Using the OM-D E-M1

The E-M1's deep grip provides plenty to hold on to, which will be welcomed by anyone with larger hands. It also means the camera can be held comfortably for extended periods. Whereas the smaller E-M5 split opinion, with some users insisting on the need for the accessory grip, we think the E-M1 will be much less divisive.

The first thing we always do when picking up an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera is to allow live control of the Super Control Panel in P/A/S/M modes. The E-M1 also offers a live view interface more akin to what you'd find on a consumer point-and-shoot called 'Live Control' with the option to switch between this and the SCP during live shooting, but we're fans enabling the latter and turning off the former. This is all available from the Custom Menu > Display > Control Settings page.

It's easy to forget the two buttons sitting next to the lens. By default they're assigned to one-touch custom WB capture and depth of field preview. If those aren't settings you find yourself using, then it might make sense to reassign them. When using a non-native lens assigning them to enable focus peaking and magnified view would give quick access to those critical controls. With Four Thirds and MFT lenses, it's less obvious what these buttons might be best used for. If you've configured the 2x2 lever to leave the buttons on the left shoulder as AF and mode drive/HDR shortcuts, you could assign those 'mode two' options (bracket and flash options) to the front buttons.

If there's a function you'd like to have quick access to, but don't want to sacrifice one of the back panel function buttons to the task (AF mode 'home' comes to mind) it might find a good home on one of the front buttons. I found it useful setting one button as a shortcut to manual focus, and assigning the second button as a shortcut to change file size settings. In the rare instances I needed to switch into JPEG-only from Raw+, it was convenient having it at hand. Otherwise, I was satisfied to use the dials and other function buttons with the 2x2 system.

Using the 2x2 dial system

The 2x2 control system means you can do almost everything with the camera at eye-level - adjust exposure parameters, shoot, review image, adjust exposure and shoot again. It's potentially a very DSLR-like experience for a mirrorless camera, and for the most part it's extremely helpful. The only frustration we encountered was the ever-so-slight pause between moving the one of the control dials and the display registering the change in ISO or white balance, both of which appear in on-screen quick menus. It's a momentary pause, and it only feels slow because changes to aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation are registered almost instantly.

One of the handiest features of the 2x2 setup is making use of dual settings for not just the command dials, but the two buttons on the camera's left shoulder. Making the decision to use flash doesn't require a trip to a menu or the Super Control Panel - just flip the switch and press the rear button to bring up an on-screen quick menu. Turning the rear dial will allow you to make your flash mode selection. The truly useful thing is that this can all happen with the camera to your eye.

Handling Impressions

Overall, then the E-M1 not only gives lots of direct access (much of it optimized for to-the-eye shooting), but it can also be extensively customized. However, while there is plenty of customization, it's not as complete as it looks. For instance, you have to re-purpose the four-way controller if you want to gain a 'touchscreen lock' button. Equally, if you've disengaged the 2x2 lever's effect on the left shoulder buttons, then you lose access to flash mode - again it can only be assigned to a four-way controller button, rather than any of the six main customizable buttons.

The other peculiarity is that the four features that appear as part of the 'Multi-Function' option aren't available separately - you can't set one button up to be Color Creator and another to be Highlight&Shadow Control - you have to swap between them on a single Multi-Function button.

We must also mention a long-standing gripe, the E-M1 (like many Olympus cameras before it) forces you to cycle through multiple shooting screens using the Info button, meaning you can't combine display options even when it makes perfect sense to have them shown at the same time (for example the highlight/shadow warning with the histogram, or gridlines with the electronic level). This type of behaviour dates back to Olympus's early live view DSLRs, and is now looking distinctly dated.

These restrictions are hard to explain and do mean the E-M1 isn't quite the fully customizable camera it appears. Still, there's plenty that can be fine-tuned, if the default setup isn't quite to your taste - and we doubt many people would make use of true any-function-to-any-button customization. Even without this, it's still worth sitting down with the list of available options to think through exactly how you want your camera to behave.

More camera when you want it

The 2x2 interface represents, in a way, the camera itself. It presents dual functionality, and moves easily between roles. If you want the E-M1 to behave like a DSLR, it will respond accordingly in just about every way. The viewfinder is nice and bright, focus in most situations is very fast, and a whole lot of direct control to often-used features is provided. However, the E-M1 can easily transition into the lightweight, casual snapshooter that you'd expect a Micro Four Thirds camera to be.

After a weekend shooting with the (excellent) 12-40mm F2.8 and a bag of Four Thirds lenses, I swapped them all for the 17mm F1.8 and was amazed how the E-M1 felt like a totally different camera. True, you can switch out a heavy zoom for a lightweight prime on a DSLR and get something of the same feeling, but the DSLR doesn't transition into the role of a take-me-anywhere camera quite like a Micro Four Thirds body does. And the E-M1 is unique in its ability fill this role as well the one above it, where the DSLR is most comfortable.