Olympus E-5 Review
by Jerry Jackson -  10/14/2010

The Olympus E-5 is the newest top-of-the-line DSLR camera that uses a Four Thirds sensor developed by Olympus. This DSLR has all the impressive features of its predecessor, including a durable magnesium alloy body with weather sealed "splashproof" construction. What makes the E-5 unique is the addition of a higher resolution image sensor, new image processing, a larger LCD and the ability to capture HD video. Is the E-5 more than just a modest update to the E-3? Keep reading to find out.

Olympus E-5

When Olympus unveiled the E-3 in 2008, it was heralded as a revolutionary quantum leap forward compared to the first pro-body E-series camera, the E-1. The E-3 brought a new image sensor with twice the resolution as the E-1, a new sensor-shift image stabilization system, new autofocus, new fully articulated screen with live view, an improved viewfinder with 100% coverage and 1.15x magnification, and one of the most rugged bodies on any pro-level DSLR.

With that kind of history, it's no wonder that the E-5 feels less revolutionary and more "evolutionary" when it comes to new camera technology. The E-5 features a 12.3 megapixel Four Thirds Live MOS sensor (up from 10.1 megapixels in the E-3), a new maximum ISO setting of 6400 (up from ISO 3200 in the E-3), a new HD video mode (no video capability in the E-3), TruPic V+ image processing (TruPic III used in the E-3), a new 3.0-inch LCD (2.5-inch screen on the E-3) and the E-5 now uses Compact Flash and SDHC/SDXC memory cards instead of Compact Flash and slower xD memory cards.

Olympus E-5

As a current E-3 user I'd be lying if I said that the new features in the E-5 aren't welcome, but these feel like relatively modest improvements to a camera that is almost three years old. The 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor used in the E-5 appears to be the same one used in the Olympus E-30 that came out in early 2009. Sure, 12 megapixels is more than enough to produce massive, high quality prints and web images, but the latest generation of pro-body DSLRs with APS-C image sensors delivers 16 or 18 megapixels of resolution. Not only that, but cameras like the Canon EOS 7D deliver high ISO up to 12800 and the new Nikon D7000 takes things one step further by going all the way to ISO 25600. By contrast, a 12 megapixel camera shooting at ISO 6400 looks like it's a few steps behind the competition.

Looks, however, can be very deceiving. The E-5 might not offer the highest resolution image sensor or the best low-light sensitivity on the market, but the things that made the E-3 so impressive still hold true for the E-5.

The E-5 is a big camera compared to a typical entry-level or mid-range DSLR, but feels like a perfect fit next to pro cameras like the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S. The magnesium alloy body with weather sealed "splashproof" construction makes the E-5 one of the most rugged cameras currently on the market. I've used the E-3 outdoors during fierce thunderstorms and on the beach getting splashed with salt water with no additional camera protection other than a weather-sealed Olympus Zuiko lens attached to the camera. The E-5 shares the same level of extreme durability. Even the optional Power Grip HLD-4 battery grip (the same one used with the E-3) features additional weather sealing to protect the camera when you're exposed to the elements. Dials and buttons are very sturdy and work smoothly.

Olympus E-5

Ergonomics and Controls
The E-5 is virtually identical to the E-3 both in look and feel. The E-5 is well-balanced in your hands with a deep right-side handgrip. The shutter button and control dials fall naturally under your thumb and index finger. The only real changes to the camera body between the E-3 and the E-5 are the removal of several buttons on the back of the camera (to make room for the larger LCD) and the removal of the memory card door release. The memory card door on the E-5 now uses a simple sliding lock mechanism similar to many entry-level and mid-range DSLRs.

Olympus E-5

The E-5 isn't the heaviest pro-grade DSLR on the market, but it certainly feels like a hefty tank in your hands ... even more so when combined with the HLD-4 battery grip. The E-5 features a stainless steel Olympus Four Thirds lens mount. The Four Thirds format gets its name from the horizontal and vertical ratio of the image sensor. At the time of this writing Olympus, Panasonic, and Sigma all support the four thirds format and manufacture a variety of lenses.

