Olympus E-M10 III Field Test
Olympus E-M10 Mark III Field Test
The entry-level OM-D camera gets 4K video capture and an ease-of-use overhaul
by Mike Tomkins | Posted: 08/31/2017
I've been reviewing cameras for close to two decades now, and in all of those years, I've gotten to shoot more than a few cameras prior to their official announcement. Sadly with the digital camera market being a very different one to what it once was, that's become something of an exception these days, though. So it would be something of an understatement to say that I was thrilled to be given that opportunity when Olympus first told us of its plans for the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, it's third-generation, entry-level OM-D camera.
We were big fans of the preceding Olympus E-M10 Mark II when we reviewed it a couple of years ago, finding much to love within the trim confines of its Micro Four Thirds-format body. For such a relatively compact interchangeable-lens camera, the E-M10 Mark II packed in plenty of features along with excellent image quality, great performance and a price tag which felt very reasonable indeed. Our main concerns with that model were for its rather modest battery life, and a menu system which we described as "frustrating ... with a steep learning curve."
And it was the user interface which we understood was one of the main areas which Olympus intended to address with the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, which boded well for this new model. Suffice it to say that I tore into the packaging like a kid at Christmas when Olympus' latest OM-D camera landed on my doorstep recently. Along with the camera body itself and the bundled M.Zuiko ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ kit lens, I chose several other Micro Four Thirds lenses for my review, and the first thing I did was try them all out on the E-M10 Mark III body to see how they handled.
The E-M10 Mark III's kit lens pairs beautifully with its compact body
The 14-42mm "pancake"-style kit lens makes for a great walkaround pairing for street photography, yielding 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 28 to 84mm. As I assembled my initial gallery for this first field test, I did the majority of my shooting around the tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with this lens, which has a powered retraction / zoom function.
When retracted, it's very compact indeed, and while it does add a little to your startup time, it only takes around a second or less to extend as you power the camera on. Retracting takes a little bit longer, but that's not a concern as you're no longer using the camera. (And as an ILC, you're not really waiting to slip it in a pocket either.)
I was a little disappointed that the zoom speed -- which can be controlled in three steps -- has to be set through the menu, though. I'd have preferred it to be controlled by how far you turn the zoom ring, which truth be told is more of a zoom rocker, really, as it only moves a little bit in either direction. Doubly so for videos, for which you configure a separate zoom speed than for still images, as the default zoom speed is already too fast and jarring for my tastes, yielding only one really usable zoom speed.
But you can't really argue with its tiny dimensions when retracted, nor its very light weight, and I felt image quality was more than acceptable for the entry-level shooters Olympus is courting with this camera.
Some thoughts on my other lens choices; the 40-150mm is a great second lens
The M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8, which has a 50mm-equivalent focal length on the E-M10 Mark III, is about twice as deep as the retracted 14-42mm EZ and just a little heavier. But it's actually a little shorter than the 14-42mm EZ once that lens is retracted, and again, pairs very nicely indeed with the E-M10 Mark III body. It also offers a nice, bright f/1.8 maximum aperture.
When retracted at its 40mm position, the M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 R, meanwhile, is almost twice as deep as the 25mm f/1.8, but it's surprisingly light nevertheless. By the time you zoom all the way in to the 150mm position, it more than doubles in length without noticeably shifting the center of gravity forwards much at all. It offers 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 80-300mm, and along with the kit lens, gives you coverage of everything from 28 to 300mm without any gaps. That makes it an excellent choice as a second lens, and image quality is surprisingly good. Sadly, the lens itself feels a bit plasticky, and the mechanical zoom has a fair amount of friction in its operation, which can make it tricky to make small and very precise zoom adjustments.
Longer, heavier lenses can make the handgrip a bit tiring
Finally, I selected the M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II for a 35mm-equivalent range of 150-600mm. This lens is a good bit heavier than others, and the center of gravity does shift forward significantly as you zoom in towards the telephoto end of the range. A two-handed grip is a must, and when walking around between photo opportunities, I preferred to switch to one of the other lenses as with the E-M10 Mark III's relatively modest handgrips, the weight of the lens quickly became tiring to carry by my side. And the same was true while adjusting the zoom, when I had to take up most of the weight on my right hand, freeing up my left to turn the zoom ring. (Which again, has a fair bit of friction in operation, although not as much so as the 40-150mm.)
Unfortunately, this lens is decidedly dim at the telephoto end of the range where you could most use some more light for a quick exposure. But while there's some chromatic aberration towards telephoto and the corners get rather soft, I think for the typical E-M10 Mark III shooter the image quality will prove more than sufficient. And the bokeh -- that is, the character of the blurred, out-of-focus areas of the image -- was fairly pleasant, if perhaps just a bit busy compared to that of a higher-end lens.
