Finally here it, is my take on the Olympus OM-D E-M1. I’ve been using the camera for roughly two months now and I am loving it. Earlier this year I also did a review on the Fuji X100s and people seemed to like it, that’s why I decided to write my second product review ever. But this time I wanted to do it a little bit different. The reason is, that after reviewing the Fuji, I noticed some things that bothered me that much, that I decided to dump it and get something else instead. First of all there was the unreliable AF, which was a problem especially in low light situations. I used the Fuji on weddings and sometimes the AF refused to lock on, which was really annoying. That, of course was the number one reason for selling it. Initially, while I was writing my review, I thought that this is something I could live with, but it turned out to be a big deal breaker for me. So this time I wanted to take the new camera through its paces and I did. I used the Olympus OM-D E-M1 during a longer trip across Asia, to find out if it’s working for me or not. There I did a lot of street shooting, shot weddings in Korea and Malaysia and had a lot of fun taking pictures and using the camera.
This review is not about telling you what the specs of this camera are, it’s more about usability and what to expect when taking it out on the streets. All words written here are reflecting my opinion only and that might not fit your style of shooting, please keep that in mind. Of course, I am going to try to be as objective as possible.
Design & Ergonomics:
Well, when Olympus announced the E-M5 my first thought was, wow what a beauty. A couple of months later I stumbled upon one at a local camera store and had to try it. It felt nice, but being used to a DSLR it was kinda tough to hold without a strap. It was the same with my X100s, which I always used with a strap, just to make sure I wouldn’t drop it. When I got myself the E-P5 I still missed a beefier grip. So, finally Olympus came up with the E-M1 and the body looked very promising, it still had that nice retro design of the E-M5 but with the addition of a proper grip. When the camera started shipping, my local camera store was one of the first who got one in. After playing around for a couple of minutes I was completely sold and bought the E-M1.
The body feels very sturdy and is built like a tank. All the buttons and wheels have a very tactile feel to it and there are a lot of them. The E-M1 is not just a fancy toy to play with, no, it’s a proper tool which seems to last for a while, even under rough conditions. Well it should be, considering the price tag. 😀
I know there are some folks out there that don’t like the built-in grip and find the camera to look ugly. Yeah, I guess it would look a little better without it, but the thing is, this camera is relatively small compared to any DSLR out there and Olympus is targeting the more advanced user or even working professionals with the E-M1, and I am pretty sure that those people wouldn’t consider using a camera without a proper grip. I know you can always add the optional battery grip, but that’s not what I wanna do, I want a camera that is good to hold in the first place.
I have average sized hands and for my personal taste the E-M1 is pretty well balanced, so there is nothing to complain about.
I am used to shooting a Nikon D800 with a bag full of fast prime lenses. That combo is really tough to beat when it comes to image quality. So I was eager to know how the E-M1 with its significant smaller image sensor would perform. After taking some test shots and a small test shooting the results had been a mixed bag. I am not a pixel peeper, but when I opened the RAW files in Lightroom and zoomed in to 100% the images looked a little grainy, even at base ISO. I didn’t expect that since the D800 is super clean at ISO100. That doesn’t sound very promising, right? Even though the files are not as clean as I hoped they would be, the details are there and with a little noise reduction the images look very tempting. So in the end it’s just a minor tweak in the work flow. I guess that is the price you have to pay when stepping down from a top notch full frame sensor to the micro four thirds format. Not a big deal though. 😀 On the other hand you get images that are crazy sharp with tons of details. Even after using it for two months now, I am really impressed with the files the E-M1 delivers. But keep in mind that you will need to use top quality glass to get the best out of it. Luckily the mFT system gives you lots of options there.
What about high ISOs? When I saw Robin Wongs initial E-M1 review, the high ISO samples looked astounding. Well, let’s get to the point right away. I am really happy with the high ISO quality I am getting out of the E-M1. Of course, you will introduce grain as you start to crank up the sensitivity, but – and this is the good news – the grain looks really pleasing and has a film like texture to it. Color noise is pretty well controlled and nearly absent even if you go up to ISO6400 or above. If you are mainly a low light shooter, who needs AF and really fast shutter speeds, I would recommend to get a full frame camera and fast glass to get the best high ISO files available date. If you can live with slower shutter speeds and manual focus the E-M1 might be a tool for you. Just put on a fast f/0.95 prime and make use of the gorgeous image stabilizer and you will be able to keep your ISOs very low. More on the IBIS later in this review.
Besides resolution and image noise, the dynamic range of a sensor is pretty important to me. That being said, how does the E-M1 sensor handle high contrast situations? Well, it does pretty good, at least when it comes to preserving details in the shadows and not so well with doing so in the highlights. But that’s no surprise since that’s typical for most modern camera sensors. If you overexpose a scene you can be sure to have 1-1.5EV latitude to recover highlights. A quick comparison between the E-M1 and the older sensor in the E-P5 showed, that this one had the edge here, and there was easily half a stop more latitude in the highlights. But when it comes to recover shadows, the E-M1 really shines. I wouldn’t hesitate to push the image up to 3 stops if I needed to do so.
When it comes to color rendition that’s totally a personal preference. For my personal taste I do like the colors that the E-M1 is producing. In my opinion they are closer to the Fuji X-Series than to my D800 and that’s something I really like. Just to make clear, I was not talking about the out of camera colors of the JPEG files, because I only shoot RAW and do my post mainly in Lightroom. Like I said, it’s a personal preference and totally up to you whether you like the colors or not.
Here are three high ISO samples with 100% crops. All exported from Lightroom 5.3 with standard sharpening and no noise reduction. Click for a larger view on actual pixel size.
17mm, 1/80, f/1.8, ISO-1600
12mm, 1/80, f/2.0, ISO-3200
17mm, 1/50, f/1.8, ISO-6400
Image Stabilization (IBIS):
One of my favorite features built into the E-M1 is the fabulous image stabilization. It’s pretty efficient and it works with every lens attached to the camera. If you’re a person like me, who finds it rather awkward to use a tripod or to carry it around all the time, then you will immediately fall in love with the IBIS. If you’re already an Olympus user coming from an OM-D E-M5 or an E-P5, then you know what I am talking about. The cool thing is, that despite being already stunningly good, Olympus somehow managed to make it even better. Shooting the E-M1 and the E-P5 side by side I got more sharp results out of the E-M1 with shutter speeds up to one second. Yeah that’s right, with a good shooting technique and a steady hand it’s easily possible to get sharp images up to one second or even beyond. This amazing feature helps to keep the ISOs pretty low as long as you don’t need the fast shutter speeds to freeze motion. And of course from time to time you might want to shoot at a longer exposure value to get some motion blur and you don’t have a tripod with you or it’s impossible to use one. Under circumstances like this the IBIS is the only chance to get the shot.
12mm, 1s, f/2.0, ISO-3200
12mm, 2s, f/3.2, ISO-200
25mm, 0.8s, f/5.0, ISO-200
45mm, 1/3s, f/1.8, ISO-200
25mm, 2s, f/1.4, ISO-400, 2 seconds to capture the thunderstorm, taken on a moving boat!
It’s as fast as it gets, period. I think at the moment there is nothing on the market that can rival the E-M1 when it comes to autofocus speed. One important factor regarding AF speed besides the camera – is the lens attached to it. There are lenses out there that will focus nearly instantaneously but others won’t. Put on the 17mm f/1.8 and it will easily outperform even most high end DSLR cameras. When pressing down the shutter, the AF will lock on immediately, sometimes it’s hard to believe how fast it is. Olympus claims that the AF-C speed has also been improved over previous generations. That’s something I can’t prove since I usually don’t need it. From what I’ve read so far, it’s pretty usable but not as good as on most modern DSLRs. Other than that. AF-S speed is just amazing and only in very dim light the autofocus slows down a little, but still remains pretty accurate.
For portraits I am using a cheap Yongnuo 560 II flash and a studio strobe with battery pack. Both work flawlessly and triggering them wireless is working great as well. I am going to write another blog post that will address all of this in depth.
Usability & Handling:
So far the E-M1 seems to be an impressive piece of hardware, but for someone like me, who loves street photography, the most important aspect of a new camera is how it performs when you take it out. Well, there are things I really like about the E-M1 but to be honest there are also things I am not so happy with. The key elements that make this camera stand out for me are the super-fast autofocus, the IBIS and of course the brilliant image quality, all delivered in a very compact, lightweight and comfortable to hold body. In addition, you get a viewfinder that is huge and a joy to use. After using the E-M1 for a while, I tend to utilize the LCD instead of the viewfinder more often. It makes shooting from the hip so much easier and your subjects often don’t recognize you taking pictures. And the tiltable screen comes really handy here. Another cool feature I did use quite often is face detection. When shooting portraits it’s pretty useful and you don’t need to fiddle around with the AF points. Even when shooting street it worked out pretty well, but only if there are not too many faces to choose from. 😀 Also very useful is the ability to save profiles with custom camera settings. After setting up the camera you can save your settings as “MySet” and link those to one of the shooting modes on the mode dial on top of the camera. For instance, I usually shoot in aperture priority with auto ISO disabled. Being outside on a sunny day that works best for me, but just in case I needed auto ISO to be “enabled” immediately, I saved a “MySet” with aperture priority and ISO set to “auto” and linked it to P-Mode on the top dial. Now I just can quickly switch to “P” and I am good to go. Dialing the auto ISO in manually, definitely takes more time. I did the same for other configurations and it’s just amazing how fast I am now able to change camera settings by just turning the mode dial. Oh, there is something else I really love about the mode dial. It’s the button on top of it, that allows you to lock the dial by clicking it. If you press it one more time that’ll allow you to turn it again. Other manufacturers have “mode dial locks” too, but they’re not that comfortable to use.
Ok, now let’s talk about things I am not that excited about. First there is the touchscreen which works pretty well and in the beginning I was using it a lot. Like I said, it works pretty well, but from time to time I accidentally took pictures with my belly. 😀 Of course, I turned the touchscreen off, but with the camera hanging on my neck, my belly was somehow able to turn it back on. That was really annoying and the only way to solve this “problem” was do go into the menu and switch the touchscreen function completely off. That takes some time and if you want quick access to it, a dedicated button would be much better.
Something I really don’t understand is the implementation of the auto ISO setting. On my D800 I use this feature all the time and it works great. But why is Olympus not letting me choose the minimum shutter speed when to change the ISO? On the E-M1 the camera is making that decision itself depending on the focal length I am using. But what if I need a faster shutter speed to freeze action or a slower one to keep the ISO as low as possible? I know, I could completely shoot in manual. And for aperture priority there is some kind of workaround by changing the flash settings, but that is not working for me. But since this is only a software “issue”, Olympus could address this with a future firmware update and I hope they will.
One thing they can’t change via firmware update is the position of the power switch. I usually turn off the camera to save up battery and I am used to turn it on again while raising the camera up. On most cameras I can do that with one hand, but on the E-M1 it’s impossible. I think the reason for putting the power switch to the left side is obvious, because the area around the shutter is packed with dials and buttons and space is very limited. I totally get that and it’s not a deal breaker even though it’s not the way I wished it would be.
Other than that there is nothing to complain about the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Of course, it’s not the perfect camera but it is really really close. Like I mentioned before, right now there is nothing on the market that can rival the E-M1. For all you street shooters out there, if you’re considering a new camera, you should definitely check out the E-M1, at the moment probably the best tool for that task. For everyone else, if you’re looking for a good camera that is suitable for almost every occasion, the E-M1 is absolutely worth a try. And also keep in mind, that a camera can only deliver descend results, if a good lens is attached to it. Fortunately the mFT System can offer you both! 🙂
Here is a small selection of images taking during my trip, all processed in Lightroom 5.3.
25mm, 1/80, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/60, f/1.4, ISO-320
25mm, 1/1250, f/1.6, ISO-200
25mm, 1/500, f/1.4, ISO-200
17mm, 1/40, f/2.0, ISO-200
12mm, 1/80, f/2.0, ISO-320
12mm, 1/400, f/5.0, ISO-200
25mm, 1/1000, f/1.4, ISO-200
12mm, 1/60, f/7.1, ISO-2000
12mm, 1/800, f/5.0, ISO-200
25mm, 1/80, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/60, f/1.4, ISO-640
12mm, 1/50, f/2.0, ISO-400
12mm, 1/1000, f/5.0, ISO-200
17mm, 1/2000, f/1.8, ISO-200
17mm, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, manual focus
17mm, 1/4000, f/1.8, ISO-200
12mm, 1/4s, f/7.1, ISO-200
17mm, 1/200, f/1.8, ISO-200
12mm, 1/250, f/2.0, ISO-200
17mm, 1/125, f/1.8, ISO-200
17mm, 1/2500, f/1.8, ISO-200
25mm, 1/8000, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/4000, f/1.4, ISO-200
45mm, 1/160, f/3.2, ISO-200
25mm, 1/640, f/1.4, ISO-200
17mm, 1/800, f/1.8, ISO-200
25mm, 1/3200, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/640, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/80, f/1.4, ISO-320
25mm, 1/500, f/1.4, ISO-200
17mm, 1/3200, f/1.8, ISO-200
25mm, 1/5000, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/6400, f/1.4, ISO-200
25mm, 1/60, f/1.4, ISO-500
I hope you enjoyed my review. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I will try to answer them as soon as possible. And of course smack the like button! 🙂
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