Olympus OMD EM1 Review
“When everyone is getting bigger cameras, your cameras are getting smaller”, Candy exclaimed. Candy was a past client. We so happened to be at the same wedding. “Aren’t you worried that you know, people won’t regard you as professional?”
It has been 2-months since I changed from a full-frame Canon 5D Mark III camera system to micro four thirds. I have shot 4 weddings, 3 portrait session, 2 family sessions and travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore with the OMD EM1, so I think my experience can count for something other than paper statistics.
The following review is based on my own personal experiences, from handling, battery life, to image quality. With weddings as my primary context for using camera equipment, this review focuses on what I deem as important criteria for any system. As a disclaimer, I have not been approached by Olympus or any other party to write this review, nor have my equipment been sponsored. Each piece of equipment was paid in full by myself and used on my own business’ assignments. Rather than a typical systematic review, this is going to be a some-what structured free-flow of my thoughts on the OMD EM1. I’ll throw in the odd image here and there, but I don’t think images alone should form the basis of an argument. Just as in all the images featured here, there has been significant post processing applied to the Olympus raw files (ORF). My workflow as a wedding photographer requires a certain style of editing, so this review and attached images, should give you an idea of how the hardware and the resulting files, may fit into your own workflow.
The equipment that will be referenced in this review include: OMD EM1, Olympus 12mm f/2, Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Olympus 60mm f/2.8, Olympus 45mm f/1.8, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 and Panasonic 25mm f/1.4. For the bulk of this article, the OMD EM1 will take emphasis (as I don’t feel adequate to comment on the ins and outs of optical lenses).
The idea of ditching my 5D3s and AUD20,000 worth of equipment first crept into my mind after a hot Summer’s wedding at Taronga Zoo. There was a lot of walking involved; up and down. With a 5D3 on each shoulder, I was feeling their weight across my shoulders and feet. The heat and humidity wasn’t helping either. “I’m not getting any younger” – I said to myself. At the same time, I had been driving past bus stops with peculiar looking OMD advertisements. “Why are they still advertising such an old camera?” – I thought to myself. Silly me, I had no idea that a new OMD model had been released.
In the days that followed, I looked at the lenses that the micro four thirds platform had. I think the lens line up is reflective of a platform that has matured. With a 12mm f2 (24mm f4 equiv. DoF), 17mm f1.8 (35mm f3.6 equiv DoF), 25mm 1.4 (50mm f2.8 equiv DoF), 45mm f1.8 (90mm f3.6 equiv. DoF), 60mm f2.8 macro (120mm f5.6 equiv. DoF) and a 75mm f1.8 (150mm f3.6 equiv. DoF), I had everything I needed to shoot any wedding. Of these lenses, only the Panasonic 25mm 1.4 came with an included lens hood. Boo Olympus. Boo. Author’s edit: I have added DoF as aperture remains the same. Only depth of field is multiplied by 2x due to the m43 sensor size.
I have never liked Canon or Nikon’s APS-C crop sensor lens line up. There was always something amiss. The Nikkor 17-55/2.8 was nice. The Canon? Not so much. The telezooms were lacking, with a 70-200mm forced upon us. And the primes – quite simply, there were only two choices: (1) non-optimised focal lengths or (2) shit cheap nasty fixed focal length lenses. The first APS-C sensor that showed promise was Nikon’s D7000. It was a fleeting courtship; as the lenses were just not up to the task of what I required. Until the OMD EM1, it was either full-frame or nothing. No other system offered the fast primes or zooms that I needed to fulfil my job.
Going from a full frame sensor to a tiny micro four thirds was surprisingly easy. Ever since the 5D3, I have used liveview to monitor my exposure. Since switching from the Nikon D3s to the 5D3, I had lost my way in relying in a new system’s metering system. Liveview made exposing for different situations easy. But it was slow. Waiting for the mirror to flip up every time was tedious. So when I looked through the EVF of the OMD EM1, it was refreshing. It was essentially what I had been doing all along with my 5D3.
I shoot in a particular way. I frame using available autofocus points. Therefore, the more the better. Single-shot, one-shot or focus-and-recompose seldom works for me. I require continuous or servo – it’s just the way I am. Mirrorless and phase-detection technology, has forced me to change the way that I plan a shot (or a sequence of shots). The following two images are prime examples of the demands of the bulk of my approach to wedding photographer; subjects are rarely static. In addition to moving subjects, I am quite often moving as well. Accurate and quick autofocus is very important.
I am the least technical person. I don’t quite understand how contrast/phase detection-based autofocus systems work. I do know that they’re different. Unlike the modern DSLR, mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus OMD EM1 seems to be able to track moving subjects without having to use continuous mode. This surprised me. All I had to do was define where I wanted to focus and press down the shutter and let it burst. Somehow, magically, it works. Don’t ask me how.
