Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II review


The Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II is a tough, fast and confident professional camera that banishes any remaining myths or limitations regarding mirrorless, and in particular, the Micro Four Thirds format on which it’s based. The dust and splashproof body feels great in your hands with carefully considered and tactile controls, dual card slots and a larger than average battery. The electronic viewfinder and fully-articulated touchscreen allow you to compose with ease. The built-in stabilisation has become even better, staying at least a step ahead of rivals. But perhaps most impressively the continuous autofocus and movie quality, a pair of Achille’s heels on earlier Olympus bodies, have been upgraded to a point where they’ll compete against any camera in its class.

As indeed it all should. Olympus was a joint first-player in the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market with its Micro Four Thirds partner Panasonic, and both have had plenty of time to refine their offerings. Olympus was also arguably the first company to truly pitch mirrorless at pros with the previous EM1 Mark I three years ago, so the Mark II has a lot to live up to. No six-monthly or annual updates here – the Mark II represents a long-awaited and justifiably significant upgrade over its predecessor – and Olympus feels confident to charge significantly more for it too.

The OMD EM1 Mark II is not a cheap camera by any means and it’s revealing that for the same money you could buy the Nikon D500, a supremely confident sports-oriented DSLR or the Panasonic GH5, a camera that breaks boundaries on movie quality. Revealingly the Mark II also costs around a third more than Fujifilm’s XT2 and Sony’s A6500, not to mention a couple of full-frame options, and more than double the earlier EM5 Mark II. So the big question is whether it’s worth the money?

In the video below, Doug Kaye and I discuss everything you need to know about the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II! I also have an audio podcast of this discussion below or you can subscribe to the Cameralabs Podcast at iTunes.




Like many new cameras, most of the headline upgrades regard burst shooting, continuous autofocus and movie quality. With an expected shelf-life of several years, Olympus has certainly planned ahead with an impressive new embedded phase-detect autofocus system boasting 121 cross-type sensors across most of the frame, coupled with blindingly quick processing that can drive it at 10fps with the mechanical shutter or 18fps with the electronic shutter. Despite disappointing continuous AF on earlier Olympus bodies, they’ve really nailed it here and I successfully shot long, focused bursts of action using the EM1 Mark II with bright telephoto primes and those two lovely zooms, the M.Zuiko Digital 40-150mm f2.8 and Leica 100-400mm. Many rivals at this price also offer effective continuous AF with a 10 or 11fps mechanical shutter, but switching to the electronic shutter gives the EM1 Mark II and edge over all of them. Sure the XT2 can manage 14fps with its electronic shutter, but the EM1 Mark II extends this to 18fps, and in practice I achieved 16fps or more. The tracking may not be as good as, say, a Nikon D500, but then few cameras are. In short, the EM1 Mark II becomes arguably the best mirrorless camera for continuous AF, certainly the best in the Micro Four Thirds system.

If you’re happy with Single Autofocus, it becomes even faster, shooting at 15fps with the mechanical shutter or 60fps with the electronic shutter; at the latter top speed, it’ll still manage to record up to 48 frames, even in RAW. Slow the camera down to a still respectable 10fps and you can pretty much shoot unlimited images until your memory or battery give up. The only issue is the camera doesn’t tell you how many images are remaining in the buffer as you shoot (which can be doubly disconcerting if you’re shooting with the silent and vibration-free electronic shutter), and you also can’t play any images back until the buffer is cleared. Luckily if you’re using a UHS-II card in Slot-1, even a full buffer normally clears within five seconds so you won’t be waiting too long to view your images, and as the buffer clears you’re also welcome to shoot more bursts.

Olympus has also had some fun with the top speeds and large buffer: the new Pro Capture mode can keep a rolling buffer of the most recent 14 images (representing the past quarter to one second depending on the selected fps) before committing them to memory with a subsequent burst when you fully depress the shutter. This way you stand a better chance of not missing a decisive moment.

Movies were also previously an area where Olympus struggled to keep up with the competition, but the EM1 Mark II resolves this too – and not a moment too soon. The Mark II becomes their first body to shoot 4k and thankfully it does a good job of it too, offering 4k UHD or Cinema 4k at generous bit rates and with no reduction in the horizontal field of view. The quality, especially in Cinema4k is very good, but what makes it even more compelling to pro videographers is coupling it with the best built-in stabilisation system of all cameras to date. Even if you go for movie stabilisation mode 2 which employs sensor shift only, you’ll enjoy rig-like performance – even I managed to handhold respectable 4k footage with the 300mm prime at a 600mm equivalent. The earlier EM5 Mark II whetted our appetites for movie stabilisation, but was limited to average-looking 1080p. Now the EM1 Mark II gives us it with great-looking 4k.

On the downside, 1080p footage, like many cameras, looks relatively soft and sadly is only available up to 60p – so no higher frame rates for slow motion here. The EM1 Mark II will also have a fair stab at continuous autofocusing in movies, but in my tests it wasn’t as confident or consistent as, say, the Sony A6300 and A6500. I should also mention that while I commend Olympus for adding a headphone jack and a fully-articulated screen, the latter will bump into anything connected to the ports as you twist it round – annoying if you connect headphones, microphones and or external HDMI screens / recorders.

The Mark II upgrades aren’t just about burst shooting, continuous AF and movies though. The stabilisation, as noted earlier, is even better than before and you’ll exploit it just as much for stills as video. I managed to handhold 24mm equivalent focal lengths at two to four seconds, which opens up all manner of photography without the need for tripod. While Sony and Panasonic are steadily getting better at built-in stabilisation, Olympus remains the King and Fujifilm increasingly looks like the odd one out.

The sensor has received an upgrade, not just for speed and embedded autofocus, but also resolution, up from 16 to 20 Megapixels. In my quality pages you’ll see there’s not a huge step up in resolving power over the original EM1 Mark I, but at least there’s no compromise in noise levels with the higher pixel density. I’m also pleased to report that noise artefacts are lower than the EM1 Mark I when shooting long exposures without noise reduction, although beyond a minute or two, you’ll still really want to enable noise reduction for clean results.

But broadening the gap in resolving power between the bodies is the addition of the High Res mode on the EM1 Mark II which, like the EM5 Mark II before it, takes eight images and generates a composite that reduces false colour while boosting resolution. On the EM1 Mark II, an 80 Megapixel RAW file is created, and from that a 50 or 25 Megapixel JPEG. In my tests the results are highly dependent on subject as well as technique. You’ll need a sharp lens, an optimal aperture and a delayed release, and a subject that ideally remains static during the almost one second capture period. As such in many situations you won’t notice much difference with the High Res mode, but occasionally you will and it’ll really impress. I should also add, it handles water in motion, such as a lapping tide, much better than the EM5 Mark II did.

Many of the remaining upgrades over the EM1 Mark I are based around the body. It superficially looks similar with much the same control layout, but there’s now dual card slots (only the top one will exploit UHS-II speed though), a larger battery with around 50% longer life, a taller grip, fully-articulated screen, headphone jack and even a USB-C port (supplied with a Type-C to Type-A cable and free tethering software for PCs and Macs).

There’s definitely a number of worthy upgrades over the EM1 Mark I even if you’re not bothered about 4k video or fast bursts with continuous autofocus. But equally it’s revealing the earlier EM5 Mark II also offered upgrades over the EM1 Mark I, including a fully-articulated screen, improved stabilisation, a High Res mode and a headphone jack (on an optional grip) – and it costs less than half the price of the EM1 Mark II. Sure it doesn’t have the bigger grip, twin card slots and larger battery of the EM1 Mark I, but if you don’t need the 4k video or action shooting capabilities, you have to think carefully about whether the remaining upgrades are worth it for you. If however you’ll also exploit the video, fast bursts and effective continuous AF, then the EM1 Mark II becomes one of the most powerful and desirable cameras in its class and justifies its asking price.

And to those who are concerned about paying so much for a body with a relatively small sensor, it’s important to remember the argument works both ways. The smaller sensor is what allows Micro Four Thirds to enjoy a wealth of small, light and high quality lenses and the best stabilisation around. As someone who travels and hikes a lot, I love the portability of a small and light system that has such good stabilisation I rarely need a tripod either.

Plus with 18fps with Continuous AF, 60fps with Single AF, the Pro Capture buffering option, 4k with the best built-in stabilisation around and the ability to peek into the progress of long exposures, the EM1 Mark II simply lets you take photos other cameras can’t.


Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II vs Fujifilm XT2

The XT2 is Fujifilm’s flagship mirrorless camera (jointly with the X-Pro2) and a key rival to the OMD EM1 Mark II. Both have retro-styled weather-sealed bodies with dual card slots, lots of manual control, big detailed viewfinders, articulated screens, 4k video, Wifi and effective autofocus systems. So in what respects do they differ?

The XT2 has a larger APSC sensor with 4 extra Megapixels which, in my tests, resolved a little extra detail and delivered lower noise at 6400 ISO and above. But they were pretty close in quality and the EM1 Mark II has the extra trick of a High Res mode which under ideal conditions can out-resolve the XT2. In terms of out-of-camera JPEG quality, both bodies produce great-looking images with little effort.

Both cameras feature embedded phase-detect AF systems. The XT2 numerically has slightly more points – 169 to 121 – but on the Olympus they’re all cross-type and cover a wider area of the frame. In my tests both were capable, but the Olympus had the edge.

Both can continuously AF while shooting bursts, but the Olympus is faster. Body-alone, the XT2 can shoot with CAF at 8fps or 14fps for the mechanical or electronic shutters respectively, versus 10 or 18fps on the Olympus. Those are also the top speeds for the XT2 in Single AF too, whereas the Olympus can accelerate to 15 or 60fps for the two shutter types.

The Olympus features built-in image stabilisation that works with any lens you attach versus none at all on the XT2 which relies on lenses having optical stabilisation. This is a major advantage for Olympus, especially when it comes to shooting video or using primes which generally don’t have optical stabilisation.

Both shoot 4k video with manual control, flat profile options and microphone jacks, but the Olympus adds a headphone jack as standard, the choice of 4k in UHD or Cinema4k, and longer recording times of 30 minutes versus 10 per clip (for the bodies alone).

Both bodies have screens that can be angled in many directions, but the Olympus is fully-articulated, versus a combination of vertical tilt with a sideways tilt on the XT2. The Fuji solution is a little odd at first, but faster to execute, although in terms of complete articulation, the Olympus wins. The Olympus also sports a touch-screen, whereas the XT2 does not. But some may prefer the dedicated AF joystick of the Fujifilm to reposition the AF area.

It’s also worth mentioning their alternative approaches to exposure control. Fujifilm adopts the older style of a dedicated shutter speed dial and aperture ring on the lens, whereas Olympus goes for the more modern mode dial with multiple-function dials. Neither is better – it’s down to personal preference, same with styling.

The choice of an LCD panel in the Olympus viewfinder versus OLED on the Fujifilm is equally personal. The LCD is more muted and arguably more forgiving or natural with tones and colours, whereas the OLED is more vibrant and contrasty. Entirely a personal choice.

In terms of power, the Olympus comes with a larger battery that lasts longer, but the Fujifilm enjoys the convenience of also being able to be charged internally over USB. Speaking of USB, the Fuji uses USB-3 versus USC Type C on the Olympus.

Beyond this, there’s the extra features. Olympus offers a Pro Capture mode which keeps a rolling buffer of 14 frames which precede the final push of the shutter release. It also offers spot-metering linked to the active AF area, a wealth of long exposure features, better HDR options, keystone correction, and in-camera focus-bracketing and stacking. Meanwhile the XT2 offers panoramas, grain simulations and the chance to use old-style threaded cable releases.

