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Olympus E-M1 review

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



The E-M1 is a camera that is ready to be tuned to your needs. Just about every button on the camera can be re-assigned to suit your taste or muscle-memory.

For any major setting you may wish to change, you can generally rely on the fact that a single button push and twirling of the input dials will quickly get you where you wish to be. Its a very efficient and, after a week or two, intuitive method of setting the camera. As an example, you can simply press the release mode/HDR button on the top left of the camera while looking through the viewfinder and your options will pop up on the display. If using the rear panel the options will appear there against a grey background.

Twirl the front dial to move along the options on the top of the display and the rear for those at the bottom of the display (Default settings). Touch the shutter button to confirm your input and away you go.

After using the E series family for some time I now find other methods old fashioned, clunky and an irritation. 

In addition to the press and twirl simplicity, a nifty little lever on the back of the camera lets you re-assign the one-touch buttons on the top left of the camera. At default the release/self timer/HDR and AF/Metering buttons do what they say. You can, however, flick the option lever from position 1 to 2 and this will change the front wheel to set ISO and the rear white balance while the two aforementioned buttons will call up (after a press of a second) the bracketing options or flash compensation and flash mode settings.

This is how I run the camera but you can allocate other options to be activated by the dials and the top-left control buttons as you see fit. 




The two position lever lets you multi-task the function of the input wheels and the top-left buttons. By default, at 1 the wheels set options up or down. At 2 they adjust ISO and white balance. Top left buttons get re-assigned to flash mode and flash compensation. You can, however, dictate exactly which functions get assigned. A quick and easy expansion of the same set of buttons and controls - it is, to my mind, a very clever use of space.

The function buttons can, likewise, be re-allocated. What you need to do with the E-M1 is to apply your mind to what it is you want the camera to be for your photography. You need to know what it is you need the tool to accomplish. Sit with it and make a sketch of where you would like various controls to be and then go find these control positions in the manual. Look up the options for these controls and then set them to your taste.

It is not something that you will get right in a few seconds of fiddling. You certainly will not find it easy if you think you can dispense with the manual and "wing it" like a YouTube reviewer or retail camera store assistant. That way frustration and huge missed opportunities will meet you. It is something you may decide to re-arrange after using the camera for some time. The point is, you need to make the effort and invest time in understanding the tool. If you do, you will find ample reward in a tool that works the way you need it to.

Fn2 options

Highlight/Shadow adjustment

My favourite assignment is to the Fn2 button which calls up the highlight/shadow curve adjustment tool.

Where the magic lighting genie lives on the E-M1 (and E-M5). The Fn2 button and its S-Curve highlight/shadow tool.  (Do not read anything into the mode dial position - it happened to be on A as I was doing diffraction tests on lenses just before taking this shot. It spends little time on M and a lot at P, Movie, A or S and - recently - at ART when I go out to play...)

Simply pressing the button displays a highlight/shadow graph in the viewfinder. Turning the front input dial pushes or pulls your highlights and the rear input dial does the same for shadow areas. Adjustments are immediately visible in the viewfinder or on the rear screen if using live view or via your PC display when using a thether in studio shooting.

If you understand metering and the digital process, you should find this an almost indispensable tool for your photography - especially if you like to use black and white in the camera. I have, on several occasions, asked Olympus to revive the spot metering system of the OM4 but this tool does more than that could with less effort. Like the OM4 multi-spot system, however, you need to fully understand the process of light metering and workflow to (a) see the sense in it and (b) apply it correctly. If you make photographs rather than just take images, you should love this feature.

The highlight/shadow graph can be called-up in the viewfinder or on the rear display. Properly understood and applied it is, in my view, the most powerful and effective innovation in in-camera photographic exposure control in the last two decades.

If it seems a bit of a mystery to you, I shall attempt to explain its use as easily as possible. Most photographers using other camera systems will shoot in RAW and then go and adjust highlight and shadow curves in post-processing to ensure that highlight details (wedding dresses as an example) and shadow details (the groom's suite) are neither burnt-out or so dark as to lose details. Many champion the use of RAW for this very reason.

If you set the highlight and shadow adjustment before you shoot, you will cut out many hours in post production. Also, if you limit the highlight/shadow display on playback to 5 to 250 (in gears menu, option D - Histogram settings) rather than the default 0 to 255 of other cameras, you will have a double safety margin to ensure you do not lose detail in highlights and shadows. Evaluate with the highlight/shadow display and, if you have any blinkies (flashing blue or orange areas) re-adjust the appropriate side of the curve to cure the problem.

