EM5 Mark II - a review/user experience of the new player in town

April 03, 2015  •  1 Comment

I was contemplating getting a new camera for a while now. Mostly because I had two concerns. My D300 was getting heavy for all my travel photography and second because I was taking more family vacations since my son was born and having tried to lug around 4 kg of gear in a backpack left me with a sore back. In the meantime, I had noticed the count of pictures in Lightroom coming from my Fuji X100S creeping up very rapidly. The reason was simple, I was taking the Fuji everywhere and leaving my Nikon gear more and more behind. Portability was the key. However, the pictures with the X100S were mostly of my family. When I tried to do landscapes I was not so impressed with the Fuji. Foliage had a smearing effect to it (although lightroom has made up for it since then) and often autofocus was a miss. This did not make it ideal for travel.

Olympus EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Flare is handled beautifully

So when I went to Australia for a vacation a few weeks ago I decided to search for a lightweight lens interchangeable camera that would give me similar image quality (if not better) and even similar ISO capabilities to my D300. The D300 being over 6 years old now should be easy to beat I thought. I was and still am very happy with the image quality of my D300 and it served me well not making me crave for a newer Nikon. It was time for something smaller though, at least for travel.

I will admit that before going shopping I did what anyone else did and looked up reviews of cameras, specifically mirrorless cameras. I was a little disappointed with where Nikon was heading compared to Fuji, Olympus and Sony in that department. The reason was mostly because of my investment in lenses. I did not want to move away if I did not have to. However, I could see the advantage in weight when going to these other formats.  

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 No flare to be seen!

I had narrowed my selection to the Fuji XT-1 and the Olympus EM-5 II. The reason was clear to me. I had experience with Fuji, owning a X100S and having used it for a few years as my go everywhere camera I knew the menus and buttons very well. I also had a very high opinion of the image quality coming from the Fuji. I was also considering Olympus because it presented me with a smaller system with a selection of great quality lenses. The reason I was comparing the EM5 mark II instead of the EM1 was the 1 stop ISO advantage on paper and the improved 5 axis stabilization. In addition, I liked personally the form factor much better and I heard that video had improved as well.

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 Amazing autofocus capabilities in low light and sharp results

After some back and forth I finally went with the EM5 mark II. The Fuji was great looking and the specs were impressive but there were a few things that swayed me over to Olympus.

1) First was the autofocus. While I heard great things about the improved autofocus on the XT-1, my experience with the X100S was disappointing even with pre-focus enabled and the fact that the Fuji had both contrast and phase detect focus points. I played with the XT-1 and it was miles better but a quick side by side comparison with the Olympus showed how much faster the contrast detect from Olympus was. This was for both the focus motor speed and the autofocus to lock on.

2) The 5 axis stabilisation. Fuji just doesn't have it. I would not consider it to be of major advantage given that some (not all) of Fuji's lenses have OIS instead but if you ever go for any of their primes, or their constant f2.8 lenses or even if you plan to adapt some old manual lenses, you will have to take into consideration that you won't be able to get many steady pictures below 1/focal length of the lens. Not a deal breaker but with the Olympus it is there for you to use.

3) Video. I am not much of a video person but I found that with the Fuji X100S me or my wife would want the occasional use out of it. While the quality of the Fuji was fine for my standards the focus tracking was below my lowest expectations. It was wildly inaccurate and the focus motor could be heard all the time in the video. I found often that I preferred to manual focus the lens for videos. As far as I am aware Fuji has not made any advancements in that department. With the EM5 I have reliable tracking in reasonable light and best of all I cannot hear the ticking of the motor as it changes focus. As a bonus I get 5 axis stabilisation for a smoother image when on the move.

4) Price. The Fuji is more expensive. Comparing the Fuji XT-1 with 18-55 f2.8-4, 55-200 f3.5-4.8 and 14 f2.8 (this is all the lenses I need for travel) after rebate, is more expensive than EM5 mark II with 12-40 f2.8 + 75 f1.8 (a little of a compromise in focal lengths but great combo for 99% of my shooting) and these are 2 of Olympus's premium lenses whereas the zooms from Fuji are good but not the best they have to offer. In terms of sharpness and maximum aperture the lenses from Olympus are better.

So I took the plunge and got myself the EM5 mark II with a 12-40 f2.8 and the 75 f1.8 and had 2 weeks in Australia to test the Olympus gear and here is what I think of the system. The pictures you see here are from various locations around Victoria, Australia. More specifically some are from the town Ballarat that hosts a wildlife park and Sovereign Hill (a 1850's themed park) and some are from the east cost of Victoria.

