Underwater Test DiveOlympus recently sent us a prototype PT-EP11 housing for the Olympus E-M1, so we decided to take it with us on our Roatan Underwater Imaging Workshop to give it a test drive. While we didn't have the greatest visibility that week, we were able to get some shots under our weight belt and work with the camera to give our impressions of the latest addition to the underwater lineup from Olympus.
The new E-M1 has been added to the OMD line alongside the OM-D E-M5. While the E-M5 is continuing on in the line, for us underwater photographers, we should consider it the update to the E-M5. The E-M1 is now the top camera in Olympus' mirrorless lineup.
Images from the E-M1 are exceptionally sharp. Shot with the Olympus 60mm Lens for macro and a SubSee Plus 10, focus was easy to see on the screen and throughout the viewfinder. ISO 200, 1/320, f/8
Some of the more notable features carried over from the E-M5 is the 5 axis image stabilization, but there have been some significant updates to the E-M1. The biggest change is a max flash sync speed of 1/320. Other mirrorless cameras have max speeds of 1/160. Even most SLRs top out at 1/250. This is a huge advantage for dialing in the exposure on your background. For wide shots, you can get darker blue water backgrounds and pull in the exposure on sunball shots easier. For macro photography, a high sync speed allows one to more easily knock out any ambient light and just have light from the strobes on the subject, and also accomplish black backgrounds in the daytime.
Other improvements are 10 frames per second with a 41 image RAW buffer, and improved AF function and speed (if it could actually get any better than E-M5). The viewfinder is now as large as a full frame DSLR viewfinder and the resolution is 2.36 million pixels, making it one of the highest resolution EVFs on the market. Those who have vision issues will have no problem dialing in and seeing this viewfinder for critical viewing.
The 2x2 switch is an underwater photographer's dream in fast action. In 1st position, the dials operate shutter speed and aperture. In 2nd position, the dials operate white balance and ISO. No need to hit multiple buttons to make those adjustments, just flip a switch, turn the dial, shoot. And like the E-M5, when changing the ISO it shows you an EV meter so you can tell if you've got the ISO in the range you need without having to pop out of the ISO settings screen to where you are at on the meter.
The small size of the E-M1 and the Panasonic 8mm fisheye lets you get in tight spots inches from your subject, so even in horrible vis you can pull off backscatter-free wide angle shots. ISO 200, 1/125, f/8
The customization of controls on this camera are insane. Almost any button can can be reassigned to another function. One of the major disadvantages to the Olympus PT-EP08 housing for the E-M5 was that you needed to sacrifice one of the 2 assignable function buttons to the fish mode as this is the only way the flash can fire in the down position inside the housing. Now with the E-M1 you can assign fish mode to one of the 2 custom buttons on the front of the camera, without sacrificing any of the importantly placed custom function buttons on the PT-EP11 housing for the E-M1. For the PT-EP11 housing, I prefer to move the AF-ON activation to the Fn1 button, which is more ergonomically located than the AF on button.
The camera has 4 custom white balance presets. With all the customization options, you can now assign custom white balance to one of the function buttons and have a true 1 touch white balance. After executing the white balance, you can then assign it to one of the 4 presets. The ease of process is unmatched in any of the Canon or Nikon SLR cameras. Having 4 presets at your disposal is more than any SLR except for the top end flagship models costing over $6000. We can only hope other camera manufacturers take note and include more presets in the future. One downside to executing a custom white balance is that it can't be done in video mode. You can pick one of the presets to use in code mode, but you cannot execute. For that you need to move over to photo mode.
Macro shooting with mirror less cameras is still a bit more of a challenge than shooting with an SLR. The longest macro lens available is the Olympus 60mm Lens. While this lens is super sharp, the relatively short focal length equates to not much working distance, especially when using a wet diopter like a SubSee Plus 10. SLR's have almost twice the working distance, which is better for more skittish critters.
The Olympus 60mm Lens is a versatile macro lens, being able to capture fish portraits like this grouper, down to super macro critters. The sync flash sync speed allows ISO 200, 1/320, f/8
Images shot with prime lenses look exceptionally sharp. Olympus removed the low pass filter on the sensor and added a new image processor in the E-M1, and the results are sharpness that meets or exceeds that from SLRs.
Movie mode is unchanged from the E-M5. You still have the ability to shoot full manual video. We're a little disappointed that the video frame rate wasn't increased to 60p, but you can still get some great footage from this camera.
Overall, this is the best mirrorless camera we have seen to date.