Olympus PEN E-P5 review: The best Micro Four Thirds camera thus far

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The Good The Olympus PEN E-P5 renders extremely good photos for its class, and has a streamlined shooting design. Plus, it's fast.

The Bad The navigation button/dial is annoyingly awkward, and I wish the flash tilted.

The Bottom Line An excellent entry in the Micro Four Thirds universe, the Olympus PEN E-P5 should please a lot of folks, but it's also expensive given that it doesn't deliver best-in-class photo quality.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

Normally a two-year product cycle isn't that much for a camera targeted at advanced photographers. But in a field where technology mutates as quickly as it does for advanced interchangeable-lens cameras, that's a long time. So at two years since the Olympus PEN E-P3, it feels like it's taken just a little too long for the PEN E-P5's debut. But in addition to incorporating the sensor, autofocus, and image stabilization systems from the E-M5, the E-P5 gains a tiltable touch screen; broader scene analysis in auto mode; 1080/30p video; and other features. All the changes add up to what feels like a completely different camera, with better photo quality, a more streamlined design, faster performance, and a broader feature set.

You can buy the camera either as body-only or as a kit that includes the 17mm f1.8 lens plus add-on electronic viewfinder. The latter configuration is expensive, but I'm quite partial to the EVF. It's humongous, but it's a lot more stable to shoot that way. If you do opt for the body only, resist the impulse to pair it with the cheap 14-42mm lens; a camera like this really cries out for a sharp, high-quality lens.

Image quality
The E-P5 delivers the best image quality I've seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera, finally ratcheting up my image quality rating, but it's still not quite as good as APS-C competitors. The camera's JPEGs look good up through ISO 400, and OK through ISO 800; by ISO 1600 the noise suppression gets aggressive. I really wouldn't shoot at ISO 3200 or higher with the E-P5. As it is, at ISO 1600, only the precisely sharp areas look good viewed at 100 percent, though 13x19 prints look OK. You can gain a little latitude by shooting raw, though you're generally exchanging mushiness for graininess. Olympus' image processing has gotten better since the O-MD E-M5, with less sharpening and less of the crunchy look.

The camera clips a little more in the highlights than I like, and there isn't a lot of recoverable detail in the raw files on bright areas. I did have some luck reclaiming detail in clipped areas of bright, saturated reds, however, as well as bringing up dark shadow areas. Olympus defaults to a Natural color preset that still pushes the saturation a little more than I like, but color accuracy in raw files looks good. Automatic white balance is slightly cool but acceptable.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 1600

Video looks fine for vacation clips, but isn't great. There are edge artifacts, like moire, aliasing, and haloing, and low-light video is mushy. I also had some playback problems; clips played fine in QuickTime, Adobe Premiere, and VLC, but Windows Media Player had decoding issues.

The E-P5 is really fast; it's one of the fastest non-dSLRs I've tested, and faster than a lot of dSLRs. It powers on, focuses, and shoots in 0.8 second, and time to focus and shoot in good conditions runs just 0.22 second, rising to an excellent 0.25 second in dim light. Two sequential JPEG or raw shots clock at 0.23 second, which becomes 0.7 second with flash enabled. (Note that I usually report these numbers rounded to 0.1 second, but the differences are so minor that rounding would overemphasize their significance.) Shooting simultaneous JPEG+raw feels as fast as shooting JPEG alone, though there's a slight processing overhead that may slow down your photo reviewing.

Continuous shooting is seriously zippy as well. With a 95MBps card it can sustain a JPEG burst at 9.6 frames per second for about 18 frames before it slows to a still-quite-respectable 6.3fps. (Though it's rated to drop without fixed AF, I didn't notice any significant change with tracking AF.) Raw bursts at about 10fps for 16 shots, then drops to about 3.7fps.

The camera incorporates the same AF system as the OM-D E-M5, with some more performance optimization with Four Thirds lenses. I had no problems with the autofocus system for still photos; it generally snaps decisively to the subject. For video, though, it was a little disappointing. It pulses on still objects, and there's no way to have it ease into focus from one object to another via the touch screen -- it just snaps decisively.

The screen fares pretty well in direct sunlight, and the tilting helps, plus it's bright and shows contrast well. Still, I prefer the tilting EVF.