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Review of the Olympus E-M5 II in Olympus Housing
By Kyle McBurnie, October 14, 2015 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

DPG would like to thank Backscatter Underwater Photo and Video for supplying the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II camera, Olympus PT-EP13 housing, and various accessories used in this review.
 


First on the scene in 2012, the OM-D E-M5 is the mid-level model in the micro four-thirds line of Olympus cameras. With its small form factor, throwback looks and an image quality to give many DSLRs a run for their money, the original E-M5 and its fellow OM-D models continue to entice underwater photographers to make the switch to the smaller, less-costly micro four-thirds system.

Three years later, Olympus released the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which only improves upon the high bar set for Olympus’ mid-range mirrorless cameras with modifications significant for underwater shooters. If the original E-M5 weren’t already enticing enough underwater DSLR-users to go mirrorless, improvements in the Mark II’s video and continuous shooting should do the trick.

Alongside the E-M5 Mk II, Olympus also released their PT-EP13 polycarbonate underwater housing to match. Combine this with Olympus’ speedy, new Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO lens and you have a mirrorless camera that can duke it out with almost any cropped-sensor DSLR. My California backyard waters were the perfect challenge for this formidable combination of camera, housing, and lens.
 

The OM-D E-M5 Mk II is a fine-tuned version of its predecessor, with new features that should please more-demanding mirrorless photographers

 

1. Overview of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II

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The second rendition of Olympus’ mid-level mirrorless camera may not boast the sexiest changes—the megapixel count remains unchanged—but it does come with some significant upgrades. Rather than gutting out what proved to be a popular camera, Olympus spent their time upgrading and tweaking existing features. Still small and powerful, the camera boasts an improved IBIS image stabilization system, greater video recording capabilities, and on-screen tools, plus an upgraded electronic viewfinder.

Virtually the same size, and weighing in at only 1.5oz heavier than the original, the Mark II still offers the same rugged weather-proofed magnesium construction. Coupled with the remarkably lighter micro four-thirds lenses, the E-M5 Mk II has a similar feel to an entry-level cropped sensor DSLR at a fraction of the bulk.

Key Features (Compared with E-M5)

 
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II
Olympus OM-D E-M5
Pixel count (MP) 16 16
Image stabilization 5-axis 5-axis
Stabilization (CIPA) 5 stops 4 stops
Max shutter speed 1/8000 (1/16000 electronic) 1/4000
Continuous shooting
(without/with AF)
10fps/5fps 9fps/3.5fps
Viewfinder 2.36M dot LCD (1.48x mag) 1.44M dot LCD (1.15x mag)
Max video resolution/rate 1080/60p 1080/30p
Max bit rate 77Mbps 17Mbps
Rear screen 3.0" 1.04m dots (articulated) 3.0" 0.61m dots (tilt)
Environmental sealing Yes Yes
Weight 16.5oz (469g) 15oz (425g)
Dimensions 4.88"x3.35"x1.77" (124x85x45mm) 4.76"x3.54"x1.65" (121x90x42mm)

 

A faster continuous shooting drive makes the Mark II a choice tool for photographing speedy subjects, such as sea lions

 

2. Improvements in the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk II

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There’s a lot to like in the improvements in the E-M5 Mk II, specifically for underwater photography use. Most notably, the Mark II features an important step up in video quality from its predecessor, going from 1080/30p to 1080/60p. The doubling of the frame rate at the same resolution is much needed for capturing crisp, clear footage of speedier underwater subjects, such as the sea lions here in Cali.

A smaller, but also significant improvement in the video quality comes as the OM-D E-M5 Mk II offers a bit rate of up to 52Mbps at 60fps. Faster bit rates capture more information from each frame, more accurately showing motion and speedy subjects clearly.  

One feature that is less exciting for underwater use is the OM-D E-M5 Mk II’s “40MP multi-exposure mode.” Essentially, the camera is able to produce a massive, 40-megapixel image by combining up to eight separate exposures. As such, this feature really only works for still subjects, in a studio setting, where the camera can line up each exposure. Having said that, if you’re into product photography at all when not diving—this is a nice bonus.
 

