Photography Review: Olympus to the Test: Part 3

May 16, 2018 Safari Prep
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The final instalment of Will Goodlet’s photographic review... Will compares the nifty new Olympus to his trusty old Canon and reveals insightful tips for keen photographers. Most importantly, he answers the question we’ve all been waiting for! Read on…

Tracking and Autofocus

NB: Feb 28, 2018 - Olympus offered a MAJOR firmware update allowing for setting the AF point to smaller sized points as well as a Focus Stacking Feature (great for macro and landscapes) and overall improvements have been made to the AF system. My test camera did not have these major improvements installed at the time of my review.

I did a bit of reading about the new and improved continuous autofocus of the new Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II and was hoping for good things, after all, autofocus is pretty crucial to my photography. By all accounts, this was a big weakness of mirrorless systems and I’d seen reports of the Mark I version describing it as ‘useless’!

Apparently, Olympus have done a lot of work on the autofocus and that definitely shows, although I can only compare it to the cameras I have shot, mainly DSLRs – which, of course, is pretty unfair – but I don’t care!

The Mark II is certainly not ‘useless’, in fact it is superlative, but it is not without its gremlins. I spent the best part of a day with the camera trying to figure out how to work the AF system. To do this, I enlisted the help of my two German shepherds, Flash and Frisbee, and made them run up and down the garden so that I could get action shots of them running towards me much like a pack of wild dogs might in the bush.

I was hoping that this test would go well and would be over quickly; luckily for the dogs, who enjoyed the play, it went on all day as I became more and more frustrated with the Olympus’ apparent non-performance.

All the online advice was of the camera succeeding with this task. There was a guy on a bike going the same speed as a quarterback, there was a dude running across the camera shop, all, apparently, in sharp focus.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO200, F5.0, 1/1250 - Cropped 32%

I couldn’t tell from the videos, but something was ‘rotten in Denmark’, as they say. No matter what settings I tried I could not get a series of sharp frames of Flash running at speed towards me.

The Olympus does not easily pass the dog test.

The reason it doesn’t is because it works much better on more distant and contrasting subjects than ones with similar contrast (and close background) rushing directly towards it at speed from very close range. One option, if you need this kind of shot, is to switch to a wider lens in which case the camera performs much better. I was using the 300 mm F4 quite tightly framed.

A second option is to fire in bursts of three or four images. Doing this allows the AF to snap back onto target.

I did also try the AF on a running human, my wife in this case. Framing her face as she ran with a dark green wall as a background, the Olympus finally tracked with ease. So for moving humans, at least contrasting ones, the camera will track focus very well in Continuous AF mode.

The next day I took the Olympus to play at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, a RAMSAR site near Nigel in South Africa. Here, the Olympus performed brilliantly on small tricky little birds moving erratically.

I found that where the birds were moving obliquely or from side to side, the camera was able to acquire and keep focus, especially with distant backgrounds. I even found that it could lock on to some fast-moving targets in front of a close background – that is good by any measure. However, for closer birds moving fast and directly towards me, the camera did not lock on very well.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO200, F5.6, 1/200 - Cropped to 66%

One technique that I found worked was to lock the birds with sky as a background and follow them down to the ground; a lot of the time the camera would keep the lock far better than my Canon 7D Mark II.

A really pleasing feature is the ability to use focus points across the whole of the sensor to track small targets. The camera seems to intelligently pick up the object near the centre in preference to background clutter or other objects and then consistently tracks it.

All in all I was very impressed, especially when comparing it to my Canon 7D Mark II + 400 mm F2.8 and 1.4 TC (not the best autofocus combination). It nailed the focus more easily and far more often on small birds in flight.

Another thing I noted with pleasure was how well the camera locked on to flushed birds breaking from cover. It nailed focus most of the time, not always on the head or eye – it usually finds the closest object (like a wingtip) – so you do need to manage depth of field. The fact that the viewfinder hardly blacks out between frames is also a real bonus when tracking.