If you find orange highlight warnings on whites, use the front wheel to pull the top half of the curve down. Re-shoot and re-assess. Once the orange warning is sorted, check for any blue warning areas. If you have some and these are critical areas to your image, use the rear wheel to push that end of the curve up. Once you have re-shot and adjusted sufficiently, you will have in-camera results that need little or no processing in post production for highlight recovery or shadow adjustment.

I have found that, using this inter-linked process, that I have no further need for RAW in most of my assignments as I can ensure the results are to spec on location. I spend far less time in post production than many of my peers and I love my E-M1 for giving me some liesure time again.

Aspect ratio, colour creator and magnifier

The Fn2 can also call up options that allow you to adjust the image aspect ratio, to magnify a portion of the viewfinder image, set the EVF to simulate an optical viewfinder or call up the colour creator tool.

Image aspect ratio adjustments let you set the camera to record images in a format that suits the end product. For example, if you shoot in native 4/3 format, then friends and family printing your images may find - if you have fully used the entire frame - that their local lab cannot include everything in the area of a standard jumbo print of 10x15cm.

Selecting 3:2 as the aspect ration matches the ratio of a jumbo print so what you compose and capture can be fully printed without loss near the edges. Likewise when copying old prints in the usual 35mm 3:2 ratio, setting that on the camera ensures your file matches the print being copied with less need for cropping (if at all).

If you are shooting images of people for their social media profiles then the 1:1 ratio will give you out of the camera results that require no further cropping or work.

These are just two examples of the usefulness of this setting. What I particularly enjoy is that it permits me to produce work in-camera to suit particular end-uses without spending hours behind a computer keyboard in post production. Granted, I need to take two or three shots of people but that is easy and the changes to aspect ratio can be made so rapidly that they do not know I am capturing things to spec right there and then.

Technophiles may wish to know that the various aspect ratios are accomplished by further cropping the image sensor coverage to suit the selected ratio so, when using these settings you may not always get the full 16MP coverage of the sensor if shooting in JPEG only. RAW files record the entire frame but indicate the aspect ratio selected when using the Olympus Master software. Adobe Lightroom does not do this - at least not on the last version I tried so I am happy to admit that it may do so now. I could't care less as I use alternative RAW processing software anyway.

The point is, if you think through the workflow you will be using before the shoot, you will probably find that you can cut a lot of fiddling about after the shoot by intelligently using the in-camera options while making your photographs.

The magnifier permits you to quickly zoom into an area of roughly a third of the central portion of the image. This is useful if focusing manually on  older, legacy film lenses. This is a viewing option only and does not constitute an electronic zoom facility that permits the capture of the image in a magnified view.

The colour creator.

Dismissed as a gimmick at first, the place for this clever feature is gradually being discovered by more and more photographers who are not averse to adopting new techniques of expression.

Colour Creator lets me paint with light in the exact shades I need to express my vision for any subject.

I took to it at the off and it is a wonderful way of deepening colour saturation in images, especially of pink-tinged clouds in sunsets or landscapes and really emphasising rusty old metal - as but two of its many uses.

Pressing the FN2 button and dialing the selector to the colour creator leaves you with a circular display on the screen or overlaid on your image in the viewfinder. The outer circle is a representation of the colour wheel and the inner (at default white in colour) circle indicates the default setting for saturation.

Twirling the front dial (at default control settings) lets you  move around the colour spectrum. The rear dial sets the saturation level. If you leave the colour wheel at default and just play with the saturation option, you can capture images with paler or more vivid colouring. Rotating the front wheel permits you to adjust the colour hue in the image. I find many opportunities to use this to capture a different variation to an image.

If you shoot in JPEG this option is best used after capturing a standard image. If you shoot in RAW, the latest Olympus software permits you to re-set colour creation effects or to adjust them in post production.

As time passes I fully expect this option to become an indispensable tool in the armoury of creative photographers, especially those of the younger generation who are not scared to apply different colour and filter effects while the older, die-hard purists mutter and mumble about what constitutes "real photogrpahy". It's light painting and the E-M1 and its siblings with this feature have handed us a wider set of brushes and colours. I think it's a great tool and use it on landscapes for more verdant greens or deeper blue in the skies.

