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My views and impressions - One year of professional E-M1 use

One year and a bit on from arrival. Many miles, tens of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of video under their belts, my E-M1s have not had a cosseted life.

June 2016

DISCLOSURE AND HEADS-UP: I have never worked for Olympus nor have I ever been given free equipment or other incentives by the company. I purchase my own eqipment from choice and after evaluation of suitable options. I have used all major brands of equipment throughout my career and shot with Nikon F5 from 1996 through to 2005 in the absence of a suitable AF solution from Olympus. The cameras discussed and pictured here are my own and are working tools. They are not pristine, blemish and dust-free as one sees in "reviews" of new equipment. This is my experience and observations from using these items for more than twelve months as a working professional photographer -  which, according to Olympus, is their intended target user for the camera.


1. Introduction and background: 

My path through the digital equipment maze

There can be little doubt that the decision to take the plunge and purchase a premium digital camera is a difficult one.

With film, one could purchase virtually any top-of-the-line model and be assured that it would not be obsolete in a year or so. Indeed, I still have my original OM1 MD purchased in 1975 (as well as the OM2ns,2SP, OM 4 and 4Ti bodies) and they will all still deliver excellent results as will my Nikon F5 - albeit as excellent as they may be on film. 

Place the same 50mm lenses from any of those bodies on a modern digital camera, however, and you can see how technology - and resolution - has marched ahead in the intervening 40-odd years as this side-by-side comparison demonstrates.

Not even a battle of primes - Central image area from Zuiko 14-54 zoom on the left and a prime 50mm on the right. The newer 12-40 Zuiko or the 45mm 1.8 mFT lens makes the comparison even less fair. Both lenses, on tests, show sharpest detail at f=8.0 (just before diffraction effects set in on the 50mm)

It is this march of technology that has, until recently, made top-end digital cameras effectively obsolete (and valueless) for professional assignments in a few years.

This visible difference in sharpness is no fault of the analogue era lenses, however, as the resolution required to produce acceptably sharp images on around 12 million properly exposed, irregularly shaped grains of silver halide (there are millions more crystals but they do not all get exposed hence the qualification "properly exposed") is far lower than that needed to resolve detail on 16 or 20 million regularly spaced image pixels. Where the dye clouds in the film would tend to flatter the performance of a lens (and in all this I am assuming the 35mm film was a fine grain stock capable of at least 40 line pairs/mm, shot on a strudy tripod, via cable-release with the mirror locked-up) modern digital sensors require lenses intended to work at line spacings far narrower than any 35mm film era lens was expected to accomplish.

In this then, Olympus (with Panasonic) stood alone in having decided to develop the lenses and sensors of their system in tandem specifically for the demands of digital imaging with the Four-Thirds system. That is why, when deciding to move from my Nikon F5 film camera in 2005 (I defected to Nikon in 1996 as the OM bodies did not auto-focus and for sport this was essential) to a digital system, I went for the Olympus E1.

Yes, another aspect was that I had those many Olympus OM bodies still in harness and the lenses on hand ranged from 16mm fisheye to 400mm. The availability of an adaptor to fit these lenses did, therefore, serve to add points to the ballot. Subsequent experience trying to quickly focus accurately on the E-series bodies without any assistance, however, was a pain in the rear.

The logic of the sensor format and the avoidance of using a stop-gap sensor solution - as with the usual suspects - played a role. However, the ease of use of the camera and the results delivered went further. So it was that, as soon as the E500 was announced with roughly 80% more resolution, I added that to the D-SLR team.

Later, in 2007, the E-3 was announced and this gave yet another bump up the resolution scale (25%) and added live-view facility. The resolution difference  was visible to the eye on a good print but it was the lower noise of the E-3 sensor and the smoother tonal range that really demonstrated how technology was advancing.

However, given that the E-3 was close to the resolution obtained from a well-exposed, tediously set-up film shot, I was happy to soldier on with the E-3 bodies for some time. All the way to 2012 in fact when, in a fit of "gear-itis" I got an E-5. After-all, at 12MP this was as far as one needed to go.

Well, the difference in image quality was not noticeable for any real, practical purposes save for some slightly cleaner images at ISO800 and above in low light. Slightly being the operative word.

Oh, yes, they added video recording but it was not an intuitive process and the results, especially given the lack of a mic input, were similar to those obtained on any consumer HD camera. So, all-in-all, the E-5 was not something that, with hindsight, brought anything in the "must-have" category to my world. It was, however, a salutory lesson in the incremental nature of improvements one could expect as newer machinery is released.

When the E-M5 was announced - especially with that super-efficient and intuitive highlight/shadow function (the closest thing yet to the OM4's most efficient and accurate spot metering system which, I will reluctantly admit - is beyond the comprehension of most photographers nowadays who are better served by matrix meters...) and a 30% increase in resolution, plus useful quality at speeds as high as ISO3200, I was smitten.

