First of all, NEVER EVER write off Olympus. I have been saying this for so many years that only the true faithful believe me. Even when the company was brought down on its knees during the darker DSLR era, I kept my faith, knowing that this company, if ever given the chance, will outthink, outwit, outdesign, outengineer and outdevelop ANY of its competitors without too much effort. Give Olympus a little patch of grass and it will grow a spectacularly colourful garden and it will do it pretty much without help from anyone.
Now we have the OM-D E-M5II and what a groundbreaker this camera is. Just as when Olympus pulled the OM-2 out and outdid its own OM-1, this is history repeating itself all over again. If anybody can make Canon and Nikon feel even more crestfallen, Olympus can. In fact I really can’t see how they’re going to catch up in the next numbers of years. Consider these – Panasonic’s Lumix is hogging the pro indie video limelight. Sony now has its mirrorless full-frame up and running and improvements are coming along the way. And Olympus has proven that its FourThirds format remains the most effective not only from a user’s point of view but from development and engineering. With its remarkable engineering smarts, Olympus is solely taking the mirrorless platform to unreachable heights.
Let’s roll back a little bit and look at some I-told-you-so situations.
Olympus went IBIS but Canon and Nikon insists on their so-called purist approach and install IS in the lens. The claim was that IS must be customised to each different lens in order to work best. Olympus countered that with their own explanations but nobody really listened. So who’s been proven right today? Olympus but most didn’t see it. With IBIS, Olympus is able to do so much more. Today’s OM-D users lay proof to this with a design that works just as well in stills as in video in full 5 stops worth using full 5-axis stabilisation. It doesn’t look like there will be many to compete against this.
Olympus went SSWF and it took the rest of the industry dragging its feet and develop their own version. As countless reviews have proven, Olympus’ variant remains the most effective in reducing dust. Now that we’re in the mirrorless design, SSWF has proven to be one of the most important features to keep dust out. Canon stole the honours from Olympus and called the innovation theirs simply because they added a software step into the feature. Yet despite all that, Canon’s dust-reduction method was nowhere as effective. Nikon doesn’t even care to add such a feature into their cameras and only a foolish Nikon user would not complain. Again no one had the vision to foresee this except Olympus.
Olympus introduced a format smaller than full-frame and APS-C and the world laughed and laughed and said the company was simply too naïve to understand. Twelve years later, these people are eating their own words with a humble pie. FourThirds became the hub of a transformative change that rocked the camera world with the introduction of the most practical, innovative and effective mirrorless platform. In Micro FourThirds guise, everything (and more) has fallen into place. The lenses have remained super-compact. Olympus engineers have found it far easier to design super-fast glass. Autofocusing works very well with smaller lenses. IBIS is far easier to implement as Sony has now found out with their own full-frame mirrorless version. And now with the E-M5II’s HDR feature, again a small FourThirds format sensor proves far more workable than anything larger.
So what is it with the E-M5II that makes it the most talked about camera in the market today? Although the second incarnation of the E-M5 is a much changed camera in and outwardly, the most outrageous feature is its High Resolution Mode, which allows the 16-megapixel camera to output files as large as 40 megapixels in JPEG and 64 megapixels in RAW. It’s not only outrageous but completely unbelievable. Just on this feature only, the E-M5II has been garnering a tremendous uptick in online preorders. So what is High Resolution Mode?
This is a feature that allows the E-M5II to yield images that are higher in optical resolution than it can natively do. While the sensor remains the same as its predecessor, it has been fettled for far higher performance. Today it can produce 40MP JPEG images that can more than compete with 36MP full-frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras of which the two most obvious competitors are the not-so-high-flying-anymore Nikon D810 and the obliquely-designed Sony A7R. If any of us need reminding, these are two very well decorated products of recent years that purportedly have larger photosites since they both utilise full-format sensors. At the same time, the E-M5II will also concurrently produce a 64MP RAW (ORF) and a 16MP ORI file if you request one. Both non-JPEG files are not easy to view at this point as the industry is awaiting compatible software plug-ins to be made available from Adobe, DxO and Olympus.
Already on the Internet there are many amazing image comparisons that prove the remarkable capabilities of the E-M5II. I don’t have any to show because I have been too preoccupied to have a preview of the E-M5II and besides I won’t be able to make meaningful comparisons with non-Olympus competitor products.
For the E-M5II to do justice to its HR feature, Olympus maintains the camera must be tripod mounted beforehand. Any handling shakes will simply ruin the potential. Secondly your subjects must also remain still if you wish to avoid seeing motion blurring. All this means that the most potent way to use HR is in industrial, commercial and product information photography. When you are studio-bound with still products displayed, the E-M5II will be in its element to prove the point.
