Olympus PEN E-P5 review

The Olympus PEN E-P5 is an extremely impressive mirrorless camera, but we prefer its sibling, the Olympus OM-D EM-5.
Photo of Olympus PEN E-P5

The Olympus PEN E-P5 ($1,449.99 list with 17mm lens and EVF) is the latest addition to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera family, and it’s a winner. The PEN features the same imaging engine and stabilization system as our Editors’ Choice OM-D E-M5, but uses a removable add-on EVF rather than a built-in version. It’s got built-in Wi-Fi, a first for the PEN family, and an innovative control system that lets you take command of four camera settings via a toggle switch and two control dials. It doesn’t have the OM-D E-M5′s weather sealed body or kit lens, but it does put a few additional controls at your fingertips.

Design and Features
The E-P5 is bundled with the excellent M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8 lens and Electronic Viewfinder VF-4. If the $1,450 asking price is too much for you, it can be had as a body only for around $1,000, but you’ll lose a bit of value by not buying it as a kit. The 17mm lens sells for $500 on its own, and the VF-4 is priced at $280. Buying the three separately would put you out of pocket around $1,780, so buying the three represents a $380 discount.

The camera measures 2.7 by 4.8 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and is very heavy for its size at 13.3 ounces. It feels solid in the hand. The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5, the midrange body in the PEN family, a good camera in its own right, feels almost toy-like in comparison. The E-PL5 is narrower and lighter—it measures 2.5 by 4.4 by 1.5 inches and weighs 11.4 ounces. Even though EP-5′s body has the same depth as its smaller sibling, it feels a bit thicker. This is because its tilting rear LCD is flush to the body when closed; the E-PL5′s screen juts out a bit.

Physical controls are ample. You’ll find the Mode dial, as well as the power switch, shutter release, and Fn button on the top plate. There are front and rear control dials, each of which can control two functions, which will change based on the camera’s shooting mode. When the rear toggle switch is set to position 1 the function will change based on the shooting mode—the rear dial controls the f-stop in aperture priority, and the shutter speed in shutter priority, while the front dial adjust exposure compensation in both those modes. If you’re shooting in full manual mode, the rear dial controls the shutter speed and the front the aperture. There’s some customization of these functions available in the menu system.

When you toggle the rear switch to setting 2, the dial functions change. In most modes the rear dial adjust the white balance and the front changes the ISO. There’s some customization of what position 2 does. You can also set it to start movie recording, which some users may prefer to the record button that is located inside the toggle switch. It can also be used to toggle between automatic and manual focus.

There’s also a control pad with a center OK button and four directional controls; they control exposure compensation, the flash output, the drive mode and self-timer, and the current focus point. You’ll also find buttons to access the camera’s menu, change the amount of information shown on the display, magnify the live view frame, enter playback mode, and delete images. Additional settings can be controlled via an overlay menu—it’s launched by pressing the OK button. These include the ISO, image quality, focus mode, flash mode, and metering pattern.

The rear LCD display is 3 inches in size and features a stunning 1,037k-dot resolution. It’s mounted on a hinge, so you can view it from above or below. Its resolution is greater than the 610k OLED display that the OM-D E-M5 uses, but looking at them side-by-side it’s hard to see a big difference. I’d give an edge to the E-P5; the display is very bright and can be used outdoors, even on bright days. The display is touch sensitive, but the touch functionality is limited. It’s possible to tap an area of the frame to choose a focus point, or to focus and fire the shutter. This is controlled by tapping a small box on the left side of the display. There’s also an option to disable touch focus entirely. It’s also possible to move the focus point using the E-P5′s rear directional pad.

If you opt to use manual focus, the E-P5 offers a couple of aids to help you grab sharp shots. Turning the focus ring on a Micro Four Thirds lens will activate either focus peaking (which highlights in-focus areas of your image in white or black), frame magnification, or both. It could be better implemented in terms of activation. If you’re using a native Micro Four Thirds lens with a focus clutch, like the kit lens, it doesn’t actually work when the clutch is set to manual focus adjustment, even if the camera is set to manual focus mode. If you use peaking frequently, and fans of legacy lenses will want to, it’s best to assign the Fn1 button to activate it. There’s already a magnification button on the body. Once you do activate it, the peaking is extremely helpful in getting an in-focus shot.

