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.)
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)