Olympus PEN E-P5

Introduction

The Olympus PEN E-P5 is the latest premium body in the retro-inspired PEN line of Micro Four Thirds cameras. It mixes a retro-inspired metal body with a 16 MP CMOS sensor, 5-axis image stabilisation, WiFi connectivity, and twin control dials. I bought mine in a kit with the VF-4 electronic viewfinder and 17 mm f/1.8 lens, then added an ExpertShield anti-glare screen protector to the rear LCD, an Aki-Asahi body covering, and a JJC metal lens shade to the 17 mm lens. I normally carry the camera with the Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4 and Olympus 60 mm f/2.8 macro lenses, which gives me a compact kit that can live in my Hadley Pro shoulder bag and cover most of the situations I’m likely to encounter.

My Olympus PEN E-P5, fitted with the Olympus 17 mm f/1.8 lens, Olympus VF-4 viewfinder, Aki-Asahi camera skin and a JJC metal lens shade. Not visible is an ExpertShield anti-glare screen protector on the rear LCD.
My Olympus PEN E-P5, fitted with the Olympus 17 mm f/1.8 lens, Olympus VF-4 viewfinder, Aki-Asahi camera skin and a JJC metal lens shade. Not visible is an ExpertShield anti-glare screen protector on the rear LCD.

This particular E-P5 has rather large (metaphorical) shoes to fill, as it was purchased to replace my erstwhile go-everywhere camera, a PEN Mini E-PM1 and 17 mm f/2.8, which was sold to a friend in need of a camera late last year. I settled on the E-P5 over the E-PM2 and E-PL5/E-PL7, due to its better manual control interface, and compatibility with the batteries I use in my OM-D E-M5, which reduces the number of chargers and different battery types that I need to carry. That being said, it’s still a tall ask for a new camera to take over from one of my favourite cameras.

Due to the fact that the E-P5 has been comprehensively and objectively profiled and reviewed elsewhere, this post will be limited to my thoughts over the past seven months on the camera’s design, utility, and image quality. I’ll finish up by briefly summarising everything, and answering the all-important question: is it a new favourite of mine, or just a tool which I find tolerable?

Design

Like all previous flagship PEN bodies, the E-P5 has a very retro-inspired design. However, in the case of the E-P5, the retro theme has been pushed a little further: the profile of the top plate and font on the front facing of the camera hark back to the PEN half-frame SLR’s of the 1960’s. As somebody who feels that camera design peaked around this time, I find the design quite appealing, and a good match for the metal-clad M.Zuiko premium lenses like the 17 mm f/1.8, especially if a lens hood is used. Since the camera body is bare from the factory, I decided to add a vintage-style leatherette camera skin from Aki-Asahi. The overall effect is good, especially as their E-P5 skin kit wraps around the rear dials. Unfortunately, the skin for the port door is too tight to allow the door to open (so I wound up leaving the door uncovered), and I think the plastic edging of the front grip spoils the look a little, although the dark colour masks the effect to an extent. My biggest bugbear, however, is that there is no integrated viewfinder: although the VF-4 is an excellent viewfinder, it is quite bulky, and doesn’t quite fit in with the design of the camera body. That being said, the integrated articulating LCD screen is reasonably usable, even in bright sunlight, and has the same dimensions as the screens on the OM-D E-M5, E-M5 II, E-M1, and E-5, meaning that screen protectors compatible with these cameras will also fit the E-P5 perfectly. However, the screen’s bezel is so thin, it’s possible to catch the edges of the screen protector when moving it in and out of a bag – I’ve certainly managed that on a number of occasions – although the effect of that is generally minute and easily rectified.

The Dunedin Railway Station half an hour after sunrise. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.
The Dunedin Railway Station half an hour after sunrise. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.

