Sunday, December 29, 2013

Olympus E-M1, camera of the year?

I'm a bit surprised to see so much love given to the E-M1, or for that matter, to any Olympus product.  It's been years since the company has been shown more than people's backsides.

Even DPReview has changed greatly in their treatment of Olympus.  There was a time when Olympus wouldn't even send them a camera to review because the response from DPReview was usually so negative.

There have been a load of interesting camera bodies lately including the FujiFilm X-E2, the Sony A7/A7R, the Pentax K-3, and the Nikon D610.

To me, the E-M1 is good enough to represent the beginning of the end of the SLR.

Yes, I said that.  Even though I didn't find it appropriate for me, it has a number of great attributes that put it into direct opposition to dSLRs.

  • Excellent viewfinder
  • Quick response
  • Good size with great balance for native lenses
  • Excellent auto focus and auto exposure
  • Good controls
  • It doesn't get in the way
  • Super Control Panel

I've complained loads about electronic viewfinders, and I complain loads when I have to use my GH3's viewfinder with sunglasses.  There was no problem with the E-M1 EVF.  It just worked for me.

The camera body was responsive, and even waking from sleep wasn't horribly long.  I learned a long time ago to power on the camera and let it go to sleep until needed.  Olympus understands this and provides a quick waking cycle, once again, unlike my GH3.

While many people have embraced the diminutive size of most micro Four-Thirds equipment, I don't care for it.  The GH3 is a reasonable size, especially considering the fully-articulated rear display and external controls.  The E-M1 is close to that, and even longer native lenses are just fine.  It is also sufficient for Olympus' HG line of lenses and some of the SHG line though too small for the largest of them.

My use of auto focus is minimal and I don't want the scatter pattern of multiple AF points to ruin my shots.  Using a touch panel to select an AF point is different, and is the probably the greatest thing that mirror-less system cameras bring to the table.  Both auto focus and auto exposure were quick and accurate, although I didn't try to focus in the dark which is something the latest Panasonic bodies do so well, down to EV -4.

The controls were fairly good.  Unfortunately, during my time with the E-M1, I got a body that had the exposure compensation quite a bit away from flat, and it took a while to figure out how to change it.  Exposure compensation should have its own external control that is marked, so there is no guesswork.  I hope that the mushy shutter release has been resolved.  I couldn't get a half-press to confirm auto exposure or auto focus and took a photo each time I attempted the half-press.

While I understand that picking up a new camera body and just shooting may not give you the best photos, it should not take loads of time to acclimate yourself to getting those photos.  Do I care where the power switch is?  Yes, but only twice.  Controls like auto focus, bracketing, and exposure compensation should be front and center.   If I had the time to mess during photography, I'd be a landscape photographer using medium format.

That said, I was able to use the camera right away.  It wasn't confusing, past the exposure compensation, and it felt like an extension of my body, much like the E-1 did.

So, why am I not buying one of these, and waiting to see the replacement?

  • Single flash memory card slot
  • Rear display not fully-articulated
  • Small battery and therefore, small, uncomfortable grip
  • So-so implementation of auto focus for Four-Thirds lenses

For Olympus' pushing the E-M1 as a professional alternative, and the E-5 successor, it isn't quite there.  It lacks what made the E-5 a good decision for me, to switch from the E-1, rather than to switch camps to buy the Nikon D300/D300s.

They feel that they know their customers, and while the camera has been a success, it's not a good successor to the E-5.  Of course, those few of us to still be using Olympus' big glass should have switched to another brand years ago.  The company missed an opportunity, though, to meet in the middle, going too small, and not really understanding the E-1/E-3/E-5 customers.

Still, the E-M1 is a great alternative to anyone considering a camera body in the US$1000 - US$2000 range.  It only takes a look at the dSLRs in the range and FujiFilm's rangefinder-style alternatives to realize how good the E-M1 is.  Sony's 135 format A7 is priced nicely and offers a lot, but what happens if they let it languish, as they've done with their NEX-system?  What I've read about the A7 is that it's not easy to use, which seems to be a typical Sony problem.  They've taken an electronics company's view on cameras, and I'm really shocked that Panasonic got over that.  I never thought that I'd be using a Panasonic camera--ever--but it doesn't work like a rice cooker or a phone.  The GH3 works like a camera built for photographers.  I just wish that Olympus had put a bit more into the E-M1, so that it felt as comfortable as the GH3, and had the video capabilities.

Update 2014.03.13: I expect that the FujiFilm X-T1 will be the camera of the year for 2014, even though the Nikon D4s is extremely good.  However, we're just into the third month of the year and there will be many more.  I expect that the Panasonic GH4 will be my camera of the year, but it probably isn't going to be a popular choice for a hobbyist because it's more of a professional tool.  It's larger than the E-M1 or X-T1, though it's tiny compared to the D4s.  If the GH4 is like my GH3 but without the flaws and with better video and stills, it's definitely a good choice for me.

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