Catching Memories Through The Lens

Three Months of Using the OM-1 Mirrorless Camera: Am I Still Impressed? – Fstoppers

Only if you buried your head for the last few months would you have missed the enthusiasm for the OM-1. The new camera from the company previously known as Olympus caused quite a stir. How is it faring in the real world? I’ve owned the OM-1 for a little over three months. Am I still as enthusiastic about it as I was when I first bought it?

That excitement is firstly due to the doubling of the dynamic range of the OM System OM-1 compared to its predecessor, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, and a quadrupling of the noise control. Then there is the AI-driven subject recognition system. Thirdly, the brand-unique computational photography features such as Live Time and Live Composite are astounding. The former feature allows you to watch a long exposure develop on the viewfinder or rear screen. Live Composite, on the other hand, only adds new light to an image, which is great for light painting. Plus, the inbuilt ND filters now go up to ND64. Then, there is the IP-53 weather sealing, the only ILC with that rating.  

On top of that, you have high-resolution shooting that uses sensor-shift technology to produce up to 8 MP images. There’s also a host of video improvements, including 24p-60p C4K, time-lapse, and high-speed up to 100 fps. The 7 stops of image stabilization are also worth mentioning, of course. That increases to 8 stops when used with a compatible lens. Oh, and then there are the 120 frames per second, the in-camera HDR mode with raw output, and the diminutive size of its Micro Four Thirds System. Then I nearly forgot to mention Pro Capture, the facility that buffers images before the shutter release button is fully pressed, only permanently recording them when it is, meaning no more missed action shots.

I wrote about those in my initial review of the OM-1 soon after I first bought it. In the three months since then, I’ve used it for long exposures, wildlife expeditions photographing birds in flight, weddings, business events, and the numerous workshops I run. So, does it make a difference in the real world? You bet it does.

I handle a lot of cameras. From the big and heavy full-frame, top-of-the-range flagship dinosaurs down to cheap mass-produced beginner DSLRs that seem made from the same plastic used in cheap toys, most pass through my hands. The OM-1 feels robust and built to last.

The body is slightly smaller and lighter than most other mirrorless cameras. But the significant size advantage comes when you consider the entire system. Smaller, excellent lenses in the M.Zuiko professional range are tiny compared to the equivalent full-frame behemoths. Furthermore, the OM-1 overcomes the tricky balance between ergonomics and customizable functionality.  

I have often wondered why so many full-frame shooters are committed to staying with a DSLR despite all the advantages brought by mirrorless systems, and maybe some of it is due to balance; you need a big camera to balance a big lens. I’ve previously tried enormous 300mm to 600mm lenses on Canon, Nikon, and Sony full frame mirrorless cameras, but they feel front-heavy and unwieldy. Some are too big to comfortably handhold. DSLRs do act as a counterweight. For some, the combined weight and cumbersome size of a DSLR/long lens combination doesn’t bother them. In that case, I understand why some big-system photographers are not swapping to the mirrorless bodies, despite all the advantages that would bring.

This issue is not there with the OM-1; it always seems well-balanced, whatever lens I use with it. Because of the smaller proportions of equivalent lenses on the Micro Four Thirds system, they are more suited to the slimmer, smaller bodies. The OM-1’s body is not much smaller than its full-frame mirrorless contemporaries, but the far more compact comparable lenses make all the difference in balance and ergonomics. 

It’s not a cheap camera, the OM-1; it isn’t meant to be. But let’s compare it with the other stacked sensor cameras released around the same time. Like everything in photography, sensor size has both its advantages and disadvantages. The price is one of the significant advantages of the OM-1 over these larger cameras. The Sony A9 II costs $4,498, more than double the price of the OM-1. Meanwhile, the Nikon z9 is priced at $5,496, and the Canon R3 is a whopping $5,999.

So, at $2199, although it is a top-of-the-range flagship camera, the OM-1 is excellent value compared with other stacked sensor alternatives.

Using the OM-1 in the Field

I have big hands and long fingers. The buttons and dials on the OM-1 are easy for me to manipulate. My son’s hands are smaller than mine, and I just asked him to try it. He found it comfortable and easy to use, too. So too did my wife, who is relatively small and has tiny hands. Strangely, the smaller E-M5s also fit my family’s range of hand sizes. Consequently, I expect much thought goes into the ergonomics during the design stage.

Cameras are designed for right-eyed and right-handed people. I am fortunate to be both right-handed and right-eye dominant. When shooting action, I like to keep both eyes open to spot subjects outside the frame I might want to capture. This smaller system helps facilitate that.

Spare a thought for left-eyed people. Most cameras are disadvantageous for those that hold the camera to the left eye in that the camera’s body and right hand obscure the vision on that side. I tried shooting left-eyed with the OM-1, and although there is less peripheral vision than when using my right, I can still see enough to detect a bird flying my way or a person acting interestingly on the street.

