Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review

Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12 - 40mm f2.8 lens

Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12 – 40mm f2.8 lens

I was lucky enough to play with a pre production E-M1 along with the Olympus 12 – 40mm f2.8 lens for about a week. A big thank you to Charles from Olympus for allowing me to review this camera. I used it on every occasion, going out on 5 successive days to put it though its paces. I got a good feel for it but I didn’t get to test every feature. I concentrated on the areas that both interested me as well as things that make this camera unique.

When I recently reviewed the Olympus Pen E-P5, I compared it to other mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras such as the Sony NEX and Fujifilm X line. With the new flagship OM-D E-M1, Olympus has (re)entered the land of the DSLR giants dominated by Canon and Nikon, but with a twist. Imagine the power and image quality of a DSLR in a really compact size. By refining and scaling up the mirrorless camera, Olympus now has a strong offering for the Pros and Prosumers. It’s a modern and sleek entry that makes traditional DSLRs look old and stuck in the past.

This is still a micro 4/3 camera so all the existing lenses and accessories work. That’s a good thing because, between the combined efforts of both Olympus and Panasonic, the micro 4/3 system is the most comprehensive interchangeable mirrorless system. It’s also the most mature with years of fine tuning that has continuously updated every aspect of the camera for the last several years.

As a result, we now have a thoroughly modern camera that goes beyond the SLR technologies made popular 40+ years ago. Olympus started small with the E-P1, back in 2009. They still offer their smaller PEN line which is better than ever. But with the release of the E-M5 last year, Olympus created a second line called the OM-D, that is a nod towards the traditional DSLR folks. With the brand new flagship E-M1, there is no doubt that Olympus is ready to challenge the DSLRs.

6th Street Reflections - Austin, Texas

6th Street Reflections – Austin, Texas

Blue Cello from the Street, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Blue Cello from the Street, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

My background

I currently own 4 Olympus micro 4/3 cameras, 2 E-PL1s, an E-P3 and an E-PM2. I also own 7 Olympus and Panasonic micro 4/3 lenses. I’ve shot more than 20,000 frames with my Olympus cameras, so I know these cameras well. I’ve also used the newest Olympus Pen, the E-P5, during a week and half evaluation.

I’m also a Canon DSLR shooter. I started with the Rebel XT 7 years ago and have upgrade over time to the 20D, 7D and currently own the full frame 6D. While I shoot a variety of subjects, I’m most excited about urban landscapes and street photography, especially in the evening and night. For this reason, I’m usually drawn to fast shooting cameras that have great low light (high ISO) performance.

The 4/3 Format

Before micro 4/3, there was an older format called 4/3. Olympus and Panasonic also shared the original 4/3 standard. This standard was for DSLRs with traditional lenses and a flipping mirror. The goal was to create DSLRs smaller than Canon and Nikon by using a smaller sensor.

The 4/3 DSLRs were in fact smaller but it ultimately didn’t make a big difference — Canon and Nikon continued to dominate sales. Back then the smaller 4/3 sensor didn’t perform as well in low light, which was the main knock against the format. Also the mirror assembly still added considerable bulk so the 4/3 cameras were not “radically” smaller than the bigger APS-C sized DSLRs.

Ultimately, Olympus and Panasonic regrouped to form the now popular micro 4/3 standard. They took out the flipping mirror and further shrank the lenses and, in the process, started the mirrorless interchangeable lens movement.

The jewels in the old 4/3 system are the highly regarded Olympus lenses. Olympus DSLRs focused faster than the original mirrorless offerings and while Olympus released an adapter to use 4/3 lenses on micro 4/3 cameras, they didn’t work as quickly. The 2010 release of the E-5 was the last time Olympus updated their DSLR. Since then, 4/3 lens fans had no modern, high performance cameras to use their glass. This changed with the release of the OM-D E-M1.

Bringing the Family Back together

With the release of the OM-D E-M1, Olympus combined the best of the micro 4/3 world with the best of the 4/3 lens world. Though the E-M1 is not an SLR, it has phase detect and contrast detect focusing which allows the older 4/3 lenses to focus quickly. Reports on the web indicate that while some 4/3 lenses don’t focus as fast as on the E-5 DSLR, the E-M1 is significantly faster than previous micro 4/3 cameras. Robin Wong in Malaysia reports that the focus speed with the 4/3 lenses are more than enough and it is a very usable system. It appears that 4/3 lens focusing speed is lens dependent. A reader indicates that SWD lenses focuses even faster. I didn’t have any 4/3 lenses to test but reports on the web indicate positive results indeed.

In one bold stroke, Olympus managed to up its mirrorless focusing capability while supporting the older, loyal Olympus 4/3 owners. It’s a move that brought back the two side of the Olympus household under one roof.

Curious Dog, Guadalupe Street - Austin, Texas

Curious Dog, Guadalupe Street – Austin, Texas

Meaghan at Javalina Bar - Austin, Texas

Meaghan at Javalina Bar – Austin, Texas

Challenging the DSLR

While the original 4/3 DSLR never did challenge the Canon / Nikon duopoly, the new mirrorless E-M1 has put together a package that has compelling advantages over the old fashioned DSLR. Imagine a camera that is as fast as a DSLR, with equal image quality, with superior video in a small package.

It took several years of refinement and ultimately a new Sony 16MP sensor, but the micro 4/3 system currently has the same image quality as an APS-C DSLR. When I tested the Olympus E-PM2 against my Canon 7D, I found the low light image quality to be equal to or superior on the Olympus. Even the newest Canon 70D, which is better than the 7D, appears to be in the same ball park as the E-M1. Looking at the DPReview results, it appears that the Olympus JPEG engine still does better than Canon, pulling out sharp details. High ISO performance seems about the same for JPEG and the new 70D might be a tad better than the E-PM2 in RAW.

At 10 frames per second in continuous focusing mode, the E-M1 is the first micro 4/3 camera that I would recommend for sports. The latest generation of Olympus Pens are quick for normal shooting — it has one of the fastest contrast detect focusing systems. But when it comes to fast action sports, like soccer, the contrast detect can’t keep up. The E-M1 uses phase detect focusing to assist the contrast detect focusing when set in continuous mode with the micro 4/3 lens (on 4/3 lenses, I’m told it uses phase detect full-time) which makes all the difference. I was able to continuously focus more reliably than with my Canon 7D, which by the way, only shoots at 8 frames per second. DSLRs still have the sports advantage in certain ways, which I will explain below however, this is a major step for mirrorless sports photography.

One of the knocks against the DSLR is the size of the camera and even worse, the size of the lenses. Since the E-M1 uses the slightly smaller micro 4/3 sensor, the body and the lenses are noticeably compact. Even though this latest OM-D has the beefiest body so far for an Olympus micro 4/3 camera, it is still a lot smaller than a comparable DSLR. Here is a photograph I took at Precision Camera that compares a Canon 70D with the 24 – 70mm f2.8 vs the Olympus E-M1 with the very similar 24 – 80mm equivalent (Note: technically the Canon 24- 70mm lens on a 70D has a 38mm – 112mm equivalent). Notice a difference?

Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12 - 40mm f2.8 lens

Canon 70D / Olympus E-M1 Size Comparison

A ground breaking Lens

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8
The impact of Olympus’ new lens, the 12 – 40mm f2.8, is hard to overstated. This is the first PRO micro 4/3 lens from Olympus. It has a metal exterior, it’s weather proof and it’s fast. f2.8 is typically what pros like to use. The large aperture and a usable 24 – 80mm equivalent range makes this a do all lens. This type of lens is popular with wedding photographers and photojournalists where fast action and changing light conditions makes it indispensable.

But imagine all this capability in a size not much bigger than a typical DSLR kit lens. That’s what you can get with micro 4/3, a constant 2.8 zoom in a small package. With Canon, for example, their 24 -70mm f2.8 is nearly 3/4″ larger in diameter and over an inch longer. It weighs more than double, coming in at a hefty 1.77 pounds. The Canon lens also runs about $2,300 which is $1,300 more than the Olympus.

Unique to the Olympus lens is a feature where you can pull back on the focus ring, which automatically switches the E-M1 into manual focus mode. Between the focus peaking and digital zoom, this maybe the easiest way to manually focus, at least on a digital camera. This manual focus interface is also available on the Olympus 12mm f2 and the 17mm f1.8. The 12mm and 17mm don’t do automatic focus peaking or digital zoom when the focus ring is pulled backed, however. Unlike the 12-40mm zoom, you need to program a function button to bring up the manual focus aids.

