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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 280
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Olympus OM-D E-M1: Big Brother or Successor?
Saturday 14 September 2013   —   Category: Equipment
For more than a year I have been enamored with my Olympus OM-D E-M5. This highly-acclaimed, award-winning camera released in mid-2012 was the first digital model that Olympus created to revive its classic OM System. Although I have been very happy with it, no camera is perfect and there is always room for improvement. During all of 2013 I have been eagerly anticipating a successor to the E-M5 which would be even more wonderful.

Finally, on Tuesday 10 September 2013 the glorious day arrived when Olympus announced the new OM-D E-M1. Olympus is promoting this camera as a high-end, professional “big brother” which will coexist with the E-M5 rather than replace it.

Olympus is pitching the OM-D E-M1 as the successor to the older (non-micro) Four Thirds E-5 — apparently their last camera built around a mirror. But seeing that the E-M1 has a lot more in common with the OM-D E-M5 than the E-5, it’s really hard not to consider the E-M1 as the successor to the E-M5 as well.

Considering the numerous improvements the E-M1 has compared to the E-M5, I really wonder how many new customers will decide to settle for the past-generation features of the E-M5 solely to save $500 when buying their first OM-D camera.

What about people like me who already own the E-M5? Is the E-M1 THAT much better that I’m ready to plunk down another $1,400 to gain those improvements? Obviously each OM-D enthusiast will have to make that choice for themself. But perhaps sharing my own personal thoughts on the subject will help some of my readers navigate the decision-making process.

Upgrading to the E-M1 could be a lot less painful if one were to sell their E-M5 to help finance the purchase. Seeing that a new E-M5 is currently going for $900 (not on sale), and because I have no doubt there will soon be a LOT of used E-M5’s flooding the market, I think one would be lucky to get even half of the $1,400 needed to purchase the E-M1 — as a quick check on Amazon.com verifies. It seems to me that the E-M5 is going to have a hard time resisting the downward pressure on its value. Still, if you are wanting to upgrade at the least expense, selling your old E-M5 would be the way to go.

Unless you are someone like me who would want to keep their E-M5 as a second / backup camera. In that case, you would have to consider your goals — and analyze the cost benefits — more closely.

The 4/3 Rumors Web site has given the E-M1 considerable coverage, both during the few weeks before its announcement and during the few days since. When I first read there about the E-M1’s specifications, my initial reaction was to be put off by the camera’s greater size and weight compared to the E-M5.

As I shared extensively last year (see The Great Camera Quandary), the main reason I decided to switch from my Sony APS-C camera system to the Olympus E-M5 was precisely because of the greatly reduced weight and bulk. Therefore I would be loath to take any steps back towards a heavier or larger camera — been there, done that!

Among the numerous differences between the E-M1 and the E-M5 is one that is very obvious at first glance: the E-M1 has a built-in hand grip, while for the E-M5 it is an add-on accessory — and an expensive one if you buy the official Olympus grip. For more details about the E-M5’s accessory grip, see my article A Gripping Tale of Two OM-D E-M5 Grips.

OM-D E-M5 body without optional hand grip.
 
OM-D E-M1 with built-in hand grip. Click on this photo to
see an overlay of the E-M5 with the optional hand grip.
 
As I pondered further the extra size and weight of the new E-M1, I realized that I was not making a fair comparison with the E-M5. Because of the E-M1’s built-in grip, I needed to compare it to the E-M5 with the accessory grip attached — especially since I always keep that grip on the E-M5. This simple adjustment changed the comparison completely, and put the E-M1 in a much better light! You can see it visually by clicking on the image of the E-M1 to the right to view an overlay of the E-M5 with the optional hand grip.

According to the specs, the E-M1 measures 131mm x 94mm x 63mm, and weighs 497g with the battery and memory card installed. In an apples to apples comparison, the E-M5 with the add-on grip measures 122mm x 99mm x 60mm, and weighs 517g. If you were to pretend these dimensions were boxes instead of cameras and then compute the volume of each box, the box representing the E-M1 would have a volume only seven percent larger than the box representing the E-M5.

After this analysis, the conclusion I have come to is that once you include the accessory grip with the E-M5 in order to make it a fair comparison, the size of the two cameras is very similar — with the E-M5 plus grip weighing 20g (almost one ounce) MORE than the E-M1!

Some of the enticing features of the E-M1 which are either better than on the E-M5 or don’t exist on the E-M5 include:
 
  • A 1.0 megapixel LCD screen (0.61 megapixel on E-M5)
  • A 2.36 megapixel EVF with 1.48x magnification (1.44 megapixel with 1.15x on E-M5)
  • Built-in hand grip (add-on accessory for E-M5)
  • Freeze resistant down to -10°C in addition to the E-M5’s dust and moisture sealing
  • Maximum 1/8000 sec. shutter (1/4000 on E-M5)
  • 1/320 sec. max flash sync shutter speed (1/250 on E-M5)
  • ±5EV exposure compensation (±3 on E-M5)
  • Built-in wireless connectivity (add-on accessory for E-M5)
  • Built-in microphone jack (add-on accessory for E-M5)
  • 81 autofocus points (35 on E-M5)
  • Focus peaking (lacking on E-M5)
  • On-sensor phase-detection continuous focusing (lacking on E-M5)
  • More control dials and buttons on the camera body than the E-M5
  • Lower minimum ISO of 100 (200 on E-M5)
  • TruePic VII image processing engine (TruePic VI on E-M5)
  • No low-pass filter (E-M5 has one)
  • Built-in time-lapse recording (via optional third-party accessory on E-M5)
  • In-camera HDR blending (lacking on E-M5)
  • Flash X-sync socket (lacking on E-M5)
  • Locking mode dial (E-M5 doesn’t lock)
  • Built-in lens corrections for Olympus lenses (lacking on E-M5)
 
Well, there are even more E-M1 enhancements, but this is quite enough to give you the idea! You can see a detailed side-by-side comparison of the E-M1 and E-M5 at DPReview.

Obviously, from this list of features, the E-M1 is much superior to the E-M5. And real-life testing seems to confirm this assessment. But when it comes to parting with $1,400 of your hard-earned money, the real question boils down to this: do I really NEED all of these new enhancements, or is last year’s E-M5 good enough?

As I had pointed out before, this is an individual decision which will depend greatly on how and why you use the camera. If you are a professional photographer earning your living with the E-M5, then I think upgrading to the E-M1 is a no-brainer. For the rest of us serious amateurs, taking the leap might not be so easy, especially if we don’t have that much spare cash lying around.

If you take lots of action shots, there’s no doubt that the E-M1’s phase-detection focusing will run circles around the E-M5. Likewise if you have Olympus (non-micro) Four Thirds lenses, which are designed for phase-detection focusing, they will perform much better on the E-M1. But for someone like me, who does not have any of those Four Thirds lenses, and photographs mostly static landscapes, phase-detection focusing would probably have limited value.

Even though all the new enhancements would be great to have, the one feature I would want the most is focus peaking. But it’s not so vital that I need to buy a new camera. I've lived without all of the other features for over a year, and I’m quite happy with my E-M5, so in the end there is no urgent reason to upgrade.

Regarding aesthetics, I really, really like the retro look of the silver and black E-M5. And from what I can see on Amazon.com, this model does sell better than the black-only E-M5. So it’s quite disappointing to see that the E-M1 is available only in “professional” black. I think Olympus really dropped the ball on that one.

On a more personal level, I think one of the major factors holding me back from purchasing an E-M1 is a shift this year in my priorities. During 2011 I spent quite a bit of time pursuing photography. During 2012 I pushed things to a crazy level, as I recounted in What a Photographic Year It’s Been! Perhaps I became too obsessed, because I finally realized that I needed to pull way back, as I described in Fed Up With Photography!

To be honest, this year I have done very little photography, and I pretty much stayed home during the entire short Oregon summer of nice weather. Last year I was in a season of photography, so I went with that flow. This year I am in a season of writing articles for my three main Web sites, so I have been letting go of photography and going with the literary flow. Who knows how long this season will last? But for as long as it does, I imagine that photography will continue to simmer on the back burner.

There are times when I wish I had a second decent camera, especially when I need a certain photo of my camera for an article on this Web site. I've been dreaming of getting the successor to the E-M5, and then using the E-M5 as a backup / second camera. But with photography not being a huge priority during this season of life, I can scrape by with my new Fujifilm FinePix F900EXR instead of a second Micro Four Thirds camera.

In light of these realities, it doesn’t make much sense for me to invest in an E-M1, even though it greatly arouses my gadget lust. Perhaps I should skip a generation, and wait to see what Olympus brings out in the next year or two. I love my E-M5, and I’m content with it, and I can still pursue photography with it as much as my heart desires. So despite the awesome specs, for the foreseeable future I just need to say no.
UPDATE: Today Robin Wong posted his eagerly-awaited article: Olympus OMD-E-M1 Review: Comparison with E-M5.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 280
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Reader Comments
On September 19, 2013, Tony wrote:
Hi Brian,

Thanks very much for this write up. I really enjoyed reading it. I can always get the details from DPREVIEW, but you summarized the differences quite nicely. I have a EM5 and take a 90% of my pictures of my kids and have often wished for PD focusing. I bought a boat load of accessories for my em5 though so it'll be challenging to sell it (including a really right stuff grip which I leave on 100% of the time). I'm with you on SILVER. I love the retro color and had hoped they'd release a silver. I already read that they will not. Grr.

Thanks again.
Tony
On October 3, 2013, Jack Hoggard wrote:
Many thanks. Besides a timely comparison, you answered a question for me. With the horizontal grip, which is on full time, the added dimensions mean that the E-M5 is actually taller (6mm), and heavier (5g) than the E-M1. FYI. Jack
 
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 280
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