Jumping from a full frame sensor to a tiny micro four thirds one does present with some physical problems: a reduction in narrow depth of field. That lovely bokeh and subject isolation that we wedding photographers rely on so much went straight out the window; not that one cannot achieve a narrow depth of field with a micro four third platform – it merely is harder. To me, this was a glass half full situation. Photographs of flowers, rings, and other pretty things require a certain balance between subject isolation and what actually is in focus. With full frame, I found myself not stopping down enough. As you will see from the below images, these detail photos are very easily achieved with the EM1. Because of physics, because the effective f-stop is doubled, shooting at f1.6 is effectively f3.2.
Wedding photography can heavily take on a photojournalistic approach. For me, this means that a system must be have the necessary inputs available to the operator to make the most out of any given situation. Take the following image for example: the bride is descending down the stairs. I am positioned on the lower floor. I have no idea when the bride will actually appear. Experience and skill play one part (a very crucial part mind you), but hardware can make the execution a lot simpler. This scene was shot using the rear swivel LCD, with the EM1 held above my head with my left hand. To focus and to activate the shutter, all I had to do was press on the LCD screen. Just like taking a photo on a touchscreen smartphone. 1-2-3. Easy.
You can’t miss this kind of stuff as a wedding photographer. This is the meat of what we do. A camera system doesn’t make you a better photographer, but with the right set of tools, getting the shot becomes easier. And when you hit your 30s like me, the easier the better I say!
And then there are rare moments like this that as a wedding photographer, you really have to nail. You know grandma will be on the dancefloor for a very short time (at maximum, a minute or two). The following image was shot with two Dedolight DLH4s (one is pictured and is pointing away). The exposure has been bumped up considerably to reach this final result. The EM1′s autofocus is a pure joy to use, coming from Canon 5D3 and Nikon D3s. I don’t know how it works, but it just does. Even in low light. But there is a tradeoff (there always is). Like all reviews of the OMD EM1, the leeway one gets from pushing high ISO raw files from a EM1 is limited. So the compromise is this: would you rather have an out-of-focus picture, or one that is in focus but have smudged details? I choose the latter. YMMV.
The Olympus OMD EM1 has at least 4 programmable buttons. The two most accessible ones are Fn1 and Fn2. These are found on the top right of the camera body (within close vicinity of the shutter button). Since ISO is one of the most common things I change (depending on lighting conditions), I naturally have Fn1 assigned to ISO. Here within lies the problem. There is considerable lag when pressing Fn1 to having the ISO settings show up in the EVF. By considerably lag, I refer to almost an entire second (if not more). This really sucks. I’m not sure why it takes so long to bring up the ISO menu settings but I hope a future firmware address this. Author’s edit: It has been brought to my attention that I’ve been assigning ISO to the wrong button. In fact, there is almost no need to do so. The function lever (the one that also houses the AEL-AFL button) is designed to provide quick one-handed access to both your usual shutter speed and aperture as well as ISO and WB. I just tried it. OMG. It works! I’m such a newb.
So let’s talk about low light.
Photography is all about light. The skill of a photographer is measured in how they manipulate the light; whether it be natural or external. Light is light. Without light, there can be no photography.
There was a time when I would light up a reception venue with 4-6 strobes. I have since stopped doing that (for obvious reasons). Now I use constant lights (Dedolight DLH4s). It keeps the ambience and mood that my clients have paid so much money for. As you can imagine, this can cause all sorts of problems for a photographer. One needs light and contrast to use a camera’s autofocus system. I am too young to know how to manual focus to save my life. So I default on a camera’s autofocusing ability. In this department, whether you use the LCD screen and touch on the desired spot or use the EVF and select your own AF ‘rectangle’, I can vouch for the EM1. It rarely fails (except for strongly backlit situations).
The same tradeoff applies for the EM1. The noise is there. Even in these web-sized files, I can see the noise. But does it matter? Does it really matter? Would you prefer to have a noisy image or nothing to deliver at all? Of course, in an ideal world, you want no noise and to be able to deliver a beautiful moment. This rarely happens. I’ve invested heavily into lighting – that is my workaround. But with such a small sensor, one must be realistic in what it can do.
For 2-3 years now, I have shot in manual exposure mode; not because I’m a snob or anything, but because it makes editing much easier. For example, if the lighting consistent across a sequence of photos, I’d rather dial in my own settings than deal with slightly differently exposed images later in Lightroom. I do however, leave white balance on auto. The following critique relates to having to change ISO on-the-go.
