Ask any micro four-thirds user what the top cameras are, and rest assured you’ll hear the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II mentioned. This morning, Olympus announced the successor to the popular camera, the OM-D E-M1 Mark III.

While not much has changed on the outside, on the inside, you’ll find completely upgraded mechanics, leading to faster operation and several new features.

If you haven’t already read our announcement about the E-M1 Mark III from this morning, be sure to check that out for complete specs and details.

I’ve been able to use the E-M1 Mark III camera for the past couple weeks, including on a press trip to Costa Rica with the Olympus team. While I’m not a wildlife shooter, I quickly learned that the newest camera from Olympus makes it easier than ever to get started with photography of animals.

Ergonomics and body styling

As I mentioned above, the exterior of the E-M1 Mark III is mostly unchanged over the Mark II version. The grip is slightly deeper, providing for a more solid holding experience.

On the back, you’ll see the addition of a joystick where the Info button used to be. Because of this addition, the Focus Point button on the thumb grip is no longer needed, and has been swapped out for a dedicated ISO button. The Info button has also been moved down, above the Playback button. And the Menu button that used to be located in that spot has been moved to the upper left, next to the Display button by the viewfinder.

On the top, a fourth Custom setting option has been added (C4), as well as a B option for “Bulb.” This also lets you quickly access features like Live Time and Live Composite, without having to endlessly scroll through the shutter speed when you’re in Manual mode. The “Auto” and “Art” options have also been removed from the dial, with the “Art” features still available through the picture mode setting in the Super Control Panel.

The one thing that hasn’t changed here is the On/Off switch on the top left. I expected (and had hoped) this to be switched to a style resembling the E-M1X, which gives three buttons on the top and then a thumb switch that you can see from the back.

In the hands, the E-M1 Mark III feels more comfortable to hold than the Mark II. The button layout makes more sense, though it does take a bit of time to get used to and retrain your fingers. That said, the important buttons have stayed the same in terms of placement and feel, and I think the changes that did take place are beneficial.

Borrowing from the X

Because of the new TruePic IX processor, a lot of the features that were present in the E-M1X are now present in the E-M1 Mark III. This includes Handheld High-Res Shot and Live ND, features that were big winners for me when they were announced.

Handheld High-Res Shot

While Tripod High-Res Shot has long been a staple of Olympus cameras, the company finally brought its fan-favorite Handheld High-Res Shot to the E-M1 Mark III. This allows a 50MP photograph to be captured in both RAW and JPEG formats, by shifting the sensor slightly with each of the 16 frames taken.

While I didn’t test this out much in Costa Rica, the photos I did get were sharp and what I expected, coming from the E-M1X. With Olympus advertising handheld shooting of four seconds, this is definitely a feature I can’t wait to use more of!

Live ND

When I first used the Live ND function on the E-M1X, I quite frankly was blown away. I’m a sucker for long exposures. And the fact that I could create a live exposure photograph without hauling my Neutral Density filters with me gave me the ability to be more creative.

For whatever reason, Live ND didn’t receive a lot of hype when it was announced on the E-M1X. With the E-M1 Mark III, Live ND performs exactly how I expected it to. The image quality was great, and it gave a realistic view of a long exposure without the extra work.

The great thing here is that while you can use it on a tripod, you can use it handheld, too. Depending on the setting you choose, your shutter speed is limited. For instance, on the ND32 setting, the camera can’t take the photograph faster than half a second. While this might not be possible to handhold with other camera systems, Olympus advertises the ability to handhold up to four seconds, meaning the Live ND feature can easily be utilized in any situation.

The above photograph was taken with the ND32 setting, and the 12-100mm f/4 PRO lens. That lens has the added benefit of stabilization, which, when added to the camera body, gives you seven stops of stabilization. Olympus’ image stabilization continues to lead the way — I have yet to find a camera that can beat it.

Focusing on … focus

I’ve always praised Olympus for its fast focusing capabilities. With the E-M1 Mark III, the company has continued this trend, giving photographers new and upgraded autofocus features.

Starry Sky AF

While the days were sunny in Costa Rica, it was rather cloudy at night. I was able to capture a star sequence using Starry Sky AF as we had a momentary clearing on the beach.

The Starry Sky AF feature is really very cool, not to mention unique. The first camera of its kind to have this type of feature, Starry Sky AF locks on a star in the sky and automatically focuses. The great thing is that it uses back button focus, meaning that your shot does not get refocused unless you press that.

The way Starry Sky AF works is through the camera determining luminance. It recognizes bright spots in the sky and locks on to them, meaning you no longer have to manually focus to Infinity and hope for the best. If it can’t lock on to a star, it’ll let you know by having a green dot blink in the upper right corner of the back LCD screen. If it does lock on to the star, the focusing box changes to green, and you’re good to go.

When using Starry Sky AF, you have the choice between the default Speed Priority mode (great for hand-holding and wide lenses) or an Accuracy Priority mode (great for tripod use and longer lenses). Both worked in my testing very well, and the fact that you can choose to handhold this autofocus capability is simply mind-blowing.

And if that isn’t enough, Starry Sky AF works with one of Olympus’ best features — Live Composite — meaning you can focus and capture star trails with ease, now up to six hours in length.

I spoke with Olympus Visionary Alex McClure about Starry Sky AF. Based in Arizona, he regularly photographs the night sky, and has loved what Starry Sky AF has done for his workflow:

“Oh man, to not worry about my [star] focus is huge. I used to spend a lot of time getting my focus dialed in perfectly. Now it’s the camera doing all that work for me. I picked it up and the focus was dead on, every time. Nothing is ever quick at night, but the Starry Sky AF is faster than me at nailing those stars!”

