Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

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RobertH
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Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by RobertH » April 22nd, 2014, 10:10 am

Introduction

I thought I would share my impressions of the Olympus E-M1, a relatively new Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera competing with mid-range DSLR models. Its small size and light weight, coupled with DSLR-like image quality, arguably makes it an ideal camera for herp photography.

I should point out that I have no personal experience shooting with the Olympus E-M1. I am also not a serious herp photographer myself, nor do I even shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless exchangeable lens camera. I take mostly landscape shots with a Panasonic Lumix FZ200, a P&S superzoom. Rather, the Olympus E-M1 is the camera my 12-year-old son Nicholas has been using for the past two months. As some of you here know, despite his young age Nicholas is already an experienced herp photographer (he started when he was 8), and in the last year or so has also gotten heavily into bird and butterfly photography. You may want to check out his extensive Flickr album:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholashess/page1/

Here he is taking a break in the desert at sunset:
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Although I have no personal experience shooting with the Olympus E-M1, I have had to familiarize myself intricately with the camera to explain some of its features to Nicholas and have, of course, gotten continuous feedback from him on the camera. I hope that this sufficiently qualifies me to write this review. I have included plenty of images, which hopefully will speak for themselves.


Why buy a micro four thirds (MFT) camera and not a DSLR?

This is not the time or place to explain the micro four thirds (MFT) format and how it differs from a standard DSLR. Let it suffice to say that MFT cameras use mirrorless technology that accounts for their smaller size and lower weight. To learn more about the Micro Four Thirds format in general, I suggest you read this introductory article: http://www.four-thirds.org/en/microft/whitepaper.html.

The reason why the Olympus E-M1 is the best choice for Nicholas right now is this: the camera feels, operates and produces images like a capable, mid-range DSLR, but is small enough for him to carry and use with reliably good results in the field. A standard DSLR, even a small one, like the Nikon D5300, is simply too heavy for him once you add a long zoom lens, his walk-around lens of choice because he also birds while he herps.

Although most of you here are, of course, adults and thus perfectly capable of carrying a DSLR with a heavy zoom lens, it is a common complaint among herp (and other wildlife) photographers that at times they wish their gear was less bulky – and lighter, much lighter. While DSLR camera bodies are in some cases not much larger and heavier than the Olympus E-M1, standard DSLR lenses invariably are.

If you are one of those people, the Olympus E-M1 may be the answer to your prayers. In combination with various MFT lenses (by Olympus or Panasonic, both work equally well with the Olympus E-M1), the Olympus E-M1 offers excellent image quality in a package small enough to comfortably carry in the field all day long.


The camera

The Olympus E-M1 is currently the top-of-the-line micro four thirds camera (of any make). It is aimed at photography enthusiasts (and not just 12-year olds ;-)) who want uncompromising DSLR capabilities without the bulk. This is reflected by its rather steep price tag, $1,399 (body only). While this may put the camera beyond the budget of some here, especially first-time DSLR buyers, other, more experienced photographers who already own many thousand dollars worth of equipment will probably feel differently. Or at least they should. The Olympus E-M1 may be small, as are the accompanying MFT lenses, but it's powerful and fills a long-neglected niche like no other camera does at the moment.


Handling and Operation

The Olympus E-M1 looks and feels just like a DSLR, only smaller. The articulated grip allows for a secure hold, all buttons and dials are easily accessible, and all important functions, like white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, flash intensity, autofocus, HDR, etc., are assigned to buttons and/or the front or rear dial, i.e., you don't have to scroll through the menu. The electronic viewfinder is large and bright (for more details, see below), the tilting LCD monitor is easy and intuitive to use, and the eye sensor makes switching between the two a cinch. Though Nicholas does not use this option, all of the buttons can be reassigned to different functions if desired. This means that you can reprogram each button of the Olympus E-M1 to fit your own personal needs and preferences.