The E-M10 Mark III pairs superb build quality with a pretty comfortable design
But what of the E-M10 Mark III body itself? Well, the build quality is excellent, especially for a camera at this price point. There isn't a hint of panel flex or creak anywhere other than where you'd expect it on compartment doors and the articulated LCD panel. And while it's far from heavy, there's enough heft to counteract the weight of even larger lenses like the aforementioned 75-300mm, and to help you hold the camera reasonably steadily while shooting through the viewfinder or at arm's length.
Comfort-wise, I still feel the newly-expanded handgrip is rather on the shallow side, but then at 6'1" tall, I have larger hands than most. And it was only really when carrying the camera around with the 75-300mm lens mounted that this started to bother me, causing some uncomfortable hand cramps that took a few minutes to work back out again. With the other lenses mounted, I had no such problems, and I quickly learned that the solution was simply only to mount the 75-300mm lens when I was actually ready to shoot with it, then take it straight back off the camera in favor of a different optic afterwards.
The profusion of controls may intimidate initially, but help keep you out of menus
There are no two ways about it, though: This is one very busy camera body, and I can't help but think the sheer number of external controls protruding from the E-M10 Mark III's top deck, and clustered to the right of the LCD on the rear panel, are going to prove intimidating and off-putting to the entry-level shooters Olympus is courting with this camera. I'd like to see Olympus increase the depth of the front and rear grips just a little more, and then integrate the front and rear dials into the grips, rather than placing them on top of the camera. This would reduce the visual clutter quite significantly.
It would also negate the need for the taller-than-ever Mode dial, this being the second generation in a row that it has grown in height. But with that said, I felt the increase has certainly done its job, as I had no problems at all grasping and spinning the Mode dial when needed, and never once found it turned accidentally either. In fact, the only dial I ever bumped was the front dial, accidentally dialing in a stop of positive exposure compensation early on in my shoot, and realizing my mistake after just a handful of shots. I'm not sure how I managed it, as all of the dials have a reasonably strong click detent, and put it down to unfamiliarity with the body as it hasn't happened again since.
And all of the other controls were pleasant to use, too, if perhaps a bit on the cramped side, especially the little four-way controller with its central OK button. They were all easy to locate by touch, and had good button feel, with an obvious (but not overly obtrusive) click sound and feeling when pressed. Really, the only brief confusion I had with the physical controls was in figuring out how to raise the popup flash, which rather unusually is done by rotating the Power switch past its On position. That same technique was used in the E-M10 Mark II, though, and you get used to it quickly enough.
When user-friendliness gets in the way: "Where the heck did they hide exposure bracketing?"
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the E-M10 Mark III's user interface, where I stumbled badly initially. One of the first things I do when shooting with a review camera is to enable raw+JPEG capture and bracketed shooting, usually with a 2/3EV step size. That's typically enough to help out with an unfamiliar metering system, saving the day if any shots are under or over-exposed a little because I'm not used to an individual camera's behavior yet.
But when the time came to do so with the E-M10 Mark III, I simply could not for the life of me find where on earth Olympus had hidden the exposure bracketing function. And I wasn't helped here by the fact that -- as is often the case with review cameras, which tend to be among the first off the production line and rushed into our eager, waiting hands -- there was no user manual or CD in the product package. (Fear not, though, our review camera itself is a final production model running production-grade version 1.0 firmware.)
I hunted and hunted through the menus. I even went so far as to go back to our E-M10 Mark II review to confirm where the function had been located in its menus. (Which was to say, right where I was expecting it to be.) Eventually, I stumbled on the answer almost by mistake: Exposure bracketing is now accessible only through the new AP or "Advanced Photo" position on the Mode dial, and cannot be enabled in other exposure modes.
Exposure bracketing in full-stops only, and not for priority-mode capture either
That, to my mind, is a terrible decision, and one Olympus should rethink stat. The reason being quite simple: You can now no longer combine a bracketed exposure with Aperture- or Shutter-priority capture, something I quite often find myself wanting to do. Instead, you're forced to rely on Program autoexposure, and can simply coax the aperture or shutter speed in your desired direction using the E-M10 Mark III's Program Shift function. That, to my mind, is simply not good enough for a camera which, in other respects, offers a fair few enthusiast-friendly features.
And it's exacerbated by the fact that you also can't dial the bracketing step size in with 1/3-stop increments as is typically the case, but rather only in whole-stop increments. That's simply too coarse-grained an adjustment, and in the real world my experience as a result was that when the default exposure was under or overexposed, so too was the nearest bracketed shot on offer, just in the other direction.
