Review: The Olympus E-M5 Mark II

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 My usual deployment: handheld video, with HLD-8 battery grip, Zeiss ZM 1.4/35 Distagon rin an adaptor, and a Zoom H5 audio recorder. I am working on fixing the hard/sharp/uncomfortable edges of the battery grip with a silicone putty compound called Sugru, and will post the results in a future post.

Better late than never (or, I finally get around to trying out the second coming): the Olympus’ E-M5 Mark II. Many of the long-suffering readers of this site will know that I had a period of enthusiasm for M4/3 gear (and specifically the original E-M5) before that abruptly came to a halt in early 2014. The reasons were simple: firstly, camera technology has moved on; what was an impressive size/quality ratio in 2012 is not in 2015. Secondly, my output requirements have changed; the cameras have never had sufficient resolution to make a meaningfully-sized Ultraprint. Thirdly, there was no real solution to the shutter shock problem of the E-M1, which produced unusable images under basically every shooting condition – from 1/90s to 1/350s. We were amongst the first to use the original E-M5 for video because of its stabiliser, and continued to use the E-M1s for video (including all of the workshop videos after The Fundamentals), Olympus and I then parted ways, and it appears they found new champions less demanding of their equipment. But, why the change of heart for me?

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Photoessay: Avril Lavigne, live in Kuala Lumpur

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Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting from me. Though I’ve shot concerts on assignment before (here, for instance) I don’t tend to go very often as a fan, simply because I don’t have the time, and even if I did, most of the acts I’d want to listen to don’t come to Kuala Lumpur.

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Photoessay: Universal Studios Singapore

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A continuation of the previous article on tourist location photographability.

Perhaps as a reflection of personal interest, I was certainly more drawn to the urban scenery element of the place rather than the rides or the fantasy areas; none of the people really fit the scene – i.e. looked ‘in place’, so I left them out (think 1940s New York or 1960s Hollywood being full of Asians in tank tops and shorts). The results are a slightly surreal and empty environment; I think it reflects my recent and increasing fascination with form and light over action. We all go through subject and stylistic shifts in our photographic journey as we explore new things; having shot a lot of street, cinematic and reportage work in recent years, perhaps it’s time for a change.

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Lens review: The Olympus 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO

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Announced and available together with the new OM-D E-M1 (reviewed here), the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital PRO (24-80mm equivalent) is the first in a new line of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses. Development of an equivalent-grade f2.8 fast telephoto zoom was also announced, with a 2014 release. Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to use this lens together with the new camera for some time now. Read on for my review.

Advanced warning: Flickr will apparently be down for maintenance for a little while on Friday 13/9, so if some images don’t appear, it’s because they’re hosted there…

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The 2013 Olympus OM-D E-M1 review, part two: some comparisons

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In part one yesterday, I looked at the camera as a standalone device with few references to its predecessor or competition; today we’re going to examine some of the technical differences in a bit more detail against two benchmarks: the outgoing OM-D E-M5, and the Nikon D600. Both are 2012 cameras, and cameras that I’m intimately familiar with because I use them heavily in the course of my normal work – the E-M5 as my travel/teaching camera, and the D600 for video and backup to the D800E. The former is a no-brainer; the latter is perhaps a bit more of a stretch: not only is there a significant price difference, but the sensor goes up in size by two whole notches – it’s effectively four times the size of that in the E-M1. Surely this is an unfair fight?

Update: ISO comparison chart mislabelling fixed, and I am checking on the 12 vs 14bit issue.

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The 2013 Olympus OM-D E-M1 review, part one: the camera

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The late-2013 OM-D E-M1 is the successor and upgrade to the very popular early-2012 OM-D E-M5. It’s now clear why the camera was launched with a mouthful of two names: OM-D is a line of products, E-Mx is the model. In this review, we will refer to them as E-M1 and E-M5 respectively to avoid confusion. As you all probably know, I’m very familiar with the E-M5; this camera has served as my travel and teaching camera for the last year, and has now clocked somewhere north of 40,000 exposures (I also reviewed it here). What’s changed in a year? Quite a lot, it seems: certainly enough to get excited about. There’s also a new confirmed lens – the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO, available with the camera, and a matching f2.8 telephoto for next year.

This review will be in three parts for ease of reading (this part is already north of 4,400 words) – the camera itself, today; a relative comparison with two other benchmarks, tomorrow; and a review of one of the two lenses announced with the camera shortly thereafter – the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO. A quick note on testing methodology: a range of lenses were used for the review, including the new 12-40, the 50-200/2.8-3.5 SWD for 4/3rds, the 12, 45, 60 and 75mm primes, and the Panasonic 14-42X. You won’t find full size images here due to image theft/ IP issues; go by what I say not what you see – there’s an enormous difference between a small web JPEG that’s been attacked and oversharpened by Flickr’s downsizing algorithm and a full sized one or a RAW file in any case, plus of course the monitor matters. There will be 100% crops where noted, however.

