REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1

I have not done a gear review in a frightfully long time.

Over the past year I have moved away from the constant gear upgrade-cycle (despite what I was upgrading was generally not to the latest-and-greatest, but old film cameras), and my gear has not changed a lot. As many people who take photographs are, I was focusing more on equipment than actually taking photographs, and often relying on gaining inspiration to go take photos from the excitement that having a new camera can provide. Photography relies on gear, but that can often become a crutch. All artistic pursuits rely on gear to make art–painters need paints and brushes, musicians need instruments, and photographers need cameras–but to have one’s vision eclipsed by the constant need for new equipment is not healthy for any artist.

Camera companies rely on people buying constantly new cameras to boost their bottom line, and marketing is designed to urge people to consume more and more. The internet is full of message boards, review sites, and forums, and all of these reinforce the idea that whatever the newest camera is will be the magic bullet:

This next camera will be the one that makes your images better.

Except that it won’t. Your images will only get better through practice, critique, and dedication to your craft. I would argue that greater familiarity with the gear you use will do more for your images than the newest sensor from your friendly camera manufacturer. That’s a hard thing to understand, I think–I know it has been for me.

I have done a number of reviews of various types of equipment over time on this blog, and they are always wildly successful. Almost all of my top-viewed posts of all time are camera reviews. What does that tell me? Does that mean my photographs are not anything special? Or perhaps that my gear reviews are particularly amazing? Maybe I’m reviewing cameras that are especially interesting to readers? Actually, I suspect it’s none of those. Like I did, people read gear reviews incessantly. Most of the time now, when I do read reviews it’s idle curiosity more than a desire to actually purchase; I follow the trends in camera technology, but don’t plan to really purchase any of them.

So the title of this post is “REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1”. I suppose I should actually talk about the camera in question at some point, so here goes: the camera is great. It is small and light, it has so many customizable functions and buttons I can’t even use them all, Olympus has a great selection of lenses to use with their micro four-thirds bodies, it has fast autofocus, it is weather-sealed, it has an app for your phone or tablet that allows you to control the shutter remotely and transfer images via built-in wi-fi, and it makes great images. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. Dedicated review sites have dissected the camera to a degree that I have neither the expertise, time, or interest to do. If that is what you want, I’d encourage you to google one of them. Except that you probably won’t, because this is an “old” camera now, released almost two years ago. In digital camera terms, it is positively ancient.

Ever wonder why there are so few negative camera reviews? Most camera review sites make their money by contributing to the hyperbole created by marketing departments, and they get paid when you–spoiler alert!–buy the cameras they have reviewed so well. They generally have a convenient link within their review to find the camera they are discussing on Amazon, B&H, Adorama, etc. By clicking the link in that page, and buying something, they get a cut of the money you spend. Some reviewers are open about this, some are not. Other review sites take perks from camera companies (free access to new gear, review samples, preferential treatment or access at events) and review things well in a quid pro quo arrangement. There are also many people who simply review things because they like to, which is what I do. I don’t get a penny from this blog in any way.

Rant over. Now back to previously scheduled programming…

I have really enjoyed this camera, and have used it for months. The only limitation to making great images with this camera is my own talent with photography and skill with this camera. I have yet to come upon a situation where I thought the camera was somehow inhibiting my creative output. Far more often are situations where I have discovered yet another capability of the camera that opens up new possibilities for what I can create–I suspect that is the case for the overwhelming number of camera users.

This review is most likely not what you were expecting, and if you made it this far, I’m surprised. I had intended to write a more “normal” review of the camera but as I wrote, the words didn’t seem to want to come out that way. I have really enjoyed using this camera and would recommend it to just about anyone who is looking for a camera; for some people it is surely even too much camera: it has so many settings and functions that some users would surely find it overwhelming. But to someone with a background in photography, this is likely all the camera they would need.

On that note, let me address two real issues with this camera. First of all, there is no way around the price: this is an expensive camera. Olympus released the camera with a retail price somewhere around $1300, which is expensive. Even for what you get with this camera, I’d say it’s overpriced and should have come in a bit lower. That said, I got mine used and saved some money, and I don’t regret the purchase. It’s a great camera.

The second thing is not an “issue” so much as a perception of the sensor. For those who don’t know, this is a micro four-thirds camera, which means the sensor is half the size of a traditional 35mm-sized (“full frame”, the size of a 35mm negative) sensor. There are some trade-offs which come with a smaller sensor. First, the effective focal length and depth of field must be double from their full frame equivalents; a 35mm f/2 lens becomes a 70mm f/4 lens in real terms, but retains the visual properties of a 35mm perspective (for more on this, or to clarify, try Google). This means getting super shallow depth of field is very difficult, and many photographers use this (often as a crutch) to establish subject isolation in images. It also means that extreme wide-angle lenses are rare–since all focal lengths are doubled–but not impossible to find. Again, wide-angle lenses are often not used well, which makes me often discount this as a valid issue. Both aforementioned trade-offs do have legitimate uses, but they aren’t huge problems, and can certainly be overcome.

Finally, the size of the sensor puts a restriction on the number of megapixels which can be crammed into the small space. The more megapixels that are put into a sensor, the more it can exhibit noise. Olympus has managed to pack in 16 megapixels into this sensor, which seems plenty for anyone, especially since most people only exhibit their work on computer monitors anyway–I know I do. What printing I do is generally limited to 8×10 or smaller, meaning my phone does a fine job, let alone the Olympus OMD-EM1. There are certainly people who need the 36 megapixels in the Nikon D800 or Sony A7R, or even the more than 50 megapixels announced in the upcoming Canon DSLR, but for most of us, 12-16 is more than enough.

I find the advantages of a small sensor–smaller, lighter camera bodies and smaller, lighter lenses–to outweigh the advantages of larger sensors. Additionally, I like the weather-sealed body and the electronic viewfinder (EVFs have advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years and are now more advantageous than OVFs in most circumstances for most users). I find Olympus’ suite of lenses to be excellent as well, easily surpassing those offered by Sony at the moment for their a7-series cameras.

Having used the OMD-EM1 since late October 2014, I can say I am happy with the decision I made. This “review” was non-traditional to say the least, but hopefully some will find it useful, and maybe some will realize that the constant desire for more, newer cameras is a facade–the real issue is not a lack of satisfaction with your gear, but with your images. Getting a new camera won’t fix that.

That’s all for now.

-Trevor

7 Comments

  1. Your review is helpful and straight to the point. When the sage points to the moon the fool looks at his finger. I know that a new gear will not make my photos better…but it’s easier to wander on the web looking for a new camera than to strive to find a way to improve my photos. And I think i’m not the only one in that case.

    Reply

  2. E-M1 is a fine camera as you point out and the image quality is very nice as long as one has good light . In low light noise can be pretty hideousI love using mine with the 17mm 1.8…this makes for a very nice street photography setup . I enjoy your images as well…also here in the comments mirrorless is the way to go…it is not full frame quality but when I use my fuji x-t1 wll it is as good as it gets and my neck and back are very thankful for the lighter package . Take care

    Reply

  3. Great thoughts Trevor!

    I wasn’t really looking to read a “review” but you put out so little these days, I thought I’d take what I can get…
    😉

    Anyway, congratulations on the camera, and the images…looks like it is suiting you well!

    Cheers,
    Mark

    Reply

  4. Hi, Excellent post and review of the EM1. Like yourself I started out as a gear junky thinking that every new camera or lens was going to transform my photography. It was an expense lesson to learn but at least I got something out of it. The photographs from the EM1 look stunning, such detail and tone, thanks for sharing. I am considering getting a mirrorless camera, possibly a rangefinder camera to use for my street photography. Si

    Reply

    1. Thanks! I’d highly recommend mirrors cameras for virtually all photography at this point in time. The drop in absolute IQ from a solid mirrorless to the top SLRs is less all the time.

      Reply

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