DIYP Reviews the Yi M1 mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera

Dec 5, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

DIYP Reviews the Yi M1 mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera

Dec 5, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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The M1 mirrorless camera from YI Technology was one of the biggest surprises at this year’s Photokina A company known for Action cameras, dash cams and home monitoring devices was now getting into the “real camera” market. With the way things are right now, it’s a very brave move.

We showed you a brief first look at the M1 during DIYP’s visit to Photokina, and it sure was an intriguing little camera. We’ve had one of our own for the past few weeks along with both the 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6 and 42.5mm f/1.8 lenses, and we’ve been putting them through their paces.

One of the thing YI have become well known for, especially since the release of its 4K Action Camera is frequent firmware updates. They listen to feedback from users, and are quick to respond, fix issues or add new features. So, bear this in mind when reading the below. YI have told me that some of my issues are already being addressed and will be resolved in a future update.

Upon receiving the camera, I wanted to find out the answer to two primary questions.

  1. Could it replace my iPhone as a light, small, walkaround camera?
  2. In a pinch, could it replace my DSLR for more serious shoots?

I’m going to be addressing both of those questions throughout this article, but I’ll summarise at the end for those with short attention spans. This review reflects the 1.0.20 firmware, which is the most recent at the time of publication.

So, let’s have a quick look at the specs.

  • Sensor: 20MP Sony IMX269 Sensor
  • Lens Mount : Micro Four Thirds
  • Video Resolution : 4K/30p UHD (3840×2160)
  • File Formats : DNG Raw / JPG / H264 MP4
  • Continuous shooting : 5fps
  • ISO : 100-25,600
  • Max shutter : 1/4000 sec
  • Autofocus : 81 point Contrast Detection with face detection
  • Storage : SDXC up to 512GB
  • Display : 1.04M dot 3” Touchscreen LCD
  • Built in Timelapse
  • Built in Wi-Fi (801.22b/g/n and BlueTooth LE)
  • USB 2.0 (480Mbit/sec) port
  • Dimensions 114x64x34mm
  • Weight : 281g

The sensor is the same as that found in the Panasonic Lumix GX8, which has received a lot of praise since its release last year. It’s also been rumoured that this sensor may also appear in the upcoming Panasonic Lumix GH5 and LX200 cameras. But, remember, they are just rumours.

There are a few things I wanted to highlight first, as they are things I’ve been asked about. These aren’t necessarily negatives (although some definitely are), just things to be aware of.

  • HDMI Port – The M1 does have a micro HDMI port so you can hook it up to a TV or external monitor. However, plugging a cable into the camera puts it into playback mode. So, you can only review things you’ve already shot. Handy if you want to put a slideshow on the TV, but you won’t be able to send a liveview stream to an external monitor, or record video externally with something like an Atomos Ninja.
  • No external microphone socket – As with all video capable cameras, the built in mics aren’t great, so if you want external audio, you’ll need to record it separately and sync in post.
  • No EVF – This may or may not be an issue depending on your personal preference. For those making the move from phones, this will be familiar territory, but if you’re coming from a DSLR or other mirrorless system, this may take some getting used to (it did for me).
  • The camera shoots DNG raw or JPG, but it doesn’t shoot RAW+JPG simultaneously. This doesn’t necessarily sound like a problem, but it is if you want to use the M1 mobile app to get images off the camera quickly to post online. The mobile app doesn’t even see DNG raw files, only JPG. So, if you want to post a sneak peek to Facebook while you’re in the middle of a shoot, you’ll need to flick it over to JPG for a shot or two.
  • No built in flash – There is a standard single pin hotshoe, though. So, you can put an external flash on here if you want, but you’re not going to get any TTL or other fancy flash modes. It’s literally just a firing pin, so there’s no TTL or high speed sync. It does also work with radio triggers.
  • No manual exposure control while shooting video. This is a big one. When the ability to video first appeared in the Nikon D90, this was the single biggest complaint. I thought we’d figured this out already. The white balance also can’t be locked when shooting video, either.

Portability

Ok, all cameras are pretty portable these days. Else what would be the point? But then there’s “portable” and there’s portable. A Nikon D5 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 is “portable”. As in, you can take it with you wherever you want to go and shoot. But it’s not exactly an ultra lightweight setup.

On first picking up the M1, the weight was the thing that immediately struck me. Followed by the thought “this thing is light enough that I can mount it to my drone!” (I built a drone based on the DJI F550 kit). But, there are several issues we’ll get to later which make the M1 a less than ideal drone camera vs a quality action camera.

Coming in at only 281g, it still feels quite good to handle, though. It has a decent enough build quality and a physical design that doesn’t have you feeling like it’s going to slip from your grip. Adding a lens, obviously, increases this weight a little. When using either of the supplied lenses (more on those later) it doesn’t become too front-heavy and it’s still a very light setup.

Is it as pocketable as a phone? Well, no, not really. But it’s hardly surprising. With a lens attached, it’ll probably be difficult to fit in most pockets (I found one jacket I own with a pocket it would actually fit in). But, it’s not going to take up a lot of space or weight in a small backpack or purse.

