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.

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.

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.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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Previous comments

Citing Fro is a bit of a stretch as he didn't really take the camera seriously as can be seen in how he totally disregards many of the key features of the camera (ie ProCapture and HRS). The Northrups also really didn't have time to get a full understanding of the camera's capabilities and they don't appreciate the viability of the u43 format anyways. I think that Derrick Story's take is probably better:

This is a "halo" camera to allay any concerns people that are vested in u43 format might have with the flood of FF cameras coming out including Panasonic's announcement recently. It gives a hint of what's possible in future Oly cameras and as with much else, shows Oly is going cutting edge by offering features well ahead of the market (this time its computational photography).

The camera review blogosphere is going to go hard at a camera that deviates from the norm. This camera has a place in sports photography, but I think it has potential to really shine with Landscape photography. Handheld High Res is not useful for action photography, but works great for locations where tripods aren't allowed. This camera, while larger than other u43 bodies is till very small compared to its direct competition - especially when you factor in the size and weight of lenses. Imagine the savings to your back if you have a 3 mile trek backwoods to get to your location and the weight savings makes sense - you don't need to lug a tripod as you can handhold a 50mp RAW image. If you don't need to fight in the MP wars, you have the ability to handhold 10sec exposures - what other camera can do that??? Reviewers have been able to get usable images handheld for 15 or even 20 seconds! If you don't want to risk handholding that long, then the LiveND gives you a software cheat to get a similar effect. Plus you can stack the LiveND with existing ND to get even longer tripod exposures. And the stacking used for LiveND kills off any noise.

On the computational photography side, people are getting hung up on the planes, trains and automobiles of the AI focus. This is just the initial release. As this is all software, people and animals are sure to come as well. Once again, this is showing us what is possible and hint at what's to come.

Lastly, Olympus still has the smaller bodies. This isn't a replacement, its an addition to the lineup. People that want a small street shooter, still have the smaller OMDs and the Pen series. But, like Scott Bourne says, you will not find a better birding kit than the e-M1x and the 300mm f4 right now, let alone at the pricepoint of this kit and the size and weight it comes in at.

Thanks for the links. I'll definitely have to listen to that Derrick Story podcast about this.

That second link from Scott Bourne though, he was gushing a ton about the camera. Then when I got to the end of the article, he lists that he is an Olympus Visionary (one of their ambassadors) and so posts like that should be taken with a grain of salt. He really should indicate that affiliation up front, and not refer to his blog post as an "article" when it's not because of that affiliation.

Sorry about the SB confusion. I thought he was well known enough that his status was a given. He switched to Olympus long before becoming a visionary. He took a short break from photography to run Skylum Software, but is now back to his passion. He is a highly regarded niche photographer of raptors and motorsports.

Here's another blog post that is making waves among the Olympus community from a working South African photographer that is tired of YouTubers posting reviews after just 2 days or even a week with a camera as he believes a model as complex as this takes much longer to fully understand. He even points out a few technical errors in Fro's review:!

I am obviously a passionate owner of Olympus cameras. And I guess content creators would put me under the category of viewers of these commentaries seeking validation. I don't see myself that way, but I've seen articles that put audiences into different groups and this is the closest match to where I stand.

I am not in a market to buy this camera. I own an e-M1 mk2 and it perfectly suits my needs as of now. I love watching these types of releases to understand the direction of different camera manufacturers. Maybe some of these updates will trickle to my camera by firmware update, maybe not. In a couple years, when I am in the market to move into a new camera body, I will take a hard look at this camera. I don't appreciate the size compared to my current daily driver, but I like what the 2 processors enable for its owners. I use High Res often in my camera and many of the features of the X align with what I like to leverage in my image making. Why spend an hour in photoshop when it can be done in camera?

The main thing for me, however, is that a camera is just a tool. What works for me, will likely be drastically different from what will work for Jared Polin. The Olympus bodies I have owned (e-620, e-M5.1 and now e-M1.2) fit my hand and my eye better than anything I've seen from other manufacturers. The menu system makes sense to me - I cannot understand how anyone can knock Olympus' menus when the SCP on the back gives me 1 touch access to 90% of the settings I use. The custom modes give me the ability to configure my camera with a twist of a dial to be ideally set up for Street, Long Exposures and Sport. I don't think any other camera achieves this vision as simply.

No, my camera isn't FF. But I have printed 30x40 images with no problem. How often are people printing larger? If needed, I could always use On1 Perfect Resize. But it hasn't been called upon yet. The most important part of any camera sits 2" behind the viewfinder and these cameras get out of my way in my image making.

Hey thanks for sharing the Derrick Story podcast - I took a listen and there's a bunch of good points there, at least in terms of what he says about computational imaging being the next big thing and how that's the right move here.

I think the problem is that they put all of that computational imaging tech into a body with older tech and before the algorithms were fully trained, then decided to charge $3K for it. It's an odd choice to have the three options in the menu for AI-trained focus to be planes, trains and cars, when it might have been smarter to include things that people photograph more, such as dogs, cats or kids. But the real sticking point is that sensor.

I've been happy with my Olympus/Panasonic gear for a long time (and I'm in agreement with you about the SCP, it's wonderful and I'd rather have all of the customization available than to be limited like other manufacturers), but the reason I haven't bought anything new from them in the last few years has been that every camera that comes out doesn't push the envelope much in terms of autofocus or image quality, which is still just a bit below most.

The computational imaging tech fully baked + New (improved) sensor and autofocus would have me saying "take my money"

I certainly don't want to get into a back and forth with you ad nauseum, Wasim. But while the algorithms for the AI AF are motorsport-based, I've seen reviews where photographers were able to successfully use the "planes" mode while birding and the "auto" mode with cycling. So, don't get too hung up with the icons... We'll have to wait and see on the sensor/processor debate as stated specs seem to indicate a solid improvement on that front (I believe the context was sensitivity).

I think image quality is going to be a more subjective thing. I certainly have no problem with the quality I've been able to achieve with the m1.2. If you are talking about DOF, I think Fro's argument is a bit specious. Most people aren't shooting with a paper-thin depth of field and if the m.Zuiko f2.8 gives the same depth as a FF f5.6, that fits the sweetspot for most portrait work, doesn't it? That's just using the Pro zooms, the Pro primes are f1.2 and I'd say an FF f2.4 is more than sufficient for most applications. If people are going to be a snob about it, I'd just respond that their DOF is inferior to a Pentax 645, and the arms race continues... I would certainly say image quality from the current e-M1 series is on par with anything currently available from Panasonic, cropped Fuji. Even when it comes to noise from a cropped sensor, I think the Oly grain has an appeal to it on high-ISO photography.

Once again, though. These cameras are tools and any of the current crop of cameras vastly outperform what Bresson, Adams, Capa, Lange or the Westons had available to them. Yet, their images are still pretty well respected... ;-)

Definitely not trying to get into a back and forth - I really appreciate your comments and insights, and the links you shared have been some very interesting reading for me (I didn't know a lot about these photographers before but now I have found another podcast to listen to and another blog to read). I hope I'm not coming off as arguing, definitely not my intent.

I think for me, I don't worry about the depth of field the way Fro does - I've been shooting M43 enough for 10 years that I'm fine with it as it is.

Where I really want to see improvement, and where I don't feel like I am in the system, is in low light performance. I have a D750 that I really only pull out for professional work, and if needed I can push ISO to 5000 or 6400 without any real problem.

I feel like Micro 4/3 started really strong out of the gate with the Panasonic G1 (which I have) but image quality/noise performance, while better, hasn't made the strides one could hope for in that time. I actually found the focus on the G1 to be quite acceptable, so I'm less critical of autofocus performance ... unless they're charging $3K for it.

In magical camera fantasy land, I'd want something like the form factor of a GM5 with a flip screen and a killer viewfinder, and that to me is where I wish things would go, but I guess we'll see what the take rate on the E-M1X is.

I checked out that history of Olympus link, Edward, thanks for sharing, it was an awesome read and filled in a lot of the gaps for me.

Who's it for? It's for someone who wants to shoot action with a lens that has an effective focal length of 200-800mm that doesn't require a gimbal head or induce a hernia.

The XT3 is twice the camera for half the prices and it is a lot smaller... period! For 3000 you can get a contest!

I do love the Fuji system and my own X-T1 (and the prices) but lenses are definitely larger than the equivalent M43 lenses.

