Olympus E-M5 Mark III Field Test

A long-awaited update brings E-M1 II imaging, performance features to svelte E-M5 line

by William Brawley | Posted 10/17/2019

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 12mm, f/6.3, 1/80s, ISO 200, -0.7 EV

They say good things come to those who wait, and in the case of Olympus E-M5 owners, the wait for an update of the super-popular E-M5 Mark II has been a long one. But, alas, the wait is finally over, with Olympus finally unveiling the next generation of the original OM-D camera, the E-M5 Mark III. Since the E-M5 II's debut back in 2015, Olympus has introduced a number of technical improvements and new features, and the E-M5 III is undoubtedly a big step up from its aging predecessor.

By and large, the new Olympus E-M5 Mark III brings the compact and weather-sealed E-M5 line up to a similar level with the E-M1 Mark II and E-M1X, particularly concerning image quality, and AF specs for the most part. On the one hand, the E-M5 Mark III doesn't offer what some might consider groundbreaking image quality and performance improvements when compared to Olympus' existing OM-D line, seeing as this camera now shares the same imaging pipeline as the E-M1 II and E-M1X. However, on the other hand, it does offer significant improvements over the older E-M5 Mark II -- a new sensor, a new processor, better IS, more capabilities for both stills and video, and a refreshed design, all in a lighter and less expensive package. For those long-time E-M5 and E-M5 II owners, the new E-M5 Mark III offers a ton of new features and updates and is undoubtedly a worthy reason to upgrade.

I had the opportunity to test out the new E-M5 Mark III last week during an Olympus-organized press excursion to Moab, Utah, which certainly gave me a chance to test the camera's dust-resistance! More importantly, I had the chance to examine the camera's imaging capabilities in a variety of conditions, as well as get a sense of its performance and handling characteristics.

Let's dive in to see how the long-awaited Olympus E-M5 Mark III performs...

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 34mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 200

Design & Ergonomics

Starting with the physical shape and ergonomics of the camera, the overall design and styling of the Mark III is, unsurprisingly, remarkably similar to the Mark II model, though it does share some controls and button layout elements brought over from the E-M1 II. The overall physical characteristics are incredibly similar to the E-M5 II, as well, with nearly identical physical dimensions and the same general shape. And for us, that’s a good thing.

The weight is somewhat similar, but the E-M5 III is actually a bit lighter than the predecessor. The E-M5 Mark III incorporates more polycarbonate plastic into its construction than the Mark II, which utilized more mag-alloy. (However, the exact specifics on how the two body constructions differ was not specified by Olympus.) Despite the change in its construction, the E-M5 III maintains Olympus' hallmark weather-sealing performance, with robust dust, moisture and freeze resistance. In hand, however, I'd be hard-pressed to tell much difference between a fully metal-chassis camera and this hybrid polycarbonate build (other than perhaps a temperature difference in a metal surface compared to plastic); the E-M5 III is incredibly well-built and sturdy. The body is extremely solid-feeling, with no creaky, chintzy, plastic-like feel to it whatsoever, and the weather-sealing -- at least when it comes to fending off the dry dust and dirt of the Moab desert -- seems pleasingly robust. In the end, if the camera can be lighter in weight while keeping the same hardy weather-sealed design, I consider that a win-win in my book.

Despite changes in construction, the E-M5 III is still thoroughly weather-sealed against dust, moisture and freezing temperatures.

When it comes to the notable design changes to the body shape and styling of the Mark III, the biggest change is to the thumb rest and handgrip. The name of the game with the E-M5 III is compactness and lightness, so as with the predecessor, the Mark III doesn't have a big, pronounced handgrip like the E-M1 Mark II. However, the handgrip and thumb rest are both a bit larger on the new model, making the camera easier and more conformable to hold, all while keeping the camera quite compact. As before, the E-M5 III doesn't have a rounded, curvaceously contoured handgrip; it's still more straight-edged and angular. That said, I don't find the camera at all uncomfortable, even if the grip doesn't really fit into my hand. The larger grip and bigger thumb rest together allow the camera to feel secure in my hand and provides enough balanced handling for small prime lenses and medium-sized zooms such as the 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro and 7-14mm /2.8 Pro lenses. The larger 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro lens also works quite well on this smaller body, but with larger glass, such as the 40-150mm f/2.8 and certainly the 300mm f/4 will, you'll likely want a camera with a larger grip.

