Review: Olympus OMD EM1 III (A Travel Photographer’s Imperfect Gem)

The Olympus OMD EM1 III gives me very mixed feelings and promotes a particular lifestyle over the general appeal.

Though I’m hesitant to call the Olympus OMD EM1 III a specialized camera, it could be the best way to describe it. Travel, landscape, wildlife, and night photographers will adore its features. The small size combined with small lenses, deep depth of field at open apertures, and the build quality is all highly prized. When the aging sensor at the heart of the Olympus OMD EM1 III starts to rear its ugly head, Olympus can deliver beautiful images via the art filters. In my discussions with other journalists, I feel like the Art Filters are what truly makes Olympus unique. It’s synonymous with Fujifilm’s Film Simulations. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got one word for you: Acros. While traveling, the system is lightweight and one of the most manageable that I’ve used. And no matter where you’re traveling to, the Olympus OMD EM1 III has durability almost comparable to the EM1X. So why would you leave Sony, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica, Panasonic, or Fujifilm for an Olympus OMD EM1 III? Honestly, I’m still pondering who the photographer is that would do just that.

Editor’s Note: Some of this review was done on a press trip set up and fully paid for by Olympus. We did our own testing here in NYC as well too. Phoblographer’s Editors are trained to resist giving overly positive reviews due to the excitement of press trips. And this was arguably the best one we’ve been on in a while. We’ll always be 100% transparent with you. We’re not paid influencers, and we abide by FTC laws in addition to having a very high standard of journalistic ethics.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Feels nice when shooting for a long time
  • We like the shutter sound
  • Good continuous autofocus which does tracking
  • The processor is fantastic
  • The art filters continue to make Olympus unique amongst other camera brands. Shooting surfers with the cross-process and the vintage filter was so fun. Same with grainy black and white.
  • Live composite is so incredibly pleasant, along with Starry AF.
  • It survived sand and saltwater
  • Continuous AF+Tracking works well with wide angles
  • The custom shooting mode switch on the back is something every adventure brand should have
  • This is the foundation for an Olympus camera we’d want to bring with us everywhere
  • Handheld high res shot continues to be one of the best things ever
  • Face detection works on monkeys

Cons

  • Battery life in the heat and the cold
  • Still no rating system in the playback menu. Why?
  • C-AF + Tracking is useless with telephoto lenses
  • Why no touchscreen menus?
  • Olympus’s menu system continues to give headaches
  • Some of the parts seem very dated. Like the EVF, the sensor, and some of the dials
  • A top screen LCD could have made shooting easier
  • Why couldn’t it have Dual UHS-II Card slots
  • Above ISO 1600, you really need the art filters to take the most advantage of the otherwise too grainy sensor
  • Could really use no blackout in the EVF
  • Animal Tracking in autofocus is needed
  • Need longer lenses for birding
  • We couldn’t find spot metering AF linked to the face (or at least it didn’t work for us)

Gear Used

We tested the Olympus OMD EM1 III with the 300mm f4 Pro, 7-14mm f2.8 Pro, 12-100mm f4 IS PRO, the new 12-45mm Pro, and the Voigtlander 17.5mm f0.95 lens.

Tech Specs

  • 20.4MP LiveMOS 4/3 sensor
  • TruePic IX
  • -3.5 EV Autofocus
  • 121 point phase-detection system
  • Starry Sky AF
  • Weather Sealing to IPX1
  • 5 axis image stabilization on the sensor
  • Electronic shutter up to 1/32000
  • 15 fps with shutter, but in silent mode, you can shoot up to 60
  • 10 fps with Tracking, but in silent mode, you can do up to 15
  • 2.34M dot EVF
  • 3 inch 1037 dot LCD screen
  • Dual card slots, one is UHS-II compatible.
  • 12-bit RAWs
  • Cinema 4k 24p IPB video
  • USB-C connectivity and charging
  • Headphone and microphone jack
  • Magnesium alloy body

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III (black) will be available beginning February 24, 2020. The camera body only will have a suggested retail price of $1,799.99 USD and $2,399.99 CAD. The camera body bundled with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO Lens will have a suggested retail price of $2,499.99 USD and $3,299.99 CAD, and the camera body bundled with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 F4.0 IS PRO Lens will have a suggested retail price of $2,899.99 USD and $3,799.99 CAD. The shock mount adapter SM2 will have a suggested retail price of $39.99 USD and $51.99 CAD, and the audio cable KA335 will have a suggested retail price of $14.99 USD and $19.99 CAD. These accessories will be available beginning April 2020.

Ergonomics

The Olympus OMD EM1 III is a lot like its predecessor. With the lens off of the camera, we find the sensor at heart along with two customizable buttons. There is also a grip–something missing from the EM5 series of cameras.