Traditionally, mirrorless cameras aren’t thought of as suitable choices for fast subjects, but the Mark II’s autofocus and continuous drive make it capable even in demanding conditions

 

3. New Olympus 8mm Fisheye Lens

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The all-new rugged and weather-proof Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO proved to be an awesome lens, giving the comparable Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 a run for its money. There are two key differences beyond the Olympus being a faster lens (f/1.8 versus f/3.5):

  • Weight: The new magnesium alloy Olympus fisheye weighs in at 11.1oz, and is 3.15" long, while the Panasonic lens weighs in at 5.8oz, and is 2.04" long.
  • Minimum focus distance: The Panasonic also has a marginally closer MFD, at 3.94" versus the Olympus 4.72".


Fisheye faceoff: Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO (left) versus Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 (right)


I have extensively shot the 8mm Panasonic FE in most of my micro four-thirds work. The Olympus is somewhat larger and heavier, but with that comes a higher build quality and an alloy weather-sealed body, an improvement very welcome in the environments I tend to use my equipment. Shooting with the Olympus 8mm lens, I found images to be even sharper than those captured with the Panasonic.

The minimum focus distance makes a relatively small difference in practice, as both can be used behind 4-inch mini-domes, which allow for great close-focus wide-angle. The extra two stops of light provided by the Olympus 8mm are a welcome change to having to bump my ISO. This is especially important in murkier, darker waters like those in California where the conditions challenge even the top ISOs. An added bonus: At f/1.8 you can actually create some background blurring at extreme close-focus wide-angle.

 

4. Overview of the Olympus PT-EP13 Housing

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Olympus is one of the few major camera companies to offer proprietary underwater housings along with their digital bodies. With the launch of the E-M5 Mk II, the PT-EP13 housing is designed to give access to all of the camera’s important controls through its polycarbonate design. If you’re looking to match the lightweight, compactness of the Mark II, Olympus’ housing certainly delivers, weighing in at just 2.7 lbs.

Underwater Housing Features

  • Waterproof up to 45m
  • High-quality polycarbonate construction
  • Supports different MFT lenses
  • Wireless flash control
  • Monitoring window to detect water penetration
  • Large buttons for easy operation
  • Multi-coating glass to reduce inner reflections
  • Dual fiber-optic strobe ports


The PT-EP13’s lightweight construction is a real relief on the arms when used in surgy, shallow conditions


Port System

The housing comes native with a flat glass port meant to fit a variety of mid-range lenses, but in the cold and murky waters of California my weapon of choice was the new Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO. The “pro” is put into this lens with a 180-degree angle of view, full waterproofing for rugged dive boat conditions, and an intricate grouping of 18 optical elements.

A third-party company called AOI makes specialty ports for the Olympus line of underwater housings, opening up more lens/port combinations for the discerning underwater shooter. Made of acrylic, the port worked very well and seemed rugged in practical use. My only issue was that it isn’t immediately obvious how to change ports on the housing: As well as unscrewing the port, you have to release a small metal locking tab in order to remove the port with a firm twist and pull.


Strobe Connectivity

The dual fiber-optic ports make it remarkably easy and versatile to attach strobes to the E-M5 Mk II, or even changing configurations on the fly without having to worry about water damage to electronic strobe connections. My main strobes of choice for this review were the Inon Z-240s. The housing comes with a flash window cover to prevent excess flash from spilling into the frame (although this only works when using two strobes).
 

The ability to alter strobe configurations on the fly thanks to the E-M5 Mk II’s fiber-optic ports is a real plus in diverse marine environments such as California’s

 

5. Using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II/PT-EP13 Underwater

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The PT-EP13 Housing

This slim housing can be managed with one hand, with key housing dials (aperture and shutter) placed to mimic the naked camera. I have average-sized hands, and I could just access both the aperture and shutter dials without having to readjust or reposition my shooting hand, a real bonus for shooting on the fly or when you need your second hand to steady yourself in heavy currents like those found in California.

While the rig could be configured anywhere from just the camera and housing to a tray with two handles, I found the best compromise between stability and a compact form factor in using one handle on the non-trigger side. 

The half-shutter is fairly easy to feel, with the first and second stage of shutter press noticeable in most cases. Having said that, when donning thicker gloves for chillier dives, it did become more difficult to discern where the half-press kicked in.
 

Staying compact: The PT-EP13 housing works well with a tray and just a single handle


Image Quality of the E-M5 II

Two years after the introduction of the original, the E-M5 Mk II inherits the same pixel count as its predecessor—16MP. Shooting RAW 16MP files (4,608x3,456 pixels) gives plenty of image size and quality for most amateur and even some professional uses, so long as you aren’t attempting to print ridiculously large. With the post-processing technology available nowadays, a 36"x27" print isn’t unheard of—and was the limit I found with the old E-M5, with a good file and up-rezzing plugins.
 