On a more serious note, I have also been able to use the colour creator to reduce the effect of a colour cast when shooting in a rural African setting in a red marquee. After setting a manual white balance skin tones were still being affected by the pink cast and the colour creator wheel and saturation settings sorted this out. I could have kissed the designer responsible for the feature on that day.

Fn1 and AF points

After initially allocating Fn1 to start AF, I have since re-set this at the default option for selecting the focus point position and the style and number of focus points. This is so as I found using another button for AF target setting (for example the AEL) was not as convenient as using the Fn1 option right under my thumb.

I use the focus point selection and positioning far more regularly than activating AF so I now only set that option (now on the AEL button) when I am going out to do sports and action work. When not shooting action I use the AEL to switch to spot metering. One press and a little dot appears in the middle of the viewfinder and your exposure is locked until you press it again (or if you wish, you can set it to only operate when pressed).

However, back to the Fn1 and AF point selection. Pressing the Fn1 button calls up a grid of available focus points and your current selection of points highlighted in green. The default setting is for all focus points to be available for selection by the camera.

I found this to be generally canny enough to pick up your main subject but it tends towards finding the nearest highlight. Thus shooting on a black-top coal fired stove with chrome controls tends to first pick up the chrome adjusters and not the darker stove top or pots.

At sport the camera tends to do the same or, if you have similarly illuminated subjects, the nearest, brightest one.

For this reason I tend to use either the group focus option that selects a block of 3x3 points which you can move around the screen, or single point.

Selection is simple. Press Fn1 and, if you are on the AF zone you want, turn either the front or rear dial to move the zone to where you want it to be. You can also use the arrow keys on the rear of the camera but, in my experience, its faster and easier to use the input wheels.

When it comes to single point focus zones, you have an option of two - either a large or a small zone. For sport and nearby work, I prefer the smaller zone as I find it more discriminating. For everything else, I use the normal sized single point.

Changing the type of AF target is easy. After pressing Fn1 you press INFO and you can change the type of focus point as well as activate, adjust or otherwise fiddle with the face finder/eye focus feature. The focus point type is set by pressing up or down arrows or, more efficiently, turning the rear dial. The side to side arrows or front dial adjusts face finder/eye focus options.

The secret, hidden extra function button

I am sure Olympus know about this hidden additional function button but have not thought about calling it that (Well, as far as I am aware at any rate).

It is nothing more mysterious than the OK button in the middle of the 4-way control pad but I like to think of it as, in effect, a software controlled programmable function. This button can, in practice, be set to call up any setting accessible on the Super Control Panel with a single press.

Say you want to be able to quickly call up and adjust white balance but that is allocated to the two position switch as a sub-setting at position 2. If you are shooting where you need to have the AF or metering available on the default, marked button then you proceed as follows: With the Super Control Panel displayed, press OK. Now tap the white balance square on the panel. A highlight box will appear there. You can also, of course, do it the old fashioned way and use the 4-way controller to move the highlight box to the WB function. Touch the shutter button lightly and the yellow box will dissapear.

Now proceed with your shoot. As soon as you want to adjust the white balance, press OK and the SCP will appear (either on the rear panel or in the viewfinder) with the white balance setting already highlighted for you. Twirl the front input dial (default) and the available options will scroll in the highlighted box. When you see what you want, touch the shutter button and your setting will be made. If you had the highlight box on the sharpness control, it would call the highlight up at that position when the OK button was pressed and you can scroll through options and set with a touch of the shutter button as needed. And so on, and so on.

The great thing about this little "programmable" function button is that, since firmware update 4.0, the camera remembers where you last set it even after powering down. It adds yet one more quick recall setting option to your bow. I love it and use it often - selecting the most likely function I might need to adjust often on any particular shoot. As but one example, when doing wildlife, I will press the OK button and highlight the AF mode box. Now, when shooting, I can switch between single AF, AF-C or AFC+TR just by pressing the OK button and twirling the front dial without taking my eye from the viewfinder.

Programmable 4-way controller buttons.

If you really want to have permanently allocated functions and a button for each like many lower-end Canon and Pentax cameras, the E-M1 lets you re-programme the function of the each of the 4-way controller keys to call up a different function while shooting. 

This effectively lets you mimic the control behaviour of the camera to match any previous make and model you may have owned. 

I have my 4-way controller set to move the focus point around the frame. Press left, it goes left. Press up. it goes up. As I mentioned before you can also do this by pressing Fn1 and twirling a dial but sometimes you just need to nudge it one position over and the 4-way controller option be faster for your tastes for this type of fine-tuning.


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