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Olympus E-PL5 Review

Overview by Shawn Barnett and
Posted 09/17/2012

Shooter's Report by Eamon Hickey
Posted

Tiny and feature-rich as they were, Olympus saw fit to revamp their two smallest PEN cameras just fifteen months after their introduction. The higher-end model, the Olympus PEN E-PL5, is still about the same size, but it gains a few features from both the E-P3 and the OM-D E-M5, both of which have some cool stuff to offer. The most obvious addition to the E-PL5 is the (included) removable grip from the E-P3. What isn't quite as obvious is the inclusion of the very fine 16-megapixel sensor handed down from the OM-D E-M5. Sitting up now? You should be, because that's a very good sensor, now available in the tiny, reasonably-priced Olympus E-PL5.

Design. I've spent a ton of time with the older cameras, and I didn't feel a great need for a grip, but don't mind that they've included one. Great that it's removable, though. More important and valuable is that 16-megapixel sensor that's impressed me so much in the E-M5. This matte black version is appealing for the street photographer, to be sure, though I'm sure the purist would prefer no chrome.

Stereo microphones flank the hot shoe, and a silver speaker grille peeks out form beneath the camera name. A simple mode dial is well positioned to avoid accidental activation. The power button is to the right of shutter button, and a small focal plane indicator is off to the right of that. It's important to note that this line of Pens still uses the D-rings, so you need to be careful when shooting video to silence this metal-to-metal connection to prevent rattle in your audio.

The Olympus E-PL5 retains the tilting 3-inch LCD screen, though the new design tilts upward 170 degrees to face forward for self-portraits. Note the deeper notch in the top of the LCD to better fit over the hot shoe. All the rest of the buttons are the same as the E-PL3, including a physical Mode dial up top, except that the Movie Record button has shifted right a bit, probably to reduce accidental activation.

One advanced feature, for those who are into it, is the addition of touchscreen capabilities to the Olympus E-PL5. That includes their touch shutter function, where touching on the screen focuses on that spot and fires. The touch shutter also works while recording HD videos, and like its predecessor, the E-PL5 can shoot movies up to Full HD (1,920 x 1,080-pixel) with stereo audio.

Fast shooter. As we say, the Olympus E-PL5 seemed very much like the E-PL3, until we first pressed the shutter button when it was in continuous drive mode, and it cranked off a few shots at a very rapid pace. This compact camera with a great sensor and in-body image stabilization can rip off up to 8 frames per second, something few larger DSLRs can do. Do note that the 8 fps only comes with focus locked -- it achieves a more pedestrian 3.5 fps while using AF tracking -- but it's still impressive.

Olympus E-PL5 with 15mm f/8 lens

Overall, Olympus's offerings are only getting more impressive, with the broadest range of small mirrorless lenses, very fast autofocus, small bodies, fast frame rate, innovative design and excellent image quality.

As an example of continuing Olympus innovation, the BCL-15 Body Cap Lens at left is a manual-focus design, focusing with the slider at front. It's a tiny 15mm prime lens with an f/8 aperture, though Olympus points out it has three good-quality glass elements. I found it was easy to focus by pressing the magnifying glass button on the back of the camera and sliding the focus control.

 

Shooting with the Olympus E-PL5

By Eamon Hickey

Ever since it was announced, the Olympus PEN E-PL5 has been tops on my wish list (a wish list that Santa callously ignored, I regret to say). My ideal camera would combine good overall performance and a reasonably advanced set of controls in the smallest possible package. The E-PL5 is aimed pretty squarely at that sweet spot, especially when you pair it with one of the many, very small Micro Four Thirds lenses available in the marketplace, so I was especially eager to get my hands on this little camera.

Size, feel and handling. I happened to be staying in the San Francisco Bay Area when testing the Olympus E-PL5, and for my first outing with the camera I decided to take it for a hike in an interesting place known as "The Dish Area" -- a kind of nature preserve owned by Stanford University, open to the public and dotted with several radio telescopes (a.k.a. dishes). I hiked the loop trail, a 3.5-mile path with a devilish array of steep 200 to 500 ft. ascents and descents. I shot about 50 pictures in a little more than two hours, and the E-PL5's weight and bulk (with the M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R kit lens) were simply unnoticeable. Over the course of the next week, I carried it with me for hours every day in small and large messenger bags, or hanging from my shoulder, and yet again it was too small and light to notice. I couldn't have been happier.

For the Dish hike, I had the included, detachable MCG-4 grip installed. It's plastic and fairly slim so doesn't add much bulk to the Olympus PEN E-PL5, but for me it didn't improve the grippability of the camera all that much, so I ended up banishing it to that part of my bag known as The Pocket of No Return. A nice touch that it's removable.

I love the portability of the Olympus PEN E-PL5 but physics always has the last word, and the camera's small size brings some inevitable handling compromises. Squeezing the tiltable LCD screen -- with its substantial mounting structure -- plus a reasonably serious array of external buttons and controls onto the back and top deck of this tiny camera makes for a cramped setup. I noticed it immediately on my hike as I was forced to develop new forms of finger yoga in order to simultaneously operate the buttons on the back of the camera and the shutter release (for reference, I'm 6'2" tall with the large-ish fingers that come along with that). And the right-side strap attachment was always in my way, interfering with my operation of the camera's crucial controls. If I were to buy an E-PL5, I'd definitely get one of the straps that attaches to a single point on the camera, and I'd hook it up to the left strap lug only.

Finger yoga aside, I had no trouble with the buttons and dials on the Olympus E-PL5 once I got them within reach. Yes, the controls are small, but I could quickly and precisely make exactly the setting changes I needed to. Bottom line: the E-PL5's small size causes a few minor handling drawbacks, but for me, the camera's superb portability more than makes up for it.

Menus. Unfortunately, the E-PL5 has a rather tricky -- dare we say, labyrinthine -- menu system that makes it difficult and time-consuming to sort through its considerable settings and controls.

Controls. Even before I hit the Dish trail, I spent a few hours going through the Olympus E-PL5's control setup and menu system -- and hours is what it takes. The camera is extremely customizable but the menu system is almost as extremely inscrutable at default. If you've got the patience, it's worth the time to explore all your options and set up the camera just the way you want it. Be advised, you will need the manual to figure this out.

My first step was to separate the E-PL5's autofocus activation from the shutter release and set the autofocus mode to Single AF + Manual Focus, which allows instant manual focus override. I loved the flexibility of this setup, which gave me a lot of seamless options for focusing quickly and accurately.

I then configured the Olympus PEN E-PL5's live view display to show me shadow and highlight clipping warnings and set the exposure system to give me direct control of the aperture with the rear dial and quick, one-click access to exposure compensation. With this setup I could very quickly zero in on the best exposure on several tricky late-afternoon shots on the Dish trail, -- including tree silhouettes and a pastoral image with cows grazing in a meadow lit by streaky sunlight, with a sidelit 150 ft. radio telescope in the background. It worked equally well for some flower and store window images I made in subsequent shoots in the downtown areas of two nearby towns, Menlo Park and Palo Alto.


Super Control Panel. Olympus balanced the difficult menu system with the easy and intuitive Super Control Panel. A welcome relief -- once you figure out how to activate it!

While shooting in those downtown areas, I was constantly moving in and out of shadow and sunlight, and, on one day, from twilight to night. So I was doing a lot of ISO changing from shot to shot. I tried assigning ISO to the Olympus E-PL5's function (Fn) button, but that didn't end up making me any happier than changing ISO through the camera's Super Control Panel (SCP). The SCP worked quite well once I got used to it. I also used it to quickly turn Image Stabilization on and off (I want it to be off and not mucking about with my pictures when my shutter speeds are high enough that it's not needed). The SCP also let me quickly change autofocus modes, burst shooting speeds and several other things. The SCP isn't better than dedicated buttons for those functions, but it didn't slow me down much, so I've got no complaints.

Unfortunately, Olympus did choose to bury the autoexposure bracketing function in the E-PL5's menus. I've used a lot of Olympus cameras over the past 10 years, and Olympus just doesn't seem to "get" bracketing; they apparently don't know why and how people want to use it. But I found a nice workaround. I created a custom function set (a "Myset" in Olympus lingo) with bracketing activated. And then I used a really nice feature of the E-PL5, which inadvertently saves Olympus from their own cluelessness about bracketing. You can re-assign positions on the mode dial -- iAuto or Art, for example -- to any of your four Mysets. So I re-assigned Art mode to my bracketing Myset and was able to go in and out of bracketing mode with an instant twist of the mode dial. This worked beautifully for occasions where I wanted to cover all my exposure bases, including some shots inside an iconic Menlo Park tavern called The Dutch Goose and on the nighttime streets of University Avenue in Palo Alto, which still had its Christmas lights up.

All in all, I came away satisfied with the Olympus E-PL5's controls. I was worried they'd be too rudimentary for me, but not so: the crucial basics of focus and exposure control are very well-implemented, and I could shoot happily with this camera for a long time.