Olympus E-5

The Four Thirds mount is different than the newer "Micro" Four Thirds mount used on cameras like the Olympus E-PL1. Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds lenses have a 2x (35mm equivalent) magnification factor, so the focal length of telephoto lenses double - an 50-200mm zoom becomes a 100-400mm (35mm equivalent) zoom. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to wide-angle lenses: a 14-35mm zoom becomes a 28-70mm zoom.

Menus and Modes
The E- 5 features both a main menu which offers control over things like in-camera image processing and a "quick access" shooting menu that allows for more rapid changes to ISO, white balance, and other camera settings.

Olympus E-5

While the quick access menu is actually quite nice, I remain less than impressed by Olympus's main menus. We've described the main menu on Olympus DSLRs as "poorly polished" in the past and you shouldn't expect any major improvements in this regard. The fact that settings such as picture modes, saturation, sharpness, contrast, B&W filter, B&W toning, and gradation are hidden away in the pages of the main menu frustrating at times. If you didn't know to look for them, it would be easy enough to use the E-5 at a fairly high level without ever stumbling across some of these useful options.

As for the main shooting modes, they include:

The photographer can also select from among a range of "picture modes" via the camera's menu. These include i-ENHANCE, Vivid, Natural, Portrait, Muted, Monotone, Custom (default setting: Natural), Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Gentle Sepia, Cross Process, and Dramatic Tone.

The E-5 has a new 3.0-inch swiveling LCD with a 920k-dot resolution. This is a welcome update to the E-3's 2.5-inch 230k-dot swiveling monitor. It folds out and can be twisted 90 degrees forward and 180 degrees back, which I found to be very useful in taking photos at strange angles. The LCD monitor can be adjusted to 15 brightness levels and the color can be tinted for better visibility with 15 different settings. That said, even at the default settings I rarely had a problem seeing the monitor, in bright sunlight.

Olympus E-5

The E-5 also offers a 100% optical viewfinder (1.15x magnification) that is essentially unchanged from the E-3. Like the E-3, the E-5 makes use of 11 cross-type AF points. Looking through the viewfinder, the E-5's 11 AF focus points are clearly visible and there's a comprehensive settings/status/function info display (Aperture, Shutter speed, Record mode, AF confirmation, Flash status, WB, AE lock, remaining image capacity, Exposure compensation value, Metering mode, Battery warning, Exposure mode, IS status, ISO value, etc.) along the bottom of the image frame. For eyeglasses wearers, there's a diopter correction (-3 to +1) dial.

The E-5's operational speed is very good in most respects. The camera starts up almost instantly (with a minor delay for the Supersonic Wave Filter of the Dust Reduction System to "shake" dust off the image sensor) and shot-to-shot speed is very quick. My only complaint with the overall speed of the E-5 is that there is no "quick delete" function to delete an image before it is completely written to the memory card. You have to wait for the image/images to be stored on the card before you can delete them.

Shooting Performance
Olympus claims the E-5 has the fastest phase detection AF system (with the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8/f4.0 SWD ESP zoom) of any DSLR in the world. The quality of a camera's auto focus is a complex mix of speed, accuracy and sensitivity in various lighting environments. 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.

Our performance tables compare the E-5 with several potential competitors. As the tables indicate, the E-5 is tied for first with the Nikon D3S when it comes to shutter lag with pre-focus, at 0.01 seconds. Unfortunately, if there is a single weak point in the E-5's armor it has to be continuous shooting. The maximum frame rate of 5fps is pretty weak compared to the Nikon D300S, Nikon D3S or Sony Alpha SLT-A55V. Granted, the E-5's image buffer lets you capture 120 high quality JPEGs at that setting, but there isn't a sports shooter alive who wouldn't appreciate faster continuous shooting.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D3S 0.01
Olympus E-5 0.01
Canon Rebel T2i 0.02
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.04

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-5 0.14
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.16
Canon Rebel T2i 0.18
Nikon D3S 0.18

Continuous Shooting

Camera Camera Framerate*
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 17 10.8 fps
Nikon D3S 63 9.0 fps
Olympus E-5 120 5.0 fps
Canon Rebel T2i 170 3.7 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The E-5's BLM-5 lithium-ion rechargeable battery is rated by Olympus to last for 870 shots assuming you use the optical viewfinder to frame your shots and not the LCD. I captured approximately 400 images with the E-5 during the test period and never needed to recharge the battery once during the time I had the camera. Battery life is, of course, affected by the brightness level of the LCD monitor, how much you access the menus, how often you use the built-in flash, and how many minutes of video you shoot.

