Last year's original OM-D certainly set a fire underneath the bushels of the interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market. Its compact size, teamed with a fast autofocus system, proved that Micro Four Thirds could be a very viable contender against the likes of APS-C models.
Design and features
This newer model, the E-M1, complements the original OM-D by boasting a chunkier body design. There is a large, more substantial side grip that does away with the need for a battery grip to add extra bulk, an optional extra for the original OM-D. There is still a battery grip for the E-M1, but it only covers the base of the camera.
Coupled with the substantial 12-40mm lens, the E-M1 makes for a hefty package that edges into SLR territory. This particular combination weighs 879 grams in total (with batteries), which is up there with the weight of a full-frame SLR with a smaller, 50mm f/1.8lens attached.
The E-M1 is still as resilient as its predecessor, with a splash-, dust- and freeze-proof chassis that can withstand temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius.
Delving into the internal components, the E-M1 does away with the antialiasing filter on its 16.3-megapixel sensor. Usually, removing the filter means sharper images, but the possibility of moire on videos in particular. The E-M1 will, however, correct moire in-camera as well as chromatic aberrations automatically, thanks to the TruePic VII sensor — find out how it performs in the image quality analysis below.
Buttons and dials on this camera will not disappoint the photographer who likes to customise every component of the shooting interface. There are dual control dials, one around the shutter button and one further back on the top panel to help you adjust exposure parameters quickly. Around the AEL/AFL button is another switch that can be customised to perform a number of different functions depending on its configuration, similar to what we saw on the Pen E-P5.
The mode dial operates in a slightly different way to other mode dials that come with a centre locking button. It works a bit like a ballpoint pen: depress the button fully to stop the dial from moving, or press it again to raise it and rotate the dial freely. The dial comes with full PASM control, iAuto, art filters, scene modes, creative frame and movie modes.
The E-M1 also boasts a maximum mechanical shutter speed of 1/8000 second and focus peaking, which can be selected to appear as a black or white outline. Photographers who are into high dynamic range (HDR) will also be pleased with the plentiful built-in modes. From the dedicated button on the top left panel, HDR mode 1 and 2 take four exposures each, with mode 1 delivering a normal effect and mode 2 offering a super-high contrast version. You can also get the camera to shoot off three, five or seven frames with 2EV or 3EV difference to make HDR yourself.
An example of HDR off (left) and on (right).
The electronic viewfinder — built in, not an optional extra like on the E-P5 — now has 2.36 million dots and an 0.74x magnification with 100 per cent field of view. It also adjusts dynamically to ambient conditions, either boosting the brightness or reducing it, depending on the light outside. In use, the viewfinder has a rapid refresh rate so there's no real noticeable delay.
There is a slight discrepancy in colour accuracy between the viewfinder and the screen. Flicking between them shows the viewfinder is slightly more warm with a slight over-emphasis on the red channel. Fortunately the 3-inch tilting LCD screen at the back is just as effective for composing images, and offers pitch and roll or histogram information by pressing the Info button.
Built-in Wi-Fi means the E-M1 can sync with an Android or iOS device using the Olympus Image Share app to transfer photos and videos. But that's not all it can do:
Use a smartphone or tablet as a remote viewfinder to takes images with full control over exposure (from iAuto to PASM)
Edit photos using the Olympus art filters or a number of other effects
Add geotags to photos when GPS is active
Power off the Wi-Fi connection from the device.
When using an Android or iOS device as the remote viewfinder, there is negligible lag in the Live View image. The touch shutter is sensitive and accurate, and the resulting image is stored on the camera itself in full resolution. Then, images can be sent across either at full resolution or any number of lower resolutions for easy sharing.
One of the buttons at the front of the camera just next to the lens acts as a one-touch white-balance adjustment. Simply point the camera at a white object, press the shutter button and select which preset white-balance slot to assign that reading to.
The shadow and highlight button can be used to adjust a curve on the fly, or to bring up Colour Creator. This is a fun way to adjust white balance and saturation without needing to know what these terms actually mean.
The colour creator mode brings up a visual dial so you can adjust settings on the fly.
Access the Colour Creator mode by pressing and holding the Fn2 (shadow and highlight button by default) and rotating the rear dial. Once it has been set, you can press the shadow and highlight button again to make adjustments, using the front and rear dials to change hue and saturation. These colour options can also be applied to black-and-white images to create a similar effect to putting a coloured filter in front of the lens when using monochrome film. Want to darken skies and create an image with more contrast? Set your colour creator to a deep red for added oomph. It's also worth noting here that colour creator only affects the JPEG files, not RAW images.
