Olympus kicks of its centenary year with a pro-focused, fast-shooting powerhouse of a camera. Andy Westlake takes an in-depth first look
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: At a glance:
- £2799.99 body only
- 20.4MP Four Thirds MOS sensor
- 121-point phase-detection AF
- 60fps continuous shooting (18fps with C-AF)
- 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder, 0.83x equivalent magnification
- 3-in fully-articulated touchscreen
- 5-axis in-body stabilisation, up to 7.5 stops compensation
In October 2019, it will be 100 years since the foundation of the company that’s now known as the Olympus Corporation. The firm is clearly determined to celebrate its centenary with a bang, and has kicked off with something of a statement model for Micro Four Thirds. The OM-D E-M1X takes all the things that Olympus’s current flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II does particularly well – high-speed shooting, autofocus tracking, in-body stabilisation and durability – and cranks the dial to up 11. In technical terms it’s a really interesting camera, although at £2799.99 body-only for a professional-focused model, it’s inevitably going to be a niche product. At this price, it doesn’t replace the E-M1 Mark II – instead it’s a new tier in the line-up.
In essence, the E-M1X is designed for shooting sports, action and wildlife under demanding conditions, and everything about its design and specification reflects this. It’s one of only a handful of cameras to include an integrated vertical grip for portrait-format shooting, complete with a duplicate set of controls, alongside the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5. Its mirrorless design means that it’s not as huge as these two behemoths, but it still weighs in at almost a kilogram. This feels like an odd choice from Olympus, which prides itself on the mobility of its system.
Olympus is making a number of truly eye-catching claims for the E-M1X. It says it has the world’s best dust, splash and freeze-proofing for shooting in severe weather; the world’s most effective image stabilisation, with an incredible 7.5 stops maximum shake compensation; the industry’s highest viewfinder magnification, at 0.83x equivalent; and a remarkable stamina of 2,580 shots, thanks to the use of two high-capacity BLH-1 batteries. Brand-new features include subject-detection autofocus, a hand-held version of the firm’s high-resolution composite mode, and a Live ND function to simulate using ND filters for shooting long exposures.
I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-production sample of the E-M1X before launch, with free rein to test all its features. In this preliminary review I’ll be looking at all its new tech and giving my initial impression of how well it works. But I won’t be conducting our usual image-quality tests, or drawing a final conclusion, until I get my hands on a full production camera.
All sample images in this review were shot with a pre-production Olympus OM-D E-M1X.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Features
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X is based around a 20.4MP Four Thirds sensor which, at approximately 17.4 x 13mm, is roughly half the area of APS-C, and a quarter that of full frame. It offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 200-25,600, extendable to an ISO 64 low setting. Two TruePic VIII processors provide the necessary horsepower for its remarkable speed, along with many of its other special features.
Continuous shooting is available at 60 frames per second in full-resolution raw, using the electronic shutter and with focus fixed at the start of a burst. If you need the camera to track focus on a moving subject, it’s capable of doing so at 18 fps, with a buffer of up to 74 frames in raw. For unpredictable subjects where timing is everything, Olympus’s Pro Capture mode can record up to 35 frames before the shutter button is fully depressed, in effect meaning you can capture shots in situations where you normally wouldn’t be able to react in time.
Shutter speeds range from 60sec to 1/8000sec using the mechanical shutter, extending to an ultra-fast 1/32,000sec with the electronic shutter. You can also select an electronic first curtain shutter mode to eliminate any chance of image blur due to shutter shock. Using the mechanical shutter the E-M1X is exceptionally quiet, but with the electronic shutter it’s completely silent. The mechanical shutter is rated for 400,000 actuations.
Autofocus employs on-chip phase detection, with 121 cross-type focus points. This may not match the sheer number of AF points on other recent mirrorless cameras, such as the 493 used by Sony’s high-speed Alpha 9, but it still means you can focus practically anywhere across the image area, so it’s not a huge real-world difference. You can utilise groups of 5, 9 or 25 points, and even define custom AF-area patterns to suit your own needs. Both face and eye-detection are available, too – it’s often forgotten that Olympus included the latter long before Sony developed and popularised the concept.
For metering, you have a choice of pattern, centre-weighted, spot, shadow spot, and highlight spot modes. The latter can be particularly useful in high-contrast situations when you wish to avoid losing any highlight detail. Any of the spot modes can be linked to the focus area if you wish.
Files are recorded to a pair of SD card slots, both of which support the high-speed UHS-II standard, and can be configured in any practically fashion required. You can choose whether you want to use them sequentially or simultaneously, and if the latter, which file types you’d like to record to each. There’s also a dedicated button for switching between cards, which is especially handy for playback.
