I don’t envy Olympus. When it comes to photography, the company is stuck in a difficult position. It is forced to innovate by pumping as much tech as it can into its high-end cameras, which can’t meet the image quality offered by competitors Sony, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Canon who all use larger sensors. The Micro Four Thirds format, smaller than both APS-C and full frame, would appear to make more sense for consumer cameras, yet Olympus (and Panasonic, who co-parents the format) continues to shift more and more to the professional end of the spectrum.

As such, the company’s latest flagship, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, is bursting at the seams with high-performance tech — but it presents only marginal still image quality improvements compared to the original. The newer 20MP sensor offers a nice bump in resolution over the 16MP unit in the first E-M1, but there’s nothing revolutionary going on here.

This in itself would not necessarily be cause for concern, but once you take the camera’s $2,000 price into account, the E-M1 Mark II becomes a purchase that’s worthy of some deliberation. There is no question about whether or not this is a good camera (it is); the question is simply, is it worth it?

Do you feel the need?

Never has the MFT format evolved so much in a single camera upgrade. This wasn’t unexpected — it took three years for the Mark II version to finally arrive after the introduction of the E-M1 in 2013 — but it’s still impressive. But most of that evolution is a result of drastically improved speed, something that many photographers likely have no real need for (the original was no slouch in this department, after all). For shooters after the best burst rate, however, the E-M1 Mark II delivers: it can shoot full resolution RAW photos at up to 60 frames per second.

As experienced photographers likely guessed, that 60 FPS speed is possible only with the electronic shutter, so there is some risk of “jello-cam” messing up your chi. That speed also only comes with focus and exposure locked after the first frame, so you won’t be able to track subjects along the Z axis at 60 FPS.

Obviously, the use case for such a high continuous shooting rate is — well, we’re not exactly sure. It will be up to photographers to figure out the best uses for it. Most video is only shot at 30 FPS, after all.

Fortunately, Olympus has thrown in plenty of other continuous shooting options to fit the needs of we mere mortals, which I will try to break down as best I can here.

Continuous shooting is broken into two categories: Continuous Low, and Continuous High. Within each of those modes is the option to shoot with the mechanical or the electronic shutter. So far, so good — but here’s where it gets a bit confusing: the maximum burst rate in Continuous High mode with the mechanical shutter is 15 FPS. The maximum rate in Continuous Low mode is 18 FPS — thanks to the electronic shutter option. In continuous low, the mechanical shutter is limited to 10 FPS.

The reason for this setup is to break up continuous shooting modes based on how the camera focuses and meters. In Continuous Low, regardless of what option you choose, the E-M1 Mark II will be able to autofocus and meter between frames. In any Continuous High mode, however, AF and AE will be locked — whether you’re choosing the mechanical or electronic shutter.

I’m not sure this was the easiest way to divvy things up, but that’s how it works. So, with the mechanical shutter, you can shoot up to 10 FPS with AF and AE, or 15 FPS without. With the electronic shutter, you can hit 18 FPS with AF and AE, or the aforementioned 60 FPS with everything locked down.

Understanding this is important, because while the E-M1 Mark II may look like it’s faster than, say, a Nikon D5 on paper, the reality is a bit foggier. If you’re shooting fast-moving subjects, or do a lot of panning, you likely won’t want to risk using an electronic shutter and you probably want AF between frames. That means that you’re basically limited to 10 FPS on the Olympus.

What the crazy-high speed of this camera really gets you is the ability to capture the decisive moment when it’s difficult to predict when, exactly, that moment is going to occur. In fact, Olympus came up with a new “Pro Capture” mode to even further help with this. With Pro Capture enabled, the E-M1 Mark II continuously buffers up to 14 frames before the shutter button is pressed. So even if you miss the moment, you won’t actually miss the moment (assuming you press the shutter pretty immediately after the moment).

This is, legitimately, all very impressive. Of course, if you plan to actually shoot anywhere near 60 FPS for more than, say, half a second, be prepared to endure a very laborious image review procedure. This is a good reminder that with great power comes great responsibility.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

Keeping up with the Canons

With a 2X crop factor compared to full frame, the E-M1 Mark II lacks the light-gathering capability of cameras like the Canon 6D and Nikon D750 — both full-frame models that can be picked up for less than $2,000 right now. The E-M1 Mark II can’t match the dynamic range or high-ISO capabilities of such cameras, but Olympus has a few tricks up its sleeve that help it compete.

High Res Shot mode, first introduced on the E-M5 Mark II and later brought to the PEN-F, has finally come to the E-M1. It is essentially the exact same version of the mode as on the PEN-F, as both cameras share similar 20MP sensors. High Res Shot is a welcome bonus feature of Olympus’ fantastic 5-axis sensor-shift stabilization tech, which allows the sensor to be moved by a single pixel’s width. By shifting the sensor between exposures, additional color and spatial resolution can be captured. The camera captures eight exposures in total and composites them automatically, leading to a 50MP image with true RGB color data for every pixel. The entire process is over in a second, although a tripod is still required and it really only works on stationary subjects.

As we’ve seen before, the results of High Res Shot are impressive. Its usefulness is limited, but it gives landscape photographers, in particular, a compelling reason to consider Micro Four Thirds. Of course, landscape shooters probably don’t also need to shoot at 60 FPS, so they may be better off going with the E-M5 Mark II, which is about half the cost.

While High Res Shot helps on the resolution front, High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode helps with the (duh) dynamic range. This is still an area where MFT sensors lag significantly behind their larger peers. Like High Res Shot, HDR composites a single photo from multiple exposures, but it only requires three and can do it so incredibly quickly (at 60 FPS) that a tripod isn’t needed. This makes it more usable than the typical HDR mode, but it does add some processing time and is limited to JPEG output, so it’s not a feature you’ll want to leave on all the time.

It would be nice if the E-M1 Mark II didn’t need to rely on composite image modes to raise its image quality to the level of other cameras at its price point, but at least the options are there.

Olympus PEN-F front showing Art Mode dial

Olympus gets serious about video

The biggest surprise with the introduction of the E-M1 Mark II was its 4K video mode. Olympus has never been on the leading edge of video features, but the E-M1 Mark II offers some serious power that even advanced videographers will appreciate.

It can shoot in both standard Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) and DCI (4,096 x 2,160) resolutions. In DCI mode, which is used more commonly in cinema production and locked at 24p, video can even be recorded at up to 237 megabits per second, one of the highest bit rates of any mirrorless camera with only the Panasonic GH5 (at 400Mbps) surpassing it.

Unlike the E-M1, a clean, uncompressed video signal can now be output over the HDMI port for external recording into an Atomos Shogun or other recorder. External video is output with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling for improved color resolution over the 4:2:0 standard that is used internally, and on most consumer cameras.

In practice, the video image quality is very good, with sharp results that show Olympus put in some real effort. It’s right up there with the mighty GH4 (and maybe the GH5, which we haven’t tested). Video will be a bit noisier than that from larger-sensor mirrorless cameras, like a Sony A6300 or Fujifilm X-T2, and Olympus doesn’t offer a logarithmic gamma curve so you’ll pull more dynamic range out of a GH4 or GH5 with Panasonic’s V-Log profile. Still, as a stills-focused hybrid, the E-M1 Mark II makes for a surprisingly useful video camera.

The path ahead

The E-M1 Mark II marks the pinnacle of Micro Four Thirds technology. It is an incredible accomplishment, but its most impressive features may not actually be that necessary for the vast majority of users. For anyone in the market for a new camera with a $2,000 budget, there are many pros and cons that need to be weighed before jumping on the E-M1 Mark II.

As with the E-M5 Mark II, I think the E-M1 Mark II makes most sense for wildlife and landscape photographers. The weather sealing is superb, High Res Shot mode produces rich, detailed images, and the small size and lightweight of the MFT system help you carry more lenses with you more comfortably.

But the E-M1 Mark II leaves one nagging question: Where does the MFT format go from here? Olympus has, like Panasonic with the GH5, squeezed out more performance than what most users need while charging a premium that pits its best camera against competitors with sensors four times as large. We’re still waiting for improvements in noise and dynamic range that simply don’t seem to be coming. But if speed is what you need, then the E-M1 Mark II makes a strong case for your money.

Gallery photos by Daniel Sloan.

Overall assessment

  • Studio 73%
  • Photojournalism 83%
  • Travel 80%
  • Casual 66%
  • Filmmaking 77%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

 

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