Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review – The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the second model in the retro-styled OM-D series, sitting above the E-M5 at the top of the range. It looks to combine the best of a DSLR and system camera in a single package, so read our Olympus OM-D E-M1 review to find out if it succeeds
The EM-1 arrives just less than 18 months on, extending the OM-D range further and sitting above the original E-M5. Not only that, but thanks to some new developments that we’ll go into more depth in a moment, the E-M1 is also the natural successor to the E-5, Olympus’ last pro-spec Four Thirds DSLR that was launched back at the end of 2010.
Does the E-M1 combine the best of a DSLR and system camera or is it a compromise that’ll satisfy neither?
Olympus OM-D E-M1 review – Features
The Olympus OM-D E-M1’s 16.3MP sensor differs over the one found in the E-M5 in two key areas – the absence of a low pass filter and the inclusion of an on-sensor phase-detect AF system. The removal of the low pass filter is a growing trend in sensor technology – both the Nikon D800E and D7100 both go without, and so does the Pentax K-5 IIs. Its absence should result in sharper images compared to the E-M5, but it does increase the risk of aliasing and moiré issues that can be rendered when shooting very fine, uniformed fine detail.
To reduce this risk, Olympus has fitted the E-M1 with a new TruePic VII image processor that features Fine Detail Technology II that works to reduce aliasing an moiré patterning, as well as correcting for chromatic aberration and optimizing sharpness too.
The bigger change though and the exciting news for Four Thirds shooters is the addition on-sensor phase-detect AF system, allowing the E-M1 to boast a dual AF system, or as Olympus has coined it, DUAL FAST AF. While Four Thirds users have been able to mount their existing optics on a Micro Four Third camera via an adapter is nothing new, in the past it hasn’t been a totally satisfying experience. Continuous AF or tracking wasn’t possible, while AF performance was quite pedestrian due to the lenses being designed for phase-detection AF DSLRs and not contrast-detect AF system cameras.
Olympus has remedied this by placing offset strips of left and right-looking half-photosites (pixels) on the chip with no colour filter to provide a 37-point phase-detect AF system in a diamond formation. As an aside, it’s worth noting that while these half-photosites don’t contribute to the make-up of the final image, information is taken from surrounding pixels is then used to interpolate a value for the missing pixels.
The result is that when a Four Thirds lens is attached via the MMF-3 adapter, users should experience an AF performance to match that of the E-5, while the E-M1 will automatically detect what type of lens is attached and for a Micro Four Thirds lens will switch to contrast-detect AF with a larger 81-area contrast-detect AF coverage in Single AF. However, when shooting with Micro Four Thirds lenses in Continuous AF, the E-M1 will combine this with information garnered from the phase-detect pixels.
EVF and LCD
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 improves on the electronic viewfinder (EVF) found in the E-M5, with the resolution jumping from 1.44m-dots to a significantly higher 2.36m-dots that’s identical to that of the recently launched VF-4 EVF for Olympus’ PEN system cameras. Not only that, but it also carries over the impressive 1.48x (0.74x in 35mm-equivalent terms) magnifications that’s only a little behind some full frame DSLRs.
As you’d expect, coverage is 100% and there’s a diopter correction function that ranges from -4 to +2 diopters. There’s also a built-in eye sensor, allowing the feed to flip between the EVF and the 3in rear screen, which has also been up-rated, now with a 1.04m-dot resolution LCD display, while it’s also capacitive so it can be used as a touch-sensitive input device. The screen can also be tilted upwards by 80 degrees for waist-level shooting, and downwards by 50 degrees should you want to shoot with the camera raised aloft.
The E-M5 broke new ground with a built-in 5-axis sensor-shift anti-shake system that corrects for yaw, pitch, vertical motion, horizontal motion and roll, and the system has been carried over to the E-M1, though Olympus’ engineers have tinkered with it to improve its effectiveness at slower shutter speeds and overall offers a 4 stop level of correction.
As we saw with the E-P5 and E-PL5, you can select whether you want to use give priority to whether you use the lens or the camera’s IS system – a useful feature for those using Panasonic’s image stabilised lenses and may have a preference which system they prefer to use.
While AF and exposure must be locked from the first frame, the E-M1 is capable of shooting at 10fps, while a still strong 6.5fps is achievable with AF enabled. A monopod may be necessary in some instances as the camera’s IS is disengaged at these fast rates, with it dropping to a fairly moderate 3.5fps if you want to take advantage of the E-M1’s 5-axis IS.
