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Olympus OM-D E-M1 Preview: Mirrorless Camera Takes on SLRs

Olympus wagered a few years ago that a camera didn't have to make a mechanical "click" sound to be a professional tool. It promoted its mirrorless (or, as Olympus confusingly calls it, micro four-thirds) cameras as replacements for single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs), even including its own SLRs.

The company's latest mirrorless camera — the OM-D E-M1 ($1,400; body only) — beefs up the top-of-the-line Olympus mirrorless camera with a more durable body, more precise autofocus and wireless control using a smartphone app. I got a chance to go hands-on last night during a demo session in New York City.

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The OM-D E-M1 keeps the retro-looking magnesium-alloy body design of its approximate predecessor, the OM-D E-M5, which is dustproof and waterproof, and it adds freezeproof resistance down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius). 

More important though, is how it deals with the perennial problem of focusing with a mirrorless camera. In an SLR, the same mirror system that enables a viewfinder also directs some light into a special focusing sensor that uses a method called phase detection, which allows a good autofocus lens to snap to the right adjustment instantaneously. 

Historically, mirrorless cameras had to settle for a sluggish focus technology called contrast detection, using the main image sensor (the type you get on a point-and-shoot camera). With the OM-D E-M1, Olympus embeds 37 phase-detection sensors right into the 16.3-MP image sensor for fast focus, and uses an algorithm to fill in the holes in the image where the focusing sensors are.

Bottom line: It works. Not only can the OM-D E-M1 snap to focus quickly, but it can lock on to an object and keep it in focus as you move around. I tried this out at a demo event by switching to video mode (1080p, 30 fps) and setting the focus on a placard featuring text just a few inches high. As I walked toward and away from the target, the text continued to stay sharp. (Canon uses similar focusing tech in its upcoming 70D camera, which I also found extremely accurate and responsive.) 

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The last headline feature is the addition of Wi-Fi and a clever way to connect to Olympus' iOS and Android apps. Instead of having to enter a password, you simply snap a photo of a quick-response (QR) code that the OM-D E-M1 displays on its 3-inch capacitive touch screen. From there, the app takes the place of the camera screen, allowing you to preview your shots and control nearly every setting (except for zoom, which as with all high-end cameras, requires manually turning a ring on the lens). You can also view all the photos you've shot and pick some to send to the camera (at the resolution of your choice) for posting online. 

In addition, the OM-D E-M1 lets you compose shots in a big (SLR-size) bright electronic viewfinder. Its 2.36-MP resolution and 1.48X magnification bring it pretty close to providing an SLR-like experience — which is important, because a serious photographer is unlikely to settle for composing shots using the LCD on the back of the camera.

Other new features include the following: 

  • Superfast, pro-grade shutter speed of 1/8000 second
  • Geotagging photos via the smartphone app
  • External microphone jack for shooting movies  
  • New image processor (TruePix 7) meant to better reduce graininess in low light.

Olympus also introduced two new lenses, the Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO and the Digital ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO. We tried the latter (which sells for $1,000 and has a zoom equivalent to 24-80mm in traditional camera terms). The solid, metal lens barrel features zoom and focusing rings that allow very fine adjustments.

The OM-D E-M1 will be available in October, and the 12-40mm lenses will follow in. The 40-150mm will come later. 

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