If you buy the camera in a kit you’ll also get an external EVF. The VF-4 is stunning. It’s the best EVF I’ve used. It’s bigger and sharper than the excellent OLED finders in the Sony Alpha NEX-7 and Fujifilm X-E1. The only downside is its size. It’s pretty big, adding a big hump to the camera. Both the Sony and Fujifilm cameras managed to work an EVF into the body and also retain a built-in flash and hot shoe; it’s unfortunate that Olympus wasn’t able to do the same with the EP-5. On the other hand, if you have other Olympus cameras with the AP2 accessory port you’ll be able to use the EVF with them (although they’ll require a firmware update), and the finder can tilt straight up, which will make it easier to get shots from lower angles. The E-P5 automatically switches to the EVF when you bring your eye towards it, though that function will be disabled if the rear LCD is tilted.

The E-P5 is the first PEN camera with built-in Wi-Fi. It’s an impressive, albeit limited, freshman effort from Olympus, in part to the very slick method the company used to pair the camera with your iOS or Android device. In order to do so, you simply need to scan a QR code that is displayed on the rear LCD with your phone. The network information and password are contained within. If you’re not within range of another saved network, the camera and your phone will automatically connect when Wi-Fi is enabled on the camera (accessible via a touch-sensitive Wi-Fi icon on the rear display) and the app is launched on the phone. If you’re already connected to your home or office Wi-Fi network, you’ll first need to disconnect from that in order to get the app working.

So, pairing is easy. What can you do? Your options are limited. You can transfer JPG images and QuickTime videos from the camera to your phone—the app lets you select a downsized resolution or transfer them at full quality. But if you shoot Raw, you’re out of luck—you can’t transfer them. You’ll have to first develop them as a JPG in camera. You can also use the phone’s GPS to add geotags to photos, just make sure the clock is set correctly on the E-P5 and that you’ve enabled the location log in the OI Share app. Images are quick to transfer, though it did take a while to transfer a short video clip.

You can also use your phone as a remote control with a real time live view feed. The speed of the feed is quite good, it’s not choppy like we’ve seen on other cameras with this capability. Touch focus is supported, but you can only shoot in iAuto mode—the only real control you have access to is a self-timer, which will let you put your phone in your pocket before posing for a shot.

Everything about the Wi-Fi works; it’s just unfortunate that it doesn’t do more. There’s no way to connect the E-P5 to a home network or hotspot. So if you’re having a party and want to post a few photos to Facebook, you have to first transfer them to your phone and then to your social media profile. You’re also not able to email a photo directly from the camera. Other Wi-Fi enabled cameras, like the Samsung NX300 let you do this.

Performance and Conclusions
This is a fast, fast camera. It starts and shoots in just under a second, manages a 0.1-second shutter lag, and rattles off shots at 9.7 frames per second. The number of shots you’ll get in a burst varies based on the file format, but we were able to 22 JPG, 18 Raw, or 16 Raw+JPG images before the camera slowed down. Clearing the buffer to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card didn’t take too long; about 3.8 seconds for JPG, 7.3 seconds for Raw, and 9.6 seconds for Raw+JPG. The focus is very speedy; an out of focus image was made sharp and captured in 0.2-second in good light, and about 0.7-second in very dim light. The E-P5 outshines the competition in terms of speed; the Fujifilm X-E1 takes just a beat longer to start, 1.2 seconds, but only manages to shoot at 4.6fps and records a 0.3-second shutter lag. In dim light, that camera requires about 2 seconds to focus and fire.

The E-P5 has a shutter that can open and close in as little as 1/8,000-second. You should have no problems shooting at wide apertures on bright days, assuming you don’t mind a very quick shutter speed. You can use the built-in flash at speeds as short as 1/320-second, but if you are using an external strobe your top sync speed is 1/250-second. The OM-D E-M5′s shutter tops out at 1/4,000-second, but also syncs with external strobes at 1/250-second.

The kit lens is the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8. We’ve reviewed the lens on its own before, and it received top honors and an Editors’ Choice award. It’s just as good when paired with the E-P5. It’s a prime lens with a 17mm field of view, which is roughly equal to a 35mm on a full-frame camera. That’s a classic wide-angle field of view, the same that is used by premium fixed-lens compacts like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. Its maximum aperture is f/1.8, which will let you shoot in lower light and allows you to capture images with a shallow depth of field. Couple this with the in-body image stabilization system, and you have a camera that can shoot in dim light with ease. The only bad thing to say about the stabilization system, which has been improved to automatically detect when you’re capturing a panning shot, is that it’s a little loud. You can hear it whirring as it moves the image sensor to compensate for the naturally shaky nature of a handheld shot. It’s more audible here than it was with the OM-D E-M5, likely because that camera’s weather-sealed body dampens the sound.

