The formula for the ideal travel camera goes something like this: small, easy to use and powerful. For a lot of travellers these days, that means a mirrorless camera, one that delivers the performance of a single-lens reflex (SLR), along with interchangeable lenses, but without an SLR’s size and weight. Which brings me to the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II.
Preparing for my recent trip to Cuba, I was looking for something that hit all the marks mentioned above. I wanted an all-around performer with good specifications and some heavy-duty features, in a price range below $1,000. The answer was the E-M10 Mark II, and Olympus was kind enough to loan me one for the trip.
The E-M10 Mark II is the newest entry in Olympus’s well-reviewed OM-D series, which combines old-time styling with up-to-the-minute technology. This version carries on that theme, with a traditional-looking body that looks like an SLR from the 1960s. True to its retro image, it sports a cluster of dials on top that put many of the common settings at your fingertips, just like with an old SLR.
There’s also a big, tilting 3-inch monitor on the back that lets you focus and shoot by touching the screen; you can also use the touch function to change settings and scroll through your shots. If you still prefer to use the viewfinder, as many of us older photographers do, you have an electronic one – but a new, sharper one that uses top-of-the-line OLED technology.
As for the engine underneath, there’s a robust 16.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor and Olympus’s capable TruePic VII processor (the brain inside the camera). You can shoot 8.5 frames per second in burst mode, and the camera has five-axis image stabilization, so it compensates for almost any kind of movement you make while shooting.
For inexperienced users, the camera has an Intelligent auto mode, and a Live Guide feature that lets you adjust settings using a slider at the side of the screen. For advanced photographers, there’s the ability to shoot in high-resolution RAW mode.
The E-M10 also sports Olympus’s trademark menu of art filters and special effects that let you make the world look any way you like: pastel, technicolour, grainy black and white … And there’s a useful movie mode, with several frame rates and the ability to shoot using the art filters. Plus, a feature called Photo Story, which lets you combine small movie clips into a collage, and — new with this model — time-lapse movies at the super-high 4K resolution.
Hitting the road
I spent a week shooting with the E-M10 Mark 2 in Varadero and Havana, and found it a good travel companion. While the camera is small (a little bigger than pocket size), it has a thumb pad on the back and a small grip on the front that let me get a fairly comfortable hold – though I would have liked a chunkier grip on the front.
When it came to taking photos, the camera performed well. It found a focus quickly in most kinds of light, and while it could miss the exposure in some situations, I found just rolling the front dial let me lighten or darken the picture at will, without taking my finger away from the shutter – kind of like push-button control.
I left the camera in Program mode much of the time, and it seemed to handle most situations well. And when the light was low or the action got too fast, I could switch to Aperture or Shutter-priority mode and take matters into my own hands, using the front and rear dials to change the settings.
The monitor was sharp, and quite visible in strong sunlight. And the touch focus and other touch features seemed to work just fine. Having the viewfinder was a big help, as well: unlike optical viewfinders, the electronic type lets you see exactly what your picture will look like so you can adjust settings when necessary. The battery life was about average: a full charge lasted me about two days of shooting.
On the negative side, the camera was a tad slow to wake up from “sleep” mode, so a few shots passed me by before I managed to get it up and running – always frustrating when you’re travelling. And as with many other modern cameras, the E-M10’s auto modes could choose very slow shutter speeds in low light, leaving me with blurred shots if I didn’t switch to a manual setting.
Finally, while the camera coped with low-light situations pretty well, it didn’t always get the colours right. The “Auto white balance” setting didn’t handle some situations well, leaving me to scroll through the white balance menu till I found the right one – and sometimes leaving it there for the next shot, fudging the colours on that one.
Looking at the photos
Even using the budget-priced kit lens, most of the shots I took with the E-M10 Mark II were sharp and good-looking. Here’s a full-sized sample from a shot I took in Havana. (All the sample photos are unedited. Click on the photos and enlarge to see them full-size.)
The E-M10 handled bright conditions well: even shooting at mid-day in Cuba, I found I got very few shots where the whites “burned out” from overexposure. The camera has a high dynamic range (HDR) mode to compensate for scenes with extreme bright and dark tones, but I didn’t really need it.
The E-M10 didn’t fare as well in low-light conditions, however. Pebbly-looking noise started appearing in my shots when I pushed the ISO (light sensitivity) to 1600 ISO, mottling people’s faces and creating grainy-looking areas, as in the photo below, from my musical pub crawl in Havana.
However, this was only apparent if you looked at the photos full-size. And I got some great-looking photos at ISO 2000 and even ISO 3200, while shooting Havana street scenes by night (see below). If you’re not going to enlarge your photos much past 8X10, these shots would still be quite usable.
As for the colour issue, I did get some odd-looking shots while navigating Cuba’s changing light conditions. But while some looked iffy, others had a striking, painterly look that made them suitable for framing, like this one.
As well, the art filters and picture styles let me create instant works of art, like the one below, shot from my hotel room door. And you can edit your RAW files in-camera, without the need for expensive software. The application didn’t have the total control I’d like, but it did allow me to change the exposure and white balance, plus apply the full range of picture styles and filters, coming up with results like the one at the top of this post.
Finally, the video looked sharp, and the lens zoomed almost noiselessly. With the constant activity of my trip, I never got around to playing with the stop-action movies or the Photo Story feature – I’ll leave that to you. In fact, there are probably a dozen features on this camera that could keep me busy for months. And that’s a good thing.
The E-M10 Mark II is a handy, good-looking camera with a pretty extensive arsenal of features and some high-end specifications. And with its micro four-thirds sensor – about two-thirds the size of those on most SLRs – it’s capable of taking SLR-quality photos. In fact, it turned out some really striking images in a pretty short time.
I was disappointed with its low-light performance. Other cameras in its price range – around $750 U.S. with lens – can do better. But unless you’re a serious photographer who does a lot of night photography and makes big prints, that might not be enough to stop you from choosing the E-M10. And on the good side, it did a very good job in harsh light, where some other cameras struggle.
In the end, it’s up to you. If you spend time in the tropics and like making artistic pictures, this could be a great travel companion. If you’re taking photos in dark cafés and making wall-sized prints — well, maybe not.