NOTE: All photos in this post are Copyright Scott Bourne 2017, All Rights Reserved and all were made with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK II camera.
On December 19, 2016 I wrote my first look at the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK II M43 camera. Now it’s been a month and I’ve had lots more time shooting with it and want to update my original thoughts as well as provide some real-world sample images I’ve made from the camera.
Let me start by talking a little bit more on the new autofocus on the Olympus MK II. Birds in flight will always be one the hardest things for any camera to track with AF. They are usually small, fast, and can change directions on a dime. They can soar very high and dive like a bullet. All this is tough to capture by even seasoned bird photographers using the best cameras on the market.
I spent a solid week shooting birds with the new camera and experimenting with the new AF. It is definitely the best autofocus system I have tested on ANY mirrorless camera. The continuous AF with tracking actually works. It does take some getting used to and it’s not the kind of AF that you set and forget. You need to massage the best results out of it depending on the situation. For instance, photographing a bird flying high above the water or against a blue sky without distractions you can enable all 121 AF points and the tracking system is rock solid. Now if the bird is flying just above the water and there are small waves that rise up to meet the bird, then the all-points AF doesn’t work. The tracking gets fooled and jumps to the waives. So you have to narrow the use of AF points to single or a group of five (which works best for me so far.) In any event, like any sophisticated tracking AF, you need to learn how it works and then be ready to change it depending on conditions. It would be more helpful if in the next FW update Olympus changed the way you interact with these choices by giving them USE CASES much the way Canon has done on its flagship bodies.
There is one quick tip I got right from the manual but not fully realized until significant field use that should have come to me earlier. Using the MK II in continuous AF with tracking if you press the shutter button halfway to focus; the camera then tracks and maintains focus on the current subject while the shutter button is held in this position.
The AF target is displayed in red if the camera can no longer track the subject. Release the shutter button and then frame the subject again and press the shutter button halfway. Some people call this bumping the shutter.
In practice I’ve found that in situations where the camera can’t maintain tracking, you can stick with the subject and maybe the camera will pick it back up but if you let go of the shutter button and quickly re-press the button half-way nearly 100% of the time the camera re-establishes focus instantly rather than waiting on the camera to sort it out on the original press. It’s a fine point but in practice it works.
I find myself re-pressing much more often than I would with something like the Canon 1DX MK II, but the results are similar. Simply press and re-press OFTEN you will improve your keeper rate by 10-15%.
In any event, with a high degree of success, you can track and shoot birds in flight using this camera. I have never said that about any other mirrorless camera and up to now, it’s only true of the OM-D E-M1 MK II.
Image Quality & Detail
Next I want to talk about the level of detail being produced by the new 20MP sensor. It’s just stunning. Even at high ISOs there is good detail. The camera does not have an anti-aliasing filter and this seems to translate to more information. No filter means you will run into occasional color moiré but it’s very easily controlled in post and I find it to be a non issue. I am used to this performance in flagship, full-frame DSLRs but not on a Micro Four Thirds camera. Look at some of these pictures. They were shot in a variety of lighting conditions but all show an amazing level of detail. You can print big from these files without fear that the print will go soft on you.
The overall IQ is great with good color rendition and good contrast. Physics will limit the ability of these cameras based on sensor size but all other limits appear to have been well-defeated by the new back-end image processing on the chip.
Battery Life/Battery Grip
I’ve done more testing on the battery and it’s good news. On all but one day (when it was particularly cold) I got a full morning AND evening session out of one battery. I would settle for a full morning OR evening session because in the past with ALL my mirrorless cameras, that has been the benchmark. You can do things to extend the battery life such as cutting down on your chimping, using the EVF only instead of both EVF and LCD. But overall it’s pretty much a no-muss, no-fuss affair. The battery life is dramatically longer on this camera than it was on the original model.
I also got a chance to shoot with the dedicated battery grip for the OMD EM1 MK II. The Olympus HLD-9 Power Battery Grip is a great addition to the new camera for bird photographers or for anyone who shoots a lot of verticals. It mimics the controls that you need to focus and shoot on the grip. It is dust and splash proof and really helps keep the camera under control when shooting vertically. This grip also doubles your battery life, assuming you have one battery in the grip and one in the camera. Now here comes one of my few gripes. I prefer the design where you can put two batteries in the grip. It makes changing them far easier. Perhaps it’s a space limitation or the waterproofing that forces this choice, but the grip misses some of its utility by forcing you to remove it to change the battery in the camera. My work around is to look at the grip battery as a spare. I get more shots in the field and then charge that battery first. It does add some weight and mass to the camera which in my personal case is a good thing but you may not feel the same way.
I still can’t find anyplace to buy a spare battery or the remote that is configured to work with the new camera and I wish the camera’s menu system were more intuitive. I would love an ISO button amongst all the other buttons on the MK II, but these are the kind of minor annoyances you tend to notice most when you are new to a system. I am sure that as I continue to work with the camera I will get past any minor issues I have found. Right now, this is the best M43 camera money can buy. We’ll have to see if Panasonic answers the call with an equally impressive GH5. If they do then it’s nothing but good news for M43 shooters who have an abundance of riches to choose from when it comes to camera bodies and lenses.