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Review: Olympus OMD EM1 (Micro Four Thirds) (Slightly NSFW)

by Chris Gampat on 09/30/2013

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (8 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

The Olympus OMD EM1 is the company’s new flagship of flagship cameras–it replaces their aging E5, which was a DSLR. Interestingly enough though, this camera is a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera. Rumors of the camera were abound for a while and we’ve been working with a review unit for around three weeks. Complete with a 16.3MP LiveMOS sensor, TruePic VII imaging processor, WiFi, weather sealing, a brand new viewfinder, and lots of new controls, the camera is an aggressive stab at the flagship mirrorless camera world and the high end APS-C DSLR lines offered at the current moment.

But does the company’s new flagship have enough in it to deliver and cater to the needs of the professionals that it is targeted at?

Pros and Cons

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (2 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

Pros

- Weather Sealing is second to none

- Great image quality

- Great autofocus system that is usually accurate

- The grip feels excellent for street photography; you don’t even need a strap

- Time Lapse mode

- Viewfinder is good, but Sony still offers a better experience

- Focus peaking

Cons

- Image noise visible at ISO 2000, but fairly well controlled and very film-like in rendering

- Can’t change the exposure while shooting a time lapse

- WiFi activity can be slow at times

- Second curtain flash is still not possible with Pocket Wizards, you might use Olympus products to do it

- We wish that there were more autofocus points, and that they were smaller

Gear Tested

We tested the OMD EM1 with the Yonguo 560 III, Voigtlander 17.5mm f0.95, Sigma 19mm f2.8, Olympus 12-40mm f2.8, and Pocket Wizard Plus III triggers with the Einstein E640

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo listing of the product

  • 16.3MP Live MOS Sensor
  • TruePic VII Image Processor
  • Micro Four Thirds System
  • FAST Dual Phase- & Contrast-Detection AF
  • Interactive 2,360k-Dot EVF
  • 3.0″ 1,037k-Dot Tilting LCD Touchscreen
  • 5-Axis Image Stabilization with IS Auto
  • Built-In Wireless Connectivity
  • 10 fps and 1/8000 sec. Top Shutter Speed
  • Dust/Splash/Freezeproof Mag. Alloy Body

Ergonomics

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (1 of 8)ISO 1601-40 sec at f - 4.5

The Olympus OMD EM1 is a camera that was designed to be a flagship. The company put lots of effort and work into it. The camera incorporates weather seals, wifi, and a heck of a lot more than the OMD EM5 did when it was launched.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (7 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

To start with, the front of the camera is nearly devoid of controls–well, not really. There are three buttons. One is a lens release, while the other two function as the depth of field preview button and the other works as the white balance button. They are very intelligently placed and can be repurposed to function as different uses too.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (4 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

The top of the EM1 has a lot of controls. There is the new mode dial with a button in the middle. Press down, and it locks the position. Press again, and it allows for free flowing control. This is the best implementation of the dial that we’ve seen so far.

then there is the video record button, exposure dials, shutter release, function button, hot shoe, drive button, AF area and metering button, and the on/off switch.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (5 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

The screen also flips up and downward in a same fashion that Sony’s screens work. The E5′s screen was more of a tilt-swivel style more similar to that of Canon’s DSLRs. Some folks may like that more.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM1 Product Photos (6 of 8)ISO 2001-40 sec at f - 2.8

The back of the camera isn’t as covered as buttons as the top is. Instead, there is a display button, LCD screen, function switch, info, directional control, playback, trash, menu and AEL/AFL button.

One of the biggest features of this camera is also its viewfinder. It’s essentially the Olympus VF-4, but the company tells us that the white balancing abilities are better. From what we saw, it really is pretty good.

Build Quality

Overall, the OMD EM1 feels quite solid in the hand and nothing at all like a toy. The camera is also touted to be weather sealed, dust proof, and freeze proof. To test this theory, we ran the OMD EM1 under a faucet with a weather sealed lens attached. It performed flawlessly. To be fair though, this camera might only survive if the lens attached has weather sealing and a contact seal to prevent water from seeping in.

