phone as a cable release to operate the camera in bulb mode were absent from the application. Making a connection from the camera to the phone took some doing, despite the fact it should be a very simple process with the QR code linking method employed here. I’d all but gave up on it till I was in a situation where I had nothing else to do but tinker with it for an hour. After 45 minutes it finally connected.
Scrap the flash and fill the void with a built in viewfinder and I think they’ll sell a few more of these. Though the flash does a good job, it could be done without and most would gladly take the built in EVF over the hot shoe version.
Oddly I found myself doing something I do not often do: shooting video. Then I found myself being something I kind of expected: disappointed. The video looks OK. Really, it’s a five out of ten. With an eye to the EVF with the Olympus’ 5-axis Image Stabilization doing its thing, my videos had me fooled into thinking I’d become the next Martin Scorsese. But back home on the big screen of my iMac the reality of it was that the sensor was not truly intended for making anything but family memories.
An admission is due here. When I first checked into the E-P5 I didn’t think I’d like it at all, much less love it as much as I do now. I’m not entirely shocked that it has grown on me as quick as it has, Olympus is doing some great work here. Aesthetically they have done an amazing job of continuing to model the 2013 PEN after their 35mm film shooters of old, and that suits me just fine. And while yes it could use a hand grip, it’s manageable and on the very edge of fitting into coat pockets without bursting any stitches. A big tick in the box for a camera meant to usurp your clunky DSLR from time to time.
Yes the video quality stinks. The WiFi function could be improved and the body itself can be a little too nimble at times. But in the end, does it matter? I wouldn’t buy this camera to make professional video and in the long term use I’ve put this through, the diminutive size of the body and the hand pains it initially caused began to fade. Further, I reeeeeally got used to the weight of it. Doing a ten mile hike with a 40lbs of DSLR bodies and lenses with just the E-P5 around my neck for quick snaps was liberating. And while the video quality isn’t exactly pure raw 1080p output, it is good enough for quickly capturing the moment your friend falls face first into a sandy beach.
On top of that, the feature set is huge. 3.0″ Tilt Touchscreen. Focus Peaking. Remote viewing and triggering on your phone. 9FPS. Flash sync to 1/320s. Interval Mode. Live Bulb. Wonderfully adjustable and customizable on camera controls. Crazy accurate focus and tracking. 5-Axis Image Stabilization. 1/8000s Mechanical Shutter. HDR and bracketing. The list goes on I assure you.
It does so much that perhaps it’s easier just to mention what it isn’t. It isn’t a full frame. Nor is it even an APS-C. And there’s the rub. The image quality while great for MFT, wasn’t comparable to APS-C which is found in rival cameras like the Fuji X100/s, X-E1 or Sony’s NEX-7.
Yet I can’t help but reflect on how I used this camera most and realize that image quality — especially since it’s pretty good anyway — is not a top priority for a camera like this. There’s a definite sensor to body size trade off you need to be willing to make if you’re going the Micro Four Thirds route. It is the ability to make a high quality picture that captures everything you wanted in focus, properly exposed and in time before little Billy runs out of the room with his new toy — all in a very small and convenient package size — that is perhaps the single goal of any camera like this. The E-P5 succeeds with flying colors.