When Olympus and its partners introduced the innovative Four-Thirds
system in 2003 it was considered by some to be a bold move. Now however, the
system has become quite popular with a broad group of enthusiasts and over the
years Olympus steadily kept adding new cameras and lenses to the range. The
only thing that didn’t seem to materialise was an update to the E-1 pro model.
This was by now four years old and - although still a potent camera - its specs
were definitely becoming outdated for today’s discerning photographer.
Now that 2007 has almost come to a close, we can finally introduce its
successor, the Olympus E-3, the new flagship in Olympus’ Four-Thirds range.
This 10-megapixel DSLR is clearly aimed at professional photographers, with
the world’s fastest AF system and shutter speeds of up to 1/8000s; a range
of new Zuiko Digital Supersonic Wave Drive lenses together with built in
image stabilisation; Live View and the familiar Supersonic Wave Filter to
keep the sensor dust-free.
Using the Olympus E-3
There is no denying that the E-3 is a hefty camera. Coupled to the
new Zuiko Digital f/2.8-4 12-60mm lens (24-120mm eq.) it weighs in at just
over 1.5 kilos, which is quite a bit heavier than the old E-1. Once you start
using it however, you seem to forget about the weight and the sizeable handgrip
provides ample support for your right hand with your index finger resting on
the shutter release. Although the Olympus E-3 has more buttons and dials than
you can shake a stick at, they are all logically grouped and once you have
found your way around the camera, they are quite intuitive to use.
On the back of the E-3, located around the 4-way dial and below the
swivelling 2.5-inch LCD, there are dedicated buttons for settings like
image stabilisation, AE/AF-lock; AF point selection and image display.
It is here that you will also find Delete, Info and Menu buttons together
with the Live View switch and main control wheel. On the top plate there
are seven more buttons for immediate access to metering; flash; shooting
modes; white balance and ISO settings. A slightly recessed exposure
compensation button can be set to +/- 5 stops compensation in 1/3, 1/2 or
1EV steps. The shutter and secondary thumb wheel are located on top of the
handgrip where your index finger will intuitively find them. A large display
on the top plate shows all camera info and can be backlit in dark surroundings.
Pressing the OK button in the centre of the 4-way dial brings up the status
panel on the LCD screen, where all functions and parameters can be set through
a combination of using the arrow pads and the front and rear control wheels.
Very convenient indeed as you can get an immediate overview off all settings
without the need to consult the camera menu.
The level of engineering of the "beast" is excellent. The Olympus E-3 is
completely weatherproof - not to be confused with waterproof - thanks to dust
and splash protection of the camera body and many E-system lenses. All controls
feel extremely solid and reliable and the magnesium alloy body coupled to the
camera’s weight inspire confidence and give the impression this machine is built
Unusually for a professional camera the Olympus E-3 not only has a dedicated
flash hot shoe but a built-in flash with a sync speed of 1/250s as well. Apart
from the usual modes such as slow sync and red-eye reduction, the E-3 also has
2nd curtain slow sync, flash light compensation and bracketing.
The built-in flash with GN13 at ISO 100, also controls wireless flash with
certain dedicated Olympus flashlights. An external x-sync flash terminal on
the front of the E-3 completes the system. However, we were not so impressed
by the fact that the flash also acts as an AF-light in dark conditions, since
it fires off a series of bright, rather irritating flashes that will definitely
alert any living subject and make it look away before you even have a chance to
take a picture. We would have preferred a steady green or white light as some of
the competition use to focus in the dark.
The Olympus E-3 has an 11-point TTL phase detection AF-system with horizontal
and vertical detection. Eleven small squares are placed across the frame and
they light when a given point is in focus. The position of the AF-points in
the frame can be set by using the arrow pads and/or the main control wheel.
The AF’s detection range goes from –2 to 19EV which is quite impressive. In
practice we found that the system was very swift and accurate and locked on
to any subject without any hunting at all. This could well be the world’s
fastest AF-system as Olympus claim in their recent press release. If you
consider its top shutter speed of 1/8000s and sequential shooting at up to
five frames per second, plus the capacity to shoot up to 19 RAW files in burst
mode, this will give you an idea of how fast this camera really is.