The Basics

Most of us who use our phones for photography generally rely on some level of automation. Yes, there are apps like Camera+ and 645 Pro that give us full manual control over all our settings, but phone camera apps generally aren’t the most efficient to work with if you want manual control while shooting daily life.

So, stepping up to an interchangeable lens camera that offers a similar sort of feel and level of automation is a good way to introduce somebody to a more traditional form factor while staying somewhat familiar. The YI M1’s automatic features actually really impressed me.

The auto white balance on the M1 is surprisingly good. I took some shots with and without a grey card, and it was very close every time. The colour rendition was equally as impressive. You can see in this shot of the ColorChecker Passport Video, however, that blue is showing a slight shift towards Cyan. This image was brought into Adobe Premier Pro to see the RGBCMY colour swatches on the Vectorscope.

colorcheckerpassportvideo

When it comes to manual white balance, you’re fairly limited. As well as auto, it offers the expected Sunny, Shade, Cloudy and Incandescent options. Impressively, it even lets you dial in a manual kelvin temperature. What it doesn’t have, are fluorescent, flash, or preset manual. So, you can’t get a white balance calibration from a grey card.

As for metering your exposure, it’s also rather good, but it will depend on which metering mode you’re using.

There’s three different metering modes on the M1; Spot, centre weighted, and average metering. These metering modes aren’t new to most photographers, but they might be to phone shooters who’ve basically dealt with spot metering only (without even realising what it was) through various camera apps.

The difference here between how the M1’s spot metering works and how a phone app’s metering works, is that with the M1 it is fixed to the centre of the view. So, unlike many apps and most DSLRs, the metering “spot” doesn’t follow the autofocus point, and you can’t tap the screen to pick a new metering spot.

For some, this may take a little getting used to if you want to stay in spot metering mode. Personally, though, if you’re going use automatic exposure, I think you’re better off just using average metering mode anyway – at least initially.

The camera also offers the four standard exposure modes. That would be Program (P), Aperture priority (A/Av), Shutter priority (S/Tv) and Manual (M) modes. As well as these, there’s the fully automatic “figure everything out for me” mode, as well as several scene modes.

scene_modes

In fully auto mode, the only thing you really get control over is the white balance, which you’ll usually also want to leave on auto unless you know you have a reason not to. Of course, if you know you have a reason not to, you probably won’t be shooting in fully auto mode.

Switching over to P mode opens up the ISO setting and metering modes. You also start to get some control over your exposure. You’re able to dial in up to 5 stops of over or underexposure in third stop increments by spinning the dial. The camera then figures out what settings it should use to give you that.

Aperture and shutter priority modes work as one would expect, and you can also dial in the exposure compensation here. When you switch over to full manual, the exposure compensation option is disabled, but it still provides feedback to let you know if you’re under or overexposing based on what the camera thinks it should be.

ev_meter

One of the great features of the M1’s manual mode is that it will allow you to set the shutter speed to as long as 60 seconds. Most cameras I’ve used cap out at 30 seconds. So, you can afford to drop your ISO a stop, and increase the shutter to a full minute to help minimise noise in night time long exposures.

Bulb mode works the way you’d expect, however there’s no way to use an external trigger with the M1. You can’t plug one in, and the mobile app doesn’t work as a remote control. So you have to use the shutter on the camera.

Similarly, “Time” mode, allows you to open the shutter with the first press of the shutter button, and then close it again with a second. An awesome feature, however without a way of triggering this without touching the camera, you do run the risk of introducing camera shake to your shot, even when used on a tripod. Of course, you could always build your own DIY mechanical camera trigger using a servo.

Another mode the M1 offers is panoramic mode. This works pretty much the same way as every panoramic app out there for mobile devices. You hold up your camera, hit the button, then pan across your scene as it builds up the ultra wide panoramic shot.

panning_mode

The panoramic mode works in automatic exposure mode. The exposure is locked to the initial settings throughout the panoramic sequence, although you can dial in exposure compensation before you begin to account for things your camera’s not yet pointing at.

One thing to note is that the stitching isn’t always that great. Especially if you have moving objects in your scene, such as tree branches. In fact, it can fail pretty badly sometimes.

panoramic_stitching_fail

But, I’ve yet to see a camera or mobile app that’s absolutely perfect in this regard, so I won’t hold it against the M1 too much. As with pretty much any camera, for best results, shoot separate still images, and stitch on the computer in something like HuginPTGui or Photoshop.

The final mode offered is something YI call “Master Guide” mode. It’s an interesting option, and something pretty unique. At least, I’ve never seen it in a camera before. There is software available for tethered shooters to do similar via a computer, though.

master_guide_mode

What Master Guide mode essentially does is present your scene with an outline overlayed on top. It’s designed for shooting portraits, and the outline is of a posed subject. The general idea is to help those who haven’t yet mastered composition to get better shots of their friends or family.

It doesn't work all subjects, especially guys. Thanks for letting me embarrass you a little, Chris!
Master Guide mode doesn’t suit all subjects, especially men. Thanks for letting me embarrass you a little, Chris!

