Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II review: Good vibrations

by | Feb 18, 2015

It was three years ago that Olympus introduced the world to their first OM-D camera, the E-M5. Borrowing design cues from Olympus’ original OM series of film cameras, beloved by photographers for their small size, the E-M5 resembled a miniature DSLR. Its retro design was functional, but more importantly, it was aesthetically pleasing, which proved to be a big selling point. Here we are three years later, and the original E-M5’s spec sheet still reads like a modern camera: 16 megapixels, 9 frames-per-second continuous shooting, professional weather sealing, and industry-leading, five-axis sensor stabilization.

The OM-D E-M5 II offers several refinements, but the initial specifications don’t make it stand out that much over its predecessor. The 16MP sensor remains (albeit with a fancy 40MP mode—more on this in a bit), burst rate has been bumped to 10 FPS (although Olympus claims a nearly “limitless” frame buffer with a fast card), the stabilization has been improved, the EVF is larger and higher resolution, and the LCD screen now fully articulates (yay selfies!).

Fujifilm X-T10 Black

Specifically, Olympus touts the new stabilization system as being great for handheld video. While I didn’t test this directly, I’ve seen some examples, and it is indeed very impressive. This is an interesting move from Olympus, who until now hadn’t really made video a focus of any of their cameras. But, as other reviews have pointed out, the E-M5 II’s video image quality still lags somewhat behind the more powerful, 4K-capable Panasonic GH4. For casual users, however, the out-of-the-box video results will likely be better with the E-M5 II thanks to the super smooth stabilization.

Let’s be real, though: people who buy this camera will buy it for still photography, and like all cameras bearing the OM-D mark, the E-M5 II delivers. It is responsive, fast, and offers an abundance of direct-access control and options for customization. Especially for outdoor adventure and landscape photographers, the E-M5 II is likely the best value on the market, thanks to its small size and a couple of very useful tricks up its sleeve.

To that end, I decided to test this camera in an environment that would truly, well, test it. To aid in this endeavor of great importance, I called upon Pro Photo Supply purchaser and Pro News? anchor, Matt, and my friend Abby, [the surprisingly not professional model] last seen in the Nikon D750 review. After looking up the driving directions on Outdoor Project, we headed into the Columbia River Gorge for the arduous 0.7 mile hike to the magnificent Elowah Falls.

Bringing a small camera on such an outing has obvious benefits. In my ThinkTank Retrospective 10, a midsize shoulder bag, I fit the E-M5 II body and several lenses: the 12-150mm kit lens, 12-40mm F/2.8, 40-150mm f/2.8, and 60mm macro, plus an assortment of ND filters, stepping rings, memory cards, a pen, my keys, a crumpled-up napkin… you get the picture. Oh, and I carried a small Three Legged Thing tripod in my hand.

Beyond the inherent compactness advantage of the MFT system, the EM-5 II offers some notable features for adventurous types. Firstly, the build quality is top-notch. That includes excellent weather sealing, carried over from the first E-M5, which I was very thankful for on this shoot—the mist at the base of Elowah Falls was dense enough to soak through clothes in a matter of seconds, but the camera didn’t skip a beat. Small cameras don’t typically inspire confidence, but the E-M5 II is an exception to this rule—our test model came back soaking wet and muddy, but still ready to go. In short, it endured being wet and cold a lot better than we did (although water on the lens and condensation caused obvious problems for actually being able to get a good picture).

Olympus OM-D E-M5 II weather sealing

Secondly (and this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for), the knock-out-punch feature of the E-M5 II is its “High Resolution Shot” mode, which produces up to a 40MP photograph (depending on aspect ratio). The way it works is nothing short of genius. In a word, Olympus engineers figured out how to utilize the sensor stabilization system in reverse. Normally, the system moves the sensor in response to vibrations from hand-holding. With High Resolution Shot engaged, the sensor actually shifts in purposeful, microscopic motions, making additional exposures at each position. Specifically, the sensor first moves to capture full color information at every pixel in a series of four exposures (basically, it moves one pixel width up, takes a picture; moves a pixel width to the right, takes a picture; then down, then left). Next, it expands outward by half a pixel width to capture additional spacial resolution in another four exposures.

Coincidentally, when shooting in a 3:2 aspect ratio (the native ratio of full-frame cameras), this produces a 35.5MP file—very close to the 36MP image size of the Nikon D810. However, because the Olympus is capturing full color information for each pixel, it actually out-resolves the Nikon in extreme situations, because it has virtually zero moiré. And by “extreme” I actually mean “uncommon,” as in when photographing a color resolution chart in a studio. Real world results will likely depend more on signal-to-noise ratio, lens characteristics, the amount of contrast in the scene, etc. Still, given that the E-M5 II is a third the price of the D810, it is a very impressive feat. Images produced with High Res Shot are noticeably sharper than the standard 16MP exposures, and, yes, you can choose to save them in both raw and JPEG.

Now, the caveat is that it takes, at a minimum, one second to make the eight exposures that go into a High Res Shot, which means you need to have the camera on a tripod to take advantage of this feature. That said, when you want to maximize sharpness on any camera, you should really be using a tripod, anyway (especially with a D810). I should note, though, that Olympus recently announced plans for a firmware update to allow the E-M5 II to complete a full High Res Shot sequence in as little as a 1/60 of a second, making it possible to hand hold. (Presumably, a shutter speed of around 1/500th of a second would be required to achieve this, in order to make the eight exposures within 1/60 of a second, although maybe they figured out another way of doing it.)

As the feature exists now, it is of most benefit to landscape shooters and studio product photographers (for the latter, Olympus even lets you to set a delay between each exposure in High Res Shot mode to allow your strobes time to recycle). These photographers are likely already shooting with tripods and are accustomed to putting a little more time into their exposures. However, landscape shooters should watch out for one thing: as a High Res Shot is composed of eight separate exposures, the final image will be subject to motion blur even at fast shutter speeds. If it’s a windy day, this could result in some blurry foliage. And forget about trying to photograph a cityscape if you have moving cars or people in the frame. There is one case, though, in which this drawback actually becomes an advantage: when you want motion blur. Waterfalls, for example, present one such subject.

I performed a little experiment, shooting the same scene twice at 1/20 of a second (from a tripod, obviously). The first shot below is the normal exposure; the second is the High Res Shot. The exposure settings are exactly the same for both pictures, but the resulting images are very different.


Notice how the second image shows significantly more blur. It’s a neat trick, and one you may be familiar with if your camera has a multiple exposure mode (there are even several camera apps available for smartphones that do the same thing in order to mimic long exposures). The main difference between this and a normal multiple exposure mode is that we’re increasing the resolution and increasing the motion blur at the same time. The above shots were taken with just a 3-stop neutral density filter at an aperture of f/4. To achieve a single-exposure image with the equivalent amount of blur, I would have had to stop down well past the diffraction limit of the lens, or put on a stronger ND filter. I did bring a 10-stop ND with me, which made for some nice photos, but have you ever tried to frame a shot or focus through a 10-stop filter? Basically, you can’t—you have to set up the camera, focus, calculate the exposure you need, and then screw on the filter. Using a 3-stop ND doesn’t inhibit any of the camera’s functionality; autofocus is still lightning fast and the EVF is still at its normal brightness (this is actually an advantage of EVFs over optical viewfinders, as they compensate for available light). Plus, you can work within the camera’s standard shutter speed range without having to go into bulb mode. Again, the general theory and practice of multiple exposure photography may not be new to you, but the particulars of how it’s used in the E-M5 II’s High Res Shot mode are unique.

Of course, it’s not quite perfect. Because the sensor is moving between each exposure, the processor has to kind of guess as to how to best combine those exposures when subject motion is involved. This resulted in some minor digital artifacts that appear in parts of the waterfall, which are only really visible at 100% magnification and were less apparent with slower shutter speeds. Still, it could be better. Frankly, I don’t think Olympus really intended for High Res Shot to be used in this way—it was actually my experience with an iPhone camera app that made me think to try it in the first place. Perhaps a future firmware update could improve the processing for better rendering of motion blur in High Res Shot mode, but this is entirely wishful thinking on my part (are you listening, Olympus?). At any rate, I would not hesitate to use High Res Shot to achieve some extra blur when I need it.

Right: standard 16MP exposure. Left: High-Res Shot.

I should also mention a small yet worthy detail new to the E-M5 II that makes it great for landscape photography: the available Arca Swiss-style grip and bracket. This is an official Olympus product, and simply screws into the tripod socket of the camera, extending the front grip for improved ergonomics and adding an Arca Swiss compatible tripod plate to both the bottom and side. This meant I could mount the camera straight to my Three Legged Thing tripod without an additional quick release plate. Again, a small detail, but when you’re constantly transitioning between a tripod and hand-holding, it’s a very welcome addition.

Perhaps the one area where this camera (or any mirrorless camera) is not a landscape or adventure photographer’s dream machine is in battery life. CIPA rates it at just 310 exposures, but their testing was likely done using the included external flash. Without flash, I shot roughly 200 pictures (many of which were eight-exposure High Res Shots) and left the camera on for several hours, and the battery life indicator did not drop a single bar. Still, I would suggest bringing two or three extra batteries with you for any full-day shoot.

I also got to play around with Olympus’ new 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens. It may look a little large for an MFT camera, but it fits an 80-300mm equivalent focal length range into a lens the size of a full-frame 70-200mm. I loved the versatility of that range, and it made for a great portrait lens. It also focuses extremely quickly thanks to two separate focusing elements and motors. It’s a great match for this camera, as it is equally well-made and fully weather-sealed. The lens selection is the current greatest advantage of Micro Four Thirds over other mirrorless systems.

To some, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II may seem more like a refinement of the original rather than a brand new camera. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but thanks to some clever engineering and a continued commitment to supporting and improving the camera through firmware updates, Olympus has again pushed the boundaries of what a Micro Four Thirds camera can be. I am fortunate that I get to shoot a variety of different cameras in my line of work, and while I would personally still choose a Nikon D750 for most professional applications, I couldn’t imagine lugging around the weight of an equivalent full-frame system on a shoot like this. As a daily shooter, an adventure camera, an I-don’t-want-to-drench-my-phone camera, and even a serious landscape camera, the $1099.99 E-M5 II offers an unprecedented value. It is built as well as any professional machine, and for those of you weary of marketing buzzwords, the 40MP High Res Shot mode is no joke. This little camera is a serious photographic tool that just happens to be a lot of fun to use.

And it doesn’t hurt that it looks good, too.

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