Kirk Tuck Writes a Short and Happy Review of the Olympus EP-5.

A good, straightforward picture taking machine. The Olympus Pen EP-5.

I have mixed feelings about writing this review. On one hand, this is the camera that I wish Olympus had introduced last year instead of the OMD EM-5, it's a nicer handling camera, on the other hand I no longer use the Pens for my work and the chance to review this camera reminded me of how much I liked the Pens. Which may lead to a new bout of new camera desire... So, let me get my distilled opinion out up front: The Olympus EP-5 (when used with the mandatory VF-4) is the best handling and best shooting micro four thirds camera I have played with yet. Had I gone ahead and bought the OMD EM cameras last year I would want to sell them this year and move to the EP-5. It's the camera I wanted from that system all along. I'm also reticent to review Olympus cameras these days because the hard core fans can get downright nasty when they disagree with reviewers. But that's a risk I guess we'll have to take. (Thank God we're moderating comments now).

Before I dive into the camera itself I feel like I have to talk about the electronic viewfinder. I struggle with the idea of using any camera just by interfacing with the screen on the back. It's a struggle for everyone when out in bright sunlight and it's a nuisance all the time for people who need to wear reading glasses to see the screen and its content correctly. I've been using EVFs in nearly all of my cameras since switching to Sony Alpha cameras and Sony's Nex 6's and Nex 7's. The finder on the Sony Alpha a99 is my basis for comparison with everything else out there. It's a great EVF and works for me in all kinds of lights and shooting conditions. It's not perfect but it's sharp and detailed. I can also adjust the brightness and color balance of the finder screen, easily.

The new VF-4 EVF is bigger than its predecessor but it doubles the resolution and also offers a better viewing set up.
I love the massive and accessible diopter adjustment on the side. Hey Fuji! Did you really launch the Pro-1X without a diopter feature???? Really???

Olympus fixes another common problem that plagued previous finders. This one locks on so it's harder to accidentally lose. That's a big plus for our clumsier or less mindful colleagues...

While Olympus made a good finder available (the VF-2) when they launched the Pen EP-2 people had a few reservations. The 1.44 megapixel resolution bothered some users and almost universally people found the finder slipped off their cameras too easily. The rear eyepiece and magnification also presented problems. People wanted a bigger exit pupil that would work better while wearing glasses.

With the VF-4 Olympus have upgraded their offering a couple big notches. The VF-4, while bigger, nearly doubles the resolution and the way the finder is set up it's much easier to work with for people who wear glasses. My comparisons between the Sony a99 EVF and the VF-4 point to a tie for viewing experience. And basically that means they both share the title, "Best in Class."  I cannot fathom anyone not buying the VF-4 along with the Pen EP-5. The camera is a high performance imaging instrument and the finder adds so much capability for composing AND reviewing images in harsh light, strong light, mixed light and color contaminated light. That alone makes its inclusion mandatory in my book.

The VF-4 is much more eyeglass friendly but it retains the quick switch button to get you from the menu on the rear screen to the proper shooting configuration (usually through the finder) at the touch of a button.

The add-on EVF is a small price if it keeps you from looking all "hipsterish" holding your wonderful picture taking machine way out in front of you in defiance of the laws of physics and good camera craft.

To use a camera of this caliber with the stinky baby diaper hold (camera held straight out in front of you....) is just negligence, laziness or ignorance. If I were a store clerk in a camera shop I would refuse to sell this camera without the EVF. It would be like sending a new car buyer out of a dealership without tires. Just riding along on the rims.... 

There will, of course, be two complaints. One will be that the combination of the finder and EP-5 body raises the price of the package to the point where it exceeds the purchase price of the OMD (which has an EVF built in). Yes. That's true. But the camera is a better product. It has all the imaging capability of the older product but offers better handling and a much, much better finder experience (when used with the VF-4). The second complaint will be about the additional bulk the finder adds to the camera. I don't mind it aesthetically and it reminds me of using the bright line finders on my Leica M's with the 21mm lenses we shot with. The total package is still less than half the size (volume) of a Nikon D800 and it's still lightweight and agile to use.  Get the finder.

The range of lenses made for the Olympus m4:3 cameras is large and growing all the time. The nice thing is that, with the exception of the kit lenses all of the primes and most of the zooms are really very, very good.

I wrote recently about the "money maker" lenses and my article concluded that for most commercial and portrait photographers the standard, high speed, 70 to 200mm lenses from the majors were the lenses that did most of the heavy lifting in photography businesses. So it's fun to see that Panasonic got with the program and made the equivalent for this format. It works perfectly with the EP-5, which is a benefit of system standard. I've just shot it in the studio but it's sharp and very well behaved. Coupled with their 12-35mm f2.8 normal zoom the combo gives a working photographer 95% of the focal lengths he or she would need for nearly any assignment. And together they weigh far less than either range zoom in the full frame camp. A couple bodies, the two Panasonic zooms and a flash would all fit in my smaller Domke bag and wouldn't make much of a dent on my shoulder...

I saved the best for last. The shutter is a metaphor for the rest of the camera. It's sound is solid, low key and confidence inspiring. You've heard all the clich├ęs: Like the door of our Bentley studio car closing. Like a Swiss watch, etc. etc. It just sounds good. It's very similar in sound to the OMD EM-5 shutter so grab one of those and click it a few times and you're there. But keep in mind that the EP-5 shutter sounds at least as good AND gives you one stop faster shutter speed. Progress.

