On test: Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII

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Olympus’ new flagship camera puts the mirco-four-thirds system at the cutting edge of high-speed shooting with a host of impressive features.
Fergus Kennedy puts it through its paces...

Article originally published in March issue OP215 of Outdoor Photography.

Olympus had a tough act to follow their very popular and capable micro-four-thirds flagship E-M1. On paper, at least, they seem to have pulled it off, with improvements across the board. I was keen to get the camera in my hands and see for myself whether the specs translated into improved performance in the real world.

The camera feels very well made and solid. It’s a bit heavier than its predecessor but still neat and very easy on the eye, with retro styling and a plethora of physical buttons and dials. Similarly, the two lenses I tested with it were extremely well built and looked like they could stand up to the elements.

In a foolhardy move, I headed out into the dusk having barely glanced at the user manual. Not being entirely familiar with the Olympus way of doing things, this strategy did provoke some frustration. As the light faded and I needed to up the ISO, I found myself pressing buttons almost at random in a desperate attempt to get the camera to do my bidding. The MkII has a seemingly infinite range of customisation options in the menu, which is great for experienced users, but I did find myself wishing there was an obvious button with ‘ISO’ written on it. I worked it out in the end. There are of course several ways to quickly change the ISO, but none were obvious on a casual inspection of the outside of the camera. One handy feature here is the lever control immediately to the right of the viewfinder, which can be used to toggle the function of the two main dials, so you can switch between using the thumbwheel for aperture and ISO without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

Phenomenal image stabilisation makes low-light handheld shots a breeze.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII with Olympus M 300mm f/4 lens, ISO 800, 1/125sec at f/4

Landscape photographers who love to print their work large will appreciate the High Res Mode. Making clever use of the sensor shift technology used for image stabilisation, the MkII manages to produce a 50MP image from a 20MP sensor by combining several photographs. As such, it’s really only suitable for static subjects shot from a tripod, but it certainly works, giving a noticeable boost in resolution.

One of the headline features of the new Olympus is its in-body five-axis image stabilisation. Building on the success of its implementation in the original OM-D E-M1, the new incarnation claims an almost miraculous 5.5 stops of stabilisation. This is a big deal for photographers who like to work with minimal gear. It was great to head out on a dusk-to-night shoot with just a small gear bag and no tripod. After shooting for a couple of hours, I have to say the results were very impressive, particularly at longer focal lengths. I certainly had a really good keeper rate shooting handheld at up to one-second shutter speed. You could probably go beyond that if you braced yourself carefully.

The new 20MP sensor produced nice looking images even at higher ISO values, with a finer grained noise than its 16MP forebears. It may not quite be in the same league as some of the larger sensor competition, but it’s certainly very useable up to and including ISO 3200.

Noise was certainly present in higher ISO shots, particularly when pushing the shadow areas at ISO 3200 or above, but it was fine-grained and easily subdued.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII with Olympus M 300mm f/4 lens, ISO 1250, 1/400sec at f/4

One area that often provokes heated debate is the autofocus on mirrorless cameras versus their DSLR counterparts. The autofocus of the latest generation of mirrorless cameras is indeed very snappy and can, in many respects, rival the performance of DSLRs. Combine this with an impressive frame rate (up to 60fps) and you have the makings of a very handy sports or wildlife camera. In practice, while I found the camera tracked moving subjects pretty well, with really tricky subjects such as birds in flight on a long lens I struggled to keep the subject in frame more than I would with a traditional optical viewfinder. I think this may be due to the very slight lag and inherent refresh rate issues of an electronic viewfinder. Most of the time it’s no problem, but with really fast subjects on long lenses, I still think an optical viewfinder has the edge.

The E-M1 MkII is no slouch in the video department; it shoots detailed 4K video up to a very respectable 237 Mbps bit rate. The very effective image stabilisation, articulated LCD, mic and headphone sockets make it a compelling option for videographers.

The in-body IS worked particularly well when combined with longer lenses, such as the fabulous Olympus 300mm f/4 lens.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII with Olympus M 300mm f/4 lens, ISO 800, 1/124sec at f/4

SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 20MP micro-four-thirds

Resolution 5184 x 3888 pixels

Lens Interchangeable micro-
four-thirds

Shutter speed Still image: Bulb, 1/8000-60sec, Electronic shutter max: 1/32000

ISO 200-25600

Viewfinder Electronic

LCD 3in OLED LCD, approx. 1037k pixels, static touch control.

Flash Hotshoe mounted unit

Movie mode Max 2160p (4K) up to 30fps, 1080p at up to 60fps

Card formats SD/SDHC/SDXC

Power Li-ion Battery Pack BLH-1

Size 134 x 91 x 67mm

Weight 574g (body only,
with battery)

LIKES

Great image quality from
the new 20MP sensor

Build quality

Amazing in-body image stabilisation

4K video

50 MP High Res Mode

DISLIKES

Socket placement slightly interferes with LCD articulation

Control interface takes some getting used to

VERDICT

Overall, the new Olympus is certainly at the current pinnacle of micro-four-thirds performance. It has outstanding build quality and an ever-growing array of pro-level glass to choose from. The image stabilisation is class-leading and will go some way towards mitigating the effects of a smaller sensor on low-light performance. It’s price tag puts it head to head with many leading DSLRs with considerably larger sensors, so your choice as ever will depend on the relative merits of portability versus extreme low-light performance and the need for very high native resolution.

RATINGS

Handling 95%

Performance 95%

Specification 94%

Value 90%

Overall 94%

Guide price £1,849 (body only)

Contact olympus.co.uk

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