The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review
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.
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.
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?
Canon 70D / Olympus E-M1 Size Comparison
A ground breaking Lens
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.