Checking out the Olympus OMD EM-1

It’s time for a new camera

I bought an Olympus OMD EM-1 last spring.

I’ve been thinking about going with a mirror-less camera since I bought my Nikon D600 (now D610) a couple of years ago. I’d heard really good things about Sony’s camera, but it was so new on the market that I just wasn’t willing to take the leap and I bought the Nikon instead.

Despite the beautiful full-size sensor on the Nikon D600/610, I haven’t felt a lot of love for it. It’s not as intuitive as my D300 and living through an extended period where oil from within the camera required regular thorough cleaning – and even then left me with many images so severely damaged as to be unusable – made it hard to keep its good qualities in mind. (I finally learned to clean the sensor myself even though it could void the warranty because I was sick of spending $50 and not having my camera for a week every few months. However, it’s still an expensive headache.)  Even though the oil problem seems to finally be behind me, the thing is a dust magnet. The sensor is always dirty. And, while smaller and lighter than the D300, the 610 isn’t a small camera either.

I was dreading hauling the Nikon to Europe this summer. It was too big and too much of a pain to keep clean.

So I started looking at mirror-less cameras again, expecting to buy a Sony. However, a couple of the really good photographers in my camera club were shooting with Olympus OMDs and convinced me to take a closer look at that system. While there are a lot of advantages to the Olympus system, the deal was probably sealed when I learned that the camera’s firmware allows focus stacking within the camera (instead of in Photoshop). How cool is that?

My initial purchase was an Olympus OMD EM-1 with the Zuiko 12-40 Pro lens.

olympus omd em1 - playingwithphotography

The camera itself is small (but not really small) and light (but not really light). It wasn’t cheap either. The camera body was cheaper than my D600/610, but the lens was more expensive than any of my Nikon lenses. It was a larger investment than I really wanted, but with only a few months before my trip, I didn’t feel I could dither.

(And no, unlike many of my camera club friends, I was not ready to trade in my Nikon set up. Not yet anyway.)

Initial testing

The electronic features that drew me to the Olympus OMD EM-1 have been a challenge. Maybe I never really learned all the features on my Nikon, but the Olympus seems to be much more complicated. Not only are there many more program features (like that focus stacking feature), but there are many more options for each setting. Just setting up the camera to start using it comfortably involved finding, understanding, and changing at least a half-dozen settings.

Of course, I didn’t wait to figure out all of the settings before using the camera. (Ok, I still haven’t figured most of them out.) It was time to start shooting.

Since it was spring and I love photographing flowers, I started by photographing a few flowers.

New camera 2 PlayingWithPhotography

New camera tests


I think I actually get better flower pictures from the Olympus (with the Zuiko 12-40 Pro lens) than my Nikon 610 with any lens except my ultra wide. Everything comes out bright and really crisp. They have a nice pop that I seldom get from the Nikon. Part of that is lens sharpness and part of it is the ability to get a lot closer to the flower than my Nikon lenses allow.

Part of the reason my flowers seem sharper with the Olympus OMD EM-1 and Zuiko 12-40 Pro lens can probably be explained by physics. Unfortunately, I’ve never understood physics. Let’s just say there is something about the distance between the focal point in the lens and the sensor on the camera that changes how much of the image will be in focus. In mirrorless cameras more of the image is going to be in focus than if it were shot with the equivalent SDLR.

The flip side of that “advantage” is that mirrorless cameras have a reputation for never giving a nicely blurred background with pleasing bokeh.

A couple of experiments proved I can get some background blur if I really make an effort, but it is a lot more limited.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 camera tests

New Olympus OMD EM-1 camera tests

Unfortunately, really nice bokeh does seem to be almost impossible. I’ll keep trying though.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 camera tests

Of course, there are some situations where that extra depth of field is helpful.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

The Olympus OMD EM-1 has a micro 4/3 sensor – one of the smallest sensors used in a semi-serious camera. That small sensor size limits the ability to crop in very much, as there just aren’t enough pixels. It should also make the camera more susceptible to noise when shooting at higher ISOs.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

While it is noisier than my full-frame D610, it isn’t nearly as bad as I feared.

