I recently picked up the Olympus OMD-EM1X (it was a few months ago). I’ve had a chance to use it a lot during this time. It’s an interesting beast of a camera, and have a bunch of observations that I thought would help provide some perspective on this new camera. I put the Olympus OMD-EM1X camera through its paces for this unscientific, but real-world, review.
Full disclosure, I am not sponsored by Olympus, but I have been shooting with Olympus gear for several years now and have had several Olympus bodies (OMD EM1 Mark 1, EM1 Mark II and an EM5 Mark II). I also have a bunch of other gear (I shot some older Panasonic cameras I used before switching to Olympus), and prior to that, I was in the Canon system.
While I still have all my lenses, the camera bodies are now getting long in the tooth. I really liked my Canon gear but found that it was just too heavy for me because I tend to like to travel. However, I have lens options, and full-frame cameras use significantly larger lenses for similar focal length when compared to Micro 4/3rds.
Also, I tend to be a bit of a run-and-gun photographer, preferring to get to a position, compose my images, and move on. I don’t usually spend a great deal of time in one position, opting for more positions to work an image. Moreover, I don’t like having to pull out filters, switch lenses (if I can avoid it) or carry tripods (although I often have one with me somewhere).
Lots of critics
When the EM1X first came out, some critics were pretty negative about this camera before even seeing it. That’s because it’s an expensive camera based around a slightly older micro 4/3s sensor (same as the EM1 Mark II). While the features are all professional-grade (i.e., insane weather sealing, exceptional in-body image stabilization, speed, and unique computational photographic features, all based upon a 20 MP sensor), some critics felt it is too small.
Micro 4/3s size
Just as a reminder for those unfamiliar with micro 4/3rd sensors, a micro 4/3rd sensor is a sensor with a crop factor of 2. This means the sensor only covers about a quarter of the area of a full-frame (same size as a 35mm negative) sensor. Years ago, full-frame sensors were incredibly difficult to produce, and most sensors were crop sensors of one form or another. Now with advancing technology, full-frame sensors are more readily available, although they generally found in camera bodies with substantial price tags.
Costs vs. features
As an Olympus user, buying my own gear, I was a bit unsure of the cost (it is about $3,000 USD), which is about double the cost of the OMD EM1 Mark II ($1500 USD). Now I have both.
I really liked my OMD EM1 Mark II, and it has been a workhorse for all my work. With very few complaints about it, the biggest thing I would like would be a bump in the continuous autofocus hit rate (it is already pretty good, but…).
I think all photographers chase better focus, especially now with the incredible autofocus systems on most cameras. The continuous autofocus on the EM1 Mark II was a huge improvement over the EM1 Mark I. It made it much easier to shoot moving subjects, but still wasn’t great for tracking.
In the new Olympus OMD-EM1X, on the surface, the other upgrades to the new body seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary (although I have since discovered that impression was not entirely correct).
In addition, the sensor seemed to be the same in the EM1 Mark II, so what was worth so much more?
After I purchased the Olympus OMD-EM1X, I immediately realized that some of the cost differences between the models (EM1 Mark II and EM1X) were a little misleading. That’s because the EM1X comes with an integrated battery grip (you can purchase a non-integrated battery grip separately for the EM1 Mark II for US$250), an extra battery charger at US$59 and an extra battery which goes for US$54. I have used the external battery grip (HLD-9) for my EM1 Mark II, and I’ve barely removed it since. This makes the overall cost difference a little less, but still, at about US$1,100 more, the 2 years newer EM1X is still the most expensive camera that Olympus sells.
Beyond the cost, I was initially a little reluctant to jump on the EM1X because of the slightly unusual marketing messaging on this product.
I am a professional photographer and need a solid, reliable camera that is quick to autofocus. Although this was clearly a premium model for the Olympus line and the most expensive camera they sell, Olympus seemed unwilling to state that it was their top model. They instead stated it had shared top billing with the Olympus EM1 Mark II. The EM1X seemed to be marketed only for wildlife and sports photography but is it more capable than just in those two areas?
