Andy Westlake investigates Olympus’s new super-fast flagship mirrorless model
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II review: First Look
At a glance:
- £1,849.99 body only
- £2,399.99 with 12-40mm lens
- 20MP Four Thirds sensor
- Up to 60fps continuous shooting
- 5-axis in-body stabilisation
- 4K video recording
- Fully articulated touchscreen
- 2.36-million-dot EVF
At the Photokina show in September, Olympus was one of several brands to announce it was developing a new flagship camera. Now, less than two months on, the company is the first to reveal the finished product: the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II. This is a high-end Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera designed for sports and action, with an impressive AF system and startling continuous shooting capability. It’s due to go on sale in December priced at £1849.99 body only, or £2399.99 in a kit with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens.
As tends to be the case these days, at first glance the E-M1 Mark II looks almost identical to its predecessor, but in reality it’s an entirely new camera. It uses a 20-million-pixel Four Thirds sensor that includes on-chip phase detection for fast autofocus, coupled with a TruePic VIII processor that has dual quad cores, one for autofocus and the other for imaging. Olympus claims the sensor also offers lower power consumption, lower noise and higher dynamic range compared to the 20MP unit previously used in the Pen-F. Other updates include a fully articulated, rather than tilt-only touchscreen, twin SD card slots and a larger, quicker-charging battery (including a very welcome display of the percentage charge remaining).
Build and handling
One thing that hasn’t changed is the E-M1 II’s build quality; its rugged magnesium-alloy body is dust, splash and freeze proof. The sculpted handgrip is both taller and deeper than the E-M1’s, which means that it’s one of the largest we’ve seen on a CSC. This makes the camera easy to hold with larger lenses such as the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro.
One common criticism of mirrorless cameras is a lack of external controls, but that can’t be levelled here. Despite the camera’s relatively small size, it’s covered in buttons and dials offering direct access to almost every major function. The control layout is near-identical to the E-M1’s, with the most obvious change being that the AE-L/AF-L button is now positioned closer to your thumb, making it easier to press. The flip-side of this is that the switch around it, which by default sets the twin top-plate dials to control shutter speed and ISO, is a little less easier to use.
On the top-plate the mode dial gains three custom positions that replace Olympus’s old MySet settings memories. Some users may be concerned by this, as selecting one of the C1, C2 or C3 settings on the dial ties you in to a specific exposure mode, whereas MySets were independent of mode. However it’s still possible to go into the menu and recall all of the other camera settings from one of these C memories at any time, in essentially the same way as before.
This being Olympus, the E-M1 II is almost infinitely customisable, so you can redefine exactly what each dial controls in each exposure mode, and reconfigure most of the buttons. So even if you’re not a fan of its set-up out of the box, chances are you’ll be able to change it your liking. For example, you could redefine a function key to access ISO and white balance, then use the switch on the back to change focus mode, or even to turn the camera on and off. Personally I find the E-M1 II works extremely well in its standard setup and doesn’t need much tweaking at all. But I do prefer to switch the dial functions in the PAS modes so exposure compensation is controlled by the rear thumb dial.
Sensitivity settings run from ISO 200-25600 as standard, with a pulled ISO 64 also available which will give less noise, but at the risk of clipped highlight detail. The auto ISO program has been notably improved, allowing exposure compensation to be applied when shooting in manual-exposure mode, and a user-specified minimum shutter speed to be used in P and A modes. Unfortunately though, unlike on some other cameras it’s not possible to tie the minimum shutter speed to the focal length of the lens in use.
The twin SD card slots count as a welcome upgrade and the upper one is compatible with the faster UHS-II standard. They can be used in pretty much any way you choose. You can record files to both cards simultaneously as a backup, switch to the second when the first is full, or record any combination of raw and JPEG you choose to either card. So if you wanted you could record raw files and small JPEGs on one, and large JPEGs on the other, for example.
Olympus says the new BLH-1 battery (7.4V 1720mAh) lasts nearly 40% longer, and charges twice as fast as the E-M1’s. This means a stamina of 440 shots per charge according to CIPA standard tests. However this isn’t necessarily representative of all shooting situations and you will likely get a lot more than that when shooting bursts. An empty battery should charge in a couple of hours using the supplied charger, however it can’t be topped up in-camera using USB.
On the camera’s side are HDMI, USB-C, microphone and headphone sockets. Plugging in a microphone prevents the screen from rotating freely, but it can still be placed in a perfectly sensible position for video shooting. However if you want to use headphones to monitor audio then this severely limits how you can position the screen, which is unfortunate. It would perhaps make more sense if these ports pointed out the front of the camera.