Unbeatable Package

Separately, the E-M1 and 12-40mm lens are excellent in their own way. But together, as a package, the two complement each other perfectly. They’re an unbeatable pair. Of course the E-M1 can be used with any micro 4/3 lens. Conversely, the 12-40mm can be used on any micro 4/3 body. This lens needs the beefy grip of the E-M1 to be comfortable. While the lens is small in DSLR terms, it is one of the bigger micro 4/3 lenses. Perhaps adding the optional grips on the OM-D E-M5 will also do the trick but on a smaller camera like the E-P3 or even the smaller E-PM2, the lens is too heavy.

Mated together, you get a total package that is significantly smaller than the DSLR equivalents. Remember, a smaller sensor may reduce the body size somewhat but it really has benefits in shrinking the lens size. I carried around this high performance, weather sealed, f2.8 zoom camera all day with no strain. It fits in my small Domke bag and it didn’t tire me out. Try that with your DSLR.

Lens Options

The E-M1 and 12-40mm combo may be the first setup that handles 95% of my needs. That includes my serious photography as well as family vacation snapshots and videos. Action in low light maybe the only time I’ll need a second lens with a big aperture. I like to use the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4. Other choices may include both the Olympus 12mm f2 and the 17mm f1.8, both really good lenses. Finally, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 is a very popular and compact alternative.

A serious portrait shooter, which I am not, may also want to consider a wide aperture portrait lens to decrease the depth of field. The Olympus 45mm f1.8 is a low-cost and highly rated lens. The Olympus 75mm f1.8 is considered by some to be the highest quality micro 4/3 lens.

Studying at the Cactus, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

Studying at the Cactus, University of Texas – Austin, Texas

Computing at the Tea Leaf, Guadalupe Street - Austin, Texas

Computing at the Tea Leaf, Guadalupe Street – Austin, Texas

The Ergonomics

Olympus E-M1 Details
Olympus E-M1 Details
The E-M1 is unlike any previous Olympus micro 4/3 camera. The actual size, in person, seems smaller than expected. It doesn’t look “toy like”, which is the reaction I had when I first saw the E-M5. In actual use, it feels more like a DSLR than the typical mirrorless camera, albeit a very small DSLR. It feels very different from the Olympus Pens that I’ve come to know very well.

On first use, I found the camera heavy. It fit well in hand and all the controls are easy to reach — many accessible single-handed. I can change the two control dials with just my right hand which is not possible, for example, with my Canons. I may opt to use my left hand for added stability, but it wasn’t required to change the primary controls.

There is enough direct access buttons on this thing that I rarely need to go into the menus or super control panel. And all the buttons are well place and easily accessible. Between the weight, build and control, it’s a totally different experience than using an Olympus Pen. Compared to this camera, my otherwise excellent E-PM2 feels like a plastic point and shoot. In less than a week, I got used to the weight. It became the new normal. My Pens felt tiny but the DSLRs still seemed a size or two larger.

While the control accessibly of the E-M1 is superior to my Canon 6D, I prefer the larger grip of the Canon for heavier lenses. The 12-40mm works fine on the E-M1 but with heavier lenses (like the legacy 4/3 lenses), I think you should attach the optional HLD-7 Camera grip. The E-M1 is a lot shorter than the DSLR so the grip does not extend down to the pinky, even with my smaller hands. The optional battery grip will add needed support for heavier lenses.

The menu system seems very similar to the other Olympus micro 4/3 cameras however there are some changes. I noticed, for example, the menu options around bracketing and HDR have changed somewhat. There are probably other small differences but I didn’t do a comprehensive check. I like all the options and customizability of the Olympus menus but I know some find it overwhelming. The good news is with all the external, physical controls, you will rarely need to visit the menus.

The Design

Olympus E-M1 Details
Olympus E-M1 Details
Olympus E-M1 Details
Unlike the other Olympus models, this camera only comes in black. The dark, angular shape with its sharp creases is in direct contrast to the smooth and rounded shapes of DSLRs. It also has a very different aesthetic from the Pen line. While the smaller Pens are cute, retro or in the case of the E-P5, upscale. The E-M1 looks like a purposeful photographic tool and its smaller than DSLR size still makes it accessible and non-threatening. It strikes a good balance. While there is a similarity to the old, film Olympus SLR, to me the design doesn’t look retro, It looks modern and high tech.

There is enough heft and size, especially with the 12-40mm lens, to come across as a premium product. However, unlike the two toned, Olympus E-P5, it does not look luxurious. The E-M1 is more functional than decorative. My 14-year-old son describes it as cool but not Pro. Meaning, a big DSLR with a large white lens looks more professional and impressive. So if you are getting this camera to impress people, it may not be the ideal choice. But it doesn’t look like a budget plastic DSLR either — you can tell it is something special. This thing has a solid all metal build with nice rubbery grips. The only section that feels a bit lacking is the SD Card door located on the grip, by the palm. It doesn’t seem cheap, I just don’t know how solid it will be after years of use. For the record my Canon 6D also has a similarly placed SD card door, of which I have the same concerns.

Not looking like a typical DSLR but with DSLR performance is why I like the camera. It’s certainly not as stealthy as an Olympus Pen, but I don’t think it will attract attention like a Pro DSLR either. Purely on looks, I prefer the two toned E-P5. It has just the right amount of sparkle and it seemed like a “civilized” travel and street camera. Performance and flexibility wise, the E-M1 is clearly superior. You can shoot sports, take it into country for landscapes (in all kinds of nasty weather) and do almost everything in between. In that sense, E-M1 is Olympus’ most versatile camera.

Where the E-M1 is clearly superior over the E-P5 is with the integrated EVF (Electronic View Finder). I didn’t like that add-on EVF on the E-P5, one of the few things I complained about in an otherwise fine camera. On the E-P5, the EVF is an afterthought. It doesn’t integrate into the design and, for me, get’s in the way. The E-M1 EVF, I believe, has the same technical specifications but it is full incorporated into the body. (Note: A reader reports that the E-M1 EVF has slight improvements over the VF-4 EVF that optionally comes with the E-P5. It has less lag and automated brightness, adjusting to ambient light) It looks good, design wise, and is less fragile. I don’t typically use EVFs, but on the E-M1 I used it more than usual. Perhaps I used the EVF more because, conceptually for me, the E-M1 handles and feels like a DSLR. The Pen cameras, on the other hand, work more like point and shoots.

The EVF quality is the best yet. It is the closest so far to the feel of an optical view finder. It smooth, with great color and it doesn’t get overly bright in dark scenes. It’s the first EVF I don’t mind using, though I still find it comfortable and more flexible using the flip LCD up screen.

I know there’s a lot of people who like the Olympus E-M5 but I never warmed up to that camera. The ergonomics, such as the button placement didn’t work for me. Also, it just looked a bit “toy like” because of its small size. It looks like a retro SLR but not sized like one, which is where the disconnect for me happens, I think. The E-M1 just looks right. It still seems smaller than expected but not to any extreme. There is a balance to it that the E-M5 doesn’t have unless you add the optional grips.

Image Quality

There are many aspects to image quality, of course. There is color, dynamic range, contrast, noise levels and sharpness to name a few. Color is probably the most important for me and usually the most visible. The Olympus color, which I really like, is a key reason I use the system. Beyond that, I tend to look at noise levels particularly for high ISOs. I shoot a lot in dark conditions and having great high ISO performance is important. Certainly, I would like better dynamic range but for my serious urban landscapes I often use HDR which increase the apparent dynamic range. This, I find, is a great equalizer between systems.

I rarely do serious ISO tests. I generally look at the results from normal shooting and see what looks acceptable to me. I view the photograph on my 27″ Apple Thunderbolt display so that the image fills the display (not at 100%). If I can’t see any noise or general harshness, I deem the image as acceptable for my purposes. While I may do retouching at 100%, I don’t pixel peep at 100% once I know the limits of a camera.

Compared to other Olympus cameras

For Olympus Pens I’m usually satisfied with the images up to ISO 3200. Keep in mind that noise levels vary by color and exposure so ISO 3200 is a general rule of thumb. The EM-1 uses a new 16MP sensor. I’ve head reports that it might be better at higher ISOs than the previous E-M5 sensor. I decided to run some quick tests to see if I can detect a difference.

I shot the Texas State Capitol on tripod with both the E-M1 with the 12-40mm attached and the E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm attached. Both cameras were set to f8 and at 14mm (28mm equivalent). I was testing noise levels, not sharpness so I decided not to use the same lens. I shot 3 photos at -2 stops, 0 and +2 stops exposure compensation. I did this at ISO 200, 1600, 3200, 4000, 5000 and 6400. By varying the exposure compensation, I can judge noise levels with both over and under exposed photographs. I also shot both cameras with RAW + JPEG but did the analysis with JPEG since I don’t have a RAW converter for the E-M1.

