There’s no doubt that this is the best camera Olympus has ever made. There’s also no doubt that for stills shooters, it’s the best M43 camera you can buy. Sports, birds, wildlife shooters are gonna love it. It still comes up a little short on the video side where the Lumix GH6 is the best bet. Read on to hear how I came to these conclusions or consider this first paragraph my executive summary 🙂
THE FIRST OF A NEW ERA
The Olympus OM-1 (In the future it will be called ‘OM System’) immediately brought my 68-year-old brain back to the days when I bought my first Olympus OM-system film camera. That camera changed my life. And if I were still a practicing, professional, bird photographer I have no doubt this camera would do likewise.
But EVERYTHING has changed and lots of people are unsure of Olympus since the sale to JIP. Everything you used to know about Olympus – and I used to know about Olympus – is essentially up for grabs. By way of disclaimer, for nearly five years, I had the honor and privilege of serving as an Olympus Visionary. I consider it one of the highest honors of my life. But the world changed with COVID and I had to resign that position last fall because of a job change. I left, having nothing but high hopes for the future of Olympus even though I didn’t expect to be connected to the company in any future way. *And I am not connected to the company in any way, other than based on my past relationship with them, they loaned me the camera in order to do this test.
So this is just my unvarnished opinion. Nobody paid me or gave me anything in return for this review.
I really tried to look at this camera through new eyes. The people I used to know at the US side of the company are largely gone. I have no idea what’s happened in Japan, but I assume that the core talent is still there and that means, even with fresh eyes, I assume this is going to be a good camera. But I didn’t let that assumption get in the way of my testing.
I went through every feature and menu and tested it as best I could. Keeping in mind, that I still have the bias of a wildlife/outdoor photographer so it’s with that bias in mind, I worked the camera over. But I did do some other “fun” stuff with it too. Just so I could write about it and be familiar enough with it to teach others how to use it.
I will note that during the time I had the camera I wasn’t able to travel to the usual locations I use for bird photography. I tested it on some local gulls but won’t publish those images because frankly, they are just snapshots. I was just shooting to test the camera’s abilities.
I won’t run down every spec. You can get that info on many websites. I’ll highlight some things that matter to me.
- 120fps burst shooting (120 fps – just let that settle in for a minute – marvelous times we’re living in)
- IP53 weather sealing
- High quality, 4K 60p, 12-bit ProRes RAW
- Eight stops (claimed) of image stabilization
- A new sensor (finally) 20.4MP Micro Four Thirds stacked BSI Live MOS
- 1053 cross-type phase/contrast detect AF points (WOW!)
- 1.321 pounds weight – body only
- 5.76m-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
- New TruePic X Processor
- Dual high-speed card slots (This is worth mentioning because I have always taken this for granted. But I have been testing some other (well-known and well-regarded) cameras that have only the slower card slots which makes it difficult to do high-frame rate photography.)
THE IMPORTANT NEW STUFF
Olympus learned from the OM-D E-M1X debacle (well it wasn’t a debacle in my mind but many in the M43 community just lost their minds at the size of that camera body. I thought it was much ado about nothing but I was clearly in the minority and Olympus listened to the criticism and went the other way here with a flagship camera in a MUCH smaller body.) At 1.321 pounds (with battery, memory card but no lens) nobody can claim this is a heavy camera. I will note that the Sony A7C full-frame mirrorless camera is smaller and weighs a few ounces less but I am merely pointing out that this OM-1 is still not the smallest mirrorless camera you can buy.
The star of the show is the new stacked, backside illuminated 20.4MP image sensor, with super-fast readout speeds capable of up to 120fps blackout-free burst shooting in S-AF, and up to 50fps bursts in C-AF. This is just nuts. The sensor is a monster. And while Olympus will get dinged for it, I think 20.4 MP is just fine. I have noticed that lots of other mirrorless cameras are coming out with crazy 50+ megapixel sensors but when I edit those files (I have tested many of them) they sure seem noisy to me. And noise is the holy grail (if you waste time reading the camera forums) so I don’t get it. I was licensing lots of images from the old sensor so this new one is just icing on the cake. (For you Instagram users who think you need 100 MP to post to Instagram, well some day you’ll have to explain that to me.)
