Olympus OM-D E-M1 Review: Flagship Phenom
by Laura Hicks -  9/11/2013

A big Olympus announcement was rumored even before my trip to NYC to unveil what is now known to be the OM-D E-M1. Although we all hoped for something huge, we weren't really sure if the unveiling would match our expectations. Within a half an hour after the announcement I had my hands on the new OM-D and have had a hard time putting it down since. Arriving about a year and a half after its predecessor, the E-M1 packs a powerful punch with a 16.3-megapixel LiveMOS sensor, TruePic VII image processor, 5-axis image stabilization and weather proofing. In fact, the E-M1 has plenty of other great features like no AA filter, 10 frames per second continuous shooting rate, a pretty great EVF, and an awesome LCD screen, too. But along with these great specs, Olympus also announced a relatively high price tag--$1400 for the body only. Will the Olympus E-M1 have what it takes to demand this price point? Will the usability and image quality surpass the E-M5 enough to have users digging deep into their wallets?

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The E-M1 does not replace the E-M5, rather it sits next to the previous model hoping to garner its own praise and admirations. After all of the hype surrounding the E-M5, albeit well deserved, it is easy to question if Olympus could create a product that would surpass the image quality and design of that camera.

In February 2012, the E-M5 bolted onto the scene with a sleek, classic body and image quality that was quite impressive from a genre of cameras that had collected a relatively small portion of the camera buying population. Some embraced the camera whole-heartedly from the start, while others warmed up only after the positive reviews started pouring in. Fast forward 18 months. Micro Four Thirds cameras have to fight less than they used to in order to obtain the recognition they deserve. The great divide between MFT and APS-C is closing rapidly due, in no small part, to the pioneering E-M5.

Build and Design
All it takes is holding the E-M1 and you know immediately it was built for professional level use. Although the camera body is lightweight (17.5 oz/1.1 lbs) and compact (5.13 x 3.68 x 2.48"), it is well constructed from magnesium alloy making the camera easy to use for extended amounts of time. The camera has been designed as an SLR-style mirrorless camera making it much smaller than its APS-C counterparts. Yet, the camera maintains many of the qualities that consumers love about DSLRs. For example, a manual mode dial is just as easy to access on the E-M1 as the Canon 60D or Nikon D7100.

Olympus has maintained a classic look and body style for the E-M1. The all black E-M1 is more angular than most DSLRs. It has a narrow, rectangular body with a protruding grip that begs to be hand held. It is jam packed with a plethora of physical buttons. The majority of the body of the camera is shrouded in a rubberized leather-esque skin.

The E-M1 still maintains the pentaprism shaped EVF on the top of the camera. Just below this EVF, nestled snugly in the body of the camera is the 5-axis image stabilization system Olympus is known for.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 beats out many DSLRs in the weather proofing category. The E-M1 is dust, splash and freeze resistant. Olympus is out to prove that the E-M1 can be taken almost anywhere.    

Olympus has changed up the placement of a few of their buttons and dials. Every single change is for the better. The new placement of the on/off switch on the top left of the camera is much easier to use than the awkward placement on the back as seen on the E-M5. The only thing better is if the switch was located next to the shutter release. Heck, anywhere on the top right side of the camera would lend to one handed use. Also, changing the playback button to the lower back of the E-M1 is a much better placement than the easily overlooked location on the E-M5.

Ergonomics and Controls
The E-M1 has a DSLR style grip that makes me very happy. Although I am a fan of the E-M5 my biggest complaint was the lack of a good grip unless you added the additional battery pack. In terms of ergonomics, the E-M1 beats the E-M5 hands down. No longer do you need to add the additional grip to make the OM-D easier to hold for long amounts of time. The E-M1 has a much better feel while using the camera. But, an additional battery grip is available for those that love the extra bulk and like the look of a heftier DSLR.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The front of the camera offers three main buttons/functions on the front of the camera: the lens release, the depth of field preview and a nifty custom white balance button. When setting the custom WB you have the opportunity to choose up to 4 custom settings.