The OMD EM1, like many other mirrorless interchangeable cameras, does not have an optical viewfinder. Instead, it has an EVF. My first experience with an EVF was with Fuji’s X100. It was pretty horrible. Back then, the refresh rate of the EVF was terrible. There was considerable lag and it made my eyes and brain hurt. I had a similar experience with the Olympus OMD EM5. Without an OVF, you really need a good EVF. This means a high pixel density LCD with extremely fast refresh rate. To be honest, comparing the EVF of the OMD EM1 to its very own rear LCD is almost night and day. I always preferred what I saw within the EVF than on the rear LCD.
I have yet to look through the Fuji X-T1′s EVF. Already, the internet has crowned the X-T1 as having the best EVF ever. I shall wait for my order to arrive and reserve judgement. From day time, to shooting into the sun, to shooting in relative darkness, I enjoyed looking through the OMD EM1′s EVF. There was almost no perceivable lag. The image produced through the EVF was crisp. Highlights were not blown; shadows were not smudged (look through Fuji’s X-E1/2 and X-Pro1 EVF and you’ll understand what I mean). Even though the physical size of the EVF was small, looking through it with one eye gave no such impression. I never had to squint or push my eyes to see more clearer. This was unlike my experience with the Canon 5D Mark III’s viewfinder at night. 80% of the time, I could barely discern where my AF point was due to the poor dimly lit red notification box. It placed a huge strain on my eyes.
As you can see, my shutter speed is still relatively fast. People move. Whilst a slow shutter speed will bring in more ambient light, I don’t want movement blurring. Hence I use a higher ISO to compensate for the exposure triangle.
When the bride’s younger sister gets up and sings in front of everyone, you better be ready.
The above image is a simple one-strobe backlit scenario. My assistant is squatting 2.5 metres behind the couple. I have a video light to my right providing some form of fill light. I am handholding the EM1. In these situations, the EVF is near to useless. It does some funky gain thing which doesn’t provide me an accurate metering of the scene. So I use the rear LCD and press on the spot where the bride’s face is. Like clockwork, the EM1 tells the attached 17mm lens to focus and takes the photo. This was not the first attempt however. I had to take a few and zoom in to make sure that the focus was right. In hindsight, I wish I had my 12mm at the time instead of the 17mm. The image is by no means perfect, but is does the job. In my earlier days with the Nikon D3s and Canon 5D3, getting the camera to focus was the biggest challenge.
The EM1 has a regular hotshoe. This is happy days. I can plonk my manual strobes on-camera and blast away (or in the above image, use my Phottix Strato for Canon triggers). Sometimes, you just need to flash.
My biggest gripe with the Olympus OMD EM1 is its writing speed to UHS-1 cards. Granted, I’m only using Sony 40mb/s memory cards, but there is something even more irritating than waiting for things to write. It is being locked out of controls whilst the camera is writing to the card. Allow me to explain.
The EM1 has a great raw buffer. Up to at least 25 raw files in high burst mode before the buffer fills up. I ditched my 5D3 in disgust primarily because of its crippled SD card slot. Any benefit of having a second card slot for secure file redundancy was destroyed by a foolish hardware limitation by Canon’s R&D team. The buffer filled up so fast that shooting burst was a complete waste of time. So back to the Olympus OMD EM1; even when you take one photo, you cannot immediately view it on the LCD. You must wait for the file to complete writing. When you take two images, or let’s say 10 – you can begin to understand the accumulated frustration. Similarly, when the EM1 is writing to the memory card, you cannot change ISO via the function button. Annoying …
But this may not be a problem for you. It is for me however. So much so that after 4 weddings, I am moving to the next best thing: Fuji’s X-T1.
The second qualm I have with the Olympus OMD EM1 is the lack of an accurate battery gauge. For fuck’s sake Olympus, is it that hard to do so? I can only set a warning to blink at either 50% or 25%. That doesn’t really tell me much. It makes me panic when ever I see the orange blinking battery of doom indicator flash in the EVF. Seriously, FIX THIS! Once again, not a deal-breaker but it really makes you wonder …
Considering the size of the battery, the BLN-1 does fairly well. Charging it however takes a long time. Due to the stupid lack of real-time battery gauge on the EM1, I cannot comment on how efficient the BLN-1 battery is. Olympus Imaging and most internet-based reviews provide a number of photos; I find this measurement meaningless as it does not take into account of the time spent chimping taking selfies via wifi tethering, or just mucking around with the EVF. For the two OMD EM1s that I own, I have 6 BLN-1 and a further 6 aftermarket ones. From a recent 10-hour wedding day, I went through 3-4 batteries (probably expended 2 completely). At a 12-hour wedding, I went through no more than 4 batteries. I haven’t really used the aftermarket batteries. I don’t trust them (and they require a separate charger grrrr).
