Are They Nuts? Olympus E-M1X Betrays the Promise of Micro Four Thirds

Are They Nuts? Olympus E-M1X Betrays the Promise of Micro Four Thirds

With the announcement of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, Olympus is in uncharted territory. Is charging $3,000 for a Micro Four Thirds body insane, or the smart play that launches a professional body for the brand well below a Nikon D5 or Canon EOS-1D X Mark II?

Olympus has a lot going for it in the world of Micro Four Thirds. It makes some killer lenses. Its image stabilization tech is the best in the business. The sensors, if not quite up to where larger sensors are playing in terms of image quality and low light performance, are pretty close. Weather sealing is amongst the industry leaders. Seriously, how many times do you see people willingly dumping entire bottles of water on their camera or cleaning it off with a garden hose? Tony Northrup even froze his test unit. Every model from the PEN-F to the OM-D models are easy on the eyes and all feel solid in the hand while also being light and small.

With the E-M1X, you can strike those last two points though. Whatever the opposite of light and small is, this is that. Yes, it’s lighter and smaller than the Canon and Nikon professional equivalents, but is that what Micro Four Thirds users wanted? Not really.

A Crazy Move?

Hear me out. I currently own six different Micro Four Thirds bodies. My main walkaround camera these days is an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II and a gaggle of Olympus lenses. I love my OM-D, but I also keep my expectations in check. I’m not expecting world-beating performance, but I appreciate having a small and light camera with serious controls and a decent viewfinder. In my own self-interest, I come from the viewpoint of wanting Micro Four Thirds to be around for a very, very long time.

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II is the perfect example of a Micro Four Thirds camera that makes sense.

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II is the perfect example of a Micro Four Thirds camera that makes sense.

And that’s where the OM-D E-M1X defies logic. For a price tag that gets me more than halfway to an equivalent model from the established brands (or even upstarts like the Sony Alpha a9), what are you really getting for your money?

I've also owned two 1D series cameras. They're heavy, and the form factor is anything but comfortable. They're not reasonable cameras to carry without making a good case for themselves. But that's exactly what they do. Anything competing in that range needs to have the latest and greatest tech to justify the size and price; It need to be a world-beater of a camera. As far as the spec sheet goes, much of what's in the E-M1X looks like it's been recycled from other models down the line, with a sizable chunk of the camera's guts coming from the E-M1 Mark II.

With the E-M1X sporting a familiar 20-megapixel sensor in the Micro Four Thirds format, you’re not getting a huge bump in image quality from anything else in the Olympus ILC lineup. Jared Polin of "Fro Knows Photo" fame had some seat time behind the camera and describes the inherent limitations of the image quality with this particular sensor. Controls and menus are still a bit funky. Accessing focusing modes has always been particularly cumbersome for Olympus models and with the inability to choose which face you want in focus, a feature that should be basic, it looks like the clunkiness continues. Weather sealing is something already offered on the E-M5 Mark II and E-M1 Mark II. You gain an integrated grip, but that’s something you can also add to existing models.

One could argue that the magic is in new A.I.-driven features of the camera, such as its “Deep Learning Autofocus” technology, which trains the A.I. algorithm to find, the marketing claims, “subjects like a speeding formula car or rally car, motocross racer and flying aircraft,” except that out of the box, these are two of the only three things the system is optimized for, that is planes, trains and cars. And the “deep learning” doesn't happen as the camera learns what you shoot - the algorithms are already trained from the factory. Initial impressions of the E-M1X’s autofocus show that, while not disappointing, it doesn’t quite knock it out of the park either.

There’s the high-res mode that produces 50-megapixel images by slightly shifting the sensor to get all those pictures, but like previous iterations of the technology, this mode is still not for anything that contains a significant amount of movement. A Canon EOS 5DS or a Nikon D850 can do that without the technical limitations. The simulated ND filter is a neat party trick, but it’s not that hard to carry a couple of ND filters in the bag.

Would the R&D spent in making this have better been used to design a sensor or autofocus system that could be spread across the lineup? Maybe a new video-focused model?

Who Will Buy It?

While sensor-shift capabilities are nice, it's not hard to stitch together multiple images in Photoshop to also achieve higher resolution.

While sensor-shift capabilities are nice, it's not hard to stitch together multiple images in Photoshop to also achieve higher resolution.

