The Olympus E-M1 — a preview of coming attractions

If you follow the camera gear press at all, you’ve likely heard that Olympus has announced their new flagship digital camera: the OMD E-M1.  If you’re a dedicated Canon or Nikon or Sony or Pentax (etc.) shooter, this likely won’t matter much to you.

E-M1 top view

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 Olympus had decided to abandon the now 10-year-old 4/3 system.  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 Olympus has now officially stated that the E-M1 will sit at the top of their line-up, replacing the 4/3 system E-5.  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?  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.  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.

Feature E-M5 E-M1
Size (also, see here) 121 x 89.6 x 41.9 mm, 400 g 130.4 x 93.5 x 63.1 mm, 497 g
Included accessories Body cap, strap, USB cable, AV cable, FL-LM2 flash, BLN-1 battery, BCN-1 charger Same, but no analog AV cable this time (it’s now sold separately as the CB-AVC3)
Eyecup(s) EP-10 (with camera), EP-11 (accessory) EP-13 (with camera)
External battery holder HLD-6 (purchased separately) HLD-7 (purchased separately
External ports Multi-connector, HDMI micro connector (type D) Same, plus 3.5mm stereo microphone jack, external flash connector
Front controls One-touch white balance and preview buttons
Power switch Body rear, lower right (seen from back) Body top, left side
Mode dial Left top; M / S / A / P / iAuto / Art / Scn / Movie Right top, with lock; same modes plus Photo Story (in-camera diptych / triptych).Additional art filter: “Watercolor”

Additional scene mode: “Hand-held starlight” (!)

Viewfinder display The level gauge is now displayed on the bottom of the viewfinder when the shutter button is held halfway down (see also custom menu J, below)
Live view monitor display The state of your WiFi connection is now among the small icons along the top of the screen
Auto-focus targets Choose one or all of 35 zones With a micro-4/3 lens, choose one or all of 81 zones (full sensor); with a 4/3 lens, choose one or all of 37 zones (covering a rough diamond in the center of the sensor).  “Info” button can be used to chose regular-sized single auto-focus target zone, or smaller sized target.
Color creator New function, allows for real-time adjustment of hue and saturation (only adjusts JPEG, not RAW image).
In-camera HDR Choice of 6 settings: 2 in-camera HDR settings (combining 4 bracketed images), 4 settings that help you more quickly take 3 / 5 / 7 bracketed images to combine on your computer.
WiFi New for the E-M1; WiFi password can be either pre-set or different each time a connection is made.Automatic in-camera geotagging, if connected by WiFi to a phone with GPS turned on.
Image stabilization 4 settings — off, IS1 (both axes), IS2 (vertical), IS3 (horizontal) Same, plus IS for movies, and new “IS Auto” setting for stills (camera detects panning direction and applies appropriate IS)
Setup menu Same as before, plus item for WiFi settings
Custom menu A — AF / MF New options for displaying (or not) the AF frame target during confirmation, setting C-AF sensitivityIn MF Assist sub-menu, select Magnify or Peaking for your focus assist function.
Custom menu B — Button / Dial New functions for buttons: HDR, Bracket, enable / disable touch screen, electric zoom (use arrow pad for zooming of a lens with power zoom functions — handy for video)New submenu for lever function (5 different modes for the two lever positions)

New submenu allows you to assign MySets to any spots on the mode dial that you don’t use (iAuto, Art, etc.).

Custom menu C — Release New options to give lens IS function priority over IBIS (if a lens with IS is used), shorten button lag time
Custom menu D — Disp New options to expand live view dynamic range, reduce display flicker under fluorescent lamps, choose focus peaking edge color (white or black); display frame rate moves here (from I)
Custom menu E — Exp / ISO Noise reduction, noise filter move here (from G)
Custom menu G — Color / WB Largely same options, but reordered
Custom menu I — Movie Old option of Movie+Still (take still when movie recording ends) has been deleted
Custom menu J — Built-in EVF Level gauge display (on button half-press) is turned on/off here.
Custom menu K — Utility New option for AF focus adjust (+/- 20 steps)
One-touch white balance Program to your choice of button, save to one of two presets Use pre-defined button on front of camera body, or program to your choice of button; save to one of four presets


So what’s to make of this beast so far?  For me, the big gains are (in no particular order)…

  • Faster focusing — both for moving subjects with a micro-4/3 lens and for anything with a 4/3 lens (according to reviews).  Hurray for PDAF!
  • Smaller / more autofocus target zones
  • Improved sharpness, thanks to the removal of the anti-aliasing filter from the sensor
  • WiFi, both because it will let me use my phone as a smart remote control, and because it allows for geotagging (although I know this will devour my phone’s battery life)
  • Focus peaking
  • Microphone jack
  • Pre-defined HDR / exposure bracketing button
  • Improved body frame

And I’m extremely happy that it uses an already-existing battery design (the BLN-1 — so we’re not trapped in the battery limbo that results from popular new cameras and a low initial supply of spare batteries for them).  What I’m not wild about so far…

  • The continuation of the E-M5-style external strap lugs (vs. the E-5’s recessed strap bars)
  • The lever that will now double the ways I can use the exterior buttons (making it pretty certain I’ll forget where I programmed things to).  Good thing you can disable this if you so choose, and I’m hoping I’ll get used to it anyway.
  • Given that the E-M1 is billed as being a “Pro” camera, I wish Olympus had removed iAuto and the “Art filter” modes to help de-clutter things (at least they provide two mode dial settings you can reprogram for other uses).  Photo Story also strikes me as being more appropriate to a point-and-shoot than a Pro camera.

So, all-in-all, a big win if you ask me.  But this is just what I’ve gathered from scouring the user’s manual, I’ll revisit this review when Olympus sends me my OM-D E-M1 in mid-October.

4 thoughts on “The Olympus E-M1 — a preview of coming attractions

  1. I would add the Small AF Box as well, this is very important as Olympus never really had a “Spot” Af as Panasonic does. The Manual shows you can reduce the AF Box even smaller now, and the manual reflects this…big improvement!

  2. I’m personally glad that Olympus left the iAuto and Art Filter modes on the main dial. Because you can assign those to MySets, its two more location on the dial that you can override.

  3. Well since you can set myset to iAuto, Artfilter, photo story so that’s actually not bad lol

    And E-portrait is always there since E-P1

  4. Pingback: Olympus OM-D E-M1 vs OM-D E-M5 Specs Comparison Table | Daily Camera News

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