In January 2020, my fifth expedition to Costa Rica took place. As always, for my fellow photographers who accompanied me, I tried to find interesting motifs to shoot. Plus, on this occasion someone else (or rather something) came with us on the trip – a pre-production sample of the new Olympus E-M1 Mark III. I couldn’t be happier that my trip coincided with the MIII testing as I would not enjoy photographing over and over my bookshelves in the living room again. To review this camera, I originally wrote quite a long piece about all the new features the camera features how it resembles the previous models. However, I realised that you can read all that in the technical leaflet (or in the short summary below). Plus, it won’t actually tell you anything about the new E-M1 Mark III camera. Each user has their own needs and expectations. What I find interesting, may be unnecessary to others and vice versa. So, I will do it differently and describe the new E-M1 Mark III on real-life examples instead.
Green Heron, Olympus E-M1 mark III, Costa Rica 2020
Studio Tests vs Real Life
So, before you read on, let me give you a few pointers on what real-life examples mean in my view. I guess we all came across the typical initial review tests carried out by various independent websites. They all compare cameras from one simple point of view – they compare their parameters across brands/ models and evaluate, which ones stand out most at that moment in time. This creates a false sense of objectivity, further enhanced by the final evaluation, where the reviewer points out that the camera/ model is missing XYZ features, which can be found on different cameras by other manufacturers. This contrives a bit of a utopian desire for a technically perfect camera that has absolutely everything the market has to offer but has never been produced before (Spoiler alert) and never will.
Resplended Quetzal, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/40s, handheld
I use Olympus and have been doing so for three years now. Being fully aware of all its advantages and disadvantages, I count myself among the growing group of satisfied users. During these short three years, my Olympus photos have been awarded in more prestigious international competitions than in my full-frame era combined. Evidently, the chip size has nothing to do with the overall attractiveness of the photo. For some, though, it’s an excuse for a biased view on the matter. How can my view be impartial, when I use Olympus and, to top it all off, I am the brand ambassador/ visionary? The question is, how unbiased can a sworn full-frame lover actually be? Basically, it always ends in a cat vs dog fight over what is better, getting us nowhere near the truth anyway. Because the “better” has no objective scale. Someone wants pixels, the other one compactness, someone else fancies gadgets and the fourth perhaps a coffee maker. So, in that sense I do not offer an objective view of the matter or even a typical review in the true sense full of superficial adjustments to basic parameters and test targets or candid shots from a window. What I do offer, though, is an actual active user perspective in real life situations. A perspective of a person, who is not afraid to admit he knows his camera through and through; and is not ashamed to make the most of all the gadgets the camera has to offer giving him maximum creative freedom. I would like you to imagine how to use those complex settings to create photos instead of finding situations where they cannot be used. The use of a HiRes shot is often discussed, for example. Its opponents often point out that its use is not ideal, say, when shooting moving objects. This is perfectly true, so in my articles I try to focus on situations where it can be used. (When it comes to your car for example, it won’t help to know that cruise control is useless on winding roads. From my point of view, you will appreciate more knowing the roads where you will be relieved from repetitive stiff pedal pressing). Personally, I know what Olympus cameras can do and where are their limits, which I’ve already exhaustively described in my articles when transiting from FF. So, don’t expect standardised test patterns and noise comparisons per ISO. I’m sure there will be plenty of these comparative tests online, where you will find your answer. Besides, since at the time of writing these lines, my primary editing software Capture One did not support RAW files from this camera and I had to compromise with a slightly cumbersome editing through a DNG converter, I don’t even have the necessary data anyway. (In the spring, I’m considering making a comparative noise study of the entire Olympus range). Ultimately, in this article, you simply won’t find out how the E-M1 Mark III performs when taking a studio scene at room temperature using a tripod. I want to show you how the camera works in the hands of a real life nature photographer in the tropics.
Green Iguana, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 40-150mm/2.8, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/3s, handheld
Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 500, f/4, 1/500s, handheld
Menu Functions and Comparison of E-M1 Mark III with previous models
Although I do not want to dive unnecessarily too deep into Specs, let’s kick off by clarifying some basic overview of E-M1 Mark III and where to “shelve” it. The new model E-M1 Mark III is the successor of the E-M1 Mark II. It therefore bears the elements of the previous model, as well as a number of upgrades passed on from the higher model E-M1X. It is also full of several brand new innovations, which we see on the Olympus camera (not only this range) for the first time. The list below is not exhaustive and only reflects those points that I personally consider as critical.