Texas State Capitol - Austin, Texas

Texas State Capitol – Austin, Texas

My results? In this simple test, the two cameras did about the same. I did not see a noticeable improvement with the E-M1. This is in contrast to Ming Thein’s results where he was getting about 1/2 or so stop better noise performance. Ming is a professional photographer out of Malaysia and I certainly trust his analysis. Keep in mind that noise characteristics change with exposure and color. So even if we are both testing noise performance, our results may vary depending on the subject. Also, Ming was using an OM-D E-M5 and I was using a Pen E-PM2. My understanding is that both cameras use the same sensor and processor but a quick check over at DXO Mark reveals something interesting. According to their tests the E-PM2 does a tad better at high ISO. Could that account for the difference?

That’s not to say I didn’t see any differences. For my state Capitol scene, things looked about the same until ISO 1600. At 3200 and above, I noticed that the E-M1 processed JPEGs differently from the E-PM2. The JPEG noise reduction on the E-M1 seems lighter creating a more detailed but slightly noisier images. I am splitting hairs though, pixel peeping at 100%. At full size on the 27″ monitor, its hard to make out the differences.

That said for the “normal” non-test scenes I shot, I was getting decent, usable image as ISO 4000 and 5000. Even ISO 6400 was okay in terms of noise. Remember that these are JPEGs so the camera adds noise reduction. I usually use RAW where noise is a bigger factor unless I add additional noise reduction. The advantage of RAW is that I can post process the image with more latitude, pulling out details from shadows or bringing back some detail in over exposed areas. I can also manipulate color more in RAW without the image falling apart.

So your mileage will vary. I wouldn’t expect radically better high ISO results with the E-M1 over the current generation micro 4/3s. But this camera’s strength lie in other areas. I’ve also noticed more noise in some over exposed images with the E-M1, which I create when shooting HDR brackets. I don’t see it all the time and it may be related to the way JPEGs are processed. The net effect is that I’ve created a noisier than usual HDR image, the one of the State Capitol displayed above. I needed to apply extra noise reduction via software to get it down to acceptable levels. I would need to run more tests to determine if this was a fluke or a real issue. The image above used the photos I shot at ISO 200. And in case you are wondering, the white specs you see on the pavement are not noise but light reflecting off the pavement.

Compared to DSLRs

The current generation micro 4/3 are surprisingly competitive, image quality wise, with DSLRs with APS-C sensors. The larger APS-C sensors should give it a distinct advantage but in actual usage there seems to be very little difference. I am more familiar with Canon than Nikon so I will talk about the former. I’ve been shooting with micro 4/3 for a while and I was surprised to discover that my small Olympus E-PM2 matched or exceeded the low light performance of the Canon 7D. I’ve talked a lot about this. Basically, Canon have not improved their APS-C sensor for over 3 years. In that time, smaller sensored cameras, like micro 4/3 caught up. Recently Canon released the 70D. This is first Canon APS-C DSLR that noticeably improves low light performance. I would estimate that 70D is about a 1/3 to 2/3 stop better in RAW performance than the E-M1 (that’s assuming the E-M1 RAW performance is similar to the E-PM2). If you compare JPEG performance, it appears that the superior Olympus JPEG engine still matches Canon’s results.

For full frame DSLRs, it’s a very different story. High ISO performance on full frame is clearly better than micro 4/3. The physics of a grossly larger sensor is hard to beat. On my Canon 6D, for example, I get nearly 2 stops better high ISO performance. So ISO 10,000 on my Canon 6D is about on par with ISO 3200 on micro 4/3.

Olympus does have one tangible benefit though. The E-M1 has a very sophisticated 5 axis in-body image stabilizer. This allows you to take clear shots at lower ISOs by reducing your shutter speed. This technique will not help with fast action but for scenes with little or no movement, you can reduce your shutter speed greatly. Couple this with some large aperture prime lenses and you can easily best APS-C sensored DSLRs. And you can almost close the gap on full frame cameras too depending on the circumstance.

Performance

Speed

What really sets this camera apart from the previous micro 4/3 cameras and most mirrorless is its focusing performance. With the possible exception of the Nikon 1, the Olympus E-M1 probably has the best focusing system available for any mirrorless camera. Unfortunately for the Nikon 1, while it has a very fast focusing system, it doesn’t keep up in image quality, so it’s really not in the same class.

The Olympus E-M1 is the first mirrorless that rivals DSLRs in performance and image quality. It shoots at up to 10 frames per second and 6.5 fps when continuous focusing and tracking is enabled. It does this by incorporating phase detect focusing in addition to the standard contrast detect focusing. Mirrorless cameras and point and shoots use contrast detect focusing. DSLRs use phase detect. Both have their advantages but for continuous focusing, phase detect is usually superior. Olympus already have one of the fastest contrast detect systems out here but on the E-M1, they added phase detect too.

The phase detect allows the legacy 4/3 lenses to focus fast. It also works for micro 4/3 lenses when the camera is set to continuous focusing. I decided to do a few tests to see how good this system really is.

The ideal situation would have been to shoot a kid’s soccer game. That is where I have the most experience, sports wise. Unlike a sport like tennis or baseball, where you can roughly predict where the player is going. I find the almost random motion of little kids playing soccer to be extremely challenging. Back when I shot soccer, I used a Canon 7D. The 7D was the top of the line prosumer DSLR 3 years ago but is still considered a solid camera. It is not pro level like the 1D but it’s no slouch. For me though, I found AI Servo (Canon’s continuous focusing mode) to be useless. It did not follow and refocus on the action fast enough. I ended up using the standard one shot focusing.

To roughly simulate soccer, I took my 10 year old son our our dog, Lucky, to the park. I got them to run around and run towards me as I set the E-M1 in continuous mode. I tested 2 lenses the Olympus 12 – 40mm f2.8 and the budget Panasonic 45 – 200mm zoom. WIth soccer I need a telephoto to grab the action and the 90mm to 400mm range of the Panasonic would work great. On my Canon 7D, I used the 70 – 200 f4 L lens.

Lucky, before the test - Austin, Texas

Lucky, before the test – Austin, Texas

I quickly discovered that the Panasonic 45 – 200mm lens would not focus fast enough. It would start out fine and then lose focus and bog the camera down. Without proper focus lock, the camera could no longer fire at 10 frames a second. Non action shots with this lens worked great but it was basically unusable for this type of action. Perhaps with pre-focusing, it would be capable of shooting tennis but not soccer.

The 12 – 40mm lens worked great. It would acquire focus and shoot continuously at 10 frames per second. The issue is the focal length. At a 80mm maximum, it’s not enough of a telephoto to shoot field sports. I found the continuous focus to be good but not perfect. It might get 70% or so of the images in focus. This is a lot better than the 7D where, if I recall, it was way under 50%. So far so good. But there are issues.

On the E-M1, I can use the back LCD or EVF to compose the shot. However, whenever I start shooting in high-speed continuous mode, the center focusing indicator goes away. The display also flickers very quickly as the frames are shot. The net affect is that I don’t get a clear “view finder” to compose and target my focusing areas. I have to roughly guess the focus point and try to follow the action. The constant flickering of the display is distracting and adds to the difficulty.

This is where the “primitive” optical design of DSLRs works well. Because on a DSLR, the image preview is displayed separately on the LCD, the optical view finder is available to frame your shots. Though there is some image black out when the mirror flips up, I find it less distracting than with the EVF.

So the bottom line is that the E-M1 seems to continuously focus at least as well or better than the Canon 7D and it shoots faster at 10 frames per second instead of 8. But framing the subject is a lot more challenging. The 7D has the ability to group multiple autofocus points. A couple of people have reported and I have confirmed in the manual that the E-M1 can also group focus points together. I didn’t know about this feature so I didn’t use it. That’s something that I would like to test if I get another opportunity. Also the choice of lens will affect performance. A faster focusing lens seems to keep up but the budget 45 – 200mm did not work well for this test.

For some sports, I believe the E-M1 will do a superior job over the 7D. But in other cases, there are some limitations. My guess is that with practice, I would be able to use the E-M1 for shooting soccer. Definitely better than the entry-level DSLR too. So in general, I would say the Olympus will match a mid level prosumer DSLR with a few caveats that I mentioned.

Low Light

Another aspect of performance is focusing in low light, which matters to someone like me, who lives at night. Most cameras these days focus great in bright light but when the light levels drop, some cameras can struggle. Under normal conditions, the Olympus micro 4/3 locks focus so quickly that it’s no longer an issue. Single shot focus is DSLR fast.

When it gets dark, contrast detect focusing can struggle to see. I found that in certain cases the E-PM2 and the older E-P3 struggle to lock focus. As an aside, the comparably slow focusing old E-PL1 camera back from 2010 seem to do better in lower light. The new E-M1 definitely improves under low light and also strong back lighting. The focus might hunt, really quickly, but then it locks on. Speed of focusing does slow down in darker conditions, but always remains usable and I never felt frustrated by its performance.

