Olympus E-M1 Mark II Field Test Part II

Putting it all in focus: Testing C-AF, High-Res Shot & I.S.

by | Posted

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 40mm, f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 320, -0.3EV

Get a move on: Testing performance with the E-M1 Mark II

In my first Field Test on the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, I definitely felt like I put the camera's build quality and weather sealing to the test. I didn't drop it on the ground or anything to "thoroughly" test the durability, but the camera clearly withstood some very harsh and wet weather conditions. I was also able to assess the camera's image quality at a variety of ISOs, with which I am quite pleased.

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

One of the E-M1 Mark II's hallmark new features is its upgraded performance and autofocus technology, which is something that didn't receive much attention during my whirlwind trip to landscape-heavy Iceland. I did flip over to C-AF for a few shots, such as the bird-in-flight photo shown above, but for the most part, I stayed in S-AF mode for my first Field Test. In this second Field Test, therefore, I focused primarily -- no pun intended -- on continuous AF performance and burst shooting. I'll also discuss High-Res Shot mode and the camera's improved (and shockingly good) image stabilization.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 800

E-M1 II C-AF: Can a mirrorless camera finally dethrone a DSLR?

The Olympus E-M1 Mark II offers a number of highly adjustable continuous burst shooting rates among its bevy of customizable features. Out of the box, the default burst rates are divided into Sequential High and Low categories and then further sub-divided depending on the shutter mode, mechanical or electronic. For Sequential High, the burst rates default to a jaw-dropping 60fps for electronic shutter mode and 15fps for mechanical shutter settings, either "Normal" or Anti-Shock modes. In Sequential High modes, regardless of shutter mode, the E-M1 Mark II does not continuously focus between frames. For Sequential Low, which will continuously autofocus between each shot, the E-M1 II offers up to 18fps for electronic shutter mode and a very respectable 10fps for mechanical shutter.

As I touched on in my first Field Test, the E-M1 II's 60fps burst rate is stunningly impressive, even if it doesn't offer continuous focusing. It's capable of 60 frames every second in RAW... that's crazy! For typical shooting, even sports, that's probably WAY more frames than most folks need. However, I can definitely see its use for certain critical sporting events such as diving, perhaps overhead shots of swimming, and golf. Basically, if changes in focus are not important or necessary, and you need to capture that critical moment, then 60fps is very welcomed.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/3.2, 1/6400s, ISO 200, -0.3EV
This photo has been edited slightly and cropped. Click the image for the original.

For my needs, even the "slowest" 10fps mechanical shutter burst rate is more than enough. It feels sufficiently fast to capture tons of frames of a brief action scene, while still having a manageable amount of files to sort through afterwards. The 60fps mode will certainly result in tons and tons of images, so be sure to use a large-capacity memory card(s) and have lots of patience as you import all the shots into your editing software of choice!

As I mentioned earlier, I only tried C-AF shooting very briefly while in Iceland, but the few sporadically-moving birds-in-flight I was able to capture successfully with the 300mm f/4 IS Pro came back sharp. I do believe a lot of luck was involved in those shots, however, as I definitely had difficulty keeping the AF point on the moving subject at times, which would obviously cause focus issues for any camera.

Taking to the swamp to test C-AF in the field

Now with the camera in-hand back in the States, I was able to take it with me on a trip down to the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia and photograph a variety of wildlife. I did the majority of shooting from a canoe, so I had an interesting experience shooting moving subjects like birds in flight, as well as stationary subjects from a moving "platform." During my shooting, I switched back and forth between S-AF and C-AF modes while out on the water. The E-M1 Mark II's S-AF focusing speed is so quick that I often felt satisfied, even from a moving canoe, capturing stationary subjects such as posing birds or alligators, by just waiting for the right moment and firing off a shot in one fell swoop. However, even slowly moving in the canoe, I ran the risk of having a slightly out of focus shot.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 100mm, f/3.2, 1/2500s, ISO 400

Yes, the Olympus E-M1 Mark II is great at continuous AF!