In HR mode, the E-M5II will use its electronic shutter to blitz eight shots within a second. To do that, it utilises its VC-powered IBIS to resonate the sensor in that brief time. In doing so, the sensor will shift by fractions of a pixel in different directions. All told, there will be eight images acquired just for that single press of the shutter-release button. These eight images will deliver data to the TruePic processor to combine into the final HR image in what we can crudely call a version of ‘oversampling.’ If there is one immediately visible advantage in using the E-M5II’s HR mode, it is the total elimination of moiré.
When you compare this with the full-frame D810, you’ll understand how much cleaner the E-M5II’s image output actually is. Using the 8-shot-in-1 multiple exposure method, the E-M5II’s image purity at ISO 1600 proves amazing also because image noise has been dramatically removed; so much so that any side-by-side comparison with the D810 or A7R can be humbling for these big companies. Big full-frame versus the little FourThirds sensor now produces an unbelievable turnaround result. Pretty much David’s slingshot is finally slugging Goliath right and proper.
How can this be so? What’s the secret juice in the mix? When the sensor shifts fractionally in different directions, it compensates for the small FourThirds format size. The shifting allows all the sensor’s photosites to then behave as if they are physically much bigger because each of these sites can then offer larger coverage within that one-second window. That is why 16 million tiny little pixels will and can do the work befitting a full-frame camera because each pixel thinks it’s bigger than what it is. The shifting has transformed the E-M5II into a camera with a dual identity – in normal mode, it’s a Micro FourThirds camera but in HR mode, it’s a hybrid FF-MFT camera!
When the sensor is given the latitude to move fractions of a pixel away from its native position, it can then see a wider view and in the process, admit more light, which then means cleaner colours, purer whites and greater exposure latitude. More light exposure also means that details are clearer with less noise impact and as it turned out, a complete removal of moiré effects. Remember that the E-M5II’s sensor has no AA filter and although the moiré handling was already on-chip based, the sensor-shifting has made everything work perfectly now.
Much has been written about the “fact” that this has already been seen on the Hasselblad H5D-200c MS. The Blad uses pixel-shifting to transform its earlier H5D 50c to produce image outputs of 200 megapixels and then calling it a new model in the process. The H5D-200c is capable of unleashing six shots in a second to shift the pixels by increments of 0.5 to 1.0 pixel width beyond what its 50MP sensors can natively do.
None of these is incorrect but Olympus has had this pixel-shifting technology on its own for quite some time. The “other jewel” in Olympus’ crown, its Microscopy Division, has been using this feature – called Deconvolution – and you can learn more of it on the company’s own microscopy site. Therefore it’s not likely that the E-M5II’s HR feature is a licensed technology from Hasselblad. And I won’t be surprised if the Swedish company themselves are sourcing it from somewhere else too.
Of course the E-M5II is more than just the HR feature but for that, it deserves a much fuller and more complete review of the camera itself. Since 2013, it’s been nothing but exciting times for the resurgent Japanese company. From death throes that saw its own chairman and henchmen thrown into jail and a whisperer gone thanklessly, Olympus has not just survived but finally given the ropes to express itself.
Freed from the confines of the DSLR mould, the E-M5II is merely another dot in its massively growing universe. Its ecosystem is developing impressive and as we can see with each and every new lens, the situation just gets more and more exciting. And with every new camera unveiled, the question is how much more can Olympus show. My answer is, plenty more. And each year will just make it harder for its traditional competitors to catch up.
I just heard a pipsqueak telling me that Canon has just launched the EOS M3. Uncharacteristic of such a giant of a camera company, it was a very quiet affair. Hardly a ripple. As Canon continues to grope its way around mirrorless while keeping a short leash to a warehouse chock full of its DSLR cameras and lenses, the leading lights of the mirrorless brigade will simply march on. While growth is marginal at best in recent years, it’s about keeping the faith because change comes slowly when the big dogs steadfastly refuse to admit defeat thus dragging the whole market inertia backwards, which is why when new technologies promise to take us five steps forward, the dampeners pull us back by three steps.
If Canon and Nikon were to invest totally in mirrorless, the growth to the market will no longer be incremental. You will see massive upticks the likes of which we can only dream of right now. Until that happens, keep the faith. Olympus, for one, will simply continue to show you what it can do and what Canon and Nikon are missing out on.
And if you are an Olympus user, welcome to bliss. For all the years of waiting, you deserve the best now.