By Dan Bracaglia - Published 4/25/19 - Experience based on a final production camera

Olympus E-M1X vs Nikon D5: shooting tennis

Shot on the Olympus E-M1X. Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 320 | 1/4000 sec | F4 | Shot using the Olympus 300mm F4

The Olympus E-M1X sits in a curious spot in the market: it’s got the speed, rugged build-quality and dual-grip design of a full-frame Nikon D5 or a Canon EOS-1D X II, but sports a smaller Four Thirds chip. The smaller sensor is reflected in a smaller price tag; at $3000, it’s half the price of the D5 and $2500 less than the 1D X II. That’s a lot of savings that could be put toward high quality glass. But the D5 and 1D X II are sports cameras with long lineages, whereas the E-M1X is Olympus' first crack at a truly sports-oriented camera. So can it compete? To find out we pitted it against the D5 at a University of Washington tennis match.

The D5 and 1D X II are sports cameras with long lineages, the E-M1X is Olympus' first crack at a truly sports-oriented body - can it compete?

Tennis is a sport for which a good viewfinder experience, fast/reliable autofocus and a quick burst rate with plenty of buffer depth are important for success. It’s also a sport for which I’ve found Nikon’s 3D Tracking to be particularly useful. Having had a lot of success shooting tennis with a D5, I was eager to get behind the E-M1X and see how it compared.

Burst Speed

Shot on the Olympus E-M1X. Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 320 | 1/4000 sec | F2.8 | Shot using the Olympus 40-150mm F2.8 lens at 95mm equiv.

There's a lot of nuance to nailing a perfect tennis photo: the ideal frame is often the split second after or before the ball touches the strings of an athlete's racket. Tennis rackets swing at between 110-140kph (70-85mph) and more frames means better odds of getting the the shot. With this in mind, the E-M1X's 18 fps gave a noticeable advantage over the Nikon's 12 fps rate (top bursts with AF).

And if you're OK with focus being locked on the first frame, the E-M1X can shoot up to a whopping 60 fps. There's a catch though: both the 18 fps and 60 fps options are using the electronic shutter, which can be susceptible to banding under artificial lights (like a gym) and rolling shutter. Fortunately these issues can be mostly avoided by using the mechanical shutter, you'll just have to settle for 10 fps with AF. Ultimately I decided the benefits of the faster 18 fps rate outweighed my desire to avoid rolling shutter (which ended up having a minimal impact).

While the Olympus had the speed advantage, nothing for me beats the 'kurchunk' of the D5's beefy shutter.

While the Olympus had the speed advantage, it was a tie for buffer depth: despite shooting Raw+JPEG on both cameras, I never hit a point where either slowed down. That said, when it came to the adrenaline rush of firing off a fast burst of images, nothing for me beats the 'kurchunk' of the D5's beefy shutter mechanism.

Viewfinder experience

Shot on the Nikon D5. Out-of-camera JPEG cropped in post.
ISO 100 | 1/2500 sec | F2.8 | Shot using the Nikon 70-200 F2.8 at 200mm

Electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras keep improving and despite the E-M1X's somewhat modest EVF resolution (2.36M-dot compared to 5.76M-dot on the latest mirrorless cameras) and low contrast (it uses LCD instead of OLED display technology) the experience of using it to capture fast action is excellent.

Whether shooting 10 fps in mechanical or 18 fps in e-shutter, black-out times are minimal. And there's no noticeable resolution drop or slowdown in refresh rate when AF is engaged to distract your eyes from the action. This isn't the case for lots of other mirrorless cameras.

However, for serious sports shooters who operate with both eyes open, the D5's large optical finder (with very short blackout times) still provides a better viewfinder experience, in my opinion. It's possible to shoot the Olympus with both eyes open, but I found it to be rather jarring. This is because the limited brightness and contrast of the EVF means what you see in your EVF eye never quite agrees with what you see with your real-world-viewing eye.

So when it comes to the viewfinder experience, the E-M1X impresses for a mirrorless camera, but the D5 still has it beat.

Autofocus

Shot on the Nikon D5. Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 250 | 1/2500 sec | F2.8 | Shot using the Nikon 70-200 F2.8 at 200mm

Of all the cameras in the world, the D5's become my first choice for shooting anything moving thanks to its ridiculously reliable AF performance. And it's no surprise that its autofocus system shone once more during the tennis match. Whether using a single point, zone or 3D Tracking, I enjoyed a 95%+ hit rate with the D5.

