For more than six years, I co-hosted a weekly photography podcast called On Taking Pictures, and for nearly the entire duration of the show, there was a running joke centered around my “search” for a new camera. Since 2012, I’ve been using a Fujifilm X-Pro1. I developed a somewhat unnatural love for the X-Pro1 from the moment I took it out of the box and mounted the 35mm f/1.4 lens to it. The metal body is cold when you pick it up and its weight and density, for lack of a better word, belies its size. While it doesn’t feel as good in the hand from an ergonomic perspective as the Nikon D300 I had before it, despite being little more than a metal brick, the X-Pro1 just feels right. It’s a quirky camera, slow to focus by modern DSLR standards, and users seem to be split on the OVF/EVF, but the files that come out of it can be glorious under the right circumstances. So why look for another camera at all? That’s a good question and one that sits squarely at the root of the long-running joke.
As much as I love the X-Pro1, there are a couple things about it that have bugged me since the beginning, namely the sub-par autofocus and the poor implementation of video. I learned to live with the autofocus and by and large work around it because I loved the image quality–Fujifilm’s color science is superb. I also loved the 35mm f/1.4–though slow to focus, when it did lock, the images were tack sharp, even wide open. Eventually, I got tired of missing shots and sold the lens in favor of the newer, smaller, and much faster focusing 35mm f/2 and have noticed little, if any, difference in image quality. Video is another story. Simply put, it feels like an afterthought that Fujifilm just should have omitted entirely. The bit rate is abysmal (about 12Mbps in 1080p and even lower in 720p), available frame rate is locked at 24fps, and shooting video is limited to either Program or Aperture Priority without control over ISO, which means that if the ambient light or the light on the subject changes in the slightest, the exposure changes as well, often resulting in annoying flickering. So as I began to think about a new camera, I started to look at it not from the perspective of what can X or Y camera do overall, but rather what can it do for me and can it do it better than what I currently have?
By the time I started to get serious about a new camera, there were a few main features that topped my list: faster autofocus, better video, and if possible, I would like them to be weather sealed and include an articulating screen. The latter two features were more wants than needs. The most obvious choice for me at the time was the X-Pro2. It was the next generation of a camera that I loved shooting with. I also considered the Nikon D500 since it felt very close to the D300 I had before the X-Pro1. Ultimately, I took the Nikon out of the running in favor of something smaller. Both the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and XT2 used the newer generation of X-Trans sensor, had much improved autofocus, and were weather-sealed—the XT2 also offered a unique semi-articulated screen. Video was still a mixed bag. At the time, only the XT2 was capable of 4k video (it was later added to the X-Pro2 in a firmware update), but recording time was limited to 15 minutes (about 10 minutes in real-world testing) without the optional grip and two additional batteries, which added significant size and weight to the body as well as adding over $400 to the price. It was about this time that I started looking more seriously at the Micro 4/3 systems of Panasonic and Olympus.
I had been a Fuji APS-C shooter for years and a Nikon APS-C shooter before that and while the idea of the Micro 4/3 system looked good on paper—smaller bodies, lighter lenses—there’s one thing the photography industry and many professional photographers love reinforcing and that is that bigger is better. Bigger sensors? Better. Bigger lenses? Better. Bigger light? Yep, you guessed it. Better. Still, I knew of a few people who were using Micro 4/3 systems professionally and getting superb results (see here, here, and here). There were two cameras I started looking into that offered big performance in small bodies: the Olympus EM1 MkII and the Panasonic Lumix G9. Each of these 20mp cameras offered blistering autofocus, eerily good IBIS, weather sealing, and a High Resolution mode that took eight individual exposures and composited them in-camera into a 50mp JPG or an 80mp RAW file, which I thought would be a perfect solution for photographing my paintings for print and for “scanning” film. Recently, a friend of mine had photographed a few of my paintings using a 100mp PhaseOne IQ3 medium format camera and I wondered how the diminutive sensors on these smaller bodies would stack up. I reached out to Panasonic and asked about getting a G9 review unit and an On Taking Pictures listener helped me get in touch with Olympus, who I asked for a loaner EM1 MkII. The Olympus rep for the mid-Atlantic region responded within a day or two and offered to send me an EM1 MkII and the 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens. I never heard from Panasonic, so I picked up a Fujifilm XT2 since it was the other front runner I was considering. A flagship Micro 4/3 camera vs. a flagship APS-C camera. Let’s do this.
One thing that impressed me straight away about the EM1 MkII was how good it felt in the hand. The fit and finish is terrific and the camera feels solid and dense, especially given the size. The EM1 MkII body could basically fit inside the Nikon D500, yet buttons and dials are logically placed, easily accessible, and insanely customizable. The grip is easily one of the most comfortable I’ve felt on any camera—so much so that I walked around with it for several days shooting street in DC without a strap and it never felt uncomfortable nor did it ever feel like it was about to slip from my hand.
