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?
*I demand critically sharp pixels and can achieve them with the same camera under other conditions. Different users may have different thresholds of acceptability and different levels of shot discipline and not see any problems. On top of that, I tested >80 E-M1 bodies including >70 at Olympus Malaysia HQ, all of which exhibited the problem. The initial review unit did not, because it was a preproduction unit with a shutter module from a different batch. A firmware update was subsequently released with EFC, but it only works in single shot mode.
Firstly, I must apologize for the delay in this review, but it’s difficult to write a meaningful summary of something you have not shot with (though it never ceases to amaze me how often this happens both online and in print). And before anybody asks about the black tape, I prefer not to retouch out reflections and do not believe in free advertising – undoubtedly just as Olympus Malaysia does not believe in free cameras. And despite what armchair experts on forums think, I’ve never been paid for a review*, never worked for them (you’re confusing me with somebody else) or gotten any preferential treatment other than loaner units, which is no different to other sites and publications. On top of that, I’ve had enough product images stolen by various unscrupulous entities – including major brands – that I’m going to make these as specific and unusable for marketing purposes as possible. Let me make it clear before I get accused of being an Olympus fanboy again that this camera is a normal unit bought at retail with my own money. I run a photography business. Any piece of equipment must therefore be able to justify itself by opening up the shooting envelope.
*If I did, good business sense would dictate I’d be reviewing stuff for a living instead of working as a photographer.
Those familiar with the original camera will find that simultaneously a lot and not much has changed – and this is going to be a recurring theme throughout the review. Initial appearances suggest that the whole thing has gotten just a little bit meaner and more serious: the paint finish is now rough, the shells are a bit thicker, the weather sealing a bit more complete, and the rubber a bit grippier. It reminds me of an E-M5 that mated with an E-M1 and an OM-4 for good measure. It’s nice in the hand, there are lots of customizable buttons, dials are positive and nothing is too amiss. But it’s still obviously an E-M5. I liked the original because it moved the price/quality/size envelope forward dramatically forward in 2012, even though it had its share of compromises. We are now in 2015, however, and technology has moved on.
So far, so good. Better still are the list of meaningful changes: headlining are a new IBIS system that is not only supposedly video-optimized (and includes an electronic mode that matches frames and crops a little) and delivers better performance for stills, but is also capable of moving in half pixel increments to combine eight images for a higher resolution image – in RAW and JPEG (more on this later). We gain the E-M1’s 2.36m dot EVF, along with a rotating touch LCD on the back. On top of that, it seems the shutter shock issue has been solved once and for all with not just electronic front curtain, but a full electronic shutter with a 1/16,000s limit and continuous drive modes with both EFC and full electronic shutters. Focus peaking is finally smooth and doesn’t visibly affect the frame rate. It is unclear if this is a new sensor or a new processor or a some combination of the two. It also has the upside of delivering an improvement in color, too.
In fact, the camera appears to have been largely optimized for video: aside from the stabilizer, you can now have 1080p in whatever frame rate you choose up to 60fps, with a 77mbps ALL-I codec, proper audio level monitors, audio out monitoring, phantom power, and a clean HDMI out feed. We’d already been shooting video – both the workshop videos and B-roll on commercial productions – with the E-M5s and E-M1s for quite some time. I still remember being laughed at by the first crew until they saw the stability of the handheld footage, and various ‘experts’ on the internet. Ah well. The IBIS system is really the crown jewel of Olympus’ cameras; even though Sony’s system in the A7II derives from the same technology, the implementation just doesn’t seem as effective.
However, it’s not all a bed of roses.
The high resolution mode needs a perfectly still subject, a rock-solid tripod, and even then frequently produces gridlike artifacts where it appears the camera cannot figure out if something is detail or false signal. And though you get a 64MP raw file, there’s at most ~36MP of detail in there. Olympus claims it can fight the big boys: realistically, forget about comparing it to the 50+MP medium format cameras; it’s not even close. It’s really a very soft file at actual pixels and 64MP. It appears to resolve at a comparable level to the D810: the latter has better pixel level acuity even after the E-M5II file is downsampled to match, but the E-M5II has much fewer artefacts, no false color, no moiré etc. In fact, the native color out of camera is quite a bit better – but you will have to shoot in the high resolution mode to get it. Still, perhaps there are creative uses for it when applied to non-static subjects.
Then we move on to the video side of things: even though the data rate is three times that of the E-M5 and 2.5 times the E-M1, there doesn’t appear to be three times the information. The camera is a significant improvement on the other two, but still produces soft-looking and undetailed images compared to the D810 or GH4, and dynamic range is distinctly lacking. Even if you use the most neutral profile with lowest contrast and saturation, clipping occurs very quickly; it really needs a ‘flat’ profile like the Nikons for easy postproduction grading. Fortunately, there is clean HDMI out though you cannot record both internally and using the HDMI device simultaneously. Nor can you adjust exposure parameters using the normal dial controls while recording; you’ve got to poke through the on-screen menus. Again, this seems like a significant oversight given that the cameras’ main video strength is in handheld shooting – and you’re certainly not going to have a spare hand to operate the touch screen. At least rolling shutter artefacts appears to be very well controlled.
There’s more give and take here, too: even though we have L-R audio monitoring and phantom power, the camera’s preamps have a very high noise floor and there is pronounced hiss from any sound recorded with the camera’s line in* – much worse than any of the other cameras I’ve used, surprisingly including the E-M5 and E-M1. Perhaps it’s interference between the IBIS system and some audio components. You’re still going to need a separate audio recorder. It gets even better: you only get audio monitoring if you buy the (expensive, and poor quality with loose rubber ports and insecure stowage for the separate port covers) optional battery grip – the port is located on the side of that. To add insult to injury, if you intend to use any of the ports on the left side of the camera – say mic in and HDMI out, which would be sensible – the swivel LCD is no longer usable because it cannot swing out. At best you can view it in the same (vertical) plane as if it were in the stowed position. That would appear to be quite a serious design oversight since it entirely defeats the point of the swivel LCD to begin with.
*I am using a Zoom H5 with the SSH-6 stereo shotgun and the XY-5 bidirectional mic. Recording directly, the recorder produces incredibly clean sound, and line out is clean on other recording devices.
Though the EVF is better than the original, and matches the E-M1, it doesn’t seem to have the same eye relief. It’s as though they plonked in a new and larger panel but never bothered to change the optics; I could see the edges of the original finder just fine with glasses, but now struggle. This was not a problem with the E-M1. Other ergonomic niggles abound, too: the strap lugs are still in a very uncomfortable position (unless you like pinched hands) – it seems this is an Olympus tradition. Even though we have no less than six programmable buttons, there appears to be no way to do three important things: assign one to AF-ON; have a consistent set between stills and video, and finally, save your preferences. I’ve had more than one instance where changing button assignments in video or stills mode arbitrarily affects the other mode without prior warning#. Finally, beware the high resolution mode – it can change your file format from RAW+JPEG to JPEG only without warning unless you manually change it while set to high resolution, and then manually change it again after switching back to normal. The setting then ‘sticks’, but who knows why.
#In all fairness, the Nikons also require resetting between video/stills modes – but at least they’re consistent. That said, the D750 manages this duality best – you can optimize U1/2 for video/stills and thus only require a turn of the dial.
Perhaps it is something Olympus can solve with firmware; after all, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve had to patch something critical after release. They should probably look into a few other glitches while they’re at it – the camera locks up when the card is writing and you’re trying to change anything in the SCP; it still locks up under certain combinations of playback and zoom operation; it writes an additional .ORI file which is only readable if you rename the extension to .ORF**. I’ve also had a couple of black startups where you see shooting settings but no image – and yes, I did remove the lens cap. It might have something to do with the sensors in the collapsible Panasonic 12-32 and 35-100 zooms I’m playing with at the moment though (you do not get a picture unless the lens is extended and locked). I get the overall impression that the electronic portion of development was rushed and not fully tested, or at best compromised to focus on the high resolution mode.
I am honestly still on the fence about this feature. On one hand, it’s basically the same thing that Hasselblad has been doing for some time with its Multishot cameras; they really do deliver a bit more resolution so long as you’re working under fully controlled conditions. Unquestionably, there is more information in one of those files than a single 16MP frame. And unquestionably, color accuracy is both higher because of oversampling and higher because there are no false interpolation artefacts. But the shooting envelop for this feature is so small I cannot see myself using it; if I’m going to lug that size tripod around, I’d rather use the D810 – and if I stitch two of those images, the E-M5II is left in the dust. On top of that, the pixel quality is very, very low. There isn’t any more dynamic range, and acuity is lacking even with the best lenses. I’ve found the best results to be had by sharpening aggressively, downsampling to approximately 50% (32MP), and then sharpening again. This delivers pixel-crisp results with acuity comparable to the original 16MP single capture. Practically, I doubt most M4/3 users will be inclined to add the extra weight of a suitably sturdy tripod and head.
Single capture image quality for M4/3 appears to have stagnated for the last couple of years – everybody is still using the same Sony 16MP sensor, which is still good, but starting to show its age in several ways. There’s visible noise even at ISO 200; dynamic range is lagging behind the 24MP APS-C cameras with similar pixel pitches, and easily three stops down on the benchmark D810 and 645Z. Note: the only reason we’re comparing it with these cameras is because of Olympus’ own claim that M4/3 can now deliver competing image quality – sure, but if you’re going to take eight shots and stitch them, or overlap, or whatever additional processing that means extra capture time and the inability to use it on anything other than static subjects, that takes the 645Z to 300+MP, or a $300 D3200 body to 160MP even allowing for overlap. Part of that could probably be solved by going to a 14 bit pipeline – clearly the data handling ability is there, given the camera can shoot 11fps with a full global electronic shutter and 1080P60 at 77mbps. It is unclear why Olympus still remains at 12 bit for raw files since the data pipe appears to be more than large enough. On top of that, it appears that some minor shutter shock still exists when using the all-mechanical shutter option (necessary for flash, but you won’t usually see shutter shock because of the flash duration); full electronic (heart) isn’t always ideal because you will land up with some color shifts/banding under AC light sources and shutter speeds faster than the native power frequency*. I suppose electronic front curtain (diamond) is the best compromise. Lots of choice, but lots of confusion and you must remember to change modes or risk obviously compromised (double images, color banding) and unrecoverable results.