Here are some images of the camera I copied from this dpreview article: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/olympus-om-d-e-m1

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Now some bad news: the Olympus E-M1 is not exactly user-friendly. Almost none of the buttons, dials or switches are labeled to indicate which functions they control. The reason is that the camera features a toggle switch with two positions that doubles the functions of both dials and most buttons. As a result, the dials and buttons cannot be labeled one way or the other. This means that you simply have to remember what each button does in which position of the toggle switch. By now, Nicholas seems to have mastered the important functions. But now and then, we still have to refer back to the manual to figure out what certain buttons are for and in which position of the toggle switch. So, intuitive to use the Olympus E-M1 is not. Especially after coming from the Panasonic Lumix G2, which was extremely intuitive to use requiring almost no reference to the manual, this was a huge change for Nicholas. Fortunately, his young mind seems to be able to deal with this challenge fairly easily. I'm not so sure about those of us whose minds are not quite so young anymore. I, for one, being a bit technologically (digitally) challenged in general, would not be up to the task.


Image Quality

First of all, note that the images below look significantly sharper on Flickr than on this forum. To get a more accurate idea of the image quality, I therefore suggest that you look at these and other shots in Nicholas's Flickr album (see link above).

The sensor of MFT cameras is about 30% smaller than an APS-C sensor. Until recently, this limited the performance of MFT cameras (Nicholas's old Panasonic Lumix G2 is a good example). The Olympus E-M1 is a game changer in this regard. Professional reviews agree that despite its smaller sensor size, it can readily compete with ASP-C DSLRs in terms of image quality.

Though I was skeptical at first, I wholeheartedly agree now. Compared to the Panasonic Lumix G2, the Olympus E-M1 picks up way more details, renders more natural, vibrant colors, and produces much less noise and other unwanted image deterioration. At least to my eye, image quality seems on par with that seen in mid-range DSLR models by Nikon, Canon and Sony, and not just as low ISO settings.

For starters, here are images of two of our most common herps:

Western Fence Lizard
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Pacific Gopher Snake
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Both were taken with the Panasonic 100mm – 300mm zoom lens, which I review below.

The superior IQ of the Olympus E-M1 is also aptly demonstrated by some of Nicholas's first macro non-herp images taken with the new camera:

Wing detail of Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly
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Mostly for reference, here is a full-body shot of the same butterfly:
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Water droplets on rose leaf Image
All three shots were taken with the Olympus 60mm macro lens (see below).

The impressive image quality of the Olympus E-M1 is, in part, due to the new 16MP MOS sensor with no low-pass filter. A low-pass filter, also known as anti-aliasing or "blur" filter, is designed to eliminate the problem of moiré. A moiré pattern occurs when a scene or an object that is being photographed contains repetitive details (such as lines, dots, etc.) that exceed the sensor resolution. To prevent moiré, a low-pass filter essentially reduces the amount of detail, thereby blurring the image to a certain extent. Because moiré is almost never seen in nature, a low-pass filter is a pure loss for herp photographers. You lose valuable detail with no benefit to show for. Olympus is one of the few camera manufacturers (e.g., the Nikon D 7100 also has no low-pass filter) to address this problem and to cater to nature photographers rather than generalists.


High ISO performance

One of the main drawbacks of Nicholas's previous camera, the Panasonic Lumix G2, was its dismal high ISO performance. In this case, high ISO performance meant anything above 400 ISO. Even at 800 ISO, images showed noticeable grain. Images shot at ISO settings above 800 were, for all practical intents and purposes, unusable. This often presented problems in low light situations, forcing Nicholas to use flash (for closeup shots) in some cases and to accept a certain amount of noise in others (e.g., birds in flight without direct sunlight).

The Olympus E-M1 offers ISO performance comparable to that of a mid-range DSLR. Up to 1600 ISO, there is almost no noise at all, and even up to 3200 ISO noise stays within acceptable limits, better than what the Panasonic Lumix G2 produced at 800 ISO. While Nicholas rarely shoots with ISO settings above 800, there is now no longer a penalty for using 800 ISO, a setting he does use a lot; and when he does resort to higher ISO settings it allows him to capture images that previously would have been impossible. Here is an example:

San Diego Alligator Lizard
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This shot was taken without flash in the late afternoon under a large oak tree - at 3200 ISO! The bokeh shows some minor grain, but that's about it.