Your post raises an excellent question, is it worth buying a mirror-flipper at this point? I have a D750/D700 and I don't see them needing to be replaced any time soon, at which point will it make even less sense to go DSLR over mirrorless?

You know, when you make absolutist statements like "period!" and "no contest", you don't do your credibility any good. The E-M1X does things neither the XT3 nor the D850 can do.

Everybody is comparing M4/3 with full frame cameras, how silly is that? I see each sensor size has it's own benefits and few aware that M4/3 is also GREAT for macro photography. I was asked to photography a tiny salted (preserved) fish which is less then 2 inches long, the highest resolution camera I have in the FF was the Sony A7RII along with the amazingly sharp G 90mm f2.8 which I was struggling to shoot without stopping down beyond f11 because at 1:2 magnification the depth of field is so narrow and the only solution was to stack the images to get more depth. I then thought to give the M4/3 Pen F with Olympus 60mm f2.8 a shoot with high res mode and I managed to get the depth required without image stacking. I then compared the two files from both cameras (set to the slowest ISO) and the image from Pen F was both sharper and has more depth than the Sony A7RII. The final print as made shy of 80 inches and I have upgrade my M4/3 setup with the Panasonic G9 which has 80mp High Res mode.

Also Olympus is the only camera system that is weather proof (Pentax and Panasonic to a certain extend but don't have the range of lenses that Olympus have) and it's number one choice for many outdoor action photographer. I couldn't think of a camera I dare to take out during rainy seasons except the trusted Olympus OM-D 5 MII or the OM-D 1 MK1/II, now the E-M1X has even better protection against the elements. We all should congratulate Olympus to make this bolt move as it only offer us photographers more choice to choose from, photography has never been this good.

I've had good experience with Fuji weather sealing.

Unrelated to that - do you mind me asking what you use to focus stack? I used to use Photoshop but then found that Affinity Photo did a better job for me.

As a compact and complete system package plus lens and body stabilisation, the Olympus is better.

Been using Photoshop because i followed the settings via this recommendation...

Planning to compare it with both Helicon (PC version) and Zerene (Mac) as each software has it's plus and minuses (just like all sensor formats) will add Affinity to the mix. :)

Here is one amazing blog on macro photography where they stack up to 1000 shots.

That's why the M4/3 with a smaller size sensor with better depth of field is a must have for macro photography.

I have been extremely pleased with my Olympus cameras, and it was a no-brainer for me to upgrade the EMI to the mkII version as soon as it was announced.
This new camera though leaves me wondering why, with my biggest concern being the "built-in" vertical hand-grip. With the EMI, I bought the optional grip with the 2 battery compartment. If I need small and light, take it off and I have my stripped-down lighter, smaller M43 camera. For all day shoots where I need the extra power or where I'm not concerned with size, I have it as that option installed. With the new camera, you no longer have the option of "small/light", and you can't say they saved you money either by giving it to you built-in.
I'm sure its a great camera, but not interested in "upgrading" my EMI mkII.

That sounds like me and how I roll with my Nikon D700. Grip on for sports, off for everything else. I like having the option (and with the grip it's basically a D3).

E-M1X isn't really any bigger or much heavier than a E-M1 mk II with the grip, so I don't know why people keep harping on the size of the E-M1X.

E-M1X: 997g with batteries and memory cards
E-M1 mk II: 829g (574g with battery and memory card + grip 255g)
Nikon D5: 1415g with battery and memory cards

Consider, too, the E-M1X is being targeted to sports and wildlife photographers who may wear gloves in cold environments. Handling a small camera with gloves is an exercise in frustration. A "bigger" camera body with lots of buttons that can be pressed with gloves on is a feature that at least some outdoor photographers will appreciate.

So OK the price is high, but half of the D5. It's all relative.
And yes I was hoping for new m4/3 sensor tech. Maybe that 20.4MP sensor is the end of the road for the format. I'm not an engineer so I have no idea...

Bottom line: if you don't want an E-M1X don't buy one.

Yes, $3,000 for an MFT camera is crazy (and the pro lenses are wildly expensive as well)...but maybe there is a niche:
a professional (or someone with loads of cash), who shoots almost exclusively in decent/good/great lighting, and who wants the smallest/lightest solution possible.

