OM System (Olympus) recently launched their latest, most revolutionary (not only in its class) innovation simply called the OM-1. The OM-1 camera truly is at the vanguard of unparalleled detail excellence, which can be assessed from the very list of its technical parameters that I will closely describe below. So, how is the new OM-1? For those who prefer a shorter version, the following summary will probably suffice:
The brand-new OM-1 features a brand-new version of the stacked CMOS 20 Mpx image sensor powered by the TruePic X processor, which enables up to 120 fps to be taken without continuous autofocus (AF) or up to 50 fps with AF. The AF system is formed by 1053 phase-detection cross-type AF targets that cover the field of view entirely. In the single (AF-S) and continuous (AF-C) focus mode, it can automatically detect & recognise not only objects such as cars, motorcycles, planes, trains, but also birds and newly even such animals as cats or dogs. Ultra-powerful stabilisation achieving compensation of up to -8 EV supports exposure times in the range of 1/ 32000s – 60″. In practice, this is sufficient for when shooting handheld with a wide-angle lens for several seconds. The image is transferred to the rear LCD with 1620px resolution and to an OLED 5.76 Mpx viewfinder. Even video features are pretty capable. Full HDR codec supports 4K/ 60p video with no recording length limit. Current Olympus users will like another new feature – a brand-new & improved Menu. All this while maintaining all the existing functions, such as modes for a high-res tripod (80Mpx), handheld (50Mpx) capture, or live preview of night-time exposure. Preview of the final result of the to-be-applied integrated ND filter also stays as does the timelapse of 9999 images, a ProCapture mode to record images before the shutter-release button is pressed, and my favourite stacked focus. Virtually all of these features boast some innovation over previous models, so you can imagine there is a lot to cover. So, let’s get to it.
Warning: Before you continue reading, let me sincerely warn you that it will be lengthy and primarily technical reading. It might be most appreciated by the current owners of the Olympus E-M1 camera series (II, III, X) as it will allow them to compare the new OM-1 features with their existing camera. At the time of testing (end of January 2022), which is the peak of European winter, another pandemic wave was raging in the Czech republic amplified by the completely shocking absence of wildlife. I briefly visited the Prague Zoo twice, taking a few portraits of several bleak shivering animals. Therefore, there are no photos in the article that would truly showcase the camera’s strengths in action. The main goal of the first phase was mainly to familiarise myself with & get used to all the new features (which this article is about), to set the camera up properly all in time for the upcoming trip to Ecuador. I am back from Ecuador as you read these lines, but I have yet to process all the hummingbird photos and other jewels of the stunning Ecuadorian jungle. This article will be followed by a second one full of practical first-hand experience and hopefully many pictures. As you will find out below, unforeseen support issues with Capture One & Lightroom prevented me from processing and evaluating image quality. Hopefully, this will be rectified shortly, allowing me to revisit this topic in the second part of the article. So, if you don’t feel discouraged by my warning, I wish you happy reading …
WHEN YOU HOLD THE CAMERA FOR THE FIRST TIME
When I was contemplating the layout for this article, I thought it best from the view of an existing Olympus user who is keen to see what’s new compared to the other models. Thanks to the fact that the OM-1 is conceptually and dimensionally built on the E-M1 III model, the following comparison ultimately compares these two models. As a result, some features will be flagged as ‘new’, even though they are featured on other models, such as the E-M1X. You will immediately notice the first change when you hold the camera – its new grip. For me so far, the best grip ever as it fits like a glove. The only barely noticeable difference to the E-M1 III is a slightly wider upper edge, which has an unexpectedly prominent impact on the comfort of the grip. The arrangement of the buttons is practically identical to the previous model with two minor changes. The original AEL/ AFL button has morphed into two – AEL and AF-ON; and the dials are recessed into the body to increase durability similar to the E-M1X. As a result, they have a slightly narrower range (approximately 1.7 EV vs. 2.0 EV), which may potentially result in restricted manoeuvrability. Admittedly, I already used it this winter wearing gloves for 2 hours in the Zoo shooting pelicans and flamingos, and I didn’t feel any difference. So, I’d conclude it’s all about getting used to it, especially when you have both cameras next to each other. In practice, you would not even think about it. Same as the other models, the camera again has two SD card slots, both of which support UHS-II and the cover has the same compartment lock as the E-M1 III. Another new addition that you may not notice straight away is a double lock on the eyepiece, which makes it practically impossible to have it accidentally removed or, worse, lost. Okay, this about covers my observations at first glance.
