Photographic Holding Pattern: Olympus OM-D EM-1

Welcome to Photography Week at Uncertainty. I’ve been writing about the cameras in my life for several months now, but decided to wrap up the series with two more camera stories, thoughts on photographic workflow, other photographic gear, and the new camera entering my life. 

2013-12-04 OM-D EM-1 002As a tech geek, sometimes new technology appeals to my lizard brain more than practical sense. Sometimes, though, my interest in different tech lines up with the needs of the day. So it was when I bought the Olympus OM-D EM-1. I’ve written briefly about this camera when I discussed mirrorless versus DSLR technologies. It’s worth discussing this impressive little camera in more detail.

When the OM-D EM-1 first shipped, Olympus positioned it’s top-of-the-line micro 4/3rds mirrorless body as the successor to its aging 4/3rds DSLR line. The 16Mpixel sensor incorporated phase detection autofocus sensors on the imaging sensor itself, though the camera uses phase detection AF only when using older lenses originally designed for the company’s DSLR bodies.

The EM-1 offered other impressive features, including a 10fps frame rate, a superb 2.3 million pixel electronic viewfinder (EVF), a tiltable rear LCD, weather sealing, and 1/320th second flash sync. It’s also light; the EM-1 paired with the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens (24-80mm 35mm equivalent focal length) weighs in at 887 grams (1.9 pounds), as compared to the D600 plus 24-70 f/2.8 combination, which weighed 1,764g, nearly two pounds heavier.

At the time, my shoulder and back gave me some serious problems. The real solution was to lose weight and get fitter, but being in good shape still doesn’t fully overcome age. I’ve still got some left rotator cuff issues, and my upper back and neck gets pretty stiff after longer bike rides. The EM-1’s weight seemed negligible when lugging it around, as I have frequently in the past 2-1/2 years.

However, the EM-1 continued my slide away from taking composition seriously, something I now want to correct. The EM-1 makes handholding even easier than the D600, so I’ve used scene modes more times than I care to admit, like this photo I took on an Alaskan cruise in 2015.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also took the OM-D EM-1 to Costa Rica, along with some old-school Olympus 4/3rds lenses and an adapter to attach it to the EM-1, including the 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 SWD and 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 II. (I’d ordered a 12-40mm f2.8 Pro native micro 4/3rds lens, but it didn’t arrive before the trip). This shot of a hawk always amazes me, because it looks like a taxidermist’s demo, but it was very much alive when I shot it with the 50-200mm.

It’s alive. And it’s real. Check out the bokeh.

I used the 50-200mm extensively, despite its bulk and weight; at over two pounds, it unbalances the tiny EM-1 body, but the reach is equivalent to 400mm full frame, which allowed me to shoot a variety of birds, like this little fellow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite its phase detection autofocus with the legacy lenses I used in Costa Rica, the EM-1 doesn’t hold up well as an action camera. The AF just isn’t as fast as I was used to with Nikons. However, with a little planning and some luck, I could get some dramatic action shots, like this pelican in flight.

The 14-54mm legacy lens performed pretty well, and showed off the capability of Olympus optics.

The 4/3rds aspect ratio, however, seemed a little odd to me, and still bugs me to this day. While you can shoot perfectly fine landscape photos, I do wish for a wider aspect ratio at times. Sure, I could either crop, or set the camera to 16:9 (using fewer sensor pixels), but both options are really band-aid solutions. Even so, the EM-1 did landscape pretty well.

It’s also a decent performer for portraits, though the slower focus means I often miss some of the candid shots I prefer. However the combination of 12-40mm f2.8 and EM-1 body, sometimes coupled with the tiltable rear LCD, is pretty unobtrusive, so I can often get shots when people might notice a large DSLR.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As with the D600, I used the EM-1 extensively for product photography, though much of my recent product shots have been a little hasty because of short deadlines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If I have a beef with the EM-1, it’s ergonomics. The dual-purpose lever on the back still drives me crazy; I often forget to shift it out of the number two position, so I’ll inadvertently change white balance when I think I’m changing the aperture. And I really miss the capability of creating folders on the memory card, as I could with every Nikon I’ve ever owned. I’d use the folders for specific purposes, either by day when traveling, or by purpose (product shoots, portraits, etc.) Instead, I just get one big list of files, which I have to manually sort when importing. Also, the camera has this annoying habit of inserting a default caption into every image, forcing me to manually edit them out.

Since I like shooting in available light, I tend to value low-light performance, so often shoot at higher ISOs. All other things equal, noise levels at high ISOs is related to pixel pitch. So it’s worth trotting out a table of pixel pitches for various camera sensors.

Camera Sensor Area Megapixels Pixel Pitch
OM-D EM-1 224.9mm2 16.3  3.72um
Nikon D300s 372.9mm2 12.3 5.5um
Nikon D7200 366.6mm2 24.2 3.92um
Nikon D500 369mm2 20.9 4.2um

It’s worth noting the phrase “all things being equal”. The pixel pitch of the Nikon D7200 and Olympus OM-D EM-1 sensors are roughly the same, but the D7200 offers noticeably better low-light performance than the EM-1 according to DXOMark. The shiny new Nikon D500’s pixel pitch is roughly 12% bigger. This, plus being several generations newer, suggest better high ISO performance. Initial reports of impressive low light performance by early D500 users seem to bear this out.

I’ve also started shooting more regularly, and the modest capabilities of the AF system, plus the ergonomic details, are driving me back to Nikon DSLRs. Plus, I’ve been shooting more low-ambient light indoor photography again, and the EM-1’s micro 4/3rds sensor gets pretty noisy beyond ISO 800. But the OM-D EM-1 has been a terrific transition camera. So I leave you with this photo of a Nautilus, plus a small gallery, while I contemplate my next photographic move.

 

 

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