Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

By Michael Hession on at

Beautiful retro design. Pro-level controls. So small. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was the mirrorless camera for discerning photographers. Three years later, it's finally getting a update in the form of the new E-M5 Mark II. It provides some welcome improvements in feel and operation, plus a flashy trick or two. Is that enough? Depends on you.

The E-M5 Mark II doesn't come cheap. It costs £900 for the camera body alone—no pack-in lenses—and has the same 16 megapixel micro four-thirds sensor as its predecessor. It retains the same retro look, with minor cosmetic tweaks. That was fine in 2012—and it's fine today—but this time, there's a whole slew of formidable competition. Not only from other brands like Sony and Fujifilm, but from the flanking Olympus OM-D E-M10 and E-M1 that offer cheaper and higher-end options. That forces the E-M5 Mark II to make an extra-solid case for itself.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Design

Looking at the camera, it's clear that Olympus didn't want to mess with a design that worked. The Mark II looks mostly the same as the original. The magnesium-alloy body is still weather-sealed, and just a hair larger than before. It's smaller than some other higher-end mirrorless cams like the Fujifilm X-T1 or Sony a7 series, and for sure smaller than any DSLR. But it's not a pocketable setup by any means, and it's not trying to be one.

The grip is slightly more protruding, but as I used the camera it really made no difference to my hands. I love a good hearty grip, like the one on the EM-1. There's an accessory you can buy to make the EM-5's grip more like its big brother. But the whole point is that the EM-5 Mark II is more compact, so it doesn't come in the box.

The OM-D series has always catered to somewhat advanced users, so if you're a beginner, don't expect to pick this camera up and NOT be confused. There are a great deal of buttons, and the menu system is not for the faint of heart. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because there's a pretty comprehensive set of options. It's just hard to wrap your head around it all if you're low on experience. Same goes with the bevy of controls. There are loads of buttons and switches! I love how they are all positioned, falling naturally beneath my fingers. There's a great tactile clickiness to everything except the shutter button, which is a bit soft for my taste.

My other gripe about the control scheme is the tiny directional pad on the back. It's just, well, tiny. There is a touch-screen too, but aside from the sometimes-handy touch-to-focus option, it doesn't make accessing settings any quicker or easier.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

One major design difference on the Mark II is the flip-out LCD on the back. The previous camera's screen only flipped up and down, whereas this one flips out for full 360 degree rotation and selfie possibilities. You could say this is an improvement, but it really depends. It is certainly helpful for video, where you are more likely to be monitoring the camera from different angles. But for stills, I find it more cumbersome to use. It simply takes longer to unfold than the old version that popped out with a flick of the finger.

If you're more of an viewfinder type of shooter, you'll be glad to know that the EVF on the Mark II is the same terrific one found in the higher-end EM-1. This is my favourite electronic viewfinder on any camera—it's large and crisp with very little noise. If you're still in love with optical viewfinders, just check this one out before rolling your eyes.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Image Quality

If you have any experience with micro four-thirds cameras, surprise surprise, the photos are basically the exact same quality as any other, including the original OM-D EM-5 from 2012. These 16-megapixel sensors haven't improved at all. Which sounds harsher than it actually is, because they still make pretty terrific photos. I never get tired of the results I get from these cameras in good light, particularly when it comes to natural and rich colour, and particularly when shooting RAW images. In-camera JPGs are fine, but I remain disgusted by the noise reduction—even when the noise reduction setting is set to OFF.

The best part about tiny micro-four thirds cameras is the terrific lineup of lenses. As someone who owns full-frame gear, I'm often tempted to buy an OM-D just to be able to use one lens—the remarkable 75mm f/1.8. The whole micro-four thirds system feels tailored for prime lens lovers, with many large aperture options available. Bear in mind, some of the newer high-end lenses are on the large side, and can make the lack of a grip on the Mark II all the more noticeable. Even the moderately sized 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens (pictured above) seems heavy and big hanging off the front.

Here are some photos I took with the camera. They are all in-camera JPGs, with the exception of the ISO test, which was converted from RAW with Affinity, with only a small amount of chromatic noise reduction applied. View the full-size files in our Flickr album.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

In low light, it's another story, and is the main reason I can't bring myself to invest in a micro four thirds system. But I'm a fiend for the best low light capabilities, and you might not care that much. Just keep in mind that when you go above ISO 800, you will see noise that is a tiny bit more noticeable than larger APS-C sensor cameras, and much more noticeable than the higher-end full-frame sensor cameras out there.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

5-Axis Stabilisation and 40 Megapixel Shots

However, the difference is minimized when you take into account one of the Mark II's marquee improvements: image stabilisation.

