Olympus MFT Earns Flagship Status: OM-D E-M1 Review

By Theano Nikitas

Olympus has a new flagship camera, and it’s not a DSLR. In fact, the introduction of the 16-megapixel, Micro Four Thirds (MFT) OM-D E-M1 effectively signals the end of the company’s DSLR line. But even photographers with a stash of Olympus standard Four Thirds lenses will be able to take advantage of the E-M1’s feature set and new on-chip Dual Fast AF autofocus system.

The E-M1 joins the E-M5 as the second model in Olympus’ OM-D line, although it stands a notch above its sibling. Improvements include faster performance (including more responsive focusing with Four Thirds lenses), more sophisticated handling, integrated Wi-Fi, focus peaking, and a larger hand grip.

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Although the appeal of mirrorless cameras and their lenses often revolves around smaller-than-DSLR size and weight, the E-M1 is a little hefty for its class. Its 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.5-inch measurements and body weight of 17.5 ounces is due, in part, to its larger handgrip; but overall, it’s one of the more substantial mirrorless bodies on the market. Add the first model in Olympus’ new PRO line of MFT lenses, the constant aperture, weatherproof M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm, f/2.8 (a second, 40-150mm, f/2.8 PRO lens is in development) and you’ve got some weight in your hands. While the lens is larger and heavier than Olympus’ other MFT lenses, it’s solidly built and delivers excellent results, especially in combination with the E-M1’s five-axis image stabilization. (A quick note to anyone who plans to use the E-M1 with non-MFT lenses: the MMF-1 and MMF-2 lens adapters will work with the new camera but only the MMF-3 is weatherproofed.)

The E-M1’s 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, and so the E-M1 can handle outdoor and adventure photography in all kinds of conditions.

Like many mirrorless cameras, the E-M1 doesn’t have a built-in flash. However, it comes with Olympus’ tiny shoe-mount flash, which works fine for fill flash in smaller areas; just be on the lookout for redeye. The hotshoe/accessory shoe accepts larger flashguns as well.

A beautiful, 3-inch, high-resolution, tilt and touch-control LCD monitor occupies much of the camera’s rear real estate. The 2.36 million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) has an automatic eye sensor as well as manual switching between the tilting 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.

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 and hold 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, function (Fn) 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 assign—and then remember—the function of each custom setup. Once you do, operating the camera is fluid and a real pleasure. 

In addition to an another 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 is quick and easy with a quick QR code scan. 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 Wi-Fi connection.

Live Time is an interesting and useful feature for long exposures. It’s essentially a bulb mode that allows you to see the progress of the exposure in real time on the LCD. I find it especially useful for light painting since you can watch the exposure increase in real time during the process and then close the shutter when you achieve the look you want.

Naturally, the E-M1 offers HD video capture. And while the camera offers manual exposure controls for video and AF (only with MFT lenses during shooting), the move mode is limited to 30p for all resolutions (1,920 x 1,080, 1,280 x 720 and 640 x 480). That’s too bad since it would be nice to have 60p and 24p options as well.

Olympus has also made some under-the-hood improvements boosting the maximum mechanical shutter speed to 1/8,000 second (the E-M5 maxes out at 1/4,000 second) and a sync speed of up to 1/320 second. Thanks to the E-M1’s TruePic VII engine, continuous shooting can be clocked as fast as 10.5 frames per second (fps) with a maximum of up to 41 raw files (in single AF) at 6.5fps. The camera can capture up to 50 raw files in continuous autofocus. I 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 was fast enough to keep up with some rodeo-style action with a 40-150mm MFT lens. When it comes to telephoto work, Olympus’ 2X crop factor really comes in handy.

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Exposed for 1/400 second at f/7.1,
ISO 200, at 40mm with the Olympus
M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO
lens, which provides a 35mm-equivalent
field of view of 24-80mm.

Olympus has improved the performance of their legacy standard Four Thirds lenses on the E-M1 with its Dual Fast AF system, which uses On-Chip Phase Detection AF and Contrast Detection AF. While other Olympus MFT cameras can accommodate Four Thirds lenses via an adapter, achieving speedy autofocus has been an issue 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 when standard Four Thirds lenses are attached and AF tracking is engaged. MFT lenses still use contrast detection AF, and the camera automatically switches the type of AF used depending on the lens. Though my selection of Four Thirds lenses was limited, from what I can tell there is some improvement in AF; the speed increase isn’t astonishing but it’s detectable. It’s certainly not as fast as, say, my 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.

Just as on-chip, hybrid autofocus is working its way into more cameras, so is the elimination of the optical low pass filter. The latter is designed to deliver better resolution but with the increased risk of moiré. However, there was very little evidence of moiré with the E-M1, and I presume that the TruPic VII processor was largely responsible.

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This exposure for 1/60 second at f/5.8,
ISO 800, picked up all the fine detail
of the lace in the hat with no moiré
evident. ©Theano Nikitas

I was pleased with most of my test images. They were sharply focused, adn exhibited good detail and accurate colors. Image noise was kept well under control up to about ISO 3200, but even past that, the E-M1 maintained better detail than I expected, though image noise was visible. When necessary, I might push the ISO, but I 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.

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At PhotoPlus Expo, Sigma set up a test booth with models, so I checked out the Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN Art lens, which delivered excellent results. ©Theano Nikitas

Under bright and/or 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. If the colors aren’t to your liking, the Color Creator provides a useful tool for adjusting hue and saturation.

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But even with the funky lights on the deck of the USS Intrepid during a press event, the E-M1—and its auto white balance—did a great job of reproducing the neon-like colors.

Despite its somewhat larger-than-average size and increased competition (especially from Sony’s full-frame a7/a7R), the Olympus OM-D EM-1 is one of my favorite mirrorless cameras on the market today. It’s an excellent addition to Olympus’ camera line and delivers superlative image quality and above-average performance.

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Price: E-M1 (body only)  $1,400
Kit with Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens: $2,200

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 21, 2014 11:20 AM.

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