Olympus E-M1 Mark II Field Test Part I

Rain, snow & hail: The Olympus E-M1 Mark II takes on Iceland

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Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 31mm, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 1000, -0.7EV

The bigger, better E-M1 Mark II sets sail for a week in Iceland

Back at Photokina I was able to get some brief hands-on time with an early model of the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. From a physical standpoint, the overall design is not drastically different than the original model. Instead, the Olympus team made small, yet important tweaks to improve handling comfort and customization of the camera controls. The grip is slightly larger, and, for example, you can now re-map the power switch over to the lever switch beside the EVF, letting you power the camera on and off one-handed. The camera also better addresses the needs of multimedia creators with the addition of a vari-angle LCD, 4K video, and a headphone jack. If you haven't yet read our initial impressions on the E-M1 Mark II's design and ergonomics, please click here.

Rough surf!
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 100mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 250, +0.3EV

Now that the camera is approaching its launch date, some working models are rolling off the production line. This past week, I was fortunate enough to be invited on an Olympus-organized press trip to one of the craziest locations in the world to put this new camera to the test: Iceland. Known for ever-changing and often harsh weather conditions as well as some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, Iceland served as an ideal location to test the camera's build quality, weather sealing, and gauge its real-world image quality performance as well as get an initial taste of its high-speed capabilities.

Snow on the black sand beach. The weather was no match for the E-M1 II and Zuiko Pro lenses.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 100mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 5000, +0.3EV

Thank you, weather-sealing!

One of the key features I look for in any camera I'm thinking of purchasing is weather sealing. Although I don't find myself in inclement weather all that often, I find it's certainly nice to have when you need it. The level of ruggedness, as well as the compact size and weight of the original Olympus E-M1, is what really drew me to that camera. Now, with the all-new Olympus E-M1 Mark II, I can certainly say that while the amount or toughness of the weather-sealing has not changed according to Olympus' explanation, the camera can definitely withstand some fierce conditions after shooting with it this past week.

Snowy morning in Reykjavik.
Olympus 25mm f/1.2 Pro: 25mm, f/1.4, 1/250s, ISO 200, -0.3EV

Arriving in Iceland early Tuesday morning, I was immediately introduced to the weather conditions for the week to come: cold temperatures, strong gusty wind, nearly-sideways rain with a hint of sleet. Loading up our packs with various Olympus Zuiko Pro lenses, including the new 12-100mm f/4 IS and 25mm f/1.2, we were all set to photograph some of the key landmarks of this amazing country. The weather changes rapidly in Iceland, with sun one moment then snow flurries about 15 minutes later, so having cameras and lenses that are weather-sealed, I find, are ideal.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall
Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/3.5, 1/60s, ISO 400, +0.3EV
Behind & below the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. While this shot is not exactly usable as a gallery photo for review purposes, it does give you an idea of the heavy water conditions I was subjected to while in Iceland. It was nearly impossible to shoot usable photos this close to the waterfall due to the heavy winds and the water spray that accumulated instantly on the front of the lens, but the camera never broke!

During our tours around the Golden Circle and the Southern Coast of Iceland, I subjected the camera to heavy rain and high winds, as well as strong, continuing blasts of spray coming off various waterfalls. The E-M1 Mark II took it like a champ and kept shooting without issue. Well, the only real issue here being lots of water droplets accumulating on the front element of all my lenses, which, at times, made it quite difficult to get usable photographs. Nevertheless, I did not experience any faults, error messages or any other water-related problems with the Mark II. On occasion, I did get some large water droplets on the EVF's proximity sensor, which can accidentally trip the eye sensor function. When this first happened, I thought the camera had actually suffered some kind of malfunction since the LCD wasn't turning on. But once I spotted the water droplets on the EVF, it was problem solved after a quick wipe down.

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/3.5, 32s, ISO 1600

Colder conditions still couldn't stop the E-M1 Mark II. Piercing hail and snow flurries pelted the camera from time to time, and the E-M1 II didn't bat an eye. Taking a nighttime ride up into the snow-covered mountains and away from Reykjavik to "hunt" for the Northern Lights, weather conditions were downright brutal. Despite very, very cold temps and strong, frosty winds, the "freezeproof" Olympus E-M1 Mark II kept on ticking.

