The 11.8-megapixel Olympus E-3 replaces the E-1 as Olympus's range-topping 'professional standard' digital SLR.
Worth the Wait?
A long time coming prior to launch, the Olympus E-3 is Olympus’s first ‘professional’ model since the 5MP Olympus E-1, which arrived in 2003. In that time, Olympus has been busy updating its consumer DSLRs, with six models during the past three years and working closely with Panasonic to add new technology to the Four Thirds mix – much of which has now transferred to the new camera. On reflection, this incorporation of new technology is the inverse of how it usually works, with high-end technology trickling down from the high end to the consumer models. Certainly Nikon and Canon have followed this strategy, but Olympus has added features such as live view, spot highlight and shadow metering and of course, camera-based image-stabilisation from its consumer range to the E-3.
So what’s all the fuss about the E-3? If it incorporates the same features as a £400 E-510, why bother to spend £1,100 for the top model? Read on to find out.
Features: Page 1
Remember at the launch of the E-1, Olympus informed us that the small 4/3 sensor was theoretically capable of carrying up to 20 million pixels; that hasn’t arrived yet. Instead the E-3’s sensor offers 10.1 million effective pixels from a total of 11.8MP, and being an NMOS (or LiveMOS) sensor, can feed a live image of the scene to the LCD. Our guess is that this is the same sensor as that of the Panasonic Lumix L10, which offers the same feature.
TruePic III Processor
Powering the number crunching, the E-3 has the latest Olympus TruePic III processor, which claims to offers better noise suppression, truer colour and fast processing. In terms of speed, the camera offers 5fps over 19 Raw files, which isn’t the fastest on the market, even at this price point – so we doubt Olympus is aiming this camera at sports and news photographers.
The sensor has many of the features we’ve come to expect from Olympus, with SuperSonic Wave sensor cleaning, firing a supersonic blast at the sensor to dislodge dust. This was first seen on the E-1 and similar systems have been incorporated into other manufacturers’ cameras since then. The other major aspect of note to the sensor is the inclusion of on-camera image stabilisation, which Olympus claims offers up to five stops slower shutter speeds using SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive) lenses and still avoiding camera shake – the highest claims any manufacturer has yet made.
Features: Page 2
Olympus has revamped its autofocus system specifically for this camera, and we’re sure to see it being included in subsequent models next year. Claiming to offer the fastest autofocusing in the world (when using the new 12-60mm lens), the new system takes advantage of built-in motors in the new Zuiko SWD lens range. This is similar to lenses from Nikon’s SWM range and Canon’s USM lenses, and is the first time that Olympus has added this to its cameras. Each of the 11 AF points are selectable and are all biaxial, so they can detect the subject on both the horizontal and vertical axes for greater accuracy.
Exposure Metering & White Balance
Metering is performed via a 49-zone digital ESP meter, and incorporates Olympus’s unique highlight and shadow spot metering – something seen on the entry-level cameras, but originating in the 1980s on the OM series. Closely tied to the metering is the camera’s White Balance, and Olympus has added a dedicated WB sensor, which it claims combines data from the main sensor to produce more accurate white balance. There’s also a full complement of WB features for further colour correction, including bracketing and tone sliders.
For more general operation, the E-3 is equipped with the standard PASM modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual), and an Auto mode, but it lacks the scene modes so beloved of the entry-level models. Like Nikon, Olympus is wearing its heart on its sleeve when it comes to the E-3’s target audience.
That pro spec is continued with regards to the top shutter speed of 1/8000sec and the ISO selection from 100 to 3200. The built-in flash offers a guide number of 13, but the camera also accepts Olympus hotshoe flashguns and has full wireless flash capability for multiple and off-camera flash functionality.
Handling & Performance: Page 1
Magnesium Alloy Body
As befits a camera at this price point and with pro spec, the E-3 is encased in robust magnesium alloy, which lends weight and bulk to the model. It’s also dust and splashproof, which you’d expect from the company that makes the various mju ‘tough’ compact models. It’s still not a big camera in relation to its peers, and Olympus has always managed to squeeze a lot into a small frame. The right-hand grip is comfortable and a thumb rest at the back and finger overhang at the front ensure a secure grip. At key grip points, the shell is covered in a non-slip rubberised material to further add to the comfort and safety.
The back of the E-3 is dominated by the 2.5in vari-angle flip-out LCD screen, which we’ve seen on the Panasonic L10 recently. We feel this is the right type of screen for a live view monitor, because it easily allows the camera to be held in different positions, such as at waist height, allowing you to literally ’shoot from the hip’. Activating the live view is achieved by a simple one-button operation – which is easier than on earlier versions – while an eyepiece blind prevents stray light from entering the rear of the prism.
Pressing the Info button lets you view all of the relevant shooting data, and also make changes to the important settings using a combination of dials and the navigation pads. Alternatively you can go into the menu and make changes there, though this is a more time-consuming method. There’s also the option to view and make changes via the grey LCD screen on the topplate.
Disappointingly, the LCD screen has a 230,000-dot resolution, which pales in comparison to those of the Sony Alpha 700 and Nikon D300. The image displayed is sharp enough, though at high magnification I prefer the better detail of the other models.
The menu itself is well laid out, with five sub menus to change camera settings, review options and camera set up. There’s a set of options to change the colour modes, including Vivid, Muted and Portrait, as well as Monochrome and Custom. You can also change the gradation from fine to normal and also allow for high and low-key images.
Handling & Performance: Page 2
The E-3 is button heavy, all designed for quicker operation, and many of the buttons are dedicated to performing just one function. While this may seem daunting when you look at the camera, it’s preferable to multi-function buttons that require several presses and a multitude of dial turning to find the function you need. Among these buttons is the IS (Image Stabilisation), allowing two modes, normal and panning, the latter only operating on the vertical axis to allow you to track moving subjects on the horizontal plane. There are also individual WB and ISO buttons, though you can also access these through the LCD.
Some of the other buttons are multifunctional, including bracketing, AF and drive functions for example, but these are more likely to be used than the IS, WB and ISO buttons. Many of the functions of the buttons, and the way the camera performs, can be customised in the main menu, including the option to change the operating direction of the front and rear command dials. Like the E-1 before it, this allows the camera to be easily customised to the user’s preferences. It also makes it harder to criticise operational faults, as so much can be changed!
Unlike its entry-level brethren, the viewfinder of the E-3 is relatively large, and offers 100% viewing, though the 4:3 aspect ensures that it’s still smaller than its competitors such as the Nikon D300. It’s easy to view with glasses, though, thanks to the fairly high viewpoint, and the green LED readout inside is clear. The 11-point AF is an improvement and pretty quick at picking out the necessary AF points in auto mode, using the standard lenses. Alternatively, individual AF points can be selected, while auto and manual focus may be combined for fine-tuning or particularly tricky subjects. Unfortunately we didn’t get an SWD lens in time for this review.
Four Thirds v APS-C
Overall, the camera is really good to use and highly adaptable. The Four Thirds system is coming of age and proving itself as a worthy adversary against the APS-C brigade. The camera doesn’t live up to all the specifications of some of its peers, but has plenty of good points. However, while it’s being marketed as a pro camera, and has many of the requirements of that market, picture desks may baulk at the relatively low resolution. This is the camera’s main failing, but it is a minor point in the grand scheme of things. It has, after all, plenty of good points and is a joy to use, and there are very few situations where the E-3 would under-perform.
Images are generally well exposed. This time of year is always challenging, thanks to the low sun (when it appears) and high contrast. But the E-3 performs well. We often had to use exposure compensation to bring detail out of shadow or reduce highlights blowing, but we expect that in high-contrast conditions. In flatter lighting, the camera manages to produce spot-on exposures.
Low ISO is noise free and very smooth, while raising the ISO produces some noise from ISO 400 which continues to increase as the gain is raised. While noise is visible it’s an improvement over earlier models, but fails to compete with some similarly priced models.
Tone And Contrast
The tonality is equally smooth, with excellent gradation across the tones.
Colour And White Balance
Throughout the test we never once had recourse to correct the white balance, except for creative purposes and of course, to try it out. However, overall the Auto WB and the presets do a first-rate job and produce accurate colour.
Sharpness And Detail
The AF is accurate when using standard Zuiko lenses, but we didn’t have a new SWD lens in time for this review, so the new AF could not be tested adequately. While the sensor is only 10MP, lower than some of this camera’s similarly priced rivals, it does capture detail very well, to produce perfectly acceptable 9x12in 300dpi prints packed with punch and detail. Larger prints can still be had without sacrificing quality at 200dpi.
Value For Money
Priced About Right
At its body-only RRP of £1,100 the E-3 is perfectly placed between the Nikon D300 and the Sony Alpha 700, and has plenty in common with both. Its build quality and feature set match its price, and I’m sure that within a few months the price will drop so that it offers better value for money. But even as it stands, the price is pitched about right for a model of this quality. Incidentally, when bought as a kit with the 14-54mm lens, the package retails for £1,499, while another kit option with the new 12-60mm SWD lens is priced at £1,699.
The E-3 doesn’t offer many innovations, compared to either its competitors or Olympus lower-end models. What it does offer, though, is a fantastic build quality, excellent images and a functional, pleasant user experience. The Four Thirds system continues to impress and fans of the system are sure to have the E-3 on their shopping list. There are a few features that in camera Top Trumps, the Olympus E-3 would lose against its closest rivals ? for example, the relatively low resolution and the 5fps burst rate. For the majority of general-purpose photographers though, the Olympus E-3 is a fine all-rounder and an absolute jewel to use.