Here is a strongly cropped shot of the same lizard, also taken at 3200 ISO, but with flash, showing a tick and several mites behind the ear:

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At least to us, it's amazing that even at 3200 ISO and the additional magnification, the details of the tick are still so sharp.

Both shots were taken with the Olympus 60mm macro lens (see below).

Electronic viewfinder: The 2,380,000 dot OLED EVF with 0.74x magnification (equiv.) is a real pleasure to use. The eyepiece is very large, and the resolution is extremely fine. This makes composing the image and focusing in manual mode much easier. In fact, it seems to be so easy that Nicholas does not even use the manual focus assist function. This optional function magnifies the autofocus target area during manual focusing, allowing precise manual focusing. The viewfinder also has an eye sensor, which switches automatically from the monitor to the viewfinder when the viewfinder is used.

LCD monitor: The 1.04M-dot 3" LCD touch screen display is also impressive. It shows excellent detail, even better than the Panasonic Lumix G2, which is not bad, either, and is bright enough to use in all conditions. It also allows for touch screen operation. Most notably, you can touch the screen to select the autofocus target area and adjust the size of the target area with a slider on one side of the screen. You can even take a picture just by touching the screen, rather than pressing the shutter button. Though the monitor is not fully articulated, a nice feature of the Panasonic Lumix G2, the tilt mechanism is generally adequate for Nicholas's purposes and actually faster to use than a fully articulated monitor, which requires first flipping the monitor to the side and then adjusting the angles. The tilting monitor of the Olympus E-M1 requires only a single adjustment, namely the tilt angle.


Electronic preview: This is one of the key advantages of a mirrorless digital camera over a digital camera with optical viewfinder. Not only the LCD monitor, but also the EVF shows how the image will actually look. This makes it very easy to adjust exposure, white balance, highlights, shadows, and other settings, even when working with the EVF. The Olympus E-M1 also has a dedicated button to preview depth of field, allowing you see how much depth of field you have at any given aperture.

Focus peaking: Another neat feature of the Olympus E-M1 is focus peaking. When focus peaking is activated in the menu, the camera will automatically outline, in black or white color (the choice is yours), those areas of the image that are in focus as you turn the focus ring. That makes it a lot easier to be sure that the target area will be in focus, e.g., during macro photography. Focus peaking can even be combined with the manual assist function mentioned above, which allows you to magnify the target area. Nicholas, for one, prefers using just focus peaking, but not the manual assist function. I guess, his young eyes are sharp enough not to need the extra magnification. For most of us older folks, however, having both functions available certainly should come in handy.

Five-axis in body image stabilization: The Olympus E-M1's brand-new five axis image stabilization system is touted to be one of the best on the market. Judging by Nicholas's images, the system indeed appears to be working well. He has produced hardly any images with camera shake since he started shooting with the Olympus E-M1. And he takes most of his shots either at full zoom (300mm = 600mm full frame equivalent) or in macro mode, and never with a tripod. When using the Olympus E-M1 with one of his Panasonic lenses, he simply switches off the image stabilization of the lens.


Autofocus: The autofocus of the Olympus E-M1 is reported to be one of the fastest around. According to Nicholas, it is considerably faster than that of his old Panasonic Lumix G2. This makes a difference, especially, when taking pictures of birds in flight like this diving Northern Harrier:

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But it also counts when taking pictures of herbs on the move, such as the Orange-Throated Whiptail here in California, which has a habit of hardly ever stopping long enough to have its picture taken.

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The autofocus is also highly accurate, to the point where Nicholas usually feels no need to use manual focus, even for macro photography.

HDR: Unavailable on the Panasonic Lumix G2, the high dynamic range (HDR) function has resonated well with Nicholas. While he does not use it a lot, it has come in handy at times. The typical scenario is a herp sitting in the shade on a bright sunny day. Here is a
Red Diamond Rattlesnake sitting under ledge in Riverside County:

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You can actually hear the camera taking several images to be combined into a single HDR image, which makes you wonder why no camera shake ever shows up in the image later on. But it doesn't.