If you come from using a compact you will be used to the fact that the
majority of shots are composed using the LCD screen on the back. Most DSLRs
however, do not have this option as the mirror is used to focus the image
and you have to use the optical viewfinder for framing instead. Some DSLRs
nowadays – including Olympus - have introduced a system called LiveView,
which makes it possible to use the LCD screen for framing. Although it is
possible to check white balance settings, depth of field and other parameters
such as a live histogram, we found this system rather inconvenient in day to
day photography, as the camera cannot focus normally when LiveView is engaged.
In order to achieve focus, you first have to engage AF by pressing the AEL/AFL
button, after which the mirror flips up, the camera focuses and the mirror
flips back again. It is only then that you will see a sharp LiveView image
and you can press the shutter. This will take some time and you can imagine
that holding a 1.5-kilo camera at arms length in front of you, is not something
that you would like to do all day every day. We believe the system will
certainly have its use in the studio or when using the camera on a tripod
to capture still lives or macro shots, but for reportage work or action
shots the conventional viewfinder is much more convenient.
The optical viewfinder incidentally is a dream to use. It shows 100% of the
image area and all camera info is displayed along the bottom. Even the battery
status is indicated here. It has dioptre correction and an eyepiece shutter to
protect the viewfinder from stray light misleading the exposure when capturing
images on a tripod. A large rubber eye-cup prevents your glasses from getting
damaged if you are a spectacle wearer.
Apart from AWB, the Olympus E-3 has seven white balance settings including
three fluorescent presets. There are four further custom presets to be
determined by using a white or grey card and here you can store your own
preferences for specific image situations. The E-3 also has a CWB-mode
where you can set white balance in degrees Kelvin from 2000 to 140000K.
Besides these, all WB settings can be adapted by dialling in some more
red/blue or green/magenta over seven steps. We found AWB did a good job
in the majority of image situations and only under household lighting or
fluorescent light was it really necessary to resort to the relevant preset.
On the front of the camera there is a dedicated external WB sensor which
determines the colour temperature of the light source in combination with
the image sensor and adjusts the white balance according to the surrounding
lighting conditions. This is to make sure that a subject with predominant
colours will not unduly influence WB settings as determined by the image
As is to be expected from a professional camera the list of functions
and parameters to be set on the E-3 is as long as your arm, however if you
are looking for scene modes, look elsewhere. Olympus expect buyers to know
what they are doing. Therefore the only Programme modes you will find on the
E-3 are Program, Shutter and Aperture priority, full Manuel and Bulb. When
shooting beach scenes or portraits for instance Olympus expect the
pro-photographer to know he has to dial in two stops extra exposure to
compensate for reflections on the beach or lower saturation for natural
skin tones for instance. The discerning enthusiast will understand what
we are talking about here and is perfectly capable of making the right
In the Olympus E-3 box
All necessary goodies are included with the Olympus E-3. Lens choice
is up to you but we feel the kit with the new Zuiko Digital f/2.8-4 12-60mm
SWD lens (24-120mm eq.) would be a good choice for day to day photography.
This is a new Zuiko lens which delivers excellent results and is highly
recommended. Of course if you already have an Olympus FourThirds camera
with lenses you can opt for the ‘body-only’ kit as well. While Leica takes
care of lenses for Panasonic cameras, Sigma is the only third party
manufacturer to make lenses for the Olympus E-series cameras as far as
The 155-page printed manual that comes with the camera explains all
functions in detail, and for a camera at this level it pays to take some
time to get to know all the ins and outs of this photographic tool. The
E-3 uses the trusty BLM1, 7.2V 1500mAh lithium-ion battery that we already
know from other Olympus cameras such as the E-1 or C5060 compact of 2004.
We managed to capture more than 500 images per charge and a subsequent
recharge will take about 5 hours in the supplied BCM-2 charger. Purchasing
a second battery might be a good idea considering the long charging times
before you can get back on the road again. A memory card is not supplied
with the camera, but the E-3 takes CF or xD cards and it is possible to
copy images between cards.
The CD-Rom contains Olympus Master 2 software to organise, edit and
share your E-3 images. It also performs RAW processing tasks. Incidentally
Master 2 software is also available for free download from the Olympus website.
