Olympus E-M1X Field Test Part I

Olympus' new flagship camera delivers an excellent user experience

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 03/29/2019

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4.5, 1/800s, ISO 800.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

The Olympus E-M1X takes much of what has made high-end Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras popular and turns the dial up to 11. While there are a lot of similarities between the E-M1X and the E-M1 Mark II, many aspects of the camera have been adjusted, improved or are altogether new to the E-M1X.

One of the unchanged components is the image sensor, which is the same 20-megapixel Four Thirds sensor as in the E-M1 II. With nearly every major brand offering full-frame cameras (or medium-format cameras in the case of Fujifilm), the E-M1X's sensor seems smaller than ever nowadays. There are advantages and disadvantages of a smaller image sensor, which I'll discuss in this Field Test, but the point remains that some people will always scoff at the idea of a $3,000 Micro Four Thirds camera. I understand the sentiment, but there is, of course, much more to consider with a camera than just its sensor.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/8, 1/640s, ISO 320.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

In this first Field Test, I will be focusing on the camera's design, overall shooting experience and discuss how the E-M1X performs within the context of both wildlife and landscape photography. Part II will focus on image quality and video performance and tie up some loose ends.

Key Features

  • Rugged, weather-sealed camera body
  • 20.4-megapixel Micro Four Thirds image sensor
  • 2.36-million dot electronic viewfinder
  • Tilt-swivel touchscreen display
  • Hybrid autofocus system
  • Five-axis in-body image stabilization offering up to 7 stops of shake correction
  • 15 fps with mechanical shutter (No C-AF); 10 fps with C-AF
  • 60 fps with electronic shutter (No C-AF); 18 fps with C-AF
  • High-Res shooting mode
  • 4K UHD video recording
  • $3,000 USD for the body

Camera Body and User Experience

In our first hands-on with the E-M1X, my colleague William Brawley wrote a detailed hands-on overview of the camera body, including his thoughts about the camera's design. At the risk of treading over the same ground, I am going to limit myself to simply addressing the aspects of the camera's design I like and dislike, rather than cover all of the E-M1X's various features and specs.

The dual-gripped E-M1X is a large Micro Four Thirds camera with an emphasis squarely on usability and ergonomics.

For a Micro Four Thirds camera, the E-M1X is large. This simple fact alone may be enough to turn off some potential buyers. For me, it's one of the best aspects of the E-M1X. I generally don't like small cameras, especially not when using big lenses. The combination of a small camera and big lens often feels imbalanced and in the case of most small cameras, you sacrifice a variety of physical controls. The E-M1X, on the other hand, feels really comfortable to use, even with the somewhat heavy -- for a Micro Four Thirds lens, at least -- 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens. There are direct physical controls for exposure compensation and ISO right near the shutter release, and there are three dedicated function buttons within reach while shooting.

The top of the camera is well-designed, presenting dedicated ISO, exposure compensation and movie record buttons within easy reach of your right index finger.

This great control layout doesn't apply only to shooting in landscape orientation. Thanks to the built-in vertical grip, you can access these same aforementioned buttons with your right hand while shooting in portrait orientation, save for one function button on the rear of the camera. There's even a dedicated focus point joystick for shooting vertically as well, which is a fantastic inclusion. For times when you aren't shooting vertically and want to ensure you don't accidentally press any of the "vertical" buttons, there's a switch to lock the controls.

In typical Olympus fashion, there is considerable weather-sealing throughout the camera body, which I like a lot as someone who primarily shoots outdoors and is not averse to shooting in snow and rain. Speaking of controls, they're also easy to use while wearing thin gloves. I also like that you can rotate the mode dial with the thumb on your right hand. If I am shooting a nature scene in aperture priority mode, for example, and see wildlife nearby, I can easily switch to shutter priority mode without wasting time fiddling with a mode dial locking mechanism or using my other hand to change the shooting mode. You can lock the mode dial, if you'd like, but I'm glad it's an option rather than a mandate.

The back of the E-M1X is great. The new dedicated focus joystick is excellent and the tilt/swivel touchscreen works very well.

The dedicated focus joystick feels really nice and is a first for an Olympus camera. It is easy to move the focus point (or group) not only horizontally and vertically, but also diagonally. The directional pad also feels good when navigating menus. Surprisingly, good directional pads are not a given on modern cameras, so I'm glad that the E-M1X has a nice one. Similarly, the front and rear command dials have a ridged rubber grip and rotate with distinct steps, which makes precisely settings changes very easy.

