Thursday, August 17, 2017

Olympus E-M1 Mark II Thoughts

This is not a pixel peeping review. It's more my general thoughts on the E-M1 Mark II with what I consider its strengths and weaknesses. 
Nahuatl dancers in downtown St Paul during the Minnesota March for Science. (Olympus E-M1 Mark II, 12mm-40mm f2.8 Pro Zoom, ISO200, 12mm, f2.8 @ 1/4000) 

I bought a couple of Olympus E-M1 Mark II bodies while we were back in the US in April. The E-M1 Mk2 is the Olympus' top of the line camera in the Micro 4:3 universe. Regular readers will know that I started my Micro 4:3 journey in 2010 with a Panasonic Lumix GF1 and a couple of Panasonic "pancake" lenses. 

I was very happy with the tiny GF1, used within its limitations it was a great camera. But it was definitely version 1 of the Micro 4:3 universe. The autofocus was only adequate (i.e. it was okay in good light but suffered any other time and continuous AF was basically unusable) and high ISO performance was not very good. I seldom used the GF1 above ISO800. Still, it showed me that the days of big and clunky dSLRs was were limited, that the mirrorless revolution was a flood that could be controlled but not stopped. 

Fast forward seven years (and many cameras) and the flood has roared through the photographic community. All but the most diehard traditionalists are embracing mirrorless cameras. 
Kuta, Bali. E-M1 Mark II, 17mm f1.8 lens, ISO2000, f1.8 @ .6 seconds, handheld. 

I completed my switch to Olympus in 2014. In 2015 I stepped up to the Olympus E-M5 Mark II body. I was very happy with the tiny E-M5 Mk2. It did everything I needed, but there were a couple of minor things that I wished were better or different. 

The big one, of course, is autofocus, especially continuous autofocus. Single shot AF on the E-M5 Mk2 worked very well for me but the C-AF never did. I don't know if it was user error (completely possible) or the camera, but I had very erratic results with C-AF on my E-M5 Mk2 bodies. 

The other was high ISO. The high ISO thing is complicated. All things being equal, a physically larger sensor (like full frame vs M4:3) will give you better high ISO. But the image stabilization in the Olympus bodies is so good that I didn't need high ISO as often as I did with Canon. Plus, when I was working at the paper, I had to make pictures under any circumstances, at any time. I have a lot more flexibility now. If I don't want to photograph, I don't. At the paper that attitude would have gotten me fired.
A Native American powwow to benefit cancer research in Minnesota. E-M1 Mark II, 25mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f2.8 @ 1/10th. 

The autofocus on the E-M1 Mark II is stunning. I could use other adjectives, like amazing or revelatory or extraordinary. But I'll leave it at stunning. I haven't used a traditional dSLR since my Canon 5D Mark III days, but I will say this: for my purposes, the E-M1 Mark II autofocus is everything I need. In single AF, using Olympus prime lenses or Pro series zooms, it's basically instantaneous. Put your AF target on something and that thing is in focus. Period. 

The real improvement comes in continuous autofocus. It works. Really well. So well, that I trust it completely. I don't photograph sports much, so my C-AF needs are not as significant as someone who covers sports for a living, but for what I need, it's very reliable. 

Water buffalo racing in Jembrana, Bali. In C-AF, I put the focus spot on the face of the buffalo on the left and photographed at 7 frames per second (the camera goes up to 10 fps for C-AF, but that's too fast for me, too many frames to edit, so I've dialed it back to 7). Every frame is sharp. Water buffalo are deceptively fast and on an unpredictable path, veering a few feet left or right as they charge down the course. E-M1 Mark II, Olympus 40mm-150mm f2.8 Pro zoom with 1.4X teleconverter, ISO250, f4@1/500th. 
In Poipet, Cambodia, a motorcycle pulls a load of merchandise to the Thai border. In C-AF. The motorcycle is on a slow, very predictable, path (compared to the water buffalo, which are on a fast, very unpredictable, path). What made this a challenge were the smaller bikes weaving in and out of traffic around the big bike. The camera ignored them and stayed focused on the big load. E-M1 Mark II, 75mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f1.8 @ 1/4000th. 

