Olympus OM-D E-M5 II Review
By Dan Bracaglia
The weather in Bermuda this time of year is 18°C, not too different from Seattle, which hovers around 12°C. Sure, sending a gaggle of journalist to a tropical island in the dead of winter may seem like an easy way to sway opinions positively, but for me, this trip simply meant a chance to get out of the office and shoot with something new. Which is to say, I packed the same jacket I'd been wearing all winter.
I had the opportunity to first try out the E-M5 II about a week before my departure. I affixed an Olympus 25mm f/1.8 and headed out for an afternoon of shooting in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. It wasn't enough time to satisfy my curiosity about the camera, but it did give me a chance to familiarize myself with its basic operations. The first thing I noticed when picking it up is how comfortable the grip feels in hand and how well-weighted the camera is overall. The thumbrest on back and front-facing grip are perfectly-sized for the average adult hand, assuming my hand is the average adult hand. Even if you're the kind of photographer who thinks the Galaxy Note is a completely appropriately-sized smartphone, Olympus offers multiple grips and attachments to beef up the camera's size.
Comfortable or not, the controls on the E-M5 II take some getting use to. My first jaunt with it was spent shooting on Auto ISO and Aperture Priority mode. This was simply because I had a limited window before the sun was going to set, and didn't want to waste the daylight fumbling with custom settings. Also, the idea of using the Super Control Panel was still new to me (more on that below).
When the camera is set to the "off" position, the indentation on the on/off switch is easy to confuse for the mode indicator marking. Not a dealbreaker, but something that threw me off the first time I picked up the camera.
After my first afternoon shooting, I really only had one complaint: the position of the mode indicator marking. The E-M5 II's mode dial is located to the left of the hotshoe, with the mode indicator to its left and the on/off switch to its right. It is remarkably easy to mistake the on/off switch for the mode indicator. For example, when shooting in Aperture Priority mode, it looks as if Scene mode on the opposite side of the dial is selected. Likewise, if you're in Manual mode, you may think, at first glance, you are in fact in iAuto. It's a small grievance, and certainly not a deal breaker, but it bothered me, so it seems worth mentioning. To be fair, by the time I revisited the camera in Bermuda, I had all but gotten over this.
I woke up my first morning on the island and shuffled down to a small conference room where I was greeted by the Olympus team and about eight other journalists. A shiny new E-M5 II had been carefully placed in front of each chair at the big white table that filled the room, right between the coffee mug and juice glass. As one of the Olympus representative began a lengthy Powerpoint presentation, I zoned out and starred at the camera in front of me. My first impression: It looks like a camera should. That may sound superficial, even silly, but it's something that matters to me, and I'm willing to guess, it matters to a lot of other people too. It's the kind of camera, that after just three days shooting with it, I began to feel like some of its functions were becoming second nature. This was after a bumpy, and at times frustrating, first couple of days.
After finishing up breakfast, and nearly spilling coffee all over the camera (huzzah for weather-sealing!) we hopped into a tiny bus and took off down the narrow Bermuda roads to our first shooting location, at an old fort on the island's Northwest side. The sun was shining bright when we got there, so bright in fact, I felt the need to put on my sunglasses. Unfortunately, EVFs and polarized sunglasses do not mix well. I switch back to normal glasses and ducked in a cave to give me eyes a rest.
The viewfinder on the E-M5 II is big, bright, and offers ample resolution. After giving my eyes some time to readjust, I headed back out into the sunshine and kept on shooting. The vast majority of my images were shot while looking through the viewfinder, and not at the LCD. In the bright conditions, I was able to almost completely cover my shooting eye with the real estate around the viewfinder, but still found some light sneaking in.
Bright conditions pose a challenge for anyone using an EVF, especially if you wear glasses. There were a couple of instances where I had to cup the entire front of the camera, above the lens, to my face, so as to try and block out the remaining light. This was effective, though only necessary at the one location. To be fair, we were shooting at noon, in direct sunlight. Non-glasses-wearers should have less of a struggle in these conditions.
After about an hour, we finished shooting at the fort and headed next door for a meet and greet with some very well-trained dolphins. By this point, I was already feeling more comfortable with the basic functions of the E-M5 II. For the most part, I found it handles like a traditional camera, not a 'device,' in much the same way the E-M1 does, and the original E-M5 before it. With all its buttons and dials, I often found myself forgetting that it has a touchscreen. Many of the buttons are customizable, though they are limited in what function they can be set to. I quickly found the Super Control Panel to be the best way to navigate the settings on the camera, in an efficient manner. By pressing "OK" on the back of the camera, you can bring up the Super Control Panel and change any of the core settings, in addition to some less core ones. The four-way keypad, coupled with the touchscreen, make changing these settings simply and painless.
Not everything lives on the Super Control Panel though. In fact, a lot of settings live in more peculiar places. As day to turned to night, and we headed back to the hotel, I decided to take a crack at some long exposure shots. I had read about Olympus' LiveTime mode. It works kind of like Bulb mode, without the guess work and without having to hold the shutter button down. Users can see the exposure of their image increase in real-time, on the LCD. Unfortunately, I could not for the life of me figure out how to access it. I instead shot couple of images using high-res mode (more on that below), and retired to bed, unfulfilled.
It wasn't until the following evening I had the chance to try LiveTime again. Thanks to the help of Olympus representatives, I was pointed to its exact location: accessed from the shutter dial, right beyond bulb mode, when shooting in full manual. If you're shooting in any sort of automatic mode, LiveTime remains hidden. Admittedly, I was embarrassed when I was finally shown its location; Bulb mode has always traditionally lived at the very end of the shutter dial, so I guess it makes sense for LiveTime to live there too. It just seems to me that a feature like this would be useful to also list in the menu alongside HDR or high-res mode.
Once found, its functionality is pretty ingenious. With your camera tripod-mounted, a preview of the scene you're pointed at is displayed, close to properly-exposed, in the viewfinder or LCD. Once you have your scene framed just right, and have achieved focus (I manually-focused when using LiveTime), you hit the shutter and wait. As the exposure time goes by, you see the image on the back of your camera/viewfinder get brighter and brighter. Once you are satisfied with it, you simply hit the shutter again, the curtain closes, and the image is processed.
Using this mode made me reminiscent on two fronts. First, it got me thinking back to when I use to live in NYC and shot long exposure night images for an urban horticulture firm. This mode would have greatly helped me to better judge exposure, and probably would have saved me a good amount of time. LiveTime also got me thinking back to my darkroom days, watching the image slowly appear on a piece of fiber paper as it floated around in the developer tray. In just the same way you move that photo paper into the stop-bath, right when the image has appeared to your liking, you hit the shutter button a second time during LiveTime to stop the exposure.
One thing I really like about Olympus, in general, is that they offer a lots of unique features, like LiveTime, that other manufactures don't. These features can sometimes be frustratingly hard too find, especially if you are looking for them, but when you do, its almost a challenge to try to master them.
LiveComp is another cool feature that lives beside LiveTime on the E-M5 II. Unfortunately, a storm warning during our final night on the island nixed my opportunity to got outside and give it a try. But it's geared toward photographers who want to seamlessly composite two images, in-camera, with very different exposures. An instance where LiveComp would be advantageous is a scene with a brightly-lit building or subject in the foreground and the night sky in the background. Using LiveComp, an initial exposure is made to properly capture the bright portions of the scene, the building. Next, an interface just like LiveTime mode kicks in, progressively showing the exposure of the dark areas getting brighter as the shutter stays open; this works great for capturing star trails. When the desired exposure for the dark portion is reached, shooters can then hit the shutter again, to close the curtain, and the initial exposure is combined with long exposure, for a seamlessly-blended photograph.
|It's no Pulitzer winner, but it was shot hand-held at 1/8 sec. Exposure: ISO 5000, 1/8 sec, f.2.8. Edited to taste using Adobe Camera Raw 8.7.2 Beta.
The following edits were made: Cooled to 2550 Kelvin | Highlights +34 | Shadows +50 | Blacks -7
Another great feature of the E-M5 II is its 5-axis image stabilization. We split our time the second day shooting around on the streets of Bermuda and shooting in Crystal Caves, a natural formation that meanders 62 meters below the island. The f/2.8 maximum aperture on the 12-40mm zoom, coupled with the E-M5 II's 5-axis IS, made shooting hand-held in the fairly dark cave, no problem at all. The above image was shot at 1/8 sec and is nearly perfectly crisp. I know for a fact that 1/30 sec is usually the absolute slowest shutter speed I can get away with using a non-IS camera. But with the E-M5 II, I was finding myself able to get usable images even down to 1/5 sec.
