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Olympus Camera Reviews

Date: 22/09/2013 | By: Mathieu

Hands-On with the Olympus OM-D E-M1: Autofocus with Four Thirds & Lumix lenses

E-M1, 1/20, f/ 35/10, ISO 400

Hands-On with the Olympus OM-D E-M1: Autofocus with Four Thirds & Lumix lenses

Our OM-D E-M1 hands-on coverage:

Low-light performance – Olympus Europe interview – M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lensAutofocus


The new Olympus OM-D E-M1 represents a fusion of two distinct systems: Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Olympus did develop a new Four Thirds DSLR, the E-7, but then decided to drop the project when they realised they could incorporate the best parts of both systems into one single camera. The body remains compact but includes all the features we professionals need, and works seemlessly with all Olympus Zuiko and M.Zuiko lenses.



The autofocus capabilities of the E-M5, the former Olympus MFT flagship camera, has always been bi-polar: super fast in AF-S mode, but limited in AF-C (continuous). An adapter for FT lenses was already available but the autofocus was very slow. So one of the main challenges in developing this new camera was to build a body that would satisfy both FT and MFT users. To achieve this, Olympus had to build a new sensor with a hybrid autofocus system that incorporates both contrast and phase detection capabilities.

For those who are lost here, contrast detection is mostly used on compact and mirrorless cameras while phase detection is used on DSLRs. The main differences between the two, simply explained, are:

  • Contrast detection AF: the camera measures the contrast intensity between adjacent pixels. The more the picture is in focus, the more the intensity of that contrast increases. But the way in which the focus is calculated doesn’t involve actual distance measurements. Basically, the camera doesn’t know if your subject is in back or front focus. Contrast AF can be also limited in low light environments, where contrast intensity between adjacent pixels is harder to determine.
  • Phase detection AF: the camera measurement is based on incoming ray light. Simply speaking, the rays entering the edges of lens have to converge at the same point on the sensor to create an in-focus image. If the lens is focused in front of or behind the optimal point, the light rays will converge in a different position, meaning they will be out of phase, rendering the image out of focus.
E-M1, 1/160, f/ 28/10, ISO 250
E-M1, 1/160, f/ 2.8, ISO 250

With MFT lenses and in AF-S mode, the camera will use contrast detection and any of the 81 AF points on the sensor. In this mode, the difference compared to an E-M5 or a Pen E-P5 is less noticeable. Even though the E-M1 has far more focus points (81 vs 35), I didn’t find any substantial differences. The E-M1 seemed slightly more accurate in low-light situations and slightly faster with the new M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 attached. During our ISO comparison, I noticed that the E-M1 hesitated less in focusing in a couple of scenes we chose to photograph (both cameras had the same 12-40mm lens).

In AF-C mode with the 12-40mm f/2.8, the E-M1 responded very well. Heather took various sequences and none of them were out of focus.

But to really test and challenge the AF, I wanted to use telephoto lens and ask the (near) impossible of the camera!

Continuous autofocus with the Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/2.8 (Four Thirds)

E-M1, 1/1600, f/ 56/10, ISO 800
E-M1, 1/1600, f/ 5.6, ISO 800 – Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 – Post processed RAW with Lightroom 5

With Four Thirds lenses, the E-M1 will only use phase detection, regardless of the AF mode chosen. There are 37 phase detection AF points present in the middle of the sensor. The position of those AF points is important to know as you will get better results if your subject remains on the centre of the frame, rather than on the extreme left or right. That can seem obvious for the frame composition but often we like to position our subjects slightly to the left or right side of the centre. However, if you go too far to the edge, you risk focusing outside of the phase detect point zone.

At Castle Leslie, I had the chance to perform a series of high speed shots of horses running through a lake. When I arrived on the other side with a boat and stepped on the dock, one of the Olympus representatives told me I could choose any FT lens I wanted. As soon as I laid eyes on the 300mm f/2.8, I thought:

Well, if I only have a couple of shots, why not try the AF-C with the most extreme telephoto lens available!

E-M1, 1/1000, f/ 4/1, ISO 800
Me and the 300mm f/2.8. Honestly, I’m not used to this kind of lens anymore!

When I mounted the big lens, I was surprised by the build quality and robustness of the new MFT adapter. I also really enjoyed the re-designed ergonomics of the E-M1 and its battery grip when shooting with this lens.

Olympus has managed to design a small camera with perfect ergonomics that will please the user regardless of whether he or she uses small MFT lenses or bigger FT lenses.

I had the opportunity to use the 300mm for two rounds. The E-M1 was set to AF-C, L burst mode and shutter priority at 1/6000. In Low burst mode, the E-M1 gives priority to focus rather than speed so it is always important to select L instead of H, as H will give priority to speed and lock the focus point at the beginning of the burst.

The 300mm f/2.8 (600mm equivalent on 35mm format) was slightly too long for my position and the relative distance to the horses, so I knew that I was challenging the AF from the start.

