It has been 3 long years now, that Olympus managed to stir photographic market waters for good, and forever, introducing that first E-M5. It's now a general consensus that this camera brought mirrorless in the forefront, not only for serious enthusiasts but for a number of professional uses also. Being a match, or even superior, in image quality and features, to APS-C sensor cameras of its era, was no easy fit and, with m4/3 lens variety and quality constantly growing, it was just a matter of time to become a photographic icon.
It's in human nature never to be satisfied. I distinctly remember many of us, already using the E-M5 daily and in demanding applications, starting voicing out our wishlists for the next model. Higher shutter speed and flash sync, professional level build, bigger and better EVF, larger buffer, etc, were often mentioned. The answer was given with the E-M1, incorporating some features and general philosophy found only in pro DSLRs costing several thousand. But, you see, the E-M5 was never really intended to be a top semi or full pro camera, and the E-M1 was never meant to be its successor.
And today we have the brave new generation of that camera: the Mark 2. And, as it's often the case, I'm late to the party!
There is an excuse though: the official distributor for Olympus in Greece changed during the last weeks, and it was only at beginning of April that they could officially import new cameras here. So, for some days now, I'm in possession of one of the first shipped to stores; in fact, it was most likely in the first box opened in this country. It was kindly provided by the good people of a well known local shop and the whole process was possible through the actions of my good friend and colleague, photographer and journalist Nikos Vitsilakis.
As usual: only hands-on tests/reviews in this blog, always from the point of view of a real-life user, no chart reading, no pixel peeping at 4:1. For the same reasons, I'm sure most readers are already well versed in the technical characteristics, so no extended mention of those either.
The first thing I was curious about, was how handling was improved. I was one of those that liked the handling of the original E-M5, even without the grip, but thought it carried over some design decisions from the Pen line rather than the E-series, such as small and rather mushy control buttons. Well, the mk2 retains the compact size, but it is evident Olympus put a lot of thought in making it ergonomically excellent, considering the small size.
The grip needs little strength to hold, and there is a number of clever design choices. For example, the front and real rotary knobs have a different torque setting (ergonomically wise, since the index and thumb have different strengths). The several function and other programmable buttons, have slightly different heights, making it easier to navigate, even blindly, after a while. Balance was good with all the lenses I used, but one would certainly need at least the vertical grip for longer (I'm looking at you Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8) lenses.
Construction and build quality are up a couple of notches. I'd dare say it gives the impression of being just a tad better than even the E-M1. Almost zero tolerances, and details like the metallic battery retaining clip leave a good impression. Speaking of batteries, thankfully, Olympus continues the tradition of using the same battery in all OMDs; unthankfully, as in almost all mirrorless, battery metering still suffers. Battery life is also somewhat lower in the Mk2.
Personally I found the inclusion of several Fn buttons (taking hints from the E-M1), as well as other dedicated/programmable ones -including the one off the lens mount, which I promptly programmed for focus point selection- to be the most welcome usability addition. On the aesthetics department, and because I'm a sucker for looks, I wouldn't resist the fact that the Mk2 looks even closer to the film OMs that I love. Objectively speaking though, one would be probably emotionally damaged to not consider this camera an elegant piece of machinery.
I can't help but admit it: with a variety of system lenses, this camera is a joy to use. The large EVF, same as the one in the E-M1, is bright and fast; the shutter's feel and sound is probably in the top 3 I've ever used; the AF is instantaneous and accurate. It was somewhat of a surprise when we put it next to the original E-M5 and compared AF-speed. Three years can make a lot of difference, even if you start at a plenty fast initial level.
After a few hours of use, I started realizing that the Mk2 is to the E-M1 like a very talented genius little brother to an already accomplished and highly regarded older one. And having a few tricks of its own. Because it's easy to see that the mk2 features a number of improvements over Olympus' flagship. Which is only natural, since technology forwards sometimes faster than model replacement cycles.
An improved IBIS-5? Yes why not; though you'd perhaps consider it impossible. The best stabilization system in the industry is even better. This is more down to repeatability (which means it works in a wider variety of conditions) than lower shutter speed capability. For example, half a second or lower with the 12mm f/2, is still possible with the E-M1. But not shot after shot after damn shot; at least in my experience. And here I was standing in a dark, space technology exhibition, carelessly shooting at ISO200 at things that ought not to be entirely visible, and giggling like an idiot with the crystal clear image I was getting.
Another improvement: serious video, at last. Not pro level, not by any stretch, but at least not amateur, 2010 compact camera level anymore. And the IBIS is a secret weapon here. Oh, and Olympus brought back the tilty/swivelly screen of the E-series. Great for video and a lot of weird angle shots; although I must voice my concerns on the hinge endurance. One would need to be careful I think; still, having the ability to completely hide (and thus protect) the back screen, is a great asset.
