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Marvellous: Olympus OM-D E-M1 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 2:19 pm 30/09/2013

The second of the bigger mirror-less cameras from Olympus, the E-M1 reinvents the an SLR from the 70s with bits of today, making it a standout camera for tomorrow.

Features

An update to last year’s entry in the OM-D range of cameras, the E-M1 might be the model professional photographers have been looking for, with Olympus looking back at the model and refreshing it in the attempt to perfect the camera.

Some of the specs sound the same as what appeared in last year, but rather than reinvent the wheel, it appears that Olympus is just trying to make it better than ever, with a new sensor, faster autofocus, improved colour processing, better wireless control, and a few other new features to boot.

We’ll start with the specs, and in the E-M1, Olympus has included a rebuilt 16.3 megapixel LiveMOS sensor, not a huge change from the megapixel included in the E-M5, but from what we understand, it’s been improved considerably.

Also improved is the TruePic VII system, which processes your images for colour balance and contrast, effectively striking the right balance for making life-like images.

The system supports ISO rages from 100 to 25600, with images capable of being shot in either RAW, JPEG, or both simultaneously, while video has the choice of MOV and AVI formats.

Two viewfinders are available in this camera, with a 3 inch touchscreen vari-angle LCD on the back, as well as an electronic viewfinder built into the body just like its predecessor, though the viewfinder in this camera does display 2.36 megapixels of information.

Autofocus is controlled by a system that works with both contrast detection and phase difference, effectively resulting in fast autofocus, with a solid amount of shooting modes complimenting this, including your typical selection of manual modes — aperture, shutter, program, and manual — as well as automatic, art, scene, and a framing mode.

There are multiple buttons to customise your experience, all of which have been crafted in metal, which is what the body has been made from.

The memory being used here is an SDHC card, of which the slot sits on the right side, with the battery compartment below under the grip, and ports for USB, HDMI, 3.5mm headset jack compatible with microphones.

Performance

Up until recently, Olympus has had a few types of cameras.

There are the compact devices, which range from being cheap and cheerful to tough and durable, and even are big and feature a long range for those on vacation.

Then you had the Pen range, a model of camera which brought the 60s and 70s interchangeable lens camera style back and thrust it into a small digital camera body supporting the Micro Four-Thirds lens mount that both it and Panasonic make use of.

Last year, though, Olympus released a new body that aimed to take the Micro Four-Thirds cameras and make them more professional, essentially bolstering the look and feel of the Pen with the reinvention of another old Olympus camera, the OM.

We remarked on that reinvention last year when we checked out the OM-D E-M5, but in its latest iteration — the E-M1 — the form is better than ever.

While the Pen brand that Olympus keeps reviving does its best to reinvent the Pen camera from the 60s and 70s, the E-M1 pays close attention to the OM series, which was first introduced in 1972 and effectively gave Olympus a camera that could take on the similar style of mechanical art producers being manufactured by the likes of Canon and Nikon.

It’s been over 50 years since Olympus released that first OM body, but here in 2013, the new OM camera looks like a recreation of that first body, except for the fact that there are more buttons and also more functionality.

Ergonomically, the EM-1 is brilliant.

If you know how to hold a camera, this thing will find the groove of your palm comfortably, and provide one of the best handheld experiences to date. It’s sort of like when you first picked up that old single lens reflex when you were younger, and you knew it was your camera because it just fit like a glove: that’s the feeling Olympus has created in the E-M1.

A combination of metal and rubber make up the body, which is precisely what you expect a high quality camera to feel like, and looking at the design, the buttons are pretty much exactly where you need them to be, with two sets of wheels making it easy to stay in manual modes, several customisable function buttons, and just like on the Pen E-P5, a switch to let you jump between designated function modes.

This creates an experience that is not only comfortable, but very professional, and has to be one of the better feeling devices out there.

From there you start to use the camera, and you it’s here that you see this is a top shelf product, with an insane amount of work put into it that makes the camera truly stand out.

The three inch 1 million dot touchscreen is nice, and if you get by on touching focus points to fire, you’ll find a use here, but there’s also an electronic viewfinder offering a 2.36 megapixel resolution that looks remarkably clear up close, and is as bright as many of the optical viewfinders we use on regular digital and analogue SLRs.

Prefer a viewfinder to an LCD screen? No worries, as the EVF on offer is bright and sharp.

Over in the image performance area, we’re suitably impressed.

Images shot on the E-M1 are sharp, vibrant, and bloody fantastic to look at.

Going for our regular Botanical Gardens test walk, photos of flora and fauna up close come out excellent, and show the sort of clarity on offer from the camera.

