Bermuda Bound with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II & TG-860
A small island nation in the middle of Atlantic, Bermuda has flavors of England, the Caribbean, and a little bit of Cape Cod thrown in for good measure. February is off season, the weather much wetter and milder than peak months, but the breeze was fresh, the waters aqua blue, and it felt like we had the whole island to ourselves.
In short, the perfect place to test out two new Olympus cameras.
Swimming with Dolphins
Before we get to our main course below, let’s take a little tangent into the other camera Olympus announced last week. The TG-860 is Olympus’ new flagship Tough Series camera. I already wrote a little bit about it in my Hands-on Preview and, of course, we’ll be conducting an in-depth Full Review in the next couple weeks. In terms of specs, it features a 16MP BSI CMOS image sensor, built-in GPS & Wi-Fi, Full 1080p HD video recording, some pretty impressive depth and durability ratings, and a tilting display to help you take underwater selfies.
Apparently, Bermuda turned an old Naval fort into a Maritime Museum that also includes a Dolphin Show. It’s a little absurd to juxtapose friendly marine animals with a building that was designed to engage in open warfare, but, hey, why not? The staff at Dolphin Quest were wonderful, and the animals seemed both enthusiastic and well cared for.
The TG-860 performed quite well despite my (bad) habit of tilting it upwards when placed under water. Still images looked good, with sharp focus, particularly shots reflecting blue skies (basically, anything pointing away from the sun). Backlit photos weren’t as color accurate. Also, Burst Shooting underwater was a bit of a challenge without practice.
The TG-860 also takes Full HD 1080/60p videos, but because I was rushing, I managed to only get 1080/30p with no sound. Others experience the sound issue, with some variation, so I’m not sure if it was a firmware bug or a menu setting that needs adjusting.
Regardless, the TG-860 takes some very nice underwater HD videos. It helps to have less murky water, and different angles in relation to the sunlight affect color temperature dramatically, but this is pretty good video for a point-and-shoot.
OM-D E-M5 Mark II
Time for the main attraction. Our First Look Hands-on Preview has more specs (and look Full Review shortly), but the E-M5ii is Olympus’ mid-range Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera system, existing between the flagship E-M1 and entry-level E-M10.
The E-M5ii is the perfect camera for photographers looking to step up from entry-level DSLRs, but who don’t necessarily want added bulk. Available in all black, silver/black, or a limited titanium edition, the E-M5ii looks classically retro, but don’t let looks fool you. This camera brims with new technology.
Inside a compact magnesium alloy body almost a little too small for my hands, a 16MP Live MOS sensor captures JPEG or RAW still image files, and can record Full 1080p HD movies at 24p, 30p, or 60p. The E-M5ii is also fully gasketed, allowing you to not only operate in colder temps, but also survive weather and water just short of an actual plunge (please avoid).
Having more experience with Canon DSLRs, I was a bit surprised to see an on/off switch on the body’s top left, along with three separate dials and six programmable Fn (function) buttons. The left dial is a Scene selector, where you swap between Automatic, Manual, and Movie modes as well as accessing Art Filters and pre-programmed Scenes. The two dials on the right adjust aperture and shutter speed adjustments, or white balance and ISO selection. If you’d prefer to not use dials, a “Super Control Panel” (a panel with access to almost every setting available in whatever mode you are currently using) is accessible simply by clicking the “OK” button. And, if you decide to go deeper into the E-M5ii’s menu, it automatically saves where you were so you do not have to start over each time. Overall, there’s a fluidity to the OM-D layout that is extremely efficient. You can flip between set-ups on the fly and really shoot quickly.
In addition to the camera itself, the OM-D line has tons of available accessories, including a weatherproof bounce/swivel flash (FL-M3), a grip with an external headphone jack (HLD-8G), and an external dot sight (EE-1) so you can keep both eyes open while tracking subjects, a power batter holder/grip (HLD-8), a large eyecup (EP-16) for those with glasses, and an underwater housing (PT-EP13) among others. Individual photographers will have different needs, but for my hard earned coin, the HLD-8G (grip only) or HLD-8 (grip & battery holder) are Must Own Accessories. Not only because you can monitor audio, but because the E-M5ii body is so compact you’ll enjoy having a little more body to grip.
The E-M5ii is capable of Continuous Shooting at up to 10fps in RAW, and a little faster in JPEG. Engage this mode and you can easily track fast-moving objects like swimming dolphins, everything in focus thanks to the 81-point AF system and a 1/8000 shutter. If you want to be more stealth, there’s a silent mode that uses a 1/16000 electronic shutter. Here’s a sample of photographs using standard settings, ranging from Automatic to Manual to Aperture Priority (A) modes.
High Res Shot Mode
High Res Shot captures a 40MP JPEG or a 64MP RAW image by shifting the image sensor eight times over one second. The resulting image should rival those captured by Full Frame sensors, but High Res Shot requires a tripod as well as a static subject. In other words, it’s perfect for studio work. Also, if you plan to use the RAW file format, you’ll need to add a free plug-in to Adobe Photoshop (CS4 or later). Here’s my example, taken from my hotel patio.
Unfortunately, I had to compress the above image due to a file size limitation, so it’s not the full 40MB. However, here’s an extreme crop to demonstrate the resolution difference between 16MP and 40MP High Res Shot jpegs.
World’s Most Powerful Image Stabilization
5-Axis (yaw/pitch/roll/vertical shift/horizontal shift) VCM Image Stabilization migrates from the E-M1 to the E-M5ii, but it’s been improved in this modle, now allowing for 5-steps of exposure compensation, even working in a 1/4 second shutter speed. In other words, this IS system is world class and bests Olympus’ current generation flagship models. Oh, and you can preview this system in action (stills or video) by depressing the shutter button half way.