The E-M10 Mark III's Advanced Photo mode is a nice idea, but it shouldn't be the only option
I get what Olympus is trying to do with the Advanced Photo mode, and I'd happily laud the idea if it wasn't the only way to access a critical feature like this. But it shouldn't be the only way to do so -- the option should still remain available through the menu system in other exposure modes where appropriate, so more experienced shooters can make the decision for themselves.
I'm hoping against hope that this is something Olympus can address with a firmware update, as the function itself already exists, it's just been somewhat hidden from the view of more experienced shooters who will simply ignore anything on the Mode dial which doesn't say P, A, S, M, or Movie. I can't imagine it would require that much code to add back in a menu item which can call the function from other exposure modes.
[Edit: As of late October 2018, as we finalize this review, Olympus has only released one firmware update for the E-M10 III. This fixes a bug with AF on Panasonic lenses and adds support for RC mode flash, but makes no other changes. It's not looking likely that this concern will be addressed in firmware.]
The user interface is an improvement otherwise, although the main menu could still use some work
But enough of that quibble, how did I find the experience of shooting with the E-M10 Mark III in the real world? Well, I have to say, I rather enjoyed it. The repurposed Shortcut button does help to surface settings I'd use most often through the Super Control Panel in PASM modes, and relevant options such as Scene mode options, Advanced Photo mode options, the Live guide and more, depending on your current exposure mode. You quickly learn to rely on it to get where you need to be depending upon your shooting mode
The newly-categorized Scene mode layout, which nests up to six scene types apiece under six different main categories -- People, Nightscapes, Motion, Scenery, Indoors or Close-ups -- is a great improvement that helps you find what you're looking for more quickly, and doesn't overwhelm less experienced shooters as badly. And even if I don't like that it's the only way to bracket exposures, Advanced Photo mode will certainly help newbies to find and take advantage of some very useful tools like Olympus' clever Live Time / Live Composite mode, multiple exposures, high dynamic range photography, focus bracketing and more. These are tools that, if hidden in a menu somewhere, they'd probably never find and learn to make the most of, so kudos to Olympus for calling attention to them.
The rest of the main menu system is typical Olympus, which is to say that it's usable, but not terribly well-organized, and relies too much on rather opaque, meaningless icons and abbreviations. But that's long been the case with the company's cameras, and you do get used to it eventually. And things like the generous selection of dedicated controls, a couple of customizable function buttons, and the Shortcut button do help keep you away from those confusing menus in the first place.
The E-M10 Mark III's viewfinder and touch-screen LCD are both great!
The viewfinder is bright and clear, and very generously-sized, making for a pleasant shooting experience. And there's just enough of an eyecup to prevent me having to shield the finder with my other hand as I have to do with some cameras when the sunlight is coming from just the wrong angle. The eyecup also has just enough "give" to it for comfort, without being soft and squishy enough that I'd worry about it getting damaged. And thanks to the small proximity sensor to the right of the viewfinder eyepiece, it is quickly enabled as you bring the finder to your eye, and then disabled once you lower the camera once more, reenabling the main LCD monitor.
The main display, too, is bright, clear and crisp. I've not had any issues with daylight visibility, even when shooting under direct sunlight. And the touch-screen overlay on the LCD is very precise and responsive indeed, accurately detecting where I touched with my finger to select a subject for focus, and quickly following allowing with my fingertip if I dragged my finger around the screen. You can also have a tap on the screen trip the shutter as it might on your smartphone, not just set the focus, if you desire. I tried it a few times to satisfy myself that the function worked, and then promptly disabled it using the small on-screen button which can also be used to disable the remainder of the touch screen entirely, preventing accidental focus point changes.
The LCD articulation mechanism is solid, but doesn't cater to selfie fans
The articulation mechanism, while not my preferred side-mounted, tilt/swivel type, felt exceptionally sturdy and solid, and was great for shooting from the hip, low to the ground or over my head. It leans out just far enough from the rear of the camera body when tilted upwards that the viewfinder eyepiece doesn't block your view, but only tilts downwards by around 45 degrees, although that was typically enough to see what I was doing. I still find side-mounted tilt/swivel displays to be even more versatile when framing shots from awkward angles, but I can certainly live with Olympus' tilt-only implementation.
Selfie fans take note, though: There's no way to see the display from in front of the camera, so you'll be reliant on remote shooting via Wi-Fi from your smartphone or tablet, or simply pointing and hoping to frame your self-portrait shots.
