Olympus OM-D E-M1 review

The new Olympus flagship, the OM-D E-M1, is a very good 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds camera, but its price tag is too high when you consider other high-end cameras out there.
The new Olympus flagship, the OM-D E-M1, is a very good 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds camera, but its price tag is too high when you consider other high-end cameras out there.
The new Olympus flagship, the OM-D E-M1, is a very good 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds camera, but its price tag is too high when you consider other high-end cameras out there.

Highs

  • Quality 16-megapixel CSC
  • Excellent built-in EVF
  • Superior ISO capability

Lows

  • Much too expensive
  • Top video quality only 1080/30p
  • Great images, but not full-frame level

(Update on December 10, 2013: Olympus has released a new firmware update that improves stabilization when shooting in Children or Sports modes, autofocus operation, and live bulb quality while noise reduction is on, among other enhancements.)

The 16-megapixel Olympus OM-D E-M1 ($1,400, body only) is the company’s latest flagship mirrorless camera. Amazingly it costs even more than one of our favorite higher-resolution DSLRs, the 24-megapixel Nikon D7100. The E-M1 replaces the Olympus Four Thirds DSLR lineup; in fact, the company even claims its “image quality rivals full-frame DSLRs.” Are Olympus’s statements – that a mirrorless camera can be as powerful as a DSLR – accurate, or are they just pure hype?

Features and design

We have to admit the OM-D E-M1 is a strange-looking duck. It has the height and grip depth of a DSLR but not the weight, yet it’s an interchangeable lens, mirrorless Compact System Camera (CSC) with no flapping mirror or optical viewfinder, as you’d find in a classic DSLR. This camera uses a Micro Four Thirds sensor that is smaller than many other models using APS-C and full-frame sensors. You may now ask yourself, what kind of magic is Olympus using to achieve the claimed full-frame resolution, the Holy Grail of digital photography? We were kind of curious ourselves but let’s start with the tour.

The E-M1 looks like an old-school film camera with its black body, textured finish, and angular edges with buttons and dials galore. It has a magnesium alloy frame and is dust-, splash-, and freeze-proof. Use a “weatherized” lens and you’re all set to handle inclement conditions. This “proofing” puts the E-M1 way ahead of most competing mirrorless camera that are climate wusses by comparison. This doesn’t mean you can drop the camera on the rocks or let it fall into a stream like many extreme digicams but it can definitely handle the elements. When you hold it in your hands, however, it feels solid and there’s something beautiful about it – it’s nice to know that they can still make cameras with quality bodies like they used to.

Since CSC lenses are smaller than those of traditional DSLRs, some don’t quite look in proportion such as the 17mm pancake or even a 12-50mm zoom, glass provided for our review. Speaking of glass, Olympus has about a dozen Micro Four Thirds M.Zuiko lenses for the E-M1 and others are available from third parties. Optional adaptors can handle Zuiko Four Thirds and OM lenses as well. Most of the lens bases are well covered. Beyond the MFT mount, the front is home to the AF Assist lamp, one-touch white balance and preview buttons, as well as an external flash connector. On a design note: The logos are tastefully done (see photos).

If Olympus were to drop the price, we’d sing a very different tune for what is otherwise a very good camera.

The top deck is packed with keys and dials but you won’t see the quick-glance LCD screen found on enthusiast DSLRs since the overall body is much smaller. The camera measures 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches and weighs 17.5 ounces (with battery and card, but no lens). DSLRs by comparison are typically 5.5 x 4.0 x 3.0 inches and weigh around 27 ounces, so there’s a decided difference. There’s no built-in flash, but a small external one is included.

Next to the E-M1’s on/off switch are buttons that let you adjust burst mode, HDR, AF, and metering options, in combination with using the two dials on the right. Nearby is a hot shoe on a DSLR-like hump for the supplied flash and two pinhole mics to capture stereo sound for your videos. You’ll also find the main mode dial with all the shooting options you’ll need including Photo Story that combines multiple images into your choice of template; more likely to be used are Smart Auto, PASM, movie, scene, and 12 of Olympus’ very cool art filters (Dramatic Tone has always been a favorite). The mode dial has a nice push-button lock so you won’t inadvertently change modes during a fast-and-furious shooting session. Along with the dials you’ll find the shutter, red dot movie button, and Function 2 that gives access to Highlight and Shadow Control, Color Creator, Magnify, and aspect ratio. Surprisingly the company buried several critical controls, ISO and white balance, which are typically front and center with any DSLR. Not that they’re missing, just not as accessible as they should be (see below).

On the back are two ways to frame your shots—an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF) with a 2.36-million dot screen, diopter control and 1.48x magnification along with a 3-inch tilting touch monitor rated 1.037-million dots. The viewfinder is one of the better ones we’ve used and is a real plus compared to many mirrorless cameras that don’t have this feature. The tilting LCD is solid, not spectacular and lets you hold the camera at different angles for more creative perspectives.

Olympus OM D EM 1 back screen on

At the top left is a LV button that offers much more than Live View on the LCD. After you tap it, press the OK key and the Super Control Panel appears, as well as other displays. It’s here you can make a variety of imaging adjustments including all those good things photographers like such as metering, ISO (up to 25,600), white balance, focus type, and so on. Moving to the right, you’ll see the AE/AF lock button and a lever with two positions. With it set on 1, you can adjust ISO using the front jog dial; with 2 it adjusts exposure compensation. As noted earlier, DSLRs usually have these options as dedicated buttons. It’s not the end of the world but anyone buying the E-M1 really needs to read the Owner’s Manual unless you’re used to Olympus gear and menu systems. There are tons of additional options we can barely cover here including another Function button on the right edge. As with all Function keys you can choose your preference via the menu system. Rounding out the button brigade are Info, Menu, Playback, Delete, and a four-way controller with center OK key.

On the right side is the SD card slot, while on the left are compartments for an external mic, AV, and HDMI out. The bottom of the E-M1 has a tripod mount and battery compartment. The supplied lithium-ion battery is rated 350 shots, a good but not great spec; DSLR batteries are 500-plus.

What’s in the box

With the OM-D E-M1 body you’ll get the battery, plug-in charger, the add-on flash (FL-LM2), USB cable, shoulder strap, and a disc with Olympus Viewer 3 software that helps manage your image library and develop RAW files.

Performance and use

We had the opportunity to test the E-M1 over the course of several weeks, shooting in a variety of Arizona locales. There was barely a cloud in the sky, let alone rain drops so we really couldn’t test the weather-resistance of the camera. Olympus has experience in building rugged cameras, so we’ll trust the company on that score.

As for the CSC’s ability to achieve full-frame quality, we’re happy to tackle that one. Simply put, it doesn’t. Is the E-M1 a bad camera? Hardly, in fact it’s a very good 16-megapixel MFT CSC but with much too high a price tag. Consider this: The new mirrorless 16-megapixel Fujifilm X-E2 with an APS-C X-Trans II sensor costs the same but you get an 18-55mm zoom lens. Or how about a Sony NEX-7 CSC with a 24.3-megapixel APS-C chip for under $1,200 with an 18-55mm lens, or a 16-megapxiel Panasonic Lumix GX-7 for $1,099 with a 14-42mm? These aren’t completely apples-to-apples mirrorless comparisons; we’re just saying Olympus is asking a lot for the body.

Olympus OM D EM 1 sample wine cellar

Let’s get back to some good news. The E-M1 captures high-quality images with very accurate colors (see samples). It also focuses very quickly thanks to a Dual Fast AF system that’s similar to many other top CSCs. We’ve liked using this combination of on-chip phase detection as well as contrast phase detection that adjusts according to the scene. We never encountered any issues of lag or grabbing for focus, which is great news. And like many high-end cameras, there’s no low-pass or anti-aliasing filter which in theory can improve quality; we didn’t see world-shattering results. The camera is quite speedy with a top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second, a spec typically found in enthusiast-grade DSLRs such as the Nikon D7100 or Canon 70D. The new TruePic VII processor helps speed things along with 6-frames-per-second (fps) shooting using C-AF or 10 fps using tracking AF. During our hands-on we never felt like we lacked anything in the still department. There are loads of imaging tweaks available; just make sure you read the manual.

