Olympus E-M1X Field Test Part III

In its element in the elements: This camera was made for NASCAR at a stormy Daytona Speedway

Mike Tomkins | Posted 08/20/2019

Every now and again, a shooting opportunity comes along that seems to have your name written on it. As a long-time motorsports fan, one such opportunity came together for me recently in Daytona Beach, Florida. The motorsport press was in town for two back-to-back events at the world-famous Daytona International Speedway, and camera maker Olympus Corp. was there both to offer assistance to pros shooting with its gear, and to give those shooting other brands a chance for a side-by-side comparison with its Micro Four Thirds system.

1/800 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 250
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Note: My photos throughout this article, as well as those from motorsports pro Jason Reasin, have all been edited to the photographer's tastes using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. For my images, you can click the links beneath each photo to see a 1:1 Lightroom-edited version, or JPEG / raw files straight out of the camera.

Why Daytona? The Olympus E-M1X is a motorsports specialist

Last January, just days before the launch of its latest flagship, the OM-D E-M1X mirrorless camera, Olympus announced its sponsorship of the Photographers' Room in Daytona's Infield Media Center. The subsequent E-M1X launch a few days later made sense of the news, as Olympus' new offering not only offered top-notch burst-shooting performance, but specifically targeted motorsports shooters (amongst others) with its deep learning-based Intelligent Subject Detection autofocus mode.

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Switch the E-M1X to its motorsports subject tracking mode, and it will search for cars within the image frame, then take them into account when making autofocus decisions. Most cameras -- if they're even fast enough to autofocus on a race car at high speed in the first place -- will aim simply to focus on the nearest part of the car which happens to fall under an autofocus point. The Olympus E-M1X instead uses its greater smarts to focus more intelligently on AI-detected subjects, for example by focusing on the driver's helmet if detected in motorsports mode, or the cockpit of a plane when in airplanes mode.

A chance to shoot the E-M1X alongside the pros

Although this trip represented my own first chance to shoot with the E-M1X, the folks at IR headquarters have actually been shooting with it for a good few months now, and we completed our review early last month. If you want more detail on the E-M1X's AI autofocus, incidentally, I highly recommend also reading Senior Editor William Brawley's hands-on report, while you'll find the camera's excellent high-res mode and some really nice nature shots in Managing Editor Dave Pardue's second hands-on report.

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And there's lots more info in Part I and Part II of Reviews Editor Jeremy Gray's field tests, and the results of our comprehensive lab testing can be found on our Exposure, Performance, Optics and Image Quality pages. Plus, of course, our review conclusion for our final thoughts. I'd suggest opening any or all of these in the background, then coming back to them when you're done with this article.

Spoiler alert: We named it a Dave's Pick camera, finding it to be very worthy of consideration if you're planning on shooting outdoors in adverse weather conditions, or with more distant subjects using longer telephoto lenses. (In other words, the exact conditions in which I'd be shooting in Daytona Beach.)

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And I wouldn't be shooting the E-M1X alone. Among the photographers who'd gathered in Daytona Beach for NASCAR's Circle K Firecracker 250 and Coke Zero Sugar 400 races was Jason Reasin of Jason Reasin Photography (you'll find him on both Facebook and Instagram), a pro who has recently switched to shooting with Olympus himself, and we spent much of the weekend shooting alongside each other.

It made for a nice chance for me not only to absorb some knowledge with which to improve my own photos -- I've shot several races from the pit lane before now, but I'm by no means a professional motorsports photographer -- but also to learn the backstory behind his move to Micro Four Thirds.

Image copyright © 2019, Jason Reasin Photography. Used by permission.

Racer to race photographer: Jason's been on both sides of the lens

Jason took a rather interesting route into motorsports photography, albeit not one most photographers will be able to emulate. He was himself a professional racer, but eventually had to hang up his helmet when the racing got to be too expensive. (It's a story most racing fans will find familiar, as it's a notoriously expensive sport.) After turning his hand to teaching other would-be racers at racing schools like the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience and Kenny Wallace Dirt Racing Experience, and having decided that he couldn't settle for just watching races from the stands, he got into motorsports photography instead.

Since he started selling his photos six years ago, Jason's clients have ranged from the likes of the Associated Press, Slipstream Network, Speedway Illustrated Magazine, and Area Auto Racing News to the race teams themselves. I spent the race weekend shooting alongside Jason, and talking shop about photography and motorsports alike. With both of us holding desirable hot passes -- mine arranged courtesy of the good folks at Olympus -- we had access to most of the inside perimeter of the circuit, not to mention pit road.

