Olympus E-M1: the Full Monty
The First and Second Look, and Then Some
|My other articles related to the Olympus OM-D System.|
This is the second article in the series on the new Olympus E-M1 camera, after a month of using it. I'll keep updating it over the next two-three months, also hoping to find time to work on a detailed review/reference.
So, here is the much-anticipated E-M1 from Olympus, a semi-pro (or advanced-amateur) camera, the second one in the OM-D line, aimed at persuading die-hard SLR users (like myself) that they don't really need an SLR to enjoy photography the way they're used to.
Was the mission a success? The E-M5 from 2012 was almost there; I bought it and have no regrets, and I've been using it for 18 months or so, with good results and, what is equally important, the way I like using a camera.
Now comes the bigger brother, offering better handling, luxurious make and finish, and, last but not least, a full autofocus compatibility with Four Thirds lenses.
To ease the suspense, let me start right away: I think Olympus engineers achieved the goals they've set up; for details what went right (and what not quite right, if close), read on.
Here shown with the 12-40mm/2.8 MZD lens
(All images © by Olympus)
Micro Four Thirds
The Micro Four Thirds (of just μFT) is the standard, developed by Olympus and Panasonic, defining the sensor size, lens mount, and lens-to-camera interface, so that cameras and lenses conforming to it are guaranteed to work together. It is intended for cameras not using an internal mirror for optical viewing, therefore the lens-to-image distance in μFT is smaller than in the original Four Thirds (or FT) standard, used for (mostly) Olympus SLRs, now extinct.
Four Thirds lenses can be mounted on μFT bodies with an appropriate adapter, and the autoexposure will work properly, but (until the E-M1, read on), the autofocus will not. The opposite is not true: μFT lenses cannot be mounted on FT bodies.
The μFT imager size is the same as in Four Thirds: 13×17.3 mm, it is a bit smaller than the common APS-C format (14.8×22.2 mm); much smaller than the so-called full frame (24×36 mm), but much larger than the common 1/1.7" sensor used in better compacts (5.7×7.6 mm). The sensor size issues are discussed in a separate article.
Body, make and finish
The first, casual inspection of the E-M1 leaves very good impression, indeed. The camera, while still very small (as compared to a DSLR, that is) is a bit bigger and heavier than its E-M5 junior sibling, just big enough to provide better handling, while still being fairly compact.
Let me show some numbers, comparing the body size and weight of the E-M1 with its immediate predecessor, but also with the smallest DSLR from the Olympus E-series, the E-420, and with the compact, but full-featured, E-620 I'm still using. (I'm showing the size as W×H, as the body depth is not really relevant; it is the lens which really defines that dimension. The weight includes battery and memory card.)
To wrap up the externals, let say a few things about the E-M1 controls.
There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the camera interface is very highly user-configurable, with more options here than any other (Olympus or not) I am aware of.
No other digital camera by Olympus had this number of external controls. There are a 13 buttons on the body (not counting the 5-button arrow cluster), six of which can be assigned to (almost) any function, there are also two control dials and a funky, 2-position lever to the right of the viewfinder.
Some Olympus lenses also have a function button on the lens barrel; I am, however, reluctant to assign those to any function, as it makes camera controld dependent on the lens used.
All these buttons act either as toggles, or as shortcuts to individual setting screens, which provide visual feedback to adjustments performed with use of control dials.
In case you counted the buttons in this picture and are still missing two: they are on the front side of the camera, to the right of the lens mount.
The mode dial (protected with a lock from unintended changes) still contains positions corresponding to Art and Scene modes, the new Picture Story, and the iAuto program mode (disabling all settings and adjustments, obviously a must in every professional camera).
This demonstrates that some people at Olympus still have no clue about what is the market the camera is aimed at. A continuing pattern, I'm sorry to say.
The iAuto name is, I suppose, intended to sound techno-savvy and advanced, to differentiate this mode from some low-tech, low-class Auto modes used by the competition.