AFTER YOU TURN THE CAMERA ON
As soon as you turn the camera on, you will notice further changes. As with the previous models, this is simply done via the ON / OFF switch or (as in my case) by reprogramming the Fn lever close to the AEL button. I found this lever’s tactility or lack thereof a bit bothersome, especially when shooting in gloves compared to the previous model. Thanks to the higher resolution 1.6K rear display, the preview image is not only smoother but also nicely sharp even when enlarged, enabling you to determine better which photo is really sharp directly in the camera. During your shoot, the display shows traditional exposure data, spirit level, histogram or highlights or shadows control, the combination of which can be set in the Menu. An exciting feature is the possibility to hide these when you half-press the shutter button. Your view is then clear, allowing you to compose better, and when you release the button, the values reappear. By moving the camera closer to the eye, the sensor automatically switches the view from the rear display to the viewfinder, which is again enhanced by a 5.76 Mpx res OLED screen covering 100% of the field of view and even allowing you to shoot with polarised sunglasses. Compared to the E-M1 III, the preview image looks very natural and fine, but it feels more grainy when the detail is magnified in poor light. But as I compared this with the viewfinders on other brands, this is more of a problem of the OLED technology than specific to the Olympus/ OM System. Another practical new little detail in the Menu is the option to transfer the image from the rear display to the viewfinder without switching the current display mode. For example, when previewing enlarged photos under full sun, you can put the camera to your eye and the photo is still enlarged inside the viewfinder. When you move the camera away again from your eye, the image remains unchanged only jumps over onto the rear display. Your viewfinder receives information from both the Supermenu (OK Menu) and the classic Menu without any further adjustment. The highly-practical Supermenu underwent significant design refresh, such as exposure/ shooting/ focusing/ button settings. The font of the main parameters is larger, which results in the shorter values list. Still, you can activate all previous values after selecting the function – for example, manual white balance shift or detailed settings of the chosen Standard profile, etc. I welcome this enhancement. Plus, after pressing the classic Menu button, something unprecedented happens.
The new Supermenu (OK Menu)
NEW (& IMPROVED) MENU
When I first opened the Olympus Menu back in 2016, I gasped. I actually thought they were kidding with so many options in the menu that branched out into unbelievable five sub-levels (such as setting the parameters of the Focus Stacking). This meant, for example, eight clicks to set the number of positions in focus stacking. But over time, not only did I learn the main menu structure, I preferred it, and I would have welcomed adding a few more items there. And now? Everything is different. And what do I think? Not only it’s much better. Thanks to a few tweaks in the Settings, it is probably the most practical Menu I’ve ever worked with. So, what’s new? The menu no longer branches out from left to right but from top to bottom into individual, clearly colour-coded sections. The fonts and colours used are very modest and Canon users will find them familiar. The menu can be controlled via the front and rear dials, multi-selector, cross-selector or their mutual combinations.