Similarities with the E-M1 II
+ Stacked macro
+ Absolutely Silent shooting at up to 60 FPS, plus it’s capable to capture images before the shutter button is fully pressed fully (ProCapture)
+ High resolution images (HiRes) from a tripod
+ Live checking of the progress when shooting with long exposure time
+ Extremely powerful stabilisation, which can be further boosted in conjunction with stabilised lenses (up to 7.5 EV)
+ Compact size with virtually identical ergonomics
+ Option to use the same hand grip for better hold and extra battery
+ Same battery
+ 20mpx Resolution
+ 121 focus targets
+ Same viewfinder
+ Identical 3“ rear display
+ 2 SD card slots (one with UHS II support)
+ ISO extension to 64 and 100
What is unique to the E-M1 III
+ Completely redesigned Face and Eye Detection function
+ Starry sky (night) focusing
+ You can set the C1-C4 Custom modes to be automatically updated according to the current settings
+ In the Time-lapse menu, it’s possible to shoot up to 9999 images (previously 999)
+ Improvements can also be found to the “IOI” viewfinder settings, which now have three options for display behavior
+ When selecting AF points, it’s now possible to select points cyclically (i.e. after selecting the right end point, one can with a simple click jump to the left end) and choose whether the point appears on the same line or on the top/ bottom
+ Full HD video at 120 fps
+ Option to assign 5 additional functions to the direct selection buttons (total of 35)
+ Shutter/AF Split button lock
+ Live Composite can now be limited in time. The capture is turned off after a specified time
Similarities with the E-M1X
+ Multi selector for AF target selection
+ Color scheme and Menu structure
+ Option to set up personal 35 menu items (up to 5 bookmarks of 7 items)
+ Option to create up to 4 custom AF Target groups
+ 4 Custom Setting Modes (C1-C4)
+ Option to assign Custom Settings (C1-C4) to buttons
+ Built-in ND filter
+ Handheld Hi-Res Mode
+ Mode B using the front dial for fast Live mode access
So, this should cover a quick overview of the camera options and now how to use them. If you already have experience in operating the E-M1 II or E-M1X, then the camera is very easy to operate and there is no need to learn anything new. After a while you get used to the multi-selector position to control the AF points, otherwise everything is in the same place. In Costa Rica, I tried to test all the possible shooting modes, although I note in advance that my Costa Rica expedition had a completely different aim than testing a new camera.
Bananaquit, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 1000, f/4, 1/320s, handheld
What the E-M1 III brings from the perspective of a bird photographer?
In search of Green Heron, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS
As I mentioned at the beginning, I want to describe here actual practical work with the camera. This means, for example, the following: You are sitting in a canoe, paddling quietly through a lagoon so that you can inaudibly get close to a Green Heron, which is currently hunting dragonflies. You have your camera with the lens on lowered in your lap allowing you to comfortably paddle and keep the camera ready. It’s boiling hot, your neck is burning and you know that any unnecessary movement would scare the heron off. So, you let the sun do its job while you try to focus on your primary goal. The burnt skin on your neck will peel off in a week anyway and all will be good again. You make a mental note that next time you must not forget the sunscreen. The heron is unfortunately very small and plus there are loads of shrubs behind it. You have to carefully steer the canoe from a different angle while slowly trying to get closer. Finally, you take your camera and wait for the right moment. Heron no longer hunts, as it began to clean its feathers with its beak and clean its beak with the tongue. Tongue is sticking out of its beak. This is the exact moment you want to have in your photo. To create an interesting background, you have to forget about shooting straight from the eye level. You need to put the camera lower, ideally to the water surface. You tilt the display out, lean carefully out of the canoe and hold the camera with a telephoto lense just above the surface. Heron notices you and watches closely what you are doing. You are waiting in a rather uncomfortable position, trying to keep the camera level. At the same time, you also start to appreciate the camera’s compact dimensions weighing only 2kg, which is an equivalent to a 600mm range.
