OK, the declaration first. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Olympus OM tragic. Have been since my high school days and was the proud owner of a Praktica until the OM-1 was launched. Suddenly my East German-built 35mm SLR looked very agricultural next to the jewel-like Olympus, but mind-you, so did pretty much every other reflex camera of the day. Fortunately, my art teacher quickly purchased an OM-1 and, as I was the only student doing photography in my year, he occasionally loaned it to me. I was instantly hooked and, like many OM devotees, have kept the candle burning despite Olympus dallying with our affections on a number of occasions… pathetic attempts at AF 35mm SLRs, then no SLRs at all for nearly a decade, then some very strange early attempts at D-SLRs (remember the E-330 anyone?) and, finally, unceremoniously dumping the E-400 series just when it was getting close to being the ‘digital OM’.

So, the first of the OM-D series cameras really has a lot of making up to do. And pro Olympus OM leanings don’t actually mean it’s going to get an easier run on these pages. In fact, if it doesn’t deliver, the disappointment is going to be far more profound and the criticism harsher.

Heritage aside, the OM-D system is critical to Olympus’s future success. The company is the first to admit it isn’t in the same league as Canon, Nikon or Sony, and it’s got one or two financial hurdles to jump which, it has to be said, are no fault of its engineers, stylists and product planners. OM-D has to work and it has to create the same sort of aura and fierce loyalty that the ‘single digit’ 35mm cameras did. Consequently, there’s a lot resting on the E-M5’s slim shoulders, but already the signs are there that Olympus knows exactly what it’s doing with OM-D and it’s going to create a culture around the system that will be irresistible to many.

The E-M5 would have been well down the development track when Fujifilm launched the X100, but Olympus must have been hugely encouraged by the market’s response to this camera given the design philosophies are very similar. The E-M5, we’re assured is just the start, but what a start! Apart from the camera body itself, there are accessories like the two-part HLD-6 battery grip – styled to look a lot like an OM system motordrive – and a growing system of superb fast prime lenses to which has just been added a glorious 75mm f1.8 short telephoto. The fast Zuiko primes in the original OM system where legendary and, indeed, many have been lovingly kept and stored just waiting for the day when there would again be something worthy to put them on.

Of course, the E-M5 isn’t a D-SLR and, when all is said and done, it’s pretty much an E-P3 with a built-in electronic viewfinder and a new sensor. However, as with so many things, it’s not what you’ve got, but how you use it and the E-M5 uses what it’s got brilliantly. Let’s not forget too, that the original E-P1 and its successors are also a digital-era re-interpretation of a classic Olympus design, although the Pen F half-frame cameras were never as successful as the OM series.  
Obviously the E-M5 is styled to be reminiscent of an OM SLR, and although it’s actually a little more compact overall, both the depth and height of the body are very similar. The EVF’s housing is shaped like that of the pentaprism housing on the later OM-3 and OM-4 models, and the use of dials (three of them!) on the top panel also helps keep up appearances. It’s worth noting, of course, that the single-digit 35mm OM bodies never had a conventional shutter speed dial and instead used a control ring located around the lens mount.

To avoid bulking up the body, the E-M5 gets just a hint of a handgrip, but there’s a fairly substantial thumbrest at the rear. Remarkably, the 7.62 cm monitor screen – which takes up a lot of the rear panel’s real estate – is mounted so it can be tilted up or down; at 80 degrees and 50 degrees respectively. It, too, adds virtually nothing to the overall depth. It’s an OLED-type display with touch controls which would have been well beyond our imaginations back in 1972 when the OM-1 was making headlines. It’s well known that it was to have been called the M-1, but Leica objected so the ‘O’ was added. The E-M5 model designation is a cheeky little reminder of this and also signals that this camera is considered the spiritual successor to the OM-4.

The EVF is essentially the Digital Pen system’s VF-2 fully integrated into the camera body and with proximity sensors on the eyepiece to enable automatic switching between it and the external monitor. It’s an LCD panel with a resolution of 1.44 million dots, 100 percent scene coverage and a magnification of 1.15x.