When you view the guides via the mobile app, it even suggests camera settings to use to achieve a similar look to the provided examples. Of course, it can’t set up the light for you, so there is some element of ability still required, but if you want to worry a little less about posing your subjects while learning how to use your camera it may help.

master_guide_phone_download

Several guides come preinstalled with the camera, and more are available to download and install on the camera via the mobile app. At present, there’s no way to create your own guides (which could be very handy for compositors), but maybe that might change in the future. The main list show up in Chinese, but it does switch to English once you’ve selected one.

I can’t really say it’s a feature I’ll be taking advantage of myself, but it’s an interesting offering for newer photographers. Or, for those who don’t normally shoot portraits when asked to grab a few quick snaps of friends or family.

JPG and RAW

If I’m shooting my phone, I’m usually shooting jpg. If I’m using a DSLR, I’m either shooting raw or raw+jpg. With the M1, it’s either one or the other, not both at the same time, and certain features are only available with specific formats.

For example, with JPG you can pull images off the camera using your phone and the YI Mirrorless app (iOS/Android). You can also change the resolution of the output file, turn on exposure or white balance bracketing or switch the aspect ratio away from 4:3. Those other aspect ratios are 3:2 to match those from a DSLR, 16:9 which is handy for mixing stills with video, or 1:1 square format for things like Instagram, profile photos, etc.

With raw, there’s none of that. Now, I don’t mind most of this camera’s issues too much, but one of the big selling points of this camera is that it’s “The world’s most connected mirrorless camera”. Well, it may turn out to be exactly that, but not if you’re shooting raw.

If you shoot raw, there’s no way to pull images off the camera wirelessly using your phone. You can’t shoot raw+jpg to get the best of both worlds, and you can’t convert your raw files to jpg in-camera in order to pull them off to your phone.

So, you kinda have to figure out for yourself what’s most important. Being able to quickly share your shots online vs. the ability to get the most out of your photos.

When shooting raw, the camera saves DNG files, and they hold a fair amount of latitude. Pulling back details from the highlights or the shadows works extremely well for a micro four thirds sensor.

The only real issue I had with the M1’s raw files was when I attempted to create a profile for the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport. Neither X-Rite’s standalone application or Lightroom plugins would read the files natively. So, I had to run them through Adobe’s free DNG converter in order to update them to a different DNG version in order for the X-Rite software to see them.

Even without profiling, the YI M1 was pretty spot on when it came to colour.
Even without profiling, the YI M1 was pretty spot on when it came to colour.

Whether this is an issue with the M1 or with X-Rite’s software, I’m not so sure, however Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom had no problems with them. But, the YI M1’s colour profile embedded into the raw file was almost perfect even before profiling.

It’s probably worth running the raw files through Adobe’s DNG converter anyway. Even if just to save storage space, if nothing else. Every single M1 dng file comes in at around 30.4MB in size (they vary between 31,184KB and 31,204KB according to Windows Explorer).

Running my ColorChecker Passport shot through the DNG converter brought this down to 16.2MB with lossless compression enabled. So, the files are pretty big straight out of the camera, but you can do something about it.

I tested the dng files as far back as Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 5.2 running Adobe Camera Raw 8.2. So, if you held off jumping onto the Creative Cloud bandwagon, older versions of Photoshop and Lightroom (at least, as far back as the CS6 era) should have no problem reading the raw files.

Timelapse

I’ve had an intervalometer built into my Nikon bodies ever since I got the D200. Quite a few years now. So, to see this feature missing from a camera is an immediate turnoff for me. Fortunately, the M1 has it.

It lets you shoot with intervals between 0.5 seconds and 1 minute, and it’ll let you keep shooting for anywhere from 30 minutes up to a whopping 24 hours. Chances are, you’ll run out if juice long before that 24 hours is up if you’re just using the internal battery, but you can hook it up to an external USB battery or charger to keep getting power through the whole run.

The problem with the timelapse in the M1, at least for me, is that it only allows you to record straight to a video file. You can’t save the sequence out as individual raw or jpg files. However, this isn’t really much of a surprise coming from a manufacturer stepping up from Action Cameras, which often work in the same way.

YouTube video

This also has the added side effect of completely crushing detail at the extreme shadows and highlights. In the above sequence, while adequately exposing for the sky, the foreground captures almost nothing. Shooting a raw file of the same scene with the same exposure settings allowed for quite a bit of shadow recovery that is simply not possible in an h264 video file.

Image created from a raw file of the same scene. None of this shadow detail exists in the timelapse video.
Image created from a raw file of the same scene. Much of this shadow detail simple doesn’t exist in the timelapse video.

It actually wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that the M1 goes into automatic exposure mode for timelapse. Even if you’ve got the dial set to manual, you get no manual exposure control for timelapse, so you can see some flickering. You can dial in exposure compensation, but your exposure will still shift throughout the sequences as brighter and darker objects pass through your scene.

Video

The video from the M1 is actually fairly impressive on first glance. The colour and detail are great. There’s very few compression artifacts except in super dark shadows thanks to the 80mb/sec bitrate. It shoots 4K or 2K at 30fps. You can also record a 24, 30 or 60fps at 1920×1080 or 1280×720. It would be nice if we could get 24fps at 2K and 4K resolutions.