I bought a HLD-7 vertical battery grip. It was not cheap. I am not a fan of it. It has the necessary front and rear dials, shutter button, and a lock switch. But what I found missing on the battery grip was the same 4-direction pad so that I can change AF points with easy (with the same hand). Secondly, I strongly dislike the design on these new battery grips. If anyone has used a 5D2 and remembers the BG-E6, that is the benchmark for vertical battery grips. The BG-E6 required the user to remove the in-camera battery and battery door in order to attach the battery grip. This allowed the grip to house two LP-E6 batteries. The HLD-7 does no such thing. It is simplistic to attach to the EM1 (you remove the rubber seal on the base of the EM1 and screw in the grip) but accessing the EM1′s in-camera battery is a choresome task. To me, the HLD-7 is nothing more than a useless vertical grip; $200 down the drain.
I had always thought that a camera’s wifi function was a marketing gimmick. Boy was I wrong! I have taken countless narcissistic selfies using the EM1′s wifi tethered remote iOS app. Similarly, I have imported jpegs from the EM1 into my iPhone’s VSCOCAM app and emailed/whatsapp’d the edited version to a client immediately. Similarly, for those who have an innate itch to overshare pictures on social networks, the EM1′s wifi feature is very handy. As for the wedding photographer who wants to release a sneak peek immediately, you’re going to love the wifi feature. No more taking an iPhone photo of the back of your camera. The wifi feature is not a gimmick! However, just a note on importing images via tethering – you must shoot in JPEG or raw + JPEG. I came to this realisation with a D’OH! And secondly, you must disconnect any current wifi connection in order to connect to the EM1 via the iOS app. Quirky …
I think Olympus is onto something brilliant here. I think mirrorless is the future. Until Nikon and/or Canon up their game and stop crippling their non-top-of-the-line professional models, I think mirrorless is where R&D is at. If a tiny micro four thirds camera can do this, just think of the possibilities the future holds?
Would I recommend the Olympus OMD EM1 for wedding photography? The short answer would be a no.
Fuji’s mirrorless cameras have typically suffered from shitty autofocus. But at least one can adjust the size of the autofocusing area. The OMD EM1 presents with no such option. Sometimes, I worry that the focus will not be exactly on the subject’s eye. But I suppose the ‘glass half full’ response to this would be the 2x crop and effective aperture of a micro four third sensor. But still … I want more control Olympus! Author’s edit: I have been advised that one can adjust the size of the AF point on the EM1.
The long answer to the above question is a hesitant yes. I don’t think it is mature yet. I think you have to be a very strong and technically competent photographer who has invested in external lighting to be able to use the EM1 well. The EM1 takes fantastic photos. It focuses like nothing I have ever used. It produces excellent images during the day. In low light, it may focus much better than the competition, but the resultant image is not quite there yet. I think the model that will eventually replace the EM1 will be stronger. Physics aside, I think the tiny sensor has performed extremely well.
Why then am I moving away from the OMD EM1? Mainly because I need to have a raw file that can be pushed a bit more than the ORF. I am still keeping the two EM1′s that I have in my possession. I’ll simply give these to my associate photographers/trainees to use. But for my own taste, I need something that (a) at least gives me real time battery metering and (b) has a larger sensor size so that I can push those dimly lit raw files just a little bit more.
But for other types of photography (travel/street for example), the EM1 presents as an excellent choice. Depth is really not an issue with the small sensor and doubled effective apertures. In the past, I would take a DSLR and a fun camera for business trips. With mirrorless, you can achieve both business + pleasure with the same camera. To me, this is a huge win. Or that I’m just getting old …
In summary, Olympus has delivered a winning combination with the OMD EM1. Whilst there are two major drawbacks (for me anyway), it certainly is a very capable camera. With 5-axis in-camera stabilisation, weather-sealing, relatively good buttons, intuitive menu user interface (something FujiFILM really should learn from!), the technology is there for the taking at a very affordable price. Perhaps for the average Joe, the EM1 is beyond their budget. For the photography enthusiast and/or the professional photographer, the EM1 promises a lot. Most importantly, it delivers on its promises.
From a business perspective, I think mirrorless is the way forward. As much as I would have loved a Canon 1Dx or Nikon D4, the cash flows didn’t add up. The ROI for two AUD 6,000 – 8,000 cameras would take too long to recoup. With so much in the red (even as a business expense), I’d rather spend that money on (a) myself or (b) on marketing.
My approach to wedding photography has slowly evolved. It no longer is purely about the resulting photographs. Of course, they must meet a certain standard and include certain key moments and frames, but for the large part, as I tell all prospective clients, my style of photographing a wedding is about facilitating their experience. I’m not great photographer. Technically I am pretty piss poor. But I have experience. And I take great care of my clients. So in response to Candy’s opening question, no, I am not worried. Being professional and looking ‘professional’ are two entirely beasts. The former takes precedent over the latter.
Author’s edit: You can find my initial impressions for the Fujifilm X-T1 here.