Table of Contents
when wisdom matures - the Olympus E-M1 by Khen Lim
© Copyright Khen Lim, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Images courtesy of Olympus Imaging Corporation unless otherwise specified.
see also Gary's main photo wiki pages:
other contributions by Khen:
Every now and then, something comes along that redefines the direction life is headed. In recent years, two appliances took responsibility in transforming society at large. They were smartphones and tablets. Both represented milestones that mark the change in the way we stay connected. They were, however, no less significant than the Internet or the World Wide Web itself but more relevantly, we could look at innovations like online social media networking, chat conferencing and even something as mundane today as text messaging. All of these have reshaped the way we run our lives.
With changes like these, there are winners. And where there are winners, they are also losers. Those who exploited the opportunity to ride on the crest of a life-changing wave are often remembered as the ones who were daring enough, creative enough and disruptive enough to ring in the changes that would take the world in a completely different direction. The losers are invariably those who not only resist the change but were adamant that the changes were unnecessary, untenable and/or unjustifiable. They would go down in historical annals as those who failed to understand the inevitability of a brand new vision.
When mirrorless system cameras became a reality back in 2009, it’s doubt that there were people who truly believed that there would be anything to seriously rival the pretensions of a competitive pro-grade DSLR camera. Short of any of the ‘penultimate’ full-frame variants, we’re looking more at a very capable and well-equipped APS-C DSLR instead. The introduction of the Pen range more or less convinced many that Olympus had probably and quietly given the pro category a miss. As for Panasonic, the Lumix range would likely go as close as a prosumer with an eye towards video finesse. From the other mirrorless camps, there was nothing very exciting other than Sony threatening to release a full-frame version sometime in the near future. In other words there wasn’t much to threaten the traditional DSLR stalwarts. Until now.
If you have suspected that the OM-D E-M5 could be the start of something very exciting, you couldn’t be more right – the E-M1 lays proof that Olympus has decided to challenge the status quo but on its own ground. Unlike anything we’ve seen before, this is one camera that could never be ignored.
Even as the E-M5 laid down the blueprint for the company’s OM-inspired direction, it was still a very hard act to follow. That is because its fans made it that way. The E-M5’s success story has been repeatedly chronicled throughout the Internet. It alone inspired so many to leave behind the DSLRs and join the mirrorless following. Some who had left Olympus so long ago returned but more interestingly, those who have been traditionally tied down by its key market rivals have now found reason to move to greener pastures. And for all of that, Olympus is thankful to its E-M5.
Now comes the E-M1 and that hard act to follow is history. Here is a camera that is several cuts above the first OM-D model. That doesn’t mean the E-M5 is bad. In fact the E-M1 is not its replacement but instead its new big brother. It’s the pro-grade signature of an emerging serious alternative system to the APS-C DSLR segment. And to date, this is the boldest and potentially most successful of Olympus’ moves.
With the E-M5 having laid the groundwork so convincingly, the E-M1 can now make inroads into the hyper-serious user market. And it does so with a strategy that is unique only to Olympus. That strategy is to win back the hearts and minds of its FourThirds users/owners. The way to do this is in its new hybrid approach to autofocusing but more of that later.
For now, let’s have a look at some of its characteristics.
Avowed and avid OM fans will be able to identify the various parts of their favourite OM-2S/3/4 that have inspired the design and styling of the E-M1. Unlike the E-M5, you can definitely see the semblances far more significantly this time.
(Left) OM-D E-M1 and (right) OM-3
While the black finishing and choice of leatherette are different, there are plenty of things that are apparently similar just looking from the front view. They include the slightly convex shaped lens mount deck, the position of the model name, the pentroof shape and the external flash socket. These are all strikingly identical. Even the strap lugs are in about the same position.
Where the OM-2S, 3 and 4 have their TTL Auto Cord connector, the E-M1 has its X-sync socket. Both have the same type of screw-threaded cover. Despite the slightly different sculpturing and creasing treatment, the pentroof shape is similar. With the E-M1, the shape is pinched to a great effect, resulting in a more acute pentroof profile. The double beltline to separate the top and bottom panels from the main body is the same for both cameras.
(Left) Top view of the OM-D E-M1 and (right) OM-4
The view from the top also has its fair share of similarities, the most apparent of which is the left-side controls. Here you see the main lever for both cameras where the styling treatment is the same. Although less prominent, the same white line runs inside the central groove of the lever. Both have the same two-position indents – at 3 and 5 o’clock positions.
Where the OM-2S/3/4 have the folded rewind crank, the E-M1 has something that looks uncannily like it except we see a division of dual-mode functions. Splitting the functions is a horizontal divide that resembles the folded lever. Even the line in between the On and Off positions for the E-M1 looks like what you find in the OM10 model.
Insofar as the E-M1’s right-side mode selector dial, inspiration can be drawn from a combination of different OM System SLR models. Its mode of operation is designed in a manner that allows you to turn the dial while your eye is fixed to the eyepiece. However unlike the OM-1 where the lock/unlock button is to the side, here with the E-M1, the designers moved it to the centre of the dial itself, which is a distinct ergonomic improvement.
(Left) OM System Motor Drive 2 with 9V NiCd battery pack mounted on the (right) OM-4Ti film SLR camera
The E-M1’s built-in handgrip is not a first for Olympus. We’ve seen that with the OM707 and OM101 from the film generation and of course, just about every E-5xx, E-6xx and E-x models have the same feature. The design here, though, is amazingly close to the OM System’s Motor Drive 2 all the way to the manner in which the creased line runs slightly diagonally at the top.