Face / Eye Priority AF

I was able to experience Olympus’ upgraded Face / Eye Priority AF in two scenarios. One, with a surfing competition at sunset. With the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens and 2x teleconverter, I was able to reach the surfers several hundred feet away.

To my surprise, the Face / Eye Priority AF was able to recognize and lock on the surfers, as long as their face was clear and somewhat facing the camera. This made it extremely easy to capture the surfers as they moved about the waves, until they crashed into the water.

Oddly enough, another instance of where Face / Eye Priority AF worked was when we were photographing monkeys. We saw several monkeys throughout our trip, and because of their humanlike facial features, the camera was able to detect them. This was especially handy as they often moved quickly, jumping from branches to the ground and making subtle movements with their faces.

I also tried this back at home, during a Human Hungry Hippos tournament for my client, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. And it worked just as well in Costa Rica, locking on to faces as they moved quickly about the frame.

While the Face / Eye Priority AF isn’t quite at Sony level, it’s certainly a massive improvement. I look forward to being able to use it more!

Joystick and optimized focus control

With the new multi-selector joystick on the back of the E-M1 Mark III, you now have more control over where to set your focus points. This joystick is a wonderful addition, allowing you to quickly change your focus point location by not only moving up, down, left and right, but also diagonally.

There is also a new option for an AF target loop, allowing you to select whether the AF target stops at the edge of the screen, or if it moves to the opposite edge. This new addition should make setting focus quicker than ever before. In my tests, this was way easier to use than the directional pad on the previous generation Mark II camera.

Using the new joystick allowed me to easily capture animals on a river cruise and quickly changed focus points as our boat moved. The autofocus worked great, whether the animal was in a clear view, or obstructed by grasses or trees.

Image quality

If you’ve used any of Olympus’ current cameras before, the image quality here is just as you’d expect.

Using lenses like the 12-100mm f/4 PRO and 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO proved to be perfectly sharp, just like the Mark II version of the camera. I’ve used the Mark II camera for several prints and the photos always turn out as I expect in terms of sharpness, color and overall quality.

I did have a little trouble using the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters on the river cruise. They seemed a bit soft, but I later realized this was likely due to being on a boat, as it created some slight movement even while still. When I used those teleconverters on solid ground, they seemed to be much more steady and sharp.

As this camera was rumored for the past few weeks, many people complained about the lack of a sensor upgrade, wanting more megapixels added into the camera. In my opinion, doing so would’ve created more problems — mainly leading to worse low-light results due to the smaller micro four-thirds sensor size.

The fact of the matter is, the image quality of the E-M1 Mark III is great, and can still be printed quite large for most use cases.

A few minor misses

With the new processor in the E-M1 Mark III, speed has certainly received a boost. For whatever reason, the second SD card slot is still limited to UHS-I speeds. This is something I really would’ve liked to see upgraded, and I didn’t get an answer as to why this was omitted when I asked the Olympus team. Because of this, I’d suggest using RAW+JPEG modes, and keeping your JPEG files on the second card slot.

Another head scratcher is with the battery grip, which has not received an upgrade. Olympus has stated that sales of the battery grip for the E-M1 Mark II have been lower in demand since the E-M1X was released. This makes sense given the built-in grip with the E-M1X. I would’ve like to seen a minor upgrade here, adding the new joystick to the grip.

Finally, I would’ve loved to see this camera get the built-in GPS availability, which again is something that’s built into the E-M1X. Personally I’m going to be using this camera while I travel a lot, so having that baked in would’ve been great to see.

Other notes

In addition to the highlights above, here are some additional points of interest:

  • 20.4 MP 4/3” Live MOS sensor
  • Body image stabilization up to 7.0 stops (with 12-40mm f/4 PRO)
  • 5-axis Sync IS up to 7.5 stops (with 12-100mm f/4 PRO)
  • Handheld shooting up to 4 seconds
  • USB Power Bank charging; compatible up to 100W power
  • Same dust reduction system as the E-M1X
  • Ability to “Hold” custom modes where changed settings are automatically saved
  • New shooting information control panel
  • My Menu screen, offering 35 items to be saved across five tabs
  • 121-point all cross-type on-chip Phase Detection AF sensor
  • AF low intensity limit of -6EV
  • Focus Stacking up to 15 shots, and Focus Bracketing up to 999 shots
  • 4K video and 120fps Full HD
  • Camera firmware upgrading available through the OI.Share mobile app

Is it worth the upgrade?

The OM-D E-M1 Mark III certainly packs some worthy features. But if you already have the previous generation, is it worth the upgrade?

It really depends. While this camera isn’t as big of an upgrade as the E-M1 Mark II was to the original E-M1, it really has some great features. If you’re big into astro, Starry Sky AF truly is life-changing. If you deal with moving subjects a lot, the upgrades to Face / Eye Priority AF are well worth it. And if you’ve been longing for some of the E-M1X exclusive features like Live ND and Handheld High-Res Shot, but don’t need a big camera body, the E-M1 Mark III really is the perfect option.

With the new processor, I think we’re going to see more and more added to this camera over time. Whether it’s your primary camera or a backup, this is definitely one to consider.

The OM-D E-M1 Mark III is now available (B&H | Amazon). Lens bundles with the 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and 12-100mm f/4.0 PRO are also available.