So without a significant spec bump in any one particular area, who is this camera for? Without a significant step up in autofocus or low-light image quality, sports shooters on the sidelines will look the part with a gripped body, but they won’t be able to keep up with the already established pro bodies. Those who turned to Micro Four Thirds for the size reduction will probably spring for the almost half-cost E-M1 Mark II if they want a pro-capable body. Olympus is competing with itself.

Then there’s the price tag. At $3,000, competition is going to be fierce, especially against cheaper and equally capable models with larger sensors, such as the APS-C Fuji X-T3 or the full-frame Sony Alpha a7 III, both of which will have better low-light performance.

With Panasonic signaling a move towards full frame, Olympus really has to make all of its moves count if Micro Four Thirds has a future. It’s a great format, but one that perhaps needs to play to its strengths: A small and light capable system that beats the giants on size and price.

What do you think of the E-M1X? Would a lower price or something else make a more compelling case for the camera? Is it compelling enough as is? Sound off in the comments below.

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75 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

They are squeezing every ounce of time from the M/43 by adding features etc. The image quality has not appreciably improved from the aged E-M5 MI. Now with sensor prices dropping it's a bad investment to buy a small sensor when you can go APSc/FF for less money.

The format is dead...not next week or next month. maybe not even next year but it's over. Just take a look at the size of the lenses you have to use to get equivalent (to FF) quality...small form factor out the window.

I sold mine last year.

I wanne see a REAL small m4/3 camera like the Panasonic GM1 after that they've only become bigger! A few months ago I was looking to buy a new carry everywhere camera, I was even looking at m4/3 camera's but they are al so big, only the GM1 was an option but u can't find them anymore (in Belgium), so I bought a Sony RX100 IV!
I want the smallest m4/3 they can make, so it can replace compacts but so I'm still able to change lenses!

Spy Black's picture

The GM5 is a nicer camera than the GM1, as it has more surface controls and an EVF. While the EVF is nothing to write home about, it's lifesaver in broad daylight when you can't see a screen, never mind the sheer engineering feat of an sticking an EVF in a camera of this size.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I looked hard for a GM5 when I bought the GM1, but couldn't find any new at the time (but strangely I was able to find the GM1 new). I wish they had the GM5 though.

I haven't had the best track record with reliability or service from my Panasonics, and so it's one of the few brands where I only buy the bodies new.

Do you have the GM5? What do you think of it?

Spy Black's picture

Yes, I have a GM5. It's a jewel. It was my primary street camera until the rear adjustment wheel stopped working, leaving you unable to adjust any setting. I've been afraid to send it down to the Panasonic repair center in Texas because I've heard nothing but nightmare stories about that place. I'd hate to send it down it have it disappear. I can still change parameters via wi-fi and the phone app, but obviously that kills it for street use. I reverted to a Nikon 1 J4 for street, augmented by an Olympus E-M10 Mk II. I'll be trying out the GM5 for astrophotography, as it's small size and crop factor make it an ideal camera for me to experiment with astro.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

The rear dial on my GH3 died as well and I did send it to Texas for repair after my local shop was unable to repair it. If you go back to my Twitter around Dec.-Jan 2016/17 you’ll see the very public war of words I had with them about how bad their service was. So many things went wrong, it’s too long to list here, though I eventually did get the camera back months later at great cost.

I love the cameras but the service experience definitely is not up there with the best.

Yeah i've looked at a GM5 to, though I like to have a viewfinder it isn't absolutely necessary, but A GM5 is as hard to find as a GM1, in Belgium that is! Also I want to see a NEW camera like it, with modern video features and better low light performance. But I don't think Panasonic will ever make a camera like it anymore, they wanne compete with aps-c camera's and other mirrorless instead of the compact market like the Sony rx-100 series!

Spy Black's picture

Sadly it's true we'll never see the likes of the GM5, that's why I don't want to let it out of my sight, even though it really needs it's adjustment wheel fixed. I'll use Wi-Fi for the time being. I love this little jewel.

The 1-inch market took over. There's been a lot of R&D in 1-inch (while apparently none in M4/3) and their sensors are now within a 1/2 stop of M4/3, so I guess the money's in 1-inch.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I love my orange GM1! It was one of my most-used cameras that I owned just because it was so easy to take with me everywhere. I still have it, but I use my EM10 II more these days because after my back injury, the tilting screen helps me get angles without having to twist into difficult positions, and it's not that much heavier and gives me a viewfinder. Image quality seemed slightly better on the GM1 to my eye for some reason though. You can find a GM1 used in many places, but as it's not a very durable camera that might get a bit dicey.