I will admit that the return to usefully portable size, the OM series carbon copy measurements of the right hand side grip and shutter position and the old-school styling of the "prism" hump did its bit to add icing to the decision. However, the fact that only an electronic viewfinder was on offer was something I met with a jaundiced eye.

While the E-M5 is a wonderful photographic tool judged within its own merits, it was not the leap up I had expected - or needed. Yes, image quality in all conditions was wonderful and the burst speed - with that wonderfully quiet, smooth 'flippa-flippa' sound it makes - was a great feat on paper but, in practice, with my legacy 43 lenses, it was a huge dissapointment.

So, I soldiered-on with the E-5 and an E-3 for action work, sent off one of the E-M5s to a new home, and the remaining E-M5 became almost as much of a constant companion as had my OM1 and 85mm 2.0 lens. Light, easy to carry for reportage and effortless to use - with a M43 lens.

In the process, perhaps, my dislike of an EVF subsided somewhat as I grew to appreciate the immediate updates given by various settings.

As I was using it mainly for static or slow moving subjects, the lack of phase-detect auto focus was not too much of a burden. As time passed, the absence of an optical path to my eye for the image preview became less noticeable so the EVF and I started to make peace with one another.

2. First impressions of the E-M1 - close but no cigar.

After repeated requests, in which I highlighted the dissapointment suffered after buying two E-M5 bodies before having a chance to fully test them (and pointing out the lack of any retailers nearby stocking any Olympus equipment) I was sent an E-M1 for evaluation by Olympus' agent in Southern Africa within a few months of the launch in 2013.

Initially I liked the feel and 'heft' and, coupled to the MMF3 weather sealed 43 to M43 adaptor and my existing 43 lenses, the combination seemed appealing. On my initial tests in the studio and around the neighbourhood I found that the 43 lenses (among which are a SWD 50-200, 150 2.0, 14-54 and a 12-60) focused faster than ever before - eliminating the biggest downfall (for my use) of the E-M5 for sports and action work using legacy 43 glass.

I fully expected my delight to grow as I took the E-M1 along to a sports event. However, I found that my tolerance of the EVF was pushed as it was difficult to track moving subjects in the viewfinder. The image seemed to stutter and my initial sequences lost the subject.

Through dint of playing with different EVF settings I discovered that you need to set the refresh rate to normal and the review setting for images to zero to obtain the fastest and smoothest performance from the viewfinder. Focus tracking performance, however, was patchy and about the same as with the E-3/5 combination.

Image quality, both subjectively and in post-production scrutiny showed a huge improvement over any previous Olympus digital camera. This is principally due to the fact that Olympus have included lens corrections and other data in the new True-Pic VII processor algorithms and dispensed with a low-pass filter on the E-M1 sensor. This yields noticeably sharper images but it does lay you open to a higher chance of capturing images displaying a herringbone pattern (called Moiré) in areas of fine, repetitive detail. This has not, however, been a problem in practical day to day application.

Key to my deciding not to place an order for the camera at that point, however, were the following performance factors with the initial firmware as I tested it:

* Without the battery grip, the battery performance was nowhere near what I expected and, after about 200 shots at an equestrian event, it wanted more power.

* The focus tracking and low light focus pick-up on 43 lenses with the adaptor was not significantly better than the E3 or E5s I already owned.

* The playback features (like the side-by-side zoomable lightbox feature) and other display options seemed less user-friendly than the E-series bodies.

* Viewfinder lag and functionality was frustrating and I lost a number of shots due to the stuttering of the display and difficulty in tracking fast moving subjects until I figured out the settings that reduced this problem.

* With Micro 43 lenses the AF performance - while incredibly fast in AF-S mode, was patchy with moving subjects in AF-C and and AF-C+TR modes.

* The lack of a swivel-away rear screen appeared to pose a problem - especially when one is in fast-breaking news action and need to run without regard for the screen getting damaged - on the E3 and E5 you can fold it away for protection.

Given the cost of the camera bodies, and the incremental image quality improvements (for day to day news work) over my existing equipment, I decided to carry on as before and await developments.

3. Transformation of the E-M1 AF performance through Firmware Version 3.

I have contact with numerous media colleagues in many countries, some of whom were using the E-M1 for a number of months when, in early 2015, Olympus released a firmware upgrade for the camera numbered 3.0.

The primary effect of the upgrade was to boost the camera's multiple release rate with continual focus from the advertised 6 (which it delivered in ideal conditions) to 9 frames per second. Allied to this, of course, was some tweaking of the tracking focus algorithm. There were other minor additions but, taken on the content of reports from my colleagues using the camera, this firmware transformed the machine.

So, after further similar reports and witnessing full-resolution sequences from those using the camera for sports and action work, I took the plunge and obtained an E-M1 body with the MMF3 adaptor.

When the camera arrived, I tried it out with my existing lenses at some sports events and found the new firmware had-indeed-turned the camera into an amazing machine.

While the follow-focus and tracking was now amazing with either a Micro 43 or older standard 43 lens, I found that a myriad (seemingly) small improvements and tweaks to the programming had made the camera altogether more responsive and easier to operate.