Performance. It took just a few shots on the Dish Area trail to see that the Olympus E-PL5 autofocuses very fast on stationary subjects. Later, when I looked at these and the rest of my test shots closely on the computer, I found that the focus was also perfectly accurate. For static subjects, this camera's autofocus is just super reliable, and in fact, I ended up never really needing the manual focus override that I had enabled.

When my subjects started moving, things got a little rough. In downtown Menlo Park, I used the Olympus E-PL5 to make a few quick grab shots of some teenage boys bicycling on the sidewalks and the results: nearly all were out of focus. On subsequent days, taking life in hand, I stood on the side of a busy road and tried some tests on bicyclists and cars, using the camera's Continuous Autofocus mode and the Continuous Low burst mode (3 frames per second). And although I got some sharp shots (including one where a driver was staring back at me suspiciously -- sorry commuters!), my results were mixed at best. I don't think I would rely on this camera for fast-action shooting.

Just how fast is the Olympus E-PL5? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

Autofocus: When faced with stationary objects the E-PL5 nailed the focus perfectly, but had a tougher time on moving subjects.

However, in the days that I shot with it, everything else about the Olympus E-PL5 was snappy -- just the way it should be. There's nothing good to be said about waiting for a camera to respond to control inputs, or write pictures to a memory card, or play back your images, and, happily, the PEN E-PL5 never made me wait.

LCD. I'm a big fan of tilting and articulating LCDs -- being able to compose easily with the camera held at different heights and angles is a huge benefit. So, for me, the Olympus PEN E-PL5's LCD was way ahead of the game from the start. In four different cafes and restaurants, I took pictures of the staff and customers around me, and the ability to frame my pictures accurately without raising the camera to my eye was a great boon. I liked it just as much for macro flower shots, and even just for general pictures, where I find it very natural to hold the camera below eye level. The world has no crying need for a lot of "selfies" from me, so the new feature that allows the E-PL5's LCD to tilt all the way around for self-portrait framing didn't change my life, but it works and I'm sure a lot of folks will love it.

VF-3: One of the three optional electronic viewfinders available for the E-PL5.

Don't tell anyone, but there's a lot of sunshine in California, and it was out in force on several of my shooting days. I shot a lot of backlit and sidelit scenes, especially on my Dish hike, and I found the Olympus PEN E-PL5's LCD to be mediocre for framing and viewing in bright light. Looking into the sun, I sometimes had trouble seeing what was in the frame. Although the sharpness of the PEN E-PL5's LCD isn't top tier, I had no problem with it, but then I don't try to do a lot of critical image evaluation in camera. As noted above, the screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio, while the camera's native aspect ratio is 4:3 (3:3, 16:9, 1:1 and 3:4 modes are also available), and Olympus uses the wider-than-necessary screen to display shooting information outside the image area; I wasn't bothered by this compromise.

Like its little brother, the E-PM2, the Olympus E-PL5's LCD features touchscreen controls -- which is a blessing if you like touchscreens, and rather inconsequential if you don't since the E-PL5 has a Mode dial and a more sophisticated set of physical controls. Because of my comfort level and familiarity with physical controls, I found myself rarely using the E-PL5's touchscreen (though I was forced to use it extensively on the E-PM2, and eventually I found I kind of liked it). You can use the touchscreen to focus and snap shots in both still and video modes, a feature which could come in handy when you quickly want to change a focus point and capture a fleeting moment when your eyes are trained on the LCD.

Kit lens. For the general kind of shooting I did while testing the Olympus E-PL5, the M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R kit lens covered a nice range of focal lengths (28-84mm in 35mm equivalent terms). It's very light and feels somewhat insubstantial, although the zoom action is smooth and the overall assembly quality is fine. When I focused it manually, which I did mainly for practice (the camera's AF is very reliable, as I said) I found the focus ring under-damped, but this is common with inexpensive AF lenses. The lens, in short, is functional and an above average performer optically, but like most kit lenses is nothing to write home about. Fortunately, Olympus is known for building lenses of exceptional quality for this mount, sold separately of course.

Image quality. Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of my images from the Olympus E-PL5. Sharpness and detail are excellent -- as good as or better than anything I've seen from other 16-megapixel cameras. (Its images even stack up nicely against the lauded Olympus OM-D E-M5, believe it or not.) I shot with the E-PL5 on several sunny days with high contrast levels, and the dynamic range of the camera was very much up to the task, capturing usable detail in a very wide tonal range.

I've always thought that Olympus has a fairly good eye for color, and the Olympus E-PL5's JPEG files live up to that tradition, with a nicely saturated but balanced color palette. Some flower pictures and sunlit landscapes, especially, showed off this quality. Finally, I thought the PEN E-PL5 did a great job at high ISO settings, retaining good detail with very low noise for a Micro Four-Thirds format camera.

