Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III review: Technological powerhouse

Sensor size. Yes, it still matters. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III is part of the Micro Four Thirds format system, which uses a smaller sensor size than you’ll find in many other competitor DSLR and mirrorless cameras. But this sensor format is both its Achilles’ heel and its launchpad. 

On the one hand, a larger sensor would mean greater light gathering capacity and resolution potential. But it also means added bulk – something this Olympus doesn’t suffer. Its equivalent lenses are smaller too.

Furthermore, the E-M1 Mk3 brings a host of innovative tech, truly going to town with a bounty of shooting modes that make this camera a technological powerhouse that stands apart from its peers. 

An answer for everyday photography

  • Image Stabilisation up to 7.5EV
  • High-Res Shot up to 80MP
  • Live ND Shooting up to 5EV
  • Starry Sky AF 
  • Focusing Stacking in-camera
  • Pro-Capture High Time-lapse with 4K video output
  • Cine 4K video, plus Slow motion Full HD videos up to 120fps
  • Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity 

The E-M1 MkIII packs a remarkable feature list – and we’ve only included the highlights above. That’s something Olympus continues to do: unearth new ideas that are genuinely useful. Scroll down page after page of the jungle of a menu system – in itself a problem that takes some navigational learning – and you’ll find heaps of extra goodies.

But it’s not just the shooting modes that are the reason to buy this camera. It also packs a super image stabilisation system, which is a key reason why the E-M1 Mark III is so easy to use. It’s now rated up to 7.5EV (depending on which lens is being used), so it’s completely possible to get sharp detail in handheld shots with an exposure a couple of seconds long. That’s truly mind-boggling stuff.   

This system is used in other creative ways too. Take in-camera focus stacking. This bracketing mode can composite multiple images at different focus planes to create a final image with greater depth of field. All in-camera, shot handheld, with manual control over the depth range and number of shots. It’s a macro photographer’s dream, plus that Micro Four Thirds sensor already has greater depth of field than larger sensor rivals at equivalent aperture settings.

Or how about High-Res Shot. Effective for static scenes, this uses the stabilisation system to move the focus by a pixel at a time, to multiply the sensor and capture a super-high resolution image. You’ll get a 50MP image (rather than the 20.4MP native resolution of that sensor). There’s also a tripod mode that results in an 80MP image – but you’ll need greater attention to technique with this mode, ensuring the camera (and subject) is very steady.

Live ND Shooting is now part of the arsenal too. It creates the effect of a Neutral Density filter up to a strength of 5EV – useful for reducing the incoming light equivalent, enabling longer exposures that may be useful when capturing intentional movement. You may think that reducing light for a small sensor is a bad idea, but for making long(er) exposure shots in bright light it’s useful.

Yet that’s the beauty of the technology – in a number of scenarios the E-M1 Mark III does away with the need for extra kit like a tripod or remote release or ND filter. It’s about making life easier for the image maker. 

Elsewhere there’s Starry Sky AF. If you are into astrophotography, this mode breathes new life into the Olympus system. It really does exactly what it says on the tin: you’ll get sharp detail of the stars every time, with ease. No need for manual focus, or for any degree of uncertainty or guesswork. 

Olympus continues to up the video game, too. We still have Cine 4K (24fps) and 4K (30fps) video recording, plus slow-motion HD video (up to 120fps).Crucially, there’s a flat colour profile and an ‘OMLog 400’ profile now included, meaning you can get a wonderful colour rendition.

Pro-Capture mode is perfect if your reactions are not quite up to scratch for action. When the shutter is half-pressed, the camera now buffers up to 35 shots before the shutter is fully pressed for capture, enabling a delayed reaction of up to 3 seconds.  

So, while the E-M1 Mark III has a smaller-scale sensor, there are so many occasions where shots are made possible by Olympus innovation.

King of action?

  • Electronic viewfinder (EVF), 2.36m-dot resolution
  • Fully articulated 3-inch touchscreen
  • 121-point phase-detection autofocus system
  • 18fps silent shutter with continuous AF
  • Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body
  • 400,000 shutter cycles
  • 420-shot battery life
  • AF joystick control
  • Dual SD card slot

Last year Olympus launched a new flagship camera, the E-M1 X. The E-M1 inherits much of the best bits from this camera – but in a smaller form-factor that costs a lot less. Like the E-M1 X, its magnesium alloy body is weather-sealed to an IPX1 rating, making this one tough camera.

