The E-M1 has been reviewed a million times online already. In fact Olympus has leap frogged much of its tech features on their latest E-m5mkII and Pen-F. I decided I want to take this review in a different direction. I am going to look at the E-M1 retrospectively and discuss what really works, what didn’t work, and what can we hopefully look forward to with the successor just around the corner.
The E-M1 was the first serious Olympus camera in years that had something to really be excited about. It was supposed to be the best of Olympus, geared towards a pro market, all rolled up in a tiny package. At that they succeeded. They won over many photographers, including myself. I have used a pair of E-M1s since just after their initial release. I have used the E-M1 for concerts, events, video products, architecture, landscape, wildlife, macro and nature, portraits, astrophotography alone and through telescopes. I have used it for personal work and for client projects on location and in the studio with strobes, speed lights, and just ambient light. I have gotten them wet and dirty. I’ve even broken them a couple times. Needless to say, I have spent a lot of time getting to know the E-M1. So, this is what I have learned.
In general the whole camera is a gem. I love it and really cannot fault it. It has been my favorite photographic tool in a long time. The camera has enabled me to make shots that would have been impossible for me with other equipment. I could speak for days about everything being awesome, but I will just highlight some major points here. Again, in my opinion, these have been truly standouts in my work. As a working commercial photographer, these are areas that made my life and workflow a lot easier.
Ergonomics – The handling of the E-M1 is fantastic. While the body is small…and greatly benefits from an L bracket or a grip…the layout is excellent. I really love the body layout and the two front body buttons. I use those constantly. I also use the Lens button on the pro lenses constantly. This combination of customizable buttons changed the way I work. They are just in the right place and are very intuitive. I would be greatly surprised to see a strong improvement in this area. Don’t fix something that’s not broken! The buttons are a good size and feel too. If you have only used an E-M5…I would definitely try an E-M1 and see what you are missing.
White Balance – Auto white balance on this camera is definitely a strong point. I am constantly amazed at how good this camera gets on its own. In fact, it is the most accurate auto white balance I’ve ever used. Especially in mixed light, the E-M1 really surprises me with what it chooses. Good job Olympus.
Colors – I don’t want to use the word accurate…as nobody is necessarily accurate in all situations. Each company has its own color palette and style of color rendering. The most accurate cameras for distinct tonal reproduction are Phase Ones in my opinion. However, in terms of color, the E-M1 wins hands down in most situations for pleasing color. I like the way it delivers its colors in different situations. I actually use the camera’s profiles like Portrait, Vivid, and Natural all the time. Between the white balance and color delivery, I get more shots from this camera that look exactly how I expect than I do from other cameras. I do a lot less color adjustment to my E-M1 files.
Image Stabilization – Yes, the E-M5mkII has a better stabilizer, but aside from that you will be hard pressed to find a better in-camera stabilization than the E-M1 in general. It completely amazes me that I can make sharp images at a 300mm equivalent view at 1/60th handheld. I would normally need to shoot at 1/500th to hand hold that kind of lens. Usually 1/focal length is barely enough for me. The Olympus just works. It works so well I have messed up shots with other cameras because I forget I can’t pull that off on other equipment.
Customization – The E-M1 has so many forms of customization. If you check out my ebook you will see a bunch of unique ways to combine settings to get amazing results. Though kind of deep, and complex, and could use a little more streamlining, all in all I applaud Olympus for giving us the ability to make the camera exactly what we want.
Dust Handling and weather sealing – This has been the cleanest camera by far. I don’t know if the sensor shake works better, or what…but this has been the cleanest sensor I’ve had in a long time. I haven’t had to clean my sensors because of problems showing up. And I can certainly vouch for the weather sealing. My cameras have shot through storms, waterfalls, and snow with no problem at all after getting soaked.
Excellent results under strobe lighting – The camera loves light. My results with strobes is excellent. The sensor seems to really come alive in a lit scenario. The sharpness with the pro lenses and good lighting just is remarkable sometimes. I can’t believe I’m using a sensor as small as it is.
Less Retouch – Because of the sensor size and quality, I can get excellent sharp results on portraits that do not have the ultra resolution of my medium format cameras for example. I still get all the good, but without having to retouch the pores back to normal looking. It makes my workflow faster on jobs that don’t call for insane resolution. I’ve even started shooting editorial again on occasion because I use this camera and don’t need to retouch as much. Fast delivery with excellent results. In fact, many of my female clients have told me how much they like their images. I honestly feel it is the fact that all the good shows, and all the stuff that would need to be retouched is smoother and less ridiculously obvious on a smaller sensor. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, put a strobe light on someone and shoot their picture at F/11 with a 60mp sensor or higher and show them the image at 100%. They will cringe.
What didn’t work
There is not much to fault honestly. I don’t baby my equipment, though I take excellent care of it. In the course of using equipment day in and day out, things happen. Falls, bumps, crashes, etc…Some of the following could definitely be user induced. So I will just go over what I have dealt with and my opinions of what could be better.
Grip Material – It peeled off on one of my bodies. Olympus replaced it. Apparently this happened to a lot of people. Bad glue? Hasn’t happened since.
Skipping Dials – I had a rear dial that stopped registering values with each click. It registered a single click for each 4 or 5 clicks. Apparently this was common as well. Olympus changed these out.
