EXCLUSIVE! Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands On!

Have you ever had a big juicy secret that you were just dying to tell someone? If so then you will know why this first look article is such a relief for me to write!

I am now allowed to present to you the new Olympus OM-D E-M1!!

First Impressions: Ergonomics and Design

It’s an L-Frame camera! I know we are all mirrorless shooters here but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that nothing feels as good as the L-Frame shape of a dSLR in your hand. The Olympus OM-D_E-M1 has been designed with that ergonomic design in mind and has the front grip molded in as part of the camera. The grip is deep, but not so deep as to make it awkward, but deep to where you know you have a comfortable hold on your camera and the confidence to walk around with it held by the grip alone. I normally wrap the neck strap around my wrist and then grab hold of my PEN E-P5 or OM-Ds but I found that all weekend I carried my OM-D_E-M1 one handed no strap wrapping needed. That says a lot to me that I’d be willing to hold one of the few models of this camera in the country so nonchalantly. Button placement seems to be the big problem with little cameras. If you have anything larger than average hands then I know your complaint is that your hands get cramped and you are accidentally bumping buttons and wheels. If I said I didn’t have this problem that wouldn’t be very honest, I have had plenty of moments where I rolled the wrong wheel on my OM-D or pushed the wrong button. This was of course before I got used to the layouts. But the OM-D_E-M1 has a few tricks to help alleviate some of those issues. Let’s have a look shall we? For starters Olympus has added something that I am not accustomed to but I am guessing is an old feature, and that is a lock on your mode selection dial. Again, I am assuming this is not anything “new” but it is to the Olympus E-Series line of cameras. The image below shows the locking pin/button on the mode selection dial as well as the cool new split button on the left.

You can see the entirely new button layout in this view. Including the locking pin and split button on the left.

You can see the entirely new button layout in this view. Including the locking pin and split button on the left.

Let me tell you how the split button (the one that says HDR on it) works. When the front half of it is pressed you are able to scroll using the control wheels through the settings labeled on the button. So you press the button, and at the top of your display you are shown the in camera HDR options as well as the HDR Bracketing options. You use the front control wheel to scroll through the option you wish to use. Meanwhile, on the bottom of your display the other feature shown on the button, the timer and sequential shooting modes, is available to be scrolled through using the rear wheel. Same for the other half of that button. Press it and the metering option are scrollable with the front wheel and autofocus modes with the rear wheel. I have to say that this is huge for me. The ability to get to so many options without having to dig into a menu is a big time saver! And there are more options for doing similar things on this camera!

Like the other Olympus cameras the OM-D_E-M1 has two fucntion buttons that you can customize to perform various, well, functions. And like the PEN E-P5 this camera also features the function toggle switch. This makes your function button able to perform TWO functions each! So now the two function buttons control FOUR functions. Again, the need to dig into menus is reduced. But new to the Olympus OM-D line is the addition of two more customizable buttons that are placed just to the side of the lens mount. So now, we have four function buttons and the need for menus to access the vast majority of regularly needed functions disappears. I love it!!! Below you can see the additional buttons and the deep comfy grip.

Here you can see the additional function buttons and comfy grip.

Here you can see the additional function buttons and comfy grip.

This should give you an idea of size. The OM-D E-M5 w/ grip is on the left, and the PEN E-P5 is on the right.

This should give you an idea of size. The OM-D E-M5 w/ grip is on the left, and the PEN E-P5 is on the right.

First Impressions: Performance

So now that we’ve covered ergonomics and handling some, let’s talk about performance because well, this thing is a BEAST! I just HAD to give the new dual focus site system (both phase detect and contrast detect on the sensor) a run for its money so I spent a few hours with a friend and his E-5 and slew of 4/3 lenses to do a side by side comparison of focusing speeds and hit count. We picked some objects in his back yard to shoot. Things like bird houses, planters, and other stationary objects of varying size,shape, and color. Things that would be both easy and tough to get a focus on. Let me get off subject for one second. The 50-200mm SWD handled wonderfully on this NON-Gripped camera just so you know.
With the OM-D-E-M1 we both noticed (un-scientificaly) that it focused, get this, FASTER than with the E-5!! Again, no stopwatches or tools like that to measure down to the millisecond, but it was something we both felt was a noticeable speed difference. The same with the 4/3 50mm f/2 macro! The 12-60mm SWD seemed to be a draw. But something else to note, there were several times when we got a more accurate focus using the 50-200mm than with the E-5. Slight differences in depth at which focus was hit. Again, we weren’t trying to be DPReview or anything, just two guys who know their Olympus gear. As far as the native µ4/3 lenses go? Blazingly fast of course. I’ve been shooting non-stop with all my Olympus lenses and performance is nothing short of great. I did some evening shooting to test low light focusing and accuracy and am pleased to say again, spot on and fast! I know another HUGE question that many will ask is, “how is focus tracking and continuous autofocus?” I honestly never shoot sports, or birds in flight, but I DID whoever go do a little birding yesterday and gave it a shot on some Eastern Bluebirds. I didn’t have great luck there, but then, Bluebirds are small and I never knew where they were headed when they took off. LOL. So this week I am making it a point to find some local sporting event to give it a test and I will report back my findings.

