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Is the Olympus E-3 dSLR unfashionably late?

Arriving late with its E-1 followup, the Olympus E-3's speeds and feeds match what you'd expect for an entry-level pro model. But is that enough this late in the game?

Olympus highlights the E-3's splashproof design
Olympus highlights the E-3's splash-proof design. Olympus America

Olympus shipped its first interchangeable-lens dSLR, the pro-level E-1, in the fall of 2003. Four years is a long time to wait for a new model, especially given the rapid pace of technological change in the dSLR category and a cast of photographic characters hungry for the latest and greatest to help boost their earnings potential. Consumers buying their first (and perhaps even second) dSLRs will follow where great technology leads, but pros must commit to a camera system that includes lenses and flashes. Once they've moved on, it takes more than just a snappy shutter and flashy LCD to lure them back.

That's a big burden to place on the shoulders of the new E-3.

It helps that the camera isn't a hardcore pro model; at $1,700 (body only) it's priced and suited for entry-level professionals and wannabes. But it will compete directly with the Nikon D300, which has an obvious growth path and huge accessory system behind it.

How do the E-3's specs stack up? First, here's an overview:

  Alpha DSLR-A700 Olympus E-3 Nikon D300
Sensor 12.2-megapixel CMOS
23.5 x 15.6mm
10.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3 x 13.0 mm
12.3-megapixel CMOS
22.2 x 14.8mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 3200 ISO 200 - ISO 6400
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 5 fps
8 (Extra fine) or unlimited (Fine) JPEG
5 fps
unlimited JPEG
6 fps
100 JPEG
Mechanical image stabilization Yes Yes No
Viewfinder 95% coverage
0.90x magnification
25mm eye point
interchangeable matte focusing screen
2 optional focusing screens
100% coverage
1.15x magnification
20mm eye point
changeable to grid matte at service center
100% coverage
0.94x magnification
19.5mm eye point
fixed matte focusing screen with optional gridlines
Autofocus 11-pt AF
two cross-type sensors in center (one f/2.8)
11-pt AF
all cross-type (aperture info unavailable)
9 51-pt AF
all cross-type to f/5.6
Live View No Yes Yes
Wireless flash controller Yes Yes Yes
LCD size 3 inches/307,200 pixels 2.5 inches/230,000 pixels 3 inches/307,200 pixels
Shutter durability 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles
Price (body only) $1,499 $1,699 $1,799.95
Olympus E-3 back
Olympus E-3 back Olympus America

So, it uses the same 10-megapixel Live MOS sensor as the Panasonic DMC-L10. Personally, I crop a lot and tend to print at 13x19, so that resolution disappoints me a bit. The full 11 cross-type AF sensors, with slightly offset focusing points, sounds like it should provide a fast focusing system when shooting both horizontally and vertically, but only testing will tell. That goes triple for Olympus' claim that the image stabilization system can deliver up to 5 stops latitude, which the company says is more applicable to long, heavy lenses.

The rest looks pretty encouraging, however. It offers a few things the D300 doesn't: a splash-proof (and dust-proof) design; built-in, independent x/y sensor-shift stabilization; huge viewfinder; and a flip-out display, which (to me) improves the usefulness of Live View mode from "so what?" to "Whoa, yeah!" In addition to a standard 2 percent spot meter, the E-3 also offers high-key and low-key spot meter options, which will meter at something other than 18 percent gray to boost highlights or shadows. And you'll be able to set the matrix metering system to evaluate its 44 points worth of data in a spiral or loop scheme. It all sounds nice and whizzy, but just how useful these really are remains to be seen.

For all you strobers, the E-3 also includes an impressive-sounding flash system. It includes a built-in wireless flash controller that can support three flash groups of four channels each. Maximum X-sync speed is 1/250 second and there's a super FP (focal plane) mode which enables sync speed up to 1/8,000 sec.

New Olympus Four Thirds lenses
New Olympus Four Thirds lenses Olympus America

Without lens announcements trailing it like a caboose, a new dSLR camera announcement just wouldn't be the same. Four with the Zuiko Digital ED brand follow the E-3:

  • f2.8-4.0 12mm-60mm SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive)
    24mm-120mm-equivalent; $999.99; available November 2007
  • f2.8-3.5 50mm-200mm SWD
    100mm-400mm-equivalent; $1,199.99; available December 2007
  • f2.0 14-35mm SWD
    28mm-70mm-equivalent; $2,299.99; available Q1 2008
  • 2x Teleconverter EC-20
    $479.99; available December 2007

Olympus hasn't indicated whether or not it's planning to sell a kit version of the E-3. If so, it certainly won't include any of these rather pricey optics.

I don't know for certain, but I doubt there are hordes of E-1 owners who've tenaciously spurned all dSLR suitors while waiting for Olympus to release a new pro model. Then again, for those who invested in the Four Thirds lenses, the E-3 is likely a momentous release. Once we've got one in for evaluation, we'll let you know if it was worth the wait--or too little, too late.