25 November 2013
First of all I want to state that I do not take any scientific tests on sharpness or ISO comparisons with other cameras. I just evaluate the pure shooting experience by going out taking photos.
After owning an Olympus E-M5 for a year I initially felt no need to update to the E-M1 after it’s unveiling. But as the launch date came closer and the “hype-train” started rolling I have to admit I was tempted to sell my beloved E-M5 and update.
Since I only own fast prime lenses for mFT (except the 9-18mm WA lens, which I almost consider a prime lens since I almost use it at 9mm exclusively) and just one of them being weatherproof, I planned to invest in the new 12-40 mm M.Zuiko Pro Zoom from Olympus. This lens offers a great flexible focal range and beeing weatherproof it's the perfect companion for the E-M1. And did I mention that the image quality is absolutely fantastic? More on that in my review of the 12-40 mm lens.
Saving a good amount of money when buying this lens bundled with the E-M1 and expecting selling the E-M5 for a good price I was convinced . I sold my E-M5 and pre-ordered the new Olympus flagship camera. Unfortunately Olympus did not anticipate the high demand for this camera and ran into a supply bottleneck. Demand for the kit was especially high. So I accepted to not get the camera anytime soon.
On my birthday, very surprisingly, I got a call from my camera dealer that they have one kit reserved for me which is waiting to be picked-up. After unboxing and holding the camera in my hands I loved the looks and the feel. Almost every complaint I had on the E-M5’s cramped button layout and control sheme is negligible and got improved on the E-M1.
The buttons are larger, nicer to touch (goodbye mushy button presses) and better layed out (the buttons are not perfect though and miss a distinct pressure point. But that is the drawback of weather sealing and I am totally fine how the feel now).
But Olympus did not just improve the buttons itself they also put even more customizable controls and buttons on the camera, so many that I have problems finding functions to assign to them. Which buttons and dials were added, is very well and detailed explained over at dpreview’s review of the E-M1 so I won’t go into much detail here. But two control additions are very very handy. For one they added two buttons to the right side of the front which I use for Focus-Point reset and Aperture preview and they included a control lever known from the E-P5. This lever lets you access alternate functions to several buttons on the camera. Almost doubling all the controls.
Olympus also did expand on the weatherproofing of the E-M5 and added freeze-proofing to the table. The camera feels like a tank. One other very impressive upgrade is the new Viewfinder.
Viewfinder & Focus Peaking
I know every review praises it’s quality but it is really that good. It’s crisp, bright, and big. Having a very fast refresh rate it is easy to use even when panning the camera and focusing manually without electronic assists is easy and intuitive.
Speaking of electronic assist for manual focusing, the E-M1 now features focus-peaking. It is a feature many users wished to be implemented via firmware update for the E-M5 but Olympus is known for not adding features to cameras via firmware after its release.
Since I have not used any other camera with this feature I cannot compare its functionality but in my opinion it works well although it slows down the framerate of the liveview a little bit. You have two highlight colours to choose from. So in dark situations you can choose white highlight points and in bright lighting situation black highlights. Very easy and straightforward but from what I've heard Sony's implementation of focus peaking in their cameras is more sophisticated. As I said I did not test focus peaking on any Sony camera so this is not my own opinion.
After setting the camera up, which was very easy coming from the E-M5 (I can see however that for a users new to Olympus’ menu structure the convoluted structure can be a bit intimidating and complicated, I took it out for an initial small test. Since I left my Laptop at home in Dusseldorf and I spending my weekend in Hamburg having only my iPad for reviewing my photos, I set the camera to JPGs. But even being JPGs the quality of the images was astounding. The pictures were clean, sharp and the vibrance was amazing even on the little camera screen. I transferred them to my iPad via WIFI to have a better look at them and even on the retina display at 100 % the images were crisp and detailed. I was very impressed. I will continue writing about the WIFI functionality in a bit but first I want to talk abour the RAW quality of the E-M1 files.
The RAW files from the new Olympus camera are very versatile and flexible which helps a lot when doing a lot of editing in Lightroom or Photoshop. The improved dynamic range allows for almost HDR looking images only using one photo with recovered highlights and shadows. Of course noise is starting to creep in when you bring out the shadows but it is very well controlled and the E-M1. The leap in image quality of the E-M1 compared to the E-M5 may be not very big but it is improved in the aspects that matter to me.