Removable on-body flash: The Olympus E-M1 features a removable on-body flash. It looks much like an in-body pop-up flash, but can be removed from the hot shoe and replaced with a larger, more powerful flash unit if needed. Or the flash can simply be stowed for even less bulk.

Aside from its versatility, the on-body flash is also highly adjustable in intensity. Though Nicholas's prior camera, the Panasonic Lumix G2, also had adjustable flash intensity, as do most comparable cameras, Nicholas was never happy with the low end output: Even at the least intense setting, the flash was often still too bright, blowing out highlights, resulting in undesirable reflections, and overall giving the image an unnatural look. Nicholas tried using a cheap pop-up flash diffuser for a while, which sort of worked, but it made it difficult to control the lighting (either too dark or too bright) and would come off sometimes and get lost in the woods.

To Nicholas's delight, the Olympus E-M1 flash has pretty much fixed this problem. See for yourself:

Red Diamond Rattlesnake coiled up in the shade of a palm tree:
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San Diego Alligator Lizard under thick foliage in a riparian canyon:
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Splash, dust and freeze proof: The Olympus E-M1 is weatherproof when used in combination with weatherproof lenses. In Nicholas's case, this is true only for his Olympus 60mm macro lens. His Panasonic lenses are unfortunately not weatherproof. If you are considering buying the Olympus E-M1, and are concerned about this feature, it would therefore make sense for you to buy Olympus rather than Panasonic lenses (though not all Olympus MFT lenses may be weatherproof, I am not sure). For Nicholas, this feature is less important, since we live in Southern California, where rain and subfreezing temperatures are basically never an issue. Still, the waterproof feature is bound to come in handy one day when taking pictures of salamanders on a rainy day with the Olympus 60mm macro lens.


Other features and options: The Olympus E-M1 is loaded with a huge array of features and options (including HD video and WiFi), a description of which would go far beyond the scope of this review. If you are interested in finding out more details about the Olympus E-M1, I suggest you read the dpreview:

http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/olympus-om-d-e-m1


The lenses

Let me say a few words about the particular set of lenses Nicholas uses: before owning the Olympus E-M1, he was shooting with the Panasonic Lumix G2 camera. For that camera, we had already bought three Panasonic lenses, the Panasonic 14mm-42mm kit lens, the Panasonic 45mm-200mm zoom lens, and, most recently, the Panasonic 100mm-300mm zoom lens. The latter lens, together with the new Olympus 60mm macro lens and Panasonic kit lens, has pretty much rendered the Panasonic 45mm-200mm obsolete in terms of focus distance. The Panasonic 100mm-300mm lens also produces noticeably better image quality than the Panasonic 45mm-200mm lens, while not being significantly larger or heavier (though almost twice as expensive). Hence, my recommendation would be not to invest in the Panasonic 45mm-200mm lens, but simply go with the Olympus 60mm macro lens, Panasonic 100mm-300mm lens and either the Panasonic 14-42mm or a comparable Olympus MFT lens. That will save you money, while at the same time further streamlining your gear.

Note also that Olympus cameras use in-body image stabilization, whereas Panasonic makes stabilized lenses. To use Panasonic lenses on the Olympus E-M1, you can either turn off the IS system of the Panasonic lenses or turn off the in-body IS system of the Olympus E-M1. Nicholas prefers the former, as the in-body IS system of the Olympus E-M1 is amazingly effective.

Take a look at these images showing the Olympus E-M1 camera body and four different lenses next to a tennis ball:

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The lenses from left to right: Panasonic 100mm-300mm, Panasonic 45mm-200mm, Olympus 60mm macro, Panasonic 14-42 to kit lens

Here is another shot showing me holding the Panasonic 100-300mm and Olympus 60mm macro in my hands:

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And here, finally, are two images showing all of his gear inside the LowePro Slingshot AW100 camera bag and Nicholas carrying the LowePro camera bag:

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(yes, the bag still closes)

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As you can easily see, all of the gear combined can be carried in a rather smallish camera bag, much, much smaller and lighter than a camera bag for a DSLR with a similar array of lenses would be.

Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S.

Let's take a look at the Panasonic 14mm-42mm kit lens first.

