Olympus OM-D E-M1X review

The pro-grade DSLR killer?

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Olympus OM-D E-M1X: build and handling

  • Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body (IPX1)
  • 400,000-shot shutter rating
  • Integrated vertical grip

Design-wise, the most obvious difference between the Olympus OM E-M1X-D and other mirrorless cameras is that it has an integrated vertical grip. This is the first time a mirrorless camera has arrived with such a design, which mirrors the style of models like the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D X Mark II.

As on the pro DSLRs the E-M1X competes with, this serves two purposes. The less interesting of the two is that it provides space for the two batteries used by the camera. These are mounted within a bracket that conveniently slides out of the side of the camera, although with USB charging on board you may not end up needing to take them out too often; if you do, you can also charge them via the supplied adapters. 

The other reason for the grip is the more obvious one, namely that it provides the photographer with the same kind of handling when using the camera in portrait orientation that they enjoy in landscape orientation, and with much the same by way of physical control. So, in addition to the shutter-release button, you also get a command dial on both the front and back, as well as additional buttons for ISO and exposure compensation and even another joystick-type AF multi-selector control.

Overall handling is excellent, whichever way you hold the camera. Both grips are nice and deep, and provide good support when you're holding the camera with a weightier, longer lens like the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm 1:4.0 IS PRO we got to use during this review. Both shutter-release buttons travel deeply into the body, and the very short travel to the halfway point means the camera focuses after just a light press, although this is also partly down to the competence of the focusing system, which we'll look at later on.

Unlike many other pro-level models, there's no top plate LCD screen, which is a shame, especially as Olympus appears to have left enough space for one between the two command dials.

Something else that helps to create a positive user experience are the two command dials (four if you count the secondary pair on the vertical grip). Unlike the more prominent top-plate dials on the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, these are designed so they sit within the body itself, with just enough protrusion to get purchase. Their rubber finish, coarse-ribbed design and easy movement make them very nice to use. Response is very good too; unless you're turning them very quickly, the camera responds to every click.

The rest of the top plate houses buttons for ISO, movie recording and exposure compensation, together with a lockable mode dial, while on the other side a trio of buttons access metering, autofocus, drive modes and bracketing settings. These sit atop the power switch. Some may have preferred this to be on the other side of the top plate to allow for more spontaneous powering on and shooting, but at least it flicks easily enough where it is. 

Unlike many other pro-level models, there's no top-plate LCD screen, which is a shame, especially as Olympus appears to have left enough space for one between the two command dials. The fact that this space is unoccupied, along with the awkwardly cramped positioning of the mode dial within a dip in the top plate, is puzzling. 

The camera has a door designed into one side that houses two SDHC/SDXC slots, which is opened by lifting and twisting a D-ring underneath it. This is less convenient than usual, but does at least ensure that the door won't swing open accidentally (and is no doubt what allows the camera to enjoy the IPX1 level of weather resistance).

On the other side are doors that cover the USB, HDMI and audio ports. One thing that's slightly annoying with these is that you can lift them out of the way, but they don't stay out of the way. This is the least convenient design of the four in common use, namely doors than simply open and close (Nikon D750, Panasonic S1); doors that can be twisted out of the way (Canon EOS RP, Nikon Z7); and doors that can actually be removed (Fujifilm X-T3), though it probably won't bother you much if you don't shoot video regularly. 

Overall build quality is high. It is, of course, difficult to measure this, but the camera feels robust and very well put together, with no obvious weak spots. With the further promise of weather resistance, it seems as though the EM1X will be happy enough in the sort of rough conditions pro photographers occasionally find themselves, particularly as Olympus offers a number of lenses with similar protection.

The camera feels robust and very well put together, with no obvious weak spots.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X: autofocus

  • Dual F.A.S.T. AF system (contrast- and phase-detect AF) 
  • 121 cross-type AF points
  • Intelligent Subject Tracking AF

Much of the E-M1X's autofocusing setup appears to be the same as that in the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Once again, we have a hybrid contrast- and phase-detect AF system dubbed Dual F.A.S.T. AF, and this offers 121 cross-type AF points spread across the frame. 

There are, however, some key differences in the E-M1X's system. The first is the presence of two AF Multi Selectors controls (one for each orientation), which allow the focusing point to be shifted more easily than on the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. You can, of course, use the touchscreen to do this too, even when using the EVF, although having a physical control is very useful.

This control responds precisely to movements in every direction, including diagonally, so you can quickly shift the active focusing point to where you need it to be. The actual area of the focusing points doesn't quite stretch to the edges of the frame, as it does on models like the Sony A7 III or Nikon Z6, but in most situations there should be a focusing point that can be successfully placed over the subject.

The big change over the O-MD E-M1 Mark II is the presence of Intelligent Subject Detection, which makes use of deep learning to identify the subject in the frame and select focus for the most appropriate point. Right now, this works with three groups of subjects: motorsports (cars, motorbikes or other vehicles), aircraft, and trains. You need to specify which it is you're tracking through the menu system, but once you've done this the system actively looks for it, and places a box around the subject once it's detected. And if you want to use subject tracking for different subjects, you can choose that option too.

In use, the system appears to identify the subjects it's designed to track without too much bother, and follows them well as they travel across the scene. The system correctly identified planes and helicopters, placing them in a box that moved as they did, and it also managed to pick out the front of a train as it approached the camera, rather than attempt to keep the whole thing in focus (which in most cases would only be possible with enough distance or a very small aperture).

These aren't the most demanding subjects, and you get the impression that they've been included because of how uniform them are and how predictably they move; as such, it feels very much like version 1 of this technology. If you need it for these subjects it can clearly do well to keep them locked, but hopefully fresh firmware will add more relevant subjects to this feature (wildlife and athletes are two obvious ones) to elevate it from simply clever to genuinely useful for more photographers.

Focusing performance otherwise is very good. While the camera doesn't offer quite as wide a working range as some others, it appears to focus well in lower light, and not take too long about it. The fact that all points are cross-type also means they respond in a similar fashion to each other, without the usual hesitation you sometimes get with more peripheral points on DSLRs.

When conditions are better, focusing happens very quickly and accurately for static subjects, and the camera does particularly well to focus speedily through its full range for more distant ones. Occasionally, it's worth adjusting the sensitivity of the system when set to track a moving subject, as it can get confused during a burst of images and stray, sometimes even to a subject that doesn't appear prominent enough to attract its attention.