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.


Update History:

My other articles on the E-M1:

  • My Road to the E-M1 — a general introduction to this camera and notes on its significance to the Olympus product line, especially from the viewpoint of a Four Thirds user;
  • Image Samples, Part 1 — some images taken straight out-of-the-box, at default settings, with the 12-50 mm F/3.5-6.3 lens;
  • Image Samples, Part 2 — more of my lake shots; now with the camera set more to my liking, and with three lenses: 12-50, 40-150, and 75-300 mm;
  • Image Detail and Noise at ISO up to 25600 — three table-top subjects analyzed; also how the Neat Image denoising plugin works here;
  • Macro and Close-Ups — how that works with two standard μFT lenses: 12-50 and 12-40 mm, and also with an FT 50/2.0 Macro lens.
  • E-M1 Picture Modes — samples and discussion;

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.)

  • E-M1: 130×94 mm, 497 g
  • E-M5: 122×89 mm, 425 g
  • E-420: 130×91 mm, 438 g
  • E-620: 130×94 mm, 533 g

As I liked the ergonomics of the E-620 a lot, I found the E-M1 just the right size and weight for my average-sized hands; if your hands are larger, you may find it a bit too small. What additionally helps here is a prominent grip, one of the better ones I've experienced in a camera of this size.

The camera looks busy, but not confusingly so; the black matte finish is flawless.

The body interior shell is made of magnesium alloy, strong and rigid enough to provide enough of dimensional stability.

Now, this being the current flagship of Olympus μFT cameras, the E-M1 has the proper gasketing to assure that it remains dust- and splash-proof; some lenses (most notably: the 12-40 mm MZD shown above and the 12-50 mm I've been using for the last 18 months) also provide this feature.

Olympus also claims that the camera is freeze-proof down to -10°C (that's 14°F for the non-metric crowd); I am not sure if this is a serious claim: how would the battery perform at this point?

Anyway, the body design, make, and finish are first-class, leaving nothing to be desired.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder, for those who spent the last few years under a stone, is electronic; what looks like a traditional pentaprism hump is actually a device to look at a miniature high-resolution monitor panel inside.

It is the same Epson Ultimicron XGA panel as the one used in the VF-4 viewfinder, released for the E-P5 of the Pen series by Olympus (also used in a few other makers' cameras since).

It has a resolution of 2.36 million single-component dots, corresponding to 767 thousand RGB pixels, which is almost exactly the resolution of an XGA computer screen. This is an improvement from the 1.44 million dots (480 million pixels) in the E-M5, which is the SVGA screen resolution. While the finder in the E-M5 was already usable, the new one is just gorgeous, especially with the fast refresh rate which makes it virtually smear-proof (no streaks at rapid camera or subject movements).

The finder magnification is most impressive: nominal 1.48× which is not really a meaningful value when comparing cameras of varying sensor sizes; for a comparison each quoted value should be divided by the appropriate focal length multiplier (2.0 for FT/μFT, 1.6 for cameras using APS-C sensors). Anyway, this is much larger than 1.15× in the E-3/E-5 or E-M5. Actually, very few DSLRs on the market offer a larger viewing area, and at most by a few percent.

Thus, let me make an official statement, to revoke anything I might have said before on this subject:

I, Andrzej Wrotniak, hereby declare for all who care to hear that I no longer need an optical, SLR viewing system, and I am now willing to live with electronic viewfinders as long as they are as good as, or better than, the one used in the E-M5.

The viewfinder can be switched between (basically) two different modes, with the exposure information either overlaid over the full-screen image preview, or with the preview somewhat reduced in size, and that information shown in a separate bar below it.

If you use the 3:2 (or higher) aspect ratio, the image is not even reduced, it still uses the full finder width, just moved up away from the information display, nice. And, with electronic viewing, setting the aspect ratio at shooting finally makes sense: in SLR finders there was no way to check the image composition.