In this first video example, I walked briskly down a flight of stairs where the camera shot video almost as smooth as a multi-thousand dollar Steadicam rig.
In this next shot I was standing in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church in St. George, Bermuda, looking down on the town square. Admittedly, this video isn’t the smoothest, but I wouldn’t fault Olympus engineering until you get this specifics. You see, I’m at full telephoto on an M.ZUIKO 40-150mm f2.8 PRO lens. In 35mm terms, I’m zoomed to 300mm, shooting video hand held in brisk wind, pretty much the least ideal conditions imaginable. The E-M5ii’s IS system works so well, it basically looks like I’m using a tripod that doesn’t pan perfectly.
Honestly, with a little more practice, and in the right conditions, this improved 5-axis system is a killer feature. I would heartily recommend the E-M5ii (and whatever future cameras include this system) to aspiring and budding filmmakers.
Much of my time was spent experimenting with settings and options, simultaneously learning how to use this camera system while trying to record my impressions for my Hands On Preview and this Darkroom Blog entry. For this reason, it only took a few hours of heavy use to drain the E-M5ii’s Lithium Ion Battery (BLN-1). I would recommend picking up a spare if you’re going to be using the E-M5ii for a long day. That said, once you’ve mastered your preferred settings and modes, engaging Quick Sleep Mode should extend a full battery’s capability up towards 750 shots, which is double what I experienced.
Fun with Depth-of-Field
We tested out three different lenses on this trip. The aforementioned $1,500 M.ZUIKO 40-150mm f2.8 PRO and its sister lens, the $1,000 M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO, are stunning lenses. Not quite professional, but very bright for when you want shallow depth of field or lots of zoom range. More on these in a moment. The third lens was an M.ZUIKO ED 14-150mm f4.0-5.6 II. At $600, this 10.7x standard zoom lens offers a 28-300mm range (35mm equivalent) as well as added dust and weather sealing compared to the previous generation, plus an included lens shade. I have to admit I was starstruck by the more expensive models, but as the E-M5ii has not been announced with a kit, I’d probably get this all-in-one lens because it offers a lot of value and range for the dollar.
Back to those PRO lenses. An f/2.8 maximum (and constant) aperture is an addicting experience for the simple reason that, at any zoom length, you don’t have to adjust your settings to compensate for a maximum aperture that decreases as you zoom. These two lenses certainly can’t compete with brighter prime lenses, and sometimes it’s a pain to swap them out, and they aren’t what anyone, other than pros, would call cheap, but they produce very clear images with no signs of distortion or discoloration. And they’re fast.
On Day Two of the trip, I decided it would be fun to demonstrate the importance of carefully selecting your aperture for desired effect. Our more seasoned readers are obviously aware of this, but if you’re a little green when it comes to shooting, here’s the deal. When you operate with the maximum aperture setting (the smallest F-number), your aperture is at its widest point. With this set up, you highly compress the camera’s available “depth-of-field”, which gives photographs a cinematic look. Very sharp focus on your subject with the background fuzzy. The more you close down the aperture (the larger the F-number), the more you extend depth of field, making everything in focus.
With two bright lenses like these, it was a treat to shoot at the Unfinished Church in St. George, where textures and unique angles were aplenty. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of maximum and mid-level aperture shots of the same subject matter.
While more advanced photographers will be more interested in overall picture quality, the E-M5ii includes 13 Art Filters for a high resolution version of things you might see on Instagram. They include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Cross Process, Gentle Sepia, Dramatic Tone, Key Line, WaterColor, Vintage, Partial Color. My favorites over the two days were Dramatic Tone, which crushes shadows, adding perceived texture and menace to just about anything you’re shooting. Diorama also proved useful in mimicking tilt-shift photography, even in video mode.
In addition to the Art Filters, the E-M5ii includes a couple different HDR (High-Dynamic Range) modes which can be accessed from a dedicated Fn button. I wasn’t able to take any stunning images here, but HDR proves useful in scenarios where proper exposure is challenge. For example, here’s what’s left of the Unfinished Church’s tallest tower. With automatic settings engaged, but stonework is too dark while the grey sky blows out. In HDR, detail returns to everything.
When most photographers want to do long exposures at night to capture city or starscapes, they often use the longest shutter exposure times, or engage the manual Bulb Mode, which allows you to, with one click, open your shutter, and close it with a second. Olympus improves upon Bulb Mode last year with Live Time, which acts like Bulb Mode, but provides a live preview as your image builds itself on the display. Basically, with each second passing, you see more and more light accumulating.
Live Composite Mode takes this one step further by taking one base picture, and then slowing adding light to it during a second, longer exposure by prioritizing new light and new moving objects. So, if you take a picture of a city skyline, it only adds new information, moving car lights or stars are added while buildings maintain the original exposure. I’m not sure if I described it well, but it works pretty great and it’s much easier to manage than using the traditional Bulb Mode, which involves some guess work, and improves upon Live Time because you have a much better idea of what the final image will look like. It’s also worth noting that you can really push the E-M5ii’s ISO levels, which remain noise-free longer than I expected.
If you like shooting nighttime pictures, definitely consider an O-MD E-M5 Mark II.
Thanks again to Olympus for inviting Steve’s to be among the first in the world to review the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. It’s a great little camera, and I can’t wait to learn more. Please stay tuned to Steve’s Digicams for a full review coming later this month.