Syncing a Flash with the Olympus E-M1 at 1/500s?

October 16, 2013 | Zoltan Arva-Toth | Compact System Camera | Comment | |
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According to the user's manual, the maximum synchronisation speed of the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 is 1/320th of a second when using the clip-on flash, and 1/250 sec when using a separately sold external flash unit. As we now have a review unit in hand, we can confirm that the latter is indeed true with an Olympus FL-36 flash attached - in TTL, Auto and Manual modes alike. (Of course, in "FP TTL" and "FP Manual" modes, the flash can be synced at any speed right up to the camera's top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second - with the usual loss of working range this "trick" mode entails.) We do not have the entire Olympus flash line-up at our disposal to test if the 1/250s top sync speed holds true for all of them - but we have found something really interesting about using the camera with a third-party flash attached to the camera via the PC sync terminal or the hot-shoe*. Apparently, the E-M1's X-sync speed is faster than advertised! Click through / read on to find out more.

To test the behaviour of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with third-party speedlights, we hooked up an old Hanimex autothyristor flash via the camera's Prontor-Compur terminal, and took a series of shots at various shutter speeds.

We started at 1/320s and the flash worked flawlessly. Next, we moved on to 1/400s, expecting a partially black frame. To our surprise, we got a fully exposed frame instead:

This is already better than advertised, and excellent news for anyone planning to use external flashes with the Olympus OM-D E-M1. But now we wanted to find out what happened at 1/500s.

Here we finally see a thin black band appear along the top of the frame. Thus we can conclude that the actual X-sync speed of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is 1/400th of a second** when using third-party manual or autothyristor flashes - if you are shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio, that is.

But given that the blacked out part is so thin at this shutter speed, you can crop this frame to an aspect ratio of 3:2, and walk away with a 100% usable image.

Note that if you choose the 3:2 aspect ratio option in-camera, you'll still get a bit of darkening along the top of the frame as the camera crops from both the top and the bottom, meaning it doesn't crop enough from the top. The good news is that if you opt for an aspect ratio of 16:9, you can safely do so in-camera:

This means that if you are shooting for a somewhat wider format than the native 4:3 aspect ratio of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, you can go as high as 1/500th of a second and still be able to sync just about any flash with the camera.

We will of course include this bit of information in our upcoming Olympus E-M1 review, but we thought this was an important enough finding to share with you ahead of the publication of the full review.

*NB: When planning to use a third-party flash - especially an old one - with a digital camera, always check the trigger voltage first. Many old flashes have a trigger voltage of more than 12V, sometimes as high as several hundred volts. This can "fry" the electronics inside a digital camera - don't take chances!

**Our findings are based on our own experiments carried out using one Olympus E-M1 camera. There is a slight chance that due to sample variation or minor inconsistencies in shutter speed control, some camera units might behave differently to what we've described above.

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