Turn to the top, and you’ll find all the major controls on the Olympus OMD EM1 III. Starting from the left, you’ll see Autofocus modes, drive modes, metering modes, and the on/off switch. Personally, I love the positioning of this switch though some may hate it. There is also the mode dial with a lock, exposure dials, and a few other buttons. Of course, you can also find the hot shoe here. All of this is weather-sealed, as you can tell.

The back of the camera houses a lot of essential functions. The ISO button is on the thumb grip while the joystick and the playback button are on the right. The controls are nicely arranged around the giant LCD screen.

Build Quality

We took the Olympus OMD EM1 III into the sand, saltwater, and this product shoot. It survived and kept clicking. We’re very impressed with the build quality of the camera. It’s also rated to IPx1. If you’re curious about what an IP rating is, then know that this camera can take dripping water vertically, and it’s protected from impact with objects more substantial than 50mm. You can see more on that on this website. Realistically speaking, here’s where the build quality of the Olympus OMD EM1 III will really come in handy:

  • Landscapes: Dirt, rain, mist, etc.
  • Travel: The beach and animals.
  • Rain: It will shrug that off easily

Basically, you shouldn’t be afraid to use the Olympus OMD EM1 III in inclement situations unless you’re using one of the company’s cheaper lenses without protection. Except for their small prime lenses, I probably wouldn’t go for any of the more affordable glass that Olympus makes anyway. If you’re spending nearly $2,000 on this camera, then you’re doing yourself an injustice by not getting the newer and better lenses. It’s like buying a Canon 1Dx series camera and getting a 50mm f1.8. Do what you want, of course, I just think it’s asinine.

Ease of Use

Please note that I used to own Olympus cameras, and I’m very well versed in how they work. Gear Editor Brett Day owns one still. With full transparency, the rest of the industry has caught up and surpassed Olympus in ease of use in most cases. If you’re used to working with another camera system, it will be a learning curve for sure. Canon, Leica, and Sony users will have the most difficulty moving to the vertical menu system from the horizontal menus. Olympus has super long menus and no touchscreen menu navigation. It’s going to be a while until they catch up to Panasonic and Canon.

One remarkable thing is the switch on the back of the camera for shooting modes. One can be set to tracking subjects, and the other can be set to Single-AF. It’s incredibly useful for wildlife.

High Res Shot Mode

The Olympus High Res shot mode is always something that I felt they added to compete with higher-end camera systems. The results you get are admittedly great in part due to the higher end Olympus lenses that you should be using to take the most advantage of this camera. Personally, I’d never see myself using it unless I was shooting a landscape or building on a tripod. This is where I get a bit annoyed with the Olympus OMD EM1 III. We’re mainly using a sensor from four years ago. Why? We know that Olympus cameras and Four-Thirds sensors aren’t that great above ISO 1600 in comparison to lots of what’s out there today. So my thought process is that they should just embrace it because they surely can’t fight it. They’d embrace it by going back to using a CCD sensor with this insanely powerful new process. I really liked the look of the old Kodak CCD sensors too. In fact, I’d be more inclined to buy an Olympus camera if they used a CCD. It’s so different than what’s on the market. They have some f1.2 lenses already that can be easily used with it when the lights get low. And if there’s a problem with the image quality, then embrace the Art filters–which is something I think every photographer forgets about.

Live Composite

Live Composite on the Olympus OMD EM1 III is an enjoyable feature. Like a lot of photographers, I don’t want to sit there in Photoshop or some other program layering images on top of one another. I don’t think that it makes you more legitimate to use Photoshop, either. But instead, the Live Composite feature makes compositing photos very easy. It’s great for star trails, long exposures, etc.

Autofocus

The autofocus is a mixed bag. In low light, the Olympus OMD EM1 III will do its best in S-AF mode. When trying to track a subject, it’s going to suffer a bit. Autofocus tracking also works well. But by all means, these standards are exceptional for a camera made in 2015. It’s 2020 now, and Olympus should really be getting it together with a few other features. Those include accuracy in autofocus tracking (it’s about on par with a Canon EOS R and a Sony a7r III) and using their AI system. A camera system so incredibly targeted to wildlife shooters should be able to recognize birds, dogs, pigs, cows, human children crying on airplanes sarcasm, crocodiles, etc. Olympus says that they’re working on that feature. And for the sake of their company, I really hope that it comes before the middle of the year. Everyone’s sales are down right now.

