Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mirrorless Camera Review


The Olympus OM-D EM-1 is Olympus’ flagship camera, and it’s a pro-level mirrorless camera with a huge selection of interchangeable lenses.  It is feature-packed, but small and light.  It’s awesome.  The styling is absolutely beautiful and it really looks like a classic, classy camera from years past.  Also, it’s gorgeous.

It’s built on the micro four-thirds spec.  Comparing a full-frame Nikon to this camera (which is what I left to move up to this one), the crop factor is 2-to-1.  In other words, if the Olympus lens says it is 9mm wide, that is like 18mm on the full frame.  So my wide angle lens for the camera, the 9-18mm, is comparable to 18-36mm on a full frame Nikon. Easy math, right?  I can multiple by 2 pretty quickly.  :-)

I have had this camera for a little while now, and have taken it on several trips already (London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, NYC, Nashville, Dallas, and along the Texas coast).  I really like it, and it is performing very well for me.   I have used it in numerous situations and in several different shooting modes, and it works great.  So far, so good.

As with all my previous reviews, this one is not deeply technical, nor does it go deep into the minute details about things.  I am not that kind of photographer.  I want to be able to do the things that I do, and do them well (by which I mean easily, quickly, and efficiently), and move on.  In other words, I want my camera to work as planned so I don’t have to think about it.  

It does.  

If you want probably the deepest and most technical review out there, I suggest you go read the excellent and highly technical review that Gordon Laing did over at his review site Camera Labs.   It’s very good, and very comprehensive.  In fact, I used his review as a basis for my decision to buy this camera.

My reviewing style…

I tend to review things the way that I use them.  In other words, I don’t use a lot of the features that this camera has, at least not yet.  At some point I am sure that I will.  It’s highly capable, which is obviously a good thing, and though I pretty much shoot similar subjects each time I am out, I know I have the flexibility to change it up should I decide to do so.   

I shoot anything of interest, as long as it cannot talk back.  In other words, I rarely shoot portraits.  My preference is to shoot cityscapes and street scenes, architecture, skylines and landscapes, and I tend to shoot them mostly in HDR with a few long exposures thrown in for good measure.  I love shooting at the edges of the day (sunrise and sunset) - just like everyone else - but I’m not above shooting anything that captures my interest, regardless of available light or time of day.

This camera can easily handle everything I shoot and more.

Here are some of the things I love most about this camera:

  • It’s absolutely beautiful to look at
  • 16MP sensor, which will easily get me large prints if needed
  • Weather-sealed for protection from the elements
  • Incredibly small and light, but feels solid in your hands
  • Built-in image stabilization
  • The touchscreen is beautiful
  • Easy to get into HDR mode via a button on top
  • Easy to adjust f/stop, Aperture, WB and ISO via buttons on top
  • Quick auto-focus
  • Very quiet and discreet

A little background

My most recent camera was a full frame Nikon, the D700.  It was an excellent camera, and in many ways it was perfect for me.  And admittedly, I moved into this whole new mirrorless thing in an almost accidental way.  You can read about that here.  So you may be thinking, did I give up anything by moving from a full frame camera to a mirrorless camera?

The answer is yes.  I gave up several pounds of travel weight!

Haha, ok that’s a bit of a cheeky answer, but it is true.  I can travel SO much lighter now, and I love that, since I do travel quite a bit (I also changed tripods to a MeFoto and it’s considerably lighter than my Manfrotto was).  But it’s not just about the weight here - it’s also about the size.

The camera is MUCH smaller than my old Nikon.  And while that may not be a big deal to a lot of people, I have found that it is a big deal to me.  In addition to being easier to travel with (the act of getting somewhere), it’s also much easier when on location and out shooting a place (the act of being somewhere). 

5.1" (W) x 3.7" (H) x 2.5" (D)

5.1" (W) x 3.7" (H) x 2.5" (D)

With the old Nikon, I would be rather tired at the end of a day, lugging all of that weight around (not to mention how exhausting it was to lug it through various airports).  Now with this Olympus, I am not.  Honestly, it’s almost like I haven’t been carrying anything around at all!

There are times when I go out to shoot, usually in broad daylight, and as such just bring the camera with a single lens on it, and connect my BlackRapid strap to make it easy to carry around.  With the Nikon, that would get tiring pretty early on because of all the weight.  But with the Olympus, it is so small and light that I really don’t notice it, and it does not wear me out like the Nikon used to do.  That’s a big win right there.

