The Olympus E-M1X as a super telephoto kit – compared to full frame 600mm kits

Written by Gary on January 30th, 2019

The Olympus OM-D E-M1X has received mixed “reviews” with some “experts” suggesting it is over-priced and no pro would buy it because it cannot compete with full frame super telephoto kits for low light and image quality as well as background blurring capabilities.

BUT is this comparison really fair?
We all know a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor will always have more image noise at higher ISO levels (perhaps 2EV worse) than full frame, and the ability to blur the background will also be 1-2EV worse (although this part could be addressed with some creative post-processing if it was felt that it was really needed).

But you can’t really compare the kits on price, weight, it is like saying a Subaru Outback is a rubbish car which cannot compete with 4WD trucks when it comes to off-road driving or heavy towing – yes the 4WD trucks will allow you to cope with, or more likely let you get stuck in, more remote extreme tracks, but not everyone wants to drive a 4WD truck to and from work in urban areas for 95% of the use, and not everyone wants to use their car as a toy on extreme road conditions or tow big boats.

The E-M1X is similar, it is a far more versatile everyday kit and one does not need to have the burdens of weight and costs as there is with the full frame kits. You just need to be aware of its limitations.

Let’s do a spec for spec comparison with the full frame sports options

For this comparison I will be mating the E-M1X with the Olympus 300mm f/4 OIS lens, and comparing it to Canon 1DXII with Canon EF 600mm f/4L, the Nikon D5 with Nikkor 600mm f/4 VR, and the Sony a9 with the yet to be available Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 with 1.4 teleconverter (Sony do not make a FE 600mm f/4 lens).

We are now comparing an Olympus kit which is just over a QUARTER of the price of the full frame kits when you have to factor in a heavy duty tripod and tripod head for these massive, super expensive lenses, and only 2.3kg compared to around 9kg for the full frame kits with tripod.

Clearly we are NOT comparing apples with apples here!

But let’s continue and take the image quality issues aside as they have already been mentioned and look at the pros of each:

Olympus E-M1X with 300mm f/4 lens:

  • by far the easiest and least burdensome to carry to locations, scramble up rock faces with, and even in carry it as cabin luggage on the plane – good luck with your full frame kit checked in – you may never see it again!
  • by far the most fun in shooting without need for a tripod for more creative shots, you could even carry a 2nd camera with a 200mm f/2.8 lens on hikes if you are fit.
  • the best weather-sealing of any of them, you can take it anywhere, get mud on it and just run it under a tap!
  • the best image stabilisation at 7.5EV compared to 4-5EV
  • like the Sony, it has sensor based image stabilisation as well as optical allowing it to be effective on ANY lens, whereas the dSLRs only have optical
  • the best image stabilisation for hand held movies – well no-one would even bother trying hand held movies with the full frame kits!
  • the only one with a flip out, swivel touch screen which means you can protect the screen by rotating it to face the camera, and you could use it for selfies – just not with this lens!
  • the closest focus at only 1.4m compared to 2.7m with Sony and over 4m with Canikon
  • the smaller lens allows standard 77mm front filters instead of needing rear drop-in filters
  • a much greater range of native lens options compared with Sony
  • mirrorless technology allows for more seem-less video mode, more silent shooting with no mirror noise or vibrations and more future proof than the Canikon kits.
  • more PDAF points than the Canon, with much better frame coverage (than the Canon and Nikon) and much better low light capabilities (-6EV light levels – the others are -3 to 4EV), and the grouping of AF points is entirely user customizable, while the rear controller can move points diagonally not just the slow left/right/up/down of the others.
  • has unique in-camera AF capabilities to better track subjects including ability to dial in a near and far focus range limiter so the AF will ignore foreground or background, while the new AI-based specific subject type tracking may well be the future of AF tracking as it already “knows” how to track certain subjects such as cars and motorbikes and even then it knows to lock focus on the helmet! More subjects will be added via firmware over time.
  • is the only camera that can accurately focus on the CLOSEST eye (although the Sony does better eye tracking)
  • has significantly faster power on and faster shutter lag than the Sony
  • has much faster mechanical shutter burst rate than the Sony which becomes very important when it comes to flash photography (the Olympus can do up to 15fps whereas the Sony can only do 5fps)
  • has much faster burst buffer clearance rate than the Sony (6-7 seconds whereas the Sony is 38secs for RAW and a ridiculous 254 secs for extra fine large jpegs!)
  • the dual SD cards are BOTH UHS-II compatible (the Sony has only one compatible)
  • capable of USB-C power charging of batteries in camera or powering the camera with up to a 100W power bank which is very handy on shoots especially in freezing consitions when the power bank can be kept nice and warm away from the camera.
  • a number of unique functions such as 50mp hand held HiRes mode, 80mp tripod HiRes mode (this can give BETTER image quality than the Sony a7RIII in terms of both resolution and image noise in low light!), automatic focus stacking, hand held ND simulation mode for blurred water, timed shutter to 60secs not just 30sec, Timed Bulb, Live Composite, automatic Focus Stacking and more.
  • built-in sensors such as GPS, temperature, compass, barometer, altitude and of course, WiFi tethering without need for an optional adapter as is the case with Canikon.

