Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review

Earlier than expected, I received my new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Friday afternoon. Since then, I’ve shot hundreds of frames with it. On Friday night, I attended a group shoot with three models. On Sunday, I strolled through Chinatown in New York City with camera in hand. In between, I bugged my family and chased our new puppy. A thousand shots later, I can share my first impressions.

Since this is my first review, I should point out where I’m coming from. I’m not a pixel peeper and I have no desire to shoot brick walls or some setup with colorful dolls on a table. Ain’t gonna happen. I shoot with a new camera like I shoot with an old one: in real life, with real people and real obstacles encountered in the real world. Afterward, on my computer or after I make prints I judge if the images satisfy my standards. If I have fun using the camera, encounter no frustrations using it and love the end result, the camera passes go.

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I don’t shoot video at the moment, so I am not going to comment on that. I tried the HDR function, but I generally never use HDR, so I’m not the right person to judge the HDR output of the E-M1 compared with other cameras.

I leave it to the dedicated test sites to take the camera through all its paces. I also assume that the basic info is already known from either the announcement or the early reviews, especially since Olympus went all out and made sure the prominent bloggers got their hands on the E-M1 early on.

Still, judging from the forums I’m one of the first persons to have received a production camera directly from Olympus’s first batch. So, consider this the experience of a humble blogger with his new toy.

The Package

I didn’t do an unboxing video – thank God – but can report that the E-M1 comes nicely packed in a stylish black box and wrapped in its own black bag, instead of the plastic bubble wrap that most cameras come in. The camera is small, solid and a joy to hold and behold the moment you pick it up. That impression is partly personal, as I actually like the grip and never liked the E-M5 without the grip.

The camera comes with all the usual goodies. To my horror, Olympus went the way of Canon and Nikon by adding a strap that loudly yells ‘Olympus OM-D E-M1,’ just like the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5d Mark III straps let the world know its owner spent a small fortune on his gear. Time to buy another more modest strap.

The included manual also disappoints. The camera comes with a basic manual, but the index in that manual refers to pages in the extended manual that’s available on the included CD and online. If you go to the referred page in the basic manual, you find yourself reading French or Spanish. Sloppy. For $10, you can buy a copy of the extended manual online. Really Olympus? After people spent $1,400 on a camera, you charge them $10 for the manual? You really need the extended manual, by the way, because this camera can do so many tricks you cannot easily figure it out on your own or with just the basic instructions.

Rant over. The rest is much more positive. Don’t worry.

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The Camera

If a camera doesn’t feel right in my hands, I’m probably not going to use it let alone enjoy it. So, how a camera feels and how I can use it is enormously important to me and I love cameras that just fall naturally in my hand, as the E-M1 does. That’s half the pleasure of using nice gear. It feels right. I loved the E-M5, but only with the top part of its accessory grip attached. This new camera feels right from the get-go.

The button placement is also much improved. Olympus added some smart tricks that make it possible to adjust almost anything that matters on the fly, without even lifting your eye from the viewfinder.

A quick aside: I dislike cameras without a viewfinder. One reason for that is that I’m so old that a contraption without a viewfinder or ground glass isn’t a camera in my opinion. Another is that I can see fine through a viewfinder without using glasses but I need reading glasses to see the rear LCD in focus. So, a camera that lets me see everything, including playback, through the viewfinder gets my kudos.

Back to the main story: gone are the ill-placed tiny buttons of the E-M5. Instead the buttons, dials and levers are in the right place and easily reachable. Some reviewers have complained about the placement of the on/off switch on the left side. I don’t agree. I think it’s fine there, much better than on the E-M5 and similarly placed as on the Canon 5D Mark III. I must add that I generally don’t turn a camera off between shots, so all I need to do is to touch the shutter button to wake the camera from sleep.

I especially like the fact that the combo of the left-side buttons with the front and rear dial let’s you quickly set drive speed, HDR, AF and metering mode. A new, small toggle switch on the back allows you to set exposure compensation and exposure values in setting 1 and in setting 2 gives the ability to quickly adjust ISO and White Balance. Nifty.

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The new EVF is also great. The image is bright. It doesn’t lag, like those in the cameras I complained about in my Paris article. It’s the best EVF I’ve looked through, but cannot compete yet with the optical viewfinder of my Canon 5D Mark III.

Couple of things bugged me a bit when I was out shooting. The E-M1 has a touch screen which can be used to activate the shutter. By default, it was apparently set to on, so I found myself taking a bunch of shots by mistake as I pressed my hand against the LCD. Once I figured out why my camera was blasting away, I turned off the touch screen function.

One time, I shot a short video by mistake because I pressed the video recording button without meaning to do so.

Focusing

The E-M1 improves on the focusing of the E-M5. I never had the camera hunt for focus, even with the focus assist light off. It snaps right into focus. At the model shoot, there were other photographers with DSLRs whose kit lenses were racking backward and forward to achieve focus, but the little Olympus had no problems.

Continuous focus is also much improved over the E-M5. While it was barely usable on the early OM-D, on this edition it’s highly practical. I tested it with runners, bikers, basketball players and cars and while not 100% perfect, it’s an enormous improvement over the E-M5 and I feel comfortable using it.

