Long-term Review of the Olympus E-M1X: A Wildlife Photographer’s Perspective

A Question of Size

For some, the E-M1X might seem like a bit of an enigma. For many years, Olympus and Panasonic championed the compact form factor of their micro four-thirds series cameras and the advantages that they offer in terms of portability over a DSLR. Over the past couple of years, Olympus has shifted its focus away from ultra compact lenses and bodies and  towards larger bodies and lenses for working professional and serious enthusiast photographers. Panasonic seems to be leaning this direction as well, if the release of the GH5 and G9 micro four-thirds flagship cameras and their recently released 10-25mm F/1.7 zoom lens are any indication. That brings us to the E-M1X, which is a clear deviation from Olympus’s compact micro-four thirds heritage. Is it worth considering with today’s full-frame craze?

It’s Big…But Only for Micro-Four Thirds

Upon release, the E-M1X became the largest micro four-thirds camera ever produced. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s pretty chunky by mirrorless camera standards while housing a relatively small sensor. It’s significantly bigger than a gripped full-frame Sony A9. I believe some fans of the micro four-thirds system were confused by the size, with some feeling that a more compact E-M5 Mark II replacement should have come first. 

Unlike the E-M5 Mark II, however, it seems that the E-M1X was never intended to be a camera for the average user. It was meant to be a robust beast of a camera demonstrating the best that Olympus currently has to offer for sports and wildlife shooters. It is a body that prioritizes ergonomics and build quality over compactness to balance well with larger lenses. As a person who frequently uses a battery grip with my cameras including the E-M1 Mark II, I personally appreciate the size of the E-M1X. I find that it falls into a perfect sweet-spot for my medium-sized hands when paired with Olympus’s larger Pro lenses. If you are not into battery grips, then I can understand how you might be put off by the size, or at least wish it was removable. I suggest anyone concerned about the size pick one up and slap on a larger telephoto lens like the 300 F/4 Pro to see  how  it feels. Once in hand, you may think that the size is an advantage.

While the E-M1X’s dual-gripped form factor naturally lends itself to comparisons with the Canon 1DX  II and Nikon D5, my opinion is that the E-M1X camera is different enough from these DSLRs that such comparisons are not all that useful or worthwhile. It’s really an apples to oranges comparison.

Although Olympus has some excellent pro-level telephoto glass with the M.Zuiko 40-150 F2.8 and 300 F/4 Pro lenses, they still don’t have the huge library of native and third-party super telephoto lenses on offer for Canon and Nikon. This is set to change, as Olympus appears to be developing telephoto lenses such as the 150-400 F/4.5 Pro. That lens formula would offer something currently unmatched by any camera brand – a hand-holdable 300-800mm equivalent lens with a constant aperture and built in teleconverter. If Olympus’ previous lens releases provide any prediction of future build quality and optical performance, I believe that this will be an extraordinarily versatile lens for wildlife and sports shooters. For some photographers, it may be worth buying into the system altogether, provided the price is reasonable compared to alternatives.

E-M1X with the 12-100 F/4 Pro Lens

Sensor size and performance aside, I believe it is the lenses that make or break the system, and Olympus has some great ones. I continue to appreciate the comprehensive and relatively compact package Olympus provides with their excellent portfolio of current (and future) lenses. Like medium format versus full frame, micro-four thirds is simply that – a different format. There are enough benefits of the micro-four thirds system and the sensor format that it is capable of standing on its own without needing to resort to unnecessary comparisons with full-frame cameras. 

The 1DX and D5 are conventional DSLRs with optical viewfinders, which have their own set of pros and cons. I can imagine the scenario where a pro could take advantage of using both systems. For instance, the full-frame setup could be used in cases where maximum image quality, low-ISO performance and depth of field advantages are paramount, and the micro four-thirds setup for when carrying large equipment, such as in crowded areas or to a remote destination, would be prohibitive and unwieldy. The E-M1X would never get confused for a full-frame DSLR with a massive 600 F/4, and there are definitely situations where it pays to be discrete and compact.  

