Two top experts call the Olympus E-5 the best Four Thirds camera ever, and a good bet if you've already invested in Four Thirds lenses. However, reviews say it can't compete with traditional digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras in low light, which is a fault of the smaller Four Thirds image sensor, and it's pricey for what you get. For just $200 more you could step up to the pro class and snag a full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II (*Est. $1,900 body only), a much better camera by any measure.
"A great shooting experience," but glitches bug testers. Four Thirds cameras use smaller image sensors than regular DSLRs. This makes for less bulky lenses, but doesn't shave any size or weight off the camera itself.
The Olympus E-5 looks and works much like any semi-pro DSLR. Like the rival Canon EOS 7D (*Est. $1,500 body only), the E-5 boasts a handy LCD screen on top so you can check and change settings at a glance, and a big, bright viewfinder shows 100 percent of the scene. In addition, a tilt-and-swivel rear LCD screen is useful for odd-angle shots and video. The Canon 7D and Nikon D7000 (*Est. $1,000 body only) skip this feature, but you'll find one on the cheaper Canon EOS 60D (*Est. $935 body only).
Overall, experts love shooting with the Olympus E-5, but there's always one big gripe. The menu can be "frustrating at times," says Jerry Jackson at DigitalCameraReview.com; some settings are buried so deep that new users might never find them. At DPReview.com, testers find the small, closely spaced buttons hard to press with gloves on. Those buttons usually serve more than one function each, and figuring them all out will "drive new users crazy in the first weeks," says Zoltan Arva-Toth at PhotographyBlog.com. Olympus should have ironed out those glitches, but Arva-Toth calls the E-5 "a great shooting experience" overall.
Outclassed by its rivals. Whether you're shooting fast action, low light or video, the Olympus E-5 can't keep up with regular DSLRs. In decent light, images from its 12.3-megapixel sensor look terrific, even "breathtaking," rave the hard-to-please critics at DPReview.com. The Olympus's beautiful colors and unusually crisp detail actually outclass rival DSLRs, says Arva-Toth at PhotographyBlog.com.
However, detail starts to deteriorate at ISO 1,600 in tests, and the E-5 only goes up to ISO 6,400. Meanwhile, competing DSLRs keep churning out nice prints up to ISO 12,800 for the Canon 60D and 7D, and ISO 25,600 for the Nikon D7000.
Speed is another weakness. The Olympus E-5 may shoot fast enough for many users, but it doesn't keep up with the competition. It can fire off 5 frames per second (fps), which is slightly less than the cheaper Canon 60D's 5.3 fps and Nikon D7000's 6 fps, and nowhere near the Canon 7D's 8 fps. The 7D can hold that speed for a full 25 raw shots, too, versus 16 for the Olympus.
Video lags behind, as well. While almost all other DSLRs on the market can shoot full 1,080p HD, the Olympus is stuck at not only 720p but one frame rate of 30 fps and seven-minute clips, or 14 minutes in standard definition. There's no continuous autofocus, either. You can engage autofocus with a half-press of the shutter button, but it "occasionally fails completely," say testers at DPReview.com. "We have a lot of defocused video clips to prove it." Arva-Toth manages to shoot some great-looking footage, but these drawbacks "are all pretty incomprehensible" in such an expensive camera, he says.
Battery life is rated at 870 shots per charge, which is low for this class.
"Built like the proverbial tank." So says Arva-Toth at PhotographyBlog.com, and critics at DPReview.com agree: The E-5's "tank-like body should take years of abuse." An all-metal, weather-sealed, splashproof body makes the Olympus E-5 one of the toughest under-$2,000 cameras you can buy. Jackson at DigitalCameraReview.com says the E-5's just as durable as its predecessor, the Olympus E-3, which he has used "during fierce thunderstorms and on the beach getting splashed with salt water" with no ill effects.
The Canon EOS 7D is all-metal and weather-sealed, too, so it will likewise shrug off dust and rainstorms. But one owner at Amazon.com takes it a step further with the Olympus: "I've placed it on wet sand to get a low-angle beach shot, then washed it clean under a faucet. I have much confidence in the build."
Clever features, and one that's not. The Olympus E-5 adds a couple of nifty extras that offer more than rival DSLRs. First, you can apply special effects called Art Filters when shooting video clips or photos. Choices include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale and Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Gentle Sepia, Cross Process and Dramatic Tone. They work in all of the camera's shooting modes. Some competing DSLRs let you do this with photos but not videos, and often only in Auto mode.
Second, exposure bracketing on the E-5 isn't limited to the usual three shots; it can shoot from two to seven photos to make sure you catch the perfect exposure. "Talk about insurance when you need it," says Shawn Barnett at Imaging-Resource.com. Otherwise, the E-5's features are pretty much par for the class. Wireless flash control and a dual-axis level gauge -- which shows both pitch and tilt, on both the viewfinder and LCD -- are similar to the Canon EOS 7D's.
One special addition turns out to be not so great. The Olympus E-5 has two memory-card slots, which comes in extremely handy on the Nikon D7000, the only other under-$2,000 DSLR to offer it. The Nikon will automatically record to the second card if the first one fills up, or record to both simultaneously to create a backup. Yet the E-5 won't do any of that; it lets you use only one card at a time, either the Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD). "This is a major disappointment," says Arva-Toth at PhotographyBlog.com.
Review Credibility: Very Good "The Olympus E-5 is the best Four Thirds DSLR ever made," built to last and capable of shooting great photos, reviewers say. However, it costs more than a good traditional digital SLR, and has less dynamic range and relatively poor low-light quality.
Review: Olympus E-5 In-depth Review, Barnaby Britton, Lars Rehm and Simon Joinson, February 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good Arva-Toth says the Olympus E-5 is "clearly the best Four Thirds DSLR to date," but it's very expensive and stumbles in low light. He also finds movie mode "a mixed bag." Still, the camera is extremely rugged and delivers crisp, beautifully colored images at lower ISOs, and this site gives it a Highly Recommended tag.
Review: Olympus E-5 Review, Zoltan Arva-Toth, Dec. 22, 2010
Review Credibility: Very Good Jackson lists several of the same pros and cons as other reviewers in this complete, critical evaluation of the Olympus E-5. He likes its solid body and articulating LCD screen, but noisy low-light images are a major drawback.
Review: Olympus E-5 Review, Jerry Jackson, Oct. 22, 2010
Review Credibility: Very Good Imaging-Resource.com hasn't put the Olympus E-5 through the site's usual exhaustive testing. Still, editors evaluate all of the camera's features, and Barnett is "impressed with the images" after shooting with a prototype.
Review: Olympus E-5, Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins and Zig Weidelich, Sept. 14, 2010
Review Credibility: Good Ryan finds plenty to like about the Olympus E-5, including its in-body image stabilizer and rugged, weather-sealed body -- two things it does better than Nikon and Canon. Its slow autofocus in dim light is the E-5's major stumbling block.
Review: Tested: Olympus E5, Philip Ryan, Dec. 3, 2010
Review Credibility: Fair About 30 customers review the Olympus E-5 at Amazon.com, with many giving it a perfect 5 stars. Some complain about noisy low-light images, however.
Review: Olympus E-5 12.3MP Digital SLR, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012