You can view the IR Lab's in-depth Olympus E-PL5 image quality test results by clicking here,
and read further on in the review for side-by-side comparisons against the E-PL5's top competitors.

Low-light shooting: The E-PL5 did a great job shooting outdoors at night at high ISO settings, capturing a lot of detail with very low noise for a compact system camera.

Summary. Overall, I was very pleased with the Olympus E-PL5, especially the remarkable image quality and speed it delivers at such an affordable price. Considering that it performs as good as or better than many higher-end compact system cameras and DSLRs, the E-PL5 is a tremendous value and an equally worthwhile option for budding photographers stepping up to their first interchangeable lens camera as it is for experienced DSLR users looking for a smaller, more portable system.

 

Olympus E-PL5 Additional Shooting Modes and Options

by Dave Pardue

To illustrate more of what the Olympus E-PL5 has to offer we shot additional images using a variety of the camera's built-in modes and creative filters, as well to demonstrate how it performed with a few of Olympus' more touted lenses.

Olympus E-PL5 gallery images shot with specialty Olympus lenses
The above image was shot using the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital ED (120mm equivalent), a specialty macro lens that tested exceptionally well in our lens testing lab at SLRgear.com (and scored a reader's overall rating of 10 / 10). Paired with the E-PL5 it makes a high quality (yet amazingly lightweight) macro solution.
This image was shot using the Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 M.Zuiko Digital ED (35mm equivalent range of 150-600mm) at 187mm, f/6.7. Both the subject sharpness and the nice bokeh are evident here, yet again showcasing the power of the E-PL5 when paired with a terrific lens.

The Olympus E-PL5 ships with a good kit lens which is a steal for only ~$50 more than the body, but Olympus has released several exceptional lenses to support its Micro Four Thirds cameras that you should consider (especially after seeing what some of them can do above). For more information on E-PL5 lens options, visit our Olympus lens page at SLRgear.com.

 

Olympus E-PL5 Creative Effects Modes
Program Auto (no effect)
Pop Color
Grainy Film
Diorama
Cross Process
Dramatic Tone
The E-PL5 ships with a nice range of creative Art modes, many of which are on display above. I was pleased to see that the "Dramatic Tone" effect that I've become accustomed to on the E-P3 comes in similar fashion on the E-PL5. It is such a useful effect that I try and bracket with it whenever possible.

Movies. While the E-PL5 is designed primarily with still photography in mind, it can certainly stand in as a quick video solution when needed. It shoots in Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 at 30p) and can be set to continuous autofocus if desired. There is a Movie mode on the Mode dial, but video can also be triggered using the dedicated Movie Record button while in any of the modes in a pinch as needed. The videos below were shot with continuous autofocus set to On.

1,920 x 1,080
MOV, Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original (45MB MOV)
1,920 x 1,080
MOV, Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original (37.5MB MOV)

Click here for our detailed Olympus E-PL5 video analysis page for more sample videos
along with insight on how the camera handles a variety of recording situations,
ranging from night-time shooting to rolling shutter tests.

 

Olympus E-PL5 Image Quality Comparison

Below are crops comparing the Olympus E-PL5 with the Olympus E-PL3, Olympus E-PM2, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic G5, and the Sony NEX-F3. We're starting with the base ISO to show the best each camera can do, then moving onto ISO 1600, 3200, and then more details with ISO 6400 below.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction.

Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PL3 at base ISO

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 200
Olympus E-PL3 at ISO 200

The E-PL5 has almost 4 more megapixels than its predecessor, the E-PL3, and the higher resolution certainly helps in the image quality department, delivering better detail.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PM2 at base ISO

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 200
Olympus E-PM2 at ISO 200

These employ the same sensor so we would assume a similar result, as is the case. This will be welcome news to anyone choosing the lighter E-PM2 (lighter in weight and price) in knowing that they are not sacrificing much in the image quality department.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-M5 at base ISO

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 200
Olympus E-M5 at ISO 200

While the sensor sizes and resolutions are the same, the E-M5 is slightly superior in several key areas, especially the detail in the mosaic pattern and the slight increase in clarity in the red leaf swatch. But the E-PL5 is not too far behind and costs much less than its heavily touted big brother.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Panasonic G5 at base ISO

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 200
Panasonic G5 at ISO 160

It's always interesting when comparing these images when one camera gets one area better, and then vice versa for the other camera. The E-PL5 has better color overall and greater clarity in the mosaic pattern, but the G5 is far superior in accurately rendering the difficult red leaf swatch.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Sony NEX-F3 at base ISO

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 200
Sony NEX-F3 at ISO 200

The NEX-F3 has an APS-C sensor, and does a better job in the fabric swatches, but the E-PL5 shines in the color and detail of the mosaic.


Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce an excellent ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1600, 3200, and 6400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose ISO 1600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PL3 at ISO 1600

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 1600
Olympus E-PL3 at ISO 1600

Again, the higher resolution of the E-PL5 is on display above, although the E-PL3 does an admirable job on the Mas Portel (top) bottle.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PM2 at ISO 1600

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 1600
Olympus E-PM2 at ISO 1600

As we saw at base ISO, these two are almost too close to call. Both do a reasonable job for ISO 1600, especially in the nice renditioning of colors.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-M5 at ISO 1600

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 1600
Olympus E-M5 at ISO 1600

The higher priced E-M5 does a slightly better job in most all areas than the E-PL5, especially the red leaf swatch, but the E-PL5 is clearly not far behind.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Panasonic G5 at ISO 1600

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 1600
Panasonic G5 at ISO 1600

Accurate colors and fine detail are far better in the E-PL5, while the G5 starts to lose steam at this ISO, quickly degrading in both color saturation and contrast.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Sony NEX-F3 at ISO 1600

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 1600
Sony NEX-F3 at ISO 1600

Other than the red leaf swatch, the E-PL5 holds its own rather well here. Also note how aggressive noise reduction and sharpening on the NEX-F3 seems to produce odd artifacts in the lower pink fabric swatch.

 

Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600, so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PL3 at ISO 3200

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 3200
Olympus E-PL3 at ISO 3200

Yet again the higher resolution E-PL5 is in a different league than its predecessor for high ISO image quality, doing a good job for ISO 3200.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PM2 at ISO 3200

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 3200
Olympus E-PM2 at ISO 3200

Just as before, there's virtually no difference between these two first cousins.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-M5 at ISO 3200

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 3200
Olympus E-M5 at ISO 3200

While the E-M5 performed slightly better at the lower ISOs, the playing field seems to have leveled off here, with very little difference between the two. Anyone considering buying an E-PL5 will be glad to note this.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Panasonic G5 at ISO 3200

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 3200
Panasonic G5 at ISO 3200

The E-PL5 holds itself together at ISO 3200, but the G5 starts to fall apart, with odd noise in the Mas Portel bottle and loss of most all detail in the mosaic pattern.


Olympus E-PL5 versus Sony NEX-F3 at ISO 3200

Olympus E-PL5 at ISO 3200
Sony NEX-F3 at ISO 3200

The NEX-F3 again wins the contest in the red leaf swatch, but otherwise the E-PL5 holds its own against the Sony and its larger sensor.


Detail: Olympus E-PL5 versus Olympus E-PL3, Olympus E-PM2, Olympus E-M5, Panasonic G5, and Sony NEX-F3

Olympus E-PL5
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Olympus E-PL3
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Olympus E-PM2
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

Olympus E-M5
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

Panasonic G5
ISO 160
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Sony NEX-F3
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Detail comparison. When it comes to high-contrast detail, the Olympus E-PL5 does surprisingly well as ISO rises, easily besting its predecessor the E-PL3, and also looking good against its APS-C rival the NEX-F3. With the slight exception of the higher-priced E-M5, the E-PL5 is the sharpest of the bunch, especially at ISO 6400.

 

Olympus E-PL5 Print Quality

Prints a nice 24 x 36 at ISO 200; ISO 1600 capable of a good 13 x 19 inch print; with a good 4 x 6 at ISO 12,800.

ISO 200 prints look very good at 24 x 36 inches, and yields a suitable wall display print up to 36 x 48. 

ISO 400 prints are nice and crisp at 20 x 30, with minor softening in the red swatch of our test target (which is typical for many cameras); capable of a nice wall display print up to 30 x 40.

ISO 800 yields a good 16 x 20 inch print with the exception of a loss in contrast in our red swatch, but is otherwise sharp with vibrant colors.

ISO 1600 prints look good at 13 x 19 inches, with minor noise in the shadows and minor previously mentioned softness; suitable for less critical applications at 16 x 20 inches.

ISO 3200 yields prints that we consider good at 11 x 14, but a lot of people will find 13 x 19 perfectly acceptable.

ISO 6400 prints a nice 8 x 10 for this ISO, with only minor grain in the shadows of our target.

ISO 12,800 yields a decent 4 x 6 inch print, with nice color for such a high ISO.

ISO 25,600 prints are a bit too grainy to be called good at 4 x 6.

