As mentioned on the banner on the home page, I wasn’t supposed to be posting for a while. I am limited to just an iPad right now, so there is very little I can do for the blog, but I was so excited about Olympus’ announcement of the E-M1 Mk II at Photokina earlier this week that I felt I had to do a short piece (sorry, no pictures or formatting) on what it meant for me.

If you have read my earlier post comparing my beloved E-M1 Mk I with my other camera, my Canon 7D Mk II, in the realm of wildlife (and specifically bird) photography, you may recall that I listed a number of areas were I felt the Canon had the advantage. My conclusion at that time was that while the E-M1 had a lot going for it as a wildlife and adventure system, there were a few shortcomings it needed to shore up to really be a competitor. I had also felt that Olympus was already aware of these deficiencies and had been addressing them for the E-M1 Mk II.

So, I was very glad to see that the Photokina announcement for the E-M1 Mk II was an almost point-by-point answer to those issues, and then some. Below is an accounting based on the new specs, not to compare again against the 7D MK II (which would be unfair at this stage), but just to show that the evolution of the system has all angles pushing in the right direction. Of course, we won’t know just how effective these upgrades truly are until we start seeing them in action for ourselves.

Handling and Usability: 

These were areas I already thought the first E-M1 excelled in (more than my Canon), and the new one is supposed to be even better on a number of counts. The grip is deeper, the back touchscreen is much more interactive (which is great), and the menu system has been slightly revamped (though it still seems to be organized roughly the same as before). I never really had as much beef with the Olympus menu as some folks have seemed to. In my opinion, all menus do the same thing, and it’s just a matter of familiarization. A camera with a lot of features is going to have a deep menu. The only way around that is a shortcut screen, which the E-M1 already has in the awesome Super Control Panel, and customizable buttons, which it also already excels in. Speaking of which, settings can now be saved to computer, and hopefully edited from a computer as well.

Of more interest to me is the improved EVF, which is now larger and boasts even faster frames per second. It has almost no lag, and Olympus is claiming that the blackout issue is a thing of the past. If so, that’s a hugely important upgrade. In my original review, I opined that EVFs had already surpassed OVFs in usefulness, with the exception of the blackout issue when shooting bursts, but now even that one deficiency has been done away with.

More controversial was Olympus’ decision to go with a fully articulating LCD screen as opposed to a tilting screen. I’ve never used a fully articulating screen before, so I don’t have an opinion on the matter, but many in the Olympus community are polarized on it. Apparently, videographers are happy with a fully articulating screen, while still photographers are up in arms about it. The criticisms primarily are the extra time it takes to position it, potential fragility, and that it is now much harder to take pictures of someone while pretending not to.  While I don’t yet know which camp I may fall in, I don’t think I will find it a big deal, either way. There are, after all, advantages to be had with the new design. Being able to protect the screen by turning it around, as well as the new AF point control capability (where the focus will move to wherever the finger is dragged across the LCD screen, while the photographer is still looking through the viewfinder) are additional benefits provided by the new configuration, and Panasonic users have been swearing by the latter feature for some time now.

Image Quality: 

In my earlier review, I said that both cameras provided great IQ, but I gave the slight edge to Canon because it’s slightly higher megapixel count and larger sensor meant there was just a little bit more tweaking possible in post processing. Olympus has now equaled the megapixels and developed a completely new sensor that, combined with a new processor, has one stop better dynamic range and one stop (or perhaps half a stop) better noise performance than its predecessor. This is very welcome news, and I hope it is due to the new sensor and not processing software. I had already felt the E-M1 had the edge on dynamic range, but estimated that one stop was roughly the 7D MK II’s margin over the E-M1’s noise performance. Add the E-M1 Mk II’s Hi REz mode’s ability to shoot 25 or 50 mp RAW images that should prove to be virtually noise free, and it is clear that Olympus has improved significantly.  

The Hi Rez mode, despite being 3x faster than the E-M5 Mk II’s implementation, is still not usable hand-held at this time because – according to Olympus – the technology for the IBIS to do double-duty correcting for hand movements as well as shifting the sensor eight times is not far enough along yet. I wonder, however, if using an OIS-enabled lens would make it more immediately possible? Currently there are only two such lenses in the M.Zuiko lineup, the 300mm Pro and soon-to-be-released 12-100mm Pro. Such a capability would make the 12-100mm a must-have for a lot of people. It could conceivably even be possible to allow Panasonic lenses with OIS to work, or perhaps even adapted lenses, left to function independently. I don’t know if Olympus would want to go out of their way to make that happen, though.

Continuous Autofocus Accuracy and Speed: 

This was the area that, I think in may people’s opinions, had the most negative impact on the original E-M1’s viability as an action and wildlife system. In my review I stated that while firmware updates and better lenses made it no longer completely frustrating, it still was simply not sophisticated enough to lock onto small, moving targets and hold it nearly as well as the best DSLRs. I was also not expecting any miracle comeback any time soon, but Olympus addressed this deficiency in a whole host of ways. The frame is now covered with 121 all cross-type focus points (from the original’s 81 flat-type); there is a hot new sensor and ridiculously faster dual processors (one which is devoted solely to AF); there are now more customizable settings to fine-tune AF needs, and Olympus is working on new tracking algorithms. All of these improvements, combined with the faster EVF, could come together for a significantly better C-AF experience. I still don’t want to get my hopes up too high, but this is almost enough to give me goosebumps.

The speed of the new camera is what Olympus is pushing more than anything else, though my personal opinion was that the old E-M1 was already fast enough. Its successor is crazy fast. There are a lot of different configurations (depending on whether you are using C-AF or S-AF, High or Low speed settings, or the mechanical or electronic shutter) that factor into the final speed.  If I have the new specs right, with the electronic shutter (silent mode), the maximums are 18 fps with Low speed to get C-AF, and an unbelievable 60 fps with High speed, but S-AF will be locked to the first frame.  Top C-AF speed with a mechanical shutter is a “measly” 10 fps, 15 for mechanical shutter, one-focus bursts. The rolling shutter effect seen in the first E-M 1’s electronic shutter is reportedly half as bad as what it used to be, however, so that blazing fast silent mode is much more usable now. I still don’t think I will ever need all that speed.  In most cases I don’t care for having dozens of practically the same shot in post.  However, I suppose that if the camera can track targets well at those speeds, it might track even more effectively if I slow the camera down… maybe?

Memory and Buffer Speed:

In my comparison review, the Canon had a smaller buffer (which I had felt was irrelevant, as both cameras had more than I have ever needed), but won this category because of the security of dual card slots. The new model E-M1 now has dual card slots as well. Just as with the speed, I still don’t think I will ever need that much buffering (the new buffer limit is still unknown), but I think it is safe to say that this camera will be able to keep up with whatever my personal sequential shooting needs might be. The single card slot issue is no longer a mark against Olympus, which is important for the extra insurance it provides.  

The primary SD card slot is UDH2, necessary for the speeds this camera is boasting. The second SD card is still UDH1. I would imagine that the E-M1 Mk II, like the Canon 7D Mk II, can only write as slow as the slowest card. The only way I can see around this issue would have been to have both cards equally fast, which at the highest levels is too much for the processors of either camera to manage. So, I would think that for long bursts at the highest speeds, the photographer will not want to be recording to both cards.

Battery Life:

The E-M1’s battery life with the BLN-1 was never a strong suite, but the new BLH-1 battery is supposed to have over 30% more capacity and charge twice as fast. That won’t make it the equal of DSLRs with OVFs, but it should compare fairly well with mirrorless competitors, all of which have to deal with energy-draining EVFs. In my review I explained how I approached battery consumption and that I never really found myself without power (unless I forgot my battery – yes, that happened), so this was never a major problem for me personally. That said, more is better, and as I pointed out in my review, when out in the field where regular recharging is impossible, longer battery life could be absolutely necessary.

Conclusion:

I haven’t even mentioned yet other improvements such as 4K video, which is a major step up in an area Olympus has not really focused on in the past, and will galvanize me to finally start learning videography.

Without yet knowing just how strong they are, I would characterize most of these changes as evolutionary upgrades, rather than revolutionary. That said, the totality of all of these incremental improvements, particularly how they all come together to impact the E-M1 Mk II’s AF performance as an action and wildlife camera, is really huge, and has me very excited. Olympus has checked all the right boxes. They’ve been working to shore up all of the weaknesses of the previous version, and if they have succeeded even close to what they are claiming, this will be fantastic for the micro four-thirds format.

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