Olympus bundles some nice extras into the E-3's feature set. The pop-up flash doubles as the controller in a wireless-flash setup, and the flash system supports a 1/8,000 sec focal-plane shutter sync. In addition to a standard 2 percent spot meter, the E-3 also offers high-key (Highlight) and low-key (Shadow) spot-meter options, which meter at something other than 18 percent gray to boost highlights or shadows. If you don't have decades of learned behavior to overcome or shoot long runs of high- or low-key photos, this can be a useful tool. For me, and I suspect for a lot of longtime photographers, automatically metering off something other than the subject to achieve the correct exposure is a habit that's probably not worth breaking. (For a complete accounting of the E-3's features, you can download a PDF file of the manual.)
By the numbers, the E-3 performs quite speedily. CNET Labs' tests indicate it wakes up and shoots a bit slowly for its class--about 1.3 seconds--though I'd hardly consider that sluggish. Under good, high-contrast lighting, it focuses and shoots in just under a third of a second, rising to only 0.8 second in dimmer conditions. Typically, it captures consecutive frames in a half second, edging up to 0.6 second with the built-in flash enabled. And it delivers a quick 4.9 frames per second for high-speed burst shooting. In casual testing, the image-stabilization system delivered about 4 stops of latitude over what the reciprocal rule dictates--1/6 second versus 1/120 second for a 120mm focal length--but I was able to get sharp handheld shots without IS as low as 1/30 sec. Olympus says that you should see more of a gap with longer, heavier lenses. (Because of the consistently overcast and/or frigid weather here in New York, I have not gotten a chance to put the continuous-shooting system through its paces at the dog run. I'll have to get back to you with that.)
Overall, I think the E-3's photos look great. In particular, the colors are gorgeous: saturated, yet some of the most accurate we've tested in this class (at low ISO sensitivities, at least), with impressive automatic white balance. The camera has a slight tendency to underexpose, but you can easily compensate for that. The camera disappointingly maxes out at ISO 3,200, but its noise profile looks pretty good; I printed some 11x15 shots taken at ISO 2,000 inside Grand Central Station and found the noise pretty subtle. Nor do Olympus' noise suppression algorithms overblur.
With the exception of its somewhat awkward design and interface, the Olympus E-3 stands up quite well to competitors such as the Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 and Nikon D300. But if you're buying into a system, think carefully: Olympus currently offers only 13 pro-quality lenses, and the gap since the last pro dSLR release was about four years. Will that translate into problems for you down the road? Consider it before committing.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)