E-M1 Mark II's bigger battery helps you last you through the day

Powering this beast takes a new beefed-up battery pack that's 37% higher capacity than the original E-M1's battery. So far, the battery life has been very good, even in these colder conditions. I did experience inaccuracies with the battery capacity percentage reported by the camera (a new, handy feature, by the way) in which the battery seemed to drain faster than I expected, but I believe this was due to the colder temperatures, which can negatively impact battery performance.

Using the Olympus battery grip for the E-M1 II provided me with two full batteries to use throughout the day, and by the end of a full day of shooting, I only depleted the battery pack in the grip -- leaving me with a full charge in the body's battery pack. The new charger is also quite nice, quickly recharging a battery completely in about two hours. Arriving back to the hotel, I could pop the grip's battery on the charger, continue shooting into the evening with the main battery, and have a fresh battery when I returned.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 29mm, f/4, 1/250s, ISO 200
Lots of detail. I was pretty impressed with the level of fine detail the E-M1 II was able to resolve, even with just straight-from-camera JPEGs as with this 100% JPEG crop. However, notice the moiré patterns along the roof and side of the buildings.

Sharper, more detailed photos from E-M1 II's new 20MP sensor

With its all-new 20-megapixel sensor, the E-M1 Mark II offers a step-up in resolving power compared to all other OM-D models, and the results so far are pretty impressive, at both low ISOs and higher ones. Although I've yet to dive into the RAW files, as Adobe Camera Raw support isn't yet available nor is Olympus' own software, but the straight-from-camera JPEGs look quite nice. There's a lot of fine detail with the SuperFine-quality files I shot. I was rather impressed with the level of minute detail the sensor was able to resolve, even in far-off objects. Using the super-sharp Zuiko Pro lenses, such as the 25mm f/1.2 and 300mm f/4 IS, certainly help capture tons of intricate detail. When looking close-up at details, JPEG images do seem to be slightly over-sharpened for my personal taste, however, but nothing overly objectionable. Also, like the predecessor, the Mark II does not have an optical low-pass filter, so moiré and aliasing artifacts can and do show up from time to time if you're not careful.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 38mm, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 200, -0.7EV

High ISO performance feels improved over its predecessor

Based on my initial impressions, higher ISO image quality looks improved over the original E-M1, much to my relief, as this was a sticking point for me with the original model. I often find myself needing to crank that ISO dial with my E-M1, and I'm always a bit wary to raise the ISO past 1600 or 3200. JPEGs from the Mark II with the default standard strength of in-camera noise reduction still show a good amount of fine detail yet well-controlled noise and grain. As expected, there is a bit of a "processed" look to these higher ISO images when you look closely, and you can definitely see noise reduction at work. To my taste, the "standard" level of noise reduction might be a bit too strong, but if you shoot RAW, as you know, you can control the degree of noise removal yourself in post processing. All in all, though, I certainly don't mind now cranking the ISO up to 6400 if need be.

Olympus 300mm f/4 IS Pro: 300mm, f/4.5, 1/320s, ISO 4000, -0.3EV
100% JPEG Crop.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 17mm, f/4, 1/50s, ISO 6400
100% JPEG Crop. Personally, I was rather pleased by the level of detail in this shot, considering the dim lighting and with the ISO pegged at 6400. In this JPEG with Standard NR processing, there is still a good amount of fine detail, while the NR processing, though noticeable, removes a fair amount of noise.

Capturing the Aurora Borealis with the E-M1 Mark II

Trying to capture photos of the Northern Lights proved to be quite tricky, and not just because of the weather conditions. Having never seen let alone photographed the Aurora Borealis before, I went by the suggestions of the Olympus technical staffs' recommendation to use Live Time mode. Similar to Bulb mode for custom long exposure shots, Live Time actually lets you see the exposure "building" on the rear LCD in real time. Instead of calculating or guessing at what your exposure time needs to be, simply press the shutter button (with an anti-shock delay enable to help avoid camera vibrations if needed) and then watch the exposure happen, and finally, press the shutter button against to finish the capture when you're satisfied with the image.

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/3.5, 48s, ISO 1600

At first, it was recommended to start at around ISO 640 with Live Time set to take a shot once every second, but I was still ending up with dark or underwhelming shots of the Lights after about 30-40 seconds. And I didn't want to have exposures longer than that for fear of capturing star trails. In the end, I opted to bump the ISO to 1600, the maximum ISO you can use for Live Time capture mode, and ended with much brighter, more vibrant images, albeit with more visible noise. Live Time also automatically includes dark frame noise reduction processing after capture.