The image quality of the E-M5 Mk II on display at 100-percent zoom


ISO Performance

The E-M5 II seems to have a relatively similar ISO performance as its first iteration, which for a micro four-thirds sensor is determinedly good. In the colder, greener environments around our kelp forests, I find myself constantly pushing the limit of what ISO I can get away with, and with the E-M5 Mk II, I personally found somewhere between ISO 1600–6400 to be acceptable, depending on the application. With noise reduction software steadily improving and the lack of requirements to view images blown up to 100 percent, an image shot at ISO 3200 could easily find use either online or in print.
 

When it comes to ISO performance, the E-M5 Mk II produced acceptable results up to ISO 3200


Frame Rate

The E-M5 Mk II boasts an impressive burst frame rate. At 10fps continuous and 5fps with AF, it’s on par with many of the higher-end DSLRs, and a whole frame faster than the original E-M5. A new feature of the E-M5 Mk II is having the option to not only custom set the frame rate, but also to easily switch to silent burst mode. With more shy subjects, like local pinnipeds, I found switching to silent burst mode—usually found only on DSLRs—extended the length and quality of the encounter.  
 

Getting the perfectly timed shot is made a lot easier when you can rattle off 10 frames per second


Electronic Viewfinder

A subtle, but important upgrade for underwater photographers is the dramatically improved electronic viewfinder on the OM-D E-M5 Mk II. Electronic viewfinders remain a thorn in the side for many mirrorless converts used to the optical viewfinder on DSLRs. The electronic representation produced simply cannot match the complexity captured by the human eye through an optical viewfinder.

However, the Mk II takes a large leap forward, offering a 2.36 million dot LCD with 1.48x magnification (compared to just 1.44M dots and 1.15x mag on the previous model). These EVF specs match those found on Olympus’ flagship mirrorless model, the E-M1.

The higher resolution electronic viewfinder proved useful in the dim conditions of California. In fact, there were times where I felt that the bright, crisp LCD gave a better representation of the scene than my own eyes.
 

Compact and maneuverable, the E-M5 Mk II is a joy to use no matter how challenging the subject material


Super Control Panel

I got my start in underwater photography with the original rendition of the E-M5. Back then, as now, I found the camera incredibly intuitive to learn, with easy access to any and all controls I may need throughout a day of shooting. It wasn’t until I eventually moved on to a DSLR for larger-scale printing purposes that I realized just how much of my ability to quickly adapt settings was not something I was inherently good at; it was due to Olympus’ excellent Super Control Panel.

The ability to have almost all the camera’s controls available on one easy-to-use panel (and receive real-time feedback on setting changes) is more than merely convenient. It encourages experimentation and personally helped me learn my photographic fundamentals much faster than I otherwise would have.

The OM-D E-M5 Mk II carries this acclaimed Super Control Panel forward, making it the default way to change camera settings (previously one had to select this option). The Mark II also breaks free from its “modal display modes,” allowing users to create custom on-screen feedback—such as combining a histogram and shadow/highlight warnings for stills, or combining a level guide and focus peaking for video.
 

Using the Super Control Panel makes customizing settings and overall performance much more intuitive

 

6. Who Should Consider the OM-D E-M5 Mark II in Olympus PT-EP13 Housing?

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Having started my career in underwater photography with the original OM-D E-M5, this camera and its updated brother the E-M5 Mk II hold a special place in my heart. Although the new E-M5 Mk II doesn’t improve on its 16MP sensor and its ISO performance remains relatively similar, there are several features that serve underwater photographers particularly well.

From an increased frame rate to a better stabilization system (already improving on what was potentially the best feature on the original), the camera boasts great improvements in its video capabilities. From a stills perspective, it is still the small, rugged, throw-the-body-and-housing-in-your-backpack camera I fell in love with.
 


 



When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the products mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner—Backscatter.com.

 


 

About the Reviewer: Kyle McBurnie is an underwater photographer known for his cold-water images from Southern California. His work is represented in the photography gallery Upwelling Fine Art. Alongside his business partner Nick LeBeouf, Kyle also runs SD Expeditions, an ocean adventure company based out of San Diego known mostly for their blue-water shark diving and pelagic encounters.

 

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