Olympus OM-D E-M1 £1299
8th Oct 2014 | 11:00
Olympus's best MFT camera to date and one of the best CSCs on the market, now with firmware update 2.0
• Updated: Firmware 2.0 page added
The Olympus E-M1 is the latest addition to the Olympus compact system camera (CSC) line-up and it's aimed at professional and enthusiast photographers. It doesn't replace the Olympus OM-D E-M5, but sits above it. Until now the OM-D E-M5 has been largely referred to as the Olympus OM-D, but it seems we will have to get used to calling it the Olympus E-M5.
Olympus hopes that the new OM-D E-M1 will address the needs of Four Thirds users as well as enthusiast Micro Four Thirds users, because it has a dual autofocus system that is designed to work well with both types of lens.
Although Olympus's earlier Micro Four Thirds cameras are compatible with Four Thirds lenses, the contrast detection autofocus system is very slow with the older design of lens.
The E-M1 has Olympus's new Dual Fast AF system which combines contrast and phase detection systems. While we have seen this type of thing elsewhere, Olympus claims to use a different design from other manufacturers.
Some of the pixels on the E-M1's 16MP sensor are actually half-photosites (pixels) with no colour filter. One row has left-half sites while another has right-half receptors. These two halves match up to create a phase detection focusing system which is used when Four Thirds lenses are mounted on the camera.
Olympus uses this approach because the photosites (strictly speaking pixels don't exist on a sensor, just in an image) used for focusing don't gather any image data. This means the information needs to be interpolated - just as it would with a dead pixel on the sensor.
In addition, like other compact system cameras, the E-M1 has a contrast detection AF system that also uses information from the imaging sensor. This is used to drive the focus of Micro Four Thirds lenses on the E-M1. The camera automatically detects what type of lens is mounted and uses the appropriate AF system automatically.
When Micro Four Thirds lenses are used in continuous autofocus mode, both focusing methods are used as it increases the focusing speed.
The camera uses contrast detection in movie mode whether the lens is a Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds optic.
In a first for Olympus, the 16MP Live MOS sensor in the OM-D E-M1 has no low-pass filter over it. This should enable it to record more detail than the original Olympus OM-D, the OM-D E-M5.
In addition, we are told that new TruPic VII image processor has been calibrated to put the emphasis on detail visibility at the expense of a little noise.
Thanks to the new processing engine, lateral chromatic aberrations are corrected and sharpness optimisation according to the lens mounted and aperture selected (for Olympus lenses). This should enable users to get the best from their camera and lens combination.
Olympus claims that the E-M1 produces the best image quality from any Olympus digital camera, with less colour saturation loss at high sensitivities. We look forward to testing this claim in the near future.
As it's a compact system camera, the Olympus E-M1 doesn't have an optical viewfinder, but there's an electronic one with 2,360,000 dots and 1.48x magnification. This magnification and dot-count should make it easier to see details than usual. Uniquely, in HDR preview mode this viewfinder is capable of showing the effect (there are two HDR modes, Natural and Artistic) as well as the image building up in Live Bulb mode.
This EVF can also use adaptive brightness technology to adjust it to the brightness of the environment and take the size of the photographer's pupil into account. In bright light the EVF is brighter, while in dark conditions it's darker. This is a default setting, but it can be switched off if users prefer.
A new feature called Colour Creator allows hue and saturation to be adjusted using a colour wheel that's visible on screen and in the viewfinder. The effect is also previewed in the EVF and on the screen. Saturation can be increased by up to three steps and decreased by up to four steps, which makes in the image monochrome. There are 30 points around the wheel to tone the image.
This can be combined with the Highlight and Shadow control to tailor images to users preferences or to create a particular style. These can be saved as part of the My Mode settings for future use.
Although the E-M1 uses the same five-axis all mechanical Image Stabilisation (IS) system as the E-P5, it makes a small improvement in performance. However, new changes to the CIPA standard mean that this is now billed as a four-stop correction rather than five. Consequently, the camera can be handheld at shutter speeds up to four stops slower than without IS. That's the equivalent of dropping from 1/125sec to 1/8sec.
Those more interested in freezing movement will appreciate the E-M1's top shutter speed of 1/8000sec, just like the E-P5.
It's also possible to shoot continuously with continuous AF at 6.5fps for 50 raw files, or at 10fps with single-AF mode selected for 41 raw files. We are told that the better housing around the shutter mechanism means that the E-M1 is quieter than the E-P5 in action.
Olympus has had a lot of success with its Art Modes and the E-M1 introduces a new mode, Diorama II, which as well as allowing you to have the sharp area around the focus point, can be used with vertical format images.
It would strange for a new camera not to have Wi-Fi connectivity built-in now and the E-M1 doesn't disappoint as it has the same system as is in the E-P5. However, in a slight upgrade, this enables remote shooting via Olympus's (upgraded) smartphone app in all exposure modes with control over exposure and white balance.
In addition, the image can be seen forming on the screen of the smartphone during long exposures captured using Live Bulb and Live Time mode.
Build and handling
According to Olympus, the E-M1 is not intended to be the smallest camera available, but to be a good size for serious use. It's a very similar size to the OM-D E-M5, but the front and rear grips have changed shape.
The thumb grip on the back of the E-M1 is less pronounced than it is on the E-M5, but the front grip is bigger, giving a better, more comfortable hold. It feels very secure in your hand.
Sometimes big is taken to mean tough, but the diminutive E-M1 is also pretty durable. It feels nicely built and has seals to ensure that it stays dust and splash-proof. It is also guaranteed to work at temperatures down to -10C. Helpfully, all current Olympus lenses are freeze-proof.
Like the E-M5, the E-M1 has a three-inch tilting touchscreen, but the dot-count has been boosted from 610,000 to 103,700,000 dots. It provides a very clear view with plenty of detail. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is also very impressive with natural colours (depending upon the camera settings), good contrast and lots of detail visible. It's about as close as you can currently get to an optical viewfinder for clarity and is a superb advocate for the technology.
Disappointingly, Olympus has resisted the option to make the main menu navigable by touch, so you have to use the physical controls. It would be nice to have the choice of touch or button and dial controls. Like the original OM-D and the PEN E-P5, a Super Control Panel can be used with the touchscreen to make changes to key settings, such as white balance and metering.
The control layout of the E-M1 has some significant differences from that of the E-M5. As you hold the camera for use, the mode dial is on the right of the top-plate instead of the left. Meanwhile, the left-side has two semi-circular buttons on a shallow column which looks a bit like the film rewind unit on an old film camera - without the flip-up handle. The front-most button gives access to the drive mode and HDR options, while the rear one is used to access the metering and focusing options.
When the HDR button is pressed, the up and down navigation controls scroll through the HDR options while the left and right controls run through the drive options. It's a similar arrangement with the AF and metering button, with the up/down controls scrolling through the metering options and the left/right controls navigating the focusing settings.
Pressing and holding the button immediately behind the shutter release, while rotating the rear dial scrolls through the Shadow and Highlight, Colour Creator, Magnify and Image Aspect modes. Once you've selected the mode you want, pressing the button again brings up the controls or options.
The basic features of the E-M1 are easy to find and adjust, but the feature set is extensive and it takes sometime to find and get to grips with everything. There are also lots of customisation options and its worthwhile experimenting with a range of set-ups to find the one that works best for you.
While a 16MP sensor isn't really anything to write home about these days (unless it's in a full-frame retro-style Nikon SLR of course), the E-M1 certainly gets the best from its device. Images have rich, natural colours and smooth gradations along with an impressive level of detail. However, our resolution tests reveal that, apart from at the highest sensitivity settings, the E-M1 can't resolve more detail than the E-M5.
Noise is controlled well throughout the sensitivity range and color saturation remains good at the higher sensitivity settings.
The results at the top sensitivity setting, ISO 25,600 are especially striking, with very little noise being visible even when images are viewed at 100%, and fairly restrained levels of softening. That said, there's some luminance noise visible even at relatively low sensitivity settings.
Olympus's general purpose ESP metering does an excellent job in a range of situations, and although the exposure compensation control is required occasionally, it's not often. In fact there are some situations when you might expect it to be required, but the camera delivers correct results by itself.
In addition to the usual alternative metering options (centre-weighted and spot), Olympus continues to offer Highlight and Shadow spot. Of these two Highlight Spot, which is calibrated to allow exposure readings to be made from a highlight, is likely to be the most useful, but we found little reason to use it during this test. Still, it's nice to have the option just in case.
In good light, for example outdoors in daylight, the autofocus system is fast and accurate with both Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses. It's capable of keeping up with a galloping horse provided that you keep the active AF point over the subject. When light levels fall it becomes more hesitant, but it remains usable even in fairly dark conditions.
There are 12 Art Filter modes available on the E-M1. These can be applied in any of the exposure modes, so full control is still available over aperture and shutter speed. Furthermore, unlike many other manufacturers, Olympus allows them to be used when shooting raw and JPEG file simultaneously so the camera produces one image with the effect and another (the raw file) without. This is especially useful when you fancy experimenting with different looks or trying a new filter, but you're not sure that you will like the result. It's also a useful way of a showing portrait subject the type of look you are aiming for, even if you plan to do all the processing post-capture on a computer.
Another clever move from Olympus is to provide a bracketing option that captures all the filter effects with one press of the shutter release. The end result is 13 images, 12 with a filter effect applied and a raw file to treat as you like.
Olympus is to be applauded for offering a range of features which encourage users to be creative. The Live Bulb and Live Time modes are especially impressive and take some of the guess work out of making long exposures by showing the image build up on the screen during the exposure. It's worth bearing in mind that the final image usually looks a little different to how it did on-screen, but it's a superb feature that isn't offered by any other manufacturer.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Olympus OM-D E-M1 we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the EM-1 is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
See a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
Full ISO 100 image.
ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 16 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: 14 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 12800, score: 12 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 25600, score: 10 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 26 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 18 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: 16 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 12800, score: 16 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 25600, score: 12 (Click here for the full resolution image)
Noise and dynamic range
JPEG signal to noise ratio
Raw signal to noise ratio
Olympus stated that the E-M1 is calibrated to allow a little more noise to be visible to retain detail and improve image sharpness, and this is likely to be the explanation for the lower signal to noise ratio. However, images don't appear very noisy and there's little in the way of coloured speckling visible.
JPEG dynamic range
The Olympus E-M1 is capable of recording a wide range of tones in a single image at the lower sensitivity settings, and at the higher values it beats the Sony NEX-7 and Fuji X-Pro1 for dynamic range.
Raw dynamic range
While it doesn't quite match the E-M5, a dynamic range in excess of 12EV at ISO 400 is impressive.
There's plenty of detail in this ISO 200 image.
The AF system is fast and accurate even with moving subjects (in good light). This was taken with the Olympus Micro Four Thirds 75mm f/1.8 lens, but Four Thirds lenses focus quickly as well.
The multi-purpose ESP metering has coped pretty well with is scene.
Colours are generally nice and vibrant straight from the camera.
Left to its own devices, the E-M1 got this scene spot-on.
Live Bulb mode, in which the image is seen to build on the LCD, makes painting with light much easier than normal.
It wouldn't be an Olympus CSC without a collection of Art Filter modes.
Firmware update 2.0
There are four key additions:
- Tethered shooting, using new Olympus Capture software
- In-camera Keystone Compensation for correcting perspective issues
- New Art Filters: Vintage and Partial Color
- Live Composite mode for fireworks displays and star trails, for example
Tethered shooting with Olympus Capture
This could be very useful to studio/commercial photographers because they can use it to view images remotely on a computer and make adjustments to the camera settings.
It's a popular way of working for studio pros, especially if they have clients or art directors there to oversee the shoot.
Converging verticals are a big problem for architectural photographers. The problem is solved if you keep the camera level, but it's often impossible to find a shooting position where you can do this, so you end up having to tilt the camera upwards to get everything in.
The only optical solution here is a tilt-shift lens. This will straighten the verticals, but it's an expensive bit of kit that's time-consuming to set up and use.
But the OM-D E-M1 firmware update adds digital in-camera keystone correction. It's no different to the kind of correction you can apply in software later, but it's still useful nonetheless. You can correct vertical perspective distortion, horizontal distortion or both.
Art Filters: Vintage and Partial Color
Olympus has put a lot of time and effort into developing these filters, and they're now a long way from the 'novelty' effects you see on other cameras. Both the range of filters and the adjustments for each are growing all the time.
The new Vintage filter comes in three types – the shot above is Type I and produces a light and sunny, faded look.
The Partial Color filter is equally interesting. It produces black and white images with a single highlighted colour – you can choose the strength of the effect (the breadth of the colour range) and the colour you want to highlight, using the control wheel.
Olympus sees the OM-D E-M1 as the replacement to the E-5, the last high-end SLR the company made. It's hoping that it will convert diehard SLR users to switch to a lighter, more portable camera.
On the face of it, Olympus may get its way: the E-M1 has a comprehensive feature set and its handling is well thought through. It also looks and feels like a 'proper camera'. It's weather-sealed so it can be used whatever the conditions, has plenty of direct controls with easy reach and has just about all the features an enthusiast photographer could want from a good walk-around camera. In fact it has such a wealth of features that some photographers are likely to be finding new modes and settings for some considerable time after purchase.
Many photographers will find the EVF a more than adequate stand-in for an optical viewfinder, and it has the benefit of being able to show the scene as it will be captured. The LCD screen is also good, it's just a shame that Olympus has opted for a tilting unit rather than a fully articulating one that is of use when shooting upright images.
While the E-M1's autofocusing system isn't quite a match for a high-end SLR's in low light, it's one of the best (if not the best) available in a compact system camera. Those with a collection of Four Thirds lenses will find it a very good, modern alternative to their old DSLR.
There are buttons and dials aplenty on the camera body and these give direct access to key features so that settings can be changed quickly. The electronic viewfinder is also excellent and much more useful than an optical finder.
The E-M1's Dual Fast AF system is also excellent and enables fast automatic focusing whether a Micro Four Thirds lens is mounted directly or a Four Thirds lens is attached via an adaptor. In daylight it is a good match for an SLR's provided the AF point is over the subject. We think it's the best AF system that you can find in any currently available compact system camera.
It's quick and easy to connect the E-M1 to a smartphone and Olympus's app affords plenty of control over the camera. It's even possible to change shooting mode – despite the fact that it's set via a dial on the camera.
Given the comprehensive featureset of the E-M1 it's a shame that Olympus plumped for a tilting LCD screen rather than a fully articulating monitor as this would be much more versatile and be far more useful when shooting upright images.
It would also be nice to be able to navigate the main menu using the touchscreen.
Unless you carry the instruction manual with you at all times a better help system would also be useful when trying to find some features during the first few days of using the camera. The Color Creator, for example, isn't easy to find as the Fn2 button needs to be held down while one of the control dials is rotated.
Happily the E-M1 isn't all style and no substance. It also delivers high quality, correctly exposed images with plenty of detail, good colour and well-controlled noise. The images look natural and sharp and although there is noise visible at relatively low sensitivity settings, it isn't intrusive and only visible if you look for it at 100% on-screen.