Tested: Olympus E5

Olympus’s rugged flagship DSLR serves up beautiful images.

OlympusE5main

OlympusE5main

For the past couple of years, Olympus has focused mostly on its Micro Four Thirds line. But, as the new E-5 ($1,700, street, body only) shows, the company hasn’t forgotten about regular Four Thirds at all. The latest update of its flagship DSLR steps up to a 12.3MP Live MOS sensor (from 10.1MP in the E-3), adds a stop of sensitivity for a top of ISO 6400, and adds 1280x720-pixel 30-fps HD video capture. Meanwhile, it keeps the super-rugged magnesium-alloy body with weathersealing that is the top of its class.

In the Lab:
Though the E-5 finds itself on the lower end of pixel counts for cameras in its price range, it still easily managed to score an Extremely High in overall image quality from ISO 100 through ISO 1600 in the Popular Photography Test Lab. Its resolution is the only thing holding it back from reaching an Excellent rating: In the wake of sensors in excess of 20MP in 2008, we were forced to raise the bar in our resolution test, pushing the threshold for an Excellent rating up to 2500 lines per picture height.

The E-5 turned in a very impressive 2270 lines in our test, which is a significant jump from the E-3’s score of 2020 lines. Sure, it trails Canon’s EOS 7D, which achieved 2610 lines, but considering that the 7D has an 18MP sensor, you might expect a bigger difference. Nikon’s D300s, another 12.3MP camera in this price range, managed 2340 lines but also trailed the E-5 in noise performance.

At all sensitivity levels save their shared maximum of ISO 6400, this Olympus had lower noise than the D300s—which says a lot, given that Nikon has been a league leader in noise control in recent years. Both the E-5 and the Nikon D300s had Unacceptable noise levels in our test at ISO 6400, though Canon’s 7D managed to keep noise in the acceptable range at ISO 6400. Still, the E-5 outperformed the Canon in noise control from ISO 100 through ISO 1600.

In our autofocus test, the Olympus displayed a split personality: extremely fast in bright light, but slowing considerably as the light grew dimmer. This may be partially due to the lens we used in the test. Ordinarily, we use an f/1.4 normal lens from the camera’s manufacturer to test AF. But since Olympus doesn’t make a fast normal with a Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) AF motor, we used the Zuiko Digital 12–60mmf/2.8–4 SWD lens in this test. We considered using the 14–35mm f/2 SWD, but moving its extremely large lens elements can slow down AF, despite being faster glass.

That said, the E-5’s AF proved faster than that of the EOS 7D and the D300s from EV 12, the brightest part of our test, through EV 6, which is about the light level of a well-lit kitchen. Only at levels reaching the equivalent of moonlit darkness did the Olympus fall far behind the competition.

In the Field:
Like all the DSLRs in this price range, the E-5 is on the larger side of bodies without an integrated vertical grip. (If you plan to shoot a lot of verticals, Olympus offers the HLD-4 battery grip, which holds either six AA or two Li-ion batteries.)

Though the comfort of camera grips might not seem like a big deal, ergonomics are a key factor in performance. A good grip makes the camera feel secure without forcing you to clamp down too tightly, which can be essential for accessing buttons, switches, and dials when shooting. The E-5’s grip has a nice shape, arcing inward toward the top of the camera, with a nook for your middle finger below the shutter button that makes it easier to angle the camera up and down.

With two command wheels and plenty of dedicated control buttons, changing settings on the E-5 is quick and easy once you familiarize yourself with the body. Exposure compensation, white balance, and ISO all get their own buttons near the shutter. The less-commonly changed settings, such as shooting and AF modes, drive mode, metering, and flash settings, all get buttons to the left of the pop-up flash.

Our biggest complaint on the controls? The three buttons to the left of the flash, which each serve multiple purposes, have labels on the left of the flash/finder hump. These proved hard to see when shooting without tilting and angling the camera. Over time, you’ll likely remember which ones do what, but until then it can cause some minor confusion.

Olympus has more than tripled the pixel resolution on the fully articulated LCD that graces the back of the E-5, bringing it to 920,000 dots. One of the more rugged-feeling articulated screens out there, its monitor makes it very easy to shoot with the camera held high above your head, down low to the ground, or even stealthily around corners.

While current fixed LCDs have wider viewing angles that make off-angle shooting easier than it used to be, those that tilt and rotate make precise framing simpler. More important, you can change menu items without moving the camera from its position, making tripod-mounted shooting more convenient.

The increased screen resolution comes in handy for live view and video shooting. The E-5 captures HD footage at up to 1280x720p at 30 frames per second, storing video as AVI files using Motion JPEG encoding, and in our test evinced quality on par with consumer HD camcorders. The AVI file type limits files to 2GB, for about 7 minutes of footage—if you dial the camera back to standard definition, you’ll capture 640x480 at 30 fps for up to 14 minutes.

