Up There For Thinking

Olympus ups the ante significantly in the contest to lure sports and action shooters away from their D-SLRs. The new OM-D flagship leverages all the benefits of the smaller M43 sensor and pioneers some sophisticated new technology to enhance AF tracking performance.

Our full review is below, but for all panels and specs, click right for the original magazine pages as PDFs >>>

We need to talk about sensor size. The introduction of mirrorless camera systems from Canon, Nikon and Panasonic which use 35mm format sensors has re-ignited the debate about whether bigger is better. Of course, these brands – along with Sony and Leica – will tell you that it is and, in terms of the basic physics involved, they’re essentially right. However, it’s not so much the bigger sensor that delivers benefits, but the bigger pixels by virtue of having a higher signal-to-noise ratio.

In the real world of modern digital camera design there are other factors at play which will influence image quality, not the least being how the data derived from the sensor is processed. Nor is it true that having more pixels is a good thing because this can, in fact, mean that they’re smaller. So, as Olympus has already proven in the E-M1 Mark II, 20.4 effective megapixels from its Micro Four Thirds size sensor is capable of delivering more than sufficient image quality for a great many applications. Remember when we were happy with 12 MP or even just eight?

What is directly related to sensor size is depth-of-field which becomes inherently deeper as the imaging area gets smaller, but if, for example, you’re a sports or action photographer then you often want all the d-of-f that you can possibly get… because using fast shutter speeds generally means shooting at wider apertures. The key benefit of the smaller sensor size is, of course, a larger focal length magnification factor which allows for more compact lenses, as is compellingly illustrated by Panasonic’s DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 ASPH Power OIS (equivalent to 200-800mm) or Olympus’s own M.Zuiko Digital 300mm f4.0 PRO (equivalent to 600mm), both of which can be comfortably used hand-held. So will the planned M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO which, when mated with a new 2.0x teleconverter, will deliver the equivalent of 2000mm.

Consequently, it’s not hard to see why Olympus has decided to go all out with the M43 format and exploit its potential for any area of photography where there’s a need for speed which can be complemented by the desirability of travelling light… or at least lighter. Rather than being dismayed by all the recent attention being focused on the full-35mm systems – including the one from its fellow co-conspirator in Micro Four Thirds cameras – Olympus sees it as a golden opportunity to become the format’s champion and promote it as OM-D’s big point of difference. It’s not clear whether Olympus was invited to join the L Mount Alliance – along with Panasonic, Leica and Sigma – but Toshiyuki Terada, who is GM of the company’s Global Marketing Department, says they weren’t interested anyway. Olympus very much sees its future in mirrorless cameras being dedicated to M43 and what it can achieve by building around the smaller sensor.

The E-M1X drives home the point not just in its physical design, but in the new technologies it incorporates and Olympus’s turbocharging of just about every key speed-related specification. The most significant aspect of the external design is the integration of the vertical handgrip which, by eliminating the coupling, maintains the overall integrity of the bodyshell, both in terms of strength and weather protection, and also allows for the installation of two battery packs (which are both supplied), giving a greatly extended shooting range of over 850 shots. The body covers are, of course, magnesium alloy and the level of sealing actually exceeds the requirements of the IPX1 standard testing for protection against the ingress of moisture. Various parts of the body – such as the battery compartment – are also insulated to enable continued operation in sub-zero temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius. Conversely, a new heat pipe and sink arrangement allows the easier dissipation of the higher temperatures created during high-speed shooting when there’s an awful lot of sensor-level switching going on. Additionally, the sensor cleaning has been beefed up and is claimed to be ten percent more effective than previously (achieved via vibration at a frequency of 30 kHz) and the focal plane shutter’s tested life has been increased to 400,000 cycles. With all this, Olympus claims the E-M1X sets a “new benchmark for reliability” which is good because sports photography, in particular, is much harder on camera gear than just about any other pursuit.

Integrated grip allows for the accommodation of dual battery packs, giving a significantly extended shooting range of around 870 shots.

