The Road to E-M1
From Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds
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This is my introduction to the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera. My actual impressions and comments on it can be found in the First Look, while a detailed write-up will be in the full review and reference — if and when I write it.
The E-M1. released in November of 2013, is the second camera in the OM-D line by Olympus, after the E-M5, introduced in 2012. It is more significant than just an update of that model, for reasons I will be elaborating upon below.
The article is written from the perspective of a long-time Olympus E-System (Four Thirds) user, so it may be biased in a two ways. For one, I like the way in which Olympus approaches the technology and practice of digital photography; this is why I've been using their cameras since 2000. On the opposite, having used mostly Olympus DSLRs, I may be biased against EVF cameras just because they belong to a somewhat different breed. Hopefully, these two may, to some extent, balance each other; still, consider yourself warned.
Promotional image, all rights © by Olympus.
What's in the name?
First, let's talk about the camera name. The OM-D E-M1 sequence consists of nine (!) quite arbitrarily chosen characters, including two hyphens (which I will never get right), and a space separating two parts. Do the Olympus marketing people really think that making the product name difficult to memorize and, at least to an outsider, meaningless, will make it look more cool, advanced, attractive, or whatever?
Actually the model name is just E-M1, while OM-D is the name of product line (remember Camedia or Evolt, names nobody used anyway?) The latter, I believe, stands for OM-Digital, referring to the (deservedly) legendary OM-line of SLRs which started from the OM-1 in 1972 and was abandoned in 1986 in favor of fixed-lens SLRs with zoom lenses built in (Olympus was pushing the ZLR moniker, suggesting a totally new category) which came and went without making any splash (does this sound familiar?).
The OM-1 was originally named M1, which turned out to be a name trademarked by Leica (or whoever owned the Leica name then), so Olympus had to rename the camera to something safer.
From Four Thirds into Micro Four Thirds?
When Olympus ditched their E-series of digital SLRs in 2010, without any apology or explanation to the existing user base, it was sometimes hinted that their Digital Pen series can be used as a sort-of alternative, accommodating legacy FT lenses but also inheriting (and expanding upon) the E-System image-processing Engine, which many (myself in this number) like so much.
For me, the Pen never was, or could be, an alternative to, or continuation of, the E-System. While these were nice and capable cameras, they were having a few problems, each of which on its own was enough for me to stay away:
The closest to my needs were μFT cameras from the Panasonic G-series, but none of them would address all three of my concerns listed above, and each of them was missing something in my book. Besides, I was happily shooting with my E-30 and E-620, both capable of delivering very nice results, as good today as they were four years ago. I decided to dig in and wait, just following the news — mostly from Nikon, Pentax, and Sony...
Enter the E-M5
In 2012 Olympus introduced the first camera of the OM-D line: the E-M5, which took care of two out of three points on my list (no acceptable AF with FT lenses, though). I bought it not because I needed to replace my FT SLR bodies, but to get a smaller, capable camera (possibly as a backup), and, frankly, just to have a closer look.
I took the E-M5 for a trip to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, along with an E-30 — and ended up using it 90% of the time, with very satisfying results. Frankly, the size and weight of the camera, and even more so of the lenses, played a role here, too. An outfit including the 12-50, 40-150, and 75-300 mm lenses ended up being very manageable and a pleasure to use; this was also the first electronic viewfinder I could live with. And yes, the autofocus (with μFT lenses) turned out to be as fast and accurate as that in E-series SLRs.
Like it or not, I consider digital SLRs to be a dying breed. In 2005 I wrote a small article, Cameras: the Next Ten Years, for the British Olympus Circle Quest newsletter, predicting this to happen. Obviously, the writing was on the wall already.
The favorable impression of the E-M5 made a decision easy: instead of looking for another SLR line to switch to when my E-System SLRs becomes really obsolete (or just breaks), I will go the ILC (interchangeable-lens camera, non-SLR) way, and at this moment Panasonic and Olympus seem to enjoy a lead in this field — therefore Micro Four Thirds, for a few years at least.
Seems like the E-M5 was a runaway success for Olympus; it was (and still is, as of this writing) selling briskly, and has a very good press, plus a quite enthusiastic following. Thus I wasn't surprised seeing an announcement for its successor, the E-M1. This is the tech market: you are supposed to have a new (presumably improved) model each year.
No, this one is not "new and improved", it is new and improved. Actually, my impression now is that Olympus released the E-M5, as nice a camera as it is, only as a placeholder, to gain some time (and attention) before the real thing. This is the real debut of the OM-D line.
I am not going to discuss the E-M1 in detail here; for that refer to my First Look, but let me just highlight the camera's futures which made me buy it, and which, most probably (you never can tell) will make me settle down in the Micro Four Thirds standard:
I arranged these points in my subjective order of decreasing importance; yours may be different, especially if you do not have any FT lenses worth using with this camera. Still, all FT lenses I've tried with the E-M1 did autofocus just fine, which is a relief.
Is this an ideal camera? No, not by far. The E-M1 has a number of irritating quirks and limitations, but this will wait for my upcoming articles on the subject. It is, however, the best μFT camera to-date, and probably the most advanced and fun-to-use ILC so far (although the competition is heating up).
Settling down with μFT
Now, that μFT has at least one camera I really like (don't disregard the E-M5!), I am ready to appreciate the advantages (and suffer disadvantages) of that system. Unexpectedly, the reduced size and weight are of more importance to me now than they used to be a few years ago. The OM-D bodies are enjoyably small, but not too small to be handled confidently, and the lenses have shrunk quite dramatically (for example, my new 75-300 mm is smaller and lighter than the original 40-150 mm Zuiko from 2004 (it has, admittedly, smaller aperture, but still, double the focal length!).
On the flip side, the battery life in OM-D cameras is not quite up to my expectations: the new batteries are smaller (read: hold less juice) than those used in most of the E-System SLRs and, obviously, electronic viewing consumes some power, unlike an optical SLR system.
I'm assuming that Olympus and Panasonic will keep actively developing their full-function μFT ILCs and, as importantly, the lenses. Currently the combined offer of these two makers includes more lenses than all other ILC lines combined; among these a number of very attractive, high-quality primes. The new Panasonic GX-7 seems like an interesting, and very attractive, alternative to the E-M1, and I expect more to come.
Oh, did I mention the F/0.95 Voigtländer Noktons?
I think I will settle with Micro Four Thirds for a while.
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|Posted 2013/12/02; last update 2017/12/23||Copyright © 2013-2017 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak|