Sunday, April 3, 2016

Olympus Em5 Mark II 6 month review


In October 2015 I switched from using my Panasonic gx7 to using an Olympus Em5 Mark II as my main camera. I have been using the Em5II solely since then and have become very familiar with it. I will be reviewing this camera as it relates to my personal usage.
Keep reading after the break.

The Olympus Em5 Mark II is the follow up to the best selling m43 camera to date the Em5. The Olympus Em5 marked the time when m43 came into it's own. It had a class leading stabilization system, great evf, great iq, good manual controls, weather sealing, and a vintage slr styling that proved to be very popular. Great as it was though the Em5 became outdated in some areas and was capable of being improved in others. Enter the Em5 Mark II.

The Em5 Mark II is at first glance merely a rehash of its predecessor. They look quite similar, are close to the same size, and the iq is basically the same. However when you get more intimate with this camera the changes become readily apparent. The evf is larger, the dials are more substantial, the buttons click assuredly instead of mushily, and the grip has been improved. The camera looks and feels like a more serious tool. And it is.
First lets address the obvious changes. Ergonomics and the EVF.


First off let me be clear, I have held and used the em5 original for a very short time. I have not owned one nor have I done any prolonged shooting with it. In fact the Olympus em5 Mark II is my first Olympus camera after 2 Panasonics. That said the em5 mark II is definitely an ergonomic improvement over the em5 original. 

The larger and more pronounced thumb grip, larger hooked grip on the front of the camera, improved buttons resistance "clickiness" and placement,  all work together to create a much better handling camera. If you shoot using the small great m43 primes you will have no problems using this camera as it comes out of the box.

Having said that the ergonomics fall a bit short for me and my usage. I use the Voigtlander noktons on a daily basis and the 10.5mm spends quite a lot of time on the camera while one handing it. The built in grip is insufficient for this usage. If you want to use larger primes, or zooms, one handed you will need an accessory grip. I knew this before I bought the camera and purchased the fotodiox em5 mark II grip along with the camera. This vastly improves the ergonomics and makes me feel very comfortable with the camera one handed. I found I preferred the fotodiox grip to the Olympus one because the fotodiox grip still gives you battery door access. With the Olympus grip you must remove it to change the batteries. 

Another issue that many people point out is the strange location of the power switch on the top left of the camera. This just requires a 2 handed start up. A bit odd but not deal breaking. One however that I have not seen people mention is the difficulty opening the lcd. If you are in cold conditions and wearing even thin gloves it can be very difficult to get the rear lcd open. I find this a bit irritating but have learned to deal with it. I also recommend buying the large eyecup. This doesn't fall off as easily as the stock eyecup which I lost within 2 weeks. I glued mine to the camera.


The em5 mark II comes with the same fantastic evf that debuted in the em1 and vf4 viewfinders. It offers a large .74x magnification, 2.36 million dots, great color, and low lag. It is a large improvement over the original em5 and also a great improvement over the g6 and gx7 I used previously. 

With the em5 mark II Olympus has chosen to step up their evf game in some ways though. The em5 mark II now offers new live view boost modes, which I wont tell you about because I don't use any of them, and a simulated ovf which is interesting for flash users. They have also taken the opportunity to greatly improve the focus peaking functionality and offer 3 colors. The method of peaking has changed to become more like Panasonic's, a sort of shimmering highlight. The peaking is very accurate and IMHO is much better than on my gx7 and g6. I use it at all times. It does have its issues however. The view through the evf does slow down slightly right when you engage it but it smooths out after a second, and upon half pressing the shutter button peaking disappears (my biggest complaint). You cannot have peaking enabled while in a monochrome live view like the Panasonic cameras, and peaking has to be activated by button every time you want to use it. The Panasonic cameras detect that no af lens is attached and activate peaking by default if you have this set in the options. This is a great feature and leaves me a bit annoyed at my Em5II where changing my ISO causes me to have to re-engage peaking. This is not the only software feature my gx7 had that I wish my em5II offered. The other relates to ibis which I'll get to later.

The simulated ovf is exactly what it sounds like. The camera controls the gain and whit balance through the evf to simulate what looking through an ovf would look like. This is useful for flash photographers where settings may prevent an image that can be seen clearly through the viewfinder or using gels where they need to compensate for ambient light.

Onto Improved Functions

While there are some new features in the em5 Mark II I will quickly cover a few improved functions first. These include IBIS and Video Features  


The Olympus em5 debuted with a powerful 5 axis ibis (in body image stabilization) system which functioned for any mounted lens and offered a stabilized live view while composing. This is a powerful tool and even allows you to shoot decades old manual primes with quality stabilization of up to 4 stops in the body. The Em5 Mark II has taken this a step farther and now is rated for 5 stops of stabilization improvement. This means that with a normal lens of 25mm (with m43 you shoot with a shutter speed 2x the focal length as the general rule to avoid handshake blur) one can shoot at shutter speeds as low as 1/1.5 of a second and still get a sharp image. This makes shooting landscape photos or still life images in low light far easier and allows m43 shooters to keep the ISO several stops lower in those shooting situations where they can use a lower shutter speed instead. I find it to be invaluable. 