Like so many Fuji shooters, I love the look of Fuji cameras, especially the X-Pro series. The XT2 has similar retro/analog styling that arguably helped to put Fuji digital cameras on the map and though it feels solid-ish overall, it doesn’t feel nearly as good in the hand as the EM1 II, mainly because there’s not much of a grip to speak of. Also, the position of the shutter button means that you have to change your hand position to reach the front command dial (unless you can reach it with your middle finger) and some of the buttons, such as the AE-L, AF-L and the function button between the EV-compensation dial and the shutter speed dial just don’t feel, well, right.
Upgrading my X-Pro1 with the newer 35mm f/2 made an enormous difference in focus speed, but both the EM1 MkII and the XT2 are in another league. There are multiple sources to explore the specifics of focus points, DFD vs. Phase Detection, and whether one 3D tracking or eye/face detection algorithm is better than the other, but suffice to say that focus on each of these cameras is blisteringly fast and (mostly) accurate. The continuous AF performed a bit better on the Olympus than the Fuji, but I was also using the stock Fuji firmware, not the updated 4.1, which is supposed to have improved C-AF. Additionally, the EM1 MkII can capture 60 RAW frames per second using the electronic shutter, which is nuts. One feature that I found myself using almost all the time was the sleep mode, which powers the camera down when not in use to save battery, but half-pressing the shutter with the camera at my side powers it back up and ready to shoot by the time I raise it to my eye.
Alright. Enough about the touchy-feely parts. How are the pictures that come out of these cameras? As you might expect, each of these flagship cameras is capable of producing superb results. What surprised me was just how close the results were, despite the different sensor sizes. Up to about ISO6400, the EM1 MkII was able to hold its own against the XT2 in terms of detail and clarity. The Olympus tends to have better highlight detail and rolloff, while the Fuji typically looks better in the shadows—however, overexposing the Olympus slightly and underexposing the Fuji, then correcting in post, yields nearly identical results. Color felt a bit more accurate on SOOC JPGs on the EM1 MkII. For some reason, the files from XT2 just don’t have the same character that they do from the X-Pro1. Also, the noise on the XT2 feels more “digital” than that of the EM1 MkII, which several people confirmed felt more “organic.”
One of the main features that led me to the Olympus in the first place (and the Panasonic G9) is the High Resolution mode, which takes 8 sequential photos and composites them together in-camera into one 80mp RAW file (10368 x 7776). I had the opportunity to test the High Resolution mode against the 100mp (11608 x 8708) PhaseOne IQ3 medium format camera using one of my paintings as a test subject. The results were pretty interesting, especially considering the fact that you can fit just about nine Micro 4/3 sensors on one IQ3! The PhaseOne was always going to be better—you can’t get around physics—but I was amazed at the amount of detail the $3,000 Olympus camera was able to capture compared to the $50,000 PhaseOne.
Since I was primarily interested in using the High Resolution mode to photograph my paintings for print, I chose to use a painting that had not only a variety of colors, but also a lot of fine details (prints of this and several of my other paintings are available here). The gold leaf texture I thought would be an especially good test to see how much detail each camera was capable of capturing. The painting was shot in a studio, using Comet strobes and two 6 ft. Chimera soft boxes placed at the top and bottom of the painting at about a 60-degree angle to the surface. The exposure settings for each camera were matched as closely as possible, accounting for the differences in the way crop factor affects field of view and aperture.
Again, what surprised me is just how well the High Resolution mode on the Olympus performed. Colors were rich and saturate and details were terrific across the image. Where the IQ3 really shines is capturing the finer details—the capillary-like cracks in the surface and the tiny wrinkles and creases in the gold leaf. Looking at the files at 100% or 200% on a calibrated screen makes it easier to see the differences. However, looking at prints from each of the files narrows the gap considerably, to the point where several people I asked had to guess which one was which.
There is no such thing as the perfect camera, but there might be the perfect camera for you. As photographers, we tend to get stuck on the totality of what a camera is capable of, rather than focusing on what a particular camera can bring our worfklow or how it can help us to create better art. I know photographers who make better pictures with their phones than I will ever make, regardless of what camera I have in my hands and that’s all they need. The tool fits the job. My search for a new camera has changed over the past several years and as I have refined what I am looking for in a camera—rather than simply fawning over the latest tech or the longest feature list, I am looking for features that will more directly move my creative needle. Is the EM1 MkII a perfect camera? Nope. But it just might be able to move the needle enough to be perfect for you. At least until the MkIII comes out.