E-M1X with the M.Zuiko 300 F/4 Pro Lens

Where a DSLR with a 600 F4 lens will require a monopod or tripod, the E-M1X feels really well balanced and hand holdable with larger micro four-thirds lenses like the M.Zuiko 300 F/4 PRO. This is one of the strengths of this system – being able to achieve exceptional reach and image quality without feeling like it’s weighing you down. If you are used to using the E-M1 Mark II with a grip, you’ll feel right at home, as the size is not markedly different between the two. Paired with the weather-sealed pro lenses, the E-M1X is both relatively compact and robust and feels like it can take a beating. 

Ergonomics 

The ergonomics on the E-M1X were extremely well thought out. It’s easy to go through a long day’s worth of shooting with this camera without experiencing fatigue. The grip feels excellent, with many frequently used button functions easily accessible with the right hand. The addition of twin multi-selectors for rapid selection and resetting of the focus point is also welcome. Back-button focus users will also appreciate the placement of the AEL/AFL button which rests right under your thumb. The playback button is also easily accessed with the right hand which I find useful for quick focus checks.

Button placement is thoughtful and ergonomic.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is very good, but not class leading. To be honest, I feel like it is a bit of a missed opportunity when you start comparing it to the competition. It uses the same 2.36M-dot LCD panel from the E-M1 II but with optical design that increases magnification from .74x to .83x. While the boost in magnification is noticeable and appreciated, the resolution is relatively low compared to other mirrorless cameras at this price point, and even compared to some below it. For example, the $1,400 Fuji X-T3 offers a 3.69M-dot viewfinder, as does the Panasonic G9. Olympus claims they used this viewfinder design instead of an OLED panel because it minimizes artifacts such as tearing when panning and shooting fast action. I find the resolution adequate in most cases including verifying focus, but blacks in particular are still a little washed out like they were with the E-M1 II. This made me rely more on the histogram to verify exposure, particularly in deep shadows. In practice, I still find the viewfinder to be totally usable, and therefore not a dealbreaker at all when considering the overall package. I look forward to testing it more with moving subjects.

Image Quality

Some people in online photo forums expressed disappointment that the camera utilizes the same 20.4 megapixel sensor technology as the E-M1 Mark II, and were hoping for a bump in resolution, ISO performance, and/or dynamic range. While I also would have welcomed those improvements, I personally would have found the introduction of something like a stacked CMOS sensor with faster readout, akin to the Sony A9, more appealing. This is because, to a degree, you can already overcome some of the ISO limitations of micro four-thirds using the fantastic OIS system or by using faster lenses, and the dynamic range performance of this sensor chip is already excellent. A stacked sensor design like the A9’s would provide some clear advantages for the sports and wildlife shooter like blackout-free shooting without the drawbacks of rolling shutter effects with some moving subjects. While it’s not a stacked sensor, my overall opinion is that this sensor still performs at a very high level for a variety of uses, despite some room for improvement. There isn’t really much new to report here, as there are a lot of outstanding photos taken by others using the E-M1 Mark II available for viewing online and the image performance seems identical to me. 

The E-M1X’s image quality and dynamic range is impressive, even though it houses a several year old CMOS sensor.

Autofocus and Burst Shooting

A number of other things remain unchanged from the E-M1 Mark II. The continuous shooting speeds are identical at 10 FPS with the mechanical shutter and C-AF and 18FPS with the electronic shutter and C-AF (up to 60 FPS with AF Locked). The focusing engine and number of autofocus points (121 cross-type phase detection points) remains unchanged. Olympus claims to have improved the autofocus algorithm and processing power and claims improvement of low-light sensitivity. The buffer is also slightly improved over the E-M1 II, e.g., you can take 287 raw images at 10FPS before filling the buffer versus the E-m1 Mark II’s 148. I honestly can’t imagine shooting that many images in one go, but I’m sure there are those out there who do. I found the autofocus and frame rate of the E-M1 Mark II adequate for most of my shooting, and I will be interested in testing it further over time. I’m especially interested in learning how it performs with challenging subjects like birds in flight.