Actually, even in the 4:3 aspect I tend to keep the info display off the viewing area, trading off a bit in magnification. The image is still impressively large, and there are fewer distractions; possibly just a matter of taste.

In a welcome development, the camera has a finder proximity sensor: the finder is turned off when you remove your eye from it (and the monitor screen is disabled when you are using the eyepiece). An energy-saving measure, also reducing the annoyance factor.

Anyway (putting aside full compatibility with E-System lenses) the EVF is, from where I stand, the greatest selling point of the new camera. Try it once, and you will be hooked.

External monitor

This is a very nice monitor, with the resolution upgraded to 1.04 million dots, up from 610 000 in the E-M5 (frankly, I can see a difference only when viewing both displays side-by-side). The size remains unchanged, at 3 inches (76 mm)

The screen resolution improvement will be more visible for those coming directly from E-System SLRs, which were limited to 230 000 dots (at 2.7" in the E-620); only the E-5 had 920 000 dots in a 3-inch screen.

It can be tilted up and down, but not swiveled to the side (or backwards). I don't consider this a limitation (never having a need to use this feature in the portrait orientation), and the tilt-only design is more compact in use (no extra room needed to the left of camera).

The controls

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.

Autofocus: a new solution

The main reason that mirror-less cameras (MILCs) did not overtake the SLRs sooner was the AF accuracy and speed, where phase-detection systems (used in SLRs) originally had a clear advantage over contrast-detection ones (these use the imager, therefore they are more suitable for MILCs).

Here is a brief remainder on how both systems work.

  • In phase-detection AF the circuitry can determine not only that the image is out of focus at a given moment, but also by how much and in which direction; therefore it can instruct the servomotor how far to move in order to get the image focused — at least in the first approximation, with iterative refinements applied as needed. This is fast and precise, but it requires separate AF light sensors.

    These sensors are usually placed at the bottom of the SLR mirror chamber, with the main mirror being semi-transparent in some areas, and with a smaller one riding piggyback on (and behind) it. Most of the light is still reflected towards the viewing screen above, as both viewing and focusing happen at the same time.

  • In contrast detection AF, the system can only tell that the image is more (or less) out of focus as compared with a previous lens position, so the camera arrives to the right focus by trial and error, changing the focus a bit, and then performing a next step in the same or opposite direction.

    The information is generated by imager photosites, the same which are used to collect the image itself. This is happening at the same time as collecting the image information for screen preview.

Olympus (E-510) and Canon (D1 Mk. III) were first on the market with a dual viewing and AF system: in addition to the typical SLR approach (optical viewing, phase-detect focusing with dedicated sensors), you could switch to the Live View mode, with electronic preview on the external monitor and contrast-detect AF done with the imager.

I'm skipping here partial solutions used by Sony and Olympus in some earlier models, and some of the more recent Sony Alpha non-SLRs using pure electronic viewing, but with a full-time, semi-transparent mirror redirecting some light to dedicated PD AF sensors. See also a section on that in my original E-510 review from 2007, and It's all Done with Mirrors, about the hybrid solution in the Olympus E-330.

The main problem with dual (SLR and LV) viewing systems was that each AF approach needs a different lens servo mechanism design. While it is possible to design a lens working OK with both systems, a lens developed for a phase-detection AF will not work well on a contrast-detection body. This is while Live View in Olympus SLRs would switch back to the "SLR mode" for the final AF operation just before exposure, with a whole circus of movement, noise, and related activity.

Olympus released a few lenses supporting both AF modes; for the other (often excellent and costly) Digital Zuikos the AF performance was either bad, or very bad, or just nonexistent when used on μFT bodies, with no PD AF to fall back to.

Therefore, in order to attract the former SLR users — many of them, like myself, quite enthusiastic about the Olympus E-System, and with some investment in Four Thirds Lenses, Olympus engineers faced two challenges:

  1. Making imager-based AF (contrast-detection or not) comparable in speed and accuracy to phase-detection AF used in SLRs;
  2. Making it compatible with existing, designed for the E-System, phase-detection AF lenses.

The first problem has been solved (by a number of camera makers, not just Olympus) a year or two ago: the accuracy and speed of CD AF systems became at least comparable (and often better than) in the PD AF systems, used in SLRs. In case of Olympus cameras, the latest Pens (and, most notably, the E-M5) leave nothing here to be desired — as long as lenses developed specifically for the μFT system are being used.

There is one exception to the above: contrast-detection AF does not usually perform too good in the continuous and/or focus-tracking mode. I'm not technically fluent enough in the subject to tell why.

The second issue has been addressed by Olympus just recently, and in a quite radical way: by adding a full-fledged phase detection AF functionality, using the imager itself. More exactly, some imager photosites have been relieved of their imaging duty and devoted entirely to collecting AF information (there must be reasons why the same photosite cannot do both). The E-M1 is the first Olympus camera using this approach.

Other manufacturers are introducing similar solutions; Fujifilm, Canon, and Nikon all implemented some flavor of imager-based PD AF similar to what Olympus does; looks like the devil is in details, though.

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...

New image sensor, dual AF system

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:

  • Phase-detection AF with FT lenses;
  • Contrast detection for Single AF with μFT lenses;
  • Combination of both for Continuous AF wit μFT lenses.

As we can see, PD AF has been introduced not just for the sake of legacy FT lenses; it was also put to a good use with the μFT ones.

How does it translate into real-life AF experience with the camera? Here are my impressions, based on a very informal experiment with a set of lenses and camera bodies:

  • With the μFT lenses I have tried, the AF is almost instantaneous, even in low (living room) artificial light. Even the 75-300 mm F/4.8-6.7 at the long end was really fast and accurate. I'm getting an impression (possibly a wishful thinking?) that the E-M1 is even better here than the E-M5.
  • With legacy FT lenses, the speed and reliability of AF is at par with the E-620 or E-30 on which I tried the same lenses in the same session (I had no E-5 on hand to compare). Under low, indoors light the 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 would sometimes struggle or just refuse to focus on the new camera, but so it would on the older ones (it would still behave just fine outdoors in daylight).

Anyway, this means that what Olympus claims is true: the FT lenses behave on the E-M1 equally well as on cameras for which they were originally designed. This means I can still use two lenses I want to keep from my E-Series stable: the 12-60 mm and 50 mm Macro; the others may depart into a dignified retirement.

To close the chapter on autofocus, the AF pattern and its location can be easily modified (especially when you customize the controls with that in mind), and the camera can be also set up to autofocus on demand, i.e. with AF disabled but performed on a press of the Lock button; especially useful for critical applications.

Last but not least, this may be the first digital camera which I can really use with manually focused lenses. It can be set up to show a highly magnified frame fragment during manual focusing, using peaking (highlighting) to detect contours which are in focus. This would be not easy, if at all possible. to implement on an SLR (unless you're using the Live View, when it becomes a non-SLR).

Lenses

A camera of this type needs a range of quality lenses, otherwise its attractiveness suffers. Olympus and Panasonic started making ILCs (non-SLR, interchangeable lens cameras), well before other brands joined the game, so at this moment they offer the widest choice for cameras of this class: more than twenty lenses, with a healthy share of quality primes.

So far all lenses I'm using with the E-M1 are by Olympus and they are, as I expected, exemplary performers. I will be, however, getting at least one lens by Panasonic: the 7-14 mm to cover my wide-end needs.

It is in the lens division where, actually, the size/weight advantages of the μFT standard show most. I'm sometimes amazed at the focal length range I can now carry in a compact camera bag.

Being able to use Four Thirds lenses on the E-M1 with full AF functionality is a big plus, but only for those who invested in that lens system, I wouldn't recommend buying them now, just to be used with that camera. The compactness and AF performance of the μFT line tip the scales heavily here.