Navigating the Menu again has some practical tweaks. For example, the front dial allows you to jump between the main menu items and the rear dial (by the thumb) between the individual sections of that chapter. This or its reverse order is present in earlier models too. Newly, though, you can disable the dial from leaving the section & keep on rotating in it. For example, when looking for AF settings, you move to the AF section with the front dial and scroll through with the rear dial, searching in the six tabs provided without leaving the AF section. If it is evident that the setting you are looking for is elsewhere, you can jump out either with the front dial or jump over to the next section with a multi-selector after reaching the last tab. Here, you can again scroll through with the rear dial without being kicked out to the next tab. Another convenient feature allows you to bookmark your last selection so that you can quickly get to the option you last selected without having to look for it from above. This makes your response a tad faster again. And finally, we have the Custom Menu, which allows you to divide 35 items into 5 tabs and set the Menu launch. Interestingly, you can only reactivate the Custom Menu after pressing the shutter button. Until then, you can return to the last selected item even outside the Custom Menu. Of course, this won’t guarantee a better photo for you. Still, the speed of accessing the Menu and choosing a specific setting is often critical in creating an image with such unique parameters. If you give it an hour of training, you’ll understand why. Now, let’s talk about other features that will help you be even faster.
The OM-1 once again elevates the user’s comfort of fast function selection with programmable buttons, of which we have eight to choose from (there are seven of them on the E-M1 III). You can assign any eight buttons with any 47 functions (previously 38). What the current Olympus user will definitely notice is the functions menu table. You can select from 8 functions straight away without having to click 46 times only to realise that you could’ve clicked once & gone up instead. Currently, all functions are visible under six tabs. The addition of direct options for specific functions (HiRes, Focus Stacking, Subject Detection, Individual Bracketing, etc) increased the number of options.
The OM-1 is full of new tweaks compared to the previous models. At first glance, the items look the same, but many of them are packed with new details. Here is a brief overview of those that piqued my interest as I discovered them.
1/ Stabilisation – OM-1 can compensate for the exposure by up to -8 EV, now bolstered by a stabilisation assistant. After you press the shutter button, a square with auxiliary lines appears on the display while you try to calm your shakes. This is so helpful yet so simple, isn’t it? Thanks to this lovely gimmick, you will enjoy handheld shooting waterfalls even at 5” practically with every wide-angle lens.
2/ HiRes – Hi-res shooting is no longer in the list of shooting modes, but can be turned on/ off via a pre-assigned button. Hold down the button and select the desired option to change the handheld mode to a tripod mode.
3/ ND Filter – the built-in ND filter is a convenient feature present already in two previous cameras enhanced by a new option ND64. You can activate it and set its strength the same way as HiRes, i.e. in a combination of a button with a dial. The second inconspicuous but very useful improvement is the possibility when shooting with the ND filter to select not only a fixed electronic shutter, but also an electronic self-timer. This makes a lot of sense for long exposure photography. Previously, you could bypass this by setting a delay, but this is a more elegant solution. And the last noteworthy addition is boosting the shortest possible time for each type of filter. For ND32, the maximum shutter speed was 1/2s, which is now 1/ 4s. For ND 4 it was 1/15s; now you can go up to 1/30s.
4/ Mode B – here, we are again spoiled with a live preview of long exposure night photos now boosted with stabilisation. I dare you! Have a go and see what’s possible to hold & shoot, for example, with a stabilised Olympus 12-100mm/ 4 IS lens. The handheld assistant is also active in this mode.
5/ Flash sync – flash sync speed remains constant at 1/ 250s with a manual shutter. Electronic one used to be 1/50s, which is now increased to 1/100s. This will be especially appreciated by those who have tried to use stacked focus modes with flash in daylight, e.g. in the meadow. The only solution used to be mounting a variable ND filter and decreasing the ISO as low as possible. With the upgrade now, this will still be a helpful combination, but now, the are more chances when that is actually enough. Similarly, the flash can now be used even with a silent shutter, for example when photographing birds on a cloudy day at 1/100s. The flash sync range for long exposures has heightened from 30″ to 60″.
6/ FOCUS STACKING/ BRACKETING/ AF BKT – the basic principle of Focus Stacking or Bracketing is still the same, but the parameters have now been significantly augmented. Its activation is again by pressing a previously assigned button that must be held for a while. If you use this function regularly you will surely appreciate clicking just once in instead of eight times.