Picture Story, which is not really an exposure mode, presents you with a collage template of a few nested picture frames, allowing to shoot the contents of each. Obviously, it is important enough to use its own slot on the mode dial. Putting aside the usefulness of this feature in a camera supposedly aimed at the (at least semi-) professional market, why, oh why was it not just made as one of the Art Modes?
For each of the redefinable buttons you can choose one of the 25 assignable functions. That's fine and flexible, except that there is no way to provide direct access to Image Stabilization (which in many Olympus SLRs used to have its own button). I find no explanation for this.
The feature I dislike most is how the lever to the right of the eyepiece works. This can be set in five (!) different ways, four of which don't actually change the camera settings, but affect the way the other controls change them. This is interface modality at its worst, you just wake up at night and scream.
Obviously, to avoid that mess, for my setup I chose the fifth option, where the lever toggles between two different AF setups. I find this a bit redundant, because there is already a direct AF mode access button, but the only other option would be to disable the lever at all.
Oh, and there is yet another setting in the menu, defining if the lever position also changes the functionality of two special (already dual-function) buttons at the top left to a different, hardwired preset. This is independent on what else does the lever actually do. Useful? Barely. Confusing? Very. Allowing these buttons to be freely assignable would make the interface more consistent and flexible, I think.
Now, that we are done with most of the E-M1 externals, let us go inside, because that's where the real fun starts.
The main reason that mirror-less cameras did not overtake the world sooner was the AF accuracy and speed, where the phase-detection system originally had a clear advantage.
And if you don't care about the technological background of the E-M5 new AF system, feel free to skip to the next section.
Here is a brief remainder on how both systems work.
In the new (proprietary?) sensor, a standard Bayer matrix of photosites covered by Red, Green, and Blue filters (and therefore responsive to a given component of visible light) has been slightly modified: 12.5% of the Green photosites (one in eight) are reassigned from the image-recording process to PD AF functionality.
Obviously, the green filter is no longer needed for those photosites, so it has been removed (more than tripling their responsiveness to visible light), and the missing information is reconstructed by interpolation from the nearest neighbors. Luckily, in the Bayer scheme 50% of photosites are Green, with 25% each assigned to the other two primary colors, so there is plenty left to interpolate from.
There is — must be! — some unavoidable information loss: after all, we suddenly have 6.25% of effectively dead pixels, and this must affect the image detail, but I really wouldn't worry about that. What happens is basically close to drawing the image information from a 15-megapixel sensor instead of 16-megapixel one.
One thing which remains unclear is whether the disabled Green photosites are limited to the central part of the frame (corresponding to the extent of the 37-point, central phase-detection AF area), or if they cover the full frame. My gut feeling is the latter. (If I am wrong, though, the information loss is less than the 6.25% mentioned above.)
Unfortunately, I have no idea who is the manufacturer of the new sensor, and Olympus keeps a secrecy on the subject, except for admitting some participation in the design process. It is possible (just possible!) that this may mean the end of the long stretch (since 2005) of using imagers made by Panasonic, and a promise of new, strange and wonderful, things to come...
The bottom line of all that is that new camera has a new, 16-megapixel sensor (effectively downgraded slightly to 15 MP), and a new AF system, referred to as Dual Fast AF. The camera detects the lens mounted, and then uses one or two AF methods:
E-M1 in Use
A precondition to enjoying the E-M1 is setting up the camera's options and controls to your needs and taste. This took me a whole day; in the process I wrote, for my own use, an HTML document with all settings the way I like them.
Generally, I found the E-M1 very much to my liking in handling and operation. Just the right size, very well balanced with all lenses I've tried it with (including the 12-40 mm F/8 and 75 mm F/1.8), positive controls and secure grip — all of this adds up to a most enjoyable experience. The only inconvenience is that the arrow cluster in the back is a bit too small for my liking; another 2 mm across (there is room left!) would help a lot.
Cosmetically I consider the E-M1 to be really pretty; don't understand people complaining about its "ugliness". Are we talking about the same camera? It may be a matter of taste, but esthetically I prefer when the form is defined by function (or at least pretends to) rather than the other way around. And yes, there is a resemblance to the legendary OM-1, clearly intentional. And the thing just oozes quality.