I admit that I am not used to shooting with extreme telephoto lenses like this one, and I also decided to shoot hand-held to complicate things even more so forgive me if some of my pictures below are poorly composed.

So as to capture the most important moments of the run, I decided not to perform continuous shooting but rather shoot in short bursts at intervals.

During the first round, I released the first burst as the horses came out from behind a tree.

In the first four images, both riders are slightly blurry if you look at the pictures at their full size. It seems that the AF didn’t lock precisely enough on the rider on the left. The focus point is slightly behind them.

In the second sequence, I waited to have them closer to me and released the second burst.

The first two photos seem fine, but in the third picture the rider on the left is out of focus, while the head of the horse on the right seems sharper. Since I didn’t change my focus point, it seems that the focus point this time was slightly in front of the rider on the left.

Both the first and second sequences seemed in focus to me when I reviewed them on the E-M1’s LCD, but once on the computer, I noticed that this wasn’t exactly the case.

I briefly stopped shooting, changed my composition to focus on the horses’ hooves and started shooting once again. This time the AF locked on quickly and perfectly.

I then concentrated once again on the riders as they were much closer to me now. This is the part that gave me a very positive impression. The closer the riders came to me, the better the AF followed them.

As you can see, in the last three pictures, despite the number of water drops, the camera still managed to focus properly.

In the second round, I didn’t manage to get any good examples as I started to focus too close to the right edge of the frame  – most of the pictures came out blurry, as the camera didn’t manage to recover the focus point except for the last shot, when again the horse and rider were closer to me. Moreover, the metering system didn’t work well as it underexposed the images by choosing a slower aperture.

E-M1, 1/1250, f/ 9/1, ISO 800
E-M1, 1/1250, f/ 9, ISO 800 – Exposure recovered with Lightroom 5

The continuous autofocus is quick to lock but can be slightly inaccurate. That said, the camera has some settings specific to AF-C and FT lenses. You can set the reactivity of the C-AF lock and also specify which lens data to use since the camera includes all MFT and FT lens information in its internal database. The database is also editable if you find that the results are not 100% accurate. So I’m sure there is margin for improvement from this point of view.

I admit that this first test doesn’t conclude anything but only suggests what the E-M1 can do in terms of AF-C with a FT lens. Obviously, more tests are needed with other FT lenses in various situations to come to any real conclusion. From what I shot, I certainly see the potential of the camera and the close-up pictures came out really well.

At this point there were only two rounds left to photograph, and since I also had the Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8 with me, I switched lenses to perform a different test…

Continuous autofocus with the Lumix 35-100mm (MFT)

In AF-C mode, the camera uses a mix of contrast and phase detection with MFT lenses. I changed my position and tried my Lumix 35-100mm. I was very curious to see how the E-M1 would perform with a Lumix lens.

When the horses were far away, the AF-C worked great as the difference in focus distance was minimal. When the riders turned and started to run faster, the E-M1 performed well for the first shots then lost the focus completely. I zoomed out to keep the two riders in the frame and the camera immediately managed to recover by 90%. My guess is that in the second picture below, my two subjects were too far from the centre and the camera lost its reference. I used a single focus point only instead of a group of AF points so this could be an explanation. It also didn’t recover the focus quick enough as the movement of the horses became very rapid.

The second round came out almost perfectly. I decided to use a shorter focal length from the beginning and this seemed to help. Only the first and the seventh shots are slightly out of focus.

We didn’t have more time to shoot horses, so during some free time before dinner, I did an additional test using my beloved Heather as my running model. I wanted to test the AF-C mode with another “extreme” situation.

The test was simple: Heather running towards me (over and over again!), starting at around 15 meters away, with the lens set at its longest focal length (100mm).

You can see a compilation of thumbnails where I highlighted the out-of-focus pictures in red and the slightly out-of-focus pictures in yellow. You can click on the galleries to see the whole sequence in full resolution.

, , f/ , ISO
AF-C sequence

In my opinion, the results are very interesting. The last “green” picture was taken when Heather was only a few meters away from me and the camera still managed to quickly compensate after the previous blurred picture. Of course, when Heather came too close, she became completely out of focus.

I also did a test with AF-C Tracking to see if I could see any difference. Tracking is more suitable with subjects that move in random and less predictable directions.

, , f/ , ISO
AF-C Tracking

In this second example, the last pictures are all out of focus but in this case, the camera managed to track the focus much better when Heather was closing in on my position. The last three pictures especially aren’t as blurry as the previous test.

As you can see from the thumbnail previews, there are quite a few out-of-focus pictures. Again, this test was extreme as I used a subject running quickly towards me from a close distance, and a 200mm equivalent focal length would challenge any autofocus system, so my guess is that the OM-D E-M1 performs well. I will need to do more tests with Olympus and Panasonic lenses to write a proper conclusion about this specific topic.

