Olympus has at long last announced the replacement for the ageing E-5 DSLR, but it might not be what people were expecting. Richard Sibley tests the micro four thirds OM-D E-M1. Read the Olympus OM-D E-M1 review...
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Introduction
The replacement for the Olympus E-5 has been rumoured for some time, with much speculation as to the exact form the camera would take. Some thought it would be a four thirds system camera, either without a mirror or with a pellicle one. Others believed it would be a micro four thirds system camera, with a clever new adapter to allow the use of four thirds lenses, possibly including some sort of pellicle mirror to allow phase detection – like the Sony Alpha to NEX mount adapter.
The reality is that the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 is rather more conventional. It is, in fact, a micro four thirds system camera that relies on the existing MMF-3 four thirds to micro four thirds mount adapter to mount four thirds lenses. The issue with this is that the existing contrast-detection AF technology may be slow when focusing lenses that aren’t designed to be used with it.
To speed up focusing with four thirds lenses, Olympus has come up with a new sensor design that enables phase-detection AF on the camera sensor.
The E-M1 on display at the launch was the final version and I was allowed to use it for a day’s shooting.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Key features
Although the new Live MOS 16-million-pixel sensor has the same resolution as the one in the previous OM-D E-M5, it is a new design. It has no anti-aliasing filter, so the image resolution can be maximised, while the TruePic VII processor allows images to be captured as raw or JPEG images between ISO 100 and 25,600.
If the photographs I took are anything to go by, the new sensor is excellent. Fine details in the images look crisp and I have a feeling the camera will perform very well in our resolution test when we conduct our full review in the next few weeks.
The big change is the introduction of on-sensor phase-detection AF. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 uses High-Speed Imager AF, which benefits from a combination of both contrast and phase-detection autofocus. The 16-million-pixel Live MOS sensor uses a unique half-pixel arrangement to allow for on-sensor phase-detection AF. Any four thirds optics used with the MMF-3 adapter will be able to take advantage of phase-detection AF, while micro four thirds lenses will use the standard contrast detection AF. Existing four thirds owners who have registered their camera can claim a free MMF-3 adapter if they order the new OM-D E-M1 before November this year.
My initial impression of the AF was that it was fast when both using four thirds and micro four thirds lenses. Four thirds Olympus lenses with SWD coped reasonably well in continuous AF mode with a horse galloping towards a camera, and the 6.5fps maximum shooting speed with the AF producing some great images. With a 1/8000sec maximum shutter speed and a 10fps shooting rate, without continuous AF, the E-M1 is certainly no slouch.
At its launch, Olympus was clear that the E-M1 isn’t designed for sports photography, which can often be faster and more erratic, but my initial assessment of the AF for four thirds lenses is that E-5 owners should be satisfied. Again, I’ll really concentrate on this area in the full test of the camera.
Obviously, the E-M1 can detect whether a four thirds or a micro four thirds lens is attached to switch the autofocus method, but it uses the lens data to do more than this. By identifying which Olympus lens is mounted on the camera, distortion correction and sharpness can be applied specifically for the lens in use – in much the same way that it can be applied via profiles in software afterwards.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Build and handling
The design of the OM-D E-M1 harks back to Olympus’s classic OM SLRs, with the emphasis on making a camera that photographers want to use. With this in mind, the aim of the design team behind the Olympus OM-D E-M1 was to build a camera that was the perfect size and weight for photographers, not to make the smallest camera possible. As a result, the E-M1 has a built-in handgrip, which was an optional extra on the E-M5. There is an optional HLD-7 vertical battery grip for the E-M1, which makes it easier to shoot in portrait orientation, as well as providing more stability and balance when shooting with larger four thirds system lenses.
The body is made from magnesium alloy, which makes the camera lightweight yet reassuringly strong. It is also weather-sealed, making it dustproof, splashproof and freezeproof down to -10°C, so you can take photos whatever the weather. In fact, Olympus demonstrated its confidence in the weather-sealing by having a camera on a tripod in a shallow lake and having a horse gallop past it.
Triggering the camera in a situation where you might not want to get your feet too wet is made easier by the fact that the camera can be remotely triggered via Wi-Fi. Even the Live Bulb mode can be used via Wi-Fi, meaning the bulb exposure can be previewed on a tablet or smartphone.
Overall the camera handles well, with front and rear control dials that can be used to change a number of different settings. A two-way function switch can quickly change the functions of the front and rear dial, so one minute they can be used for aperture and shutter speed, and the next for white balance and exposure compensation, for example.
One of the more innovative uses is the new Colour Creator feature, which allows the saturation and hue of the image to be changed by adjusting front and rear dials. Similarly, highlights and shadow tones can be customised using these dials. With so many different ways to customise the image to your own personal taste, it is worth spending some time with the camera going through and customising the image settings. It is possible to get great JPEG images from the camera, but it can take some time to get them exactly how you want. In fact, the sheer number of controls, combined with the 3in touchscreen, can make it a little intimidating to know exactly where to start or which buttons to use to control what.
The rear 3in 1.037-million-dot tilted screen isn’t the only way to compose and review images. There is an impressive 2.36-million-dot EVF, with a high 1.48x magnification. Again, my initial impressions of the EVF were very positive, although I did notice that in colour images skies had a slight cyan cast. Again, I will review this in my full test of the camera.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Initial impressions
The time I had with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 left me really looking forward to having it for longer, so that I can really get to grips with the wealth of its different features.
As the replacement for the E-5, the E-M1 looks like it isn’t going to struggle, and indeed the initial review of the image quality and focusing shouldn’t disappoint E-5 users, even if the camera isn’t quite what most were expecting.
The E-M1 is due out in mid-October, priced £1,299 body only or £1,949 with a 12-40mm f/2.8 lens.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 will be reviewed in full in one of our October issues.