New Features

Olympus has always differentiated itself by offering some unique features over the competition, and I believe that is one of their strengths. The first worth mentioning is the image stabilizer, which is rated at a class-leading 7.5 EV stops of shake reduction with the 12-100 F/4 Pro lens. For my use case, I have not seen meaningful change from the E-M1 mark II, but I have also not compared the cameras side by side (I have since sold my E-M1 II).  Needless to say, the stabilization is as remarkable as it has been with Olympus cameras for some time, and maybe a bit more. 

More interesting to me are two pre-existing modes that have been carried over from the E-M1 Mark II, focus bracketing and pro-capture, along with two new shooting modes, handheld high-resolution mode and live ND mode, which are complimented by this new OIS system. Although one could argue that other cameras offer similar functionality or workarounds to achieve similar results, these two features can be activated with a menu selection or button press and thus integrated within the creative process. For instance, the live ND mode will provide a visual representation of an ND-filter like effect created by compositing multiple exposures and taking advantage of the incredible sensor stabilizer. The ability to activate these settings on the fly to see how it will affect the final image makes experimentation and spontaneity possible, which provides a clear advantage over a DSLR.

I can confirm that the handheld hi-res mode works well, provided that your subjects do not include motion. This is nice feature to have when you stumble across a landscape subject and can benefit from a resolution bump, which would be ideal for large landscape and still-life prints.

The hand-held high-resolution mode works well, even with moving water. If anything else is moving in the frame it will likely create an ugly blur.

Though not a new feature with the E-M1X, I also find Pro-Capture mode useful and innovative. I was already familiar with Pro-Capture, having shot with an E-M1 Mark II.  I find it to be an excellent feature that makes capturing difficult to shoot moments, such as the instant a bird takes off or catches a fish, completely possible. I look forward to testing it further with the E-M1X in a future update to this review.

Other notable feature additions include bluetooth connectivity and USB charging, which are excellent additions for the photographer on the go, as well as new environmental data recording including GPS geotagging. 

I have to admit that I have not yet used one of Olympus’s most touted and innovative features of the E-M1X – AI autofocus, a.k.a. “Intelligent Subject Tracking”. There is a reason why:  I don’t take photos of planes, trains, and automobiles, which is all that it will track right now. I think it was an odd choice for Olympus to focus on these subjects, but my guess is it was less difficult to develop algorithms to support these types of subjects, so they were released first. I’m putting testing of AI autofocus on hold until they (hopefully) release tracking capability for animal subjects. If it works well as intended, I do believe this has the potential to be one of, if not the most compelling feature of this camera. 

The E-M1X pairs well with the weather resistant FL-700WR Flash

Summary for – PART I – 

The E-M1X is an interesting camera in that it provides an integrated dual-gripped form factor never seen before in a micro-four thirds camera. My initial impression is that it is a responsive, robust and ruggedly built, generally fun camera to use and play around with. With some of the pro features, it’s also ready to get down to business. When these innovative features are considered in tandem with the mature micro four-thirds lens lineup on offer from Panasonic and Olympus, it becomes a compelling option for someone interested in nature photography. 

Some may argue that this is largely a rehash of the E-M1 II and not a worthy upgrade. Whether the price premium is worth it over the already excellent E-M1 II would have to be a highly personal decision. If affordability and compactness are paramount, the E-M1 is the answer. If you want the latest and greatest micro-four thirds body with better ergonomics and build, a multi-function selector, high-resolution and live-ND modes, and have faith in Olympus to expand upon the camera’s AI autofocus abilities, the E-M1X could be the way to go. I believe that opinions could change over time, especially when the AI system is fully developed with future firmware updates. If this feature lives up to its promise, it has the potential to revolutionize the way modern cameras and autofocus systems are used moving forward. 

If I were trying to decide between this camera and the available alternatives, I’d focus more on the system as a whole and the intended use case. For example, the 12-100 F/4 zoom is an extremely versatile superzoom lens that is a weather-sealed and is tack sharp throughout the zoom range – something I believe is currently unmatched in the competition. Similarly, the 300 F/4 pro provides a 600mm equivalent field of view on a lens that weighs noticeably less than a full-frame 70-200 2.8. As a wildlife photographer, I know I can go on a long hike with just these two lenses and feel like I have the majority of shooting situations covered without getting a backache trying to carry it all. This was a big selling point for me. 