EM5 mark II +12-40 f2.8 Very good dynamic range

Aesthetics

As much as people don't want to admit that they buy something for its looks this is always a factor and I have to say... what a beauty. If you are used to DSLRs expect to be dazzled. The EM5 mark II is a good looking camera all over. The dials stand out right away and complement the camera very nicely. I admit that I was thinking of getting the silver one first when I held it but after the tradesman showed me the black version I was sold at how much better it looked. It had an old school feel to it like a film camera. The black version also shows off the metal at the edges of the dials looking as if the camera is slightly worn. Paired with either the 12-40 f2.8 or the 75 f1.8 (black) it looks like a high end product justifying the high price.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 The rotating screen is of great help with creative shots

Price

I mentioned that the high price is justified for the high quality materials used. I should also mention that the number of tech features in camera is so vast that you would be hard pressed to find so much anywhere else even on bigger sensor cameras. You are paying for innovation as well as quality. There is no way around that. If I have one little complaint in this department though it is how Olympus are cutting corners in things like including a digital instruction manual instead of a paper one (although I can see the argument for a lower carbon footprint) or the fact that the 75 f1.8 does not come with a hood or a pouch. The money was payed but somehow you feel shortchanged. Come on Olympus!

EM5 mark II +12-40 f2.8 Playing with framing is very easy

Build

Superb. The camera is heavier than it looks allowing it to balance nicely with heavier lenses in the Olympus lineup (e.g. 12-40). The weatherproof body is sturdy and I am impressed that they managed to keep the camera weatherproof with a flip screen included. The magnesium alloy body is covered with good quality plastic. The particular lenses I had were an excellent pairing making the camera feel solid and professional. I cannot complaint in this department.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Making big prints is easy at base ISO

Ergonomics

Buttons are well placed and I did not find them too small. I like that all buttons are round instead of the couple of square buttons found in the previous model. The Fn1 button feels a little too small for back button focusing and I have large hands to actually press it effectively while shooting. A bit flatter and with a softer press would fix that in my opinion. The ability to reprogram any button is fantastic but the selection of functions is surprisingly not extensive enough. For example I could not get things like ISO or focus change (single, continuous). I could do these things from the super control panel but I could not program the buttons to do these for me. The thumb rest is big and great for  hand holding the camera. In addition the front grip is deep enough (deeper than the EM5) although some people might prefer something deeper. I have big hands but it did not bother me as I am used to using old film cameras that have no grip at all. The Fuji X100S has a non existent grip and I find it comfortable. I will say here that the Fuji is a little longer though while the Olympus feels shorter and my pinky rests at the bottom of the camera. The XT-1 on the other hand felt very good in my hand although the distance of the edge of the grip to the lens where the hand goes seems to be similar to the EM5 mark II.

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 Can't take a trip to Australia without some kangaroos

Performance

The EM5 mark II is fast to focus despite only contrast focus points. It inherits the 81 focus point system found in the EM1 and EM10 and covers almost the entire screen. I found the camera struggled in low light to focus but that was expected and I am not going to complain about it as I am not expecting the camera to focus in a gold mine (never mind the lens attached) or in a reptile enclosure. Saying that it was still better than my Fuji at 6400 ISO (I set the Olympus maximum at 3200 ISO) as it managed to acquire focus in these extreme environments about 50% of the time. The detail of the images is great and there is no grain to to be found even at 3200 ISO unless you pixel peep. Even then a good noise reduction software will handle things well. I had a big concern about the grain people mentioned at high ISO but it seems the new image processor improved things considerably.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Even at ISO 3200 the camera handles noise well

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 Manual focus in low light is a possibility with focus peaking

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 Low light is tricky but a fast lens and good stabilisation make this shot possible

Dynamic range is very good, on par if not a bit better than the D300. As an example I include below two images, one with HDR using Photomatix of 3 images +/-2EV, and one with single exposure retouched in lightroom to look as similar as possible. I am very impressed how much I can pull out of highlights and shadows with this camera. These were difficult conditions at low light in a jungle with lots of mixed light. It makes HDR almost superfluous. Can you guess which one is which? Hover over the images to find out.

Single exposureEM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 3 exposures +/-2EV - HDR conversionEM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8

A point of concern was the lag of the EVF to wake when the screen is covered. It made me miss shots when I first was using the camera and had me frowning more than once. This went away when I removed the autoswitch of the EVF to manual switching with the Fn2 button. I hope this gets fixed with a future update. The additional buttons help with quick changes and are greatly appreciated making it a fast camera to work with. One thing to note is that the dials can be easily bumped changing your exposure or aperture at times. This is a matter of handling however, and I found I did it less and less once I was aware of how I was holding the camera.

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 cropped almost to 80%

The lenses allowed me to work fast as well with quick single point focus and little travelling of the autofocus. The live EVF is also a treat for accurate exposure. This in my opinion might be one of the best reasons to switch to an EVF, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). The EVF is fast in refresh rates and is smooth when swung from right to left or vice versa. Didn't make me miss my DSLR and is on par with my X100S if not a bit better due to the faster refresh rates.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Rich pleasing colours

Battery life

While the EM5 mark II battery is supposed to last only for 310 shots, I found that I could comfortably have two batteries and not worry about running out. What is to be expected with all mirrorless cameras is the smaller battery life. I find that a couple of extra solves that problem. Speaking of batteries though I have to mention that changing the batteries is a breeze. There is a spring at the bottom of the chamber and all you have to do is move a clip to the side for the battery to pop out. On top of that you don't have to load the SD card with the battery as there is a separate compartment on the side.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 The no compromise lens allows for quick snap portraits of people from afar without worrying about lens limitations

Summary

The EM5 mark II is everything I hoped for when I picked it up. Despite its quirks and particularities it fulfills with flying colours the purpose of replacing my D300 for travel, family and vacation. The ISO capabilities are a lot better than my APS-C format sensor and 6 years of evolution and development show up the age of my DSLR. I could use my D300 up to 1600 ISO if I really had to push it but what the Fuji and now the Olympus show me is that using 3200 ISO can be a breeze without enormous loss of image quality. I am a huge advocate of changing ISO as little as possible from base for best performance of dynamic range and colour rendition. However, these days you can expect good performance up to 800 ISO with negligible loss of quality and pushing ISO further with the right exposure can still preserve more detail than ever before.

EM5 mark II + 75 f1.8 The big fellow is cutely named Crunch. The detail out of this lens is amazing.

Focusing was fast and reliable and colours were accurate and pleasant. The EM5 mark II has a film like look to the images with nice saturation of blues and greens and well controlled highlights. Dynamic range is adequate for most corrections. The menus are difficult to master for those being initiated to the system but they are deep with multiple function buttons to assign and pleasing to the most demanding of control freak individuals. I cannot say I have found my optimal function button assignment yet but I believe in time it will come. 

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Low shooting without having to look through the viewfinder is liberating

Video performance was good. I would not describe it as stellar but it seems to blow Fuji out of the water. Autofocus was responsive but sometimes it hunted a while especially with faster moving subjects. This is to be expected. The stabilisation was impressive as demonstrated by the underground train footage that rocked all over the place constantly (see below). However, I find that sudden shakes still make the video jump (such as walking heavily) and care has to be taken. For family shooting however you are in for a treat as your video will look like it was handled by an expert videographer.

EM5 mark II + 12-40 f2.8 Real jungle at the side of the road

I would be amiss not to mention the lenses that are a pleasure to use. The 75 f1.8 is sharp with a pleasant bokeh and very fast to focus. The detail is astounding (Look at the scales of the crocodile picture above). The 12-40 f2.8 is an all-rounder without compromise in image sharpness or quality. Because it is weather-sealed I can take it anywhere and it covers such a vast range with a great wide angle to boot. On top of that it shows exceptional control of flaring on a step above my best lenses. I think this is more than adequate of a travel kit for me and I don't feel that I compromised in quality compared to my DSLR outfit. Best of all to me is the weight. I finally feel that I shed the kilos I was looking to shed. I can see carrying the camera kit around all the time much like my Fuji. I am glad for the transition and I am looking forward to uploading more images to this website as soon as Lightroom starts supporting regularly the new camera. As of right now the conversion is a chore due to the Olympus viewer software being clunky. Althought the recent DNG converter from Adobe speeds up things a lot. Otherwise I heartily recommend this system to anyone who is an enthusiast or looking for an upgrade from their first DSLR. You cannot go wrong with this system combination.

I leave you with a few videos straight out of the EM5 mark II. The first one is a short ride underground with almost no light testing low light performance and stabilisation in video. The second one is testing tracking of autofocus in video of a moving subject (snake), and the third one is testing the stabilisation while walking uphill in the jungle.

Low light performance of EM5 mark II

EM5 mark II focus tracking performance

EM5 mark II stabilisation performance walking uphill


Comments

Art Kornienko(non-registered)
Excellent review and insights. I bought the EM5MK2 with the 12-40 2.8 and have to agree with all of your comments. I am beyond satisified with this camera and love the WYSIWYG ability, the 5 axis stabilization and the sensor performance to me is quite good. I have Canon DSLRs and lenses, but take them less and less as they are all to big, but keep them for action/birding. The Olympus fits nicely into a small bag with the included flash and is so easy to bring. I have taken photos in low light down to 1/6 shutter speed and have had excellent results I would have never got with my canon equipment. The price is a bit high though, other than that I agree with you comments and love the camera, the colours and focus are super and a couple of extra batteries solves that problem. The high resolution feature works incredibly well and the detail from those shots is amazing.
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