GM5 is by far my favorite camera I own. Not the best technically, but it's size and practical features give way more options in the real world than almost all other cameras.

michaeljin's picture

I think there's a market. The only question is whether the market is large enough to sustain continued development.

M43 sensors provide more than good enough image quality and resolution for web use, which is the bulk of where images end up. Yes, this is going to be bulkier than some cameras with larger sensors, but those generally aren't weather sealed cameras with a built-in grip that are designed to balance with longer lenses so I don't think that's a reasonable comparison as a FF or APS-C cameras built with that in mind would likely be larger than this.

The real savings here is the size and weight of your lenses for comparable reach. I know for sure that I would seriously consider it if I was a journalist (sports or otherwise) given my physical condition as the overall weight savings would be significant, but I'm honestly not sure how many people would fall into the same category.

I personally appreciate camera companies coming out with different options for different consumers and I don't think that we should put them on blast for doing something to serve a market that other manufacturers are essentially ignoring. If you're not the target market and this isn't for you, don't buy it. The only really concerning part of this to me is the price point, which seems pretty steep.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Follow up question for you then - at what price point would a camera like this make sense for you?

michaeljin's picture

Honestly? Around $2500 MAX? I get that this is supposed to be the M/43 version of the D5 more or less so if you look at it from that standpoint, the $3000 price tag seems like a bargain, but you're already up against some formidable APS-C cameras such as the D500 with grip at the $1800 mark.

With so many potential options by the $3000 mark, it's just a difficult sell from a value standpoint. Olympus is really targeting a limited market at that price. They're basically banking on targeting people who physically cannot bear a larger camera at that point, whether it's due to some sort of medical reason, load restriction, or access restriction. How big is that market? I guess we're about to find out.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I think the most I ever paid for an M43 body was $1200 for my GH3. At $2500 even I feel like there's a lot of heavy competition there if you're not already invested in the system, as you mention with the D500.

michaeljin's picture

Yeah, it's really quite a difficult thing to price...

Wasim Ahmad's picture

If there was a lot of new tech in there, I might be able to see the price, but much of what's here seems to have already been done in previous bodies, which is why I'm baffled. Perhaps it's one of those cases where the MSRP is that price and you'll probably see a "rebate" that's offered almost year-round (like many other manufacturers do).

Leigh Miller's picture

The original E-M1 MKI was as much as I would ever pay for a M 4/3 body. Many people already concluded back in 2013 that the price was already on the high side.

I think it’s a bit of a fantasy version. I’d see they don’t expect to sell a lot but want to try to show how micro 4/3 may remain relevant.
It’s the first real attempt at putting computational features on a MILC.
Phones are pretty good at this. Olympus have a bigger sensor than a phone.
They are showing the potential frame rate for their models. They are showing they can sort of compete with D5’s or 1DX’s and have long reach lenses in small formats.
It’s telling Olympus users to hang in there, there’s more to come.
I think using the same sensor again doesn’t augur well. I wonder did they try but not succeed in having it ready in time.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Those last two points sums up what I didn't put in to words clearly up there: A halo product to tell Olympus users to stay strong, and that perhaps using the same tired sensor wasn't a good idea. Great points.

In an interview with Aki Murata, VP of sales and marketing for Olympus America he say that Olympus philosophy is to build compact, lightweight and ultimate reliability cameras. E-M1X just got the reliability part correctly. This is not building on the brand's strength. The price is also shocking for a model with the same old LCD EVF. Same old LCD screen, and same old sensor. The only real news are autofocus modes for train, airplanes, and vehicles. I think the M43 format has a role to play if Olympus is true to it's philosophy about compact and lightweight gear.

The Canon CEO estimated camera sales to drop 50 % within a couple of years. If Olympus, which currently isn't profitable, should put all their efforts in R&D to build on it success. E-M1X doesn't fit at all. Perhaps they could have found a market for it if had been filled with state of the art technology. For all but train entusiasts E-M1 Mark II is a more reasonable choice for half the cost.

Actually I was sad to see good money wasted on a camera like the E-M1X. Now Olympus has less money left to do what they need to do to stay alive. Really bad product management.