The Canon 6D has a special center point sensor that is optimized for really dark conditions. The E-M1 doesn’t quite match the 6D center point sensor but the advantage of the E-M1 is that I can change the focus point to anywhere on the screen. With the 6D, I need to focus in the center and then recompose, which can cause focus issues in really shallow DOF situations.

Street photography, especially in the evening and night is a good way to test the camera’s focusing speed. The light can be marginal and changes unpredictably. Here are some photographs taken at 6th Street, Austin’s most famous entertainment district with a large number of bars and restaurant.

A heroic pose, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

A heroic pose, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Posing for the Galaxy Camera, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Posing for the Galaxy Camera, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

ID Please, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

ID Please, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Video

Let me start by saying that my video needs are modest. I want a good video taking device to create home movies or capture little interesting scenes. I’m not looking to create an indie movie. There are cameras that are better for creating those cinematic movies, the Canons and Panasonic come to mind. People talk about 24, 25 or 60ftp shooting which the Olympus can not do. I think it works only at 30 frames per second. For me, that’s adequate. The in-body 5 axis image stabilization works wonders, making the camera steady and floaty, almost like having a steady cam attached.

Every iteration of the Olympus seems to improve on video, which is great because I found previous cameras to be lacking in some way. Actually the E-P5, that I tested recently, seems to satisfy my needs. My E-PM2, for example, picks up focus sounds even for the supposedly quiet MSC lenses. I’m not sure if the phase detect focusing is used in video mode but it seems like the E-M1 does less hunting than the E-P5. Image quality looks great, even in low light. Below I have two videos that I took in dark conditions. There is a tiny bit of focus hunting but looks great overall.




I’ve been searching for that universal vacation camera that takes great family snaps, “serious” artistic images and high quality, autofocusing family videos. I think we are finally there with this camera. Still and video integration is the holy grail for many companies so I’m sure there are other cameras that can now do this too. Olympus may not be a video leader but for my purposes they fit the bill.

Comparisons

DSLRs

I’ve already compared the E-M1 to DSLRs and I hope you understand why. Image quality wise, this camera matches many of the APS-C DSLRs out there. It now continuously focuses and shoots 10 frames per second and can finally used for sports. I’m familiar with Canon and not as much with Nikon but my assumption is that, in general, the two DSLR giants are comparably matched, more or less. What the Olympus brings is DSLR level performance in a smaller, back saving package. When you combine the large micro 4/3 lens selection to the stable of high quality 4/3 lenses, you have a system the rivals the big guys. Canon may have the edge in specialized lenses like tilt shift and super telephoto primes but the Olympus selection is surprisingly good.

I have a friend that went on an African safari recently. He purchased a 10 pound, $13,000 lens, the 800mm f5.6, for his centerpiece Canon 5D Mark III system. His total camera gear weight 28 pounds. He had to buy a separate seat on the plane because of the size and weight of his equipment (He had to fly on one of those small Cessnas). Now consider this. Olympus may not have a 800mm lens, or I couldn’t find one, but I found a 600mm equivalent lens. This top of the line Olympus lens is at f2.8 instead of f5.6, costs $6000 less, weights 3 pounds less and is about 40% shorter. If you were willing to settle for 500mm, there’s a really versatile Olympus Pro zoom that is a 180 – 500mm equivalent at f2.8. Imagine the flexibility of that lens, which is a tad smaller than the 600mm equivalent prime and is even $1000 less expensive.

The point I’m trying to make is that with the combination of micro 4/3 and the 4/3 lens collection and the ability to use them on the OM-D E-M1, this is potentially a game changer. All the E-M1 and the pro grade Olympus lenses are really weather resistant too. I don’t know how water-resistant the Canon 5DM3 is but hopefully it is better than the 7D. I remember when I used my 7D is a medium drizzle and the back cursor control stopped working. Luckily it started working when it dried out! After that, I had doubts of Canon’s definition of weather resistance.

Take a look at what this Olympus does. Here is a photo taken by Ming Thein of his test E-M1 in a hot shower for 10 minutes, sitting in 1 cm of water. Looks like this gear is robust enough for Africa or tropical rain forests.

The E-M1 might not be up to the Pro DSLR levels like the Canon 1D and Nikon D4 but it definitely more than competitive in the prosumer space.

Other Mirrorless

For the reasons outlined throughout this post, the EM-1 breaks new ground that puts this camera in another class, different from most of the mirrorless brethren. The DSLR styled Panasonic GH3 might be close, at least in terms of philosophy and size. The GH3 is a fine camera that is especially admired for its video capability. As a stills cameras, I think the Olympus is superior.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

The E-M5 was the first camera Olympus introduced in the OM-D line. It was a ground breaking and popular camera for Olympus. In some ways, if you take the E-M5 and add the optional grips, you get something like the E-M1. Of course, there is more to it than that. You don’t get the phase detect focusing so you don’t get the fast focusing of 4/3 lenses or the fast continuous focusing performance. The EVF on the E-M5 is not at the same level and you don’t have the superior ergonomics of the E-M1.

If you already have the E-M5, don’t fret. You still have an excellent camera. The image quality between the two is not very different. You still have a good EVF and the fine 5 axis image stabilizer. Unless you need to use 4/3 lenses or do fast action sports in continuous mode, I would stick with the E-M5. If you are interested in the 12-40mm f2.8, I would consider getting the optional grips to support the heavier lens.

Olympus E-P5

The E-P5 is the top of the line camera in the Pen line. It is a very stylish camera which I really enjoyed using. If you want most of the advantages of micro 4/3 in a smaller package, you can consider the E-P5 or the less expensive Pen cameras. The E-P5 is not weather sealed and because it lacks a big grip, a lens like the 12-40mm will seem a bit unbalanced. The lens will still work but it won’t be a synergistic package as it is on the E-M1.

The image quality is very similar and I especially like the two toned black and silver model. It has an elegance that surpass the E-M1. Think of this as a great travel and street photography camera. It does not have fast continuous focusing so it is not ideal for fast action sports.

Miscellaneous

WiFi

Like the Olympus E-P5 introduced this year, the E-M1 also has built-in WiFi. I think this will be a standard check off item in all future cameras. My Canon 6D also has it and increasingly all the manufactures seem to be jumping on the WiFi band wagon. Makes sense, for a couple of reasons. First, all cameras, not just point and shoots, are competing to some extent with the now ubiquitous smart phone and its rapidly improving camera. Second, it’s nice to WiFi transfer a high quality photo to your social media site, via your smartphone of course.

I you don’t breathlessly need to update your online status, there are other uses for WiFI. For landscape photography for instance, you can use your tablet to remotely change settings and shoot photos. You can also WiFi tether the camera so if you are on a photo shoot and your art director is getting nervous, you can beam your photos to their tablet so they can micro manage you. Seriously though, I think there could be interesting uses for WiFi tethering and I’m glad they included this feature.

To be honest, I didn’t test WiFI on the E-M1, but I did on the E-P5 a month ago. I heard Olympus has added more capability to the E-M1′s WiFi implementation. More manual controls and such. This is something I will play with if I have another chance to use the camera. Below is a quick example of what you can do. I took the photo on a E-P5, I transferred it over WiFi to a iPad Mini where I used the Olympus OI.Share app to add a pin hole effect and paste a logo on the corner. Of course that logo can be your own watermark and you can certainly use the myriad of iOS apps to post process the photo. From there you can upload, email it or just save it on your device.

Olympus E-P5
HDR

The E-M5, to my recollection, is the first micro 4/3 to have in-camera HDR processing. The recent Pens, the E-P5, E-PL5 and E-PM2 includes a HDR bracketing mode that does not actually generate HDRs. They take multiple photographs at different exposures so you can generate a HDR on your computer.

As you many know, I’m quite knowledgable about manual HDR processing, so I admit that I’m quite particular about them. I wasn’t overly impressed with the E-M1′s HDR processing but your mileage and tastes may vary. Two of the photos below are auto generated on the Olympus and the other was manually created by me. I have larger versions of the photos on the post Olympus OM-D E-M1: In Camera HDR Processing. There you can see which ones were generated in-camera.