As with the E-M5, the E-M1 doesn’t feature a built-in flash. Instead, a small detachable flash is bundled with the E-M1, slotting onto the hotshoe if required, while there’s now a dedicated flash-sync socket on the front of the camera.
Art Filters like Dramatic Tone have become synonymous with Olympus cameras, so its no surprise to see 12 filter effects available on the Olympus E-M1. While this may seem a little rudimentary on a camera aimed at high-end enthusiasts and pros, don’t disregard them as there are some really nice effects, while its possible to simultaneously shoot in Raw should you prefer a different effect or treatment post-capture.
The OM-D E-M1 incorporates wireless connectivity, just as we’ve seen on the E-P5, so images can be transmitted to your smartphone or tablet in the field to be instantly shared via a free Olympus app, as well as being able to transmit the feed from your E-M1 to your device to shoot remotely should you wish.
Based around the Micro Four Thirds standard, the E-M1 has access to an impressive range of optics from both Olympus and Panasonic, and easily has the largest lens range out of all system cameras on the market. That’s not forgetting that with the MMF-3 adapter, Four Thirds lenses are now a much more realistic reality, with some cracking lenses getting a new lease of life with the E-M1.
As well as that, the E-M1 will also be available with a new 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. Quite a different beast from the 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ that’s bundled with the E-M5, the 12-40mm is a high-quality fast aperture standard zoom that’s both dust and splashproof. Together with the new 40-150mm f/2.8 that’s scheduled for release in 2014, it will form a new Pro category of Olympus M.Zuiko lenses.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review – Design
While the Olympus OM-D E-M1 may look a little similar to the E-M5, the generous handgrip and abundance of exterior mounted controls produce a far more muscular appearance. Despite this larger grip, the form factor of the E-M1 is still substantially smaller than a typical DSLR, with the body itself significantly narrower thanks to the internal characteristics of a system camera.
Pick the E-M1 up and the deeply sculptured grip allows you to take hold of the body much more securely compared to the E-M5. We tested the E-M1 with a range of lenses, from the new 12-40mm f/2.8, a selection of fast primes, as well as a couple of Four Thirds lenses via the adapter, and the body balanced nicely with all of these optics.
Some may prefer to marry the E-M1 with the new HLD-7 grip that attaches to the base of the camera, offering a second set of controls for portrait-format shooting and a better balance with larger lenses, while the additional battery doubles the time you can shoot with camera.
As you’d expect for a camera that replaces the E-5 and is designed to appeal to pros as well as enthusiasts, the E-M1 features a tough but light magnesium chassis that’s not only fully weather-sealed, but is also freezeproof down to -10ºC too. Overall then, the E-M1 is one very nicely made camera with a high-quality finish.
Compared to the E-M5, the control layout has changed significantly. The mode dial has swapped to the other side of the viewfinder and features a locking mechanism to avoid it being inadvertently knocked out of position. Taking up the space left by the mode dial to the left of the viewfinder are two buttons, with one providing access to the E-M1’s drive and HDR settings, while the other allows adjustment of the AF and metering modes. Round the collar of these two buttons you’ll now find the on/off switch.
The twin control dials remain, but thanks to the addition of the well-proportioned grip, has allowed them to be more satisfyingly spaced out so they fall to the thumb and forefinger more easily. As we first saw on the E-P5, the E-M1 features what Olympus term a 2×2 dial control, allowing you to for instance, change the function of the twin control dials from aperture and exposure control to ISO and white balance adjustment with the flick of a switch.
These can be customized from a wider pool of settings, while the 2×2 dial can also be configured to alter what settings the two buttons to the left of the viewfinder adjust also, though this can be disabled if preferred.
With more real estate at the rear of the Ollympus E-M1, button placement is less cramped than the E-M5. There’s now a dedicated button flick between the viewfinder and screen, and the 4-way controller d-pad features a central OK button. One of the most-welcome changes is the disappearance of the rather awkward playback and function button on the E-M5, with it now positioned much more logically underneath the d-pad, while the function button (default setting is for AF point selection) has moved to the corner of the body.
Finally, at the front as well as the flash sync socket, there’s two programmable function buttons, with the top button indented to it’s easy to distinguish which button you’re pressing when the E-M1’s raised to your eye.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 review – Performance
To really get a feel for the E-M1’s AF performance, we shot with both Micro Four Thirds lenses as well as a couple of Four Thirds lenses with the MMF-3 adapter.
