Initial impressions

Originally published February 12th 2020
By Richard Butler

There's a risk of the E-M1 III being seen as a repackaged E-M1X or a refreshed E-M1 Mark II but, like the recent E-M5 update, I think it's valuable to take a step back and look at the totality of what it offers, rather than worrying about whether you've seen some of the specs before.

Admittedly some aspects of the camera are familiar, perhaps overly so in some instances. The headline shooting rates of 18 frames per second (60 without AF) were astonishing when Olympus announced the E-M1 Mark II in 2016 and it's true they no longer appear quite so striking. The same can be said of the 4K video, which remains limited to 24p and the DCI aspect ratio if you want its highest quality. Then there's the viewfinder panel, which just seems outdated compared to the higher-contrast, higher resolution panels that are increasingly common.

It's valuable to take a step back and look at the totality of what it offers

But that's not the whole picture. The E-M1 III pushes Olympus's already excellent image stabilization up a notch. This not only improves your hit-rate and allows you to shoot with longer shutter speeds, it also lends support to the camera's video capabilities. Super-steady stabilization with usable autofocus and the ability to fine-tune the shutter speed to avoid flicker is more impressive than the basics of frame rate and bitrate imply.

Its basic video specification might not be cutting-edge, but if you consider the impact of its image stabilization and phase-detection autofocus, the E-M1 III is a pretty capable machine.

The excellent stabilization and fast sensor readout also let the E-M1 III offer features such as Live ND and handheld High Res mode: exactly the kind of quality-boosting multi-shot modes that are revolutionizing smartphones but have generally been overlooked by camera makers. Both features expand the scope of the E-M1 III's photography in situations where you haven't been able to bring tripods and filters.

Then there's the design and build of the camera. Olympus is one of the only makers to dare put a recognized rating of its weather sealing on its cameras, rather than making vague promises to the effect that they've thought about it. Add to that a shutter rated for 400,000 cycles and you have what should be a pretty rugged, dependable camera, as well as one that's full of interesting features.

Live ND and High Res mode are exactly the quality-boosting modes that are in smartphones but are generally overlooked by camera makers

Personally I'd like to see a bit of a refresh of the user interface. The basics are very good (the camera's ergonomics are excellent) but it feels like some of the new features could be better integrated into the camera's operation. Then again, I'm speaking as an occasional Olympus user, rather than a long-term owner: there's an inherent tension between the potential improvements that could come from a redesign and the benefits of maintaining consistency and familiarity.

For a small camera, the E-M1 III finds room for plenty of control points without feeling cramped.

With the arrival of the Mark III probably spelling the end for the Mark II, the Olympus lineup makes a lot more sense. The E-M5 III offers a host of enthusiast-friendly features in a solid, attractive and especially compact body, the E-M1 III offers a bit more, both in terms of speed and feature set, then the E-M1X offers pro sports camera handling at a lower cost than the full-frame models from Canon, Nikon or Sony.

The existence of the ~$2000 full-frame models will no doubt prompt lots of comments about the E-M1 III's launch price. But, while those cameras have the outward promise of better image quality, they don't necessarily offer the range of capabilities that the E-M1 III offers. Nor can they offer anything like the portability (or lens selection) of the Micro Four Thirds system, in those occasions you don't need directly equivalent image quality.

We can have a discussion about how much the E-M1 III 'should cost' only if you can name another camera that offers a comparable combination of excellent IS, video AF performance, shutter life, weather sealing, usable high-res mode and shooting rate.