Its predecessor, the E5, was buried under snow for around 15 minutes and then pulled out. It continued to work–but by all means that was a DSLR and also a quite solid one. This mirrorless camera, which is supposed to replace that DSLR, lives up to its predecessor and even beats it out by adding in the freezeproof marketing.

Autofocus

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ISO 6400

Focusing on subjects is very simple and snappy for the most part. In great daylight, focusing will be very quick but may sometimes misfocus on a subject behind your original intention. For the best results, we recommend choosing a specific autofocusing point. But with that said, we wish that there were more focusing points to nail a specific focusing point/area perfectly. Indeed, the current focusing points can be possibly broken down into four more areas–meaning that one point could actually function as four. That would make some shooting situations and focusing in low light better.

Focus peaking is accurate for the most part, but sometimes it can be off. It works best with electronically coupled lenses and with my Voigtlander, I felt that I was sometimes better off not using the peaking feature at all.

Metering

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The OMD EM1 is around 1/3rd the way off (underexposed) when we conducted our standard Sunny 16 testing. The reason for this is because of the way that Sony sensors work. In real life applications, this isn’t too bad.

Ease of Use

This is a camera that we recommend to the creme da la creme of photographers. The reason for this is the fact that there are so many features packed into it that it will take an experienced photographer to make the best use of all of them. For the life of us, we don’t understand why Olympus decided to put an Auto mode on the camera. That’s like folks who buy Hasselblads and shoot them in program all day.

Time Lapse

The OMD EM1 has a full timelapse feature, which is much better than the EP5′s released earlier this year. That camera only allowed the user to shoot 99 images, but the EM1 allows for 999 in a configurable setting of any sort that you can think of. Our problem with the camera is that while shooting a timelapse, you can’t change the exposure settings–which is evident in the video above.

The camera’s closest rival, the Panasonic GH3, can’t do this either. Additionally, it is tough to stop the timelapse on the GH3 once it has been set into motion. With the EM1, you just need to essentially hit the button that it asks you to.

Wifi Tethering

In our tests, we found Wifi transferring of images to be very straightforward. However, the camera will only transfer JPEGs that you have shot. That means that if you’re shooting in RAW, it won’t even read the file type. Instead, you’ll need to convert the file into a JPEG in the camera.

When remote shooting, we found a major lag at times. In certain situations, the camera would shoot up to 45 seconds after we told it to. In other situations, it was fine. Keep in mind that this error can occur–and if it does it isn’t a fun one.

Image Quality

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Before we get into the image quality of this camera, we’re going to do the normal disclaimer thing and state that once again, we’re not a website that sits here measurbating over results all day and everyday. We believe that real photographers are too busy shooting all day and that modern software is more than good enough to fix any major problems that modern camera sensors may have. Additionally, we should really get out of the way that no one is making a bad camera these days–it’s more about what you want.

For that stuff, we recommend that you check out the results from PCMag, DPReview, Imaging Resource, or even Pop Photo. But life and photography is too great a thing for us to sit here mulling over megapixels and marginally better results from one camera to another.

From what we’ve seen in our image quality tests, we don’t believe that the sensor in this camera is significantly better than the OMD EM5–the original OMD camera from Olympus. However, we feel that the RAW files are more versatile in their editing abilities. In fact, the OMD EM1 has the most versatile RAW files that we’ve ever seen as you’ll see sooner in our RAW file versatility tests.

If you’re looking for super clean high ISO results though, then we’re sorry to tell you this but your only option in the APS-C mirrorless world at the moment is the Fujifilm X Pro 1.

Granted, this camera isn’t an APS-C camera–it houses a smaller Four Thirds size sensor. But just because it is smaller doesn’t mean that it can’t perform well. In fact, the performance is quite exceptional.