Conclusion

Those tests were too brief to jump to any real conclusion, but I can clearly see an improvement over the OM-D E-M5 regarding AF-C. The most noticeable aspect is the improved speed when the focus changes rapidly, or when the camera tries to “catch-up” after starting from a blurred image. In any case, where the E-M5 would have probably “given up”, the E-M1 is faster at recovering and adjusting, giving you at least a couple of sharp pictures. Again, I will need to do more testing to evaluate its efficiency and understand how close it can get to the best AF found on DSLRs.

The E-M1 is also available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.


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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Mathieu

    It didn’t bother me too much when I tested it but I see your point. Maybe that could be an interesting firmware upgrade.

  • Andy

    Thanks all!

    I managed to find it :)

    I am still not so impressed. I have big problems with buttons. For example when I click HDR button or AF button (where on/off switch is) i have to reset camera with shooting button so I can press HDR or AF button and actually switch between both selections. Any idea why this is a good implementation for shortcuts?

    It is quite time consuming – i can not simply press AF or HDR button and simply switch between them?

    Or maybe I am missing something :)

  • http://www.shutterleaf.co.uk/blog Anurag

    Same advice as Mathieu. Also use a faster card like the sandisk extreme pro 95mb/s. The write speed greatly increases (buffer clears quicker) & therefore so does access to buttons. Also don’t shoot raw+JPEG nor use art filters as they will slow write times to card. If you don’t need raw, shoot JPEG and if fine details is not important then shoot at MN. It will be much faster.

  • Mathieu

    You can disable the image preview in the last menu (wrench symbol) under the “Rec View” option.
    When the camera is writing to the SD card you have to wait a little bit before previewing the images with the playback button.

  • Andy

    Question to all em1 users…i have it on test and i have one question.

    Is there any way to disable image preview (of taken image) while shooting in evf?

    If i take continous shooting and while camera writes data on card i can not preview and of te images using play button?!

    I foud that some buttons like fn1, fn2 when then are assigned are not woking or nothing happens really when they are pressed? Maybe it is jusy mine camera.

    Thanks!

  • Mathieu

    The lens I tested the most with the E-M1 is the Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8, and it worked really well but its maximum focal length wouldn’t be enough for BIF pictures. I haven’t tested the E-M1 with the 100-300mm. Certainly the camera will focus faster than the G1, as it is more recent and has phase detection AF capabilities. It is currently the best camera regarding AF speed and accuracy among MFT cameras (and probably mirrorless cameras in general). Of course the best option for you should maybe go in a camera store and try the the E-M1 with your panasonic lens. Certainly it won’t be the same as going to take some birds pictures but you can get a general impression about how the AF reacts with that lens.
    I never tried the 70D or the A77, so I cannot tell you if they are better regarding AF. But the E-M1 has an AF system very close to that of DSLRs. Also, Olympus will release an extreme telephoto lens in 2014 but there is no info about the focal length neither the aperture yet.

  • RvRossum

    I own MFT lenses (I’m an nature photographer) en like to replace my G1 (I do love the weight of mirrorless lenses and camera’s!). For BIF (Birds in Flight) de CF/AF in the G1 is regrettable to slow for it. If I do read your review well, I can’t expect much improve with the OM1 for BIF with my panny MFT lenses (14/45mm, 45/200mm and 100/300 mm)? FT lensen will do probably better with FaseAF on these lenses? I almost bought the OM1 last weekend, but I’am in doubt about the purchase now. You wrote (quote):
    “I will need to do more tests with Olympus and Panasonic lenses to write a proper conclusion about this specific topic” (Did you already?)
    Or perhaps is the Canon 70D or Sony A77 a better option and sell the MFT lenses?

  • Mathieu

    Thanks Anurag 😉

  • Anurag

    Good review Mathieu.

    The existing Zuiko lenses are really good on the EM1. I was impressed when I tried it out with the 35-100 F2.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Claudio

    You can preorder it everywhere but in France….
    :(

  • Mathieu

    Hi Bobby, you are not crazy, don’t worry 😉
    I made a similar switch. With an E-M1 and the new 12-40 f/2.8 and 40-150 f/2.8 (or the Lumix 35-100 2.8), you will get the same image quality in a smaller package.

  • Bobby

    I’ve been debating selling my Canon 7D, 17-55 f/2.8, and 70-200 f/2.8 in favor of one of the OM-Ds, either the 5 or 1 when it comes out. Am I crazy for thinking about this?? I feel like I can accomplish what I want with the more compact camera. Lugging my gear around gets pretty annoying.

  • Mathieu

    Hi Kevin, there are pictures mostly at f/3.5, f/4 and f/5.6. Only a couple at f/7/9. I was in shutter speed priority 😉

  • kevin

    So you have the opportunity to use the 300mm f2.8 and you shoot the sequence at f7-f9 ?!!

  • Mathieu

    LOL, a stupid typo mistake, thanks for pointing it out 😀

  • T N Args

    A minor typo: there is no such lens as “M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/2.8”. It should be “Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/2.8”.

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