A couple of years ago, Olympus changed the way the industry views mirrorless cameras. The OM-D E-M1, the company’s first pro-grade body in ages, was a statement of intent for a company whose DSLRs had already been all but discontinued. Olympus was loudly saying that their mirrorless cameras were good enough for the most demanding photographers, and it’s a theme other brands have tried to ape.
Thanks to a couple years’ worth of upgradeable firmware, the original E-M1 stood tall as the flagship Olympus. The time was finally right this year to announce its successor, and so the OM-D E-M1 Mark II (MSRP TBA) will inherit the crown. It’s an upgrade the likes of which we’ve rarely seen from a camera company, one that looks like one heckuva leap forward performance-wise.
Design & Handling
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Olympus did something great with the original E-M1, and the Mark II doesn’t deviate from it much. This is still one of the biggest Micro Four Thirds bodies around, with a physical size that’s much closer to a DSLR than an itty-bitty mirrorless camera. What that means for professionals is that you won’t have to bother with attachment grips to keep a hold on the E-M1 Mark II when shooting with big lenses like Olympus’s 40-150mm PRO or Panasonic’s Leica 100-400mm. The camera alone provides a very nice bit of rubber there for my mitts to cling to.
Immediately after picking up the E-M1 Mark II, I noticed that it didn’t seem any heavier than its predecessor. The control layout is also almost identical to the E-M1. Those are both awesome attributes, because even with a larger capacity battery, this high-performing sequel should slip into current E-M1 owners’ bags and hands without a period of adjustment. Pros expect consistency with small, iterative improvements, and the overall design of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II totally delivers on this premise.
Perhaps the most noticeable change to the Mark II design is the addition of a camcorder-style variangle touchscreen. This feature will find its detractors as well as fans, but the fact is that this is a critical option for some. Especially if Olympus finally wants to run with Panasonic’s venerable Lumix GH4, a rear screen like this, along with improved video chops and a headphone jack, are the ways to do it.
If the rear touchscreen isn’t your style, Olympus has improved the built-in EVF. The panel's 2.36M-dot resolution remains the same as all recent Oly cameras, but what’s been changed is the display refresh rate. It’s double that of the E-M1 Mark II, reaching 120 fps with a delay of only around 6 ms, way below what the human eye can even perceive.
It’s all about performance
Design aside, the E-M1 II is a thorough reinvention of what goes inside a Micro Four Thirds camera. While it would have been easy to put the guts of a PEN-F inside with speedier guts, Olympus has radically redesigned its AF and image processing systems around twin quad-core chips. This gives each system its own cores to use, meaning that the Mark II carries out tasks in parallel for a big speed boost in every aspect of its performance.
A 20-megapixel CMOS sensor lurks behind the lens bayonet mount. This sensor is festooned with cross-type phase detection autofocus points, 121 in total across the sensor. The increase in AF points coupled with the faster processors and improved software are supposed to assist in complex AF tasks like tracking, but we’ll have to test it in the real world to get a good feel for it.
Where all these improvements come into play is when shooting sequentially—Olympus has rated the E-M1 Mark II as capable of up to 18 fps in RAW or 60 fps with the electronic shutter and no AF. The speedier sensor readout is also unlocking 4K video, a first for Olympus. Its highest-quality motion picture format is a DCI Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) mode at 237 Mbps. External recording is also available as an option, but you won’t get higher quality video from an external unit.
This is Olympus’s first OM-D to feature twin card slots, with the top slot featuring UHS-II compatibility. Output to the cards is fully customizable, so you can write files to both cards, video to one exclusively, or even use the second card as overflow.
Of course, Olympus is highlighting its superb 5-axis in-body image stabilization tech in this new top-tier model, which is good for 5.5 stops of shake protection. When mated with Olympus’s Dual IS lenses, the potential compensation gains an additional stop for 6.5 stops total.
Perhaps the most promising new feature is something Olympus is calling Pro Capture. Using the sensor’s faster readout speeds and the big burst buffer, the E-M1 Mark II silently starts shooting when you half-press the shutter. That way, in case you miss the moment you wanted to capture, you’ll still have a full-res RAW file waiting without having to even think about it. Pro Capture will sit alongside other complimentary Olympus features like 50-megapixel high-res shot and in-camera focus stacking.
A worthy successor and a boundary-pushing leap over today’s cameras
Olympus is a company that rarely makes big advances in performance. The past couple years, we've only seen improvements in specific areas, like video, which Olympus lagged behind in anyway. The E-M1 Mark II is a lot of improvement all in one place, and the only question I have at this point is: how expensive is this gonna be?
The thing is, though, if this really is as good as it seems, most true pros won't even sneeze at dropping a few grand on it. The remaining hurdle for a long time was lens availability, but with Olympus and Panasonic both pumping out great, pro-grade zooms and primes, that's almost a moot point. The most appealing aspect of a camera like this compared to a full-frame DSLR is that it's significantly lighter and more compact. For professionals who shoulder the burden of a Canon 1DX or Nikon D5 day-in-day-out, the advantage is undeniable.
If Olympus can deliver on image quality and autofocus speed, particularly for moving subjects, and then add on breakneck burst shooting speeds, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II could be the first mirrorless camera to truly address the needs of professionals, rather than making well-intentioned, but lacking overtures.