Olympus OM-D E-M1: Nuanced Excellence

 

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus OM-D E-M1

At first glance, the lofty price tag of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is bound to pinch. But as Raj Lalwani finds out, the camera has a lot going for it.

The new Olympus flagship is a bit of a mouthful. Not just in terms of its long-winding name (Olympus OM-D E-M1, now say that in one breath), but also in terms of the huge number of features it offers. Is this the best mirrorless camera today? And how does its compare to some stiff competition at this high price point? Let’s find out.

Features
The E-M1 has a similar 16MP sensor without an AA filter and five-axis stabilisation that works especially well for video. With 10fps shooting (focus locked) and 6.5fps (with continuous AF), this is a really fast camera.

An advanced TruePic VII processor brings a variety of lens corrections for JPEG files. Interestingly enough, the camera also tunes its sharpness while taking into account a lens’ sharpness at the aperture being used. So if you are using f/16 and the image is softer due to diffraction, the JPEGs will apply more sharpening to compensate.

One improvement that old-time Four Thirds users will welcome is the inclusion of on-sensor phase detection elements. Using this, not only can the camera focus quickly with a Four Thirds lens, it also helps the overall Tracking AF performance. WiFi, a PC Sync socket, focus peaking, in-camera HDR, a built-in mic input and a faster sync speed of 1/320sec are some of the other improvements.

The extreme degree of customisation makes the E-M1 an extremely rewarding tool while travelling. Exposure: 1/200sec at f/5 (ISO 1000). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

The extreme degree of customisation makes the E-M1 an extremely rewarding tool while travelling. Exposure: 1/200sec at f/5 (ISO 1000). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Handling
It is in the on-field handling that the E-M1 really shines. I was not a big fan of the E-M5. It was a capable camera, but its fiddly buttons were too small and the only thing that made it unique for me was its weather sealing. The E-M1 not only improves the build quality and weather resistance further, it is also a complete revamp of design philosophy. This is a true SLR-styled camera, with a reasonably large size (think E410 or 100D, or slightly bigger). The grip is substantial, the best I have seen in a mirrorless camera and there is an insane amount of hands-on control available.

It is the smaller nuances that make you appreciate the E-M1. Customising the Fn button to My Mode helps you switch between regular colour and Grainy Film, or some other look/filter of your choice. The 2 x 2 dial interface at the back, first seen in the E-P5, helps toggle between two different functions that each of the dials are assigned. Amongst the Fn buttons, each one feels different, so you know which button you are pressing even if the camera is to your eye. Also, unlike earlier, all 26 shooting functions can be assigned to the Fn buttons. Even the four-way controller and the mode dial can be customised to recall certain settings!

Performance
Focusing has been the strength of Olympus MFT cameras since the E-P3, and the OM-D E-M1 extends the same speed to users of Four Thirds lenses too. This is the big update, as the camera now incorporates phase-detect AF to drive older lenses and focus with them. We tested optics like the Zuiko 50mm f/2 Macro and found the focusing admirably fast.

One may assume that since the sensor of the E-M1 is smaller than APS-C (and of course, full frame), it has a serious image quality disadvantage. That’s not true in practice. The E-M1’s quality is close to that of the best APS-C sensors in Pentax and Nikon, and in low light, the pixels hold up far better than those in the Canon 70D. It is only Pentax and Fujifilm that show clear advantages with their APS-C sensors.

As compared to the OM-D E-M5, the sensor is practically the same if you are a RAW shooter. JPEG quality is improved, with the camera extracting more detail while using high ISOs. Strangely enough, I have always preferred to shoot JPEGs with Olympus mirrorless cameras. That’s because even after hours of processing the RAW files on Photoshop, it is difficult to match the JPEG rendition of the camera, both in terms of quality as well as look.

One of the best things about the OM-D is the fact that it meters almost every situation perfectly, rarely needing you to override any setting. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

One of the best things about the OM-D is the fact that it meters almost every situation perfectly, rarely needing you to override any setting. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Conclusion
For Four Thirds users who are still using an E-3 or E-5, the E-M1 is a no brainer. It is the first mirrorless camera from the company that will fully support older Zuiko lenses and has a bunch of pro functionality that an E-5 user would appreciate. Owners of the old-generation PENs (E-P3 and earlier) will also love this camera as it offers the best possible in the MFT world, today.

If you are debating between buying a similarly priced DSLR and the E-M1, the choice becomes tougher. At one level, Rs. 1,05,000 for a just the body is extremely high, especially considering that you can spend a little more and get a full frame camera! But then, the size and weight advantage of the E-M1 cannot be undermined.

Though the E-M1 itself is chunkier than other mirrorless cameras (almost entry-level DSLR size), the real difference is apparent when you look at the lenses. As of now, there are over 57 lenses available for the camera, apart from the option of using an adapter and mounting any other lens. With fantastic ergonomics that rival the best of pro DSLRs, you can be sure that there is no compromise in terms of practical usability.

The cost could have been lesser. If you look at the US pricing, you will realise that it is the Indian consumer who has to suffer. While we can understand the company’s compulsions considering the duty and taxes levied here, there are companies like Sony, Nikon and Fujifilm that tend to match the US pricing despite the taxes.

If it is simply a well performing discreet camera you need, you would be well advised to look at some of the less expensive PEN cameras. But if you need the best possible handling in a tough, pro system, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, though overpriced, is fantastic.

This exposure of one second would have looked like an ugly blob of indecipherable blur, had it not been for the effective stabilisation system. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

This exposure of one second would have looked like an ugly blob of indecipherable blur, had it not been for the effective stabilisation system. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Final Ratings
Features
Contrast and phase-detect AF, PC Sync port, video functionality not as strong as GH3
13/15

Performance
Superb AF, improved JPEG processing, noise control not as good as APS-C competitors
41/45

Build Quality
Excellent weather sealing, splash proof
14/15

Ergonomics
One of the most refined experiences in camera handling we have seen
17/20

Warranty & Support
Limited service facilities
3/5

OVERALL: 88%
Value For Money: 2/5

Who should buy it?
One of the most refined experiences in camera handling we have seen.

Why?
While this may be an expensive camera, it handles brilliantly and its lens lineup is far superior to anything similar.

Tags: Raj Lalwani, Olympus, olympus mirrorless, December 2013, olympus om-d e-m1, Olympus OM-D E-M1 price india, Olympus OM-D E-M1 review