The number of physical controls on the E-P5 is similar to the number on my E-M5: it looks clean and uncluttered, without being excessively sparse. Unlike the lesser bodies in the PEN range, the E-P5 features twin control dials, which allows for must easier manual control of the camera. Better still, the control dials feature the same dual-mode operation as seen on the OM-D E-M1. This means that each dial can control two functions, and that functions may be switched back and forth by flicking a small lever, which allows for the inclusion of more physical controls on the camera, without incurring too drastic an increase in button count. The E-P5 also features an integrated pop-up flash in the top panel, and is the only current Olympus Micro Four Thirds body (besides the OM-D E-M10) to do so. However, I could quite happily forsake an integrated flash in exchange for an integrated viewfinder.

Snowfall in Tussock Square, Darfield. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/640 s, f/4, ISO 100.
Snowfall in Tussock Square, Darfield. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/640 s, f/4, ISO 100.

Presumably due to the size of the body, the SD card slot is located in the battery compartment. This is a little frustrating at times, and makes it difficult or impossible to change cards while the camera is mounted to a tripod (or even just fitted with a quick release plate for a tripod). On the flip side, the E-P5 uses the same BLN-1 battery as the OM-D range, which makes using it as a second body more manageable, as you can power all the cameras from one set of batteries, and only need a single charger.

Utility

Fairly even weight distribution, combined with well marked controls within easy reach of the right hand, make this a camera that handles pretty nicely. It is physically larger than the E-PM1, and I find that this makes it much easier to grip, especially in cold conditions, or low-light situations where I need to keep the camera as stable as possible. However, my little finger still finds itself curled up under the camera, and my hands are on the smaller side, so the camera may not be suited to people with larger hands. The extra weight compared with the E-PM1 makes it easier to stabilise longer or heavier lenses, which has made the camera much easier to use with legacy lenses. Also making legacy lens use easier are the focus peaking function, and the dedicated focus magnifier button, which make it far quicker to achieve accurate focus. However, the focus peaking function introduces perceptible lag, so I frequently revert to the focus magnifier, or due to the resolution of the VF-4 viewfinder I’m using, focus without zooming or peaking. I will post a review of the VF-4 at some stage in the future, as I feel that it’s worth a post in itself.

A sundial in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm. 1/1250 s, f/1.4, ISO 100.
A sundial in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm. 1/1250 s, f/1.4, ISO 100.

Adjusting settings while shooting has been very easy with the E-P5, to the point that I’m changing them more often, simply because it’s such a nice experience. Most of this comes down to the dual mode control wheels, which I have set to aperture and exposure compensation in lever position one, and white balance and ISO in lever position two. Combined with a dedicated button for exposure lock, and the ease of switching focusing points, I can now work much faster in rapidly changing light, or when dealing with faster moving subjects. The other thing which has made using the camera an absolute pleasure is the image stabiliser, which is the same five axis system featured in the flagship OM-D bodies. I’m not sure whether or not it has been re-calibrated (I’m guessing it has), but it does seem to perform better than the same system in the older E-M5. However, the E-M5 doesn’t suffer as much from shutter shock, although I haven’t seen any shutter shock on the E-P5 since activating the “zero second anti shock” feature that was released in a firmware update to address the issue.

The River Avon meandering through the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/30 s, f/11, ISO 100.
The River Avon meandering through the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 17 mm f/1.8. 1/30 s, f/11, ISO 100.

Compared to the E-M5, the E-P5 is a little limited in terms of battery life and all-weather capabilities, as it lacks both an optional battery grip and any form of weather sealing. On the other hand, the E-P5 does have a faster top shutter speed (1/8000 s versus 1/4000 s) and flash sync speed (1/320 s versus 1/250 s) than the E-M5, which makes it an easier camera to use at large apertures in bright light, especially if fill-in flash is going to be used. However, the E-P5 is better in these respects than the E-PM1 was, as it has a larger battery and feels like it’s been built to tighter tolerances. Unfortunately, when using longer focal length lenses, the battery life advantage versus the E-PM1 is eliminated, as the five axis stabilisation system seems to devour batteries. Although the E-M5 has the same image stabiliser system, I find that it tends to have better battery life, as its integrated viewfinder is around half the resolution of the VF-4, and uses less power as a result. That being said, the E-P5 routinely delivers at least 300 photos from a fully charged battery, and the batteries themselves are small and light enough to allow me to carry two spares with me everywhere I go.

