Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Hands-on: Making Impossible Shots Easy
“The Olympus E-M1 Mark III makes previously impossible shots easy to snap.”
- Excellent stabilization
- Starry sky autofocus
- Quick performance
- Handheld high-res mode
- EVF could be better
- Metering was a bit unpredictable
- Same sensor, AF as Mark II
Some cameras are designed for pixel peepers, the most discerning photographers that hoard megapixels and argue over the quality of bokeh. The $1,800 Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark III is not one of those cameras.
This is the camera for everyone else — photographers that care more about a compact, adventure-ready system; photographers that want lenses that are long in zoom but short on size; and photographers looking for a camera that makes even the most difficult shots fun to shoot.
Olympus is sitting out the full-frame race, sticking the smaller Micro Four Thirds format it pioneered and focusing on usability with features no other brand offers. For the most part, it’s working.
This includes features like Starry AF, the ability to use autofocus on the stars instead of painstakingly using manual focus to find that just-right sweet spot. That joins a 7.5-stop stabilization system and built-in neutral density (ND) filters that allows you to leave the tripod and the filters at home (most of the time, anyways).
We spent four days testing the E-M1 Mark III’s limits in the beaches and jungles of Costa Rica. (We were guests of Olympus, but our opinions are our own). And while the E-M1 Mark III isn’t trying to compete with the best full-frame cameras from Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic, a few unique features allow it to easily hold its own.
Design and build quality
The E-M1 Mark III is designed to offer similar features to the E-M1X, but in a smaller form without the built-in battery grip. With the 12-45mm f/4 PRO (also announced on Feb. 12), it’s the smallest weather-sealed combo Olympus offers. I was able to tuck the camera, four lenses, two teleconverters — enough for a 600mm-equivalent reach — and an iPad inside a backpack. I had enough room left over to put my tripod inside my backpack instead of latching it on the outside, a difference that allowed me to skip the bag check and pack everything for a four-day international photo trip into carry-on luggage.
Despite the smaller size and weight — roughly 20.5 ounces — the grip is comfortable and there’s still quite a bit of real estate for physical controls, including dual control dials and an autofocus joystick. I love the programmable mode switch, which I used to quickly move from single to continuous autofocus while photographing wildlife.
On the less positive side, the record button and exposure compensation are right next to each other on the top of the camera near the shutter release. With the identical size and shape, I accidentally started recording video several times when what I wanted was to adjust the exposure. These two controls would require a bit more time with the camera to comfortably use without pulling the viewfinder away from my eye.
The E-M1 III uses a 3-inch, 1.037-million-dot touchscreen that tilts to the side of the camera, allowing you to rotate the screen into selfie orientation without being blocked by a tripod. Like the E-M1X, though, I wasn’t impressed with the electronic viewfinder. The refresh rate was solid, but images had less contrast than the LCD screen. With 2.36 million dots, there are several EVFs on the market that offer better picture quality. Live Composite, which shows a preview even for long exposure images, and the option to use OVF mode, does help make up for those gaps in picture quality, however.
The magnesium alloy body is sealed against dust and splashes and feels solid in the hands. The camera survived my accidental durability test when the tide came in a little faster than expected. Despite being more of a partial submersion than a splash, both the camera and the new 12-45mm kit lens were no worse for wear. A small amount of beach sand got just inside the battery door, but if the camera can survive getting smacked by an ocean wave, it should survive the advertised splash and dust without a hitch.
The E-M1 Mark III doesn’t have the dual batteries of the E-M1X, but battery life is solid for a mirrorless camera. I didn’t need to swap the battery until the end of the day, roughly 800 shots later. (My penchant for burst mode usually allows me to get more than the advertised battery life ranking — the specs rank the camera at 420 shots, and 900 in quick sleep mode).
Features and performance
Shooting with the E-M1 Mark II is incredibly liberating. While most mirrorless cameras are easy to travel with, in most cases, the E-M1 Mark II can leave both the tripod and the ND filters behind. With a 7-stop stabilization system (7.5 with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 PRO) and the built-in NDs, I shot several long exposures of the ocean waves during the day with nothing but the camera body and lens.
Olympus says most people can shoot six-second wide-angle exposures without a tripod, but with a steady grip, it’s possible to eke out even more.