The adoption of a high-speed USB-C connector means that Olympus’s proprietary connector has disappeared. This was also used for the electronic cable release, and the E-M1 II is equipped with a 2.5mm socket instead. I’ve found this to be fully compatible with Pentax and Canon E3-type remotes or third-party alternatives, so there’s no shortage of options available on the market.
Viewfinder and screen
On paper, the E-M1 II uses much the same viewfinder and screen as last year’s OM-D E-M5 II, a 2.36-million-dot EVF with 0.74x equivalent magnification and a 1.037-million-dot fully-articulated touchscreen. The live view feed operates at 120 fps with a 6ms lag time, which may not quite be the light speed of an optical finder, but is as near as makes no practical difference. As with other recent Olympus cameras you can have the EVF preview all of your exposure and image processing settings, including colour mode and white balance. Or if you prefer, you can engage ‘Simulated Optical Viewfinder’ mode that switches all this off, and does a decent job of mimicking a traditional SLR viewfinder.
The fully-articulated screen is excellent, and brings greater shooting flexibility than the E-M1’s tilt-only screen particularly when working in portrait format. The main disadvantage is that it’s slower to use, and might also cause problems for photographers who like to keep L-brackets attached to the camera for tripod work. On this note it’s also worth mentioning that the tripod socket is placed well towards the front of the body, although in-line with the lens axis.
Olympus E-M1 II: super-fast shooting and AF
Undoubtedly the E-M1 II’s single most eye-catching specification is its continuous shooting speed of 60 frames per second at full resolution, and I was able to rattle off 47 frames in either JPEG or raw using a standard SD card before the camera started to slow down. At this speed focus is fixed, but if you want the 121-point AF system to continue tracking the subject between frames, the E-M1 II is still capable of shooting at up to 18 frames per second. In addition, a new Pro Capture mode can buffer and record up to 14 frames before you actually press the shutter button, which should help make missed opportunities a thing of the past. These capabilities are all achieved using an electronic shutter, but this will bring a risk of image distortion due to rolling shutter artefacts. However, if you need to use the mechanical shutter, the E-M1 II will still run at 15fps with focus fixed, or 10fps with focus tracking, which is faster than other comparable cameras. The mechanical shutter operates with a wonderfully quiet snick that if anything is even less noticeable than the E-M5 II’s shutter – itself famously discreet.
The 121-point hybrid AF system covers almost the entire area of the frame, with just the edges left untouched. You can choose between using a single focus point or groups of five or nine points, or letting the camera select its own focus area. Olympus’s usual face detection modes are available too, including the ability to focus specifically on your subject eyes. The focus area can be set using either the D-pad on the rear, or with the touchscreen – even when using the viewfinder. Impressively, the E-M1 II seems able to ignore contact between your nose and the screen, which on most cameras would reset the AF point.
In initial testing with the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens, I’ve been impressed by the the E-M1 II’s continuous focusing capability. It has no problem at all holding focus on trains moving either towards or away from the camera at speeds of 30mph or more across bursts of 40-odd frames, using either the electronic or mechanical shutter. Above you can see the E-M1 II tracking focus on a train moving towards the camera, with thumbnails of the overall shots at the top and 100% crops below them. This is every 13th frame starting from the first, covering around 4 or 5 seconds of shooting using the electronic shutter. Here I enabled focus rather than speed priority, so the camera hasn’t shot at its maximum advertised rate, but closer to 10fps; but it’s kept the train in sharp focus.
Not every frame in-between was necessarily in pixel-perfect focus, but all would be usable if necessary, just as long the the focal length was held the same. However I found that the camera would rapidly lose focus if I zoomed during continuous shooting, but it’s entirely possible this could be fixed by a firmware update to the lens.
Upgraded 5-axis in-body stabilisation
Olympus’s 5-axis in-body image stabilisation was already class-leading, but it has been refined further to give a claimed 5.5 stops of benefit when using unstabilised lenses – in other words the majority of Olympus’s range. Mount one of its recent optically stabilised lenses, such as the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO, and a Sync IS system comes into play, employing both in-body and in-lens systems together to give an extraordinary 6.5 stops of stabilisation.
In practice the system works remarkably well, and is noticeably better than any other I’ve used before. I’ve been able to get reasonably sharp results at shutter speeds of 1sec or longer using the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens, and 2 seconds with the new, optically-stabilised 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro. With the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro I’ve got usable results at speeds as low as 1/15sec towards the telephoto end. Not every single shot will be perfectly sharp at such low speeds, but if you shoot three or four replicates, then one will be. This opens up additional creative opportunities for hand-held shooting.
High-resolution composite mode
Like other recent Olympus cameras, the E-M1 II comes with a multi-shot high resolution composite mode. This takes eight exposures, using the in-body stabilisation system to move the sensor fractionally between each to build up a more detailed view of the scene, including full colour sampling at each pixel location. The process takes a while to complete: a second or so to shoot, then about 12 more to process the composite output. The camera has to be locked down on a tripod for it all to work. New on this model is the ability to compensate for subjects that move between exposures, which previously gave unsightly ghosting artefacts. JPEG files can also be output at either 25MP or 50MP resolution.
To show how well this works, below are 100% crops from three versions of the shot above: 20MP normal, 25MP composite and 50MP composite. You should be able to see how the 25MP files shows fine, low-contrast detail in the leaf structure that the conventional single-shot 20MP mode simply doesn’t capture. The 50MP version doesn’t show a whole lot extra detail though, and looks a little soft on the pixel level, suggesting 25MP may be the optimum output from the E-M1 II.
Cinema 4K video recording
Olympus has also joined the ranks of manufacturers offering 4K video, with 4096×2160 Cinema 4K at 24fps and an impressively high bit-rate of 237Mbps. It’s also possible to shoot at 3840 x 2160 at 30fps and 102Mbps, alongside a large array of FullHD options up to 60p and 52Mbps. This is backed up by built-in microphone and headphone sockets, although using the latter severely obstructs movement of the screen. Despite this, the combination of 4K recording and in-body IS should make the E-M1 II interesting for filmmakers who work without a tripod.
Set the mode dial to video and the camera will display a 16:9 preview and video-specific information display, including such things as a microphone volume display. You can use the touchscreen to change settings during recording, including shutter speed, exposure compensation, and even powerzoom on compatible lenses, which avoids spoiling your soundtrack with the clicking of control dials. Clean footage can be output to an external recorder over HDMI.
One significant change on the E-M1 II is that all of the camera’s video-related settings are now grouped together in a new video menu, rather than being hidden a level further down in Olympus’s sprawling Custom menu. From here you can engage a video-specific ‘flat’ picture mode, although Olympus’s well-judged colour processing means that you may not feel the need to bother. It’s possible to configure the camera’s setup for video entirely independently of photo shooting, including AF and IS settings, and button and dial configuration.
4K video appears to be recorded from a native-resolution crop in the middle of the sensor, which results in a noticeable crop of around 1.3x. But the footage is highly-detailed with attractive colours, and the image stabilisation system does an remarkable job of smoothing out hand-held pans. It’s a huge advance on Olympus’s previous models.
We’ve had our hands on a fully working E-M1 II for a few days and first impressions are very positive. Its continuous shooting is incredibly impressive, and the autofocus system appears to be a big advance on its predecessors. Its image stabilisation is remarkable, too. Overall it’s clearly the most capable Micro Four Thirds camera to date, and should be one one of best mirrorless models for action shooting regardless of format.
The big question of course surrounds the price; at £1849.99 body only, Olympus has pitched the E-M1 II higher than some exceptionally capable competition. For example the Nikon D500 currently sells for around £1730, and is the best APS-C format DSLR we’ve yet seen, with superb high ISO capability up to ISO 51,200 and uncanny autofocus tracking. Then there’s the £1400 Fujifilm X-T2, which is currently everybody’s favourite APS-C mirrorless model, also with very impressive autofocus and continuous shooting capabilities. But neither of these have in-body image stabilisation. Sony’s Alpha 6500 is also due shortly, at an expected price of £1500 body only. It marries the A6300’s impressive autofocus and 4K video recording with a new in-body image stabilisation system, but its handling comes up rather short at this rarefied level. However none of these cameras can touch the E-M1 II for outright shooting speed.
When it announced the camera at Photokina, Olympus made some bold claims about the E-M1 II surpassing the value proposition of APS-C-format DSLRs. But while it looks unlikely to be able to beat cameras like the Nikon D500 for subject tracking and high ISO image quality, it my initial impression is that it may well come surprisingly close, while bringing other attractions of its own, including compatibility with Olympus’s superb lenses such as its f/2.8 Pro zooms. We’re looking forward to putting it through its paces properly in our upcoming full review.