However, Olympus does offer a handgrip accessory for the E-M5 Mark III (the ECG-5 dedicated external grip), which mounts to the tripod socket of the camera and provides a larger handgrip as well as a secondary, repositioned shutter release button and front control dial. It more or less transforms the E-M5 Mark III into a "mini E-M1 Mark II," which is pretty clever. The only drawback with the ECG-5 grip is that it blocks the battery compartment door on the bottom of the camera. That might be a deal-breaker for some. However, the E-M5 III now offers in-camera battery charging via USB, so you technically don't ever need to remove the battery from the camera.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 12mm, f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 200

And speaking of the battery, one of the consequences to the E-M5 III's re-worked internals as well as its generally compact design is that it now uses a smaller battery pack, the BLS-50 rechargeable battery. This is the same battery used in the E-M10-series cameras and many of the PEN models. Unfortunately, if you're an earlier E-M5 II owner with a stack of batteries, you'll need to grab some new ones should you upgrade to this camera. In terms of battery life performance, I was initially disappointed to hear that the E-M5 III had switched to a smaller-capacity battery pack and was expecting worse battery life. And yet my real-world experience has been quite the opposite. The hardware inside the E-M5 III seems impressively power-efficient, and combined with my judicious habit of powering off the camera while not using it, a single battery easily lasted me an entire day of shooting. According to Olympus' specs, the E-M5 III is actually CIPA-rated for the same 310 shots per charge as the previous model, despite the smaller battery. Quite impressive.

When it comes to the EVF, the overall user experience is very similar both to the E-M5 II and to the E-M1 II. The viewfinder display itself has the same 2.36-million dot resolution as used in both of the cameras mentioned above, but it uses an OLED panel instead of an LCD, making for a sharp, crisp screen with good colors, contrast and easy-to-read text. Another difference compared to the higher-end E-M1 II, is that the EVF in the E-M5 III only offers a 60fps refresh rate and not an additional "high-speed" 120fps mode. In practice, however, I didn't notice any issue or sense that I needed a faster refresh rate -- the EVF looked and performed as I expected from an OM-D camera. There is a minor downgrade, though, as the E-M5 III's EVF is slightly smaller, going from a 0.74x magnification ratio for both the E-M5 II and E-M1 II, to 0.68x. Eye relief has however improved to 27mm, up from 21mm.

In terms of the control layout, the E-M5 III is like a blend of the E-M1 II and the previous E-M5 II. The top-deck controls strongly mimic that of the E-M1 Mark II. The Mode Dial is now moved over the right side of the EVF, like on the E-M1 II, and on the left side now is the similar split-button control on top of the On/Off lever. The main user operation, however, remains similar, with the front and rear control dials on the camera both sitting flat on the top of the camera body. The front dial, again, surrounds the shutter release button.

Meanwhile, the rear controls are, by and large, exactly the same as the predecessor with the same basic layout of buttons. Olympus has managed to add a dedicated ISO button along the top of the thumb rest, which is rather handy and something even the E-M1 II doesn't offer -- I ended up reprogramming another button on my E-M1 II in order to give me a quick-access ISO button. Of course, the E-M5 III offers tons of user customization, and you can easily re-assign the ISO button to some other function as well as set ISO onto some other button if you want, but I appreciate Olympus providing a simple ISO button right out of the box.

My only personal complaint about the rear controls is that they feel a bit too small for my taste. Compared to the E-M1 Mark II, the rear buttons are smaller as is the 4-way directional control. I found this made it more difficult to operate the controls simply by feel, and I often had to take the camera down from my eye to verify I was pressing the correct button, especially the Playback button (both it and the Delete button sit flush with the back surface). Out in the field, I often want to review shots with the EVF and zoom-in on detail. The E-M5 III (and other OM-D cameras) frustratingly don't let you first press Playback and then bring the camera up to your eye. Doing so, triggering the EVF eye sensor, reverts the camera back into shooting mode. Most of this is helpful, but I want Playback mode to "override" this, so to speak, and let me quickly use the EVF to view the image I'm reviewing. Combine this behavior with the tiny Playback button, and the process goes something like this: 1) Take photo, 2) press Playback to see image on rear LCD, 3) bring camera up eye to review closer, 4) eye sensor toggles camera back to shooting mode; 5) fumble around trying to feel the tiny Playback button while holding camera up to my eye. Overall, this isn't a deal-breaker by any means, but it's merely a frustration point I found myself often encountering while out shooting.

