Olympus has been pumping out cameras in its OM-D (Olympus Mirrorless Digital) series for a while now. It started back in 2009 with the arrival of the Olympus PEN E-P1, a retro camera that was a digital successor to its well-regarded analogue PEN cameras. The E-P1 was based on the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system, which brought us compact cameras that also used interchangeable lenses – helping usher in the mirrorless digital age.

Fast forward a few years and a number of different MFT cameras from Olympus, and we’re now in an age where the mirrorless models are a worldwide phenomenon and a new product category – one that’s getting a lot of attention from both consumers and competing manufacturers.

Mirrorless cameras have also drawn the attention of professional photographers who now see the benefits of a camera system that will give them a compact body with easier handling, but not at the expense of image quality. Those same professionals also want something that can take a few more licks and still carry on ticking. To make sure they’re catered for, Olympus has a new flagship OMD model – the E-M1.

Design

main

The E-M1 (or M1, from hereon in) makes its professional intensions known right from the get-go. There are dedicated buttons for everything. It has a properly solid and chunky magnesium alloy frame that sits comfortably in the hand without being too cumbersome. Then there’s the matter of its weatherproofing.

Yes, pros demand cameras that can keep up with their lifestyles, whether it’s photographing motorsport in the desert or exploring rain forests. The M1 is dust and splash proof, and can be taken to temperatures as low as -10 degrees celsius. This means it has all the requisite seals to keep the nasties out, protecting the sensitive image sensor. It also means that to get the best out of the system you have to screw a weather-proof lens onto that metal mount on the front.

screen

Olympus chose to use a nice flip-out display on the rear, though it only angles up and down, now sideways. There’s also an electronic viewfinder in the eyepiece – perfect for framing shots the good old way – and atop that, on the exterior, is a hot-shoe for an external flash.

Hardware

Inside the M1 is Olympus’ 16-megapixel image sensor. It lacks a low-pass filter, which allows for sharper photos, though sometimes at the expense of ultimate detail, due to aliasing. The sensor has an expanded ISO range of 100 – 25 600, which should be more than enough for most lighting conditions before a flash becomes absolutely mandatory. It’s doubly impressive when considering that this Micro Four Thirds sensor is physically smaller than its APS-C counterparts, some of which lack the total range this does.

From this sensor the camera can record RAW files, as well as the usual selection of JPGs; it’s also possible to select the aspect ratio of photos, which choices being 1:1, 3:4, 4:3, 3:2, and the now-obligatory 16:9 widescreen format.

It also has video capabilities. 1080p footage at 30fps, 720p footage at 30fps, and regular 640×480 VGA-quality footage, at the same frame rate. Nothing really special here – but that comes as no surprise, since this is really aimed more at photographer types, and not folks who want a best-of-both-worlds camera.

Sharing images and videos will also be made easier thanks to the built-in wireless. With a companion application you can control the camera, and transfer images to your mobile devices, uploading them directly to Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter – whatever you have an app for, really.

Lastly, the sensor also boasts very fast phase-detect autofocus, as well as regular contrast detect autofocus.There are multiple metering areas, and 81 focus points in total – so you’ll always be able to get just the right part of the frame in focus. Making the job of the whole system a lot easier is a built-in image stabiliser. If you need to flip to manual focus, that’s also brilliant. Olympus’ fantastic focus peaking tech is built-in. Switch manual and turn the focus ring, then watch as the in-focus parts of the shot are highlighted in white. It works a treat, and makes manual focussing on a digital screen an absolute dream.

This can all be previewed on the rear display. A marvellous 3-inch tilting LCD that’s got 1 037 000 dots – it’s as crisp as you’ll realistically need a rear display to be, and works perfectly for framing shots when using manual focus.

Controls and interface

Going hands-on, the M1 impresses immediately – and then confuses just as quickly. The dedicated control dials and toggles are a dream to work with, and pros who want instant access to certain manual settings will love them. However, since it had limited space to work with, Olympus used a 2×2 arrangement. There’s a toggle switch on the back of the camera that flips to a second position. When this is done, all the same control dials perform a different set of functions. For example, in position 1 the two control dials adjust exposure and aperture, and in position 2 those same dials then control ISO and white balance.

Dedicated dials take learning, but are fantastic when mastered.
Dedicated dials take learning, but are fantastic when mastered.

It’s confusing for the uninitiated, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a great system that does away with having too many dedicated buttons. Aside from those thee are also dedicated buttons for motor drive (burst mode) and HDR, autofocus and metering. There’s are two programmable buttons, one of which lets you adjust contrast curves on the fly – something that’ll help you get that moody shot without relying on post-processing in Photoshop.

One feature that pros will appreciate is the lock button for the mode select dial. This prevents you from knocking the camera out of manual or aperture priority, for instance, when running around a sports field. Depress it, though, and you can quickly flip between modes. There’s also a DOF preview button. Press it, and you’ll get an immediate preview of the depth-of-field at your current aperture: a priceless tool when trying to get the right mood in a still-life shot.

Despite being a pro-level camera, Olympus has chosen to include the ART filters that it used on the first PEN. Thanks to a faster processor in this camera the ART filters no longer have any lag, and using the real-time preview on the rear display is not as frustrating as it was with the older camera.

With most of the controls and adjustments taken care of by hardware switches and buttons, there’s rarely a need to jump into the menus. Thankfully, when you do it’s a few simple, informative screens to flip through. Here you can adjust the image stabilisation, bracketing modes, multiple exposure settings, and enable the digital teleconverter: a built-in 2x digital zoom, for a mirrorless. Yes, you lose some image quality as the sensor is cropped, but it can be invaluable when you just need to “get a bit closer”.

Image quality and performance

Thanks to some trick processing, images from the M1 have all lens-related artefacts removed. This includes fringing and aberration. Low-light performance is great, too. Given the small size of the sensor we weren’t expecting images at ISO 6400 and above to be very useful, but were happy to be proven wrong.

That said, the camera does struggle a bit in low-light conditions. Checking this with owners overseas, where it’s been on sale for a while, confirms our fears. The (physically) small sensor and MFT lenses just aren’t too happy in dim lighting. Other than that, the E-M1 performs impeccably. In burst mode, at 10 frames per second (which can also be adjusted in decreasing increments) it’ll carry on chugging through images until you run out of space. Ideally you have a fast SD card for this, or it’ll just fill up the camera’s buffer memory and stop to write to disk before continuing.

The ART modes are great, along with built-in scene modes. Heck, despite its professional aspirations there’s even an automatic mode. Get this, and you can happily use it for the next five years as you grow into all the powerful functions that are on offer.

Conclusion

The OM-D E-M1 is a pretty special bit of kit. It takes all of Olympus’ best technologies, from both its SLR and compact mirrorless models, and stuffs them into something that’s a bit in between both markets. It’s got the ruggedness, speed, and performance to be a professional camera, while also being something amateurs could get into. Beginners might find it quite daunting, though. Even with a dedicated auto mode, there are still all those dials and toggles. It may be too much camera for a first timer who doesn’t know their shutter speeds from their apertures and light metering.

There was no official price available at the time of writing, but indications are that it’ll be between R19 999 and R21 999. That puts it firmly in pro range – and also up against some competitors like Canon’s soon-to-be-replaced but capable 7D or its full-frame 6D. That’s where the E1’s compactness starts counting in its favour, but it also requires investing in a less-common lens system. Ultimately, it’ll sell to those who want one, but not to those who need a tough, pro camera.

Design: 4/5

Performance: 4/5

Image quality: 5/5

Controls: 4/5

Value for Money: TBC

Detail

Price: Est. between R20 000 and R22 000

Sensor:16-megapixel

ISO range: 100 – 25 600

Lens system: Micro Four Thirds

Rear display: 3-inch, 1 037 000 dots

Other: ART filters, Scene modes, manual modes, HD video recording, HDR modes, dust and splash-proof body, freeze proof

 

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.