What lets it down, though, is that like the timelapse, there’s no manual control. Even if the dial’s set to “M”, it goes into automatic exposure mode. It also opens up your lens to its maximum aperture. If you’re using a variable aperture lens, like the supplied 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6, this means your aperture changes if you decide to zoom while shooting, and it takes a couple of seconds for it to catch up with the new exposure.

These sample clips were shot with v1.0.6 of the firmware. Some of the issues shown in the video have since been fixed. It has been annotated to reflect these changes.

YouTube video

White balance is also fully auto when shooting video. So, if something with a heavy colour tone comes into your shot, or you move from a day lit composition to an artificially lit scene, you do notice that shift as the camera compensates. There’s no way to lock it in video mode.

This lack of manual control, for me, is a dealbreaker. That being said, the metering in this thing is very good, however I still don’t want my exposure and white balance changing in the middle of a clip.

Also, what if I don’t want to shoot at my maximum aperture out in broad daylight with crazy fast shutter speeds that make the video stutter?

If you’re coming from a mobile device, and just want to record some quick clips occasionally for social media, then that may not bother you. Looking at the number of auto-exposure mobile phone videos I see popping up on Facebook daily tells me there’s definitely times where manual exposure isn’t a big deal.

Of course, like shooting raw stills, the video files can’t be pulled off the phone using the mobile app, either. For me, this isn’t a problem. If I want a video for posting to social media, I’ll simply use my iPhone on a gimbal. But if you wanted to get a little more creative with your videos, you’ll still need a computer. Or, at least a card reader for your tablet or phone.

The last bit in this section is everybody’s favourite topic when it comes to video, and that’s rolling shutter. Yes, it’s pretty bad, but to be fair, it’s really not that much worse than any other mirrorless or DSLR I’ve used. It’s just become a fact of life with CMOS based cameras, and you have to evolve your shooting technique to work around it.

Autofocus

When it comes to shooting stills, the autofocus with either of the two supplied lenses can be pretty snappy, especially in very bright conditions. Where it gets let down, though, is in dark conditions, especially when shooting video.

Even the 42.5mm lens with its f/1.8 aperture sometimes has trouble locking on in very dark conditions. In video mode it can often hunt continuously, especially if there are no faces in the scene.

You can pop it over to manual focus mode when shooting video, but that’s not perfect, either. The 12-40mm lens, for example, has such a long focus throw (about 3/4 of a complete turn to go from 12″ to 20ft away), that tracking moving subjects can be difficult. Even with focus peaking (which it does have), it can be difficult to tell if your subject is perfectly in focus as you manually adjust.

The 42.5mm lens doesn’t feature an actual focus ring. It appears to have a focus ring, but it doesn’t turn. It’s simply decoration. To overcome this, the M1 has an on-screen manual adjustment feature. You just press the up and down arrows depending on whether you want to send the focus further away or closer toward you.

touchscreen_manual_focus

Unfortunately, this option disappears while shooting video. This is not ideal, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. Video mode sends the camera back into autofocus mode with this lens, regardless of your AF setting.

Focus Peaking

This brings me around to the focus peaking. The colour is red, and it seems pretty broad in what it considers to be “in focus”. It often misses what is actually in focus, and occasionally thinks slightly out of focus subjects are sharp.

It’s also a fairly dark shade of red, which can be difficult to pick out from the scene, especially if you’re colour blind (trust me). There’s no way to change the colour of the focus peaking, either, to make it more easily distinguishable. With the rush up to Christmas, ensuring Santa’s bright red suit is fully in focus could prove challenging without autofocus.

Lenses

The camera has a Micro Four Thirds mount. As such, it is compatible with basically every MFT lens ever made. It even supports the optical image stabilisation found in many Panasonic MFT lenses.
YI provide two lens options that can come supplied with the camera. There’s a 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom (equivalent field of view to a 24-80mm on a full frame DSLR), and a 42.5mm f/1.8 (equivalent field of view to an 85mm on a full frame DSLR).

It’s great that they’ve included both a general purpose zoom as well as a portrait lens in the kit, but they are not without their issues. Neither lens has built in OIS, but at these sorts of prices, we can’t really expect it.

The 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6 is a great walkaround lens that you can lock in its 12mm position when not shooting. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s no weird zoom-creep issues while it’s bouncing around in your bag. On the other, when you turn the camera on, you can’t do anything until you’ve unlocked the lens. So, if you don’t want to shoot and just play back images or connect it to your phone, it’s an annoying extra step you need to take.

There’s nothing really special about this lens, but it’s on a par with the 18-55mm sort of kit lenses we see with DSLRs.

The 42.5mm f/1.8 is a lens I really wanted to love, and for the most part, I do. But, as mentioned, what looks like the focus ring doesn’t actually move. So, for portrait shoots, you’re generally going to be in autofocus mode. Fortunately, for stills, the M1 is fairly reliable with this lens thanks to that f/1.8 aperture. It will struggle in extremely dark conditions, though.

The image quality of the 42.5mm f/1.8 is, again, about what you’d expect from an entry level prime. This means it suffer from some pretty extreme chromatic aberration in high contrast or backlit scenes, especially wide open.

