The recent camera releases at Photokina 2018 made one thing clear: camera companies are shifting towards full-frame mirrorless offerings, touting this segment as the ultimate in image quality. Certainly, there’s no argument that mirrorless cameras are the way to go – there just isn’t any discernable advantage to sticking to the reflex mirror design other than battery life any more. However, the question of what the optimal size for image sensors should be is still very much up for debate.
IS BIGGER ALWAYS BETTER?
The likes of Leica, Sony, Nikon, Canon and most recently Panasonic seem to have chosen full-frame as their “ultimate” in performance. Fujifilm has leap-frogged this with their Medium Format GFX series of cameras, leaving Olympus as the only camera manufacturer sticking exclusively to the Micro Four Thirds format. In fact, they’ve doubled down on the format with their latest camera, the O-MD E-M1X.
This is a camera designed with professionals in mind, with outstanding autofocus performance, rugged weather sealing, and the best in-body stabilization the company has produced to date. Yet, questions about performance and value are coming just because of the smaller sensor the camera is based on.
But is that really fair? After all, the smartphone is the most widely used camera today by far, and the sensors in those devices are decidedly smaller than the Micro Four Thirds format.
Aki Murata, VP of sales and marketing for Olympus America has said in an interview with DPreview that for Olympus, “sensor size isn’t the answer” for the type of pictures people want to take with their cameras. So, Olympus has focused on processing power instead with the E-M1X, putting two TruePic VIII processors in to improve performance while sticking to the same sensor size.
FAST AND ACCURATE
Faster processing generally means a higher continuous burst rate, as well as improved autofocus capabilities as the camera can now scan the same area more rapidly. As a result, the E-M1X boasts the ability to capture at up to 18 frames per second with full autofocus. That’s just a hair slower than the Sony A9’s 20 frames per second. If you need even more speed, the E-M1X will go up 60 frames per second with autofocus locked, and that’s one of the fastest continuous shooting rates of any camera (for now).
Speed is nothing without accuracy, so Olympus has also improved the autofocus system in the E-M1X to add machine learning to the mix. Olympus calls this Intelligent Subject Detection AF, and it basically uses deep learning to estimate where the camera should try to acquire focus for a particular group of subjects. For the moment only planes, trains and motor vehicles are supported, but Olympus says they are working on adding animals to the subject mix, thus catering for the target audience of photographers who value reach over everything else.
Certainly, from a speed/accuracy perspective the E-M1X seems more than capable of holding its own against the current crop of professional cameras. It’s easy to see where Olympus’ confidence comes from, and it’s good to note that they are focusing on their strengths – “a small and lightweight system, which is good for shooting telezoom lenses, outside”. The question is, is the group of users with these requirements large enough for Olympus to bank on?
DEVIATING FROM THE SCRIPT
Like it or not, when today’s consumers are thinking “small and portable”, they’re thinking of their mobile phones and not a mirrorless camera. As much as it is lighter than the fullframe equivalents Olympus wants us to compare it against, the E-M1X is quite a departure from the Micro Four Thirds promise of “small, light and portable”. The comparison gets better if you take the accompanying telephoto lenses into account, but from a visual perspective at least, the E-M1X is no longer significantly smaller than the corresponding ILCs Olympus is comparing it against. Will existing Micro Four Thirds users be keen to move to something that’s so significantly larger?
Then there’s the competition. Current APS-C sensor cameras like Fujifilm’s X-T3 and Sony’s A6400 are also fast and accurate cameras in their own right, with the A6400 in particular boasting improved AF that also seems to include some form of machine learning for greater accuracy. On the other hand, the X-T3 has a cropped “sports mode” that uses about 75% of the sensor to get up to 30 frames per second capture using the electronic shutter, thus making it just as fast.
They may not boast the same level of weather sealing, but both cameras are significantly cheaper than the E-M1X. The A6400 retails for $1,299 and the X-T3 goes for the $2,299, whereas the US pricing is US$2,999 for the E-M1X on Amazon. Olympus would like you to compare the E-M1X against Sony’s higher-end A9 ($6,299) and Nikon’s professionallevel D5 ($9,299) instead, but the truth is that comparisons will always be made based on the perceived capabilities of the product.
Let’s face it: in today’s world, being good isn’t good enough. There’s just too much competition out there for the consumer dollar today in terms of 360 cameras, drones and the like, many of which use the same Micro Four Thirds sensor to fit their smaller form factors. Computational photography is also bringing up the level of performance you get from mobile phone cameras at a much faster rate than the growth in traditional cameras, so any camera maker out there has to really look at the unique selling proposition of their product offerings.
Like Olympus, we do think that the ILC market will eventually settle into two segments, with full-frame being one of them. We’re just not as convinced that Micro Four Thirds will definitely be the other. Hopefully, Olympus’ decision to stick to just one format isn’t one they’ll regret.