One ever present issue when it comes to any m4/3 camera is the perception that the sensor is simply not good enough for genuine photography, especially professional use. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is shown to the contrary, there is always one or other that tries to perpetuate this myth. The reality is that for the vast majority of photography enthusiasts and even professionals, the sensor size is rarely the limiting factor when it comes to results, you can get top quality results with pretty much any camera nowadays. The limiting factor always has and always will be the photographer. There is no doubt that the camera can at times make things easier, and digital camera technology has been advancing in major leaps and bounds, but the best camera in the world won’t produce anything worthwhile without considered intervention by the user.
Which brings me back to the E-M1 MkII. The MkI was a major technological leap for Olympus and delivered their most advanced digital camera ever, providing features that were only available, if they were, in the most expensive DSLRs from Canon or Nikon. I won’t go into all the comparisons, as that would take another post and not really add much value, and there’s enough information on the technical features of the camera on the internet for anyone interested in doing such a comparison. What the MkII has done is take the MkI to an entirely different level. It’s a camera that I wish I’d had back in my sports days (as in the shot above taken with an Olympus E-3) as everything I did back then, with far cruder cameras, would be a complete doddle now. Even the MkI is far superior to anything of that era. The photography that I do nowadays doesn’t require that capability, but it’s nice to know that the features are there and they provide other benefits.
I need to note from the outset that these benefits aren’t all available to me because I use legacy 4/3 lenses, which work extremely well with the MkI and MkII, but not as fully as dedicated m4/3 lenses. I stick to the 4/3 lenses because they are simply so good and have been fully paid for to boot. Certainly the m4/3 lenses perform better when it comes to auto-focus on an E-M1 than 4/3 lenses, but in many cases there is simply no comparison when it comes to optical quality. The 4/3 300 f2.8 lens, introduced in 2003, cost AU$10,000 ($13,000+ in 2017 dollars) and the m4/3 300mm f4 lens, introduced in 2016, costs around AU$3300. The extra stop with the 300mm f2.8 of course adds some additional cost, but where most of the cost went is in the optical design and construction. There is no software correction included in these lenses as there is usually with m4/3 lenses. This applies to all the 4/3 Super High Grade and High Grade lenses, they were simply the best that Olympus could make in the day and probably the best anyone could make, or were prepared to make.
Now you’ll have to excuse the fact that none of my testing is scientific in any real sense of the word. I don’t do controlled, repeatability, tests that produce graphs and charts or photographs of brick walls; everything is simply based on actual results; it either works for me or it doesn’t. I’ve already discussed the problem with low-light focus where I had issues and resolved those reasonably well and now the MkII performs as well, if not slightly better than the MkI in a couple of ways. Focus performance is also dictated by the AF sensors and the MkII improves on the MkI by providing cross-type AF sensors vs just the horizontal ones in the MkI. Cross-type AF sensors are essential, as the world is not all vertical lines. That said, the MkI is still slightly better than the MkII, in that the smallest AF point is about a half the size of that available with the MkII. I’ve always used the smallest AF point in all my cameras, as it ensures that exactly what I want is the point of focus.
And continuing on with focus, the other thing I immediately tried was continuous auto-focus (C-AF) and C-AF+Tracking. The former is where a moving subject, coming towards you or moving across your field of vision, is kept in focus. The latter is where a moving subject is travelling less predictably towards you or across your field of vision, and is tracked and kept in focus. They are both somewhat similar but work better depending on subject movement. Professional Canon and Nikon cameras have perfected both to the extent that they can probably track a fly in a Blackberry bush from 100m away. Olympus has made leaps and bounds in this respect and reading reviews, C-AF is excellent and C-AF+Tracking is pretty good with dedicated m4/3 lenses. Since all I have are legacy 4/3 lenses, all I can say is that C-AF and C-AF+Tracking isn’t as good, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how good C-AF+Tracking was with my 35-100mm f2 lens (which has the old focus motor design) at two recent motorcycle events.
Another AF feature now available with the MkII is an AF Limiter. What this means is that you can set a lens such that it won’t focus any closer or further than the near and far limit set. A rudimentary form of AF limiting has been available for a long time, which is set on the lens via a switch, but these settings have generally been woefully impractical and crude, such that they only allow a limit of say ∞ – 3m. This sort of setting is basically useless, as most times you want to prevent the lens from focusing on distant/background subjects, something that was the bane of my life in my sports photography days. Now you can set the limits to whatever you want, such that if you are covering an event where the furthest the subject is from you is say 30m and the closest is 10m, then you can set the lens to stay within these limits. And you can set just about any button to enable the AF Limiter when required, so it’s an easy on/off feature. The only problem is that you have to preselect one of the three options from the menu and can’t do so from the SCP.
And a further, kind of AF related, feature available with the MkII but only with some m4/3 lenses, is what’s called the Pro Capture mode. What this mode does is that when you’re photographing a subject that’s likely to suddenly move, such as a bird on a branch, and you want to catch that moment, you half press the shutter and the camera starts taking a rapid sequence of photos and keeps doing so when you fully press the shutter. When you release the shutter, the camera keeps the shots taken at full press, as well as the last 14 shots at half press, and deletes the earlier ones. In this mode, the camera uses the silent electronic shutter to save wear and tear on the mechanical shutter. I do have a couple of m4/3 lenses and I tried it out with my 17mm f2.8 (which brings up both the high and low frame rate Pro Capture mode) to see how it works, but all it does records the first image and nothing else. I tried it with a bouncing ping pong ball and it recorded nothing but the background. Setting the camera to normal high frame rate mode captured the ping pong ball.
I didn’t intend this to become a story about AF, but given that AF is a critical part of any modern camera and something where the MkII has improved over the MkI, it’s probably appropriate to give it some coverage. In Part 4 I’ll go into other features that may be of interest.