We'll call it here first: The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a DSLR killer. That's what we think about Olympus' newest flagship after just a brief hands-on session with it and here's why.
The second camera in the high-end OM-D line, the E-M1 represents the pinnacle of Olympus' mirrorless cameras. It forms the first bridge between the company's Micro Four Thirds mirrorless line and its previous Four Thirds series; with the help of an adapter, the E-M1 can mount the renowned Zuiko Digital lenses from the latter system and still retain auto-focus thanks to a new dual AF system. In fact, Olympus is officially calling the E-M1 the successor to the three-year old E-5, the last of the Four Thirds DSLR cameras.
The dual AF system, or what Olympus calls Dual Fast AF, combines the phase detection AF technology normally found on DSLR cameras with the contrast detection AF technology normally found on mirrorless cameras. It's not the first mirrorless camera to do so, but it does so in a unique way. Instead of a hybrid AF method which uses phase detection to start the AF process and then fine-tuning the lock with contrast detection AF, the E-M1 will start off by determining which focus method is best in the situation and use one exclusively.
Olympus says that this method produces faster focusing times, and trying out the E-M1 seems to bear this out: AF speed is astonishingly fast and sure. Dual Fast AF is only enabled during C-AF (Continuous Auto-focus) however, and you can't manually dictate to the camera which AF method you're prefer. But if it works, it would solve one of mirrorless' biggest problems, which is its poor performance in tracking moving subjects through multiple burst shots.
Speaking about bursts, besides the inclusion of contrast detection AF, the E-M1 can shoot at a fast 6.5 frames per second in C-AF mode up to 50 raw shots, 10 fps in S-AF (Single AF) mode up to 41 raw shots. And unlike with a DSLR, there is no blackout in the viewfinder when the shutter releases - leading us to think that the E-M1 might just be the first sport-capable mirrorless camera body. We'd love to bring it out to the field and try for sure.
(Some might think the Nikon V1, with its insanely fast AF and the ability to shoot 15 frames per second with AF-C marks it as a solid mirrorless sports camera, but the way the camera blacks out after each burst cripples it for any serious action photography.)
The second thing you should know about the E-M1 is that the built-in digital EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) rivals the optical viewfinders found in full-frame DSLR cameras. It has 0.74x viewfinder magnification (in 35mm equivalent) and a 2.36 million dot LCD panel, and is essentially an Olympus VF-4 EVF accessory built into the camera.
The EVF's screen is bigger than those found on full-frame DSLRs; with a luxurious viewing area. Being digital, it comes with perks that optical viewfinders don't, like the ability to access the menu from within the EVF. We still find ourselves struggling to say that this might be the first digital viewfinder to rival or top an optical viewfinder - old preferences die hard - but in our hands-on session we didn't miss an optical viewfinder one bit while using the E-M1. We're sure some will scream sacrilege at that last statement, but it's something you need to see to believe.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 seems to address two of the main challenges holding mirrorless system cameras back from taking over DSLR cameras entirely. The combination of phase and contrast detection AF might just overcome mirrorless cameras' traditional weaknesses at focusing on moving subjects, and the large and responsive EVF is the first we've seen that truly seems to rival an optical viewfinder.
But the E-M1 doesn't just solve mirrorless' challenges, it also brings its own advantages to the table. Olympus' leading-class 5-axis image stabilization is quite possibly the best built-in OIS in the market today. Having a digital EVF brings certain advantages over optical, like the ability to dig into the menu without taking your eye off the viewfinder. And while the E-M1 seems to have caught up with EVF technology, DSLR cameras have not caught up with the same touch-screen user friendliness you can find on some mirrorless cameras today (perhaps exacting the Canon 100D).
And of course, the E-M1 with lenses attached is much smaller and lighter than any comparable DSLR with the equivalent lenses. Your back will thank you for that.
Some will say that the last bastion of DSLR refuge over Micro Four Thirds is the better image quality you get from a larger APS-C sensor. We feel, however, that MFT image quality today has reached the standards of 'good enough', and we're not the only ones to think so.
Now, the last thing to talk about is price. Olympus will be selling the body alone at S$1,948, and together with the new 12-40mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Pro lens at S$2,948. The Olympus E-M5 at launch cost S$1,488 for the body alone. The new camera's price sounds steep, but the E-M1 is clearly a pro-body camera, and the fast zoom lens costs S$1,388 by itself, so you're getting a S$388 discount when you buy it in the kit. Unfortunately, Olympus still stubbornly refuses to package the lens hood together with the lens like any other lens manufacturer, and forces you to buy it separately at S$78.
Watch out for our review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, coming soon.