The top of the camera features a whole bunch of buttons and controls. The mode dial is great. It has a button press in the middle to lock the dial. But, say you hate a locking mode dial. No big deal. Just depress the button and the dial no longer locks. It?s great! In addition to the mode dial is a shutter release, exposure dials, function button, video button, on/off switch, the HDR and the AF/metering buttons.

The back of the camera looks similar to many DSLRs. The back contains a function button, a multi directional control, info, menu, playback, trash, and display button. It also has an AEL/ALF button with a 1,2 switch for additional customization.

Menus and Modes
I find the menu in Olympus cameras to be much more difficult to navigate than they need to be. They are quite cumbersome and the immense functions are hidden amongst the maze of tabs. Pushing the menu button will bring you to the menu screen. Once you are in there you can access numerous functions. My best advice is to consult your owner's manual (or the internet version of it) for a detailed rundown of the menu and all of its functionality. The great thing about an immense menu is the features that stem from it.

Olympus OM-D E-M1Olympus OM-D E-M1

One very cool feature (that should actually be a defult setting) is the Live SCP. It's so helpful. Take the time to set this feature even if you don't set any other custom function for your E-M1. The Live SCP allows you to bring up a screen that gives you immediate access to all of the most important settings. Here's how to set it: tap the menu button, scroll down to the "gears" custom menu board, scroll to "D" Display, scroll to control settings, click on P/S/A/M, click on Live SCP (make sure Live control is unchecked). After you have set this, the SCP can be accessed by hitting the "OK" button. Changing your settings like WB, ISO and focus point is now a breeze.

The E-M1 has a tilting 3-inch LCD screen with a whopping 1,037,000 dots of resolution. The screen is bright and easy to use even in sunny conditions. I had no problem using the LCD to compose and chimp my images. In fact, I found it way easier to use than my Nikon D600. The colors are more vivid, the images are more crisp and zooming in to check for sharpness was a breeze. Having a tilting LCD screen is nice for those overhead shots I take during wedding receptions or ground shots I take during the ceremony.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The electronic viewfinder on the E-M1 is pretty darn amazing. It has 2,360,000 dots of resolution and 100% coverage. The EVF has an information overlay that will have you wishing for your DSLR no longer. The viewfinder is bright and crisp with only a slight lag. That being said, I still found myself using the LCD screen more than the EVF. This is completely opposite of how I use my DSLR and I can't pinpoint why I am using these viewfinders/LCD screens so differently.

Olympus OM-D E-M1Olympus OM-D E-M1

The OM-D E-M1 is a top of the line mirrorless camera--there's no doubt about it. It has all of the functionality of a semi-pro to pro DSLR. With a price tag of $1400 it sits at the top price point of a mirrorless camera. It's also priced just as expensive as many of the top APS-C DSLRs. So, does the E-M1 have what it takes to blow away the DSLR competition? It just depends on what you are wanting.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Shooting Performance
The E-M1 takes about 1 second to power up and can take its first image soon after that--not more than 2 seconds after initial startup. In real use, I saw no issue with its start up speeds. I never found myself in a situation that needed faster times. The E-M1 boasts a newer senor and newer processor that should lead to faster AF acquisition times due to the advanced Contrast and Phase Detect autofocus. In real life we found the E-M1 to be only marginally faster than the E-M5. We doubt we would have been able to tell the difference if we weren't able to shoot them side-by-side. That being said, the E-M1 is fast to autofocus. We have used a multitude of lenses on this camera. All of them focused quickly.

The E-M1 offers the 5-axis image stabilization system that is second to none. If you haven't gotten your hands on an Olympus with this type of image stabilization you have no idea what you are missing. I am completely in love with it. My DSLR with a VR/IS lens can't hold a candle to what the E-M1 offers.

The E-M1 comes with a removable flash head included in the box. This flash is great in small spaces, but if I was using this as a professional camera I would quickly purchase a compatible flash to complete the professional look. While I was at it I would also purchase the additional battery grip (HLD-7). This no longer makes the camera as compact as originally packaged, but it does give the appearance of a professional ensemble. And in the world of professional photography, looks matter.