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 10mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 200
RAW file edit: Converted in Olympus Workspace into TIFF, adjusted in Adobe Lightroom to taste. Click to view the unedited original image.

Additionally, I also use the 4-way control quite often to move the AF point around, and with the smaller-sized control, I sometimes found myself pressing the "OK" button in the center of the control by mistake. The E-M5 III does offer a touchscreen mode that lets you move the AF point with the touchscreen while the EVF is active and up to your eye. However, I'm a left-eye dominant shooter, so my nose is often in contact with the screen causing errant touches/AF point adjustments -- I always disable this feature in cameras that offer it. Obviously, I wish the camera had a joystick control, but there's clearly not enough space on the back.

My last little quibble about the E-M5 III's design is the camera strap lug, particularly the placement of the strap lug on the right side of the camera. Just like on the E-M5 II, there's a strap lug right on the side of the handgrip area. Depending on how I'm holding the camera, the lug is usually hitting up against my hands or my fingers, and noisy, dangling triangular strap rings are even more annoying. It just seems like an odd location to put this little piece of hardware. On the E-M1 II, the right-side lug is up on the top surface of the camera and out of the way completely on the grip. This choice was likely not possible on the E-M5 III given its more compact size, but I wish there some better alternative.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 35mm, f/2.8, 1/6400s, ISO 200

Image Quality

When it comes to image quality, the E-M5 III offers quite a big upgrade over the older E-M5 II, utilizing a higher-resolution 20-megapixel Four Thirds sensor and faster TruePic VIII image processor. Overall, the imaging pipeline is now very similar to that of the E-M1 II, with a similar sensor and image processing algorithms. The camera offers the same default ISO range of 200 up to ISO 25,600, though you can expand it down to a new Low ISO of 64 compared to ISO 100 for the Mark II. The Auto ISO range is also expanded, now going up to ISO 6400 rather than topping out at a fairly modest ISO 1600.

Olympus 45mm f/1.2 Pro: 45mm, f/1.2, 1/12800s, ISO 200, +0.3 EV
RAW file edit: Converted in Olympus Workspace into TIFF, adjusted in Adobe Lightroom to taste. Click to view the unedited original image.

As far as my experience with the camera so far, the vast majority of my shooting time has been during the day and in rather well-lit or straight-up bright, sunny conditions. Suffice it to say, most of my images shot so far have been at base ISO or other modest ISO levels. Further testing will be required to see how the camera performs in low-light situations and generally with higher ISO levels.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 16mm, f/7.1, 1/60s, ISO 200

From what I've seen so far, I am delighted with the image quality performance of the E-M5 III. Image quality is, perhaps not surprisingly, more or less similar to what I'm used to seeing from my E-M1 II. At low ISOs, images offer excellent fine detail resolution. Images are sharp and full of detail without appearing overly sharpened. At close inspection, in-camera JPEGs might be a touch over-sharpened, but for the most part, I am very pleased with images straight out of the camera. Of course, by shooting raw, you can control the degree of sharpness to your tastes.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 50mm, f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 500

Colors from SOOC JPEGs are accurate, rich and vibrant without feeling overly-saturated -- at least with the camera's default "Natural" picture style, which is what I use the majority of the time. However, since I was out in the desert, I did find myself surrounded by wide blue skies and deep orange rocks, especially during sunset hours. Flipping the camera over to its "Vivid" picture style really boosted up the saturation and made for some really vibrant photographs. The saturation with the Vivid profile might be too strong for my taste, but it's still a cool effect if you really want your colors to pop -- and you don't want to bother editing a raw file. And of course, you can always adjust in-camera JPEG parameters like saturation, sharpness and contrast, too.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 15mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 200, -0.7 EV
Vivid Picture Style: Perhaps a bit too much color saturation?

When it comes to dynamic range, I was pleasantly surprised with the performance here, too, at these lower ISO shots. Much of the shooting was out in midday sunlight, causing harsh shadows and generally very contrasty scenes. The E-M5 III did an excellent job at retaining highlight detail and colors in the skies without blowing out these bright areas while still showing a lot of shadow detail, even with JPEGs. Raw files, of course, provide more leeway for heavily tonal adjustments, but I found most of my shots, even those with extremely bright highlight areas, required minimal tonal adjustments.

