First-Look Review: The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III In Costa Rica

This past February, I traveled to the beautiful tropical Central American country of Costa Rica with Olympus to try out its latest mirrorless camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III. (This was more than a month before the U.S. Department of State issued a Global Level 4 “Do Not Travel” Health Advisory, on March 31, 2020, which advised, “U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.”)

Although I was excited to travel to this Central American country, I didn’t know much about it. After doing some research, I found out some interesting facts: It has more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity, even though, geographically speaking, it’s a rather small country.

Costa Rica also has 801 miles of gorgeous coastline, and there are 121 volcanic formations. And although I didn’t see any active volcanos, I was enchanted by the images of the mountainous terrain as well as beaches with black sand, which are a result of lava deposits. 

Although it was still early February when I arrived at our hotel, right on Jacó Beach, which faces the Pacific Ocean, I found it was still quite hot and very humid. I realized it meant that almost any shoot might quickly tire me out—since I hadn’t done a lot of hiking in tropical conditions.

Black Iguana
There’s always a tradeoff when using a teleconverter like the Olympus 2X MC-20, which I used for this shot. I needed it to get visually closer to animals like this black iguana that I photographed in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, but using it meant I’d lose two stops of exposure. So, my widest aperture on the lens was ƒ/5.6, not ƒ/2.8, which is why I increased my ISO to ISO 6400. But even at this somewhat high ISO, the E-M1 Mark III still kept image noise at bay, and I felt I still captured a shot of this iguana with a lot of character and expression. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko Digital 2X Teleconverter MC-20. Exposure: 1/500 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 6400.

For me, that was a valuable benefit of having a lightweight camera system. Another was that it’s ruggedly constructed, which Olympus has included in many cameras in the past, including the E-M1 Mark II. But a rugged exterior isn’t the only quality or feature the E-M1 Mark III shares with its predecessor. In fact, the E-M1 Mark III only included rather modest changes to this camera, keeping many of the main features and specs the same: In addition to the sensor, you’ll find the same powerful in-body image stabilization system (or IBIS) as well as the ability to fire off 18 frames per second using the electronic shutter, which is also silent, while still providing you with autofocus and autoexposure. The display and electronic viewfinder—a 3-inch swiveling touchscreen LCD and an EVF with 2.36 million dots—are pretty much the same.

Most of the changes Olympus implemented are what you might call “computational photography” related, powered via the TruePic IX processor. For example, although the IBIS system is the same, Olympus claims the new E-M1 Mark III allows you a greater number of stops (7.5) of IS with select Olympus stabilized lenses. It also has an impressive Live ND filter feature, which produces a slow-shutter effect instead of needing to buy extra physical ND filter accessories.

Although we weren’t moving very fast on our river cruise along the Tárcoles River, I set the shutter speed at 1/250 sec. to make sure I shot a sharp image, particularly using a long lens like a 300mm (which has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of a 600mm lens). But I needed to increase the ISO since the late-afternoon light was beginning to dim. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4.0 IS PRO. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/4.5, ISO 2000.

The E-M1 Mark III now includes a more robust high-res (composite) shot mode, too, that produces higher-res images than before—a 50-megapixel photo in hand-held mode and 80-megapixel shots on a tripod. (The E-M1 Mark II’s high-res shot mode provided 25 megapixels for handheld and 50 megapixels for tripod modes.)

Performance And Image Quality While Shooting Wildlife

My Costa Rican trip with Olympus lasted just a few days—we essentially had two shooting days—but they were quite educational, with stops at Manuel Antonio National Park, a cruise along the Tárcoles River and shooting surfers riding the waves in the Pacific Ocean as well as a beautiful sunset at a beach named Playa Hermosa.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III with the new Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/4.0 PRO lens (top view)
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III (back view)

One focus of the trip was photographing wild animals, and it reminded me of a useful quote from the wonderful 1999 edition of The National Geographic Photography Field Guide, a book written by Peter K. Burian and Robert Caputo. In the book’s intro to the chapter on photographing animals, the authors write, “Photographing animals, be it your pet dog or lion in the wild, calls for time, patience, and sensitivity. You should treat making images of animals the same way you would those of people: Think about their character and then try to get it on film.” To do this, the authors suggest, “you have to wait for, and learn to anticipate, their behavior.”

But technically speaking, the success of capturing successful photos of wildlife subjects depends at least somewhat upon the quality and performance of your camera system.

During my trip to Costa Rica, the E-M1 Mark III was by and large fast and accurate. It’s this speed and accuracy that provided me with lots of opportunities to capture the character of the animals I saw via their fleeting expressions—from the Buster Keaton-like deadpan gaze of a black iguana to the theatrically comic expressions of a trio of white-faced, or capuchin, monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park to the menacing, dragon-like eye of an American crocodile in the late-afternoon light along the Tárcoles River.

Baby American crocodile
The E-M1 Mark III did an exquisite job rendering the scaly texture of this baby American crocodile, which we saw on the banks of the Tárcoles River in Costa Rica. But it also did a fine job catching the crocodile’s menacing glassy eye. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 800.