The camera has one SD card slot that accepts SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards. If there was one thing that I would want changed about this camera it would be the addition of another card slot. Jerry Jackson (Site Editor of and I looked over the camera with a fine tooth comb and couldn't figure out how Olympus could add another slot, but then it hit us. What if Olympus could add another card slot into the battery grip? If the pins in the battery grip could transfer information from the camera to the SD card, the grip would be a perfect place to house an additional card slot. This would make the camera that much more appealing to the professional photographer. One slot could be used for RAW images while the other could be for JPEGs or one could be an overflow so the user would not have to swap out their cards, thus reducing the risk of losing a card before transferring the images to a computer.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The E-M1 has great battery life just like the E-M5. Olympus has the battery life listed at 350 images, but we were able to get more than that during our testing.

Lens Performance
We used a multitude of lenses with the OMD E-M1. All of our sample images include pictures taken with the 75mm f1.8, the 60mm f2.8 and the 12-50mm f3.5-6.3 lens. We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two new professional lenses: the 12-40mm f2.8 and the 40-150mm f2.8. Once there arrive we will update the image gallery to include pictures taken with these lenses. All of the lenses proved to be great matches with the E-M1. Click on the links to see our reviews of the aforementioned lenses.

Image Quality
Image quality was pretty much on par with the E-M5. Most images were sharp with generally good color. By default, the E-M1 tended to make the images just a bit too warm and vibrant for my tastes. I would prefer my magentas to be less vivid especially when taking indoor shots. At high ISOs the camera would generally fall heavily toward the overly warm tones. High ISOs also tended to produce more grain than other cameras. That being said, the grain produced from the E-M1 is more "film-like" than most other cameras. For me, this was welcomed. I like the feel of a traditional film grain versus a digital grain or pixel smudging any day. If the grain from the high ISOs bothers you, just enable the in-camera noise reduction. Personally, I prefer to get rid of it in post production instead of in-camera.

ISO 200                                                                      ISO 400

ISO 800                                                                      ISO 1600

ISO 3200                                                                      ISO 6400

ISO 12800                                                                     ISO 25600

We loved the overall "look" of our imagery from the E-M1. Although pixel peepers may find things to nitpick when it comes to high ISOs, the camera performed extraordinarily good with our extensive outdoor testing. Only in the dimmest of light did I find myself wanting more from the E-M1. Check out our sample image gallery to see for yourself.

Sample Images

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Sample Image

Olympus OM-D E-M1Conclusion
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a fantastic mirrorless camera that is designed for the advanced or professional shooter. Those without sophisticated photography knowledge will get easily lost in the numerous features and functionality. That being said, no matter what your skill set, the camera has the ability to produce high quality imagery--even in iauto mode.

The camera has all the making of a semi-professional or professional camera. The addition of Olympus professional grade lenses makes the E-M1 a strong contender for professional. But will professionals be ready to take the plunge into a mirrorless system instead of holding strong with their DSLR systems? Sadly, I'm not quite sure we are. I think the E-M1 has some pretty spectacular features that most professional cameras don't offer like an in-camera image stabilization system, weather proofing and tilting LCD screen. But, the overwhelming majority of DSLR users still have no idea what mirrorless can offer and changing camera systems is a scary notion to most. With a price point that is surpassing the Nikon D7100, Olympus is going to struggle with securing new buyers.

As a working professional photographer I am excited about the notion of a professional grade mirrorless camera. And now that Olympus is unveiling professional grade lenses, the reality of using this camera for portraits and weddings, as well as in studios, is much closer than ever before. It's important for Olympus to acknowledge a working professional"s need to "look the part." Although the advancements in mirrorless has allowed cameras to produce outstanding results in a smaller package, most pros still want to maintain the look and feel of a well-built, solid camera. It's a major conundrum for the mirrorless market--how to attract pros to their cameras while still maintaining a smaller body style. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for this.

The E-M1 is a great camera and I highly recommend it. For those wanting a high end mirrorless camera, the E-M1 should be on the top of your list. The OM-D E-M1 sells for $1400 body only.