But despite the size and (lack of) weight, this thing is well-built and feels very solid in your hands.  The handgrip is the perfect size for me.  Compared to my old Nikon, I can easily carry this thing with one hand for quite a while.  I couldn’t really do that with the Nikon, as it was just too big and heavy.

Intuitive button placement

One of the things about today’s advanced cameras is the proliferation of all these buttons.  There is a lot of control inherent in having a lot of buttons, but that can also intimidate people who aren’t accustomed to it.  Upon first inspection, you will find a lot of buttons at your fingertips with this camera.  And honestly, the placement is perfect for me, and well thought-out I might add.  Everything is just right there and that makes it so easy to do those quick little adjustments we all make while shooting.

In particular, one of the greatest features is the little flip button that allows you to control Aperture and Exposure Compensation when it is in the UP position, and in the DOWN position it controls White Balance and ISO.  This is a rather quick and creative way to get you access to the main controls you need, without having to clutter up the camera with more buttons.  It’s quick, easy, intuitive and brilliant!

Additionally, I like to shoot in HDR quite a bit, and as such often need to switch into HDR Mode.  Thankfully, there is a dedicated button on the top of the camera which allows me to access the HDR menu rapidly.  Once in the HDR mode, I can quickly choose my preferred HDR method, which is the 3 exposure bracket.  It’s been working great, even though back in my Nikon days I just HAD to shoot a 7 frame bracket.  Yes, the camera is so good that I am shooting only 3 exposures for my HDRs now, and sometimes not even using all 3!

What an incredible touchscreen!

I would be lying if I denied that the touchscreen was a big draw for me.  It was, and still is.  It’s beautiful and large, and works perfectly.  Being so used to my iPhone, this thing just fit right into my methods.  I can swipe between pictures.  I can tap to focus, and even tap to fire the brackets (or a single shot – depends on what mode I am in of course).  The menus are right there, easy to use and very intuitive.  

The screen is high definition, with a 2.36 million dot resolution.  In other words, it looks great.  A great feature of the screen is the eye sensor for automatic switching between the screen and the electronic viewfinder.  If you put your eye up to the electronic viewfinder, the screen goes dark and you can see clearly through the electronic viewfinder.  Back up to view the screen, and the screen comes back on.  Handy little feature, that.  

The screen tilts as well, which has been great for when I am shooting UP.  I was recently in NYC and shooting the ceiling in the library, from my tripod.  With the camera tilted upwards, it’s nearly impossible to see the screen unless you tilt it, especially since I had my tripod at the lowest setting.  I was able to tilt enough to get a good view, compose the shot, and fire.  Good fun.

I also like using the LiveView on the screen, and when you change the Exposure Compensation, the screen darkens or brightens accordingly.  It makes sense that they would do that, and I am glad that they do.  That helps me when firing HDR brackets, because I tend to shoot a little on the “dark side” since I don’t want my shots to be overly exposed.  I can see what my starting point is for a shot. 

However, that also means that it is harder to compose and focus via the screen, because it is dark.  So here’s where a nice little feature they have comes into play.  On the front of the camera, about where your 4th finger of your right hand would be if holding it, there is a little button.  If you depress and hold that, it will brighten the screen so you can see it clearly via LiveView.  Voila!  You can see again!

Lots of glass to choose from

One of the other reasons that I went with Olympus is the vast lens selection.  I looked at a few other cameras, but Olympus won out, and this was a major consideration.  Their lens selection is HUGE.  There are just so many options, and I like that.  I will never buy them all - and don’t need to - but knowing that they are available shows investment and commitment on their part.  It’s a security blanket, to a degree.

As far as my current lens choices, I picked up 3 of them: 

  • 9-18mm wide angle
  • 12-50mm medium range telephoto
  • 40-150mm zoom

These give me plenty of range to work with, and honestly I haven’t even begun to shoot with the 40-150mm yet.  I am working seriously with the 12-50mm which has been an excellent lens, and a perfect all-around lens for my travels.  As you have read here before, I am seriously addicted to wide-angle shooting, and thus far the 9-18mm has done great for me in that regard, even though it is comparable to 18-36mm on my old full frame Nikon.  I guess I am changing a bit.  :-)

One other lens I am thinking seriously about is the 12-40mm, which I would use to replace the 12-50mm.  The difference is that the 12-40mm is f2.8 all the way through and is their first in a new line of “pro lenses”. It looks awesome, and online reviews are very good.  But, it’s pricey so I will have to see how that goes.  NOTE: I have now purchased this lens.  You can read my full review here.  It's an EXCELLENT lens!