7/ Mobile app – of course the new camera saves your custom settings under C1 – C4 modes, and as with the E-M1 III, you can archive them to your mobile phone. This is handy, especially when shooting in the field, enabling you to completely reconfigure the camera in seconds. For example, from dynamic bird photography to calm high res landscape. The app also got its upgrade. Current three apps will be merged into one and, for example, it will be possible to assign geotags to photos without having to turn on another app.
8/ Processing speed – I already mentioned that combining a stacked sensor and a new processing power advances the camera’s possibilities into uncharted territories. Among other things, you will really feel it when you use it to calculate HiRes or Focus Stacking as the coupling speed doubled from 10-12s to 5s in comparison with the E-M1 III. However, the new sensor brings much more than just HiRes processing speed, which deserves a separate chapter.
NEW SENSOR = NEW OPTIONS
The most anticipated feature on the OM-1 is undoubtedly its new stacked sensor tech, which is used on the m43 system for the first time. The image resolution is kept at 20 MP, meaning you can achieve unbelievable results. The most visible results will be seen in three main areas: shooting speed, focus (AF) and image processing in terms of ISO and dynamic range (DR). So, let’s have a look at them in order. PS: This section will be heavy on numbers.
A / SHOOTING SPEED
I remember not so long ago when professional cameras had a continuous shooting speed of up to 10-12 fps and it was considered a small miracle. Long after, it budged a bit to 16 fps, which was still quite a lot. But the time went on and in 2016 when I switched to Olympus, there were first rumours that Olympus promises 60 fps without continuous AF and 18 fps with continuous AF. Wow, that was unheard of! Of course, you needed a high-speed card & fast exposure times. Now, it’s 2022 and the OM-1 manual states up to 50 fps with continuous AF and up to 120 fps without one. The critical word here is “up to”. Let’s have a look at this in more detail. First, the insane 120 fps. The buffer has a limit of 92 frames. So, bear in mind that what you want to capture will disappear in less than a second. My 64 GB ADATA card takes about 15 seconds for the 92-frame buffer to reset. You can also decrease the frequency of sequential shooting to 100 or 60, which you can find under SH1. With SH2, you get a maximum speed of up to 50fps with continuous AF if you meet two conditions. Firstly, there is a fixed minimum time, which in this case is 1/ 640s (understand 1/640s or more). The second condition is using a supported lens. SH2 is currently supported by 6 Pro series lenses (12-40/ 2.8 I and II, 12-100/ 4, 40-150/ 2.8, 300/4 and 150-400/ 4.5). As soon as the exposure is longer, the exposure icon will start flashing and the photo will be underexposed. The frequency can be decreased to 25 fps, which requires a slightly shorter time of 1/320s. This is a default value for lenses that do not support 50 fps. It is important to note that neither SH1 or SH2 blackout during shooting – the preview image is smooth and does not flicker. The third option is the classic sequence shooting that “flickers” when up to 20 fps with continuous AF are being taken. All the above frames are achieved in full resolution RAW. The shooting speed increased even in the ProCapture function, which allows you to take photos before the shutter button is pressed all the way down. Currently, the camera takes up to 70 frames before the shutter button is held all the way down (it was 35). I know it’s lot of numbers, which is why I value the new look of the items in the Menu, which now combines three settings from previous years. Option to exclude some modes from the shooting menu and an option to set specific speeds for each of them. In the picture above, you can see all the current options & settings, which is perhaps better than a thousand words. Personally, in future updates, I’d welcome the prospect of slower SH2 shooting with continuous AF and no flicker, i.e 15 fps with a minimum time of 1/160s or maybe even 10 fps with a minimum of 1/100s or something similar.
Sample of a consecutive photo series shot in SH2 mode (in RAW) using AF with bird detection. ISO between 2000 – 4000, no post-processing.
