Olympus just released the OM-D E-M1 camera, an attempt to provide pro-level features and image quality in a compact Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format. The new E-M1 camera is slightly larger than cameras in Olympus’ popular PEN series, but it’s significantly smaller than DSLR cameras. When the PEN was introduced, the claim was that it provided near pro-level features (interchangeable lenses, high image quality) in a very compact format. The PEN, and other Micro Four Thirds cameras from other vendors, has proved to be a popular format. They appeal to people who want a small-ish form factor camera, but with the controls and other features that let you raise your game from snap-shots to photography.

What the PEN and other MFT cameras haven’t managed to do is provide is pro-level features or performance. Yes, interchangeable lenses, yes, good quality images, and yes, a lot of flexibility. But the bottom line for the whole Micro Four Thirds ecosystem is that there’s a significant gap between them and DSLRs. The OM-D E-M1 is Olympus’s attempt to change the situation, to get near DSLR results from a PEN size camera.

I’ve been using a PEN camera for much of my photography for about two years, and it can be both great and frustrating, sometimes both at once. For me, the original PEN series has two main frustrations, the quality of the auto focus, and the usability of the rear image display in harsh sunlight. For the autofocus, it just seems to get it wrong much too often, and too slowly. And for the rear screen, it’s fine indoors or on a cloudy day, but outside in direct sun, it’s really hard to do more than point and shoot. And P&S is not what the PEN promised.

Olympus addresses all of this in the new OM-D E-M1. (Why two names? The ‘OM-D’ is the series; the ‘E-M1’ is the model.) In addition to the rear articulating screen, there’s an electronic viewfinder, which makes it a much more usable camera, especially in sunlight. And Olympus has turbocharged the auto focus, adding a phase detect system that helps with speed and accuracy. When you’re holding a camera up to your eye, you don’t want to retreat to the rear screen to make menu choices, so Olympus added a lot of buttons and dials, so that once you’ve memorized the layout, you can make most adjustments while keeping the camera up to your eye. Another improvement is that the in-camera image processing has now improved, and takes the lens more into account. Plus there is improved image stabilization, which helps get clearer images in many situations.

The Israeli “Kfir” jet fighter, on the deck of the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York harbor.

I had a brief encounter with the OM-D E-M1 at Olympus’ press briefing on the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York harbor. So my experience is a lot less than if I’d shot with it for a week, but it’s a lot more than just reading the announcement. In the hand, the E-M1 feels much more like a PEN than like a DSLR, although it’s clearly larger and heavier and more studded with controls than my reference, the E-PM1. It will take some time and study to learn the control placement, but I pretty quickly adapted to the exposure-comp wheel, on the front of the camera. That control is my goto setting for getting good images, and moving it to a dedicated wheel control, as in most DSLRs, is great. Of course, should you have some other shooting style, the E-M1 is highly customizable, and you can change the function of most controls.

I think Olympus has a winner in the OM-D E-M1. At $1399 its price has moved into the intro level DSLR territory. But its performance has also moved into that world. Like the popular PEN series, it’s a small format interchangeable lens camera, with lenses from several camera companies. But the E-M1 moves beyond PEN, with many features  upgraded to a significant new level. There are certainly DSLR photographers who will remain unconvinced, but there are also a lot of people who are looking for an interchangeable lens system, without the bulk and expense of the DSLR approach. If that’s you, take a close look at Olympus’ impressive OM-D E-M1.