I used a combination of similar AF settings on the E-M1X, including a single point, zone and AF tracking - the latter impressed me with its stickiness. And ultimately, my hit rate was around 80%; this was after maxing out AF-C sensitivity early in the match.

The E-M1X's AF system doesn't feel quite as reliable as the D5's or even the 1D X II's

While these hit rates aren't vastly different, the way in which the cameras missed shots is worth noting. With the Nikon, the very few shots it missed were usually toward the start of a burst and focus mostly corrected itself within a few frames. With the Olympus, slightly miss-focused shots seem to be sprinkled throughout otherwise in-focus bursts. This made picking my selects tricky – on more than one occasion that random missed shot coincided with my frame of choice. Sigh.

Ultimately, the E-M1X's AF system doesn't feel quite as reliable as the D5's or even the 1D X II's. The hit rate is good, but not great. So while Canon and Nikon compete in the autofocus big leagues, it seems Olympus is still working its way up through the minor leagues.

Using the Nikon D5 resulted in less frames like this. Shot on the Olympus E-M1X. Also note: rolling shutter.

Ergonomics

While the E-M1X concedes ground to the D5 in AF, it holds its own in terms of ergonomics. Both of these cameras are large – and a little intimidating to operate at first – but offer outstanding degrees of customization and excellent comfort, even after extended use. The Nikon seems a little tougher-built, but also weighs ~1.5x the Olympus. Ultimately, I get the impression either camera could stand up to the abuse of shooting in a torrential downpour (the E-M1X is IPX1-rated), or being slammed to the ground by a runaway wide receiver along the sidelines.

I wish Olympus had included a top plate LCD on the E-M1X.

I wish Olympus had included a top plate LCD on the E-M1X, though. While not a deal-breaker, having a quick way to check core settings at a glance can be super handy.

Image quality

Shot on the Nikon D5. Out-of-camera JPEG cropped in post.
ISO 160 | 1/2500 sec | F2.8 | Shot using the Nikon 70-200 F2.8 at 200mm

Given the difference in sensor size, a difference in image quality shouldn't be much of a surprise. The Nikon D5 has 3.84x the sensor area of the E-M1X and therefore offers substantially better noise performance and tonal quality. This means files from the D5 will stand up to image processing and being cropped-in better than E-M1X files. The latter was definitely in the back of my mind during the shoot. As someone who's used to shooting sports for local publications, I've grown accustomed to leaving some wiggle room in my framing - after all, it's better to have to crop-in than to miss a moment completely.

The JPEG profiles from both these brands are excellent.

I think this fact led me to subconsciously overcompensate during the match, because many of my shots on the E-M1X ended up slightly too zoomed in. Oops.

In addition to the above, a good sports camera should also offer good out-of-camera JPEGs. When shooting on a deadline, there's often no time to process or transmit Raw files: what comes out-of-camera is going to have to do. Fortunately, the JPEG profiles from both these brands are excellent: case-in-point, I didn't bother processing the Raws for this story.

Shot on the Olympus E-M1X. Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 320 | 1/4000 sec | F4 | Shot using the Shot using the Olympus 300mm F4.

Lenses

The E-M1X's smaller sensor gives it the advantage of using smaller/lighter glass than the D5, but at the cost of slower equivalent apertures, which means noisier or less detailed images and less subject separation. That said, Olympus makes plenty of reasonably-fast, high quality telephoto lenses. The 40-150mm F2.8, one of the lenses I used during the match, offered excellent reach and a reasonably fast maximum aperture (even in equivalent terms), in a fairly small, light package – something that could be a plus if you're trying to cut weight from your kit.

Nikon's lenses on the other hand offer faster equiv. maximum apertures, allowing for cleaner images and more background separation. But many are heftier to lug.

The wrap

Shot on the Olympus E-M1X. Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 500 | 1/4000 sec | F4 | Shot using the Olympus 40-150mm F2.8 lens at 95mm equiv.

All things considered, the E-M1X is a decent choice for sports, action and wildlife photographers seeking the ergonomics of the D5 in a more reasonably-priced package. While you won't quite get the AF reliability or superior image quality of Nikon's flagship, you will get a faster top burst speed and a lighter kit to carry.

Those seeking the D5's level of AF reliability would likely be better served by the Nikon D500.

Ultimately, I feel like those seeking the D5's level of AF reliability would likely be better served by the Nikon D500 than the E-M1X: it's more than a $1000 cheaper than Olympus' flagship and sports a larger APS-C sensor and 10 fps continuous shooting with an autofocus system nearly as dependable as the D5's. Plus, you can always pick up the vertical grip attachment for it if you need that portrait-orientation layout.