Camera Review: Olympus OM-D E-M1

December 4, 2013

By Theano Nikitas

With the introduction of the 16-megapixel E-M1 Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera, Olympus has expanded its OM-D line (albeit by only one) and, at the same time, effectively ended its decade-old Four Thirds digital SLR lineup. Now the company’s flagship camera, the E-M1, offers a number of improvements over its E-M5 sibling, including more responsive focusing with Four Thirds lenses thanks to its Dual Fast AF system with on-chip phase and contrast detection, integrated Wi-Fi, a larger hand grip, faster shutter, continuous shooting and sync speeds, focus peaking and more.

Out of the box, the E-M1 is noticeably bulkier than the E-M5 thanks, in part, to its larger handgrip. But, at 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches and 17.5 ounces, it’s still a relatively small camera, particularly when compared to other DSLRs. The grip provides a well-balanced handhold although it’s likely that the longer legacy lenses may offset that balance. Its weather-sealed, magnesium alloy body is splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof, so the E-M1 can handle outdoor and adventure photography in all kinds of conditions.

Although the E-M1 doesn’t have a built-in flash, it comes with Olympus’s tiny shot-mount flash and can accept larger, accessory model flashguns as well. But the camera does have a beautiful, large, high-resolution, 2.36-million-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF). There’s an automatic eye sensor as well as manual switching between the 3-inch, tilt, rear touchscreen monitor and the EVF. The LCD’s touchscreen feature is limited to certain functions but includes focus point selection, triggering the shutter and selection of parameters from the on-screen control panel.

More Controls
External controls are plentiful and arranged within easy reach across the top and rear surfaces. The on/off switch is on the camera’s left shoulder, a position that’s more convenient than one might imagine (even for right-handed shooters). A design feature that’s especially useful is the center lock button on the mode dial. Unlike those on other cameras, however, you do not have to depress the button to release the dial. Instead, one press-and-release locks the setting in place; another press-and-release leaves it unlocked so you can move quickly from one mode to another.

Dual control dials, a pair of Fn (function) buttons and a wealth of custom options translate into more advanced, albeit complex, operation than the E-M5. The ability to customize controls is welcome, of course, but it can take a little while to remember the function of each custom setup. However, once you do, operating the camera is fluid and a real pleasure.  

In addition to Diorama II Art Filter, dual HDR options, a Photo Story mode for collages and an improved Time Lapse feature, the E-M1 now has built-in Wi-Fi. Setting up the E-M1’s Wi-Fi with a smartphone is quick and easy—the simplest implementation of Wi-Fi on a digital camera that we’ve ever seen. If your smartphone has NFC, you can simply scan the QR code on the camera’s LCD. Once connected, you can use the Olympus Image Share app (available for iOS and Android) to transfer images, add GPS data to photos and even share images with others. Remote shooting is also possible with the OI Share app and a Wi-Fi connection.

One very cool feature for time exposures is Live Time. It’s essentially a bulb mode that allows you to see the progress of the exposure real time on the LCD. This feature is an incredible tool for light painting since you can actually see what’s happening to the scene during the process.

Naturally, the E-M1 offers HD video capture. And while the camera offers manual exposure controls for video and autofocus (only with MFT lenses during shooting), the Movie mode is limited to 30 frames per second (fps) for all resolutions (1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480). That’s too bad since it would be nice to have 60p and 24p options as well.

The Inner Workings
Beyond the E-M1’s form and features, Olympus has made some improvements under the hood. A mechanical shutter delivers a faster maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second (the E-M5 maxes out at 1/4000 of a second) and a sync speed of up to 1/320 of a second. The new model’s TruePic VII engine delivers up to 10.5 fps continuous shooting, so you can capture up to 41 RAW files (in single autofocus) and, at 6.5 fps, capture up to 50 RAW files in continuous autofocus. We found that the maximum speed didn’t quite measure up to those numbers and the camera started to slow down toward the latter part of the sequence. But the camera and continuous autofocus were fast enough to keep up with some rodeo-style action shot with a 40-150mm MFT lens. Of course, when it comes to telephoto work, Olympus’s 2x crop factor really comes in handy.

While the E-M1 signals the end of Olympus’s E-series DSLRs, Olympus hasn’t totally abandoned those photographers who have a stash of Four Thirds lenses. Olympus has improved the performance of Four Thirds lenses on the E-M1: That’s a benefit of its Dual Fast AF system with on-chip phase and contrast detection autofocus. While other Olympus MFT cameras can accommodate Four Thirds lenses via an adapter, achieving speedy autofocus has been an issue with earlier MFT models since Four Thirds lenses are designed to work with phase detection. With the E-M1, the camera can access phase detection AF for better performance. While the MFT lenses still use contrast detection AF, phase detection is used for MFT lenses when autofocus tracking is engaged. Though our test selection of Four Thirds lenses was limited, from what we can tell there is some improvement in autofocus when legacy lenses are used on the E-M1. It’s certainly not as fast as, say, the Nikon D3s but it’s good to know that if you have Four Thirds lenses, you have an option to use them with respectable results on an MFT camera.

We found that we gravitated more towards using the E-M1 with MFT lenses, in part because we prefered the smaller size and weight of the camera-lens combination. Olympus sent the new, constant aperture, weatherproof M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens (a second 40-150mm f2.8 PRO lens is in development). The lens is larger than expected but it’s solidly built and delivers excellent results, especially in combination with the E-M1’s five-axis image stabilization. (A quick note: Although the MMF-1 and MMF-2 lens adapters will work with the new lens, only the MMF-3 is weatherproofed.)

Just as on-chip phase detection is working its way into more cameras (like the Canon EOS 70D, which we’ll be reviewing in the January issue), so is the elimination of the optical low-pass filter in some cameras, including the E-M1. The latter is designed to deliver better resolution but with the increased risk of moiré. However, there was no evidence of moiré with the E-M1 and we assume that the TruPic VII processor was largely responsible for this.

Image Quality
Test images were, for the most part, sharply focused and well detailed. Image noise was kept under control up to about ISO 3200 but even past that, the E-M1 maintained better detail than expected, although image noise was visible. In a pinch, we’d feel comfortable shooting at ISO 6400 but would prefer to have more in-camera control over noise reduction. As always, however, shooting RAW and post-processing for noise delivers the best results.

On bright sunny days and extremely high-contrast conditions, the E-M1 (set on Natural) had a tendency to blow out some highlights that even the well-implemented highlight and shadow control feature couldn’t manage to fix. Otherwise, exposures were generally well balanced. Colors were accurate and rich, although not overly saturated when the Natural setting was used. If the colors aren’t to your liking, the Color Creator provides a useful tool for adjusting hue and saturation when needed. But even with the funky lights on the deck of the Intrepid during a press event, the E-M1—and its auto white balance—did a great job of reproducing the neon-like colors.

The Bottom Line
The Olympus OM-D EM-1 is an excellent addition to Olympus’s digital camera lineup, delivering superb image quality and above-average performance. To date, the E-M1 is probably one of the best mirrorless cameras on the market.

Pros: Sturdy weatherproof build; broad pro/semi-pro feature set with many custom options; above-average performance; on-sensor phase detection improves legacy lenses’ autofocus speed; excellent image quality; beautiful electronic viewfinder; optional battery grip available

Cons: Pricey; slightly larger and heavier than other MFT models; not enough in-camera control over noise reduction levels; no on-board flash (but comes with small accessory flash)

Prices: $1,400 for body only; $2,200 for kit with 12-40mm PRO lens;

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