Landscape photography with the Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II

March 14, 2017  •  9 Comments

As sensor and camera technologies have evolved in recent years, it can be difficult to keep up with progress and to wonder if specific new features are applicable to your style of photography. Those of us who came through the film route to modern photography still marvel at what currently available cameras can do in the field. In my own areas of underwater and landscape photography, moving towards smaller format cameras has been a big attraction in recent years. In this post, I outline recent progress and current systems for my personal photography and give a reasonably detailed look at a compelling recent addition to the digital photography arsenal – the Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II camera.

Sandstone at sunrise, Arizona/Utah border.OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II, M.Zuiko 8mm F1.8 Pro lens. Size and form factor are a significant consideration for both landscape and underwater photography. To house a professional sized DSLR  for underwater use, and equip it with the required optical domes and lighting, creates a very large underwater photography system. For many years there seemed to be little choice between low quality, small-sensor compact camera systems and large DSLR high quality systems. In recent times, however, some interesting formats other than the established full frame (35mm) and DX-cropped sensor have become available. I first became interested in the Micro 4/3 system, jointly developed by Panasonic and Olympus, in 2009. I bought an Olympus PEN EP2 and two lenses, using this primarily for family and general outdoor and camping photographs. Having a small sized camera with interchangeable lenses was initially exciting but the image quality from the early cameras just could not match that from my DSLR systems. This was an unfair comparison I know, but one that we all inevitably make if we are considering changing an entire system, which will involve lenses that have been built up over many years. Another area which most photographers value highly is the viewfinding system in a camera. This is our compositional sketchpad, the basis on which we refine our compositions. From the early days of digital photography, I found the idea of composing photographs on an LCD screen held at arms length to be completely unnatural and unintuitive. The EP2 camera had an accessory electronic viewfinder, but the technology had some way to go at that time.  I enjoyed using this early camera system and hoped that it would evolve to a point of having the features that I would need to create publishable photographs.

Reflection, Checkerboard Mesa, Zion NP, Utah.OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II Olympus M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm F2.8 Pro

When Olympus announced the OMD series, beginning with the E-M5 and following with the E-M1 – I thought that this format was reaching maturity, particularly with the rapidly expanding professional-grade lenses that were released to accompany the flagship model.  The time was right to make the change when Nauticam introduced an excellent underwater housing for this camera, with full supporting ports for various lenses. I have been using this setup for the past three years and have published to magazine quality, cover and double-page spreads – and made enlargements from files that I would not have thought possible, to 800 x 600mm. For my landscape work however, my workhorse Nikon D810 and 14-24mm wide-angle lens, remained my first choice. I did use the E-M1 alongside this but the large file size and my long established comfort with Nikon systems kept me from moving over to Micro 4/3 for landscape work.

'Corkscrew' tree at dusk, Zion NP, Utah.OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II Olympus M.Zuiko 8mm F1.8 Pro

When the mark II version of the E-M1 was announced, I knew that Olympus would have made significant technological progress over the three years since introducing the first flagship model. The question would be, how relevant would these advances be to my style of photography. The emphasis seemed to be on a professional specification with high frame rates, burst speeds and superfast autofocus – areas that would be well suited to photojournalism and sports photography.  I was more interested in the fact that the new camera would have a new sensor with a greater dynamic range and low noise. Improvements in the electronic viewfinder would also be welcome as would any abilities in low light.  The question in the back of my mind was – could this camera, paired with the Olympus 7-14mmF2 .8 Pro lens, be a viable replacement for the full frame Nikon setup. 

Storm light, Canyonlands, Arizona.OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 Pro with MC 1.4x.

