Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands On Review

I was invited to the Castle Leslie Estate in Ireland to experience the Olympus OM-D E-M1. The E-M1 is Olympus’s new Micro Four Thirds camera that is aimed at professionals, it is not a replacement for the E-M5 but will be sold alongside it. Currently on the Amazon UK the E-M1 body only is £1,299 and the E-M5 body only is £730.

Clippity Clop Splishy Splashy - Horse Running Though Water

Shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1’s continuous autofocus

I only spent about 12 hours with the E-M1 which I don’t feel was long enough to really get to know it. But it is very similar to the older E-M5 which I had about a month with and got to know a little better.

Control

When I first picked up the camera I must admit it felt a little overwhelming as it’s literally covered in buttons. There are two control dials on the camera which can be customised to control quite a bit of the camera’s functionality. In aperture priority mode one dial controls aperture and the other exposure compensation as you would expect. Then, if you flip a lever, the dials now control ISO and White balance which means  you easy access to the settings you want to change while shooting. Once you get to know the system you realise that you can control the camera with ease and literally everything is customisable.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 top and back

Physical buttons on the Olympus OM-D E-M1

You don’t have to memorize what all the buttons do because through the camera’s super control panel you can quickly change ISO, white balance, autofocus modes, focus points and more by tapping the camera’s touch screen. Like the E-M5 before it the super control panel is not turned on by default, which I think is a shame as it’s something some users might not realise is a feature.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 super control panel

Olympus OM-D E-M1 super control panel

Focusing

Focusing is something that has to be right on a camera, after all if images are not in focus or a photo opp is missed because a camera could not achieve focus photography can become pretty pointless. The auto focus on the E-M1 is incredibly fast, the first time you see it in action you won’t quite believe it. I remember when I saw the E-M1’s predecessor (E-M5) focus for the first time I was gob-smacked. It literally pops into focus and never seeks past focus. One of the reasons focusing is so fast is because the lens is smaller than on a larger DSLR system and there is physically less glass in a four thirds lens to move so it can be done faster. I can’t say if the E-M1 is faster than the E-M5 but there both so fast you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference if there is one. The E-M1 has 81 focus points compared to the E-M5’s 35. The focus points can be used in groups to effectively create larger focus points.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 facial recognition focusing

Shot suing the Olympus OM-D E-M1’s facial recognition focusing

Olympus OM-D EM-1 image quality at 100%

This is a crop of the image above at 100%.
Image taken with Olympus OM-D EM-1 and Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm 1:2.8

Facial detection gives a huge level of accuracy with portraiture. Any photographer will tell you as long as the eyes in a portrait are in focus not much else matters. By default the E-M1‘s facial detection will lock on to the closest eye in the frame but you can easily set it up so that priority is given to the left of the right eye. This means you can shoot portraits without having to worry about using a single focus point and recomposing between shots.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 shot using continuous auto focus

Shot using the Olympus OM-D E-M1’s continuous auto focus

I put the camera’s continuous auto focus though it paces by shooting horses running through shallow water. Using the continuous shooting mode I shot 130 images, all but 6 of them were in perfect focus. The only drawback I had with the camera was when I was shooting continuous frames. As the picture was being taken, the screen / electronic view finder goes blank for a fraction of a second and this can make it hard to track a moving object.

Focus peaking is a welcome edition to the EM-1 and was something that was missing from the EM-5. Focus peaking highlights areas of contrast in the focused parts of an image, and really helps when you are manually focusing.

Lenses

Because the Micro four thirds system has been in existence since 2008 it means there is a wide range of lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma and Voitlander. If you have previously owned a Four Thirds system camera you’re in luck because you can use all your Olympus E-system four thirds lenses with a converter. Olympus are offering a converter for free until the end of November 2013 when you purchase a E-M1.

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12mm 1:2.0 Lens detail

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12mm 1:2.0 Lens. The focus ring can be pulled back to turn on manual focus and relieve a distance scale. A hand full of the Olympus Lens have this.

For the most part I was using the new Olympus m.Zuiko 12-40mm (equivalent to 24mm-80mm on 35mm film) with a constant aperture of 2.8 (£899 from amazon UK). I think I would be happy with the camera and this lens exclusively. I am not a photographer that is into long focal lengths. I love the fact that the m.Zuiko 12-40mm has a distance scale on it, which is rare for an auto focus lens. The distance scale means when using manual focus you can set the distance to a subject and see what your depth of  field will be at a glance. It also gives the lens a real retro look, the distance scale is hidden when the focus clutch is pulled up and the lens is in autofocus mode.

Time-Lapse Mode

The camera has a time-lapse mode built in which is great. As well as individual frames being saved to the memory card the camera will also generate a 12 frames per second movie for quick sharing. It was only in the evening when eating that I found out the camera actually had this functionality so I thought I would shoot a quick time-lapse at the dinner table. The maximum amount of frames you can shoot is 999 frames. My time-lapses are rarely under 1000 frames, the time-lapse can be restarted but depending on how quick you can get through the menus you might miss a few frames.

In case you’re wondering, the panning effect was achieved by putting the camera on a Camalapse from Photojojo.

Live Time long exposure control

If you do any kind of long exposure photography weather that’s Night time landscapes, astrophotography or light painting “Live Time” will literally change your life! Normally with a 5 minute exposure you will wait 5 minutes for the exposure, then another 5 minutes for the noise reduction, after 10 minutes you might realise that it’s overexposed or that you bumped the tripod and you have to start again.

Light painting by Daniel Lisson

Light painting by Daniel Lisson

With live time the image on the back of the screen is updated up to 24 times through out an exposure, you get to see an image build up bit by bit it’s quite amazing. The image is updated 24 times so you need to know roughly how long your exposure is going to be so you can set the interval of the refresh. For instance if you where shooting a 5 minute exposure you would set live time to refresh every 12 seconds or if it where 30 minutes every 75 seconds. The number of steps that can be viewed depends on the ISO. In ISO 200 24 steps, ISO 400 19 steps, ISO 800 14 steps and ISO 1600 9 steps. You can see the live time in action below (apologies for the little bit of shake the video camera was on a dodgy tripod).

Light Paintings in these photos was by the amazing Daniel Lisson.

Tablet / Smart Phone control image transfer with Olympus OI.Share app

It’s possible to control the camera and transfer images wirelessly to an iOS or an Android device using Olympus’s IO.Share app. The app worked well on my ageing iPhone 4 and was simple to set up. Once the camera’s wifi mode is turned on the camera shows a QR code / URL on the camera’s screen. By snapping the QR code (which is what I did) or entering the URL you can quickly pair your devices and start transferring images. As well as image transfer you can also control some of the cameras settings, see what the cameras sees and take pictures with the app. You can even use the app to see a “live time” long exposure image appear on iPad, this is especially handy for light painting as you would not have to keep running back to the camera to see how your light painting was turning out.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 iPad control

Olympus OM-D E-M1 can be controlled from an iSO or Android device.

5 Axis Image stabilisation

The Olympus E-M1 has incredible image stabilisation, the image sensor can move up, down, left, right, tilts in all directions and it also rotates. This is something that has to be seen to be believed. I did not fully test it on the E-M1 but I do have 2 videos shot on the E-M5 using 300mm lens (equivalent of 600mm on a 35mm film). Obviously this is great for video but it also means you can shoot hand held at much slower shutter speeds and not get motion blur.

My Conclusion

If you’re used to shooting on a DSLR or you are beginning to take your photography more seriously I would seriously consider looking at the Olympus OM-Ds, because of their size they are far more likely to be the camera that you carry with you everywhere. Don’t be put off by the electronic viewfinder as it’s really easy to get used to and the benefits of not having a mirror far out-weigh the negatives. If I was doing a lot of traveling I would definitely have no problem leaving my 5D mark iii behind and taking an E-M1 instead. The camera along with some Olympus lenses are completely weatherproof and can be used in temperatures as low as -10c, this is definitely a camera that a pro could use minus a little weight!

Thanks for Edward Moore Brighton’s OM-D expert for answering all my questions and as always Pippa Bennett for proofing all my blog posts!

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19 Responses to Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands On Review

  1. Edward Moore says:

    ‘Like’. Just to reiterate that the other 2012-13 Olympus micro four third cameras also have Live Bulb and that quite a few models feature focus peaking (E-P5, Panasonic’s G6 and GX7). Also, those thinking about getting a screen or EVF based camera will need to purchase a spare battery or two as that is the only major drawback I have found in comparison to a DSLR. Can’t wait to have a play with the E-M1 up at Park Cameras sometime.

  2. Paul Thurlow says:

    Great Review Kevin. Looks like a camera that I would like to get in the future.

  3. beli says:

    Time lapse movies… What resolution can you achieve? 16Mpx? 4k? Etc?

    • lomokev says:

      The EM-1 produces files that are 4608 x 3456, 4K is 3840 x 2160 so if you have the camera shooting at native resolution that is enough for 4k. As with most cameras included the EM-1 it’s small jpegs are enough to make a 1080p HD video.

  4. Wow great post! Also thanks for sharing camalapse, affordable and useful for timelapses. I am an E-M5 user and this was a great read.

    • lomokev says:

      The cameralapse is great but you can’t use big lenses with it. When I made that time-lapse I use a smaller prime 12mm prime a zoom lens makes it to front heavy.

    • Good to know this. I did order the camalapse and I’m eager to try it out with my 12mm prime.

  5. Willie Robb says:

    Great article Kev. I’m a Nikon man through and through but have a healthy interest in Olympus having owned an OM-1 back in the day. About time Tablet / Smart Phone control image came about. The less wires the better. Does Nikon have similar tablet tethering abilities (preferable to ipad)?

    • lomokev says:

      I have no idea on Nikon and tethering tablet control. I know there are 3rd party wired solutions for canon so don’t see why Nikon would not have the same thing.

  6. fozbaca says:

    “Olympus m.Zuiko 12-40mm (equivalent to 24mm-40mm on 35mm film)”

    Shouldn’t that be

    Olympus m.Zuiko 12-40mm (equivalent to 24mm-80mm on 35mm film)

  7. JVL says:

    Like your review Kev. I have ordered EM1 with 12-40 lens. Concerned about various comments on white speckles on long exposure image. Your light painting video looks clean. Have you noticed this problem with any long exposure images

    • lomokev says:

      I tested the camera for 12 hours and shot about 10 or 15 long exposures and I did not notice any white speckles. When I tested the camera I was with 10 other people also testing it out and the speckle problem never came up.

    • JVL says:

      Thanks Kev for your reply,its reassuring that you did not experience problems with long exposures. Would you know if the NR reduction was “on”. I have EM5 and have not found it necessary for long exposure. Thanks

    • lomokev says:

      The noise reduction was on. I think it all depends on how long your exposures are and what ISO you are using as to whether noise redirection makes a big difference. Is there no difference between NR on and off on your current setup?

    • JVL says:

      Looking at my previous efforts with EM5, my settings have been f8 ISO 200 exposure times 20-30sec which I suppose is not long. NR & Noise filter turned off. That was using a B=W 10stop filter. i have just invested in a a Hitech A series which includes a 10 stop and I have a 3stop. haven’t tried using this setup yet. I am wary about going to f16-f22 as I am told image quality degrades. My main interest for the in long exposure is slowing seascapes and clouds with architectural shots.

    • lomokev says:

      If you are doing astral photography or light painting then your exposures are gonna be in minutes. Anything under 30 sec your not really gonna have a problem. Still best to have the noise reduction on.

  8. JVL says:

    Thanks for your advice. I received an email today saying my EM1 will be delivered tomorrow, so I will be able to try it out.
    Regards JVL

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