My Likes

1. Extremely well-built, all metal camera
2. Purposeful and serious styling
3. Well designed controls and placement
4. Integrated EVF almost matches optical, the best available so far
5. Extremely weather resistant design
6. Excellent quality photographs to ISO 3200 and higher
7. That great Olympus color
8. Accurate Exposure
9. Class leading 5 axis in-body image stabilization
10. Fast focus and good continuous focusing
11. 10 frames per second
12 1/8000 per second maximum shutter speed
13. Extensive ability to tweak parameter settings
14. Great lens selection, best in the mirrorless market
15. Built in external mic input
16. Pricing in line with competition

My Dislikes

1. No built-in flash
2. Does not have dual SD card slots
3. Video frame rates can not be changed
4. Low light focus can still hunt at times.
5. In-camera HDR processing not realistic / not to my tastes

Conclusion

The E-M1 is unlike any Olympus mirrorless camera to date. Along with the fantastic 12-40mm f2.8, the package feels complete — they were made for each other. Shooting the camera feels more DSLR like but with a much smaller body. You get all the benefits of a DSLR without having that bulk or weight. Also, the 12-40mm may be the only lens you need. The camera is small enough to bring on vacations and you can use it for sports and school recitals. Serious photographers can easily take it on hikes and do serious nature photography in inclement weather.

If you need another lens for a special situation, the micro 4/3 family is the most complete of all mirrorless systems. There is a great selection of high quality primes and compact telephoto zooms. Need that special honking lens for your safari trip to Africa? The 4/3 lenses have that covered and they autofocus too at the speed of the traditional Olympus DSLRs.

I reviewed the Olympus E-P5 a month or so ago. I love that camera but said it was a bit expensive. Certainly a premium product for the discriminating buyer. While the E-M1 is more expensive, I think it’s priced right. You get so much for your $1300. You get a prosumer to pro quality body, all metal and weather sealed but it won’t hurt your back using it all day. It is the what the DSLR should be and probably will be in the future. It doesn’t fell like a 1980s era SLR with a CMOS chip inside. It is a thoroughly modern camera that would not be possible without today’s newest technologies.

UT at Night, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

UT at Night, University of Texas – Austin, Texas

If I were asked to shoot downhill skiing at the Olympics or the Superbowl, professionally, would I use this camera? No, probably not. The Canon 1D or Nikon D4 are made for that. If I needed ISO 10,000 images at high quality this is also not the camera. There are still reasons for DSLRs and full frame sensors. But these are edge cases for 99% of the people. For all others, I can highly recommend this camera.

Back in my E-P5 review, I made a car analogy. I said the lower end Pen cameras were Toyotas while the luxurious E-P5 was a Lexus. If I stretch the car comparison some more, I would put it this way. The DSLRs are like 1960s American muscle cars, the E-M1 is a modern Porsche. They are both fast but the muscle cars achieve their performance with brute force and they use older technology. They are fast but not nimble. The E-M1 is a modern high performance machine that is more compact and achieves its performance with higher technology and a smaller engine.

Leaving the Main Building, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

Leaving the Main Building, University of Texas – Austin, Texas

Studying by the glow of light sticks, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

Studying by the glow of light sticks, University of Texas – Austin, Texas

Finally, you may ask, would I buy this camera? If I didn’t already own my Canon 6D, and the stable of Canon lenses then, yes, I would. And anyone looking at a DSLR should seriously consider the E-M1. I think you will be happier with it and probably take better pictures because the exposure and color you see on the LCD or EVF is what you get. DSLRs are a pain in the neck. You shoot and then you have to look at a separate LCD screen to see if the picture came out properly. It takes longer and it’s less interactive. The net effect is that photography is not as fun.

For current satisfied DSLR owners, the decision becomes more difficult. In my case, I use my mirrorless cameras for travel and street photography. I own 8+ cameras so I get to choose the best tool for the situation. However, if I ever wanted to sell all my cameras and simplify to one, the Olympus E-M1 is the camera of choice right now. Given the broad selection of cameras that I have, something smaller and luxurious like the E-P5 is more enticing. However, if I ever add serious landscape photography to my repertoire, I would undoubtedly strongly consider the E-M1, just for the weather sealing alone.

I’m wrapping up this long review with a few more photographs that I shot with the E-M1. Bowing to tradition, I’m adding another photo of Lucky, because he is a valued test subject (and a trusted family companion, of course) and he always helps me during gear evaluations.

Click on this link if you are interested in buying the Olympus OM-D E-M1. You get the same low Amazon price and you also help support this site.

If this review was helpful to you, please use my Amazon affiliate link for your Amazon purchases. Any Amazon purchases quality, not only photography gear. You will get the same low price but I get a small commission from Amazon.

A small bar on Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

A small bar on Rainey Street – Austin, Texas

A couple in 20s fashion, Javalina Bar - Austin, Texas

A couple in 20s fashion, Javalina Bar – Austin, Texas

Late night mood and reflections, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Late night mood and reflections, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Bat Bar Interior, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Bat Bar Interior, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Lucky with the Olympus E-M1 - Austin, Texas

Lucky with the Olympus E-M1 – Austin, Texas

    SUPPORT ME BY USING THESE LINKS
         AmazonB&H PhotoAdorama
Photographs taken with a Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 lens that I have on loan from Olympus. I also used my own Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 lens that also is equally compatible. All photos taken in JPEG and processed using Apple’s Aperture 3.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.

60 responses

  1. Thanks for the very thorough review. Most of my same conclusions for me too after I handled the E-M1 at the Precision/Olympus fest this weekend. I will be sticking with my E-M5 but the 12-40 f/2.8 and next year’s 40-150 f/2.8 are on my lens buying list.

    October 6, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    • Thanks Don. I think the E-M5 will be great with the new lenses. Possibly the extra grip, if you don’t have it already, for better ergonomics for larger/heavier lenses.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      • Yes, the extra grip (not the extra battery grip) never gets off my E-M5. The handling is so much better with that grip structure on it. Glad to see Oly designed it onto this new version.

        November 8, 2013 at 6:48 am

      • rrr_hhh

        Hi !
        and thank you for a nice and detailed review.

        After some deliberation, I took the same decision : I will get the 12-40mm, but keep my E-M5. However, since the 12-40mm get a special treatment for corners sharpness on the E-M1, I was wondering whether it would produce the same results on an E-M5 body ? I’m surprised that Olympus didn’t issue a firmware update to support that new lens completely on former bodies. Did you have an occasion to compare pictures shot with former bodies (E-M5, E-P5, E-Pl5, or E-Pm2) to the pictures shot with that same lens on the E-M1 ? It would be interesting to know whether the older bodies are able to handle that lens similarly or not.

        November 11, 2013 at 4:32 am

    • Sam R. Smith

      Very detailed review, thanks.
      I made few tests by myself and firmly came to conclusion that compared to EM-5 pics quality without JPEG proessing, filters etc. or simply said RAW files is exactly same. 100% no difference between two cameras.
      Yes, JPEG processing is different, but that’s trickery that may work for hobbists, but doesn’t make absolute capability of camer higher.
      It is not a new sensor implemented in sense of higher resolution at all.
      Or any other improvement, before camera’s software starts to do the job.
      No low-pass filter, well, but what’s the purpose, if we talk seriously and we can talk seriously comparing RAW files.
      Thanks to Internet, anyone can find lot of photos comparing and showing that.
      Bottom line is that in main aspect of flagship camere of high calibre I couldn’t find the slightest improvement.
      Of course EM-1 has functionality that may look attractive during marketing campaigns and in endorsed reviews like compatibility with old 3/4 lenses (I don’t need it), Wi-Fi remote control (I don’t need it), integrated grip (this is disadvantage to me, as I prefer smaller size for small lenses and add-on grip for bigger), higher resolution EVF (do not use it at all), so I would say that camera has more pro features that may be without purpose for advanced hobbists and enthusiasts which simply wish to have the best, small form factor camera without sacrifying quality of pictures.
      So, I strongly vauch for EM-5, as smaller, more elegant (in silver alu design, thinnier, 20% lighter) and EQUAL in capability to make 100% exact quality pics in unprocessed RAW format, what is format of my choice anyway.
      Larger, black bodied EM-1 doesn’t look nice with my preferred 17/1.8 and 75/1.8 silver lenses, it doesn’t look so nice even with all black lenses when compared to stylish EM-5 design. Of course, tastes are different and some will prefer bulkier, less retro styled appearance of EM-1.
      At same price, I would pick silver EM-5 over black EM-1, if silver EM-1 ever comes to market and become priced tightly around 1000 US than it may have sense to think, but think long.
      Saying that all happy owners of EM-1 should now sell their EM-1 and buy EM-5 again would be an exaggeration, but for new buyers IMO EM-5 has lot of elements why to choose it versus EM-1, being equally capable devices form making great pictures.
      Swapping EM-5 for EM-1 while paying any price difference is almost non-sense, except for narrow group of people who REALLY need some of new functions.
      Still, both cameras are the best money can currently buy for combination of quality, style, lenses and fun.

      October 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      • Sam, thanks for your detailed comment. I think the good news is that there is a choice in features and form factor. I’m more of a Pen E-P5 guy myself because of the smaller size.