As we’ve experienced with other Olympus system cameras that employ a FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF system, the speed at which the E-M1 acquires focus in Single AF is incredibly snappy thanks to the 240fps refresh rate, locking on to subjects in a range of different lighting conditions. You can also choose between automatic point selection, a grouped 9-point arrangement or a single-point selection can be one of two sizes.
There’s also a sophisticated Face Detection mode and while it may seem a little dumbed-down to have something like this on a camera aimed at enthusiasts and professionals, it works very well.
Switching to continuous focusing has in the majority of instances with system cameras, and not just Olympus models, been their Achilles Heel. This has been because focusing tends to struggle to keep up with moving subjects, but the E-M1’s DUAL FAST AF seems to have addressed this, and while not perfect, is now a much more viable option for those looking to capture the action on a system camera.
This is in someway thanks to taking advantage of the E-M1’s on-sensor phase-detect pixels that works in combination with the contrast-detect AF system. We found that moving subjects were comfortably tracked as they moved across the frame or towards us, and while there was the odd instance of a missed-focus image, the hit rate was very good overall.
Hooking the MMF-3 up to the E-M1 with a 12-60mm f/2.8-4 lens and the E-M1’s phase-detect system works very well. While you couldn’t quite say it was a match for the best DSLRs, focusing with the E-M1’s 37-points is pretty brisk and a lot better than we’ve previously experienced, meaning E-series shooters shouldn’t feel short-changed at all should they upgrade to the E-M1.
If you’re an existing Four Thirds user and are still unsure about EVFs, we can safely say that your opinion will soon change once you’ve raised the E-M1 to you eye to shoot. Not only is the magnification excellent, but thanks to some clever optics within the EVF, the view is crystal-clear corner-to-corner. Combined with a refresh rate of 120fps that can be boosted if necessary and an adaptive brightness technology that adjusts the display to the conditions you’re shooting in, it results in a large, bright and responsive display that makes this EVF the best we’ve used to date.
Coupled with the EVF is the 3in tilt-angle, touch-sensitive display that delivers a crisp, pleasantly saturated display with a good level of contrast. The touchscreen itself is responsive, with light touches required to swipe through images when reviewing shots, while it can be set-up for touch focus and firing the shutter if desired.
With its plethora of body-mounted controls and customization, the E-M1 is quick to operate. We really like the 2×2 dial control that provides access to an additional two settings with the dual control dials, as well as the controls on the two buttons to the left of the viewfinder.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 review – Image Quality
Colour and White Balance
JPEG files from the E-M1 delivers pleasing, punchy colours straight out of the camera when shooting in the E-M1’s Natural picture mode, while there’s a host of other picture modes to choose from too.
The Auto White Balance in the main performs well and there’s a nice feature the sets the camera to ‘keep warm colours’, as to avoid neutralizing the often desirable warm light that some scenes render, while the custom white balance is easy to set-up.
As we’ve seen with other PEN cameras as well as the E-M5, the E-M1 uses Olympus’ tried and tested 324-zone multi-pattern metering system and on the whole, the E-M1’s ESP metering mode delivers pleasantly exposed shots under a range of conditions, while the combination of the excellent EVF and front control dial that’s assigned to exposure compensation mean any discrepancies can be resolved quickly.
As well as this, there are two easily accessed HDR modes, capturing a series of images in quick succession before merging them together to produce an image with broad dynamic range. HDR 1 delivers pleasing, relatively natural-looking results, while HDR 2 is the more dramatic, hyper-real result, which may not be to everyone’s taste.
The absence of an AA filter has allowed the E-M1 to deliver a slightly stronger performance in a lab testing compared to the E-M5. With Raw files processed in Lightroom 5.2, the E-M1 managed to resolve down to just over 25lpmm (lines per mm) at ISO 200 compared to 24lpmm for the E-M5. Even at ISO 25,600, results were still good, achieving 22lpmm, while real-world images displayed excellent sharpness and detail.
Looking at the JPEG files first and results from our diorama showed no apparent signs of image noise until ISO 1600, where detail in darker areas starts to break up slightly. At ISO 6400 and image noise is more pronounced with fine detail suffering as the E-M1’s in-camera noise reduction system attempts to suppress its effects. However, considering the sensitivity, its still more than acceptable. Above this though, and detail suffers significantly, while Chroma (colour) noise is much more obvious and should only be used as a last resort.