This is a 100% crop from near the centre of an image shot using the 42.5mm f/1.8 lens wide open. The area shown is just a hair outside the plane of focus. As you can see from the shadows, it was a fairly soft cloudy day. It’s not backlit with harsh contrasty lighting, but there’s a lot of obvious chromatic aberration. Stopping down to f/4 eliminates most of it. That does kinda defeat the purpose of a lens that goes to f/1.8, though.

chromatic_aberration

But, the M1 does have a standard Micro Four Thirds mount, so you can use any of the Panasonic, Olympus or other third party lenses on the market. I did have a brief play with the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200mm f/4-5.6 lens to test out the optical image stabilisation and found that it performed quite admirably.

If you want to seriously invest in some quality lenses, then I’d probably go for the M1 package with the 12-40mm. Then get the Panasonic Lumix G 42.5mm f/1.7 Power OIS lens for portraits. Then you’ll have a slightly faster aperture, built in optical image stabilisation, and a higher overall quality of image.

Flash

This is where things get a little weird for me. There’s no built in flash, but there is a standard hotshoe with a single firing pin. Where it gets weird, though, is that there is a menu option to set the flash in “on”, “off” or “auto” modes. This makes absolutely no sense to me without a built in flash.

Presumably, if one has a flash or trigger on the hotshoe, one wants the flash to fire. If one has the flash on the hotshoe and decides they don’t want to use flash, they’ll simply remove the flash or power it off. Chances are, if somebody’s buying a flash unit to go on top of the M1, they’ll have some idea of what they’re doing.

This makes the “off” and “auto” options redundant. With the flash mod set to “on” and no flash in the hotshoe, you’re still not going to get a flash because, obviously, there isn’t one built in.

For those of you who have switched over to using Godox, Pixapro or Flashpoint gear, this snap will give you an idea of just how small this camera is.
For those of you who have switched over to using Godox, Pixapro or Flashpoint flash gear, this snap will give you an idea of just how small this camera is. Even with a trigger this big, though, it doesn’t interfere too much with the camera’s controls.

Now, this wouldn’t really be a problem. You would think that you can just set the flash to “on”, and leave it that way all the time, regardless of whether or not there’s actually a flash or radio trigger in the hotshoe. Well, the camera has other ideas. Every time you turn the camera off and back on again, the flash setting reverts back to “off”. This becomes quite the problem.

With my DSLRs, I generally turn the camera off when not actively shooting. It’s just become habitual now. It might be a short break for a quick chat about what we’re doing next, or to let the MUA or hair stylist tweak something. But the camera goes off. Turning the camera off when not in use becomes even more important with mirrorless, as the LCD is draining the battery even if you’re not shooting.

Having used the M1 with flash, I realised just how often I do this. I went out to shoot one evening with some friends to test out how it handled shooting portraits with flash at night in the street, and I must’ve gone back into the menu to turn the flash back on at least 15 times over the course of 40 minutes or so, and it’s all down to that habit of turning the camera off to save battery.

The camera does have an automatic off feature to save battery life. But, when this kicks in, if you want to use your camera again, you still have to turn it off and back on again, which gives the same result. You have to go back into the menu to re-enable the flash.

So, while it will work with flash, it can be extremely awkward if you’re regularly taking breaks or turning the camera off a lot to save battery.

All that aside, when you do enable the flash, your shutter speed is limited to 1/125th of a second. So, this is essentially the sync speed. As it’s just a single firing pin, there are no TTL or High Speed Sync functions. I tested it with Nikon SB-900s, Yongnuo YN560-III, Godox TT600 mounted on the shoe, as well as wirelessly with Yongnuo RF-602 & Godox X1T-n radio triggers and experienced no problems aside from the whole flash turning off with the camera thing.

What would make better sense would be for the camera to simply keep the flash enabled at all times unless the shutter speed is faster than 1/125th of a second, in which case the camera turns it off. This means that YI could remove the menu option completely. If the user wants flash, they’ll have one on the hotshoe and be at 1/125th of a second or slower. If they don’t want flash, they’ll go beyond their sync speed, turn the flash off, or remove it from the hotshoe completely.

Another thing worth noting here is that there’s no rear curtain sync. The flash fires at the beginning of the exposure and there’s no way to change that. So, if you plan to drag the shutter to mix the flash and ambient together, you’ll need to bear that in mind. If you’re coming from Canon with 3rd party manual flashes, then this is something you’ll probably already be used to.

ISO Performance

The camera goes between ISO200 and ISO25600 in increments of full stops, as well as an “extended” ISO100. I rarely find myself venturing higher than ISO200 on any camera, but needs must. It really isn’t a low light king. As you ramp up the ISO, you definitely start to see noise in the resulting images.

These images show a 100% crop from the centre of an image shot at ISO3200 with zero luminance or colour noise reduction applied, and with 25 luminance and 25 colour noise reduction applied in Adobe Camera Raw. It cleans it up quite a bit, but you obviously lose some detail.