However, there are some aspects of the camera I don't like quite as much. The electronic viewfinder is good overall and delivers a smooth shooting experience, but when compared against some of the recent EVFs I have used, including the excellent ones in the Nikon Z cameras and the new Panasonic S1-series cameras, the LCD EVF on the E-M1X feels a bit dated. Further, the rear display is not particularly sharp. With that said, the touchscreen aspects of the rear display and its tilt-swivel mechanism are both excellent, so my overall impression of the display certainly leans toward the positive.

Excellent controls are only part of the story with the E-M1X, as the camera offers extensive customization for how its controls are used. As I have mentioned, there are two unlabeled function buttons on the front of the camera (technically four, but there are two for each shooting orientation), as well as an Fn button on the rear. In addition to these dedicated function buttons, you can also reassign functionality to almost every other button or dial on the camera, such as the exposure compensation and ISO buttons.

You can customize many of the E-M1X's buttons, including its four dedicated function buttons.

To customize these, you can go into a dedicated menu (set-up --> B1) and select from many options, including, white balance, AF area select, center autofocus point, image quality, exposure compensation, magnify, ISO, AF limiter, and many, many more. While it's nice that there are so many options, it's also good that there's a model of the camera showing you where each button is located as you reassign function settings.

Overall, there is a lot that I like about the E-M1X's camera body. While it is fairly large and nearly twice as heavy as the E-M1 II, this heft comes with ruggedness and an excellent control layout. It's not a perfect camera, but it is my favorite Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera to date in terms of comfort and controls.

Shooting Experience

Autofocus

If you've read William Brawley's hands-on report of the E-M1X, you'll have learned about the E-M1X's new deep learning-powered AF system. The camera can automatically recognize and focus on motorsports, airplanes and trains. Aside from this inclusion, the autofocus system is more or less the same in the E-M1X as it was in the E-M1 Mark II.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/800s, ISO 1600.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

That is a good thing as there's a lot to like about the E-M1X's autofocus capabilities and performance. The E-M1X offers 121 contrast-detect autofocus points and 121 phase-detect autofocus points which cover about 75 percent of the vertical area of the image sensor and 80 percent of the horizontal area. There are more points when you use magnify AF area, which can be useful when working on a tripod and photographing still life. In my experience, the sensor offers plenty of points and plenty of coverage for every shooting scenario. The camera offers a new autofocus area selection, 25-area grouped, in addition to the 5 and 9 AF-point groups that were offered with the E-M1 II.

In the real-world, I was very impressed by the E-M1X's autofocus speeds and overall performance. Low-light autofocus performance proved very good as well. The E-M1X is rated down to -6 EV with an f/1.2 lens. Even with an f/4 lens, such as the 12-100mm zoom or the 300m f/4 prime, the camera did well in dawn and dusk situations. Continuous autofocus is very good as well, with the camera proving capable of maintaining focus on moving subjects and tracking them throughout the scene.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/500s, ISO 1250.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

One of the best aspects of the overall autofocus system may not be the camera's performance itself, but rather the new dedicated autofocus point joysticks. These work very well in landscape and portrait orientations and, at least for me, change the way I shoot with the camera compared to the E-M1 II, which could be set up to offer AF point control via its directional pad. The joystick is far superior and allows you to maintain use of the directional pad for other functionality.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 12mm (24mm equiv.), f/8, 25s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

Overall, the autofocus system, unless you are photographing one of the trio of subjects the new AI can handle, is basically the same as it was the E-M1 II. The end result, while not featuring many differences, is very good. The E-M1X focuses quickly and accurately in a wide array of situations.

Performance

As a $3,000 Micro Four Thirds camera, performance is going to be at the top of the list of concerns for many prospective buyers. Accordingly, the E-M1X includes a pair of dual quad-core processors, which prove to pack quite a performance punch. As you can see in our lab tests, the E-M1X performed very well.

The extra processor results in a few interesting improvements when compared to the E-M1 II. For example, the dual SD card slots in the E-M1X are now both UHS-II, with each TruePic VIII processor handling a slot a piece. Further, when shooting at 15 frames per second, which is the maximum speed of the E-M1X with the exposure locked and when using the mechanical shutter, the buffer depths for both JPEG and raw images been improved by over 20 percent.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 500.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

When shooting bursts of images, the camera quickly processed them, and I never had to slow down or wait for the camera. For photographing wildlife, 10 frames per second with full autofocus and exposure is plenty. If you truly need extra speed, you can switch to the electronic shutter and shoot at up 18 fps with AF/AE.

