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Olympus E-M1 Mark II review: the camera that warps time

Speed like you've never experienced

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We all experience moments in our lives where we wish we could stop or slow down time. It could be as simple as when your phone slips out of your grasp, or as heart-stopping as when an accident is about to happen. It’s like you’re watching things happen in slow motion, and yet you can’t make your body respond fast enough to do anything about it.

A similar thing happens in photography. Because with photography you’re not just fighting human reaction time, you’re also dealing with the camera’s reaction time. When you spot something you want to capture — a funny thing someone’s doing, the way the light is reflecting off of a building — you have to react quickly, and your gear has to be fast, too.

Luckily, digital cameras have been getting a lot faster over the last few years, and they started to reach a new level in 2016. Sony one-upped the already fast A6300 when it released the A6500, which can focus in less than a tenth of a second and can shoot 11 frames per second.

But it’s the new $2,000 Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II that has, for me, set the bar for speed going forward. It’s somehow quicker than the Sony A6500, and it has a particular shooting mode that essentially changed the way I approached shooting stills. The result is not just that the EM-1 Mark II is fast. It’s that with it, you feel like you can manipulate time.

The Mark II is the second version of Olympus’ flagship Micro Four Thirds camera, the E-M1, which was released in 2013. And while the company is still using this small and somewhat outmatched sensor format — a full frame sensor captures almost four times as much information as a typical Micro Four Thirds sensor — Olympus’ cameras have come a long way in the three years since the first E-M1 was released.

For one thing, in that time Olympus found a way to squeeze an extra 4,000,000 pixels into its Micro Four Thirds sensors, bumping the resolution from 16 to 20 megapixels. The new E-M1 also has 40 more autofocus points than its predecessor, a better battery, and a new generation of image processor. It even shoots 4K video.

Olympus has pushed the Micro Four Thirds format to insane limits with this camera

Olympus has also refined its hardware design chops since the last E-M1, with this year’s Pen-F serving as the shining example — the classic-looking digital camera is one of the prettiest cameras released by a company not named Fujifilm in years.

The E-M1 Mark II benefits greatly from this refined approach to hardware. It’s all-metal and weather-sealed, and it is a joy to hold in your hands. It feels solid as a rock for such a small camera, but it also isn’t overly heavy.

One thing that stayed the same is the E-M1’s electronic viewfinder. It’s serviceable — just not as fantastic as the ones you find on Sony’s, or even Fujifilm’s highest-end cameras these days. The 2.36-million dot screen feels a bit small and not quite as sharp as the competition, though the camera does have a very deep eye cup that lets you get lost in the EVF, which I loved. I hate when I have to struggle to line my eye up with the viewfinder, because it increases the chance of me missing a shot. The E-M1’s EVF causes none of those problems.


What makes the E-M1 Mark II so special, though, is the camera is fast. I’m talking fast like before-you-finish-reading-the-end-of-this-sentence-it-could-have-taken-more-than-100-photos fast. Even the E-M1 Mark II’s slowest modes feel speedier than most other cameras’ fastest.

How fast are we talking? The Mark II tops out at 15 frames per second, RAW or JPG, when using the mechanical shutter. If you use the electronic shutter, though, you can shoot at a rate of 60 frames per second. These sequential shooting modes are customizable, too, so you don’t have to shoot as fast as 60fps — you could shoot at a more reasonable 30 frames per second with the electronic shutter if you’re not feeling totally rowdy.

Like with any kind of speed, there are limits. You can only shoot a max of about 50 frames of RAWs or JPGs when shooting at that maxed-out 60 frames per second speed. Shooting at 15 frames per second with the mechanical shutter, the camera will capture up around 80–90 RAWs or about 120 JPGs. This is somewhere the Sony A6500 actually beats the E-M1 Mark II; at its max speed of 11 frames per second, the A6500 can shoot straight through for more than 300 images.

The E-M1 Mark II is weather-sealed and well built akrales_161214_1326_A_0399_v1.0.jpeg akrales_161214_1326_A_0590_v1.0.jpeg

But the E-M1 Mark II’s limits don’t diminish the power you wield with shooting speeds this fast — there are times when you want to be able to rattle off 50 frames in under a second at full resolution, and until now that was an extremely hard thing to do. Some digital cameras — even some made by Olympus — have previously allowed 30 frames per second capture when using electronic shutter, but those modes (usually marketed as "4K Photo") always came with a tradeoff in resolution — you weren’t capturing the full readout of the image sensor.

I’m an over-shooter no matter which camera I use. Burst mode is my best friend. I still try to make specific choices when I shoot — I don’t just spray and pray — but I’d rather have a few frames on either side of the shot I’m aiming for just in case there’s movement or blur, either on my end, the camera’s end, or the subject’s.

Still, I wasn’t ready for the speed of the E-M1 Mark II. I actually thought something was wrong with the camera’s LCD screen the first few times I tried to review the photos I shot in these high-speed burst modes. It looked like nothing was changing on the screen as I scrolled through the images, and it wasn’t until a minute or so later that I realized this was the result of the pictures being taken so quickly and closely together. It’s genuinely hard to discern one photo from the next at 60 frames per second.

With that in mind, technological limits on the E-M1 Mark II’s speed are almost a help. Dealing with hundreds of photos taken a 1/60th of a second apart is a logistical nightmare, especially if you shoot that way often. I don’t think we’re too far off from a place where AI and other computational approaches to photography can help us sort through those photos quicker — this already happens on your smartphone’s camera roll, for example. But for now I’m happy for the camera to essentially tell me, from time to time, "Enough is enough, you got the shot. Give me a break."

