This blog is really a tale of two stories. One involving a day spent using the latest Olympus OM-D E-M1X mirrorless camera and the other a day spent as a guest of Olympus in conjunction with the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) Power Maxed Racing (PMR) team on qualifying day at Oulton Park 29th June 2019.
So the basis of this blog is to talk you through my experience in using the latest Olympus OM-D E-M1X camera, showcase some of the images taken with the camera and to give you an insider’s view of life within a top BTCC team on qualifying day. Now this will not be an in-depth review of the Olympus as I only spent a few hours with it and there will be numerous other far more detailed reviews out there online. This is just a brief overview of my experience in using the camera.
I would like to start this blog by thanking three fine folk, notably Mark Thackara (Olympus UK Brand Manager) for hosting such a great day, Mike Inkley (Olympus UK Ambassador) for assisting me in getting up to speed with the camera and Andy King (Commercial Director of Power Maxed Racing) for his support and professionalism while I was in the PMR garage. Also to the rest of the crew for their assistance in hosting the day and ensuring that I was very well taken care of with the right equipment, knowledge and information not to mention food and drink in the PMR hospitality tent.
My brief thoughts on the Olympus OM-D E-M1X
Feels great in the hand and nicely balanced
Autofocus system is simply incredible
Image stabilisation system is stunning
Image quality is far higher than I imagined
40-150mm is the sharpest lens I have ever used
Superb build quality
The 3″ LCD screen is fully articulate
A 1/3 lighter than its competitors (under 1kg including battery & cards)
EVF a little disappointing. Only LED and 2.36 million dots
Average resolution on the 3″ LCD screen
FULL BLOG BELOW
Apart from landscape photography, I have another passion in life and that is four wheeled motorsport. I have been following F1 since the late 80’s and the BTCC since around 1994 after I visited a race weekend at Donington Park. So it is fair to say that I was delighted to have been given an opportunity by Olympus to attend qualifying day at Oulton Park as a guest of the Power Maxed Racing team of which Olympus is a team sponsor.
I excitedly arrived at 8.30am and was met by a member of the PMR team. I was shown to their hospitality tent where the Olympus team were ready and waiting for me and thirteen other keen photographers, as was breakfast thankfully. A little time later we were spilt into three groups and I had the privilege to spend the first hour or so with Mike Inkley, an Olympus UK Ambassador. His skill set lies in photographing the BTCC series as well as rugby and the somewhat more leisurely sport of cricket.
Mike has been with Olympus for a number of years now and his in-depth knowledge on the 20.4mp OM-D E-M1X is considerable and this showed during a question and answer session from me regarding the camera’s features. Despite not being familiar with the camera’s menu and ergonomics, everything fell to hand quickly and easily. The camera has a built in battery grip and this initially seemed at odds with the ethos of mirrorless cameras where the general idea is to produce a camera small enough to carry around comfortably but then again, as the morning wore on, I quickly understood that this was no ordinary mirrorless camera.
As Mike said quite succinctly, the OM-D E-M1X was a smaller, lighter alternative to the Canon 1DXMK2 and the Nikon D5 as the smaller sensor allows for the focal length of lenses to double. I saw several 1DX MK2’s and D5’s complete with monster lenses on them around the circuit and I could see the point in opting for the OM-D E-M1X as you have the opportunity to use quality lenses that were much smaller and lighter and yet have them reach further. So a 40-150mm becomes an 80-300mm lens yet costs less than the competitors. My question at the start of the day was, will the camera and lens combo perform to a high enough standard, after all, the OM-D E-M1X costs nearly £3,000 which by all accounts is not cheap.
THE FIRST SHOOTING SESSION OF THREE
The day was to be spilt into three shooting sessions, the first two covering the practice sessions and the third qualifying (BTCC cars). Our first stop was to the outside of Lodge Corner, the final corner on the circuit. The cars arrive at the corner at great speed having travelled down a long straight and the cars change of direction was going to really test the autofocus ability of the camera. Fortunately Mike selected the ‘motorsport’ mode which had the camera track the car from one side of the frame to the other using a rectangle focus box. It was impressively accurate and easy. and this was proved by the high ratio of images that I was capturing in focus. Here are a few images to prove and bear in mind I only had the camera in hand for less than fifteen minutes at this point.
After half an hour’s use with the OM-D E-M1X, I was consistently capturing images that were in focus. It was almost too easy. The camera felt good in the hand too, nicely balanced with the 40-150mm f2.8 PRO lens and I was amazed at the sharpness and clarity of the lens, even more so when I was able to see the images on the big monitor at home. If I can levy a little criticism at the Olympus it that the quality of both the EVF and LCD screen is a little under par, certainly against what I am use to using in the Canon EOS R mirrorless. For a camera that is going to be primarily used for sports and wildlife photography, the likelihood is that the photographer is going to use the EVF.
The Olympus has a 2.36 million dot LED EVF which is a little disappointing as the competitors have higher resolution OLED viewfinders although it does have 100% coverage and it does allow for all the usual relevant information to be displayed within it. The 3″ LCD screen’s resolution however is relatively average with only 1,037,000 dots although it is a fully articulated touchscreen. Personally I am use to more than twice the resolution on the Canon EOS R and there is a reasonable difference in quality between the two.
