Hands On with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III: Lots to Love, Some Things to Question

I went into my hands-on with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III with no expectations. For me, it had been many years since I had used an Olympus (aside from an afternoon borrowing from a friend who had an older PEN camera about five years ago, the last time I shot with Olympus was with the E5 and E3).

Since I had no sense of what to expect, I was put into a position of just taking the new camera at face value, not knowing what it was supposed to do or to what degree to hope it did it.

By the end of my two days with the E-M1 Mark III, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a far more capable camera than I anticipated, especially considering the small size of the sensor. I found myself very much liking the size and build quality of the camera as well as the lenses on offer for wildlife photography (the 40-150mm f/2.8 and the 300mm f/4 lenses in conjunction with the 1.4x teleconverter were pretty much all I wanted to use).

But as much as I enjoyed those things, I was let down elsewhere. For the latest camera in Olympus’ line since reaffirming their stance that Micro Four Thirds is not only their way but the superior way, there are many aspects of the E-M1 Mark III that miss the mark for me.

Full disclosure: Olympus provided travel to and lodging in Costa Rica for the two days time spent testing the OM-D E-M1 Mark III. PetaPixel and the author were not otherwise compensated for their coverage.

Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14

The Good

Olympus has one mentality that is at the heart of their camera design: lightweight and compact. We see this same claim from Sony in their explanations of their Five Fundamentals, but when Olympus talks about compact they do so from the perspective that they don’t believe anyone else is actually taking it fully to heart. While a camera body may be small and lightweight, if your lens options are not, then are you really light and compact?

This mentality is the reason Olympus is dedicated to Micro Four Thirds. Their belief is that their system is the only one that can offer performance without compromising the compact nature of their bodies and lenses, and I have to say, I can see where they are coming from.

White-Faced Monkey; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14

Both the 40-150mm f/2.8 and the 300mm f/4 are almost comically small, with image quality that really does impress me. I did not think that a focal range of 40-150mm (which translates to 80-300mm in 35mm) could possibly result in consistent, high-quality imagery but I was wrong. When combined with the compact yet ergonomically pleasant OM-D E-M1 Mark III body, you have an incredible amount of reach without much equipment. I felt lithe, nimble even, with this setup.

Two-Toed Sloth; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14

There are many older photographers who enjoy shooting wildlife, specifically birds, who simply cannot carry heavy equipment anymore. They are physically limited, and if Olympus did not exist they may not be able to continue their hobby.

There are even others who hate carrying huge pieces of camera equipment that they have to hike with and wear for hours in their search for rare birds. The smaller the equipment, the more desirable. For those folks, I can absolutely see the appeal of the Olympus system. For them, I might find myself recommending the E-M1 Mark III.

The E-M1 Mark III doesn’t offer a whole lot new that is specific to this camera, taking most of its updated features from the E-M1X such as Live ND and high resolution multi-shot, for example. It does have a new processor, the TruePic IX, which I can attest works really well in this body.

The single new feature specific to this camera is called Starry AF and is used to autofocus on stars in the night sky, as the name might suggest. I personally did not have a chance to test this feature due to cloud cover, but I spoke to Chris Nichols and Jordan Drake from DP Review who did get a chance to try it out, and they assured me it works exactly as advertised, which is great news.

The physical operation of the camera feels about as good as you can imagine, with buttons easy to find, a menu system that is only a little confusing but extremely fast and responsive, and a buffer that clears quickly provided you’re using the UHS-II memory card slot (more on that later). When going through images on the camera, you can very quickly scan through memory cards at a blistering pace. It’s one of the fastest experiences of this I’ve come across.

Concentrating White-Faced Monkey; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14

Battery life is pretty good on the camera. Using special features like high resolution multi-shot or Live ND will drain power a bit faster, but I was able to get through an entire shooting day of over 3000 images without getting below 25%. That’s pretty good in my opinion, especially since if you’re going to be shooting birds at high frame rates, you’re going to find yourself with thousands of photos inside of an hour.

On the note of Live ND, I dig the feature. I was able to drag the shutter for almost two seconds in this image, despite it being bright daylight outside.

Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured using Live ND; 1.6 second shutter, f/22, ISO 64

The E-M1 Mark III can capture 15 frames per second in high mode (which doesn’t allow for continuous autofocus) and 10 frames per second in low mode (which does allow continuous autofocus) with the mechanical shutter. Using the electronic shutter, the camera can get as high as 60 frames per second in high, and 18 frames per second in low. Those are some mighty impressive numbers.

Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14
Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14

The continuous autofocus is powered by a 121 point, all cross type, on-chip phase detection system that I think works pretty well in most cases. I think the Sony a9, the Canon 1D X line, and the Nikon D5 and D500 are all superior, but the Olympus is good.

There was a “Tracking” feature as an option, but I and everyone else who was around me testing the camera quickly realized that it wasn’t “tracking” anything. It lacks the ability to discern subjects, so the tracking really doesn’t work at all. However, the normal continuous autofocus works very well, and it can be customized to the user and controlled with the rear joystick. With regular continuous autofocus, I felt pretty good with trusting the camera to an extent.

Neotropic Cormorant; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

I mentioned high res multi-shot, and I want to explain that a bit because it’s really impressive. The feature comes with two modes: tripod and hand-held. In tripod mode, which you have to use a tripod or a fully stable platform for, will make an approximately 80-megapixel equivalent image by quickly shooting a series of photos and stitching them in-camera.

This isn’t a new idea, but the hand-held mode kind of is. In hand-held mode, the maximum resolution 50 megapixels as the camera will rapidly fire 16 images in about half a second, and stitch that in-camera into one finished image.

This feature works. It works a lot better than I was expecting, actually. I do not have really stable hands. I wobble a bit, and on top of that, I was using telephoto lenses with teleconverters. That wobble was accentuated considerably, and the E-M1 Mark III still managed to make something of it. Below are two images captured in high res mode, both were handheld. One was captured with the long end of the 40-150mm lens (the monkey) and the other was with the 300mm (the crocodile).

Hand-Held High-Resolution Mode; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm f/2.8 + MC-14
Crocodile captured using high-resolution multi-shot. Click to see full resolution.

With the crocodile, compare it to this image that was shot just using a regular single captured frame.

You can see that the quality is astronomically better with the multi-shot, but in the 50-megapixel file the rendering of focal planes is a bit off, and you have to get lucky with stationary subjects if you’re outside of a studio situation. The end result is definitely not perfect, but certainly usable.

When using this feature, I noticed that it would work pretty reliably if I was the one moving. It could definitely compensate for my motion. However, it worked less reliably if the subject moved to any considerable degree. If there is a lot of motion, the camera will not attempt to make an image and will fail.

Additionally, after firing the 16 images, it can take between 10 and 20 seconds for the file to be created in the camera. It’s by no means fast, but it is an intriguing feature that has some actual practical usage.

I don’t think I can talk about this feature without pointing to Olympus’ incredible on sensor stabilization. They feel comfortable publishing the specification that you can expect up to 7.5 stops of stabilization, but also mentioned that they have heard some folks getting up to double that in actual use cases. I believe them: this stabilization is the real deal.

When you half-press the shutter while looking through the viewfinder, you can see it activate and that visualization is incredible. That stabilization makes that hand-held multi-shot possible and helped considerably with keeping my extremely telephoto shots stable even when on a moving boat.

Neotropic Cormorant; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

I think what I want to end “The Good” section here just revisiting why this camera makes sense for some people. I was hand holding an equivalent 840mm lens (300mm with a 1.4x teleconverter on the Micro Four Thirds-sized sensor) for extended periods of time (about two hours) shooting easily with a pretty reliable autofocus system that gave me sharp images thanks in part to great optics, but also to that IBIS system. That’s a really excellent achievement, and why I am starting to “get” what Olympus stands for.

Yellow-Headed Caracara; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

The Less Good

Before I get into this, I want to clarify that this section is not called “The Bad.” The issues I’m about to go over are not game-breaking for many and do not result in a product that I think Olympus isn’t proud of. I do legitimately think they are really happy with this camera, and what they have chosen to do here was the best they could do with their resources.

That said, there are what I perceive to be glaring issues with the E-M1 Mark III. In some cases, Olympus was able to provide some context for their decision making, and I’ve added their reasoning where appropriate.

Roseate Spoonbill at ISO 3200; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

This Sensor is Old

I think this is probably the first thing anyone who is familiar with camera sensors is going to say, and it was the uncontested main topic of disappointment among the press corps regarding the E-M1 Mark III. This sensor has long since given its best, and ideally, it’s time to move on.