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Built like a tank, and handles like a dream

I've shot at five Formula One races, the Indy 500 and a NASCAR practice session in the past, but the Firecracker 250 and Coke Zero Sugar 400 were to be my first ever NASCAR / tri-oval races. And as it turned out, the Firecracker 250 would also be my first ever dusk / night race!

Weather played a huge role in the weekend's proceedings, causing the first, shorter race to start many hours behind schedule, and the main event to be postponed by an entire day. I've long had a soft spot for Olympus' OM-D series cameras, and as it happens, have shot their gear with motorsports more than any other brand.

Image copyright © 2019, Jason Reasin Photography. Used by permission.

And I have to say that I felt very happy indeed to be shooting both races with an Olympus body, because I could see the frequent pop-up thunderstorms forming around the circuit, and was constantly aware that I might be just minutes from a drenching. Olympus' reputation for top-notch weather-sealing is well deserved, and doubly so with the E-M1X.

I never did get drenched while shooting with it, although I did get rained on more than once -- but I wouldn't have been concerned if I did.

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When rain killed his old camera, Jason jumped ship to Olympus

I wasn't alone in this assessment of the situation, I learned. Jason's previous camera was a DSLR from a rival brand, and it died whilst he was shooting at the rain-shortened and utterly-sodden Rolex 24 at Daytona, literally days after the E-M1X's debut and despite his having been using a rain cover. And on returning it for an inspection post-race, he learned it couldn't even be repaired.

I'm intentionally not mentioning the specific brand or model here, incidentally, as it'd be unfair to damn any manufacturer based on the results of a single sample used in what were clearly harsh conditions. That bitter experience understandably persuaded Jason that he needed a replacement with first-rate weather-sealing, though, and when Olympus offered him a trial of the E-M1X, he jumped at the opportunity.

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Small for a pro camera, yet incredibly solid and comfortable, even for large hands

Weather sealing is clearly important for shooting outdoor events like motorsports, but the build and handling are just as important. And boy, is the E-M1X's body ever solid and comfortable, while still remaining relatively compact as compared to most pro cameras! I'm 6'1" tall and have larger-than-average hands; the E-M1X's grips were still just deep enough for my fingertips to only gently touch the front of the camera.

The built-in portrait grip is great, because I tend to purchase and use portrait grips for my bodies anyway, and building it into the camera in the first place both allows for optimal weather-sealing and a roomier rear-deck control layout. Which yes, there are a lot of controls on this camera, but even just during the race weekend I found them becoming familiar. (And they're really easy to locate by feel, with Olympus using varied button heights and textures plus varied bevels around each button to help differentiate each control.)

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There isn't the faintest hint of flex or creak in this camera anywhere. It genuinely feels as if you're holding a solid block of metal in your hands, and even the LCD monitor doesn't move in the slightest when closed and pressed inwards. The side-mounted tilt/swivel mechanism also feels noticeably better-quality than that on the consumer-grade Canon SL3 DSLR I've been reviewing lately. Which, obviously, you'd expect; consumer gear is on a different level to a pro camera like this. But still, you don't tend to think of tilt/swivel mechanisms as places where one camera could be better than another, but the Canon's screen hangs at a mildly-drunken angle when fully extended, whereas Olympus' mechanism is perfectly centered and has very little wiggle in it even when the screen is pressed.

Less hefty than typical pro gear, and that's a huge deal for a race shooter

Yet despite its extremely solid build and reasonable dimensions, the E-M1X isn't really that heavy compared to typical pro gear. Loaded and ready to go (but without a lens), it's ever so slightly lighter than the Pentax K-1 II I reviewed recently. That doesn't sound that impressive until you consider that the K-1 II is already reasonably compact for a pro-oriented DSLR, and that adding a portrait grip and second battery to the Pentax will bring its weight up by another 354 grams or so. In a fairer comparison, with the battery grip and second battery mounted, the K-1 II's overall weight of 1,364g is well above the svelte 997g of the E-M1X. Sure, it's got a much larger full-frame sensor, but is the image quality of full-frame really that crucial? We'll come back to that in a moment.

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Let me tell you, shooting light is important when you're on your feet all race long, and there can be a spectacular amount of walking during these events.

Or in fact, don't listen to me: I just spent a couple of afternoons and one evening on my feet for these races. Listen to Jason, who racked up a truly staggering 28 miles of walking just during the aforementioned Rolex 24-hour race. (He told me that he doesn't like to stop work even during 24-hour races, and stays on his feet basically from start to finish rather than risk a quick nap and missed action.)

Image copyright © 2019, Jason Reasin Photography. Used by permission.