Speaking of the viewfinder I had one big gripe, when the camera is not against your eye the EVF shuts off. For flushed birds I lost many shots while waiting for the EVF to spool up and show me the scene. To get around this, I covered the EVF with my right thumb when walking; moving the camera quickly to my right eye with my thumb in place ensured the EVF was spooled up and working once I looked through it. I imagine there is a setting that addresses this – time for another Google search!

For the birding and bird-in-flight test I thought the mirrorless camera AF did really well. Most wildlife photography will be far less demanding than this, and shots of lions or trotting zebra are likely to be a walk in the park.

I should mention that the settings to get to a point where the camera can be used for birds in flight are by no means obvious and if you are interested you should see the setup guide I have included below.

Software Focus Limits & Micro Focus Adjust

In addition to the built-in limits on the lens switches, the Olympus allows for software limits programmed via the menu system. Although I didn't have time to set these up I think they will be incredibly useful for bird-in-flight photography, where lens focus limits generally don't suit every specific situation.

The camera also offers Micro Focus Adjust per lens and in 25 different areas! This is way ahead of my Canon cameras, which do offer MFA but only as a whole. I've tested my Canon lens focus accuracy using Focal software and they are relatively accurate but there are one or two points that don't perform quite as well as the others. A feature like this would allow me to rectify that.

Metering

I should note that the metering seems to be exceptionally accurate, and does not require the standard Canon ⅓ to ⅔ positive exposure compensation. More importantly, the Olympus offers spot metering on the focus point. Currently, only the top of the range Canon 1D models or high-end Nikon camera bodies offer this. It is a very useful feature that many Canon shooters have to battle without.

The camera also allows metering correction. This allows you to change the metering independently, if you feel that the camera is constantly under- or overexposed, for each metering mode.

Other Features

There are so many aspects to this incredible system but I didn't have time to explore all of them. I am intrigued, as an occasional macro shooter by the built-in focus stacking feature. Even for landscapes, now that I think of it, this feature would be fantastic. The Olympus also has the ability to display the progress of long-exposure shots like star trails.

It's often the case that the standard timer delays are problematic. Two seconds is too short to eliminate vibration and ten seconds often too long. The camera allows customisation of these times, presumably as part of the built-in intervalometer. Even more interesting is that longer shutter releases of up to 60 seconds are also possible and that the timing is customisable. The shutter speed can also be set to values over 1/8000th of a second. All the way up to an incredible 1/32000th of a second. Great for high-speed photography!

I should also note that the Olympus makes use of Dual SD card slots and that one can programme them to work in many different ways. For example, you may decide to record video to one card and stills to the other.

Image Quality

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO250, F4.5, 1/500

The Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II is a Micro Four Thirds camera with a two times crop from a standard 35 mm. This is a handicap as larger sensors with large photoreceptors are better able to produce higher-quality images. Nevertheless, the Olympus’ 20MP sensor does a surprisingly good job, aided no doubt, by the excellent fast glass.

Comparing the images to my Canon 7D Mark II at the same magnification and ISO was a revelation; they both looked about the same even though the Canon has a larger sensor. I was not expecting the images to be comparable.

I decided to up the ante and test the Olympus against far more expensive glass. I put it up against the Canon 7D Mark II and 400 mm F2.8, and now, for distant shots at least, there was no comparison. If you are planning on selling your fast long primes and replacing them with a smaller mirrorless camera, you will definitely sacrifice quality on distant subjects but at the same time you will undoubtedly get more chances at shots that the big primes just could never get in the first place.

Using the Olympus with the 300 mm F4, I certainly have good usable images, just not as good as with the more expensive gear.

For close subjects where you can fill the frame, the Olympus delivers outstanding quality – it’s pointless to compare it at this range.

The colour rendition was good and accurate to my eye, the noise in the backgrounds was expected but not too bad and at lower ISO the noise was not an issue.

