REVIEW: Olympus OM-D E-M1
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 has been growing in popularity since its launch in September last year. It's Olympus's flagship Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera and is aimed at photographers looking for a high-performance professional-level camera without the weight and bulk of higher-end DSLRs on the market. In terms of build and performance, it's difficult to fault and it's not hard to see why the E-M1 has been garnering its far share of fans among photographers.
One fan is our guest reviewer, Wing Chung, who has converted his entire kit from Canon to the Olympus OM-D system. Wing first started with the E-M5 and when the E-M1 was announced, he was one of the first photographers in Perth to take on this new camera. He has many pertinent and interesting things to share about this powerful flagship camera from Olympus. Take it away, Wing!
The prospect of having to look for a new camera system to continue photography because my favoured canon kit was becoming more awkward and painful to use was daunting at best. I knew it would be a difficult and expensive exercise to switch as I had grown to enjoy using the 60D with the Canon and Sigma lenses that I had spent so much effort and money acquiring. I am glad that camera technology had advanced so much in the three years since I started photography that there were some excellent choices.
In the past 18 months, I found that I was using the E-M5 more, because it was easy to use, light and nimble, discrete and just plain fun. The canon gear was used maybe 3 times and that got me thinking whether I really needed to hang on to it. The turning point for me was when the E-M1 with the new 12-40 f2.8 lens was announced. Here was a camera that could do everything that I wanted it to do and more. Let me explain why and within the context of usability rather than technical specifications or a detailed explanations and analysis of image quality at a pixel by pixel level.
I am heartened by the comments of the following reviewers and commentators when they praised the E-M1:
“…a camera is MUCH more than image quality…A camera needs to have the ability to inspire you to take it out and shoot…a constant companion. One that delivers time after time, one that is versatile and one that is problem free.” (Steve Huff December 3, 2013 Steve Huff Photo).
“…content is king and usability is its mistress. Just about any contemporary camera used competently can produce excellent images, and the E-M1 as good as if not better than most” (Michael Riechmann December 31, 2013 Luminous Landscape).
The E-M1 is a functionally rich camera and is a significant improvement over the E-M5 and my 60D and comparable with some current dSLRs. For example: Wi Fi connectivity, environmental sealing, maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 sec, 10 frames per second or 6 frames per second on continuous auto focus with tracking and ISO range from 100 to 25600. There are number of other more advanced features in the E-M1 like HDR mode which will allow you to create HDR images, multiple exposures functionality and colour creator that enables you to change the saturation and hue on the fly that I have yet to try.
The richness of the functionality will provide you with the capacity to “grow into” the E-M1 and give a great deal of flexibility and variety of photographic experiences.
Even though the E-M1 is large for a micro four thirds camera, it is still smaller and lighter than my 60D and other dSLRs on the market. The modest increase in size over the E-M5 was due to the addition of an integrated grip that makes it look more like a dSLR. It’s now a lot more comfortable to hold and use and for me it means it doesn’t hurt to use the camera. For street photography, discrete and nimble makes it easy to capture candid scenes quickly. The advantages for travel are evident, especially as carry on luggage. I can easily fit a body, 2-3 lenses, batteries, charger, speedlite and associated accessories in a small shoulder bag or back pack with travel documents and notebook.
While the “buttons and dial for everything” philosophy and high configurability can be daunting in the beginning, it is worth the effort to take the time to configure the E-M1 to suit your shooting preferences and style. Enabling the Super Control Panel is a must as all of the commonly used settings can be readily accessed from this panel. There are a variety of You Tube tutorials and online guides to help you set up the E-M1. Taking the time to set the E-M1 to your shooting style really enhances the enjoyment of using the camera and considerably improves handling.
The viewfinder on the E-M1 is now larger and has a higher resolution. The new EVF has a 0.74X magnification with a 2.36 megapixel resolution with 100% coverage and can be configured to automatically adjust brightness. This gives a much more natural view of the subject and to my mind is better than viewing through an optical viewfinder of the 60D that I had.
On an aside, I particularly like the quiet shutter noise; it’s barely audible; really important for discrete and candid street photography. The tactile feedback of the buttons on the E-M1 feels more reassuring than the E-M5 and 60D and gives me more confidence that I have pressed them.
Overall, image quality is excellent especially with high quality lenses like primes and the 12-40mm f2.8. When I got the E-M5, 18 months ago I was surprised how significantly less noise it had at ISO above 1600 when compared with the 60D. The E-M1 continues to provide clean, sharp and usable images at ISO between 1600 and 6400. Anecdotally, I would say that the E-M1 files are marginally better than the E-M5.
The 5 axis image stabilisation in the E-M1 has been significantly improved. You can now shoot hand held for shutter speeds as low as 1 second. If you are braced against a railing or other structure, you could shoot hand held up to 2 seconds, though you will notice a little softness if you look carefully. This enables a photographer to experiment with the use of ND filters to create motion blur and sharply focussed compositional elements without the use of a tripod because you can comfortably shoot as low as half a second on the E-M1.
1-second hand-held exposure shows how improved the image stabilisation is on the E-M1.
The auto focus system on the E-M1 is considerably more advanced and is as fast as the E-M5. The new E-M1 sensor uses both contrast detection and on chip phase detection to auto focus. The E-M1 has 81 focus points with micro four thirds lenses and 37 focus points with four thirds lenses whereas the E-M5 only had 35 focus points. With the introduction of phase detect pixels on the sensor, four thirds lenses can now be used without a significant loss of auto focus speed and continuous auto focussing with tracking is more reliable than the E-M5. This is a major improvement for sports and action photography.
Improved focus-tracking on the E-M1.
If you like to shoot with manual focus lenses, the E-M1 now comes with focus peaking. When you have manual focus enabled or use manual focus lenses, the E-M1 highlights areas in the image that are in or out of focus so that you can adjust your focus point and aperture to preview and control your depth of field. This means you don’t have to use your depth of field preview button on your dSLRs. This is particularly useful for street photographers who like to use manual lenses and zone focussing.
The size of the sensor is not the sole determining factor for a choice of camera to replace the canon gear. For me, irrespective of the advantages of full frame cameras, the technology of smaller sensor cameras, in this case micro four thirds, has advanced enough for me to consider that the advantages of a full frame camera over micro four thirds not to be that significant and that the advantages of size and weight to be more important to me as I would be more likely use them constantly.
I did a comparison of the E-M1 with my wife’s 5D Mark 3 in a number of situations; not at all scientific. In low light and long exposures, the 5D Mark 3 did have a greater dynamic range and less noise as you would expect. In other shots the depth of field was shallower at equivalent focal lengths and apertures. However, I didn’t believe the differences to be at least twice as good even though the E-M1’s sensor is half the size. Overall, I think the E-M1 held up well against the 5D Mark 3 given its smaller sensor.
Overall, the E-M1 is an excellent camera with rich functionality and high level customisation to suit a wide range of shooting preferences and interests. Comfort, autofocus, the electronic viewfinder have been significantly improved over the E-M5. Image quality rivals that of APS-C dSLRs and arguably can hold its own against full frame cameras in certain lighting conditions. The amount of lenses that can be used on the E-M1 has significantly increased with the introduction of a new sensor.
Whilst I am sad that I had to give up the Canon gear, I am confident that I have made the right decision to adopt micro four thirds, and specifically the OM-D E-M1 and its baby brother, the E-M5.