If you’re like me you will probably skip to the end of any product review and read the summary before delving into the parts that are important to you. I’ll save you the bother and tell you upfront that if you’re looking for a well designed, well equipped, excellent piece of photographic equipment you can stop reading right now and click this link to buy it. It’s a work of art. Just go get one. It’s everything a camera should be. There, I said it - are you back from buying it yet?
You haven't bought it yet? Wanna know more about it? OK, well, I guess you ought to read on a bit then. Grab a beverage because this review is about 4000 words long and there are quite a few images to look at too. It's a slightly different approach to the way I normally write a review, but I am sure you will find the information useful if you're planning on getting one.
Camera ergonomics is one of the most important elements of photography. If you’re not comfortable with finding your way around your kit, you’re not going to be happy and at the end of the day your images will reflect that. The E-M1 has been very well thought out in as much as button position is concerned.
Buttons, Dials & Levers
At the most basic level there are 3 variables involved in photography that the photographer needs to be able to adjust quickly. These are the lens aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO. Those are the fundamentals and you need to be able to get to them quickly and without impediment, which is why older cameras had aperture rings and a dial on the top to select the shutter speed. Easy. Happily I can report that the E-M1 lets the photographer change all of those variables very quickly and much easier than an old retro SLR could.
On the E-M1 there are a pair of dials on the body that you can assign to shift the value of each of these variables. The main dial is directly under your right thumb when holding the camera and the sub-command dial is integrated with the shutter release, so it’s easy to get to. Olympus have allowed these dials to be customised for each mode that the camera is in. So for instance, if you are in A mode and you want the rear dial to adjust aperture and the front dial to set compensation you can do that, or you can have them reversed. If you are in S mode you can set it up to work the same way, or if you have some kind of twisted brain you can make it work differently to A mode. You can also set the direction of the dials, which is quite a handy feature if you are coming from a brand of camera that works a certain way.
So as far as the two main variables (aperture & shutter speed) are concerned, adjusting them is real simple and you can compensate easily without having to press any other button on the camera. What about ISO? On the other OM-D model I have, the E-M5, getting to the ISO was a bit of a fiddle. You had to set it using the Super Control Panel. This was pretty easy to do, but if the last item you adjusted on the SCP was (say) the image quality, you’d have to navigate through the other options on the screen to adjust ISO. This involved several button pushes. On the E-M1 there is a lever integrated with the AE-L button on the rear of the camera that you can flip up or down. If you flip it down the two dials I already mentioned can be used to adjust something else on the camera, like ISO and white balance, for instance. So if I want to quickly change from auto ISO to a low value, all I do is flip down the lever with my right thumb and then use either of the dials to adjust it. How cool is that?
There are 5 different modes you can set this lever to, each of them re-assigns either the dials or a couple of the custom function buttons. It’s not as complicated as it sounds and I know that some of the reviews I read before I got the camera had me scratching my head as to what they were on about with the 2x2 system. All you have to do is choose which of the modes will work best for you in the menu and then remember what you’ve decided to use the lever for. I’ve set mine to Mode 2 which lets me use the main dial for ISO adjustments and the sub-dial for White Balance adjustments. Couldn’t do that with my Nikon D700.
The custom functions buttons are much easier to reach on the E-M1 compared to the E-M5 and they have a much nicer tactility than those of the E-M5. There are also quite a few of them compared to the older camera. If you have the HLD-7 grip for the camera there are 7 buttons you can assign just about any camera setting to. The trick is remembering what you’ve set, because in addition to these buttons you can also assign a function to each of the 4 navigation buttons surrounding the OK button and the AE-L button too!
This is where most people get scared off from the OM-D but really, there’s nothing to be afraid of. My advice is to write down the most important functions you usually use and then assign each button as you’d like. Having come from Nikon I have tried to keep my function buttons as similar to the Nikon layout as possible. I also haven’t assigned specific functions to all the buttons I am able to. This is how I have mine set up:
Fn-1 - focus peaking
Fn-2 - multi-function (this adjusts the highlight and shadows of the image using a tone curve)
Rec - I have left this to start the video when needed
AEL/AFL - left as is, it locks the AE value but could be set to drive AF if you like to shoot that way
Front top - set as DOF preview
Front bottom - set AF target to Home
B-Fn1 - DOF preview (it’s not easy to reach the other button when holding on the grip)
B-Fn2 - focus peaking
Up/Down/Left/Right - I have left these to select the AF area
OK, so you can assign a crap house full of functions into the buttons, but there is also a couple of buttons on the top of the camera that let you adjust the drive (FPS and self timer), HDR, AF method and metering method when held down and shifting either of the dials. This is very similar to the way many of the top-end Nikon bodies worked, so it’s a feature I am quite happy with.
Another cool feature is that you can lock the mode dial to prevent accidentally shifting from A mode to (say) P mode. I used to do this on the E-M5 quite often as it was easy to shift that dial. This one is a lot stiffer and now obviously with the locking function it’s a lot better.
I have read much squealing from other reviewers about the position of the on/off lever now being on the top of the camera, with the associated misery that it now requires you to switch it on with your left hand as opposed to your right. So what? Are you Lucky Luke or Billy The Kid that you have to be able to flick the camera on in a split second and take a shot? Why not leave it on if being ready quickly is that important? I think it’s in a better position now than it is on the E-M5.
So on the whole the ergonomics are great. Provided you can remember what you’ve programmed each button and dial to do you should be able to adjust camera settings very easily. I like the feel of the buttons and I especially like their positions. Much better than the E-M5.
There are a couple of areas that I demand performance from in my cameras. The main one is obviously image quality, which I will get to later on in the review, but close on its heels is auto focus performance. How does the camera work with the lenses I have?
The E-M1 has both CDAF and PDAF sensors so it’s able to use the latter when using lenses for the 4/3rds system. Apparently it works very well, but as of the time of this review I don’t have any 4/3rds lenses so I can’t comment on that. What I can comment on is that when using a m43 lens there doesn’t seem to be any way of using PDAF instead of CDAF. The camera will only use CDAF with a m43 lens mounted.
The CDAF is very fast on every m43 lens I have used when in AF-S mode, but it does tend to be somewhat iffy when I switch to AF-C mode. There’s a C-AF-Tracking mode that pops up an on-screen target that looks just like something you see in the movie Top Gun when the F-14 Tomcat is about to blast the hell out of those Russian Migs. It moves around your EVF in exactly the same way and looks very cool.
I took a few shots of my niece giving her border collies a run on the beach (see image below) and most of them were in focus. I did battle a bit with keeping the subject on the AF target when shooting at 10fps, mainly because you lose the proper live view in machine gun mode, so with a telephoto lens it is very easy to lose your subject - this is about the only benefit of an optical view finder that miss. I must say though that the refresh rate of the E-M1 when shooting at high fps is a gazillion times better than the E-M5.
I haven’t played around enough with a live moving subject to be able to form an opinion on whether this tracking feature has improved since the E-M5 or not, so I will reserve judgement for now and address this in a separate article once I have had time to test it a little more, hopefully using a 4/3rds lens too.
Superb. Do I need to say more? Really?? OK, it’s really superb. Best IQ of any camera I have ever owned. Better than the Nikon D700, definitely. The dynamic range and tonality is awesome, but what sets the E-M1 apart from other cameras is the colour it gives you. Skin tones are excellent and truly life-like. I haven’t photographed anyone with dark skin tones yet, but so far the caucasian skin tones I’ve shot under natural light and flash are spot on. I’m very happy to report that I don’t touch colour at all when I am editing the E-M1 files and I have the white balance properly set. This is a shot of my son, the chef. Only adjustment made here was to the background.
A lot has been written about the JPG’s that the Olympus cameras produce. I’m not wild about shooting in JPG, but I did try it out and they seem pretty good. I have tested a few of the Art Filters, which if you have the camera set to RAW will give you a funky processed JPG and a RAW file even if you haven’t asked the camera to produce a JPG. The only one of these filters I find interesting is the grainy B&W. The rest seem quite gimmicky in an Instagram kind of way.
High ISO performance is excellent. I am quite comfortable shooting this camera at 12800 ISO, which is a full two stops more than I am comfortable shooting the E-M5 at. Yes, it looks a bit grainy, but if you run a noise reduction filter over it, you get a very usable image, which is useful for when I am in reportage mode in a darkened conference room and I don’t want to fire a flash. Actually the grain is decidedly film like in character. I kind of like it at 12800 more than at 6400 for some reason.
There has been a lot said about the EVF improvements in the E-M1 over the E-M5. It’s a lot bigger and the rendered image is a lot better too, thanks to many more pixels being jammed in there. As I mentioned in the AF performance part of this review, the refresh rate when shooting at 10fps is significantly improved over the E-M5, but you still don’t see a live view image when you’re bursting frames at that rate, so it can be hard to keep track of something that is moving fast when you’re using a telephoto lens. I don’t see this camera being used effectively for action sports, but I do think I would like to go and try some surfing photography with it, mainly because of the huge advantage of the smaller sensor on telephoto lenses.
Overall I prefer an EVF over an OVF. The advantages by far outweigh the negatives, especially as you gain so many shooting aids, like live highlight and shadow clipping, axis levelling, histogram, and not forgetting that you can see the image you just shot in the EVF without having to deal with outdoor reflections on the LCD screen.
There are more features on this camera than I am probably ever going to use. However, there are a few that I would like to mention, simply because they are so cool and actually something that I can use.
Wifi Remote Control
If you carry around a smartphone you have a very handy remote control for your E-M1 that works on wifi. It is surprisingly easy to set up, even I managed it (my Lexmark wifi printer still sits plugged into my Mac some 3.5 years after I first bought it, simply because I can’t figure it out). What’s extra cool about this remote control feature is that the E-M1 transmits the live view image to your phone, so as far as making selfies goes, this is truly da bomb when used in conjunction with the self-timer. It’s also a neat party trick to confuse the hell out of your friends with. Over Christmas I got some peeps to hold my iPhone as if they were taking a shot while I held the E-M1 just behind them. It all looks fine until I point the camera at the back of their heads and they start to think I’m pulling an epic Dynamo Magician Impossible illusion on them. Much scratching of heads.
The Olympus Remote Image app can also be used to do other cool things, like transfer images directly to your smartphone from the camera, which can then be shared to Facebook. It can also use the phone’s GPS feature to geo-tag your images, which is pretty neat, although to be honest I’d have much preferred it if they put a GPS feature directly in the camera. I have also used my iPad Mini to connect to the camera and do some product photography. This is a very useful feature because I can see on a larger screen exactly where I might need to make adjustments.
I tried connecting to my desktop Mac using the SSID that the E-M1 creates but it doesn’t connect and simply times out. It would be nice to be able to shoot wirelessly directly to the Mac. I also hope that Adobe will start to give better support to Olympus products in Lightroom for tethered shooting because currently it doesn’t recognise the camera when it is plugged in via USB. This is a pity because I did enjoy shooting tethered to Lightroom.
Live Time Exposure
This is a very neat little feature that I’m sure I will put to great use the next time we are at Sabi Sabi doing night photography. When the camera is in manual mode you can set the shutter speed one notch beyond BULB to get to this feature. What it does is show you your image “developing” while the shutter is open during long time exposures. There is also a live histogram that you can use to gauge when to close the shutter. Very cool.
I really love this! It's so well implemented on the E-M1 and I am now quite confident to use any lens on the body with manual focus. It works so well. If you don't know what it is, basically when you have it on the camera detects the strength of edge contrast while you are manually focusing and shows up a bright white outline when that contrast is at its maximum. This allows you to get a good indication of when something is in sharp focus (provided it has discernible edges, obviously).
The Feel Of It
When I took it out of the box for the first time I was quite surprised by how small it still looks when compared to a DSLR. Yes, it is now slightly bigger than the E-M5, but not by all that much, especially if you have been using the HLD-6 grip with the E-M5. Having said that though, the changes Olympus have made by including the hand grip on the main body this time have made a big difference to the way the camera feels in your hands. I don’t have either huge or small hands, but it feels really good when I hold it. Solid.
I do have the HLD-7 grip for it, which makes it feel even better, but then it does start to take on small DSLR proportions. I am using an old Canon wrist strap I still had from my early days and this allows me to get rid of the need for a neck strap. Olympus do make their own wrist straps for the OM-D range (Olympus GS-5) and I will most likely be ordering one as soon as they get the stock in locally.
The materials used on the body are high quality alloys and plastics. The rubber coating feels good too. It’s not quite as grippy as that found on the likes of the top end Nikon bodies, but I prefer it because the Nikons tend to get very grubby looking in a short time.
I like that the eyepiece now protrudes away from the rear screen more than it did with the E-M5. This has made a difference to the eye sensor sensitivity (the sensor detects when your eye is at the EVF and switches off the LCD) - it now doesn't pick up your hand movements when you are using the touch screen.
The AF-illumination light has moved from the left side of the body to the right side and is very close to the hand grip. It doesn’t get blocked by this at all and is probably the reason why Olympus decided to move it there instead of keeping it on the left (although that area is now used by the PC-sync port).
However, this is not the ideal spot for my own purposes, reason being that when I am using the E-M5 to take candid stuff of delegates at conferences, I cover the beam with my thumb so that it doesn’t give me away. You simply can’t do this effectively with the E-M1, so I have had to switch it off in the custom settings. It’s not ideal because there are times that I would like to have it work because the Olympus FL-600R doesn’t have a nice AF assist function at all (it does double duty as an LED light for video so it’s really bright and makes people squint terribly). I guess I will have to make use of the MySet presets that Olympus use and have one with it on and another with it off.
AF-C Focus Confirmation Beep & Locking
Another setting that you need to look into under the AF settings is that when you are in AF-C mode, you can set the AF to lock based on how much activity it detects in the focus zone. The options are High, Normal, Low and Off. Setting this to Off means that your camera will try to re-acquire focus faster for whatever the AF target is looking at. I suppose this setting is to help with slower moving subjects in case you accidentally move the AF point off the subject and the camera then adjusts AF slower.
You’ll hear the focus confirmation beep in AF-C too, which is a behaviour that I don’t normally associate with AF-C focusing.
Home AF Position
One of the functions you can assign to any of the Fn buttons on the camera is the […] Set Home option. This is a very tricky thing to set up properly and it took me quite a while to figure out just how it works.
Say you are using the small AF target and you have it set to somewhere near the edge of the frame. To get it back to the middle of the screen you could press the direction buttons on the back of the camera repeatedly, but by using […] Set Home you can get it back there with a single button (whichever one you have assigned the function to).
So I set this up using one of the buttons but every time I pressed it all the AF points would illuminate and the camera would then randomly select any point based on wherever it could focus quickest. It drove me nuts.
Then I saw in the AF settings menu that there is also a bit about […] Set Home position for the AF target. It shows four options, the default of which is the entire AF target grid. There are also options to set the home position for the large single AF point and the small single AF point, as well as a grouped cluster of AF points. But the twist here is that you don’t have to select the central point as the home point, it can be any of the 81 AF points!
So you have to choose which of these options would work for you before setting the Fn button up to get back to wherever you want home to be. I found that very weird, but hey, even weirder is that you can calibrate the front and back focus for 37 of those AF points for every lens you have and the camera will remember them the next time the lens is attached. This is I believe for use with the PDAF system. God save the poor soul who is anal enough to want to do that. I’d rather slit my wrists.
The E-M1 is everything I need it to be for the kind of photography I do. It combines cutting edge technology with well thought out controls and it all comes in a small, lightweight package that is capable of doing everything and doing it well.
There are a lot of settings that you have to look at before you can go out and start shooting with this camera. Because it is so highly customisable I would suggest spending at least an entire day (or two) familiarising yourself with the options available and then go practise shooting at least a dozen times before you use it for a serious shoot. I have tried to set mine up as close as possible to the way I had my Nikons set up and so far apart from the odd issue I have had understanding the settings (like […]Set Home for example) it has been an absolute joy to use.
For the asking price of $1400 I don’t think you could ask for anything more. I don’t have any nits to pick. This is the bees knees for me. I will be adding some more shorter material related to my use of the E-M1 throughout the year and you can find those articles under the tag E-M1dD (I will apply this tag to all articles I write that are related to this camera).
Go get it. You won’t be sorry.
Here are a few more images (click to enlarge):
Shot at a live theatre show
My other son, the aspiring musician
My guitar is similar to this (not my Dad in case you were wondering!)
Scrat, the Meerkat!
If you have any questions about the E-M1 please use the comments section below and I will be happy to answer you as best I can.
Footnote: please help me to make this website work financially by purchasing your E-M1 from Amazon.com if you are in the USA using this link. It won’t cost you anything more but I will get a sales commission if you do use the link. For South African readers you can order an E-M1 directly from me as I have a dealer account with the supplier (Tudortech). Just send me an email and I will advise you of the current price.