Using the electronic viewfinder in this camera is a real delight. Epson came up here with a real winner, setting a new mark to beat, and Olympus finished the job very nicely. This is the first EVF I can really use instead of SLR viewing.
A separate chapter is the autofocus. When used with μFT lenses, this is the fastest, most accurate AF action I have ever experienced. This seems to be confirmed by some reviewers who could compare the E-M1 with cameras by other makers (my own experience is limited to Sony and Canon in addition, of course, to Olympus).
With the Four Thirds lenses the AF is, at long last, usable. Not as great as that with μFT lenses (we're getting spoiled fast!), but as good as it was on E-Series SLRs.
Before getting the E-M1, I've been using the E-M5 for eighteen months. I really like that camera and I enjoyed it a lot. But now, every time I switch to it after using the E-M1 for a while, it feels like a poor people's camera. I am sorry to say that, but I can't get rid of this feeling, really.
At the moment this is a matter of the body feel, viewfinder, and controls. I am not sure I will be able to see a difference between images from both cameras. Actually, I believe both deliver results better than I really need. And the E-M5 body is so small that it will make a competent backup to sit in my bag until it is needed (or until my wife wants to use it; she really likes that camera a lot).
Does it deliver?
I am still working on more E-M1 image samples and their interpretation, but it looks already like these may be the best (technically) images I've got from any camera yet. I realize this is a strong statement, so let's wait a bit until I am able to confirm it.
The three series of high-ISO samples show that images at up to up to ISO 6400 are presentable; the progress on this field in the last two or three years is just amazing. Even those shot at ISO 25,600 (das ist 45°DIN, meine deutsche Freunde, unmöglich!) are usable, if not too pretty, very much like ISO 3200 of just four years ago.
The close-up and macro performance of the E-M1 is very satisfactory. This really is a matter of the lens, but there is no need to search: the "standard" 12-50 mm F/3.5-6.3 zoom provides a real macro capability up to 1:1 (equivalent) magnification, i.e., a frame 36 mm across.
No camera I've known was without flaws, this is real world. It is understandable if the these flaws are a result of technology limitations, or price constraints — these are hard to avoid and should be accepted. It is somewhat more irritating (and less forgivable) if these flaws are a result of (what we consider to be) a bad judgement or bad taste.
The E-M1 is a great camera: the best yet digital from Olympus, I dare say, and one of the best ones by anyone. Yet it has a few warts, which feel even more painful as they belong to the second (easily avoidable) group. First, the addition of novelty, toy-like features sometimes interfering with the basic camera functions. Second, an unnecessary complication of some parts of the user interface (the darn lever switch comes to mind!), additionally aggravated by bad English on some option names or on-screen hints, often misleading rather than helping. Third: lackluster battery performance (combined with high cost of spares). These are my bigger complaints, any other points are of secondary importance.
The first two points could be addressed as a firmware update, but, I'm afraid to say, don't hold your breath. I've been following Olympus firmware updates for their many cameras for more than ten years now and the general pattern is that these usually address only performance problems and obvious bugs, rarely design issues. I'm afraid we just have take it or leave it. I would really like to be wrong.
Warts and all, the E-M1 is a most capable and enjoyable (if a bit overpriced, from where I stand) camera. If you are still a Four Thirds user, this may be a good time to switch, still retaining the full use of your lenses. If you are already into Micro Four Thirds, treat yourself to a new level of performance, functionality, and style. If you are tired or otherwise unhappy with your current Canon or Nikon system, come and see how things can be done.
There are many reviews and hands-on reports of the E-M1 available on the Web; here I'm providing links to those which either offer most information or cover aspects not easily found elsewhere. (I am also omitting some articles which are almost unreadable because of the amount of advertising and other unrelated contents in the page layout; sorry, I can't read those.)
|My other articles related to the Olympus OM-D System.|
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|Posted 2013/12/07; last updated 2013/12/22||Copyright © 2013 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak|