Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

It was only a year and a half ago when Olympus showed that a small, stylish camera with no mirror and a little sensor could hang in the big leagues. Many photographers instantly fell in love with the OM-D E-M5. Now, with the E-M1, nearly every bar has been raised for even the most demanding shooters out there.

What Is It

A $1400 (body only) pro-style mirrorless camera with a 16 megapixel micro four-thirds sensor.

Who's It For

This thing is for people who know cameras, who demand quick controls, responsiveness, and great image quality in a smaller, more nimble package than a traditional DSLR.

Why Does It Matter

Mirrorless cameras started out as a feeble attempt to mimic what a DSLR could do in a compact way. Many of them have matured in terms of image quality, but the OM-D E-M1 represents a new breed that can compete even in terms of pro features and usability.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Design

The E-M1 retains its throwback sensibility while wielding more controls and better ergonomics. The meaty grip is the biggest design change over the E-M5, in addition to more buttons and dials—all of which are well-placed. At every spot that your fingers naturally rest is something to press or turn. It may be intimidating to a beginner, but to a seasoned shooter, it is a godsend. This may be at the expense of sleek or minimal aesthetics, but the design is still beautiful in a this is a damn fine tool that will get the job done sort of way.

Using It

This camera has a way of becoming part of you. Every control mechanism is customizable to your heart's content, and while this may require a learning curve, the effect is never having to dive into a menu while shooting.

Speed is king when you need to capture a fleeting moment. The EM-5 was known for having the fastest auto-focus of any mirrorless camera, and the EM-1 does just as well, if not better. It also has the added benefit of retaining some of that speed when using older four-thirds lenses thanks to on-sensor phase detection. Continuous autofocus is also improved, but still can't compete with a DSLR for serious sports or motion tracking scenarios. And when you're done shooting, transfer your images to your phone with the built-in WiFi.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus' other signature features remain intact and are still outstanding. The 5-axis image stabilization works great, and effectively increases the low-light performance of the camera, because you can shoot at much lower shutter speeds without worrying about motion blur. I was able to shoot with a 75mm lens at 1/20th of a second without any trace of blur. Weather sealing now includes resistance to extreme cold, on top of being dust and splash proof.

The typical software modes are all there. Some are incredibly useful, like peaking for accurate manual focus, as well as color balance and curves adjustment. Then you have the so-called creative modes that inexplicably find their way onto a pro style camera. Photo-mosaics and crappy filters—ugh. None of these apply to RAW, of course. Only JPEG (but you really should be shooting RAW).

Speaking of JPEG, for those keen on shooting in that format as opposed to RAW, Olympus' new TruePic VII engine does a great job of improving on what was already regarded as some of the best JPEG processing out there. The engine will automatically correct distortions with embedded lens profiles, and also provides some nifty in-camera tools for adjusting white balance and curves in a precise and intuitive way.

OM-D E-M1 @ f/8, 1/500, ISO 200:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Sony NEX-7 @ f/8, 1/640, ISO 200:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

So, what kind of pictures can this thing take? If you are used to the look of the E-M5 or recent PEN cameras, you will see the same great quality. The E-M1's new sensor lacks an optical low-pass filter. That makes for images that are a hair sharper, but there is an increased risk of rainbow moire distortion when shooting finely detailed patterns. We noticed it a couple of times in shooting brick buildings from afar, but it is rare. Noise levels at high ISOs as compared to the E-M5 are, again, maybe a hair better. For a thorough comparison between the E-M1 and the E-M5, check out this CameraLabs test.

The small micro four thirds sensor will never compete with full-frame sensors at high ISOs, but the E-M1 can definitely compete with some of APS-C competition such as Canon Rebels or Sony NEX cams. We compared the E-M1 with the Sony NEX-7 and the Canon Rebel T4i at ISO 3200, and noise levels were nearly identical. Here are some high ISO 100% crops from the E-M1:

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Perhaps one of the surest signs of the mirrorless breed reaching full maturity with the E-M1 is the electronic viewfinder. Putting your eye up to the wonderfully clear and large 2.3 million-dot EVF will make you believe that the age of optical viewfinder—the signature feature of every DSLR—is over.

Like

Having so much control at your fingertips, with no compromises, is a breath of fresh air when many mirrorless cameras take a more paired down approach. Having something small, light, but still suitable for speed and rigorous shooting is fantastic. It is great that Olympus is setting themselves apart by appealing to the power users, when most brands try to appeal to the broadest possible market with gimmicky features and lack of options.

What really makes this camera a blast to shoot is the control, superb EVF, stabilization, and the huge line of high-quality prime lenses that the micro four thirds system provides.

No Like

Even though the micro four thirds can rival APS-C in terms of image quality, that sensor size is still a roadblock for shooters who crave super shallow depth of field. When you are spending over a grand on a camera, it is hard not to want the biggest sensor you can afford. Sure, there are tons of reasons to look past that one spec, but it has a way of tormenting you nonetheless.

There are other minor annoyances, like mediocre video quality, useless "art" modes, and—honestly that is about it.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Test Notes

  • All sample images were shot RAW and converted to JPG with no sharpening and only slight chromatic noise reduction. View them all full-size here.
  • We were able to test out the new 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens from Olympus. It is a fantastic lens in terms of image and build quality. It even proved to be just as sharp as the high quality prime we compared it to—the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens on a Sony NEX-7. Beware though, it costs $1000.
  • An often overlooked quality of a camera is how well its RAW files react to manipulation. The E-M1 excels in this regard. As compared to RAW files from a Canon T4i and a Sony NEX-7, the E-M1 images produced less noise and color distortion when subject to extreme exposure adjustments.
  • Strange that you can't access more settings via the touch-screen. You are limited to shutter release, focus point, and some creative mode options. There are so many physical controls that it may not be necessary, but couldn't hurt to have the choice.
  • Video is an afterthought and just not that great with not many recording options (3op only). A bummer, but you have to respect Olympus for devoting their resources to what they know best—great still photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Robust, Utilitarian, and Wonderful

Should You Buy It

The OM-D E-M1 is a serious investment, but if you want the experience of a professional camera without the bulk and weight a DSLR, then you should absolutely pick it up. Nothing else offers the same level of ergonomics, customizability, and durability thus far. The new Panasonic GX7 comes closest and has the added benefit of great video quality for slightly less money, but we have yet to put it through the ringer. If you want the largest sensor possible for ultra-shallow depth of field and a slight edge in low-light shooting, the Sony NEX-6 or a Fuji X-series camera are great cameras. But none offer the speed and usability of the E-M1.