Olympus has started 2020 positively with the announcement of two cameras and a lens. I had the chance to test-drive the pro camera in Costa Rica to give you a full rundown.
Micro Four Thirds (MFT) is a polarizing sensor size. It has a few perks, but for most, it's largely a drawback, and I can't say I felt differently. My time using MFT cameras was limited admittedly, but save for extra focal length, I wasn't sure what I was going to be missing. The truth is, all of my rough notions of life with an MFT camera were magnified in actuality, but the OM-D E-M1 Mark III (E-M1 III henceforth) is so much more than an MFT camera. In fact, some of what it offers is singular and enables photographers of all skill levels to be more creative. Let's start at the beginning.
In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to note that Olympus covered costs for travel, hotels, and some expenses. As is always the case, I do not believe this colors my review in any way, but it's important you have all the information.
- Sensor: 20.4 megapixels
- TruePic™ IX dual quad core processor
- 121 point (all cross type) on-chip phase detection autofocus system
- 5-Axis Image Stabilization, up to 7.5 stops of compensation
- 2.36-million dot EVF
- 3-inch Vari-Angle rear touchscreen
- Dust, splash, and freezeproof
- 15 fps mechanical mode, 60 fps electronic shutter
- 50-megapixel handheld high-resolution mode
- Live ND
- 4K 30 fps video
The spec sheet has a lot going on. As I have limited experience with the E-M1 mark II, I'm treating this more as a standalone camera than an upgrade. Those with the previous edition of this camera will be able to make the comparisons whether I lay them out or not.
The first thing that jumps out to me is the sensor. Frankly, 20.4 megapixels is not an issue to me in any way, shape, or form. What does bother me, however, is it isn't a new sensor. I'll discuss this more in the Image Quality section, but its performance in certain areas was a little lacking. The second thing to jump out is video: from what I can tell, it's a good camera for videographers, but 4K at 30 fps rather than 60fps will be a dealbreaker for many.
There's a lot of focus from Olympus on the camera being "compact and lightweight" with "superior mobility" for professionals, but left in that form, I believe it's misleading. The body dimensions are almost identical to my a7 III body; even the design is similar. With a sensor significantly smaller than full frame, I was expecting "compact" to be smaller than one of my workhorse bodies, but it isn't. What about lightweight? Again, using my a7 III as an anchor point just to highlight my argument: there isn't much in it — only about 50 grams (with two cards and the eye cup, the E-M1 III is about 600g.)
So, is Olympus just lying? No, not at all, but the superior mobility doesn't come from the body: it comes from the lenses, and in two different ways. Firstly, and most directly, the lenses range from small and light for an interchangeable lens camera, through to downright tiny. The new M.Zuiko 12-45mm f/4 PRO I wasn't sure I'd use much, as it was neither as fast and durable as the 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO they sent me, nor as versatile as the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO. However, it ended up getting a lot of camera time; it was sharp, had unbelievably good minimum focus distance (doubling nearly as a macro lens), and was surprisingly handy. But what blew me away was that the lens barrel was so compact, and it weighed next to nothing. My 24-70mm full frame lens weighs nearly 900g; this 12-45mm (which is 24-90mm full frame equivalent) weighs 254g. That's the sort of distinction we're talking here.
I was traipsing from dusk to dawn with this camera, a host of lenses, an M.Zuiko ED 300mm f/4 PRO (which is an amazing lens) and teleconverter on the front, in the Costa Rican jungle, in 90+ degrees, and 95% humidity, and it wasn't a problem. Yes I'm not old, and I'm in pretty good shape, but this portability is extremely forgiving and makes that sort of photography accessible for far more people.
This is one area I have very few criticisms, if any. The shape of the body, while not hugely innovative, is one of the best I've ever held. The grip is deep and well proportioned, the button and dial layouts are intuitive and easily accessed, and there is a good spread of customizable buttons. I could easily shoot with this camera all day and not have any aches, pains, cramps, or issues. I was regularly operating everything one-handed and adjusting settings without looking, despite having only been using the camera for a couple of days.
On the topic of efficiency, I'll also add a note about the battery life: it was superb. Never before have I been able to shoot that long on one battery. One day, I was shooting on and off from 6 am, thousands of shots, trying different modes and features, and it gave up on me just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. Two fully charged batteries will see you through even the longest of days.
I don't have a great deal to say about this. The 121-point continuous autofocus was ok: it worked, but it certainly wasn't hands-off when it come to subject detection. I regularly had to have the AF point narrowed down to its smallest and use the joystick to aim myself. However, with the right lens (particularly that 300mm), it was quick. I'd say the autofocus as a whole is middling. I suspect I could have got more out of it, but even with two different focus modes assigned to back buttons, it wasn't remarkable.
