Olympus OM-D EM-1 / Pen-F Review

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

I’ve got some good news and some bad news about this ‘review.’

The bad news first.

I’d been waiting to do this review because I didn’t have any photos. Literally, I didn’t have any time since I promised this review to even take photos. Not even a spare hour to walk around. Feck.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 12-50mm 3.5-6.3.

My days most often look like above. Having recently bought a house here in Korea I haven’t really had much time for anything else. A fixer-upper would be being kind. That said, I’m loving the process of re-building. I will remember the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making it a house.

My house.

You might say, why not photography the process? There is one main reason for this:

  1. This is Korea and people here work.

What do I mean? Well, if I am walking around taking photos while other people work then I look lazy. I should be working just as hard as the people around me. If my wife is working harder than me I can’t help but feel guilty. Also, I’ve never done anything like this before and I think that the process of “doing” is more important than the “documenting” of the process.

I’ve taken some photos of the stages, but very little. I guess I’ve come to realize this experience is better experienced,

As it were.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

So, the good news! I have taken some photos during that time. I think I’ve taken enough to illustrate my thoughts on both the cameras in question. So, in the next 2000 or so words I’ll tell you about my experience with both the Olympus Pen-F and OM-D EM-1. I’ll tell you why I eventually got rid of one and kept the other. I’ll also talk a little about the system as a whole.

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Olympus Pen-F, 50mm Leica Summilux V2.

So, can you guess which of them I kept? In all honesty, it wasn’t a difficult decision in the end. Not even slightly.

Let’s start with the Pen-F.

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Olympus Pen-F, 17mm f1.8.

Let me say this first, I think the Pen-F is one of the prettiest digital cameras I’ve ever seen. I’ve used a lot of pretty cameras -Leica Ms, Leica Q, almost all the Fujis – but I still think the Pen-F is as pretty as any of them. It’s a beautiful thing to look at.

In use, I found the Pen-F to be fast and competent. That “dial” on the front to change from colour filters to black and white filters never bothered me and I even found myself using it now and then. I did find the Pen in general a bit uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time without the optional (and expensive) grip which I eventually borrowed. When I was using the Pen for a job about halfway through my hand started to cramp a little. The grip seemed to solve this, however.

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Olympus Pen-F, 17mm f1.8

The photos from the Pen looked great to me, but I have always been a huge fan of Micro Four Thirds cameras in general. I find this sensor size to be the absolute best compromise between depth of field and image quality. When shooting on the street, I love smaller sensors. The deeper depth of field makes things easier and allows for more context. Of course, when shooting full frame (or film) I just stop down and get a similar thing. That said, light becomes a bit of a problem in that case. It’s strange but, I think being able to get the light of f/4 with the same depth of field as f8 on film is a real plus to me. I’ll cover “bokeh” later if that is a reason you’ve decided this sensor might not be for you.

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Olympus Pen-F, 17mm f1.8.
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Olympus Pen-F, 17mm f1.8.
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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.
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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

The M43s sensor also seems to process better than any other sensor I’ve used. The photos take almost no work in comparison to files from a Ricoh, Sony, Fuji, or even Leica. They seem to look good almost straight out of camera a lot more often than anything from those other brands. I know, you’ll be thinking I’ve sang the praises of those other brands often enough. Fair, enough. All I can say is every time I use a M43s camera I am always surprised by how little the photos need. All my presets seem to be way “too much” for the photos. I like this a lot as I can do a lot more a lot more quickly. As you can see from the above photo, the original and the one processed to match my normal look aren’t far off each other. You’d find a much greater difference from something like a Ricoh for example.

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Puke. Olympus Pen-F, 17mm f1.8.

 

So, the big question regarding image quality that I most often get about M43s is something like this:

“Is it still possible to get bokeh like I can with a full frame camera?” 

First, let me say that I think bokeh is the most overrated cop-out of a photographic effect there is. It is for lazy people that don’t want to compose an image with “thought.” When I’m feeling really lazy I use it to get rid of distractions in the background of a photo. Otherwise, I just don’t get it. Anyway, I digress.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 50mm Leica Summilux V2 at 1.4.