Of course talking about this, remind yourself that the original HLD for the E-M5, which comes in two separable components (the grip and the battery holder) comes directly from this particular Motor Drive unit. Unfortunately Olympus did not develop different battery holder options for the E-M5 even though the opportunity was there for the taking.
The End of FourThirds
Those who have followed my ramblings at LinkedIn’s Olympus forum will recall that I said the E-7 was being developed alongside the next OM-D model, which of course turned out to be the E-M1. At that stage in time, the E-M5 was just freshly out. It’s good to see that fact being confirmed in recent days. But why was the E-7 developed and why aren’t we seeing it in the flesh?
A partially masked image of the E-7 prototype with 14-54mm alongside the E-M1 with 12-40mm
Olympus was at a fork road, not certain at that time as to where its direction laid. And so they decided to hedge their bets and developed along both lines, FourThirds and Micro FourThirds and hence the E-7 and E-M1 prototypes. In essence the E-7 is not much more than a souped-up E-5, which as we know, was itself a turbo version of the E-3. All three shared the same basic chassis. The E-7 was such an identical twin of the E-5 that if their decals were removed from sight, no one would be able to tell the difference from their external appearances.
In the flesh though, the E-7 was a markedly different model (to the E-5) and draws much closer to the E-M1 than any other E-DSLR in the past. For the first time, we could see the Micro FourThirds development actually shoehorned into a full-sized DSLR body notwithstanding the retention of things like the reflex mirror and optical finder. These two were tested over time in-house and the results were clear enough for management to make a decisive turn.
Olympus’ investment in their future can therefore be seen by its assessment of the two prototypes. Testing proved that the E-M1’s ability to support the pro range (HG and SHG) of Zuiko Digital lenses was critical and successful. While the testing would have covered all such glass (including the discontinued but warmly received 11-22mm), focus was on the longer and heavier varieties since these would make even heavier demands on the E-M1’s autofocusing capabilities.
We all know that FourThirds could have been more successful and in hindsight, everyone has expert views about what Olympus should and shouldn’t have done. The bottom line is that Olympus was frogmarching to the tune dictated by Canon and to a slightly lesser extent, Nikon. As a result, it is fair to say that the company lost the plot, almost sacrificed its individuality and came so near to selling its soul. When you look at the promises of FourThirds and how their DSLR cameras weren’t exactly smaller than their competitors, it was obvious that failure was imminent as early as during the E-3 and E-30 days.
The real legacy of FourThirds will always be the lenses but the one that will live on for a far longer time will be the sensors, which carry on the 4:3 format. For now, the lenses take up top drawer space for E-M1 users because Olympus is only starting to build up its pro-grade Micro FourThirds glass collection. Having concentrated on consumer lenses all this while, we’re only seeing the 12-40mm and shortly thereafter, the 40-150mm. It’ll be a while before we see a visible population. Until then, the legendary FourThirds lenses remain very important.
As for the DSLRs, the E-5 is now officially the last of the line. In truth the E-7 never had a chance – the Micro FourThirds argument is simply too compelling. It’s not only the future for the company but essentially that’s the generation direction for the whole industry and market. It may not look like it now but trust me, that’s where we’re all headed. The DSLRs had as good a run as possible, given the unfair stigma levelled at it. It’s time to give them a rest.
E-M1 and HLD-7 with Zuiko Digital 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 SWD coupled with MMF-3 lens adaptor
So how good is the E-M1’s adaptation of FourThirds glass? Pretty good but not absolutely perfect. However the difference is nonetheless startling – comparing the E-M1 and, say, the Pen E-P5 in their performance with the 50-200mm SWD is like comparing chalk and cheese. The E-P5 hunted about while the E-M1 breezed through quite decisively and assertively. Daylight performance was hard to criticise – the manner in which the lens moved left nothing more to be desired. Under lowlight conditions, the same cannot be said although still, it’s a far cry.
The E-M1’s adaptation can be billed a success but, yes, there is certainly room to improve it even further. Right now, the ability to host FourThirds lenses is a success story that was built on its relationship with Sony – to that, there is no doubt since the E-M1’s sensor is built by the electronics giant. After all it’s the sensor development that has given the E-M1 the edge that it needed, the same one that convinced the company to finally put an end to the FourThirds adventure.
(Above) Viewfinder AF display in 37-point PDAF and 81-point CDAF modes respectively Images courtesy of Pekka Potka
And so the big news is the E-M1’s affinity with the company’s top-drawer FourThirds lenses and the real story lies in its new DUAL FAST AF hybrid technology, offering the best of both worlds in a single camera body. Hence there is CDAF (contrast detection) as its native engine for Micro FourThirds lenses but now there is PDAF (phase detection) built into the E-M1’s 16.28 megapixel sensor.
The PDAF system exists as rows of distantly-apart AF detectors (one every 16 consecutive pixels or more like one every 8 green pixels) lined up from left to right but never adjacent to one another. The reason for the distance is so that image quality is not affected since having an AF detector in place effectively means one dead (or non-functioning) pixel. In order to compensate for the ‘missing pixels,’ the E-M1 will interpolate the IQ data in post-capture writing stage, meaning intelligent data is added where required to smoothen the overall image.