Clearly, apart from the sensor size, the EM1 Mark II is the better-featured camera, but equally it should be as it costs roughly one third more (depending on region). If however you add the optional Vertical Power Booster to the XT2, their prices become roughly similar and the Fuji catches up in some regards. You get more to hold onto including portrait controls, you get the headphone jack and chance to record 30 minute 4k clips (standard on the Olympus), the top mechanical burst speed becomes 11fps with CAF (slightly beating the 10fps on the Olympus, but the XT2’s electronic option at 14fps still falls short of the 18 on the OMD), and you triple the battery life, taking it beyond the single standard battery of the EM1 II, albeit roughly matching the Olympus if you fit its grip with the second battery – but that makes the OMD more expensive still.

The VPB grip certainly brings them closer, but the Olympus still takes the lead in many respects, particularly in terms of having built-in stabilisation and a touch-screen, not to mention faster shooting. But equally don’t underestimate personal preferences in style and controls, not to mention the system as a whole. Micro Four Thirds may have more lenses, many of which are smaller too, but Fujifilm has been producing a number of more affordable options at the high-end that makes X a very attractive system.

It’s a tough choice, but I’d honestly be delighted with either camera. See my Fujifilm XT2 review for more details.


Also consider

I hope to add more detailed comparisons here in the future, but if you have $2000 USD to spend on a body, there are a lot of compelling options out there. Panasonic’s Lumix GH5 takes the lead on movies with 4k at 60p and 6k photo options, Nikon’s D500 is a supremely confident DSLR that takes the lead on tracking, Sony’s A6500 comes in cheaper with great movie and autofocusing capabilities as well as a touchscreen and reasonable stabilisation, the Sony A6300 cheaper still if you’re happy to sacrifice the touchscreen and stabilisation, while at less than half the price there’s the Olympus OMD EM5 Mark II which looks like a bargain if you don’t need 4k, the best continuous AF or super-fast burst shooting.


Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II final verdict

The Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II takes the popular weatherproof Mark I, deepens the grip, adds twin memory card slots and employs the most generous battery of any mirrorless camera. It improves the already amazing stabilisation, adds a minor boost in resolution and offers a cunning composite mode which under the right conditions can increase the resolving power up to 50 Megapixels. The major upgrades though concern video and autofocus. The EM1 Mark II shots great quality 4k and Cinema4k video which work a treat with the stabilisation, while a new embedded AF system can genuinely track moving action at up to 18fps; switch to Single AF and it’ll even shoot up to 48 RAWs at 60fps. It all adds up to a supremely confident and capable camera that can capture images where others can’t, but you’ll really have to need the 4k and or burst capabilities to justify the professional price tag. There’s a lot of very compelling rivals for the same or less money. But if you’ll exploit the feature-set, the EM1 Mark II becomes one of the most powerful and desirable cameras in its class and justifies its asking price regardless of format.

Good points
Best-in-class built-in stabilisation for stills and movies.
Tough weather-proof body with twin card slots and great ergonomics.
Effective continuous AF up to 18fps (electronic) or 10fps (mechanical).
High speed bursts up to 60fps, including full-res RAW (48 frames at top speed).
Very good JPEGs from camera; come close to 24MP APSC in resolving power.
Large battery for mirrorless, and quick charging too.
Great quality 4k UHD and C4k video. Flat profile option.
High Res mode generates images up to 50MP under ideal conditions.
Pro Capture mode buffers up to 14 frames prior to shutter press.

Bad points
No indication of shots remaining in buffer during burst shooting.
Can’t playback images while buffer is emptying (but can still shoot).
Auto ISO not available above 6400 ISO nor in Movie manual mode.
Autofocus during movies can be hesitant and inconsistent.
Timelapse movies at low frame rates when encoded in 1080p or 4k.
Articulated screen can interfere with mic, headphone and HDMI ports.
No battery charging in-camera over USB.
Sensor output not as clean as larger formats above 6400 ISO in my tests.

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