Thank you for looking up our Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review. The full review is below, but you may prefer to download our PDF version, which includes test images and full specifications. You can download it here: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review.pdf
It had to happen, of course. Even while we were all drooling over the gorgeous E-M5 after its launch back in 2011, Olympus was emphasising that its new OM-D system was indeed a system and that there would be more camera bodies in the future. As time went on, Olympus became more definite about what would come next… a higher end – even pro-level – OM-D camera. It was a tantalising prospect especially as the E-M5 ticked so many boxes in terms of its styling, features and performance. And Olympus hasn’t disappointed with the E-M1 which takes over where the E-M5 leaves off, including being even more traditional ‘OM’ in its styling.
It is, however, something of a good news/bad news scenario because not only is the E-M1 the OM-D system flagship, it’s Olympus’s flagship camera full stop. What this means, then, is the end of the road for Olympus’s D-SLR program and the E-M1 is also designed to be the replacement for the E-5 even though it’s a compact system camera (CSC) and not a reflex. Of course, it’s what we’ve suspected for a while given there have been no new Four Thirds mount lenses from Olympus in years and, of course, the E-5, while not officially discontinued, hasn’t been available for ages. Now it is official, but Olympus is hoping to soften the blow by making the E-M1 ‘compatible’ with the Four Thirds lenses – albeit still with the inherent clunkiness of a mount adaptor – and, more generally, making it hard to resist for anybody with any affinity for the marque.
Additionally, there’s a new series of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses which represent the pinnacle of performance, construction and specifications. The first of these pro-grade lenses is a 12-40mm f2.8 standard zoom (equivalent to 24-80mm) with an all-metal/all-glass construction, full sealing against dust and moisture, and Olympus’s high-end ‘ZERO’ multi-coating. There’s a 40-150mm f2.8 telezoom (equivalent to 80-300mm) on the way, but apparently we’ll have to wait until the end of 2014 for this.
One On One
Available in black only, the E-M1 looks even more like the classic 35mm OM System cameras than the E-M5 because, quite simply, it looks even more like a reflex camera rather than a CSC masquerading as one.
Significantly, it carries a model number that’s very famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – in Olympus history. When the legendary camera designer Yoshihisa Maitani devised his ultra-compact 35mm SLR back in the early 1970s it was going to be called the M-1 and, indeed, production commenced using this model designation. When the camera was revealed at the 1972 Photokina, Leica objected to the use of the ‘M’ prefix – most probably because Maitani’s tiny 35mm SLR would be a real challenger in terms of its size to the 35mm rangefinder camera – so Olympus hastily switched to ‘OM’.
Fast forward to 2013 and the spirit of the original M-1 is re-incarnated in the E-M1, a camera with the potential to be just as significant for Olympus at a time when the boundaries between D-SLR and CSC are being increasingly blurred. Incidentally, while the E-M1 replaces the E-5, it doesn’t supersede the E-M5 which continues and is also quite a lot cheaper.
The E-M1 does its very impressive impersonation of a D-SLR partly because it has a good-sized grip and partly because its control layout is more about dials than ever before. Without the grip, the E-M1 is actually pretty much the same size as the E-M5, but it looks a whole lot more purposeful… in fact, it makes its OM-D sibling look a tad wimpy. The control layout is completely different and includes a long power on/off lever that’s pretty much an exact replica of the OM-1’s. There’s a conventional main mode dial – with the option of being lockable, but you can make the choice – with the rear input wheel located alongside. The front input wheel surrounds the shutter release atop the handgrip. The power lever is located around what looks like yet another dial, but is actually a pair of half-circle-shaped dual-function buttons. A PC flash terminal – new on the E-M1 – is situated on the panel in front while the hotshoe incorporates the AP2 auxiliary port terminal so Olympus has all the camera’s connections covered.
Even more so as the E-M1 also gets a conventional stereo audio input, eliminating the need for an additional adapter to fit an external microphone.
On the other side of the bodyshell – which comprises magnesium alloy covers and is both fully sealed and insulated – is a dedicated compartment for the memory card which is just so much more convenient than having it share the battery’s compartment in the base. However, the E-M1 uses the same BLN-1 lithium-ion battery pack as the E-M5 and it’s supplied with the same FL-LM2 compact flash unit which, although very small, still has a tilt head which makes it rather more useful than a fixed built-in flash. Additionally, not incorporating a flash into the E-M1 allows Olympus to maintain an OM-style ‘pentaprism housing’ (although, of course, it’s an EVF inside and not a lump of glass).