In the hand:  I worked with the Pen EP-2 and the Pen EP-3 for nearly two years and came to grips with them in a short time frame. While I think the bodies would be more comfortable to hold if they were just a bit taller (or extended further down...) they feel good in my hand once I retrain the two bottom fingers to curl under and support the baseplate of the body. If you are something like 6+ feet tall and have big hands these might not be the cameras for you no matter how much you may want to like them. Not enough space to put all that mass of fingers comfortably. 

I like to work in manual exposure with this camera and with most EVF cameras since you can see directly exactly how your exposure settings effect the final image. It's easy to turn the aperture or shutter speed dial and watch the amount and direction of change. It's such an intuitive way to work. I generally set the AF to single AF, center sensor, bring the camera to my eye, lock focus, add any exposure correction I might need and then fire away.

So, everything I said in the past about the handling of the older Pens holds true for this one as well and in that regard the only changes I had to get used to were the placement of the new dials and the relocation of a button or two.

But as long as we're talking about not changing too much let's talk about the ultimate downside of the Olympus camera experience......the menus. I'm not too stupid but it took me a long time to really feel comfortable with the EP2 menu. A long time. In fact, there are parts I'm still not sure about. Well, the EP-5 continues the tradition of being the king among highly user configurable cameras. And that means the menu is long, tediuous, opaque and confusing. Confusing because there's no uniformity in how manufacturers label certain features or settings. If you want a camera you can just pick up and shoot with a minimum of leafing (virtually) through an owner's manual you probably aren't a candidate for this one. Maybe a Samsung is more your speed. Their menus are short, clear and concise. But....if you are a real camera aficionado (read: gear nerd) and you quickly reconfigure all the buttons on your camera to do five different things with four different options then you and the Oly menu might just have been separated at birth. While I can fire the camera up and use it I'd much rather have fewer choices in configuration and a more direct path to efficient usage. A menu with five settings: Color balance, File Type, Focus Mode, Shooting mode, Drive Speed. That would make shooting direct and simple and the camera maker would not even need to provide a user manual.

So, what's my final word on this camera? Well I don't have one final word I have a bunch of them. I'll start here: If this camera had been introduced in time and before the OMD EM-5 (which I liked in theory, and appreciated the IQ, but never warmed up to the feel) I would have stuck with the Olympus system and never stuck my toes (and then my whole self) into the Sony system. The camera and the EVF are really well matched. The sensor is great, as all the OMD owners already know. The EP-5 is fast enough for the kind of work I do, shooting portraits and food and corporate lifestyle. The lenses have been fleshed out into a full fledged, professional line and any gaps are amply made up by the folks from Panasonic. 

It is, without any doubt, the finest digital camera Olympus has ever produced. While I like the feel of the original E1 a bit better the EP-5 runs circles around it in terms of overall imaging performance and the EVF makes it such an intuitive camera that it's almost invisibly fluid in practice. It's truly the flagship of the brand. 

There is one thing that bothers me, but less so than before.  Once you stick the EVF into the hot shoe you lose the use of the hot shoe for anything else. In the past it pissed me off because we shot most of our portraits in the studio and on location with radio slaved flashes. And I needed a place for that radio trigger. It really was an issue. I still wish they had a PC port on the left end of the camera just like the old Pen film cameras. Then I could have my cake and my champagne and eat it and drink it too. 
But now we shoot almost everything with some sort of continuous light and the triggers have become less important to me. It's almost like the moment at which Apple Computer decided to do away with the floppy drive. And recently when they've started to do away with CD/DVD drives entirely. The market changes. If I were a studio flash guy who wanted to use a camera correctly (at eye level) I'd sure think twice about getting into this system. But for everything else it's sweet.

Will I give up my Sony Nexes and Alphas to stumble back into the Olympus system at this point? Probably not....but that pretty much has more to do with my needs for video production tools and audio inputs, etc than actual considerations about still photography.

If I were starting with a clean slate? I'd give real consideration to a couple of the EP-5's in black, the two Panasonic lenses, a couple of the juicy fast primes and a pocket full of batteries. It would be a close decision. But if I did it I'd probably save my shoulder and lower back for at least five more years of service....

A word about this "review."  I'm not trying to compete with DPreview or DXO here. We don't have massive testing rigs and we don't have big graphs or pages and pages of comparison photos. If you want some idea of how this camera will work in a coal bin at night at 6400 ISO you can head over to DPreview.com and scroll through the OMD EM-5 review to your heart's content. And I'm sure they'll have a technical review of the EP-5 up in no time.  I'm also not interested in infinite file detail.  A finished photograph is generally more than the sum of its tiny, tiny (pixel) parts. My intention is to discuss the camera as it is relevant to me.

I shoot most of my cameras at ISO 100, 200, 400, and 800. Most are really good at those ISOs (except the Sony a850 at 800 ISO...) and I know how to add some photons to a scene if it's darker than that.

Even the most expensive fast lenses are sharper in the center than on the edges, wide open, and I'm okay with that.  The only time I need a lens that's sharp wide open from corner to corner is when I'm shooting flat objects and I stopped doing that because it wasn't very interesting. 

I am as interested in how the cameras feel in my hand and how welcoming the menus are as I am interested in a camera's ultimate image quality. With that in mind I've stopped including "samples" from digital cameras under review because they would be smaller than the camera is capable of, compressed for the web and meaningless unless I was shooting test targets. And life is far too short to shoot test targets. 

If you have a beef with the way I write about cameras then you need to get your own blog and fire up your word processor...then you can write whatever you believe, or want to believe, about anything in the universe.

Thanks for reading all the way through. I give the EP-5 a 92%. It's an "A" with room for improvement (built-in radio trigger? PC terminal? Nicer menus? Faster Continuous AF?). But it's a solid "A" because the images that flow out of the camera and the right lenses are as good as they need to be to make good art.

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....

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