Another big feature of the camera is the weather sealing. According to the advertising, you can expose this camera to a rainstorm and it will continue to work.
The real-world results
In addition to some travel photography to Nevada and Madeira, I also took the Olympus OMD-EM1X backcountry camping for a few days. While backcountry camping, it rained a great deal and I carried my EM1X for the entire time using a Peak Design capture clip on the outside of my backpack. I have also used the camera to photograph animals and some wildlife. The considerable differences are the weatherproofing, autofocus, in-body stabilization, field sensors, and some of the computational features.
It is a bit of an understatement to say that it is a weatherproof camera. Lots of cameras claim to be weatherproofed, but in reality, you don’t want to get them wet.
With the Olympus OMD-EM1X, I was genuinely unconcerned when shooting even in a torrential downpour (except for how it would affect my composition). I start focusing only on what I need to do to get the shot, not whether or not my camera will survive.
When you try to access the memory cards or the battery, there is no doubt that this camera is built to withstand the weather. I live in Northern Canada, and I have used the EM1 Mark II and the EM1X in bitterly cold conditions with lots of snow, and I can attest that neither is a problem for this camera.
While backcountry camping at Mount Robson in British Columbia, Canada, it rained most of the entire trip. At no time was I concerned about the EM1X, nor did I ever put it away to get it out of the rain.
This was not a concern shared by others. There were lots of other photographers with other camera brands around, and all had some type of weather shielding for their cameras (camera bags and plastic bags) even while shooting.
The biggest problem I encountered was trying to keep water off the front of the lens so I could take my images without big water drops in the image.
The EM1X got very wet but never showed any adverse consequences of the water. I never quite felt that confident with my EM1 Mark II, because of the battery grip attachment.
The EM1X is very solid, kind of like a tank. It feels great in hand, and it has key buttons in great locations. Unlike the EM1 Mark II that felt like the battery grip was always a little loose, the integrated battery grip significantly improves the overall ergonomics. In addition, by having both batteries in the same compartment, changing them out is trivial. With the EM1 Mark II, if one or both batteries depleted, getting the battery out of the main body required removal of the battery grip to get at the second battery compartment.
The use of locks for the battery grip and memory card slots give the EM1X a solid feel too.
New button layout
The new button layout has a real sense of purpose. With some cameras, it almost seems the designers couldn’t figure out where to put particular buttons, so they just put them anywhere. In this case, button placement is deliberate. The majority of buttons sit in the same position, regardless of whether the camera is in portrait or landscape orientation. This means there are two buttons for most functions.
I used back-button focus for many years on different cameras, and its placement has much improved for Olympus. The addition of the two-track pointers (both landscape and portrait) allow you to fine-tune your autofocus position while shooting.
Continuous tracking is significantly better than the EM1 Mark II (firmware 2.3) with an ability to lock into a subject and stay on them even in a crowd. I was shooting my son’s lacrosse game and was amazed at how well the tracking held.
I know there are other makes of cameras with good tracking, but this one definitely ranks up there with the elite. It uses both phase and contrast detection and is super fast.
In-body image stabilization
It is claimed that the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is up to 7.5 stops when used in combination with a stabilized lens. Most Olympus lenses don’t have stabilization; instead, they rely on in-camera stabilization. This means you can shoot handheld at times up to about 4-6 seconds and still get sharp photos.
Coming from Canon DSLRs that use only optical stabilization (same as Nikon), you need to pay attention to your shutter speed because of camera shake. This becomes a significant issue with higher megapixel images as the greater detail in the images means that camera shake is highly visible. The Olympus OMD-EM1X mostly eliminates this, and you can really use it to your advantage.
It is difficult to convey to someone how big a deal this is in practical shooting, particularly if you don’t have a tripod. It means you can leave your tripod behind (more often than you probably already do).
The field sensors provide a built-in GPS with all kinds of information about where you took the image. This includes altitude, temperature, and elevation. The information is baked into the metadata for the images so that it is there.
Prior Olympus cameras, in general, required communication with an app on your mobile phone to get this kind of data. This allows you to track the location of your images in applications such as Adobe Lightroom.
