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Hands on: Olympus E-M1 Mark III review

This 'mini E-M1X' could be ideal for sports and action shooters

What is a hands on review?
Olympus E-M1 Mark III
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

Like a smaller, more affordable E-M1X, the E-M1 Mark III is shaping up to be one of the best mirrorless all-rounders you can buy. While it might seem expensive for a Micro Four Thirds camera, the combination of superb image stabilization, speedy continuous shooting and an array of impressive shooting modes could make it a tempting option for sports and action fans. It's a shame the sensor is now a little old, and it may struggle to compete with rivals on outright image quality, but the E-M1 Mark III remains an impressive upgrade on its predecessor.

For

  • Great build quality and handling
  • Impressive image stabilization
  • Very fast burst shooting
  • Huge choice of shooting modes

Against

  • Same sensor as predecessor
  • Expensive

Professional sports and wildlife photographers aren't exactly short of options these days, but the Olympus E-M1 Mark III is yet another compelling contender from the Micro Four Thirds flag bearer.

We were big fans of the E-M1 Mark II when it arrived in late 2016, with our review calling it the "total package" for anyone after a weatherproof system that could do stills and video. But with rivals launching a slew of full-frame mirrorless cameras since then, what new tricks has Olympus pulled out of its hat to keep the E-M1 Mark III relevant?

Well, it's essentially made a mini version of its flagship E-M1X. That camera impressed us with its power and features, if not its value for money. So with the E-M1 Mark III packing similar treats – including a 50MP Handheld High Res mode and class-leading image stabilization – into a smaller body, has Olympus made its ultimate all-rounder? The early signs are certainly promising...

Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

Olympus E-M1 Mark III release date and price

You'll be able to buy the Olympus E-M1 Mark III from late February in various bundles. If you just want the camera body-only, it'll be available for $1,799.99 / £1,599.99 / AU$3,099. While this is the same price as many of today's full-frame cameras, it's actually cheaper than the E-M1 Mark II's launch price of £1,849 (around $2,400 / AU$3,570).

There will also be bundles available with Olympus' Pro lenses. You'll be able to buy it with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens for $2,499.99 / £2,199.99 / AU$4,199. Or if you need an all-in-one zoom lens, you can get it with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 IS Pro lens for $2,899.99 / £2,499.99 / AU$4,799.

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

Body and handling

Olympus has hardly changed the design from the E-M1 Mark II, and that's no bad thing – this is a classic, weatherproof body that combines great controls with dimensions that are similar to rivals like the Fujifilm X-T3.

There are small tweaks that even the most hardcore Olympus OM-D fan would struggle to notice. There's a new dedicated ISO button, a handy new AF joystick, and a marginally bigger grip, which explains the slight increase in weight to 580g (with the battery and SD card).

In the hand, the E-M1 Mark III feels very solid and balances well with most lenses, although the 60mm f/2.8 Macro felt like a more natural combination than the longer 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro lens when we tried them both. 

Like its predecessor, it's fully sealed against rain, dust and freezing temperatures. While we've yet to test these claims, the E-M1 Mark II survived some punishing Icelandic storms when we reviewed it there, and we've no reason to suspect its successor will be any different. In fact, Olympus says the E-M1 Mark III has the same IPX1 waterproofing rating (the highest on that scale) as the E-M1X.

Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

There are another couple of potential bonuses for the E-M1 Mark III's future hardiness. It has a 400,000 shutter rating (that's roughly the number of shots its mechanical shutter will manage before failing), which is twice as many as its predecessor. Its Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF), a rather fancy name for Olympus' sensor-based dust reduction system, also has a new coating that apparently makes it even more invulnerable when you're changing lenses in dusty areas.

The E-M1 Mark III's buttons and dials are also incredibly customizable. If you don't like the default layout, most of them can be changed via the (somewhat convoluted) menus. And if you're a fan of 'Bulb' mode, which lets you hold the shutter open for an incredible six hours, you'll be pleased to see this has been added to the main mode dial.

