Olympus OM-D E-M1 is one tough Micro Four Thirds camera that will take on any DSLR

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Check out our review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 digital camera.

Olympus has taken the covers off its latest OM-D Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera, the E-M1. Touted as a successor to the E-5 DSLR (a category that Olympus hasn’t updated in some time), the E-M1 is designed to offer DSLR-level performance but in a highly compact mirrorless body. Olympus goes as far to say it rivals full-frame DSLRs.

While the recent PEN E-P5 uses technology trickled down from the OM-D E-M5 (one of our Editor’s Choice cameras), the E-M1 is introducing fresh specs. The camera uses a new 16.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor (developed by Sony, a major Olympus investor) and a new TruePic VII image processor, with ISO ranging up to 25,000, 6.5 to 10 frames-per-second burst mode, and 1/8000th-second shutter speed. There’s also the hybrid Dual Fast autofocusing system that uses either 37-point on-chip phase detection or 81-point contrast detection, depending on the lens; both systems work together when used with a MFT lens in continuous autofocus mode. As a MFT camera designed to replace the E-5 DSLR, the E-M1 supports the full range of both older and larger Zuiko Four Thirds (phase detection) via an adapter, and newer and smaller M.Zuiko MFT lenses (contrast detection and hybrid AF).

The E-M1 continues to use Olympus’ 5-Axis Image Stabilization with Multi-Motion IS that compensates for just about any movement. Olympus says that because the IS is on the sensor and not through the lens, it’s far more effective at correcting and stabilizing blur.

Besides a tilting 3-inch touchscreen LCD (1.037 million dots), there’s a very bright, large built-in electronic viewfinder rated at 2.36 million dots. The EVF has minimal lag (0.029 seconds), so looking through it feels more natural like an optical VF. Through the EVF, the user can adjust settings and preview effects, as you would with a Live View LCD. Brightness levels are automatically tweaked based on the lighting conditions. Olympus also introduces a new Color Creator tool that lets you adjust the hue and color saturation on the display. The Hue setting can be adjusted in 30 steps, and color saturation in eight.

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The E-M1 is not a rugged camera, but Olympus applied its know-how in building such cameras into the body. The E-M1 goes beyond the “toughness” of the E-M5 by now being freeze-proof in addition to dust-proof and splash-proof. The body is made of magnesium alloy and there are weather-resistant seals and gaskets that block moisture. It’s not waterproof, however, so don’t bring it into the pool. The sensor has a vibrating dust reduction system that moves at more than 30,000 times per second.

Inheriting from the E-P5 are the 2×2 Dial Control and Wi-Fi. The Dial Control lets the user pick four frequently used functions (aperture/shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance) by simply flipping a lever or two dials. As we’ve said in our review of the E-P5, just about everything on the camera is a button press away, and it’s no different here with the E-M1, as there are plenty of dials and buttons to play with – including two on the front, by the lens barrel – not to mention the very in-depth albeit cluttered onscreen menus.

The E-M1 is also the second camera in Olympus’ entire lineup to feature Wi-Fi. Olympus is late to the Wi-Fi game, but it’s making up for lost ground with a highly intuitive setup system: Just scan the QR code on the camera display with your smartphone or tablet, and it syncs right away. With the Olympus Image Share 2.0 app you can view and control the camera remotely, and you can change shooting modes and adjust settings from the app, as well as operate Live Bulb shooting. For those shooting movies, the camera handles Full HD 1080 recording at up to 30p/24Mbps, and there’s an external microphone port for better audio capture.

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While the E-M1 looks like a complicated manual camera (it can be), there are also automatic shooting modes when you just want to point and shoot. The E-M1 also has in-camera creative filters that let you create HDR (high dynamic range, which can be easily selected via the Drive button) images and time-lapse movies.

Olympus also said they are currently developing two new pro lenses for the M.Zuiko category: a 12-40mm f/2.8 and a 40-150mm f/2.8. Both will feature similar rugged attributes as the E-M1. The 12-40mm is scheduled for release at the same time as the E-M1, while the 40-150mm will debut sometime late next year. There will also be dedicated accessories to complement the E-M1.

The E-M1 is slated to go on sale in October for $1,400, body only. A kit version with the new 12-40mm lens will go for $2,200. We know, pricey for a camera that isn’t even a DSLR.

Initial impressions

We had a chance to try out the E-M1 during an official press unveiling for the E-M1 at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City last night. The military theme is apropos, as the camera has a tank-like construction that looks and feels as if it can take and survive a beating – not that we recommend you do that. Like the E-M5, the E-M1 has a nice grip and feels solid in the hands. Lightweight and compact the body may be, but all that goes out the door when you attach a large Zuiko lens to it. The EVF is a treat: It’s pleasantly bright without being too much on the eyes, yet using it felt very natural and we didn’t notice the lag that’s common with low-performing displays. One of the things that some users will find intimidating are the many buttons across the top deck (more so than the E-M5 and certainly the E-P5) and the convoluted onscreen menus. It’s a camera that will require a read-through of the menu, even for DSLR users.

Under well-lit conditions and even low light, [autofocus] is almost instantaneous and doesn’t have issues with focus grabbing. 

You’ll notice right away how fast the autofocusing system is. Autofocusing is an issue with many mirrorless cameras, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Under well-lit conditions and even low light, it’s almost instantaneous and doesn’t have issues with focus grabbing. It had a slight harder time in dark conditions, but it was still very good and expected. From what we could see, image quality looked nice and colors were warm and well saturated, which is something we’ve noticed in Olympus’ higher-end cams. Of course, photos were examined on a small screen and we noticed a bit of noise when we viewed some images on an iPad, so we’ll have full judgement another time.

The one thing we were not able to test during our E-P5 review was Olympus’ Wi-Fi implementation, which at the time was not ready. Olympus had a few E-M1s set up with Wi-Fi during the preview. The app has a nice layout and was intuitive to use. We were able to view and shoot remotely and make changes on the fly via an iPad. It’s more feature-rich and useful than many of the competition, although we did have some setup issues that were quickly resolved – Olympus told us the Wi-Fi in the test cameras were not the final, so we’ll take their word for it.

Overall, it’s an extremely nice camera that’s feature-rich and has a great build quality. With a high price point, however, it’ll be interesting to see if it can truly take on midrange and entry-level DSLRs. We love the E-M5 (which, thanks to the E-M1, is now slightly cheaper) and had a great time with the E-P5, so we’re looking forward to getting our hands on the E-M1 soon.

Additional reporting by Natt Garun

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