Both from Songkran (traditional Thai New Year) celebrations in Minneapolis. C-AF, with the E-M1 Mark II, 75mm f1.8 lens. I put the camera in C-AF and followed the dancers as they moved around the stage. The camera did a great job of keeping up even though the movements were unpredictable. Top photo, ISO400, f2 @ 1/1250. Bottom photo, ISO200, f2 @ 1/1000. 

To me, the E-M1 Mark II is the first mirrorless camera that matches the speed and autofocus capabilities of the traditional dSLR bodies I had when I left the dSLR world in 2014. 

With autofocus out of the way, the next issue is high ISO. 

This, for me, is very complicated. In absolute terms, neither the Olympus nor Panasonic Micro 4:3 bodies are as good at high ISO as the best Canon or Nikon full frame cameras. But, and this is huge, the E-M1 Mark II is as good as any of the APS-C cameras from Canon or Nikon (i.e. Canon 7D Mark II or below). 

High ISO quality largely depends on pixel size. The pixels in the E-M1 Mark II's 20megapixel sensor are pretty small, especially compared to pixels in the 30MP 5D Mark IV. The 5D Mark IV will have cleaner high ISO photos. But even within full frame, megapixel count matters. In their marketing materials, Canon says that for the cleanest high ISO, the 5D Mark IV is better than their high resolution king, the 50MP 5Ds series bodies. 

If you want the best high ISO image quality Canon advises going with their lower megapixel camera. (Other manufacturers offer similar advice. Nikon's high ISO champ is the D5, which has much lower MP count than their 800 series cameras and Sony offers a relatively low MP camera optimized for high ISO.) 

Factor in Olympus' excellent in body image stabilization and the high ISO question is very hard to answer. I try to work at the lowest ISO possible, but I am comfortable going up to ISO2000 with my E-M1 Mark II bodies and then applying noise reduction in Lightroom. That is about 1/3 of a stop higher than I went with the E-M5 Mark II bodies (max ISO1600) but about 2/3 of stop lower than I would go with my 5D Mark III bodies (max ISO3200). Using the IBIS, I can usually keep the ISO below 800, unless I'm photographing in pitch darkness or something the IBIS won't help, like a moving subject. 

The second photo, of Kuta beach, is an example of photographing in pitch darkness. It was made 30 minutes before sunrise and it was very dark. The only light was a light in the parking lot about 10 meters behind me that spilled some light onto the beach. I could have dropped the ISO down to 1000 and lowered the shutter speed to 1.5 or 2 seconds but I didn't. There is some noise in the sky, but overall I was quite happy with the picture. 

As digital noise goes, I think the Olympus noise is not too objectionable (although it can get pretty chunky in textureless scenes, like a sky). There's very little color noise and the luminance noise resembles film grain.

We've reached the point with digital technology that sensor size is like film choices were back in the day. For the absolute best image quality, uses the largest sensor (film size) you can. The medium format Fuji GFX50S is better than the full frame 5D Mark IV which is better than the E-M1 Mark II. That's a compromise I'm fine with. The E-M1 Mark II is a fraction of the size and weight of the Canon pro bodies and the Olympus lenses are tiny. 
Do not underestimate the resolving power of the E-M1 Mark II and the Olympus Pro lenses. The word on the hat of the man on the bow of the canoe is perfectly legible. 40mm-150mm f2.8 zoom, at 150mm (300mm equivalent on full frame) ISO200, f4 @1/320th. (Here's the full sized photo.)

About that famous in body image stabilization. It is a game changer. The IBIS in the E-M5 Mark II was five stops. The IBIS in the E-M1 Mark II is 5.5 stops but if you use it with lens that has image stabilization, like the 300mm f4 Pro (equivalent of a 600mm lens in full frame terms) or 12mm-100mm f4 Pro zoon (24-200 in full frame terms), the image stabilization in the lens works with the IS in the body and you get 6.5 stops. I don't have either of those lenses so I will limit myself to talking about the IBIS. 