THE SECOND SHOOTING SESSION OF THREE
I decided for the second shooting session to venture to Druids Corner alone for some sideways panning shots. These are notoriously difficult to get right and require a lot of practising. I set the shutter speed to between 1/160 and 1/250 and the ISO at 64, ensuring that the noise levels would be low. Most of the shots were coming in around f8/f9 but because the background was blurred, the depth of field was not a concern. Within five minutes I was panning like a pro motorsport shooter and there is no doubt that the ultra quick autofocusing system helped enormously as did the fantastic image stabilisation system. Considering that the cars were coming through Druids at roughly 100mph, you can appreciate just how difficult it is to photograph them nice and sharp while wanting movement in the wheels, hence the 1/160-1/250th shutter speed.
The Olympus worked an absolute treat. Well, you can see for yourself below.
After lunch it was time for our third shooting session of the day and a handful of the photographers ventured inside the PMR garage an hour before qualifying. I decided to pop into the garage, capture some images with the 12-40mm f2.8 PRO M.ZUIKO before returning to the hospitality tent to consider which lens I was going to use next. On arriving I saw Mr and Mrs Plato (Jason Plato’s parents) sat outside in the shade (it was a very, very hot day). They were alone so I passed comment that it felt strange seeing them in person having seen watched on the TV for many, many years often witnessing Mrs Plato biting her nails at the end of the season whenever her son was in contention for the championship. They obliged me with a few minutes of their time and we chatted about a whole range of subjects including Jason (who happens to be my favourite driver within the BTCC and has been for as long as I can remember). It was a real pleasure just sitting and chatting with them and they were positively lovely. That really made my day I can tell you.
THE THIRD SHOOTING SESSION – QUALIFYING FROM THE PMR GARAGE
So a quick trip inside the hospitality tent and a brief chat to Mark (Thackara) had me decide to leave the 40-150mm on the camera although I did hunt down a 300mm but I could not find a spare one and in the end, leaving the 40-150mm on the camera was an inspired choice as minutes later, with qualifying about to start, I along with one other photographer decided to chance our arm and nip into the garage to watch qualifying. The team were very obliging and I have to say that for the next hour or so, I was like a child on Christmas morning.
Here I was stood in the garage watching Jason Plato suiting up and chatting to his parents and his engineer before heading out to pilot his works backed Vauxhall Astra around Oulton Park at breakneck speed. To be able to see how both Jason Plato and Rob Collard prepare for the most frantic part of the weekend was an absolute joy. This was worth the visit all on it’s own.
The shooting conditions from inside the garage were difficult. I was constantly moving around mechanics and team personal, lots of equipment to watch out for, extremely harsh light in the sky outside and darker conditions inside the garage and a whole host of other challenges to contend with too. I had the 40-150mm lens on and so my shortest focal length I had to play with was 40mm (equivalent 80mm) but this turned out to be perfect for the wider shots and the 150mm (equivalent to 300mm) ideal for the longer shots of the mechanics faces.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X never missed a beat. It fired off shot after shot with incredible precision and the autofocus picked up on the subject faster than I could press the shutter button. In truth I ended up capturing many more ‘keepers’ than I thought I would hence why this blog is a little photo heavy. In the first two shooting sessions by the track side, I shot JPEG only but understanding the demands of the light from inside the garage, I switched to RAW as well. This proved to be a very good decision indeed. One of the elements that I like to look out for when shooting in these kind of situations is a something I call ‘the human touch’. A brief passing moment that captures a human element in an otherwise formatted and structured environment. I found this in the form of Mrs Plato (Jason’s mum) standing at the rear of his race car and placing her hands on his printed name at the bottom of the rear window.
I asked her what the significance of that was and she replied that she did it at every race as it was her way of trying to protect him. I found that an incredibly powerful moment because when all said and done, here is a mother standing there looking on at her son and hoping that he returns safely. I found that very touching indeed. I asked if I could photograph her and thankfully she agreed. I had the ED 12–40mm F2.8 PRO lens on which allowed me to capture her hands from such close distance. This happens to be one of my favourite images of the day.
During the forty-five minute qualifying session, team personal stood and looked up at the timing screens willing their ‘boys’ on. The cars returned to the garage a couple of times each for new tyres and the mechanics were working quickly to turn them both around in record time. The look of tiredness was all too evident to see and the OM-D E-M1X handled their facial reactions brilliantly. I felt confident of nailing any shot I wanted. In the end, Jason ended up placing 8th while Rob qualified 18th. The look of disappointment on both their faces once they had removed their helmets was more than palpable, especially for Rob. This was not the time for me to ask for a ‘selfie’ with them and I let the moment slide by. It was the right decision I felt.
Back to the PMR hospitality tent to wrap up a great day’s photography. As mentioned at the start of the blog, many thanks to Mark, Mike, Andy and everyone who made the day extra special. As a lifelong BTCC fan, it was a fantastic experience.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1X
If truth be told, I was not expecting much from this camera. When I first hard that it had been launched, I immediately thought that it was too large (for a mirrorless camera) and far too expensive. I have been a dedicated and committed Canon user since 2008 and shall remain so however having spent a day with the OM-D E-M1X, I have to say that is a very fine camera indeed.
Sure, I had my concerns regarding the smaller sensor but having seen the quality of the images captured, I need not have been. If you are wanting a smaller, lighter alternative to the Canon 1DX MK2 or the Nikon D5, where smaller, lighter lenses achieve the same reach of the larger full frame lenses, the OM-D E-M1X could be the camera for you. All told though, the M1X performed brilliantly with super lightning focusing speeds, a fantastic motorsport focus mode, super sharp, quality lenses, a menu system that is pretty intuitive along with great build quality, you will not go far wrong with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X.
Below is a selection of images captured during my time in the garage.