While the E-3 isn't as sensitive as either the Canon EOS 40D or Nikon D300 in extremely dim lighting conditions, it packs an extra feature that should thrill low-light shooters -- a built-in, sensor-based image stabilization system. For Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic DSLRs, which all rely on lens-based IS systems, you'll need to pay more for each stabilized lens you buy.
Olympus claims up to 5 stops of handholding advantage with the E-3's IS system (the highest claim for IS from any manufacturer). But our tests made at 100mm and 200mm settings with a Zuiko 50-200mm f/2 lens (a 100-400mm equivalent, given the camera's 2X lens factor) showed a 2.5- to 3-stop advantage, similar in range to that of the Sony A700's sensor-based IS system and slightly better than what we found in the consumer-level Olympus Evolt E-510 DSLR.
The E-3 can also brag about its ability to show the stabilization effect in real time through the swiveling 2.5-inch LCD monitor when the live view mode is on. This lets you hold this camera down low, at waist level, or up high while composing through the live-view LCD.
Such a maneuver would be difficult even with the Nikon D300's larger and sharper 3-inch LCD, and not at all possible on the Sony A700's 3-inch LCD, which doesn't provide live view. And while the Panasonic DMC-L10 DSLR sports an LCD of similar size and resolution that also swivels and provides live view, the Panasonic lacks a sensor-based IS system, relying instead on the expensive, stabilized Leica kit lens that's sold with it. So the live view advantage goes to the E-3, with its built-in IS and swiveling LCD.
However, the 3-inch LCDs on the Nikon D300 and Sony A700 have an advantage in playback due to their higher resolution and larger sizes. Plus the D300 offers both phase- and contrast-detection AF, as well as
a high-def video output jack for live view on an HDTV. But neither of these rivals provides the safety of the Olympus -- the LCD can be rotated inward to protect it from bangs and scratches.
We think that most advanced DSLR shooters will rarely use live view and are more interested in the optical viewfinder. Olympus has steadily improved the viewfinder experience since the tunnel-vision E-1, and the E-3 has an Excellent (tested) viewfinder. One quibble: The data display is now along the bottom edge of the viewfinder, as in most other DSLRs, not along the right side, where Olympus used to place it. But to see all the numbers clearly you may need to reposition your eye, causing vignetting at the top of the viewfinder image.
FAST AND TOUGH
Other notable improvements to the E-3 include its faster burst speed of 5 frames per second, compared with the E-1's 2 fps. Shooting Fine-quality JPEGs, we were able to capture 37 frames at 5 fps, and 17 in RAW mode (using a Lexar 300x UDMA CF card). Again, not the speed or capacity of the Nikon D300 in burst mode (up to 100 JPEGs at 6 fps), but competitive and fast enough for most photographers.
Olympus also beefed up the gasketing and weatherproofing on the magnesium-alloy camera body, which may be the most rugged in its class.
In field tests, we found most of the controls on the E-3 positioned where we would expect, except for the ISO button just behind the shutter. More than once, our trigger finger accidentally activated this button. It would make more sense to switch its position with the exposure compensation button.
The E-3 is the first Olympus DSLR with a pop-up flash that's capable of wireless control of an external flash -- specifically, the new Olympus FL-50R ($430, street). That puts it ahead of the Canon EOS 40D, but the wireless flash controls and capabilities of both the Nikon D300 and the Sony A700 are more advanced than the E-3's.
Still, priced at $100 less than the D300 body, the E-3 might be the better bargain for some photographers. Its built-in image stabilization will save money when adding lenses down the road. Its 2X lens factor and extremely fast AF system are a boon to nature and sports shooters who like to travel light (and who can appreciate the value of Olympus's highly rated Zuiko lenses). And its articulating 2.5-inch LCD with live view and AF will appeal to macro photographers and street shooters trying to get a better view.
Any photographer will fall for the E-3's amazing image quality in RAW mode (even at high ISOs), sophisticated yet easy-to-master controls, and body built to handle pro challenges without concern for the safety of its LCD.
Olympus, this looks like true love.