Sony a9 with Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 plus 1.4x TC

  • much better electronic viewfinder
  • better RealTime AF for Eye tracking (the best there is at present)
  • almost full PDAF coverage and with by far the most PDAF points
  • the shortest shutter lag if you half-press shutter release first – nut much slower in other methods of shooting
  • has the mirrorless and IBIS advantages of the Olympus over the dSLRs
  • better image quality although with the 1.4xTC you may need to stop it down a stop to get the same sharpness as the other kits and this reduced the benefits of sensor image quality and DOF.

Canon and Nikon kits with 600mm f/4 lenses:

  • optical viewfinder for far better battery life
  • faster start up time but similar shutter lag to the Olympus
  • deeper burst buffer with much faster clearance time of only 1-2secs if using the fastest memory cards
  • best image quality thanks to 14bit full frame with f/4 pro lens
  • best pro support systems
  • the Nikon has the best resolution rear LCD but it is fixed and limited in function

How about alternate “600mm” options for full frame?

There are several ways full frame users can get to 600mm telephoto reach without resorting to $12,000 heavy 600mm f/4 lenses, let’s see how they work out.

  1. Use a 400mm f/2.8 lens with 1.4x TC – well this is what you need to do on the Sony but it is same price lens, same weight, but you need to stop it down 1 stop for sharpness.
  2. Use a 300mm f/4 lens with 2x TC – this puts you in the same effective DOF and ISO image noise as Micro Four Thirds as you now have an effective f/8 lens requiring 2 stops higher ISO, and worse, to achieve sharpness you would need to stop it down a further stop or so making the image quality WORSE than the E-M1X, but at least it is hand holdable.
  3. Use the rumoured 75mp Canon R camera with a 300mm f/4 lens and use it in a 2x crop mode – again this allows it to be hand holdable, but now we have the SAME sensor image quality as Micro Four Thirds as it will have the same pixel density and size, but the current 300mm f/4 lenses are not as sharp as the Olympus lens so you are again worse off.
  4. Use a 300mm f/2.8 lens with 2x TC – this is still a fairly heavy, expensive lens, and when you stop it down 1 stop for sharpness, you end up at f/8 which means using 2 stops higher ISO than Olympus which negates any image quality advantage over the Olympus.
  5. Use a 3rd party super telephoto such as the Sigma “Bigma” 150-600 f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport lens – relatively cheap at only $US1799, 2.86kg (too heavy to hand hold), and is 290mm long, it is not weathersealed other than at the mount, MF ring is no where near as good, and at 500-600mm range, the sharpness drops off substantially in the cheaper “Contemporary version for which you really need to be shooting at f/8-f/11 so if you need 600mm you should look at the Sports version and AF performance can be problematic, especially when most cameras do not AF well with f/6.3 apertures, and especially in lower light. There is no free lunch!
  6. If you have plenty of money and sherpas, the Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG lens with 2x teleconverter to give a 400-1000mm f/5.6 effective lens will set you back $25,999 and weigh 15.7kg!!!

Conclusion:

If you are a top line pro with lots of money and helpers to get you places and you will only be using a tripod, then the Canon and Nikon dSLRs are still probably the way to go still. Full frame cameras are also still to be preferred IF one is wanting shallow DOF in a zoom lens, and here, Micro Four Thirds cannot compete without resorting to f/1.2 prime lenses when compared to full frame lenses such as the new Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 and the traditional 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses.

For everyone else, the attractions of a far less expensive, less burdensome and far more fun Olympus kit may make good sense – you just have to accept the image quality may not be quite as good in low light when you need to push up the ISO, and you may need to take more care with camera positioning to avoid distracting backgrounds if they are closer to the subject than you are.

It would be a great camera for photojournalists as well when mated with a 40-150mm f/2.8 or an f/1.2 prime.

Is the E-M1X over-priced?

When you look at its capabilities and the many pros it has going for it then it probably isn’t over-priced – I must say, for that price I would have liked the same EVF as the Sony a9, and I want the same Eye AF tracking capability (this may come with firmware upgrades).

Is the E-M1X too big and heavy?

For most current Micro Four Thirds users is is, but from the hands on reviewers in extreme conditions, the extra functionality and ergonomics of this form factor makes it far better suited than the smaller cameras, and by having the vertical battery grip integrated it creates a more robust and more weathersealed option than the Sony a9 or the E-M1 II with a grip.

For extensive details of the specs see my wiki page which has a comparison table

The following is a video by Chris Eyre-Walker of how good the E-M1X is in extreme environments:

 

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