The Olympus E-PL5 is capable of producing nice large prints at low ISOs, outstanding for its price. It demonstrates excellent high ISO performance up to ISO 1600, and makes surprisingly nice-looking 8 x 10s at ISO 6400. Please note that we shoot these test shots with our sharp reference lenses in order to show what the camera body is capable of, and results with the kit lenses may vary somewhat.

 

Olympus E-PL5 Technical Info

by

At its heart, the Olympus E-PL5 shares much with the incredibly popular OM-D E-M5: it shares the exact same pairing of image sensor and processor, but places them in a much smaller body. (It's still all-metal, though, and comes with a removable hand grip to let you choose if you prefer less bulk or a better feel in-hand.)

The Olympus PL5's image sensor is a 4:3-aspect, 16.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor supplied by Sony. It's capable of providing images at a maximum resolution of 4,608 x 3,456 pixels. Sensitivity from the chip ranges as high as ISO 25,600 equivalent.

Output from the imager is handled by a TruePic VI image processor, a designation first seen in 2011's E-P3 mirrorless camera.

Although it's the same processor used in the E-M5, the Olympus PL5's burst performance isn't quite as swift as that camera. With focus locked, the E-PL5 can deliver a full eight frames per second, swift by mirrorless standards but still one less than the E-M5 provides.

Enable tracking autofocus though, and this falls to a more sedate 3.5 frames per second. That's about 0.7 fps slower than the E-M5 managed.

Like all PEN-series models, the Olympus E-PL5 sports a Micro Four Thirds lens mount that can accept a wide selection of over 30 dedicated lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, and Voigtländer. (Admittedly, several of these are very similar to each other in specification; there's still a little over 20 models that are reasonably distinct, however.) Courtesy of various first- and third-party adapters, the Micro Four Thirds mount can also accept a huge variety of older glass including lenses made for Olympus and Panasonic's full-sized Four Thirds cameras, albeit often with limitations regarding autofocus, exposure, etc.

There were several new lenses announced alongside the Olympus PL5. These include the unusual BCL-15 Body Cap Lens (a 9mm-thick, three element f/8, manual focus pancake which sells for ~US$50), the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm f2.8 (US$500), and a limited-edition black version of the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12mm f2.0 (US$1,100). The latter two lenses started shipping in October 2012. The new M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm f1.8 (US$500) prime also started shipping December 2012, and the revised M.ZUIKO 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II ED (US$550) telephoto zoom started shipping March 2013.

Although the Olympus PEN PL5 does include in-body image stabilization, it's not the same system used in the E-M5. Hence, it corrects only for pitch and yaw like most other stabilization systems. It lacks the E-M5's ability to correct for roll, or for up/down and left/right translational motions.

Another thing that does make it across intact from the popular E-M5 is the PEN E-PL5's contrast detection autofocus system. Branded as "Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology," or "FAST" AF for short, it's a system that's claimed to offer the world's fastest autofocusing when coupled with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens. That comes thanks to a stunning readout speed of 240 frames per second (but with reduced accuracy) for continuous autofocus, and a more typical 120 fps readout rate (with maximum accuracy) for single autofocus.

Like that in the M5, the Olympus PL5's contrast detection AF system still has 35 fixed autofocus point locations, with the points arranged in a 7 x 5 array that covers most of the image frame. You can switch to a small single-point focus point that you can position where you need it simply by tapping on the camera's touchscreen, however. And to help out with focusing on nearby subjects in low light, the PL5 retains its predecessor's autofocus assist lamp.

As you'd expect, Olympus' dust removal system is included in the E-PL5. This vibrates the cover glass over the sensor with a dedicated piezoelectric element to shake dust free, then captures it on an adhesive strip beneath the sensor.

There's no built-in viewfinder, but the Olympus E-PL5 retains the company's proprietary Accessory Port 2 just beneath its flash hot shoe, which allows the camera to accept a number of accessories. These include the same two electronic viewfinders used with past Olympus cameras (VF-2 and VF-3), the new VF-4 (with firmware upgrade), along with the SEMA-1 external microphone adapter, MAL-1 Macro Arm Light, and PENPAL Bluetooth Communication Unit accessories.

The PL3's 3.0-inch, 460K-dot, 16:9 aspect LCD panel is retained in the PEN PL5, but with a couple of important changes.

First, the articulation mechanism now has an expanded swivel range of approximately 170° up and about 65° down. That means you can now frame self-portraits using the LCD, so long as nothing is mounted in the hot shoe.

Also, the panel itself now has a gapless design which places a capacitive touch sensitive layer in between the LCD itself and the protective cover glass. The removal of the air gap should translate to reduced glare and better contrast. There's also now an anti-smudge coating that should reduce the likelihood of fingerprints on the display. You can now opt for Vivid or Natural display modes, as well.

