My take on the new Olympus E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera

Written by Gary on September 12th, 2013

I own the Olympus C8080, E330, E510, Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro, ZD 50-200mm SWD, ZD 7-14mm f/4, Canon 1D Mark III with various L lenses and now really only use the wonderful Olympus E-M5 with it’s lovely Micro Four Thirds prime lenses such as the 12mm, 20mm, 45mm and 75mm.

The following then is my take based on published “reviews” of the E-M1 and my experience with it at the Digital Photography Show in Melbourne this weekend.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a very important evolutionary camera for Olympus, and it indeed has many impressive features, the combination of which are not available in any other camera at any price.

E-M1

It finally provides an upgrade pathway for many of us who have the superb Olympus and Panasonic Leica D Four Thirds lenses such as the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5, Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro, the PanaLeica 25mm f/1.4, the ZD 7-14mm f/4, and if you are lucky enough to have the other Super pro lenses such as the 35-100mm f/2.0, the 150mm f/2.0, the 90-250mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/2.8, then all the more reason to be thinking this is your lucky day!

It is so important because it finally addresses the C-AF performance limitations of Micro Four Thirds cameras by adding DUAL FAST AF courtesy of phase detect AF sites onto the new Sony sensor, it markedly improves C-AF tracking performance for Micro Four Thirds lenses and all AF performance for Four Thirds lenses.

Users coming from dSLR systems will be blown away by how fast and accurate the S-AF is for slow moving or stationery subjects, even in low light, and you have the unique option of accurate AF on a subject’s closest eye almost anywhere in the frame. They will not be over-whelmed by the comparatively slower C-AF tracking performance on the E-M1, but for mirrorless camera users, at least now they have a usable C-AF option, and they have usable, fairly fast AF with Four Thirds lenses.

No C-AF tracking system yet in production is perfect, nor are they simple to optimise for the end user. Even my very expensive ($4500) Canon 1D Mark III dSLR designed for sports with C-AF tracking was only good for around 40-50% of shots and it was very complex to optimise for various scenarios. The E-M1 is a big step forward for Olympus but is far from perfect as far as C-AF tracking goes. In good light it may be adequate for many situations – further real photography testing will be needed to decide how good it really is.

Furthermore, C-AF tracking is not needed for most of us – remember no-one had good C-AF tracking before Canon introduced it in the early 1990’s so pro sports photographers until then used manual focus and still achieved some amazing images.

Thus it may be a compelling buy for existing Four Thirds users, although some will complain it has no optical viewfinder, but the new electronic viewfinder is superb and the many things it can do should outweigh the loss of optical viewfinder.

The E-M1 takes what is best in both the E-M5 and the E-P5 cameras, then upgrades many of those features such that it provides significantly improved:

  • build quality and ergonomics
  • weather-proofing and now freeze proofing – one reviewer placed his E-M1 under a hot shower for 10 minutes in a pool of 1cm water while it was on with no ill effect – Canon or Nikon pro users would not be so confident with their dSLRs!
  • improved image quality such that for most real world photography, the benefits of the 5-axis IS and new sensor without an AA filter and the new image processing engine (TruePic VII) means that image quality up to ISO 6400 is good enough to be comparable to new full frame dSLRs such as the more expensive and heavier Nikon D600 – see Ming Thein’s blog post where he compares the two – the D600 gives more dynamic range, but the E-M1 gives better color and microcontrast in the out of camera jpegs.
  • lovely large viewfinder with faster refresh, greater resolution and more accurate colours, and with Adaptive Brightness Technology
  • buffer has been increased so that the E-M1 can now shoot 51 RAW shots in burst mode at 6.5fps and 41 RAW at 10fps  (compare this with only 14 at 5.5fps on the Nikon D600)
  • the burst rate has been improved – you now get C-AF at 6.5 fps and non tracked single AF at 10 fps (compared to 5.5fps max on the Nikon D600)
  • all AF is even faster (C-AF said to be similar to C-AF on the E-5 or the new Canon 70D dSLR although C-AF tracking is still faster on the latest dSLRs, single AF of stationary subjects is faster and more accurate on the E-M1 than on any dSLR)
    • note though there is no AF during video mode for lenses that are not CD-AF compatible (eg. most Four Thirds lenses)
  • the 5-axis image stabiliser has been further improved allowing hand held shots at 1.3secs on wide angle lenses, and no need for large cumbersome stabilising rigs for movie shooting while walking
  • automatic hand held HDR images for those too lazy to carry a tripod and do HDR properly (you need a tripod for dSLRs)
  • ability to microcalibrate AF for Four Thirds lenses
  • lens-specific optimisation of jpegs to correct for aberrations and moire and optimise fine detail via the Fine Detail II technology
  • jpeg sharpening is mainly applied to in-focus regions only leaving your lovely background bokeh buttery smooth 🙂
  • very useful new unique Color Creator control – fantastic for live in-camera B&W tonal visualisation – and great for in-camera “grading”  before you start taking videos
  • very useful remote control via your smartphone and WiFi connection to the camera – you can see the image live and touch your phone’s screen to select AF and rapidly AF and take the shot as well as setting most image parameters you need to select.
  • additional Art Filter “Diorama portrait” – adds asymmetrical left or right defocusing effect for nice blurred portraits whilst keeping the eye sharp