These detectors are positioned to face to the side be it left or right. They are designed to operate automatically when a FourThirds lens is mounted; otherwise CDAF works normally, which it does exceptionally well with 81 AF points covering a larger area. But this is only the case when the E-M1 is set to Single-AF (S-AF). At 240Hz, FAST drives the CDAF engine quicker than others, which is why despite the top-down scanning approach, the E-M1’s S-AF performance is virtually peerless (and so it is too with the E-M5).
In Continuous-AF (C-AF) mode, Olympus deployed a hybridised approach whenever a Micro FourThirds lens in place, meaning that both CDAF and PDAF are concurrently deployed. This combination enables the E-M1 to drive the lens to the correct focus point very quickly, using the PDAF engine first. And because of its on-sensor design, PDAF is working off the focal plane, which again helps substantially in not just AF drive speed but also precision. The CDAF part weaves in with PDAF, working in tandem to attain focus precision.
The end result is a far greater affirmativeness when the E-M1 is called into tracking a moving subject. In other words the addition of the PDAF detectors inside the sensor does double duty. It is there to support the company’s FourThirds lenses and it also helps out in subject tracking even when native Micro FourThirds lenses are used. A simple comparison with Olympus’ other models such as the Pen E-P5 reveals cracking C-AF performance that is as convincing as utilising FourThirds glass and running in PDAF mode. In the latter case, it’s quite remarkable to see the same 50-200mm SWD being driven at the same performance level regardless of whether it was an E-5 or the E-M1. This alone is priceless.
E-M1 and HLD-7 with Zuiko Digital 300mm f2.8 coupled to MMF-3 lens adaptor
One part of the reason why the E-M1’s autofocusing is as good if not even better than the E-5 with the latter’s native lenses is that the former runs 37 on-sensor PDAF detectors. The venerable DSLR on the other hand has about half that number. If you ever need a second reason, consider that the E-M1’s PDAF engine is right smack on the focal plane – accuracy and speed works best in this way.
One peculiarity about the E-M1’s autofocusing system is that Olympus chose to engage contrast detection when set to Movie-AF. This means you can only get the most out of the camera when using native Micro FourThirds lenses. A closer look reveals good design sense since none of the FourThirds lenses are optimised for movie recording. While such glass is fantastic for still photography, Olympus had not – and are not likely to – upgrade any of them to embrace their current MSC technology. And without MSC in place, the mechanical noises made by these lenses during autofocusing will be too intrusive during live video recording. For those who insist on using these lenses, the suggestion is to deploy them in MF mode to prevent gear noise intrusion.
Even More Lenses to Choose From
And here’s the big bonus for E-M1 users – there are now 32 real performing lenses to choose from. Up from 13, a further 19 now come from their FourThirds collection of DSLR lenses, making it the largest collection for a mirrorless system. If you add Sigma’s range of FourThirds glass, the number climbs closer to a choice of 45.
(Left) E-M1 with Nokton 50mm f1.1 (with VM Micro FourThirds lens adaptor) and (right) with Zuiko Auto-Macro 90mm f2.0 (with MF-2 lens adaptor)
Now that is a serious number to contend with because for the first time in the digital era, Olympus has substantially closed the gap to its two traditional rivals with a very versatile and diverse range of lenses from fast bright but compact primes to scintillating zooms, some of which has a reach that exceeds 1000mm in focal length. Unlike the inter-format cross-compatibility issues that plague Nikon’s and Canon’s lens systems, making it occasionally difficult to choose, Olympus’ combination of Micro FourThirds and FourThirds lenses all work without compromise.
If the 40-plus lenses aren’t enough, consider all the other manual lenses that are made especially for Micro FourThirds from the likes of SLRmagic and Cosina (via Voigtländer) including those from Panasonic’s Lumix range, Sigma, Kenko-Tokina, Schneider-Kreuznach, Samyang and also Zeiss’ enviable collection of cine lenses. If we count all of these, the total could be anywhere in the region of 70 or more. That’s a number not to be sneezed at.
A Gamut of Surprises
While the main story will always be the E-M1’s new hybrid AF system, there’s a whole lot more meaty stuff that will grab your attention. For brevity reasons, we’ll keep the descriptions tight.
While we’ve covered this one to some extent, there’s a little more to explore with the E-M1’s new 16.28 megapixel sensor. While it’s common knowledge that Sony makes it, it’s Olympus who actually designed the sensor.
Like the E-M5, the usual anti-aliasing (AA) filter is missing. This omission alone enables Olympus glass to look even better than ever before. Not that they were anywhere near pedestrian but without the AA filter, typical Olympus IQ standards are just far more realisable.
The other big story is the 1-stop wider dynamic range, which, in other words, means that tonal qualities at ISO 3200 on the E-M5 will be somewhat similar to the E-M1 set to ISO 6400. This often translates to similar improvements in noise management.
Speaking of the built-in PDAF detectors, these are mounted behind clear sections of the Bayer array in order to improve lowlight sensitivity, which adds one further reason why the E-M1’s phase-detection performance appears to be more than a match for the E-5.
What we’ve been seeing from Olympus in the past number of years is that the company’s use of a particular sensor denotes that generation and in that sense, each new sensor also marked the introduction of a brand new image processor to boot. While we will surely see the E-M1’s processor farmed out to the next-generation Pen models, there is a possibility now that Olympus might think a little differently.
‘Thinking differently’ within this context could mean that the very top-drawer sensor with the most optimised capabilities might be reserved for the top dog. The others could get a combination of a slightly lower version of the same sensor or even the recent-generation sensor, which is still competitive.