But shooting a long exposure handheld isn’t new for Olympus — taking a handheld photo of the stars without a tripod or manual focus, on the other hand, is. The camera’s new Starry AF mode doesn’t use contrast detection, phase detection, or even a hybrid of the two systems. Instead, it uses luminance and looks for light to focus on. The system uses two modes, speed priority for shooting handheld, and accuracy priority when working on a tripod. The mode is also set up to use back button focusing instead of focusing with a half-press of the shutter, making it easy to keep the focus locked as you reframe the shot.
Photographing stars is one of the more challenging types of photography because it typically requires a tripod and finding the sweet spot on the manual focus ring with several test shots before getting it just right. The E-M1 III’s combination of stabilization and Starry AF simplifies shooting the stars, making it easier for advanced photographers and actually possible for beginners. I would still prefer a tripod for the best results, but that one isn’t required is very impressive.
Starry AF — for being a new feature that’s unheard of even from other brands — worked surprisingly well. I could watch the camera bring the star in and out of focus on the LCD screen . While not as quick as the camera’s usual autofocus, it beats manual focus. And since the system is based on luminance or light, it also works with other types of light sources surrounded by dark, like night cityscapes, for example.
While the Starry AF is the star of the show, the E-M1 Mark III’s 121-point autofocus system — a system almost idetical to the E-M1X — is respectable and performs well. The focusing speed isn’t record-breaking, but it kept up with everything from surfers to birds in flight. Low light autofocus is also respectable with sensitivity down to -3.5 EV.
Starry AF — for being a new feature that’s unheard of even from other brands — worked surprisingly well.
Part of that autofocus performance is due to the new TruPix IX processor. The upgrade, Olympus says, was necessary to keep the performance specs almost even with the E-M1X, which houses two processors.
The processor is also responsible for a 10-fps burst speed and an 18-fps burst speed with the electronic shutter in silent mode. If you don’t need continuous autofocus, you can bump that speed up to 15 fps or even 60 fps in silent mode. The buffer was plenty to follow a surfer and a bird in flight — it caps out around 76 RAW shots when shooting at 18 fps.
The processor also enables the handheld high res mode, which uses the image stabilization system and the tiny movements of your hands to stitch together 16 photos into a 50-megapixel file. The mode is only good with the stillest subjects, but offers the option of getting more resolution when the 20.4 megapixels from the sensor isn’t enough.
The E-M1 Mark III houses the same megapixel count as the Mark II — but with its smaller Four-Thirds sensor, at some point, increasing the resolution brings diminishing returns. There’s no way to get around the fact that this sensor, now many years old, has limitations compared to larger, more modern sensors, but the E-M1 Mark II is still good enough for most photographers.
One of the biggest perks of the Micro Four Thirds system is that the 2X crop factor makes getting a longer focal length easier. 600mm of equivalent reach, a back-breaking focal length on full frame, can be easily carried with you.
The excellent image stabilization is a big help with those long lenses. The stabilization helped keep details sharp while working with an extreme telephoto, even at relatively slow shutter speeds.
A new detail priority mode processes high ISO images twice, slowing the camera but increasing the level of detail, which was surprisingly good for a 20-megapixel camera. Shots at ISO 6,400 lose some of the finer details.
The camera’s metering system felt less predictable than most, even in spot metering mode, and I was regularly on the exposure compensation dial to get the shot right in aperture priority and shutter priority mode.
When you need the extra resolution, high res handheld mode can be a big help. The above photo was shot in this mode, and even cropped in post.
Video follows a similar pattern, with good color and excellent stabilization. Recording steady wide-angle shots without a tripod was simple, with only minor movement in the video. Detail is excellent, thanks to the cinema 4K resolution at 24 fps.
Price and availability
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III is $1,800 and will release on February 24. The camera is currently.
Small camera, big performance
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III is a small camera, sure, but it’s also a camera that can perform in a way that other cameras can’t. Features like Starry AF and handheld high res mode are unique advantages.
But it’s not perfect. The viewfinder resolution is a couple of generations out of date, the metering system feels a bit inconsistent, and many other basic systems, like the 121-point autofocus and 20MP Four Thirds sensor, are carried over from the Mark II.
Ultimately, it comes down to who this camera is for. The image stabilization and built-in NDs are the long exposure fan’s pot of gold. The camera’s speed and easy access to telephoto reach are also ideal for sports and wildlife. The mix of features with the camera’s small size — and the freedom it grants to leave the tripod at home — is also ideal for travel.
The smaller sensor is less ideal for genres like portraits, weddings, and fashion, where you can spend a similar amount of cash on a full-frame body, and where the E-M1 III’s advanced features simply won’t come into play.
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