Traveling light is important when you're on your feet and moving around the track regularly in search of new perspectives on the action. Doubly so in locations like Daytona Beach that basically guarantee high heat and humidity, and quite probably the occasional soaking, too.

Just two lenses and two bodies cover all of the bases for Jason

With that in mind, as well as weather-sealing being a big deal for Jason, the size and weight of his gear is also very important. He described himself to me as predominantly a one-body shooter, mostly opting for the M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro zoom lens mounted on the E-M1X. Although he sticks with this pairing almost exclusively in his shooting, he does carry a secondary E-M1 II body that he can switch to quickly when he needs something wider. On this body, he opts instead for the M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens.

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Between these two cameras and lenses, he can cover all his bases from around 24-300mm equivalents, and yet not break his back carrying more than he needs to. All in, but leaving behind the 40-150mm lens' tripod foot behind, that's just a hair under six pounds of gear including both bodies, batteries, flash cards and lenses. And there's no need to fiddle with switching lenses at all during race events, he just has to switch back and forth between the two preconfigured bodies as necessary.

Canon and Nikon can't give you as much camera for as little heft (even if it's mirrorless)

By way of comparison, neither Canon or Nikon has any mirrorless cameras with built-in portrait grips. Canon's EOS R mirrorless does have a separately-available portrait/battery grip, but even if you opted for this accessory, the company doesn't yet offer enough RF-mount lenses to cover the same equivalent focal range. And the situation is no better for Nikon shooters: The company is currently working on a grip for its Z-series mirrorless cameras, but likewise lacks the currently-available, native-mount glass to match the coverage of Jason's two lenses. And even including what's on the 2019 roadmap from both companies, you'd need at least three separate lenses to get the same or better coverage with an f/2.8 aperture.

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Looking instead at their DSLR lineup, Canon and Nikon each offer only a single pro DSLR model with built-in grip, although for roughly double the cost of an E-M1X body. And just selecting the three Canon lenses required to cover the same effective focal range with an f/2.8 aperture already puts you over the weight of Jason's kit at 6.1 pounds, without even a single camera body included to mount them on. Nor is the situation any better with Nikon; you could get the same coverage and aperture from three DSLR lenses, and just those three lenses alone will weigh 7.3 pounds, without even carrying a single camera body. Nor do the three Canon lenses we selected have image stabilization (which would add even more weight), while Nikon's optics would only be stabilized from around the 105mm point.

From the mouth of a pro, image quality isn't an issue (and it's about more than just detail and noise levels, anyway)

"But of course!", we hear you saying, "The smaller sensor size lets Olympus create smaller bodies and lenses, but with lesser image quality." And yes, Micro Four Thirds' aim is to make the gear smaller and lighter by tweaking the tradeoff against image quality. Sure, with all else being equal, you could potentially get even better image quality elsewhere from a larger-sensored camera, but does that really matter if the E-M1X provides sufficient image quality? I don't really think so, and from my own shooting and some time spent perusing Jason's shots -- not to mention seeing him sell them to teams and media outlets alike -- I have to say that I think the E-M1X definitely provides sufficient quality for professional use.

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Nor does image quality in a lab or for static shots make a lick of difference if, like Jason, your primary subject is high-speed action. What matters is the combination of image quality and the camera's ability to get the shot, in focus and correctly exposed, dependably. Quoting Jason himself, he told me that "I believe the image quality is far superior, especially with the quality of the image stabilization and subject tracking features built into the E-M1X." And if you're wondering, by the way, I also asked Jason whether he prefers shooting in raw, JPEG or both, and he told me that 99% of his shots are raw only, edited in Lightroom before being passed to his clients.

Subject tracking will be more useful for some subject than others, but helps even at ovals

Speaking of subject tracking, I should probably return to that for just a moment here, before we wrap things up. As one of the most significant features of the E-M1X, it's a feature which I really wanted to make the most of, in my time with the camera. I made myself use autofocus most of the time, rather than prefocusing on the point in my pans where I most wanted to catch the action, and then leaving focus alone during bursts.

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That's absolutely not how I shoot normally, and with every other camera that I've used to shoot motorsports over the years, I'd have expected to get very little in terms of usable shots in this manner. And sure, the E-M1X wasn't perfect, occasionally struggling to keep up with AF itself, especially during the night race (and quite likely in part because of the harsh, artificial lighting at the circuit.) But I was amazed by how many usable burst sequences there were overall, and from my time with the E-M1X I think its autofocus tracking capabilities could be a real game-changer on road courses.