Near Full-Frame Viewfinder
Building on the success of the E-M5’s viewfinder is a brand new Epson variation, which we all saw as an external option called the VF-4. In grafting it into the E-M1, further improvements were successfully sought. While the cold hard facts remained unchanged – 2.36 million dot resolution, 100% coverage – the E-M1’s EVF now sports some very impressive viewing quality and performance.
A novel feature called Auto Luminance enables the EVF to tailor its viewing brightness according to the lighting condition of the scene. Acting like an environment sensor, the idea is to more closely match the EVF response to actual ambient dynamics. If the lighting is bright and sunny, the E-M1’s EVF will produce a bright sensation without appearing as if there is a ‘stopped-down’ effect, which is what you see in the E-M5.
Similarly under very lowlight conditions, the feature will cause the EVF to lower its luminance rather than behaving as if to overexpose. In the E-M5, the response would have been to increase shadow details to the extent that the overall viewing experience lacks realism. To achieve this, the EVF’s backlit illumination can now be automatically controlled with stepped adjustments to tone up (in bright light) or down (in darker situations).
Olympus has also increased the EVF image magnification to the extent that it now rivals full-frame DSLRs like the Canon EOS 1D while at the same time, shades the other gargantuan, the Nikon D4. Other little niceties include focus-peaking display when legacy MF lenses are used and a quicker refresh time of 0.029 sec, which helps reduce video motion lag.
There’s something about using a large viewfinder that is immensely gratifying; especially so if you were raised on cameras like the E-510 or E-300. While my early days were akin to a little peephole, the E-M1 looked more like an IMAX screen. It’s not that big is everything (because it isn’t) – in the case of viewfinders, the importance of size allows for some serious improvements in the way we see things. Composition in other words is the key motivating factor here.
A larger screen means composition can be more sensitively positioned. Movements within the screen area are more easily detectable. The framing of your subject is made easier by the fact that you can now see so much more in almost every direction. When you shoot pictures of people in street photography, such a large viewfinder is worth its weight in gold. As your eye is trained at a person from a distance, you can really concentrate on his movements and determine that ‘decisive moment.’
If you’re upgrading from any of the consumer-grade DSLRs, the difference will simply floor you. From the E-M5? Meh, both are close enough to each other but you’ll still see why the E-M1 is better again.
Post-Capture Finishing – TruePic VII
Olympus’ seventh generation TruePic processor drives the E-M1’s digital image management in conjunction with the improved Fine Detail II processing technology. While it retains everything that the E-M5 could do for image finishing, there are some nice add-on capabilities that reveal the intended nature of the beast.
The lens registration, which we first saw in the E-5 is now bolstered by added key information that pools together Micro FourThirds and FourThirds lenses. These supplementary data ensure optimal matching with the E-M1 for post-capture image sharpening. At the same time CA correction is now firmware driven for all these registered lenses. The end result will be improved compatibility during post-processing, which should then deliver even better image quality as a result.
Removing the AA filter means of course moiré correction is now done by the image processor but this is nothing exceptional since the E-M5 does pretty much the same thing. But with the E-M1, the engineers have gone a little further, making more effort to ensure that video recording is better optimised as a result.
Given all of these, the E-M1’s quality statement now comes impressively closer to dispelling any differences between Micro FourThirds and their larger sensor rivals.
Quiet Pro-Grade Shutter
Sight unseen, the other experience that comes with using the E-M1 for the first time is the unusual quietness of the shutter. While you don’t experience the E-5’s unique – and quite pleasant – acoustic signature, what you now get is a more practical and less emotive sensation – it could be akin to a Ferrari but without the distinctive exhaust note. Inevitably what you have is an added edge in stealth because that sense of quietness offers you the ability to operate unobtrusively.
People who cover chamber orchestra or classical quarter concerts, live theatre work or discrete street photography will come to appreciate this feature probably far more so than any others. And if you have encountered an event with hundreds of DSLR-toting press photographers clicking away with a thousand reflex mirrors slapping away, you’ll immediately understand where Olympus engineers’ heads were at when they decided to quieten down the E-M1’s shutter. This is a no-nonsense no-frills approach – you’re not going to measure the shutter acoustic and analyse its signature; instead you’re just going to value how much more you can get done because you’re going to be far less noticed…and heard.
An added bonus is that the E-M1’s shutter system is now rated at 150,000 clicks, which is the typical (but minimum) lifecycle for pro-grade cameras. Mind you, this is only a conservative figure – with careful use, you might be able to squeeze more out of it and if past experiences are anything to go by, I’d be right on the money with this.
Battle-Hardened Build Quality
The OM-D E-M1 and 12-40mm Pro can withstand down to -10°C (14°F)
Beefing up the E-M1’s shutter system is just one of many tell-tale clues of the camera’s intended nature. Olympus’ quality approach in terms of choice of components confirms its intention in positioning the E-M1 as the OM-D System’s first pro-grade camera. Once you can understand this, you will also appreciate its premium asking.
Firstly build quality is typical Olympus – the impeccable attention is obvious – but for avowed users around the world, robustness is something the company does very well. Many will attest to their reputation better than most in the industry. Proof goes as far back as the Pen F if you like, gracing also the single-digit OMs through to the Camedia E-series and then to the FourThirds mono-digit range and now, the OM-D.