Nicholas uses this lens almost exclusively for wide angle photography (i.e., zoomed out to 14mm, which, with a crop factor of 2, is equivalent to 28mm on a full frame camera). Here's a shot of Nicholas photographing a California Mountain Kingsnake with the kit lens:

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As you can see, the working distance is similar to that of a regular DSLR. You need to get fairly close to capture a small snake like this in sufficient size and detail to be interesting.

And here are some of the results:

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At least to my eye, the images are sharp and true to color, at least not clearly inferior to an APS-C DSLR. For lighting, Nicholas used the simple on-body (but removable) flash. I suppose the results would have been even better with a more sophisticated flash system (off-camera double flash). Then again, the whole idea behind the Olympus E-M1 is to keep the gear to a minimum. At least for now, Nicholas can't be bothered with a complex flash system.

Sometimes, Nicholas also uses the kit lens to capture larger, especially venomous snakes, at a wider angle than is available from either of his zoom lenses:

Red Diamond Rattlesnake at 29mm (= 58mm full frame equivalent)
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Red Diamond Rattlesnake at 42mm (= 84mm full frame equivalent)
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Both shots were taken at a distance of 4-6 feet from the snake, as I recall. Again, image quality is quite satisfactory, showing the scales and tongue of the C. ruber in good detail and blurring the background in a pleasing way.

Olympus 60mm F2.8 macro lens

Now, let's take a look at the Olympus 60mm macro lens. Because of its diminutive size, I was frankly skeptical at first. The lens is just so damned small and light, it's hard to imagine it'll be comparable to, say, a Canon 100mm macro lens. But my skepticism quickly vanished when I saw the first images:

California Tree Frog
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Red Diamond Rattlesnake
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Note that the last two shot was taken at 800 ISO, with no apparent grain or loss of detail.

As far as working distance is concerned, keep in mind that with a crop factor of 2, the Olympus 60mm lens is equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full frame camera, whereas with a crop factor of 1.5 the Canon 100mm macro is equivalent to a 150mm lens. This means that the working distance of the Olympus 60mm is shorter, but not all that much. We also considered the Panasonic 45mm macro lens (equivalent to 90mm on a full frame camera), a more expensive and highly regarded lens, but its working distance just seems too short for herp photography.

Nicholas, for one, likes the working distance of the Olympus 60mm macro because it makes it easy for him to manipulate the herp with one hand while shooting with the other. At the same time, he can still take full-body shots of large venomous snakes, like the C. ruber above, without getting too close (about 4-6 feet).

Here is a shot of Nicholas photographing that same California Mountain Kingsnake with the Olympus 60mm macro lens (the other person is Todd Battey):

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Full body shot
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Partial body shot
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Head shot
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Notice that even on the head shot, with the camera relatively close to the subject, the on-camera flash casts no shadow into the image, thanks to the small size of the lens. Even at 1:1 magnification (or very close to it), this has not proven to be a problem yet:

Garden Slender Salamander
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(According to Nicholas, the "eye-in-focus only" is intentional.)

Overall, Nicholas just loves the Olympus 60mm macro lens. It is just so tiny, yet so powerful, with no apparent drawbacks. Well, except for the fact that the lens comes without a lens hood and the original sliding lens hood is ridiculously expensive - $90! I simply bought a standard aluminum lens hood for about $10 and it works just fine. On the bright side, the lens is weather-sealed. In combination with the weather-sealed Olympus E-M1 it therefore is ideal for use in wet environments like the tropical rainforest.

Here are some more shots taken with the 60mm macro:

California Striped Racer
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Pacific Ring-Necked Snake
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Two Striped Garter Snake
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Panasonic 100mm-300mm F4.0-5.6

Finally, let's take a look at the Panasonic 100mm-300mm telezoom lens. Again, keep in mind that with a crop factor, the reach of the lens is equivalent to a 600mm lens on a full frame camera or a 400mm lens on a APS-C camera!

