The Road to E-M1

From Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds

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

This is my introduction to the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera. My actual impressions and comments on it can be found in the First Look, while a detailed write-up will be in the full review and reference — if and when I write it.

The E-M1. released in November of 2013, is the second camera in the OM-D line by Olympus, after the E-M5, introduced in 2012. It is more significant than just an update of that model, for reasons I will be elaborating upon below.

The article is written from the perspective of a long-time Olympus E-System (Four Thirds) user, so it may be biased in a two ways. For one, I like the way in which Olympus approaches the technology and practice of digital photography; this is why I've been using their cameras since 2000. On the opposite, having used mostly Olympus DSLRs, I may be biased against EVF cameras just because they belong to a somewhat different breed. Hopefully, these two may, to some extent, balance each other; still, consider yourself warned.

Promotional image, all rights © by Olympus.

What's in the name?

First, let's talk about the camera name. The OM-D E-M1 sequence consists of nine (!) quite arbitrarily chosen characters, including two hyphens (which I will never get right), and a space separating two parts. Do the Olympus marketing people really think that making the product name difficult to memorize and, at least to an outsider, meaningless, will make it look more cool, advanced, attractive, or whatever?

Actually the model name is just E-M1, while OM-D is the name of product line (remember Camedia or Evolt, names nobody used anyway?) The latter, I believe, stands for OM-Digital, referring to the (deservedly) legendary OM-line of SLRs which started from the OM-1 in 1972 and was abandoned in 1986 in favor of fixed-lens SLRs with zoom lenses built in (Olympus was pushing the ZLR moniker, suggesting a totally new category) which came and went without making any splash (does this sound familiar?).

The OM-1 was originally named M1, which turned out to be a name trademarked by Leica (or whoever owned the Leica name then), so Olympus had to rename the camera to something safer.

From Four Thirds into Micro Four Thirds?

When Olympus ditched their E-series of digital SLRs in 2010, without any apology or explanation to the existing user base, it was sometimes hinted that their Digital Pen series can be used as a sort-of alternative, accommodating legacy FT lenses but also inheriting (and expanding upon) the E-System image-processing Engine, which many (myself in this number) like so much.

For me, the Pen never was, or could be, an alternative to, or continuation of, the E-System. While these were nice and capable cameras, they were having a few problems, each of which on its own was enough for me to stay away:

  1. No eye-level viewfinder

    The accessory finder did not cut it for me. It was making the camera ungainly, awkward in stowing and reaching for, and the quality (tonality, resolution, smearing) of the first ones was OK, but not that great, at least in the first model.

  2. No AF compatibility with E-System lenses

    While the official talk was that E-System lenses can be used on μFT bodies with an appropriate adapter, less attention was devoted to the fact that for most of them the AF performance was very bad, and for a very few — just bad. This is by no fault of Olympus: it usually happens when you try to fit a triangular peg into a square hole — or use a lens designed for phase-detection (SLR) AF on a contrast-detection (imager-based) system. For a few FT lenses designed for both kinds of systems the AF was not so impressive either.

  3. No SLR-like ergonomics and controls

    You cannot blame a horse for not being a giraffe: each has its own place in this world, where it fits best. The Pen line was designed to be small, unobtrusive and cute — not to fit my SLR-developed habits.

The closest to my needs were μFT cameras from the Panasonic G-series, but none of them would address all three of my concerns listed above, and each of them was missing something in my book. Besides, I was happily shooting with my E-30 and E-620, both capable of delivering very nice results, as good today as they were four years ago. I decided to dig in and wait, just following the news — mostly from Nikon, Pentax, and Sony...

Enter the E-M5

In 2012 Olympus introduced the first camera of the OM-D line: the E-M5, which took care of two out of three points on my list (no acceptable AF with FT lenses, though). I bought it not because I needed to replace my FT SLR bodies, but to get a smaller, capable camera (possibly as a backup), and, frankly, just to have a closer look.

I took the E-M5 for a trip to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, along with an E-30 — and ended up using it 90% of the time, with very satisfying results. Frankly, the size and weight of the camera, and even more so of the lenses, played a role here, too. An outfit including the 12-50, 40-150, and 75-300 mm lenses ended up being very manageable and a pleasure to use; this was also the first electronic viewfinder I could live with. And yes, the autofocus (with μFT lenses) turned out to be as fast and accurate as that in E-series SLRs.

Like it or not, I consider digital SLRs to be a dying breed. In 2005 I wrote a small article, Cameras: the Next Ten Years, for the British Olympus Circle Quest newsletter, predicting this to happen. Obviously, the writing was on the wall already.

The favorable impression of the E-M5 made a decision easy: instead of looking for another SLR line to switch to when my E-System SLRs becomes really obsolete (or just breaks), I will go the ILC (interchangeable-lens camera, non-SLR) way, and at this moment Panasonic and Olympus seem to enjoy a lead in this field — therefore Micro Four Thirds, for a few years at least.