Don't think the system is dead but I'm not sure about this move, seems that the marketing team got a few surveys wrong or a move in the wrong direction. Olympus should stick with its core market value which is small camera, small lenses, and a lighter system - this thing is a small rock monster with big ass lenses attached. What is the point of saying you offer a lighter camera system that is less bulky and then build a small brick with an out of date sensor.

I already have a gf7 with good enough high iso jpegs somewhere between my d80 and almost where d7000 is. When I looked for my next body I went g85, video autofocus is not as good as sony and the 5 axis does not equal olympus magic handheld milkyway, for about 500 plus usd new what is there to complain. 5 axis is good enough 4 stops or thereabouts, high iso is slightly below the gf7 because 5 axis introduced extra heat. But the reworked mechanical shutter is soft and nice.

What olympus needed to do and similarly panasonic is match sony autofocus speeds. Sony was not the fastest. Remember the mark 1, and now by mark 3 they are preferred to canon or nikon. Similarly remember fuji xpro1 not fast. Once it’s class leading, then it’s a different game. Features are nothing if autofocus is behind the pack. For me dfd and -4 ev is good enough for single focus but for everyone else they need faster. Btw my gf7 I used for about 4 years I got it when it was 200 usd.

Yes friends, for only $3000 you too can have image quality below that of a Nikon D3200 from seven years ago!

To be fair I think it's all about portability, esp considering the much smaller MFT lenses, combined "good enough" image quality in many cases. I think the best combo is an MFT camera for portability and travel, and a FF camera for everything else.

The E-M1x is the 50mm/.95 of the m43 world: totally unnecessary for most but a statement for two company's that are dying.

Is this a replay of the Olympus E-3 debacle...Played out in mirrorless-land?

Back in the day, I bought an Oly E-1. It was a little bit unconventional, but you could see that a lot of thought went into the design. It was tough, compact, and had good glass, through not enough long lenses to do serious sports shooting. At around the same time I was also working with a D1h and D1x. I was hoping for some improvements in the follow-on Oly DLSR, but in the meantime, I replaced the D1 bodies with a couple of D200s. The D-300 came out and I got one, and was in line for the first Oly E-3 -- which Olympus was touting as heavily then as they are now this new mirrorless "pro" body.

The problem was that Nikon stole the march. There wasn't one area of performance or features where the E-3 surpassed the D-300. I shot with both the bodies. But what really drove the stake into the heart of the E-3 was SIZE. Different reviewers and commenters insisted the the E-3 was more compact.

Holding them both, I didn't believe them. So I did what anybody with too much time on their hands would do: I bought several "jugs" of airsoft pellets. I put each camera (connected to the battery grip) into a wooden box and filled the box to the brim with pellets. Then I extracted the cameras and measured the volume of pellets with two big graduated cylinders I had left over from darkroom days. (I even used flat cardboard disks as body caps, to account for design differences.) And guess what? The volumes of the two cameras were nearly identical. I ran the test twice.

So the E-3 became part of a trade-in for the second D300, and the rest of my 4/3 gear went to eBay. The size advantage that the Oly E-1 had was completely lost in the E-3.

Is history repeating itself? (Less the airsoft pellets.)

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I love your experiment.

I loved the D300s that I owned. It was an amazing camera. I sold it for the much less impressive (and more problematic D600) and regretted it. That said I got a D610 from Nikon as a replacement to fix the dust problems so the company did right by me. I don't know if Olympus service would be as well-developed as the big two.

Anybody have experience with them to comment?

I used my two D300s for years, but finally had to get rid of them when the "D400" never materialized. I got a pair of D7200s and then, within a year, the D500 came out. (!!!) I replaced one of the D7200s with a D500, and will replace the remaining D7200 with a Fuji X-T3. I need to keep the D500 for really long lenses (120-300 and 150-600).

I dont understand. When 35 mm cameras were still standard, you decided between a very cheap or small or full electronic or mechanic camera or consumer or high pro. Here the MFT is reduced to make-it-small-and-cheap and anything else is blasphemy. MFT is a formal to choose and not the poor mans FF. And there can be a high spec model be available and yes, you can have another model as well, consumer grade.
Sensors in pro cameras are mostly the same as in consumer grade cameras.
For weather sealing, its quality pur. Live in Europa and ask the question about splash proofing once again, dude! Theres no such thing as pro or consumer format, just small minds, as this article is proof about.

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