Of course, this is just a 745 pixel wide sample of a 20MP image. It’s not the worst ISO performance I’ve seen, but it’s far from the best, too. Whether or not the shots will be usable for you really depends on your needs. If you’re only posting them to social media, then a bit of noise isn’t going to be all that noticeable when it’s scaled down for Facebook or Instagram.

If you’re hoping to make massive prints, you’ll want to keep that ISO pretty low.

Picture Styles

As with DSLRs, these only affect the jpg files and any video footage you may shoot. You can’t really customise these, but there are five basic profiles that come with the camera.

  • Standard
  • Portrait
  • Vivid
  • Natural Black & White
  • High Contrast Black & White

colour_modes

As I prefer to shoot raw, I tend to just leave it in Standard most of the time (not that it really matters with raw). That being said, I do find the high contrast black & white profile rather pleasing. So, I will occasionally switch over to it to fire off the odd jpg to send up to social media, or for shooting quick video clips.

But that’s about it. You can’t go in and tweak the contrast, saturation, sharpening and other features as you can with many other cameras. To be fair, though, the sharpening in this isn’t anywhere near as aggressive as the default in some DSLRs I’ve used.

Those of you who might have more video-like aspirations may notice that there’s no “Flat” profile. Given the automatic only exposure modes for video and timelapse, this is a pretty big omission. But, it’s something that could easily be fixed with a firmware update.

App Connectivity

As mentioned earlier, there’s no transfer of raw or video files from the camera to the app. It’s jpg image files only. If your goal is to simply have a camera that offers better quality than your phone with a greater degree of control but still be able to quickly post to social media then it’s not an issue.

That being said, both iOS10 and Android 6 runing on compatible hardware support raw files now. Snapseed, Lightroom, and other mobile apps support editing raw files directly on your mobile device. So, why can’t we transfer raw files from the M1 to our phones?

Besides that, the app itself is pretty well designed, and pairing your phone with the camera is a breeze, really. Unlike YI’s app for their action cameras, there’s no remote control and no remote liveview. It’s simply a way to pull images off your phone (or upload “Master Guides”), process them, and post to social media.

Images downloaded from your camera are automatically saved out to the camera roll. So, if you prefer to tweak in other apps like Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile, then you can.

The app is available for both iOS and Android, and they both work the same way. They’re both pretty stable and quick, too. I found with the YI Action Camera app, that the Android version was a lot faster than the iOS one. No such problem here.

While I think I’ll still use Snapseed for most of my processing, the YI Mirrorless app does have some neat features. Particularly, it features built in “Spiral Galaxy”, “Half Planet” and “Tiny Planet” options. Sure, you’re not going to use them on most of your images, but they’re kinda fun to play with once in a while, no?

tiny_planets

It also features an HDR function, with a slider, so you can control exactly how much of the effect is applied. For portraits, it contains a “Beautify” feature which offers some degree of skin smoothing as well as the option to lighten the skin. Both of these are, again, controlled by sliders.

Conclusions

Overall, it’s really not a bad first attempt for a first camera breaking into a new market, it’s really not. For what it costs and what it offers, it will satisfy a great many people. There are going to be some people who won’t like it one bit, or won’t see it being useful enough to replace what they already have, but that’s fine, too.

But let’s have a quick roundup of the pros and cons, and then we’ll revisit those two questions I asked up top.

Pros

  • Pretty solid raw performance. Decent dynamic range and tweakability in Lightroom.
  • Micro Four Thirds, so compatible with a great many existing lenses.
  • Social sharing is quick and easy if you’re happy to shoot just jpg.
  • The shutter speed goes all the way to 60 seconds before going to bulb mode.
  • Super lightweight. It’s easy to carry around without feeling it.
  • Touch screen AF points is fantastic.
  • App offers easy connectivity, with a couple of neat post processing features.

Cons

  • Only automatic exposure & white balance when shooting video.
  • No HDMI output when shooting stills or video.
  • No remote control from the mobile app.
  • No 24fps when shooting 4K or 2K.
  • Unable to tweak picture style settings for shooting jpg or video.
  • Focus peaking is difficult to see in some scenes, with no way to change the colour.
  • No way to trigger the camera externally for Bulb or Time modes.
  • Timelapse records straight to video, not still images.
  • No RAW+JPG shooting mode.
  • No raw file transfer to the mobile app.
  • Flash option disabled whenever you turn the camera off.
  • AF can hunt a lot when shooting video, especially in lower light.

So, will it replace my iPhone as a general walkabout camera?

It kinda already has for the most part. Previously, if I went out with the intention of maybe grabbing a few shots, I’d leave the DSLRs at home and use my phone. With the M1, I can happily throw it in my backpack without a second thought. It takes up hardly any extra space or weight. My phone, of course, is always with me, so there are still times when I’ll pull it out to grab a shot if I have nothing else with me.

The raw files that come out of it are fantastic. Due to the lack of raw+jpg, I’ll still use my phone for shots I want to post online, but the camera is a great little walkabout camera if you don’t want to think too much about what you’re doing. Or, if you don’t want to carry a lot of weight.

It’s simple enough that mobile users that haven’t used a “real camera” before should be able to adapt quickly, but the quality’s good enough that you can easily see the different over a phone.