Here’s the Olympus OMD EM1 III in action tracking a surfer

Animals

The Olympus system is one that I really believe needs animal AF detection. They’re a system that targets themselves to wildlife photographers, and more people would go over if they just had this. With primates, you’ll be able to use face detection and Tracking. It will do an excellent job, for the most part.

When tracking birds, on the other hand, you’re going to have more trouble. Olympus says that they’re working on building that into the AI.

Starry Sky AF

The starry sky AF feature on the Olympus OMD EM1 III works in two different ways. There is an accuracy priority that makes focusing a bit slower. Additionally, there’s a faster option too. You should ideally just be using accuracy combined with Live Composite. Then just hang out wherever you are with friends and have fun.

Image Quality

Image quality from the Olympus OMD EM1 III is as good as a four-year-old sensor can deliver for you with a brand-spanking’ new processor. The high ISO output isn’t great and considering what we got from both the EM1X and the EM5 MK III, we’re not bothering to print the high ISO images. But instead, Olympus does things around that which make the photos fresh, fun, and very unique.

Low ISO Processing: Detail Priority (and Clarity)

There’s a feature in the Olympus menu system around Low ISO processing. If you switch this to detail priority, you’re going to get more details from your photos below what I believe to be ISO 800. We saw the difference in a presentation, and it was staggering. I pointed out that it looked like it was adding clarity to the images, while other journalists thought it was doing more than that. So mostly, know that when combining this sensor with Olympus’s top of the line glass and the Detail Priority setting that you’ll get better images with lots of detail. At least, it’s as much detail as you can really get.

What Makes Olympus Unique: Art Filters

When people on the web talk about Olympus image quality, they’re comparing the more clinical things that most traditional professionals would care about. If that’s what we’re going for, then only Canon, Nikon, Leica, Panasonic, Fujifilm GF format, and Sony are delivering excellent image quality. But with Olympus, you’ll get a whole lot at the lower ISO settings. Once you go up from there, it’s better to use the art filters. These filters give your images a beautiful look that you’ll learn to be okay with. Years ago, every journalist I worked with shot with the Pen F and the black and white simulation. You can, and should, do the same with the Olympus OMD EM1 III.

RAW File Versatility

At this time, Capture One doesn’t support the Olympus OMD EM1 III. Olympus doesn’t even totally recommend working with Adobe’s Lightroom engine as it doesn’t do the best job possible. We’ll update this later on.

High ISO Output

I recommend not going above ISO 1600 if you’re shooting with a standard color profile. But if you’re going above that, then slap an art filter on. Instant film, vintage, bleach bypass, cross-process, pinhole, and grainy film are all great. Try them, and you’ll see how beautiful the results are.

Extra Image Samples

Conclusions

Likes

  • Small size
  • Feel in the hand
  • Reliability
  • Small lenses
  • Durability
  • Olympus art filters are always so fun

Dislikes

  • It’s using ancient parts: sensor, EVF, LCD screen
  • I feel like Olympus is playing catch up in a lot of ways while they’re ahead in some ways

So who should buy the Olympus OMD EM1 III? Landscape photographers who want a lighter rig should totally do so. Travel photographers who want unique image quality also qualify. Wildlife photographers that need durability and are holding out for some new firmware updates will love the Olympus OMD EM1 III. Nightscape photographers who don’t want to use Photoshop will love the Live Composite feature that’s been around for years. But otherwise, it’s a pretty slim crowd. Olympus could change things up by just embracing the format more so for what it is. With a small sensor, they can use AI and computational photography to really survive. They have short, fast lenses. In fact, I’d even argue that they need faster lenses like f2 or f1.8 zoom lenses (Four Thirds had that.) I’d be okay with a bigger lens if I just had the quality. And the quality should be coming from a more unique sensor. Olympus is never going to win the high ISO battle. To that end, they can switch to a CCD sensor and get even more unique results.

Additionally, the price point is almost in line with APS-C sensor cameras. I’m not totally sure why, as it’s not entirely justified. Would I buy an Olympus OMD EM1 III? If I had the funds to do so. But it doesn’t make sense for the way I shoot. The Olympus OMD EM1 III isn’t at all a bad camera, but instead, I’m a bit disappointed that they’re not updating with the rest of the industry or finding more ways to stand out. What the camera does, it does fantastically well. When the camera fails, it has ways to stand on its own two feet with crutches. While I think that Olympus has a lot to it that makes them unique, there isn’t enough that’s unique about it to make me want to pull the trigger. Further, I’ve always been a rangefinder-style camera guy. The day that the Olympus OMD EM1 III becomes available in Pen F format and they include a few other things to make it unique like a CCD sensor and higher-grade electronics, I’ll be sold.

The Olympus OMD EM1 III receives four out of five stars. Check Amazon for the latest pricing.