I was a big fan of the Olympus E-1 back in the day, and when Olympus belatedly introduced its successor, the E-3, last fall, I was eager to get one in my hands to shoot with it for a while. It comes in a body-only version or a kit with a f/2.8-3.5 14mm-54mm (28mm-108mm equivalent) lens. I evaluated the body with the new f/2.8-4.0 12mm-60mm (24mm-120mm equivalent), a far more expensive lens that uses an extra-low dispersion coating and incorporates a supersonic motor.
The magnesium-alloy body is as solidly made as ever, and now it's dust-, weather- and splash-proof, as well. At a shade less than 2 pounds, the body weighs about as much as its midrange dSLR classmates, with similar dimensions as well. It's quite comfortable to hold, with a deep rubber grip. Like all of its competitors, the E-3 supplies the requisite front and back dials, status LCD, and plethora of direct-access controls. (For more details on the body design, see the E-3 slide show.) While shooting, the layout feels logical enough, though some of the multibutton-plus-dial combos feel a tad old-fashioned. If you want, you can bypass most of them by using the so-called Super Control Panel, an increasingly popular interface for adjusting most shooting settings from a single screen. The control panel doesn't rotate when shooting vertically, however, the way it does on Sony's dSLRs.
When you cycle through each of the direct-access options, they appear in the viewfinder readout--even options that don't normally appear there, such as white balance or image stabilization mode--which is a very nice touch. The viewfinder, too, is great: large with 1.1x magnification and 100 percent scene coverage. Combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio native to the Four Thirds standard of the sensor and lenses (for a 2x focal-length multiplier) and its big, comfortable eyecup, the viewfinder provides the same shooting feel as a far more expensive full-frame camera. On the other hand, when operating at ISO 2,000 or higher, the display blinks continuously, which can get quite annoying.
In addition to the viewfinder, Olympus includes Live View mode--a feature it pioneered in conjunction with Panasonic--for framing via the LCD. Though it still requires a mirror flip-up for prefocus like most of its competitors, which can slow Live View shooting considerably, the E-3 provides a couple of helpful features. For one, its flip-and-twist LCD makes Live View useful in situations where a fixed LCD can't cut it (such as this shot). For another, it lets you preview the effect of the image stabilizer. (The inability to see the stabilized image remains the one advantage of optical implementations over to sensor-shift.) But at 2.5 inches, the LCD is also kind of small, and not quite high-resolution enough for precise manual focus.
Like other models, the E-3 can supply a magnified view assist for manual focusing in Live View, but the slow display update--you have to wait for the display to catch up with you--can bog down shooting. Finally, when you enter Live View, a message appears on the display reminding you to flip the switch on the viewfinder cover (to prevent light leaks). On one hand, the built-in cover is a great touch that all dSLRs should probably have. On the other, that reminder hogs the display for valuable seconds when you're impatient to shoot.
I generally found the operation of Olympus' two My Mode custom preset banks a bit unwieldy to set up compared with almost everyone else's. The available settings aren't neatly arranged in a submenu for you to choose among; you must configure the camera and then register the settings to one of the banks. Nor is there a screen that summarizes the currently assigned settings for you. However, Olympus adds one feature that makes it almost worth the pain: a one-button override. As long as you hold down the Fn key, you can override the camera's current settings with those of the currently selected My Mode. Unfortunately, the only way to know which of the banks is set to Current is to dive deeply into the menus.
Although the 10-megapixel Live MOS sensor it uses may be a bit low resolution for some applications--uncropped and unretouched, the math dictates you shouldn't print photos much larger than 11x15 at 240dpi--that's more than sufficient for many people. (Another 2 megapixels lets you push that to 12x18, big enough for a full-bleed magazine spread, at least in the U.S.)