All that power allows for an overall quickness in the camera that is certainly noticeable to an old war horse like me (that is used to the old flagship bodies from Olympus.) But where this really matters is the camera has an additional stop of dynamic range, with better low-light performance and an autofocus system that is as good as I have ever tested on ANY camera, including the Sony A-1. (There – I said it – go ahead and send me hate mail. If you spent the kind of money Sony is getting for the A-1 you need to justify to yourself why you spent so much money so you will probably be mad now that you are finding out you can get just as good AF performance out of a $2200 camera.)
The buffer memory in the OM-1 has a stated capacity of approximately 133 ORF-RAW or 169 Large/Fine JPEGs – although in my tests I consistently found that buffer capacity was as much as 20% greater than promised. This new combo of sensor and faster processor certainly deliver.
One thing I found interesting is that there is only one processor. On the Olympus OM-D E-M1 X Olympus used two processors; one of which was essentially dedicated to autofocus. Olympus must have found a way to beef up the new processor to do the work of two.
Every AF test I have performed has blown me away. There are more (at least I think more) AF points on this camera than any I have seen on the market. It’s an impressive Cross Quad Pixel Autofocus, featuring 1,053 cross-type phase / contrast-detect focus points. Powered by a new image engine, the TruePic X processor, this delivers AI Detection deep learning AF that promises three times faster and more accurate subject detection and recognition of motor and aerial vehicles, birds, felines and canines – even when interrupted by visual obstacles.
Of course my interest was in the bird-AI which worked pretty well on the old OM-D E-M1X but works noticeably better now on this new camera. It’s certainly faster and more accurate. What more could you want?
Olympus says this new body has eight stops of IS but that is only when you are using a lens like the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. Not all Olympus lenses (and none of the third-party lenses) use SYNC IS so they have just seven stops of IS – which is still plenty.
While I always thought the old batteries worked very well, Olympus even beefed up the battery and charger for this new camera. They call it the BLX-1, which is supposed to offer up to 520 shots with the mechanical shutter or 5,000 shots electronically. This also necessitates a new charger and a new battery grip (the HLD-10). So if you have the old batteries and chargers, sorry, you’ll need to put those up for sale on Ebay because they don’t work with the new OM-1.
One note about the battery… Olympus does not provide an external charger with the camera but it can be charged or operated over its USB-C connection. If you use a USB-PD power source that’s powerful enough, the camera can be powered and charged while being used. An external, two-battery charger is available ($149 or $219 with a battery included).
I do think this is a trend amongst camera makers when it comes to newer models and I think it’s a little cheap. A flagship camera (and this is that) should come with a battery charger. It’s a nit but it’s one I want to pick.
The body layout is familiar to anyone who used the “X” but the video record button now doubles as a dedicated command for the High Res Shot mode in stills. (More on the computational stuff below.)
Having spent some time with cinema cameras that were NOT weather proof, I am impressed with what Olympus has done on the OM-1. It’s the only interchangeable lens camera in the world that is rated IP53 (up from IPX1 on the Mark III). This rating is only accomplished with Olympus’ IP53-rated lenses: the new OM System M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro II and OM System M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/4 Pro.
I always thought Olympus didn’t get enough credit for its EVF. The problem is you get the camera forum “experts” who have never TOUCHED the camera declaring it isn’t good enough because they read specs, compare them and form opinions without having actually used the camera. Even I didn’t know how good the Olympus EVF was until I started testing some of the Sony A7 models. But now, there can be no doubt. The new EVF is super upgraded (as is the rear LCD which is fully articulating by the way.) The new EVF resolution has more than doubled and it’s a joy to use.