B / AUTOFOCUS (AF)
I can’t help but mention a few numbers here (Again! Sorry.) The OM-1 increased its number of target points from 121 to 1053; the target cover is now 100% of the image, which is again a noticeable difference from the previous 70%. When selecting targets, you are no longer constrained by a grid but can target virtually anywhere. As with the E-M1 III, it is now possible to create additional four AF targets adjusting the target size and the precision of the grid on which they move. I have it set to grade from the smallest to the largest.
AF points display during shooting (no grid)
A significant advancement of the OM-1 is its automatic subject detection. The E-M1X list (cars, planes, trains and birds) is now extended to animals (dogs and cats), which should be up to 3x faster thanks to the new sensor. You can activate or deactivate the subject detection quickly via any programmable button. Additionally, to select a specific mode, simply hold the button and turn a dial. And how does AF work in the field? Naturally, I am not able to measure precisely if the AF really is 3x or 2.7x faster, but I can confirm that the auto detection works very well. I have it set as the default focus and I turn it off with the pre-set AEL button only if it struggles. This works for me in the vast majority, especially during handheld shoots at 1000 mm (Olympus 150-400mm/ 4.5 with 1.25x converter activated). Such lens is susceptible to even a minor tremor and it’s almost impossible to keep it focused, e.g. on the bird’s eye. If the autodetection nails it, then Bob’s your uncle. Besides, the accuracy and success of tracking is significantly improved by cooperation of two other parameters – AF Limiter (where three different distances can be set with an accuracy of 0.1m); and the size/ location of the AF target. If we take pictures out in the open (e.waterbirdsrds in flight etc.), a larger target well over half of the display works better. In a more fragmented environment, such as a forest, on the other hand, i found smaller points track better. By setting a smaller AF target, AF limiter and auto detection made it much easier for me to take pictures of birds between branches. Luckily, the subject detection also works in the S-AF mode, which is ideal for classic portfolio photos of perched birds. Thanks to how pleasantly the quality of the subject detection surprised me, I see a little wasted potential of the camera here. I loved the Home AF function on the other models. It allows you to set 3 focus target values – size, location and focus mode (S-AF/ C-AF). That way you could change the focus roles just with one touch and go back with another. The only thing it lacked was the option to select stabilisation, which could be set to IS-1 and C-AF to IS-2, for example. On the OM-1, however, the Home AF is practically useless for me as you can only change the target size and its location. Not only there is no stabilisation option, there is also no option to set focus modes. In addition, the new Home AF activation only works one way disabling you to go back and forth. Such a pity! Personally, I would like for the 5 values to be able to preset them to the Home AF – the AF target size, location, focus mode, subject detection and the stabilisation mode. Then, you could change with a single button within seconds from shooting a static toucan to its flight without having to save these modes under its C profile. Ideally, you could even focus by holding the selected button in Home AF mode (something like AF-ON Home AF). I’m secretly hoping someone from the R&D is reading this as I’m very much in favour of updating the firmware to accommodate this, because subject detection works wonders and the above mentioned tweak would be a major shift in terms of photographer’s responsiveness. The newly added animal detection is supposed to work primarily on cats and dogs, but I’d say it responded to anything that had eyes – a monkey, a kangaroo or even a porcupine, which has small sunken eyes so I struggled at first. Not to leave anything out, I must mention that the OM-1 has, of course, also Face & Eye Detection and Starry Sky AF, as we could see in the E-M1 III.
Active bird detection with body boundary and eye detection
The priority of one of the two subjects can be determined by reducing the focus area and shifting it to the object. The rectangle around the priority subject has highlighted corners.
C/ ISO AND DYNAMIC RANGE
Note: At the time of writing, only the original OM Workspace (OMW) program was available to me, which was the only one that could load photos in RAW. At this moment ate least Capture One 22 and Lightroom/Photoshop Camera RAW can open OM-1 RAW files. Feel free to download sample images from E-M1 III and OM-1 in RAW to compare outputs on different ISO side by side.