With its new design, the E-M1X can hold a pair of batteries, which results in very good battery life for a mirrorless camera. "Very good" is a term that applies to the E-M1X's overall performance in general. The camera is fast, it's capable, and it'll last you through considerable shooting without needing a change of batteries.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 250.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

Image Stabilization

The Olympus E-M1X has improved image stabilization, and this is saying a lot because the E-M1 II's stabilization was already impressive, offering up to 5.5 stops of shake correction. The E-M1X, on the other (steadier) hand, promises up to 7 stops of image stabilization via its five-axis system, although it can deliver up to 7.5 stops with an IS-enabled lens. When shooting with the 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens, I was able to get sharp shots with shutter speeds as slow as 1/15s! Everyone's mileage will vary depending upon technique, but I think that's mighty impressive for a telephoto lens.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/15s, ISO 500.
100 percent crop from JPEG file. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

E-M1X in the Field

Landscapes

Landscape photography is my favorite genre, and the E-M1X is something of a mixed bag with respect to this area of photography. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is a limiting factor when it comes to image quality and overall resolution, but on the other hand, the E-M1X does offer a High-Res shooting mode, which can now be used handheld in addition to when using a tripod.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 31mm (62mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 31mm (62mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from the above image. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
 
100 percent crop : High Res (Tripod)
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 31mm (62mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from High Res (Tripod) raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw default settings. The full image is 10,368 x 7,776, compared to the 5,184 x 3,888 size of the standard mode image file above. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
 
100 percent crop : High Res (Handheld)
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 31mm (62mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from High Res (Handheld) raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw default settings. The full image is 8,160 x 6,120, compared to the 5,184 x 3,888 size of the standard mode image file above. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

I thought it was also worth seeing how a High Res (Tripod) image looked compared to a standard image when the High Res shot was downsampled to 20 megapixels. You can see a 100 percent crop of that experiment below. I think that if the subject matter allows and you have a tripod, this is worth doing because the resulting file is cleaner. You can see a lot less visual noise in the crop below than the standard image, particularly in the sky. Very fine details are also a little bit cleaner if you downsample an image captured using the High Res mode compared to a regular 20-megapixel file.

100 percent crop : downsampled High Res (Tripod)
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 31mm (62mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from downsampled High Res (Tripod) raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw default settings. The full image is 10,368 x 7,776, compared to the 5,184 x 3,888 size of the standard mode image file above. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
 
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 24mm (48mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 200.
Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 24mm (48mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from the above image. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
 
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 24mm (48mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 200.
High Res (Tripod) raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw default settings. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 24mm (48mm equiv.), f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from downsampled High Res (Tripod) raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw default settings. The full image is 10,368 x 7,776, compared to the 5,184 x 3,888 size of the standard mode image file above. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
As you can see with the branches, movement in a scene causes some issues with the High Res compositing. There is not a lot you can do to avoid this, but it does limit the usability of the mode for landscape photography because there is often something moving in the scene, such as plants swaying in the wind or moving water.

The system overall is quite lightweight, even though the E-M1X is itself large for a Micro Four Thirds camera. The E-M1X with the very good 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO lens is definitely lighter than a full-frame DSLR with a 24-105mm lens (which of course won't offer the same zooming capabilities). Further, the E-M1X is built very well and is heavily weather-sealed. The tilt/swivel display is also excellent when working on a tripod, even when shooting in a portrait orientation. For photographers who regularly change their lenses in the field, you'll also be pleased to know that the E-M1X has an upgraded dust reduction system, which uses a piezoelectric element that Olympus says is 10 percent more effective than the system used in the E-M1 II.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 20mm (40mm equiv.), f/8, 1/3s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
 
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 17mm (34mm equiv.), f/9, 1/6s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

The E-M1X has a new Live ND mode, which is appealing to landscape photographers. This mode works by combining multiple exposures in a sequence and combines them in-camera to produce a final image which looks as though it were shot using a neutral density filter. For example, if you are photographing moving water and want it to look smooth, you can use this mode rather than having to add an ND filter to the front your lens to slow-down the shutter speed. There are five available levels of strength which range from 1 EV to 5 EV (ND2 to ND32). The mode works fairly well, although I would still recommend using a stronger physical filter for best results in bright light as the 5 EV limit to Live ND isn't always "dark" enough for very bright conditions and/or with longer exposure times. I do like that the camera will show you a general preview of the final image while composing, which is neat.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 50mm (100mm equiv.), f/22, 1/100s, ISO 200.
Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 50mm (100mm equiv.), f/22, 0.5s, ISO 200.
Live ND filter (5EV) enabled. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

For outdoor photographers who like to keep track of environmental data, the E-M1X includes a built-in Field Sensor System, which makes it location- and environment-aware. The E-M1X can note current location, elevation, direction and temperature at time of image capture in the EXIF data for individual image files. This is possible because the camera has built-in GPS, temperature sensor, manometer and an electronic compass.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 54mm (108mm equiv.), f/8, 1/13s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

While not a knock on the E-M1X, I do think that the E-M1 II is a more compelling option for photographers who are primarily shooting landscapes. You get a weather-sealed camera with the same image quality in a lighter package, making hikes and treks more manageable.