It has changed the way I work. I no longer carry a tripod. I can routinely handhold my E-M1 Mark II, with the tiny primes, at shutter speeds unimaginable with my old Canon gear. With either the 12mm f2 or 17mm f1.8 on my E-M1 Mk2, I can easily handhold multisecond (2 - 3 seconds) exposures. Using a bannister, wall, fence or similar prop to steady myself, I can get 10-15 second exposures. As I use longer lenses I have to use correspondingly faster shutter speeds, but even with the 75mm lens (equal to 150mm in full frame) I can get 1-2 seconds handheld if I have something to lean against. 
Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. E-M1 Mark II, 40mm-150mm f2.8 Pro Zoom, made at 150mm (300mm in full frame terms), ISO2000, f2.8 @ 1/20th handheld. Processed from raw in Lightroom with noise reduction applied in LR. A 300mm lens handheld at 1/20th of a second. I would not have been able to do this with my Canon gear. Even with Canon's image stabilized 300mm lens, I would have needed a shutter speed of at least 1/60th, probably closer to 1/100th. That would have meant ISO5000 or higher. 
Other things I really like about the E-M1 Mark II: 

Two card slots. There are a lot of reasons to have two card slots in a body. The ability to automatically back up as you shoot - sending your files to two cards at the same time. The ability to split your take as you go - raw files to one card, jpegs to another, or video files to one card, stills to another. Or the ability to double the capacity of your camera, having it roll over automatically to the second slot when the card in slot 1 fills. The two slot implementation is not perfect* - only slot 1 uses the fastest UHS II protocols, but if you're primarily shooting stills the slower slot is fine. If you're shooting 4k video, you'll want to shoot to the fastest card you've got (preferably a UHS II card) and that card should be in slot 1. 

Weather proofing, durability and ergonomics. This thing is built like a tank. As near as I can tell, it's impervious to rain and snow, especially with Pro series lenses (which have better weather proofing than the primes) on the camera. For such a small body, all of the controls fall very naturally under my hand. 

Saveable settings. This is a very nice touch. I wouldn't call it a deal breaker, like autofocus speed, but it's very nice to be able to attach the camera to your computer and save your setups. This could be a huge deal if you have more than one body or you run a shop that manages multiple bodies. For example, I have two bodies. They're setup identically. I spent the better part of an hour setting up the first body. I plugged it into my Mac, copied the settings to my computer, plugged in the second body and loaded the saved settings into it. I have two sets of settings. One for use on the road,* the other for use in town or at home. Saveable settings is a feature I like a lot, especially when you consider how deep the Olympus menus go. 

Camera speed. It's fast. Really fast. Continuous autofocus maxes out at "only" 10 frames per second. But hey, my 5D Mark III maxed out at 6 frames per second, so 10 seems pretty good. In single shot AF, with the mechanical shutter, you can hit 15fps. Switch to the electronic shutter (silent mode) and you can shoot at 60 frames per second. That's not a typo. Sixty frames per second. You will generate lots of files, fill lots of cards, at that speed. 
Rainy day in Bangkok. E-M1 Mark II, 12mm f2 lens, ISO200, f2 @ 1/100th.

The E-M1 Mark II also has a unique "Pro Capture" mode. Push the shutter button halfway and the camera starts recording but not saving files to your cards. Push the shutter button all the way and camera writes the preceeding 14 (or so, exact number depends on how you set up the camera) files to the card along with any you shoot after the shutter button is pressed until the buffer is full. This is great if you're trying to record a specific instance in time. I've used it a couple of times. It works well and is kind of magical but you will generate a ton of data and end up with lots of files to sort through. I'm glad it's there but, honestly, I won't use it every day. 

Battery life is significantly better. I don't think it's quite as good as Olympus claims but it's the best battery life in the mirrorless world right now. As an added bonus, the new BLH-1 battery and charger combo recharge batteries in half the time the old BLN-1 batteries recharged for the E-M5 Mark II. 

4k video. It's got 4k video, this is a big deal to video shooters. It's not a big deal to me. 
In Minneapolis at the Songkran festival, a woman wearing a tuk-tuk (three wheeled taxi). Not a test of the camera in any way. E-M1 Mark II, 25mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f2 @ 1/2500th.  

I am an unabashed fan of the E-M1 Mark II. I will go so far as to say that as a camera, a piece of hardware, it is the finest body I've owned. Olympus has wrung every bit of quality out of the M4:3 sensor that they can and the image quality as good as can be expected, given the relatively small sensor. Within the limits of a M4:3 sensor, I think the E-M1 Mark II is 100% capable of being the only camera for a newspaper staff photographer or photojournalist. It can do anything a Canon 5D Mark III or Mark IV body can do (and is much better than the 5D Mark II was). 