One thing to note about the Olympus is that it does not have a low-pass filter. This yields incredible levels of sharpness that is strikingly evident when looking at the textures in bird feathers.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO500, F7.0, 1/1600 - Cropped 74%

The whole system is also helped by state-of-the-art in-body image stabilisation on five axes. I’d have to say that in practice it works very well indeed. Combined with the fast lenses, the fact that you can lower the shutter speed and let in even more light means that we don’t have to rely on ISO nearly as much to add brightness.

The Olympus, as I mentioned above, can also make use of sensor shift technology to take 50MP or 80MP shots. It does this by stacking the output from eight separate frames, having moved the sensor ever so slightly to cover tiny gaps between pixels. Obviously, there are limitations in practice due to subject movement, but for still lifes and landscapes it is a great feature.

The other thing I like about the Olympus is that it is a 4:3, to me, especially in portrait, this format just looks far more pleasing to the eye. The nasty skinny 2:3 is gone, replaced by something much more pleasant, especially for vertical shots. Additionally, 4:3 works really well for birds in flight, the wing positions are clipped less often because of the fatter framing.

All in all, I found that the camera delivered better than expected image quality that is comparable with APS-C sensors.

Depth of Field

One thing that isn’t mentioned much when talking about crop factors is the effect on depth of field. When we apply a crop and get an equivalent focal length for 35 mm we should also do the same for depth of field.

In the case of the 300 mm F4, the depth of field would be equivalent to a 600 mm at F8. Something like 30 cm for a subject at 15 m distance. It is important to note that the light entry is not affected and the aperture is still F4, it’s just the sensor is smaller and the depth of field is affected as a result.

The increase in depth of field could be seen as a bonus, it is rare to be able to shoot fast lenses wide open with a greater depth of field. You may want the lens wide open to reduce ISO and improve image quality but still need the depth of field to be deeper in order to get the whole face of an animal in focus. With a long 35 mm format lens you might just have to stop down the aperture and take the ISO hit.

Of course, this works the other way and could be seen as a disadvantage, especially where you rely on that wide aperture to blur out a background. The Olympus depth of field will always be deeper than the equivalent 35 mm format.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO160, F4.0, 1/60 - Cropped 78%

Lens selection & portability for travel

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300 mm f/4 PRO Lens‎

One of the things I find most exciting about the Olympus is its portability. It’s not just light in hand, a whole kit with 300, 40-150, 12-40 and 7-14 lenses with two bodies will fit in a normal shoulder bag or small backpack. That is a lot of punch that can be taken to distant destinations.

Travelling with my long Canon lenses by light aircraft is possible, but only where I leave most of the landscape kit behind. I have to be selective in my gear and generally have a travel pack that excludes the longer faster glass. It would be refreshing to have pretty much all I need in one small bag.

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO Lens‎

The pro lens lineup from Olympus is exciting for a couple of other reasons too. They are weather-sealed, as is the camera body, and they also feature constant aperture and internal zoom; some even include additional in-lens image stabilisation which works in tandem with the body to deliver an extra stop of stabilisation - 6.5 stops! The malachite kingfisher above was shot at F4 and 1/60th of a second hand held - totally impossible with a DSLR, which would have had to crank the ISO up about 2.5 stops or about 640 as a minimum to manage this.

Constant Aperture and Internal Zoom

Variable-aperture lenses like the Canon 100-400 F4.5-5.6 L IS USM Mark II or Sigma 150-600 DG OS HSM are a bit of a pain, especially when using manual mode because the maximum aperture varies depending on zoom. You have to be careful that you are not changing exposure when extending it. Constant aperture zooms are superior in my book. Effectively, for me, I set the Canon at F5.6 and never make use of F4.5 as a result.

Internal zoom on the other hand, means that the lens doesn’t extend in and out based on the focal length selected. It might sound like a small thing, but it means you don’t need to adjust your grip to balance the camera and the glass doesn’t extend across the faces of people who may be sitting next to you on a game drive.