Other specs and features

This will be a quick list, as the most important issues have been already covered. The list is arranged in no particular order.

  • ISO from 100 to 25600

    The base (native) sensor gain corresponds to ISO 200, and one may safely assume that image quality (dynamic range, noise) will be at its best at that value. In the user interface the values between ISO 200 and 3200 are denoted as Recommended, all others — as Extension which is a hint of what the engineers think about usability of a particular value.

    I agree with Olympus that ISO 3200 is safe to use for general purpose; not long ago I shot an Indian wedding using available light and ISO 3200 on the E-M5, and the results were very civilized. While the M-E5 imager is not the same as that in the E-M1, they both belong, I suspect, to the same family. Actually, having shot and inspected three comprehensive low-light, high-ISO series of image samples, I'm not afraid to use ISO 6400 on this camera.

  • Sequential shooting up to 10 FPS

    I think this is used mostly for bragging rights, but still. Note that this frame rate can be attained only when autofocus and autoexposure between subsequent frames are disabled, but that's the price you pay for speed.

    The High settings allows for shooting up to 10 FPS, but autofocus and autoexposure are performed only before the first frame (no adjustments in-between). In the Low setting (up to 6.5 FPS), AF and AE will be adjusted with proper options selected.

    A separate setting allows for image stabilization to be active in sequential shooting (both speeds). Face detection is disabled in both modes.

    The Drive Mode selector allows you to choose between High and Low rate (in addition to Single Frame, Self-Timer and Time-Lapse), and maximum frame rates for these two settings are defined elsewhere.

  • Time-lapse sequences

    Yes, you saw it right above. This feature was missing on all Olympus Four Thirds cameras, and I was often complaining about that. Now I have it (and I may even use it once or twice a year).

    The feature has been first introduced in the E-M5, limited to 99 frames; now this has been raised to 999 frames.

  • Shutter speeds up to 1/8000 s

    This looks most impressive, and may have some practical value — not just in freezing the subject motion, but also in providing proper exposure with wide-open lenses (DoF control) under bright conditions. (At ISO 200 and F/2.8 my lake scenes require 1/4000 s, which is getting quite close.)

    To the best of my understanding, this is a real shutter (as opposed to electronic gating), even at the top speeds. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

  • Exposure Bracketing

    The number of frames in a bracketing sequence and the exposure spacing between them can be chosen from a set of pre-defined combinations (as opposed to each independently), but I can live with it.

    What, however, makes this feature almost unusable in the current implementation is that it is up to the user to release the shutter for each individual frame and to count these to know when the sequence is done. Do a miscount, and both your current sequence and the next one (or more) are hopelessly messed up. This happened to me more than once, as the only indication is the color of the bracketing symbol in the display.

    Switching the drive mode to sequential helps, but not by much: first, it is a separate setting which you have to keep in synch with another one; second, it is still too easy to under-shoot the sequence length: you have to hold the shutter down until all frames are done. Why?

    At the beginning, I tried to assign exposure bracketing to one of the function buttons. It looked like a good idea, but it was killed by the necessity to go to another button to switch to the serial mode (and then the same in the opposite direction).

    A logical approach would be for the camera to go into the serial mode just for the set number of frames at a single press of the release. Many film SLRs I've used worked this way, and so did the early Olympus (fixed-lens) SLRs: the E-10 and E-20.

    As I often resort to exposure bracketing, I find this design quite irritating, one of my biggest complaints about this camera.

  • Other Bracketing

    Perhaps just to tick off more items on feature list, four more bracketing types are included in the E-M1: WB, Flash, ISO, and Art Mode. To be frank, I find all these useless, and the last one — quite hilarious.

    Flash bracketing does not just change the exposure, but rather the flash-to-ambient ratio, at least this is what I believe. Actually, I have never used this feature, so don't ask me.

    The only other bracketing I would like to see is AF Bracketing, which is not included (see the next section).

  • User-defined camera setups

    These used to be referred as My Mode presets in Olympus SLRs; in the OM-D series they are known as Myset1...Myset4 (this must have involved lots of soul-searching, I'm sure, but at least there is no i-Myset).

    The good news is that these presets can be now assigned to selected positions on the mode dial, so that you can have, say, Myset1 where the Picture Story used to be. This makes the modes, at long last, easily accessible without redefining (and sacrificing) a function button to (just) one of them, as it was in the recent FT cameras (or in the E-M5). Not so bad, it took just eight years or so.

  • Setting WB by reference

    In addition to the Auto WB and to usually provided WB presets (Sunny, Shade, etc), the E-M1 provides, like many previous Olympus cameras, WB setting by reference: by pointing the camera on a white surface and pressing a button (or combination of buttons).

    I always liked this feature: it was the most pleasing way of setting the white balance under non-typical conditions. On the E-M1, however (and on the E-M5, too) this just refuses to work in my living room and one of the bedrooms, working OK in other parts of the house.

    I will be not jumping to any conclusions, though, before experimenting a bit more; will keep you posted.

  • Level Gauge

    This is fast, accurate and very useful — one you get into a habit of using it. The feature was introduced with the E-30, I was sorely missing it on the E-620, and then it was back in the E-M5.

    This implementation, however, has one nice improvement: the gauge display can be removed from the image area in the viewfinder; when the release button is half-pressed, it will appear where the exposure compensation scale usually is; the latter will be back as soon as the compensation wheel is moved (or after a picture has been taken). This actually works better than it sounds; simple and unobtrusive, a very nice design!

  • Autofocus assist lamp

    I checked this feature previously on one of Olympus SLRs and it was, indeed, helping. Not essential but nice to have.

  • Battery: BLN-1 (proprietary)

    This is the same battery as the one used in E-M5, but different than the (similarly sized) BLS-1, used in the E-4xx and E-620 Olympus SLRS. It is based on lithium-ion chemistry.

    According to the specs, the older BLS-1 stored 8.3 Wh (1150 mAh at 7.2 V) of energy, this one stores 8.8 Wh (1220 mAh) — so, certainly, higher capacity was not a reason to change the battery standard and make me use yet another charger. One may suspect (just suspect!) a case of planned obsolescence here.

    As EVF cameras use much more power than SLRs, the battery life in the E-M1 is quite disappointing. The CIPA rating (as loosely defined and possibly imprecise as it may be) is just 250 frames — compare that to 500 for the E-620, and 330 claimed for the E-M5. I have five of these now (two original and three clones), and over a day of testing and playing with the camera I can go through three of them (one was enough for a full day with the E-620).

    Usually I'm in favor of using original camera batteries (supplied or recommended by the manufacturer) — but $70 for a single battery (when you need at least three!) is excessive, therefore after getting the E-M5 I decided to try third-party ones. To stop you from doing that (for various reasons, some of them legitimate, but also to protect the captive market) Olympus assured that its charger, supplied with the camera, will not work with third-party batteries. (Some third-party charges will, and some will not work with Olympus-branded batteries).

    The three BLN-1 clones bought on Amazon have been working without glitches for more than a year, first with the E-M5, now with the new camera. I see no signs of holding less charge, or losing the capability to charge, or any camera malfunctions. I just ordered two more, branded by Wasabi, a sort-of-respectable brand, and will see how these work. In any case, if you want to go this way, proceed at your own risk, things happen.

  • Selectable aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 9:16, 1:1, 3:4

    While I was critical about this feature in SLRs (no framing aid in the viewfinder, so no advantage over doing it in postprocessing), it does not bother me in EVF cameras. Cropping to the selected ratio in postprocessing may sometimes lead to problems when a picture, originally composed in a 4:3 frame, does not submit itself easily to being re-composed at, say, 9:16.