These colour effects can also be applied in video mode, but by default, it is not turned on. You can activate it by accessing the movie option from the menu system and turning off movie effects.
Connectivity is provided by a 3.5mm microphone jack, micro HDMI and proprietary USB out. The flaps covering these ports can only be opened and closed by pulling the screen out, which is a bit annoying.
General shooting metrics (in seconds)
- Start-up to first shot
- JPEG shot-to-shot time
- RAW shot-to-shot time
- Shutter lag
Olympus OM-D E-M1
Olympus OM-D E-M5
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Continuous shooting speed (in FPS)
Olympus OM-D E-M1
Olympus OM-D E-M5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Focusing speed gets a significant boost with a system called Dual Fast AF, which chooses the best AF mode depending on the lens that is attached. Olympus has a strong system of older Four Thirds lenses, so users looking to upgrade to the E-M1 will be pleased that the camera's AF system will switch to the 37-point phase detection method when it senses a Four Thirds lens on the camera. The company claims that the system offers greater precision than the E-5 SLR. For users with Micro Four Thirds lenses, the camera changes to the 81-point contrast detection system. Finally, when continuous AF is chosen with a Micro Four Thirds lens attached, both phase and contrast systems are used together.
This is all well and good on paper, but it is real-world performance that counts. We were only supplied with the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, so we cannot comment on functionality when using older Four Thirds lenses. However, the AF system is incredibly fast when there is ample lighting, and picks the focus point with great accuracy.
The OM-D range is closing in on SLR speeds, but isn't quite there yet when it comes to low-light performance. The E-M1 really struggled in dim situations, resulting in a number of times when we missed shots completely because the AF system couldn't find anything to focus on at all.
It's a pretty look, but not exactly the outcome we were expecting when the E-M1 couldn't find a focus point on the subject.
In terms of burst speeds, the E-M1 can take an almost unlimited burst of JPEG images in continuous high mode, while RAW will only produce three frames before the camera stops to process them. In continuous low mode, again, the E-M1 can take an almost unlimited burst of JPEG photos, but stops to process RAW files after 12 frames. Continuous high produces speeds of up to 10 frames per second, while continuous low is about half the speed, at 5.2 frames per second.
Olympus has been fine tuning and pushing the capabilities of the Four Thirds sensor size since its first Pen cameras. The E-M1 represents the pinnacle of image quality thus far. We give a big nod to the removal of the anti-aliasing filter.
On default settings, the E-M1 delivers true and accurate colours, while JPEG images straight out of the camera are as sharp as a tack.
Auto white balance is right on the money, even when there are mixed light sources in the frame. Exposures are accurate, perhaps with a slight overemphasis on highlights, though this can easily be toned down by underexposing ever so slightly. Fortunately, the camera also controls chromatic aberrations particularly well. During our testing period, we couldn't find any evidence of fringing or coloured halos on photos, even in highly contrasty situations.
While the JPEG images straight out of camera look great, the RAW files provide more latitude for detail recovery, particularly as the ISO level starts to climb or if you have clipped highlights.
The E-M1 has no difficulty reaching the upper echelons of ISO sensitivities. It has a particularly flattering noise profile: that is, noise looks more like grain unless you are hitting ISO 3200 or above.
Video quality keeps improving with every generation of Olympus camera. There's little evidence of moire on the video image, while rolling shutter is not an issue either. Though the E-M1 outputs 1080p files, there is only one framerate available, 30fps. This does reduce the camera's flexibility when it comes to video use. On a brighter note, though, the E-M1 now has a data rate of 24Mbps rather than 18Mbps.
Exposure: 1/3200, f/4, ISO 200
Exposure: 1/800, f/8, ISO 640
Exposure: 1/800, f/8, ISO 500
Exposure: 1/1000, f/4, ISO 200
Even though it is a serious camera for enthusiast photographers, the OM-D E-M1 nevertheless brings a lot of fun to the imaging experience. Whether you enjoy using art filters or crave the fast burst speeds, the E-M1 is up to the challenge. The icing on the cake is that it produces great-looking photos.
However, the size and weight advantages of an interchangeable lens camera compared to an SLR are not really the case with the OM-D E-M1, especially when combined with the 12-40mm lens. But if you can handle the bulk and need an ILC that can withstand almost anything you can throw at it, the E-M1 wins hands down.