The right-hand side of the top panel (as viewed from behind) on the E-M1 at left and the OM-1 at right. Of course, the OM-1 didn’t need a main mode dial, but the basic configuration on both cameras is still as similar as 40 years of progress allows.
The menu system is the one area where the E-M1 trips up a bit. The so-called ‘Shooting Menus’ are actually quite sparse – what you see here is what you get – because Olympus has put everything into the exhaustingly extensive ‘Custom Menus’. The E-M1’s ‘Custom Menus’ run to no fewer than 97 items. Curiously, everyday items such as the white balance settings (right) are buried here.
The back panel is mostly occupied by a tilt-adjustable monitor screen which is now an LCD-type panel with capacitive touch control and a higher resolution of 1.04 million dots. Alongside is a four-way keypad which is the navigator and works in conjunction with the input wheels to perform a huge variety of selection and setting duties. The E-M1’s electronic viewfinder is also an LCD panel with a resolution of 2.36 million dots and a magnification of 0.76x. It’s a beauty – exhibiting exceptional clarity, contrast and colour, and no traces of lag no matter how fast you pan the camera. It’s also very comfortable to use thanks to the magnification. The only negative is the limited dynamic range in very contrasty situations. The eyepiece incorporates a proximity sensor for automatic switching between the EVF and the monitor screen, but this can also be done manually via a button to one side.
On the other side of the eyepiece is the AE/AF lock button which is combined with a selector switch with settings marked ‘1’ and ‘2’. This is a quick and easy way to change the roles of the two input wheels… set at ‘1’ they function as the exposure controllers (i.e. program shift/apertures/shutter speeds – depending on the mode in use – and exposure compensation) while set to ‘2’ they then adjust the ISO and white balance. It’s a neat little ‘mechanical’ arrangement that’s a bit unusual in this digital era. There’s a customisable button on the top panel just astern of the shutter release and which provides direct access to adjustments for highlights/shadows, colour hue/saturation (a new feature called the ‘Colour Creator’), the image aspect ratio and image/frame zooming for assisting autofocus. These are just its ‘Multi-Function’ operations because it can alternatively be set one of a long list of single functions… so it’s a sort of multi-multi-function button.
But wait, there’s more… there’s another multi-function button (located on the thumbrest) and a load of other buttons can also be switched between a variety of roles, including those for video start/stop, the AF/AE lock, depth-of-field preview, one-touch white balance and the key pad’s four quadrants. Basically, there’s around a zillion options and it’s all pretty daunting at first, but the reality is that you’ll probably only use a couple of them and only once as they’re ‘set-and-forget’.
If you’re getting the idea that Olympus is trying to keep you away from the menus when shooting, you’re right, and you can do pretty well everything via ‘hard’ controls. The alternative is the ‘Super Control Panel’ screen which provides direct access to 16 functions, but first you have to find it.
As on the E-M5, the SCP has to be switched on separately for each of the camera’s main operational configurations – iAuto, PASM, Art Filters and Scene Modes – along with the alternative ‘Live Control’ screen which allows for the image to be displayed alongside selected adjustable settings. This requires a trip to the Custom Menu and a long-winded set-up procedure which has to be executed four times if you want the SCP screen to always be available. At least when it’s done, it’s done.
Another idiosyncrasy is that while the tiles in the SCP screen can be selected via touch control that’s as far as it goes and to change settings you have to go ‘mechanical’. The quick option is to use the front input wheel which cycles through the settings, but if you actually want to see what’s what, it’s necessary to first press the navigator’s ‘OK’ button to access the sub-menu which are then navigated conventionally via the command wheels or the left/right navigation keys rather than via touch control. As was the case with the E-M5, the instruction manual isn’t especially helpful, being short on detail and less-than-logical in its organisation, but once you have the E-M1 set up to your liking – which will take a bit of time as you trawl through the myriad of possibilities – it’s reasonably straightforward from here on.
Focusing On The Future
There’s little doubt that the E-M1’s external layout has been designed with the refugees from Olympus’s D-SLR system in mind. And thanks to various internal features it’s been made easier for them to step straight across to the OM-D system with their Four Thirds lenses in tow.
For starters, the imaging sensor is equipped with dedicated arrays for phase-difference detection autofocusing and the E-M1 automatically switches to this method of determining subject distance when an FT lens is fitted. Additionally, the next-gen ‘TruPic VII’ processor is loaded with all the Olympus FT lens profiles – all 23 of them – so they’re fully integrated with all the camera’s functions, including on-the-fly corrections for chromatic aberrations. Given the effective focal lengths remain unchanged, the only issue here is the need to use a mount adapter.
