Fuji X-E1 vs. OM-D E-M1 (Part 4 - OM-D First Impressions)

e-m1 Jan 14, 2014

In our last episode, I wrapped up my final thoughts on the Fuji X-E1, a very capable camera (sans a few AF quirks that have been dealt with in the new model) with an excellent form factor for travel. Now I move on to the second half of this protracted review: the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

My OM-D E-M1
 
Here is my E-M1 decked out with a Gariz half-case and strap. The lens is a classic OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 I got off eBay for $70.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the big brother to the OM-D E-M5 (reviewed here) and addresses all of the shortcomings of its older sibling. According to the specs, continuous AF (C-AF) performance has been improved with the addition of phase detection AF (PDAF) on sensor, image sharpness has been improved with the removal of the anti-aliasing (AA) filter, and the ergonomics have been improved, especially for the large handed (like yours truly). The image size remains the same at 16 megapixels as does the aspect ratio of 4:3 (hence the name Micro Four-Thirds).

Other goodies include phase detection AF support for Four-Thirds lenses (m4/3 lenses are designed for contrast detection AF and only use PDAF to assist in continuous AF situations), built-in WiFi (which allows iOS and Android-based devices to control the camera remotely and provide geotagging data – a very cool feature), improved HDR bracketing, panorama assist, focus peaking (finally!) and better high-ISO performance. There are more, to be sure, but I am going to concentrate on these features specifically.

As I noted last time, the OM-D E-M1 and the X-E1 are very similar in size, except for the viewfinder bump on the top of the E-M1. The viewfinder bump is purely cosmetic, since Olympus is trying to recreate the look of their now classic OM film cameras. I happen to like this look and the centrally mounted viewfinder is a bit more comfortable to me. YMMV.

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The big grip on the E-M1 makes it vary easy for me to hold. No additional grip bracket or other gewgaws needed. The Gariz case adds the feel of real leather and while it is more like a camera bikini than a case, it does cover the right parts to improve handhold-ability while retaining access to the various control, ports, doors and even the articulating viewfinder. The base plate of the Gariz is made of metal and has an opening to allow access to the battery.
 
 
 

PERFORMANCE

Most of the time when I am reviewing  a camera, I end up taking night shots. Wife, two kids and a day job tend to eat up the daylight hours. That’s why I’ve been reviewing cameras while on vacations/trips: I can take pictures while the sun is out and no one will get upset that I am not taking care of them. Anyway, having used the E-M1 on our voyage to the Great Smoky Mountains, I have a much better idea of how improved it is over its predecessor and the X-E1.

Autofocus – When the X-E1 was first released, its autofocus system (CDAF only) was a bit of a dog. Fuji (in the spirit of kaizen), released firmware updates to greatly improved the situation and even added focus peaking. They are quite possibly the only camera company to ever do this. The OM-D E-M5 has a single shot AF system (CDAF) that is greased lightning. It was so good, you could shoot sports with it. That was a good thing too because the continuous AF system was rather asthmatic, wheezing and groaning under the effort of trying to track a moving object. The OM-D E-M1 sports a hybrid AF system mixing CDAF and PDAF cells on the imaging sensor itself. This has vastly improved the continuous AF performance but is not without its “gotchas”.

Gotcha #1 – Single shot PDAF only works with Four-Thirds lenses (via the MMF3 adaptor). Micro Four-Thirds lenses are all designed for CDAF operation. However, continuous AF with tracking does use PDAF on both types of lenses.

Gotcha #2 – Even though PDAF cells on the sensor allow for more accurate tracking of a moving subject, the camera’s algorithm for selecting a subject to track leaves a little to be desired. I took some shots of the kids snow tubing and if more than one tube rider got in the shot, it was jumping between subjects too often for my taste.

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Focus in this shot jumped between my daughter in the middle and the two kids to the left.

Low-Light/High ISO – The E-M5 was not a high ISO monster. I found that ISO 1600 on that camera was about usable limit before NR routines would smear  the image badly. However, the Fuji X-E1 is a high ISO monster with ISO 3200 shots that only need the lightest touch of NR to make them perfect. (For the record, my Nikon D800E beats the pants off of the X-E1, but that is a full frame sensor camera designed for low light operations.) The E-M1 falls in-between the E-M5 and the X-E1. ISO 3200 is not as clean as the X-E1 but, still useable with a bit of NR.
 
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Sibling Shenanigans

5-Axis In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) – The 5-Axis IBIS system in the E-M5 is best in class and the E-M1 shares this system making the camera eminently handhold-able for longer than normal exposures. The Fuji X-E1 uses optically stabilized lenses of which there are few.
 
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To compensate for the less than industry leading high ISO performance of the sensor, Olympus has taken a page out of Leica’s playbook and began introducing fast, high quality lenses to assist the camera in low light situations. I currently own the M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (34mm eFOV) and it’s a really sweet piece of glass. This, combined with the best IBIS in the business allows the E-M1 to shoot below ISO 3200 and keeping the night images relatively clean (content notwithstanding).
 
That’s it for this part. Stay tuned for Part 5 coming soon!
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