Power is provided by two BLH-1 batteries as used in the E-M1 Mark II, which can recharged in-camera in approximately 2 hours though the USB-C port (Olympus also includes a pair of external chargers in the box). The combined battery life is rated at 2850 shots by CIPA standard testing, but you’ll get very many more than that in burst mode. For example, shooting motorsports at 18fps, I managed over 5000 frames and the camera still showed 30% charge remaining in the first battery, with the second untouched. That suggests a potential total endurance of 14,000 frames. If that’s not enough, then it’s possible to power the camera via USB-C.
In-body image stabilisation (IBIS) is one of Olympus’s most notable strengths, and the E-M1X gains an uprated version of the firm’s already industry-leading 5-axis system. Alongside the pitch and yaw movements covered by in-lens IS, this can also correct for rotation around the lens axis that’s important for long-exposure shooting, and vertical/horizontal movements that can introduce blur when shooting hand-held close-ups.
Thanks to a new gyrosensor, Olympus is claiming an incredible 7 stops of stabilisation, increasing to 7.5 stops when the camera is used with an optically-stabilised Olympus lens such as the 12-100mm f/4 IS, with the IBIS and OIS then working together in a system Olympus calls Sync IS. It’s effectiveness is unprecedented; I was able to get sharp images shooting 2 second exposures with the 12-100mm at its telephoto end, given a few attempts. Unfortunately Sync IS doesn’t work with Panasonic OIS lenses; instead you have to choose between OIS and IBIS.
There’s a whole stash of additional features onboard, many of which are exclusive to Olympus. Together, all these expand the E-M1X’s abilities way beyond action photography. The camera includes a vast array of bracketing options; high-dynamic range shooting; in-camera keystone correction for eliminating unwanted converging verticals; and a comprehensive intervalometer. As mentioned earlier, you also get high-resolution multi-shot, now with a new hand-held variant.
Olympus’s Live Time and Live Bulb modes let you watch long exposures as they build up, taking away the guesswork from deciding how long to leave the shutter open. Meanwhile Live Composite is a clever way of building up light trails beyond what would normally be possible. New on the E-M1X is Live ND, which allows you to shoot long exposures just as if you were using a neutral density filter.
Olympus has even built in set of field sensors as used in its recent Tough cameras, comprising of a GPS unit, thermometer, manometer and compass. These can record the camera’s longitude, latitude, elevation, temperature and shooting direction into EXIF data. The firm suggests these should be particularly useful for landscape photography.
Smartphone connectivity is provided by built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This lets you use your phone as either a simple Bluetooth remote shutter release, or as a comprehensive remote control over Wi-Fi with full access to exposure settings from your phone, and a live view display. You can then copy your favourite images across to your phone for sharing. Olympus says a new version of its OI Share mobile app will support raw file transfer, while new Olympus Capture software will enable Wi-Fi tethered shooting from a computer.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Video
The E-M1X also has a strong focus on video. It can record in Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) resolution at 30fps, with a new OM-Log400 profile available to produce footage that’s suitable for colour grading in post-production. It’s even possible to set different levels of image stabilisation for hand-held recording. A specially-engineered heat pipe from the main circuit board to the outer body shell is designed to prevent over-heating during recording.
There’s a standard 3.5mm stereo microphone input, which is set high enough on the camera’s shoulder not to interfere with the movement of the articulated screen. Below it is a headphone socket, but this does partially block the screen’s rotation. Olympus says that the weather-sealing isn’t compromised when using either of these, or indeed the remote release socket.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Build and handling
With its rugged weather-sealed magnesium alloy body and integrated vertical grip, Olympus is placing the E-M1X squarely in the same bracket as Canon and Nikon’s pro sports cameras. Its build quality really is excellent, with the big chunky handgrips making the camera extremely comfortable to hold for extended shooting. All of the main controls fall perfectly to hand, and the buttons are large and well-spaced, making the camera easy to operate even when you’re wearing gloves. I certainly appreciated this when shooting a total lunar eclipse at 5am on a freezing January morning.
The control layout is broadly based on the E-M1 Mark II, but the two electronic dials for each grip are embedded into the body, rather than being on the surface. The larger body means that there’s space for even more controls; most notably, there are new ISO and exposure compensation buttons adjacent to both shutter releases, and a white-balance button on the back. A large lever on the back allows you to disable the vertical set of controls, or alternatively lock-off a user-specified combination of buttons and dials.
