Mirrorless cameras have come a long way in the past few years, and I can tell you they’re here to stay. I’ve been using the Olympus OM-D EM-1 system for the better part of the year, and I’ve received lots of questions concerning why I’m using it, and how it compares to my DSLRs. So what follows is a little background for context and my overall impressions of the E-M1.
My workhorse camera over the past six years has been a Canon 1DS Mk III, with a few Canon lenses: 17-40mm L, 24-105mm L, and 70-200 f/2.8 L. It has and continues to be an amazing system that provides fantastic image quality, 22MP of resolution, and tank-like construction that I have tested and abused over the course of many hours in the field. Suffice to say, I am extremely familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. One of the major reasons for purchasing the 1DS Mk III years ago was my need for the highest resolution possible from a DSLR. I print much of my work for exhibition and sale, and have many corporate customers that request large prints.
After six years of using the same camera with the same set of lenses, I decided I wanted to explore some other options, given all of the technological changes that have occurred since then. One of those was the Micro 4/3 format. I had already used this system by way of a Panasonic GH1 and GH2, which I purchased primarily for video. While I enjoyed the size and weight, I just couldn’t get used to the EVF (electronic viewfinder), and overall lack of image quality as compared to my full frame DSLRs. The EVF was slow, lacking in clarity, and felt artificial. My standards for image quality are very high, and so any system I use must really convince visually on my monitor, and in a fine art print.
Benefits of Mirrorless Cameras
I was naturally skeptical of any mirrorless camera at first; then I tested the Olympus E-M1. It claimed to have the best EVF to date, great image quality, tough weather-proof construction, and many lens choices from Olympus and Panasonic/Leica. The ability to use lenses from other formats via adapters was also a nice bonus. Olympus also holds a special place in my heart since it was the first camera manufacturer I became aware of as a young adolescent taking snaps of the family with my Dad’s OM-2 (which I still have.) I fondly remember looking through that huge viewfinder with the analog needle indicating the current exposure and being totally captivated by this new way of seeing and interpreting the world around me.
My childhood OM-2 next to my current E-M1
And after some research and careful consideration of the options, I decided to invest in the Olympus system. I also decided I would use the opportunity to explore some creative and technical options; fixed focal length lenses (primes) instead of zooms, and a different aspect ratio (3/4 vs. 2/3). I like shooting vertical images, but always felt constrained by the narrow 2/3 format of DSLRs. The 4/3 format is noticeably wider vertically, and I rather like that for many of my compositional tendencies. I hoped these changes would get me out of a “comfort zone” I’d come to rely on, consciously and sub-consciously. Perhaps this would push me to see things differently.
There was another factor, however, and it’s one I’ve heard from many others as well. I often found myself wanting a smaller, lighter camera system, especially when traveling or doing very long hikes. Problem is, once you get used to a certain amount of IQ and what I’d call “ergonomic functionality,” it’s hard to let go of that familiarity and confidence. I know every dial, switch, and menu item on my Canon, and that lets me get in the “flow” of making photographs rather easily. Change is often a scary, but necessary part of life.
The Olympus E-M1 has been a revelation. In addition to the reduced size and weight, it does not sacrifice much in terms of ergonomics, quality, or crucially in my opinion, a good viewfinder. Plus, any camera that gets me to make more images on a regular basis due to its portability is a welcome addition. Ask any professional what percentage of their time they spend shooting, and the answer is almost always “not enough.” In short, I wanted to shoot more by any means possible, yet not give up the benefits of a professional tool.
E-M1 Real World Field Test
Let me get something out of the way—while technical specs and numbers are important, what I care most about is how a camera supports my creative goals. Charts mean little to me—I’m concerned with subjective questions like what does it feel like to use a camera out in the field every day? Is there anything about a camera that becomes frustrating over time, or better yet gains my trust in the field and gets out of the way creatively? And how do prints from the camera look like?
In short, I’m most interested in real world performance. I don’t know what half the numbers in any sensor or lens test mean, and I bet most people don’t either. That’s why we read comprehensive reviews, yet still ask for personal recommendations.
So while not meant to be an in-depth review of the E-M1, I did want to share my findings and personal opinions about the camera based on my use in the field and prints I’ve made over the past nine months.
Ergonomics and Construction
The E-M1 feels great to hold, with a nice range of dials and switches that all have that mechanical “heft” I enjoy. While smaller than a regular DSLR, it doesn’t feel small or fragile, but rather very substantial, with a nice balance of retro and modern design. With the extra battery grip which I added, it feels right at home in my large hands. The body is made of a magnesium alloy and is totally weather sealed, qualities I look for in every camera body I purchase.
