(Pocket-lint) - Thank the stars that Olympus has settled on a name and number, with the second-generation OM-D E-M5 deploying the "Mark II" badge of honour. That's earned confidence: rather than reaching into the numbers pool and being named an E-M27 or something, the E-M5 II builds on the strengths of the original 2012 model. OM-D has landed
For those already in the know that sets the E-M5 II on a solid path straight out of the gate. If anything, thanks to new features such as 40-megapixel High Res Shot, this is the best fully-featured compact system camera that the company makes - in some senses it even undermines the top-spec OM-D E-M1 model.
But with the likes of the more modern-styled Panasonic Lumix GH4 already available, can the Olympus retro look and feel deliver enough clout for its second round? We've been living with the OM-D E-M5 MkII for a couple of weeks to get a feel for its highs and lows.
In summary, the Mark II adds a vari-angle LCD screen, bumps-up the electronic viewfinder resolution to 2.36m-dots, bolsters the sensor-based stabilisation with a brand new and improved 5-axis system, and tweaks the design with some features cherry-picked from its OM-D cousins. However, if you're already a first-generation user and want a sizeable push in image quality, then the base sensor remains one and the same between the two cameras.
Although the OM-D E-M5 II isn't drastically different from the first-generation model in terms of weight or scale, its layout and look has changed. It's all solid metal chassis with the same splash- and dust-proofing as before, but is now rated freeze-proof to -10C too. So if you're a photographer who likes to explore Arctic(ish) conditions then the E-M5 II has all the weather-resistance you'll need.
However there are now more direct controls to engage with. Premier to these new features is the 2x2 switch to the rear which, once flicked into its secondary position, gives the two thumbwheels control over different actions. Let's say you've just used to rear thumbwheel to stop down to f/8, but want to tweak the white balance - a simple flick of the 2x2 switch and the same thumbwheel will then control both without the need to dig into the menus. It's also possible to customise its action to suit your own personal preferences. It's a great idea that works really well, as seen in the E-M1.
Problem is those two thumbwheels are placed in such a way that we would often knock the front one out of place and end up shooting with adjusted exposure compensation without immediately realising. A lock would be impractical, as the front dial hosts the shutter button within, but it feels more prone to accidental knocks compared to the original E-M5.
However, a lock does now feature on the mode dial, sat up top on the opposite side of the camera, which can be pressed on or off where it remains fixed. Other buttons atop the camera include new Fn3 and Fn4 buttons, which add to the Fn2 function as per the original model.
By default these three buttons are used for HDR, display and shadow/highlight adjustment, respectively, but can be changed to suit your needs. We'd actually be tempted to switch the HDR off, as all too often we knocked the button which sets the camera into that mode - sometimes leaving us baffled as to what was going on when multiple frames were being snapped.
The stabilisation system to beat
Of all the updates it's arguably the new 5-axis image stabilisation system - which counteracts pitch, yaw, roll, and vertical/horizontal shift - that makes the biggest impact. It's said to be good for counteracting 5-stops, making it the world's best built-in system, and that can really be felt. So while the image quality isn't distinctly better between original and Mark II - more on that later - the added assurance of handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds will help claw back the necessity to push the ISO sensitivity.
When we first tested out the E-M5 II in dim conditions, we were snapping 1/4th second shots handheld that remained sharp. It's a really impressive system. The obvious difficulty, though - as with any stabilisation system - is that subject movement can inject its own issues. The subtle motion of a model paired with the rather aggressive noise reduction processing at ISO 6400, for example, didn't resolve the level of clarity that we were anticipating (normally we'd up the light input, but that wasn't the point of this particular test).
One potential downside of the stabilisation system is that it cannot work in tandem with lens-based stabilisation, should you have a Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lens attached, for example. It's a case of one or the other, rather than enabling the lens to combat horizontal and vertical movements and the body to counteract roll, pitch and yaw. Can't have it all, but that's us wanting to have our cake and eat it.
Performance: Added appeal
Using the E-M5 II we've been naturally flitting between both screen and viewfinder use. The vari-angle panel adds real appeal compared to the tilt-angle feature of the original E-M5 when pulled out to the side of the camera, but we don't half find it a fiddle to pluck the screen away from the body. Despite an obvious gap where a thumb and finger are designed to pull at the screen, we just find it more of a fiddle than it should be.
