Olympus E-M1X Hands-On Shooting Experience

A not-so-micro Micro Four Thirds flagship sports & wildlife camera

by William Brawley | Posted 01/24/2019

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1250 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

Back in December, I had a chance to spend time shooting with the new Olympus E-M1X (albeit with a beta version of the firmware) during an Olympus-organized press trip. Despite the early firmware, I nevertheless had an opportunity to not only become familiar with the camera's design, ergonomics and general usability but also with its performance, particularly the updated AF system and the new AI-powered subject recognition and tracking technology. So let's get to it!

Design, Handling & Usability

For starters, let's talk about the elephant in the room: the E-M1X's size. Yes, it is a big camera. The biggest Micro Four Thirds camera that Olympus, or perhaps any MFT manufacturer, has made to date. In a way, it feels slightly odd and almost humorous to know that it's a Micro Four Thirds camera, as there's nothing really "micro" about this camera body! However, with the larger-sized design comes not only increased durability but also better balance and handling characteristics when using larger, longer lenses, such as the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro and especially the 300mm f/4 IS Pro. In hand, it certainly feels like the Olympus equivalent to a Canon 1D-series camera body, for example, which is to say a good thing.

However, don't get too caught up in the large size of the E-M1X body on its own. You need to consider the system as a whole. One of the major benefits to the Micro Four Thirds system -- and one of my personal reasons as to why I enjoy Micro Four Thirds so much -- is that the lenses are significantly smaller and lighter than full-frame counterparts, especially those for full-frame DSLRs. A bag with an E-M1X and a handful of lenses is typically going to be much more portable and easier to carry than a similar setup for a full-frame DSLR. This is especially so when you look at telephoto lenses, which is arguably more of the target use-case with a camera like the E-M1X. Hauling a 70-200mm, a 400mm or a 600mm around with a DSLR body (or two) definitely takes some muscle, but with the E-M1X and its smaller Four Thirds sensor, the equivalent focal length lenses make for a highly portable system. For instance, the Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro lens is laughably more portable (not to mention vastly less expensive) than a Canon or Nikon 600mm f/4 super telephoto prime. So, while the body design of the E-M1X is larger and indeed heavier than previous OM-D cameras, the benefits of the Micro Four Thirds platform still provides a smaller, lighter and more compact system overall.

In use, the large, contoured handgrip of the E-M1X really fills the hand and provides an excellent, secure hold on the camera. Compared to the E-M1 Mark II, the grip of the E-M1X feels noticeably larger and more substantial. It's thicker and wider than the Mark II's grip, but not significantly deeper. I wouldn't consider my hands to be all that big, and I can easily wrap my hand around the E-M1X's grip. As we said in our in-depth hands-on video tour of the E-M1X, the overall size of the camera isn't dramatically bigger than the E-M1 Mark II with its battery grip attached, but the E-M1X is bigger and holding them side-by-side, you can tell a difference. In the hand, the E-M1X feels bigger, beefier and more robust yet still very comfortable to hold both in landscape and portrait orientations -- it's an excellent grip design in both directions.

With the slightly larger body design, not only is there more room for your hand and thumb to grip the camera, but also the buttons and controls feel a bit more spread out. The buttons and dials on the E-M1X aren't really any larger than their counterparts on the E-M1 Mark II, but the larger body size provides a nice, sizable "clear area" for your hand to grip the camera without much risk of accidentally pressing buttons. Personally, I never had an issue with the E-M1 Mark II's controls feeling anywhere near cramped nor having the controls feel small or flimsy. If that's your experience as well, then you'll certainly have no issues operating the E-M1X.

Front
Rear

There have also been some subtle tweaks and changes to control placement, as well. One of the more noticeable changes is a redesign to the front and rear command dials. Whereas these two dials sat squarely on top of the body of the E-M1 Mark II, with the front dial also surrounding the shutter release, the E-M1X has these dials embedded into the camera body. The rear dials are placed within the rear of the camera nearer to your thumb, and the front dial is now separated from the shutter release and placed within the front face of the handgrip. This control layout is very similar to larger DSLR cameras, such as the Nikon D850, for example. As an E-M1 Mark II owner, I didn't experience much of a learning curve -- the design change here isn't all that drastic -- but since I was really accustomed to having the front dial right there at the shutter release, that took a brief adjustment period due to my muscle memory.