Another thing I noticed right away is that the menus are simpler. I had gotten used to the old menus so they never bothered me but everyone else I know complains about them so I guess now I can see why. This new system is very simple to navigate, has fewer choices and is easier to understand.
I have always thought Olympus excelled at the small details and the new menu system on the OM-1 is an example of this. You know when you’re trying to set up your camera’s menu and something won’t work because feature “A” doesn’t work if feature “B” is enabled. Well, on the new OM-1 it actually TELLS you why you cannot do what you want to do instead of making you dig into the manual to find out what is and is not compatible. These sorts of small usability issues can mean the difference between getting the shot or not. Making it easier (and faster) to figure out how to get the settings you want means you spend more time actually making images as opposed to thumbing through menus!
When I was a Visionary, I constantly asked the R&D team to add in more CP. Cell phone cameras are so successful because they use computational photography and while it may not have felt like it, Olympus has been near the front of the pack on CP for the last several years. But this new camera puts Olympus in the lead – by a mile.
Now mind you, I am not the guy that will use most of these features because my focus (pun intended) is bird and wildlife photography. But I bet YOU will be interested in them.
Creative Shooting Modes
High Res Shot—Benefitted by the stacked sensor design, processing power, and image stabilization system, is very cool. In this mode, the camera composites a series of 12 shots into a single higher resolution frame in just 5 seconds. Tripod High Res Shots mode produces an 80MP raw file and Handheld High Res Shot mode produces a 50MP raw file, and both modes offer up to 2 stops of reduced noise and improved color information.
(I did play around with handheld – High Res Shot and it really works!)
Live ND—Now supporting up to ND64 (6-stop), this unique function digitally simulates the effects of an optical neutral density filter for produce long exposure/slow shutter speed effects.
Live Composite—Perfect for long exposures, nighttime shooting, and light painting applications, is also cool. In this unique mode, the camera gradually builds up an exposure over time without overexposing key elements within the frame. This mode works to only record newly detected light sources over time, and allows live view monitoring as an image develops. A Handheld Live Composite mode is available, too.
Focus Stacking—This mode automatically records 15 sequential frames while shifting the plane of focus slightly between each frame, then composites these exposures into a single image that exhibits an extended depth of field.
I played with all of these just to be sure they worked and they do. (I used the High-Res shot the most.) It’s fascinating stuff and truly amazing that all of this can be crammed into a $2200 camera body that also happens to be fast as a Ferrari and have the best autofocus I’ve ever used.
Now this is sore subject with me but I need to deal with it. One of the reasons I had to resign from my status as a Visionary is I got a new job as a cinematographer working on some stuff for broadcast. The networks have strict lists of cameras that are approved for use on the productions that they show and unfortunately, Olympus is not on any of those lists. So I regretfully said goodbye so I could use those other cameras.
And when it comes to video, Olympus has not been a leader. Panasonic/Lumix has always been on top in M43 for video and Olympus for stills. Having spent 10 days with the GH6 and more than that with the OM-1 I can confidently say that the gap between the two is narrowing. Significantly. Panasonic’s biggest problem is it still relies on contrast-based AF. If they were to put phase detect AF into their cameras, well then it would be easy to choose the GH6 for both stills and video.
Olympus knows that video is more important than ever so they really tried to bring the OM-1 into the game with some serious upgrades.
DCI/UHD 4K video recording is supported at up to 60p and 10-bit 4:2:0 sampling. Full HD recording is possible at high-speed rates up to 240 fps for slow-motion playback.
12-bit raw output is supported via the micro-HDMI port when working with an optional compatible external recorder, such as the Atomos Ninja V or Ninja V+. (The fact that you still have to use the HDMI port and something like an ATOMOS to capture it is a big reason this camera still doesn’t hit the mark for me on video. This should be something the camera can do internally.)