The viewfinder was as fluid as any optical finder and, in lower light levels, simply transformed the shooting experience. After a few days - and a number of practical assignments - my E3 and E5 bodies were only picked-up as stand-bys or, if needed, a mount for a second lens to enable fast adaptation to developments around me.

It was when working with the older bodies - and their optical finders - that I soon became frustrated by the gloom and smaller view of things. The E-M1 had returned my preview experience to that supplied by my OM-1 and OM-2 bodies. Bright, clear and a pleasure.

I added the HLD7 grip to sort out the power issues (which seemed to have been ameliorated to a degree with regular delivery of more than 300 images per charge) and found to my delight that the change-over between the grip battery and the internal one was, indeed, seamless. So. with a couple of spare batteries charged-up in the bag I allayed my fear of running out of power on even the heaviest of shooting days.

One annoyance, however, soon reared itself when I used the video facility for spot-news and interviews. My external mic - even when plugged-in, experienced some issues with contacts to its battery leading to intermittent sound loss. The E-M1 had (with firmware version 3) no indication of the recording level while the video facility was active. You had to go play back clips to discover if the sound had been captured or not.

4. Enter firmware Version 4.

In late 2015 Olympus decided to give us all a "new" E-M1 via version 4 of the firmware.

This not only added a dynamic real-time sound level indication to the video mode, but it also added additional features to the camera in the form of focus stacking features for macro or landscape work. Other additions were made including a simpler re-setting of the Colour Creator mode and a last-menu-position memory facility. In addition, most major menu settings were retained after a firmware update.

The video mode added a 4K time-lapse option and slate tone generation for sync with an external PCM recorder. Oh, and joy of joys - there was now a live audio level display during recording. 

Another new option to the menu settings was a simulated optical viewfinder effect. In this mode the viewfinder pretends its a glass prism and mirror system and does not show any effect of setting changes nor does it make gloomy scenes more easily visible. I personally fail to see why this is needed.

However, moving on...

Further feature updates included a totally silent mode with a top shutter speed of 1/16 000 second. Yes, one-sixteen-thousandth! To put that into perspective, this is nearly the speed attained by Dr. Harold Edgerton with his early high-speed strobes that made the iconic "milk splash" images. When used on this setting the sequential release rate is 12 frames per second - Olympus claim only 11 but I have repeatedly tested my units and it is 12. (And that is why, I suspect,  the "big two" have made such a fuss about releasing $6 000+ incarnations of their top end DSLRs with similar or faster speeds...)

Now, there was no official release about my next impression but I am convinced they also tweaked the AF algorithm as well as the camera now locks on to a subject and tracks it as well as (if not better) than any competing bit of kit which I have used from the two usual suspects. Using either the 43 lenses or m43 lenses, the camera is able to track subjects with uncanny precision. There is a caveat, however, and that is that the subject needs to be a reasonably different tone from the background and you need to have the tracking sensitivity set to high.

5. Once you go EVF you can't go back

Prior to going through my handling and results opinions, I feel it appropriate to touch on the subject of electronic viewfinders.

I will admit that, when Olympus announced that the E-M1 was the only upgrade path for those of us using the original E-System,.I was one of the brigade that bleated about the lack of an optical viewfinder..

My position was informed, in part, by experience with earlier Fuji and Epson EVF systems and my experience with the E-M5 bodies. This was an easy trap in which to fall as we tend to evaluate changes based on our current iteration of daily normality and are actually - on a primal level - change averse beings. 

Evolution is a slow process and sudden leaps in progress shake us. So, it took a few weeks of use but, within a short period, I was using the E-M1 as easily as any other photographic tool I had used throughout my career.

Indicative of the fact is an incident, while supervising some Photo Academy students at a theatrical shoot, when I was handed a student's D7100 to check on a focus issue. Peering into the relatively gloomy tunnel that serves as the viewfinder after using my E-M1 on the same subjects a few seconds before really drove home the wisdom of the OM-D designers. The difference in operability was jarring. A week or so ago I also had occasion to use my OM2 and the E-M1 to do a side-by side portrait comparison. The OM2 viewfinder now seems darker than the E-M1 and, of course, the lack of response when I set the compensation dial was noticeable. 

As technology improves I can forsee a point in the not too distant future when optical prisms and reflex mirrors will be reduced to a few paragraphs in textbooks dealing with photographic history.

No optical finder system permits you the ability to adjust virtually any aspect of your camera settings without removing the camera from your eye. With the Super Contorl Panel allocated to the OK button, just a press calls up the SCP in the finder and you can adjust any setting via the good old Press-Direct-Twirl and Touch method of setting Olympus cameras.

The highlight/shadow curve, colour creator and other items are all visible right where you need to see them and you can carry on tracking or observing your subject.

For wildlife and bird photography in particular, I find the ability to change settings without looking away from the viewfinder a particular bonus.

I firmly believe that once you have used an EVF of this quality and versatility (and they can only get beter as time passes) , you will not want to go back to the old tech of a mirror and prism.