PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

6Apr/140

Olympus E-M1 Review

The mirrorless electronic-viewfinder camera architecture is only the third major redesign of the camera in its 200-year history, recently foretold by industry observers to replace the dominant SLR architecture from the 1960s. There can be no doubt that we are in the process of transitioning to the new architecture now, especially with the current generation of electronic-viewfinder cameras like the E-M1. The short version is just this: the E-M1 is a really big deal.

The first few waves of electronic-viewfinder cameras were aimed at beginners stepping up from point-and-shoot cameras; a huge potential market but also a fickle audience that so far has paid little attention to the new breed of cameras. Instead it’s a different demographic that is driving the segment's growth and is the target audience for the E-M1: enthusiasts with disposable income that desire more agility and lighter bags - many of whom are former, current or aspiring Leica users. Thus the electronic-viewfinder camera was created as a low-cost product, had its first real success as the affordable Leica, and now is evolving into something else entirely: the heir to photography in general.

Before I knew it I found myself the owner of three different camera systems, each one built on a fundamentally different camera architecture: a rangefinder, a reflex and an electronic-viewfinder camera. In my opinion, now six-months experienced with the E-M1, the newcomer combines most of the strengths of its predecessors while preserving few their weaknesses.

Operation

The E-M1 is dwarfed by today’s serious DSLRs, but in the grand scale of things it merely represents a return to the sanity that was once taken for granted. For the last 15 years, the preferred camera design melded digital technology into what could otherwise be a film camera – one designed around an imaging substrate that is orders-of-magnitude thinner than a digital imaging stack, and still constrained by what we had achieved with optics and mechanical links alone. It’s interesting to note now, how a true designed-for-digital camera can be built in the same envelope as a true designed-for-film camera used to occupy.

The E-M1 is comfortable to handle for long periods of time, due to its light weight, yet feels stable and secure when held in a shooting stance. One of my favorite details on the outside of the camera is the discreet rubberized thumb-rest that allows for a very firm, natural grip – I hope to see a lot more of this in the future. On the other hand, I would prefer a less substantial front grip with a larger thumb-rest, halfway between this and the E-M5’s.

Just as I wrote in my review of the D700, the size of the sensor is the most obvious operational fact of the E-M1 for a newcomer coming from a DSLR. Unlike the situation with DX- & FX-format DSLRs however, the environmental factors are completely different: this camera enjoys a lens ecosystem that makes no apology of the size of the sensor. For example there is a fast wide-angle prime lens available, which is actually a wide-angle lens when mounted on the camera — in comparison the DX-format cameras from Nikon and Canon still lack a comparable option after 15 years of market dominance.

Manual focus as experienced on the E-M1 is very much a mixed bag. The electronic-viewfinder architecture creates the opportunity for features like magnification and peaking to be implemented and deliver a focusing experience not easily matched by designs that predates it. Unfortunately there are two pretty major snags that essentially negate this benefit in the Olympus system: peaking is computed on a too-low resolution image which causes edges that are not actually in critical focus to show up with highlighting, and the fly-by-wire manual focus implemented by this system (and probably other systems) is simply the most dreadful design that I could have imagined because it is too clever.

Let me expand on this last point: I believe it is fundamentally necessary that focus-by-wire systems still respect the linear proportion of motions that one expects from the old metal threads and grease. I don’t say this because I am a romantic, influenced by systems of decades past, or because I happen to own and use a lot of legacy lenses. The reason you need this linear proportion between focus ring and focus plane positions is that it allows you to build muscle memory and operating speed. I fully appreciate that there are no hard stops on the focus ring and that it is entirely simulated by a computer but there are far better things to do with this new freedom than to use it to dismantle muscle memory, for example: to make the speed ratio into a shooting parameter, to configure a lens-specific ratio or configure all lenses to the same ratio, etc…

Automatic focus, luckily, is one of the real strengths of the E-M1 over the prior art. There are two causes to this effect: firstly that focusing using the image sensor itself eliminates many sources of error in an electro-optical system, and secondly that using image-recognition for face and eye-detection largely eliminates the tedious button-mashing process that is required by other focus systems. The quality of focus is just astonishingly good in S-AF mode – rarely is the image plane anywhere other than precisely where you would want it, without either calibration or button mashing.

This being said, there are also some limitations to the system. For one, the face-detection system lacks good controls when there is more than one face in the frame, the only solution I have found being to disable and bypass it when it chooses wrong. For another, the E-M1’s special phase-sensing pixels don’t seem to do much to track moving subjects, especially with three-dimensional motion, an ability which DSLRs do get from their phase sensors. My intuition is that the real culprit is not so much that the focus system or algorithms themselves fall short, but that the processing overhead of tracking the subject’s shape is too high for this unit (as evidenced by the electronic-viewfinder frame rate dropping).

The electronic-viewfinder also benefits exposure control and visualization. Just as the image processor is able to magnify or display peaking as focusing aids, so too can it show zones with overexposure and underexposure directly in the viewfinder - with no guessing on your part. If shooting black and white, then visualize as black and white directly in the viewfinder. The electronic-viewfinder is the first full-time WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you–get) camera architecture.

Finally, the in-body stabilization feature does indeed work. It works well enough that you can take it for granted and simply act as though this was a full-frame camera, for the specific purpose of exposing in low light. I’m not interested in shutter speeds much below 1/30th irrespective of the situation, but I would like to use 1/30th with impunity and I can definitely do that with this camera. I can’t do that with the D800 or the M9.

Drawing (early version)

My biggest concern with the smaller sensor and its proportionally smaller pixels was that images wouldn't look right to me, that they would lack in “pop” or in tonality. I trained myself on the D700 and Zeiss ZF lenses which combined to render with rather high micro-contrast and usually deliver the elusive "3D feel”. Indeed the E-M1 doesn't directly emulate that combination, but I’ve not yet formed an opinion on the exact magnitude of the difference.

At this stage with the system, only six months in, the character of the camera isn’t well-separated in my mind from that of the M.Zuiko lenses. My overall impression from the system is that can revolve fine detail with good contrast on-axis at any aperture and on every lens that I own (2/12mm, 1.8/17mm, 1.8/25mm, 1.8/45mm). One of my favorite facts of the system is that light fall-off is either very well controlled or very well corrected, especially when compared to the Leica M system (the closest, short-backfocus system) where light fall-off tends to call attention to itself as a "style".

The sensor itself has some exposure latitude in the highlights, but not nearly as much as either the D700 or D800 (far, far less than). On properly exposed images the famed Olympus colors do come out and they are good, they come closer to the full-frame Nikons than the Leica. Finally, owing to the fast prime lenses and excellent image stabilization system, I have accumulated little experience with higher ISOs on the system; I really couldn’t really tell you when the sensor really starts to struggle without doing a synthetic test just for that purpose.

Conclusion

The new camera architecture, here exemplified by the E-M1, moves the boundaries of what a camera is and does. The E-M1 does carry a smaller sensor that puts a more pressure on the optics, but it is also supported by a truly excellent lens portfolio that helps deliver on the promise of the overall system.  Olympus should be given a huge amount of credit for what they have achieved here.

Would I recommend this camera to other photographers?  Absolutely yes!  However, until the system grows to include more exotic lenses you may still need another system to cover specific needs.

Samples

 


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