I bought the lens for Nicholas primarily for birding, but thanks to its compact size and low weight, approx. 520g/18.3oz (less than one half the weight of an equivalent DSLR lens, like the Canon or Nikon 100mm-400mm), it quickly became Nicholas's walk-around lens. Surprisingly sharp at the long end (at least for a zoom), it has proven to be excellent for lizards, snakes and frogs alike:

Granite Spiny Lizard (@ 300mm)
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Banded Rock Lizard(@ 150mm)
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Western Fence Lizard (@ 108mm)
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Red Diamond Rattlesnake (@ 300mm and 120mm, respectively)
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San Diego Gopher Snake (@ 300mm)
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California Tree Frog (@ 223mm)
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The lens has a minimum focus distance of about 5 feet. Here is Nicholas shooting closeups of a Red Diamond Rattlesnake from about 8 feet away:

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In combination with the Olympus EM-1 the Panasonic 100mm-300mm also features fast autofocus, which is indispensable for birds and butterflies:

Golden Eagle (crop @ 300mm)
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Red-Tailed Hawk (crop @ 300mm)
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Reddish Egret (@ 300mm)
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Anna's Hummingbird (@ 150mm)
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Pipevine Swallowtail (@ 214mm)
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Being cropped, the first two shots are, of course, a bit soft. But I still included them to show that even over a long distance – both raptors were hundreds of feet away – the camera/lens combination was able to acquire the moving target.

Finally, the long reach of the Panasonic 100mm-300mm is great for capturing difficult to approach mammals:

Fox Squirrel (@ 114mm)
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Coyote (@ 300mm)
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Pronghorn Antelope
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Note: All three mammal shots were taken at 800 ISO.


Conclusion

Overall, the combination of the EM-1 with the three above lenses works extremely well for Nicholas. It gives him the image quality he wants, while allowing him to carry all of his gear in the field all day long. While certainly not inexpensive – the camera/lens combination costs about $2,600 – it is still a far cry from a comparable mid-range DSLR system.

Like any camera system, the MFT system is, in the end, a compromise. If uncompromising image quality is your top concern no matter what the cost and weight, a standard DSLR system will still be a better choice. But if you are willing to give up just a tad of image quality, mostly at the extreme long end (300mm), and you want to significantly reduce bulk, weight and cost, the Olympus EM-1 with the above three lenses (or other, comparable MFT lenses) will be worth serious consideration.

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chrish
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Re: Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by chrish » April 22nd, 2014, 2:23 pm

Excelllent review. Thanks for posting this. I will link to the gear reviews sticky.

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JAMAUGHN
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Re: Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by JAMAUGHN » April 22nd, 2014, 5:17 pm

Great review, Robert. You've got me seriously tempted to make this my next camera once the Olympus Pen epl1 I've been using goes kaput once and for all. (It's been "mostly dead" twice now, but has miraculously come back to life.) Would you happen to know if the older model Olympus micro four-thirds lenses will fit on this one?

JimM

RobertH
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Re: Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by RobertH » April 22nd, 2014, 6:43 pm

Jim, yes, any micro four thirds lens should fit. In fact, I think even older four thirds lenses fit, though they may need an adapter, I am not sure. So, you should be fine using the lenses that you are now using with your E-PL1. The one lens I would add to your arsenal is the Olympus 60mm macro. It's small enough to stick into a pocket of your jacket or into a small waist pack, while you continue using your Olympus 75-300mm zoom as your walk-around lens.

Let me know, of course, if you have any other questions.

Robert

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moloch
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Re: Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by moloch » April 23rd, 2014, 12:41 am

Your son is taking some fabulous photos. I had a look at his flickr site and was just amazed. Great stuff!

Regards,
David

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Thor Hakonsen
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Re: Review of Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera

Post by Thor Hakonsen » January 23rd, 2015, 11:49 am

I'd like to add my opinion of the new Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, as I got the pleasure to use it together with a E-M1 last week when I was in Morocco

This is a rather small lens, thinking of that it is an equivalent to 80-300mm f/2.8 in 35mm, and perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that is has a very short focusing distance of only 70cm at 150mm. This makes it able to do 1:2 photography - and makes it more or less perfect to shooting lizards and snakes. As for the sharpness of this lens, it is without doubt one of the best lenses out there for the MFT-system.

Here is some shots I made with it last week :

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