The answer is simple. Yes, it is easy to get bokeh from a M43s sensor. In fact, I find it almost laughable when people talk about it. It’s laziness that creates this argument. Let me explain (apologies in advance for my terrible understanding of this – bare with me):

So, my Leica Summilux 50mm lens looks at 1.4 like 2.8 might on a full frame camera. That is to say, the depth of field is doubled? Doubly deep? Trust me when I say technical aspects of cameras are not my thing. How most people explain this to me the “bokeh” will be – ahem – half what it might be on a full frame camera. But then, the Summilux becomes a 100mm 2.8 (effectively in terms of depth of field) on M43s. A 100mm lens has more “bokeh” than a 50mm lens by double (assuming everything else is the same) as far as I understand it so what is the difference? Aren’t they the same then…? At least, to me, I can’t really tell the difference aside from compression.

Well, I guess lazy people will say they have to walk back twice as far to frame something. Sounds like laziness pure and simple. Sure, some situations won’t allow it but then that’s where that thing between your ears is supposed to come into play. Creative constraints have allowed me to make some of my favourite photographs.

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Newfoundland, Canada.

Take the above photo for example. I had left my Leica M5 and Summilux in the car. I had brought an ND filter in the thoughts to make a pretty bokeh-ed out portrait. Left with nothing but my compact camera, I had to think and compose the photo in such a way where the “distractions” worked in my favour. I had to elevate to frame her head against the road. That turned out to be one of my favourite photos of the year. The context that was captured here would never have been possible with my initial plan. Creative constraints “created” this photo.

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Olympus Pen-F, 50mm Leica Summilux at 1.4.

Anyway.

Recently, I took some photos of my film director friend Dong-bin in Seoul with the Pen-F and the 50mm Summilux attached. Even in the tight streets of Seoul I never felt “trapped” by the lens being 100mm on this system. In fact, it gave me an appreciation for a focal length I would never normally use. I’ve always sworn by wide lenses. I’ve evolved a bit though and now I kind of subscribe to the mindset that I should be able to get a photo with whatever focal length I have.

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Olympus Pen-F, 50mm Leica Summilux at 1.4.
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Olympus Pen-F, 50mm Leica Summilux at 1.4.

Anyway, in my humble opinion there is plenty of “bokeh” for those who like it available in this system. Of course, this is a pretty pricey Leica lens but there are cheaper options and literally any 50mm 1.4 lens can be adapted to these cameras and some of them are like $30.

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Olympus Pen-F, 50mm Leica Summilux at 1.4.

It shouldn’t be an issue.

Really.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

The other thing people often ask about when it comes to M43s is about the aspect ratio being natively 4:3. Well, this is a bit of a weird one for me. I find myself preferring 4:3 (for work) because it provides more context to me in a shot. I’m not sure why this is, but I find when I’m working on a job I prefer the look of 4:3 and seem to “see” that way a little better. In any case, purists who swear by 3:2 because it is the “same” as film are kinda off anyway. My negatives are never 3:2. Slightly wider from my M3, for example.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

Another weird thing is I found that shooting the Pen-F in 4:3 felt weird whereas it seems to make sense to my brain with the OM-D. WEIRD, I know. I can’t really explain this aside from the fact that the form factor of the cameras might have something to do with my craziness.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

Either way, I generally crop most images if I am posting them on Instagram to around 3:2 for continuity. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me very much anymore. Just, whatever works you know?

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

Anyway, I’ve gone WAY off topic. Back to the cameras. Have you been able to guess which I decided to keep yet?

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I call him Frank. Olympus OM-D EM-1 with Optional grip and 12-50 3.5-6.3.

Well, a lot of factors went into me deciding to keep the OM-D over the Pen-F. The Pen-F is obviously so much prettier. I loved to look at it. That being said, I already have a camera that is more beautiful to look at than even the Pen.

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Leica and a Beer.

I’m fairly certain if I wanted to go out with a camera that looks good I’d still take this. So, that was the first thing that made the Pen-F redundant to me.

Secondly, I needed to consider what I needed for work. I am not a full time photographer but I do have some more serious projects I am working on. For those, I needed a camera that was better to “use” – not just better to look at. The OM-D, for example, is so, so much more comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The large grip just makes it so nice in use. Also, it generally just feels much faster. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but the OM-D feels more like a tool to me. Things are all where they should be. Settings just are where I need them. When I mount my 50mm Summilux the placement of the function buttons just makes the OM-D a much easier camera to focus and shoot. The viewfinder is also nicer to my eye (at least, bigger). I find the image quality to be about the same. Also, the battery seemed to last longer and the fact that the optional grip carries an extra battery (if I need) makes it a lot more of a “pro” experience. In Korea this is important as people expect a photographer to have a big camera. It’s funny, I used to show up to shoots with a 5D or an A7 and huge lens but take all the photos with an RX100 or X100. The other camera was just for show.

Also..

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Can you spot the OM-D?

I used to prefer pretty motorcycles. These days, I ride this scooter around because it is reliable and literally just works. No one would argue it being pretty, surely. The OM-D is kind of like that. I never feel the need to baby it. While the Pen-F is built very nicely it feels nowhere near as nice in the hand as the OM-D. It feels like there is no way it would take the abuse that the OM-D would. The OM-D is also weather and dust sealed which is a great plus considering the dust and things I’ve been dealing with lately. I picked up the cheap 12-50mm lens which is also weather-sealed and together they make a nice tight package.

Another reason I decided on the OM-D is video. While it lacks the pop out screen of the Pen-F it has a mic-input which I find a lot more important. I’ve been putting together some vlog posts (planning to launch first with new house completion) and I just generally found the OM-D to work a lot easier to use for video. It isn’t the best camera around for video, obviously, but is more than enough for what I need.

All those things aside, the OM-D was just the one I reached for all the time. I love the fact that I don’t have to worry about it. I can toss it around without care or worry. This part especially fits into my lifestyle these days.

Oh, and I forgot this part:

The OM-D costs about one third the price of the Pen-F used here in Korea. That alone means I’d pick it every single time. Building a house has made me frugal so this is probably one of the most important factors in all of this. I could buy the 12-50, grip, extra battery, 17mm, and OM-D EM-1 body for about the price of the Pen-F body and grip. Doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

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My niece. Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

Also, for family trips and what not the OM-D can be handed to anyone to use and I never worry about it. I wouldn’t in a million years just hand my M3 over to a kid to play with. At least not while sober.

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Olympus OM-D EM-1, 17mm f1.8.

The one thing I forgot to mention that many people asked me was about the electronic shutter on both cameras. Well, to be honest I am not the type to shoot in silence. I quite like to be seen or heard. I did try it a little but as you can see from above it is quite difficult if the lights are the cycling variety. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing. In my opinion the shutter on both cameras is quite quiet so this shouldn’t really be a deciding factor. I just thought I would add it since some people asked. I found the problem to be very similar on both cameras.

So, this wasn’t much of a review. I apologize.

I don’t have the time I once did. I do hope I can balance things a little more effectively once the house is finished. I also will be undergoing some changes in my job soon which should give me more time for this sort of thing. I have a couple of reviews I want to get done.

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Sony RX100V.

I recently picked up the Sony RX100V for example, for my mom and spent some time with it before sending it off. A really nice little camera, and the fact it is the one I purchased for my mother should say quite a bit about how highly I think of it. That will be the next mini-review I plan on doing.

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Sony RX100III.

I took Eric Kim’s longtime profile photo with an older version of that camera. Also used two phones for lighting, but that is another story. A rip-off of the Irving Penn portrait of Truman Capote. So stay tuned for that post. Should be done before 2028. Maybe.

Considering how bad this review was, I wanna open up the comments to questions about the cameras. I figure if you have anything you want to know that I didn’t talk about I am more than happy to answer! I think this type of back and forth might be better than what I actually wrote… :/

Finally, thank you so much to everyone that ordered my zine, Neverland: Korea Volume I. I was blown away by the support. So much so, I’ve already started putting together Volume II (suggestions?). It will be slightly shorter and slightly cheaper and probably will be available sometime this summer.

Volume I is still available here:

MAGCLOUD.

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Neverland: Korea Volume I.

Thanks again!

15 thoughts on “Olympus OM-D EM-1 / Pen-F Review

  1. Like you said, not really a review but I enjoyed understanding your thoughts of both cameras and ultimately what you chose to keep. The why is so much more interesting than the what and based on your words, it would be difficult to find fault in your choice.

  2. Interesting read. Especially, because I recently also got one of the OM-D cameras (E-M10 mkII).

    I always liked the Olympus brand, shooting mainly with OM and XA cameras in my film days. And I love that you can buy high-quality but relatively cheap lenses for MFT from Lumix and Sigma Art.

    Like you, I prefer the Olympus SOOC files over the Fuji ones. So, happy about that.

    However, I do have two issues, and maybe you have some thoughts or suggestions – although they might be specific for the E-M10.
    Preview in EVF seems way too bright (as in blown out hightlights and stuff). It’s not exactly a WYSIWYG kind of deal. So firstly, I was heavily EV compensating but ended up with a lot of underexposed shots. And: battery life. Even for mirrorless standards, it seems to be poor. I needed two fully charged batteries to get me through shooting one event. I am now trying to improve this by tweaking some settings, but still, I had to buy an extra, third battery.