A set of images shot with the E-M1 will be here on my flickr page, and continuously updated as I use the camera more.

Review updated 18 September to include comments on RAW file quality, post ACR 8.2 release.

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Photoessay: New York City urbanscapes

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I honestly have no idea what category or genre this kind of photography falls into; it’s not quite abstract because you know what the subject is, though there’s heavy reliance on geometry, form, color and light; it’s not street even though it’s generally shot on the street or from the street; I suppose it could be travel, though they don’t really especially make you want to go visit a place. Flaneur, perhaps; the exploring observer. Or still life, except there are frequently moving elements. It’s not really cityscape or architecture either, because often there are no buildings, or they’re not complete, or the view isn’t wide enough to be considered an entire cityscape.

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Lens review: The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G

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14-42 X on OM-D, collapsed and extended. If you’re wondering why I got a silver one, it’s because the black ones were out of stock at the time I needed it. Would I have preferred black? Obviously.

I don’t normally review ‘consumer’ grade gear for the simple reason that it’s usually built to a price, rather than built to deliver a certain grade of result (or perhaps it is, only the accountants and engineers know for sure). However, sometimes you come across a piece of equipment that fills a need much better than you imagined; this lens is one such example. The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G (what a mouthful, hereafter known as the 14-42X) is a very small – about the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed – zoom for Micro Four Thirds. It was the kit lens for the GX1 and a couple of other cameras for a while, and fortunately also available separately.

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Photoessay: New York street cinematics

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Possessiveness of taxis is a New York thing

I found the people and streets of New York to be eminently suited to a bit of cinematic street photography. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many movies have already been filmed in New York, or it’s the quality of light filtering between and reflecting off buildings, or it’s the various diverse characters that live in the city. These are little moments, vignettes and slices-of-life; I don’t want to use the word ‘stolen’, but it does sometimes feel like one is peering into a pre-coreographed scene and simply borrowing a frame. I sincerely apologise in advance for having some fun with the captions.

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Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2

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Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option for Micro Four Thirds users. (It was also recently re-released as a limited edition all-black version, which now includes the lens hood as part of the kit.) In fact, there’s been remarkably little competition in this arena – just a manual focus offering or two from SLR Magic, and the upcoming (and stratospherically priced) Schneider 14/2.0. Panasonic has the 7-14/4, and the 14/2.5; the latter which is perhaps the 12/2’s closest competition.

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My initial experience with this lens and its optics on the E-P3 and E-PM1 were enough to convince me that Micro Four Thirds had come of age, and would make a worthwhile compact system without major compromises for the majority of situations in which I’d want to use a compact system camera. This impression held, wavered, and changed again – to be honest, until the last Tokyo workshop, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to use the 12/2 on the OM-D (full review here) for a serious evaluation. The last time I used the lens on the OM-D was also the first time I’d taken out the camera for a serious bout of shooting, and definitely wasn’t a good way to benchmark performance of either camera or lens – simply too many variables and unknowns were in play here.

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Spiral. E-PM1, ZD 12/2

The lens is one of the Olympus Super High Grade line, impeccably built and finished with all-metal construction, and one unique feature (for a Micro Four Thirds Lens) – the focusing ring clutch. Sliding the focusing ring backwards a notch puts the lens in manual focus mode, and also reveals a focus distance scale: unlike every other lens in the system, the 12/2 has hard stops at each end of the range. Together with the depth of field scales, the lens should theoretically be the ideal tool for street photography – fast, wide, zone-focusable, and with more depth of field for a given aperture and field of view than its 35mm equivalent.

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In AF mode (left) and scale-focus MF mode (right)

Except, this isn’t quite the case. Sadly, the clutched focus system isn’t really mechanically linked to the position of the lens elements; it too is a fly-by-wire simulation – albeit a very good one, with the right amount of tactile feedback and everything. The problem is to do with the resolution of the distance scale/ mechanism: there aren’t enough divisions.

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Reflections, Tokyo. OM-D, ZD 12/2 from a moving train

It seems that there are perhaps five or six discrete distances to which the focusing group moves, instead of a continuum. The only thing that could cause this is if Olympus used a form of rheostat in the construction of the the focusing ring/ clutch. Although 12mm is a very wide actual focal length with plenty of depth of field for a given aperture, f2 is fast enough that more critical control over your focus point is required. Sadly, though the idea of the ring is a good one, the execution makes it of marginal utility for the photographer in the real world – unless you are willing to use a small aperture – f4-5.6 or smaller – to use depth of field to cover the lack of manual focus precision.

