Olympus E-M1 versus E-M1 Mark II  

The E-M1 Mark II is the successor of the previous Olympus flagship model E-M1. Much has already been written on the web about the improvements on the original E-M1 introduced by the Mark II, which make it the best ever Micro 4/3 camera, and about the sharp price increase of the Mark II with respect to the original E-M1.

Physical appearance

E-M1 Mark II (left) and E-M1 (right).

The Mark II is slightly heavier than the original E-M1, mostly because of the new, larger battery. Dimensions are very similar (but not identical) to the E-M1, and the general layout of controls remains the same. However, numerous details differ subtly between the two cameras. The most visible are:

  • The attachment of the neck strap on the right side (as seen from behind the camera) has been moved from the side to the top of the body. This makes space for the higher card door and makes it easier to grip the camera with the right hand without the strap attachment getting in the way. A rubber door covering the connector for a wired remote is now located close to the old place.
  • The mode dial has additional positions (C1, C2 and C3, first introduced in the Olympus PEN-F). You can assign each of them to a set of custom settings. These sets replace the three MySets of the E-M1, so now you can recall up to three sets by using these dial positions. On the E-M1, I reassigned the iAuto, Art and Scn positions to MySets because I almost never used their default settings, but having dedicated positions is better because you don't expect them to have different, default functions. However, in the Mark II the possibility of assigning each MySet to a button (which can be done in the E-M1) is gone. The only way to enable one of the custom sets on the Mark II is via the C1, C2 and C3 positions of the mode dial. More is less, and less is more, according to Olympus, and in this case they may be right, in the sense that the E-M1 configurability is so extreme that the user may easily forget what he configured each button for. Still notably missing in both camera models is the capability of assigning a custom name to each MySet or Custom Set. This name could be displayed as a temporary prompt on the camera screen whenever the corresponding set is activated, thus avoiding confusion. I would be able to use up to a dozen MySets/Custom Sets instead of just three, provided that I could name them. I could have one for hand-held macro (no IS, two TTL flash groups), one for birds in flight with 300 mm and red-dot sight (IS, no live view, only picture review), one for large mammals with 300 mm through the viewfinder (panning IS, only live view, no picture review), one for the legacy 4/3 50-200 mm zoom (which needs a different combination of AF settings), etc.
  • The right-hand grip is slightly larger, deeper and higher, with a "beefier" look, and makes the camera easier to hold with a long lens. The distance from the tip of the index to the other fingers has been increased.
  • There is no accessory port connector under the flash shoe. Instead, the flash shoe has one additional electrical contact.
  • The front of the top portion of the camera, carrying the OM-D label, AF-assist LED and flash sync contact, is sloping instead of vertical.
  • Fully articulated touch screen. There is some disagreement on whether articulated screens are better than tilting screens. The latter do not allow sideways inclination, but are more solid, do not protrude sideways, and their screen mechanisms are better protected against accidental damage. Articulated screens must be swung out to the left half a turn before tilting, but allow the screen to face against the camera body, thus protecting the glass surface from scratches against clothes and belt buckles while carrying the camera hanging from a neck strap for long periods.

Functional improvements

The most obvious improvements of the Mark II over the original E-M1 are:

  • 20 megapixel native sensor resolution (vs. 16 megapixel in the original E-M1), or 5,184 × 3,888 pixels versus 4,608×3,456. In practical terms, the difference is barely noticeable, but it is a welcome change nonetheless, because it allows a more aggressive cropping in post-processing if necessary.
  • A 50 megapixel super resolution mode by shifting the sensor and combining 8 shots in-camera. Useful only with static subjects and on a tripod, but the camera firmware tries to correct for artifacts caused by e.g. flowing water. Moving vehicles, escalators and people, however, cause visible artifacts.
  • Increased number of on-sensor phase AF sensels (121 vs. 37 in the original E-M1), covering a larger portion of the sensor area. In the E-M1, 81 AF areas are selectable, but outside a central oval area with 37 phase sensors, only contrast AF is used.
  • All phase sensels are cross-type (i.e. vertical + horizontal) vs. exclusively horizontal in the original E-M1. This limitation makes phase AF impossible with certain subjects in the E-M1. The Mark II uses both phase and contrast AF in AF-S, and phase AF between images when shooting sequences in AF-C.
  • Improved AF in several other respects. A new 5-areas array is now available (and suggested by Olympus for moving subjects), in addition to all areas, 9 areas and single area of the E-M1. The legacy 4/3 Olympus lenses on the Mark II can autofocus even better than on the E-M1.
  • Higher sequence shooting speed up to 60 fps with electronic shutter (even at full resolution and raw format) and 15 fps with mechanical shutter, with AF-S. With AF-C, speed is lower but still very respectable (18 and 10 fps, respectively). IS can be used during sequence shooting.
  • Proactive sequence shooting (called Pro Capture by Olympus, or Pro Cap H in the menus) that starts recording before the photographer presses the shutter release, in part like the now defunct Nikon Series 1. In practice, once you press the shutter button half-way, the camera shoots continuously (at a speed set by the Max fps setting) with electronic shutter and keeps storing the images in a memory buffer with space for x images (where x is 0 to 14 and set with the Pre-shutter Frames setting). Older images are continuously overwritten by new ones in the buffer. It then continues to shoot for another y-x images (where y is set with the Frame Count Limiter setting, which in turn can also be set to Off), as long as you keep the shutter button pressed. The moment you lift the finger, shooting stops even if the buffer is not full, so you may "miss the shot" by lifting the finger too early. Before using Pro Capture and getting disappointing results, make sure you understand how it works and choose the appropriate settings in the Pro Cap menu. There are two separate sets of Pro Cap settings in the > > H and > > L menus.
  • Extremely short exposure times with electronic shutter (down to 1/32000 s), and much reduced "rolling shutter" artifacts with respect to earlier Olympus cameras. It does not have a global electronic shutter, though, which would completely eliminate rolling shutter artifacts.
  • 4096 4K video, 237 Mbps (you should use a class U3 SD card).
  • Dual SD card slots. Several configuration modes to use either, or both, card slots simultaneously for saving the same or different image formats of each shot. It is even possible to copy all pictures from one card to another in a single operation, so if you have enough cards you don't need to take along on a trip a portable data bank or laptop (if its only purpose is to back up your pictures).
  • Larger, longer-lasting battery, conservatively rated at 440 shots by Olympus (25% more shots on one battery charge, vs. the original E-M1). Independent testers have reported 900 raw + JPG images on a one-day outing with a single battery, with some battery charge still available at the end of the day.
  • More effective IS (equivalent to 5.5 stops, vs. 4 stops in the original E-M1). Combined in-body and in-lens IS with lenses that support this feature (for now, 300 mm f/4 Pro and 12-100mm f/4 Pro).
  • More input/output connectors (USB type C, micro HDMI, mic in, phones out, wired remote in, flash sync - but the accessory port under the flash hotshoe is gone, so you cannot use an external, tilting viewfinder).
  • Software focus limiter, which restricts AF to a configurable interval of focusing distances. For example, if you are using a telephoto lens and you know that the subject will be located between 20 and 40 m from the camera, this setting prevents the lens from racking between infinity and 0.5 m when acquiring focus. Three sets of focus limits can be stored for future use, and accessed through the super control panel.
  • In addition to the customization and configuration possibilities of the E-M1, a few more have been added. On the Mark II, you can even redefine the 2-position lever (at the back, around the AEL/AFL button) to function as a power lever, in case you think the original power lever is difficult to reach.

This list is incomplete. Eventually, I will probably find two or three new features that do not look important now, but will become part of my shooting routine.

Many of the general improvements with respect to earlier cameras are a consequence of the substantially increased processing power of the two 4-core CPUs of the Mark II. Olympus estimates the Mark II to be 3.5 times faster than the E-M1. This power has already been put to good use and, if the original E-M1 is any indication, we can expect major new functions to be added to the Mark II in future firmware releases over the next three years or more.

