Olympus OM-D E-M1 compact system camera (preview)

Olympus launches a new flagship that’s sure to entice professionals and photography enthusiasts alike

Olympus has just unleashed its flagship compact system camera, the OM-D E-M1. It builds on the success of the OM-D E-M5 with improvements not only in its usability and build quality, but also by offering a more powerful processing engine and the use of Four Thirds lenses in addition to Micro Four Thirds.The new camera features a 16.3-megapixel LiveMOS Four Thirds sensor and lens mount, and because it can also take Micro Four Thirds lenses, it's compatible with a larger range of glass straight out of the box.

The OM-D E-M1 doesn’t replace the OM-D E-M5 in the Olympus camera line up. Instead, it slots in just above it and OM-D becomes a range of cameras rather than just one model. The E-M1 is a more powerful camera than the E-M5 and it’s designed to entice more professionals and serious enthusiasts who need something fast, flexible and not too big to carry around on a regular basis.

The ability to use Four Thirds lenses is the tip of the iceberg as far as all the features that are included in this new camera, and in addition to some physical improvements, there are plenty of under-the-hood changes that make it a faster camera, and one that can aid creativity through impressive built-in image manipulation options.

For Olympus, its biggest selling cameras are the ones that are in the compact systems camera category (or interchangeable lens camera category, as we used to call it), and the company sure knows a thing or two about what it’s doing in this space. Not only is the release of the OM-D E-M1 a further step in challenging traditional digital SLR cameras, the announcement of new lenses by Olympus also tells potential customers that they will be looked after as far as the whole ecosystem of the camera is concerned. Indeed, in addition to the OM-D E-M1, Olympus announced a new M.ZUIKO 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens for it, and also the development of a 40-150mm f/2.8 lens, which is scheduled to come to market in the second half of 2014.

We had a brief hands-on session with the OM-D E-M1 a couple of weeks ago and our overall impression of the camera is that it’s typically Olympus: it’s packed with features, feels comfortable to use, and it’s a pleasure to shoot with. The body is made of magnesium alloy and it features weather seals that make it splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof (down to -10 degrees Celsius is guaranteed). It’s a slightly bigger camera than the EM-5, which just means that it sits in your hands a lot more comfortably — you can also opt for a second grip. Some subtle changes have been made to the control layout and the handgrip, and there is now a lock button for the mode dial.

On the inside, the camera features Olympus’ TruPic VII image processor and the low-pass filter has been removed, which is said to improve the overall sharpness of images. The processor takes on the task of handling moiré patterning, chromatic aberration, and it has profiles built in for all of the lenses in the Olympus range that have electrical contacts (so that it knows how to handle their lighting characteristics). The processor can also help keep detail in images that have been shot with a very small aperture.

Olympus has introduced some new features for those looking to get creative straight away: there is a built-in HDR feature, a real-time hue and saturation filter called Colour Creator, the customary art filters that we’re used to seeing, and also an ability to do in-camera time lapse movies (with up to 999 shots). The HDR feature is accessible via a button on the body and a scene can be shot with minimal user interaction. The hue and saturation filter is perhaps the most interesting, as it’s basically a colour wheel that appears on the screen and allows you to change the colour and intensity of the scene as you frame your shot. As for the art filters, Olympus claims that they should now work better in video mode thanks to the new processor.

Other key features of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 include: 5-axis image stabilisation built into the body, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that has a 100 per cent field of view, integrated Wi-Fi that works with Olympus apps for iOS and Android, both contrast autofocusing and phase detection autofocusing (the camera’s on-chip system detects which is needed depending on the lens that’s attached), and a 3in LCD touchscreen. Focus Peaking is also included, which comes in handy when trying to focus the camera in manual mode — the camera will highlight the areas that appear in focus so you can easily distinguish them. It’s also a very fast camera that can shoot with a shutter speed up to 1/8000th of a second, and it can do 10 frames per second in RAW mode for up to 36 sequential shots.

However, our favourite aspect of the OM-D E-M1 (and indeed all the recent Olympus compact system cameras we’ve reviewed) is its ‘what you see is what you get’ characteristic. With the OM-D E-M1, you can see exactly how a scene will be captured while you are framing it, either with the LCD screen or through the EVF. This means you can make exposure adjustments on-the-fly and see the changes to a scene instantaneously. It makes using the camera lots of fun and it can take the time out of setting up a scene to make it look exactly the way you want. It’s for this reason alone we’ve been such fans of Olympus cameras in this market space. The OM-D E-M1 has this user-friendly feature (and a whole lot more) that just makes us want it.

As for pricing and availability, the OM-D E-M1 will be available from October and it will cost $1599 for the body only. A kit with the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens will cost $2399. We look forward to taking this one out for a full review soon.

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Elias Plastiras

Elias Plastiras

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