The new ‘Dual FAST AF’ system has been designed so the left and right phase-detect arrays have minimal impact on the image (remember that these gaps have to be filled via interpolation) and it’s only really operating as a hybrid when MFT lenses are fitted and continuous autofocusing is selected. In this scenario, phase-detection does the heavy-lifting and contrast-detection the fine-tuning. With MFT lenses and single-shot AF operation, the system is exclusively contrast-detection which uses 81 measuring points (i.e. a 9x9 array) while the phase-detection system has 37 points. Just to refresh your memory, FAST stands for Frequency Accelerated Sensor Technology which references the high-speed data streaming from the Live MOS sensor... 120 fps in the single-shot mode, 240 fps with continuous AF operation.
Beyond the basic AF modes, there’s the choice of continuous AF with auto tracking or single-shot with a full-time manual override and the new PRO zoom has the nifty push-pull focusing collar for quickly switching between AF and MF. The zones can be selected individually or in clusters of nine. In the ‘Continuous AF + Tracking’ mode, the zones are selected automatically as the subject moves using data recognition for elements such as faces, colours and patterns. As on the E-M5, the face detection AF mode has an additional capability called ‘Pupil Priority’ which can be set to auto – so the subject’s eye closest to the camera will be used – or either right or left.
Image magnification can be set to 5x, 7x, 10x or 14x to assist with focusing – a feature that really comes into its own with the higher res monitor and EVF. It’s available with both AF and manual focusing, the latter also with the option of a focus peaking display. These are preset in the custom menu and will subsequently be engaged automatically when the focusing collar is twisted. There’s a choice of black or white as the edge enhancement colour, but curiously this setting is located in another part of the very extensive custom menu and these little anomalies crop up a bit as you delve deeper into the E-M1’s maze of settings. For the record, the custom menu comprises a total of 97 items! Consequently, the main shooting menu – where a lot of this stuff should be – contains only 13 items.
Live view screens showing a real-time histogram (left) and dual-axis level displays (right). The all-new ‘Colour Creator’ function allows for the quick adjustment of hue and saturation via the E-M1’s front and rear input wheels.
The E-M1’s sensor is an all-new Live MOS device with a total pixel count of 17.2 million and the sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 200 to 25,600 (with a one stop ‘pull’ to ISO 100). In addition to having the embedded phase-detect AF arrays, another first for the MFT world is the absence of an optical low-pass or anti-aliasing filter. So, although the effective pixel count of 16.1 million is the same as that of the E-M5, these are 16.1 million pure and unadulterated pixels so there should, theoretically, be a difference in the resolution. Olympus says it’s able to counter the effects of moiré patterns with an updated version of its ‘Fine Detail’ pixel-level processing which is one from the ‘TruPic VII’s’ extensive box of tricks. Consequently, according to Olympus, moiré is “now a non-issue”.
The effective pixel count delivers a maximum image size of 4608x3456 pixels, but as has been the case on any Olympus interchangeable lens digital camera, there’s a huge choice of image settings. Four JPEG compression levels, eight sizes and five aspect ratios can all be mixed and matched. Only four image sizes are actually selectable at any one time and three of these are first predetermined in the custom menu from a selection of four under the ‘Medium’ banner and three classified as ‘Small’. Likewise, RAW+JPEG capture can be configured to capture any combination of JPEG compression level and image size.
The E-M1 inherits the same five-axes in-body image stabilisation as is employed in the current Digital Pen flagship so obviously it’s available with any lens, including the FT models. The range of correction for camera shake is up to four stops and there’s no fewer than six modes – four for still photography and two for shooting video. The former includes one which detects the direction of panning and the camera’s orientation to automatically set the required type of correction.
The ‘TruPic VII’ processor works in conjunction with a newly-designed shutter – which has a top speed of 1/8000 second – to deliver a shooting speed of 10 fps, marginally faster than the E-M5’s 9.0 fps. This is with the AF and AE locked to the first frame, but with continuous adjustment, the maximum speed is still a very respectable 6.0 fps.
In The Zone
The E-M1 retains the 324-point ‘Digital ESP’ multi-zone metering used in the E-M5 and which also offers the choice of centre-weighted average or spot measurements, the latter adjustable to give a bias towards either highlights or shadows. The main auto exposure control modes are backed by an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV of compensation and auto bracketing which can operate over sequences of two, three, five or seven frames with adjustments of +/-0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV. Incidentally, all the exposure adjustments can be preset to be applied in one of these three increments.