Price and competition

The massive increase in price with respect to the original E-M1cannot be ignored. The Mark II is almost twice the introduction price of the E-M1, and today, after the introduction of the Mark II, you can almost buy three E-M1s for the price of one Mark II.

After the initial shock, more and more professional photographers have pondered the price issue and concluded that the improvements are worth the price of the Mark II. However, the Mark II is dangerously close to the price of professional DSLRs, and therefore competing with the latter. However, both Nikon and Canon have far more expensive top-tier models (for example, the Nikon D810 costs a little more than the Mark II, while the top-tier Nikon D5 costs more than three times the Mark II). It is clear that Olympus is intentionally pitting the E-M1 Mark II against the best Nikon and Canon DSLRs normally accessible to cost-conscious professionals and advanced amateurs, although not competing with top-tier DSLR models.

The initial sales of the E-M1 Mark II indicate that the market demand for this camera is already exceeding Olympus' expectations. This shows that photographers are indeed seeking a top-quality, smaller and lighter alternative to DSLRs and their lenses, even at a pro-DSLR price.

AF, even in the Mark II, does not yet reach the performance of current DSLRs, although the gap that has always existed between mirrorless and DSLRs is substantially reduced by the Mark II. Full-frame DSLRs also have an advantage in dynamic range in extremely underexposed areas and at high ISO. While a full-frame sensor has four times the area of a Micro 4/3 sensor, the difference in actual light collecting is determined also by lens speed, and fast full-frame lenses are much larger, heavier and more expensive than their Micro 4/3 counterparts. The actual image quality of the E-M1 Mark II is incrementally better than the one of earlier Micro 4/3 cameras, and directly competitive with equally priced DSLRs. All this with the Mark II being only slightly larger and heavier than the E-M1.

Should you buy the E-M1 Mark II? Only if you are sure you need capabilities than the E-M1 does not offer. Are these new capabilities important to me? Since you are reading this page, you already know that my answer is yes. However, this time the price of the Mark II is already at the borderline where I would draw the line, and wait for a "lower" model of lesser capabilities and price (or wait a few years for a substantial drop in price of the Mark II just before the introduction of a Mark III). If Olympus, 3-4 years from now, will decide to produce a Mark III and again double its price with respect to the Mark II, would I buy the Mark III? No. Out of the question. Well, maybe, if the Mark III will also be able to do my laundry, cook and walk the dog. For the same reason, I never seriously considered buying a Nikon D5 or a similarly priced camera.

What does it take to use an E-M1 and a Mark II?

Of course I am going to keep my original E-M1 as a spare body. It is just too good a camera to sell it or pass it on to family relations, and a second body always comes in handy. Many E-M1 owners who upgrade to the Mark II will likely do the same.

Using the E-M1 as a second body, however, is not straightforward because of multiple hardware incompatibilities between the two models:

E-M1 Mark II (left) and E-M1 (right) charger and battery.
  • Different batteries. The Mark II batteries are physically larger and more expensive, so you need to keep (and pack in your luggage when traveling) two sets of spare batteries and two battery chargers. The different number and position of the contacts (see picture above) indicates that Olympus made sure that no one would attempt to use older batteries in the new camera or new charger, to avoid disastrous accidents.
  • Different USB connectors. The Mark II uses a type C USB connector, so you need two USB cables. The good news is that the Mark II finally uses a standard USB connector, instead of a proprietary connector like the E-M1.
  • Different remote control ports. The Mark II no longer uses the proprietary USB port of the E-M1 for connecting a wired trigger remote control. Instead, it uses the same 2.5 mm 3-pole jack and wiring used by several Canon DSLRs (not the 4-pole jack used by Panasonic). So you need two wired remote controls. On the Mark II, the USB port remains available when using a wired remote, which is good.
    Dedicated speedlights bundled with the E-M1 Mark II (left) and E-M1 (right).
  • Different bundled flash. On the E-M1 Mark II, you must use the slightly larger, slightly heavier, slightly more powerful FL-LM3 speedlight (bundled with the camera) on the flash shoe. The head of the FL-LM3 can turn and tilt like an ordinary speedlight (but does not tilt downward for close-up photography). You cannot use the FL-LM3 on the E-M1, or the FL-LM2 (bundled with the original E-M1) on the Mark II, so you need to carry around both speedlights. Both speedlight models draw their power from the camera, so you don't need to carry around additional batteries, but their power is very limited. You might leave the bundled speedlights at home, and carry instead one small, battery-operated speedlight (more powerful than the bundled ones) to use in emergencies or as a wireless TTL master to drive an external, reasonably powerful speedlight. If you use a battery-powered TTL flash unit off-camera but close to the camera, e.g. in macrophotography, then you don't really need the dedicated speedlights as masters, and can instead join the hot shoe of the camera to the off-camera flash with a TTL spiral cable, which takes about the same space as the two dedicated speedlights and does not require the flash to be reconfigured when switching between on-camera and off-camera use. Incidentally, cheap third-party TTL cables for Canon flash units (equipped with 5 contacts) allow the use of the Mark II dedicated speedlight off-camera (but not the E-M1 dedicated speedlight), which is strong enough for most macrophotography up to 1x with a reasonably short macro lens like the 60 mm.
  • Different Arca plates. The physically different camera footprints mean that it is necessary to keep a different Arca-compatible plate attached at the bottom of each camera. You cannot really make do with a "universal" plate. A plate designed for the specific camera model is necessary to prevent twisting of the plate and to allow changing the battery without removing the plate. So far I have not seen any plates for the Mark II, but probably China Inc. is already working on this.
  • The additional vertical battery grips for the two camera models are, not surprisingly, different (HLD-7 and HLD-9), so if you use them, you need one of each.
  • No AC power supply can be connected directly to the E-M1 and E-M1 Mark II for studio work. The battery grips for the two cameras accept a custom power supply, also different for the two cameras (AC-3 and AC-5, respectively, with different connectors). So, once more, you need one of each.

Considering that, except for lenses and battery-operated speedlights, almost all E-M1 accessories are incompatible with the E-M1 Mark II and vice versa, you are, in principle, free to consider a Panasonic Lumix as your next pro camera body, as an alternative to the Mark II. The only problem is that the coming Panasonic GH-5 is going to cost as much as the E-M1 Mark II. If you already own an E-M1, still pictures are probably more important to you than movies, and unless movies will become more important to you in the future, the E-M1 Mark II will probably keep an edge on the GH-5 in still-picture capabilities. Incidentally, the GH-5 is said to be identical to the GH-4 in physical footprint (but not height and several details), and probably to use exactly the same accessories.

If you really value the compatibility of accessories and want a second body, but don't really need the new Mark II improvements or cannot afford the Mark II price tag, then a second E-M1 might be right for you. The original E-M1 has acquired major new functions with firmware updates, and is now a much better camera (besides being cheaper) than when it was introduced.

If money is not a factor and you need two bodies, then two E-M1 Mark II bodies are a good way to go.

Olympus marketing and development strategies: my interpretation

I discuss here a few subjects that relate more to Olympus' development and marketing strategies, than directly to the E-M1 Mark II. Nonetheless, this discussion also serves to view the E-M1 Mark II in a broader context than just as a successor to a popular model.

The E-M1 Mark II continues Olympus' plans to establish three tiers of camera models:

  • The top tier usually contains one flagship model, a DSLR look-alike model (i.e., the style inspired by Olympus OM film SLRs of the 20th century, which started with the E-M5) targeted to professional and advanced amateur photographers.
    The problem: right now, this tier contains two models (original E-M1 and Mark II). I wonder how long the E-M1 will remain in production, given that Olympus needs to free resources to increase the Mark II production because of unexpected high demand. At the same time, discontinuing the E-M1 would leave a very large price and capabilities gap between the E-M1 Mark II and the next highest model (E-M5 Mark II). The original E-M1, in fact, fills this gap very well, so if Olympus discontinues it, a new model is needed. Perhaps an E-M2 (or E-M5 Mark III) that combines on-sensor phase AF and other E-M1 features with a more modern and cheaper construction than possible three years ago?
  • The second tier is middle-priced and aimed at the advanced consumer market (DSLRs look-alikes E-M5, E-M10 and their Mark II successors).
  • The third tier contains non-SLR-looking mirrorless models of reasonable prices and capabilities (E-PL* and E-PM* models), all clearly addressed to the consumer market rather than professionals and advanced amateurs.
  • The current Pen F model somewhat breaks this pattern, since it is a non-DSLR-lookalike positioned, in price and capabilities, between the top of the second tier and the bottom of the first tier. I don't really know how to interpret this model. Maybe Olympus wanted to test whether users accept a top-tier Micro 4/3 camera that does not need to look like a DSLR? Or an experiment to see whether a retro-looking film-Pen-like style meets with the same success as the retro-looking film-OM-like style of the OM-D series?

Olympus' product development strategy differs from Canon's and Nikon's. These DSLR-centered brands have traditionally used a top-down approach by introducing new technology and advanced performance in professional, expensive models first, and subsequently letting these advances trickle down to cheaper products. Olympus instead developed first consumer-level Micro 4/3 cameras, then medium-range models (E-M5 and E-M10) to test the appetite of the market for a higher-priced tier. Finally, they introduced the E-M1, targeted at replacing the Olympus 4/3 DLSRs. They continued this bottom-up approach afterwards, with the E-M5 Mark II and E-M10 Mark II used as field-testing platforms for new hardware and functions that eventually made it into the E-M1 Mark II and into firmware updates of the E-M1.

Olympus' strategy in lens development is pretty much the same. The first Micro 4/3 lenses were clearly consumer products. They subsequently introduced better "premium" lenses, and finally the no-compromise Pro series.

This difference in attitudes is also reflected in the approach to mirrorless of these brands. Nikon clearly wanted to avoid their mirrorless system (the Nikon 1) being competitive with their DSLRs. This, however, was the opposite of what the market wanted, and the Series 1 is now dead. Canon's mirrorless offerings are less limiting than Nikon's, but directly compete with Micro 4/3 without offering a comparable range of cameras and lenses, and consequently have failed to gain much traction in the mirrorless market among advanced users who want to replace their DSLRs. Sony is doing better, with its full-frame mirrorless targeted at a different market segment than Micro 4/3. Olympus decided early in the game that the time had come to give up on DSLR technology and to concentrate only on mirrorless, and they did so.

Olympus is known to issue free firmware updates for all its models. While updates for the E-M5 and E-M5 Mark II have been mostly incremental improvements and bug fixes, Olympus has used the E-M1 updates to add several, rather spectacular new capabilities. Some of these new capabilities were first introduced in other models released after the E-M1, and subsequently added to the E-M1, as discussed above.

Luckily for E-M1 users, Olympus has generously added all the new functions that could be implemented in the E-M1 hardware, instead of enforcing nonsense like paid-for upgrades, paid-for activation codes for subsets of functions, or artificially limited upgrades in order to force camera owners to buy new cameras to get the new functions. No doubt, Olympus has also profited from distributing these updates as a way to field-test new functions before they were added or refined in the E-M1 Mark II. Some of the firmware updates for the E-M1 have been recalled because of bugs, but Olympus has a track record of fixing these bugs with new firmware versions within weeks (except for the necessity to manually reconfigure the camera after upgrading from firmware version 3.* to 4.*, which may be too difficult because of different ways to store the settings). Olympus probably built into the E-M1 a bit more memory and processing power than immediately necessary, instead of penny-pinching and installing the bare minimum to provide only for the immediate needs. If they did the same thing, to a larger extent, in the Mark II, this could help to explain its high price, and to reassure owners that they will be in for a treat with subsequent upgrades.

updated Olympus has now given such a reassurance, as well as details on some of the planned new functions.