One word of caution, there are two options with how the field sensors activate. You can drain your battery quite fast (even if you are not using the camera) if you don’t use the battery conservation option.
In practical terms, it means that if you use the battery saver mode, you need to turn on the camera for a little while for the GPS to get the location. If you are too quick, it will be missing the GPS location data.
In real-world terms, when I was backcountry camping, the field sensors also showed elevation change and temperature.
For some time, Olympus has had a sensor-shift/high-resolution mode, where the camera takes a series of images to create a high-resolution image. It does so by moving the sensor 1/2 a pixel in each direction a total of eight times. This feature is not new and has been available on Olympus cameras for a few years.
It is also not the only camera manufacturer (there are only a few) that do this (implemented differently), but all require the use of a tripod.
On the Olympus EM1 Mark II, the resulting image is an 80 MP raw image. The EM1X has this same ability to do high-resolution images with a tripod and introduces the ability to do a high-resolution mode while handheld. To do this, the EM1X takes 16 images and combines them for a slightly smaller, but still high-resolution image (50 MP versus 80 MP).
The handheld, high-resolution mode works remarkably well. The biggest problem for all of these implementations are moving subjects in the field of view. However, the high-resolution images still turn out quite well, with a noticeable bump in resolution.
Simulated ND Filter
The EM1X has an ND mode, where you can simulate long exposure photography without the use of an ND filter. This allows you to take daytime images of waterfalls, handheld, and without an ND filter.
The results are pretty good. However, there are limits as to how it works, but the results are worth the effort.
In the end, you can achieve this using an actual ND filter – the results are similar. The ND Filter works well if you are a run-and-gun photographer.
Compact and customizable
If you look at the history of Olympus, you will realize that this is a company that has built its reputation on photographic cameras based on concepts of compact but capable cameras, with a significant emphasis on “compact” (this is not new).
This has always been the case and has been part of the brand for the past 100 years. More recently, Olympus has focused on digital cameras that are very well built, with great optics, incredibly customizable and with a compact form factor.
I also think that Olympus regularly tries to push the leading edge of features that surround the sensor. Things like in-body image stabilization, pixel shift high-resolution mode, and other computational features.
Beyond the new tricks, how about the old tricks?
The Olympus OMD-EM1X is heavier, but not by a huge amount. The ergonomics are great, and the Micro 4/3rd lens selection is fantastic (Olympus and Panasonic). The image quality has never really been an issue for me and my work. Olympus and Panasonic both make very fast lenses, and if you are looking for shallow depth of field, they have lenses that provide great bokeh.
On the downside, the EM1X is not a discrete street photographer type of camera. It is big, pronounced, and screams serious image-taking. There are many smaller bodies for Micro 4/3rds, but this camera delivers big overall.
I am a fan and am convinced.
Without diving into the rabbit hole of full-frame versus crop-sensor debate (there are lots out there), when you consider image size and resolution, you can use most modern cameras micro 4/3rd’s and up for most genres of photography.
In reality, unless you are printing very large (10 feet wide), cropping like mad or need crazy shallow depth of field, sensor size is for pixel peepers to worry about, not the average photographer. You can even use micro 4/3rds for astrophotography, but you really have to work at it.
For those who want to argue the benefits of full-frame sensors over micro 4/3rds, you could argue that the current gold standard is no longer any full-frame camera. Instead, it’s something more like the Fujifilm GFX 100 – a mirrorless medium-format 100 MP camera. These have many of the features of full-frame cameras, including weather sealing, in-body image stabilization, and dual memory card slots.
This camera does certain things particularly well. If you are serious about your images, want to travel light, go into locations with harsh weather conditions and want to limit the use of additional gear (tripods and filters), this is the camera for you.
Most modern cameras can take great images in the right hands. The differences become features and suitability to the task.
Based on my real-world experiences, for most photographic imaging, the Olympus OMD-EM1X is up for it. It can do things other cameras can’t including durable weather sealing, handheld, high-resolution mode, ND filter simulation, very fast shooting (60fps without autofocus and 18fps with continuous autofocus) and crazy in-body image stabilization.