Hands-on with the small but powerful Olympus OM-D E-M5 II

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Gizmag goes hands-on with the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 II (Photo: Simon Crisp/Gizmag.com)

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The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was a game-changing camera which made many photographers sit up and take notice of mirrorless cameras for the first time. But can its successor, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, have the same sort of impact? Gizmag recently spent a bit of time with the new camera at the UK Photography Show to see what it can do.

Back when the original E-M5 was released in 2012, it set the standard for mirrorless cameras and was a hit thanks in part to its easy-on-the-eye retro styling. As such it's no surprise that the new camera looks almost identical. While this is no bad thing, the more crowded marketplace means the E-M5 II stands out less than its predecessor, which didn't have as many rivals to compete with.

In the hands, the E-M5 II feels like a very solid piece of kit. It features a rugged magnesium alloy construction and has all the tactile dials and buttons needed to keep photography enthusiasts happy. You don't feel like this is a camera you'll need to wrap in cotton-wool, it's meant for throwing into a kit bag and using. Built-in sealing also means you won't need to worry about weather conditions when shooting.

Measuring 124 × 85m × 45 mm (4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in), the camera is about as small as it could be while still boasting its physical controls and being comfortable to hold. Obviously there are smaller mirrorless cameras out there – the tiny Panasonic GM1 has the same size sensor and uses the same lenses – but we found the E-M5 II to be a good balance of portability and ergonomics, and weighing 469 g (16.5 oz) it's also considerably lighter than a DSLR.

The vast array of dials and physical controls make using the E-M5 II feel instantly natural for experienced photographers, and the various function buttons make it easy to set the camera up for how you want to use it. Menus are also easy to navigate, and are more stylish than those which appear on many rival cameras.

As with the original E-M5, autofocus performance is very good for a contrast detection-based mirrorless camera, and the jump to 81 focus points from 35 feels particularly noticeable when tracking moving subjects, which the E-M5 II did admirably in our tests with footballers prancing around and performing tricks on the Olympus stand. The increased burst rate speeds of 5 fps with autofocus, and 10 fps without, also made it easier to capture the fast -moving action.

On the rear of the camera there's a 2,360k-dot electronic viewfinder which along with a 3-inch swiveling vari-angle touch screen monitor can be used for composing shots. While electronic viewfinders were not too long ago the poor relation to the optical viewfinders found on DSLRs, this is no longer necessarily the case. There is so little lag here you'll be hard pushed to notice it, and the EVF is big and bright which makes for comfortable use.

We could not take our images from the E-M5 II with us to look at them on a bigger screen. However, even reviewing them on the back of the camera shows them to be high-quality, though the smaller size of the 16-megapixel sensor becomes noticeable in low-light shots at higher ISO settings. Noticeable and distracting noise starts to creep in at around ISO 3200, which is currently typical for Micro Four Thirds, and a drawback of the system compared to APS-C or Full Frame cameras.

Unfortunately we were not able to put the built-in Wi-Fi of the E-M5 II through its paces, or test one of the headline attractions of the new camera, its 40-megapixel capture mode. This feature, which is achieved by moving the sensor across a series of shots, would be more practical in situations like shooting landscapes or still studio work than taking photographs on a cramped and busy stand at a trade show.

That said, we were able to see the difference the 5-axis image stabilization unit makes in more standard shooting situations. It's claimed the improved sensor shift technology can give stabilization equivalent to five stops, and we can believe it. It was easy to hand-hold images at considerably slower shutter speeds than would have otherwise been the case.

This image stabilization is also used to great effect when shooting videos, where otherwise wobbly footage looks smooth and steady. While we didn't get the chance to try out the video functions in great detail, we did shoot a couple of clips at Full HD 1080p 60 fps, and were encouraged by how they looked. Videographers will also be pleased with the connectivity options which include Clean HDMI-out along with microphone-in and headphone-out options.

Overall the E-M5 II, which costs US$1,100 body-only, feels like a solid upgrade. Olympus has done enough to make the camera competitive with other mirrorless shooters, and innovation like the improved image stabilization and 40-megapixel mode will no doubt be enough to attract buyers even with the increasing competition in the mirrorless market.

Product page: Olympus OM-D E-M5 II

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