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Olympus E-3 Review
by Howard Creech -  2/11/2008

Nikon and Canon have dominated the professional DSLR market since the beginning of the digital imaging revolution, effectively condemning Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Leica, and Sony DSLRs to second-tier status. Olympus and a consortium of other second-tier manufacturers introduced the ground-breaking four-thirds system (refering to the aspect ratio of the sensor, which is 4:3 as opposed to the 3:2 ratio found in most DSLRs) in 2003 to try and gain a foothold in the lucrative DSLR market. The new Olympus E-3 replaces the very popular E-1 model, the World's first four-thirds system DSLR. The long-awaited E-3 – it's been over four years since the introduction of the E-1 – offers consumers an absolute surfeit of useful features including mechanical image stabilization, a 2.5-inch fully articulated "Live View" LCD screen, and Oly's Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) dust reduction system.

olympus e-3

 


DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS

The chunky E-3 is not the super-compact and lightweight pro-level DSLR promised five years ago when Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica were pushing the virtues of their new four-thirds format. In fact, the E-3 is actually larger and heavier than most of its competition at 5.59 inches by 4.56 inches by 2.93 inches, and weighing in at a hefty 28.2 ounces (minus lens, battery, and memory card). Mount the Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD zoom and the package goes to 3.3 pounds.

olympus e-3

Some shooters moving up from a prosumer P&S or entry level DSLR are put off by the steep learning curve presented by pro/semi-pro DSLRs, but the E-3 (in Auto or Program mode) is remarkably easy to use – unlike some of its competition. For more demanding shooters, the E-3's comprehensive control array is logically placed and easily accessed – plus the E-3 provides direct access to white balance, ISO/sensitivity, exposure compensation, and metering options. The E-3 is tough as nails (specially cast Magnesium alloy body) with a shutter designed to last through at least 150,000 exposures. If all that's not enough, the E-3 is also weatherproof/splashproof and dustproof. Ergonomics are excellent and the large handgrip nicely balances the camera and provides a secure hold for extended use.

Finally, here's a really nifty feature: press the OK button at the center of the compass switch and the E-3 displays a Camera Status panel on the LCD screen where all functions and exposure parameters can be set/checked via the arrow pads and the front/rear control wheels, all without resorting to the menu.


NUTS & BOLTS

Key specs for the Olympus E-3 are as follows:

Sensor 10.1 megapixel 4:3-ratio Live MOS (CMOS), 17.3x13.0mm
Lens/Zoom Four-thirds lens mount
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-pixel TFT HyperCrystal LCD with Live View; pentaprism optical viewfinder
Sensitivity ISO 100-3200
Shutter Speed 60-1/8000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual
Scene Presets N/A
White Balance Settings Auto, Sunlight, Overcast, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Custom, Kelvin
Metering Modes Digital ESP, Center, Spot, Highlight Spot, Shadow Spot
Focus Modes Single AF, Continuous AF, Manual
Drive Modes Single, Continuous
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Slow Sync, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync with Red-Eye Reduction, Second-Curtain Slow Sync, Forced Off, Flash Bracketing
Self Timer Settings
12 seconds, 2 seconds, Selectable Anti-Shake Delay, Off
Memory Formats Compact Flash, Type I and II; xD-Picture Card
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, RAW
Max. Image Size 3648 x 2736
Max. Video Size
N/A
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery Rechargeable 1500 mAh lithium-ion
Connections USB 2.0, video output, DC input, 10/100 ethernet
Additional Features TruePic III image processor, Supersonic Wave Drive in-body image stabilization, rotating LCD with Live View

 

Sensor/Processor

The E-3's 10.1 megapixel CMOS sensor was developed by Panasonic, one of Olympus' four-thirds format partners, and is designed to provide significantly improved imaging in low/dim lighting. In addition, the new sensor has a wider dynamic range and faster data transfer speeds than the 10 megapixel sensors found in Olympus' entry-level E410/E510 models. CMOS Sensors are becoming more popular since they offer comparable image quality to the CCD sensors found in many DSLRs and use significantly less power. In addition to its image generation chores, the E-3's sensor is the heart of Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system. In clean mode, the sensor vibrates rapidly (30,000 times per second) to shake loose any dust particles that might adhere to the photosensitive surface area. Finally, the E-3's new sensor also drives the camera's mechanical image stabilization function, using the same drive motor that shakes loose dust particles to shift the sensor gyroscopically to compensate for involuntary camera movements.