Image sample from the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (100 percent crop)

We also grabbed a shot of a small plant bud in low light and found that in RAW, there’s a surprising lack of noise when the image is darker, though this can be visible once you start cranking the low light settings up, especially since this goes up to ISO25600, which is now becoming the standard maximum for cameras without a full-frame sensor.

Some of the extra features inside this camera are also quite neat, and add something extra to the package that few cameras get close to.

Image sample from the Olympus OM-D E-M1 at ISO 1600

For instance, the improved WiFi features on the E-M1 (improved since the recent release of the E-P5) mean you can actually control proper manual modes, even going so far as to shoot an image in bulb with your smartphone or tablet, turning the device we all carry into a cable-less cable release.

Adding to this, a live mode will also build the photograph on screen as you’re shooting in, showing you what you’re shooting in time-lapse as you shoot it.

Those of you keen to take time-lapse photos as opposed to the time-exposure shots mentioned above will be keen to see there’s an intervalometer built into this camera, making it possible to take 999 photos in succession without needing to purchase an extra accessory.

And then there’s the new colour wheel filtration mode, which lets you change the hue and saturation of a JPEG, almost as if you’re adding a gel or filter to the lens.

This only works for regular JPEGs, though, and doesn’t cross over to art modes, which is a shame, since we’d have liked to see colour filtration work in some of the other settings.

You can make it work in the movie mode, though, provided you set the colour up on a manual mode and then jump into the video capture mode, the colour working at that point similarly to a gel would on a camera.

Interestingly, this almost seems like a hack, as you can’t turn it off from within the video mode, and will have to go back into the image mode to switch it off if you like.

All up, it’s an impressive little beast, so what’s wrong with the E-M1?

Well there isn’t much.

Some might see the body only tag of $1599 a little expensive, but really, this isn’t a terrible price for what’s being offered, and certainly against what is out there that can compete with the E-M1 on its professional level.

Rather, the lack of a built-in flash is something we’re not particular fond of, especially when there could have been something added to the top of that pentaprism shape.

To its credit, Olympus does include a small external flash in the box, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll wonder why Olympus didn’t just include this in the body for the times you might need it.

The vari-angle LCD also continues something Olympus is known and not exactly celebrated for, and that’s the range of angles available.

It’s great for looking down on, and ok for popping the screen slightly out, but just like in past models, it won’t sit at a perpendicular angle if you hold the camera up above your head.

Likewise, it can’t be aimed at you for self-portraits, making the angles for the LCD rather limited.

Image sample from the Olympus OM-D E-M1

Conclusion

I love cameras. Always have, always will, and even though my career path led me to journalism, there is a soft spot in my heart for things with viewfinders, focus rings, and a heavy reliance on optics.

Up until a couple of years ago, I carried my big bulky Nikon camera everywhere I went, a move that several of my colleagues thought was odd, and would point out all the time.

“You’re not a photographer anymore,” they would say, referencing what I was, “so you don’t need the big camera with you at all times.”

They were right. I didn’t. I could have easily carried a compact with me and performed my job, as well as grabbed personal images here and there when I needed to.

The point, though, was that I loved having a big camera with me, and in the Olympus OM-D E-M1, it felt like my larger camera had been returned to my hip without the weight or bulk.

There were times in carrying and walking with this that I had to remark as to how much lighter than my regular camera it was, checking frequently to see whether it was still in my bag.

Lovely to hold, and barely noticeable when you're not.

As a reviewer, I’m used to seeing cameras that are lighter and smaller than the previous generation, but the point of why I’m saying all of this is that this is the first time I’ve felt like a smaller camera could genuinely fill the shoes of my big camera, and not only felt right in my hands and on my shoulder, but also had the controls, the speed, and the power to take over from that large DSLR.

For photographers who love the look and feel of a film camera, but no longer want the weight of a big machine, the E-M1 has to be checked out.

Last year’s OM-D was lovely, but this year’s model is a step ahead, and with the E-M1, Olympus has gone ahead and made something to be marvelled at. Highly recommended.

Price (RRP)

$1599

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Great design and weight; Two megapixel viewfinder is very clear; Supports WiFi and wireless shooting with smartphone app; Smartphone camera application can show images building in real time; Lock button for keeping shooting mode selected; Lots of buttons; Comes with small external flash;

Product Cons

While we like the amount of buttons, this number may confuse people; Screen only pops out at various angles, as per normal with other Olympus cameras; No built-in flash; Colour filtration modes only officially apply to JPEG, and while can be used with movies, can't be shut off in these modes;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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