Image Quality

The E-P5 has been consistently turning out good quality images, with good resolution, the Olympus colours I like, smooth tonal gradations, and decent dynamic range. The extra four megapixels versus the E-PM1 are definitely noticeable in terms of resolution, although it is no better than the E-M5, which has a similarly specified image sensor. However, the E-P5 does tend to blow out the highlights a little, especially when dealing with back lighting. This is attributable to the exposure metering, which seems to favour overexposing photos, most probably in an effort to reduce shadow noise. That being said, it’s easy enough to dial in negative exposure compensation, and I’m yet to find any photos I’ve taken in which the highlights have been completely unrecoverable. Interestingly, the E-M5 doesn’t appear to overexpose photos to the same extent or anywhere near as often, which would go some way towards explaining why the E-P5 seems to have superior noise performance to the E-M5. Compared to the E-PM1, the E-P5 has showcased a wider dynamic range, and less propensity to losing fine detail in either the shadows or the highlights.

The sun setting behind the snowy Southern Alps, viewed from the side of a small gravel road in South Canterbury which I have forgotten the name of. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 60 mm f/2.8 Macro. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 320.
The sun fading behind the snowy Southern Alps, viewed from the side of a small gravel road in South Canterbury which I have forgotten the name of. Olympus PEN E-P5 with Olympus 60 mm f/2.8 Macro. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 320.

As you would expect, the noise performance is below par when compared to cameras with larger image sensors. That withstanding, I think that the noise performance of the E-P5 is perfectly acceptable. This is helped by the aforementioned overexposure issue, which acts in much the same way as “pulling” a film: as I understand it, by exposing for a lower light sensitivity than you have, there is more information available, so that when  the exposure is “pulled” back to what it should be post-capture, there is more detail and less noise in the shadows, although highlight detail suffers as a result. As ever, it becomes less of a problem with good technique and careful post-processing of a RAW file. I can’t comment on the JPEG noise performance, as I’ve shot RAW exclusively (where supported) for around eight years. However, I can comment on the E-P5’s noise performance compared with the E-PM1 and the E-M5: the E-M5 is very slightly noisier (due to the aforementioned exposure issue), and the E-PM1 was much noisier, especially as the ISO climbed above 1600.

Conclusion

The PEN E-P5 is a retro-themed camera that’s pretty easy on the eye, as well as being nice to handle, and easy to use. It is well featured, with a number of those features accessed by well designed and laid out physical controls. Crucially, it fulfills the primary role of a camera, by capturing good quality images, and more importantly still, being compact enough to encourage you to take it with you.

To answer the all important question of whether or not it’s become a favourite camera: yes, it has. However, the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems.

I have two types of favourite cameras: the ones that are fun to use, and the ones that are dependable. The E-PM1 I used to have fell somewhere in the middle, as it was a lot of fun (it was the camera that saved me from giving up on photography as a hobby), but at the same time, it wasn’t quite as capable or as rugged as some of the other cameras on the shelf. In fact, even though the E-PM1 was my “go everywhere” camera, I frequently found myself carrying the E-M5 instead: still as much fun, but more responsive and more capable. However, the E-P5 has been a different proposition entirely: very similar capabilities to the E-M5, in a more petite package, with the fun of the E-PM1, although lacking the E-PM1’s clumsy manual controls. The E-P5 is, as much as the E-M5, a camera which I instinctively reach for. So, although I still rate the E-PM1 as one of my favourite cameras ever, the E-P5 is a favourite on a different level: it combines fun with dependability and performance.

I suspect I’ll be keeping it for a while.

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