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Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera: Hands-On First Impressions

Today, Olympus announced their flagship mirrorless DSLR camera, the OM-D E-M1. The camera is styled as a DSLR and incorporates some of the latest imaging technologies. Olympus emphasizes that the E-M1 features much improved image quality as well as TOUGH weather-proofing, as in dust-, splash- and even freeze-proof to -10°C. We were shown a pre-production model and we had a chance to briefly handle one.

Olympus is unabashedly positioning the OM-D E-M1 as the ultimage enthusiast or even pro camera. While enthusiasts will find the E-M1 very attractive, will some pros finally be willing to leave their bulky and heavy camera systems for the E-M1? Olympus hopes so, though they are willing to let this play out by itself.

Though it still features 16MP resolution, the image sensor is a new hybrid one that features both Phase-detect and Contrast-detection AF. Unlike other hybrid AF that starts out with Phase-detect AF to quickly hone in on a subject and then switch to Contrast-detect AF to fine tune the focusing, the Hybrid AF on the E-M1 works differently, and for a very good reason.

In fact, the main reason for on-chip Phase-detect AF in the E-M1 is to achieve fast AF when using 4/3 lenses (requires the use of the Four Thirds adapter). We were quite impressed with the speed of the AF when a 4/3 zoom lens was attached. When a mFT lens is attached, Contrast-detect AF is used. However, both AF come into play when you switch to Continuous AF; Olympus claims the E-M1 can continuously track a subject at 6.5fps.

Olympus walked us through their reasoning for not introducing an E-5 replacement, dubbed the E-7. Since the new hybrid FAST AF allows the larger Four Thirds lenses to take advantage of phase detection AF for fast focusing, “as fast as when using mFT lenses,” they decided users would prefer a smaller and lighter camera. The E-M1 is thus positioned as the E-5 replacement. It retains the 5-axis image stabilization of the E-M5.

One innovation is a “super-large” EVF with a field of view that, again so Olympus claims and so it seems when we peered into it, is as large as, if not even larger than that in top-end DSLR viewfinders. It sports a 2.36M-dot resolution. The EVF features Live View Screen that will present a real image in the viewfinder (only, not the LCD). For example, when HDR1 is enabled, the user sees exactly in the viewfinder what will be captured by the sensor.

The E-M1 has a large handgrip which is quite comfortable to hold. The Shutter Release button has moved from the top plate to the top of the handgrip. An optional battery grip adds height to the camera (for that fourth finger grip) as well as allow more comfortable portrait shooting.

As in becoming a standard, Wi-Fi with NFC is built-in. We did not see it demo to us but understand you can tether an iPad to the camera and watch the image on the large Retina display of the iPad and use Touch AF/Touch Shutter to touch the iPad screen to engage focus, take a picture at full resolution and upload to the iPad.

Olympus stresses that all these features are from professional photographer’ wish lists, so Olympus has gone the whole nine yards here to tick off all their needs and wants in a professional camera.

Besides dustproof and splashproof capabilities, the E-M1 adds freeze-proof capabilities, guaranteed to keep working down to -10°C (14 °F). The body is made of durable magnesium alloy with weather-resistant seals and gaskets in all the appropriate places.

The take-away from the presentation is that the E-M1 at once replaces the micro Four Thirds E-M5 as well as the Four Thirds E-5, thanks to its innovative use of hybrid phase-detect and contrast detection AF allowing it to use both the mFT as well as the FT lenses with equally fast AF. It has a super large high resolution EVF that rivals full-frame DSLR cameras. It retains the 5-Axis Image Stabilization System. Its magnesium alloy body features rugged splash, dustproof and now freezeproof durability. It has built-in Wi-Fi with NFC, allowing advanced remote control of the camera from an iPad. It is really fast. And, best of all, it features improved image quality, “the highest image quality of any Olympus camera.

The M.ZUIKO Digital ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens (24–80mm, 35mm equivalent) was supposed to be released at the same time as the E-M1 but I understand it may not be quite ready. It will be the first model in the new M.ZUIKO PRO category and features the same weatherproof construction, high-speed and near-silent autofocus and maintains the brightness of a constant f2.8 aperture throughout the zoom range.

Also planned is the M.ZUIKO Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO (80–300mm, 35mm equivalent) with a bright constant f2.8 aperture and weatherproof construction.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 will be available in October 2013 in the following configurations.

Estimated Street Price:

  • $1399.99 Body only, available in Black
  • $2199.99 Black body with black M.ZUIKO Digital ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens

The OM-D E-M1 is the camera that Olympus should have released before the E-M5. This is the rightful successor of the legendary 35mm OM-1 film SLR. Think portability and the ability to use the camera almost anywhere. Think system and the availability of quality lenses to cover almost all photographic needs. The E-M1 should appeal to a broad range of professional photographers and the reviews will soon tell whether its performance and image quality will topple the last barriers to a wide adoption of mirrorless DSLRs.

Read the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Press Release.

Pre-order the Olympus OM-D E-M1 now:

2 Comments

  • I just spent a week at Yellowstone shooting pictures of bears with my ‘new’ OMD-EM1. It was great, except when the shutter STUCK closed and nothing would open it up. Eg, turning off/on, removing/replacing with new battery, taking out the SD card, changing lens (I have both the 40-150 2.8 PRO and the 12-40 2.8 PRO lens).

    I found a YOUTUBE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubNA1UbQUKA that showed me how to release the shutter and get the camera working again.

    I was hoping there was a firmware or other known information about this problem.

    The weather was cold (28-ish) on some days this would happen, and in the high 30s, low 40s on other days.

    The problem appeared to be aggravated by shooting HDR, or singlely in rapid succession.

    I plan to do testing tomorrow in 60 degree weather to see if I can cause the failure, and if not, plan to put the camera (in a sealed plastic bag) in the freezer to get it cold and see if that recreates the problem, before contacting Olympus support, as the camera is only 3 months old.

    If anyone else has similar known problems, please post here.

    I LOVE this camera (had a PEN1, and now also a PEN5) — but I need to be able to count on the camera in all situations.

    Thanks for ideas