    Those who prefer the 3:2 ratio will be happy seeing that this format fits the whole width of the viewfinder, leaving just enough room at the bottom for the shooting information — a perfect use of the available space.

  • Dust removal system

    Dust particles settling down on the sensor show as black specks in your pictures. To avoid that, Olympus uses a system where the sensor filter vibrates for a while, shaking the particles off. In FT SLRs they were (supposedly, at least) captured on a sticky surface on the mirror chamber floor; I have no idea what is supposed to happen to them in μFT cameras.

  • Face Detection

    With this option active, the camera will detect a face (or multiple faces), if present in the previewed image, and use one of them (which one? the closest?) to focus on. Useful if you have no clue of what you are doing.

    Still, this feature can be helpful; you can set the camera up so that it will always autofocus on a (single) subject's eye, and you can even decide (in camera options) which one: left, right, or near (which is the usual choice). With a shallow DoF (like using the 75 mm F/1.8) this is very nice.

    The manual does not specify up to how many faces can be detected, but I have gotten up to eight, out from a group of eleven. There are cases when a few faces will not be detected in a group, sometimes for an apparent reason (angle, partial obstruction, skin color), sometimes without an explanation I could come up with.

    This is, however, not really important: from where I stand, the face detection is most useful with a single model, especially to set the focus on a single eye.

  • Image Stabilization

    The E-M1 uses, like all Olympus FT and μFT cameras, body-based image stabilization: a set of motion and orientation sensors detects the camera's shake and a set of micromotors moves the sensor to compensate for these effects.

    Lens-based IS (where the micromotor moves some elements inside the lens) has, theoretically at least, a potential to work better (the system can be optimized for the lens using it), but it imposes some restrictions on the optical design and is generally more expensive (each lens has to have its own system).

    Olympus makes no claims (not any I could find, at least) about the benefits of their system; they just say it is "more effective at low shutter speeds".

    Update of December 16: The IS tests I did just yesterday on the E-M1 for two focal lengths shows 1.30 EV of improvement at 50 mm and 1.85 EV at 300 mm. These numbers show how much longer exposures can be used with IS to provide a 50% success (no blur) rate. The numbers for 100% are 2.04 and 2.32 EV (with an error guesstimated at or below 0.2 EV).

    Remember that each EV here means doubling the exposure time.

    My similar measurements for the E-510 of 2007 have shown about 1.5 EV for 42 mm, and 2.2 EV for 150 mm, both measured at 50%. This is practically the same.

  • Adjustable Noise Filter

    Every camera introduces some noise filtering (roughly: averaging of neighboring pixels) in the process of raw-to-RGB conversion. This reduces not just noise amplitude, but also the resolution, so the process has to be carefully balanced; various photographers may prefer different strengths, depending also on the ISO settings and, possibly, some other factors.

    The E-M1 allows you to adjust that strength in a few discrete steps. I consider this a must in a serious (or semi-serious) camera. My preference is to set this feature to Off or Low.

    There is also an option to apply static noise reduction at longer exposure times by subtracting a "dark frame" taken after the actual picture, using the same ISO and shutter speed.

    If you are not sure what is the difference between noise filtering and noise reduction, or what are the various noise components, read my Noise in Digital Cameras introduction.

  • The High Dynamic Range modes

    HDR images are created by combining the image information from a number of frames, differently exposed and therefore together covering a wider dynamic range than a single picture. There are no free lunches, however: the extended range captured this way has to be squeezed back into the available range of the viewed image (print, screen display): the result may show the detail in highlight and shadows (previously lost), but this will be at the expense of the steepness of transition (read: less contrast) over the whole range, or, at least, parts of it. Still, the overall effect can be quite pleasing.

    The E-M1 provides two HDR modes, where the second one, according to Olympus, "provides a more impressive image" (yes, that's all we are told on the subject!). Each of them takes four frames with different exposures (how different remains unknown) and combines them in-camera into one JPEG file. I haven't used this feature yet, but I will.