Where the E-M1 Mark II had a pair of buttons above the power switch on its left shoulder, the E-M1X now has three. These give quick access to flash, drive, metering, focus and bracketing modes, which are then changed by spinning the front and rear control dials. Two function buttons placed beneath the tips of your second and third fingers on each grip operate depth-of-field preview and one-touch white balance by default, but can be reconfigured to almost any other setting you prefer.
In a long-overdue move, Olympus has included a pair of joystick controllers for repositioning the focus point, one each for landscape and portrait format shooting. Both fall naturally beneath your thumb, and are a huge improvement on using the d-pad on the E-M1 II. The AF area is highlighted in an easily-visible green when you move it around the frame: this shouldn’t be in any way remarkable, but it stands in welcome contrast to Sony’s continued insistence on ‘highlighting’ the focus point in invisible grey.
Some photographers will be surprised by the fact that Olympus hasn’t provided a separate AF-ON button for activating the autofocus independently of the shutter button, which is a method preferred by a huge number of sports and action shooters. The idea is that you use the AEL/AFL button instead, which changes function to AF-On when you switch the camera to continuous AF. Like almost any control on the E-M1X, you can configure exactly how you’d like it to behave, and even set it up differently for S-AF, C-AF and MF modes.
With all these buttons, dials and switches, the E-M1X really has all the external controls you could possibly ask for, and arguably more. Not only do you barely have to enter the menus, you rarely even have to bother with the onscreen super control panel, which is crucial to operating lower-end Olympus models. And while the controls are almost infinitely customisable, the camera is so well set up out-of-the-box that I found little need to change anything. I re-set the main dials to my preferred layout, and configured the switch beside the viewfinder to turn the camera on and off as it’s easier to reach than the power lever, but that’s about all.
Olympus’s long and convoluted menus haven’t changed, though; indeed the custom menu now stretches to 23 pages. Thankfully, Olympus has finally added a My Menu where you can compile up to 35 of your most-used settings, which goes a long way to making things more manageable. It’s also come up with an uncharacteristically simple and elegant method for adding items to the list, by simply pressing the red record button when they’re selected. This works really well, and leaves the other manufacturers’ far more complicated approaches looking pretty silly.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Viewfinder and screen
As usual for Olympus’s OM-D range, the E-M1X sports a centrally mounted viewfinder above an articulated touchscreen. While the firm is keen to talk about the EVF’s 0.83x huge magnification, it’s more reticent to highlight the resolution. Its choice of a 2.36-million-dot panel for the E-M1X is surprising given that its competitors now all use 3.7-million-dot EVFs, and the relative lack of crispness is clearly visible, especially after using the superb viewfinder on the Nikon Z 7. The firm’s explanation is that the lower resolution aids driving the finder at 120 frames per second for lag-free action shooting.
Having said that, the viewfinder is still very good, giving an accurate preview of colour, exposure and depth-of-field. You can display plenty of useful information, including a live histogram, electronic levels, and highlight and shadow clipping warnings. It’s possible to choose whether exposure data is overlaid on the preview image, or displayed below to give a cleaner view.
One real advantage of the E-M1X over its competitors is the fully-articulated LCD, which makes it much easier to shoot at unusual angles in both portrait and landscape formats. Touchscreen functionality is relatively limited, but includes the most important options including focus point selection while shooting, and control over image browsing in playback. One strange omission is the lack of a top-plate LCD status panel, as seen on an increasing number of high-end mirrorless models, especially as there’s a blank space where one could fit rather neatly.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Autofocus
Perhaps the camera’s most interesting feature is its intelligent subject recognition autofocus, which allows it to recognise and track specific kinds of subjects. This works when focus is set to the C-AF + TR mode, and can be configured for trains, planes, or motorsports, at which point the camera will outline any object of the correct type in the viewfinder, and once it’s picked something to focus on, ignore everything else.
Olympus says that the detection algorithm has been trained using a ‘deep learning’ approach, which means that the camera could in principle be trained to detect other subject types in future, such as birds or animals. Indeed, Olympus says it’s hoping to add modes for such subjects via future firmware updates. If it can’t find any object of the specified type, the camera falls back on its conventional subject tracking mode.
Subject detection appears to work really well, and did a great job of tracking focus specifically on cars when I tested it at a motor sports event. One very noticeable real-world benefit is that the camera rarely seems to get confused by anything that temporarily obstructs the desired subject. C-AF tracking at 18fps also works very well indeed, although it can take a few frames to acquire the subject first. I’m not yet sure it’s quite on the same level as the Sony Alpha 9, but like that camera, it’s so straightforward to get good results that it almost feels like cheating.
