Olympus E-M1X: the master of many

Olympus E-M1X is a jack of all trades and master of many. Which is what one would expect from its relatively high (though, fair in a way) price. One of the many things this camera excels in is macro photography. This article is going to be a quick introduction of the camera and the OM-D ecosystem in the context of macro shooting. I've only owned this camera for three weeks, and I've still got a lot to learn about it, but I will try to be as thorough as possible. Anyway, let me tell you a few things about the Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

Please note that most of what I will say about the E-M1X applies to the E-M1 mark III, as they share a lot in common. The main differences are mostly to do with the physical design and build quality.

Olympus is now called OM System. I will call it Olympus in this article as that's the brand under which the E-M1X is sold.

NOTE: Photographs of the Olympus E-M1X in this article were shot using Fujifilm X-T3 with the Laowa 65mm macro lens.

Contents

Solid IBIS

E-M1X has many things going for it when it comes to macro photography, but the first thing that comes to mind is the IBIS. 

Olympus has been known for it's amazing IBIS, and E-M1X, when it was released, had the best one to date. Although the 7-stop rating may, on paper, not sound that much better than some of the competition (e.g., Fujifilm X-T4 claims 6.5 stops), in real-life usage, the E-M1X IBIS is actually effective for macro, which is not the case with, say, 6-stop IBIS in the Fujifilm X-S10 that I've also used.

Hand-held shot, M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm 1:2.8 macro, ISO 800, 1/20s, F2.8

The official IBIS ratings are, of course, measured under test conditions, and real-life usage is always going to be different, but in case of the Olympus IBIS, the difference is quite noticeable.

When I say "IBIS is effective for macro," I do not mean that it will be able to replace the tripod for those long exposures. I use flash, and my exposures are usually under 1/4000s. For me, the biggest advantage of a capable IBIS is in keeping the camera steady (enough) to compose and keep the AF point on-target. It worked well for me regardless of whether I was shooting in a stable posture with both hands on the camera or single-handed. It is also quite good for macro video, if you're into that.

Accurate and fast AF

The second advantage is the accurate hybrid contrast and phase-detect autofocus. All of the AF points are both contrast and phase detect, which means that I get the same level of accuracy regardless of which point(s) I select. Furthermore, they cover most of the frame and go reasonably close to the edges.

To my knowledge, Olympus is the only camera company that specifically says their phase-detect AF points are all cross-type (i.e., able to detect changes in both vertical and horizontal direction), while other manufacturers are usually not forthcoming about it. It leads me to believe that Olympus is possibly the only manufacturer out there that uses all cross-type AF points on its sensor.

At any rate, the AF on the E-M1X is fast and accurate. But even more than the speed and precision, I cherish the E-M1X AF's reliability. I normally use back-button focusing with continuous AF for macro, and that's worked reliably thus far with a high keeper rate at most close-focus distances. It's not perfect, of course, but I'm happy with it. 

121-point AF point grid

One thing where the E-M1X AF lacks a little is the number of AF points, of which there are only 121. I imagine there just isn't enough room to cram in more points on the MFT sensor. Although this means I can move the AF point quicker, it also means the AF point grid is a bit too coarse in some situations.

The AF point cluster can be set to different sizes and shapes. There is also an option to create up to four different AF point configurations. I can also customize what configurations are available to choose from. Limiting the choices to a few of my frequently used ones made switching between them faster and easier to remember the order in which they will be selected when turning the wheel. Pressing the joystick also allows me to quickly toggle between two preset sizes so I can quickly switch between the two I use the most.

When shooting macro, I usually select the single AF point and keep it on the part of the subject that I want to be in focus. I use the the AFL button to activate the AF and keep focusing using continuous focus. E-M1X is pretty good about keeping the subject in focus despite camera movements.

Versatile electronic MF

Olympus lenses use focus-by-wire focus rings on their lenses. This means that the focus ring is decoupled from the actual focusing mechanism, and serves as an electronic command dial. The Olympus implementation is very good. The manual focusing is responsive and accurate. I don't feel any lag and the focus point goes where I want. The speed at which the focus ring is turned also changes the precision of the focus. If you turn it slower, it is more precise. If you turn it faster, it will move the focus point at a much quicker rate. This sounds a bit involved when verbalized, but it feels natural in actual use and does not get in the way. I find the precision particularly helpful for macro photography for fine-tuning the focus to correct the AF. This feature is not unique to Olympus, but E-M1X has the best execution I've ever used.

The Pro line of lenses also sport a manual focus clutch. When in MF mode, the clutch switches the lens to manual focus and also reveals a distance scale (but no depth of field markings). The focus ring, which normally turns infinitely has hard stop at closest focus distance and a little past infinity when the MF clutch is active.

