Four Days with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and M.ZUIKO 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO

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The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mirrorless Camera has been out for a year now, but I have just been given the opportunity to review the camera, from the perspective of a long-time SLR/DSLR shooter. I have never used a mirrorless camera extensively, aside from experimenting with a friend’s and handling a couple in the B&H SuperStore. Luckily, the 16MP Micro Four Thirds camera is the flagship of the Olympus line, with a plethora of high-end features, like a touchscreen LCD and high-resolution electronic viewfinder, making it a good choice for gazing into the mirrorless world.

Size

One of the early criticisms of Olympus’s mirrorless cameras was that they were too svelte to provide a substantial feel in the hands. Olympus has addressed that critique with a much larger handgrip on the E-M1, on the same size body. Speaking of body, for size reference, the camera is almost identical in dimensions to a Nikon FM2, Canon AE-1, or Pentax K1000. For those of us, like me, who have been using digitally powered SLRs and DSLR cameras for the past few decades, the size of the E-M1 can take you back to the days before cameras were chubby with technology and bells and whistles.

You notice this size advantage when you pack the camera into a daypack or bicycle pannier and it slides in with room to spare, where your DSLR might have kept you from packing another shirt or box of snacks. Because of its old-school, film-camera size, carrying the camera for a day is easy, but it has enough weight to feel solid and substantial at the same time.

I played with a friend's E-M5 last year and do not remember the small handgrip bothering me. Regardless, the E-M1's larger grip feels good in the hand while shooting and carrying the camera.

Controls/Design

The E-M1's controls are laid out in a logical fashion and are all easily accessible, at your fingertips. There is a command dial surrounding the shutter release, as well as a secondary dial for your thumb on top of the camera. The command dial’s function is to change settings rapidly, as well as to adjust shutter speed, aperture, or EV compensation, depending on what mode you have set. There is a clever two-position "shift" lever that allows you to double the functionality of the command dials instantaneously by flipping them to an alternate setting. This allows both command dials to have a secondary function without making the shift a two-handed affair, by requiring the user to press and hold a button to put the dials into their alternate-function position. A five-button thumb pad allows you to move the focus point while shooting, and navigate the menus as well. All of the buttons and switches have a good, tactile feel, and I never felt that anything was not designed with care.  

Finally, the Olympus EM line continues to excel at a good balance between retro design elements that do not compromise modern ergonomics and functionality. Bravo!

 

Lens

Speaking of feel, the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens (24-80mm, 35mm equivalent) feels great. The zoom ring is grippy and offers the perfect amount of friction while you compose your shots. The focus ring rotates with a fair amount of friction, as well, when compared to other autofocus lenses―a good thing. To switch from autofocus to manual, you pull the ring toward you, a fraction of an inch. Revealed, once the ring is repositioned, are focal distance markings and an infinity setting. In manual focus, the lens turns past the infinity mark.

The lens, based on my images, is very sharp, even at f/2.8. I was truly blown away by the edge-to-edge sharpness of this lens, as its performance rivaled some of my expensive prime lenses shot at medium apertures. The "PRO" designation appears to be much more than a marketing tool; this is a very serious piece of glass.

The only drawback to the lens might be its bulk when paired with the smaller mirrorless bodies. It is not a small lens. Its size works fairly well with the camera―it does not completely dominate the package, but one thing that I’d enjoy would be walking around with the E-M1 and a small prime or pancake lens, to give the system a more unobtrusive and lightweight feel. The combination of the E-M1 with a smaller lens should really be a hit with street photographers or those wishing to throw a camera over their shoulder and forego a bag full of heavy lenses and gear.

Speaking of other lenses, the M.ZUIKO 12-40mm is by no means your only choice, even though it is an exceptional lens and I would not hesitate to use it for any task. Olympus has 57 lenses in their lineup for the Micro Four Thirds line. Additionally, you can add other Micro Four Thirds lenses from Panasonic and Panasonic/Leica (with an adapter) or, grab a third-party adapter and add others, including many legacy lenses.


 

Touchscreen/Tilt LCD

Again, through my somewhat narrow photographic prism, I have never really used a camera with a tilting LCD screen, much less a touchscreen. I always thought they were a bit gimmicky and not useful for the photography I usually do. After a few days with the E-M1, I will probably wish my older DSLR had a movable screen and touchscreen interface. I have seen the future, and the future is cooler than what I have in my camera bag!