    1. Hi Robert!

      As for the viewfinder, I have not experienced this at all. The viewfinder for me is always spot on. That being said, there is a setting for S-OVF (supposed to mimic an optical viewfinder) that makes things seem a lot brighter. I usually leave it on the normal mode and I’ve never had the problem you mentioned. Ironically, I have experienced that problem quite a lot with the EVF in the X100.

      As for battery life, I’m probably a bad person to ask. Even on an all day shoot I probably only shoot a couple hundred photos, max. On the OMD EM1 that means the first battery has maybe 40% left by the end of the day. I use the optional grip with an extra battery just in case. It makes the camera bigger but gives me some peace of mind. I haven’t actually gotten into the extra battery yet though. I do find when I use the flash it hurts the battery life a lot. I don’t know a lot about the model you have, but I would guess there is a way to fix the viewfinder problem at least?

      1. Josh, thanks for the quick reply.

        S-OVF is off, so I guess it’s in normal mode (Olympus menus can be a bit cryptic). Now, I toggled EVF auto luminance to OFF, and put the EVF brightness to -2. Hopefully this will prevent me from uncessarily screwing around with EV compensation. In-camera histogram is accurate, so I will need to check it regularly, just to make sure.

        For my first real shoot I needed two batteries for 200/250 shots (without flash). So that was quite bad. I think it’s better now after changing some settings. But I guess it might also be the difference between the “pro” EM1 and the mid-range EM10.

  3. All I can say is that I liked your review better than the DPreview stuff!

    Thanks for the insights. As ever the cheaper camera seems to be better than the overpriced ‘hip’ vintage looking stuff.

  4. Thanks much for your thoughts – looking forward to Volume II of the zine. Regarding suggestions, just a detail: Maybe add the date of publication to the imprint at the last page. The pictures are of timeless beauty, but an anchor in time could be helpful if someone somewhere in the world looks with curiosity at the zine in a few decades from now. (Maybe even add the period in which you took the pictures.) – Kind regards from Germany and all the best for the house project!

  5. Thanks for your review, I really enjoyed it despite all the apologies! M43 has been my main system for 5 years so I am obviously sympathetic to your defences of it as a format.

    Just one thing about the bokeh/DOF/equivalence section of your article. Yes, your 50/1.4 full frame Leica lens is obviously still having the same DOF at 1.4 no matter what sensor size you attach it to — only the crop/frame changes, not the image’s qualities within that crop. Exactly as if you had cut the 135 negative down to M43 size. BUT, there is a but. Yes your 50/1.4 image focused at 1m has exactly the same background bokeh on FF or M43, but if you want the same frame of the main subject, e.g. top of head to mid waist, with both M43 and FF, you now have to back off to 2m from the subject with M43 to get the whole subject in the frame. And when you refocus to 2m, the background bokeh now changes to less blurred. Put it back on the FF, stand closer at 1m and focus, and the background bokeh is more blurred. Change to f/2.8 on FF and the background bokeh will look same as the M43 image at 2m and f/1.4.

    regards

  6. I know that relative to DSLRs, the OM is not a large camera. However it’s definitely bulkier, especially with a grip, than other M43 or rangefinder cameras, and seems significantly bigger than all the cameras you’ve gravitated toward in the past. Do you ever feel that the size means you’re less willing to bring the camera with you?

    1. Well, it is all relative. During that time you mentioned I have had a Leica rangefinder that I carry more than anything else. I think my M3 is actually heavier and slightly bigger than the em1. Anyway, to answer your question it doesn’t stop me from carrying it, no.

      1. I didn’t realize that the M3 was that big/EM1 was that small!
        Another question; do you notice people react differently since it’s shaped like an SLR?
        I use a Panasonic GH2 and GX1 and I find that people usually don’t pose or react when I use the GX1. When I use the GH2, though, people will be more likely to pose or ask me not to take a picture. It’s like they register the “pro-camera” look and close up.
        Maybe it’s just because I treat the cameras differently, though.

  7. I actually liked this kind of review. Not too technical but more personal. Anyway I did once had the omd em10 as my first camera when I got into photography. Loved the camera but sold it and bought a Fuji X100T after getting married . Though I lusted the em1 for the longest time back then. Haha

    Cheers!

  8. I’m not sure if I’ve really posted a comment a few day ago or if it has simply reached your bin, so here I’m once more time for saying you’ve a nice pic collection. The Pen F is a great camera but damn it costs really too much.

    best,

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