Inevitably, the OM-D E-M1X looks pretty bulky alongside the E-M1 Mark II or Panasonic’s Lumix G9, but add the respective vertical grips to these cameras and the difference is minimal. Likewise the ‘APS-C’ competition such as Fujifilm’s X-H1 which is bigger overall when fitted with its bundled VPB-XH1 grip. More tellingly, it’s a whole lot smaller (and lighter) than either the Nikon D5 or the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, both of which it can outshoot in terms of speed. Sony does a brilliant job of packaging up the full-35mm A9 and the A7 III – both again direct rivals in terms of speed – but add the vertical grips and the 35mm-format telephoto lenses and we’re again talking about comparatively bulky and heavy packages. Yes, the E-M1X is the biggest and heaviest Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera body ever, but it’s all relative and in the field doing what it’s meant to do along with M43 telephoto lenses, it’s the most compact option there is.

Intelligent Choices
Because there is such a significant difference in the capabilities of the E-M1X compared to the E-M1 II (not to mention the pricing), the latter remains in the Olympus OM-D line-up. The new flagship borrows its sensor, AF system and EVF, but with major upgrades plus there are some interesting new technologies and some interesting extensions of existing ones.

Sensor cleaning efficiency is increased by a claimed ten percent. Olympus is still using special adhesive pads to collect dislodged particles.

As a point of historical record it should be remembered that active sensor cleaning, in-body image stabilisation and multi-shot high resolution capture via pixel shifting were all pioneered by Olympus and the E-M1X introduces a couple more.

At the top of the list are the three ‘Intelligent Subject Detection AF’ modes which employ ‘deep learning’ technology to adapt the autofocus tracking to specific subjects. Deep learning is a form of artificial intelligence and the control algorithms have been derived from the data of tens of thousands of reference images of each subject so that the autofocus can react to any changes in direction, speed and distance from the camera (i.e. subject size). In the case of the E-M1X, it has to be able to do this at up to 18 fps which is why the camera has twin quad-core processors for data processing. The first three intelligent tracking modes are for motorsport (i.e. cars and bikes), aircraft and trains. Obviously a lot of work goes into the development of these modes – Olympus says it’s been working on the concept for more than three years – but it’s safe to assume there will be many more of them available down the track via firmware upgrades.

Interestingly, it’s the subject-recognition algorithms that are doing all the work here and not the autofocusing system… or at least not the distance-determining part of it. The AF system is essentially only focusing the lens using data from the intelligent tracking processing, rather than distance data from the sensor’s phase-difference detection pixels… which is why it’s so very much more reliable than anything we’ve seen before. It really is recognising what the subject actually is, not an approximation, so it simply won’t get distracted by anything else in the frame.

What’s also noteworthy is that it’s analysing the whole frame, all 20.4 megapixels at a time. When it first introduced the multi-frame high-resolution capture function in 2015 on the E-M5 Mark II, Olympus said at the time it would eventually be able to make the facility available when shooting hand-held so you wouldn’t always be restricted to using a tripod. It was a bold promise, but a High-Res Shot Handheld mode is indeed now available on the E-M1X, enabling either RAW or JPEG images with a resolution of 50 megapixels (versus 80 MP in Tripod mode).

Depending on how the camera is being held, up to 16 images are captured and then combined into the one high-res frame. Thanks to the camera’s immense processing power, image stabilisation is being switched on and off, frame by frame, during the process, ensuring sharp images. The pixel shifting is then performed mathematically – rather than physically – after all the images in the sequence have been analysed. Clever or what?

The new ‘Live ND’ function also works by capturing multiple exposures, but with the image stabilisation running continuously throughout the process… so, again, each frame is sharp. The number of captured frames varies according to the Live ND setting – which range from ND2 to ND32, representing an exposure reduction of between one and five stops – with a progressively greater number of short exposures being captured to create the motion blur that would be the result of using a conventional neutral density filter on the lens. The benefit is in bright conditions where you can have the effect of a longer exposure time when still using low ISO settings and wider apertures.

A newly-designed gyro sensor – developed to specifically meet Olympus’s requirements – delivers the increased effectiveness of the E-M1X’s in-body image stabilisation which extends the amount of correction for camera shake to seven stops (and up to 7.5 stops with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f4.0 IS PRO zoom). Again, there are real practical benefits to be derived from this enhancement, namely even greater scope for hand-held shooting, even with longer lenses. As before, there’s a choice of modes for panning, or the system can be left to detect the camera’s orientation and movement and automatically set the appropriate correction.

Top Speed
The ‘Live MOS’ sensor has a total pixel count of 21.8 million and an effective count of 20.4 million which gives a maximum image size of 5184x3888 pixels for both RAW and JPEG capture. To optimise the available resolution, there is no optical low-pass filter. As on the E-M1 II, the native sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 200 to 25,600 with extensions down to ISO 100 and ISO 64. As noted earlier, the sensor is mated to a pair of quad-core ‘TruePic VIII’ processors which give this camera immense number-crunching capabilities.

