. NOTE: All photos and text in this post are Copyright Scott Bourne 2017, All Rights Reserved and all images were made with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK II camera.
DISCLAIMER: Crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like.
I have been using Micro Four Thirds cameras on and off for seven years now. I have used both Olympus and Panasonic M43 cameras. Currently, I am shooting 100% of the time with Olympus gear.
I have been using the OM-D EM1 MK II for four months now. I have made more than 10,000 exposures with the new Olympus and am confident that I can fully evaluate it’s strengths and weaknesses. If you just want to know whether or not I still like it after four months of heavy usage, the answer is a resounding yes. Keep reading to get the details…
But when it comes to M43, even though my heart is in it, my head hasn’t been because of three things:
1. Lack of long lenses Initially, M43 cameras simply didn’t come with lenses that were fast enough, long enough, or sharp enough for me to get the subject as large in the frame as I need it to be when I shoot birds. The system lacked a super high-quality 600mm lens. The big zooms for M43 cameras were also too slow and not contrasty enough for my taste.
All the aforementioned lenses are top-notch with great handling and all have solved my lack of long lenses in M43 problem.
2. Lack of sufficiently reliable and fast continuous autofocus I couldn’t get autofocus that would allow me to get the kind of results as a bird photographer I’ve come to expect out of flagship DSLRs like the Canon 1DX MK II. Most M43 systems autofocus quite well on static subjects, but when it comes to birds in flight they simply can’t cut it.
The new OM-D: Olympus E-M1 Mark II camera body has solved that problem. While it won’t catch up with the AF on the newish Canon 1DX MK II, it also doesn’t cost $6200 and doesn’t weigh half a ton. And it’s very good. When you practice with it, learn how it works, how to deal with it (as you’d be required to do with any sophisticated AF) you can tune it to your liking and coax results that approach what top-of-the-line, full-frame DSLRs could do just a few years ago. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II comes with an entirely new autofocus system, featuring 121 on-sensor phase-detection points. There is one in-camera processor exclusively devoted to AF so it’s really very good. Even in bad light it acquires focus quickly. In my opinion the AF problem is hereby solved and it will only get better.
For right now, as is, it is still very good. 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 weeks 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 focus.
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.
3. Lack of sufficient image quality to print 30×40” prints Lastly, image quality (while excellent) hasn’t been sufficient some times for the really big prints I often make of my bird photography. I can make 20×30” prints from the legacy flagship M43 cameras but rarely am I happy with the results I get when printing longer than 40” on the longest side.
The new OM-D: Olympus E-M1 Mark II camera body has also mostly solved this problem. Literally the first thing I did was take a picture of my handy-dandy test chart (it’s actually my business license) and print it 30×40”. It looks pretty darn good, especially at appropriate viewing distance. There is noticeable improvement in small details over image files made using previous versions of this and other top M43 cameras. The level of detail from this sensor is 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.
I could stop right there and be happy with the new OM-D but there’s more to brag on.
The handling is great. The battery life is the best I have ever seen on a Micro Four Thirds camera. In fact, battery life approaches the same experience you would have with a top DSLR. I shot for 15 straight days in Alaska recently. It was very cold. I never needed more than two batteries in a day and most of the time was able to get by with one, charged mid-day for two shooting sessions. Even with EVF and IS, these new cameras offer great battery life.
I also love the new in-body stabilization when worked in conjunction with a stabilized lens. Let’s just say I won’t be bringing a tripod NEARLY as often as I used to on my future field trips. In most cases a small, lightweight monopod is more than enough. I shot extensively in both San Diego and in Alaska with just a monopod and got some great images. I find my confidence in shooting handheld is greatly enhanced after four months of usage and I don’t get tired handholding as quickly as I would if I were still shooting a heavy duty DSLR.
The camera is very sturdy and weather-sealed. I shot with it in a light drizzle using a weather sealed lens with no problem. I then shot from a boat, in winter conditions that included temps of nine degrees above zero (f) and 35mph winds with blowing snow. The camera never missed a beat. While I still haven’t tested it completely, the MKII also delivers very high-quality video and superb JPEG colors straight out of the camera if you’re into that sort of thing. The Panasonic GH5 is probably a better choice if most of your work is in video, but if you are a stills shooter, the OMD wins hand-down in a comparison between the two because of its quick and accurate tracking AF.
The MKII offers a ridiculous 18-fps frame rate (WITH Continuous AF engaged) which is faster than any flagship DSLR on the market! When shooting birds in flight this has really been handy. In fact it’s generally overkill and most of the time I just dial it back to 10FPS which slightly improves tracking AF performance.
Olympus has finally offered a second SD-card slot although only the top slot is video/fast card capable. (NOTE: there might be compatibility issues with 128GB cards in the number one slot so check with Olympus to make sure your card works.)
The new High Res Shot mode is not just a gimmick – likewise “pro-capture.” These really work but they do take getting used to. You have to read the manual to find out how to properly set each one up for success.
I also got a chance to shoot with the dedicated battery grip for the OMD EM1 MK II during my 15-day trip to Alaska. 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.
What don’t I like about the new OM-D? There’s not much to complain about. When you’re an early adopter (I received one of the first of these to ship) there are inevitably things to work out. So far I am not in love with the fact that you can’t enter playback mode while the buffer is full. I still think the menus are a bit too much. Less is more and a simpler camera interface would be welcome. The buffer fills a bit too quickly for my taste (but then again I am used to the Canon 1DX MK II which has NO LIMIT on its buffer.) The shutter button is almost too sensitive. I am sure I will get used to it but I accidentally fired off a couple of bursts more than once (it’s only digital so I don’t have to pay for it at least!) 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.
Part of the problem is that the manual that comes with the camera is pretty thin but if you dig around on the Olympus site you should be able to find a digital copy of the REAL manual that better explains things. The camera is very expensive for a Micro Four Thirds camera body, but I didn’t say it isn’t worth the money. I think it is worth the money. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the money it doesn’t matter if it’s a great camera. The price point will send some photographers elsewhere.
This is a fast-handling camera that has every pro feature you can imagine. It’s expensive but I think it’s worth the price. It’s also smaller and lighter than its DSLR counterparts. It’s good enough that I can use it instead of the heavy, bulky full-frame DSLRs I used to have to rely on. It works with some fantastic Olympus glass but as a bonus, also works with the superb lenses produced by Panasonic for the M43 system. The main thing I can’t get over is how small, and light weight the kit is in comparison to my usual stuff. It may seem like a heavy rig to those of you who are not wildlife photographers but it’s amazingly light weight to me. I have switched to an all-Olympus workflow. That is not something I expected to happen but for now it’s just the easiest way for me to shoot. I think that is the highest recommendation I can give any camera.
In this series of four images the eagle starts on the perch and then flies off the perch directly at me. This is the toughest test any autofocus camera can face. An object moving directly toward the camera, especially at a high rate of speed, is the hardest thing for the autofocus to grab. Shooting at f/8, I didn't have tons of depth-of-field, but all four images are in sharp focus proving that the OMD EM1 MK II is up to the task of AF tracking birds in flight.