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II sample photos


Where things get really fun with the E-M1 Mark II, though, is in something called Pro Capture mode. It’s another high-speed shooting mode, but it’s more than just straight sequential speed.

Pro Capture takes advantage of the camera’s electronic shutter, meaning you can again pick a "high" (up to 60 frames per second) or "low" (up to 18 frames per second) flavor and the camera will dice up the image sensor’s feed to create discrete image files.

The trick, though, is that when you half-press the shutter in Pro Capture mode, the camera starts writing photos to the camera’s image buffer. When you finally decide to push the shutter the whole way, the camera grabs the last 14 frames that were buffered and writes them to the SD card while also saving the images that you shoot with the shutter pressed down.

This idea isn’t entirely new — action cameras, dash cameras, and even security cameras offer similar shooting modes. But applying this idea to a pro-level stills camera is a revelation.

Absolutely ludicrous speed

To wit, I spent the better part of a decade as a concert photographer before working at The Verge. There was no situation more frustrating to miss a shot that you thought you spotted in time than when you’re in the photo pit. There, you’re constantly adjusting settings on the fly to balance out the changes in the lights, the movement of the artists, and your general position in the pit. I couldn’t stop thinking about how a camera as fast as the E-M1 Mark II, and Pro Capture, might have helped me capture shots I missed in those days. So I made sure to take the E-M1 Mark II to a concert.

Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II sample photos
Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II sample photos

The E-M1 Mark II is fast enough to help you capture action, but it's also capable of catching moments you'd normally miss.

The result was flashes of, but not complete, brilliance. Pro Capture netted me a handful of shots that I would have ordinarily missed, mostly because so much of concert photography relies on your ability to react. Adding a digital buffer to your arsenal that can capture photos in the moment before you react is going to be a supreme tool in the future.

The other high-speed modes were great, too, especially because the E-M1 Mark II’s EVF rebounds quickly after each shot. Some EVFs briefly blackout as you shoot, but even in the high-speed modes, the Mark II never leaves you blind.

Instead I was able to capture a greater variety of images than normal. Beautiful but sudden flashes from the lights, better in-focus shots of musicians jumping around the stage — the EM1's speed caught all these in-between moments that you normally have to be perfect or just lucky to catch. And it wasn't just concerts, either. I found the EM1 Mark II's speed valuable everywhere, like when I was shooting pictures of my fidgety newborn cousins. And the autofocus is fast enough to keep up with the high-speed shooting modes — I was even able to nab a photo of a spit bubble just starting to burst on my dog’s mouth at the dog park.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II sample photos

The E-M1 Mark II is fast, but the image sensor's shortcomings are noticeable in challenging lighting.

My biggest frustration with shooting at such high speeds in this setting was that the E-M1 Mark II tends to lock up after shooting in these high-speed modes as it writes all that data to your SD card. Some of this is dependent on the cards themselves, but I was using relatively fast SD cards (60–90mbps) and it was still a struggle. There are times when you can’t review the photos you’ve taken, or even continue to shoot, when the camera is in this state. You just have to wait it out.

I’m also not in love with the way the E-M1 Mark II’s images look in challenging lighting. There’s not as much dynamic range as you’d find in an APS-C or Full Frame camera, and it leaves the colors oversaturated while also producing noticeable noise at anything over ISO 5000. (You can get away with shooting at ISO 6400 if you nail the exposure, but you just have a lot less room for error.)

Do I think I would have captured better-quality images if I had dusted off my Canon 5D Mark II and shot this concert more methodically? Probably. Megapixels may not matter as much these days, but there’s no substituting the low-light capabilities of a full frame sensor, especially with concert photography, where so much post production is involved and you’re starved for every bit of detail you can get when you edit. Images I took in less challenging settings do look great, though, boasting beautiful colors that are accurate and rich.

If the EM1-Mark II has a fatal flaw, it is that Micro Four Thirds sensor. Olympus has done a commendable job squeezing every ounce of image quality out of it over the years, and it’s fantastic in daylight situations. But in challenging light — especially the bright colors of a concert hall — it just doesn’t hold up as well as an APS-C or full frame sensor.

Now, the E-M1 Mark II has especially good in-body 5-axis image stabilization. So while the Micro Four Thirds sensor might struggle a bit in low light, you can still capture some beautiful nighttime shots with this camera without a tripod. The stabilization just won’t do much for you if your subject is moving.

The in-body image stabilization is remarkable, and helps compensate for the E-M1 Mark II's hit-or-miss low light performance.

The only other thing that really drags down the E-M1 Mark II is the price: that $2,000 is for the body alone. You could buy any one of Fujifilm’s or Sony’s APS-C sensor cameras for that price and still have money for lenses.

A price tag that will scorch your eyes

Unless you’re a die-hard Olympus fan or just have a ton of money to burn, you have to look at the E-M1 almost like you would a concept car. It’s a beautiful object that sparks some serious tech lust, but it also serves as a signpost for where the company wants to bring the rest of its products. If you can’t buy the E-M1 Mark II, you can sure as hell expect Olympus to take some of the things it’s doing with this camera and apply them to upcoming mid and low-range models.

Still, the E-M1 Mark II is a breath of fresh air in an industry that values iteration over innovation. The camera is one of a very few that signal the changes to come that are going to affect the very fundamentals of photography. For the moment, it’s hard to truly imagine where those changes will take us. But one thing’s for sure: the ride is about to get a whole lot faster.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Edited by Dan Seifert