    Some parameters (exposure compensation, Picture Mode) cannot be adjusted while in HDR modes, which is understandable.

    There is also another option: just taking the pictures for HDR use, but without merging them in-camera. The number of frames and exposure spacing between them are combined into a number of presets. The images have then to be combined in postprocessing.

  • SD Card slot

    This is now the industry standard, and I hope Olympus will not try to revive their proprietary xD-Picture card, ditched in 2009 (or something similar).

    The interface supports both the high-speed and high-capacity (SDHC, SDXC) standard flavors, so it should be able to handle any SD card you throw at it.

    What I am using now in the E-M1 is the SanDisk Extreme Pro card of 64 GB capacity, speed-rated at 95 MB/s, but I haven't yet done any writing speed tests or comparisons.

  • Raw or JPEG files

    There is also an option to save both raw and JPEG files from each frame taken. The Olympus JPEG engine is so good, however, that for many years I haven't bothered with saving raw images; whatever postprocessing I need can be easily applied to JPEGs.

    My Raw Image Format article is even more valid now than it was at the time of original writing in 2006; refer to it for more on the subject.

  • Picture Modes

    These are pre-packaged sets of image-processing settings: each defines its own degree of sharpening, contrast, saturation and gradation, and can be treated as a different kind of film used (except that the ISO is not a part of the package). These parameters start from different base values (which are not shown) and you can define your own adjustments, remembered upon leaving and re-entering each mode.

    My complaint in the past was that gradation was not one of the package parameters; this has been fixed since.

    The modes include: i-Enhance, Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait, Monotone [sic!], Custom, e-Portrait, and (aargh!) a dozen or so of the special effects like those used in Art Modes. These serve mostly to pollute the interface, but, luckily, any of the items on the list can be removed from it in the camera Custom menu.

    Not quite: I am unable to get rid of an entry named ART1 which does not even show in the list of items to keep or remove and, when used, activates the Pop Art effect. This is, obviously, just a bug in the firmware.

    The i-Enhance mode (quite an i-Diotic name!) is not documented in the manual; all said there is: "Produces more impressive-looking results suited to the scene". No, I'm not inventing this. Someone else did.

    The first time I tried this mode, it opened up the shadows a bit and burned-out the bright wall in my standard lakeside test subject. (The same mode on the E-M5 generated some garish, overblown landscapes, very ugly.)

    Having just the choice between Vivid, Natural, and Muted would be perfectly fine with me.

    If you are storing your images as raw files, these remain unaffected, except for the mode identity and adjustment values; if you are then using the Olympus software for raw development "as shot", these items will be used in processing.

  • USB-2 interface

    Used to connect the camera to your computer. The socket is proprietary to Olympus, so that you have to use the cable supplied with the camera (used on Olympus cameras since the C-5050Z in 2002 and unchanged since, so that I now have a lifetime supply). The camera is seen by the computer as a storage-class device, so that files can be moved from (and to) it without any special software.

  • HDMI output

    This is the standard, micro-HDMI (or Type D) socket. You can use it to send the information normally displayed on the camera's screen to a high-definition TV or monitor.

  • No anti-aliasing filter?

    I am not sure about this. Olympus does not comment on the subject, and there are voices on the Internet (not necessarily most authoritative) indicating that this filter was either removed or substantially weakened in the E-M1.

    The anti-aliasing filter, a counter-measure against moiré effect, works by diffusing the image a little bit at the expense of losing some resolution. Ironically, the most common case of moiré is when we are shooting a lens resolution target; the effect rarely shows in daily practice. From what I understand, it can be detected by modern image-processing engines and then removed at the processing stage.

    Removed or just weakened? This is rather an academic argument, as there is still some filter in front of the imager, to protect it from being reached by (most of) the infrared light component — and any layer of extra glass introduces some diffusion.