I am a fan of MFT (with a good grip...think G7, etc)...the bodies are perhaps only slightly smaller than APS-C and even FF (the human hand needs a decent grip, good button layout, etc), but the lenses are WAY smaller...and it's there that the portability, esp for travel and/or when a person wants to carry a few lenses, that MFT really shines.

As someone who takes a lot of wildlife shots, I must admit I am curious about this camera. Carrying a heavy dSLR and lenses gets harder as you get older. However, I am not sure that I would buy it as it would mean a significant investment in new lenses. If you are mainly shooting for online then the sensor size is fine, large prints probably not so good. I will watch with mild interest and possibly have a look at it once it is in stock at my local dealer but think it is unlikely I would buy.

This is a great camera for a very specific purpose. Everyone that's complaining doesn't even shoot professional sports. The only mistake Olympus made is not releasing their new 150-400mm lens together with it. What other system lets you handhold 2000mm ff equiv?

Right on, Jocelyn.

I shoots tons of college level sports ... Outdoors this could work if the tracking is up to snuff, but my past experience with M43 is that things get rough above ISO1600, and that's pretty much where sports shooters live (Even in good light I'm hitting 3200-5000 for the faster shutter speed). If they played up this being a whole new sensor with some new tech that gets better image quality and noise performance, that's something to fork over $3k for, but that doesn't seem to be the case, regarding the sensor.

I met Kelly Cox, a pro sports photographer that's been using this camera since September 2018. She said that this system has allowed her to run around, up and down huge stadiums carrying two bodies (often with the pro lenses 300mm and 40-150mm attached). Also, the extra grip makes the whole system feel well balanced when a long lens is attached. I know what you mean by the limitations of high ISO since my camera has the same sensor as the EM1X. However, I got to examine huge prints of indoor sports taken with this camera and the quality was quite good.

I swtched from Nikon to Lumix/Oly years ago and this Frankencam is definitely not anything I have the need or space in my bag for. Att least on paper it looks like they are attempting to break in to a very niche cross section of professional. But given the huge inventment that particular crowd of established pros already inevitably have compared to others in the photography space, I find it a hard sell to entice them to switch. For up and coming pros starting to build their kit, it’s definitely a feasable option, but not sure if there are enough of those around to support such a high end cam at such a high end price point.

For me, It's all about image quality, many if not all of the MFT cameras have enough features and decent AF. and 20MPG is more than enough resolution, It's the performance of the Sensor that's holding them back, and nothing else.

I love MFT and have contemplated trying a G9, I had a GH3 about a year before it was stolen. I'm a Swiss-Army-Knife type of shooter, but love still life and I'm starting to really enjoy Landscape-Astrophotography. If the MFT sensor was close to a FF sensor, especially in low-light, game over, there would be horde's of Big DSLR FF owners moving over to MFT. Me included, and I have a D850 system, with 6 lens's. I like to print clean Large images, that's why FF.
The Sensor performance of MFT's is it's downfall, period. Sure wish they could improve it so I could get rid of this Boat-Anchor system, LOL!

We have an Olympus Mark II and just bought a M1X. We primarily do bird photography. I disagree with the analysis in this article completely. The M1X takes superb quality bird pictures and the cost of the total package - camera and lens - is much lower than you would be paying for in a full frame SLR for comparable magnification. You can take excellent hand-held pictures with the M1X and the 300 f4 lens to get a 600 mm magnification. If you do this with the average digital SLR full frame camera, the lens is so big and heavy that you absolutely must use a tripod and loose a lot of flexibility. The long lenses for most SLR which would give you this magnification are also a lot more expensive for a comparable lens than the $2K for the Olympus PRO 300mm f4. Again, I will say that the pictures we have taken with the M1X are excellent quality with total definition down to the feathers even for birds in motion.

It’s not the body. It’s the access to the best, weatherproof lenses you can buy. Olympus 300 f4 $4000 Nikon 600 f4 $16000.AUD. And the best stabilisation. I’ve just had an M1X and trinity lenses for a week. Had I not already heavily invested in Nikon and Fuji equipment this is the system I would buy. The change over costs are too high for me at this stage in my career( just short of 50 years as a pro ). 50Mb + landscape pics! 7 stop stabilisation! 60 FPS! You have to try it out to appreciate it.