The viewfinder, however, is hard to say a bad word about. It's a huge panel, thanks to 0.74x magnification, delivered with a crisp 2.36m-dot resolution - the very same as found in the E-M1. Save for the Fujifilm X-T1, it's as good as electronic viewfinders get. There's still a bit of ghosting and lag in dim conditions, but compared to the original E-M5 it's streets ahead.
A feature we really enjoyed in the Panasonic Lumix GH4 competitor is the 1/16,000th sec electronic shutter option, because it means silent shooting. The E-M5 II has exactly the same option this time around, which is handy for keeping things on the low, and particularly useful when whirring off a bunch of shots at the super-fast 10fps burst mode. It's not quite as snappy as the 12fps GH4 though.
Exactly how many consecutive shots you'll be able to shoot with the E-M5 II depends on the type of SD card that's popped into the camera (we were getting 10 JPEG Fine + raw shots before slow down, using a UHS-I card). We're still a bit sad that there's not a second SD card slot, especially with the provision of video recording and huge 64-megapixel raw files from the High Res Shot mode (which we'll come to later).
The E-M5 II doesn't sit quite at the top of the OM-D hierarchy in terms of its autofocus system, but it's still super quick and effective.
By pulling the 81-point contrast detection system from the top-spec E-M1, the E-M5 II is a more detailed experience than the older E-M5, with a wider spread of available active areas, but as there's not the secondary phase-detection system, and therefore not the "Dual Fast AF" setup to be found here, it's a little different than the E-M1.
Autofocus speed might not see a giant leap forward by comparison, but given just how quick the system already is all but superhumans would struggle to notice the difference between E-M5 and E-M1. In less than the blink of an eye it does a grand job of snapping subjects into focus, only sometimes rapidly hunting and failing to obtain focus in trickier conditions.
The addition of a touchscreen means a quick press on the screen can reposition the focus point outside of the rigid 81-point grid, and even fire the shutter immediately after. The one thing that lacks, however, is the same degree of precision as offered by the Panasonic Lumix GH4's Pinpoint autofocus - a kind of cross-hair magnifier that we would love to see Olympus put its own take on.
When it comes to moving subjects, the continuous autofocus option has also been improved - but we still find its sensitivity lacks compared to a top-spec DSLR. Moving subjects aren't totally off the cards, but we'd like greater accuracy, rather than the pulsing "between focus" that can happen in some scenarios.
Familiar image quality
As we touched upon earlier the 16-megapixel sensor's resulting image quality isn't drastically different between original E-M5 and Mark II - so is not a primary reason for upgrading. The new TruePic VII engine does handle image processing a little differently, though, which in JPEG shots can diminish the presence of colour noise a little more at higher ISO settings than its predecessor.
Saying that, we were already impressed with what the original E-M5 could do, so the Mark II doesn't disappoint. In a variety of conditions we've taken well-exposed, detailed shots at the lower ISO settings - from hotel pubs on the green, to designer lampshades. It's a shame that ISO 200 is still the base sensitivity, with no ISO 100 option, but that's an all familiar tale in the world of compact system cameras.
Shots at ISO 200-400 are clean and clear and image noise isn't an issue even at ISO 800. Snapping a horse and rider at ISO 800 maintained ample detail, while a fruit bowl snapped at ISO 1600 exhibits plenty of colourful punch and detail without image noise becoming an issue.
Colours can sometimes fall towards a redder cast, but there are lots of in-camera processing options - comprising adjustable sharpness, contrast, saturation, filters and picture modes - for a fuller palette of control. As ever with Olympus there is a range of art filters too, ranging from sepia to dramatic tone and soft focus to diorama. Some are quirky, others are fun, most are of genuine use rather than some of the gimmicky modes offered by some competitors.
It's the higher ISO settings that aren't quite perfect though. A model shot at ISO 6400 - taken to experiment with handheld shooting and the 5-axis image stabilisation system (although there's still some blur shown here related to hand movement) - loses a lot of precision detail, particularly around the eyes, where detail looks "smudged". Although the JPEG frame holds back the worst of the colour noise, the raw file reveals what's really going on.