The CD also contains a 30-day trial version of Olympus Studio 2, the
pro-software which allows for batch processing, remote capture and several
other advanced functions.
Apart from a whole range of accessories, Olympus have introduced two new
flashlights with the E-3. These are the FL-36R and FL-50R which allow for
wireless flash triggered by the built-in flash. Together with the E-3,
Olympus have also introduced a new Power Grip (HLD-4) for extra power
and a vertical shutter release and secondary control wheel; a 2x teleconverter
and three new Zuiko Digital zoom lenses with Supersonic Wave Drive AF system
for fast focusing. These are the Zuiko Digital ED f/2.8-4 12-60mm SWD
(24-120mm eq.); Zuiko Digital f/2.8-3.5 50-200mm SWD (100-400mm eq.) and Zuiko
Digital f/2.0 14-35mm SWD (28-70mm eq.). All of these are built to the same
exacting standards as the E-3 and are fully splash and dust proof.
For this test we had the opportunity to try the camera with the new
Zuiko Digital f/2.8-4 12-60mm SWD (24-120mm eq.). This lens delivers excellent
results in combination with the 10-megapixel high speed live MOS sensor
developed by Panasonic and TruePic III image processor. Images are sharp
and possess plenty of detail. This is no doubt also due to the sensor-shift
Image Stabilisation system, which we used through most of our testing. Olympus
claim that the system provides a gain of 5 stops over conventional cameras.
We have not been able to perform any scientific tests on this but we expect
this claim to be a bit too optimistic. Of course IS is a great benefit to get
sharper images and one which no respectable camera manufacturer can afford to
be without nowadays, but 5 stops would mean that a tele shot at 120mm, which
would require a shutter speed of 1/125s to keep the subject sharp, could now
be captured at 1/4s and we believe you would have to possess an extremely
steady hand and ideal circumstances to achieve this.
Although colour rendition on the E-3 may seem a bit subdued at times,
colours are lifelike and natural as is to be expected from a pro-camera.
Consumers who prefer a bit more saturation can adapt this in the camera menu,
where a whole host of other colour parameters can be set to your own liking.
There is no evidence of burning out of highlight detail and although some
vignetting is present at full opening at the widest setting of 24mm (eq.),
this is soon put right by closing down a few stops. Some slight barrel
distortion with a wavy-like pattern, is present at the wide end of the zoom,
and this gradually changes to mild pincushioning at the tele end.
We have not been able to detect any purple fringing in high contrast situations.
The Olympus E-3 uses one of five metering modes to determine correct
exposure and the system was consistently accurate throughout our tests. Digital
ESP metering, which is calculated over 49 areas of an image is perfectly
adequate for all but the most demanding lighting situations. If needed you
could resort to centre weighted average or three spot metering modes with
extra shadow or highlight control. ISO range goes from 100 to 3200ISO and
as always the best results are achieved at the lowest setting. What sets
the E-3 apart from other consumer DSLRs however, is that images taken at
ISO settings of up to 800 still deliver excellent results and are good
enough for larger print sizes, with enough detail and colour information
for pleasant results, as you can see from our sample pics here. More noise
is clearly evident at ISO1600 and 3200, but it is reminiscent of conventional
film images and could be considered quite artistic in certain image situations.
When you look at the many functions and options the Olympus E-3 has,
you will agree that for a novice, the choices to be made can be rather daunting.
What to do with all these white balance settings? Would I need all the
bracketing options (white balance, flash, exposure and ISO)? What colour
space to use in day to day photography and when do I resort to spot metering?
If you are a snap shooter we think you would be better off with a nice compact
or entry level DSLR and it is best to steer clear from the Olympus, since a
camera that is too complicated for you can be a very effective way of
destroying your photo fun. Make no mistake, the Olympus E-3 is a terrific
camera and a worthy successor to the E-1 of some years ago, but you have
to make sure you are up to it.
We realise that, since we were only able to sample the camera for just
over a week, we have not been able to explore all it can do. However, from
what we have seen, we feel the Olympus E-3 is certainly worthy of its
acclaimed professional status. In the right hands the camera has huge
potential for the pro as well as the advanced enthusiast and getting to
know its many options should keep you occupied during most of the Christmas
holidays. And when the New Year finally arrives it’s time to go out and
shoot some crackers.