HLG picture mode permits in-camera HDR recording and an OM-Log gamma allows for greater color grading range when adjusting the footage in post-production.
In-camera time-lapse production is possible, up to UHD 4K with frame rates from 5 fps to 30 fps.
Both 3.5mm microphone and headphone ports contribute to greater audio recording control and quality.
So why do I say this camera still doesn’t live up to the Lumix for video? The problem is simple. While many of these features get the OM-1 closer to the needs of production-minded videographers, the big limitation is 4K. I know, I know. Most people don’t even own a 4K TV yet and most broadcasting is still done in 1080P. But the Netflixes and HBOs of the world are trying to future proof their productions and demanding 6K and in some cases even 8K. So Olympus is still out of the pack just based on the 4K limitation. But that aside, if you’re not trying to get a doc on Netflix, you’ll find the video capabilities of the OM-1 more than sufficient. They really have improved. Just not quite enough.
My call is still the same as it has been for the last five years (including during the time I was serving as a Visionary.) Olympus for stills. Lumix for video. Sorry folks, I call em like I see em. Send me hate mail if you must. But it’s my review and I have to do it my way.
MISC NOTES: I did not test the wi-fi or connectivity of this camera even though it has all the latest features. I just don’t use that stuff and never have. I don’t feel qualified to render an opinion on it so I am not going to offer one.
DYNAMIC RANGE: I don’t use any fancy test equipment and generally do not give even one hoot what the DXO score, etc. is of this or any other sensor. I judge them by the results I get when making 30×40 inch prints. I can see the detail in the shadows better on this new sensor so yes, it has noticeably better dynamic range. Whether or not it will be sufficient for you, I cannot say. For me, it’s enough DR to buy the camera.
Everyone wants to know how this camera behaves in low-light. When I lived in Japan, my nickname was light and shadow warrior. Where light and shadows meet are the essence of art in photography. Since I am old school and have spent my whole career chasing light, and if need be bringing my own light, I never understand this line of “low-light” thinking but I am resigned to talk about it because that is what people seem to care about. I found ISO 6400 to be excellent. I don’t know if you think that is good enough for you but it’s good enough for me. There is noise but it looks more like film grain to me. It is easily controlled in programs like Topaz DeNoise AI.
- Excellent handling
- IP53 sealing against dust and direct water spray
- 8 stops IS with compatible lensses
- Excellent image quality despite the fact that resolution remains 20MP
- Fast and responsive controls
- Low noise levels
- Improved video facilities and performance
- Improved menus
There’s no perfect camera. There’s the perfect camera for YOU and the perfect camera for ME but there’s no perfect camera for EVERYONE. Then beyond that, there’s no perfect camera for every job. But most people can only afford one camera so the overall suitability for what you do and who you are should be the deciding factors.
For Micro Four Thirds people who primarily shoot stills this IS pretty close to the perfect camera. It’s small, lightweight, works with an incredible array of high-quality, small, light, affordable lenses. (All my life I have appreciated Olympus glass.) It has perhaps the best autofocus available on any camera. It’s fast, responsive, well-built, feels good in the hand (might be a tad small for those used to the “X” body.) It’s weather and dust proof, it offers some of the best computational photography features available on an interchangeable lens camera. (Although ALL the ILC camera makers have a ways to go in this regard.)
It has an amazing EVF and a solid, articulating rear LCD. It is competent at video (so long as you don’t need professional production video – in that case look at the Lumix GH6) and it’s very reasonably priced at $2200, US – body only.
I have a different perspective than most reviewers. I had a very close relationship with Olympus as a Visionary for nearly five years. I resigned eight months ago and now have ZERO relationship with Olympus. So I have seen both sides. I am not one of the young, popular bloggers with a big YouTube following who got the camera early to review. In fact, despite the fact that I was an Olympus Visionary – I got a Lumix GH6 to review almost two months faster and reviewed it first. So I don’t have to be worried about making Olympus mad by saying something in my review that puts me at the back of the pack. I am already there.