Stabilization Encoder Failure – I had some encoder part fail and it made the stabilization go crazy. I had this repaired. It may have been from a drop, not sure.
Broken Mount – my body mount bent in half and stuck out of the body when the camera and pro 40-150 fell and landed at a bad angle on concrete. The rest of the body was perfect. Mount got replaced and the camera was good as new. In fact, its the sharper of my two bodies now!
Slow Menus – I can’t stand the time it takes for a menu like ISO to pop up on the screen. I also don’t like that I have to cancel a menu to select another one. It should be instantaneous and transparent going from one menu to the next from the body buttons. Pro camera implies pro conditions, implies speed. Ever used a 1D series Canon? If I press the ISO button on the E-M1 and decide I need to shoot immediately, I will miss the shot. Guaranteed. The menu takes too long to pop up because of its animation, and then needs to be cancelled. Why is there a delay for this? Looks are worthless here. Olympus…just do an instant on / off for menu displays. Seriously. This is the biggest gripe I have. The camera would even feel faster. Well because it would be. If they upgraded nothing else but this alone I would trade both my cameras in for new ones with this feature. Today.
No self timer on HDR modes – Really? This is generally where I want to use one as well. I’de love to see this fixed.
Video mode settings that are separate from other modes – I have my video mode set to Manual settings. However this takes them directly from the rest of the camera’s manual mode. If I shoot in manual mode and am at 1/2000 of a second and want to make a quick video…I probably don’t want to be shooting at that fast a shutter. I’de love to be able to have different settings in the video mode that recall only for that mode.
E-M1mkII, What to look forward to
These are my hopes for the successor to the E-M1. The camera doesn’t need to be rethought…just updated honestly. Refinements, evolution, and improvements are welcome. We don’t need them every year…but there has been plenty of time to see what would improve the experience.
White Balance / ISO on One dial – I like the way both come up on the E-M5mkII. One button, both options on the dials. This should be carried over to the E-M1.
Faster button and menu response / remove fade ins – I hope we see this! Even if the menu isn’t more streamlined…this alone would be huge.
Hi-res mode – I hope we have not only the handheld mode, but also a mechanical shutter mode that works better with strobes. The electronic shutter has too many limitations for certain work. Or a higher sync speed with electronic shutter. The high resolution mode works great and the results have been fantastic. I would love to be able to use this regularly on an E-M1.
Phase focus improvements – I don’t know if cross points can be added, but I’de love to see improvements in the phase focus for tracking or using legacy 4/3 lenses. Right now the phase focus is like using the outside point of a Canon 5D. It works if you give it what it needs to see…but sluggish if it doesn’t have the right lines. Contast focus is still a tad slow in the fastest action in dim light as well.
Save and load settings and customizations – Is there anyone home at Olympus that has customized their camera and then upgraded firmware or reset the camera due to service? We could really use this. Here Olympus…give your person in charge three new camera bodies with a list of very specific options and customization and saved modes and have them set the cameras up. Oh yeah, your shoot starts in 30 minutes. Go. I know..its not a likely scenario…but really…a camera with this much deep option needs a way to save and reload settings. This would also allow users that don’t have time or aren’t as tech savvy to load settings that they get from other users. I would love to be able to just share my settings with you all. Load them up on a memory card or over wifi from the app and you are good to go. This would be HUGE.
An HDR mode with the use of self timer – Maybe the camera doesn’t have to lock itself into a high continuous shooting mode? It would be nice to get this.
Updated Video – It would be convenient to have some updated video functionality. Being able to shoot B-Roll with the camera is great. It would be nice if not all the custom options were tailored to Olympus’ recorders though. Maybe we can get video only manual settings, a higher spec codec, and some options on profiles.
Higher Megapixel sensor – It is likely we will get something with a little more. Even the Pen-F has a higher MP sensor. I am certainly not one for caring about megapixels, but 24 is really the sweet spot I find in general use. Getting a little closer to that would be ideal. I do have clients on occasion that need something larger than what 16mp can offer. Not often…but on occasion. Overall, anything between 16 and 24 would be great. If not, it won’t be a big deal.
A favorite settings menu – I would love to see a menu that lets you store your 10 favorite options from anywhere in the menu system on a quick access page. That way you can get right to commonly used settings that are generally buried in the custom functions. This would be good.
Should I buy one now?
As we are just several weeks from Photokina 2016 and the announcement of a successor is imminent, I would still say YES, buy an E-M1. The price of E-M1s is very good right now. I have seen many for less than half of their new price, and new ones can be had for under one thousand dollars in many places. If you don’t need all the new features and just want the best feeling M43 camera out there, the E-M1 is it. The images out of this camera are still excellent, it can still print just fine to 30″ if prepared right, and it’s functionality is unchanged just because a new camera is released. If you are looking to save money, the E-M1 is an outstanding value. In fact I would hands down select an E-M1 over a E-M5mkII or Pen-F.
I will personally be ready to place my preorder when the camera is announced. I have a good feeling about the camera Olympus will be releasing. They took the E-M1 very seriously and accomplished a very high mark. I imagine the same will happen with the mkII. This is their flagship product after all.
So what good is a post without images right? Here are some of my personal favorite images that came from my E-M1s. These may not necessarily be technical examples of anything in particular…I am just sharing my personal likes. Why…because I love shooting with the E-M1 and I love the images I am making with it. Enjoy!