 I was able to put this to the test on a long planned and anticipated trip to the American Southwest. I received the camera in time to assess its dynamic range using a Sekonic L-758 light meter. This would give me a direct comparison to the Nikon D810 – especially for shadow detail, which is often critical in high dynamic range landscape images at dawn or dusk. In these tests, the dynamic range is indeed greater than the original E-M1, but not as broad as the full frame sensor of the Nikon. However, given that the sensor is half the area, Olympus engineers have managed to give the sensor 3.8 stops of shadow detail (versus 4.5 stops Nikon D810).  With careful metering to protect sensitive shadow areas – while not over exposing highlights – this was very workable for all but the most challenging high dynamic-range scenes. On a practical level for hiking, the smaller system was a joy to use. I could comfortably carry the camera body with four lenses and a lightweight tripod (RRS TQC14 + BH30) and have all focal lengths from 8mm fisheye to over 400 mm in a lightweight backpack that was absolutely no burden to carry. This made scrambles up steep rock faces a lot more enjoyable, fun even – and as I began to process early work, I could see that the image quality, dynamic range and low noise were all a winning combination.

Milky Way and Joshua tree, Saline Valley, California. OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II Olympus M.Zuiko ED 8mm F1.8 Pro, post processed in DXOoptics Pro 11 and Photoshop.

Having processed some work from this trip, I can attest to the superb image quality, depth of colour and dynamic range from the E-M1 Mark II.  For some of the more challenging raw files, I used DXO optics pro 11, but for most images, I could extract the detail needed using Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.  as the days went by, I found myself reaching for the full frame system less and less – having such a neat system, particularly for 'sketching' images handheld was just great. I was surprised how sharp the handheld images were (using image stabilisation), with shutter speeds as low as 1/40 second – and in many cases, I did not bother to reshoot on a tripod. This made me more productive, exploring more compositions then I typically would when working from a tripod all the time.

 

I was also pleasantly surprised how low the image noise is at higher ISO’s – in this case, for night sky shooting. Typically, I shoot these at ISO 6400, F2 .8 and 15 seconds. Using the Olympus 8mm F1 .8Pro lens, I was able to use ISO 3200 and get really clean images of the night sky and Milky Way. The only downside I found in using this camera for landscape work, was using the camera in very cold weather – the four-way trackpad and button on the rear of the camera was difficult to use with a gloved hand. The improved electronic viewfinder is really excellent and I used this most of the time, although I did find the articulating rear LCD screen also extremely useful for more unusual angles or very low camera positions.

Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona.OLYMPUS OMD E-M1 Mark II Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro with MC 1.4x.

Overall, I am hugely impressed with this camera system which will become my primary photographic tool for the foreseeable future. It is a truly professional grade camera body, being fully weather-sealed and I was not concerned about using the camera in challenging environments such as rain or blowing sand. The more I use the Micro 4/3 system, the more I like the 4:3 aspect ratio, especially for vertical compositions. For landscape photography, the Olympus OMD E-M Mark II, combined with the Olympus 7-14mmF2 .8 Pro lens is a superb combination. Recently, specialist filter manufacturers have made it possible to use neutral density, polariser or graduated filters on this wide-angle lens. This was the lens that I used most on this trip. For a standard, all-round zoom, the recently introduced Olympus 12-100 mmF4 Pro lens is really good, though a little long and heavy for my liking, on such a small body. However, to have the equivalent range of 24mm to 200 mm (35mm equivalent) and have such serious optical quality and image stabilisation is pretty unbelievable. Another favourite lens for more distant landscapes is the Olympus 40-150 mm F2 .8 Pro, which I also used extensively with the MC 1.4 X teleconverter. The latter really does not reduce the image quality significantly, although I like to stop down an extra stop to be safe. A final consideration would be what “dream” lenses could Olympus develop? I think a super-wide fast prime (e.g. for night sky), perhaps a 12mm F1.4 or F1.2; and a tilt–shift lens would make my Nikon full frame system pretty much unemployed (even though there is keystone correction in the software of the camera, the image delivered is a JPEG and not a RAW file). One or two other thoughts specific to landscape shooting are: the live bulb/time/composite shutter speed setting –  this is a really nice idea for long exposures where the image builds on the LCD screen, not unlike a print developing in a darkroom tray, along with a histogram. However, I found this somewhat limited for a night sky work, as the maximum ISO with which this works is 1600. I also found having custom banks (C1-3) really useful, given that these cameras are so customisable. Having a base camp to return to that holds a range of favoured settings, makes it quicker to refine technical considerations quickly in rapidly changing lighting conditions. Finally, another huge improvement over the original E-M1 is battery life. I never had to change a battery during a day’s shooting, although I always kept one spare. As you can gather, mine is a hugely positive overall impression after a week of extensive use, particularly given my lifelong 35mm/full frame and DX camera use and an early E-M1 adopter. The form factor and handling of this camera are simply unbeatable and it delivers unquestionable professional-grade results. The lenses are outstanding and the camera is built to take the elements when outdoors in all weathers that crazy landscape photographers go out in.