For oval (or technically at Daytona Beach, tri-oval) shooting, it seems less important to have because you pretty-much know where the action will be, and can easily prepare for it with fixed focus. Doubly so because we could only shoot from inside the oval, making it harder to get shots down the straights with the action coming towards you. (And with window nets in NASCAR vehicles, I couldn't confirm the E-M1X's helmet-finding capabilities, because the drivers are barely visible inside their cars.) But nevertheless, it still strikes me as useful even for oval shooting.

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And in talking to Jason, he confirmed that even at ovals, he still uses subject tracking for at least some of his shots. I asked where he'd found it most useful, though, and the answer was that in his own usage, subject tracking has the most to offer for Formula Drift shooting, where cars are regularly switching positions back and forth in the viewfinder.

A couple of pro tips, before I wrap things up

As for my own first experience shooting at a NASCAR race, I had a really great time at Daytona Beach and came away with quite a few shots I'm very happy with. My panning skills were clearly way out of date and I had to rely on burst shooting far more than the pros do.

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Not surprisingly, Jason told me he avoids spray-and-pray shooting of the kind I had to resort to, as it results in reams of less-than-perfect shots to sort through in search of the great ones. And believe me, sorting through the many thousands of shots I captured throughout the weekend took me quite a while.) By the end of the weekend, once I became more familiar with the camera and got myself back in the panning zone, my hit rate improved considerably and I was able to be a bit more selective in my shooting, thankfully.

It also helped that I was learning more about the racing as I went along. Although I've been a race fan for many decades, I'd never previously gotten into NASCAR-style oval racing. I didn't really 'get it' until I attended a race in person, and because it was so unlike the kinds of racing I'd traditionally followed, I really wasn't sure how best to predict when incidents were going to happen. (And not surprisingly, crash photos tend to be the most dramatic and visually-interesting, so it was something I really wanted to learn to predict.)

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Tip 1: On oval tracks, watch for three-abreast and weaving

Here, Jason had two main pointers: Watch for groups of cars that are running three-abreast, and for individual cars weaving from side to side as they attempt to line up a passing opportunity. And sure enough, once I knew what to watch for I found myself able to predict a couple of big crashes a lap or so before they happened, although sadly neither actually took place in sight of me, so I wasn't able to capitalize on that knowledge. Prior to my having figured it out, Jason got a truly spectacular shot of a crash that did happen in sight of me, although sadly I only caught the aftermath of it myself as I'd been tracking a different group of cars further ahead.

Tip 2: Angle your feet towards the end of your pan, not the middle

There was also one other tip that I found particularly helpful during the weekend, although I can't remember now if it came from Jason or perhaps from Olympus' own tech reps Yannick and Francois, who were on-hand to assist pros throughout the weekend. It turns out that although I've managed some pretty cool panning shots myself in the past, my technique was less than ideal.

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I'd always assumed that the best way to stand when panning to follow cars passing in front of you would be to stand with your feet pointing towards the middle of the arc through which you're planning to shoot. It turns out, though, that it's better to stand closer to the direction in which you'll be ending the pan, then turn just your body back to locate and start tracking the subject. This technique helps you to speed up as the cars pass across in front of you, then slow back down again as you reach the end of the pan.

Final thoughts on the E-M1X and NASCAR at Daytona

All things considered, this was quite a weekend for me: My first chance to shoot NASCAR, my first visit to a tri-oval and my first night race all in one, with top-notch access to the circuit and to the pros who do this stuff day in and day out. I learned quite a bit about shooting motorsports, and got a really great chance to try the E-M1X in precisely the conditions it was designed to capture.

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The races themselves were spectacular, and although they were greatly delayed by the weather, I still managed to catch the entirity of both events. I didn't actually know that as I was leaving the track, though. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 was stopped for an accident followed by yet more thunderstorms, and I had to leave for the airport at that point. I learned shortly after checking in for my flight that the race result had been called at that point, so the only thing I missed was the post-race ceremonies -- which were doubtless curtailed by the weather anyway.

NASCAR might not have the glitz and budgets of F1, but in person it absolutely captured my heart regardless, and I have a feeling this won't be the last race I attend in person.

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I'd like to thank the good folks at Olympus for the chance they provided me with, and Jason Reasin for not only letting me accompany him and absorb a little of his experience, but also for his time and patience answering all of my questions.

And my best wishes to Olympus for the partnership with Daytona International Speedway: I think it's a great idea to help Olympus strengthen its relationship with pros, and from what I saw, it's giving a lot of them a chance to get hands-on with the very best of Olympus' camera gear and lenses in exactly the conditions (and shooting the subjects) for which they were designed. I have a feeling more than a few motorsports pros are going to be making the switch to the Olympus E-M1X, just as Jason did.

1/400 sec. @ f/3.2, ISO 2000
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