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.
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 most obvious improvements of the Mark II over the original E-M1 are:
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.
January 2019 - Olympus is going to announce the E-M1X soon, which is equivalent to the hypothetical Mark III I was referring to above. As customary, the specifications of this model have already been leaked. Is the E-M1X a significant improvement over the Mark II? Yes, in a few ways, but it does not do any of the things I listed above (besides taking pictures). Am I going to buy an E-M1X? No. The E-M1X is undoubtedly an excellent camera. However, it is significantly bigger and much heavier than a Mark II with added HLD-9 grip. It has the dubious honor of being the largest and heaviest mirrorless camera of any current brand and format. Heck, even the medium-format Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX 50R are lighter by a good margin. Perhaps Olympus has forgotten that the main point of the Micro 4/3 format is relatively small and lightweight cameras, but I haven't. I won't be buying an E-M1X even if its price goes down by a good one-third. Instead, I will regard the E-M1X as an unfortunate accident of a camera released too early for technology to catch up with its design specifications, and will be on the lookout for future Olympus models that incorporate the E-M1X technology in a small, lightweight and cheaper package.
In the unlikely case that Olympus is reading this: How about a new model with the Mark II capabilities in a package half the weight and half the price, with a lineup of three good lenses matching its size and weight, and of course compatible with all other Zuiko Digital lenses? Now that would be something to catch my fancy. Olympus, you were the company that dared to make the smallest and lightest film SLRs of their time. Why not do the same with Micro 4/3 mirrorless?
January 2019 - The E-M1 is now my favorite camera for photomicrography. My only complaint is that I cannot connect an HD monitor to it to see the Live View on a decently sized monitor. The Mark II does, but I use it a bit too often to continuously switch between hand-held and scope-mounted. Using either camera on a microscope also requires me to use one or two custom sets dedicated to this use, and with only three custom sets available, not enough are left for other uses. My full frame Sony Alpha 7R II also has Live View HD output, but its 42 MPixel sensor is wasted on an optical microscope, where 12-16 Mpixel is enough. The Sony full frame camera also requires a much longer adapter tube with internal relay lens, while Micro 4/3 cameras can be used (at least on my Olympus BX microscope, although not on most legacy finite microscopes) for direct image projection with a short "glassless" adapter.
What does it take to use an E-M1 and a Mark II together?
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 together with an E.M1 Mark II is not straightforward because of multiple hardware incompatibilities between the two models:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.