People used to question my reviews because they knew I was an Olympus Visionary. It doesn’t matter that Olympus never told me what to say or what I couldn’t say. I said what I thought was true either way, but some would never accept that – probably because they are the kind of person who could themselves be bought off. I am not that person. I could NEVER use a camera just because someone paid me to. I love photography way too much to even consider that.
No matter where you came down on that particular discussion, now there’s no reason to suspect I have an ulterior motive. Olympus didn’t GIVE me one of these cameras. I got a loan. I had to return it. If I want one, I have to buy it with my own money just the same way I did way back five years ago when I switched from Canon to Olympus to help deal with a shoulder that was completely shot and couldn’t be repaired.
If I wasn’t primarily doing video work, I’d buy one of these as soon as possible. There are questions (for me anyway) about how JIP is running the business since they bought the assets of the camera division from Olympus but I don’t think that’s a big deal.
If the Lumix GH6 would shoot real 6k, with the same autofocus as the OM-1, I’d buy that camera instead because it is the king of video and I shoot more video than stills these days – but wish that the opposite were true. (I also have to say the GH6 has the cleanest ISO 2500 files I’ve seen on any Micro Four Thirds camera – maybe on any camera in the world.)
Back to my situation – my perspective is also different because I am also someone who actually made a living using Olympus cameras for five years. Lots of people make a living teaching or reviewing cameras, but few make a living licensing their photos. I have been able to do that for a long time (although that part of my career is all but over due to changing demand, COVID, and medical problems that I have run into now that I am an old man.) As someone who licensed literally thousands of images with the older Olympus bodies, I have to say – that if those images were good enough for commercial use – then the images from this beast will be that much better.
I have checked myself to make sure I am not just fanboying and I am not. The OM-1 is a better camera in every way compared to the old flagship models. I still own and occasionally use those cameras and think they are a fine choice, especially for someone who needs to shop the used market to save money.
But if you are a bird, wildlife, or sports photographer, and you have the money, and you do not need to make very, very large prints, I personally think this body paired with the pro telephoto lenses sold by Olympus, makes a killer combination that will simply produce pro results every time – as long as a professional photographer is the one driving the camera.
I think this is a four or five year camera body – meaning you can keep this for four or five years (regardless of future upgrades) and you’ll have a fantastic piece of gear that will perform at a very high level.
There’s no magic camera that will make up for your short falls or mine either. We have to do our part. But assuming you do your part, and I do mine, I think this may be the best M43 camera available regardless of price, format, size, etc. for people who do the same thing I do or who really love the computational photography.
It just works on every level.
However, I won’t be buying this camera right away because of my particular circumstances, but when I retire – really retire – and don’t ever have to satisfy a client or worry about video, I’ll buy one of these cameras. I don’t need it – but I want it. (I have more cameras than I need, and fewer than I want. Since I don’t smoke, do drugs or drink alcohol, or pay off porn stars – I should be entitled to one vice :))
My recommendation ratings go from HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (The best of the best) to RECOMMENDED (Not quite perfect but darn good) to ACCEPTABLE (Something that performs as promised but may be too expensive or have other problems that make it sort of a MEH recommendation) to NOT RECOMMENDED (Self-explanatory.)
I rate this system as HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
P.S. I noticed many reviewers have rightly placed the $2199 OM-1 as a great choice for bird and wildlife photographers, but complained that this camera might not be quite as polished as the Nikon Z9 ($5496) or the Sony A1 ($6498) or the Canon R3 ($5999). You might want to note that all of those cameras cost significantly more (as in at least twice as much) than the OM-1. It’s like saying a Ferrari F8 Tributo is more polished than a Chevy Corvette LT4. In an apples to apples comparison, there is simply NO camera in the same price range (or even slightly higher) that can match the autofocus of the OM-1 for bird and wildlife shooters. Take that to the bank.