Review: Olympus OMD EM1X (Would You Do This to a Camera?)

While the Olympus OMD EM1X feels fantastic in my hands, this camera gives me less faith in the Micro Four Thirds system.

When I first got word of the Olympus OMD EM1X, it was through reading rumors on the web. But they turned out to be true–and I’ve got very mixed feelings about that. This camera has a lot going for it in the form of fantastic ergonomics, weather sealing that I’ve never seen thus far in a camera, dual cards slots, and the addition of AI in the camera designed to help the photographer. One should think of this camera as the Olympus OMD EM1 Mk II on steroids as it is designed to be a great option for those who are heavily invested into the system and who do their job with it. But then there are a lot of things that really make me scratch my head.

Disclosure: Olympus flew the Phoblographer to Florida where we first got the Olympus OMD EM1X and lenses to test on loan. They paid for everything. Upon returning to NYC, we began conducting our own independent testing. Two weeks before the NDA on this camera broke, Olympus called the camera back in, updated the firmware, and sent the camera back to us. All of the images in our specific Image Quality section and its subsections were done with the finalized firmware.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Very fast autofocus
  • Autofocus is fast for tracking but still isn’t what Sony does in the Sony a9

  • Very well weather sealed

  • Lightweight

  • A joy to carry and hold

  • I love that there is no automatic mode of any sort

  • Viewfinder is very nice

  • C-lock switch is awesome

  • One of the best weather sealed mirrorless cameras I’ve ever tested

  • Damned good image stabilization

Cons

  • Face detection isn’t as good as Sony’s and Fujifilm’s

  • This system needs more long zooms/primes with an f2 or f2.8 aperture

  • Needs a star rating system for the images

  • I had a battery issue and the camera overheated

  • Interesting choices for what Olympus should hone in on for autofocus tracking

  • I’m not sure who is going to buy this camera

  • Image Quality feels lacking

  • If you want to view images in the viewfinder, you need to look into the finder and then press play Editor’s Note, we’ve found out that you can do this by unlocking it in the menu.

  • I miss Sony’s and Canon’s no viewfinder blackout by default with everything. You have to go into Pro Capture Mode to get this.

  • At the Bronx Zoo, it wasn’t able to capture birds right about to take off

  • The focus tracking was all over the place

  • Trying to hold the focus area and the camera while tracking for a while shooting handheld is very difficult while controlling your breathing to ensure optimal performance

  • Had difficulty tracking otters

  • This is a very noisy camera at ISO 6400. So considering that this was designed for sports, wildlife etc I’m shocked because photographers need to be able to shoot at a very high ISO. I can see this in Olympus Workspace RAW file viewer.

  • The RAW files aren’t super versatile at higher ISO settings

  • The battery life continues to drain for some odd reason

  • Olympus needs more fast telephoto lenses besides just zooms. They need f2.8, f2 or f1.8 prime lenses; desperately.

  • The Fujifilm XH1 has better tracking

Gear Used with the Olympus OMD EM1X

We tested the Olympus OMD EM1X with the Olympus 300mm f4, 12-100mm f4, 40-150mm f2.8, their 2x teleconverter, and the Olympus 7-14mm f4.

Olympus OMD EM1X Tech Specs

  • 21.8MP 4/3 Live MOS sensor
  • Dual TruePic VIII
  • 121 cross point AF phase detection points
  • 5, 9 or 25 area focusing options
  • Face detection with eye detection
  • 5 axis image stabilization
  • 7 stops of image stabilization according to CIPA
  • 7.5 stops with the 12-100mm f4
  • 3 inch 1037 dot vari-angle
  • ISO 200-6400 with extensions
  • 1/250th flash sync
  • 12 bit RAW
  • Focus stacking mode
  • Art filters
  • Handheld high res shot mode (Note: we didn’t bother really testing this out further than we did in Florida)

Ergonomics

 

The Olympus OMD EM1X is the company’s highest end camera thus far produced for their Micro Four Thirds camera system. The biggest ergonomics feature is the addition of that big vertical grip on the bottom of the camera. This grip houses two of Olympus’ batteries–which I had mixed results with but mostly a positive experience with.


Within the crevice of the grip are lens release buttons and customizable buttons. They’re very comfortable. In fact, I have to say with all sincerity that this is the best feeling mirrorless camera that I’ve held thus far.