Large Aperture Lenses

One other really exciting thing about the lens lineup is the commitment to F2.8. The 7-14 mm F2.8 looks like a little beast with its exaggerated bulbous front element. At a 35 mm format equivalent focal length of 14 – 28 mm, and with an aperture of F2.8 it is crying out to be tried for astrophotography. If the astigmatism and coma isn’t too bad it should be a little cracker.

Lens Filters

Lens filters are often overlooked for telephoto photography. It is fiddly to use a drop-in filter and is a potential point of dust ingress. Most of us don't use them as a result. The problem with ignoring filters on telephotos is that we end up limiting our shooting conditions and compromising our output.

There is no way to simulate a polarising filter using digital editing. It is one of the last in-camera effects that can't be reproduced by software. Another one that cannot be simulated that easily is the depth of field reduction when panning with an ND filter. Most panned shots rely on dialling the aperture to its smallest value to reduce shutter speed – the problem then becomes the deep depth of field and quality loss due to diffraction. Using an ND filter solves this problem and it is possible to get shallow, sharp shots with less contrast and detail in the backgrounds.

Almost no one does this with big teles because the filters are such a pain. The Olympus is different, it allows us to use standard 77 mm ring filters on the front of the lens. Use a polariser on the front for harsh light and reflections (especially over water) and an ND for panning. The polariser is also great for adding a little more contrast and colour to wildlife images, especially in harsh light.

Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II + M 300 F4 - ISO250, F5.0, 1/800

Video

The video offering looks pretty good with 4K and image stabilisation. I’m not much of a videographer so I’m not going to offer much here.

Compared to my Canons, it looks excellent to me, especially the image quality and the wonderful stability when hand-holding. The image sort of drifts when you jiggle it, almost as if you were using a fluid mount video head or stabiliser. It definitely shouldn’t hold you back when considering a purchase. Obviously, the reversible flip out screen is seriously helpful when speaking to the camera.

I’ve included a sample of a heron eating a snake for you to look at. I was pretty excited.

Would I make a 100% switch?

There is absolutely no doubt that the Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II is a fabulous camera system. It has a multitude of excellent lenses to choose from (more if you remember that you can use other manufacturers Micro Four Thirds lenses on the body too – and the stabilisation system can be customised to make even better use of them).

The options available on this camera are truly staggering and open up entirely new worlds of photography. The Olympus is awe-inspiring as a frame-rate monster and allows shots impossible with larger systems. Its flip-out screen and light weight adds so much versatility to the package. With its fast lenses, weather sealing, accurate and fast AF and robust metal build, this camera is a powerhouse.

As an overall package, there is very little that can compete with this system. If you feel that it is expensive, remember that many 35 mm format cameras will total more than twice or three times the price.

So what's wrong with this camera system? Almost nothing. It is a fantastic photographic tool. But, for obsessive wildlife shooters who demand the best possible image quality, it cannot compete with top-end super-telephotos and camera bodies.

Where the Olympus does compete and wins, is in versatility and portability. It's a camera that demands a re-evaluation of what subjects you shoot and what you hold important. 35 mm DSLRs with top-end primes will undoubtedly excel in that one particular area but become too large or too expensive for most photographers to equip themselves with all the necessary lenses and accessories. In short, a generalist photographer with the inclination to travel would be nuts not to consider the Olympus.

So we are down to the thin end of the wedge. Would I put my money where my mouth is and buy one of these cameras? The answer is a potential 'yes.' I think it is a phenomenal piece of technology and I would love to have one in my kit. However, I am one of those addicted photographers with pretty much every lens – I even have a medium-format kit. There is no way that I would give up all of this equipment for one system. I'd much rather add the Olympus as my travel system and shoot it in tandem for wildlife. Unfortunately, I just don't have the cash for that!

For others, who are presumably far more sensible, the Olympus makes a wonderful choice, particularly as mentioned, for the serious photographer who travels a lot and has a generalist interest. I doubt there is any other camera that can beat the Olympus at the same price point and in the same versatile and well thought out package.

Review Camera and Lenses were very generously provided by Olympus and Tudortech

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