Are there any downsides? It's hard to find much to complain about, but as the E-M1 Mark III is aimed at professionals, it's a shame that only one of the card slots supports the faster UHS-II type. If the similarly-sized Fujifilm X-T3 can manage to pack in two UHS-II slots, you'd hope this camera could do the same.

Otherwise, the E-M1 Mark III is a rock-solid, highly durable and customizable mirrorless camera that offers the same classic looks and handling of its predecessors.

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

Features and autofocus

How does the Olympus E-M1 Mark III differ from the mirrorless rivals like the Fujifilm X-T3 and Sony A6600? In general, it prioritizes versatility and shooting modes over outright image quality.

Not only does the E-M1 Mark III use a smaller Four Thirds sensor than those two rivals, it slightly disappointingly uses same 20.4MP Live MOS chip as its predecessor from 2016. That sensor was perfectly fine back then, and we haven't yet been able to thoroughly interrogate the camera's JPEG and raw files, but it's fair to say the E-M1 Mark III is unlikely to be top of the class when it comes to high ISO performance at this price point.

This does, though, come with a couple of important qualifications. Firstly, the E-M1 Mark III's smaller Four Thirds sensor is one of the main reasons why it can pack other features, most notably the same excellent image stabilization as seen on the E-M1X, into a body of this size. And those features do, in some situations, help to compensate for the sensor's comparatively small size.

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

The in-body five-axis image stabilization can, for example, help you handhold shots for seconds at a time, which in turn helps you keep your ISO down in lower light situations. This IBIS system is the same one we enjoyed on the E-M1X and, when combined with certain lenses – the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 IS PRO and M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO – apparently achieves an impressive 7.5 stops of compensation. 

Of course, long handheld shutter speeds are less appealing to sports and wildlife photographers, but there's plenty of speed available for this type of shooting too. Like its predecessor, the E-M1 Mark III can pull off 18fps with AF/AE tracking using its 121-point AF system – that's still seriously fast. And if you're shooting tricky subjects like birds, its Pro Capture mode now lets you buffer 35 raw files with a half-press of the shutter, with a further 120 shots after you've fully pressed the shutter.

If landscape shooting is more your thing, then the E-M1 Mark III brings some high resolution modes that help to compensate for its 20MP sensor. Like the E-M1X, it now has a 50MP Handheld High Res Shot mode; or if you put it on a tripod it can produce 80MP raw or JPEG files. 

And for portraits, the TruePix IX processor now brings improved Face and Eye AF tracking – we'll need more time to test this, but it certainly seemed very tenacious and sticky during our brief trip to London's Kew Gardens botanical center to test the camera.

The list of shooting modes packed into the E-M1 Mark III is too long to list here, but that's far from the end of your options. There's now Starry Sky mode, which claims to bring handheld shooting to astrophotography thanks to a new focusing algorithm, focus stacking for macros, and the addition of the OM-Log400 profile for those who like to grade their videos.

These modes will, of course, need much more testing before we can conclude how useful they are in each situation. But the E-M1 Mark III is certainly one of the most featured-packed cameras you can buy, whether you want to shoot stills, video or a bit of both.

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)
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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

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Olympus E-M1 Mark III

(Image credit: Future)

Olympus E-M1 Mark III early verdict

The hope of many photographers who had their eye on the E-M1X was that Olympus would pack most of its tech into a smaller, more affordable body – and that's exactly what it's done with the E-M1 Mark III.

As long as you don't feel too limited by the Four Thirds sensor – and the fact that the E-M1 Mark III disappointingly has the same chip as its 2016 predecessor – then there's a lot to like here.

In fact, the E-M1 Mark III is a hugely impressive all-rounder for handheld shooting in particular, thanks to that impressive in-body image stabilization and a huge range of shooting modes. While it's unlikely to be the absolute best for any particular photography genre, it's hard to think of an all-rounder with more features for everything from landscapes to macro shooting than the E-M1 Mark III.

The physical improvements from its predecessor are minor – an AF joystick is always helpful – but it's the E-M1 Mark III's autofocus and software boosts that make it a fine high-end mirrorless contender, despite that slightly hefty price tag. Look out for our full review very soon.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.