Olympus E-M5 II Field Test Part I
Olympus E-M5 II Field Test Part I
Hot off the press, Olympus' enthusiast mirrorless shoots the sights in beautiful Bermuda
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 02/25/2015
As a technology journalist and camera reviewer these last 16 years, I'm fortunate that I get to shoot with a lot of great gear in my line of work. Sometimes, though, finding new and attractive subjects can be a challenge -- especially living as I do in a fairly small East Tennessee town that, for the last couple of weeks, has been coated in an unusually generous and long-lasting layer of snow and ice.
Thankfully, shortly before the near-arctic conditions hit, Olympus invited journalists from a number of print and online publications for a short trip to the British overseas territory of Bermuda, an opportunity for some one-on-one time with its brand-new OM-D E-M5 Mark II compact system camera -- and I was lucky to be among their number. And boy, did Olympus ever have some beautiful locations in store for us, as you can see throughout this report, and in my Olympus E-M5 II gallery!
If anything, I faced the opposite problem to that with which I sometimes struggle: So many great shots and interesting subjects that I had a hard time whittling them down to a manageable gallery for my first Field Test! During a three-night stay in Bermuda, I shot close to 1,100 raw+JPEG photos, flooding my notebook hard drive with some 23 gigabytes of brand-new data.
Day One's itinerary on the Olympus press trip -- after breakfast and our first chance to get hands-on with the E-M5 II -- took us inside a 10-acre keep dating back to the 1800s, part of Bermuda's historic Royal Naval Dockyard. Now home to the National Museum of Bermuda and the Bermuda Maritime Museum, it was a picturesque location with great views towards Bermuda's North Lagoon, and packed with interesting artifacts documenting the last 500 years of Bermudian history.
First order of business, once I'd wolfed down some food, was to familiarize myself with the E-M5 II. Thankfully, with narrow roads and low speed limits, the 20-mile drive to the museum took the best part of three-quarters of an hour, giving me time to come to grips with the contents of my camera bag. And that's a good thing, too, because I had access to a pretty comprehensive kit. My Olympus E-M5 II body came accompanied by three lenses, a teleconverter and an external flash strobe.
My three lenses were the just-announced M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm f4.0-5.6 II zoom -- an update of the earlier version with added weather-sealing and improved coatings -- plus the M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO and the M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO. Coupled with these, I had the compact little M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x Teleconverter MC-14, which took that bright 40-150mm optic out to a maximum of 210mm with an effective f/3.9 maximum aperture.
Rounding out the package, I had the FL-600R flash strobe to throw a little more light on my subjects. Note, though, that I didn't have access to the tiny FL-LM3 tilt/swivel flash strobe that ships by default in the E-M5 II kit. I did get to see one in person (and found it impressively small, thanks in part to the fact that it draws power from the camera body), but at the time it was the only sample in the country and hence being treated like gold dust. Now that the E-M5 II is available in the US market, I'll endeavor to see if I can get my hands on one before filing my second Field Test.
As you'd expect of a camera aimed at enthusiast and even some professional use, the Olympus E-M5 II is beautifully built, a really solid piece of gear with not the slightest hint of flex or panel creak. The new tilt/swivel LCD screen is a very nice touch that makes the E-M5 II a more versatile camera than its predecessor, and the change to a locking Mode dial as in the E-M1 -- locked on the first press, and unlocked with a second press -- was another change I was thrilled to see.
With no less than 24 external controls covering almost every surface of its compact body, the E-M5 II is perhaps a little intimidating until you've spent some time shooting with it. The controls are for the most part comfortable and easy to reach, and they quickly become second nature -- just expect a bit of a steep learning curve initially, if you're not coming to the E-M5 II from its predecessor.
The twin control dials, though, I felt could use a stronger click detent. As-is, they're quite easy to bump and turn by mistake, and I quickly learned to double-check this hadn't happened every time I brought the camera to my eye. And I was also somewhat perplexed by the location of the speaker, right at the base of the thumb grip in perhaps the one place you're most likely to accidentally cover it. You can still hear audio with it covered, but it'd be easy to forget and think your audio levels were insufficient when reviewing a just-shot clip with your thumb covering the grip.