I've mentioned this next feature many times in previous Field Tests, but one of my favorite camera controls is a joystick, and at last, the Olympus E-M1X has one of these, a first for an Olympus camera. While shooting, I'm constantly adjusting the position of my AF point, and I've come to really love the speed and ease-of-use of a joystick control for AF adjustments. On the E-M1 Mark II, you have to use the 4-way command buttons to move the AF points, and admittedly that worked quite well.

However, with the E-M1X, you now have the ability to immediately move in the diagonal direction with the joystick, and I found it much faster to move the AF point, or AF point cluster, where I needed it. Plus, I found the physical location of the joystick control more convenient to reach than the 4-way control buttons, which are now placed lower down on the body compared to those on the E-M1 II. It should also be noted, and as you can see on the rear of the camera above, there are two joystick controls, one for both grip orientations.

There are a few other tweaks and changes to the buttons on the camera that improve out-of-the-box usability, including dedicated/pre-programmed ISO, Exposure Compensation and White Balance buttons. The E-M1 Mark II was highly customizable; you could re-assign most of the buttons and dials to any number of different functions to suit your shooting style. Now the same easy customization is, of course, available on the E-M1X (and it's even easier now, with a new menu design that graphically displays the location of the button you're modifying), but the initial button setup, with critical shooting functions assigned to labeled, dedicated buttons is a nice improvement.

For example, there isn't an "ISO" button on the E-M1 Mark II, so I immediately re-assigned the "Shadow/Highlight multi-function" button on the top-deck to adjust ISO. With the E-M1X, Olympus has, more or less, defaulted to doing this right out of the box; there's no "shadow/highlight" button now, but rather an ISO button instead. Of course, if you want to assign the shadow/highlight curve adjustment to an external button on the E-M1X, you're more than welcome to do that.

Lastly, I want to mention the new electronic viewfinder, which I found to be downright excellent. Not only is the viewfinder magnification significantly larger than that of the E-M1 Mark II (0.74x), it's also one of the largest electronic viewfinders currently available at 0.83x magnification (35mm eq.). In addition, the E-M1X's EVF uses progressive scan rather than an interlaced display that is found in many other EVFs. This combined with a 120fps refresh rate and only 0.005s of latency makes it fantastic to use for tracking and shooting fast action and sports. In my time with the camera so far, I have nothing but praise for the EVF. It's extremely large and feels very close up to the eye, giving you a bright, sharp, full view of your scene. The viewfinder, with its high refresh rate and progressive scan display, is fast and practically lag-free. Tracking fast-moving subjects is easy, and I've yet to see any artifacts, tearing or any other issues that would affect subject tracking accuracy. Overall, it's just a beautiful electronic viewfinder!

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 73mm, f/6.3, 1/125s, ISO 200 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

Performance: Initial Impressions

Next, I want to briefly touch on the E-M1X's performance and autofocus. So far, I've only had an opportunity to really use the camera in-depth while it ran beta-level firmware, so I can't make concrete conclusions nor comparisons to other cameras at this point in time regarding its performance capabilities. However, that being said, I've yet to run into any issues in terms of burst shooting, AF performance, and general speed and responsiveness of the camera.

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 90mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1000 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

I had the chance to shoot motorsports (albeit briefly due to weather issues) as well as motocross and collegiate football with the E-M1X, and the camera performed very well, with fast continuous burst shooting, deep buffer performance and accurate C-AF tracking. In general shooting, I was never left waiting for the camera either -- quick continuous bursts one after the other, and the camera kept up with the action without a hitch. The dual UHS-II card support also let me shoot long burst sequences and then begin reviewing images right away without much if any noticeable delay.