The E-3's new TruePic III engine utilizes three separate processors to more efficiently manage camera functions and image processing chores. This unique structural design permits each processor to concentrate on specific aspects of the image processing/exposure equation – one processor supports high-speed sequential shooting (the E-3 can capture JPEGs at 5 fps up to the capacity of the memory card and in RAW mode up to 19 images before the E-3 stops to process the image data), another processor controls the IS system and supports Olympus' Advanced Noise Filter III Technology, and the third processor controls the AF system and supports Olympus' Advanced Digital Reproduction Technology and Advanced Proper Gamma III Technology for sharper edge demarcations, more accurate tonal reproduction, and truer color rendition.

Optical Viewfinder/LCD Screen

The E-3 features a large and bright pentaprism optical viewfinder that shows 100 percent of the image frame (magnification is 1.15X). Looking through the viewfinder, the E-3's 11 AF focus points are clearly visible and there's a comprehensive settings/status/function info display (Aperture, Shutter speed, Record mode, AF confirmation, Flash status, WB, AE lock, remaining image capacity, Exposure compensation value, Metering mode, Battery warning, Exposure mode, IS status, ISO value, etc.) along the bottom of the image frame. For eyeglasses wearers, there's a diopter correction (-3 to +1) dial. The Neo Lumi-Micro matte focusing screen can be replaced by Olympus with a grid type screen. The rubber/plastic eyecup is also removable and can be replaced with the Olympus Magnifier Eyecup ME-1.

olympus e-3

The E-3's 2.5 inch/6.4 centimeter (230,000 pixel) camcorder-style HyperCrystal wide-angle (176 degrees) LCD screen is bright, sharp, fluid, and gains-up automatically in dim/low light. The LCD screen tilts/swivels 180 degrees horizontally and 360 degrees vertically. The screen can be nested into the monitor well (facing out) for traditional LCD viewing, or articulated through a variety of shooting angles including facing the front of the camera (good for self-portraits and allowing portrait subjects to fine-tune their poses in real time), or facing backward at a 45 degree angle (good for low level macro shots), or pointing backward at 135 degrees (for over-the-heads of the crowd shots), or facing upward at a 90 degree angle to the back of the camera (for waist-level viewing). When not in use the LCD screen can be flipped around and popped back into the monitor well (face-in) to protect it from scratches, smudges, and fingerprints.

The LCD screens on digital SLRs are generally used for menu navigation and post-exposure image review. Until fairly recently, DSLR LCD screens generally couldn't be used as viewfinders (like they are with point-and-shoot digital cameras) so DSLR users were obliged to compose and frame their images in the traditional way, with the optical viewfinder. The E-3's LCD screen can be used as a viewfinder – to frame and compose images. Engage Live View via the Display button and the E-3's reflex mirror swings up out of the light path and a live TTL image appears on the LCD screen. Users can then zoom, frame, and adjust various exposure parameters for prevailing conditions (and see the results) before exposing the image.

In Live View mode the E-3's LCD screen isn't quite as bright or as sharp as it is in review mode and rapid movements appear slightly jerky. Press the shutter button in Live View mode and the reflex mirror drops back into place momentarily while the camera's processor measures incoming light and incrementally adjusts AF and then flips back up out of the light path – adding about a second to the E-3's image capture cycle.

The E-3 features a top deck monochrome LCD control panel, which provides immediate access to camera settings/status/function information. The E-3 also provides a playback mode histogram display for checking exposure, albeit after the fact and unlike most pro-level DSLRs, the E-3 offers three framing assist patterns. I didn't try any of these, so I can't comment on their efficacy or usefulness.

Optics/Lens Mount

The E-3 features a stainless steel Olympus four-thirds lens mount. Panasonic, Leica, Sanyo, and Sigma DSLRs also support the four-thirds format, making it possible to mount lenses from other OEMs. Four-thirds lenses have a 2x (35mm equivalent) magnification factor, so the focal length of telephoto lenses double – an 80-200 mm zoom becomes a 160-400 mm (35mm equivalent) zoom. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to wide-angle lenses: a 14-35mm zoom becomes a 28-70mm zoom.

Olympus offers three new zooms designed especially for the E-3 – the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8-4 SWD ESP, the Zuiko ED 14-35mm f2.0 SWD ESP, the Zuiko ED 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 SWD ESP – and an ultra-compact Zuiko Digital 2x teleconverter. These Supersonic Wave Drive zooms have been specially designed to facilitate accurate high-speed focusing and quiet operation. All the sample images for this review were shot with the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8/f4.0 SWD ESP zoom.