Those are all relatively minor niggles, though. All things considered, I found the E-M5 II a very comfortable camera to shoot with, and it felt well-balanced with the lenses I had on hand. After quickly resetting the camera to its defaults, and then dialing in my standard review-shooting options (three-shot bracketing with raw+JPEG filetypes), I headed off to get a few shots and a baseline idea of what to expect from the E-M5 II.
After a few shots in the National Museum grounds which showed plenty of detail for a 16-megapixel camera, I headed into one of the dimly-lit halls of exhibits for some lower-light shooting and an idea of how the newly-uprated image stabilization system performed. My initial results were slightly hit and miss, with some shots hand-holdable at impressively low shutter speeds, but occasional shots surprising me with some motion blur at speeds I would have expected to be able to hand-hold without problem. After some playing, I came to the conclusion that I actually seemed to get better results without the viewfinder quite pressed to my eye.
The other new feature I was really excited to try as soon as possible was the Olympus E-M5 II's new High Res Shot mode, which combines eight sequential exposures into a single shot with much higher 40-megapixel resolution. I'd brought along my own Feisol Traveler CT-3441S tripod, and set up in front of an impressively complex clock movement that once operated in the Great Store House, for a side-by-side comparison of the standard 16-megapixel and multi-shot 40-megapixel modes with the same subject and framing. There was simply no comparison -- the 40-megapixel shot showed far more fine detail, and is going to make this camera very exciting indeed if you're a still-life photographer or shoot fairly static scenes such as landscapes!
Returning outdoors, fortune was clearly smiling down on us, because not long after we'd arrived at the National Museum, so too had some much-welcomed blue skies. And good thing, too, because Olympus had a special treat lined up for us next -- a private show at Dolphin Quest Bermuda, followed by the chance to swim with the dolphins ourselves!
To say that shooting the dolphins was a tough challenge would be quite the understatement. For the most part, I used the 40-150mm f/2.8 to try and frame fairly tightly, sometimes coupling it with the MC-14 teleconverter for an even closer view. Predicting just where and when the dolphins would jump was pretty challenging, though, and my reflexes aren't the best. (And bear in mind that I'd been hands-on with the E-M5 II for perhaps two or three hours at this point, so I was still learning its ins and outs as well.) With that said, I came away with some shots I was very proud of, despite some very fast-moving and (for me, at least) rather unpredictable subjects.
I was particularly pleased with the shot below, water sheeting off the dolphin, surrounded by a sparkling spray that's catching the sunlight. Sure, it could use a little work, perhaps cropping in tighter, leveling the horizon and bringing the shadows up some, but we present photos straight out of the camera here so that you can judge the camera's capabilities, rather than our editing chops. Suffice to say, I think a tweaked-and-cropped copy of this shot will be going up on my office wall at some point!
After swimming with the dolphins -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience which I highly recommend if you ever get the opportunity -- we visited the Dockyard Glassworks and Bermuda Rum Cake Factory. With a crowd of assembled press in a relatively small space -- and not the most photogenic of backgrounds -- I only took a few shots of the glassblowing process and some of the finished works, which you can see in the gallery, before we headed back to the hotel.
Day two started with a trip to the Unfinished Church, a Bermuda tourist attraction whose construction started in 1874, and as the name would suggest, was never completed. Structural problems with the ruin mean that it's mostly kept locked up, but we were given special permission to shoot the remaining structure both inside and out.
Probably my favorite shot in the Unfinished Church was that shown above: a camera bag discarded by one of the many photographers poring over every inch of the ruin. A low overcast softened the shadows, and the resulting image wouldn't look out of place in an ad for the bag. I was also rather taken by some of the arches, and the brick and stone pillars, all constructed since the mid-1870s and now heavily weathered. And here and there, tiny little bits of vegetation struggled to gain a grip in every crack and crevice, a testament to Bermuda's foliage-friendly climate.
Even more visually impressive, though, was the nearby St. Peter's Church, parts of which date back to just a decade after Bermuda's settlement in 1609. Tiny but extremely pretty, the church sits in the middle of a cemetery filled with notables from the island's early history, as well as those whose lives ended on ships visiting the area. One particular tombstone, covered in lichen and dating back to 1846, caught my eye.