The E-M10 Mark III offers good performance with the exception of continuous autofocus
Performance also struck me as good in most respects, although I was rather disappointed with continuous autofocus. Burst capture performance was certainly very swift: Olympus claims 8.6 frames per second, and our performance testing results from the lab bear this out. With a UHS-II card, buffer depths are good too, with the lab finding as many as 33 raw or 14 raw+JPEG frames were possible in a burst. In my real-world shooting, I only had access to a regular 94MB/sec UHS-I card, and saw rather lower buffer depths, so you'll want to get a UHS-II card for the best results.
In my real-world shooting, I found that the AF system could consistently achieve a focus lock swiftly and accurately in daylight using single AF mode. The same was also mostly true for the first frame in continuous AF mode, but after that point it was noticeably less capable.
Go-karts: My challenging go-to for continuous autofocus testing
I tested this out using my long-time favorite AF test subject, the go-kart track of Xtreme Racing Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I like shooting around this track for several reasons. For one thing, I can walk around most of the outer track's perimeter without needing to access private property. For another, there are several long straights which I can shoot down the length of, following the karts as they come directly towards the camera. And Xtreme Racing Center's karts are the fastest I've found in the area, so this does represent a fairly challenging subject. (I've previously estimated the karts to have a top speed of around 25 mph -- perhaps not their claimed 40mph, but still a pretty decent clip.)
But shooting the karts with the E-M10 Mark III, I found that many of my bursts of shots failed to keep up with the action, lagging as much as a couple of kart lengths behind the driver on which I was trying to focus. Only perhaps a third of my attempts managed to keep the kart in focus for more than two or three frames from the start of the burst. That doesn't compare so well to DSLRs with phase-detection, nor with mirrorless rivals offering hybrid phase/contrast-detection, where at the same track, I'd have expected more like a 70-80%+ hit rate.
Reducing the burst capture rate seems to help, but not enough
And it wasn't down to just the lens, either. I shot with both the 75-300 and 40-150mm lenses at similar focal lengths to those I've used with other cameras, but the E-M10 Mark III struggled to keep up with the action regardless. Dialing back the burst capture rate from the full 8.6 frames-per-second rate to the lower-speed burst rate, which is now said to be around 4.8 fps, seemed to help, but even still, far too many shots were out of focus.
Great daytime image quality for the most part, but with some occasional quirks
Shooting in the daytime, I have to say I really rather liked the E-M10 Mark III's image quality. I did notice a tendency to overexposure at the go-kart track, but that seemed pretty specific to the subject, shooting small, dark colored karts on bright, light-colored concrete under full daylight. I didn't see the same issue with other subjects and could easily have resolved it with some negative exposure compensation, so I don't think it's a major concern.
I did notice an occasional tendency to focus on the background behind the subject in a few scenes, which was a little more concerning, but again, it was a relatively infrequent issue. And I did have some occasional issues with the E-M10 Mark III selecting a shutter speed which was too low to avoid blur from camera shake when shooting with the longer lenses, but again, this was in a relative minority of my shots and I got plenty of sharp ones too.
And otherwise, the E-M10 Mark III's images were very pleasing indeed. Colors were pleasing and lifelike, without being overly saturated and punchy as is often the case with cameras aimed at consumers. And the white balance system did a great job, yielding accurate color almost all of the time.
Oh, and the while in-camera Art filters aren't my cup of tea personally speaking, the new Bleach Bypass filters do pretty much as they say on the tin, so if you're into filtering your images in-camera, you'll likely appreciate them. :)
Get the details on high ISO capture from our Managing Editor
When I first wrote this field test, I was intending to come back for a second suck of the sav, if you'll pardon the Aussie colloquialism, by offering a second field test. For a variety of personal reasons, I wasn't able to manage it myself, but the most important thing I intended to cover -- image quality and noise levels throughout the sensitivity range -- has been covered instead by one of my colleagues.
If you want to see how the E-M10 III performs throughout the ISO range, you'll want to click here to hop on over to Managing Editor Dave Pardue's Olympus E-M10 III High ISO Supplement article for the full story on that. Or if you just want to know whether we recommend the E-M10 III at the end of the day, click here instead to read our final conclusion!
Video footage tested, too
One other thing I didn't cover in my first field test, intending to come back to it in a second, was video capture. I'd already shot the footage and uploaded it to YouTube in anticipation of a second field test, though, so I'm appending it to this one instead.
The new 4K video capture mode yields great quality, but its higher resolution also makes it much easier to notice some subtle focus hunting that would probably have slipped by almost unnoticed at Full HD resolution.
As always, all footage is straight out of the camera and recorded using the built-in microphone. Speeds and feeds can be seen directly under each video, and if you want to see it without YouTube's recompression, you'll find links to download the original videos in each case, too.
Musical performance videos
Slow-motion swing video