Lens Performance
Olympus provided the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8/f4.0 SWD ESP zoom lens that is widely acknowledged as being one of the best lenses in its class. I also used the Zuiko ED 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 SWD from my own collection. Both lenses are optically excellent and benefit from the in-camera image stabilization of the E-5. Both lenses captured excellent pictures with edge-to-edge sharpness, minimal vignetting, no obvious chromatic aberration (fringing) and good contrast.

Video Quality
The E-5 produces fluid, sharp video in AVI Motion JPEG format at 30fps with monaural sound, though stereo is possible with an optional external microphone. You can select to record video in HD at 1280x720 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio) or SD at 640x480 resolution (4:3 aspect ratio).

Image Quality
The E-5 produces images with excellent contrast, natural color and spot-on auto white balance under sunlight. Default sharpness is a little on the soft side, but you can increase the sharpening via the in-camera menu or you can sharpen after the fact in Photoshop. The E-5 can shoot RAW images for those who prefer to post-process every element of their images and want the additional exposure latitude that RAW offers. You can direct the camera to shoot two versions of the same image, one JPEG and one RAW.

The untrained eye will have difficulty spotting the difference between images captured with the E-5, the E-3, the E-30, and even the E-PL1. To put it plainly, Olympus image quality is good regardless of the specific megapixel count. As someone who often crops images before making large prints I'm always happy to get extra resolution, so the extra 2 megapixels of detail from the E-5 is a nice bonus compared to the E-3. Just keep in mind the "practical" difference between 10 megapixels and 12 megapixels is pretty small.

I noticed some problems with limited dynamic range due to overexposure in the highlight areas of high contrast scenes. However, I would have to say the E-5 is no better or worse in that regard than the E-3. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that you need to shoot in RAW to preserve highlight details if you're shooting a high contrast scene (like a bride in a white wedding dress standing next to a groom wearing a black tuxedo).

The camera has white balance settings for auto, "lamp" (3000K), fluorescent (4000K), daylight (5300K), flash (5500K), cloudy (6000K), shade (7500K), underwater and preset white balance. The E-5's auto white balance shines under sunlight and fluorescent light but still skews to the warm side under tungsten lighting.

Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image

As shown below, the E-5 produces sharp images with low noise and good color through 800 ISO. Fine details get softer and noisier at 1600 ISO and by 6400 ISO the fine details are essentially absent from the image. The E-5's high ISO image quality certainly isn't as impressive as similarly priced DSLR's, but users accustomed to the high ISO images from the E-3 will be more than happy with the high ISO performance of the E-5.

Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 100
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 200
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 400
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 800
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Olympus E-5 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images
Olympus E-5 Sample Image Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image Olympus E-5 Sample Image
Olympus E-5 Sample Image Olympus E-5 Sample Image

I couldn't help but feel impressed and a little bit depressed by the Olympus E-5. It's a surprisingly rugged camera with great image quality, terrific speed, excellent controls and the added flexibility of still image and video capture. My only technical complaints with regard to image quality are that the E-5 shows noticeably more noise at high ISOs and more highlight clipping in high contrast scenes. That said, you can usually rescue the highlights when shooting in RAW.

Despite the fact that the E-5 feels like a modest update to the E-3, if you're a current E-3 owner craving higher resolution, higher ISO shooting, and HD video capture then the E-5 is a logical purchase. Unfortunately for Olympus, the E-5 might not be so compelling to non-Olympus shooters when compared to pro-grade DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. In a world with so much competition it's a shame that the E-5 lacks a "WOW" feature to motivate people to buy it. I'm quite certain that any photographer who uses an E-5 will fall in love with it regardless of whether the spec sheet says it's the best. This is simply a fantastic photographic tool.