The Raw files our pretty much devoid of any image noise until ISO 800, where shadows display very fine levels of Luminance (grain-like) noise, though detail is still strong. At ISO 6400, and while luminance noise is more pronounced in the image, it still has a fine structure that doesn’t detract from the image too much, while chroma noise is almost non-existent and detail is still relatively good. Comparing samples side-by-side with those from the Panasonic GX7 – another 16MP Micro Four Thirds based camera, and results from the E-M1 are considerably better at this sensitivity, with a much more natural look to them.
Raw vs JPEG
Side-by-side and unprocessed Raw files display a little less contrast and saturated colours compared to JPEG files, while at higher sensitivities, Raw files retain more detail, though more noise is apparent in the shot.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 review – Verdict
The E-M1 does a lot of things very well, starting with the specification. It’s incredibly comprehensive and we’re sure that both enthusiast and professionals alike won’t be left wanting.
The build quality and finish is stunning, with the rugged magnesium alloy body and extensive weather-sealing that’s a match for a top-flight pro DSLR. Pair it with the new weather-sealed 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and you’ve got a set-up that will withstand even the harshest of conditions.
Thanks to the ergonomic design and compact form-factor, its a pleasure to pick-up and shoot with, with controls falling nicely to the hand, while the performance is a match for a quality DSLR. We love the large and bright viewfinder, and the speed and accuracy of the AF is probably the best we’ve seen from a system camera.
This is all combined with a new sensor that delivers the goods, with highly detailed images. The image noise performance also impressed us, providing results at high sensitivities that were a match for some high-resolution APS-C sensors.
The E-M1 will no doubt appeal to existing PEN and E-series shooters, but we can see the charms of it attracting attention from DSLR owners too, especially travel and reportage photographers looking for a high-quality, responsive and well-made camera to go anywhere with them. Put simply, the E-M1 is not just one of the best system cameras around at the moment, but one of the best cameras full stop.
Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of images captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1. For a full range of images, including a complete set of ISO comparison shots, visit the Olympus OM-D E-M1 review sample image gallery.
The newest camera in Olympus’s OM-D range of Micro Four Thirds cameras, the OM-D E-M1 promises superior image quality thanks to three key new features.
First, compatibility with the ZUIKO and M.ZUIKO lens system. Second, a 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor. Third, the TruePic VII image processor, which adjusts its processing in accordance with the lens attached to the camera, and the aperture setting in use. To find out all the key differences between the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 and exisiting OM-D E-M5, read our comparison article.
The camera is compatible with Four Thirds lenses as well as Micro Four Thirds, thanks to the MMF-3 adapter that will be bundled with the camera for E-system users.
A new lens has been developed specifically for the camera: the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-40mm, with a constant aperture of f/2.8.
Image: A diagram of the interior of the new M-ZUIKO DIGITAL lens developed for the OM-D E-M1
The firm claims the OM-D EM-1 delivers Olympus’s ‘fastest ever’ AF system, though we don’t yet have a number for precisely how fast we’re talking.
New Dual Fast AF, with Phase detection pixels on the sensor, allows the camera to deliver quick autofocus performance with both Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses.
The E-M1 detects which type of lens is being used and then adjusts AF accordingly: it will use Contrast AF with Micro Four Thirds, and switch to phase detection if it detects a Four Thirds lens being used.
Focus peaking is available for manual lenses, and high-speed subjects can be captured with 10fps sequential shooting.
Olympus has retained the Hybrid 5-axis Image Stabilisation, which was originally found on the E-M5. Hybrid IS compensates for movement around the axis of the lens, as well as horizontal and vertical shift and pitch and yaw.
Olympus claims that Hybrid IS is so effective that the user could potentially record a shake-free full HD movie while ‘literally on the run’.
At its rear, the OM-D EM-1 has a 3in tiltable touchscreen with
1.04million dots resolution – a jump from the 610-thousand dot
resolution of the E-P5.
Image: The rear of the OM-D E-M1, with 3in screen, EVF and customisable switches and dials
The EM-1 boasts Olympus’s most powerful electronic viewfinder yet. Similar to the VF-4, the E-M1’s EVF boasts 1.48x magnification and 2.36million-dot resolution.
A number of new features are unique to the E-M1’s EVF, including an HDR preview mode that allows the user to view HDR images before shooting them.