Body Construction

As I said above, the camera feels very solid without being heavy, and here’s why:  the outer material is metal, and the inner frame is magnesium alloy.  It’s also weather-sealed so you can feel comfortable shooting in inclement weather, if you are so inclined (or have no other option).  The camera is freezeproof, dustproof, and splashproof.  But, please don’t drop it in a lake or something. It’s not waterproof.  :-)

There’s not a whole lot more to say about this point.  It just feels great in your hands, and it’s quickly obvious that the construction is very solid.

The ability to be discreet

One other thing to keep in mind regarding the size of this thing is that you can be much more discreet with it than with a big DSLR sticking out in front of your face.  While most of my photos are intentional and created using a tripod (in which case discretion is not really a factor, because it is very obvious that I am taking a photo), there are times when it pays to be a bit more discreet.  I could never do that with my Nikon.  Everyone can see it, and see exactly what I am pointing at.  It’s too big to hide.

But I have found that with the Olympus, things are very different.  While it is on a tripod, there is no hiding the fact that you are shooting something.  But I must say it is incredibly quiet.  With my Nikon, I could be shooting in a church while people are sitting in the pews, enjoying the silence.  Well, until I started firing, that is.  Then all bets are off, because that Nikon was good at making noise.  Now it wasn’t offensively noisy (at least to me), but you could definitely hear it echo around clearly in a quiet place like a church (and I shoot in a lot of churches).  So I would try to hurry and shoot everything I could as quick as possible, because I felt like I was a distraction to everyone else there.

But this little Olympus is QUIET!  It’s very quiet, to be exact.  I have stood in a super quiet church and fired away.  You can barely hear it.  There is no echo clanging around the church like my Nikon used to produce for me.  It stays quiet, and that is good in my opinion.  It makes me more comfortable standing there, because I no longer feel like everyone is looking my way, or that the Minister is about to toss me out for disturbing his sanctuary.

The other part about discretion is that when you are not on a tripod, it is easy to hold the camera down in front of your stomach, tilt the screen up so you can see clearly and compose and shot, and fire away.  To anyone that might be in your shot, it appears that you are just looking down at your camera, when really you are taking a photo.  While those who regularly shoot street photography may be way over the discomfort of blatantly pointing a camera towards someone, I am not.  And while I am not shooting the people per se (I am usually shooting the scene), they don’t have any idea that I am even shooting at all, which I like.

And here’s the last point on discretion (if you can describe this point as discretion) – it doesn’t look like a “pro camera”.  What I mean by that is when I used to break out the full frame Nikon, it was big and impressive-looking, and technically is a pro level camera – and it looked like it.  I could be shooting somewhere, especially on a tripod, and if there was security there, they would automatically assume I was a “working pro” and that I was doing some sort of “commercial/professional photography”.  In other words, they didn’t like that, and at times it caused me to be escorted out.

But with this Olympus, because of its smaller size, it doesn’t quite have “that look”.  I doubt that the average security guard is into cameras and knows the differences, so you can more easily pass off the Olympus as a “point and shoot” sort of thing, and get away with shooting in a place where no commercial photography is allowed.  It just doesn’t have that big, bulky look to it, which is good.  But to be clear - this is a Pro-level camera.  It just doesn’t draw unwanted attention to itself (or to the photographer).

Additional things to consider, which I did not include in this review:

  1. the camera also shoots video
  2. built-in wifi
  3. there's a laundry list of built-in art filters
  4. there are countless menus which allow all sorts of customization

There's just so much to know about this camera, that I could never get it all into a review.  And honestly, I just haven't taken the time to explore every feature. If I did, I would never have time to do anything else.  There's a lot here, and it's all very intuitive.  In other words, don't be intimidated.  It's pretty easy to figure out.  You'll be out shooting in no time!

Summary points

Well that sums up this review of the Olympus OM-D EM-1 mirrorless camera.  It’s great and I am loving shooting with it.  If it’s not obvious yet, I highly recommend this camera!  It’s especially great for travel thanks to its small size and light weight.

When you consider all the great features of this camera, from the classic styling and intuitive button placement, to the solid construction and extensive capabilities, the vast collection of available lenses and the fabulous and functional touchscreen, you really can’t go wrong here!  Highly recommended!


And just for fun, here are a few pics I have taken with this camera thus far.  Lots more that I need to process, but just wanted to share these for now.  Loving this camera!

The skyline of NYC, but you probably already knew that.

Grunge is good.  This bar is in Austin, TX.

Sunset in Austin, below the Loop 360 Bridge.