Michael Topham puts the Olympus OM-D E-M1 through one of its toughest tests

Olympus OM-D E-M1 at a glance:

  • 16.3-million-pixel, micro four thirds Live MOS sensor
  • Micro four thirds mount
  • ISO 200-25,600
  • 10fps continuous shooting
  • 2.36-million-dot EVF (0.74x magnification)
  • 3in, 1.04-million-dot tiltable LCD (3:2 aspect ratio)
  • 130.4 x 93.5 x 63.1mm
  • 497g (with battery and card)

OM-D-E-M1-Vario-lensImage: Attaching Panasonic’s 7-14mm f/4 Lumix G Vario lens was ideal for squeezing more into the frame

As I reach for my iPhone to silence my 5.30am alarm and stumble over my bag to take my camera battery off-charge, it dawns on me that today’s In the field is going to be a special experience. Pulling back the curtains in my hotel room, I breathe a sigh of relief for a clear start to the day that’s blessed with a rich blue sky. With such a long and demanding day ahead, it’s not long before I’m tucking into a bowl of porridge and knocking back a coffee to give my energy levels the boost they’ll need, and then making my way to join the queue for the ferry bound for the Isle of Wight.

What’s the reason behind this extremely early start? It just so happens to be Cowes Week – one of the world’s longest-running regattas, which attracts the finest sailors from around the globe to race on the tricky waters of the Solent. Today I’m privileged to be joining eight yachtsmen that constitute the Dongfeng Race Team as they take on the Artemis Challenge – a 50-nautical-mile race around the island.

Before setting off for the south coast, I had to think long and hard about the best camera to take and what conditions it might come up against. Most importantly, it had to be weather-sealed to survive a soaking from crashing waves or spray out at sea. Not that I can see that this would be an issue today, with the relatively calm sea conditions my catamaran ferry is thundering across. Secondly, and just as importantly, the camera has to be a fast and reliable performer to capture any spur-of-the-moment opportunities, while it must also feature a viewfinder and preferably have a tilting screen to assist in the taking of low and high-angle shots.

While there are many enthusiast and professional DSLRs that tick these boxes, the thought of carting around heavy lenses and constantly climbing up and down into the yachts’ living quarters to swap them over swayed my decision towards a smaller system camera, and I settled for the Olympus OM-D E-M1 – a camera well geared for shooting action with its 10fps continuous shooting speed and 1/8000sec maximum shutter speed.

Olympus-OM-D-E-M1-electronic-levelImage: The electronic level function was invaluable for capturing perfectly level horizons at sea

Thrown in at the deep end

As I climb aboard the Volvo Ocean 65 racing yacht, I’m introduced to Yann Riou – the team’s official reporter. As I explain my reasoning for bringing the E-M1 and the fact it has a strong magnesium body and as many as 60 gasket rings to make it as water-resistant as any DSLR, he grabs his camera – a Canon EOS 70D – to capture a shot of the crew assembling the mainsail ready for our imminent departure.

‘Things happen quickly here,’ he says, at which point I pull the E-M1 from my bag and opt to attach the 45mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko – a lens I’m a huge fan of for its compact size, pin-sharp results and the beautiful shallow depth of field it creates when used wide open. There’s barely any time for me to get fully accustomed to the E-M1 again. It feels like I’ve been thrown in at the deep end.

As I lift the camera to my eye and begin taking my first portraits of the crew operating the winches, I’m given a gentle reminder of why I opted to bring the E-M1. The large electronic viewfinder (0.74x magnification in 35mm-equivalent terms) displays a crystal-clear image from corner to corner and refreshes at a blazing 120fps, helping to ensure there’s barely any lag of fast-moving subjects through the frame. The built-in eye sensor is sensitive too, though as I discovered by the end of the day, it’s a fraction faster at switching the feed between the screen and the EVF than vice versa.

Although I’m shooting in raw and have the option to tweak the exposure later in post-production, some of my early backlit shots and their histograms reveal the electro selective pattern (ESP) metering mode is overexposing in the bright, high-contrast conditions I’m faced with. Just as you’d expect from a pro-level DSLR, the E-M1 has an exposure compensation range of ±5EV, but to resolve the issue I hold the metering button on the top-plate while using the front scroll dial to switch to centreweighted average metering mode. This instantly fixes my early exposure concerns, and with the five-dimensional image stabiliser deployed, I continue to rattle out a burst at 6.5fps, albeit 3.5fps slower than if the stabiliser is switched off.

Olympus-OM-D-E-M1-Zuiko-lensImage: The shallow depth of field created by the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko lens is simply exquisite

  1. 1. Olympus OM-D E-M1 at a glance:
  2. 2. A truly pocketable system
  3. 3. Final thoughts
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