Also available is Live Bulb, which updates the live view images at regular intervals during bulb-mode exposures.
It also introduces a newly developed Colour Creator, which allows the user to alter the colours in an image using dials on the top of the camera, and display the results in the LVF in real time (Olympus promises an essentially undetectable time-lag of just 29 milliseconds).
The solid magnesium build of the OM-D E-M1 is dust and splash-proof, and Olympus says it will be able to operate in temperatures as low as -10ºC.
The same solid build has been applied to the HLD-7 – an additional vertical grip to allow the camera to better support heavier E-mount lenses.
Image: The OM-D EM-1 with an HLD-7 grip attached
The dials, switches and control rings on the camera are all reassignable, giving the user customisable control over how the camera handles.
Flicking a lever allows the user to change from one preset to another, allowing the user to easily use the same dials to control multiple functions.
The OM-D E-M1 is fully Wi-Fi supported, able to share and upload images quickly onto mobile devices. There is also an option to use a smartphone to control the camera remotely, and preview modes such as Live Bulb can be viewed on the phone’s screen.
We’ve already been able to have a quick look at the OM-D E-M1 for ourselves, and you can get a feel for how the camera handles by watching our video:
The Olympus OM-D EM-1 is available for pre-order and will be in shops from mid-October 2013.
E-System users who purchase the camera by November 2013 will receive a free E-System adapter worth £179, and any customers who register before sales start in October will receive a free HLD-7 vertical grip.
The OM-D EM-1 is priced at £1299 body-only, and £1949 for a kit that includes the new M.Zuiko Digital 12-40mm 1:2.8 lens.
Although the OM-D E-M1 might not look any different to the OM-D EM-5, a close examination clearly exposes its senior position in the new OM-D lineup. At the front of the body, a new PC socket will be gratefully received by experienced photographers wanting to trigger off-camera flash with a sync cable as opposed to using a wireless transmitter via the OM-D EM-1’s hotshoe. Of course this is a feature that’s to be expected on a premium model and is one already seen on the Panasonic Lumix GH3 – one of the Olympus OM-D EM-1’s rivals in the CSC sector.
Unlike the OM-D E-M5’s basic grip that has protruding thumb rest at the rear, the EM-1 handles differently to its OM-D cousin. It feels much more like the premium model it’s meant to be with a sculpted handgrip that allows you to take hold of the body more securely. Button placement has also been completely re-worked and rather than the mode dial being positioned to the left of the viewfinder, it’s now on the right where it can be controlled more conveniently by your thumb. It’s worth noting the new mode dial has a locking mechanism too, which caught us out on a few occasions when attempting to change the shooting mode.
OM-D EM-5 users who are likely to have been frustrated by the awkward positioning of the playback button will be glad to know its been relocated to a much more suitable location below the dpad. Buttons keep the spongy feel of the OM-D E-M5’s, but are slightly larger and easier to operate. The same can be said for the two scroll dials, which are now closer to the edge of the body and are in a more comfortable position for adjusting aperture and shutter speed at a moments notice.
The jump in screen resolution from 610k-dot to 1.04million dots is another major improvement that’s noticeable as soon as the camera is switched on. The resolution of the electronic viewfinder manages to go one better though, and with a 2.36 million-dot resolution it’s right up there as one of the best, if not the most impressive EVF we’ve ever used. Having a dedicated button to access continuous shooting, self-timer and HDR also speeds up the time it takes to access these commonly used functions, while autofocus and metering modes get their own dedicated button too.
The E-M1 that we took a hold of during a product briefing was coupled with the new 12-40mm f/2.8 lens – an optic that’s larger and feels more refined than the 12-50mm kit lens that was originally sold with the OM-D EM-5. Interestingly, Olympus has opted for the push pull type of AF/MF mechanism and first impressions of its responsiveness in combination with the EM-1’s improved AF system were very good indeed, with no issues acquiring focus in a relatively dark function room.
The two things that really stood out during the first few minutes of using the product were its handling and electronic viewfinder. It’s in a different league when it comes to the way it feels in the hand compared to the OM-D E-M5 and there are very few electronic viewfinders that come close to how sharp the EM-1’s is. It’s hard to put into words, but we’re certain it’s going to set the standard we judge EVF’s from in the future.
With the expected arrival of our review sample in the next few weeks, we’re counting down the days before we lay hands on the OM-D E-M1 again to give it a full test to find out how it performs in a full review.