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/3.5, 21s, ISO 1600

On the camera's LCD, the results looked quite impressive, but they were quite noisy upon a closer inspection on the computer. Again, I've yet to try editing a RAW file, but these JPEGs definitely show a lot of noise reduction processing artifacts and some overall softness. Keep in mind that it was very windy and focus was set manually to the infinity mark, so critical sharpness might be slightly off. However, for smaller prints or online social sharing, I'd certainly be pleased with the results -- my iPhone definitely failed at capturing any sort of Northern Lights photo!

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/3.5, 32s, ISO 1600

It also interesting to note that what I saw with my naked eye is not what the camera "saw." The forecast for the Aurora weakened as the day went on, so that night, the light show wasn't as spectacular as many folks had hoped. While I certainly saw the Aurora, it appeared as more silvery, gray streaks and swaths of light across the sky, without any sort of colorful hues. The E-M1 Mark II, however, was easily able to capture bright shades of greens and purples. Peaking to many of my colleagues, they also shared a similar experience, although a few people said they saw some colors with their eyes.

E-M1 II feels very fast, very responsive with amazing burst rates

Olympus 300mm f/4 IS Pro: 300mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 1000

Although we've just begun putting the camera through the wringer in our lab, the E-M1 Mark II feels very nimble and responsive -- a very high-performance camera overall, as I expected. Single-shot autofocus feels amazingly fast, just like the predecessor did, and in my so far limited testing of continuous AF, I'm also quite impressed. The camera feels responsive and can keep a moving subject in focus very well, though I certainly intend to test this out more thoroughly.

Olympus 300mm f/4 IS Pro: 300mm, f/4.5, 1/320s, ISO 4000, -0.3EV
100% JPEG Crop. Though not an amazing amount of detail, it's still quite impressive just how just much detail there is on a subject as small as this flying bird given its relative size in the frame.

The burst shooting capabilities are verging into the realm of the ridiculous, especially with the new Pro Capture mode that can capture images at up to 60fps! The camera can just chew through the frames. In Pro Capture mode, which has a high-speed and low-speed setting (60fps in 'High,' and 18fps in 'Low'), the camera can shoot photos so quickly thanks to the electronic shutter and high-speed data read-out from the sensor that you can easily fill up your memory card if you're not careful. A minor sticking point: It's also easy to forget that you're still in Pro Capture mode, as electronic shutter modes are completely silent and there's little to no blackout or visual indication that you're taking multiple photos.

Using Pro Capture mode to photograph geyser eruptions

In the field we toured a geyser field and with the somewhat unpredictable nature of their eruptions, the Pro Capture mode came in very handy. Here, the camera continuously captures up to 14 full-resolution frames, including in RAW+JPEG mode, the moment the shutter button is half-pressed and then captures more images, up to the buffer capacity, when you press the shutter button down completely. At the geyser, it's hard to know when "the moment" is going happen, so you can have the camera at the ready, shutter button half-pressed, and the E-M1 II will continuously buffer through the last 14 frames, making it much easier to get a shot at precisely the right moment.

Here is an example of a sequence you can capture using the E-M1 II's new Pro Capture mode. This was using the slower 18fps Pro Capture 'Low' setting.

Perfect travel combo: The 12-100mm f/4 IS + E-M1 Mark II

In addition to the E-M1 Mark II, we also had an opportunity to test out Olympus' two newest Zuiko Pro lenses, the 25mm f/1.2 and 12-100mm f/4 IS. When out on the move, I find swapping back and forth between lenses can be a hassle, but when harsh weather conditions are involved, it's even more challenging. This is a perfect scenario for the new 12-100mm.

The village of Vík is the southernmost village in Iceland
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 66mm, f/4, 1/160s, ISO 200
The "Reynisdrangar" basalt sea stacks along the southern coast of Iceland.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 66mm, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 200, +0.3EV
Old sheep hut built into the base of a mount in Southern Iceland.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 28mm, f/4, 1/100s, ISO 200, -0.3EV

Weather-sealed (of course) and with a 24-200mm-equivalent range, this lens is amazingly versatile, so much so that you pretty much can leave it attached to your camera all day long. Given the stop and go, on-the-move nature of our Iceland trip, I found the 12-200mm to be my most-used lens, allowing me to capture a wide range of subjects, from vast landscapes to distant objects at full telephoto. Its close-focusing capabilities at wide angle are also shockingly impressive, adding more creative capabilities.

