Olympus camera next to 2 lenses against white background.

Mirrorless Magic: Spending Time With the Olympus OM-D

When we recently received the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (there’s a mouthful for you) in our warehouse, I wasted absolutely no time in snagging one of the bodies and taking it for a whirl. My “whirls” usually last a few weeks so that I can put the camera to use in a variety of different ways, and given the feedback I’d heard from other photographers about this diminutive body, I was eager to put it through its paces. Two weeks later, I have my conclusion: Olympus has an absolute winner on its hands.

The Gear

The Micro Four Thirds platform isn’t a closed-loop system. Olympus and Panasonic both make bodies for it, and there’s even an MFT-based version of the enormously popular Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Panasonic, particularly, has two lenses that I decided were going to be my go-to lenses for this test: the 12–35mm f/2.8 and the 35–100mm f/2.8. Together, these cover the equivalent of the 24–70 and 70–200mm lenses in 35mm terms, giving me the focal lengths used by most photographers. Because the OM-D features a 5-axis, in-body stabilization, that entire focal length is stabilized as well.

First Impressions and Handling

The first thing you think when you see the OM-D is that it’s both bigger and smaller than you thought it would be. It’s bigger than, say, Olympus’ E-PL2 (which I used for a long time), but it’s smaller than any of their DSLRs, despite looking like one. The design is also very retro, evoking the look of Olympus’ venerable OM–2. The front is pretty sparse – other than a lens release button, there’s nothing there. The grip, is textured, so you actually don’t mind that it’s kind of tiny. In my chubby hands, the OM-D is still pretty comfortable.

The front of the OM-D

The front of the OM-D

On the top are the two command dials (highlighted by red arrows in the image below.) These can be used to change shutter speed and aperture in manual modes, or to scroll through options in other modes. They are nice and large, and have a firm, but easy-to-rotate feel to them. They’re placed pretty well too, and are easy to reach with your forefinger and thumb. The top also has the mode dial, which I like – I’m not a big fan of cameras where this is relegated to the menu system.

The top of the OM-D. The red arrows point to the command dials.

The top of the OM-D. The red arrows point to the command dials.

The back is the part I sometimes have difficulty with, since I have large hands. While the Menu, Info, and other buttons clustered around the power switch are big enough and easy to press, with a firm, responsive feel, the Play and Fn1 buttons are tiny. Ridiculously so.

I like using back-button focus, which I’ve assigned to the Fn1 button. Thing is, that button is really tiny, and placed in a recessed area above the LCD. That makes it hard to push, which is annoying. Still, with a bit of practice, I’ve gotten better at it. The back also has a nice protruding tab above the buttons for your thumb to rest on. This greatly aids with holding the OM-D.

The back of the OM-D

The back of the OM-D

With the Panasonic 35–100mm f/2.8 lens on, I basically have a 16MP body with a stabilized 70–200mm f/2.8 lens on in a package that is shorter than the length of my palm. Photojournalists, are you paying attention?


There are two key aspects that I was paying attention to when testing the OM-D: the AF system and image quality.

Olympus claims that with certain lenses, this camera has the fastest autofocus in the world at the moment. With the Panasonic lenses, I can vouch for the fact that AF (in S-AF mode) is snappy as anything I’ve ever used in this class of camera. I’ll go so far as to say that it compares pretty favorably to many of the DSLRs I’ve used in the past, including my current D800E. Is it faster than the 5D Mark III or the 1Dx? I doubt it. But this thing is super-fast nonetheless, and the built-in AF-assist lamp definitely helps it in low-light conditions as well. I spent Christmas chasing my nephew around the house, and the OM-D kept up with him without breaking a sweat. For those of you wondering if the AF is fast enough for sports or wildlife shooters, I’m sorry, the short answer is no.

But how is image quality? In a word: excellent.

Nighttime shot with the OM-D

Nighttime shot with the OM-D

I’m pretty surprised by the quality coming off this relatively small sensor. Olympus has done a great job with this body, and for most uses, I have zero complaints about the level of detail in the images from this camera. You can see the detail in the 100% crop below.

100% crop of the image above

100% crop of the image above

Moreover, I was surprised by the high ISO performance of the OM-D as well. While not up to the standards of the 5D Mark III or the Nikon D3s, this thing holds fantastic detail while keeping noise incredibly low at ISOs up to 1600, and sometimes even higher. I’ve ended up with perfectly usable shots of family members taken at up to ISO 4000. Furthermore, the detail coming off this sensor at ISOs like 1250 or so is also impressive. In the image below of our Front Desk Team manager, Jo Deguzman, a 100% zoom shows practically no noise and you can see (and count) every hair in his fashionable stubble.

Jo Deguzman, shot with the OM-D, at ISO 1250

Jo Deguzman, shot with the OM-D, at ISO 1250

So what do you give up with this sensor? Well, your bokeh isn’t going to be quite as soft as on a full frame sensor. You won’t get the fantastic dynamic range of the D800, so don’t expect to recover shadow detail in post production like you can with the D800, or get the high ISO performance of the 5D Mark III. You also have to factor in the 2x crop factor of this sensor, so a 12mm lens becomes a 24mm lens in 35mm terms.

There are a few more things that are worthing calling out about the OM-D:

  • Image Stabilization: The OM-D has in-body stabilization. That means that regardless of which lens you use on it, you’ll be able to take advantage of the stabilization. Which is pretty awesome when you put on a Nikon-mount 35mm lens with an adapter and pull out a clean image at 1/8th of a second, a good 3 stops below what you’d normally want for a shutter speed.
  • The Touchscreen: That touchscreen is pretty handy for flipping through pictures, but it really shines in the touch-to-shoot department. You can hold the Olympus at waist level or above your head, frame your shot, then simply tap on the are you want the camera to focus. It’ll focus and take the shot in one go (which, when I think about it, is a really cool iPhone-esque experience). Street photographers will really like this feature; it allows for some nice, discrete picture-taking.
  • The EVF: It’s high-res and incredibly clear. I was able to manually focus a Sigma 35mm Nikon-mount lens using the EVF without issue.

Olympus has a hit on their hands. Many pros are leaving behind their heavy DSLR gear for smaller bodies like this one and it’s no wonder that the OM-D is getting rave reviews everywhere. Those reviews are well-earned, and Nikon and Canon would do well to pay heed to what companies like Sony, Panasonic and Olympus are doing. If you’re looking for a small, lightweight, capable package to carry around and shoot with, this is your camera. It won’t replace the D800E for my studio and fine art work, but it certainly has become my carry-around camera.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  • Paul in NoCo

    Geez Granite. For the time being, it’s the only OM-D.

  • Granite SlackT N Args

    The camera is called the E-M5. It is wrong to call it the OM-D, that is like calling your Canon the D, or the G. It is a range designation, not a model designation. This will become plain to you when the next OM-D model is released: then no-one will know which camera you are talking about above. Think of it as an Olympus E-5 in a Micro format — then its name (E-M5) will make sense.

  • David Moore

    I agree – I’ve got one and it’s a very capable (and small) camera. I sometimes miss being able to get shallow depth of fields with wider lenses (and a external mic jack without an adapter would be nice), but I’m really enjoying it.

  • bob benson

    Got one. Love it.

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