Manual focus clutch in auto mode (left) and manual mode (right)

The MF clutch in manual mode also makes manual focusing linear. With linear focusing, the speed at which the focus ring is turned does not affect the precision, which feels like a real mechanical manual lens, and makes focus pulling for video easier.

The feel of the focus ring also changes when the manual focus clutch is activated. The turn becomes smoother and offers a bit more resistance. It reminded me of the Pentax SMC Takumar lenses. These well-though-out touches make it easy to justify the price difference compared to non-Pro lenses.

For manual focus assistance, there is focus peaking and magnification. Both work great. Peaking can be activated automatically in the manual focus mode, or manually via a function button during AF. Personally, I would prefer the option to toggle peaking during any focus mode, but that's not available.

There is a focus indicator which shows whether the lens is at the further or closer end, but no focus distance indicator or a depth of field indicator. According to some forum posts, Olympus does not intend to add these features. For macro photography, these features are pretty useless so I'm fine with their exclusion. I can see how landscape or street photographers may not like this.

In any autofocus mode, there is an option to activate manual focus simply by turning the focus ring. This, along with other options, allows me to completely forego switching focus modes. I press the AFL button to activate autofocus when I need it, and otherwise just turn the focus ring for manual focus. Since I sometimes need to switch to manual focus in macro, it is great that I can do this as naturally as possible, especially since the 60mm macro lens does not have a MF clutch.

The macro(-capable) lens ecosystem

Olympus OM-D is well-known for it's amazing collection of lenses, most of which are extremely sharp and well-made. The pro line in particular features lenses with full weather sealing, great mechanical design with buttery smooth zoom and focus rings, and the manual focus clutch. 

What's interesting about the Olympus' M.Zuiko Digital lens lineup is that it contains many lenses that can achieve over 0.2× magnification. The two standard zooms, M.Zuiko Digital 12-40mm 1:2.8 Pro and 12-100mm 1:4 Pro lenses, can achieve 0.3× magnification, which is impressive. This makes sense as making close-focusing optics is one of Olympus' major businesses. Among other things Olympus makes endoscopes which need to produce sharp and stabilized images of human internal organs for diagnostics purposes. Apparently, making sharp close-focusing camera lenses is something Olympus can get right every time.

Photograph taken with M.Zuiko Digital 12-40mm 1:2.8 Pro lens at 16mm

You would think that shooting close with a zoom lens would not yield great results. That's not been the case at all with the two Olympus zooms I've used thus far. Both the 12-40mm 1:2.8 and 40-150mm 1:2.8 lenses offered amazing image sharpness and clarity at pretty much any setting, even at macro distances. You may also want to know that both of those zooms can be used with the Raynox diopter lenses for even more magnification.

Jar of tea shot with M.Zuiko Digital 40-150mm 1:2.8 at closest focus distance
Crop from the previous image

Adding a dedicated macro lens to your camera bag is not a big problem with Olympus, though. The two M.Zuiko macro lenses, the Digital ED 60mm 1:2.8 and Digital ED 30mm 1:3.5 are both light and small. By small I mean really small. Either one of these lenses will fit on your palm, and any of your pockets, and they both weight under 130g (less than 4.6oz). The 60mm macro lens is also weather-sealed, while the 30mm one provides slightly more magnification at 1.25×. And the best part is that the both lenses are also quite affordable compared to native macro lenses for other systems, or even compared to third party macro lenses for the MFT systems.

E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm 1:2.8 macro lens

Being part of the MFT ecosystem, there are more macro lenses to choose from if you look at the Panasonic/Leica lineups. There are also offerings from Laowa and Samyang, although the value proposition is not as great as on the other systems due to availability of affordable and excellent first-party glass.

The big viewfinder

E-M1X also sports one of the highest-magnification viewfinders on the market. Its 0.83× magnification surpasses virtually all other flagship cameras. The image is, indeed, large and clear which is great for macro photography.

I've seen complaints about the "low" 2.34M dot resolution. I believe this is mostly due to the rendering of the text, which appears lower-resolution and pixelated. Another reason may be that the image resolution is lowered during autofocus. The image is generally crisp, though, and I don't find any issues with the resolution. The EVF magnification, on the other hand, is amazing. The image appears large and life-like, and it reminds me of the good old film camera optical viewfinders.

EVF with the deep and wide eyecup

I was also quite impressed by the large replaceable rubber eyecup. It did a great job protecting against stray sun rays, and more importantly preventing the stray light from deactivating the EVF as it frequently happened to me while using the Fujifilm X-T3.

The only complained about the EVF is that it does not get as bright in dim light as a Fujifilm EVF would, but then again, I wouldn't really shoot in such conditions anyway.