Hold it in your hands. Run your fingers along its surfaces and feel the texture. Sense its heft – its weight spells substance. Look closely at the seams. Press the buttons. Rotate the control wheels. Turn the dioptre correction dial. Nothing in your experience will tell you anything but quality with a capital Q.
The E-M1’s naked magnesium-alloy body showing almost seamless construction quality
Despite its superb exterior finishing, the E-M1 is equally at home in a world of hostile conditions. It is, after all, weather resistant, offering protection against rain, snow and even sandstorms or even working in areas with an abundance of fine dust. It’s also impervious to freezing conditions, withstanding temperatures down to as low as -10o Celsius. It is obvious that the engineers have looked into toughening the E-M1’s internal electronics and not just adding sixty weather-resistant rings and seals and tightening manufacturing tolerances.
The E-M1’s have been fortified against hostile conditions
Olympus’ expertise in Thixomold® manufacturing techniques means a magnesium-alloy body that is just as beautifully crafted as the E-M5, the E-5 or the E-3. Someone on the Internet wrote about burying his E-5 in the snow for a few days and survived. Another writer took the E-M1 along for a hot shower, placing it on the floor for a proper drench. All of these and more should be a walk in the park for the E-M1.
More Usable Buffer Size
Although Olympus doesn’t reveal the actual size, it isn’t too difficult to imagine the E-M1’s buffer capacity when in a single burst of the shutter at 10fps, you can now capture 41 full-size RAW frames or 50 if you lower the shooting rate at 6.5fps. With JPEG files, there is simply no limit – of course, the larger the card size, the more you can shoot to your heart’s content.
The E-M1 is also primed for a sequence of 999 images at time intervals from every 1 second to every 24 hours. It’s about time an intervalometer is built into an Olympus camera – I’ve been waiting long enough for this! This feature is not without its reason or importance – inspired by Maitani and expressed through the OM System philosophy, this feature opens the E-M1 to a world of technical and scientific use without resorting to external intervention.
Although a resounding surprise, the E-M5 drew some criticisms over its diminutive size. The camera was just a little too small for users with bear paws. Because of its highly compact size, controls were squeezed in, which in effect brought some of them too close to one another. Some were saying that the shutter release is positioned a little too far back or that the space relationship between it and the rear control wheel was not as optimal as some might like. Some buttons were also a little on the small side. All of these meant that despite the accolades, some were not convinced to migrate to the OM-D System.
(Left) OM-4Ti with Motor Drive 2 and 6V NiCd pack and (right) E-M1 with HLD-7 battery pack
None of these however was unknown to Olympus. While the Internet community bemoaned the E-M5’s smallish form factor, it’s important to note that at no time did the company say the E-M5 was a ‘universal ideal.’ Olympus’ aim at that time was to define a new direction – the OM-D would encompass the original OM design signature that revolved around compactness. It was, in other words, an iconic statement of intent, to throw the gauntlet down and challenge the market in much the same way as the OM-1 did in 1972.
With the E-M1, the company’s designers and engineers had a freer hand to create something quite different. Being given greater design latitude means being liberated to explore more. The E-M5 was limiting – the restrictions meant coming up with secondary ideas to save space and yet maintain as high a level of usability as possible. With a slightly larger body and an integrated hand grip offered the E-M1 untold advantages in this respect. Controls could now be bigger and more comfortable to use. Alternatively more controls could also be added to enable the user to access without reaching into the complex menu. Designers could also think of different placement ideas in order to maximise process flow.
(Left) The E-M1’s top-right panel button layout and (right) the top view of the E-M5
To achieve this, different flows were studied in terms of how users think through their intuitive processes before they press the shutter. Some begin by setting the ISO and then WB (White Balance) before moving to the aperture and shutter. Others might do things in a different order and add others such as Exposure Compensation into the mix. Some others might have their flows vary based on different situations. Whatever these flows are, a larger E-M1 body enabled the designers to really optimise across a complex map of executable combinations and in doing so, arrive at a standard of ergonomics that is very hard to beat and also far wider in appeal.
The E-M1 in practical use has a natural flow to the way controllability is individually defined. Not only is the camera instinctive to hold, it is exceedingly easy to handle even if you have a 50-200mm SWD or a 35-100mm SWD lens mounted. The E-M1’s weight distribution is excellent – even with the far bigger FourThirds lenses, the camera felt balanced. And because of their 2X crop factor, you’re handling a smaller outfit with twice the reach as larger format cameras but without the loss of quality that critics once claimed.
Of course you can’t win this game completely – when controls become very customisable, you’re going to always create two divided camps of opinion. One says the customisation leads to over-complexity – making the setting changes within the menu is too daunting. The other party simply loves it because it offers them the ability to create a camera that truly fits their individual handling requirements. In other words there’s just no middle-ground for this sort of thing.
The E-M1’s customisability is nothing new for anyone used to Olympus’ way of doing things. While users of the company’s E-series DSLRs are accustomed to such versatility, the E-M1 is somewhat different again, gaining even higher complexity with far more buttons available for individualisation. However to do this, the menu will be understandably complex – there simply is no getting around this no matter what anyone says. Having said that, it’s a good time to understand the Olympus approach in terms of the different ways to access the camera controls:
- Utilities Menu Many users will decide that customising is an essentially one-off experience – you get into the Utilities (Tools) menu and patiently set the E-M1 up so that the various wheels and buttons translate to the ways in which you wish to control the manner. Once you get these spot on, there’s not much reason to have to change them again. In other words you hardly really need to plumb its depths all the time. Hence the complexity is not a very major issue.