We've mentioned the touchscreen, by the way, and it's worth noting that this is a new addition since the E-PL3. The Olympus PL5's touch screen not only allows you to set focus and make adjustments; you can even trip the shutter with a tap on the LCD panel. And since it's a capacitive design like higher-end smartphones, it should be sensitive enough to do so with very little camera shake.

There's no built-in flash, but the Olympus PL5 does come with the same FL-LM1 accessory flash that was included with the PL3.

This flash has a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200 equivalent. The E-PL5's hot shoe can also accept a variety of other, more powerful strobes. Flash sync is possible up to 1/250 second depending on the flash, and the E-PL5 also allows Super FP flash between 1/125 and 1/4,000 second, if supported by the attached flash.

The E-PL5 also supports four-channel wireless flash with the bundled strobe acting as a master, and off-camera flash strobes configured in up to 3 groups.

Olympus has made a number of changes to the creative options in the PEN PL5. These include a new high dynamic range bracketing mode, and an additional six Art Filters.

Unfortunately, the new HDR bracketing mode does not automatically combine multiple shots like some cameras, but is still useful for post processing an image with greater dynamic range than is possible in a single exposure. Exposure steps are larger than what's available with standard exposure bracketing. Options are: 3 or 5 frames in 2 or 3 EV steps, or 7 frames in 2 EV steps. The additional Art Filters are Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Cross Process, Gentle Sepia, Key Line and Watercolor, which are added to the six filter types found in the PL3 (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone).

You can still record high definition (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) movies with the Olympus PL5, but there are a few changes and additions in this area, too.

The E-PL3 shot Full HD (1080i) at 60i and HD (720p) at 60p while the E-PL5 shoots both at 30p. File format has also changed from MTS to more widely supported MOV (MPEG-4AVC/H.264). Both cameras also offer 720p and VGA resolutions in AVI Motion JPEG format, also at 30p.

Like its predecessor, image stabilization in movie mode is electronic only.

Thanks to the new touchscreen, you can now simply tap to select a new focus point during video capture, making it easy to guide your viewers' attention to a different subject.

You can also now switch between different art filters during recording, something we've not seen before from any manufacturer. So that the change isn't jarring, one filter effect will fade out and the other will fade in. It's a neat idea that could be fun if you're the type who enjoys these effects.

You can also now enable what Olympus calls Movie Teleconverter, which is essentially a variable focal length crop. Since there's no mechanical adjustment being made, this is silent. It also shouldn't significantly degrade image quality, since you're not using interpolation. (Beyond that inherent in all Bayer-filtered cameras, anyway.)

Connectivity includes the Accessory Port 2, USB 2.0 data, Micro HDMI (Type D), and an analog audio/video output via the combined USB/AV port. The USB port also supports the RM-UC1 remote cable.

The Olympus E-PL5 doesn't include built-in WiFi connectivity, but the company has built support for Toshiba's FlashAir WiFi-capable flash cards into the PL5's firmware.

An Olympus application for Android and iOS operating systems allows sharing of photos from the camera via your smartphone, as well as application of filters to the photos before sharing. You can also use the existing PenPal accessory to transfer images to your phone via Bluetooth.

There's a Secure Digital card slot, and it supports both the higher-capacity SDHC or SDXC card types, plus the higher-speed UHS-I types. Eye-Fi cards are also supported, though not Endless Memory.

Secure Digital cards with a Speed Class of 6 or above are recommended for HD movie recording.

Power comes courtesy of a proprietary BLS-5 lithium-ion battery pack, and a BCS-5 charger is included in the product bundle. The BLS-5 lithium-ion battery pack is CIPA-rated for 360 shots per charge, though we don't know if that includes 50% flash shots with the bundled FL-LM1 flash.

Olympus does not appear to offer an AC adapter for the E-PL5.

Available since October 2012, the Olympus PEN E-PL5 was originally priced at about US$650 body-only. Three body colors are available: black, silver, or white. A kit bundling the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II R zoom lens listed for about US$700 at launch. Since then, Olympus has reduced MSRP of both the body and kits by about US$100.

Several new accessories are offered alongside the PEN E-PL5 camera body. These include the CS-38B leather body jacket in four different colors, the MCG-3PR camera grip in three different patterns, and the CBG-8 camera bag.