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Diagonals, Shibuya. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Curiously, this is most definitely not the case for either manual focus with the ring in the AF position (i.e. selecting manual focus on the camera body) or when using autofocus. Here, the lens is precise, moves in as many infinitesimally incremental steps as one could desire, and has no trouble finding critical focus. While on the subject of focusing, it’s probably a good time to talk about autofocus performance. Like all of Olympus’ other MSC designs, the 12/2 is an extremely snappy lens – even more so on any of the recent bodies. I haven’t experienced any gross focus misses, but it’s worth noting that some care is required at f2 – the plane of focus isn’t quite as deep as you’d think.

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Taxi rush, Shinjuku. OM-D, ZD 12/2

The lens is not weather sealed or gasketed, and once again, Olympus has decided not to include a hood – this is excusable for a $250 economy kit item, but not on a $800 premium lens. It just smells too much like penny pinching. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the optional hood is rather cumbersome; it increases the bulk and visual size of the lens hugely, requires a thumb screw to attach, can rotate freely and requires a different cap – why can’t they just use a bayonet hood? Zeiss lenses are a great example of how bayonet hood mounts should be constructed.

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Shadows, Otemachi. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Over a good year of use with this lens on the E-PM1 and OM-D, those are my only two complaints: the inaccuracy of the pseudo-manual focus clutch, and the continued minor farce of the lens hood. If you read this carefully, it means that I don’t have any major criticisms of the optics.

The 12/2 uses a rather exotic optical design with 11 elements in 8 groups; one of these is aspherical, one is made of ED glass, and another two of exotic Super HR and DSA glasses. It’s a non-symmetric, telecentric design whose optical formula honestly doesn’t look familiar to me – the closest thing I can think of are the Zeiss Distagons, insofar as they use several extremely dome convex front elements and a rear telephoto group. The lens also employs Olympus’ ZERO coating to minimize flare and maximize contrast and transmission.

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The overhang. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Let’s get the most popular question out of the way first: yes, it’s sharp. Bitingly so, at all apertures, across the entire frame in all but the most extreme corners. There appears to be a small amount of field curvature, but nothing overly serious; enough that for optimal sharpness you’ll want to move the focus point over your subject rather than using center-focus-and-recompose, though. The lens has a slightly odd MTF chart that is indicative of a significant dropoff in microcontrast about halfway to the edges; I don’t see this in practical use, which suggests that the field curvature is probably responsible – and more complex than a merely spherical surface. In the real world: sharpness will not be an issue.

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Fuji TV building, Odaiba. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Though some of you might think that a little nice bokeh might be obtainable from the 12/2, you’d be mistaken; you have to be very close indeed to throw anything significantly out of focus. Fortunately, the lens focuses down to 0.2m, so this is actually possible. If you have enough distance between subject and background, then bokeh is actually fairly pleasant; however, if there isn’t a lot of distance, and the subject is a bit farther away from the camera, nothing really gets out of focus enough to begin with – in fact, you have to be a bit careful of double images in the out of focus areas. There’s a bit of spherochromatism, too.

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Star. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Although the lens in general well corrected, you do get the feeling that it’s on the extreme edges of what was possible with the design constraints put upon the optical designers: there’s visible CA against high contrast subjects, especially in the corners where you can get up to 2 pixels’ worth; there’s also very noticeable distortion. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in nature – barrel with no sombrero/ moustache – and is easily correctable in ACR. Flare exists but the ZERO coating does a good job of keeping it to a minimum – even without the hood. Stopping down to f4 on the OM-D makes everything but the distortion go away, leaving you with an excellent optic. It doesn’t quite have the transparency of the 75/1.8 or 60/2.8 Macro, but it’s fairly close if used stopped down. It is definitely the best wide option for M4/3 users at the moment. One interesting use of the lens is for handheld long exposure photography – due to the short focal length and excellent stabilizer in the OM-D, shutter speeds of anywhere down to 1/2s (consistently) or 1s (occasionally) with critically sharp results are possible, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.

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Commuters. OM-D, 12/2

As always, I suppose the litmus test for a lens is if you’d buy it a second time – I think the answer for me would be a qualified yes. I have since had the chance to shoot with the Panasonic 14/2.5; thought I prefer the 28mm field of view over 24mm, and believe that M4/3 lenses should be a compact as possible to play to the other strengths of the system, I would still pick the 12/2 as the optics are better – they simply render in a more three-dimensional way due to better microcontrast, as well as better edge sharpness. Interestingly, the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 runs it very close at f2.8; however, the T stop of that lens is about 1/3-1/2 stop slower too, for a given physical aperture. What qualifies my opinion is the upcoming Schneider 14/2; it remains to be seen if it performs as well as its price suggests it should. In the meantime, the best way to judge the 12/2 is on its pictorial results – construction, expensive accessories and the imprecise focus clutch are just distractions. And on that basis alone, I think the lens deserves a place in a serious M4/3 shooter’s bag. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12/2 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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