Raw File Versatility

Original

Original

Edited

Edited

When working with RAW files, something that is extremely important to us is how versatile the RAW files are. This has to do with many things like color depth, dynamic range, and all. And we were very shocked at what we were able to do with the Olympus OMD EM1 files. The OMD EM5 isn’t as versatile as this, but it is still quite good. To take full advantage of a RAW file though, knowledge of color theory is needed. However, we must let you know that when working with RAW files in crazy manners like this, it isn’t uncommon to produce extra luminance noise.

Here are some other samples.

Original

Original

Edited

Edited

Original

Original

Edited

Edited

High ISO Output

ISO 2000

ISO 2000

Something that we noticed right off the bat is that ISO 2000 is where we started to see grain and image noise. Granted, there isn’t a lot at all when looking at your image as a whole. But if you’re the person that chooses to pixel peep and not care about your images as a whole, then this may matter to you. In practice though, this noise is easily nerfed with the push of a slider in Adobe Lightroom 5.

ISO 12,800

ISO 12,800

At the higher ISO levels of up 5000 (which is the camera’s true high range until the extension) noise is fairly well controlled. At 6400 and above, the noise is still also well controlled and very tight with a film-like texture to the appearance. However, at 6400 there is quite a bit of detail smudging even with the noise processing turned off. The files convert very nicely over to black and white images though; and when combined with Olympus’s excellent line of lenses you’ll sit there in total awe of what you can do with this camera.

Here are some more high ISO samples:

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

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ISO 6400

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ISO 6400

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ISO 5000

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ISO 6400

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ISO 3200

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ISO 3200

Extra Image Samples

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Conclusions

In many ways, the Olympus OMD EM1 is the perfect Micro Four Thirds camera and can even be said to be the perfect mirrorless camera. It is weather sealed, has WiFi transmission for future forward photographers, excellent image quality, stellar RAW file versatility in the hands of a specialized colorist, good autofocus, focus peaking, functional timelapse shooting, and lots more features that will appeal to photographers. It’s clear that Olympus put a lot of time and thought into this camera. Any major problems that we had with it could be considered minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. However, we consider them to a features that should be improved upon.

When considering this camera or any other high end mirrorless camera, there is a major emphasis on things like lenses, image quality, features and more. And in all honesty, the best camera has a perfect combination of these things. The Olympus OMD EM1 is being awarded our Editor’s Choice rating, but while writing this sentence, a part of me personally wonders how far Olympus will go in supporting their customers in the long term. As a Micro Four Thirds user for years, I kind of sometimes feel left out in the cold. Fujifilm has gone the extra step to ensure that their customers are happy with their products by issuing frequent firmware updates. And we believe that Olympus should have done this with cameras like the OMD EM5. We believe that focus peaking, or other features could have been added into the camera via firmware. As an X Pro 1 owner, it also feels really nice to know that I gave my money to a company that actually cares about my happiness as a long term customer. When Canon did this with the 5D Mk II a while back, it made many creatives very happy. And Olympus should learn from this.

In summation though, we have to state right out of the box that the OMD EM1 is quite expensive, but you’re getting a hell of a camera for the price. However, you’re nearing Nikon D7100 prices at this point.

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Recommended Lenses and Accessories

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Olympus 12mm f2: If you have to get a single lens for the Micro Four Thirds system, this is the one to spring for. It’s sharp, fast to focus, and has some wonderful image quality. Street photographers will really appreciate it.

Olympus 17mm f1.8: We had barely any complaints about this lens when we reviewed it. It offers a 34mm field of view which many will appreciate.

Olympus 45mm f1.8: This is the portrait lens that you should never bother stopping down. It is one of Olympus’s most affordable lenses and also incredibly sharp.

Olympus 75mm f1.8: It’s expensive and quite heavy, but holy crap this lens has some of the best image quality in the system.

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8: We believe that f2.8 is too slow for mirrorless cameras in general, but this is the lens that was designed for this camera. It also received an Editor’s Choice rating from us.

The Camcuff: The Camcuff is an extremely comfortable strap that fashionably works quite well with the OMD EM1. See our full review here.

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