Using C-AF, I'm happy to report that the E-M1 Mark II's continuous focusing performance is excellent. Based on both in-the-field experience and after some in-house testing here at IR, I am definitely impressed by the speed, accuracy and overall keeper rate from C-AF. In my swamp adventure, many of my fast-moving subjects were flying birds. Armed with the relatively short 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens for this type of subject matter, I was impressed with how well the camera did on focusing these small objects. Not every frame in a short birds-in-flight sequence was in crisp focus, as I undoubtedly had a few shots where the subject moved out from under my AF point. Overall, though, I walked away pleased, without any sense of frustration or any notion that the camera's AF system couldn't keep up. I feel like any missed shots were more user-error than a camera-related fault.

An unexpected flock of white ibises fly past, and while I ideally should have used a faster shutter speed to snag some truly crisp shots, I was nevertheless impressed with the E-M1 II's ability to focus quickly and not get thrown off by the distracting trees in the background.
Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/3.2, 1/800s, ISO 64

Back at IRHQ, I wanted some more controlled C-AF testing to really determine whether or not my experience in the field was more than just good luck or if the E-M1 II's continuous focusing was indeed top-notch. Our set-up for these tests involved our intrepid lab-tech-slash-cyclist Rob Murray donning our high-contrast football jersey and ride directly towards a tripod-mounted E-M1 II at a steady 12mph (19.3kph) -- which is around the average speed in a game for a college-level running back. The reason for the tripod was to ideally remove any bias from the photographer's ability to adjust the camera position to follow the subject. With the 10fps mechanical shutter burst mode, the E-M1 Mark II pretty much nailed focus on every shot of a 60+ frame burst sequence!

Click here to view this gif with frame-by-frame controls.

Towards the beginning of the burst sequence, where the subject was smaller in the frame, we occasionally saw a frame or two that were slightly soft. Sometimes it seemed like the camera's focusing algorithm over-predicted where the subject was likely to be, resulting in a slightly front-focused photo. Other times, the reverse was true -- the camera focused a bit behind the subject -- but after a frame or so, the camera "caught back up" to capture a truly sharp image. Despite these minor imperfections, the camera never vastly missed focus or lost focus altogether.

Frame 1
Frame 2
Frame 3
In this sequential three-frame example, you can see an instance of where the autofocus lagged behind the subject ever-so-slightly going from Frame 1 to Frame 2, making the intended focus target slightly soft. However, in the subsequent frame (Frame 3), the focus has reacquired the subject to produce a sharp photo once again. This was the extent of the "severity" of mis-focused images that we observed during our C-AF testing, and even then, we only found a few images that were slightly soft out of an entire burst sequence.
(All frames: Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 97mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 200)

It's worth noting that in these controlled tests, while we ideally tried to keep the focus on the jersey, Rob is moving and the AF point is stationary while the camera is on the tripod. As such, there were a few shots here and there where focus was not as critically sharp on the jersey, but rather on other portions of the moving subject, such as the handlebar. We accepted these images as keepers since the camera did maintain focus on the overall moving subject.

We did repeat this test multiple times with similar results, and I also did a handheld run where I purposely and steadily kept the focus point positioned on the jersey's numbers. Again, the E-M1 Mark II performed excellently with a more or less perfect keeper rate.

Regarding the E-M1 Mark II's AF algorithm, an interesting tidbit of information I learned from an Olympus technical rep during the Iceland press trip is that in addition to other parameters, the E-M1 II's autofocus system takes the previous frames from a burst into account as it tries to calculate and predict where and how to adjust focus with a moving subject. In other words, as the burst sequence continues, the E-M1 Mark II's AF tracking reportedly gets more accurate.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/3.2, 1/800s, ISO 64

During my trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, most of the continuous sequences I shot were only short bursts of maybe 4-5 frames maximum, either since subjects weren't moving that fast or they were flying by so quickly that 4-5 shots is all I could muster. However, during our C-AF testing with the bike, the E-M1 Mark II definitely did really well at capturing sharp images the closer the subject got to the camera, and thus further into the burst sequence. We didn't notice any obvious focusing inaccuracies towards the beginning of any burst sequences, but it's interesting to say the least and something to keep in mind when shooting bursts with the E-M1 II. Perhaps it's better to fire off longer bursts with more frames to help insure sharper, more accurate focusing? Time to stock up on larger capacity SD cards!