You really appreciate the weight and size when carrying it in a backpack or over-the-shoulder bag. My lower back certainly appreciates the lightness on long climbs, and fatigue is much less of an issue for me now when I use this system.
I also love the programmability of every switch and dial on the body, allowing me to set it up exactly as I want. For example, I re-programmed a large switch on the back to toggle between auto and manual focus, which I often use when shooting landscapes. Back button focusing is easy to configure as well, another one of those customizations I do to every camera I use.
Electronic View Finder and Rear Monitor
The high-definition EVF (2.36 million dot resolution) is crystal clear and very bright. It took me a few days to get adjusted, and now I hardly notice that’s it not optical. Display lag is non-existent, and color, contrast, and sharpness are very good. This was one of the main things keeping me from even considering a mirrorless camera in the past, but is no longer an issue.
The 3.0” touch-sensitive rear monitor is also large and crisp, and can be tilted forwards and backward for multiple viewing angles.
All I can say about IQ is one word: outstanding. I’ve used Canon DSLRs for years, including the latest 5D Mk III which I rented for an assignment, and the EM-1 is comparable to all of them. Yes, I do give up some resolution, but in cases where I don’t need to make 24×36 prints or larger, the E-M1 is a mighty competitor.
In fact, at the recent Photokina Expo and Photo Plus Expo shows this year, I had several prints on display at a size of 20”x30” that I made with the E-M1. If you use very careful technique, and the highest quality lenses from Olympus, large prints up to 30” wide look great.
It includes a 12-bit, 16.3MP sensor, which creates raw files at 4608×3456 pixels. Images are extremely clean even up to ISO 1600, and with careful noise reduction can go much higher. The majority of the landscape images I’ve made have been at ISO 200, and for handheld images I use 400 to 800 without hesitation.
The E-M1 also has an image stabilization system built into the body, which means every lens I use has IS. While I do turn this feature off when using a tripod, it does give me the confidence to shoot handheld when the situation calls for it.
I decided to limit myself to prime lenses only, as a way to push myself creatively and extract as much image quality out of the sensor. I’ve been using the following with fantastic results:
- Olympus 12mm f/2.0
- Panasonic 20mm f/1.7
- Olympus 45mm f/1.8
- Olympus 75mm f/1.8
The Micro 4/3 system has a 2x magnification factor, so each of these lenses doubles in focal length, providing 24mm, 40mm, 90mm, and 150mm. For me this is a great range of focal lengths for nature and landscape photography.
Quality throughout all of these lenses is fantastic, with the standouts being the Olympus 12mm and Olympus 75mm. Both are very sharp, with great color and contrast, and little distortion. Olympus applies all lens correction internally, so no need to apply it in Lightroom.
I want to emphasize how important lenses are to the overall performance of any camera. Glass is everything, and I’m constantly amazed at the quality these lenses deliver given their small size.
Using the E-M1 has been a blast; extremely fun, liberating, and creatively satisfying. I have indeed made more images than I would have otherwise, and that’s a clear positive for me.
Let me be clear, I have not switched from Canon to Olympus, but simply added another option to my creative toolset. Most importantly, an option that allows me to be ready to make photographs when I want, and not worry about carrying a huge backpack “just in case.” The E-M1 has become my favorite camera when I don’t need more than 16MP of resolution, and the results speak for themselves. I don’t want the size and weight of my bigger kit to limit my ability to make images as often as possible, and that’s why I’m loving this camera so much. It provides almost all the benefits of a full frame DSLR without the weight and size.
On my regular landscape shoots, I will continue to use the Canon systems when needed, and enjoy the benefits they provide. But for lots of other situations, I’ll pack the E-M1. These include more general hikes, scouting, workshops, and especially urban and family opportunities. The more photographs I make, the better I get and the more I can explore, grow, and develop as a photographer and creative artist. That has become more important to me than some idealistic notion of what I should or should not be using. In fact, I would say it’s become the most important thing to me. We should define ourselves not by the tools we use, but by the stories and emotions we share, and how those can potentially inspire and affect others.
Technology is moving forward at a rapid pace, and it seems like we can’t keep up—at least that’s what it feels like to me. That’s ok, what matters is that we use our tools for the right reasons. That is always worth exploring in my view.