As a camera brand, Japan’s Olympus always has the feel, for me, of an ingénue, bravely squaring up to the big beasts, Canon and Nikon. And yet it is relatively old-school, equally known for medical and surgical instruments as well as other items, from face creams to plastic kitchenware. My first proper camera, in 1966, was an Olympus, as was the first serious digital SLR I saw (the E-1, in 2003). It preserves this image of a cheeky challenger, a bit of an outsider, by being highly innovative.
So it was when it introduced the retro OM-D a couple of years ago. Although deeply digital, the OM-D was recognisably and reassuringly an old-style SLR, but one that had been sprinkled with magic shrinking dust – Olympus had reduced a fully-fledged DSLR to the smallest usable size. It was an idea and design of absolute genius, because it made choosing the OM-D a near no-brainer for anyone seeking a serious interchangeable-lens DSLR for travel.
The OM-D E-M5 Mark II is the very latest OM-D, and its bloated name – along with a slightly intimidating array of dials and buttons, 24 shooting modes and 14 art modes (including watercolour) – shouldn’t put anyone off. The basic manual is admirably clear and succinct, as is the basic operation. A good 90 per cent of the camera’s functions need not trouble you – point it and shoot and you will get stunning photos. The five-axis stabilisation, in particular, is quite incredible – in movie mode it looks like the camera is on rails and the slow-shutter-speed stills are so steady you’d be forgiven for thinking that a tripod had been used.
In spite of its mostly optional controls, the OM-D E-M5 Mark II is full of practical touches that show Olympus’s experience and wisdom. You can, for instance, reverse the LCD screen to use the electronic viewfinder alone and not have a glowing screen abutting your nose. And there’s a lock on the mode’s dial so you don’t move it accidentally – a tiny thing, but so important. And it has a flash, for those who must, but it doesn’t pop up in that typical way; instead, it’s a clip-on for when you need it that you can also angle upwards to “bounce” off a ceiling and give a softer effect.