Gone are the days where you need to lay down on the ground and crane your neck to shoot an image from flat on your belly. With the E-M1, just pop out the screen, set it to live view, and crouch to get the same shot that made you once think about adding a squishy yoga mat to your camera kit.

When I handed the camera to the friend who accompanied me to review some of the images I had taken, she started "swiping" through the photos in quick succession. She knew nothing of the camera, but must have assumed the LCD was like a smartphone screen and was navigating her way intuitively through the images. I knew it was a touch screen, but I had been using the thumb pad up until that point.

I found myself wishing for even more touchscreen functionality with the camera. However, there might be a lot of undiscovered coolness on the LCD that I did not get to utilize or see in my brief time with the E-M1.

EVF

As a long-time SLR shooter, I have become accustomed to the enjoyable process of "looking through" my camera and lens. My DSLR has live view, but I have probably used it a half dozen times over the past half dozen years. I almost always compose through the viewfinder. This fact, more than almost any other, has kept me from giving serious consideration to a switch to a mirrorless camera system.

But now there are several mirrorless cameras on the market with electronic eye-level viewfinders that simulate looking through your SLR camera. And, I am here to tell you, they work pretty well.

The E-M1 packs 2,630k dots into a nicely sized EVF that has 0.74x magnification. What does that mean? I have no idea. What I can tell you is that, after a few minutes with the Olympus EVF, I found myself forgetting that I was looking at a digital representation of the world and not simply through glass.

There is a slight delay in the image, but it is almost imperceptible. For those DSLR users familiar with image-stabilized lenses, the closest comparison I can make is that the EVF has the same "feel" of the stabilized image view. This micro-lag could also be a symptom of the E-M1's built-in stabilization, as opposed to a delay caused by processing speed. Regardless, it is barely noticeable and does not detract from the process of composing your images with the EVF.

The bottom line is this: if the EVF is the one thing keeping you from choosing mirrorless over a DSLR, it might be time to re-think your choice.

Making Photographs

I enjoyed shooting with the E-M1. The combination of compact size, comfortable ergonomics, and a really convincing EVF experience, coupled with solid responsiveness, make the E-M1 an agile system when speed is needed, and a precise instrument when I slowed things down and composed carefully.

Speaking of speed, I use my DSLR on Continuous-High mode. On the E-M1, the camera is so quick that I was taking more frames than I wanted to when depressing the shutter release momentarily. I ended up switching to "Single Shot" as "Continuous-Low" mode was even firing off too many frames! If you are an action shooter, the E-M1 will be happy to help you.

Everything on this camera seems to just work. The EVF is a pleasure, the LCD screen is great for composing, as well as quickly sifting through common settings, the controls are nicely laid out, and the "shift" lever is a very useful gadget.

I used the E-M1 much like I use my DSLR. I shot RAW images using manual or aperture-priority mode and used both manual focus and autofocus. I bounced between the three metering modes―matrix, center weighted, and spot. I did not dive deeply into its menus or the unique digital features of the E-M1, as the camera has been heavily reviewed since its launch in September 2013, and I try to concentrate on image making instead of menu navigating.

What I did try to do, however, is produce a wide cross-section of images to show the capabilities of the camera. My usual wheelhouse is urban/industrial nighttime photography, so there is a bit of that, but I also did some portraiture, street photography, pet photography (not my cat), and other genres as well. I feel that the E-M1 handled each task extremely well.

If you are one of those shooters who likes to employ your camera's full bag of digital tricks, I promise that the E-M1 will not leave you wanting. If you just want to turn it on and go, it is perfect for that task, as well!

Move to Mirrorless?

A lot of DLSR users are feeling the gravitational pull of the mirrorless camera world. Between Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Leica, and Olympus, there is a new universe of very powerful, highly capable, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras that are offering a lot of attractive technology and benefits.

Legions of DSLR shooters have become accustomed to large, heavy cameras with meaty grips. For many of us, it has been the norm. However, with these new, high performance, mirrorless cameras on the block, a switch from DSLR not only means a lighter camera bag; it also lets you experience, in digital terms, the physical feel of an "older" film camera. There is definitely something to be said for that.

I have a substantial investment in my SLR gear, so I am not ready to make the switch to mirrorless yet, but my four days with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 have caused me to think. The overall feel and size of the camera, the image quality of the sensor, amazing performance of the lens, and the surprisingly seamless nature of the high-performance EVF made the experience very enjoyable.

For those entering the world of photography, I feel that the mirrorless option is no longer secondary to the DSLR, it is on par. For those of use with huge amounts of SLR gear, the mirrorless camera is definitely worth serious consideration.