The E-M1 III’s ISO range is 200 – 25600, whilst the OM-1 it’s 200 – 102400. I’d say the OMW processes noise pretty irregular, and I don’t see a considerable difference. The only thing I did notice was that the OM-1 comparatively excells in maintaining detail, contrast and color at higher ISO values ( ISO 6400+). I presume, therefore, that the higher ISO values will definitely be more applicable in real life. Its new AI Denoise function works really well, and even when set to “Low”, the difference in ISO processing is clearly visible. The new type of CMOS stacked image sensor should, in principle, bring reinforcements of about 2EV. Personally, I’d say it’s about 1EV. If I take into account the magic such programs as DxO Pure Raw, On1 NoNoise or Topaz DeNoise can do, I am convinced that a “usable” ISO is very likely to shift from the current 6400 to somewhere around 10,000+.
Download free set of E-M1 III and OM-1 RAW files and compare ISO performance side by side
Dynamic range (DR) is closely related to ISO. This is demonstrated in the ability to restore fine detail otherwise hidden in shadows or highlights. Olympus claims that the OM-1 camera has a DR higher by 1EV, which I can only guesstimate as correct. After adjusting the exposure by +2EV, the underexposed photos by -2EV show less noise and finer detail than the E-M1 III. Conversely, overexposed photos by +2EV and then corrected by -2EV in OMW, the restoration of details seems virtually identical. However, when I open a photo from E-M1 III in Capture One, for example, the restoration of details is a completely different story. Where OMW barely captures rough outlines, C1 shows plenty of details and structures. Have a look below where you can compare details of a photo in the original +2EV and its edit in OMW and C1. As this is a photo from the previous generation of the microchip, I’d recommend drawing any definite conclusions about this sensor until after the editors such as Capture One or Lightroom will be able to process it. Personally, i’m not expecting any disappointment.
View of Dynamic Range E-M1 III – original photo +2EV
Cropped photo taken with +2EV and exposure compensation -2EV (maximum) in OM Workspace
Exposure compensation -2EV in OM Workspace and Capture One 22
MY INITIAL & POST-EXPEDITION IMPRESSION
So how do I feel about the new camera? Thanks to the opportunity to use the camera in real conditions for three weeks, I have several thousand photos of hummingbirds, toucans, iguanas, frogs and other beautiful vermin from Ecuador. I would say that thanks to that, and my other photos from the Zoo and of my books in my library, I have a pretty clear idea of what this contraption can do. The strengths are described in pretty exhaustive details above. The camera has so many improved features over the previous generation that it is difficult to find a significant weakness. From the user’s point of view, I have three key observations that I’m struggling to understand. One – a rather cumbersome change of Home AF behaviour, which I think has huge potential. The second oddity occurs when changing the ISO in the 1&2 EVF mode, when (unlike with the E-M1 III) the effect of ISO on the exposure time is not displayed. Both of these anomalies could be easily removed by a firmware update. The last thing I had to get used to is a new type of battery combined with the absence of a classic charger. The truth is, though, that the new battery lasts really long, and I never completely used it all up during an all-day photoshoot. So I”m assuming that two batteries should suffice for one day of intensive photography. However, I think it’s crucial to purchase a charger when travelling. During my three weeks in Ecuador, I only used the one battery charged through a camera, but it’s not as comfortable. On the other hand, I even tried shooting with a connected power bank several times, which I found very nifty as the camera not only supplies power from the power bank but also charges it. Suffice to say that it works without a glitch. So what’s my conclusion? The new generation of MFT cameras advances almost everything existing in photography. I used it to the fullest in the conditions close to me and must admit that I have no complaints. The OM-1 boasts so many fantastic improvements that it will most definitely be the new main body in my gear. Plus, it’s washable, which was damn useful after I returned from photographing iguanas on a sandy beach. But more about that in the next article… (continue to part 2).