Auto Focus

Olympus claims the E-3 has the fastest AF system (with the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8/f4.0 SWD ESP zoom) in the world. I don't know whether that is an accurate assessment, but this DSLR is certainly very fast – as fast or faster as any DSLR that I've used to date. The E-3's AF sensor array consists of 11 AF points, each in the form of a double sided (biaxial) cross. Each AF point provides two horizontal and two vertical (dual) sensing arrays on each axis arranged in a half-pitch pattern so that each sensor can detect contrast in both directions and measure distance over a subject brightness range from -2 EV to +19 EV. E-3 users can select a single AF point, multiple AF points, or all 11 AF points.

AF is very fast and dependably accurate, and even with low contrast subjects the camera shows little tendency to hunt for focus. The E-3's AF system works best with the 3 new Zuiko SWD zooms, but every four-thirds format optic should derive some speed/accuracy benefit from Olympus' innovative new AF system.

Image Stabilization

Olympus' new TruePic III engine utilizes one of its three processors to control the E-3's mechanical (body based) image stabilization system. Unlike optical (lens based) image stabilization systems, which work by shifting elements in each OIS capable lens to compensate for involuntary camera movement, mechanical IS works by gyroscopically shifting the image sensor. Thus, the E-3's IS system works with every four-thirds lens mounted – even those from other manufacturers.

Image stabilization allows photographers to shoot at slower shutter speeds than would have been possible without IS. Olympus claims the E-3's IS system permits shooters to capture images at up to 5 stops slower than would have been possible without IS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake without image stabilization, the E-3 can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject – everything else being equal – at 1/30th of a second according to Olympus. Based on my experiences with the E-3, I'd say 3 stops is a more accurate assessment of the camera's IS capabilities.

Image stabilization is a very useful feature, especially when shooting in poorly lit indoor venues where flash may be prohibited and higher shutter speeds may not be possible. Plus IS combined with higher ISO sensitivities significantly increases exposure options in dim/low or natural lighting. Users also benefit from IS outdoors when shooting handheld with telephoto lenses and long zooms. Underneath the compass switch (4-way controller) is the E-3's dedicated IS button – users can turn horizontal IS on or off, or activate vertical IS for panning (to keep the subject sharp while allowing the background to blur). The E-3 provides three IS options: Off, Mode 1 (full time Horizontal IS), and Mode 2 (Vertical IS).

Flash

The E-3's built-in TTL auto/manual multi-mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable range of control options. The guide number is 13 at ISO 100, and flash output intensity can be adjusted +/- 2 EV in 1/2, 1/3, or 1 EV increments. Flash compensation is available in 1/3 EV increments over a +/-3 EV range, and flash bracketing is available in 1/3, 1/2, and 1 EV steps. X-sync is at 1/250th of a second.

Like most on-board flash units, the E-3's integral flash is positioned too close to the lens, so redeye is a problem. The red-eye reduction mode will help to eliminate or ameliorate red-eye, but the pre-flash cycle noticeably extends the exposure process.

The E-3 also provides a dedicated hot shoe. Olympus speedlights (FL36, FL36R, FL50, and FL50R) can be used in TTL auto mode.

Power

The E-3 is powered by an Olympus BLM-1 lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack. Olympus claims the battery is good for about 600 exposures using the optical viewfinder. I didn't keep track of exposures (my shooting style precludes this – I shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot continuously), but based on my experiences with the camera I'd say power depth is about average when compared to other semi-pro DSLRs. I used the camera heavily and never ran out of juice, but I re-charged the battery every two or three days and scarcely tried the Live View feature. I'm guessing that Live View would be a real power sucker, so moderate to heavy shooters who plan to utilize Live View as their primary viewfinder should probably buy a back up BLM-1. The included BCM2 charger needs about five hours to fully charge the battery.


EXPOSURE

Like the other DSLRs in its class, the E-3 offers the full range of exposure options, including all the creative flexibility serious photographers are likely to need and most of the point-and-shoot capability casual photographers are likely want. Exposure options include Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes.

I used the E-3 primarily in Program AE mode (all sample images were shot handheld), and there is a slight but consistent tendency to underexpose by about 1/3 EV. Personally, I don't regard this as a serious problem – for many years when I was shooting primarily transparency film, I always underexposed my slides by about a third of a stop because minor underexposure produces somewhat more intense colors, slightly harder contrast, and better conserves highlight detail. However, a consistent tendency toward underexposure can be troubling for some shooters, because even minor underexposure causes some loss of shadow detail. These observations only pertain to shooting with the E-3 in Program mode; exposure accuracy in the Manual modes is (based on my experiences with the camera) dependably precise. I noticed the same minor exposure anomaly in Program mode when I tested the Olympus E-510, so I'm guessing the folks at Olympus are designing their DSLRs to underexpose slightly in Program mode to produce better looking outdoor shots for their less tech-savvy customers; perhaps they assume serious photographers are going to be shooting primarily in the manual modes.