        October 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      • rrr_hhh

        I don’t care for the higher speed, nor the PDAF, but I would really like to have that better E-VF along with WIFI and GPS data. So it was a bit hard to resist the temptation.. I decided to keep the E-M5 because has more or less the same sensor while being smaller. I have the HLD-6 if I need, but can take it off when I want a smaller camera.

        November 11, 2013 at 4:43 am

  2. lee taylor

    Brilliant review. I’ll stick with the EM-5 also, but may upgrade when Olympus move beyond 22mpix. As a camera, the EM-5 is all I need. To go for the EM-1 it needed the extra pixels. I don’t have any old 4/3 glass, as they got sold with the E-3 (quite some tome ago). Just wondering – have you tested for IR pollution in the EM-1? Thanks again, Lee.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:45 am

    • Thanks Lee. Sorry, I have not tested for IR pollution.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm

  3. Wow! You outdid yourself on this report. Truly awesome, and so well written. I don’t even want to guess how long it took to write this, let alone proof-read it a few times. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Peter F.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:10 am

    • Thanks Peter F. Yes, it was a lot of work. Way too much, perhaps, for someone like me that does not consider himself a writer.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

  4. TR

    Quite a nice review but you should RTFM first! E.g.

    4/3 lenses don’t use CDAF all the time.
    At high burst rate (10 fps) the camera only focuses before the first shot. It does NOT af and shoot at 10fps so your focus accuracy comments are of no use.
    And yes you can group focus points together to make a larger focus area.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:20 am

    • TR, thanks for your feedback. Unfortunately, I did not have any 4/3 lenses and the adapter to test with. I stand by my focus accuracy tests for micro 4/3 lenses, based on my simple testing. I will see if I can test some more if I get another opportunity.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    • Update: I fixed the entry. I knew 4/3 used phase detect but inadvertently said they use contrast detect. Thanks again for pointing this out.

      October 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm

  5. Great job!

    October 7, 2013 at 6:45 am

    • Thanks, Keith.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm

  6. Ian Noone

    This is an excellent practical review. I appreciate your time and the trouble you went through to write such an encompassing review. I am considering a smaller, lighter, but high quality camera system and I’m doing research on the Olympus/Panasonic Micro 4/3 as well as the Fujifilm APS-C systems. I have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind?

    I am trying to understand the difference between the Micro 4/3 and 4/3. It is my understanding that the format itself is 4/3 (sensor size). There is no 4/3 format and Micro 4/3 format as they use the same sensor size and lens mount. The difference between 4/3 and Micro 4/3 is the lenses and body depth. The Micro 4/3 lenses come to focus closer to the rear of the lens, which allows the camera bodies to be narrower. Thus the elimination of the mirror box and smaller bodies. To use a 4/3 lens on a Micro 4/3 camera, one would have to insert a spacer in between the camera and lens? Kind of like an extension tube. Conversely, one could not use a Micro 4/3 lens on a 4/3 camera as the lens could not focus to infinity as it would be too far from the sensor to reach infinity focus. Are my assumptions essentially correct? Same sensor but different lens design?

    The other thing that I believe I read was that you said there wasn’t much difference between the 4/3 sensor and the APS-C sensor. I found some figures when trying to ascertain how much difference there really is (I’m trying to keep very high image quality and sensor size seems to be important) and, by my calculations, the difference is the 4/3 sensor is 60% image area of a Nikon sized APS-C sensor and 68% image area of the size of a Canon APS-C sensor. Does that sound right? If so, that is quite a difference that Olympus has been able to overcome to keep almost the same image quality. The 4/3 sensor seems only 2/3 the image area of an APS-C sized sensor. Remarkable achievement on Olympus’ engineering, if, in fact, the image quality truly holds up.

    You stated a couple of times that the image quality between the E-M1 and your 7D was comparable. You also referenced the Canon 70D. Did you actually compare the E-M1 images against the 70D or any other APS-C sensor camera other than your 7D? The reason I ask is that the 7D is several years old and Nikon, Sony, Canon, Pentax, Samsung and others have much newer, state-of-the-art APS-C sensors that should be much better than the 7D’s. Just trying to draw some conclusions.

    Again, thank you for your time and effort. I’m just an old guy trying to understand this new digital world and enjoy my photography. I appreciate your time in answering my basic questions.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    • Ian,

      Thanks for visiting and commenting. Excellent questions, let me try to answer them.

      1. Regarding the difference between micro 4/3 and 4/3, I think you got it right. At least that is also my understanding. The two formats use exactly the same size sensor. Eliminating the mirror box allowed the lenses to be redesigned to be closer to the sensor and shrink the lens size. I don’t know if there is any subtle differences between the electrical contacts between 4/3 and micro 4/3 but the adapter does act as a spacer to get the correct distance between the back of the lens and the sensor. For this reason, you are correct that micro 4/3 lenses can not be used on 4/3 bodies. There is also the issue of phase detect vs contrast detect focusing. 4/3 used phase detect like other DSLRs. All the micro 4/3 cameras use contrast detect except for the E-M1 which uses both (at different times)

      2. Yes, mathematically, there is a big difference in size between the micro 4/3 sensors and APS-C sensor. So yes, in theory, APS-C sensor should do a lot better. With all things being equal, the bigger the sensor the better light gathering ability. The sensor size also affects the depth of field too. The bigger the sensor, the shallower depth of field is possible given the same aperture size.

      OK, here is my opinion regarding Canon. For the DSLRs, Canon designs and manufactures their own CMOS sensors. Back in the 2005 – 2007 time frame they were clearly the leader. Over time, other companies seem to be getting better at sensor performance. Sony, for example, seem like one of the top players right now. The recent Olympus sensors are made by Sony, I’m not sure if that is the case for the E-M1 but most likely it is since Sony is a big investor in Olympus. I believe, for whatever reason, the Sony sensors are a lot better at high ISO than Canon. So even if the Canon APS-C sensors are larger, the m4/3 sensors do very well against them.

      I think Nikon’s sensors are made by Sony too but I heard it is a tweaked design. The Nikon APS-C sensors stuff more pixels in the same space so at a pixel level they can appear noisier at high ISO, though they will have the resolution advantage. There is some debate about if high megapixel sensors perform worse at high ISOs. I think at the 100% pixel level this is true. However, if you compare them at comparable sizes on screen on a 27″ monitor on in print, high megapixels sensors do equally well for noise but improves the image because it is a higher resolution. I don’t have a Nikon to test this myself so I’m only mentioning things that I have read elsewhere.

      Beyond the sensor though, there is also the Image Processor which affects the look of the photographs, especially in JPEG. Canon’s JPEG engine seems to be behind those of some companies such as Olympus and Fujifilm. So when you shoot in JPEG as opposed to RAW you also get different results. Olympus seems to do better than Canon, especially in JPEG, which boosts low light (high ISO) JPEG results

      3. My 70D comments are based on test results at DPReview. When I compare the 7D with the 70D, I do see an improvement, finally, in Canon’s APS-C sensors. Though the 7D is over 3 years old, I noticed all new APS-C Canon DSLRs had about the same image quality until the 70D came out (again based on DPReview’s test results). On DPReview, when I compare the 70D against the E-PM2 (a camera which I own and know well) I did notice better results for the 70D. Based on my test of the E-M1, I didn’t really see an improvement between that camera and my E-PM2. So to summarize, my results are based on my direct observations with the Olympus E-PM2, the Olympus E-M1 and the Canon 7D. All other comparisons take my base knowledge and compare them with DPReview’s results.

      Also, another impartial source of sensor data is DXOMark. This url compares the Canon 7D, Canon 70D and the Olympus E-PM2.

      http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Cameras/Compare-Camera-Sensors/Compare-cameras-side-by-side/(appareil1)/895|0/(brand)/Canon/(appareil2)/840|0/(brand2)/Olympus/(appareil3)/619|0/(brand3)/Canon

      If you look at these results, DXOMark also seems to support my observations.

      Keep in mind that these are the results right now. The technology changes all the time. I’m sure, in the future, APS-C sensors will also improve. And again, in theory they should be better than micro 4/3. However, you also need to consider other factors such as camera/lens size and usability. If ISO 3200 or so is good enough for you, The E-M1 might be a good camera for your needs. The APS-C DSLRs and their lenses are pretty big.

      Fujifilm is also an interesting possibly. Their APS-C sensors are unique and do very well in low light. They have a lot of devoted followers. There are some issues I see with Fuji. First they don’t focus as fast as Olympus and they don’t shoot as fast and their movie modes are not up to par. Their lens selection is not as large and the cameras and lenses can be bigger. But if you don’t need the performance of the E-M1, the Fuji’s might be a good camera for you too.