There is also a "Tracking" mode, which I had high hopes for, given our subject matter was mostly skittish wildlife, but as far as I could tell, it wasn't working. I spoke to two other photographers with me, and they both had the same problem. Secondly, I used the mode which only fires when my subject is in focus, but it just wasn't as useful for wildlife as I hoped, often missing the animal's eyes in lieu of some feathers or fur.
However, the continuous autofocus worked brilliantly for when I photographed a sunset surf competition, and I had more keepers than any other shoot. The E-M1 III mechanical shutter can fire off 15 frames per second in high mode, but as that disabled continuous autofocus, I opted for 10 frames per second in low mode, which focuses between frames and did a great job of it. The electronic shutter can go as high as 60 frames per second, which is staggering.
As for facial recognition and Eye AF, it was good, but I didn't put it through its paces. It hasn't had the animal update that some other Eye AFs have, and it only worked on baby capuchins (no really, it didn't work on any other monkey or older capuchins). I've no doubts it's accurate though, and with the continuous autofocus, it'll do in portraits what I wanted tracking to do.
In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
Olympus is famed for its IBIS, and it's easy to see why. I was able to drag the shutter and keep my subject sharp with consummate ease. With all the various ways the camera tempts you to take shots that would ordinarily require surgeon-like steadiness of hands (Live ND, High Res mode, and so on), this is essential. It's unquestionably good — very good in fact.
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
This is less of a triumph. The EVF is only 2.36M dots, which is behind the curve. It also didn't display everything perfectly, with dynamic range sometimes differing from that captured (albeit better than what the EVF showed), which isn't helpful. Also, like most EVF cameras, the detection of your face approaching it switches from the back screen to it, but unlike most EVF cameras, there's a half second or more lag when it switches, which is the opposite of what you want when shooting wildlife or sport. That said, you can get around this in the menu with settings alterations.
This is an area you may wish to get a second opinion. A common criticism of the menu system on modern Olympus cameras — which was even admitted by Olympus themselves — is how difficult the menu system is to navigate. When I went from Canon to Sony, I felt exactly what that was like, having to Google where common options were hiding. But putting down my Sony to use this Olympus felt like a step towards order and clarity to me.
The Image Quality
This was the area I was most concerned about. I had seen some images in the pre-NDA presentation that were clearly sharp, decent dynamic range, and punchy, but how real world was that? Well, after shooting thousands of shots I can say... mostly. When you nail a shot, it's high quality indeed and could box with the best. My troubles came when the images were taken in tougher lighting conditions.
My keeper rate was a little lower than I expected, particularly with wildlife. Vast swathes of my shots were so close, but just far enough away from the image quality I demand, which is admittedly very high. Picking apart exactly why this is, resolution isn't it. The image resolution — to roll out a quick tautology — is what it is; you're using a MFT sensor, so cropping has to be done carefully. But the dynamic range and ISO performance when the scene wasn't well lit was underwhelming.
Below is an example. The jungle is high contrast, with quickly changing light due to the bright sun, reflective leaves, and the moving canopy above; it's a challenging environment for any camera. However, I saw something I was very keen on capturing: a moth that was being consumed by a fungus. It was in shade, but by no means dark, and letting the camera meter for me at f/4, 210mm, and ISO 1600, I was able to shoot at 1/160, which with Olympus's IBIS should be plenty fast enough.
It's by no means terrible, but it does lack the clarity, contrast, and image quality I want from my images, and the raw files don't have quite enough about them to fix it easily. That said, when the natural contrast of the scene is playing in your favor, or at the very least not playing against you, the ISO doesn't impede image quality in any meaningful way. The shots below were taken between ISO 640 and 1,600 and suffer not issues.
Ok, sit tight, because now we're getting to the stuff I can simply gush over. I didn't have any experience with some of Olympus features where the computer's processor can do things few other cameras (if any) yet have. I didn't really have any expectations for them, but they really knocked me sideways.
Yes, every photographer on this trip called it "Starry as f**k" constantly. This new mode seemed to be something Olympus was excited about and so were some of the other photographers, perhaps because it was the newest addition. I chatted with one of the representatives of Olympus about this features, and he was thrilled with how much time it would save him — a notion shared by some of the other folks invited. What it does, in essence, is find a star in the sky and focus for you. No more of those "to infinity... and then back a bit" novelty t-shirts. And you know what, it did exactly what it said.
It was fast, accurate, and easy to use. Just for me, it wasn't really a problem I had given much thought to solving. I had always just zoomed in on the sky with Live View and manually focused on a star. That said, this is more accurate and foolproof, so I can't fault it. The night I tested it was frustratingly cloudy with a bright full moon, and yet Starry as f**k was able to pull partially obscured stars with startling precision and speed.
I truly didn't think I'd care much for an in-camera ND filter; I was wrong. This feature — which was seen in the E-M1X too — is so incredibly fun and applicable in lots of situations. You can choose between ND2, all the way up to 5 stops of exposure with ND32, and due to the IBIS being brilliant, you can easily handhold that. This shot below was taken by Chris Niccolls over at DPReview, funnily enough, while I was taking some of the surf gallery.