Live Composite Mode • Olympus 12mm f/2: 12mm, f/2, 15s, ISO 1000

In general, I'm overall very impressed with the image quality from the E-M5 III -- both from standard 20MP images as well as its 50MP High-Res Shot files. Even though the 20MP Four Thirds sensor is getting up there in age these days, this sensor and the TruePic VIII processor do a nice job of creating really pleasing images. And of course, while the E-M5 III's 20-megapixel Four Thirds sensor might not resolve as much detail as most full-frame sensors, the detail this camera system can resolve while at the same time being extremely lightweight and easy to carry around, makes it an altogether enjoyable user experience.

Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro: 7mm, f/4.5, 1/1250s, ISO 200


Before wrapping up, I wanted to touch on the performance features of the E-M5 III, which also offers a number of performance improvements over the previous E-M5 model. For starters, there's a new 121-point hybrid AF system that uses both on-chip phase-detect sensors and contrast detection. The overall autofocus system is nearly identical to the E-M1 II's, using the same AF algorithms as of E-M1 II firmware v3.0. The camera now offers multiple AF point groupings, fine-tunable C-AF sensitivity settings, as well as C-AF Center Priority and C-AF Center, Start options that originally debuted on the E-M1X.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 47mm, f/4.5, 1/2000s, ISO 200
RAW file edit: Converted in Olympus Workspace into TIFF, adjusted in Adobe Lightroom to taste. Click to view the unedited original image.

When it comes to continuous shooting specs, in addition to now offering Pro Capture modes, the E-M5 Mark III now offers multiple burst shooting speeds, both High and Low settings, with either the mechanical shutter or electronic (silent) shutter. With Continuous AF between frames, the E-M5 III offers either 10fps with the electronic shutter or 6fps with the mechanical shutter. Additionally, there's also a 10fps burst mode with the mechanical shutter, as well as a super-fast 30fps burst mode using the electronic shutter; however, with both of these sequential shooting modes, focus is locked on the first frame. Similarly, the faster "High" setting of 30fps for Pro Capture mode has focus locked at the first frame.

Olympus 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro: 57mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 200, +0.3EV

Most of my shooting involved static subjects, such as landscapes and portraits, but there were some action shots, such as off-road vehicles and galloping horses that gave me a sense of the camera's general performance. Suffice to say, the camera feels like a mini-E-M1 II; the autofocus is extremely fast, the C-AF feels precise and accurate, and the camera overall feels nimble and responsive. Utilizing Sequential Low burst modes, in order to maintain continuous AF, I found the E-M5 III performed very well, with the camera grabbing and tracking moving subject quickly and accurately. I don't consider myself a "machine-gun" shooter, so I don't normally take long, extended burst sequences, so for the shorter, quick burst that I shot, the camera more or less nailed focus throughout the burst sequences. There were only a few times where the camera's C-AF + TR (continuous focus + tracking mode) results in a slightly soft image, but the camera quickly recovered with a sharp shot in the next frame.

I do need to test the continuous AF in a more rigorous scenario and for longer burst sequences, but from what I'm seeing so far -- and based on my experience with the E-M1 II, which uses and overall similar AF system -- I am not expecting poor performance from the E-M5 III when it comes to C-AF capabilities.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro: 12mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 200
RAW file edit: Converted in Olympus Workspace into TIFF, adjusted in Adobe Lightroom to taste. Click to view the unedited original image.


All in all, the long-awaited Olympus E-M5 Mark III is shaping up to be an excellent member of the OM-D family, providing a significant amount of upgrades over the aging E-M5 Mark II. Compared to some of the existing members of the OM-D line, especially the E-M1 II and E-M1X, the E-M5 Mark III might not feel like a groundbreaking camera. It keeps the same sensor, the same processor, essentially the same hybrid AF system, and overall a very similar set of shooting features. I can see that as being somewhat of a disappointment to some, especially to those who might have been hoping for a new Four Thirds sensor, as the 20MP chip here has been around quite a while now.

On the other hand, I haven't found much to complain about when it comes to the image quality or the performance of this camera or other 20MP OM-D cameras. In a way, it feels like an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" situation. Plus, given Olympus' history of providing substantial firmware upgrades down the line that adds new features and performance improvements, the new E-M5 III feels like a camera that will last for years to come.


Editor's Picks