An ‘Exposure Shift’ adjustment is provided to fine-tune each of the metering modes over a range of +/-1.0 EV in 1/6-stop increments. No, this isn’t found in the custom submenu for exposure control, but in the ‘Utility’ sub-menu. Go figure.
The standard set of ‘PASM’ exposure control modes is supplemented by a choice of 24 subject/scene modes or an ‘iAUTO’ goof-proof mode. However, as is increasingly common these days, ‘iAUTO’ isn’t content with being entirely automatic so there’s a set of manual adjustments called ‘Live Guides’ which provide some control colour saturation, colour balance, brightness, background blur and blurring/freezing for moving subjects. These are accessed via touch tab and then applied via sliders which are also adjusted by touch.
For the grown ups there’s a selection of six ‘Picture Mode’ presets called i-Enhance, Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait and Monotone (a.k.a. B&W). The i-Enhance preset – which is short for ‘Intelligent Enhance’ – is designed to boost the saturation of whatever colour predominates in a scene. It additionally tweaks the dynamic range and operates automatically if the E-M1 is in the ‘iAUTO’ mode. Each ‘Picture Mode’ has adjustable parameters for sharpness, contrast, colour saturation and tonal gradation. The latter has Normal, Auto, High Key and Low Key settings. The automatic adjustments are made using Olympus’s ‘Shadow Adjustment Technology’ (SAT) processing which is designed to balance the amount of detailing reproduced in the highlights and the shadows. The darker areas of the image are selectively brightening by adjusting the tone curve while the highlights are selectively underexposed. The high key and low key settings obviously shift the tonal gradation to suit images that are predominantly brighter or darker respectively. This continues the long Olympus tradition of providing as much control as is possible over exposures which it began by pioneering the idea of multi-zone metering systems. Like the E-M5, the E-M1 has a simplified Curves-style adjustment for individually controlling the brightness of the highlights and/or the shadows. With this ‘Highlight&Shadow Control’ activated, the front dial tweaks the highlights and the rear dial works on the shadows. Similarly, the new ‘Colour Creator’ is also a quasi-Photoshop function – Saturation/Hue adjustments – and it’s controlled via a colour wheel displayed in the main monitor. The front dial adjusts the hue and the rear dial varies the saturation.
The Monotone ‘Picture Mode’s’ adjustments are for contrast, sharpness, gradation, contrast control filters (yellow, orange, red and green) and toning effects (sepia, blue, purple and green). There is also a provision for creating one user-defined colour ‘Picture Mode’.
The ‘Picture Modes’ and the E-M1’s ‘Art Filter’ effects share the same menu so, like the former, the latter can be applied with any exposure control mode. There’s a choice of 12 base effects, most of which are adjustable and can also be combined with a number – depending on the first effect – of extra ‘Art Effects’ from a total collection of seven called Soft Focus, Pinhole Frame Effect, White Edges, Starlight, Top And Bottom Blur, and Left And Right Blur. There is also an ‘Art Filter’ bracketing function which includes all the ‘Picture Modes’ so, if desired, it’s possible to end up with a total of 19 variations of the original image (including the custom ‘Picture Mode’). If you don’t want the lot, then it’s necessary to first uncheck the effects and picture presets that aren’t needed… another funny way of doing things.
Not surprisingly, the E-M1 also offers plenty of choices for dealing with colour balance, but obviously engaging the ‘Colour Creator’ overrides the white balance control. The auto correction has a ‘Keep Warm Colour’ option for use when shooting under tungsten lighting, and then there’s a choice of seven presets and provisions for storing up to four custom WB measurements. All have fine-tuning, set using slider-type controls for the amber-to-blue and green-to-magenta colour ranges. Manual colour temperatures can be selected over a range of 2000 to 14,000 degrees Kelvin, but which confusingly, Olympus persists in calling a “custom white balance”. Auto WB bracketing is over a sequence of three frames, but as on the E-M5, there’s a selection of bracketing functions centralised under the one sub-menu. The other options are for exposure, flash, sensitivity and, as mentioned earlier, the ‘Art Filters’ (which includes the ‘Picture Control’ modes).
Compared to the E-M5, the E-M1 steps up to some higher-end features including an intervalometer for creating time lapse sequences and a proper multi-shot HDR function. The latter has two auto modes which capture four frames and two different amounts of exposure variation and then combine them into the one image with either “high contrast” or “super-high” contrast. Alternatively, there’s a choice of ‘manual’ settings – three, five or seven frames at +/-2.0 EV; and three or five frames at +/-3.0 EV. Multiple exposures – well, more precisely, double exposures – can be made with the option of an ‘Auto Gain’ exposure adjustment.