Can or will it replace my DSLR in certain situations?

To be completely honest, no. At least, not yet. I could see it potentially doing so when I want to pack super lightweight. But, right now, that automatic disabling of the flash each time I turn the camera off is a pain. I just can’t get used to it. None of my DSLRs do it. When I turn them on, if there’s a flash in the hotshoe, it just works.

With the M1, I find myself turning it on, turning the flash on, forgetting the camera’s turned it off anyway, taking a shot, then fiddling around in menus until it fires. Over the course of a day, that can add up to quite a bit of wasted time just remembering to turn the flash option on each time. It’s aggravating.

The lack of full manual control while shooting video is also another reason it won’t replace my DSLRs. Despite shooting 4K, it won’t be replacing my 1080p Nikon D7000 bodies as a behind the scenes video shooter. I was kind of hoping it would.

Oh, that brings me around to one last point, which is more to do with the company than the camera.

Firmware

One of the fantastic things about YI, and one of the things that users of their action cameras love so much, is that YI actually do listen to their customers. Firmware updates for their action cameras have been very frequent. The YI 4K action camera has seen a dramatic increase in functionality and stability since it was initially released, as has the original YI HD Action Camera.

I’ve had to revise this review several times over the course of my time with the camera due to the fact that between the end of September and now, the firmware has gone from version 1.0.6 to 1.0.20. This behaviour is the exact opposite of most camera manufacturers that can go many months, or even a couple of years between firmware updates.

Many of the bugs I’ve reported and suggestions I’ve made to YI have already been implemented (such as the ability to disable the electronic image stabilisation when shooting video so that we can use it on a tripod).

So, there is a chance we’ll get that manual control in video mode at some point.

Conclusions Part 2

For the most part, the YI M1 handles really well, as long as you don’t want to use manual focus and it’s not too dark. For what and how I shoot, this isn’t a problem. But, for you, it may be.

I keep the YI M1 inside a CosySpeed Camslinger 160. This holds the camera with one lens mounted, and enough room left over for the second lens and a Manfrotto Pixie tripod. It’s easy to walk around with all day without really feeling the weight.

If manual exposure does come to video, then chances are I will be wanting that manual focus. But, as it’s Micro Four Thirds, there are plenty of other lens options out there. And I can always use an adapter and mount Nikon or M42 lenses on there if I want.

Should you buy it?

It really depends. If all you have right now is your phone, and you’re looking to buy your first camera, then you could definitely do a lot worse than the YI M1. Yes, there are much better mirrorless cameras out there, but pretty much all of the other current models from competitors cost a lot more money. There are comparable cameras out there on the used market, though, for less.

You could also choose to go with an entry level DSLR instead, like the Nikon D3400 or Canon 1300D, at a similar price. But DSLRs really serve a different purpose, they’re much more complicated and have far more buttons and gizmos than are needed for casual shooting.

Also, even these small entry level DSLRs are a fair bit bigger and heavier than the M1. For comparison, here’s a Nikon D3200 side by side with the YI M1.

yim1_nikon_d3200

If you’re a more advanced shooter who’s looking for something lightweight and easy to shoot with better quality and more options than your phone, then you can probably already answer this question for yourself.

The D3200 above used to be the camera I took out with me when I wanted to travel light. Despite all its buttons and options, it was the camera I’d use while out location scouting, or on holiday, when I don’t want to have to think about things, and just get on with grabbing snaps or recording memories.

Now, for me, that camera and that role has been replaced by the YI M1. However, some users may want more control, and find the lack of options in the M1 somewhat limiting. Personally I find them quite liberating for this type of general shooting.

What it won’t do is replace any of my DSLRs as a main shooting body, or even become a backup for it. Yes it can produce some pretty amazing shots in the right conditions, but the shooting workflow for more serious stuff just isn’t there yet. But, I think much of this can be fixed in firmware.

Update: 6th Dec, 2016 – YI got in touch with us to let us know that they have recently revised their US pricing structure for this camera. The YI M1 is now available now in three packages. 

• $349 MSRP – YI M1 + Xiaoyi 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6
• $449 MSRP – YI M1 + Xiaoyi 42.5mm f/1.8
• $549 MSRP – YI M1 + Xiaoyi 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6 + 42.5mm f/1.8

Do ensure, however, that you do receive the International version of the camera. The Chinese version does not include the English language as an option!

I will continue to test the camera as new firmware versions are released. If there are any significant changes (like getting complete manual control when shooting video), then I’ll post an updated review.

Have you tried the YI M1? What did you think? Did I miss anything important? If you think I did, or you have any questions about the M1, let us know in the comments.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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23 responses to “DIYP Reviews the Yi M1 mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera”

  1. Dan K Avatar
    Dan K

    Now, if they offered a camera for under $350 body only with the promise of firmware improvements, it’d be a contender.

  2. Paul Richards Avatar
    Paul Richards

    is the image quality from the raw file the same as the GX8?

  3. Paul Richards Avatar
    Paul Richards

    where can I buy one in the UK?

    1. John Aldred Avatar
      John Aldred

      It’s available through Amazon UK, but I don’t think folks here are going to like the price. :)

  4. Morgan Glassco Avatar
    Morgan Glassco

    Wow, I was surprised when Yongnuo started making lenses. Didn’t expect to see interchangeable lens cameras so soon. I don’t know that Yi should be considered a knock-off, but thats what it seems like.

    1. Gvido Mūrnieks Avatar
      Gvido Mūrnieks

      Who knows, maybe Yi and Yongnuo are Nikons of the future, because Nikon started off as cheap Leica knockoff manufacturer. ;)

      1. udi tirosh Avatar
        udi tirosh

        I had no idea. history is fun!!

      2. Morgan Glassco Avatar
        Morgan Glassco

        Cool to know

        Wasn’t really knocking it, more of a reflection on where we’re at

  5. mike Avatar
    mike

    $500? Whyyy?

    A 2 or 3 year old refurbished Olympus or Panasonic camera with the kit lens would perform better and be way cheaper.

    Still, its good to see more manufacturers developing for m4/3.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      I’ve updated the pricing in the post, as YI contacted me this morning to let me know there’s $150 off the prices across the board. This is the new standard pricing, not just a sale.

      So, the packages start at $349 now. :)

      1. Robert Keller Avatar
        Robert Keller

        Waaaaay too much when I can get something established and SERIOUS for much less slightly used.

        1. Kaouthia Avatar
          Kaouthia

          Yes, today. Three years ago when this was posted, not so much. :)

    2. Robert Keller Avatar
      Robert Keller

      I got a used Oly EPL-3 for 40 bux with the Zuiko 14-42…Had to buy a battery and a charger. 9 bux more. SO 49 bux. It’s my REAL go to camera especially with the in-body stabilisation. I have btw, a D3200 I picked up for 90 bux, bought a used 18-125 Sigma and slapped on it…Still like the “feel” of it although it DEVOURS batteries when video’ing…AND, sitting in the middle, is a New-Old-Stock (I know, after 10 years!) Panasonic GH-1 Body I’ve got a slew of adapters and crazy manual lenses for. Like it the best overall except for the in-camera audio which was never all that hot…I paid 100 for it NOS!. AND, to be honest, if I’m just going to be doing something quick, live, and needing some stabilisation…My camera phone (soon to be upgraded to either a refurb S8 OR LG V30). is just a great all-around ESPECIALLY if you want “the shot” and want the shot “Good” (Worrying about how it sounds and composition, what photog and video have always been about)..NOW, if Yi MI could make a working, half-way decent FULL-FRAME for around this price, YEA…

  6. MarylandUSA Avatar
    MarylandUSA

    No viewfinder, no thanks.

  7. Mark Johnston Avatar
    Mark Johnston

    No EVF or Jpg + Raw deal breakers for me but, as already commented, it is good to see new manufacturers with micro 4/3. Ability to get raw off device without extracting card would be a useful feature for me.

  8. MisterWU Avatar
    MisterWU

    Come on stop using wrong term’s plz, this camera don’t shoot video neither at 4k or at 2k but at UltraHD and FullHD, come on is only 9 more letter’s to type, not so hard.
    Is already silly that amateur’s and marketing junk use wrong terms but seeing a good blogger doing this make the great and complete reviews you wrote look like a big piece of amateurish junk.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      It actually does shoot 2K, as well as 1080p. Point taken on the UHD, but I did clarify in the specs list. :)

      1. MisterWU Avatar
        MisterWU

        “It actually does shoot 2K” good to know.
        It was not so clear on fast reading i had to check back specs twice. ;-)

  9. sunny Avatar
    sunny

    Any thoughts on the lenses on other camera bodies? Just curious!

  10. Daniel Bogdoll Avatar
    Daniel Bogdoll

    Hi John,

    did you try out the new v1.2-int firmware? Are there more improvements?

  11. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    I think Yi M1 firmware is now v3.2-intl. Does this update chances your review somehow? would you recommend it with the new firmware?

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      Yes and no.

      The newer firmware definitely makes me think more of the camera. Video, especially, is a lot more useful now than it was in the past. It’s finally pretty close to what it should’ve been at initial launch.

      That being said, it was launched two years ago. Panasonic and Olympus MFT cameras that were more expensive at the time of the M1’s release have now dropped in price as they’ve been replaced in their respective lineups. So, for the same money now you can get something with more refined features and better 3rd party support (particularly flash).

  12. famous 5cinq Avatar
    famous 5cinq

    I have no idea about the camera and the 12-60 but the 42.5 is excellent, I got it for 38€ new on Aliexpress, I was very skeptic about this lens, but except for the fake MF ring, and the plastic mount (but it’s the same with the kit zuiko 40-150). I tested this lens on 2 Olympus cameras, it works perfectly, AF fast and reliable, good picture quality at 1.8 and excellent from 3.5.

    Even if the build quality is just under prime lenses from Panasonic and Olympus, it’s good enough to not feel cheap.

    Sure I wouldn’t pay 200 for this lens, but since I got it, even at 100 it’s a bargain, and I paid 38.

    For 200, I prefer it’s Oly or Pana counterparts.