 

In the Box

The Olympus E-PL5 retail kit package (as reviewed) contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Olympus E-PL5 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent image quality (especially for the price!), with good color and dynamic range, thanks to the 16-megapixel sensor borrowed from the acclaimed Olympus OM-D E-M5
  • Great high ISO performance for its class
  • Extremely compact and lightweight design, with well-thought-out ergonomics and control layout
  • Overall speedy performance, including start-up, AF, shutter lag and shot-to-shot times, demonstrating marked improvements over the E-PL3
  • Able to focus in very low light
  • In-camera image stabilization
  • Physical Mode dial with PASM controls
  • Immensely customizable controls, especially using Olympus Mysets to create up to four different presets which you quickly can toggle among
  • Tiltable 3-inch LCD viewfinder, that pivots 170-degrees and flips all the way forward for capturing "selfies"
  • LCD features touchscreen controls (though you don't have to use them if they're not your cup of tea), including touch focus and shutter for both stills and videos
  • iAuto mode for simple, automatic scene-detecting shooting
  • Full HD video recording at 30p with stereo sound
  • Dedicated Movie Record button
  • 12 in-camera Art Filters, including Diorama and Pop Art, and 7 Art filter effects for both stills and videos
  • Live Guide system that permits you to preview how settings and effects will look before you capture images
  • Standard Hotshoe with compact flash unit included
  • Wi-Fi sharing via FlashAir memory card and Olympus Image Share app
  • Fast 8 frames-per-second Continuous shooting, when pre-focused
  • Good battery life, at CIPA-rated 360 shots per charge
  • Excellent print quality, with nice prints delivered up to 24 x 36 at ISO 200
  • A great value at $600 MSRP with the 14-42mm kit lens, though we found the kit as cheap as $490 already
  • Camera may be too small for some
  • Labyrinthine menus that are confusing and frustrating can take hours to figure out
  • Autofocus isn't as fast and accurate as we'd like for shooting fast-motion action
  • Continuous shooting falls to a mediocre 3.5 frames per second when tracking AF is enabled
  • At ~420K-dots, the LCD resolution leaves something to be desired, and the display is difficult to view under bright, direct sunlight
  • No built-in flash (but a small external flash is bundled)
  • Lowest available ISO sensitivity is 200
  • Though the 14-42mm is quite good for a kit lens, we recommend seeking out better Micro Four Thirds glass from Olympus and others
  • No in-camera chromatic aberration suppression
  • Warm cast to images while using Auto White Balance
  • Only one framerate (30p) offered for movies
  • Visible compression artifacts in HD video with rapidly-moving subjects
  • Movie image stabilization is electronic only
  • Slow buffer clearing for RAW+JPEGS

 

We've been very pleased with the image quality and overall speedy performance of the Olympus PEN compact system camera line over the past couple of years, and the E-PL5 stands out as a significant evolution on almost every front.

First off, the Olympus E-PL5 inherits the exceptional 16-megapixel sensor from the groundbreaking OM-D E-M5, one of our all-time favorite cameras we've ever reviewed. Bolstered by this sensor and the TruePic VI image processor (also borrowed from the E-M5), the image quality we saw from the E-PL5 proved to be nothing less than stellar -- demonstrating accurate colors, an impressive dynamic range and tons of detail. When you consider the camera's price, such image quality is an outright amazing feat that rivals much higher-end CSCs and DSLRs.

The E-PL5 also improves upon the quick operation of its predecessor, the E-PL3, providing blazing speed in terms of start up, mode switching, autofocus, single-shot cycle times and more. The camera's Continuous mode averaged 8 frames per second -- not too shabby -- but falls to a more pedestrian 3.5 fps when tracking AF is enabled. Overall, we found the FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF to be responsive and accurate in most situations, though our reviewer said he wouldn't rely too heavily on it for capturing fast-motion action.

One major issue we had with the Olympus E-PL5 was its labyrinthine menu system, which most of us here at IR found we had difficulties figuring out. Our reviewer spent hours solving its riddles, but once he mastered them, he was able to activate the camera's Super Control Panel and create a bunch of presets (Olympus Mysets) that made for much easier (and outright convenient) operation. Happily, by digging through the E-PL5's maze of settings and shooting options, we fully uncovered its plethora of advanced functions and its immense customizability, and we were impressed by how sophisticated this tiny camera could be for a patient and motivated photographer.

For all these reasons and more, the Olympus E-PL5 should be seriously considered by any enthusiast looking to ditch their DSLR and move over to a more affordable, compact system (or at least as a backup camera when portability is key). It also should be a top contender for beginning photographers looking to step up from their point-and-shoots, especially considering that the Olympus E-PL5 offers tremendous image quality, speed and flexibility at such a competitive price. You bet it's a Dave's Pick.

Don't need a physical mode dial and tilting LCD? Save $100 and get the Olympus E-PM2 instead!

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