Olympus E-3
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Urban Red Shouldered Hawk (underexposed by about 1/3EV) on the grounds of the Farmington Historic House – cropped slightly to accentuate the subject

Metering

The E-3's Digital ESP TTL (open aperture) 49 segment multi-pattern (evaluative) metering system works hand in glove with the camera's innovative double-sided (biaxial) cross AF system to measure light, contrast, and subject distance simultaneously. The E-3's default (evaluative) metering mode does a great job (especially outdoors) with general photography chores. There's a center-weighted averaging metering mode, biasing exposure toward the central portion of frame – great for landscape and travel images. The E-3 also provides a 2 percent spot metering option.

In addition to conventional spot metering, the E-3 provides a unique spot-metering mode that allows shooters to bias exposure on a single highlight area the photographer wishes to preserve or on a single shadow detail the photographer wants to save.

White Balance

The E-3 provides a very nice selection of white balance options, including Auto (3000K-7500K), Lamp (3000K), Fluorescent 1 (4000K) Fluorescent 2 (4500K) Fluorescent 3 (6600K), Daylight (5300K), Flash (5500K), Cloudy (6000K), Shade (7500K), Custom WB, and One-Touch WB (4 settings). The Auto WB setting is dependably accurate in most outdoor lighting.

Some camera reviewers have recently been castigating Olympus DSLRs for their sub-par WB performance, so I checked all my images carefully for any hue anomalies or subtle color shifts. Other than a little extra warmth in some of my indoor images (shot mostly under incandescent lighting) I didn't see any problems. My opinion is based on careful examination of my test images rather than on color chart shots, so I can't guarantee that my conclusions would hold up under rigorous bench-test scrutiny.

Olympus E-3
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The E-3's Auto WB shows these Tibetan Dolls (shot under incandescent light) slightly warmer than in real life

Sensitivity

The E-3 provides a remarkably broad (and highly useful) range of sensitivity settings, including Auto and user selectable settings for ISO 100 to ISO 3200 in 1/3 EV stops. I can't speak for other shooters, but I would have enthusiastically given up the ISO 3200 setting at the top of the range in exchange for ISO 50 or ISO 64 at the bottom end.

Below are a few "real world" images that I believe nicely demonstrate the E-3's ISO capabilities and performance in several different lighting situations. All shots were made handheld in Program mode at the Auto ISO setting (with Auto WB).

Olympus E-3
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Old farm wagon at the Farmington Historic House

Olympus E-3
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Bardstown Road boutique display

Olympus E-3
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Neon window sign after dark

In-Camera Image Adjustments

The E-3 offers a very high tweakability quotient, allowing demanding shooters to make subtle in-camera exposure, color, contrast, and sensitivity adjustments (and avoid post-exposure image manipulation). The E-3's Exposure Compensation function allows users to subtly modify exposure parameters. The E-3's base exposure can be modified over a +/- 5 EV range in 1 EV, 1/2 EV, and 1/3 EV increments to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems, or to compensate for environmental exposure variables by allowing users to easily lighten or darken images.

The E-3's Exposure Bracketing function allows users to shoot 3 to 5 images of the same subject and automatically vary the exposure by +/- 1/3 EV, 2/3 EV, or 1 EV. The E-3 also offers ISO bracketing, rapidly shooting 3 images at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV, or 1 EV ISO increments.

The E-3 also permits users to select color intensity (Vivid, Natural, Portrait, Muted, Monotone, & Custom) and adjust Saturation (5 steps), Sharpness + Contrast (5 steps), and Contrast (5 steps).


PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Digital SLR image quality depends primarily on the quality of the glass in front of the sensor, although the efficacy/accuracy of the camera's sensor, processor, and exposure systems are also very important. The Zuiko ED 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom I used with the E-3 was designed specifically for this camera and it is remarkably good. The E-3's image quality is reliably excellent with a broad dynamic range. Colors are bright, slightly over-saturated, and contrast is a bit hard. The E-3 does an excellent job in good light (which isn't surprising), but it also does a surprisingly good job in dim/low light – detail capture in highlight areas is consistently very good and detail capture in shadow areas is dependably excellent.