The build and ergonomics

E-M1X is rated IPX1 for splash, dust and freeze resistance, but it can actually take a great deal more of abuse before it gives. Some reviewers have tossed it under a running tap, and one even dunked it into a river for more than a few seconds, which the camera survived. This is possibly one of the most robustly built cameras out there.

Water is generally not a big problem for this camera

I like that I don't have to start packing as soon as there's a bit of rain, though I'm not going places where I would need this much weather resistance.

I chose the E-M1X over the E-M1 mark III specifically for its ergonomics. The first things most photographers say about this camera is that it is very comfortable to hold. I wholeheartedly concur. The grips are deep and provide enough space for all fingers to make firm contact with the body.

Deep and nicely contoured grip

The material used on the grip is soft and comfortable to hold, yet grippy. For its weight the camera feels nimble and light. Don't get me wrong. It's not a light camera by any stretch of the imagination. If you come from any lightweight system or even a full-frame mirrorless camera, you will feel the heft. It certainly helps to get some exercise if you're going to lug this around. However, it is well-balanced because all of my fingers are able to get a good grip on the camera, and therefore easily maneuverable without feeling wrist strain, even when shooting with one hand. Paired with the super-light M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm 1:2.8 macro lens, it is even easier to handle than my Fujifilm X-T3 with the Laowa 65mm.

The many buttons on the back of the camera

The ergonomics of this camera isn't a simple matter of having a large grip... or two. Olympus went all-out with the ergonomics of this camera. Most of the buttons are within easy reach of either the thumb or the index finger. Buttons like the Info button, D-pad and playback can be reached with the thumb in either orientation, which I've learned to appreciate. Since most of the buttons are customizable (even the labelled ones), this means that I have many options for making the commonly used features available literally at my fingertips.

Most important buttons have a unique feel under the fingers

Adjacent buttons are clearly separated using a combination of texturing, recessed surrounding area, or combination with other controls (e.g., levers and D-pads). The front function buttons next to the lens are replicated for vertical orientation, and can be configured independently of each other. I have not yet seen cameras that provide this many function buttons.

Front function buttons for horizontal shooting (top) and vertical shooting (bottom)

All of this design choices are not specifically advantageous for macro photography except in one case: hand-held shooting with hand-held off-camera flash. This camera makes one-handed shooting very comfortable. Thanks to the deep well-shaped grip, not a lot of torque is applied to my wrist even with slightly heavier glass. This allows me to hold the camera in shooting position considerably longer before my hand gets tired. Although I'm currently using a monopod as the light stand, I'm seriously considering going back to good old-fashioned hand-held flash. The only thing preventing me from doing this is the inability to use the function buttons to activate playback. The camera is otherwise quite customizable, so this feels like a rather unfortunate (for me) oversight.

The crop sensor

Crop sensor is, in fact, perfect for macro photography. The 2× crop factor on the MFT means that a 60mm lens has the field of view of the 120mm, while retaining the depth of field of the 60mm lens. To put it another way, you get more depth of field for the same field of view compared to a larger sensor. Since depth of field is a valuable commodity in macro photography, it's great that a crop sensor can offer more of it without sacrificing the light by stopping down.

The MFT sensor on E-M1X

Most lenses are going to be diffraction limited at F8 or F11. Setting the lens at the smallest usable aperture of F11, I still get the same depth of field as a 120mm lens at F22 on a full-frame sensor. F22 would be well beyond the diffraction limit with any system, so I'm actually getting something that's only achievable using a crop sensor.

The crop factor also affects the magnification, as you need less of it to fill the frame compared to a larger sensor. For example, a subject that fills the frame at 1× magnification on the MFT sensor would require a 2× magnification on a full-frame camera. This is why sometimes you will see a "35mm equivalent magnification" spec in the MFT lens spec sheets.

Customizing the camera

The E-M1X menu is packed with customization options. At first it may feel daunting just to go through all the options and figure out what they do. You may have seen complaints about the confusing menu system. I agree that it takes some getting used to, but it's actually mostly logically organized once you get the hang of it. The Info button can be used to display short description of top-level menu items, and most individual settings have descriptions as well.

AF menu on Olympus E-M1X

Menu-diving isn't something I do on regular basis, though, as the camera has four custom modes that can be configured in any way I like. In the field, I shoot mostly with flash, but sometimes I shoot with natural light. The ability to quickly switch between two sets of features for these two scenarios is amazing, and something I was sorely missing on the Fujifilm, which opted to go with the traditional shutter speed and ISO dials rather than the conventional mode dial. 