As is the case across the OM-D range, the E-M1X offers a bewildering choice of JPEG file size options – four resolution levels, seven resolution settings and five aspect ratios. Four settings are configurable in the main shooting menu, created from the camera’s custom menu which provides a further selection of four medium image sizes and two small sizes to accompany the largest size. If you then change the aspect ratio – back in the main shooting menu – all the preselected image sizes change accordingly. There are two RAW+JPEG settings which are automatically configured according to how you set up your first two JPEG quality modes.

Continuous shooting is possible at up to 60 fps when using the camera’s sensor-based shutter and with the AF/AE fixed to the first frame, and as fast as 18 fps with AF/AE adjustment between frames. The quoted burst lengths at 60 fps are up to 49 frames with either JPEG or RAW capture and, at 18 fps, up to 89 frames with JPEG/large/fine capture and 74 RAW files.

When using the focal plane shutter, the fastest continuous shooting speed is still a snappy 15 fps and full AF/AE adjustment is available at 10 fps. At 15 fps, the quoted burst lengths are 132 large/fine JPEGs and 103 RAW files. At 10 fps, these lengths extend to 287 RAW frames and unlimited JPEGs. The ‘Pro Capture’ pre-release mode – only available when using the sensor shutter – now extends from 14 to 35 frames in a rolling sequence, although you can actually specify this number from one to 35, and RAW capture is possible. ‘Pro Capture’ starts buffering frames the moment the shutter release button is pressed to its half-way position with the idea being that you’re less likely to miss the decisive frame when shooting an action sequence. Pre-capture will continue while the shutter release is held at the half-way position, rolling through sequences of 35mm frames. There’s the choice of ‘Pro Capture H’ (at up to 60 fps with the AF fixed to the first frame) or ‘Pro Capture L’ (at up to 18 fps with continuous AF adjustment).

The E-M1X has dual memory card slots for the SD format, but the upgrade here is that both now support UHS-II devices. The file management options include automatic overflow when one card is filled, the assignment of specific file types to the individual cards (i.e. JPEG, RAW or movie clips) or the simultaneous recording of files to both cards for back-up purposes.

Menus - click for a larger version

Staying On Track
Autofocusing is the E-M1X’s big party trick. The nuts and bolts are 121 cross-type on-sensor arrays – in an 11x11 array – for phase-difference detection measurements with contrast-detection AF on tap when needed (also with 121 measuring points). Frame coverage is 80 percent horizontally and 75 percent vertically, and the upgraded PDAF system evaluates all the points across the frame all at once rather than individually which again requires a huge amount of data processing, but is a much more accurate way of determining the subject matter and specific shooting situation.

The AF area’s shape and size can be customised or there’s the option of zones using five, nine (i.e. 3x3) or 25 points (5x5)… this last option being new on the M1X. Up to four customised shapes can be created – via adjustments for size and step – and stored for immediate recall. Usefully, all the area modes automatically re-orientate when the camera is held vertically. There’s a new control algorithm and the AF data from the recorded frames in a sequence is also used to ensure more reliable tracking of moving subjects.

Of course, the headline act as far as subject tracking is concerned are the three ‘Intelligent Subject Detection AF’ modes, but for other applications there’s an adjustment for tracking sensitivity over five levels from Low (i.e. ‘locked on’) to High which is better for keeping up with erratic movement.

There’s also the ‘AF Limiter’ facility from the E-M1 II which enables the focusing range to be preset in the camera – for example, to eliminate possible distractions in the foreground or background – and then applied to any fitted lens. ‘C-AF Lens Scanning’ is available when all else fails and will cycle the focusing from the lens’s minimum subject distance to infinity in an effort to establish focus. There’s a choice of methods here, including single or multiple scanning.
The face detection AF can be fine-tuned to focus on either the left or right eye or whichever one is nearest the camera.

Finer focusing is available when using the ‘Zoom AF’ mode which magnifies the image by 3x, 5x, 7x, 10x or 14x. A ‘Super Spot AF’ mode does the same thing, but at the centre of the frame only. The sensitivity extends down to EV -6.0 at f1.2 and ISO 100, but only with the contrast-detection AF which is obviously slower than the PDAF, nevertheless it’s an achievement to have any sort of autofocus at all in what’s close to being total night-time darkness. With the PDAF measurements the minimum sensitivity is EV -3.5 at f2.8 and ISO 100… which is still pretty good.