When you look at the top of the camera, you see some very familiar controls. There is no automatic mode on this camera and on the top right are some dedicated control buttons that have to be used in combination with a dial of some sort. Then there is the dedicated ISO button, video record, exposure compensation, hot shoe, etc. In my talks with the Olympus engineers, they were afraid to put an LDC screen on the top of the camera. In fact, it was a pretty furious debate internally but they opted to not add it in as an effort to keep the camera smaller.

Please note that the Olympus OMD EM1X comes with an eye cup, but when abusing this camera for the testing purposes, I threw a whole lot at it. That’s evident by these product images where water is all over the camera.

We can see a number of controls on the back of the Olympus OMD EM1X. The LCD screen here is turned inward to prevent distractions and there are all the familiar controls like a joystick, playback button, EVF setting, etc.

Here is the LCD screen. Unlike our testing with the Olympus OMD EM1 Mk II, the LCD screen didn’t crack during our outing with Olympus or with my personal testing here in NYC. I’m going to be moving to the grip in a bit, but notice the C-Lock switch. This disables the use of the grip and prevents a number of potential usability issues from occurring.

The vertical grip is an interesting one. There is an ISO control, two other exposure controls, etc.

The only other major thing that I’ve talk about with the Olympus OMD EM1X ergonomically is that the ports are highly protected. In the case of the memory cards and the battery, you need to lift a switch and then turn it. Only then will the doors open.

Build Quality

The Olympus OMD EM1X hands down is the single best damn digital mirrorless camera I’ve held and used thus far. During my testing, I shot with it in the snow, in dirt, and even after purposely getting dirt on it I ran a hose over it and I’ve got the videos to prove it. Years ago, I ran the OMD EM1 Mk II under a faucet for 10 minutes and it continued to work. But this time around, I decided that I’d take things even further.

Check out our abuse of the Olympus OMD EM1X below.

The Olympus OMD EM1X is rated to IPX1 in terms of weather sealing. For a point of reference, your modern smartphone is perhaps more weather sealed and waterproof to a point. But when it came to seeing just how resistant this camera is, we wanted to personally show it off to you all. When I asked the Olympus engineers to give me a dust-proof rating, they told me that they didn’t test for that.

As you can tell, the Olympus OMD EM1X is super well sealed with an accordingly sealed lens. This solid build quality also translates well into the hand when the camera is held. The grip conforms to your hands and the Olympus OMD EM1X feels like the best of Canon and Nikon in a single camera.

Ease of Use

I’ve heard good things about Olympus’ menus and bad things about them. For starters, I really wish that the touchscreen allowed you to navigate the menus to speed things along. But be warned, the menu system is long and deep. Luckily, there are a ton of buttons on the camera and they’re all well placed. Better yet, the buttons are mostly dedicated to doing certain things. The designers created a well thought out camera and despite how much of a Fujifilm acolyte I tend to be when it comes to ergonomics, I’m conceding to Olympus in this case. The Fujifilm XH1 with a vertical grip doesn’t feel as great as the Olympus OMD EM1X does and if you’re used to working with DSLRs, then this camera will make a whole lot fo sense. In the case of the XH1, you’ve got an odd but functional blend of retro and new.

The Olympus OMD EM1X has no automatic mode, but there are semi-automatic modes.

Perhaps the biggest problems I had with the Olympus OMD EM1X (in terms of ergonomics) were my hand hitting the vertical shutter by accident/changing the exposure and not being able to figure out how to change the focus group easier. Once I figured out how to use C-Lock and how to use a button and then a dial turn, all was peachy. I truly can’t complain.

When it comes to the interface, I’m not sure why the Olympus OMD EM1X is lacking a very big feature for photojournalism and sports shooters: star ratings. Across Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fujifilm cameras I have the ability to add a rating to an image. At first this never really mattered to me but after some time, it made a whole lot more sense to me. You (the photojournalist or sports shooter) are capturing a ton of photos. To make the editing process smoother and faster, it would make sense to review your images in camera while in transit, rate or flag them, and then have that information come into Capture One or shudder Lightroom. This is essentially the equivalent of your first culling. Just like that 1,000 images can become 50 or 75. It’s the same thought process that AI is trying to do by picking “the best” photos for you based on some parameters that are incredibly basic–except that a human being with emotions is doing it instead.

Despite the battery life also being overall very good, I had one instance where the batteries seemed to overheat on me–in that the grip became very warm. It didn’t happen again after this but what I’ve noticed is that the batteries still drain faster. That’s not saying much though because the overall battery life on this product is simply phenomenal.