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1600

We also tested the 18fps electronic/silent shutter mode and came away with some interesting yet somewhat inconsistent results. In the first attempt at our straight-on bike test, the keeper rate, while still good, was noticeably less successful than the 10fps mechanical option. "Perhaps the burst rate is a little too fast for the camera to keep up," was our initial thought.

We then re-tried the silent shutter mode the following day with the burst rate tuned down to 10fps, which you can adjust in the menus. The keeper rate was much better and seemed nearly identical to the mechanical shutter mode tests. Out of curiosity, however, I re-shot the test again back up at 18fps, and the keeper rate was impressive; much better than our first 18fps run and more or less with a similar keeper rate to our 10fps mechanical test runs.

We're not exactly sure as to the cause of the discrepancy in the keeper rate from the first 18fps test to the next one. The weather was similar -- clear and sunny, though Day Two was closer to mid-day sun -- and the camera settings were the same. However, on the second test run, the tripod was set up slightly lower and perhaps the AF point was more precisely centered on Rob as he cycled towards the camera.

All in all, I definitely feel confident using both mechanical and electronic shutter Sequential Low burst modes. As I said earlier, at 10fps, the mechanical shutter burst mode is more than plenty for my needs, but I can definitely see the advantage of the silent shooting option as well. For wildlife photographers snapping pictures of skittish animals or event photographers photographing a stage performance, for example, if your subjects are moving around, you can reliably capture sharp photos with quick and accurate AF, all without disturbing them.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 120mm, f/3.2, 1/6400s, ISO 250, -0.3EV
High-Res Shot: Getting a little more from that 20MP sensor

Introduced first on the E-M5 II, the Mark II version of the flagship OM-D now offers a High-Res Shot mode as well, which lets you captures some amazing photo photos with a stunning level of detail... if you have some time and patience, both on the capture side and post-processing side. We've gone in-depth with this sensor-shifting technology before with E-M5 Mark II and PEN-F, so if you're not yet up to speed with the ins and outs of this interesting feature, please dive into those for information.

80MP High-Res Shot JPEG from converted RAW using Olympus Viewer 3.
Click image for full-resolution file, or these links for the original RAW or in-camera JPEG.
Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 9mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 200

Like the PEN-F, the 20-megapixel E-M1 Mark II's High-Res Shot mode captures images in a variety of formats and resolutions. You can record either a standalone 50-megapixel JPEG or a smaller 25MP version, as well as RAW+JPEG with either the big or small JPEG options. When dealing with RAW+JPEG High-Res modes, it can get a little confusing with regards to the resulting files, as you end up with three separate files: a 50MP (or 25MP) JPEG, an 80MP .ORF RAW file as well as a .ORI file, which is a native 20MP RAW file. In order to process these 80MP RAW files, you'll then need to convert them in Olympus' own Viewer 3 software or install their free plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. Adobe Camera Raw as well as Lightroom CC eventually added support for the earlier Olympus "High-Res" cameras' RAW files, so I expect this at some point for the E-M1 II as well. At this time, you can attempt to open the E-M1 II .ORF high-res files in Photoshop using the plug-in, but I found that it eventually crashes both Photoshop CC 2017 and CS6 that I have installed, so I was forced to use Olympus Viewer 3 to export TIFFs.

A 100% crop from the above 80MP High-Res Shot converted JPEG. Despite the hazy, smoky conditions from the recent wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains, the E-M1 II was able to resolve an impressive amount of fine detail with High-Res Shot mode. Even in this low-contrast area, you can still make out leaves and small tree branches.
Click image for full-resolution file, or these links for the original RAW or in-camera JPEG.

Image quality from these high-resolution images can be amazing, displaying lots of fine detail, but as I said earlier, it takes a bit of patience. For one, a tripod or some other manner to lock the camera down to a steady platform is definitely required. Despite the fantastic image stabilization system (which I'll discuss a bit later), the E-M1 Mark II doesn't offer "handheld" high-res shooting. With the camera capturing eight frames in rapid succession, the camera really needs to be stationary in order to stitch the frames together accurately. Hauling around a tripod, for me at least, isn't always feasible or the most convenient, but you really need one to take full advantage of High-Res Shot.