It’s not up to par with a top DSLR though, as it doesn’t track as well. When trying to track a pedestrian crossing the street, the camera sometimes lost track and instead jumped its focus point over to another pedestrian going in the opposite direction.

The focus points are smaller than on the E-M5, a welcome change since I always thought the ones on the E-M5 were too large to be able to narrowly focus on a subject.

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I only tried manual focus with a few images. Personally, I still struggle to manually focus with any camera that doesn’t have a prism screen or any of the focus aids found in manual cameras of the olden days, unless the camera offers focus confirmation. My pictures using focus peaking on the E-M1 were not totally sharp, but I have the same problem with focus peaking on the Fuji X100S and with focusing the Rokinon 14mm manual lens on my Canon 5D Mark III. So, it’s probably user error. I will work on improving the user this week and report back later.

Metering

Not much to report here. It’s flawless. Fast, without a hiccup and right on under all circumstances I encountered.

Image quality

As others have reported, the E-M1 delivers high quality images. I can only agree. Especially with good lenses, the images are top-notch and a pleasure to open up on your screen. They’re sharp and render the subjects in and out of focus beautifully. They pop.

But I also found that when opened up on my calibrated monitor, the reds are too saturated for my taste. I’m not sure why this is. In Lightroom, the image looks fine to my eye when first opened, but as the software makes its adjustments, it pops to a deeply saturated red. I shot RAW plus JPEG, but the images turn out the same in the Olympus software and in Photo Mechanic, which at this point can only read the JPEGs and not the RAW files. I look forward to hearing from others whether they have the same impression.

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The picture mode in the camera is set at Natural. It’s also set at Natural on my E-M5. Two images with the same lens of the same red object under the same light, show that the red out of the E-M1 is more saturated than out of the E-M5, too saturated in my opinion but that might be personal taste.

Of course, it takes just a little tweak to correct this, but it runs counter to the experiences of the early testers who reported that the JPEGs are usable without much tweaking.

Pictures of benches with a fine metal mesh showed some chromatic aberration, which was easy to remove in Lightroom.

Battery Life

The E-M1 uses the same battery as the E-M5. It’s a bit small for a camera of this caliber, but in my short experience it held up well. I took about 750 pictures Sunday, including many high-speed bursts and a good amount of chimping. At the end of the day, the camera still had a charge left after that. Note, though, that I don’t use the LCD often.

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This and That

  • I haven’t tried the WIFI setup yet, but I will once I figure out how to do it and what it can do. That will be in a follow-up post;
  • For some bizarre reason, the included software Olympus Viewer 3, does not ingest the HDR images from the camera; they don’t show up in the index of the software itself and they don’t appear in the Finder index on my Mac; Lightroom 5 ingests them without a problem;
  • The body is solid and apparently waterproof, dustproof and freezeproof. I didn’t take it in the shower and the weather was gorgeous, so I haven’t tested those claims yet;
  • This camera can be customized to your heart’s delight; I haven’t done so yet, so I could write about the default status of the camera in day-to-day use but I will probably reassign some switches and dials to my own preferences. You need the extended manual in order to do this;
  • I will compare the E-M1 with the Canon 5D Mark III to follow-up on my post from last week, where I wondered if I still need the Canon.

My Early Conclusion

I’m a bit biased, because the moment I read the announcement for this camera, I knew this was the one I was waiting for. I liked the E-M5 but had a few problems with it, which this camera on paper seemed to address. I found it also addresses them in practice.

I still haven’t made large prints from my files and there are still some things I have to try out, but overall this camera fits my bill. As a matter of fact, I will probably sell my E-M5 and buy a second E-M1 and make that combo my main shooting rig.

Unlike some others, I think the price is right for the kind of camera you’re getting, especially since Olympus currently offers either a free Four-Thirds to MFT adapter or a FL-300R flash with the camera.

 

Equipment discussed in this article:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Compact System Camera with 16MP and 3-Inch LCD – Body Only
(affiliate link to Amazon)

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Someone asked about the purple fringing of the basketball net in the earlier version of the shot I posted. Yes, it was a problem with the camera. I reposted the image after I corrected it in LightRoom – as I had removed a bit of chromatic aberration in the shot along the water line. For comparison, here is the shot as I had originally posted it:

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Comments

  1. Nice review, thanks for your clear opinions.

  2. Thanks for the review – cant wait for mine to ship in the UK going to be my main cameras for 2014

  3. Nice review. What lenses did you use?

  4. What lens are you using micro 4/3 or 4/3?

  5. Excellent usable comments. I ordered mine a couple of weeks ago and am now hopeful it might come earlier than projected (10-14-13). Really appreciate your non technical approach to assessing the camera. Thanks

  6. Thanks. Look forward to your future input based on your further experience with the camera.

  7. Thanks for the review. But sorry the photos does not look good at all, it’s just like a very cheap compact camera.

    • On what browser are you looking at the pictures? You’re the first one who says that, but one person said they all look square on his machine. I can assure you that in real life, the image quality is excellent.

  8. I think your red saturation may come from the default ” warm colour ” setting which is set to on – if you turn it off in the menu you might find it more natural….

Trackbacks

  1. […] whole range of the lenses’ reach. If it was slower than focusing with the primes I used in Chinatown, it was barely […]

  2. […] difference I do notice, as I already noted in my original review, is that the colors from the two cameras differ in Lightroom and other software programs. […]

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