One criticism I’ve heard of the OM-1 is about its tracking ability of humans. I disagree with this because it is terrific compared to many cameras I’ve used. The AI-based tracking of birds, animals, and automobiles is even better. A friend who was in the Navy described the AI-based subject detection as having “military precision.” Nevertheless, the human face and eye recognition aren’t bad. I used it on all the shots I took at a wedding last weekend, and it didn’t miss a beat. However, I anticipate the inclusion of Human AI, perhaps in a future firmware update.

I was always pleased by the quality and sharpness of the photos I shot with my previous Olympus digital cameras going back to the E-510 I owned many years ago and even a bridge camera I had around the same time. But the detail in pictures shot with the OM-1 is astoundingly crisp. That has much to do with the new sensor, the In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS), and, of course, the superior lenses.

Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw always over-sharpened Olympus raw files (.orf), and many professional Olympus users have felt let down by Adobe’s shoddy raw conversions compared to other software. Capture One and ON1 seem to be firm favourites for the system’s professional users, plus the proprietary OM Workspace, which best develops the raw files. For high-ISO noise handling, something that is exceptionally well controlled anyway. I’m happily shooting up to ISO 125,000, and ON1 NoNoise and Topaz DeNoise both work well at extra cleaning if desired. However, for the images used in this article, I employed OM Workspace, which has its own AI-based sharpening and noise reduction. It works well.

I turn sharpening off when running the raw files through different third-party processors. When shooting weddings and portraits, I invariably soften the skin so as not to show every irregularity within every skin pore inside every wrinkle. The OM-1’s finest detail lifts the photos to a new level for most other of images. That, partly due to the doubled dynamic range, has led me to start reshooting the seascapes I caught with my previous iterations of the Olympus OM-D E-M1s and the E-M5s. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with the photos from those older cameras. I still happily take an E-M1 on my morning bike ride, but the OM-1 is a massive leap forward.

I don’t do as much in some genres of photography as I would like; I am just too busy. However, I see some excellent macro results from Geraint Radford, and Gavin Hoey’s studio work is outstanding. They are both using OM-1s.

Battery life is tremendous. I bought three extra batteries for when I am shooting weddings and events. At an all-day wedding shoot, I changed the battery once at a convenient time mid-afternoon when it had discharged to 45%. The following battery still had over 50% life when I finished at 9.00 pm. I didn’t have to change the battery on a four-hour wildlife shoot. I bought the optional BCX-1 external battery charger for its flexibility. I thought it would be beneficial when coupled with a power bank, but so far, I haven’t needed to use it.

What I Do and Don’t Like

I can honestly say that the OM-1 is the best digital camera I’ve ever owned or used, and I use lots. It lives up to its “Wow Camera” status.

I love its robustness and its 400,000 shutter actuation rating, putting many other similarly priced models to shame. Environmentally, its longevity is important, as the world’s resources are limited and we should expect quality products to last. It would be great if OMDS made a big commitment to reducing the environmental impact of its products’ manufacturing, but at least they are not greenwashing like some other brands seem to be doing. The good news is that they seem to be recruiting photographers onto their worldwide ambassadorial scheme from diverse backgrounds, helping to democratize photography. That has to be great for our art.

There are a couple of tiny things I would improve. Keyhole screw slots on the bottom of the charger would make it wall mountable. Plus, isn’t it about time that all camera manufacturers stopped supplying neck straps and gave us shoulder straps instead?

There have been supply hold-ups for both the camera and its accessories because of the unprecedented demand, but the back orders are being caught up now.

There was also one small software glitch that a few people experienced (I didn’t) that was quickly addressed with a firmware update. But there is rarely any complex technology that doesn’t get updated for similar reasons. My camera did lose its date and time settings during the firmware update process, but again, it was no big deal.

These are minor things. Overall, this is a fine camera in a league of its own. It’s not a jack of all trades but a master of many. It meets the needs of photographers with innovations that I’ve heard other camera users saying, “Why doesn’t my camera have that feature?” In time, they probably will, but by then, it will be a sure bet that OMDS will have brought in a range of new features, as its Olympus heritage did in the past. Like Olympus claimed with the E-M1 Mark II, it is over-engineered. There is a lot of stuff that I will never use, apart from out of curiosity, but they will be features that appeal to others.

Is it a success? Everything I have heard behind the scenes suggests so, a punch on the nose for the naysayers and doom-mongers who incorrectly predicted an ominous future for the brand. Breaking away from the medical side of Olympus, which influenced and restricted the research into the camera systems has been a success for OMDS, enabling it to break away from the restrictions imposed on it. I personally know five people who have swapped their old system with other brands and bought an OM-1. I cannot think of any other camera where that has happened. Even if you are dedicated to another manufacturer, having different brands in the market is a good thing as it pushes advances through competition, especially when one of the brands is as innovative as OMDS. Consequently, I am glad that the heritage of Olympus has been revitalized. Plus, I’m looking forward to the rumoured OM-5 too.