The mode dial with 4 custom modes

The extent to which this camera can be customized is simply mind-boggling. Some of my favorite customization options (thus far) are:

  • Turn off half-press AF activation for more usable back button focusing
  • Select the drive modes that appear in the drive mode selection
  • Set aperture / shutter speed / exposure comp steps to full stops (it also supports 1/2 and 1/3 stops)
  • Large selection of composition grids to choose from (e.g., I use a cross-hair grid for astrophotography and thirds grid for general and macro photography)
  • Ability to specify full lens names for adapted lenses which also get written to the EXIF information
  • Ability to specify the default zoom level in playback

Another example of the E-M1X customizability is the function lever. The camera has a two-position lever on the back which can be used for several things, like toggle between two different AF configurations (which can be independently modified on the fly), select between two sets of functions for the back and front dials, or toggling between video and photo modes without going to the video mode on the mode dial. Alternatively, the lever can be used as a power switch for those that don't like the power switch on the left side.

Function lever

I use the function lever to switch between two sets of dial controls. In aperture priority mode, for instance, in lever position 1, the back dial sets the aperture and the front dial sets the exposure compensation. In lever position 2, I've set the camera up to change the custom white balance in Kelvins on the back dial, and ISO on the front one. The camera offers several other functions for the dials depending on the shooting mode.

Sadly, the function lever is not duplicated in the vertical orientation.

Battery life

The vertical grip houses a tray with two large 1720mAh batteries for a total 3440mAh. The battery life is rated at 870 shots according to CIPA and 2580 shots according to Olympus when quick sleep mode is turned on.

Battery tray with two batteries

Quick sleep puts the camera in sleep mode after just a few seconds of inactivity (no eye on the viewfinder) and wakes it up when buttons are pressed. The camera turns off completely after a few minutes. There's a significant lag between a button press and camera waking up from quick sleep, so it is practically the same as turning the camera off after each shot.

Since I've only got this camera a three weeks ago and I've been messing with the camera settings a lot, a single battery depletes rather quickly, in about 180 to 200 shots. But I've also come home with 150 shots and 75% charge left in the first battery when I didn't fiddle with the settings. If all I did was shoot normally (flash, IBIS, continuous AF), I can see how I could get over a 1000 shots with both batteries full. Not that I ever need a 1000 shots in a single setting, but you might.

Batteries can be charged using the supplied USB-C cable and an average phone charger will do the trick. However, in order to power the camera using the USB cable, either using a power supply or a battery pack, you will need a PD-compatible brick / battery pack. These are not very common, and can be quite expensive. Some of them may not be permitted on flights, too.

The camera comes with two chargers, one for each battery. While it would have been nicer to have one dual-battery charger, I don't use the chargers anyway, so I can't really complain.

Minor annoyances

There are several things I did not like very much. The list goes as follows:

  • I cannot assign a function button to start the image playback. Having this option would make E-M1X a truly one-handed camera for me.
  • There is no option to perform in-camera highlight recovery/protection for Jpegs (something like the DR setting in Fujifilm or Active D-Lighting in Nikon), so highlights sometimes get blown even though the RAW file has two stops of highlight information.
  • There are no controls to instantly format the SD cards (you have to do it through the menu). Pressing the Card and Delete buttons together to format the currently selected card would be a great addition.
  • Custom mode settings do not apply to video when the function lever is used to switch to video mode.
  • The image in the EVF sometimes does not match the final image (this is not that uncommon with mirrorless cameras).
  • Firmware update must be done through software on your computer, and is a bit confusing, making the experience quite intimidating.
  • Distance and depth of field scale are missing.
  • Low-light performance is not as great as on other cameras.

These things sometimes annoy me, but for the most part I can live with them.

Conclusion (thus far)

I've purchased the E-M1X specifically for macro photography, but I've got much more than I hoped. I now use the E-M1X for pretty much every kind of photography I do (except street photography which I no longer do anyway). It was more than worth the price I paid: $1700 with a 43% discount. I would probably not be able to afford one at full price, but I would most definitely desire one at any price.

This is a true photographer's workhorse camera. It can be customized to your exact needs quite extensively, and it offers features that makes shooting tangibly easier. And it is able to provide these features for extended periods of time without becoming a burden for the photographer.

This camera is well-suited for macro photography. The IBIS provides meaningful stabilization for close shooting, and AF is fast and accurate at close distances. The ability to quickly switch between settings for different kinds of macro photography makes shooting quicker and more enjoyable.

It's not a perfect camera, of course. It has its share of quirks and annoyances, but this is without exception the best performing and most comfortable camera I've ever held in my hands.

Sample images

 

This article was updated on February 4, 2022

Hajime Yamasaki Vukelic

I'm a macro photographer based in Europe. I took the first macro photos using the Nikon F film camera and extension tubes in late 1990's, and have since tried myself in various genres using various types of camera. In 2020, I returned to my first love, macro photography. I love hunting for abstract details in plants, and playing with photography gear.

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