If you follow the camera gear press at all, you’ve likely heard that OlympusÂ has announced their new flagship digital camera: the OMD E-M1. Â If you’re a dedicated Canon or Nikon or Sony or Pentax (etc.) shooter, this likely won’t matter much to you.
But for those of us that have been users of the 4/3 system cameras, or of the newer micro-4/3 system gear — it’s a very big deal.
It’s basically been a foregone conclusion of late that OlympusÂ had decided to abandon the now 10-year-old 4/3 system. Â There wasn’t any official announcement to that effect, but the last 4/3 camera (the E-5) was released late in 2010, and available 4/3 lenses are solid performers but not exactly spring chickens either.
So OlympusÂ has now officially stated that the E-M1 will sit at the top of their line-up, replacing the 4/3 system E-5. Â The E-M5 carries on one rung below the E-M1 (hopefully the now-confusing numbering will get cleaned up with the next release cycles), and the Pen series digital cameras hanging on below that.
All well and good, but what’s the new camera got to offer? Â The E-M1 is in many ways an improved E-M5, so on a pure specification basis, here are the big differences I see:
Better ergonomics (check out the grip, much like what the E-M5 only offers with an accessory purchase)
Improved sensor and image processor — anti-aliasing moves from a filter on the sensor to software in the processor, better overall low-light response, built-in phase detection pixels on the sensor (giving it good handling of 4/3 lenses), smaller autofocus target points
Improved viewfinder (essentially the same as what’s in the VF-4 accessory unit released with the E-P5)
WiFi and remote operation
Focus peaking (a godsend for manual focusing of lenses from the pre-digital days)
Improved weather sealing, more-rugged body frame
I’d love to be able to give you a first-person report of this unit’s handling, and show you pictures I’ve taken with it — but unfortunately I’m not one of the lucky few that received a review unit before the release. Â I’m waiting along with everybody else that placed a pre-order, and is now waiting for their prize to arrive in the mail (hopefully in October).
But for now, I’ll do what I can do — and that’s compare the E-M1 user manual to the E-M5 user manual to sort out some less-publicized differences and commonalities between the two cameras.
If you have a micro 4/3 camera, and have any interest at all in macro photography, you’ve likely been waiting for the OlympusÂ 60mm f/2.8 macro lensto appear. It’s been teased on one site or another for months, but was only formally announced at this year’s Photokina in Cologne. So since I’m trying to track Olympus‘ fairly obvious momentum from 4/3 toward micro 4/3 (and have a more-than-passing interest in macro photography), I duly put in my pre-order for one as soon as Adorama would accept it.
Fast forward a few weeks, and my copy of this little gem was delivered to my doorstep.
DId I mention little? In spite of the time I spent looking over the lens’ spec sheet, I’m still blown away by how petite the thing is (my hands are big, but they’re not that big.
For instance, compare the 60mm on the right with the E-M5’s stock (12-50mm) zoom lens. They’re almost exactly the same length, but the 60mm is a bit skinnier still (sadly, since that means yet another expensive lens hood to buyâ€¦).
The focus limiter switch primarily helps speed up focusing when you’re working up close (0.19 – 0.4 meters) — but also lets you set the focus to its closest point (equivalent to 1:1 reproduction) by just flicking the switch to that extreme of its range. Â Note that the 1:1 setting is spring-loaded, so you’ll need to have the camera set up for manual focusing to take advantage of it (otherwise the focus will change away from 1:1 when you depress the shutter release). Â The lens also gives you a scale on its side, showing what the magnification factor will be given where it’s focused — handy, if you’re either manually focusing or have the camera on a tripod.
Fortunately this lens is perfectly sized to work with Olympus‘ MAL-1 Macro Arm Light that was first released years ago with the early PEN cameras. Together with an E-M5 and grip (the grip is essential for my hands, at any rate), it makes a potent but still compact package.
So let’s put them to work.
For my firstÂ victimÂ subject, I thought I’d pick something colorful and detailed that I had kicking around. Â Lacking any interesting postage stamps, I grabbed a “souvenir” 10 Quetzales note. Â Lots of art in a bank note that’s only worth about $1.25, so a perfect experimental subject — pay particular attention to the little Maya figure on the left side of the bill (BTW, the graph paper is ruled one line per mm).
Here’s a full image of the figure, taken from about as near to the note as I could reliably get (I don’t have an adjustable “stage” for macro photography, so fiddled with my tripod height by hand). Â As you can see, at very close to 1:1 the lens gives a nice, detailed image without any obvious distortion or vignetting in the corners.
For real macro afficionados, here’s a 100% crop of 800×800 pixels roughly centered on the figure’s eye. Â You can see lots of detail in the surface of the paper, again a good performance from the lens, camera, and macro lights (but the lights can be a bit fiddly this close to the subject).
Since I’d heard this lens is also a good performer as a telephoto prime, I next left the macro light indoors for a little impromptu photography outdoors with the lens. Â As you’d expect, it’s a stellar performer up close.
Further out, I couldn’t provoke it into displaying any CA, even pointed right at the Sun. Â Oly has used a new low-reflection coating on this lens, and it shows — you have to work hard to get anything resembling a lens flare out of this gem.
All the images I’ve taken to date have been nice and sharp where I want them to be, and the circular aperture results in good, smooth bokeh elsewhere.
And yes, the lens is great for portraits!
Summary and conclusions
If you’re shooting with micro 4/3, you now have a good range of options for macro photography.
If you’re on a tight budget and don’t do much macro shooting, Olympus’ macro converter (MCON-P01, $50 retail in the U.S.) along with a 14-42mm kit lens is likely all you need.
If you want super-close-up images, and have the money ($500), the Yasuhara Nanoha 5:1 macro lens is a good tool — but only covers a focusing range of 0.43 – 0.78″ (11 – 20mm). Â It’s a powerful but very specialized tool.
But if you want a good, flexible macro lens that’s also good for portraiture and other telephoto jobs, the OlympusÂ 60mm f/2.8 can’t be beat. It sells for less than Panasonic’s 45mm f/2.8 macro lens ($750 retail in the U.S.), and is weather-sealed to boot. Â And while not quite as optically fast as the venerable OlympusÂ 50mm f/2.0 4/3 macro lens, the 60mm f/2.8 focuses dramatically faster on a micro 4/3 camera.
In summary, what I see as the pluses and minuses of the lens…
Excellent build quality
Small and light, balances well on the front of an E-M5; should handle well on other micro 4/3 models with at least a modest grip
Not cheap, but reasonably priced at $500 (at retail in the U.S.)