An now for the kicker: yes, from my tests, the E-M5ii can, in some cases, produce image quality better than the E-M1. Does this come as a shock? It shouldn't be. The sensor is similar (or an improved version) of the one in the E-M5 mk1. Now, I'm of those that considered that sensor's rendering somewhat preferable to the Panasonic sensor's in the E-M1. This is a matter of taste, but performance in higher ISO is a measurable quality. I'd say its marginal, from ISO6400 and up, but existent nonetheless. Evaluation was through OOC JPEGs but also RAW files converted through the Adobe DNG converter. When full RAW support is provided (with the next ACR/LR release), I'm sure we'll see the full capability of the files. High ISO is yet another point where incremental improvement makes it difficult to evaluate progress: I can still remember we sometimes struggled with ISO3200 on the E-M5mk1.
The question of the E-M5mk2 replacing the E-M1 in a photographers bag, is unavoidable. Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: it depends, and may be true for a variety of users that think they need the E-M1 but really don't. Let's explain.
All of us using the E-M1 daily in professional conditions, know it's akin to having a kind of "mini D4s" or 1Ds in our hands. Characteristics such as the huge buffer, dedicated buttons falling under your fingertips for easy access to almost anything, and such essential daily tools, are not easily underestimated. Just think that Canonikon have cameras in their lineups with considerably better image quality than their top pro DLSRs (e.g. D810 vs. D4s). Now try your best to persuade a seasoned photojournalist to trade his battered D4 for a brand new D810 and see how it works out... Thought so.
On the other hand, until recently, consumers in need of certain qualities would end up with a E-M1. I sincerely believe that, with the vast majority of them, the E-M5mk2 is a much better option.
The photojournalism-type photography example was mentioned: indeed, the E-M1 is THE camera to beat in this respect, albeit most pro photographers in this genre are still ignorant of the fact. But most normal people, no matter what they believe, they don't do photojournalism (in other words, to exaggerate a bit, they don't try to capture History while doing their best to dodge bullets). Instead, most normal people do travel and documentary type photography. Most users new to Olympus (and m4/3 in general) haven't even heard of Four Thirds SHG pro glass and are indifferent on how it works on their camera. Most normal people also overestimate their needs concerning continuous AF and probably don't need the performance E-M1 offers (with the latest firmware).
There is of course an area where the E-M5mk2 is unbeatable, not only vs. its bigger sister, but, given the right circumstances, against any camera in the market, except high end medium format models with a 5 digit price tag. It's, of course, the now famous High Resolution shooting mode.
I won't bother my readers with details on how this works; I'm sure anybody with a slight interest in the matter has already done his or her research. Strengths, such as 40Mp of true color information files, are known, as are limitations, such as static subjects only and tripod use exclusively.
Still... as much as I've read for this technology, as many samples as I have seen, damn... Nothing could prepare me for actual results from my own tests.
Any still life photographer, as well as product photographer ignores the E-M5mk2 at his own peril. At the very real risk of letting his competition kill him at a fraction of the cost needed just a few months ago. I have provided a sample, as well as a 100% crop, from a simple still life scene I put together in a matter of minutes. What I tried was having a scene with broad dynamic range, as well as some difficult to reproduce parts; such as the cloth in the crop. Bear in mind that the image is a OOC JPEG with no post processing, and realize that, with careful RAW manipulation, results will be even better (for example, in the red fabric, which is always a problem with any camera). Now imagine what "better" could probably mean; because what I see from this JPEG, from a 1100 euro camera with a 250 euro lens on a 50 euro tripod, is nothing short of amazing. Not "high resolution full frame DSLR with high end lens" amazing, more like "I mortgaged my house because I needed a Phase One" amazing.
You can download the original file directly from this link, if you are curious:
The new Olympus 14-150mm f/4-5.6 II ED MSC came with the camera and it is proper to say a few words about it too. This is the second version of this lens, featuring improved optics, build quality and weather sealing; making it ideal for OMD cameras.
It's common understanding that broad range zooms are not exactly optical quality monsters. Apart from chart shooting and MTF diagrams though, this lens left quite favorable impressions. It focuses fast under all conditions, it's very well made and light enough to be used even without an additional grip. For daily, walkaround use, as well as travel photography, it might perhaps be the only zoom lens many people would need. Its price as a standalone piece is somewhat over the top, in my opinion, but, bundled with the E-M5mk2, it makes for a rather nice proposition.
I suppose it is evident: I loved this little beast of a camera. You can help it; it's just loveable, that simple. Would I buy one myself? I might, but not to replace my E-M1. It stands its own ground, and stands by its own. I'd have it as a second body, as a dedicated jaw-dropping still-life photography machine and as a capable video camera. My bet is the E-M1mk2 shall feature a hand-held Hi Res mode; this will be akin to the release of a doomsday device in the photographic world. But the E-M5mk2 has so much to offer today, that I'm more than certain it will claim its position as a photographic cult symbol, much the way its predecessor did.
(part 2 and conclusion of this review can be found here)