On that topic the WIFI functionality comes in handy when reviewing images on the iPad for example. No need to buy extra accessories to insert the SD card to the tablet. Although images need to be saved in JPGs to be viewable on other devices through Olympus' own free application the Olympus Image Share (with a very easy method to set up you phone/tablet to communicate with your camera with a QR displayed on the camera display). One other complaint I have with the way the WIFI functionality is implemented is that the camera is not usable when in WIFI mode. You can use your phone or tablet for shooting control and browsing through photos but the camera stays silent. Using the WIFI for showing others the pictures while shooting with the camera in hand is rendered impossible in this way. Adding WIFI is a great way forward but Olympus has lots of work to do to make it even more useful.
Last weekend I had more time to test the camera and after a more in-depth time with the camera I can say that I love the feel of the camera. The button layout assists in hectic shooting situations and changing settings on the go is hassle-free. I also love the locking mode dial. Very often I found the mode dial on the E-M5 in a different position after getting it out of the camera bag. Not anymore with the very handy mode dial lock.
© Johnsson Photo - 9-18 mm @ 12 mm, F5.6, ISO 200, 1/200 s.
In the last weeks user experiences surfaced in the internet saying that the E-M1 has a worse noise performance in long-exposure shots showing an incredible amount of hot-pixels. I can confirm this behavior showing very obvious noise pattern in images with longer exposures and or higher sensor sensitivities compared to the E-M5.
The issue disappears however when The Noise Reduction Filter is activated in the menus. This feature enables the camera to shoot an image with the shutter closed after a long-exposure shot to identify possible hot-pixels and noise and subtract those from the finale image.
The only drawback: the camera will take twice as long to finish one single photo (e. g. 15. sec. exposure + 15 sec. Dark-Frame). This downside renders enabling this feature useless in shooting situations where no interruptions between shots is crucial like startrail-photography and shooting fireworks just to name a few.
This weekend the sky was very clear where I live so I figured to test this “problem” myself. I mounted the camera on a tripod, set it to ISO 500 at 8 sec. exposures. The image was way too bright so I was able to lower the exposure to ISO 200 for the same exposure. I took roughly 60 pictures and 5 Dark-Frames with the lens-cap on just to be safe. The resulting image is noise-free when looking at it at 100 % on my monitor and the stars are very clear.
This weekend the sky was very clear where I live so I figured to test this “problem” myself. I mounted the camera on a tripod,took roughly 60 pictures at ISO 200, 15 sec. exposure. The result is a very clean and detailed image using a couple of Dark-Frames for post-production.
In conclusion the problem with the E-M1’s excessive showing of hot-pixels/noise compared to the E-M5 exists but after testing it I’ll have to say it is a non-issue for me. By using very bright lenses for this kind of shooting like the 20 mm Panasonic f 1.7 the camera is able to capture an excessive amount of stars even at very low sensor sensitivities.
After all I am very happy with my purchase and I think it it was a good and worthy upgrade coming from the E-M5. It may not be the huge leap in image quality I did experience upgrading from the Lumix G2 to the E-M5 but noticeable nonetheless. The RAW quality is superb and the files are very flexible when edited in Lightroom and Photoshop. The dynamic range is outstanding for the sensor size and the noise is very well controlled. I have no problems using higher ISOs with this camera even ISO 4000 or 6400 without a second thought. I would not go higher though.
I have got some minor complaints regarding the WIFI functionality and as well as with my E-M5 review the battery life could be better but I love the fact that you can use your old E-M5 batteries for the E-M1 as well. No need to go out and buy new sets of batteries. And with a shot count of 300 to 350 shots per battery you will need some additional ones.
All in all the E-M1 is worthy of the title flagship camera offering great functionality and image quality in a small package compared to its direct competitors.
- - great (and also now very functional) design, button layout etc.
- - highly customizable
- - improved image quality and dynamic range
- - improved noise performance
- - In-Body-Image-Stabilization further improved
- - fast and reliable autofocus now for moving subjects
- - incredible EVF quality
- - love the shutter sound, a bit lower sounding than the E-M5's
- - freezeproofing
- - lots of dials and buttons to provide enough manual control, almost overwhelming with no functions left to assign to all those buttons
- - battery life could be better (ca 350-400 shots)
- - WIFI functionality could be improved (tethered shooting)
- - video functions very limited (but not a concern for me since I do not take videos at all)
- - High ISO hot pixel/noise issue