The E-5 can record CD-quality stereo audio, but you’ll have to add a stereo mic through the minijack input if you want the binaural experience. Otherwise, its built-in mic will give you mono recording with your video.

You can store both video and still capture with CompactFlash or SD (including SDHC or SDXC) cards, thanks to the camera’s dual card slots. It would be nice to write information to both cards simultaneously, or let the camera automatically switch to the second card once the first one is full, but so far that’s not the case. (We wouldn’t be surprised to see this updated through firmware.)

If the E-5 trails the competition in any big way, it’s in burst speed. The E-5 retains the 5-fps burst of the E-3, compared with the 7-fps native rate of the Nikon D300s and the 8-fps of the Canon 7D.

The E-5’s buffer maxes out at 16 12-bit RAW frames, while the D300s can swallow 18 12-bit RAW files in a burst, and the 7D can manage 15 (although these are larger 14-bit RAW files).

But shooting highest-quality JPEGs, the E-5 will let you shoot until your memory card is full, where the Nikon caps out at 44 frames and the Canon at 126 frames when using a UDMA card. We’d consider 5 fps the lower limit for serious sports shooting, so if this is fast enough for you, you won’t mind it on the E-5.

The Olympus Art Filters, which apply effects as you shoot, might seem silly, but they can also be fun and even useful. When you’re shooting RAW and JPEG images simultaneously, you can experiment with different looks on the spot, and you always have the RAW file as an untouched backup.

There are 10 Art Filters to choose from, such as Pop Art for high-contrast coupled with high-saturation, the self-explanatory Gentle Sepia, and the new Dramatic Tone, which increases contrast locally in portions of the image for an unrealistic-yet-intense look. And you can even use any of these while shooting video, though some will slow the video frame rate.

Bottom Line:
Comparing cameras in this price range is tough. People interested in a body at this level may already be invested in a particular system. If you already own an entry-level or midlevel Olympus body and are looking to step up, the E-5 offers a very solidly built, well-thought-out design that can provide a high level of image quality.

Olympus E-3 owners face a harder decision, but given the E-5’s increase in resolution, added stop of sensitivity, new HD video capture, and Art Filters, we think there’s a compelling enough argument to switch, especially if your E-3 has seen heavy use.

Against equivalent Canon and Nikon bodies, it’s a different game. Both the 7D and D300s have certain performance and image-quality advantages over the E-5, but the Olympus has features these two lack—a major example is its sensor-shift image stabilization, which works with any mountable lens and which gave our testers 3 stops of shutter speed leeway when shooting at 200mm.

The E-5’s rugged construction and weathersealing are also a notch better than those of its competitors. And, finally, unlike the 7D and the D300s, the Olympus has an articulated LCD. Even though the Canon offers 1080p video recording, recording video with the E-5 is less tricky to do.

For DSLRs in this price bracket, if you’re looking for a powerful imaging tool with rugged construction and a lot of versatility, the Olympus E-5 may be your match.

Specifications:
IMAGING: 12.3MP effective, Four Thirds-sized LiveMOS sensor captures images at 4032x3024 pixels with 12 bits/color in RAW mode.
STORAGE: Compact Flash, SD, SDHC, SDXC. Stores JPEG, ORF RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.
VIDEO: Up to 1280x720, 30-fps, AVI Motion JPEG; built-in mono mic with optional stereo mic input; contrast-detection AF.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode): 5 fps up to card capacity. RAW (12-bit): 5 fps up to 16 shots.
AF SYSTEM: TTL phase detection with 11 illuminated focus points (all twin crosstype). Single-shot and continuous with tracking. Tested sensitivity down to –2 EV (manufacturer's rating) at ISO 100, f/2.
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/8000 to 60 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments). Shutter rated to 150,000 cycles.
METERING: TTL metering using 49-point evaluative, centerweighted, and spotmetering (approx. 2% of frame). 1–20 EV (at ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: ISO 100–6400 (in 1/3- or 1-EV increments).
FLASH: Built-in pop-up with TTL autoflash with +/–3-EV exposure compensation (1/3-, 1/2-, or 1-EV increments), GN 43 (ISO 100, feet), covers 14mm lens field of view. Flash sync to 1/250 sec. Dedicated Olympus hot-shoe and wireless control of optional flash. VIEWFINDER: Fixed eye-level pentaprism.
LCD: Tilting, swiveling 3-in. TFT with 920,000-dot resolution.
OUTPUT: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video.
BATTERY: Rechargeable BLM-5 Li-ion, CIPA rating, 870 shots with optical finder.
SIZE/WEIGHT: 5.6x4.6x2.9 in., 2.0 lb with card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $1,700, body only.
FOR INFO: www.olympusamerica.com

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