Olympus OM-D E-M1 review

With gorgeous images—even in low light, incredible speed, and a wealth of high-end features, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the best Micro Four Thirds camera that money can buy. It's an easy Editors' Choice award winner.
Photo of Olympus OM-D E-M1

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 knocked our socks off when we reviewed it last year, to the point where we wondered if Olympus could do any better. The OM-D E-M1 ($1,399.99 direct, body only) is what the company came up with, and the improvements include a larger, sharper EVF, built-in Wi-Fi, an improved control layout, a deeper handgrip, and faster focus speed with legacy Four Thirds SLR lenses—and that’s just scratching the surface. Like the E-M5, which is supplemented by this new model rather than replaced, the E-M1 earns a 5-star rating and our Editors’ Choice award for high-end mirrorless cameras. It’s just that good.

Design
The E-M1 is one of the larger Micro Four Thirds bodies that you’ll handle, but it’s compact compared with SLRs with comparable performance. Measuring 3.7 by 5.1 by 2.5 inches (HWD), the camera weighs in at 1.1 pounds—a little bigger than the Samsung NX20, which packs a larger APS-C image sensor into a body that’s 3.5 by 4.8 by 1.6 inches and weighs 12 ounces.

The camera is heavy for its size, but that’s a mark of sturdy construction. The exterior is a mixture of metal, hard polycarbonate, and textured leatherette. The handgrip is deeper than the one on the E-M5; it’s a more comfortable camera to hold, and balances better with zoom lenses. The internal chassis is magnesium alloy, and the buttons and ports are protected against dust and splashes. It’s sealed against the elements to the same level as the E-M5, but it adds support for shooting in very cold environments—as low as 14°F.

Plenty of controls are built into the body. On the top plate, to the left of the viewfinder, there’s an on/off switch that’s integrated into a circular control, styled like a collapsed film rewind crank, that gives you access to the drive mode, self-timer, in-camera HDR settings, the autofocus mode, and the metering pattern. To the right of the EVF you’ll find the mode dial, front and rear control dials, video record button, and the Fn2 button. On the face, next to the lens mount, there are two buttons—one activates depth of field preview, and the other is used to set white balance. These can be reprogrammed as well.

The bulk of the remaining controls are on the rear of the camera, the lone exception being the button to toggle between the rear display, EVF, or automatic switching between the two; that’s to the left of the eyecup, above the tilting LCD. To the right of the EVF you’ll find a toggle switch with two positions. This is part of the 2×2 control system, introduced in the Olympus PEN E-P5, which assigns two functions to each control dial. The Auto Exposure Lock/Autofocus Lock button is integrated into this toggle switch.

There’s a programmable Fn1 button, in an angled position on the right rear corner of the camera; by default it adjusts the active focus point. The other rear controls are there to navigate through menus, play and delete images, and adjust the information shown on the rear display.

The 3-inch touch-enabled display is hinged, so it tilts up and down, but it doesn’t have the vari-angle capability like the touch screen on Panasonic’s top-end Micro Four Thirds body, the Panasonic Lumix GH3. The Olympus display packs a super-sharp and bright 1,037k-dot resolution. You can enable touch-focus, or touch focus-and-fire, or disable the touch controls by tapping an icon on the left side of the display. There is a persistent Wi-Fi control at the top left of the screen. The Panasonic GH3 allows you to move your finger over the rear display to adjust the focus point while you’re shooting with the EVF; it’s a quick and innovative way to adjust focus. I wish this feature was included here. You can drag the focus point around with your finger when you’re using the rear display for framing with the E-M1, but the screen is completely disabled when the EVF is active.

The EVF is everything you want an electronic viewfinder to be. It’s big—the magnification is higher than a full-frame D-SLR; it’s sharp at 2.4 million dots, and the lag time is a mere 29 milliseconds. The quality is on par with the external VF-4 bundled with the PEN E-P5; an EVF we liked enough to award our Editors’ Choice. The OLED EVF that’s built into the Sony Alpha NEX-7 also features 2.4 million dots of resolution, but the Olympus EVF’s larger size gives it an edge in quality. The Sony design is a bit punchier, displaying crunched blacks, while the Olympus presents a more natural take on the scene. The Olympus finder also does a better job in dim lighting; it’s certainly not as smooth as it is in well-lit conditions, but it’s not nearly as grainy or choppy as the Sony EVF. The large EVF is also a boon for manual focus; when combined with the camera’s magnification and focus peaking features, the guesswork is removed from manually focusing a shot.

Features
The software menus are similar to those found in the E-M5. It’s text-based on a blue background, and pretty deep. There are pages and pages of options, including ten customization submenus, but thankfully it’s not something you’ll have to dive into often. Once you customize controls to get the camera configured the way you like it, you can largely ignore the menu. You’ll need to dive in to format a memory card, or to set up a time lapse shot, but for the most part you can adjust settings without cutting off your Live View feed. To do so, press the OK menu, located in the middle of the four-way directional pad on the rear panel. An overlay menu appears on the right of the screen, from which you can configure almost every available shooting setting.

Color Creator is a quick way to tune the color output of the camera to suit your style. It can be a little tricky to locate if you haven’t read through the manual; it’s one of the default functions assigned to the Fn2 button. Pressing it once grants access to highlight and shadow control, so you can give images a punchy or low-contrast look, but if you hold the button down while moving the rear control dial you’ll find that it’s actually home to four functions. Color Creator is the second, and the other function that affects color output. The other two are for magnification, which is useful as a manual focus aid, and image aspect ratio.

When you’re working with the Color Creator you’ll be able to adjust the saturation (using the rear control dial), and to add a color hue to your images via the front wheel. Want to highlight the orange channel and bump up the saturation for a sunset shot? It’s a quick adjustment. Likewise you can go for a cooler, cyanotype look for portraits by dropping the saturation to near monochrome levels and moving the color wheel over to the blue setting. The Color Creator only works on JPG images; if you have the camera set to Raw and turn adjust the function it automatically changes over to Raw+JPG capture. I’m typically a Raw shooter, and didn’t use this feature that much, but JPG shooters who enjoy the built-in creative filters—and the camera has those as well—can have some fun playing around with this control system. Interestingly, you can change the highlight and shadow effects and shoot in Raw mode; but the effect itself will only apply if you have JPG shooting enabled. Raw images don’t show any sign of those adjustments when imported into Lightroom.

There’s also a time lapse feature, and one that’s very customizable. You can set the camera to record images at intervals for up to 999 shots. The interval can be set anywhere from one image a second to one image per day, and the output can be as individual Raw or JPG image files, a QuickTime movie, or both. I attempted a four-hour time lapse of flower buds opening, but found that the battery petered out after about three hours. If you’re serious about epic time lapses you’ll want to invest on the add-on battery grip ($199.99)—that will double battery life, and also adds a DC input port so you can power the camera from a wall outlet with the appropriate power adapter.

Like the PEN E-P5, the E-M1 has built-in Wi-Fi. The setup is identical for iOS and Android devices; you scan a QR code that’s displayed on the camera’s rear LCD using the Olympus Image Share app, and that installs a network profile for the SSID that is broadcasted by the E-M1. Once you’ve connected to that network you’ll be able to transfer JPG images and QuickTime videos to your phone. There’s also a GPS function that geotags your photos—you’ll need to enable a location log and make sure that your camera’s clock is set correctly to make this work.

Remote control is also available. For now, it only works on Android—the iOS app requires an update, which Olympus promises in early October. But for Android users, the remote control works just as it did with the E-P5. Your phone or tablet will show the Live View feed and you can choose a focus point and fire the shutter. You’re restricted to iAuto shooting, but you will have access to the self-timer. The Wi-Fi is easy to use and the remote control is one of the smoother that we’ve used, but we do wish it was a little more functional. Samsung mirrorless cameras, including the NX20, have the option of connecting directly to a Wi-Fi network, so you can post images to social networks or email them directly from the camera. The upcoming Galaxy NX goes a step further; it’s powered by Android and adds support for 4G connections.

Performance and Conclusions
The OM-D E-M1 is no slouch in terms of speed. It starts and shoots in just 0.8-second and records close to zero shutter lag (including time to confirm autofocus in good light). In dim light the focus slows a bit—it averages about 1.2-second to lock and fire. It’s faster than the Fujifilm X-E1, which requires 1.2 seconds to start and shoot, requires 0.3-second to focus and fire in good light, and slows to about 2 seconds to do the same in dim light.

Burst shooting is also impressive. The OM-D rattles off shots at just about 10.5 frames per second, and it can keep up that pace for some time: 35 Raw+JPG, 38 Raw, or 56 JPG shots before slowing down. There is some time required to completely clear the buffer to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card (22.5, 17, and 11.7 seconds respectively), but you can continue to shoot at a reduced rate or wait just a little bit for some of the photos to write before starting to capture another burst. The Sony NEX-7 is another top-end mirrorless camera that supports 10fps capture, but it can only do so for short bursts before slowing—11 Raw+JPG, 14 Raw, or 17 JPG images.

We also looked at the OM-D E-M1′s focus speed with a legacy Four Thirds SLR lens. Olympus supplied the Zuiko Digital 12-60mm F2.8-4 for testing. The on-sensor phase detection promises to increase the focus speed with legacy lenses like this one, and in side-by-side testing with the OM-D E-M5 we found that to be the case. The E-M1 focused and fired in about 0.5-second with this lens attached; the E-M5 required 1.3 seconds under the same conditions.

The E-M1 ships as a body only, but Olympus did provide the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens along with the camera for review. The Imatest full results are presented in that review, and they’re impressive. It’s an excellent lens, but the design of the E-M1′s 16-megapixel image sensor also deserves some credit. Like some other recent top-end cameras, the image sensor eliminates the optical low-pass filter. This improves the sharpness of photos, but does introduce the possibility of color moiré effects from popping up. The TruePic VII image processor is designed to remove moiré from images when it does occur; we didn’t see any instances of it during our time shooting with the E-M1. The sensors is steadied using Olympus’s 5-axis stabilization system; this makes it possible to get sharp shots at longer shutter speeds, and also improves the steadiness of handheld video recording.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can add unwanted grain and wipe away detail. Its JPG engine keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600; it just misses at ISO 3200, where photos show 1.6 percent noise. There’s no way to set the in-camera noise reduction level as you can with a camera like the Ricoh GR, and one of the reasons that the E-M1 skews a bit high is that it takes a very minimal approach to noise reduction. We examined JPG and Raw images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display and found that JPG detail was excellent through ISO 6400 and still quite useable at ISO 12800. It’s not until you push the camera to its top ISO of 25600 that the JPG output is noticeably smudged. If you opt to shoot Raw you’re rewarded with images that, while quite grainy, are sharp and show sharp detail at ISO 25600. Panasonic took a similar hands-off approach with high ISO JPG images in its competing Lumix GH3. But that camera is about an f-stop behind the E-M1 in terms of JPG and Raw image quality at high ISOs; it keeps noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 800, but it jumps to 2.1 percent at ISO 1600. Its image detail at ISO 6400 is on par with the E-M1 at ISO 12800.

Video is recorded at up to 1080p30 quality in QuickTime format. The footage looks great, and the E-M1 refocuses with ease as the scene changes. You can start a clip in program, aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual mode, but once the video is rolling, the only control you have is over focus. There’s a mic input; although we didn’t hear the lens refocusing during recording, the sound of the image stabilization system moving the sensor is evident. The E-M1 is a fine choice for the occasional video clip, but if you’re looking to produce professional work using a Micro Four Thirds body, the Panasonic GH3 is a better choice. It records at up to 1080p60 in the AVCHD format, allows you to settings while recording a clip, and offers a headphone port for audio monitoring in addition to a mic input.

In addition to the mic input you’ll find Olympus’s proprietary USB connection and a standard mini HDMI output port on the left side of the E-M1. There’s a PC Sync socket on the front so you can connect to studio lights or an off-camera flash. The hot shoe features the AP2 accessory port, which is required in order to use the small external pop-up flash that’s included with the camera; there’s no flash built into the body.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was one of the rare cameras that earned a 5-star rating. The E-M1 is priced at $400 more than the E-M5 body, but the improvements it offers justify the higher price, and it too earns that rating and our Editors’ Choice award. The electronic viewfinder is the best you’ll find in a mirrorless camera, the control layout is excellent, and the camera just feels right in your hand. Add in the sturdy dust-proof and splash-proof design, near instant autofocus, and 10.5fps shooting, and you’ve got a winner. It’s not the holy grail for every shooter; photographers who enjoy using old manual focus lenses on digital cameras will likely be happier with a body like the Fujifilm X-E1 or Sony Alpha NEX-7, which features a larger APS-C image sensor, and folks who are serious about video production have likely already chosen the Panasonic GH3. But if you’re a Micro Four Thirds shooter in search of the best body for your lenses, this is it.

Specifications
Dimensions 3.7 x 5.1 x 2.5 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, mini HDMI, Mic, PC Sync
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.095 seconds
LCD dots 1037000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
GPS No
Boot time 0.8 seconds
Sensor Type CMOS
Weight 1.1 lb
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization In-Body
Shutter Lag 0.02 seconds
Sensor Size Micro Four Thirds (17.3 x 13mm) mm
EVF Resolution 2360000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
With gorgeous images—even in low light, incredible speed, and a wealth of high-end features, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the best Micro Four Thirds camera that money can buy. It's an easy Editors' Choice award winner.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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