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Thinking of switching systems? Pro photographer and journalist Ian Farrell spent a week with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

There are two sides to my work in photography: when I’m not shooting editorial and commercial portrait images, I write about photography as a journalist. That means I get to use a lot of different cameras – all with their own control layouts, menu designs and handling quirks. When I got a chance to use the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, I was pretty excited – I’d heard some great things about the camera, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the OM-D system. Was I going to have to learn this camera’s ways before I could enjoy shooting with it?

In going through the camera’s menus and functions (and customising its many function buttons) I discovered a lot of features that really surprised me. That the camera can show the results of a bulb exposure as it’s being recorded, for instance, had me exclaiming, “No way!”

I thought I’d compile a list of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II’s features that impressed me the most. Some are new to the camera; others are on other OM-Ds as well, but as a newcomer to the OM-D system, there was plenty for me to think about.

Image by Ian Farell

Small and quick

It didn’t take long before I was really enjoying the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. I know mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs, but many models lose their portability when paired with wide-aperture lenses, and feel unbalanced with an f/2.8 standard zoom. Here, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II is different: with the M.ZUIKO 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO attached, the camera is smaller than a DSLR with an 18-55mm f/4 5.6 kit lens, and gives a way more professional performance.

The second thing I noticed was how quick the camera is to use. It’s very responsive when pressing buttons and navigating menus, and focuses quickly even when tracking moving objects. A top shooting speed of 60fps tells you how fast the processors are in this thing.

Super control panel

Almost all cameras have some kind of quick access menu to save you from the frustration of trying to find a specific setting in the full menu. The OM-D E-M1 Mark II is no exception, but I love the way its Super Control Panel works.

Once set up, it’s activated by pressing OK, and navigated with the cursor keys, front control wheel or touchscreen. Uniquely, the translucent Super Control Panel shows the effect of any changes on the image, viewable underneath, so picking the right combination of settings is easy.

Customising the information display

Talking of the camera’s displays, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the level of information on offer from the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. When I wanted a more distraction-free shooting experience, pressing the Info button gave a datafree view, plus a view with only selected info showing – as specified in the camera’s menu.

Highlight and shadow spot metering

I’ve always liked spot metering, particularly when I have some time to think about the scene I’m shooting – landscapes, interiors and so on. Conventional spot metering requires a mid-tone to meter from, which is not always available. But the OM-D E-M1 Mark II offers two extra options: Shadow Spot and Highlight Spot. With these, photographers can now expose for the very darkest or very brightest tones, which is way easier to do than finding a mid-tone. This is probably how spot metering should always work!

Live bulb exposure

Long exposures are always fun to shoot, though locking the shutter open and hoping for the best has always struck me as a risky (if not reckless) approach. The OM-D E-M1 Mark II takes some of the mystery out of this, however, with its Live Time and Live Composite features.

These modes let you see the image build up over time on the camera’s screen, taking the guess work out of composition and timing.

In Live Time mode, the image is captured in one go; Live Composite mode uses a sequence of shorter exposures to form the finished image – good for photographing fireworks and traffic trails when you don’t want the sky to burn out.

Image by Ian Farell

PRO Capture mode

I’ve mentioned already that the OM-D E-M1 Mark II is a fast camera, but its Pro Capture mode mixes speed of capture with fast reactions, too. The idea is that the camera will capture frames for a short period before you fully depress the shutter release button, adding them to the burst of images you shoot. This makes up for any delay caused by slow reflexes, and pretty much guarantees you won’t miss the moment. I found it worked very well when photographing the fastest, most erratic subject that I know: my three-year-old daughter. I’m sure that for every good picture I’ve taken of her I’ve missed 20, because she’s just so unpredictable. But Pro Capture mode showed me the moment just before I thought, “Damn! Missed it” and often this was the frame I wanted. Nice one!

Keystone correction

I shoot a lot of pictures square-on to my subject, and if one thing drives me mad it’s when horizontal and vertical lines aren’t straight. But sometimes ‘converging verticals’ are unavoidable, especially when looking slightly upwards with a wide-angle lens. I tend to fix this in postproduction (using an Upright correction in Adobe Lightroom), but I was interested to see Keystone Correction in the OM-D E-M1 Mark II’s menu, which promised to do it in-camera.

The technology works really well – the rear control dial adjusting vertical perspective and the front dial adjusting horizontal correction. The bonus is that you get to see the effect as you’re shooting, meaning less guesswork and hoping for the best in post-production.

High res shot

The OM-D E-M1 Mark II captures still photos at a decent 20.4 megapixels, which I found to be enough for most applications. But I was keen to try out High Res Shot, which produces an 80 megapixel Raw file or 50 megapixel Jpeg file. The technology works by capturing eight separate frames, shifting the sensor by half a pixel between each one. These frames are then merged before being interpolated.

Images shot in High Res Shot mode look really good. They’re much sharper on close inspection and pack impressive levels of clarity.

There are some restrictions, however: since the camera captures separate exposures there must be no movement of the camera or your subject. That means using a tripod and restricting High Res Shot mode to subjects like landscapes, architecture and still life. You must also use an aperture of f/8 or wider and ISO 1600 or lower. However, the new OM-D E-M1X does offer handheld High Res Shot mode.

In-body 5-axis image stabilisation

I’ve always liked image stabilisation, and I’m including the OM-D E-M1 Mark II’s system in my list of fantastic features because it works so well! I’m not known for my ability to hold a camera steady, so the camera had its work cut out with me. Nevertheless, I found I could handhold shots down to 1/4sec when shooting at normal focal lengths, which is impressive. The effectiveness of the system increased even further with the 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO lens, which also has image stabilisation built in.

When my time with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II came to an end, I have to admit that I was a little hesitant to give it back. For a camera this small, there’s just so much tech on offer. I’m the kind of person who carries a camera all the time, and I’m used to accepting compromises from small cameras – but the OM-D E-M1 Mark II doesn’t need me to make any.

I’ll admit that I had my preconceptions when I started this review, the image quality afforded by the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor being chief amongst them, but I needn’t have worried. The images I shot with the camera were terrific, and exceeded my expectations. This mirrorless wonder has features that I’ve never seen on a professional DSLR, and can turn its hand to most things.

What’s more, I found myself smiling a lot when shooting with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. It’s a very intuitive and enjoyable camera to use – and in my experience, a happy photographer is a creative photographer.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 62 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.