The reality is that the E-M1X is not the camera for the average user, who might be inclined to go for any number of more affordable alternatives that can achieve the same images. But the truth of the matter is that a camera is the sum of its parts, not just the sensor.  This camera seems to be for those who want the highest performing body the micro-four thirds system currently has to offer, and can benefit from the comprehensive and unique feature set it provides. 

– PART II – added April 7th, 2019

Tracking larger birds like this California Condor is no problem for the E-M1X

Moving Wildlife Subjects

Birds, and particularly flying ones, are one of the most challenging wildlife subjects to capture. They move unpredictably, change position in three dimensions from a background of dark landscapes to bright skies, and in doing so, necessitate rapid changes in exposure compensation and focus. For capturing birds in flight on the E-M1 Mark II, I generally stuck to using a standard size, center position focus square with AF-C and experienced good results. I decided to start with those same settings here with the E-M1X. I also typically set the camera to auto-ISO with spot or center-weighted metering, as the camera can respond faster to changes in the scene than I can. Apart from ISO and focus mode, I usually have the camera drive set to Continuous-Low, which utilizes the mechanical shutter at 10 FPS, and allows for AF-C (using the 15 FPS-mode with mechanical shutter locks the AF after the first exposure). 18 FPS with AF-C is also possible by switching the camera to the electronic shutter, but I generally prefer the tactile nature and response of a mechanical shutter. Also, it’s a habit I’ve carried over from using the E-M1 Mark II, and I shied away from the 18 FPS mode, given the speed in which it filled up the buffer on that camera. 

The 1X’s AF does a respectable job with skittish birds like this gila woodpecker.

The good news is that the E-M1X has a deeper buffer than the E-M1 Mark II, and it also seems to clear it a little faster (although I can’t confirm this-other reviews online have tested this out in a lab). I’ve found in the 18-FPS drive mode the camera can shoot about 64 RAWs before slowing down to about 5 FPS, and then it takes about 12-13 seconds to clear the buffer (using a Sandisk Extreme Pro 300 mbps card). I look forward to further testing the electronic shutter modes on this camera, given it’s clear advantages for action photography, a style of photography I’ve recently grown more interested in – and one of my primary drivers for buying an E-M1X. 

Thankfully, I have had some time to test out the E-M1X’s autofocus chops with some California condors and cormorants. One of the situations I was most interested in testing out was capturing flying birds with a busy background, which can be a challenging scenario for just about every camera setup (and many a photographer). 

My current impression of the E-M1X autofocus is that it is improved, but not remarkably so compared to what I experienced with the E-M1 Mark II. In general, I would say that it feels more responsive and also less likely to hunt to achieve focus in lower light conditions. I must admit, there is a lot of adjustability with the autofocus system in this camera, and so I look forward to adjusting settings to identify the optimum for this type of subject. Because of this, I do not feel like I have had enough time with the camera to provide a final judgement of the AF system, and I will have to provide more impressions in a future update. With that being said, I have found it to be completely adequate providing a good keeper rate for flying birds – especially larger and slower moving ones.

The viewfinder is also an important factor in capturing fast action, and I have found it to be completely adequate for tracking moving subjects. I have had no problems panning and tracking with the camera, and find it plenty responsive enough to deal with these kinds of situations where you need to be ready to react quickly. 

The size of the E-M1X is excellent for action shooting along with the 300 F/4. I feel like I have more firm grip on the camera then I did with the E-M1 Mark II, and I have experienced no fatigue with the E-M1X, even with hours of use along with the 300 F/4 lens. The benefit here cannot be understated – micro four thirds, even with the E-M1X, is still an extremely compact solution for someone who likes to get out and hike to their destinations to capture wildlife. I had to do a strenuous hike for many of the images in this post, one I’d far prefer doing with Olympus over a heavier full-frame setup (unless it is with something like the Nikon D850 with the Phase-fresnel series lenses). 

The AF is responsive enough for larger birds. There is room for improvement for faster birds like swallows. Fingers crossed for a firmware update.

Autofocus (continued)

Over the past month, I have attempted to put the E-M1X’s autofocus through its paces with a variety of static and fast moving wildlife subjects. My general observations have been that the E-M1X is a modest, but not revolutionary improvement in terms of AF responsiveness and low-light performance compared to the E-M1 II. This is not entirely surprising, given it shares the same sensor chip and PDAF system with the E-M1 II.