The heron calms down and continues to ruffle the feathers. To keep one focus point on its tiny eye in this position is extremely difficult. You tap the multi-selector once. This activates a custom-programmed simpler focus target point matrix (5×5) with a group of 3×3 focus points. At the same time, S-AF changes to continuous C-AF. You help yourself by activating the spirit level via the Info button giving yourself a bit of a shock by realising that you held the camera completely askew. All these moves are done only with your thumb keeping the heron calm and still. You have activated the IS-1 stabiliser mode, which is the most powerful one, rendering a perfectly still picture on the tilted-out display. All thanks to compensation of up to 7.5 EV and despite a very awkward position of yours. The edge of the boat cuts you into the ribs like some medieval instrument of torture. It takes a few long minutes for the heron to stop puffing up the feathers and start licking its beak again. It goes without saying that now is the time to just hold on and not to even breathe. Your ribs hurt like hell. The boat is slowly carried away by the intensifying breeze, you are hanging over the edge of the boat like wet sweatpants just watching the heron and waiting. Finally, you sense your moment is coming and start taking pictures. Just to be sure, you re-focus between each series. You have the Silent Mode on and shoot in short, intensive series of 18 FPS, all in order to avoid disturbing the heron with the sound of the shutter button while still having a selection of a variety of best possible shots. The heron finished its cleaning and flew away. You can hear something like the approaching wind. You can now straighten up your crooked back and have a minute to browse through your photos. You enlarge them 1:1 with one turn of the knob and go through the series. With a touch of one button you lock those that are perfectly sharp, leaving the other photos to be. Then, you name the entire series that you just took and bulk delete the unprotected ones leaving you with 15 locked, super sharp shots not wasting any space on the card. Then you have time to go through the locked pictures again selecting those where the eye may be perfectly sharp, but the position of the tongue is not the best. You end up with 5 photos looking exactly like you wanted. The sound of the wind intensifies again. And now it clicks. The sound you thought was a slowly approaching wind is actually rain. It’s here before you know it and all you can do is paddle three times and hide under a tree. Real tropical downpour. The ropes of deluge ruthlessly soak you (and the camera) to the bone. It takes very long 15 minutes. There is a pool rising in your boat and you pray for it to pass. Then you realise that the rain has already stopped, even though it is still “raining”. Thousands of droplets drip from the trees. It’s time to move on. You shake the water off of the camera and head for the basilisk, which just ran across the water hiding in a nearby bush.
Green Heron, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 800, f/5, 1/400s, handheld
Toucans and other birds
Head to toe soaked, you eventually return to your room, where you change your clothes and head out again trying your luck with toucans and tanagers. Comfy in dry clothes, you arrive at a well-situated feeding station, where a variety of attractive species of tropical birds come to feed. You are still shaking a little bit with a slight chill, but it will soon pass. As soon as you arrive, you notice a toucan on a branch. The camera’s settings remained the same from the boat. This is not ideal for this occasion. With a single tap on the multi-selector you return to the original focus setting single AF point and S-AF mode. The toucan stands on a branch that is level with you, increasing the accuracy of the shots. After one short series, the toucan flies away. You go through your photos in the same way as on the boat and you have time to wish for your toucan to return.
Keel-billed Toucan, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 640, f/4, 1/500s, handheld
After the downpour the sky quickly clears and the sharp sun comes out again, which practically puts an end to any decent photos. Bird activity on the feeder also drops below freezing, and it takes an hour for some birds to reappear. You have time to prepare your camera for more fast-action photos. How about trying to capture the arrival of a toucan? Often they choose the same landing trajectory, and since you leave tomorrow, you lose no time and start practicing composition. It’s evident that you need to set the camera to a considerably different setting. But what if you spend all this time setting up your camera and the toucan never comes? You’ll have to reset everything again. In this case, it’s ideal to save the settings to a Custom Mode – C4 (the C1 – C3 are already set to take a night sky, night macro and ND filter activation). Here we go. But first, you save the current camera settings as C4. This way, you won’t have to put everything back. At the same time you choose to update the settings automatically, so it will not be necessary to save the settings continuously, the camera will do so by itself. Then you assign any favorite to C4. You turn the mode dial to C4 and start tuning your camera to suit flying toucans. Let’s try the default settings like this – you want to follow the toucan’s flight and the IS-1 stabiliser would make it impossible. You enable partial stabilisation that allows horizontal movement and only compensates for vertical (IS-2). You will most likely need fast times, so you change the ISO from 400 to 1250. Continuous C-AF shooting will focus continuously, lowering the frame rate to e.g. 15 fps will help autofocus to easily re-focus, and then change the focus sensitivity to +2. Next, you make sure that the AF scanner is set to Mode 3 – which means it will try to focus even if it does not find the focal plane. This prevents the AF from stalling, so to speak. Now the question is what AF point to choose. Will one be enough? Or should you rather choose a smaller 3×3 group? The 300mm lens has an angle of view equivalent to 600mm on Olympus, which makes it virtually impossible to maintain the focus point on the flying toucan. So let’s select all AF with Centre Start. This ensures that focus begins with a group of 3×3 points in the centre and only tries to recapture the subject if it moves. That’s enough to start with. You turn the Mode dial back to A to be ready for normal shooting. It starts to rain again. Finally, the birds arrive and they look good in the rain. You decide you want to have delicate “rain strands” instead of individual raindrops, which means you need to shoot at longer exposure. You know that with the 300mm lens, you can keep the IS-1 quite comfortably for 1/ 50s, but that’s just on edge with the birds movements. You change the ISO to 64 increasing the shutter speed to around 1/ 125s. Ideal. Birds are perfectly sharp and rain drops create the wanted strands.