In the current landscape of system cameras, with Samsung showing off what's possible with the NX1, the OM-D E-M5 II holds up well, just don't depend too heavily on high ISO settings.
The real headlines for image quality are found in the E-M5 II's new special options. Leading the pack is High Res Shot, capable of shooting 40-megapixel images, or 64-megapixel raw files. It's genuinely comparable to a full-frame DSLR, such as the Nikon D810, in this regard.
Using the stabilisation system's movements the E-M5 Mark II can take eight consecutive images, moving the sensor by half a pixel equivalent for each (in an square arrangement, through an anti-clockwise motion), then compile the results into one huge final image. The raw file is 64-megapixels, downscaled to 40-megapixels for JPEG images as, according to an Olympus spokesperson, the JPEG files didn't exhibit any greater clarity above this resolution.
However, there are inevitable limitations with High Res Shot. The camera has to be secure and subject movement entirely absent, so you won't get a decent landscape if there's any wind movement, while long exposures in low-light might result in oddities from cloud movement and so forth.
But for giant still life studio shots - and the 0-50-second programmable delay between the eight frames gives enough time for flashes to recycle power - or architectural work there's great potential. We shot a workbench scene with books, bottles, gloves and other high-detail subjects, with oodles of detail shown in the final result.
Our main qualm with the mode is its lack of information during shooting. The E-M5 II shoots a single preview shot, which remains displayed, before the additional eight frames are taken and processed in-camera. It's all done swiftly, but there's as there's that preview image it's hard to know when the full shot is completed given the lack of on-screen information. A small criticism, but one we hope to see improved in future firmware.
Painting with light
Other Olympus specials are Live Time and LiveComp, which are for visualising long exposures. Live Time, as seen on OM-D models past, is found beyond the 60-second shutter speed in manual mode, and will show incremental exposure updates on screen during an exposure so you can avoid over-exposing a tripod-mounted shot that might be dozens of minutes long.
LiveComp is slightly different, aimed at those who like to make light paintings. Accessed by scrolling beyond the Live Time option, LiveComp avoids over-exposing by taking an initial reference frame and filling in lighting adjustments as they happen. It's niche, and you'll obviously need a tripod, but it's a really clever option that no other manufacturer offers.
Video and more
While the Panasonic Lumix GH4 has a strong focus on 4K video, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II misses out on the Ultra-HD resolution. We can't really see why: there's processing power and enough resolution to handle it, so it seems as though Olympus is holding back for a future launch.
However, compared to the original E-M5 there are improvements, with a 55Mbps data rate seeing more data condensed into a file. The ability to capture at 1080p resolution is supported across various frame-rates, from 24fps through to 60fps (with 50/30/25 also supported).
The core focus for Olympus is the 5-axis stabilisation system though, which is almost like a mini Steadicam to keep shots smooth. True though that is - and we had great fun shooting our own mini movie with a production company, actors and all, at the E-M5 II launch event - we think the company should have aligned itself with the likes of the Panasonic (GH4), Samsung (NX1) and Sony (A7S, via an adapter).
Video also eats into battery life which, as per all existing compact system cameras, is not outstanding. We'd carry a spare to ensure you'll make it beyond the 300 shots per charge mark. However, Olympus' Quick Sleep mode does ensure battery drain isn't an issue if the camera is left on by mistake, where the camera goes into an automatic sleep.
Although image quality and autofocus ability aren't giant leaps ahead compared to the first-generation model, the E-M5 Mark II shows that OM-D has landed. It's a good-looking, classy performer that takes the original's concept and elevates it to a higher level.
Like the original, however, it's not quite perfect. Battery life could be better, low-light image quality finds natural limitations, the menu system can feel overly complex, while new design features such as the rotational thumbwheels can be knocked out of place all too easily. There's also no 4K video, unlike some competitors such as the Panasonic Lumix GH4.
But with features such as High Res Shot and LiveComp, Olympus puts its own stamp on its Micro Four Thirds line. And with a great viewfinder and improved 5-axis stabilisation system, the OM-D E-M5 II secures its place as one of the best compact system cameras out there for enthusiasts.