  • Wi-Fi connection

    The camera has a Wi-Fi radio, and it can talk to another such equipped device (smartphone, tablet). The other device needs to have the Olympus Image Share application installed (available for Android and iPhone/iPad). After the initial pairing process, your phone and camera will remember each other; to reconnect you need just to turn the camera's radio on (from the Play menu) and run the OI.Share app.

    I experienced no problems in establishing a link to my Galaxy S3 phone. Once connected, I could use the phone as a smart remote and to access (view, copy) images on the camera's card.

    As a remote control, OI.Share is quite smart. It allows you to preview the scene as seen by the camera (in low-res, but this is understandable: a wireless, real-time video connection!), change basic settings (AE mode, exposure parameters, ISO, WB), focus on a given point in the image, and release the shutter.

    Accessing images remotely does not need any explanations; you can also copy selected ones to your phone, but I found no way to tell the program the directory to put them in.

    There is also a protocol to set up one-time connections with other people's devices (limited access), but I've never tried it and, frankly, I'm not going to.

  • Movies

    Oh, yes, the E-M1 also takes movies. I am thrilled.

This is, roughly, a list of features you find in the E-M1. It may be not 100% full, but I hope it covers all important things. Generally, in spite of some quite irritating quirks, Olympus did not cut corners in this camera and gave it a lot of thought.

Even more importantly, in perhaps two places the designers took a feature included into some previous models as a not-too-useful trinket, and made it into something genuinely usable; let me hope that this is a sign of things to come.

Missing or removed

This is a list of features which did not make it into this camera, but would be nice to have, or which were present in some of the other models (SLR or not) and did not make it to the E-M1.

  • No autofocus bracketing

    While Olympus bothers us with some useless or near-to-useless bracketing flavors (WB Bracketing, Art Effect Bracketing [sic!]), one kind is missing here (it was present only in the E-500 and I found it quite useful): Focus Bracketing (see here).

  • No external WB sensor

    This usually improves how the Auto WB mode works. No big loss, though, as using that mode is something I'm not recommending anyway.

  • No built-in flash

    A tiny hot-shoe flash (powered by the camera) is included in the box, but this is not quite the same. While built-in flashes usually provide quite ugly results, one may come quite handy occasionally as a fill-in light. Still, I can easily live without this feature.

  • No illuminated buttons

    Usually I'm not a big fan of features included just for the sake of coolness, but this one proved useful more than once on the E-620. This is not really a complaint, but having such a touch of luxury would be bloody nice.

Actually, none of the above is a deal-breaker. The camera is feature-packed as it is.

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?

Yes. These may be the best (technically) images I've got from any camera yet. I realize this is a strong statement, but that's how I see it.

Have a closer look at my Samples, Part 1 (before the camera was set up to my liking) and Part 2 (better settings, more controlled approach). The results are outstanding.

There are also Real-Life Image Samples shot with the MZD 75-300/4.8-6.7, perhaps worth a look.

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.

Conclusions

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.

References

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.)

  1. An extensive and thoughtful review by Robin Wong of Kuala Lumpur; focused on real-life results, technically literate, and illustrated with some amazing image samples.
  2. A Hands-on First Look by my friend John Foster at his biofos.com site, admittedly from a Four Thirds user perspective, and (refreshingly) with no commercial interruptions.
  3. The multi-part review by Dave Etchells and a number of other authors; this is perhaps the most in-depth E-M1 write-up I could find. (The article includes a discussion of the alleged absence of the AA filter.)
  4. A detailed review by R. Butler et al. at the DP Review site; as always, no stones unturned,
  5. A review-in-progress by Gordon Laing at Camera Labs, with a good illustration of the purple-blob artifacts when used with the Panasonic 7-14 mm zoom.
  6. A full review by Josh Fate at Steve's Digicams.

My other articles related to the Olympus OM-D System.

This page is not sponsored or endorsed by Olympus (or anyone else) and presents solely the views of the author.

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Posted 2013/12/07; last updated 2017/09/04 Copyright © 2013-2017 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak