First impressions matter, especially for photographers seeking a picture-taking partner. But sometimes it takes a real effort to figure out if a DSLR is the perfect match for you. For instance, when Olympus introduced us to its new 10.1MP E-3 ($1,700, street, body only), it seemed like love at first sight (see Hands On, December 2007). Yet we needed time (and Lab tests of a production model...how romantic!) to confirm our first impressions.
Are we still enamoured? Even more so. This new Olympus flagship DSLR proves that the Four Thirds system has a bona fide place in the pro and advanced-amateur photographer's kit.
Continuing the innovation begun with the E-1, its predecessor, the E-3 incorporates such features as the Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system, as well as staples of its sub-$1,000 DSLR line, such as live view with autofocus and sensor-based image stabilization with live confirmation.
Olympus replaced the E-1's sluggish AF with a super-fast, 11-point biaxial AF system. It improved the viewfinder, burst rate, and durability of the body and shutter. Plus, it threw in a swiveling 2.5-inch LCD and pop-up flash with wireless external flash control.
Performance? The E-3 did incredibly well in the Pop Photo Lab's image quality tests, challenging (though not outperforming) the 12.3MP Nikon D300 ($1,800, body only), tested in this issue. It earned a similar Excellent image quality rating all the way up to ISO 3200 when shooting in RAW mode.
Despite the E-3's stellar RAW performance, fine-quality JPEGs ran into trouble with noise, especially at high ISOs. Surprisingly, noise levels on JPEGs shot at ISO 100 were similar to those we measured in RAW files shot at ISO 1600 (1.7, a Low noise rating); but by ISO 1600 JPEGs showed Unacceptable noise.
The solution for E-3 users is clear: In low light, shoot RAW.
No matter what the lighting conditions, sports, action, and portrait photographers will be drawn to the speed and power of the E-3's autofocus. Olympus claims that this AF system, which has a new TTL phase-difference engine with 11-point full-twin cross sensors, is the fastest on any DSLR.
The company qualifies this claim, stating that it tested the E-3 against other available DSLRs (at a time when neither the Nikon D300 nor the Canon EOS 40D was available) using a lens similar in range and aperture to its new Zuiko 12-60mm f/2.8-4 ED SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive) lens. Olympus also notes that the new AF system reaches its top performance with only two other new Zuiko SWD lenses.
Why the caveat? In our autofocus tests, we generally use the DSLR maker's 50mm f/1.4 (or the nearest equivalent), often the brightest, most affordable lens. It helps keep the speed of the lens out of the DSLR's AF-speed equation, since in most cases, complex zooms focus more slowly than lenses with fixed focal lengths. But Olympus doesn't yet have a 50mm f/1.4 in its Zuiko lineup.
So for our AF tests we used the 12-60mm SWD lens at light levels from EV 12 to EV 1, then switched to the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 (a Four Thirds system compatible lens) to test the E-3 in extremely low light below EV 1. (We tested the Zuiko separately, as well; our report follows.)
We discovered that in very bright light (EV 12 to 8), the E-3 was a speed demon at 0.3 sec -- a fraction of a second behind the leader in that brightness range, the Sony Alpha 700 (0.24 sec), and nearly identical to the Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 40D. In normal light (EV 6 to 4), the E-3 squeaked ahead of the D300 and fell behind the Sony, while holding its own against the Canon. In low light (EV 3 to EV 0), it slowed the way the Sony did and trailed the Canon and D300.
That's a fine showing for a DSLR with a zoom lens, all the more impressive given that Olympus DSLRs used to be in last place in AF speed tests. We can't help but wonder if the E-3's AF speed will improve further if and when Olympus introduces a fixed 25- or 50mm f/1.4 SWD lens.
To continue our AF tests in extremely low light (EV 0 and below), we switched to the Leica 25mm f/1.4, since it achieved faster AF speed than the dimmer 12-60mm f/2.8-4 lens. But by EV -1 the E-3's AF speed dropped to extremely slow, and it couldn't focus at all at EV -2, where the low-light AF leader, the Nikon D300, still locked in at less than 1 sec.