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.
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?
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.