Without doing any objective comparisons, my impression is that AF-C is snappier on this camera then the E-M1 II, but it still has a tendency to lose its accuracy and drift under scenes with low light or less than optimal contrast. In these situations, I have seen better results out of my D500, for example. I have noticed that this condition is worse when using the 300 F/4 with the 1.4 teleconverter attached, a combination I am most likely to use for birding. Perhaps this should not be surprising given the light loss and added glass of a teleconverter. When the light is fair to good, AF performance is predictably reliable and quick. 

Final Remarks

Does the E-M1X have enough to offer to justify the price premium over the E-M1 II? I’d say that it depends on your needs, and your current investment in the micro four-thirds system. The grip feel and build quality are impressive, the buttons are placed intelligently, and it’s a joy to use with Olympus’s larger lenses. After about a month and a half of use, I can say that it has some of the best ergonomics of a modern mirrorless camera, and it feels robust enough to go everywhere you need it do without really having to worry about it. I have little doubt that the 1X is the best micro four-thirds camera currently offered, from a performance, build, and feature perspective. 

The E-M1X offers modest upgrades over the E-M1 II, notably the redesigned stabilization and AI autofocus capabilities. AI autofocus is quite limited right now, and and I feel that firmware upgrades are needed to maximize its potential. Handheld high-resolution mode is impressive, and usable under the right circumstances. 

The anticipated future release of the M.Zuiko 150-400mm F/4.5 Pro lens will offer a portable, hand-holdable solution for wildlife and sports with equivalent focal lengths that are currently unmatched by any other camera system. I just wish this lens was released at the same time as the E-M1X, which would help justify its relative cost compared to the competition. The 150-400 coupled with the also recently announced 2x teleconverter will provide an astounding 2000mm equivalent focal length. When dealing with this type of magnification, the E-M1X’s improved stabilization may prove to be even more essential.

12 image photo stack using Focus Bracketing

There are a few gripes I had with the camera. The joystick and AF point selection behavior frustrated me from time to time. For instance, when the high frame rate option is selected, AF point selection with the joystick slows down dramatically, to the point of missing shots. This is remedied by leaving the viewfinder at 60FPS, but it still has some hiccups and seems to “go to sleep” from time to time. Perhaps Olympus can improve this in firmware.  As mentioned above, AF-C also suffers a bit in low-light conditions. Without faster telephoto lenses or an improved sensor, this is also not the best camera when it comes to capturing low-light action. Hopefully, Olympus will continue to improve this camera with future firmware support.

The E-M1X is clearly targeted at the outdoor sports and action shooter, and in general, I think that type of shooter would be pleased to have this camera at their disposal. However, the 1X faces some tough competition in the Sony A9 and D500 and X-T3. I don’t believe the E-M1X is really a true competitor of a Nikon D5 or 1DX II, which is interesting, given they share the same dual-gripped shape. The E-M1X provides a compact solution for those times when maximum portability beats out image quality, low-light performance, and ultimate AF precision. Compared to Nikon and Canon, telephoto options remain limited – though Olympus clearly understands this and plans to provide a future remedy with new telephoto lenses. 

Pros:

+ Great build quality and ergonomics

+ Has the familiar OM-D feel

+ Responsive interface

+ Well balanced with telephoto lenses

+ Compact overall package when compared to larger sensor formats using equivalent glass

+ AF performance is slightly improved over the E-M1 II

Cons:

– At the time of release, AI autofocus, a significant selling point, can only trac automobiles, trains, and planes, which are a limited use case for the intended audience of this camera

– AF-C accuracy is still not comparable to a larger format DSLRs and some mirrorless cameras in low-light conditions

– Not the best option for capturing low-light action with current telephoto lens offerings

– The camera’s “guts” are very similar to the E-M1 II which is considerably cheaper at the time of writing this article

– Competing cameras also have a lot to offer in terms of specifications and capability

-Olympus should have released the 150-400mm lens at the same time as the body

Author: Bobby Vogt

Biologist, photographer, and site administrator.

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