The lauded 5-axis sensor shift stabilisation system was a huge draw for the original E-M5. It works the same way on the Mark II, with the sensor moving around to compensate for your shaky hands, but this time the algorithms have been tweaked to make it a bit more effective. Olympus claims that it provides 5 stops of compensation.

What that means is that if you are in a dark room and shooting at 1/60 of a second to avoid shaky results, but find that it's still too dark, you can lower the shutter speed to 1/2 of a second (5 stops) and the image should still be sharp. In practice, this is a bit of an oversell. If you concentrate super hard, hold your breath, and ever-so softly press the shutter button, it's possible to make a sharp image at 1/2 a second. But in more common shooting situations, don't expect to use such slow speeds. Even if Olympus is overselling it, the 5-axis system is still amazing and works even better than Sony's recent 5-axis system in the full-frame a7 series. But I wouldn't say it's a reason to upgrade.

Another unique feature on the EM-5 Mark II is called High-Res Shot. This is a mode that gives you a 40 megapixel image instead of the sensor's native 16 megapixels. To achieve this, the sensor actually moves in tiny increments after you press the shutter, capturing 8 different exposures and combining them into one huge file. The images you get are indeed super detailed and big, but you won't be able to use it often. Mostly because you have to have both the camera, and your subject, absolutely still. Any amount of movement will give you trippy blurred photos. Also, you can only take pictures at aperture settings of f/8 or larger. So if you are shooting a landscape and want extra long depth of field, you can't shoot at f/11 or f/16. High Res Shot is a nifty trick, but won't benefit most people's shooting.

Here's an example of a High Res Shot scaled down for the web, followed by a 1:1 crop (you can download the full-sized image here):

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Video

Video was not a strong suit of the original EM-5. This time around, Olympus wanted to make it a strength by adding new controls, frame rate options, and a higher bit-rate codec. I was excited about this when the details were revealed, because the image stabilisation lends itself wonderfully to run-and-gun handheld video work, as you'll see in our test footage below.

Unfortunately, the image quality is a bit disappointing. Its lack of detail is just a huge step behind what we should expect out of £900 cameras, even if they're designed for stills. It is better than the original E-M5—which was downright awful—and about the same as the EM-1 in terms of detail. It's also nice that typical crappy video artefacts like rolling shutter and moire are kept to a minimum, and the image is pretty clean of compression artefacts, thanks to the 77 Mbit/s bitrate. Overall, it will get the job done for casual uses, but this is no filmmaker's tool. Watch our video to see for yourself:

Performance

Speed and performance were never a problem with the EM-5. The Mark II has some minor bumps, like an 81-point AF system where the original had 35. Autofocus in general is super super fast, and really, all the OM-D models are. That's when single-point focusing is concerned. Tracking subjects is still not great, but that's kind of par for the course with mirrorless cameras. The Mark II also has face and eye recognition, which is handy and customisable to left, right, or nearest eye in the frame. It doesn't work so well if your subject wears glasses.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

Like

Image stabilisation is second to none.

Physical control scheme is a joy for power-users like me.

One of the most underrated things about the E-M5 is the bundled flash. It's the first I've seen that tilts and rotates just like a large speedlight flash. That makes it easy to bounce the harsh light off a wall or ceiling for remarkably superior flash photos. It's well-designed, and small enough to fit in your pocket. I absolutely love it.

Olympus E-M5 Mark II Review: The Original Retro Camera, Refined to a Tee

The micro four thirds system has a great selection of high quality lenses. I would recommend the terrific and affordable 17mm f/1.8, or the 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO if you're into zooms.

It looks damn nice.

No Like

Image quality hasn't improved in the three years since the original EM-5 was released, despite still being very good.

It's expensive when compared to cameras with larger sensors from other companies.

Hard for me to get over the lack of detail when shooting video.

Should You Buy It?

The EM-5 Mark II is certainly hugely capable as an enthusiast camera for general purpose photography. It suits most types of shooting, with the exception of fast-moving sports and wildlife. The biggest knock is price. Sony's a6000 can be found for half the price, with a larger sensor that means superior image quality. That cam lacks some advanced features like image stabilisation, but it's hard to ignore the value for money. Olympus' other OM-D cameras may also be better options. For £300 more, you can get the top-end EM-1, which has a really nice comfortable grip and more robust focus system. For £400 less, you can get the EM-10, which is smaller and still has great autofocus, image quality, and stabilisation (3-axis instead of 5-axis).

I can't help but feel that the E-M5 Mark II, despite being great overall, is in a price netherworld. And for original E-M5 owners, it's hard to justify an upgrade with no increase in image quality. Until sensor tech takes a leap forward, we're going to have to sit tight with tweaked models every couple of years, and maybe a nifty trick like High Res Shot thrown in. But hey, refinement is a good thing, and there's little to complain about with the E-M5 Mark II.