- MySet There are MySet options that enable users to preset a combination of different control parameters in order to quickly respond to different lighting conditions or shooting situations. And Olympus has made it easy enough to customise the E-M1 so that the MySet options are immediately accessible.
- Super Control Panel If you’re on your feet, working away at some event, the rear LCD panel comes into its own. Called the Super Control Panel, Olympus’ approach was to offer many different settings in a single display. These aren’t just there for viewing purposes; with the E-M1, you can access any of these settings by touch control, changing them immediately and interactively.
Untethered Image Transfer
Olympus’ Ol.Share logo
WiFi in a pro-grade camera? Are you serious? Of course. After all, serious users are equally as sensible as amateurs. They do appreciate convenience and practicality, provided one gets off his high horse. With built-in WiFi capability, the E-M1 can shoot and correspondingly transmit the captured images to the user’s smartphone or tablet. It’s that simple.
Olympus has now made the user experience an even pleasant one, requiring first of all, the installation of the bespoke Ol.Share app, which is currently limited to Android and iOS users. We’ve not heard of any immediate plans yet to include Blackberry or Windows but you never know. Popularity might change things rather very quickly.
Once installed, things look pretty promising with the E-M1 in untethered mode. Unlike the case with the Pen E-P5, you now have better range of controls and flexibility. While the E-P5 confines operations to only iAuto mode, the E-M1 broadens the experience to include Program, Aperture AE, Shutter AE or Manual mode. You can determine point of focus by interacting directly with the smartphone/tablet’s touch-sensitive display. You can alter the aperture or shutter speed (or both) as well as ISO, WB and exposure compensation and of course, you can see its dynamic effects live and onscreen. In LiveBulb mode, this would be an incredible experience just to watch on a larger tablet display. And of course you can release the shutter – all without touching the camera at all.
If all that sounds daunting, setup appears to be very simple. All that is needed is to set the E-M1’s WiFi up and running first. When that is successful, you’ll see the QR code displayed on the rear LCD panel. Now use your smartphone or tablet to scan the code. Once you do that, your smart device will register and sync with the E-M1’s WiFi network. Remote operability is now at hand.
While Ol.Share itself doesn’t support geotagging, your smartphone or tablet most likely does, which means you can enable the GPS feature and exploit it to the fullest. In other words, teaming up with the phone/tablet feature enables you to tag your geoposition setting to your images and have the information embedded in their EXIF data.
Other Sweet Deals
Burst mode shooting – Burst rate has now gone up to 10 frames per second (fps), which is serious territory unbecoming of any camera with merely consumer pretensions. At that rate, however, autofocusing works only on the first frame and only if the lighting doesn’t change after that. For continuous autofocusing (C-AF) to function on every subsequent frame, the E-M1’s maximum burst rate will drop to 6.5fps, which is still very fast. To put that into perspective, the E-5 maxes out at 5fps.
Image stabilisation – Having inherited the 5-axis IBIS from the E-M5, the E-M1 also benefits from improvements first seen in the Pen E-P5 such as the Multi-Motion IS (S-IS Auto mode) where IS detection and correction will now work even during panning. Shutter speeds as low as 1 second or longer are now easily correctible by the E-M1’s 5-axis IS.
Rear LCD panel – Despite all the excitement behind the E-M5’s OLED LiveView panel, Olympus has reverted to LCD for the E-M1. We don’t exactly know why but at any rate, there are now 1.037 million dots available in the 3-inch articulable and touch-sensitive LCD panel, providing 720×480 pixel resolution at full 100% coverage in 3:2 aspect ratio. We still miss the E-5’s fuller interpretation of articulation as Olympus retained the more rigid version found in the E-M1 and E-P5. It looks like we’ll have to wait for the next OM-D model for that.
MIC socket – Available connection interfaces are more or less the same as what the E-M5 offers except this time, Olympus has seen fit to provide a separate MIC socket, meaning that video enthusiasts no longer have to resort to the AP2-based SEMA-1 but rather have a market-wide choice of stereo microphones.
External power source – Tethered V.AC power is handily available for seamless indoor (studio) shooting but only if you attach the E-M1’s HLD-7 battery pack where the 9V DC-In socket is located, which is a shame really – this should be on the body proper itself.
Camera battery – Thankfully Olympus continues to stick with the BLN-1 lithium-ion battery pack for consistency and ease of interchangability with multiple OM-D and Pen bodies. However at 9.2Wh, CIPA rates maximum battery capacity at only 350 shots, which is why the HLD-7 with its second battery in tow will become indispensable for heavy-duty all-day shooting. Even so, 350 is 350 and that is a little on the low side.
What is really needed is a more powerful version of the BLN-1 in order to get beyond 500 shots at the very least – somewhere around 680 would be so much better and hence, more acceptable. Some of us might wonder why Olympus did not equip the HLD-7 with dual battery capacity. The answer may lead us to yet a brand new flagship after the E-M1 and for that, we’re probably still two years away.
