Sep. 11, 2013 at 11:00 AM ET
Last year, Olympus delighted the photographic community with the E-M5, an extremely capable yet usable micro four-thirds camera — and it didn't hurt that it was easy on the eyes. Now they're iterating on the series by adding more of everything — but is that really the right way to go?
The new E-M1 is actually, as Olympus explained, more of a successor to the higher-end but not as popular E-5, a high-end four-thirds (no "micro") camera from 2010. Yes, these model names are just a little bit confusing.
And certainly, the E-M1 has more high-end performance than the E-M5. It has an updated 16-megapixel sensor that gives sharper images, the electronic viewfinder has been improved (it appears much larger inside the eyepiece), and its specs in general are better. Direct comparisons of this camera to its predecessor will definitely show noticeable differences.
It's also bigger: the very prominent front grip make it a lot easier for those with large hands to use. Three dials and a plethora of other controls make it a very serious-looking device. While the E-M5 looked like a retro camera updated for the digital era, the E-M1 looks very state of the art.
In my opinion, the older camera both looks better and felt better to handle, but the fact is that the new controls provide power users with a huge amount of instant customization. If you want to tweak the settings just so, or quickly switch gears from one mode to another, the E-M1 is built for that.
The fact is, though, it's not the kind of camera that you just pick up and shoot. Even as a seasoned photographer and fan of Olympus cameras, I felt the the E-M1 was imposing at first. But once you get over the initial hump, there are some great tools in there.
One great option for creative photographers is a live in-camera tint that lets you apply a color to your image to give it a new look. A little yellow to warm up a cloudy day, or red to accentuate a sunset — it's easy to use, flexible and fun.
Olympus also now offers a free app for your iOS device (coming to Android soon) that lets you shoot wirelessly, adjust camera settings, back up photos, and so on. This is something most camera makers charge extra for, or don't think of doing at all.
The benefits of wireless shooting are only limited by your imagination. Put the camera on the roof of your car and take a few shots while you drive around. Point it straight up while you camp and activate a long exposure from your tent. Reviewing shots on your tablet is nicer than squinting at a 3-inch screen — a nice one by camera standards, but not compared to your high-def iPad.
Olympus is also introducing a few new lenses to its lineup, and the E-M1 will be compatible with Olympus' old four-thirds (without the "micro") as well, so anyone who invested in that line will probably want to jump on this camera.
They'll have to reach deep into their pockets: the E-M1 starts at $1,400 for the camera body only.
Last year's E-M5 was the first camera I really considered switching to from my trusty DSLR, and while the E-M1 adds a bunch of new features, it doesn't seem as usable and elegant. Then again, it's aimed at the pros for whom the E-M5 wasn't enough. On that front, it looks like it succeeds, but I find myself hoping they have another, simpler offering waiting in the wings.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.