Where is the Noise in High ISO with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X Micro Four Thirds Camera?

As I continue evaluating the Olympus OM-D E-M1X Micro Four Thirds Camera that Olympus has loaned me for 2 months free of charge (and with no obligation at all to write these reviews) one aspect I will be studying is how usable high ISO images are with this camera.

I have been shooting full-frame digital since I purchased my first full-frame camera back in 2002 with the $8,000 Canon EOS-1Ds, an 11.1 megapixel camera. And simply because of the physical size difference between a full-frame sensor and a four thirds sensor, full-frame sensors by and large have less noise at higher ISO’s and thus are better in lower light situations.

But how big of a difference is the noise in higher ISO’s?

If you believe everything you read in internet forums, people are saying anything over ISO 800 is basically non-usable with four thirds cameras. This was concerning because I am often shooting ISO 800 or higher with my Sony a7R3, particularly with wildlife, and if this Olympus camera couldn’t handle higher ISO’s I would lose pretty much all interest in the Olympus system.

So I went out to a local zoo the other day to get some test shots at higher ISO’s. And this writeup is about my reflections from that day.

Disclaimers: The Olympus OM-D E-M1X I am currently using is the first four thirds camera I have used, so I have nothing to compare it to in regards to earlier Olympus cameras and other four thirds cameras. I also am not doing any side-by-side comparisons right now with my Sony a7R3. I want to get super comfortable with the Olympus camera so I am not even picking up my Sony camera for the first month of my camera loan.

Also in regards to the images you see here, no noise reduction was applied. Quite the opposite actually, as I processed these photos like I normally do using sharpening and clarity filters to enhance detail – which would also make the noise more noticeable! RAW files were processed in Camera RAW in Photoshop and fine tuning was done with Skylum’s Luminar Flex plugin. There was also no cropping done from my original image.

With that out of the way, let’s take a close look at some images!

First up, ISO 1000

Hand-held High Res shot (50MP) at ISO 1000 at 1/160s at f2.8 at 120mm

For this photo of a Green Iguana shot with the M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 Pro lens, I was testing both a high ISO of 1000 along with the hand-held high res mode which produces a 50MP file. First thing I was instantly blown away with was the detail – and this was shot through a not-so-clear window of thick glass or plexiglass.

Let’s take a look at the detail first, in a 100% zoom while in Luminar Flex.

100% zoom in Luminar Flex. Click on photo for larger version.

Even with the jpg compression that is par for the course with online photos, there is no mistaking the incredible detail here. You can even see a red mite if you look close enough! And I am not seeing any noise.

But what happens if I drastically increase the exposure by about 3.5 stops? Surely I will see lots of noise where all of my deepest shadows are, right?

Where is all the noise?

Ok sure, there is a little bit of noise now visible. But I did increase the exposure by 3.5 stops so that is expected. What wasn’t expected for me was how the noise wasn’t anywhere near what I was anticipating with such a drastic edit. This image also shows off a little bit the dynamic range of the RAW files which visually seems larger than what I was expecting, especially after reading all that internet chatter about these cameras.

Next up is ISO 2000

Now we are guaranteed to start seeing all of that ugly high ISO noise that many are complaining about once we go to ISO 2000, right?

ISO 2000 hand-held at 1/1250s at f4.5 at 300mm

This was photographed with the M.Zuiko 300mm f4 IS Pro lens. Color and detail look pretty darn good.

Let’s take a look closer however.

100% zoom in Luminar Flex. Click on photo for larger version.

Ok so the noise is now becoming more noticeable, and some fine detail is starting to be squashed a little bit when looking at the hair of this Beisa Oryx. But if I’m being honest here, I don’t see it as that much of an issue and I can easily see this image looking great in a print even with some room for enlargement.

Finally we have ISO 3200

Ok now let’s go up to ISO 3200. Surely we are going to have a terrible looking image. One that I shouldn’t even be able to post a small version of online without seeing terrible noise. In fact I probably shouldn’t even watermark it, as I wouldn’t want the image being traced back to me and having people thinking I produce super noisy images, right?

Honestly, even I was afraid to look at this image after I shot it after reading some of the online comments about micro four thirds cameras and high ISO.

Well, here goes…

ISO 3200 at 1/1250s at f6.3 at 420mm

This was shot hand-held with the M.Zuiko 300mm f4 IS Pro and 1.4x teleconverter. Notice how I left my watermark? Colors and noise seem just fine in this web-sized image!

Now onto the closeup.

100% zoom in Luminar Flex. Click on photo for larger version.

So here we are at ISO 3200 and yes, there is noise when looking at 100%. And yes there is again some fine detail being lost in the feathers of this Blue and Gold Macaw.

But honestly, I could still make some great prints from this file, and it is nowhere near as noisy as I was expecting after reading all those posts about how bad the four thirds cameras are at high ISO’s. In fact I had to keep looking at the EXIF data to make sure I was reading it right, because I was not expecting a file this good at ISO 3200.


Well I don’t really have a full conclusion just yet because I am just beginning my testing at high ISO’s. This test was hardly scientific. I wasn’t in my studio in a controlled environment shooting charts and color patterns and all of that. And I probably won’t either. I do my testing out in the real world photographing the actual subjects I like to photograph, and I evaluate a camera’s performance based on my experience with digital images which dates back to the mid 1990’s.

For now, what appears to be clear is that if you expose your image correctly and don’t need to do drastic edits in post processing, you can surely get great printable images at least up to ISO 3200.

I’ll be continuing my high ISO testing in the near future, with even higher ISO’s too, so be sure to keep an eye out for that! But in the meantime if you hear people saying you can’t shoot four thirds cameras higher than ISO 800 then, well, you can’t always believe what you read on the internet. Well, except for this post – you can believe this one 😉

Feel free to leave a comment down below and let me know what you think!


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