Travel and nature photographer and Olympus educator Rob Knight, who joined us on this trip, offered some helpful tips as well, which helped me capture my shots. For instance, Knight says he often likes to observe the subjects in order to actually determine the “decisive moment” to capture them with his camera.

So, after we arrived at each destination, although I was eager to start shooting immediately and begin firing off 18 frames per second in the hopes of capturing a great shot, I first studied my wildlife subjects before I started photographing.

Technically speaking, I generally shot in continuous AF mode, using the electronic shutter for 18 fps with AF. I did sometimes switch to single AF, though, which worked well enough. I experimented with some of the other modes, but these two AF modes were the most useful for me on this trip.

Lastly, I found the image stabilization was quite useful, allowing me to shoot in a lower lighting situation with lower shutter speeds but still capture sharp shots.

Composing wildlife subjects in motion, like this pair of white-faced, or capuchin, monkeys, can be quite challenging, particularly if they’re moving erratically. But with the E-M1 Mark III’s fast burst mode and its ability for you to quickly set or reset the camera’s focus point using the camera’s new joystick, you can be reasonably sure you’ll not only capture the subjects you want but also photograph them in a compositionally pleasing way. However, you’ll want to take some time to try these features out and practice them before your assignment. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20. Exposure: 1/500 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 3200.

Highs & Lows

I found a lot to like on the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, but I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect camera. For instance, it would have been nice to have a more updated image sensor with more resolution, but for many event, action and nature shooters, the sensor should suffice. Here are some of the more notable highs and lows on the camera.

Highs:

  • A smaller, more compact system than many full-frame mirrorless systems
  • Powerful In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
  • Includes a rugged exterior
  • Two memory card slots
  • Nicely designed with lots of physical knobs and buttons, including a new joystick
  • Unique features, like Starry Sky AF mode and Handheld High-Res mode
  • Fast 18 frames-per-second burst modes with autofocus and autoexposure
Yellow headed caracara
Our local guide for our cruise along the Tárcoles River spotted this very animated yellow-headed caracara, which is a bird of prey in the Falconidae family. Again, I shot this image in the late-afternoon light, when some of the sunlight was starting to fade. So, I increased the ISO to ISO 6400. I really liked how the Olympus system captured the wispy texture of the bird’s feathers and the hard edge of its beak. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.ZUIKO Digital ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 6400.

Lows:

  • Older 20-megapixel Live MOS Micro Four Thirds image sensor may be lower resolution than what some pros are looking for
  • Video capabilities could be more robust
  • Occasionally, I found the autofocus didn’t track subjects as accurately as I expected
  • The camera body is a bit pricey

Overall, A Very Good Value

Overall, I found I captured some rather successful wildlife shots due to the versatile nature of the E-M1 Mark III. But there are some drawbacks to this camera, such as the previously mentioned image sensor technology. This limitation extends to some of the video features, which are less powerful and versatile than cameras from other brands. Additionally, while I felt the AF technology was effective in most cases, at other times, it didn’t always provide the tracking I was hoping for.

Playa Hermosa sunset
To shoot this spectacular sunset from Playa Hermosa, which is located in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica, I switched to a 12-100mm lens and shot at the widest end of the zoom range, giving me a 35mm-equivalent focal length of a 24mm lens. I liked how this image picked up the flock of birds in the distance near the center of the photograph. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f11 IS PRO Lens. Exposure: 1/500 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800.

However, overall, I found the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) worked extremely well and was very helpful in low light settings. I also found the flip-out swiveling LCD to be a valuable asset. Most of all, the 18 frames per second burst modes provided me with hundreds of JPEGs and RAW files from my Costa Rica trip.

Outdoor, action and wildlife photographers should definitely consider checking out the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III. I think you’ll be impressed with how it performs and handles, particularly if you’re considering a camera system that’s smaller and lighter than other brands. It could make a great choice for your workflow…and your work.


Essential Accessory: LaCie 1TB Rugged USB 3.1 Type-C External SSD

A valuable asset when traveling

When you travel to photograph a location or event, it’s essential to have a backup plan. On this trip, a valuable accessory, which was an important part of my backup plan, was the LaCie 1TB Rugged USB 3.1 Type-C External SSD ($250).

The interface is compatible with my MacBook Pro, which proved essential. According to LaCie, this version, which is “slower” than its pricier brand sibling, the 1TB Rugged SSD PRO Thunderbolt 3 External SSD ($400), has data transfer speeds of “up to 950 MB/s, which is enough bandwidth to transfer and edit raw 4K video,” says LaCie. The company says the PRO model has “data transfer speeds of up to 2800 MB/s, which is enough bandwidth to play back 6K, 8K and super slo-mo source files.”

Since I was shooting mostly stills, I wanted an SSD that would be quick, reliable and rugged, which this model certainly was. It was also quite lightweight, just under 5 ounces. And because SSDs are shock resistant (unlike traditional hard drives), they’re far less likely to fail if you accidentally drop them. 

All in all, the SSD successfully stored the thousands of images and video clips from my short Costa Rica trip, which was definitely an example of what I would consider a once-in-a-lifetime type of photo shoot. 

MENU