I hadn't seen this shot until yesterday, but Niccolls and I seemed to both identify the same idea for this function: capture a subject with movement around them. I wanted to really see what it could do, and rather than shoot low light, which I knew it was capable of, I tried using it at the brightest point of the day. Well, that's a touch disingenuous. It was the brightest point of the day, and I had an idea for the shot of the waves crashing against the rocks with a pelican on them and wondered if the Live ND could manage it before sunset. It could. I used the 40-150mm at f/22 and ISO 64, with a shutter speed of half a second (yes, I had to push it to the maximum to get the movement I wanted.) With some highlight control in post and a bit of localized sharpening (f/22 doesn't come without its issues on any lens or camera) I was able to get what I wanted.
I don't know why this feature isn't in every camera, truly. It's been around a while in Olympus's world, but not in mine. For the uninitiated, it essentially lets you watch an exposure build up on the back LCD. You can use this with Starry AF (as I did in the starscape above) and record everything from ordinary astrophotography to star trails without any of the guess work, and significantly less processing afterwards. What's more, if you have elements of vastly different exposures (city lights for example,) it keeps the image balanced without blowing the highlights. Utterly brilliant.
For those worried about 20 megapixels, there is a High Res Shot function, which handheld, can achieve 50 megapixels (raw 8,160 x 6,120) and on a tripod 80 megapixels (raw 10,368 x 7,776.) Like every other feature, I was impressed. For the 50 megapixel High Res, eight shots are combined into a single JPEG file using sensor shift. As I mentioned in the IBIS section, the stability means that this can be performed handheld on any subject that isn't moving too much.
I feel as if the story is the same with every one of these functions: I didn't expect to use it much, but end uped being thoroughly impressed. If anything says it's automated HDR, I'm out. It usually leads to sloppy exposures, brash colors, and unwanted noise. Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl in a testing situation. The bright morning sunlight was illuminating the sea and the bay, but a nice blue table that I wanted for some foreground interest was buried in darkness: partly in reality, partly due to the high dynamic range of the scene.
This is without HDR Function and then with HDR Function (2) turned on. A well-balanced scene and not dissimilar to what I would have done manually had I liked the shot enough.
What I Liked
- Live Composite is borderline wizardry and by far the greatest feature addition I've seen on a camera for years
- When you nail a shot, the quality is high
- Starry AF mode makes life easier
- Live ND is excellent and thoroughly enjoyable
- Battery life is great
- Dual card slots
- Body ergonomics
- Lens sizes and weights
What I Didn't Like
- The same sensor as before and it's showing its age
- Difficult to get the best image quality out of the camera in some situations
- Body not as small as I'd hoped — almost identical in size to an a7 III
- Price is a touch too high for my tastes, coming in at the same price as many great crop and full frame bodies
- ISO performance could be better
- Raw files aren't quite as forgiving as other modern cameras but with larger sensors
- EVF could be better
I'm a big fan of Olympus. They are a driven, focused, and passionate company — they remind me of Fujifilm in that way — and they take great pride in what they create. They're massive for a company, but relatively small for a major camera brand, and it appears to be only a positive. They do, however, seem to have resolved to go down with the MFT ship, if it were to sink. Interestingly, I don't think it will, but the sensor does require some attention. Olympus has a hell of a lot to offer, and innovation, particularly with in-camera tech, is second to none. They inspire brand loyalty, which is seldom the case these days, and the E-M1 III is a good example of evolution, even if it does appear to tread heavily on the toes of the E-M1X. But as they say, they don't have a "flagship" camera, so perhaps that's not a concern.
Despite some flaws, I don't want to give the E-M1 back; I want to bleed every last second out of it. I feel I've only scratched the surface of the various functions and their uses. They may be aimed at giving more creative control to less experienced photographers, but I can promise my fellow photography veterans, the ceiling is high and the functions' uses are malleable. Speaking of ceilings, another appeal of this camera — to me at least — is that regardless of its interest in making things easier and more accessible for photographers, it felt as if the mastery ceiling was oddly high. I want to master this camera and its settings, as I'm certain it would yield unique images, which we all crave.
So, would I recommend it, and if so, to whom? Well, the E-M1 III was designed with wildlife and sports photographers in mind, and I'd say its strengths are in those fields, though it certainly excels elsewhere too given the features. In fact, for its Live Composite, Live ND, and Starry AF modes, it's a brilliant choice for amateurs through to professionals. In contrast, however, I think that bird photography and fast-moving sports and wildlife still require a requisite amount of camera understanding to get the most out of it, not to mention an eye for good light. Nevertheless, I would recommend it for anyone who benefits from a lightweight setup that has good reach for faraway things, though for me, its tour de force is the aforementioned features going on inside the body which are the best I've seen on any camera.