Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Underwater Review
Underwater Adventures with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III is Olympus's newest top-of-the-line mirrorless micro four thirds camera, and unfortunately it's still quite a mouthful to say. When the camera first came out earlier this year, I admit I didn't have high hopes for innovation. It seemed like a great camera, but for underwater photographers I didn't see many features that made it stand out from previous generations (i.e., Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II). That being said, OM-D series cameras are great little packages with an amazing image quality to size ratio, and I was looking forward to trying it out.
Fast forward a few months and three bizarre, adventurous dives and I've come to a single realization. When I write a review, it's not the camera that shows me the caliber of a camera - it's the dive. And my three dives with the OM-D E-M1 Mark III showed just how versatile, resilient, and fun to shoot this camera can be. At the end of the day, the OM-D E-M1 Mark III can capture some incredible images.
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U.S. MSRP Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III: $1,800
Purchase an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Housing at Bluewater Photo:
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Specifications
- 20.4 Megapixel Live MOS Sensor
- TruePic IX Quad Core Processor (faster upgrade to Mark II)
- 121 point cross-type phase detect AF system
- 5 axis image stabilization up to 7 stops
- 2.36M dot electronic viewfinder
- 3 inch touch LCD
- 15fps [H]/10 fps [L] burst shooting with mechanical shutter
- Topside features including handheld high res shot mode, live ND filter, electronic shutter
- 4K video @ 30 fps with an OM-Log mode
- 440 shot battery life rating
- 90.9 mm X 68.9 mm X 134.1 mm
- Weight: 580 grams
Dive 1: Stuck in a Whirlpool
Scalyhead sculpin photographed with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Ikelite EM1 Mark III housing, dual Ikelite DS 161 strobes, Olympus 60mm macro lens
The arrival of an EM-1 Mark III at my doorstep coincided with some phenomenal tides in the Pacific Northwest. I was excited to bring the camera to my favorite site in Washington state - a difficult site known for its spectacular life, unpredictable nature, and fast currents. In fact, there are often only a handful of days in spring when people are willing to dive it. After a tiring, four hour early morning drive I arrived to see the current running and froth still swirling at the surface. Eventually the surface began to calm and my buddy and I waded into the water, letting the current pull us out. We were too early. Within three minutes my buddy was flagging down a passing fishing boat to tow him back to shore. Meanwhile, I was 40 ft below and many yards away experiencing a whirlpool for the first time. Holding onto the Ikelite housing for dear life, I spun in circles wondering if I would have to let the camera go. For being a tiny housing, the drag in the fast current was surprisingly strong. Of course, I had forgotten to bring a strap. After a while I managed to find a spot at the edge of the whirlpool where the downwelling and upwelling met and I could stay pinned against the wall. I didn't dare move from that spot for the next 40 minutes with currents that strong. By some miracle I managed to capture a couple of photos and crawled up the wall back to the surface. When I got to the surface I slowly fought my way along the cliffside and sheepishly climbed ashore.
So what did I learn from this dive about the OM-D E-M1 Mark III?
1. Yes, the E-M1 Mark III is larger than a compact camera, but it's the perfect size for handling extreme currents and situations where you need to use one hand. Sometimes the compromise in image quality compared to a full frame system is worth it.
2. The Ikelite housing for the E-M1 Mark III is strong, durable, and safely sealed. The vacuum seal is added protection, and in this case, with currents so strong, I was glad it was sealed. When I pulled the housing out of the water it looked brand new and without a scratch!
3. Make sure to preset your focus area when shooting with the OM-D E-M1 Mark III. The focus points are two small to move on the fly, so it can be easier to select multiple points.
4. The autofocus is quick for a micro four thirds camera, but about the same as previous generations of the OM-D.
5. The Olympus 7-14mm Pro lens is a great option for those that don't want the distortion of a fisheye lens. The corners in the image are not too soft, even when shooting walls.
Beautiful wide angle reef scene captured in high current with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III camera, Ikelite OMD EM1 Mark III housing, dual Ikelite DS 161 strobes w/ Ikelite TTL converter, Olympus 7-14mm Pro lens.
Dive 2: Who Needs RAW?
After my disappointment of only capturing two photos, I drove farther south to a site where I know how to find some other-worldy critters. Despite less than 5 feet of visibility and high winds, I managed to find my favorite fish - a mosshead warbonnet. Mosshead warbonnets look like tiny dragons, sometimes smaller than the size of a pinky finger. They can be exceptionally jumpy and difficult to photograph. But after a while, you can learn the inidvidual fish's behavior and anticipate where its going to jump next. I found the 60mm macro lens to be very responsive, even without a focus light. The autofocus is slower than full frame and APS-C mirrorless competitors by Nikon and Canon but quicker than most Sony APS-C cameras. The AF speed is about the same as the EM-1 Mark II or even the EM-5 Mark III. It's slightly more accurate than the Olympus O-MD EM-5 Mark III, which I've found can lock onto the wrong point every now and then.
Mosshead Warbonnet photographed with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Ikelite EM1 Mark III housing, dual Ikelite DS 161 strobes w/Ikelite TTL converter, Olympus 60mm macro lens
After a successful run in with the warbonnet, I saw a very patient sculpin and attached the Saga Magic Tube to see if it would be compatible with an Olympus 60mm macro lens - lo and behold, it was! I was very pleased with wonderful swirls the patterns of the eye of this buffalo sculpin made.
Buffalo sculpin eye photographed with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Ikelite EM1 Mark III housing, dual Ikelite DS 161 strobes w/Ikelite TTL converter, Olympus 60mm macro lens, Saga magic tube
When I got home I realized that I had been shooting in JPEG the whole day......oh well, who needs RAW anyway? Just kidding, always shoot RAW.
Dive 3: Hungry Wolf Eel
A week later, I realized I needed at least one redeeming wide angle photo. And what better Pacific Northwest subject for wide angle than wolf eels? So I got in the water at my local wolf eel watering hole and was met with the same pea soup visibilty. But I persisted and eventually spotted a hungry looking wolf eel. It approached my camera quickly and began to munch on my sync chord and port. Thankfully my chord and port took the beating. What I was most impressed with was how easily the camera focused in low light with the wide angle lens. It rivaled my Nikon Z6. When I zoomed into the photo preview I was delighted to see all the details captured from the eel's face. The photo below shows just how much detail the Olympus 7-14mm lens captured. I was also pleased to see the Ikelite DL3 DS Link TTL converter worked to tell the storbes to expose the images properly. If you use at TTL converter, make sure that the E-M1 Mark III is set to spot metering for proper exposure. Because the seascape was so dark in the limited visibilty I needed to bump my ISO up. Overall I was pleased there wasn't a noticeable increase in noise at ISO 400. I often find that with micro four thirds sensors, even ISO 400 can create a little noise. But all the details were nice and crisp - the EM1 Mark III is equipped with a sensor that can handle low light.
Beautiful low light wolf eel portrait captured with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III camera, Ikelite OMD EM1 Mark III housing, dual Ikelite DS 161 strobes w/ Ikelite TTL converter, Olympus 7-14mm Pro lens.
A hungry wolf eel chews on my sync chord and dome - thankfully there was no damage!
Who Should Buy the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III?
After these crazy dives, I felt like I really knew the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III. So who should buy this camera? I think Olympus OM-D shooters should upgrade to the E-M1 Mark III only if they want some of the interesting computational photography benefits built in for topside photography. For underwater photography, you won't see much benefit - though you will see some switching from the OM-D E-M10 series. The OM-D EM1 Mark III is going to be the best option for underwater photographers that want excellent image quality but want one hand free while they are diving. The E-M1 Mark III is just small enough to be work downgrading from a larger DSLR or upgrading from a compact camera. The price point for the EM-1 Mark III body is a little high - but keep in mind that housings are smaller and therefor less expensive for this system than a DSLR. The Ikelite housing, for example retails for $950 - almost half the price of the body! So if you are looking to save money on a higher end system, this could be the camera for you. However, it would still be work looking at APS-C mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6600 or even full frame mirrorless cameras like the Nikon Z6. Both will offer superior image quality, but larger systems. Olympus lenses are notably high quality for their small size and price. So if you want the highest quality system to use with high quality Olympus and Panasonic glass - this is the camera you want for underwater photography.
Purchase an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Housing at Bluewater Photo: