Hands-on: Olympus OM-D E-M1 review

Want to know what an Olympus camera looks like when the Japanese giant goes all out? Look no further than the OM-D E-M1, the latest interchangeable lens model that represents not only a push in the OM-D line, but also the death of the company's commitment to DSLR. It's the embodiment of the would-be E-7 wrapped up into a compact system camera body, if you will.

A new design brings with it all manner of new and exciting things too: a new sensor and autofocus system being the E-M1's primaries; no optical low-pass filter, a 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder, 5-axis image stabilisation, weather-sealing and operation to -10C adding a handful of secondary top-spec features.

Pocket-lint had a play around with the new champion model ahead of its official unveiling where we dug in deep to to see what OM-D E-M1 is capable of. Is it truly "OMG", OM-D?

Dual Fast AF

Since 2008 Olympus has been pushing Micro Four Thirds - the same lens mount that the E-M1 adopts. The exception to this push was the 2010 appearance of the E-5, the Four Thirds model that utilises the older, 2002-born lens mount. It's almost like a conflict of interests, so job number one for the E-M1 was to find a way of coping with both Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses.

Dual Fast AF is the company's answer. It's achieved by placing dedicated pixels on the sensor that are utilised for phase-detection autofocus when Four Thirds lenses are attached. You will need to have the necessary adaptor to attach such lenses, however.

Pop a newer Micro Four Thirds lens on the front and the phase-detection system is ignored. This isn't a "hybrid" autofocus system as with many recent DSLR systems - think Canon EOS 700D, for example - as it instead adjusts its response based on the attached lens type.

If you love pixel-level geekery like we do then you'll be interested to know that the E-M1's sensor is also designed differently from that of many competitors. Whereas some other manufacturers use entire horizontal lines of dedicated phase-detection pixels, Olympus instead utilises single grey pixels - arranged in left and right halves - positioned in a rigid fashion around the sensor. This means the left and right opposites are spaced far enough apart for the necessary comparison basis required for phase-detection, but also there's little compromise to the surrounding red, green and blue-filtered pixels and that ensures enough colour data is available for accuracy. This more spaced-out arrangement is preferable, given that the phase-detection system won't be used at all if you only ever use Micro Four Thirds lenses.

But it's all about how it functions in the real world, isn't it? In a limited-light restaurant setting we had no issues with lenses locking on to subjects of all types. Even the continuous autofocus system did a pretty good job of chopping and changing between focal depths. In short, and just like the Olympus Pen E-P5, the E-M1 is super-fast. Indeed it's the best Olympus autofocus system we've used to date.

READ: Olympus Pen E-P5 review

New sensor power

But it's not just on-sensor AF pixels that make the sensor different. With no low-pass filter to diffuse the light coming in to the sensor, shots ought to be sharper. Bully for moire issues - and there was no mention of a model with a filter being made available - but such are the current trends.

We pressed Olympus for more sensor information as to how much better the E-M1's sensor is compared to that in the E-M5 - but there was no such information. They both have a 16-megapixel resolution, that much was clear, but that was all we had to go on based on the information put to us.

Good job, then, that we had an E-M5 in tow to take some side-by-side snaps to have a look for ourselves. We weren't allowed to take away image samples with us, so you'll just have to take our observational words instead.

READ: Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

First impressions? The E-M1 is visibly better at the higher ISO settings. We snapped an ISO 25,600 shot on both cameras, zoomed in to 100 per cent on the rear screens of both cameras and the image was sharper, had far more discernible detail in the fine-detail areas and, to us, the colour was better too. It's no scientific test, however, as despite swapping out the new 12-40mm f/2.8 lens between bodies it's the screens on both cameras that differ in quality. Still, when it's possible to easily see a notable improvement it's happy days if you ask us, so kudos to the E-M1: it looks to be a cracker in the image quality department.

Olympus did provide us with some details of what's going on behind the scenes too. The latest TruePic VII engine can auto-detect any Olympus lens - both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds - and apply lens-specific processing to counteract for distortion and chromatic aberration issues. Panasonic and other lenses aren't catered for to the same degree, however. The TruePic engine also said to produce optimal resolution dependent on aperture used during shooting, for greater levels of detail at even closed-down aperture values.

Add the usual array of art filters - including a new vertical diorama addition - and there's a whole heap of in-camera tweakage that you can rely on.

Design details

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves with all the top features, let's pause to reflect on what a stunning machine the E-M1 is. Visually Olympus has found its forte. Alongside the E-P5 and E-M5, the E-M1 looks grand. It's modern, yet it's timeless, and a little retro - particularly when the additional HLD-7 battery grip accessory is connected, plumping out the camera to near-DSLR proportions.

But it's not quite as big or as heavy as a DSLR. It's got the build quality right - weather-sealed magnesium chassis with not only dust- and splash-proofing, but the ability to operate down to conditions as cold as -10C (something we couldn't test!) - and feels top-notch in the hand. The grip protrudes to a necessary degree to cater for those who want to lump on a longer Four Thirds lens too, yet there's enough space between grip and lens to remain comfortable.

Dials and buttons are delivered in abundance, so newbies might struggle to find their way around this complex machine. But then it's not aimed at such an audience - one glance at the £1,299 body-only price asserts that.

We're big fans of what Olympus calls the "2x2 dial control" that gives the thumbwheels a dual lease of life via the flick of a switch. Everything is customisable and there's a litter of function (Fn) buttons to provide access to, well, pretty much anything, any how. It's all in the details.

Custom colour

In addition to the rear 3-inch, 1.04m-dot, tilt-angle touchscreen LCD panel, one of the E-M1's hero specs is its new electronic viewfinder (EVF). It's the same panel as found in the VF-4 accessory finder for the E-P5, but that's not made it into a finished product before now.

The 2.36m-dot EVF has a 1.48x magnification (0.74x, converted) that makes it large to the eye - about the same as you would find in even many full-frame DSLR cameras. It's got some special tricks up its sleeve too: there's an auto brightness adjustment available by default that dims or brightens the viewfinder according to the surrounding of natural light to give a more natural and comfortable view to work with. If you find that off-putting - although we didn't find it to be jarring - then it can be switched off.

You can even manually adjust the colour with a hue/saturation and colour dial, dubbed "Color Creator" - controlled using the two thumbwheels - to get not only a preview visualisation on either LCD or in EVF, but also save the preset to apply to JPEG shots. Up to four different presets can be saved and the function is also available in conjunction with raw & JPEG shooting.

Other cool things, too, such as HDR (high dynamic range) preview can be seen in real-time in the viewfinder, thanks to some funky real-time processing. Clever stuff.

It's all pro

The viewfinder is one example that represents the level of detail that the E-M1 packs in. But there's plenty more besides: A 1/8000th sec mechanical shutter speed, focus peaking for precision manual focus, updated 5-axis image stabilisation that can now better cater for the slowest shutter speeds, up to 10 frames per second (10fps) shooting for up to 41 raw consecutive raw files, and enhanced Wi-Fi functionality. That's us almost out of breath.

But there's still only the one SD slot. At this level - and considering there's enough physical space - we'd liked to have seen the introduction of a dual slot at the very least. It seems we can't quite have it all.

If the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has caught your attention then, and just like with recent Olympus releases, getting in the pre-order queue will have potential benefits: the Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds lens adaptor will be thrown in free of charge for any current registered E-series customers placing an order up until November 2013, while all customers pre-ordering before launch day will receive the vertical battery grip (HLD-7 - which differs from the HLD-5 designed for the E-M5) at no extra cost.

It's a veritable feast of goodies, but then it doesn't come cheap. As we've mentioned the £1,299 body-only price asserts the E-M1's market position, while the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens kit's £1,949 asking price is about as far removed from budget as can be. Top gear comes with top-level prices - there's no avoiding it. And the E-M1 is a lovely thing to behold - just look at it - that doesn't scrimp on the image quality front from what we've seen. It may not shift in giant numbers like the E-P5, but the E-M1 has us enamoured already.



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