The third way in which Olympus differs from DSLR makers is that Olympus designed their cameras to be enormously configurable by the user. The menu system is very large (and has been tweaked and changed at every update), and in addition the large majority of controls can be assigned different functions. The Mark II menus are even larger. Multiple configurations can be assigned to MySets (custom sets in the Mark II), which in turn can be activated in a broad variety of ways (including reprogramming the PASM dial in the E-M1). No one is perfect, however, and Olympus is broadly criticized for providing insufficient technical documentation and very incomplete user manuals that do not really explain what the settings do and can be used for. Olympus users are forced to rely on third-party books and web sites to a larger extent than owners of other camera brands.

updated In the original version of this page, at this point I used to gripe about the impossibility to backup and restore the camera settings. The Mark II still cannot do it in-camera, but the Olympus Camera Update app, since version 2.0, can backup the settings to a computer, and restore then to the camera from a backup file. It also allows you to choose whether to backup all settings, or only parts, like the three custom sets (still called Mysets in the app, although Olympus does not use this name anywhere in the Mark II user guide or menus). The complete backup of my Mark II, still largely configured with default settings, is 313 KB in size and stored in a proprietary binary format. Except for an initial UTF-8 header probably added by the Olympus app and containing the camera name (E-M1MarkII), date and time of backup, a cryptic 1004 that might be the firmware version, and little else, it may be a simple binary dump of the flash memory region where the settings are stored in-camera, so it is an open question whether old backups will remain compatible with future firmware upgrades. You still need a Windows or Mac computer with USB port to backup and restore, so it is still not possible to switch in the field among multiple configurations beyond the three custom sets, or to quickly reset a misconfigured camera in the field to one's individually tailored configuration, but it is a good first step.

The original E-M1 at firmware version 4.3 (or any other Olympus camera I tried, but I don't have all models) cannot use backup and restore. With these cameras, the Olympus Camera Update app gives a confusing error message stating that The "E-M1" function is not supported (sic!).

Olympus full-frame mirrorless?

It remains to be seen when Olympus will enter the full-frame mirrorless arena. They had a chance to be the first, but waited too long and Sony already did that (and proved that a mirrorless full-frame body does not need to be much bigger than a Micro 4/3). Even Hasselblad went the mirrorless way - in their own peculiar way, and perhaps as an act of desperation. A mirrorless APS-C is not different enough from Micro 4/3 to be interesting, so only a full-frame sensor (perhaps of 4/3 aspect ratio instead of 24 x 36 mm) is sufficiently different to capture a new class of users. If Olympus does decide to take this step, it would do well not to do it alone. It should establish a new open standard, as compatible as possible with Micro 4/3, together with partners like Panasonic. The signaling protocols and electrical interfaces of lenses and TTL speedlights, for instance, could remain the same as in Micro 4/3. Initially, the new "full-frame 4/3" format might even use a special 2x focal length multiplier to use most or all existing Micro 4/3 lenses on the new full-frame camera, so that existing Micro 4/3 users will not need to wait ten years for Olympus to develop a complete series of full-frame lenses. In this way, Olympus could bridge the obvious drawback of a new format that is likely to deter advanced and professional photographers, i.e., the restricted choice of lenses.

Once full-frame 4/3 lenses are introduced, compatibility could even work in the opposite direction, with full-frame lenses working on Micro 4/3 bodies via a dedicated full-frame 4/3 to Micro 4/3 focal length reducer similar to the Metabones Speed Booster, albeit with full electronic control of the lenses by the camera body. The Metabones Speed Booster allows only impossibly slow AF with Canon lenses on Micro 4/3 bodies, or manual-everything with Nikon (and other) lenses on Micro 4/3 bodies.

Summary

The E-M1 Mark II is a substantial improvement over the original E-M1 in numerous respects. The massive increase in price with respect to the E-M1, so far, does not seem to deter buyers. This price is already at the pro-DSLR level, and leaves no ceiling space for further price increases in future Olympus models (unless these future Olympus models will credibly compete with top-tier DSLRs in the 6,000+ US$). There is no doubt that the Mark II is currently the best Micro 4/3 camera, and aimed to compete with professional DSLRs.


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