This is the same 20.4-megapixel sensor we’ve been seeing from Micro Four Thirds for years. It’s actually the same sensor found in the previous iteration, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. It has below average dynamic range, below average ISO performance, and as a result, it has below average detail preservation. While it is possible to, on occasion, get a truly spectacularly sharp image, those times are outnumbered by bare misses.

When working with a sensor this small, old, and inflexible, there is no room for error out there in the field. You pretty much have to nail it in-camera, or you’re going to have a rough time getting a good image out of it.

To me, ISO 3200 results in a sub-par image. There is an abundance of noise and sharpness fall off, and in 2020 when your competition of putting image quality first and above all else, it really can hurt when arguably the most important thing about owning a camera, which is getting good images, isn’t your strongest asset.

Roseate Spoonbill at ISO 4000; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

I have a few good photos of the 5000 I shot over two days, but I have many more less-than-perfect photos that I just can’t bring myself to publish. In the modern camera world and amongst the stiff competition, I want great. I even expect it. And great is much harder to hit with this sensor.

I am not sure if this is entirely Olympus’ fault. I don’t know if another better Micro Four Thirds sensor is even being produced. But I can’t help but think how much more powerful and rewarding a stacked CMOS backside illuminated sensor would have been instead of this one.

Olympus’ Take: “High-quality images are dependent on multiple elements. Olympus focuses on offering an ideal combination of image sensor, powerful engine, image stabilization, and high-resolution lenses to deliver high-quality images. The sensor needs to provide more than just image quality. Therefore, Olympus’ image sensor utilizes all cross-type on-chip PDAF plus CDAF, delivering fast and accurate AF performance in combination with the new engine’s high-speed performance.

“We maximize image quality by combining the powerful TruePic™ IV engine, the most effective in-body image stabilization system, and the high resolving power of our M.Zuiko PRO lenses. By joining these technologies to the image sensor, we deliver Handheld High Res Shot capabilities that can deliver similar image quality of FF cameras at a fraction of the size and weight.”

The Rear LCD is Not Great

I can’t get any specifics on what the rear LCD is comparable to, but it’s certainly the least impressive real LCD I’ve used in over two years. Though yes, it has touch functionality and yes, you can see the menu just fine, looking at your images on the back of the camera just isn’t a good experience.

No matter what, your photos look markedly worse on the back of the LCD than they do when you see them on your computer. The screen has terrible contrast, is even worse in bright light, and just cannot for some reason do any justice to your photos. About halfway through the first day of shooting, I just flipped it around and closed it. I stopped using it entirely because it was more of a detraction from my experience than anything else.

Tricolored Heron; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

Olympus’ Take: “We are consistently seeking feedback from our professional photographers, and we can confirm that Olympus strongly believes in the importance of easy and accurate quality checks via the rear monitor. To fully support immediate image quality checks after shooting, Olympus equips OM-D cameras with features that provide for focus checks and reviewing images at 1:1 more quickly. In addition, an image review option allows for easy 14x review, thus dramatically exceeding a 1:1 display.

“Regarding the LCD monitor resolution, Olympus strives to balance the requirements of various camera functions in the final product design. We will continue to watch market trends and consider professionals’ feedback for future product developments.”

The EVF is Two Generations Old

My problems with the EVF are kind of in-tandem with the previous section because I argue there is not a good way to review your images on the camera at all.

When you look at new cameras released in the last six months, they’re using a 5.76 million dot OLED with a 120fps refresh rate and 0.005 second minimum lag (this EVF is found on all the Panasonic S cameras and the Sony A7R IV). The Olympus is using a 2.35 million dot EVF, which is considerably less resolution. The EVF that is available between these two is a 3.69 million dot EVF that has been available for some time. The last major camera that I can recall reviewing that used the same EVF as this Olympus is the Sony A7 III. That’s a great camera, and at the time it was enough.

But time has progressed. Expectations have expanded. It’s not enough anymore.

Yellow-Headed Caracara; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

If I’m squinting, struggling to tell if I’ve nailed focus or if an image is what I was hoping for in the field, then we have a problem. I can’t trust how a photo looks on the Olympus, and apparently this is par for the course with them in recent years.

A friend and avid Olympus shooter told me that you can’t trust what you see on the camera, the photos will always look better when you open them on your computer. I’m okay if it’s just a little better, but after my personal experience, I have to say it’s significant. Photos look terrible on the camera, and it really bothers me.