Of course I did end up using a tripod in the cave. The allure of using high-res mode to fire off a 40MP image of stalactites and stalagmites, as far as the eye could see, was too much to resist. And like most caves, touristy or not, this one was drippy. Obviously a drip here or there is no match for the E-M5 II's weather sealing, or any camera's weather sealing for that matter. Still, the E-M5 II is built like a tank and I'm very much looking forward to pushing it to its limits in some of the weather Seattle has to offer.
The 40MP high-res mode is a lot of fun to shoot with. You can read more about how it works here. A side-effect of using it, if you want to call it that, is that it slows down your shooting in a way I'm not sure I've experienced with a digital camera before. Each time I used it, I found myself being absolutely meticulous about my compositions and exposures. It does have its limitations though. The smallest aperture you can use is f/8, and the slowest shutter speed is 8 secs. ISO is also limited from 200-1600. So while it might seem like a killer option to try out in the studio, realize your exposure parameters are going to be somewhat limited still.
After mastering both LiveTime and the high-res mode, in addition to the normal shooting functions, I decided to spend my final evening in Bermuda digging a little deeper into the E-M5 II's non-shooting offerings. I'm a big fan of Instagram and an even bigger fan of Wi-Fi integration into cameras. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a camera-to-smartphone/smartphone-to-camera experience that hasn't left me wanting more, and Olympus is no exception.
Wi-Fi controls on the E-M5 II can be fumbly. It took me longer than it should have to initially get the E-M5 II connected to my iPhone 5s. The hotel Wi-Fi network may have been the culprit, competing against the E-M5 II for my phone's attention, but still, I found it more difficult and cumbersome to use than Fujifilm's app, though not quite as frustrating as my experiences with Sony PlayMemories.
I was eventually successful at connecting the two devices (once you've finally paired them, OI Share, the Olympus app, isn't too bad), and pushed a silhouetted image of a tree, taken outside Bermuda's unfinished church, to my Instagram account. Satisfied with the 'Likes' that were pouring in, I decided to order a Dark and Stormy at the bar (Bermuda's national drink) and give in-camera raw processing a try.
I also found it to be somewhat clumsy. Though to be fair, it is more comprehensive than similar offerings from other companies. It's nice that Olympus lets you view edits made during in-camera raw processing, unfortunately, the workflow for doing so isn't super convenient. Each time you make any change, say to the white balance, or shadow tone, you must then mash the 'Rec' button to preview how the change will affect your photo.
One of the strangest things about in-camera Raw processing with the E-M5 II is that when you go to save your edit as a new Jpeg, you are presented with an option that says 'Reset' or 'No.' Weird. I later found out that what the camera really means is, 'would you like to re-set the newly-generated Jpeg in-line with the original Raw file, or, would you prefer it put at the end of the series of images you've already shot?' Again, it's nice that this option exists, but in no way would someone intuitively know what in the world 'Reset' or 'No' are referring to.
This frustrations just reiterate the fact that Olympus squeezes a lot of cool options and goodies into their cameras, unfortunately many of them take a whole lot of digging and guess work to find or decipher, especially for someone new to the Olympus system.
I came to use the E-M5 II after having spent a lot of time shooting with the Sony A77 II and the Fujifilm X100T, both very different cameras in nature from the Olympus. It took me a good day and a half to rewire my brain to get the most out of the EM5 II's controls, namely, the Super Control Panel. Moments of frustration due to unintuitive controls and hidden functions were well-balanced with moments of excitement after discovering a feature I was not previously aware of, or after zooming a high-res image into 100% and seeing the incredible amount of fine detail.
It's hard to give a a comprehensive opinion on a camera I only briefly used, but in short, I liked it. It's the kind of camera you can beat the hell out of, and tote along into just about any situation, without fear of missing the shot. The IS is fantastic; CIPA says it will give you 5 stops. I wasn't finding it quite that effective, but was impressed nonetheless. The weather-sealing and build quality are also impressive. Plus, additions over its predecessor like a mic input and flash sync port only add to its versatility.
I really can't imagine anyone using the E-M5 II for a few days and not feeling inspired to shoot more with it. Its a camera that beckons you to push it to its limits, and dig deep, whether into its menu banks, or into your own creativity.
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