I’m going to kick off my reviews of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 with a general overview of the system. This is probably the least exciting part of the review from a photo-standpoint, but I think that it contains a lot of useful information, especially for folks who are still waiting for – or have just received – their OM-Ds.

I’m not going to bother with any of that unboxing nonsense – that’s like getting to watch someone else open their Christmas presents knowing you don’t have any. So everything I have to report on comes after the camera is out of the box, the battery charged, and the SD card in place.

From a physical standpoint, the OM-D is very small – as you can see in the photo below (which I’m getting a lot of mileage out of), it’s shorter than a PEZ candy dispenser. I’m working from memory, but I don’t think it’s much bigger than the Canon G10 was. In any case, for someone with big hands, it definitely feels small and the controls can be a little cramped. Many of the buttons, I have to push with my fingertips. But this is fine – I knew this getting into the camera, and the small size was one of my primary selling points. In that regard, it has met my expectations perfectly.

As I mentioned in my initial thoughts, the flip screen was a point of concern when I first started looking at the camera. It’s one more large, moving part that seems like it would be all-too-easily snapped off or worn out. But my fears were quickly put to rest when I tested it – the mounting and hing mechanisms appear very well engineered, as does the screen itself. It’s motion is solid and, while it won’t respond well to abuse, I think it will hold up to general use without much trouble.

The SD card door, on the other hand, continues to worry me just a little, as it seems less sturdy than the Canon equivalent. However, it does seem secure when shut, and I don’t expect it will easily get knocked open. The battery door seems sturdier and has a lock.

My only real gripe about the body itself is the rubber cover to the USB port. The Canon covers always popped open and gave fairly easy access; the Oly doesn’t. The rubber wants to flop back over the ports too easily, and can make it a pain to get the USB hooked up. Minor, yes, but annoying.

The controls are generally well-designed and placed, although as I mentioned before, some of the buttons (Fn 1, Image Review) are very small. The layout is a mixed bag, in that much of it is standard to all cameras, while a few of the placements seem unique to the OM-D. But overall, it’s not hard to figure out and I’m already learning where the buttons are. The best part about the OM-D controls is the high level of customization available. Both dials and nearly all the buttons have options that let you not only customize their function, but in the case of the dials you can also select which direction your inputs move (ie: turning the knob right increases or decreases the setting) which is great, as it means that no matter what system you used previous to this, you can maintain a familiar operation.

I’ve already remapped the buttons on mine and may continue to make small changes as I move forward, but one of the first things I did was replace the default multi-controller button (I never did really figure out what the benefit of the multi-controller feature was) with direct access to ISO settings. I mapped the white balance to the movie recording button (as I’ll never use the movie feature), and applied focus-point control to one of the back arrows. Personally, I feel that this is one of the greatest features of the camera and I’m thrilled that there is so much room for customization – it makes using the camera much easier for me.

If Olympus has a weak point thus far, it is in their menu structure. By the time Canon came out with the 7D, the menus were refined and super-simple to navigate. With the Olympus, not so much – unfortunately, many options are still contained within sub-menus. Working within the menu structure requires a lot of scrolling and since I can’t yet remember where some of the deeper options are buried, I find myself doing a lot of “guess and check” looking.

The redeeming feature in this department is the quick menu on the back screen, which provides a quick readout of the most common shooting settings, letting you confirm or change everything from aperture and ISO to IS setting, file type, and color space. The only catch here comes with the touch screen. My interpretation was that the touch screen would let you make changes to the settings entirely by touch. Turns out that’s not really the case. When the readout is activated, you have to push the OK button and then can touch the setting you want to change, essentially moving the “cursor” to that point. But touching ends there, and you have to push OK again to open the menu options for that setting, and use the dials or arrows to actually change the setting.

But I’ll throw out here that I may be wrong about this – it’s possible that there’s a menu setting that changes this, I don’t know. I do know that the other day I discovered the real strength of the touch screen by accident – the touch-to-shoot feature. Using the camera like a point & shoot (with the image transferred to the rear screen), you simply touch the point you want to focus on the screen, and the camera engages the AF and takes a photo. Very cool stuff, especially for those times when you’re shooting at an odd angle, with the screen tilted out, and can’t quite reach the shutter button on top of the camera. I’m thinking a sports photog, holding the camera over his head to shoot over the crowd, for example. Hold it up with the screen tilted down so he can see what he’s framing, and all he has to do is tap the screen and there’s his shot. As I said, very cool possibilities for this feature.  (Discovered today that the touch screen works great for reviewing images – zoom in by touch, pan around, move between images, it’s all great!  Hmm, maybe I should read the manual again…)

My final thought on the touch screen is that it’s potential is largely driven by software, and we have no idea what firmware upgrades Olympus may make in the future to enhance its capabilities even further.

And since we’re talking about screens, it makes sense to talk about the EVF. This is my first EVF camera and I was excited about using it was well warranted. The EVF is fully functional and well formed for shooting; I don’t find that it lacks necessary detail and I’ve only experienced flickering on a couple of occasions (very fast panning, shooting into the sun). The data readout contains the best of both traditional and P&S displays and I’m very happy to maintain both my settings bar and a 3rds grid overlay. (There are all sorts of menu options for customizing the display, readout, and overlays as well.) And since it’s electronic, all your exposure changes are shown in real-time as you make them, letting you effectively “pre-chimp” you shots. Makes things easy.

My only quip about all this is how the image review is displayed – I’m conditioned to take a shot and pull away from the camera to see the review on the back screen. The OM-D doesn’t do that (at least no by default, although there’s probably an option for it). Instead, it displays the review right in the EVF, for a customizable length of time. You can study it for a second, or half-press the shutter button to cancel the review and keep shooting. And of course you can always push the Image Review button to bring up the photos on the rear screen. It just takes some getting used to. (Side note: the display is transferred between the EVF and back screen via a small button on the right side of the viewfinder.)

Here’s some bad news: there’s still no RAW codec update for Adobe Camera RAW, so for now we’re forced to work with the OM-D’s RAW files in the included Olympus software. I won’t mince words here, the Oly software stinks. It’s as predictably bad as Canon’s DPP and entirely lacks the range of options and ease of workflow that we’re all accustomed to in ACR/Lightroom. Granted, it’s only a matter of time until Adobe releases an update with the codecs, but until then I’m stuck with JPEGS (I don’t have any confidence in the Oly RAW software, so I’m saving my RAW files to work on later).

UPDATE: Adobe Labs has released Lightroom 4.1 RC 2, which has RAW support for the E-M5.  I’m downloading it right now, although since I’m not a Lightroom guy, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll find when it finally finishes.  But no matter, it’s better than using the included Oly software, and the RC is good until the end of June – plenty of time for Adobe to release an official update to ACR.

The offshoot of this is, that without a dependable RAW processor, I can’t fully evaluate the image quality. You can’t judge a camera based on JPEGs, because there’s far too much processing applied in-camera. Because of this, I won’t be making any image quality statements for the time being, except to say that, based on what I have been able to see in the JPEGs, they look good. (More on this in the future.)

Up next time, some thoughts on general shooting with the OM-D. Then we’ll really get to the good stuff!

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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