 

 

 


Comments

Christopher Magnussen(non-registered)
Hi

Finally an honest review from someone who know how to use a camera. Personally I am saving up for this camera, and I have a limited income. I just see it as the most bang for the buck camera and system in this day and age. My goal is to go for the 40-150 F2.8 pro with the 1.4 converter, as this will be used the most. I want the 7-14 F2.8 Pro more, but since I can only afford one lense from the get go, I just have to go for what will be used the most. I plan on purchasing all the pro lenses, one by one, except the 12-100 F4 Pro and 12-40 F2.8 Pro. After that I will be messing around with different vintage lenses.
I'm a person who do not like limitations, so I will shoot anything I find interesting. If I had the budget, I would have 5 cameras though. Nikon D800E, Canon 5DsR, Leica SL, Leica Monochrome and finally the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MarkII.
Photography is my biggest passion so my inventory will grow bigger and better over the years, yet I refuse to loan any money at all to make my goals come sooner. I will have a Leica one day, and it will be purchased with my own money. Until that day, I will be more than happy with the Olympus, because I have produced so many ideas of what to shoot already just by assessing its capabilities.
Always good to have something to look forward to :)
Hendrik Zwart(non-registered)
John, Wonderful Article. I recently switched to the Olympus EM1 Mark II for Landscape photography. In February and March of this year I was in the polar circle and I was amazed by its performance and image quality. The Northern Light shots were amazing compared to the EM5 Mark II. I am also a Nikon shooter and took my D750 on this trip as well in case....well it was kept in the bag for 90% of the time as I really liked working with the EM1 Mark II. I concur with you on the lens request. A 10 mm f1.2 would be welcome. The Northern Light images I shot with the Olympus 12mm 2.0 (marvelous lens though) but a little more light and sight would be great.

To Helen's point. If you are on crossroads...The dynamic range of the EM1 Mark II is equal to the Fuji XT2, although the latter is a an APS-C sensor. For me the EM1 Mark II is the camera to go. John talks in is article about Live Time and Live Time Composite. Amazing functionality of the EM1 Mark II. I was photagraphing with some other professional photographers and they said...wow that are cool features. Why do other manufacturer do not have it?

The 50MP highRES shots are second to none for a micro 4/3 sensor. When you look at that resolution the shots are stunning! Combined with PRO lenses for me this is an unbeatable combination when want to travel light. The EM1 Mark II is good for landscape - street photography - here the 17mm 1.8 is a great combination (also the 12mm 2.0 and 25mm 1.2 fantastic lenses). Wildlife...the speed of the EM1 Mark II is perfect which make him suitable for Wildlife as well.

Hope this little comment is of some help in making a decision. For me the EM1 Mark II is my preferred camera.
Helen Higgs(non-registered)
Thank you John. This is the only article I have found on using this camera for landscape.

I'm on the cusp of jumping ship from Canon DSLRs and not sure where to turn. Landscape is important to me, but so is street and travel, and a little bit of wildlife. The Fuji X-T2 has been in my sights for some time but doesn't seem to produce quality landscape images straight from Lightroom. It would be a bit of a compromise for wildlife too.

Are there any things you would flag up as not liking about the Olympus?
Andreas(non-registered)
Nice review and very nice images. Add a landscape photographer i am curious if you used the high-res function as you didn't mention it? Also I think the stabilisation system deserved even more credit; I don't know what your focal length was, but you mentioned 1/40s shutter speed speed, and with lenses<25mm my experience is that one can fairly easy take her held shots at 2s SS and therefore use ISO 200 with even less noise
Alp(non-registered)
Have you had a chance to try the high res shot?
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