The one stop shop of Olympus lenses: Compact, versatile, weather-sealed and sharp.

Quality-wise, the lens is super-sharp based on the real-world images I've taken with it, and autofocus is very fast, just like I've experienced with other Zuiko Pro lenses. Along with the 300mm f/4 Pro lens, the new 12-200mm is the second Zuiko Pro lens with built-in optical image stabilization. With Sync I.S., the new 12-100mm offers a claimed 6.5 stops of stabilization, which lets me capture sharp shots at very slow shutter speeds.

With the abundance of waterfalls that we came across on our journey, the I.S. system with the 12-100mm let me slow down the shutter speed enough to get some of that classic waterfall motion blur -- and without worrying about my tripod. I'm kicking myself for not bringing along my ND filters, but given the nature of the trip and the short amount of time we had at each stop, it would have been difficult to haul along a heavier tripod and a bunch of filters. The slower shutter speeds that the 12-100's I.S. system afforded me was a decent compromise, even if I had to stop down to around f/22, which is not ideal on a Micro Four Thirds camera due to diffraction-related softening.

No tripod needed. The Sync I.S. on the new 12-100mm allowed me to shoot handheld while slowing the shutter speed down enough to get some motion blur in the water and keep the rest of the landscape relatively sharp. Sadly, my ND filters were left at home, so I had to stop down quite a bit to f/13, which softened the overall image somewhat due to diffraction.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 21mm, f/13, 1/40s, ISO 64

The fantastic image stabilization also works very well for handheld video recording. Although I mainly focused on still photos for this initial round of shooting, I managed to record a few 4K video clips with the E-M1 Mark II. Not only is the stabilization smooth and very steady when using a lens like the 12-100mm, but also the 4K image quality is excellent, with lots of crisp, fine detail.

Olympus E-M1 Mark II 4K Video Sample #1
3840 x 2160, 30 fps, Handheld: 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro
Download Original (130.3MB MOV)


Olympus E-M1 Mark II 4K Video Sample #2
3840 x 2160, 30 fps, Handheld: 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro
Download Original (123.1MB MOV)


Olympus E-M1 Mark II 4K Video Sample #3
3840 x 2160, 30 fps, Handheld: 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro
Download Original (186.1MB MOV)

Olympus E-M1 Mark II Field Test Part I Summary

All in all, the Olympus E-M1 Mark II is stacking up to be a thoroughly impressive camera. The camera is rugged as can be, though not truly waterproof (i.e. submersible), it can definitely take a beating in some harsh conditions. The camera is packed to the gills with features, settings, and customizations to fit nearly any shooting style or subject matter -- to the point where it can be a bit overwhelming to an uninitiated new OM-D user. And while the camera feels bigger than the predecessor, especially with the battery grip attached (but feels great), the entire system is still much more compact than an equivalent DSLR setup given the compactness of the Micro Four Thirds lenses.

Though I personally miss the simpler tilting LCD from the original E-M1, the vari-angle display on the Mark II still lets you shoot from low angles easily.
Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 200

The sheer amount of horsepower packed into this camera is stunning, and Olympus seems to be utilizing all this technology in some very useful and creative ways, such as with their crazy Pro Capture mode! More testing on this camera is underway here at IR and in the field, but so far from my experience -- especially since I'm an original E-M1 owner -- the image quality is certainly improved and the burst and buffer performance is vastly upgraded.

Olympus 300mm f/4 IS Pro: 300mm, f/4.5, 1/400s, ISO 1000, -0.3EV

Furthermore, some unique touches like dual card slots, Cinema 4K video, a smoother, quieter shutter mechanism, and more configurable controls show that Olympus is listening to customers' needs and feedback. As a camera aimed at professional photographers, the Olympus E-M1 Mark II feels, in my experience so far, like a true professional-grade camera, much more so than its predecessor.

I'm excited to continue shooting with the E-M1 Mark II, so be on the lookout for more Field Tests, where I'll take a deeper look at continuous autofocus performance, burst shooting capabilities, High-Res Shot mode, and its video capabilities.


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