Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe It's Mirrorless

By Mario Aguilar on at

The new mirrorless OM-D EM-1 is so much camera you won't believe its mirroress. Or how small it is. In fact, it's the successor to the 2010 E-5, the last Olympus camera that actually had a mirror box inside. I just shot with amongst the first production samples in the world at a launch event in New York, and I can safely say that almost no one needs a DSLR anymore. This camera is a serious business photography machine.

And we mean serious: Like, people who want to buy a £1,299 body and bunches of lenses. The only kit bundle will be a M.ZUIKO Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 lens—the first in Olympus' "Pro" line of mirrorless lenses. That's a lot of loot for anybody, and it reflects the evolution of the technology—as well as the evolution of photographers.


Four Thirds DSLRs are gone but their lenses live on

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe Its Mirrorless

The beginning of this story, is that this new camera is the end of Olympus giving up on the DSLR format—and don't be surprised if more companies go this way as well. The four thirds system was jointly developed by Olympus and Kodak for the production of DSLRs. The 17.3 x 13 mm sensor size is smaller than the APS sensor size that's now widely accepted as the standard for DSLRs. Olympus released 15 four thirds starting with the E-1 in 2003. The Last, the E-5, was released in 2010. All have been discontinued.

In 2008 Olympus started releasing its first micro four thirds system cameras, which used the same four thirds sensor size, but with slightly different lens geometry since the cameras are mirrorless. Rumours that Olympus would replace its 2010 E-5 DSLR with a smaller product have been circulating since last year's expensive, full-featured OM-D EM-5 hit the market. Today's OM-D E-M1 announcement shouldn't surprise anyone.

The upside is that the the E-M1 will be compatible with the full line of four thirds lenses from before, so if you invested heavily in that system and those old cameras, at least it'll be a little easier to move on.

Big camera power, big mirrorless package

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe Its Mirrorless

The the OM-EM-5 and even shooters like Panasonic's GH3, the E-M1 is mirrorless, but it's not a tiny mirrorless camera that pretends like it's going to fit in your pocket. At 4.8 × 2.7 × 1.5-inches and 15.2 ounces it's smaller than beginner DSLRs—the Canon 700D measures 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 inches and weighs 18.5 ounces—but it's by no means tiny. Start piling on professional accessories like the battery pack (pictured above) and large telephoto lenses, and this thing will start to look pretty huge. It's no toy and it doesn't feel like one: The magnesium-alloy body is tough, and weather-sealed so that it's dust-, freeze-, and splash-proof. Compared to much larger full-frame DSLRs, this thing is a shrimp.

Almost every hardware feature you could want

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe Its Mirrorless

Photographers who are used to bigger cameras are going to love how much functionality has been built into the the EM-1's body. Handling the camera is a dream. Yesterday was the first time I used a production sample and I was standing outside on the deck of an aircraft carrier with very little available light. I was able to find my way around all of the controls fairly quickly.

The button layout is very nice, and there's a button/dial combination that lets you control almost every important camera function without ever hitting the menu button (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance, autofocus, ISO, and more). In any given Auto/P/A/S/M shooting mode, the two control dials actually adjust 4 different settings thanks to a smart 1/2 switch that lets you toggle between configurations. The buttons and features exactly where you want them. There's also a nifty lock button on the mode dial that keeps you from accidentally flipping modes.

The 2,300,000-dot electronic viewfinder is super high-resolution and adjusts dynamically to the amount of brightness outside. It's very responsive, and I didn't notice any lag, but on the dark deck of the USS Intrepid, the colours started to keep very saturated and unrealistic in order to keep up with the scene.

There's also excellent hardware that's carried over from other Olympus cameras like the 3-inch tiltable, 1,037,000-dot touch LCD screen, looks great. In my brief time playing with the camera, I didn't find myself needing to touch the screen at all because, the body controls are just begging for your fingers. Because we life in the smartphone world, the EM-1 has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity that allows you to easily transfer your photos to a handset as well as to control select camera functionality.

Shooting pictures with the camera

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe Its Mirrorless

The OM-D E-M5 uses a newly redesigned 16.3-megapixel micro four thirds sensor and the latest TruPic VII image processing engine. The camera is a beast in large measure due to the engine's power, able to shoot up to 10 frames per second, which was fast enough to just spray and pray at a batch of exploding fireworks..

The camera's maximum ISO sensitivity is 25600, which is the same as previous cameras. But we gotta say, it's pretty impressive all the way at the top of that range, and at more like ISO 1600, the photos are noiseless.

The camera features a new "Dual Fast" autofocus, which replaces the already-excellent "Fast" AF on the EM-5. Like most other mirrorless cameras out there, Olympus is finally using contrast and phase-detect autofocus. The 37-point phase detection system is entirely new, and is the only system that works with the older four thirds lenses. The 81-point system intended for use with the micro four thirds lenses is considerably is a lot more robust on paper from the 35-point system available on previous Olympus cameras. Because of the darkness and massive depth-of-field I was shooting tonight, I found myself frequently toggling back to the manual focus. I didn't get a sense for how well the AF system worked under less strenuous conditions.

Unlike Panasonic's video-centric GH-3 micro four thirds camera , the EM-1 is definitely designed primarily for photographers, as its video specs are pretty limited, shooting only 30 fps at Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution.

A new beginning?

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands-On: So Hot, You Won't Believe Its Mirrorless

As a company, Olympus' cameras have been heading towards more powerful mirrorless cameras for some time, and more generally, there's a trend towards this as well,. The technology is getting good enough that inexpensive DSLRs no longer really make sense. Once upon a time, "real" photographers would have cringed at the thought of using an electronic viewfinder, but that's just not the case any more.

As a whole, mirrorless cameras have proven themselves worthy, and the OM-D E-M1 certainly isn't alone, when you consider the excellent interchangeable-lens shooters released in recent years by Sony, Panasonic, and yes, Olympus. We'll know just how good this one is when it's available next month. [Olympus]