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

A truly pocketable system

As we draw closer to the start line, I’m passed a jacket. I’m grateful for its deep pockets, which are large enough to accommodate all the micro four thirds lenses I’m planning to use. Then, right on time, the countdown begins and we’re off – the race is officially underway. As the crew set about their arduous tasks, I swap the 45mm prime for the wider Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 Lumix G Vario lens to squeeze as much of the yacht as possible into the frame. I notice the focal length of the lens is displayed as it’s adjusted in the top-right corner of the viewfinder, to save glancing at the barrel of the lens – just one of the advantages of an EVF as opposed to the optical type.

A quick glance around the viewfinder display brings my attention to the natural picture mode icon, which reminds me I’m yet to experiment with the E-M1’s art filters. Hitting the large OK button at the rear reveals the E-M1 has similar spongy buttons to its predecessor – the Olympus OM-D E-M5. That said, they’re better placed and are larger too, making them much easier to find from behind the camera. The uncomfortable positioning of the playback button on the E-M5 grated on many photographers, but its placement on the E-M1, beside the main menu, is much better. As the quick menu loads on the 3in, 1.04-million-dot screen, I use the touchscreen to select picture mode.

Olympus-OM-D-E-M1-Artemis-Challenge-RaceImage: The outlook on the approach to the start line for the 2014 Artemis Challenge Race

Wi-Fi transfer for sharing

It’s at this point I expected the camera to list the 12 filter effects to choose from, but no. Regrettably, the touchscreen isn’t as advanced as those of other CSCs, and instead of being fully integrated with the menu and its options, its uses are far more restrictive. Forced to use the front scroll dial to select the dramatic tone black & white filter, and after rattling off a continuous burst of the crew as they prepare for another attack of the sail to keep us in contention with the leaders, I refer to the screen to double-check I’m shooting in raw and JPEG.

By recording raw and JPEG files simultaneously, it guarantees unprocessed colour images are being recorded, as well as the processed black & white JPEGs. The high-contrast mono shots with deep blacks and bright highlights look superb on the rear LCD, and I can’t resist using the camera’s Wi-Fi functionality to immediately share some of my images with the world. In hindsight, it might have been an idea to download the Olympus Image Share app before we set sail, but thankfully I’m able to pick up a 3G signal on my iPhone.

App downloaded, camera and phone paired, I select multiple images I want to share and these transfer rapidly across to my camera roll in seconds. An image status update on Facebook and a couple of tweets later, and I’m back shooting again, albeit a little concerned that in the relatively short time of using Wi-Fi, it has drained the battery power from three bars down to two. Switching off Wi-Fi to help preserve battery life, I ask Charles (the team’s skipper) how many hours of sailing remain before we get anywhere close to the finish line. ‘About four,’ he replies.

Glancing at the screen reveals I’ve taken 89 shots so far. Safe in the knowledge that the BLN-1 battery has a life of 350 shots, I’ve got some way to go before I deplete the battery altogether.

Two hours into the race, and just as we start to navigate the famous Needles rocks at the western tip of the island, the crew scramble the mast to make adjustments to the sails. Flipping the screen out by 90°, I point the camera vertically and compose the image via live view, which allows me to capture the split-second shot I’m after.

Olympus-OM-D-E-M1-screenImage: A screen that swivels as well as tilts would have made composition of this, and other awkward shots, much easier

It’s also at this moment I appreciate the speed of the E-M1’s contrast-detection AF system. Though the bright conditions aren’t exactly a demanding test of its low-light capabilities, it locks on and confirms focus with a beep in a fraction of a second. It feels equally as fast as any enthusiast or semi-professional DSLR I’ve used.

Tapping the screen to take full advantage of the touch AF functionality, I also vary the size of the AF point using the scale at the side of the touchscreen before opting to fire the shutter with touch-shutter enabled. These settings, combined with the pop art filter, create a vibrant image and reiterates how sensitive and responsive the screen is to being fired by touch – ideal for fleeting moments that might require an instantaneous shutter release.

As we race side-by-side with the Artemis racing team, another photo opportunity presents itself as a crew member leans out across a boom to tweak the ropes. Arm at full stretch and with the camera strap wrapped around my wrist to prevent it falling into the turquoise waters below, I point and fire in the hope I get the composition about right.

A quick review on-screen reveals my images are on a skew, but I’ve bagged the shot I’m after – something I’m happy to admit was more luck than judgement.

This gets me thinking about how the E-M1’s screen could be improved. A vari-angle screen that has the ability to be angled in on itself, just like the type fitted to the Canon EOS 70D, would have certainly helped in this awkward shooting situation, also allowing me to view the electronic level and check the focus point was covering the subject, rather than guessing.

A few hours later and I’m still finding out pros and cons as we draw closer to the finish line. The battery level has gone down by another bar, but the body remains just as comfortable to hold in the hand as it did for the first shot, which is testament to its large and fairly deep, curvaceous handgrip. The body isn’t without battle scars, though, and on closer inspection a little paint has chipped off the scroll dials and beneath the corner function button. Added to this, the small rubber cover to protect the electronic contacts for the attachment of the battery grip has fallen off and been lost.

As our voyage around the island is completed and the team picks up a respectable second place in the monohull class, I review my images using the slideshow feature. Barely halfway through, the battery indicator flashes and moments later it runs out completely. A single battery got me through the five-hour sail, but only just!

Olympus-OM-D-E-M1-black-&-whiteImage: Taken using the E-M1’s dramatic tone black & white filter

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