Olympus E-M1 III review: Fast, but way behind flagship camera rivals

Amid the excitement of so many new and interesting camera models, one company has been left out of the discussion: Olympus. Unlike its main rival, Panasonic, it has stuck to the Micro Four Thirds sensor and not jumped on the full-frame bandwagon. And while it released the larger, more professionally oriented E-M1X camera, it didn't represent a major upgrade on the 2016 E-M1 Mark II model.

Now, Olympus finally has a genuine successor. Like the E-M1X, the E-M1 Mark III promises even more speed and top-notch in-body stabilization, this time all packed into a much smaller and even more rugged body.

Disappointingly, though, it has the same 20.4-megapixel sensor as before, and for an $1,800 camera, it's lagging behind rivals from Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm in certain features. On top of that, Olympus has had a tough time financially of late. I'm in Costa Rica with the E-M1 Mark III, and I'm going to find out if Olympus is doing enough to survive.

Body

The best feature of this camera is the five-axis in-body stabilization system. It now delivers seven stops of shake reduction, or 7.5 with an IS lens -- more than any other camera out there by a full stop. That delivers some nice benefits for both photography and video, as you'll soon see.

More remarkably, Olympus has fitted that stabilizer into a very small camera. Rather than compromising weight and ergonomics, the E-M1 Mark III delivers on both. It not only handles great, but it's very petite and light, too, weighing a mere 504 grams (1.1 pound). That's about half the weight of Panasonic's slightly more expensive full-frame S1, for example.

That small size is possible because of the Micro Four Thirds sensor, which takes up less space inside the body. However, a smaller sensor also means it's theoretically not as good in low-light as APS-C or full-frame cameras.

Despite that, Olympus sees the sensor as a huge advantage for wildlife or action photographers. With a 600mm f/4 full-frame equivalent lens, the E-M1 Mark III weighs 1,900 grams or 4.2 pounds -- less than half that of a full-frame DSLR with the same lens. That's significant, especially if you're traipsing into the jungle in 95-degree F temperatures, like I am in Costa Rica.

At the same time, the deep, well-contoured grip makes it comfortable and reassuring to hold. On top of that, it has a classically good-looking body that's extremely rugged and delivers "dustproof, splashproof and freezeproof performance," according to Olympus. While I haven't encountered any rain or freezing conditions in Costa Rica, I can confirm that it hasn't overheated or fogged up in the humidity.

Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

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Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

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Then again, that was true before. The Mark III's body is largely unchanged since the last model, with some exceptions when it comes to the button and dial layout. Namely, the E-M1 III has a joystick. That lets you change the focus point, mostly, though you can also use it to control the menu and other functions: shooting modes, front and rear shutter-speed and aperture settings, autofocus, ISO and exposure compensation.

If you need to hunt for other features, Olympus' menu system is notoriously illogical and a pain to use. However, pressing the OK button opens the "super control," or quick menu. That gives you instant access to common settings like face priority autofocus, video resolution and white balance. Olympus also lets you add functions to the fast-access star menu simply by bringing up the function in the menu and hitting the record button.

Story continues

Otherwise, things are much as they were before. It still has microphone and headphone ports for video, a USB-C port and dual card slots (the top one supporting UHS-II cards) and a fully articulating display that's great for vlogging. You can also use the 1,720 mAh BLH-1 battery from the last camera, which is rated for 420 shots on a charge. As usual, in reality, I found I could get a lot more than that.

Unfortunately, the E-M1 Mark III also carries over the same 2.36-million dot LED EVF as before. Most other cameras in this price range have 3.69 million dot OLED EVFs, and the difference in resolution is very noticeable, which is a shame. It does have the benefit of blackout-free shooting in silent mode, but the low resolution is not what I expected to find on a $1,800 camera.

Performance

Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera

Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera

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Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera

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The E-M1 Mark III's shooting performance is incredible on paper, at 18 fps in electronic shutter mode with continuous autofocus enabled (15 fps with the mechanical shutter) and 60 fps in electronic mode with the AF locked. In mechanical shutter mode (which eliminates rolling shutter), that's a significant jump over the last model, which could only handle 10 fps with continuous AF. It can also capture a very respectable 101 RAW frames in 15 fps shooting mode before the buffer fills.

Since it packs the same sensor, it has the same autofocus specs, too. As before, you get 121 hybrid contrast- and phase-detect points, but everything works faster now thanks to the new TruePic IX processor. Plus, you can now shift the autofocus region around using the new joystick while shooting. Oh, and it has more custom AF modes, including face/eye detection and object tracking for different types of shooting.

Like the larger E-M1X, it has face- and eye-detection autofocus, but it's not quite as fast as on Sony's cameras. And while the object tracking works very well, it lacks the plane, train and car detection functions available on the E-M1X.

However, the E-M1 III does have a feature that the E-M1X lacks: Starry Sky autofocus. This feature is long overdue on full cameras -- smartphone makers have been dabbling in astrophotography for some time. Focus can be a real challenge for this type of shooting and is usually done manually, but this feature completely automates it. During my limited tests (in poor star-gazing weather), I found it worked well, nailing autofocus even on a single star.

Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

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Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

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The E-M1 III's forte is action and wildlife photography, so how does it work for that? While it does shoot quickly, I found that, in the real world, it can't quite keep up with rivals or even its own burst speeds. While shooting surfers, fast-moving birds and a person walking toward the camera at a brisk speed, it occasionally failed to lock focus quickly enough. The result was the odd blurred shot. By comparison, Sony's cheaper A6600 (which also has a larger sensor) rarely failed to nail focus.

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On the other hand, a feature called Pro Capture makes it less likely you'll miss something that happens suddenly. When enabled, it captures up to 35 frames when you half-press the shutter, before you start actually snapping. That way, if you react a fraction too late, you still might nail the shot. Again, this is a feature we've seen on smartphones but not many cameras.

As I mentioned, the E-M1 III delivers seven stops of shake reduction, or 7.5 stops with a compatible image-stabilized lens. That gives it a huge advantage over other cameras on handheld shooting. For example, while you can't crank the ISO up like you can on Canon's EOS R, you can still shoot handheld in low light just by reducing the shutter speed.

The result was that I was able to shoot wildlife with a very long lens and get sharp photos even at 1/30th of a second. That's impressive if the subject doesn't budge, but it won't help at all for fast moving subjects in a dark jungle, for instance. For that, you'd probably need to spend a lot more on a DSLR with a better low-light-capable sensor and a fast super-telephoto lens.

Image quality

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Shot on the Olympus E-M1 Mark III at ISO 1600

Steve Dent/Engadget

That brings us to one of the main issues with this camera: the sensor. The E-M1 III has the same one as its predecessor, so there's not a huge difference between them in image quality. In one way, that's not a bad thing: Olympus has great color science, so the new model delivers lifelike colors for a wide range of subjects, especially people. Compared to Sony's A6600, again, I found skin tones on the E-M1 III to be slightly more natural and colors generally more accurate.

RAW image quality is also excellent and allows for a lot of latitude to boost shadows and get details in highlights. However, for the price, the E-M1 III doesn't stand up to larger sensor rivals, like Sony's A7 III, in low light. In fact, any shots past ISO 3200 will start to show a lot of noise, especially in the shadow regions.

Panasonic has solved that issue to a certain extent with its dual-ISO system, albeit on the lower-resolution GH5S. Still, it's too bad Olympus wasn't able to boost the ISO range on its latest camera.

If 20.4 megapixels aren't enough, you can use the multi-shot high-res mode that combines eight images to deliver a single 50-megapixel image when shooting handheld. Unlike the high-res modes on other cameras, this one works great for handheld images as long as the subject doesn't move around much.

I was able to shoot a lizard handheld using this feature, which impressed me greatly and shows the benefits of Olympus' image stabilization system, as well. If you don't mind using a tripod and want as much resolution as possible, you can capture up to 80-megapixel stills using the same high-res mode.

Video

The O-MD E-M1 Mark III carries all the video features from the E-M1X and is a big improvement on the last model. But it's also a big step down from many similarly priced rival cameras.

You can now shoot Cinema 4K (C4K) at 24 fps, 4K at up to 30 fps and HD at 120 fps. That's good, but well short of the 4K 60p available on Panasonic's similarly priced GH5 and the cheaper Fujifilm X-T3. While it now has an OM-Log mode that delivers more dynamic range, it doesn't deliver as much as log modes on other cameras. It also lacks the 10-bit video found on the GH5 and X-T3. That limits your ability to color grade while editing on high dynamic range (HDR) video.

On the other hand, the E-M1 III makes an excellent vlogging camera, thanks to its small size and incredible image stabilization. The display flips out so you can see yourself, and it won't block a microphone or gimbal like Canon's M6 Mark II or the Nikon Z50, for instance.

On top of that, rolling shutter is well-controlled, thanks in part to the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor. So this could actually be a better camera for vlogging than Panasonic's GH5 because of the smoother image stabilization. However, the GH5 remains a much better all-purpose video camera.

Wrap-up

Olympus E-M1 Mark III sample image gallery

Olympus E-M1 Mark III sample image gallery

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III sample image gallery

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Olympus has become the forgotten camera maker and its latest model, the O-MD E-M1 Mark III, is not likely to change that perception. As before, its strength is wildlife and action shooting; it's very portable and very fast, and it has a good, but not great, autofocus system.

However, that doesn't advance the story much over the last model. It's a bit faster and has better image stabilization, but it packs exactly the same sensor as before, so image quality hasn't changed much. It delivers sharp photos with accurate colors under most conditions, but low-light image quality is mediocre.

If there is any surprise here, it's the vlogging capabilities. But for other types of video shooting, it falls far short of rivals like Fujifilm's X-T3 and Panasonic's GH5.

Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm keep delivering technology-packed mirrorless cameras, and Olympus can't keep up. It was shocking how little the E-M1 Mark III has changed from the last model. Yes, it is an excellent camera for pro and serious amateur wildlife and action photography, particularly if you want something compact.

For everyone else, though, I'd recommend getting Panasonic's G6 or similarly priced cameras from Fujifilm or Sony. And if you're on a budget and still need that speed, the E-M1 Mark II should soon be available at a steep discount. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III arrives in black for $1,800 (body only) and $2,500 with the 12-40mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko lens, starting February 24th, 2020.

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