      I hope this helps.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      • The E-M1 sensor is allegedly designed by Olympus (derived from their microscope sensor know-how), and manufactured by Sony. But as Sony too need PDAFOS (on sensor), there is probably a geat deal of interaction between Oly and Sony in this development. Anyway, it seems to yield great results, and this being only the 1st generation sensor, it really bodes well for the cameras to come :)

        Regarding JPEG, the Olympus jpeg engine is widely acclaimed and acknowleged to be the best in the whole industry.
        And it has been so for many many years now ;)

        October 8, 2013 at 10:03 am

    • “There is no 4/3 format and Micro 4/3 format as they use the same sensor size and lens mount.”

      They do use different mounts, 4/3 and m4/3 repectively, with different lens bayonets (the native 4/3 being bigger), and also different flange-back distances (the distance from the bayonet flange to the sensor).

      “The difference between 4/3 and Micro 4/3 is the lenses and body depth. The Micro 4/3 lenses come to focus closer to the rear of the lens, which allows the camera bodies to be narrower. Thus the elimination of the mirror box and smaller bodies.”

      This generally also allows for smaller lenses (not just bodies), especially UWAs, as they need less retrofocal designs.
      The least size difference will be for longer tele-lenses, where it’s mostly the bayonet itself that is smaller.

      “To use a 4/3 lens on a Micro 4/3 camera, one would have to insert a spacer in between the camera and lens? Kind of like an extension tube.”

      Yes, these are the MMF-1, MMF-,2 and MMF-3 adapters. The later also being sealed.

      Conversely, one could not use a Micro 4/3 lens on a 4/3 camera as the lens could not focus to infinity as it would be too far from the sensor to reach infinity focus. Are my assumptions essentially correct?

      Yes, the m4/3 lenses cannot be used on a 4/3 body, due to the shorter flange-back distance, and the smaller mount itself.

      “Same sensor but different lens design?”

      Yes, same sensor size (not necessarily the same sensors as such).

      October 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

    • Ropo16

      The main difference, often overlooked, is the format ratio. APSC is like a slightly widescreen format, M43 a squarer format. Looked at like this the Canon APSC is only 1.6 mm taller!
      For portrait use especially APSC is usually too wide and it is often better to crop the sides off, resulting in the 4/3 or narrower ratio.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:16 am

    • Another problem here, he’s showing a full frame lens on the APS-C Canon camera. A more appropriate lens would be the Sigma or Tamron f/2.8 made for the APS-C sensor. Good overall assessment but a little to much fact bending to fit his agenda (aka, fan-boy hype). Plus a few more minor bent facts.

      JRR

      November 4, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      • Jason, good catch. I noticed that myself after the fact. I should have gotten Precision Camera to attach the Canon EF-S 17 – 55mm lens instead. However, the 17-55 is about the same size as the 24-70 though it is 6 ounces lighter.

        I stand by the general size difference and performance though. No fan-boy hype intended. I use both the Canon and Olympus, among other cameras. Each camera has its advantages.

        November 4, 2013 at 9:31 pm

      • floriorules

        You are rude Rosenberg.

        November 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    • I think others have answered this, but the website has the full details in simple diagrams and text: http://www.four-thirds.org/en/microft/ . In short: same sensor, shorter flange depth, smaller mount, 2 extra pins on the mount…

      November 6, 2013 at 12:30 am

  7. kevin

    Good review. It’s me or there is tons of HOT girls in texas ? lol

    October 8, 2013 at 5:49 am

    • Thanks Kevin. Selective editing is always important in photography ;-)

      October 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm

  8. Thx for this eaborate review!
    A good read, showcasing an amazing camera! :)

    But here are some mix-ups and errors in there, which I have quoted here.
    You should correct them, as some of it is downright erroneous:

    ———–
    “Reports on the web indicate that while it doesn’t focus as fast as the E-5 DSLR, the E-M1 is significantly faster than previous micro 4/3 cameras.”

    Seems to be somewhat lens dependent. General consesus is that it does focus as fast as the E-5 in normal light, and even faster w/ the SWD lenses (14-35/2.0 and 50-200/2.8-3.5) and the 50/2.0 Macro. In low light it seems to focus only marginally slower, but OTOH more precisely.

    ———–
    “The E-M1 uses phase detect focusing when set in continuous mode with the micro 4/3 lens (on 4/3 lenses, I’m told it uses contrast detect full-time) which makes all the difference.”

    The correct sentence (facts) would read:
    The E-M1 uses phase detect autofocusing (PDAF) to assist the contrast detect autofocus (CDAF) when set in continuous mode with the micro 4/3 lens (on 4/3 lenses, it uses PDAF full-time) which makes all the difference.

    ———–
    “Interestingly, you can change the highlight and shadow effects and shoot in Raw mode; but the effect itself will only apply if you have JPG shooting enabled. Raw images don’t show any sign of those adjustments when imported into Lightroom.”

    If shooting RAW, the camera will automatically set RAW + JPEG whenever the HDR1 or HDR2 setings are set.
    Thereafter a single RAW file is stored (the neutral exopsure) along w/ the HDR JPEG merged from the bracketing series. The manual states that HDR1,2 shoots 4 images, but it actually seems that 5 is used.

    ———–

    ” The E-M1 EVF, I believe, has the same technical specifications but it is full incorporated into the body.”

    The EVF-4 incorporated into the EM-1 is slightly improved over the VF-4, having less lag and automated brightenss, adjusting to the ambient light.
    ———–

    “The 7D also has the ability to group multiple autofocus points, something that the E-M1 does not do.”

    Plain wrong.
    You can group AF frames big time, and move those groups around in the EVF/LCD to your liking (even drag and drop in the LCD). This goes for both for the 37 PDAF-based AF frames (used for native 4/3 lenses and PDAF-support for CDAF C-AF) and the 81 CDAF frames. You can also change the size of the AF points from normal to smaller size for enhanced pinpoint precision.
    ———–

    “With the possible exception of the Nikon 1, the Olympus E-M1 probably has the best focusing system available for any mirrorless camera.”

    Well, the Nikon 1 PDAF works for the center AF frame only, whilst the E-M1 works with 37 PDAF AF frames (81 for CDAF)! Moreover, these frames in the E-M1 can be grouped, moved, microadjusted and changed for size. And they work w/ both “Touch and focus” and “Touch and shoot” on the LCD. So it simply blows the Nikon 1 off the water!
    ———–

    “The Canon 6D has a special center point sensor that is optimized for really dark conditions.”

    I believe that only goes down to F8 (like most DSLR PDAF systems). Using slower lenses (i.e. tele-lenses w/ a teleconverter), thus ending up w/ an effective F# beyond F8, and no PDAF will be acheived. The on-sensor PDAF in the E-M1 OTOH works all the way to F22 and smaller. And all the 37 AF frames works the same way.
    ———–

    “It shoots at a continuously focusing 10 frames per second. It does this by incorporating phase detect focusing in addition to the standard contrast detect focusing.”
    (this is error is also restated u/ “DSLRs”)

    The CDAF works at 6.5 FPS.
    At 10 FPS CDAF is disabled, and you have to refocus by feathering the shutter button. Focus will then be locked until feathering or the start of the next burst (same goes also for the bigger DSLRs btw).
    ———–

    ” If you were willing to settle for 500mm, there’s a really versatile Olympus Pro zoom that is a 180 – 500mm equivalent at f2.8. Imagine the flexibility of that lens, which is a tad smaller than the 600mm equivalent prime and is even $1000 less expensive.”

    I have that one! :-D
    The amazing Zuiko ED 90-250/2.8!
    Bright sealed, optically and technically superb (Zuiko Super High Grade). Some gem that is!

    http://asia.olympus-imaging.com/products/dslr/lenses/90-250_28

    ———–

    October 8, 2013 at 7:02 am

    • Ups – a typo sneaked in :(
      Correction here (changing CDAF for C-AF):

      ———–

      “It shoots at a continuously focusing 10 frames per second. It does this by incorporating phase detect focusing in addition to the standard contrast detect focusing.”
      (this is error is also restated u/ “DSLRs”)

      The C-AF works at 6.5 FPS.
      At 10 FPS C-AF is disabled, and you have to refocus by feathering the shutter button. Focus will then be locked until feathering or the start of the next burst (same goes also for the bigger DSLRs btw).
      ———–

      October 8, 2013 at 7:09 am

    • Erik, thank you very much for your detailed information. I appreciate the time you took fact check some of my details. I will try incorporate your suggestions, soon.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:23 am

  9. Pingback: New reviews of Olympus OM-D E-M1 - Blog for mirrorless and premium compact cameras

  10. Pingback: The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review | SERENDIPITY

  11. Reblogged and I’m doing a little promotion for this. You missed your calling. You do amazing reviews. Some typos — in a bunch of places you type DLSR for DSLR — just do a spell check. It’ll turn them up and you can fix’em. It’s not going to confuse any of your readers. They’ll know what you meant anyhow. The question is, would you buy it?