Now, the E-M1

Seems like the E-M5 was a runaway success for Olympus; it was (and still is, as of this writing) selling briskly, and has a very good press, plus a quite enthusiastic following. Thus I wasn't surprised seeing an announcement for its successor, the E-M1. This is the tech market: you are supposed to have a new (presumably improved) model each year.

No, this one is not "new and improved", it is new and improved. Actually, my impression now is that Olympus released the E-M5, as nice a camera as it is, only as a placeholder, to gain some time (and attention) before the real thing. This is the real debut of the OM-D line.

I am not going to discuss the E-M1 in detail here; for that refer to my First Look, but let me just highlight the camera's futures which made me buy it, and which, most probably (you never can tell) will make me settle down in the Micro Four Thirds standard:

  • Imager-based phase-detection autofocus

    Now, this is a biggie, and the only really significant new feature of this camera. In a bold move Olympus reassigned some of the sensor photosites from image creation to gathering information for phase-detection AF. Now the autofocus actually works just fine with any Four Thirds lenses you may have.

    The CD AF, still used in most cases with μFT lenses, is snappy and accurate, a delight to use — but it was equally good (or almost so) in the E-M5.

  • New electronic viewfinder

    If the E-M5 finder was already acceptable, this one is just plain gorgeous. It has the best (2M dots) resolution on the market (a title shared with a few other models), and it is huge — up there with the best SLRs available. OK, now I'm no longer missing the SLR viewing

  • Push-button access to most of the session-time settings

    These are not real external controls (like marked dials, with which you do not have to refer to any electronic displays), but fairly close: press a button and then use a dial to adjust whatever that button is assigned to (ISO, WB, etc.)

    I'm getting an impression, however, that Olympus added more buttons to E-M1 than it could handle: the assignment re-arrangement options seem to be overly convoluted, sometimes inconsistent, often suffering from seemingly arbitrary limitations. Oh, well, if a firmware update does not take care of that, I will just find the assignment I like most, set it up, and learn how to live with it.

  • Beautiful design, quality make and finish

    Yes, I mean it. It is a sensual pleasure to take this thing in your hand; it looks and feels like a precision instrument (which it is). The analogy to the classic OM-1 is clearly visible, too.

    The outside, especially top, of the camera is quite busy, but not overwhelming, and there are no rows of identical buttons performing different functions.

  • Splash- and dust-proof, freeze-resistant body

    The magnesium-alloy body is gasketed to keep dust and water outside, and to give you some bragging rights. Not a major selling point for me, but nice.

  • Wi-Fi connection to your smartphone or tablet

    This feature is nice to have, but probably overrated. It allows you to copy image files from the camera to your mobile device and also use that device as a remote control for shooting; this including remote viewing.

    I installed the Olympus application on my Android-driven Galaxy S3 and it seems to work just fine: I was able to change camera settings and release the shutter remotely.

I arranged these points in my subjective order of decreasing importance; yours may be different, especially if you do not have any FT lenses worth using with this camera. Still, all FT lenses I've tried with the E-M1 did autofocus just fine, which is a relief.

Is this an ideal camera? No, not by far. The E-M1 has a number of irritating quirks and limitations, but this will wait for my upcoming articles on the subject. It is, however, the best μFT camera to-date, and probably the most advanced and fun-to-use ILC so far (although the competition is heating up).

Settling down with μFT

Now, that μFT has at least one camera I really like (don't disregard the E-M5!), I am ready to appreciate the advantages (and suffer disadvantages) of that system. Unexpectedly, the reduced size and weight are of more importance to me now than they used to be a few years ago. The OM-D bodies are enjoyably small, but not too small to be handled confidently, and the lenses have shrunk quite dramatically (for example, my new 75-300 mm is smaller and lighter than the original 40-150 mm Zuiko from 2004 (it has, admittedly, smaller aperture, but still, double the focal length!).

On the flip side, the battery life in OM-D cameras is not quite up to my expectations: the new batteries are smaller (read: hold less juice) than those used in most of the E-System SLRs and, obviously, electronic viewing consumes some power, unlike an optical SLR system.

I'm assuming that Olympus and Panasonic will keep actively developing their full-function μFT ILCs and, as importantly, the lenses. Currently the combined offer of these two makers includes more lenses than all other ILC lines combined; among these a number of very attractive, high-quality primes. The new Panasonic GX-7 seems like an interesting, and very attractive, alternative to the E-M1, and I expect more to come.

Oh, did I mention the F/0.95 Voigtländer Noktons?

I think I will settle with Micro Four Thirds for a while.

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.

Home: | Search this site | Change font size

Photo News | The Gallery

Posted 2013/12/02; last update 2017/12/23 Copyright © 2013-2017 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak