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The E-M5 records Full HD clips using the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression format and with the choice of Fine or Normal quality settings which equate to 20 Mbps and 17 Mbps respectively. This is a departure from the Digital Pen models which use AVCHD compression, but MPEG-4 really is easier to edit as well as being compatible with a wider selection of editing software packages.

The camera has built-in stereo microphones, but can be fitted with an external pick-up via an adaptor module which plugs into the accessory port. There’s also the choice of recording video in the HD resolution using either the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 or Motion JPEG AVIC compression formats. The E-M5’s support of the SD memory card format extends to SDXC, UHS-1 and Eye-Fi.

IN THE HAND
It would be nice to report that using the E-M5 is straightforward and logical – and often it is – but there are times when it isn’t. The documentation doesn’t help and it’s being kind to state that the instruction manual is poorly organised because it’s basically a shambles with chaotic indexing and only a fair cursory coverage of the camera’s operations.

For example, trying to make sense of the myriad of customisation options will just leave you with a headache. However, there’s stuff you need to know here because hidden in this extensive menu are important things like the settings for colour space, white balance, ISO, noise reduction and more stuff that should in the shooting menus. It’s also here that you’ll struggle to work out how to switch on the ‘Super Control Panel’ which is what you really need to be able to drive the E-M5 with any degree of ease and efficiency. In fact, the SCP has to be switched on for each of the camera’s main operational configurations – iAuto, PASM, Art Filters and Scene Modes – along with the alternative ‘Live Control’ screen which allows for the image to be displayed alongside selected adjustable settings.

A sample setting sequence is Custom Menu>Display>Control Settings>P/A/S/M>Live SCP>On/Off... which you’ll need to execute four times if you want the SCP to always be available! Is there a better way? Dunno, because Olympus is offering such a huge variety of control options which most owners will initially configure to suit their preferences and then not touch again. The SCP on the E-M5 has touch selection – although some of the function tiles are pretty small – but only for highlighting a selection and so it’s necessary to press the ‘OK’ button to bring up the sub-menus. And these have to be navigated conventionally via the command wheels or the left/right navigation keys rather than via touch control. It’s hard to tell whether all this will drive you bonkers or you’ll simply learn to live with it. Presumably with longer term usage, the latter will be the case. At least the SCP – and the Live Control – displays eliminate much of the need to go digging around in the Custom Menu.

The live view (and EVF) image can be configured to show a real-time histogram, dual-axis level displays, highlight and shadow warnings and a superimposed grid (from a choice of five). Similarly, the review screens can be set up to include a thumbnail with a full set of histograms, a brightness histogram superimposed over the image, highlight and shadow warnings and a ‘Light Box’ display for the side-by-side comparison of two images (with zooming). The highlight and shadow warnings have adjustable thresholds and the real-time histogram includes an internal section – displayed in green – which shows the brightness values within the selected focusing point or cluster. Olympus certainly hasn’t left anything out when it comes to keeping you fully informed.

The camera feels wonderful to hold and the close arrangement of the main dial and sub-dial – the latter located around the shutter release – works extremely well. It makes for quick and sure exposure adjustments, including applying compensation. Two function buttons – one on the top panel and one on the rear – can be assigned with a variety of duties.

The EVF is good in that there’s no lag whatsoever, but the dynamic range is typical of LCD panels and the colours are a bit muted. On the other hand, the OLED-type external monitor screen is superb in all departments.

SPEED AND PERFORMANCE
The E-M5 delivers on its promise of extremely fast and accurate autofocusing and it has to be the best of the CSCs using contrast detection. The metering, of course, is also sensor-based and proved to be extremely reliable even in very contrasty situations. As already noted, the E-M5 provides quite a few ways of dealing with contrast to maximise the dynamic range and of tweaking the image capture parameters to deliver the desired look. Olympus continues to squeeze more performance out of the Four-Thirds format sensor thanks mainly to improvements in the image data processing algorithms. The E-M5 delivers good definition, detailing and colour saturation at its default Natural ‘Picture Mode’ settings. Noise levels in the JPEGs are extremely low all the way up to ISO 1600 and acceptable at both ISO 3200 and 6400 which is excellent for a Micro Four Thirds camera. The two highest ISO settings exhibit progressively higher levels of noise which compromise the definition and tonal smoothness. In general, though, the noise reduction processing achieves a good balance in terms of maintaining a high level of sharpness, and the noise evident in the RAW files at the higher ISOs shows just how effective it is. The dynamic range is very good without any assistance, especially in the highlights which retain some detailing even in areas of reasonably extreme brightness. Using the Gradation picture parameter’s Auto setting helps increase the tonality evident in the shadow areas.

As far as image quality is concerned then, the E-M5 shoots straight to the top of the Micro Four Thirds CSC class, deposing the Lumix G3. In fact, in some areas, it’s snapping at the heels of the best ‘APS-C’ models such as Sony’s superlative NEX-A7 which is quite an achievement.

Against the clock and in the JPEG/large/superfine capture mode with an 8.0 GB Class 10 speed Sony memory card, the E-M5 rattled of a burst of 15 frames in 1.702 second which equates to a shooting speed of 8.8 fps. This is only slightly under the quoted 9.0 fps and easily accounted for by the file size compared to the ‘standard’ on which the Olympus spec is based.

THE VERDICT
So much works so well on the Olympus E-M5, it’s a pity to dwell on some of the operational issues, but the menu design and some of the setting procedures are more complicated than they need to be. The unwieldy Custom Menu is mostly at fault – numbering well over 80 items – and a lot of what’s in there should be elsewhere. Is it a deal breaker? Unlikely because the E-M5 otherwise scores very highly for its extensive feature set, superb image quality (for both stills and video), the physical handling characteristics, compact dimensions and the all-important ‘feel good’ factor. Plus, of course, it looks simply sensational and certainly challenges the Fujifilm X-Pro1 for the CSC beauty pageant crown.

Factor in the M.Zuiko Digital lens system – plus optics available in the MFT mount from other manufacturers – and the whole ethos that Olympus is building around its OM-D system and the E-M5 is pretty damn near irresistible.