Aside from this innovative new subject tracking algorithm, the standard autofocus system has also been uprated. As with the E-M1 Mark II, it still uses 121 cross-type points arranged across the entire frame, but it’s now possible to select from a wider range of grouping options. Olympus says the camera can focus in vanishingly low light of -6 EV when using an f/1.2 lens. I was certainly impressed to find it could focus on the edge of the eclipsed moon using a 300mm f/5.6 telezoom.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Hand-held high-res
Olympus was one of the first to introduce a high-resolution multi-shot mode, exploiting the in-body stabilisation unit to deliver full-colour sampling at each pixel location. Until now it’s been strictly a tripod-based mode, but on the E-M1X Olympus has added a version for hand-held shooting, which outputs 40MP JPEGs.
Hand-held mode actually works on a completely different principle, taking 16 frames in rapid succession which are processed using conventional Bayer interpolation. It then uses the tiny sup-pixel-differences between them to produce a higher-resolution image. Its main practical drawback is that the processing time is painfully long, with the camera locking up completely for 13 seconds.
It certainly works, though; 40MP JPEG files look very soft at the pixel level, but if you down-sample them to 20MP and compare to conventional single-shot images, they show visibly more fine detail. Unsurprisingly though, the mode still has problems dealing with subjects that move while it’s recording the exposures.
You can clearly see the difference in the comparison above. Detail is much better defined in the multi-shot version of this pair of images, taken just seconds apart. But you can also see ghosting from a man walking through the frame in the multi-shot version. Even so, it’s easily the most practical implementation of this feature to date, and clearly works better than the implementation found on the Pentax K-1 Mark II.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: Live ND
New to the E-M1X is a Live ND function that can be used for shooting long exposures equivalent to using neutral-density filters of between 1 and 5 stops, with the effect previewed in the viewfinder. It’s only available in manual-exposure mode, and is best used with the camera on a tripod. Essentially, the camera shoots a series of shorter exposures, finds areas of the image which have changed between them, and averages them to produce a long-exposure blur effect.
Again it works well in practice, and means you no longer have to stop down to resolution-sapping small apertures if you wish to shoot long exposures without an ND filter. However with a maximum of 5 stops effect, it’s not yet a substitute for the really deep ND filters that are currently fashionable among landscape shooters.
The example above isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it shows the effect well. By engaging the Live ND mode I was able to blur the water while using an aperture of f/5.6. In comparison, with LiveND disabled I could only get a 2 second exposure when stopped right down to f/22 , which results in huge levels of blur due to diffraction.
Olympus OM-D E-M1X: First Impressions
With the OM-D E-M1X, it looks like Olympus has given its designers free reign to build the best camera they can, regardless of price. There’s no doubt that it looks like an innovative and highly accomplished camera that’s built like a tank and packed full of clever features. I’ve been impressed by how well its new technology seems to work.
The question, though, is how many photographers will be prepared to shell out £2800 for a high-end Micro Four Thirds camera? This is a price point previously reserved for full-frame cameras, which offer significantly better image quality due to their larger sensors. Even the ludicrously accomplished Nikon D500 costs £1000 less, and it’s the best APS-C format DSLR ever made, with access to a much wider range of lenses.
Olympus argues, with some justification, that the image-quality disadvantage of the smaller sensor is offset by the increased portability of its system as a whole, along with its insanely effective image stabilisation. But in a market where the narrative has shifted heavily towards full-frame over the past six months, it remains to be seen whether potential buyers will be convinced. You could buy a Sony Alpha 7 III or Nikon Z 6 with a 24-70mm f/4 zoom for about the same price as the E-M1 X body, and while neither is as blisteringly quick, both are superb all-rounders which can tackle almost any subject with distinction.
Clearly the E-M1X’s chosen specialist subject is sports and wildlife photography, but the problem here is that there aren’t all that many high-end telephotos in the Micro Four Thirds system. From Olympus there’s just the 40-150mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/4 complemented by a 1.4x teleconverter, with a 2x teleconverter coming later this year. Meanwhile Panasonic offers a 100-400mm f/4-6.3 telezoom, along with a 200mm f/2.8 that comes with a matched 1.4x teleconverter. This relative shortage of native long lens options looks like a drawback for a camera that’s been primarily designed for telephoto shooting.
Overall, this makes the E-M1X a slightly puzzling release. Olympus is clearly confident there’s a niche in the market, and the E-M1X does offer photographers a unique combination of speed and ruggedness within a relatively compact overall system size. But despite all its clever new features, it’s difficult to understand exactly who is supposed to buy it. Hopefully Olympus will be able to translate much of its exciting new technology to more mainstream models later in the year.