Olympus E-3
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This shot of Decorative Kale nicely demonstrates the E-3's color capabilities

Edge demarcations are sharp and tonal gradations are crisp. The 12-60 zoom is very sharp in the center even at maximum aperture, although a bit softer in the corners. Still, edge-to-edge resolution is impressive. Noise is remarkably well controlled and doesn't start to pick up until ISO 400. The ISO 800 setting provided much better results (especially indoors) than I expected – roughly equivalent to the ISO 400 images from some of the E-3s competition. Low light image quality (at least with the 12-60 zoom) is impressive. Noise is obvious at ISO 1600, but it wasn't as noxious as I expected. High ISO shots are noticeably granular and a bit blotchy and they dependably show some loss of detail, dull contrast, and colors that are a little flat, but overall the E-3's noise management is better than average for cameras in the semi-pro/pro class.

Chromatic aberration (color fringing) was essentially nil in my test shots. Straight from the camera images are typically a little soft at the default sharpening setting, but this is easily corrected (for those who don't like the default look) by boosting the camera's sharpness setting or via post-exposure processing. Auto white balance performance is certainly the E-3's weakest area, especially indoors where the camera consistently failed to correct innate color casts caused by both incandescent and fluorescent lighting. But the camera's WB system is very tweakable, and serious shooters won't have to work too hard to capture hue-accurate color.

Timing/Shutter Lag

As noted, Olympus claims the E-3 has the fastest AF in the world (with the Zuiko 12-60 zoom), and after using the camera heavily for a month in a variety of shooting venues I can't quibble with that claim. Push the shutter button and the camera meters the scene, calculates exposure, and locks focus almost instantly – AF is so fast it is occasionally startling.

I took the E-3 to Louisville's Extreme Skate Park to shoot the skateboarders and BMX bikers who congregate at the park when the weather is nice. BMX bikers move faster than skateboarders and they need a bit more of the frame to accommodate their bikes, so shooting bikers is a little tougher than shooting skateboarders. What I usually do is to watch a biker do his routine a few times to isolate the area where the most dramatic action will occur – I move in as close as possible, frame the shot, and then pre-focus on the spot where I expect the peak action moment will happen and then trip the shutter about 1/4 of a second before the biker gets to the spot I've chosen. With the E-3, that convoluted process wasn't necessary – I was able to track subjects through their runs and then nail them at the most impressive moment of their mid-air jumps.

Olympus E-3
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BMX biker

It's not just AF – from the 1/8000th of a second top shutter speed to the 5 fps in continuous shooting mode (and up to 19 consecutive RAW images before the buffer fills in burst mode), the E-3 is very fast across the board. Turn the camera on and the E-3 is ready to shoot in just over a second. Olympus claims the E-3's shutter lag is essentially real time with pre-focus and less than 1/10th of second from scratch – shot to shot lag is 2/10th of a second. In short, the E-3 is more than fast enough to make most action shooters very happy, performing exactly as expected for what claims to be a pro camera.

A Few Concerns

Buying the E-3 will lock purchasers into the four-thirds systems, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but does mean a limited selection of slightly pricey lenses at present. Olympus needs to tweak the accuracy of the E-3's Auto White Balance system. Finally, the E-3's price is a bit hefty – Olympus probably needs to bring down the E-3's price by at least $100 to offer one more advantage over something like Nikon's D300.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus E-3
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Olympus E-3
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CONCLUSIONS

In spite of the dominance of offerings from Nikon and Canon in the semi-pro and professional markets, the Olympus E-3 should have a lot of appeal for professionals not already invested in one of these systems. This camera is built like a tank and features an impressively fast autofocus system. If that's not enough, the E-3 absolutely shines in the image quality department – resolution/sharpness and color rendition are excellent. Finally, while it isn't an important feature for me, the E-3's 2.5 inch full time Live View LCD screen can be used to frame and compose images – and it tilts and swivels through an amazing range of positions, too.

Olympus' new flagship DSLR is up against some very stiff competition, but after almost a month of using the E-3 heavily in a wide range of lighting situations and for a broad variety of imaging chores, I can say without hesitation that this DSLR is worthy of very serious consideration by any serious shooter looking to buy a semi-pro or pro level DSLR. The Olympus E-3 provides just about everything a pro shooter or photography enthusiast is likely to need. The E-3's primary rivals are the Nikon D300 and the Canon 40D, and overall, the E-3 is competitive with both cameras: if I were choosing a new camera today I would rate the E-3 right in the middle of this pack, below the D300, but above the 40D.

Pros

Cons