*This is not a fault of the camera but an artefact of the way our electrical system works – lights flicker, but just faster than our eyes can see – persistence of vision makes it look continuous.
I initially wanted to use the title ‘love and hate in small format land’, but perhaps that was a bit too ambiguous – even though it sums up my position at the moment. There are things about the E-M5II I think are absolutely brilliant – like the performance of the stabilizer with any and all lenses (the Voigtlander 180/4 APO becomes a light, incredibly sharp and easy to focus 360mm f4; the Zeiss ZM 1.4/35 Distagon delivers an absolutely beautiful video rendering) which makes both handheld stills and video very easy. That stabilizer also makes up in a big way for the sensor’s age – whilst I might need 1/250 to be comfortably stable^ with the D810 and Otus 85, I can shoot the E-M5II and 1.4/35 at 1/20s or less. I can also focus it consistently – I don’t have to guess with the optical finder, or use live view and a LCD magnifier and suffer all of the operational delays and glitches. The E-M5II is just that much more usable than the Nikon with manual focus lenses. Even discounting haptics, there’s a 3.5-4 stop advantage; it means ISO200 with the Olympus and ISO3200 with the Nikon. Whatever resolution, dynamic range and color advantage the Nikon/Otus combination had is largely gone by that point. Surprisingly, this means that practically and in low light, it’s probably a tie, and in good light, stick to the big guns – the high resolution mode is more of an emergency thing rather than something to rely on.
^Critically sharp at the pixel level.
I honestly think I may have found a creative use for the pixel-shift-stitch thing. It’s rather painterly.
I can work around the audio issue since I had to buy an external recorder anyway; I had to buy the grip anyway for additional power (though the power consumption of this camera is quite amazing – especially considering it is running live view and IBIS all the time, easily outlasting the D810 in a similar LV/VR configuration by a factor of three); and even though the D810 delivers a bit more video resolution and dynamic range, I lose some of that when I stabilize in post. No stabilization required with the E-M5II. The handling/firmware issues are annoying, but if you only use the camera for video or stills, not a big issue. Set it up for one or the other and leave it that way. If you use the LCD, eye relief is academic.
Perhaps I am being overly critical. But then again, is it too much to expect a $1,100 camera body that’s advertised to do all of these things to actually be able to do them? This is not a cheap camera by any stretch of the imagination, especially given what similar money buys you in 2015. People who buy one of these are going to want it to dance and sing, not dance or sing. I suppose the most frustrating thing is that in so many ways, the E-M5II is nearly ‘there’ – but is prevented from being so by a lack of attention and firmware that lacks common sense.
Addendum: There’s been a bit of traffic on whether the E-M5, E-M5II or E-M1 is the camera to go for – frankly, they all make identical image quality under ideal situations. If you work with stills and MF or native M4/3 lenses only, save money and buy the E-M5 – it has no shutter shock issues that I experienced in shooting with three bodies and north of 50,000 frames. If you might do video, or work under controlled lights in a studio, then the E-M5II is the best of the three by some margin. If shoot with legacy 4/3 lenses, then the E-M1 is the only one that offers PDAF. But otherwise I would avoid the E-M1 simply because you can only shoot single frame stills without shutter shock. Note that ergonomics might also play a part if you have larger hands: you must buy the expensive two-part grip for the E-M5; the E-M5II sells a one-part or two-part grip at proportionately increasing cost; the E-M1 doesn’t really need a grip (but has a single vertical component).
I suppose the final question is whether I would recommend this camera or not; and frankly, this does not have a clear cut answer. I think there are more compelling choices for M4/3 if you want compact and small (the Panasonic GM5, for instance) and better choices for mirrorless and pure video (GH4, G7, Blackmagic, Sony A7S, etc.). There’s no really compelling reason to upgrade from the E-M5 or E-M1 unless you need one specific feature of the E-M5II. But at the same time, there really isn’t anything else that has the same overall feature set and can fill the mission of a) handheld, stable video; b) acceptable stills; c) overall compactness. None of those other video options are stabilised without gimbals or steadicams (thus not quickly deployable or usable one-handed); and the smaller options are ergonomically compromised. This means it’s a good all-round choice of entry into M4/3, and despite of all its flaws, the E-M5II in fact delivers rather well on my original usage intention: handheld video for family and casual use, with an occasional still grab. If you take away nothing from this review, it should be that despite my previous experiences, I still bought one because it does what I need it to do. And that, I think is telling. MT
Images in this post were post processed using my Photoshop Workflow II, available here.
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