In my personal shooting I find the stabilized viewfinder image to be of particular use. The stabilized live view (especially when using manual focus magnification or long lenses) makes composition and focus far easier. It is a huge step up in usability over cameras where you only get such a benefit with a stabilized lens.


The video functions of the em5 for many left a lot to be desired. Panasonic cameras offered video with less artifacts, better sharpness, and better codecs that handled grading better. However, the em5 still saw a lot of video use because of its IBIS that functions while shooting video. The em5 mark II has gone to great lengths to catch up to Panasonic in this area. While Panasonic cameras do still provide better technical image quality in 1080p the difference is not as large as it used to be and the Em5 Mark II image quality has reached the level where it can be comfortable used for almost anything. By comparison it provides better quality than a canon 5d mark III. 

The video provides good detail and colors, macro blocking is almost non existent, the footage grades pretty well, there is a clean hdmi feed available, and the ibis has been vastly improved in video mode to the point it almost feels like a Steadicam. The biggest issue with the video quality is some moire however after the 2.0 update that was improved a lot and really does not intrude on the majority of shots. When it does it isn't bad enough that most people would notice.

Compared to the original em5 the mark II also offers a tilt and swivel articulated lcd, focus peaking in video, time code, a flat profile, adjustable noise reduction levels (including off as an option) and a mic input.

Here is an example of some video I have shot with the EM5 Mark II. All of this was shot handheld, and some of it by handing my camera off to my girlfriend and letting her record a bit. I have a lot of other footage from different situations to edit as well so you can take a look at that in the future.


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Both Shot with the em5 mark II and fl-lm3 included flash.

The EM5 Mark II like the EM5 before it does not have an integrated flash unit. Depending on your views this could be a negative or positive attribute. I consider it a positive as the camera does come with the best accessory flash ever made. The fl-lm3 is a remarkable little flash. It has tilt and swivel capabilities and looks like a miniature version of a full sized flash. It can be controlled via ttl or manual controls and can be used off camera with a canon ttl flash cord. 

You read that right. For a 20 dollar cable you can have off camera flash capability with the em5 mark II. This makes the camera IMHO one of the most versatile camera tools available with little extra investment out of the box. The fl-lm3 has replaced my larger flashes almost completely for my normal street shooting. I use it off camera with a cord for my street shooting and it performs spectacularly for that purpose. It's small size makes it very convenient. I use a small hair tie I cut in half to bungee the flash to my wrist so i can drop it and operate the camera with both hands without any worries. 

Extra Features

The EM5 mark II integrates several features from the Em1 and Em10 and adds some that are brand new to the Olympus lineup. These include Live time, live bulb, and live composite along with the brand new high resolution mode. 

Live Composite
Great Ball of Fire. Shot with live composite. Exposure time was around 10 minutes. There is added flash
Live composite is the one of these features I have used the most. What this mode does is  create a raw or jpeg file where the camera blends multiple exposures using the lighten blending mode. Once you set the initial exposure the camera will only continue adding new light.  This mode is fantastic for light trails, star trails, light painting, or creative flash work.
I also have made use of this mode for product type photography. As in this next shot. Which was lit entirely with one android tablet.

Live bulb and live another review. I have never used them. I also have used the high res mode very few times but it is well covered in other reviews.

High ISO Shooting

Many shooters are quite convinced that m43 camera's are incapable of producing good results at high ISO values. I am of the complete opposite mindset. I believe that current m43 cameras produce great results all the way up to their maximum ISO values. I think that the largest issue with low light shooting is that many people are depending on the camera to try and make up for bad light. Low light is not a problem, bad light is. And no matter how high you bump up your ISO it won't ever make up for bad lighting. Here are some results from the em5 Mark II in GOOD LOW LIGHT that show what is possible at ISO values of 12800 and 25600.

ISO 12800. This image will print just fine all the way to 16x20 or larger (assuming you increase the viewing distance appropriately).

ISO 12800, good detail, noise is not detrimental to the image.

ISO 25600. This particular shot was processed with the in camera raw processor. It has yet to see lightroom. Processed with lightroom or dxo prime you would see better detail retention in this image and less softness. However even as it is here this image will print great at 8x10 and I would be happy to print it at 16x20.

