The Chinese company Yi Technology has been shaking up the camera industry this year. A few months ago, the relatively unknown brand dropped a 4K action camera into the market—one that just about matched the Hero4 Black feature-for-feature, and did so at half the price of GoPro’s then-flagship.
Yi M1 Mirrorless Camera
Easy to use; clean design combined with familiar, phone-style touchscreen interface. Excellent image quality. Works with other Micro Four Thirds lenses. Very inexpensive for this category.
Slow autofocus. Some commonly used features require diving several layers deep in the menu system. Touchscreen is sluggish. Fixed display screen makes selfies more difficult.
Now Yi has jumped into the mirrorless camera game as well with a new Micro Four Thirds body. Like the action camera before it, the Yi M1 sells for close to half the price of competing cameras in its class. You can currently pick up a body and a detachable lens online as a package for just $350.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you took the camera interface of your average cellphone and bolted it onto a Leica-inspired compact Micro Four Thirds body, well, you’d have the M1. The design owes a debt to the Leica T. The compact body with flush dials, minimal buttons, and even a distinctive red logo mark all recall the Leica T, along with some of Panasonic’s Leica partnered efforts. Priced as low as it is, however, the M1 is definitely not a Leica T.
Yi’s camera sports an almost entirely touchscreen UI. There’s a mode dial and a control dial for setting shutter and aperture (depending on which mode you’re in) and just two buttons on the back, one for playback and one for AF selection. There’s a hot shoe, but there’s no flash of any kind in the box or on the camera.
Holding the M1 is comfortable. It’s a lightweight, mostly plastic camera that feels more like a point-and-shoot than a mirrorless MFT. For comparison’s sake, it’s about a half inch narrower and shorter than the Panasonic GX 85 I tested last month. The shutter button is well placed and easy enough to find by feel—not that you’ll have the M1 held to your eye, as there is no viewfinder. Just picking up the camera puts your fingers where you want them, something a surprising number of compact cameras get wrong. There’s a dedicated video button in the center of the mode dial that’s somewhat less easy to find by feel.
The control dial is similarly well placed, just under where my thumb rested while holding the M1. I primarily shoot in aperture priority mode and had no trouble with the control dial. The mode dial also manages to find the sweet spot between “easy to turn” and “doesn’t accidentally turn in your bag”. Aside from the playback button and AF select button, that’s it for the physical interface of the M1.
Controls on Tap
The rest of what you’ll want to control in the M1 will be done through the touchscreen. The simple menus follow touch UI conventions with swipe gestures as well as tab buttons. The interface works quite well and is responsive enough, though it’s nowhere near as fast as the UI of a phone. I bring this up mainly because the target market here seems to be cellphone users who want to move up to a “real” camera. The UI won’t be a problem for anyone who’s well versed in mobile device photography, but the experience is somewhat slower.
The lack of physical buttons means that you’ll need to dive into the menus quite a bit, which can make it tricky to get the settings you want quickly. This will depend somewhat on how you shoot, but for me the biggest annoyance was no quick access to ISO settings. On the other hand, if you were upgrading from a cellphone camera and just stuck with auto for most things, you won’t likely be hindered by any lag in the UI.
There are three tap-target circles on the left edge of the screen in shooting mode. They are, from top to bottom, aperture, shutter speed, and EV compensation. To adjust them you can just select by tapping and use the control dial. Alternately you can tap on them and adjust via the touchscreen, though this takes much longer.
Other adjustments—metering mode, white balance, ISO—require going deeper into the UI with a swipe to the right. This will bring up three screens worth of settings and adjustments. Swiping the main screen to the left bring up some different output settings. It’s a lot of swiping, but overall I would put the M1’s UI at about average for the field.
The M1 can connect to its companion app running on your phone via both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The YI Mirrorless app as its known, is basic, but functional. It can grab any JPGs from the camera and pass them on the app of your choice. If you’re shooting RAW you’ll need to first convert them to JPG using the in-camera conversion software.
The $350 base model comes with one lens, a 2-40mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom made by Yi. For $450, you can get it with Yi’s macro-capable 42.5mm f/1.8 prime lens instead. Spend $550, and you get both lenses. The lightweight plastic lenses have the build quality you’d expect at this price, which is to say they don’t fall apart, but they’re a long way from solid. If you have other MFT-mount lenses, they’ll fit onto this camera, so that widens your choices quite a bit.
The zoom is predictably soft at the edges until you get above f/8. The prime is much sharper and makes a decent portrait lens. Unfortunately, the manual focus wheel on it is just for looks. This makes the macro feature next to useless on what would otherwise be a pretty decent “macro-capable” prime lens.
The other reason the lack of manual focus is disappointment is that autofocus is not the M1’s strong suit. Focusing is slow, and not just in low light. The M1 takes a noticeable amount of time to lock onto static targets. If your subject is moving, forget it. You might think that switching to continuous AF would help, but alas, it does not. Combine C-AF with burst mode and you’ll get some hilariously bad results. I tried to shoot this way while my kids were flying a kite at the park and found that the M1 was never actually able to refocus after the first shot, to say nothing of tracking. If shooting moving subjects is a requirement, this is not the camera for you. You could mitigate this shortcoming by going old-school with a manual focus lens and small aperture, but if that’s how you shoot, you aren’t in the target market for the M1 in the first place.
The M1 uses a 20-megapixel Sony sensor that produces either JPEG or DNG RAW files, but not both at the same time as some Micro Four Thirds cameras do. The image quality of both the RAW and JPG files is quite good. I found the color rendition of the JPGs to be a bit washed out, but the RAW files had decent dynamic range. You can easily pull out an extra two stops of detail in the shadows before the noise gets too bad. Speaking of noise, the M1 will shoot up to ISO 25600, though in my testing anything over 6400 was largely unusable. At that level, images where very noisy in RAW and a blurry mush in the camera-corrected JPGs.
The M1 is capable of quality video at 30 frames per second, which is an impressive spec for a $350 camera with two lenses. Unfortunately, it does some serious cropping when shooting in 4K, which means wide-angle shots are largely impossible. There’s also no external mic jack, and, as with stills, AF speed is an issue.
I would suggest avoiding the double lens kit. At that price there are other options in this price range that are considerably more capable. Both the Olympus PEN E-PL7 and Panasonic GX85 are only $100 more than the M1 full kit and can run circles around in it nearly every category. However, the body with zoom lens for $350 is a much better deal.