• • •

We recently received production-level firmware for our E-M1X review unit and have completed our in-depth performance testing. Please head over to our Performance page for our E-M1X results.

• • •

One of the significant new features of the E-M1X, as we discussed in our video, is the new AI-based, deep machine learning-trained subject recognition and tracking technology. Again, I was using a beta version of the firmware at the time, so I can't yet make any definitive conclusions, but so far, the technology is very impressive. You first have to set the AF mode to "C-AF + Tracking" (not regular "C-AF" mode), and then head into the menus to select one of three subjects: Motorsports, Airplanes or Trains. I tested this out with motorsports, and it was really fast and really cool to see the camera quickly recognize the approaching car automatically. You then can half-press the shutter release to activate focus tracking, and if the camera can fully recognize the subject, in this case, an automobile, it will attempt to fine-tune the focus point onto the driver. (For airplanes, the camera will attempt to focus on the pilot/airplane window, or on the conductor for trains.)

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 60mm, f/7.1, 1/160s, ISO 200 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

We will, of course, be doing further testing on the E-M1X's scene recognition and AF tracking performance now that we have production firmware, but so far, I'm quite impressed with this intriguing new technology.

Finally, I wanted to mention battery life. Thanks to the gripped design, the E-M1X uses two battery packs -- the same BLH-1 Lithium-ion batteries as the E-M1 Mark II, which is handy if you're already an E-M1 II owner. During my initial three-day shooting time with the camera I never had to charge the batteries. The two included batteries (the camera ships with two batteries and two chargers) lasted all throughout the different shooting experiences.

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1600 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

The on-screen battery life indicator was a little confusing at first, though, as it only displays the battery life of one battery at a time. I had assumed that the battery percentage shown was for the camera system as a whole, not that single battery pack. I ended up panicking while out shooting that I was running out of battery and kicking myself for not charging the batteries the night before. Luckily, it was for a single battery, and the E-M1X seamlessly switched over to the second, fully-charged battery automatically once the first was drained.

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 115mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1250 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

Summary

So far the Olympus E-M1X is proving to be a very impressive camera. The build quality is outstanding, as I've come to expect with the Olympus E-M1-series. (I've dropped, banged and dunked my E-M1 and E-M1 Mark II numerous times and they've both kept on ticking.) The rugged construction and extreme weather-resistance of these cameras is something I really admire; I love not having to worry about weather, water, dust or dirt!

With the same 20MP Four Thirds sensor as in the E-M1 Mark II, the image quality should be very similar, which is to say very impressive for a Micro Four Thirds camera. Also, the real-world performance I've witnessed so far with pre-production firmware makes me excited to continue testing this camera with more difficult, fast-paced action subjects. The camera feels like an absolute beast in the field, so I'm looking forward to more shooting!

Admittedly, the higher price tag and the larger size of the E-M1X was cause for a little concern for me personally. The E-M1 Mark II was already pretty pricey at $2,000, and I'm kind of a stickler when it comes to having a small and lightweight camera. However, the E-M1X handles very well and feels very comfortable to use, despite its increased size and weight. And when you compare it to the flagship, gripped professional cameras from other manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, the $3000 E-M1X is both less expensive and more compact. If you are aiming for a high-performance, rugged-as-heck camera that's also designed around a highly-portable camera system, the Olympus E-M1X should be at the top of your list.

40-150mm f/2.8 Pro: 90mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1000 (Shot with an E-M1X with Beta Firmware.)

Up Next

Now that we have production firmware for our E-M1X, stay tuned for a lot more in-depth testing as we put this new Olympus flagship camera through its paces. We'll be diving deeper into continuous AF performance and its new subject-tracking system, as well as the new Live ND feature and the Handheld High-Res Shot mode (so far initial shots have been very impressive). Of course, we also plan to hand the camera off to our resident video expert Jaron Schneider for a detailed review of the upgraded OM-D Movie features. Sound off in the comments section below if there's anything in particular to you want us to investigate for you!

 



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