By Henry Phillips
on 9.18.13
Photo by Olympus

Olympus’s new OM-D EM-1 ($1,400, body only) is way ahead of its time. Effectively an upgraded version of the already-capable E-M5, the E-M1 is an excellent shooter across the board, albeit one that can’t quite find its place in the market. We say: stay different, E-M1.

Though Micro Four Thirds cameras in the past have been small and aimed squarely at the consumer market, in the E-M1 Olympus has elevated the category to the pro level and increased both size and build quality. Our quick hands-on proved that the EM-1’s autofocus was the star of the show, having been greatly improved over the version in the E-M5; phase detection and contrast detection AF systems were quick and accurate in all sorts of light. Other notable improvements include a massive and vibrant electronic viewfinder, which hangs tough with many found on full-frame DSLRs, and a new 16MP sensor and image processor.

Does Size Matter?

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Sensor size in digital cameras is a hotly debated issue that most people have a hard time articulating. Simply, the sensor is the part of the camera that records the image and translates incoming light into data that can be read by a camera.

Of two differently sized sensors with the same resolution, the bigger sensor will devote more area of the sensor per pixel and allow for better dynamic range, less noise and better low-light performance. Bigger sensors also tend to allow for shallower depth of field and higher resolution photos. The downsides to going big? Expect to pay more and carry a bigger camera.

Several highlights of the E-M5 have been enhanced slightly on the new flagship, like improved freeze-proofing of the weather sealing and a 5-axis in-body stabilization that automatically detects things like panning shots; of course, Olympus’s fleet of lenses continues to get better. All of these details are concealed inside a new magnesium-alloy body with a bigger, more comfortable grip. Though it has the reassuring heft of a DSLR, in size it’s still relatively minute — comparable to a Canon Rebel SL1.

Overall, there’s plenty to justify a $1,400 price tag. But where does the high-quality Micro Four Thirds camera fit within the market? It would seem the only prospective buyers (outside of Olympus diehards and habitual early adopters) are those who appreciate the imagery of the Olympus and are looking for a smaller, lighter camera to compliment their impressive DSLR. The E-M1 is too expensive, too big and too complex to be a camera that casual shooters will carry with them for Facebook selfies and the Micro Four Thirds format is too foreign to be accepted as a primary camera for those willing to spend upwards of $1,800 on a camera kit.

It’s a shame that this incredibly good Micro Four Thirds camera sits so awkwardly in the marketplace, but it just doesn’t seem like the world is quite ready to make the shift from the bulky DSLRs to the smaller, nimbler, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras of tomorrow. Sure, the E-M1 is never going to be the top earner for the firm, but does it serve a higher purpose? Absolutely. Though the Olympus OM-D E-M1 may not be the sales hit of the century, it does exactly what a halo-product should, demonstrating the future of the product line and firing a shot squarely across the bow of the established DSLR elites.

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