Snowy Egret; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14
Great Tailed Grackle; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

Olympus’ Take: “The primary goal of our EVF design is to accurately display and facilitate the capture of moving subjects in the viewfinder, such as field sports and birds. Therefore, Olympus employs a 2.36 million dot LCD EVF with a progressive display format and a 120fps refresh rate. The progressive scan display is a key differentiator here; it allows for smooth and accurate display functionality with an imperceptible 5ms response time.”

It Has Dual Card Slots, but Only One UHS-II

I was all over Sony’s case about only one UHS-II card slot for years, so I can hardly let the same go unspoken against with the Olympus. If you’re using the one UHS-II card slot, you’re in good shape. The camera is snappy and the buffer clears very fast. But if you’re not? Well, the UHS-I slot is remarkably slower. Painfully so. So if you want to shoot with a full backup slot, your camera is going to suffer as it struggles to empty buffers into that slow card slot. It certainly is not ideal, and not what I was hoping to see on a new flagship camera in 2020.

The Bottom Line

I don’t know if Olympus feels the same way that many of my colleagues and I do, but from the outside looking in, it feels like they are in a fight for their life. They are the last bastion for still photography on Micro Four Thirds, and like it or not that is the hill they have decided to either live or die on. As I mentioned, I respect them for what they believe in, and I understand their perspective.

But if you’re going all-in on Micro Four Thirds and you’re releasing a new camera in 2020 as an example of dedication to it, then you had better go gangbusters.

Including the same, tired old sensor (whether that is their choice or not), a two generations old EVF, a horrible rear LCD, and only one UHS-II card slot, you have to wonder why in at least three of these four cases it feels like Olympus took the cheap route.

Surfer Entering the Water; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.40-150mm F2.8 + MC-14

And then you have to ask if this camera is including multiple-year-old hardware, why is it retailing for $1,800 body-only? You’re only a couple of hundred dollars from full-frame territory, and well above Fujifilm APS-C pricing. You can get an X-T3 for $1,300 today, which is enough of a savings to get a good chunk of the way to a quality telephoto lens.

You can get a D500, a truly phenomenal camera, for less than the Olympus E-M1 Mark III. Sure, it’s a DSLR, but it’s got a bigger sensor and a better autofocus system.

These are questions in my head that I wouldn’t be asking if the E-M1 Mark III used state of the art hardware. Olympus easily wins in higher frames per second and with their IBIS. You could even make an argument their lenses are better, at least in the case of Fujifilm, specifically for the bird and wildlife crowd. But choosing to release a brand new flagship camera (this is considered a co-flagship with the E-M1X) that is using multiple-year-old hardware just doesn’t jive with me as a camera buyer. It doesn’t feel like the good investment it should be.

Yellow-Headed Caracara; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14
Yellow-Headed Caracara; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

As I mentioned, the four main issues I have with the E-M1 Mark III are all things that could be forgiven by someone intent on loving Olympus. What these issues I have noted don’t do is convince new users to try a system that also has drawbacks due to the size of the sensor. I, and many other camera experts, expected more because the feeling is this is one of Olympus’ last few attempts to convince the market that Micro Four Thirds is as great as they feel it is internally. It’s not enough that they believe it at Olympus; they have to make me believe it, too.

I think there is a lot to love about the E-M1 Mark III. I think I got some of the best images of wildlife that I have ever captured, and it was all thanks to the small size and form factor of the entire system. Hiking a couple of miles into the Costa Rican jungle in 90+ degree heat and incredibly high humidity was a beat down, and having lightweight equipment certainly made it much easier than I anticipated.

Another bonus comes almost as an accident: Due to their small size, images taken with the E-M1 Mark III look best when scaled for viewing online. This is actually perhaps a plus since most folks will only be interested in publishing their images digitally. On Instagram, these images will look great. Printed larger? You’re looking at a tougher sell.

Great Tailed Grackle; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14
Snowy Egret; Photo by Jaron Schneider, captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.300mm f/4.0 + MC-14

All of this taken into consideration, I argue Olympus needs to give off the aura that they’re going all out, and that they’re doing the best they possibly can with what they have, and that there is so much to love about what they are doing. I just don’t think that with these older parts that are still being charged to the consumer at premium price points is going to do that.

But maybe I am being too critical. I honestly hope I am. I would very much like to see Olympus succeed here and hope that what is on offer in the Olympus E-M1 Mark III is enough.

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