Q&A: Olympus E-M1 One Year Later

Olympus E-M1 top right controls
Olympus E-M1 top right controls


A wedding photographer recently emailed me these questions:  “I saw an article on how you incorporate the OMD E-M1 into your work…. Would you mind answering a few questions: Has it truly replaced the 85, 135 and 70-200? Do E-M1 images have the same high quality as those from a DSLR? Are you using flash with the E-M1 at weddings?” Here is my reply, edited for this blog post.

I enjoyed the E-M1 for a full year and did incorporate it in my wedding and portrait photography, but don’t have it any more. At the moment I’m back to using Canon full-time.

I love the idea of a high quality small camera and the E-M1 definitely qualifies as high quality and small. I had bought the E-M1 mainly as a telephoto camera+lens replacement because with the 75mm lens it is truly small and has great reach. And it offers a very shallow depth of field when you want it. I also had the 42.5mm Panasonic and the 17mm Olympus lenses.

1. Does it truly replace the 85, 135 and 70-200?

I think you can truly replace those if you get those equivalent focal lengths and if you don’t really need the larger format of a DSLR (FF or APS-C). I had 85 and 135 near equivalents in the 42.5 and 75mm.  I didn’t try the zooms, though I’ve read very good things about them.

2. Do E-M1 images have the same high quality as those from a DSLR?

This is one of my issues with the E-M1. I think the answer is partly NO. The images have a very high quality considering the size of the format, but the size of the format limits them a bit in relation to the bigger DSLR formats. This can make a difference if you ever print large and if you’re often shooting at high ISO. The latest DSLRs are better for those purposes. For printing smaller and for lower ISOs, the image quality is pretty close, sometimes amazingly close. It is definitely impressive, just not as impressive as you will likely get from a full frame camera.

3. Are you using flash with the E-M1 at weddings?

I didn’t use the E-M1 with flash at weddings. I played with using a Canon flash but it was just too big & heavy for the E-M1, and I didn’t get a dedicated Olympus flash. My reasoning was that I would use it as an available light camera. But I came close to buying a flash a few times, and it would not have been a mistake. Flash would definitely extend the E-M1’s range and make it more useful. I did make lots of nice available light photos with the E-M1. At the same time I felt that at higher ISOs they would be just a little nicer with my DSLR.

After a year and lots of use, I did sell the camera and lenses and here are my thoughts —

At first I definitely fell in “love” with the camera, being so impressed that it could be so good and so small at the same time. I tried to use it as much as possible, tried to get a really good understanding of the features/settings, and tried to develop a strong muscle memory of the wheels and buttons.

I guess the turning point was when I used the E-M1 exclusively on a family trip.  On reviewing the photos later, I felt that the photos were somewhat lacking compared to what I would have gotten with a DSLR. It was not a big difference — but it was enough to make me feel I had give something up. It was mostly the evening available light photos that let me down a bit. Of course, the E-M1 offered the benefit of a much smaller and lighter (and sometimes more fun) camera. But in the end, it was a confirmation that there is no perfect camera; each has some compromises. That said, I still think it’s a very good camera for its size.

To put numbers on the differences, as I remember: the E-M1 is very good at ISO 1600 and OK at ISO 3200 and just useable at ISO 6400 with noise reduction. Current DSLRs are excellent at ISO 3200 and good at ISO 6400 and useable at ISO 12800 with noise reduction. So it’s a difference of about a stop, but maybe two stops, depending on the DSLR. There is also the difference that full-frame has a larger format look, just a little richer and smoother at the same aperture and ISO.

The final detail that made me go back to all Canon was the familiar Canon interface. After putting down the E-M1 for a while, I felt that I had forgotten a lot and had to relearn a lot. Having used Canon for many more years, the Canon interface (buttons, wheels, menus, etc.) offers a level of comfort when having to make quick decisions. Even after a year, the E-M1 still felt like a bit of a stranger to me. The complicated menu system didn’t help. I had spend hours customizing this very customizable camera, but after a trip for service on the rubber grip, Olympus returned it with all settings set back to default, thus wiping out all of my customization.

To finish this long answer, I think that you can definitely make it work for weddings and as a 70-200mm replacement, but the big factor is how committed you are to making it work. You’ll have to judge whether the image quality difference matters for your style of photography and whether the size and weight advantages outweigh any disadvantages. Finally, you’ll have to judge whether it’s worth the degree of self-training that it takes to get fully up to speed with a different system. Good luck!


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