First Impressions: Image Quality

It’s hard to say what the RAW image quality will be from this camera since it doesn’t have a RAW translator available yet but the jpgs are just a treat. I am NOT a SOOC jpg guy, I am a painter and graphic artist who became a photographer so I like to “play” with my images in post. But not being able to play with the RAW files and only use SOOC jpgs so far has not been a problem for me. There is a decidedly deeper tonal range coming from this camera than there is in the OM-D E-M5. I’ll know more when I start editing RAW files though. But for now I am a jpg guy and figure I should share a couple from an evening walk I took. Again, SOOC jpg.

Shot w/ the 75mm f/1.8

Shot w/ the 75mm f/1.8

Shot w/ the 17mm f/1.8

Shot w/ the 17mm f/1.8

Shot w/ the 17mm f/1.8

So there you have it folks….a very brief rundown and first hands on look at the New Olympus OM-D_E-M1 Feel free to ask as many questions as you want. I am always glad to help out by answering everything I possibly can.

Pre-order your Olympus EM1, Grip and 12-40 f/2.8 here

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About Jamie MacDonald

Jamie MacDonald is a nature and stock photographer living in Michigan’s lower peninsula. A husband and father of two boys who describes his love of photography as one that is, rooted in the desire to move people to see the world around them in new ways.

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35 Responses to EXCLUSIVE! Olympus OM-D E-M1 Hands On!

  1. Seldom Scene Photography September 9, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    Wow, Jamie — I’m jealous! Good “first impressions” writeup, I can’t wait to get my hands on one myself…

  2. gapey September 9, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Nice! I like that it has the HDR switch on it. That’s very convenient.

  3. stripedrex September 10, 2013 at 12:06 am #

    How’s video? Autofocus tracking compared to 70D? =)

  4. Andreas Fougner Ezelius September 10, 2013 at 12:06 am #


    You noted that the performance is that of a BEAST ;) How does focus peaking work? Is it implemented in the same way as on the E-P5, as an art filter with lag?

    I know this should be a minor thing, but in all honesty its becoming the deciding factor if I am going to get this camera or not :/

  5. Joe Gunawan fotosiamo September 10, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Holy crap I want to sell my GH3 now.

    • Giulio Sciorio September 10, 2013 at 2:17 am #

      You gotta be kidding me Joe. Really? The EM1 is a solid addition to M43 and a logical upgrade to the EM5 but it’s no GH3. Especially for you that shoots RAW and retouches I doubt you’re going to see a world of difference.

      The moment you start to understand hybrid you’ll understand the awesomeness thats the GH3.

      • Joe Gunawan fotosiamo September 10, 2013 at 2:58 am #

        It could be GAStric reflex, too, lol. But I keep thinking that for stills images, the Olympus E-M5 and most likely the E-M1, their sensor edges out the GH3 in regards to dynamic range, color, noise ISO800+, and midtone-to-shadow transition.

        Those and the 5-axis IBIS, focus peaking, 1/320 sync,1/8000 shutter, and superior EVF(I’ve tried the VF4) too.

        But damn do I love the ergonomics of the GH3 + grip. The E-M1′s grip has considerably less buttons, which means that you’d have to go to the landscape to change things like ISO and white balance. Love being able to do that on the fly w/ the GH3′s battery grip.

        • Giulio Sciorio September 10, 2013 at 3:22 am #

          The only way you’ll see a real difference in cameras for still images is to go from a GH3 to a Phase One and you still give up loads of creative options too. I can’t imagine spending a couple grand for maybe one stop. They really went poop on video capture too.

          If the EM1 had the video abilities of the GH3 plus peaking in video with the IBIS and a tilt-able EVF it would be a world beater. As it is, the EM1 is a logical, sensible upgrade but revolutionary it is not.

          You got the GH3. Save your money for the next big thing. It IS coming.

        • Jamie A MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 5:51 am #

          Joe, Go with your “Gastric” reflex. LOL. I know you’ll be very impressed. And yes, the VF-4 is as close to OVF as I’ve seen yet! It’s beautiful! And no perceptible lag!

          • Felice DeNigris September 10, 2013 at 7:21 am #

            So jealous!!! I knew this BEAST would arrive sooner or later. Bit I am not sure i am going to sell my Em5 for this ! :( … Question Jamie,, are batteries the same as the em5 ?

      • caver3ed November 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

        Come on now, Giulio, you know that 43 lenses are SLOW on the GH3. The E-M1 solves that issue with on-sensor PDAF. Give it up, Man! Admit it.

        • Giulio Sciorio November 12, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

          Yes it solves the problem for a very slow percentage of users.

  6. AndrewCamin September 10, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    Ok knowing that the GX7 is a different beast to the EM1 i it worth swapping my pre order of the GX7 fro, i currently own a GX1 and looking to upgrade to either or, i love the feeling of the OMD5 but as they are releasing this at what now appears to be the same time as the pain which is better?

    • Giulio Sciorio September 10, 2013 at 10:05 am #

      They are both good stills cameras but as you had mentioned totally different cameras. If you were to ask me GH3 or EM1 I’d say GH3 all day but the GX7 or EM1 is a more challenging decision. The EM1 is the flagship of Olympus whereas the GX7 is the top rangefinder style camera of the Lumix line.

      To get the most out of either camera you’ll need to have premium glass. Don’t make the mistake of having a great body only to cripple it with crummy optics. So factor in the cost of pro glass with a pro level body and that will help you make your choice.

      • AndrewCamin September 10, 2013 at 10:19 am #

        Great thanks thats thrown another one in the works, so why GH3 over EM1?? also what optics would you recommend for either GH3, or GX7? bear in mind i do both wildlife and street photography (currently own 14-42X this will be given to missed with the GX1, & 100-300 panasonic I will be keeping, I also own 45-174 X Lens)

        • Giulio Sciorio September 10, 2013 at 11:58 am #

          Why the GH3?

          - Available now
          - Also weather sealed
          - More customization options
          - Built in flash
          - Class leading video
          - Full AF features in video
          - Built in Timelapse
          - Better battery life
          - Fully articulating screen
          - $300 less

          The 100-300 is a pretty decent lens as is the 45-174 but to really get the most out of the EM1, GH3 you’ll want to get the f/2.8 zooms which will help with wildlife shooting and street. You’ll also get a sharper image too.

          • Jamie MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

            How do you know the extent of customization available on a camera you’ve never used?
            The E-m1 does timelapse to 999 frames
            How do you know battery life?

            We should probably stick to facts :)

            We all love our gear. I hate when things get all opinionated and tit for tat. :)

          • AndrewCamin September 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

            lol ok point taken, any particle lens that you would recommend bearing in mind that you have access to a lot in the F2.8 range

        • Jamie MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm #


          As far as E-M1 customization is concerned let me give you some information.
          The camera has two “Function” buttons, each one can be assigned most of the standardly used features such as, ISO,WB, etc… 23 to be exact. One of those is Multi-Function meaning that you can roll through numerous choices with the scroll wheel. Remember, BOTH function buttons can do this. Now, there is also a selector switch (should be visible in one of my images up there) that allows each of your function buttons to now have a SECONDARY function. I’m not going to do the math here but that is a LOT of customization. And that is just the two buttons labeled “Function”. You also have TWO MORE buttons beside the lens that have assignable functions as well.
          I doubt you will have need for more than that. :)

  7. Jamie A MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    Felice! Thanks for stopping in man! Yes, the SAME batteries but..Here’s the kicker. The new Processor is more efficient. There is a measurable battery life increase. I need to comb through my literature from Olympus but I believe they mention it there too.

    • Felice DeNigris September 10, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      So stoked!! This may get me itching to make a ‘Gastrix reflex’ puchase! LoL, I just can’t help it.

      • Jamie MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 10:10 am #


        You are coming to my Kelby walk right? I thought I saw you as a registered walker. If so you will get PLENTY of hand on time with mine if you wish.

        • Felice DeNigris September 10, 2013 at 10:36 am #

          Yeah, I’ll be there! I appreciate it :) !! I can get a better hands on feel for such a camera before making a decision.

  8. William Bigelis September 10, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    did the regular 4/3 lens require an adaptor? If so do we lose an f-stop or two? Any other features lost using non-native u4/3 Olympus lenses?

    • Jamie MacDonald September 10, 2013 at 11:50 am #


      To use a 4/3 lens (not micro 4/3) an adapter IS required. No discernible loss of light at all. I have NOT tested any non-native (ie Panasonic) lenses as I do not own any. First chance I get I will though of course.

  9. Nelson September 10, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    I was wondering has the E-M1′s Video fixed the motion macro blocking that past Olympus machine has? (like quickly panning a scene or tracking/following a moving object like dogs during filming)

    • Jamie A MacDonald (@MacDonald_Photo) September 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      Nelson, I will have to give that a try. I’m not really a video shooter I’m primarily just a photographer so video s an afterthought for me.
      Can you please tell me what macro blocking is is it pixelation or something.
      And thank you for stopping in and commenting take care


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