Noise shouldn’t be a problem at all with a long exposure taken at a low ISO using a tripod, and it isn’t.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

Night photography can be a challenge, with large contrasts between light and dark, but when shooting on a tripod at a slow shutter speed, the Olympus seemed to handle it well.

In addition, the Olympus OMD EM-1 has an amazing program feature called “composite.” The composite mode is a little like setting a DSLR in continuous mode and locking the shutter so it will keep taking shot after shot until you unIock it. . . with  a couple key differences.

In composite mode, only NEW light sources are added to the image. Once it’s has captured a static light source, it ignores it. This prevents static lights from becoming too bright in the final image. (It also means that dim lights won’t get any brighter, which can be a problem as well.)

And, you can watch the image build in the camera’s rear screen in real time so you know exactly when to turn it off because you’ve captured the image you want.

It’s advertised as a great way to shoot fireworks because you can capture multiple bursts and see when you’ve got what you want.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

I’m not sold on that. Fireworks happen so fast that you really don’t much time to build an image this way. I need to play with it a lot more before I decide for sure. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many opportunities to practice shooting fireworks!

What it seems ideal for is shooting star trails.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

This is what I got the first time I ever tried shooting star trails! And all I did was set up the Olympus with the right exposure and focus, turn on composite, and let it build the image while I tried to shoot other things with the Nikon. When I liked what I saw, I hit the shutter to turn composite off. Back at home I downloaded the file, color corrected it a bit, and there it is! That seems so much more manageable than taking hundreds of shots, loading them into Photoshop, and then layering them all to create the final image. The only downside is that I have a much smaller final file, so I can’t blow it up to room size and post it on a wall somewhere. I’m ok with that trade-off.

While I liked what I was getting at night (shot on a tripod with a relatively low ISO), a smaller sensor also means the range of light (from bright to dark) that it can capture in one shot is more limited. Scenes with both extreme brights and darks are a challenge with this camera. That means I really need to finally start doing HDR. Until then, I have to carefully choose what I’m going to lose when shooting in extreme lighting.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

Not that I don’t have that issue with my Nikon, but it’s a lot more forgiving – especially on the dark end of the spectrum.

Most of those experiments were designed specifically to test the Olympus OMD EM-1 camera body and/or its programming. At the same, they also gave me a chance to see what the Zuiko 12-40 Pro lens could do.

My final test was specifically aimed at the lens.

Even on a micro 4/3rds, the Zuiko12-40 is a pretty wide lens. It’s equivalent to a 24-80 on my full-frame Nikon, which is a lot shorter than the 24-120 I usually use.  Since it’s so wide (and since I love shooting architecture), I wondered how much distortion there would be when shooting at 12 mm.

A quick test on a walk through the neighborhood proved there was very little distortion from the lens itself. A quick clean-up in Lightroom gave me nice straight lines even with the camera tilted up slightly to get my shot.

New Olympus OMD EM-1 tests

That’s a quick review of the camera and lens. I have a lot more experimenting to learn how to use all the different modes and other options!

The verdict thus far

While I still have a lot to learn about my new camera and lenses (more on other recent lens purchases later) I think it is going to work well as an all-around camera. I’m looking forward to using it in Europe this summer.

While the Olympus OMD EM-1 isn’t as small and light as I would like, it’s about half the size and weight of the Nikon D610. It fits in my backpack purse, so I can tuck it away when I am not shooting. And I think it won’t feel like a burden when I am out exploring a city for the day. I’m also confident that I’ll be able to haul around all of my camera gear myself instead of relying on my husband to help me out. (He isn’t joining me right away, so I have to be able to manage it and my luggage on my own!)

I’m also anticipating that most of my photography in Europe is going to be for the web at Exploration Vacation or stock. The smaller file size (the Olympus files are half the size of the Nikon’s) should be adequate for those purposes.

Similarly, I’m anticipating a lot of mid-day shots – not a lot of fine art – which the Olympus should handle well. The only art shots I’d like to do are exactly what the Olympus does well – star trails.

I’ll know a lot more about my new camera when I return!