A battery life of 420-shots is par for the course. However, charging via USB is now possible, so you can keep the battery topped up on-the-go between shots by using a power bank. Also, with a vertical handgrip added that life can be doubled. The compatible batteries and handgrip are the same ones used in the E-M1 Mark II, which could make an upgrade kinder on the pocket.

It’s the viewing experience where the E-M1 Mark III is let down a little. There has been no update of the 2.36-million dot EVF. With a 0.74x magnification, the view is not quite as crisp or immersive as larger examples like the E-M1 X and Panasonic Lumix G9. That said, it’s still a good viewfinder with a solid 120fps refresh rate.

It’s not just the screen’s refresh rate that’s fast – the E-M1 Mark III gets out of the blocks at great speed. Start it up and the shutter and finder are all ready to respond with no real lag.

Wade through the AF modes; Eye Detection, Face Detection, Tracking. It all seems to work rapidly and for the best part reliably. For example, Tracking AF sticks to a subject very quickly – and even right up to the near edges of the frame. 

There is some groundwork to put in to ensure the best possible performance, though. For example, if you stick to the entire 121-AF-point array for a single subject, you’ll experience focus dropping to the background. The single point or 9-AF point options are more consistently sharp in our experience.

We tracked a bike moving at reasonable speed towards and away from the camera. Continuous Tracking AF did lag a fraction, especially closer to the camera, so we’re not top of the pile here. However, lateral movement is fine. 

Olympus has implemented an AF joystick. This is a tool that most action photographers want in order to select AF points quickly. Here it feels lovely and operates smoothly, whether viewing on screen or through the viewfinder. A side benefit of the joystick is that the limited functions of the touchscreen are less relevant. 

You also have some seriously impressive high-speed burst rates: 18fps silent shutter with continuous AF (silence is a dream for wildlife photography); and up to 60fps with the electronic shutter. For more intense action sequences, we feel the continuous ‘low’ burst rate of 9fps (mechanical shutter) is best, delivering consistently sharp AF and longer sequences. 

Yes, high-speed sequences are handled quickly by the new TruePic IX processor and can be recorded onto a UHS-II SD card. The second SD slot is not UHS-II compatible, so you’re relying on slot one for optimum performance.

Expect approximately 65 frames before the camera slows (when shooting Raw & JPEG – or approximately double that in JPEG only). No sooner have you finished a new sequence and the camera is virtually ready to go again – surely a benefit of smaller file sizes compared to rival cameras?

Micro Four Thirds sensor quality

  • 20.4MP Micro Four Thirds sensor
  • ISO 200-25,600 (extd. ISO 64)
  • Image Stabilisation to 7.5EV
  • TruePic IX processor

The elephant in the room is sensor size. We’re looking at the same 20.4MP Micro Four Thirds sensor as found in the E-M1 Mark II, with a sensitivity range of ISO 200 to ISO 25,600. Bottom line, there are other cameras for the same price packing larger sensors and more pixels. 

Studio tests analysing resolution and image noise with its impact on detail will show that the E-M1 Mark III does not compete with those larger sensor cameras in like-for-like tests.  

Image noise is relatively absent in images up to ISO 800, though, and it’s really only from ISO 3200 that we’re starting to lose detail and contrast. Also, default noise reduction for JPEG images is heavy handed in our view.

However, images are not taken in a lab but in the real world – and that is where the Olympus technology (and vast choice of sharp, wide aperture lenses) comes into play.

Image stabilisation up to 7.5EV means a slower shutter speed can be used, where appropriate. Any increase in light intake, such as through increasing shutter speed (or a fast aperture lens), can make a big difference in image quality. 

And what is the point of more pixels if the picture is not sharp in the first place? We feel that the E-M1 Mark III is very reliable across a wide range of scenarios to at least get focusing right and minimise motion blur. 

With regards to how images look, Olympus has long given us a beautifully warm and natural colour rendition. The plentiful Art Filters are more suited to the entry-level cameras, but here the natural picture mode with auto white balance are a great combo. Like some other camera systems, in JPEG images there is a small loss of detail in bright magentas/reds.

We should also note that the evaluative metering system is one of the most reliable out there. You also get manual control at your fingertips through exposure compensation, plus a handy range of spot metering modes.