No small MFT chip can beat APS-C/full-frame sensors with good algorithms and quality glass.

The EVF came in quite handy in the Arizona sunshine and it’s a real high spot. The tilting touchscreen monitor also held up well to the blazing light. You can use your fingertips to spot focus and swipe through images in playback. To be honest, we used the EVF most of time other than shooting videos in Live View. We did find it a bit disappointing to discover the top movie resolution is 1080/30p, a decidedly behind the times spec in a world of readily available 60i/60p.

During our tests, we often switched between the 17mm f/1.8 pancake and the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lenses. The digital factor for MFT is 2x so just double the spec for the 35mm equivalent. A 34mm prime is great for landscapes and a 32-100mm telephoto is just OK for faraway subjects. We found ourselves wanting more as we rode through scenic canyons near Sedona but Olympus has the glass options if you want higher magnification. The nice touch is that the E-M1 can autofocus older Four Thirds lenses if you have some lying around.

When we examined our images and videos on a 27-inch monitor, we liked much of what we saw. Good colors, nice dynamic range, just overall fine stills with a minimal amount of blur thanks to the built-in 5-way image stabilization system. This is another plus as any lens you attach will be stabilized. That said Olympus aimed for something higher: full-frame quality. This is simply not true. We spent some time recently extensively testing the new Sony Alpha A7/A7R mirrorless cams with full-frame imagers. When you enlarge those files 100 percent, shots hold up and detail remains excellent. By comparison, E-M1 files start falling apart. Granted those are $2,000 cameras but we’d put the Olympus output close but not quite as good as Fujifilm’s X100S, which also costs less. This is just a fact of photographic life; no small MFT chip can beat APS-C/full-frame sensors with good algorithms and quality glass.

Again, this is not to say the E-M1 is a bad camera – we’re comparing it to counterparts in the mirrorless world that are also really strong performing. In our ISO tests the images were solid up to ISO 800, gently falling apart as we increased the amount. Surprisingly even ISO 25,600 was reasonable if used at a small size, not enlarged to any major degree. This is pretty impressive as was the image stabilization since there was hardly any blur during the test. Videos were also good with fast focusing, good color rendition, and just a bit of moiré and rolling shutter. We still wish Olympus could’ve bumped up resolution to a more competitive 60i or 60p.

Results for Olympus Wi-Fi are somewhat mixed. Downloading Olympus Image Share was a breeze to a Motorola Droid 4. The app lets you use your smartphone as a remote control, import and share photos, edit them, and add geo-tags. There’s even a QR code built into the camera that you scan to easily pair devices – a good move. Unfortunately Olympus’s written instructions are somewhat obtuse but after a bit of initial fumbling we got it to work. In terms of features Olympus’s app is not the best of current bunch but it does the job, which is all that really matters.

Conclusion

We don’t understand the sometimes over-the-top positive online reaction to this capable but hardly extraordinary mirrorless camera. Yes, it certainly can capture quality stills and good 1080/30p videos. But for $1,400 body only? No way. Although much larger, you can purchase a Canon 20-megapixel EOS 70D with two lenses at Costco for less. And one of favorite DSLRs, the Nikon D7100, is a couple of hundred cheaper for a body-only configuration. Both of them feature larger APS-C sensors with the easier-to-use classic DSLR controls. And there are many CSCs that cost much less. For everyone else, in this price range, we feel you should definitely look elsewhere unless you’re an existing Olympus user who has an extensive collection of M.Zuiko and Zuiko glass. Now, if Olympus were to drop the price $300 or $400, or throw in a good lens, we’d sing a very different tune for what is otherwise a very good camera.

Highs

  • Quality 16-megapixel CSC
  • Excellent built-in EVF
  • Superior ISO capability

Lows

  • Much too expensive
  • Top video quality only 1080/30p
  • Great images, but not full-frame level
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