Available System Options (excluding lenses and lens accessories)
BLN-1 lithium-ion battery | BCN-1 battery charger (for BLN-1 batteries) | GS-5 Grip Strap (leather, use with HLD-7) | HLD-7 Power Battery Holder (weather-resistant, up to 680 shots)
CS-42SF Soft Camera Case (water resistant) | CSS-P118 Shoulder Strap (washable) | (Other leather neck straps available) | CBG-10 System Bag (compact, including CS-42SF) | PT-EP11 Underwater Case (OEM design, max 45m depth)
FL-LM1 pocket flash | FL-LM2 pocket flash | FL-14 flash | FL-300R Wireless Flash FL-600R Wireless Tilt/Bounce Flash | FL-50R Wireless Tilt/Bounce Flash | FL-36R Wireless Tilt/Bounce Flash FC-01 Macro Flash Controller | RF-11 Ring Flash Head | TF-22 Twin Flash Head | SRF-11 Ring Flash Set (including RF-11, FC-01) | STF-22 Twin Flash Set (including TF-22, FC-01) FLRA-1 flash reflector adaptor | FS-FLST1 flash stand | ( ) Flash Dome Diffuser FL-CB05 Hotshoe Flash Cable | FR-1 Flash Adaptor Ring | FR-100 Flash Adaptor Ring FL-BK01 Flash Bracket | FL-BK04 Flash Bracket | FL-BKM03 Twin Flash Bracket
Lens Group (other than lenses)
MMF-3 FourThirds lens adaptor (weather-resistant) | MF-02 OM lens adaptor
EP-12 eyecup | EP-13 large eyecup
MAL-1 Macro Arm Light accessory (for AP2) | PP-1 Penpal accessory (for AP2) | RM-1 cordless remote release | SEMA-1 External Microphone Adaptor Set (for AP2)
The Clearest Statement of Intent from Olympus
When Olympus turned to Micro FourThirds for salvation, not many paid much attention. Instead many accused the company of flip-flopping their way from one format to another, from one system to another. In the process many of the company’s users fell away, disillusioned and invested in their competitors’ offerings. However those who hung on in faith could be enthralled now.
The E-M1 delivers unlike any of Olympus’ other cameras. Just as the E-M5 primed the way for the company’s return to strong market attention and hence visibility, the E-M1 underscores its clearest statement of intent. Already the first batches of stocks including the 12-40mm PRO kit lens are sold out in many parts of the world. Only recently, Amazon in a few markets has registered the E-M1 as the most heavily ordered camera regardless of format or price. We’re also told that the second batch is due late October to early November 2013. If you’re lucky – or prudent – enough to have placed your order, you could be in for a memorable Christmas.
To those who know, Olympus will not be stopping there. The Pen range of course continues to evolve from one generation to the next. The three sub-groups will no doubt grow. With two models now, the OM-D System will also expand. While the E-M1 takes up top dog status and the E-M5 somewhere below, there’s room for Olympus to exploit. So this is how it could easily look within the next two years:
- New Top Dog There is no question that there WILL be another model coming that will supplant even the E-M1. I have no doubts that an E-M2 is already under development as we speak. It will offer an even higher level of performance and become a far closer match with the FourThirds lenses. The chances are that the E-M2 will look similar to the E-M1 but will unquestionably pack greater firepower as Olympus looks to storm the Bastille.
- Basement Model The E-M5 may be joined by a simpler variant, one that could bridge the gap between the OM-D and the Pen Systems. It will be friendlier; more like an E-PL5 on mild steroids. Friendly generally means no-brainer self-thinking automation, the type that makes this model an overgrown compact camera complete with built-in flash. There’re plenty of reasons for such a model to exist – those looking for E-M5 image quality but not the price. The only thing holding this back is internal cannibalisation with the Pen models. We’ll have to see.
The versatility of Micro FourThirds allow for a diversity of lenses available
We’ve now seen the 12-40mm f2.8 PRO and we’re already told that the 40-150mm f2.8 PRO lens is coming next year. Combining these two lenses alone will give us a 35mm film equivalent range of 24mm wide-angle to 300mm telephoto. That’s probably enough for most applications but pro users would want to stretch beyond that either side of the range. That’s when the two other lenses slated for introduction come in.
Olympus merely says ‘wide-zoom’ and ‘telephoto’ but I’ll add the word ‘fast’ onto both of them. And I’ll go even further by predicting the following:
- New Lens 1 The wide-zoom will be very much in the region of 7-14mm (EFL 14-28mm) or 9-18mm (EFL 18-36mm). This will be an adaption of the wonderful FourThirds version but now faster and brighter. And smaller as well.
- New Lens 2 The telephoto lens will be either a 150mm, 200mm or 300mm (EFL 300/400/600mm respectively) and will be just as fast. I’ll go even farther and say that ALL these three will appear. It’s just a matter of time, priority and order of appearance.
At this point, I’ll make a few more predictions:
- New Lenses 3 and 4 The 60mm f2.8 Macro won’t be the only one. Expect shorter and longer versions to eventually appear. One will be in the 30-35mm focal length while the other will be within the 100-135mm side. All will produce life-size image reproduction without any need for an optical extender or an auto-tube.
- New Lens 5 I’ll bet further and forecast a telephoto zoom that will offer a range of between 100 to 250mm or thereabouts. This one won’t be that fast but will still be competitive. The attraction here will be its compact size; yet I believe this will be a PRO lens complete with everything one expects of a lens of this calibre.
- Lens features Every single PRO lens will be MSC compatible and many will adopt the Snap-Focus feature first seen in the 12mm f2.0. Equally as many will have other useful features including the L.Fn, which is a programmable button to activate a lens-rated function. All of them will come standardised with the ZERO nanotechnology-based coating.
- Gradually Olympus will add enough pro-grade glass to the OM-D System in order to ‘retire’ the FourThirds lens range. Once that happens, the M.Zuiko Digital will become the real Zuiko Digital. I also believe that in time, the name will just become ZUIKO, which is where Olympus really wants to go – reverting to its pure origins.
There will be developments beyond just lenses. The OM-D System will be pervasively a combination of what’s left of the current FourThirds-based E-System plus some parts of the accessories offered to the Pen range and new ones that are being developed to purely support OM-D cameras. For now you will see flash units including the beautiful RF-22 and TF-22 as well as the FL-36R and FL-50R brought over together with their adjacent accessories. From the Pen, the AP2-specific accessories are all available although you’ll probably won’t be needing the VF-1, VF-2 and VF-4 as well as the SEMA-1 options.
The future already looked very bright when the E-M5 stunned the industry. The E-M1 is merely going to exacerbate that to an even higher degree. From now onwards, we’re going to see nothing but up-scaling from Olympus. More salivating PRO lenses. More camera bodies. Even better image quality. A whole rash of accessories coming onboard. And in time, another game changer, a brand new flagship to take over from the E-M1. All of these are a guarantee.
Olympus remained true to the spirit of Maitani with cameras like the E-M1 hitting 30 minutes in Bulb mode and 60 secs in Auto exposure mode
So what will all of these mean for Nikon and Canon? Seeing that I’m pretty awful at reading tealeaves, I’m tempted to say nothing but I won’t do that. Nikon’s decision to go with the mirrorless endeavour might come back to haunt them. As impressive as their autofocusing capabilities appear to be, it’s a little too small to take seriously and with insufficient lenses available, they’ll always be a few steps behind. Furthermore the company has not been very successful in selling them as well.
Canon’s EOS M is languishing. The company doesn’t appear interested to develop even a half-decent lens range for it. With only two lenses on offer – 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 and 22mm f2 – since launch and a new one added only recently (11-22mm f4-5.6), it’s hardly appropriate to even brand it a system. Worse, the new lens apparently isn’t even available to the U.S. market. Furthermore, worldwide sales are said to be as dismal as its autofocusing capabilities. One can see why Canon doesn’t even promote it. In fact we read on the Internet lately that Adorama has listed it as “no longer available” for sale while another, OneCall, says the EOS M is “currently unavailable.”
It’s easy to see that Olympus could be on a roll now but that’s not entirely true. Mirrorless cameras aren’t fully there yet. DSLRs still predominate and its sizeable footprint is still everywhere in the enthusiast market. There’s still much to do yet but with the E-M1, Olympus is the one company that has done the most to bring maturity to the format as a whole.
It is perhaps now that you finally get to see Maitani’s wisdom mature in the digital era.
comparison with competitive cameras
|OM-D E-M1||EOS 70D||D7100||Alpha NEX 6|
|Effective pixels||16.3 MP||20.2 MP||24.1 MP||16.1 MP|
|ISO range||100/200 to 25600||100 to 12800/25600||100 to 6400/25600||100 to 25600|
|Max burst rate||6.5fps (IS off) at unlimited JPEGs or 60 RAWs 10fps (fixed AF and exposure, IS off)||7fps at 65 JPEGs or 16 RAWs||6fps at 58 JPEGs or 16 RAWs||3fps at 15 JPEGs or 11 RAWs 10fps (fixed exposure)|
|Viewfinder||OLED, 100% coverage, 1.3X-1.48X/0.65X-0.74X||Optical, 98% coverage, 0.95X/0.59X||Optical, 100% coverage, 0.94X||OLED, 100% coverage, 1.09X-0.73X|
|Autofocusing||37pt PDAF, 81pt CDAF||19pt PDAF, on-sensor CDAF/PDAF||51pt PDAF, on-sensor CDAF||99pt PDAF, 25pt CDAF|
|Shutter speed range||60 to 1/8000 sec; Bulb to 30 mins||30 to 1/8000 sec; Bulb||30 to 1/8000 sec; Bulb||30 to 1/4000 sec; Bulb|
|Flash sync speed||1/320 sec; 1/8000 sec in Super FP mode||1/250 sec; HSS||1/250 to 1/320 sec; HSS;||1/160 sec|
|Metering segments||324 segments||63 segments||2,016 segments||1,200 segments|
|Metering sensitivity||-2 to 20 EV||1 to 18 EV||0 to 20 EV||0 to 20 EV|
|Wireless flash support||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Image stabilisation||Sensor-shift; 5-axis including panning||Dependent on lens||Dependent on lens||Dependent on lens|
|Rear display panel||3-inch, tilting, touch-sensitive, 1.04m dots||3-inch, articulating, touch-sensitive, 1.04m dots||3.2-inch, non-articulating, 1.22m dots||3-inch, tilting, touch-sensitive, 921,600 dots|
|Wireless support||WiFi||WiFi||External option only||WiFi|
|Battery life (CIPA based)||350 shots||920 shots (210 shots in LiveView only)||950 shots||270 shots (with EVF)|
|Dimension, width||5.1 inches||5.5 inches||5.4 inches||4.8 inches|
|Dimension, height||3.7 inches||4.1 inches||4.2 inches||2.8 inches|
|Dimension, depth||2.5 inches||3.1 inches||3.0 inches||1.1 inches|
|Weight||17.5 ounces||27.2 ounces||27.0 ounces||12.3 ounces|