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Olympus E-3 review

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 This was by now four years old and - although still a potent camera - its specs were definitely becoming outdated for today’s discerning photographer.

frontal view of Olympus E3 rear view of Olympus E3

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.

without flash fill-in flash

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 to last.

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 sensor alone.

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 choices.

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 we know.

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.

muted colours natural portrait vivid monochrome

Image Quality

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.

iso 100 iso 200 iso 400
iso 800 iso 1600 iso 3200

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.

Conclusion

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.


Additional information: Olympus E-3 product details and other reviews
December 20, 2007

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