The recent announcement of the new flagship OMD from Olympus has caused a bit of a stir in photographic circles; the highest priced micro four thirds camera yet to be released – a professional model sporting environmental seals and purported to be freeze proof. Building on the success of the EM5 it adds a host of additional features, but its raison d'être is the dual autofocus system. Combining contrast and phase detection systems, it allows older four thirds lenses to be focussed almost as fast as more contemporary Micro Four Thirds designs. Let’s not forget the large electronic viewfinder sporting a 2.36k dot resolution with a 1.48 magnification for a view that almost allows you to forget you are looking through an EVF.
It looks like Olympus has delivered on its promise of creating ‘one beautiful system’ as this camera is intended to replace the aging E5, the last DSLR leviathan in the ten year old four thirds line.
On Saturday 21st September, Harrison Cameras in Sheffield held an Olympus event that saw one of just six pre-production bodies in the UK be made available to interested members of the public. Being long standing Olympus users, we could not resist the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about and establish if there was any truth in the claims made by Olympus; that this newest of cameras can indeed focus four thirds lenses fast and accurately.
The event commenced at 10 am and we were there in good time but surprised to see so many people already present…and without exception all had come to try and see this new darling with similar ideas in mind to what we had. Having just one body available was far from ideal and Donald, the Olympus chap, could only apologise for this. He also apologised for there not being an example of the new 12-40 f2.8 professional zoom available to test. This, we were told, was due to a technical problem - I am guessing that the lens was simply not ready in time. So we joined a queue and waited patiently for our turn…
The new EM1 is bigger than its predecessor the EM5, but significantly smaller that the E-5. To me it represents the perfect size in camera design. I always found my E-1 to be on the large side and I tired of carry it around, particularly on road trips which saw me photographing all day, every day for several days at a time. This was one of the reasons I never upgraded to the E3/5 as these models appeared grotesque unnecessary imitations of the Canon and Nikon ranges. To me, this was not what Olympus was about; innovation and portability have always been two of the company’s strong points and these caricatures were a complete departure to this. I digress…back to the EM1…
The body itself has lost some of the retro looks found in its predecessor; for a start it is only available in black with no choice for a classic silver finish. And acccording to a recent interview with Toshiyuki Terada there will not be a silver version. The design itself is very reminiscent of my OM4Ti film camera with a grip that looks a lot like it was taken from the E-1. Grip excluded, it is not much bigger than an OM film body which I have always found to be an ideal compromise of size and weight.
After handing the EM1 to me, Donald produced a four thirds lens adapter to which I attached my 50mm macro lens. This would be the real test for me; the 50mm is notoriously slow to focus on my E-1 so it was with some trepidation I stepped onto London Road and put it through its paces. The EM1 contains a database of all Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds lenses, so it ‘knows’ when to switch between contrast and phase detection. And it does this seamlessly without the user knowing. The 50mm was still slow to focus, but noticeably faster than what I am used to. I am guessing that existing E-3/5 users will not be disappointed with this – coming from an older camera I certainly was not. It did not hunt to lock focus, but my test was outdoors and in good conditions. I took the camera back into the training suite and tried it in low light conditions. Here it did struggle, but again no more than it would with my E-1.
I then attached my 11-22 zoom and took it outside. This performed superbly and much faster than I was used to. Back inside, under less than favourable conditions, it was no slouch either and did not hunt for a target. A 12-60 lens was available for test purposes so I tried this and found it performed similarly to the 11-22mm. All in all I was very impressed with focus speed and accuracy of the EM1 with Four Thirds lenses.
I am not going to go into detail about all of the new cameras features as these can be found in abundance on other web sites. What is worth commenting on though is the superb viewfinder; I have never been a fan of EVF’s – give me an optical system any day. However this latest incarnation is something of a game changer for me. When using it outdoors I was completely at ease with it as it displayed rich detail and contrast that almost made me forget it was electronic. The increased resolution has much to do with this and I feel we are not far away from an electronic system that outclasses optical ones.
All of this technology is only as good as the results produced and thanks to Donald we had two MacBook Pro laptops on hand with which to view our results. Olympus has always been known for the beautiful images its JPG engines produce. Even back in the days of the E-1 the images were film like, rich in colour and tonality. The EM1 had been recording both jpg and ORF images, but as we had not got time (or the software) to carry out RAW conversions, we viewed the JPG’s only. Our results were very satisfying; the clarity, colour, tonality and were stunning, although we felt the sharpness was a little destructive and needed turning down a bit. I get the feeling that with a little bit of in-camera tweaking, the JPG’s will be good for most situations, reducing the time spend at a computer processing RAW files.
Interestingly, the second MacBook sported a retina display, so out of curiosity we viewed our images on this also. It was at this point that I realised the future of my digital photography lay in a combination of retina display and EM1…both products are sold to me.
To sum up, I think Olympus have a winner on their hands with the EM1. It builds on the success of the EM5 but looks tougher than its sibling. With the promise of more professional grade Micro Four Thirds optics on the way there is little not to like. Larger sensors will always produce cleaner images but this latest 16mp Micro Four Thirds offering does an excellent job keeping noise under control. There will always be trade-offs but I am perfectly happy to take on board a little extra noise if it means I am not toting a behemoth of a system around.
Our thanks go to Donald from Olympus and the staff at Harrison Cameras, Sheffield, for making this day happen.
If you would like to take a look at some un-touched out of camera JPG images, you can download this ZIP file containing 7 images taken with the Digital Zuiko 11-22mm and 50mm lenses.