    October 9, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    • Thank you, Marilyn. I checked this over so many times and fixed a bunch of typos but there’re still around, *Sigh* Maybe I need to hire a proof reader :-(

      I put some extra effort into the review, make it comprehensive but not strictly technical. I also wanted to make the formatting a bit nicer, different from a typical blog.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:26 pm

  12. Thank you for your review of the OM-D e-m1, I’m a e-m5 user and sold my Canon 7d and collection of lenses because of the weight. Carrying a large bag full was too much. Very happy with my Olympus gear a lot lighter and all in a smaller bag. I’m now considering buying E-m1 as a second camera as the reviews look good. I’m hoping I can afford it with the new 12-40 mm lens… £1949 together here in UK Rather high price, but hopefully should last for many years!!

    October 11, 2013 at 7:28 am

  13. Jeff

    Excellent review. Very helpful in understanding the product. Thanks for your hard work! I can’t wait to get my hands on the EM1 and try for myself.

    October 11, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  14. Pingback: Action and Candids at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center | atmtx photo blog

  15. I’m appreciated your extensive review.

    October 18, 2013 at 5:01 am

  16. This review made me want this camera! Are you sure you’re not getting a kickback from Olympus? :-) One thing that makes me not switch is sensor size. Have you attempted any really large prints of any of your stuff shot with this camera? I know it won’t rival full-frame.

    October 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

    • Patrick,

      Nope, no kickback from Olympus. The only benefit I got was to be able to play with the camera before it was available to the public.

      The largest I’ve printed was 13″ x 19″. I see no problems with going larger. It is not going to compare with a 36MP Nikon D800. However, it should do just as well as many APS-C cameras.

      October 24, 2013 at 11:49 am

  17. Rick

    Sensor size increments don’t properly effect the real improvement in image quality. IOW, 32 megapixels vs 16mp doesn’t mean a 100% increase; 24mp isn’t significantly better than 16mp. Ctien on theonlinephotographer.com (great site) commented on this recently: has to do with the length or diagonal length, not the area/square footage. Sorry not to be more precise, but that’s as much as I need to know- memory needs to be allocated to other areas :)

    Thanks for a great review.

    October 25, 2013 at 10:51 pm

  18. Tom

    Thank you for the review, especially on the sports shooting. You mentioned that the E-M1 would be great in sports outdoor shooting and you tested it outside in sunlight conditions.

    How about in low light situations like in shooting gymnastics?

    November 6, 2013 at 11:43 am

    • Tom, I haven’t tried the camera in a dark setting like that so I’m speculating here.

      I did shoot my son, many years ago, doing gymnastics. I think the E-M1 will work. Especially if the gymnast is confined in a particular area. If the DOF is deep enough, you can keep them in focus to account for small changes in position. So you maybe able to prefocus at a certain point and you can shoot off a lot of frames quickly.

      If you are trying to capture floor exercises where they are running across the floor, this maybe a bigger challenge, as it is for many cameras.

      November 7, 2013 at 11:33 am

  19. Thank you, ATMTX for your beautiful and comprehensive review.

    I’ve just received my E-M1. No doubt, it’s a wonderful piece of engineering art. Love it!

    One thing worries me, though. I’ve noticed that the front dial is rotating softer compared to the rear one. It seems like it’s lost its sturdy click-click-click feel. Did your camera have the same slight tactile dis-balance of front/back dials? I’m struggling to figure out if it’s camera’s specific feature or its fault.

    Cheers!

    November 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    • Serge, thank you. It’s been a while since I’ve returned the evaluation camera however, I don’t remember the front dial being any softer than the rear. I’ll test it if I come across another unit.

      Please comment if anyone visiting this site that has an E-M1 and could give feedback about the dials. Thanks.

      November 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      • Thank you, ATMTX.

        I would be happy to visit a local shop and test dials myself. However, E-M1s are in such a big demand that they are only for “pre-order” customers. So, to take and test the camera from the shop’s shelf may take a while :o).

        November 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm

  20. Taylornade

    Great review! I have had my E-M1 for about 2 weeks now and love it. Compared to my E-M5, the focusing is blazing fast. One can argue about the E-M5 vs E-M1 all day long but for capturing my 22mo daughter, the E-M1 wins hands down. I too could careless about wifi or GPS but the improved focusing capabilities have been worth the upgrade alone.

    December 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    • Hi Taylornade, thanks for you visit and comment. Sorry I didn’t post your comment earlier, looks like I lost track of it. The E-M1 is wonderfully fast.

      December 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm

  21. Allan

    Excellent review and very useful. I’ve been hung up trying to decide between the OMD EM1, Canon 6D, and the Fuji X-E2. I love the low light abilities of the 6D in regards to low noise at high ISO and the -3EV center focus point. However, in addition to landscapes, dark skies, and general walk-around, I really want to be able to take shots of our dogs running around and some wildlife. I don’t have the budget for a super duper full frame camera with freakishly good focusing abilities or the desire to haul around something that big (6D excluded). I’m pretty sure the 6D will outperform the Fuji X-E2 in regards to continuous focus, but how about the OMD EM1? Which of these three cameras would you use for crazy dogs? :)

    For low light and overall IQ I would probably rate the 6D first followed very closely by the X-E2 and not far behind the OMD EM1.
    For fast and unpredictable action would it be OMD EM1, 6D, then X-E2?

    Thanks!

    Allan

    December 13, 2013 at 9:12 am

    • Hi Allan, great question. Yes the 6D and E-M1 will outperform the Fuji X-E2 in focusing. The Olympus has the advantage of using more focus points than with the 6D, has a faster frame rate and it probably has better continuous focus. The E-M1′s EVF black out is more distracting than the Canon 6D’s optical black out, when shooting high speed. So overall, I think the E-M1 has the edge.

      So out of the 3 cameras you mentioned, I would would rank the E-M1 first.

      December 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm

  22. Pingback: In 2013, mirrorless broke out, the gap will widen | atmtx photo blog

  23. Great review. I love my E-M5 but hate using my 4/3 50-200 with it. The results are great when I can get it to focus, but it can be frustrating. I’ve been seriously thinking about the E-M1. Justifying $1300 though…

    January 11, 2014 at 8:14 am

    • Thank you, trentpmcd.

      I haven’t tried the 4/3 lenses so I can’t say from experience but the E-M1 is probably the best bet for now.

      If $1300 is too expensive, wait until next year. If the camera follows its normal trajectory, it will eventually fall in price. Even the E-M5 can now be had with discounts.

      January 11, 2014 at 9:45 pm

  24. Steve Drury

    Outstanding review. Is it possible to use radio control triggers with the omd-em1, I have the fl-600r but they are line of sight. I can connect a pocket wizard but can not control the power.

    January 20, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    • Steve, I never tried the special versions of the pocket wizards that have ETTL and control power output. I know they make some compatible with Canon and Nikon flash systems but I don’t think they made one for Olympus.

      I you use manual triggers, then yes they will work. However you will have to adjust power at the light source and not from the camera.

      January 20, 2014 at 11:12 pm

  25. Thanks for your detailed review. I am really enjoying the EM-1, particularly with the 12-40 zoom and the 45mm and 75mm 1.8 primes. I hesitated to get the 75mm because of the cost but I am glad i did – it produces the best portraits I have ever shot so sharp and crisp, lightening fast to focus … and the bokeh and colours are superb.

    January 27, 2014 at 8:41 pm

  26. Pingback: The camera I got for myself for my 50th birthday | atmtx photo blog

  27. Stephen Scharf

    Excellent and practical review, Andy. I’ve had my E-M1 for about three weeks now, and I am very, very impressed with it. I primarily use it with my Panasonic Lumix X 12-35 and 35-100 f/2.8 lenses. Both fit in a very small ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 20 camera bag and I have 24-200mm focal lenth range all with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 all through the zoom range! I use it when I am working the paddock, pit lane, vendor, spectator areas to produce people and atmosphere shots for the pro motorsports events I cover in Northern California. The camera is very fast and responsive, and the PR staff love the image quality! I personally find the build quality and performance of the E-M1 to fully comparable to the big pro Canon and Nikon DSLRs. In, fact, I think of the E-M1 as mini version of my Canon 1D MkII N pro body; it’s that good (and better in some respects)!

    May 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm

  28. Thank you for one of the most complete and honest reviews I have seen to date!

    July 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm

  29. Thanks so much for your review. I upgraded from the M5 to the M1 this year and I’m glad I did. The focus is so quick and locks in much better than the M5. One thing I didn’t like about it is where the on/off switch is. I preferred the M5 for that as I could just flick it up with my thumb on the same hand that I was holding my camera in. Was much quicker for action shots.

    November 13, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s