cameras

Olympus PEN E-P5 Digital Camera Review

Can the new flagship PEN surpass the mighty OM-D, or is it just another pretender to the throne?

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By the Numbers

Since the Olympus E-P5 (MSRP $999–$1,449) shares a sensor with two cameras we've already reviewed, we had certain well-founded expectations for its color accuracy, white balance, noise performance, and dynamic range. We also expected the camera to score quite a bit better in sharpness than its stablemates, since it's only available in kit form with the highly regarded Olympus M.ZUIKO 17mm f/1.8 prime lens. In each case, our expectations were borne out by the lab data.

Sharpness

Prime lenses make life easy for us camera testers. You only have to deal with one focal length, and as a rule they tend to be superb performers.

We wouldn't call the 17mm f/1.8 "superb," exactly, but it's definitely very good. When shooting wide open at f/1.8, the extreme corners and borders show some softening (probably due to field curvature), but the center of the image is very sharp from the get-go. All areas of the test chart show some pretty heavy green chromatic aberration, however. You can easily correct it in a good RAW developer like Adobe Lightroom, but it's annoying that you'll need to take that step.

Sharpness.jpg
The 17mm f/1.8 lens shows some soft corners wide open, but center resolution is very good straight from f/1.8. Green chromatic aberration is a problem all over, though.

The lens is sharpest at f/2.8 to f/4, after which the resolution gradually trails off due to diffraction. That said, it's still plenty sharp all the way down to f/11, if you need the extra depth of field. Vignetting is noticeable at f/1.8, but by f/2.8 it's mostly gone.

Noise & Noise Reduction

Like other Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras, the PEN E-P5 offers four JPEG noise reduction settings: Off, Low, Standard, and High. With noise reduction turned completely off, we found that noise levels didn't top 1% until ISO 1600, and didn't cross the 2% barrier until ISO 6400.

Cranking up the noise reduction gets you about a stop of noise per level of NR. In other words, ISO 1600 with NR tuned to Standard looks like ISO 800 with NR tuned to Low, and so on. When it's turned all the way up to High, you never get more than 2% noise, even at ISO 25600.

Rosie.jpg
The smooth "skin" of Rosie's face looks quite good up to ISO 800. Beyond that point, noise begins to eat away at her eyebrows and fill in the hollows of her cheeks.

Of course, images shot at high sensitivities with High NR look pretty awful. All detail gets smeared away and the whole shot ends up looking like a watercolor painting. (Actually, that might be a great time to use the Watercolor Art Filter.)

In general, we would recommend sticking to shooting RAW and applying your own noise reduction in the editing suite of your choice. But if you're dead-set on shooting JPEG, don't go with more than Standard NR, and don't shoot above ISO 3200 if you can avoid it. ISO 6400 and 12800 are ok in a pinch, but ISO 25600 should be verboten.

Alice.jpg
In these crops (with NR turned completely off), the fine detail of the Cheshire Cat line art is retained pretty well up through ISO 3200, but 6400 and beyond show color shift and a lot of smearing.

Color & White Balance

In recent generations, the majority of Micro Four Thirds cameras have excelled at JPEG color accuracy; the E-P5 carries on that tradition. In our standard color test, the camera produced an average ∆C 00 corrected color error of just 2.29 and saturation of 102.9% when shooting in its most accurate color mode, Muted. Typically, anything under 2.5 is considered very good, and the best we ever see is around a 2.0, putting the E-P5 firmly in the "excellent" range.

The largest errors were in reds and blues, though light greens also showed a little variance. Really, though, performance was very consistent across the board. The Natural color mode was also quite accurate, with an average error of 2.51, but it pushed saturation to 108.2% for a punchier, more vibrant look. If you want to take your colors way overboard, use the iEnhance or Vivid color modes, which amped saturation to well over 120%.

Color.png
The E-P5's JPEG color rendition is quite accurate, showing only minor deviations in yellows, greens, and blues. Reds are slightly further off, but still not bad. Saturation is close to ideal in the Muted color mode.

The E-P5's automatic white balance was surprisingly accurate under incandescent light, with an average temperature error of 1188 K. While this did lend a slightly warm tone to indoor shots, it's also a lot better than many competing cameras could manage in the same conditions. (Historically, an average error of 2000+ K is more common.) AWB readings under compact white fluorescent (off by 225 K) and simulated daylight (70 K) were just as good as custom settings. That last one is particularly impressive, and means that your outdoor shots should look spectacular.

Manual white balance accuracy was perfectly acceptable, if not outstanding. Color temperature errors ranged from 218 K in simulated daylight (yep, worse than the AWB reading), to 113 K for CWF, to 89 K for incandescent.

Video Quality

While most system cameras today produce competent full-HD clips, they usually aren't the best choice if video shooting is your priority. There are exceptions—like the Panasonic GH3—but the E-P5 definitely isn't one of them.

The camera's 1080/30p video was quite sharp, but there's no 60p recording mode for silky-smooth output and you won't find a 24p option for that cinematic look. Clips are encoded in the MP4 H.264 codec and saved in a standard.MOV container—easier to work with but not quite as space-efficient as the newer AVCHD.

In good light, the 1080/30p footage showed plenty of detail and just a bit of trailing on moving objects. When 5-axis image stabilization was turned on, there was just the tiniest hint of rolling shutter when we panned quickly from side to side, but on the whole it was incredibly effective.

In poor light, sharpness dropped slightly and noise and compression artifacts became more apparent. That said, the results still looked quite good compared to many competing models. (The Samsung NX300, for example, had some of the best video we've seen in bright light but dropped off terribly in dimmer conditions.)

The E-P5 probably got a big boost in this tougher scenario from its highly sensitive CMOS sensor, which was capable of producing a broadcast-quality image (50 IRE) with just 5 lux of ambient illumination.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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