One of the other major caveats to the usefulness of High-Res Shot mode is that you definitely need your subject matter to be absolutely still. Any kind of movement, be it leaves blowing in the wind, a person walking or a car passing by, will wind up either with an odd blurriness or appear as a sort of multi-shot, staggered object due to the 8-frame sequence. Thus, High-Rest Shot mode is perhaps most ideally suited for architectural or product photography where things are usually static, yet higher resolution detail is desired.

Excellent fine detail on the stationary subjects, but as you can see from the car, High-Res Shot cannot handle moving subjects very well, resulting in this repeated image stitching error.
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 12mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 64

On a more subtle note, in the earlier High-Res-compatible Olympus cameras, smaller moving objects, such as ripples on the water and distance tree leaves, could result in noticeable jagged edges or repeated linear artifacts. According to Olympus, the E-M1 Mark II is supposedly better able to compensate for these types of object movements during the multi-shot process thanks to the camera's improved image processing system. However, in my experience, I am still able to see these unwanted artifacts in E-M1 II High-Res photos upon close inspection.

A 100% crop from the earlier 80MP High-Res Shot converted JPEG. Despite the claimed improvement to High-Res Shot image processing, the E-M1 II can still produce noticeable artifacts from small object movement.

Here is another example, this time from a 40MP in-camera JPEG. Again, you can see the odd, digital-like artifacts from the 8-frame stitching process.
Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/6.3, 1/13s, ISO 64

On the other hand, in certain cases, High-Res Shot mode can, in fact, play nicely with moving objects, such as with waterfalls and streams. As it turns out, the 8-frame multi-shot nature of High-Res Shot mode makes it rather handy at shooting longer exposure shots of moving water without the need for a neutral density filter.

While out visiting some waterfalls near the Blue Ridge Parkway recently, I had the 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro lens on the E-M1 Mark II, which, given its design, doesn't now allow for screw-on filters. My 77mm B+W 10-stop ND filter, therefore, remained in my bag. However, if the light levels allow it, you can keep your shutter speed slow enough during a High-Res Shot sequence that not only do you get artifact-free images (or extremely minimal artifacts) but also that smooth flowing water effect. Nice! (Thanks to Michael Palmer from Steve's Digicams for alerting me to this trick.)

In this High-Res Shot, the shutter speed was set to 0.5s, and was therefore slow enough to prevent any stitching artifacts from becoming visible.
Olympus 25mm f/1.2 Pro: 25mm, f/8, 0.5s, ISO 64, -0.7EV

The Olympus E-M1 Mark II's image stabilization is insane!

One of the notable features about Olympus OM-D cameras, as well as many other PEN models, is the body-based image stabilization system. With the introduction of the 300mm f/4 Pro and now the 12-100mm f/4 Pro lenses, however, which both have optical image stabilization built-in, certain Olympus cameras can now take advantage of the combined 5-axis Sync I.S. system that combines the sensor-shift I.S. and these lenses' optical I.S. systems for some really impressive results. Now, with the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, though, they've taken it a step further. Not only does the camera itself provide a claimed 5.5-stops of I.S., but together with the 12-100mm, the pair is said to offer up to a whopping 6.5 stops of vibration compensation, allowing for handheld shooting at some shockingly long exposure times.

I initially got hands-on with the 12-100mm f/4 Pro lens during my Iceland trip, although most of my shooting occurred during the daytime. This led to most of my attempts at handheld slow shutter speed testing requiring a heavily shopped-down aperture in order to prevent overexposure, but this negatively affected image sharpness. During the majority of my shooting time for this field test installment, our 12-100mm review unit was shipped up to Maine for a hands-on test with Jeremy Gray, so I stuck mostly to the 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens for my hand-held testing. However, even with a non-Sync I.S.-compatible lens, the E-M1 Mark II allowed me to capture images, all handheld, at shutter speeds I didn't think were possible.