Black-cowled Oriole, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 800, f/4, 1/800s, handheld
Collared Aracari, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 64, f/4, 1/125s, handheld
The rain slowly subsides and the birds disappear. It is still quite overcast, which is when a toucan arrives. The right moment has come. You press one button and switch to C4 mode and shoot. You only have one chance. You know that at some point, from the branch where it currently sits, it will fly over to nearby bananas. You wait in the spot you picked earlier. Toucan indicates his departure about three times. You shoot and waste three entire series. And then, what you were afraid of most actually happens. Startled by three previous scares you realign your lens back to the toucan to refocus on it. Which is exactly the moment, when the toucan unexpectedly bounces off and flies away. Your reactions are half a second behind him resulting in a series where the toucan is in maybe 5 photos – all a bit outside the depth of field. The AF didn’t even stand a chance to find him. The toucan sits happy on a banana tree and you growl in desperation. You end up practically with only one usable photo that’s not even technically perfect anyway. While the toucan eats his banana, you re-adjust the AF Limiter ready for next time.
Keel-billed Toucan, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 1250, f/4, 1/1000s, handheld
You turn the Mode dial to C4 and set the Focus Limiter. But how do you measure the distance needed for the limiter to work? Temporary Pre-MF mode is an ideal solution. You aim at the branch where the toucan flew from, you focus and read its distance from the display (20m). You re-focus at the landing branch with a banana (12m) allowing you to set one of the three distance areas to 11m – 21m. The camera will only work within this distance avoiding the AF to wander endlessly. You realise that this setting may be useful for other birds than just toucans. Hummingbirds let you go much closer, while vultures who fly much farther. So you save all three Limiter choices – 1) 1.5m – 8m for hummingbirds, 2) the aforementioned 11m – 21m for toucans and 3) 40m – 80m for vultures. To change the AF Limiter quickly, you assign its selection to a button, which when the right moment comes, you just hold and rotate the dial selecting the most suitable one for the occasion. Thanks to the previous setting, there is no need to save anything again as this option is automatically assigned to C4 Mode. C4 Mode then becomes a pretty great Flight mode, and you can recall these settings by one touch button. As it’s possible you may need to change the AF Limiter values you save its settings under the quick access of the My Menu. Meanwhile, the Toucan ate the banana and is gone. Will it come back? That’s entirely up to him. (Spoiler alert: Nope, the toucan had not flown back again; and so the next “next time” may take another year, maybe longer. Who knows). The next day you want to try your luck with the King Vultures. You camouflage yourself in the hide, press a button to activate C4 and wait, hoping to catch a landing King Vulture. Will it be a successful flight or landing with spread-out wings? I reckon it‘s pretty damn good, what do you think? Personally, I consider the C4 custom flight mode to be sufficiently attuned so let’s keep moving.
King Vulture, Costa Rica 2020, Olympus E-M1 mark III, M.Zuiko 300mm/4 IS, ISO 640, f/4, 1/1600s, handheld
End of Part One
Hopefully, I succeeded. I wanted to show you what the “dry, on-paper” parameters of a camera (which people like to compare) mean in the real life of a nature photographer. In reality, it does not matter at all WHAT the camera offers, but HOW quickly and effectively it can be used in real life. All without unnecessary delays, without the hassle of accessing the Menu and responding swiftly to the object you have in front of you. I think the new Olympus E-M1 Mark III can do great things. In Part Two of this article, I will describe my experience with hummingbirds, which is a category in itself. I will also mention what the camera has to offer for landscape photographers. At the end, I will sum up the main positives, as well as things that I would improve to maximise the comfort of shooting. Make sure you also read Andy Rouse real life review.