Conclusion - Pros

  • Sturdy, weather-resistant body with lovely retro styling
  • Excellent image quality
  • Chromatic aberration corrected in-camera making JPEGs more usable
  • 2x2 interface puts more controls at your fingers
  • Impressive number of customizable controls
  • Bright, sharp electronic viewfinder
  • Reliable Wi-Fi connectivity for remote control and easy transfer of images to mobile device
  • Color Creator introduces more in-camera processing options
  • Neat in-camera time lapse creation
  • Nearly all of the functionality of a semi-pro DSLR in a compact body
  • Convenient in-camera Raw conversion with ability to save settings as presets

Conclusion - Cons

  • Interface and controls can be overwhelming initially
  • In-camera Raw conversion interface is somewhat unintuitive
  • Auto focus with Four Thirds lenses is slow in dim conditions with tricky subjects
  • Only one SD card slot
  • Inconveniently-placed power switch
  • Disappointing video quality
  • Multi-screen live view interface looks very dated (e.g. can't combine electronic level and histogram)

Overall Conclusion

The first OM-D model - the E-M5 - was a breakthrough camera, both for Olympus and, arguably, for the industry too. The combination of the best Four Thirds sensor yet in a well worked-out, twin control dial body led us to call it one of the most capable mirrorless cameras we'd then seen. Our end-of-year poll suggested a fair proportion of our readers agreed, with it claiming the title: 'Readers' Camera of the Year.'

This makes life rather harder for the E-M1 - not only does it have to match the E-M5, it aims to surpass it, sitting further up the camera pyramid. On top of that, Olympus has positioned the E-M1 as the successor to its line of semi-pro DSLRs. Despite this tall order, it didn't fail to impress in the weeks we've been using it.

Features

As usual, Olympus has created some new features to add, including the Color Creator tool and in-camera HDR, but it's the more fundamental changes that make all the difference. The larger body gives the E-M1 a little more room to add controls, and the 2x2 control system gives access to almost every key setting while the camera is up to your eye, in a way that you tend to find only on the best DSLRs.

The high resolution viewfinder is also very good - giving a very DSLR-like view of the world. The large size and fast refresh rate make it rather pleasant to use and this, combined with the at-my-fingertips controls meant that we found ourselves using the viewfinder in preference to the rear screen, both for previewing shots and for changing settings.

Our first impressions of the focus performance were pretty positive, and they hold true after weeks of use - continuous AF seems much improved (if not quite at Pro DSLR level), and its handling of Four Thirds lenses should be good enough to save them from collecting dust as relics of the development of DSLR technology. And, of course, single AF acquisition with Micro Four Thirds lenses is still stunningly fast.

Image Quality

The E-M1 provides the excellent image quality that you'd expect from a camera of its semi-pro level. Its Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the APS-C imagers of its Nikon D7100 and Canon EOS 70D peers, but we think the difference it makes in real world shooting is hard to spot. You need to put the E-M1 up against a full frame camera to really see a significant difference in image quality. And thankfully, the image shake issue that has plagued some Olympus cameras does not appear to be a problem in the E-M1 as compared to the E-P5.

The camera offers a number of nice-to-have video recording features included like reliable image stabilization for movies, option for external microphone and some fun video effect modes. However, anyone serious about videography will likely be disappointed by poor detail resolution in video mode. Olympus engineers have clearly paid attention to video features, but haven't managed to provide a high enough quality video mode to satisfy those who would most want to use them.

System

If you have a stash of Four Thirds lenses, you'll find them perfectly usable with the E-M1 outdoors, and if you're patient, usable in moderate-to-low light as well. The included flash provides some real flexibility with the option to remotely control an off-camera flash. Your photo bag, as an E-M1 user, could be as heavy or light as you like. Add a couple of primes, an adapter, a flashgun, a tripod for your in-camera timelapse movies, and you're set for a day of serious shooting. Micro Four Thirds provides the largest selection of lenses for mirrorless cameras so filling up that bag isn't hard, and those needing more telephoto reach can find it in the form of Four Thirds lenses.

Spending a weekend with the E-M1 and the (heavy) 12-40mm F2.8 along with a few more lenses, I was amazed when I switched them out for the 17mm F1.8. The small prime makes the E-M1 feel like a completely different camera - a trick that a bulkier DSLR doesn't pull off as convincingly.

For a Micro Four Thirds camera there's no question that the E-M1 tips the scale in terms of weight and size, but as compared to a mid-to-high-end DSLR it's still much lighter. There's also a number of good prime lenses designed specifically for this sensor format, something APS-C DSLRs are sadly lacking. As a system camera, the E-M1 offers more than enough to keep an enthusiast or hobbyist happy.

The final word

Without even knowing Olympus' positioning of the camera, you'd imagine just looking at it that the E-M1 is something of a double act. It attempts to be two things - the almost pro-level 'DSLR' and the lightweight, carry-it-all-day camera Micro Four Thirds has been giving us for years. And that's exactly what the it's intended to be - successor to the E-5 and step up from the E-M5.

Putting all of the customizability of a DSLR in a Micro Four Thirds camera could pose a problem for the E-M1. Much of Micro Four Third's appeal comes from offering a lighter, leaner alternative to a DSLR, and adding so many DSLR-style controls could make it too big and throw away its advantages of being small. While we found there were definitely more customizable controls than we needed, ultimately the level of control the camera offers while it's positioned at your eye, makes it slick to use in a way that rivals the best semi-pro DSLRs.

Choosing a Micro Four Thirds camera over an APS-C DSLR usually means sacrificing a bit of low light image quality for a gain in portability. The E-M1's size might be cause for concern to someone considering the camera. In order to get the handling and controls it provides, is it still portable enough to make the trade-off worthwhile? We think it is. We didn't see a drastic drop in image quality in low light as compared to APS-C DSLR and, for all of its additional controls and size, the E-M1 and a couple of lenses are still easily packed into a small bag.

Bottom line: if you want to feel like you're shooting with a DSLR, but still want the size and agility of a mirrorless camera, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better option than the E-M1.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Olympus OM-D E-M1
Category: Semi-professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Those who prefer viewfinder shooting, want a relatively compact system camera without sacrificing external controls of a DSLR.
Not so good for
Sports and fast action demanding very fast burst rates, very low light, and users with little interest in customizing camera functions.
Overall score
84%
In most respects the E-M1 does a good job bridging the gap between a traditional DSLR and a Micro Four Thirds camera. Its controls and customizability may overwhelm less hands-on users, but those who don't mind tinkering will love its flexibility. The improved autofocus tracking and performance with original Four Thirds lenses adds to the appeal of a camera with blazingly fast AF acquisition speeds with its native lenses.

Recommended Links

Want to make sure you don't miss out on any future articles?
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter!

Enter the 'Micro Four Thirds Talk' Discussion Forum