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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Jacques Cornell's picture

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.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

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...

https://www.canadiannaturephotographer.com/rberdan_focus_stacking.html

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)...now will add Affinity to the mix. :)

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

https://www.dentalphotomaster.com/blog/

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

Ted Mercede's picture

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.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

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).

Tom Weis's picture

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.

William Salopek's picture

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.

user-164303's picture

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.

Jocelyn Ho's picture

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?

user-204183's picture

Right on, Jocelyn.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

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.

Jocelyn Ho's picture

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.

Alvin Toro's picture

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.

Leon Kolenda's picture

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!