Autofocus

Editor’s Note: Some of the images in this section were taken before we received the final Olympus OMD EM1X firmware update.

“If we (Olympus) used the most powerful processor from Intel, it still isn’t powerful enough to do what we need to do.”

The Olympus OMD EM1X is quite honestly, a mixed bag when it comes to autofocusing performance. In single AF performance, it’s a solid as ever and arguably faster and better than most of what’s on the market with the exception being the Sony a9. In continuous AF, my only issue is that it’s sometimes difficult to see the autofocus point as you pan with a subject. But with a PRO grade lens, the Olympus OMD EM1X can keep up with a lot of subjects. Continuous Tracking AF is where I was getting into problems–and yet this is one of the paramount features of the Olympus OMD EM1X.

In our interviews with Olympus’ engineers, we were told that the processor has eight cores and that it’s incredibly powerful. I’ve always wondered just how much more powerful they are in comparison to phones–and Olympus assured me that the processors in a camera are much more robust. In fact we were told, “If we (Olympus) used the most powerful processor from Intel, it still isn’t powerful enough to do what we need to do.”

That’s quite a statement!

The camera has some AI built in to help you hold focus on trains (Lord knows why), motor cross bikes, and cars–like NASCAR. For the most part, it does a pretty darned good job with those. But then when it came to shooting wildlife and other sports, we had some issues.

First off, what you’ll see in many reviews is some shots from a Gators football practice. For what it’s worth, this was a nightmare to coordinate with NCAA and the only shots that I wanted to run were not given clearance. During that time, we had to track certain players all along an entire football field. It was incredibly difficult to do rather than trying to follow a ball. In fact, I found that test to be downright impractical.

Back in NYC I tried the autofocus with animals, skaters, the annual NYC Polar Bears plunge, and the Armored Combat League here in NYC. For photojournalistic work, I found the Olympus OMD EM1X to really be second to none and on par with the Sony a9. The camera has a great battery life for the job, can attain focus pretty fast and will help you get the shot a lot of the time. The Olympus OMD EM1X has a lot of different grouping options including the ability to make the focusing points pretty darned small in order to focus on very fine details. That’s very useful a lot of the time. What’s even nicer is that an f2.8 zoom has the depth of field of f5.6 on a full frame camera. So you essentially never need to stop your lens down and you’ve got a lot in focus with f2.8’s light gathering abilities. If you’re shooting photojournalism with Olympus’s wonderful prime lenses, then you’ll be all set.

For wildlife, I walked away very disappointed at the fact that it was almost all over the place when it came to tracking. I had issues with birds, monkeys and otters. Birds were where I was most disappointed. While the Olympus OMD EM1X was able to get them in focus pretty darned well when they were still, when the birds started to get ready for take off, the camera couldn’t really keep up to get them in focus for every shot. To be clear, I was shooting at the low continuous silent setting which does 18fps. That’s the only way that C-AF and tracking will work.

I had the same problem with otters and they stayed on the same focus plane. There was a point where the playful couple that I was photographing were very curious about me and then even started play fighting amongst themselves. Unfortunately, the Olympus OMD EM1X couldn’t really keep them in focus for every shot. I walked away wondering if it was really just me, but the truth is that I can (and have) kept other animals in focus while running using the Sony a9 and both the Fujifilm X-T3 and the Fujifilm XH1.

When Sony announced animal face detection at Photokina 2018 and then its implementation in the new Sony a9 firmware update, I was pretty ecstatic. This is where a feature like this could have really stood out. At the same time, it confuses me so much because if eye detection is on, the camera and lens should theoretically be able to track an eye. I mean, if you point cameras at paintings or other photos, they can detect that there is a face on a screen or a print. Further, they can tell that there is an eye. So then why can’t it understand that an eye is on an animal? This perplexes me as an end user.

Returning to my issues with tracking, the same problem occurred with the Armored Combat League. To give the Olympus OMD EM1X more of an advantage, I switched out to a wider lens. While I was surely able to nail some good photos, I still felt like the performance was lacking.

Image Quality

To get these images, we used Olympus Workspace because Capture One and Lightroom do not support the Olympus OMD EM1X just yet. What I found is that the processed RAWs from the Olympus OMD EM1X are quite interesting. In my comparison of notes with other journalists, I found that we were all more or less getting much of the same results. The colors are fairly bland and the high ISO output has been far superseded by larger sensors at this point. This is particularly disturbing as it’s a camera that is really relying on better high ISO results.

When it comes to practicality though, the images for the web are totally fine. It’s when you begin to make big prints where you start to see a lot of problems–particularly with color noise and the shadows.

High ISO Output

The images in this section were shot at ISO 6400. While the results look usable, you can see detail loss, color noise, etc. Again though, this is when using Olympus’s own software. If C1 supported the camera, I’m pretty positive that the Olympus OMD EM1X RAW files would be doing a better job–but ultimately then so would Sony’s…and everyone else’s.

To really put this to the test, we printed an image at ISO 6400; which rendered us a file at 5184×3888 pixels. Using our standard Canon PROGraf 1000 printer, we printed the image. However, Capture One, Apple and Lightroom all said that this image is too small to fill the entire space up. Here’s a screenshot to prove that.

I’m honestly not sure what’s going on here; as I’ve never had this problem before with the products from other manufacturers. My inference is that the massive print that Olympus showed us in Florida (that other publications may talk about) was really blown up. As itis though, the print gave me a fair amount of detail loss that makes it look more like a painting sort of. Creatively speaking, I’d be totally fine with embracing that look.

RAW File Versatility

The best way that I can describe the sensor from the Olympus OMD EM1X when using it in Olympus Workspace is the following: like shooting chrome film due to the lack of versatility but without the major color saturation of chrome film. With that said, I’d probably liken the output to that of something akin to Agfachrome. So if you know what I’m talking about and that hasn’t gone over your head, you’ll perhaps like the color output from the Olympus OMD EM1X.

For the money though, I’m still going to be more partial to the Fujifilm X-H1 and their beautiful telephoto lenses with Classic Chrome.

Extra Image Samples

Final Firmware


Pre-Production

Conclusions

Likes

  • Build Quality

Dislikes

 

To be completely honest, I’m not sure who is going to purchase the Olympus OMD EM1X for nearly $3,000. The reason for this isn’t because the Olympus system is inherently awful at all, it’s just that for the amount of money that you’re forking over, you can get better cameras and systems in other ways.

The Olympus OMD EM1X has fantastic image stabilization, class leading durability, some of the best ergonomics that I’ve ever held for a mirrorless camera, and a bevy of lenses for the photojournalist to use for work. In terms of how those photojournalists would typically work, the autofocus is reliable enough in most cases. Additionally, the shutter is super quiet. However, the image quality is where I’m very concerned. If a photographer is shooting for just the web, then they’re fine. But the color depth, dynamic range and high ISO output all suffer in comparison to products with cough larger sensors. This mostly becomes an issue with printing unless you’re using technology for more intelligent upsizing. At lower ISO settings at 800 and below, I’ve got a fair amount of confidence in the Olympus OMD EM1X. But this camera is really for higher ISO work and that’s where I feel like Olympus dropped the ball comparatively speaking. I honestly would have been all for a return to their 16MP sensor.

Then there is my problem with lenses. At the longer end of the focal spectrum, Olympus needs faster aperture long lenses. A 300mm f4 becoming a 600mm f4 in terms of light gathering abilities is awesome until you remember that your depth of field is now f8 on a full frame camera. Then the argument of “Then the system becomes massive.” comes up. In my eyes, not really, and here’s why:

  • A 100mm f1.4 would become a 200mm f2.8. Nikon and Sigma have similar lenses already.
  • A 200mm f1.4 would be large, but it would be a 400mm f2.8 equivalent. It would still be smaller than the products that other manufacturers are making.
  • If we were to look at the Fujifilm 200m f2, then we’d equate that to a 300mm f3 lens. To get that, Olympus would need a 150mm f1.4. That’s still smaller than other competing lenses out there.
  • With all this, you get the light gathering abilities of a faster aperture lens but more in focus. The result is that you can then offset the need for a higher ISO with a more wide open aperture and a faster shutter speed. To me, that makes a ton of sense; it’s the main reason why I bought the Canon EOS R.
  • Still think this is crazy? Olympus is a company that made a 17mm f1.2, a 45mm f1.2 and a 25mm f1.2. No one in history has done this. They also made the lenses smaller. If Olympus can do this, then they can do the same at the longer end.

Fujifilm and Sony both have better options on the market that are weather sealed enough for most folks–very much so in Fujifilm’s case and barely so in Sony’s situation.  Would I purchase the Olympus OMD EM1X? No. Frankly, I wanted a weather sealed Pen camera.

The Olympus OMD EM1X receives four out of five stars. If you would like to pick one up for yourself, head on over to Adorama.