We used Imatest to check the sharpness of the lens. In terms of sharpness, the lens is excellent. At f/1.8 it scores 2,071 lines per picture height using a center-weighted scoring method, well in excess of the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo. Edge performance is a little soft at this aperture; only 1,377 lines. Stopping down to f/2.8 improves the overall sharpness to 2.358 lines, and edges sharpen nicely to 1,771 lines. At f/4 you get 2,501 lines, and resolution peaks at f/5.6 at 2,516 lines; edges are better than 1,900 lines in both cases. Distortion is a nonissue; the lens only exhibits 0.3 percent, which is within the margin of error of our SFRPlus test chart.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can make images appear grainy and rob them of sharpness as you increase the camera’s sensitivity to light. When shooting in JPG mode, the E-P5 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 3200. This is a stop better than the Sony NEX-7, which is limited to shooting at ISO 1600 if you want to keep noise under control. There’s no sign of overzealous noise reduction; details are sharp and crisp at ISO 3200. Images are a little noisy at ISO 6400, showing about 1.8 percent noise, and JPG detail does start to suffer, but they’re still useable. If you shoot Raw, you’ll get images with similar detail at these high ISO settings, but with a bit more noise. You can use Adobe Lightroom or the Raw converter of your choice to adjust the amount of noise reduction you’d like to apply on a shot-by-shot basis. If you shoot at ISO 6400 in Raw mode you can move the Lightroom 5′s Luminance Noise Reduction slider to 20 in and leave other noise reduction settings at their factory defaults; this will give you images that show about the same amount of noise as the JPG equivalent, but definitely have a leg up in terms of detail.

Video quality is excellent; detail is crisp and the camera is quick to focus, and silent when using the 17mm kit lens. Footage is recorded in QuickTime format at up to 1080p30 quality, and the image stabilization system does a great job of keeping the shot steady. Even though it’s fairly loud when shooting stills, it wasn’t audible on the soundtrack of our test videos. Olympus does offer a microphone accessory adapter for about $90 if you’d like to use an external mic. It occupies the accessory port, so you won’t be able to use it and the EVF at the same time. It’s unfortunate there’s no mic input port on the E-P5′s body. There is a micro HDMI port, so you can connect the camera directly to your HDTV to look at photos and videos, and there’s a proprietary USB port if you prefer to plug your camera into your computer to offload images rather than opting for a memory card reader accessory. The memory card slot supports the usual suspects—SD, SDHC, and SDXC.

The Olympus PEN E-P5 isn’t the best mirrorless camera that we’ve reviewed, but it’s not that far off. We still give a slight edge to the OM-D E-M5; it delivers image quality that is essentially identical to that of the E-P5, but does so in a body that is sealed against the elements and has a built-in EVF. It’s just a little bit taller than the E-P5, though adding the external VF-4 EVF makes the PEN the larger of the two. The included EVF is the best that we’ve seen, and the included prime lens is also a winner. If you’re looking at the camera bodies only, you’ve got two that come in at the same price—just about $1,000. Buying the E-P5 as a body only isn’t the best use of your money; even if you have no interest at all in the 17mm lens or the VF-4 viewfinder, you’ll likely get more than $450 for them on the secondary market.

But Micro Four Thirds isn’t the only mirrorless camera system. There are some other options if you’re in the market for a top-end compact interchangeable lens camera. The Sony Alpha NEX-7 features a larger APS-C image sensor and sports a built-in flash and EVF, but it’s a bit long in the tooth at this point, its bundled 18-55mm lens is anything but impressive, and other lenses for the NEX system haven’t been as impressive as those for Micro Four Thirds. The Fujifilm X-E1 isn’t as quick to focus, but it includes one of the best kitted zoom lenses we’ve tested; that camera also sports an EVF and pop-up flash, as well as an innovative X-Trans image sensor. The Samsung NX300 is a less expensive choice if you aren’t in the market for a camera with an EVF; the NX lens library has impressed us, and its Wi-Fi implementation is more mature than that of the E-P5. The lone NX model with an EVF, the NX20 was disappointing in terms of performance.

Despite its high star rating, we’re not awarding the E-P5 our Editors’ Choice for top-end mirrorless cameras, and Olympus has no one to blame but itself for that. The OM-D E-M5 is just too good of a camera, so it retains its spot atop the hill. There are reasons to opt for the E-P5, especially if you are an occasional EVF user, or if you’d like to snatch the excellent 17mm lens at a discount. But the E-M5′s weather sealing, optional hand grip, and built-in EVF win out in the end.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.7 x 4.8 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, micro HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.1 seconds
LCD dots 1037000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2071
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
GPS No
Boot time 1 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 34 mm
Weight 13.3 oz
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization In-Body
Shutter Lag 0.1 seconds
Sensor Size 17.3 x 13 (Micro Four Thirds) mm
EVF Resolution 2360000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The Olympus PEN E-P5 is an extremely impressive mirrorless camera, but we prefer its sibling, the Olympus OM-D EM-5.
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