Manual focusing is assisted by a magnified image (again up to 14x) and/or a focus peaking display which can be set to red, yellow, black or white; and at low, normal or high intensity.

Exposure control is based on the 324-point ‘Digital ESP’ multi-zone metering that’s currently at work across the OM-D range from the entry-level E-M10 Mark III up. There are the options of centre-weighted average or spot measurements, the latter maintaining the long-time Olympus tradition of being adjustable for either the highlights or the shadows to give high-key or low-key exposures respectively.

The auto exposure control modes are backed by an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV of compensation and, of course, auto bracketing which can be applied over sequences of two, three or five frames with adjustments of up to +/-1.0 EV, or over seven frames with a variation of up to +/-0.7 EV. All the exposure-related adjustments can be preset to be made in 0.3, 0.7 or full-stop increments.

Aside from exposure, there are auto bracketing modes for the ‘Art Filter’ effects, flash, sensitivity, white balance and focus. The focus bracketing can be programmed for sequences of up to 999 shots with adjustable focus steps - a.k.a. the “focus differential” – from narrow to wide. Alternatively, there’s a focus stacking function – only available with a selected group of M.Zuiko Digital lenses – which captures eight images at different focusing points which are then combined into a single JPEG frame.

As noted earlier, there’s the option of using a conventional focal plane shutter – with a speed range of 60-1/8000 second – the hybrid ‘electronic first curtain shutter’ – which commences the exposure from the sensor – or a fully sensor-based shutter which has a top speed of 1/32,000 second. This last option is fully silent as well as free from any mechanically-induced vibrations. The EFCS is limited to a top speed of 1/320 second. Flash sync is at all speeds up to 1/250 second and, as with the E-M1 II, the M1X does not have a built-in flash, but no bundled flash is provided either. External flash units sync via either the hotshoe or a PC terminal.

The white balance control options are the same as those available on the E-M1 Mark II. The auto correction has a ‘Keep Warm Colour’ option for use when shooting under tungsten lighting, but this needs to be preset in the custom menu. There are seven lighting presets (including for underwater) and provisions for storing up to four custom measurements. All have fine-tuning, set using slider-type controls for the amber-to-blue and green-to-magenta colour ranges. Manual colour temperatures can be selected over a range of 2000 to 14,000 degrees Kelvin. The white balance bracketing is performed over a sequence of three frames and in either the amber-to-blue or green-to-magenta colour ranges.

Taking Effect
There are now 16 ‘Art Filter’ special effects, the newcomers being Bleach Bypass and Instant Film. Virtually all of them are adjustable and can combined with one of nine ‘Art Effects’, a number of them also adjustable. You can then add these – with the main variations – to the nine ‘Picture Mode’ presets plus the ‘Colour Creator’ setting and, in ‘Art Effect’ bracketing, end up with a total of 40 versions of a JPEG image! The ‘Colour Creator’ function has appeared on all the OM-D models so far and, when selected, the front input wheel adjusts the hue while the rear wheel varies the saturation. The E-M1X also has the ‘Highlight & Shadow’ control found on the other OM-D bodies and which allows you to adjust the brightness of the highlights and/or the shadows around a central point. Again, the front input wheel adjusts the highlights while the rear dial works on the shadows.

The colour ‘Picture Mode’ presets have adjustable parameters for sharpness, contrast, colour saturation and tonal gradation which can be set to Normal, Auto, High Key or Low Key. The Monotone ‘Picture Mode’ is adjustable for contrast, sharpness and gradation, plus there’s a set of contrast control filters (yellow, orange, red and green) and a choice of toning effects (sepia, blue, purple or green). Just one modified ‘Picture Mode’ can be stored as a custom preset.

Alongside its new in-camera processing features such as ‘Live ND’, the E-M1X still has the old favourites such as an intervalometer and multi-shot HDR capture, but there’s no panorama mode. The intervalometer allows for up to 999 frames to be recorded at intervals of up to 24 hours. HDR capture can be via two auto modes which record four frames at two different amounts of exposure variation to give either “high contrast” or “super-high contrast”.

Alternatively, there’s a choice of presets – three, five or seven frames at +/-2.0 EV; and either three or five frames at +/- 3.0  EV. Multiple exposures – still only double exposures – can be made with the option of an ‘Auto Gain’ exposure adjustment.

From the Olympus OM-D playbook comes ‘Live Composite’ shooting which combines a reference background exposure with subsequent multiple exposures that only record any changes to bright light sources (such as stars) and can be monitored in real-time; and Live Bulb/Time shooting which again allows you to see the exposure progressing in the monitor screen (now with the option of a histogram for assistance). ‘Keystone Compensation’ for in-camera perspective control (in both the vertical and horizontal planes) and ‘Fisheye compensation’ with three settings for correcting the extreme distortion created by the extreme angles-of-view of these lenses.

Particularly useful for long exposures and when using longer lenses, is the ‘Anti Shock’ mode which switches the camera to ‘electronic first curtain shutter’ operation and allows for a delay time to be set (up to 30 seconds) so all physical vibrations can dissipate before the exposure starts.

New to the E-M1X is a built-in GPS receiver, an electronic compass and a set of ‘field sensors’. Collectively, these deliver position, altitude, heading, temperature and barometric pressure readings which are logged continuously and also recorded with each image. The various read-outs can also be displayed during live view or with image replay.

Additionally, the built-in WiFi is available in the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz WiFi bands for wireless tethering (the Olympus Capture camera control now supports wireless image transfer), and is complemented with Bluetooth LE ‘always on’ connectivity.

In The Hand
While the E-M1X may look a bit bulky, as we’ve already noted, it’s significantly smaller than any of the D-SLRs with an integrated vertical handgrip. Of course, most of the Olympus’s extra size comes from the grips because they’re big for a M43 camera, but consequently exceedingly comfortable and ensure excellent manoeuvrability even with a biggish lens fitted such as the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f4.0 IS PRO (which, need we remind you, is equivalent to 600mm in the 35mm format). The camera feels very well-balanced irrespective of what lens you’re using. It also feels very strong… much stronger than the E-M1 II even though the latter is still a very well-built camera.

Apart from a shooting exercise with rally cars (described further in the Speed And Performance section) which was very hot and dusty – so both camera and photographer emerged covered in a good layer of grime – we also used the E-M1X at the Bathurst 12 Hour race for GT sports cars which, of course, is a very long day, but the camera felt comfortable throughout and performed flawlessly over 5765 exposures (that’s on race day alone!). Better still, using predominately the 300mm f4.0 prime telephoto and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO telezoom (equivalent to 80-300mm), the size and weight of the total kit was very much more manageable which becomes steadily more welcome the longer that you’re on your feet (and the temperature is hovering around 33 degrees Celsius).

The vertical grip replicates all the horizontal one’s controls including, very usefully, the joystick-type ‘Multi Selector’ controller for faster AF point/area selection and various navigational duties. Of course, Nikon has the same arrangement on the D5 and, likewise, Canon on the EOS-1D X Mark II. What’s most interesting about the E-M1X’s handling is that it actually feels more like a D-SLR than just about any other mirrorless camera, and the same is true of the operability. By the way, the vertical grip’s controls can be locked off – either altogether or selectively – if there’s any concern they could be accidentally bumped or nudged.

Basic operation centres around a main mode dial with front and rear input wheels (two sets obviously) for making settings and various function buttons which now, very pleasingly, include one for sensitivity. This should, of course, be a staple, but it’s surprising how many mirrorless cameras make you do more than you should have to when setting ISO values. On the E-M1X it’s located atop the grip(s), just astern of the shutter release and alongside the button for exposure compensation. Additionally, a dedicated button for white balance setting is located below the monitor screen. There’s a new Nikon-style button cluster set into a dial-type arrangement and with a trio of dedicated keys for setting various functions using the front and rear input wheels – these include the AF and metering modes, the drive/self-timer and flash modes and the bracketing set-up (i.e. function and sequencing). As on the E-M1 II, a lever on the camera back allows for quick switching between input wheel operations – from the default exposure adjustments to ISO (front) and white balance (rear). Additionally, the ‘2’ setting can be switched between alternate functions.

The customisation options for the external controls are again numerous and extend to most of the function buttons and the four quadrants of the navigator keypad. Even the duplicated buttons on the vertical grip can be assigned to different functions. However, Olympus has made some effort to improve the set-up sequences, including actual images of the camera (rather than graphics) in the menu to show the location of each customisable control. The live view screen – in both the monitor and the EVF – can also be extensively customised via a checklist of the elements that can be included if so desired such as a real-time histogram, dual-axis level indicators, highlight and shadow warnings and a superimposed grid (from a choice of five). Furthermore, the monitor and viewfinder can be configured differently and there’s a choice of three custom set-ups for each.