Here's the thing about the smaller sensor - it is exactly what makes the camera so attractive. A bigger sensor means bigger bodies and bigger lenses. And a lot more weight to carry. 

Switching to M4:3 has literally changed how I travel. I can get all of my gear into a medium sized Domke bag that fits under an airplane seat and use my carryon for clothes and computer. When I used Canon, the cameras and computer went into my carryon backpack and my clothes went into checked luggage. No checked luggage means no lost luggage. Or waiting at the carousel as your baggage ever so slowly comes off the plane.
In a Hindu temple in Singapore's Little India neighborhood. E-M1 Mark II, 12mm f2 lens, ISO64 (ISO expansion turned on, manually set to the lowest ISO), f3.2 @ 1/5th, handheld. This is an example of the strengths and weaknesses of image stabilization. The wall and shrine housing the deity are tack sharp, but the people praying are blurred. This is exactly the effect I was going for but it illustrates that stabilization works very well with static subjects but it has no effect on subject movement. That's why it may not be a significant factor for sports or action photographers but it is a great tool for cityscape or landscape photographers.

So what's not to like? Two things, both fixable I think. 

1) On all of my other Olympus bodies, I have always used the small autofocus spot. This is very precise and lets me focus on an eyeball (for example) rather than the eyebrow above the eyeball. The E-M1 Mark II doesn't offer the small autofocus target. I think the AF boxes on the E-M1 Mark II are about twice the size of the small AF target I'm used to. I am hoping a future firmware upgrade will give us the small AF target.

2) Here's the *. The dual card slot implementation, not in the camera but in the Olympus Ol.Share app for the iPhone, is not ideal. This is a relatively minor point, but the Ol.Share app only works with cards in slot 1. The app, in its current version, can't see or access files on the card in slot 2. When I got my bodies, I set them up to shoot raw files to slot 1 (because it's much faster) and jpegs to slot 2 (because they're smaller files and write to cards quickly regardless of what card is in the slot). I spent hours trying to figure out why the Ol.Share app couldn't access my jpegs on card 2 (Ol.Share doesn't import raw files, which I knew). I finally broke down and sent an email to Olympus support who confirmed that, at this time, the iPhone app only works with files on card 1. This is across the board. So if you're geotagging files, you can only geotag files on cards in slot 1. If you're importing files, you can only import jpegs from cards in slot 1. The jpeg thing doesn't bother me since I don't want to process raw files on my iPhone (although I can see people with an iPad Pro might want to process raw files) but I would really like to be able to geotag files and import jpegs on the card in slot 2. I hope that Olympus updates their app to allow us to access both slots in the Ol.Share app. Because the app can only see slot 1, I have two setups. In town, when I don't need to geotag photos, I write raw files to card 2 and jpegs to card 1. That way I can import jpegs to my iPhone for Instagram. Out of town or when I might want to geotag photos, I have a setting to save both raw and jpegs to the card in slot 1 and I don't use slot 2. 

I don't have any sway at Olympus and I don't know anyone at their headquarters, but I am sort of hopeful these "issues" will be addressed. More than any other camera manufacturer, Olympus has a history of listening to users and rolling out new features in firmware (for AF target size) and features (for the Ol.Share app). 

Should you buy an E-M1 Mark II? If you're a sports, bird, wildlife or action photographer, or anyone who misses the C-AF reliability of Canon or Nikon dSLRs, the answer is 100% yes. This camera achieves all the potential that was hinted at in previous M4:3 bodies. The improvement in C-AF alone makes it an excellent choice for birders and sports photographers. 

If you're looking for a small light camera for family gatherings, vacation or landscapes, it might be more than you need. For those purposes the original E-M1 (which so far continues in the lineup) or the E-M5 Mark II might be a better choice. I am very partial to the E-M5 Mark II. I was very happy with mine when I used them. 
National Day of Prayer at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. E-M1 Mark II, 12mm f2 lens, ISO200, f9 @ 1/200th with fill flash. I am getting more consistent flash results with the E-M1 Mark II than I did with the E-M5 Mark II, but that might be a user issue and not a camera issue.