The combination of features from the E-M5 and E-P5 means that in most other areas it beats even the full frame dSLRs such as the Nikon D600 such as:

  • wider range of shutter speeds 60sec – 1/8000th sec (30 sec to 1/4000th sec on D600)
  • unique to Olympus Timed BULB and Live BULB modes
  • flash sync 1/320th sec (1/200th sec on D600)
  • the amazing face detection AF system where it will accurately AF on the nearest eye of your subject if you wish – no matter where it is in the frame – sure beats trying to lock AF then recompose, or moving AF selection points around the screen!
  • the “24-80mm f/2.8 lens” (12-40mm actual) combined with the E-M1 is half the weight and probably almost have the price of the full frame version, not to mention the forthcoming 40-150mm f/2.8 lens!
  • extremely customisable button layout – you can re-program almost any button AND you get a 2×2 switch which rapidly changes the function of various buttons depending on how you have programmed it.
  • in video mode and Live View mode (which is the only option on the E-M1 anyway), you can hold the camera to your eye for better stability, or use the tiltable touch screen
  • ability to use almost any lens and have them image stabilised, and use focus peaking or image stabilised magnified view to assist in fast, accurate, manual focus
  • ability to use Nikon, Canon and other lenses image stabilised via a Metabones Turbo 0.7x adapter which gives 1 extra stop of aperture for even better low light performance and shallower DOF
  • ability to use many full frame lenses and have them converted as tilt or shift lenses via adapters and have them image stabilised
  • much quieter and less intrusive, less intimidating
  • no need for mirror lock up to reduce camera vibrations in high magnification work
  • no need for AF calibration with each Micro Four Thirds lens as is required for dSLRs
  • generally better edge-to-edge image sharpness

Now, to be fair, full frame dSLRs such as a Nikon D600 do have some important advantages over the E-M1 (although not many!):

  • shallower depth of field options, particular for standard zoom lenses and wide angle prime lenses
  • marginally better image quality in terms of dynamic range and high ISO performance
  • optical viewfinder (can be an advantage in some situations)
  • better C-AF tracking (although over time, this could be expected to be addressed by further improved technology in Micro Four Thirds)
  • radio wireless TTL flash via PocketWizards (hopefully Pocket Wizards will add Olympus to their system soon)
  • 24p 1080 HD video mode (not sure why Olympus did not add this mode given that serious videographers love it)
  • access to specialist lenses designed for the system (eg. wide angle shift lenses – although you can use a Canon 17mm TSE tilt shift lens with a 0.7x Metabones Turbo to give a 24mm field of view tilt shift lens which is the widest available for Nikon anyway )
  • the cameras and lenses are bigger which makes you look more professional
  • for pros, there will always be better access to service, rentals, etc

There is now even less reasons to go Canon or Nikon or full frame, particularly as this camera is so small and versatile with features neither of these options can do .

Importantly for existing E-M5 users, it uses the same battery, although perhaps frustratingly, the controls are in different positions (and generally better positions)  which may make it confusing using both cameras together.

This camera does NOT replace the excellent E-M5 cameras, but adds incremental improvements to it in nearly every aspect, plus adds true AF support for Four Thirds lenses.

The E-M5 still offers great value buying as it will be sufficient for most people who don’t care about Four Thirds lenses and who don’t care about C-AF.

Price in Australia for body only seems to be around $A1595 compared to $US1399, and you can get the E-M1 bundled with the excellent 12-40mm f/2.8 lens for around $A2399 from what I understand, and this represents a decent discount on buying each item separately, plus Olympus Australia are likely to throw in 2 years warranty plus an option of a free MMF-3 adapter or HLD-7 vertical grip.

Check out this little video to see how cool the image stabiliser and Creative Colour functionalities are:

 

 

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