Wildlife

The E-M1X is a really good wildlife camera. Much like photographing landscapes, the rugged build quality and weather-sealing of the E-M1X is also a boon for wildlife photography. However, unlike shooting landscapes, photographing wildlife is demanding to a camera's autofocus and overall performance. The E-M1X's excellent focusing capabilities and overall speed are really nice when shooting bursts of wildlife shots or tracking a moving animal.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4.5, 1/400s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.
Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4.5, 1/400s, ISO 200.
100 percent crop from the above image. This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

The continuous autofocus is good when tracking subjects throughout the frame, and the electronic viewfinder does a good job of keeping up with the motion thanks to its 120 frames per second refresh rate and 0.005s of latency. With that said, you don't get a live view when shooting at the camera's maximum speeds, but instead get a slideshow of images as you shoot, so I think that's a downside.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/3200s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

On the other hand, there is a Pro Capture mode, which was first seen in the E-M1 II. This mode allows you to capture up to 35 frames while half-pressing the shutter as a sort of rolling buffer. Suppose you are aimed at a bird, waiting for it take flight, you can enter Pro Capture mode and then half-press the shutter. The camera will record up to 35 images, meaning that you get some leeway in capturing the correct moment. This is a really neat feature for wildlife photography. There are some limitations, however. When this mode is active, there is no live viewfinder image and the camera becomes quite sluggish, which means it isn't great for trying to capture back-to-back interesting moments.

The E-M1X also offers a silent shooting mode, which works as advertised. When photographing timid or skittish wildlife, being able to shoot silently is excellent.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

The small sensor of the E-M1X leads to a few issues for wildlife photography. Firstly, the camera is simply not as capable of producing high-quality images in low light as similarly-priced cameras with larger image sensors. The E-M1X does really well for a Micro Four Thirds camera, but it is up against physical limitations. Further, the small sensor results in images that don't have the same "depth," for lack of a better word, as images with similar lenses on cameras with larger sensors. For example, if you are shooting with the 300mm f/4 on the E-M1X, which has the same field of view as a 600mm lens on full-frame cameras, the bokeh and separation between the subject and its background is not nearly as impressive on the E-M1X as it would be on, for example, a Nikon D5 and 600mm f/4 lens.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 400.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

There's a tradeoff though, because the 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens I shot a lot with on the E-M1X is very small and light compared to a 600mm f/4 telephoto lens in a Canon or Nikon system. In fact, it really isn't even close. The Micro Four Thirds system, even with a fairly large camera like the E-M1X, is considerably lighter than an equivalent APS-C or full-frame system. With all that said, overall, the E-M1X is a very good wildlife camera.

Olympus E-M1X Field Test Part I Summary

A strong first impression from an interesting and versatile pro camera

What I like so far:

  • Excellent build quality and ergonomics
  • Very useful tilt/swivel touchscreen
  • Impressive autofocus and performance
  • Four Thirds sensor results in lightweight long lenses
Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 12mm (24mm equiv.), f/8, 1/400s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

What I don't like so far:

  • EVF feels a bit outdated
  • While the sensor size is good for keeping lenses smaller, there are some consequent image quality concerns

The Olympus E-M1X has thus far impressed me a lot. The camera's build quality, ergonomics and overall user experience are all excellent. Further, with its new processing power, the autofocus and performance is better than ever.

Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko lens (600mm equiv.), f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 640.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

When using the E-M1X for landscape and wildlife photography, its strengths and weaknesses are both apparent. The build quality and usability are excellent for both photographic genres. Further, autofocus and performance works very well for wildlife photography. Its weaknesses, which primarily center around image quality, are evident when photographing detailed landscapes and when photographing wildlife in low light.

Overall, the E-M1X is the best Olympus camera I have used, even with some minor shortcomings. In my next Field Test, I will look closer at image quality and cover the E-M1X's video features and performance. I will also be tying up loose ends before sharing my thoughts on how I think the E-M1X best fits into a photographer's kit.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro M.Zuiko lens at 14mm (28mm equiv.), f/8, 1/20s, ISO 200.
This image has been converted and processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Click for the full-size image. Click here for the RAW file.

 



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