The EVF is the same LCD panel from the E-M1 II’s LCD which has a resolution of 2.36 megadots and a 120 fps refresh, but using progressive scanning (rather than sequential) to reduce lag down to just five milliseconds. The magnification is increased to 0.83x (35mm equivalent) and the eyepiece employs a new four-element optical design, including aspherical types and using optical glass with a high refractive index. The result is certainly the most comfortable viewfinder of any M43 camera and one of the best across the mirrorless camera world. It certainly doesn’t miss a beat when tracking fast-moving subjects. Both the EVF and the monitor screen are adjustable for brightness and colour balance plus the colour saturation is switchable between Normal and Vivid.

The monitor is the same 7.62 cm LCD TFT panel as is used on the E-M1 II with a resolution of 1.037 megadots and touch controls for various capture and playback functions. The former include autofocusing point selection with or without automatic shutter release (including when using the EVF which Olympus calls the ‘AF Targeting Pad’) and using the ‘Super Control Panel’ which is displayed in the monitor and provides direct access to a huge selection of capture-related functions. Touching on a tile brings up the function’s settings.

The alternative is a ‘Live Control’ screen which isn’t quite as comprehensive as the SCP – although it still provides direct access to all the important capture functions – but leaves the main image area clear.

The function tiles are arranged along the right-hand edge of the frame with the available settings along the bottom edge. However, touch control isn’t available here.

The main menu system has been tidied up a little, but it’s still going to come as a bit of a shock to Olympus newcomers, especially the Custom Menu which is massive, running to a total of 23 pages.

Navigation is assisted by breaking them into sections (labelled ‘A’ to ‘J’ and grouping functions) with continuous scrolling, but the fact remains that there’s still a lot in here that would be better off in the Shooting Menu, which has only two pages.

One way around having to continually delve into the Custom Menu is to create your own
‘My Menu’ which can be up to a total of 35 items arranged under five tabs. Better still, Olympus has made this really easy – after selecting the function in the main menus, pressing the video start/stop button brings up a drop-down menu numbered one to five for selecting the My Menu page. Press the ‘OK’ button and it’s done.

The review/replay screens can also be configured to include a thumbnail image with a full set of histograms (i.e. brightness and RGB channels), a larger brightness histogram superimposed over the image, highlight and shadow warnings and a ‘Light Box’ display for the side-by-side comparison of two images complete with zooming for closer scrutiny.

Touch controls are available for browsing, zooming and scrolling through the thumbnails. The
in-camera editing functions comprise Shadow Adjust (i.e. dynamic range), Red-Eye Fix, Trim Aspect, B&W, Sepia, Saturation, Resize, e-Portrait and RAW-to-JPEG conversion.

Speed And Performance
Shooting with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 32 GB UHS-II/U3 speed SDHC memory card, we firstly timed the E-M1X using its focal plane shutter. In this configuration, the camera captured a burst of 55 JPEG/large/superfine images in 3.652 seconds which represents a shooting speed of 15.06 fps which nails the quoted spec. The superfine large JPEGs averaged around 11.2 MB in size.

Switching to the sensor shutter and lower shooting speed, a sequence of 70 frames – again superfine quality large JPEGs – was recorded in 3.863 seconds, giving a speed of 18.1 fps. We selected the slower speed because, in practical terms, it’s going to be the one you’re likely to use most frequently – especially as continuous AF adjustment is maintained – but for the record, at 60 fps, we recorded a JPEG/large/superfine sequence of 516 frames and the camera would have gone on shooting until the card was full… which clearly exceeds the quoted specs.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why we didn’t use our reference Lexar 128 GB SDXC ‘2000x’ device, that’s because there are still some issues with using these cards in OM-D cameras. We didn’t have any problems back with the E-M1 II, but the E-M1X wouldn’t replay images captured in a sequence except for the last one (although all the frames were accessible post-camera via an external drive… so they had been recorded).

At a pre-launch event for the Australian photo media and retailers in the NSW Hunter Valley, we were able to try out the intelligent tracking, firstly with a pair of rally cars and then a very fast (and very small) aerobatic aircraft. The rally cars were running around a small gravel stage which included an old quarry bed so there were a number of high vantage points where they could be tracked for quite some distance, including through a sweeping curve. As a car emerged into the quarry, side-on to the camera, the tracking locked on instantaneously with a target rectangle that roughly covered its shape at that point. As the car started to turn into the bend, so presenting a smaller and different-shaped profile, the tracking target changed shape accordingly (and position, of course) so it stayed locked on to the subject… which is very impressive given the speeds involved. Then, as the car headed towards the camera position – always a challenge for autofocusing – the target again changed shape and size.

The aerobatic aircraft proved more of a challenge because of its sheer speed and that, at altitude, it presented a very small target indeed. Nevertheless, the E-M1X’s intelligent tracking hit it more than it missed it which is the opposite of what would have happened with any other autofocusing system, mirrorless or D-SLR. Analysing the frames later revealed an almost perfect sharpness strike rate with the rally cars and a much higher percentage of ‘keepers’ with the aerobatic aircraft than would ever have been the case shooting with anything else. There is just no question that this is the future in autofocusing… the accuracy and reliability is unsurpassed.

Olympus is squeezing absolutely everything it can out of the Micro Four Thirds format so the E-M1X’s sensor goes without an optical low pass filter and the ‘High Res Shot’ function has the important new capability of allowing hand-held shooting so a 50 MP JPEG or 80 MP RAW file now comes with fewer limitations in terms of when and how it can be used. The bottom line is that an M43 sensor is the smallest of the ‘mainstream’ offerings (it’s actually a quarter the size of a 35mm imager) and this is evident, for example, in the E-M1X’s high ISO range.

Nevertheless, there needs to be a reality check to put all this in perspective in terms of what you actually need from your camera system. If that’s the best possible portability with the fewest compromises to capabilities and performance then M43 makes a huge amount of sense… especially as interpreted in the E-M1X. The image quality is still extremely good, carrying over the improvements to the definition, detailing and dynamic range introduced with the E-M1 Mark II. The superfine quality JPEGs exhibit plenty of crisply-resolved fine detailing along with nicely smooth tonal gradations and natural colour reproduction across the spectrum. Of course, there’s plenty of scope for adjusting colour saturation, contrast and sharpness via the ‘Picture Mode’ presets, but as noted with the M1 II, the starting point is a good one. ‘High Res Shot’ delivers a clear increase in definition and detailing, but anything that moves during the capture sequence will end up being slightly blurred… so it’s not quite a free lunch in terms of gaining extra resolution.

The noise reduction characteristics aren’t much different from those of the E-M1 II so the image quality – i.e. definition and saturation – holds up very well up to ISO 6400. At ISO 12,800 and the one-top extension to ISO 25600, there’s a progressive softening of finer detailing and an increase in graininess, but overall the E-M1X’s low-light performance is still as good as it gets in the Micro Four Thirds world and, more notably, on a par with the best in the ‘APS-C’ format. As noted right at the outset, the M43 format still delivers more than enough image quality to satisfy a great many end users.

Dual memory card slots are provided for the SD format and both support UHS-II speed devices.

The Verdict
We ended up having an intensive couple of weeks with the OM-D E-M1X, giving it a much harder work-out than we do with many test cameras and, frankly, it never failed to impress. The AI-based subject tracking is a revelation and puts anything else in the shade which isn’t surprising because, of course, it’s taking a very different approach to anything else we’ve seen before. Olympus has a head start here, but its rivals aren’t very far behind.

However, while its autofocusing capabilities are a compelling reason for buying the E-M1X (especially if you regularly shoot anything that moves), it’s not the only one. For starters, the ergonomics and handling are superb (although the menu system still needs improvement if it’s to match the external efficiencies) and the viewfinder is a pure delight. Dual UHS-II card slots and dual batteries deliver real benefits when shooting all day long, while the dual processors deliver real speed and extended capabilities which have practical applications rather than simply looking good on the features list. Then there’s the super-tough body and exceptional image stabilisation. But topping all of this is how effectively the E-M1X exploits the benefits of the M43 sensor size, especially with longer focal length lenses… it really is the poster boy for the smaller format (much more so than Panasonic’s G9) and the portability benefits are indisputable.

This is a camera that truly delivers on its promises. Everything comes together so beautifully with the OM-D E-M1X – both as a stand-alone camera and as part of a system – that, despite the many attractions of the recent mirrorless arrivals in the larger formats, the Olympus is still the camera we’d take home.