After trying a number of different angles and effects, I settled on the E-M5 II's Dramatic Tone filter for a shot framed very low to the ground, the tilt/swivel LCD screen helping save me from getting down in the dirt myself. The wizened remains of a cedar that was once used as the church's belfry, and which was toppled in a hurricane a dozen years ago, added a rather dramatic accent in the top right corner. While the final image looked a little more dramatic on the Olympus' display than it did once I got it on my PC, I'm still rather pleased with the result.
With some time to kill before lunch, I headed down towards the harborfront and Bermuda's cruise ship terminal, the latter rather sleepy in the tourist off-season. With quite a breeze building up, the harbor was filled with whitecaps, and provided a rather lively backdrop for everything from jet-skis and sailing boats to a gigantic deep-ocean vessel called the Seabed Prince, one of whose sister vessels recently salvaged almost 110 tonnes of silver from a World War II wreck at a staggering depth of 4,700 meters.
As well as the Seabed Prince, one sailing boat in particular caught my eye, and framing either vessel reasonably tightly necessitated both the 40-150mm f/2.8 lens and MC-14 teleconverter, a combination which I mounted on my Feisol tripod. Given the strong, gusty wind -- powerful enough that once I extended my tripod that it started to "walk" away from me while I was fiddling with attaching its quick-release plate to the mount on the lens -- I gently pressed down on the tripod with my hand to help steady it while framing the images above and below. The results were quite satisfying, with the choppy seas providing some life and visual interest to the shots.
And then it was time to hit the road once more, this time headed for the Crystal Cave, another popular tourist attraction. The cave stretches for a third of a mile beneath Hamilton Parish, connected via underground waterways to the nearby Harrington Sound. It's not the most colorful location, but it's none the less spectacular for that fact, with much of the cave system accessible only via pontoons floating above deep, crystal-clear pools full of stalagmites that formed long before the sea level rose, flooding the caves.
I took the Crystal Cave as another opportunity for a test of the E-M5 II's stabilization system, partly of necessity -- with the pontoons moving beneath us, shooting tripod-mounted simply wasn't possible much of the time. Bearing in mind my earlier experiences, I shot at arm's length rather than with the viewfinder to my eye, and managed usable exposures to as slow as 1/8th second.
And finally, we rounded out our last full day in Bermuda with a light-painting session on the beach. A number of light sources were on hand, including glowsticks, laser-pointers, and my personal favorite, some steel wool that was set alight and then whirled on the end of a short cord to create a shower of glowing embers. Sadly, our chosen beach for the session was far, far too windy, so we ended up at a rather smaller and less photogenic beach adjacent to the hotel.
No matter, though, because in the brief time before the tide came in too far -- the sea was literally lapping around the bottom of my tripod -- and the rain started falling, I got several pretty cool shots shooting manually in Olympus' clever Live Time mode. (If you're not familiar with it, this mode occasionally reads out the sensor during exposure, allowing you to see your image gradually building up on the LCD monitor.)
My best-composed image, shown above, was actually my very first test-shot. Unfortunately, I focused a little too close to the camera by mistake, and somebody switched a flashlight on during the exposure. A second attempt, shot with our fire-whirling model standing on a crumbling, storm-damaged pier was perhaps a little too tightly-framed, but nice and sharp. I'd have loved to play longer, were it not for the encroachment of both tide and rain!
And that's where my trip to Bermuda, sadly, had to reach its end -- just slightly prematurely. The following morning, I awoke to both strong winds and rain, and while I had plenty of time before my flight and the Olympus gear was more than up to the task of shooting out in the elements, I didn't fancy a long and uncomfortable journey home in wet clothes.
It's not the end of my time with the E-M5 II, though, because I still have plenty more I want to look at. Now I'm back home in Knoxville, Tennessee I'm planning on shooting at higher sensitivities and some longer exposures, as well as trying out the E-M5 II's overhauled video capture capabilities. If you have any features you want tested, or requests for anything you'd like checked while I still have the camera in my hands, please do sound off in the comments below!