What I like

The Em5 is fast in operation, feels great in the hand (especially with the fotodiox grip) has a great evf, and cool special features. It also has the best ibis on any camera anywhere.  Manual operation is very fast and reliable and the focus peaking is fantastic. For manual focus and use I think it is currently the best camera on the market. For shooting with manual prime lenses I do not think any camera comes close without spending 3000 usd on the top Sony models. However I do have a few complaints that are mostly due to software.

What I don't like

First off these are mostly software based. Secondly they don't ruin the usage of the camera, just make it a little less efficient than it could be.

First off is the adjustment of ibis. When using manual lenses you can select ibis from the super control panel and adjust the settings there. However you must select this every time you change lenses and every time you turn the camera on after changing lenses. With Panasonic's gx8 and gx7 the camera automatically prompts for ibis focal length when the camera is turned on if a manual lens is attached. Ibis can also be set to an fn button on the gx7 and gx8 making adjustment of the setting much faster than the Olympus method. Olympus please allow any and all camera settings to be set to the buttons. Please.

Second, there is no way to assign ISO permanently to a dial. When shooting i never adjust aperture from the camera. I can't, my lenses are manual. So why can't i set the unused dial to ISO? I don't know ask Olympus! For me this is a big irritation and slows down my shooting in some situations. For others it is no big deal. You can assign a button to temporarily switch the dials to white balance and ISO, but this is slower than I would like and it disables focus peaking if you have it enabled. It works OK as is, however I would really appreciate seeing the full ability to set any button or any dial to any function I desire without restriction.

Third, Auto ISO in manual mode has been implemented by Olympus, but  they do not allow exposure compensation. This is an oversight that many would like to see addressed. They have added exposure compensation with manual mode to the pen f which was recently released so I believe we will see this feature implemented in the future. It may possibly hit the em1 and EM5 Mark II via firmware update if we are lucky.    

Fourth, focus peaking is great, however...there are some firmware quirks that prevent it from being perfect.

For one when you adjust the ISO while using peaking it disables the feature. You have to turn it back on after adjusting the ISO. This is just ridiculous.
Second, half pressing the shutter button makes the peaking disappear. This is a pain. I am half pressing to get a stabilized view, not to disable my focusing aid. Peaking works at the same time as ibis as we can see in focus magnification so it is simple a software setting that some non photographer thought was a good idea.
Third, when shooting in monochrome mode activating peaking switches the live view back to color. On Panasonic camera's it is possible to shoot raw in monochrome, and have the focus peaking be the only color that appears in the viewfinder. While the Olympus peaking in the em5 mark II is better than in any Panasonic camera I have handled, the ability to shoot in monochrome with peaking as the only color on screen is a point in the usability department for Panasonic.
Fourth Panasonic cameras automatically activate peaking if no lens is detected on the camera. This means that when you turn on the camera with a manual lens attached the camera automatically starts peaking and asks for the ibis setting for the lens. These are both features I would LOVE to have on my Em5 Mark II after shooting with the gx7 for a year. I absolutely prefer my EM5 to my gx7, I think it is a better camera for a few reasons, but these features are big points that Olympus should address.

Fifth, Move the focus magnification box at your peril

I do not lie when I say this is the single most annoying thing about my EM5. This agitates me constantly. When you activate the focus magnification box everything is great. It shows up, goes where you want, magnifies, etc. It does it's job. My issue is that there is no easy way to set the darn thing back to the center of the screen. I use the focus and recompose method nine times out of ten because it is faster for me. However when I do move the focus box, by intent or accident, I have to go through the process of moving it all the way back to the center of the screen. Even turning the feature off and back on will not reset it back to the screen center. 6 months and I have not been able to figure out how to do this. Seriously Olympus, make the info button or the focus point home button work the same way for the focus magnification box. It is really frustrating!!

Despite these complaints

the EM5 Mark II is the best camera I have ever had in my hands. It feels amazing, it works well, and it produces fantastic images. It is most certainly a fantastic tool and I am very happy I bought it. Now I just need a fast weather sealed prime to go along with it and I will be an extremely happy photographer.


  1. Hi Joshua, I enjoyed your review! And I love to see photos from you, awesome work!

    I don't know about on the E-M5 MkII, but on my little E-M10, you can assign Center to a button, if you have an extra one. I have not tried it with the green box active (comes up when I am using magnification and manual focus), but maybe it would work. I am a little doubtful, though, as when that green box is up, like you say, you don't get the usual behavior when moving the focus point: Instead of snapping to the next square, it just moves a little at a time. I find it maddening, because it goes too slow if you click, click, click, the arrow key, but too fast if you hold down the arrow key.

    You might ask about this on the forum.

    Carol :)

    1. Thank you for the comment and compliment Carol! Im glad you enjoyed it. :)

      Unfortunately the center button does not work. It really is a frustrating quirk but acceptable in the light of what these remarkable cameras can do. The em10 is a very nice camera as well. A bit small for me to use regularly but I wouldnt mind having one for lazier shooting days.