Additional images can be combined, but it’s necessary to use RAW capture and the ‘Overlay’ function (this combined RAW image can subsequently be converted to a JPEG in-camera). This is one of a number of editing functions which, for JPEGs, comprise Shadow Adjust, Red-Eye Fix, Aspect, B&W, Sepia, Saturation, Resize and e-Portrait. The special effects aren’t available post-capture.
The review/replay screens can be configured to include a thumbnail image with a full set of histograms (i.e. brightness and RGB channels), a larger brightness histogram superimposed over the image, highlight and shadow warnings and a ‘Light Box’ display for the side-by-side comparison of two images (complete with zooming which is very handy). The thumbnail pages comprise four, nine, 25 or 100 images plus a calendar display, but just about all of this has to be switched on (or off) in the Custom Menu. Touch controls are available for browsing, zooming and scrolling through
Setting up the monitor and EVF displays also requires a trip to the Custom Menu with the options being a real-time histogram, dual-axis level displays, highlight and shadow warnings and a superimposed grid (from a choice of five). The highlight and shadow warnings have adjustable thresholds and the real-time histogram includes an internal section – displayed in green – which shows the brightness values within the selected focusing point or cluster of points. Usefully, the ‘Super Control Panel’ is shown in the viewfinder as can the alternative ‘Live Control’ screen which leaves the image area largely clear and arranges the function tiles along the left-hand edge of frame and the actual settings along the bottom edge.
Speed And Performance
Our new reference memory card for conducting speed trials is Lexar’s Professional 600x 64 GB SDXC device. It’s UHS-I compliant and has a 45 MB/second write speed. We’ve had to adopt a faster card as the data handling capabilities of digital cameras have been steadily increasing and burst lengths, in particular, are now often dependent on how quickly the buffer can be emptied.
The E-M1 fired off a sequence of 49 super-fine quality in 4.762 second which represents a shooting speed of 10.29 fps. Impressive… as is the fact that these are processed extremely quickly indeed. With RAW capture the burst length was still 41 frames captured in 4.013 seconds to give a shooting speed of 10.21 fps. The key difference here was that the buffer took a lot longer to empty although, in reality, it’s only a delay of a few seconds. The maximum quality JPEG test files were typically 10.5 MB in size while the RAW (ORF) files were around 15.8 MB.
The autofocusing is impressively fast whether in single-shot or continuous mode, but as we didn’t have an adapter on hand we couldn’t evaluate the performance with a Four Thirds lens. The 324-zone ‘Digital ESP’ metering – already proven on the E-M5 and others – continues to deliver reliable exposure control in any situation, including with quite challenging lighting situations.
All the test images were taken with the new 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens which is a lovely piece of work and easily rivals Panasonic’s equally mouth-watering 12-35mm f2.8 zoom. Firstly, the clarity and crispness of the super-fine JPEGs is simply stunning and they just ooze beautifully defined detailing. The colour reproduction is simply beautiful from the subtlest of shades through to full-on saturated tones and the camera handles all parts of the spectrum equally competently.
Noise isn’t much of an issue until ISO 3200 and then it’s only because that razor-sharp crispness starts to diminish and it’s a bit obvious. The ISO 6400 and 12,800 are still quite usable but with some graininess, while at ISO 25,600 there’s obvious blotchiness in areas of continuous tone and the colour saturation is also reduced. Probably the most important point to make about that E-M1’s imaging performance is that it doesn’t give anything away to any rival with a larger ‘APS-C’ sensor and that includes both D-SLRs and CSCs.
In fact, to a large extent, it makes the issue of sensor size seem largely irrelevant (although Sony’s as-yet-untested Alpha 7/7R models with their full-35mm sensors may change all this).
Can we forgive the E-M1 for its flaws? You betcha! Just as with the E-M5, the interface curiosities simply aren’t sufficiently annoying to detract from the overall experience of the E-M1 which is, quite simply, a hugely enjoyable and rewarding one.
It’s a camera that you constantly want to pick up and never put down. It looks fabulous, feels fantastic and, once you’ve weaved your way through the set-up, works beautifully. It’s a real Olympus. It’s more than capable of replacing the E-5 and it truly embodies the spirit of its namesake.
Better still, no matter how dedicated you actually might be to the idea of a D-SLR camera, the E-M1 will convert you to the mirrorless way. That, dear readers, is no mean feat.