Handheld for 4s!
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 12mm, f/2.8, 4s, ISO 200

As you can see from the example photo above, I was able to handhold the camera and capture a sharp nighttime photo lit only by moonlight and a porch light with a shutter speed of four seconds long at ISO 200! More impressive still is that I was able to carefully -- after a few attempts -- capture a photo handheld at 42mm eq. at an exposure time of six seconds. The one downside I've experienced, however, is that the image stabilization is now so good that shutter speeds can therefore get slow enough that you run into issues with motion blur of your subjects!

A handheld 6-second exposure taken at 5:50pm after sunset.
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 21mm, f/4, 6s, ISO 200

Overall, with or without Sync I.S.-compatible lenses, the image stabilization system in the E-M1 Mark II is fantastic. It does take a bit of focus and technique to get really sharp images at these excessively slow shutter speeds. You can't just snap away like you're taking a normal shot, especially if you want to get shots with seconds-long exposure times! I've found enabling Silent (electronic) shutter mode; having a firm, stable, two-handed grasp of the camera and lens; and slowly, calmly exhaling while you depress the shutter all help to reduce vibrations and movement and increases your chances of a crisp photo.

Beefier battery is better: Shooting two full days on one charge

Lastly, I wanted to mention some extra notes on the E-M1 Mark II's battery life before I wrapped up this Field Test. As I mentioned in the first Field Test, the E-M1 II sports a beefier battery, and during my Iceland trip, I was able to last for a full day on a single battery pack. Given that I had access to a secondary battery in the grip as well as the comfort in knowing that I'd be able to recharge them overnight in the hotel, I was a little more liberal in my power consumption and playing with different modes and features, like 4K video recording, for example.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s, ISO 400

However, during my recent swamp trip, I only had a single battery from my E-M1 II review unit. I was camping in an area where I had access to electricity, but I was curious to see if I could manage to shoot over an entire weekend on a single charge. I arrived in the Okefenokee late Friday afternoon, shot some that evening, but then early in the morning on Saturday I topped-up the battery to 100% and started my little test. Throughout the weekend, I was a bit more conscious of battery consuming features, so during periods of inactivity, I'd physically turn off the camera rather than let it power-off automatically. I also disabled the built-in Wi-Fi radio as well as flipped the LCD around every now and then and used just the EVF.

The result? Turns out, the battery performance of the E-M1 II is surprisingly good, and I did indeed make it back home to Atlanta on Sunday evening with battery power remaining (approximately 17% or so), after shooting around 900 or so RAW+JPEG images over the course of the weekend trip. I even had more than enough juice to re-enable Wi-Fi, setup the O.I. Share app on my iPad and transfer some 20MP JPEGs over for quick editing and sharing. In the end, I didn't even deplete the battery pack. Suffice it to say, I'm rather impressed with the battery life of the E-M1 II, and in my experience, the battery like of the Mark II definitely feels superior to the original E-M1.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 500
Field Test Summary: The best Micro Four Thirds camera

After shooting with the Olympus E-M1 Mark II now in a variety of situations and environments, I've upheld my high praise for this new flagship Micro Four Thirds camera. It is capable of capturing excellent images, in harsh conditions if need be, at both low and higher ISOs -- though, as a Micro Four Thirds camera, it is still at a disadvantage at higher ISOs compared to larger-sensored cameras. And now, I feel confident that the claimed performance improvements to sequential shooting and continuous autofocus pass muster, further pushing the OM-D system closer to matching, if not meeting the long-standing advantages of DSLRs with regards to sports and wildlife photography.

As a whole, the Olympus E-M1 Mark II is a significant upgrade over the already-great original E-M1. Ergonomically, its improvements are subtle but welcomed; the performance is vastly improved, especially when it comes to photographing fast-paced subjects; and the image quality is noticeably better. If size and weight are important factors for how you pick your camera gear and you're willing to accept some compromise on high ISO performance, then the Olympus E-M1 Mark II is absolutely worth considering given all that it offers in such a compact, well-built package. Olympus aimed high going after the professional and advanced photographers with the original E-M1, but the camera just didn't quite get there for all use-cases. But now I think the E-M1 Mark II adds the necessary performance improvements that really warrant the professionals and other high-end users who held out initially to take a second look at the Olympus OM-D system.


Buy the Olympus E-M1 II

Editor's Picks