A new DSLR takes on Old San Juan and other Puerto Rican classics.
It doesn't take much of a camera to capture a simple snapshot. But what if you spot a little girl in the park standing amid a flock of startled pigeons? Or you're photographing the unpredictable twirls of dancers on a stage? Or you're shooting travel scenes in bright, contrasty mid-day sun? For that you need a special camera.
And to prove that the new 10.1-megapixel Olympus E-3 is a special camera that can handle just about anything a setting can dish out, Olympus invited me and other members of the photographic press to Puerto Rico in early November for several days of hands-on evaluation.
A full test of the E-3 ($1,700, estimated street, body only) is now underway in the Pop Photo Lab, and we'll give you the numbers as soon as the data is certified. But in the meantime, let me offer some thoughts on how the E-3 fares in the field.
That photo op with the little girl and the pigeons was exactly what I faced as I walked around Ponce, the quiet port city on Puerto Rico's southern Caribbean coast. With the E-3 hanging on my shoulder, I literally had just enough time to swing it up and shoot before the girl, the birds, and the opportunity were gone.
This is where the camera's new autofocus system really proved itself. A far cry from the slow and fairly crude AF system on 2003's E-1, the E-3's AF system is as fast as it is unique.
There are 11 AF points clustered around the center of the screen where Olympus engineers have determined that most subjects appear (surprise!). While the E-3 won't win for sheer AF-point quantity (that distinction belongs to the Nikon D300, with 51 points), each of the E-3's 11 points has a twin that is offset by half a pixel. The result: thorough coverage and super sensitivity. The little girl in my shot is tack sharp, with the focus right where I wanted it.
Olympus is so determined to ensure the precision of this system that a temperature sensor is built into the AF module so that as the surrounding material expands and contracts with heat and cold, the camera recalculates its AF readings.
The news on the AF front extends to the lenses, too, with new Super Sonic Wave Drive motors turning the latest Zuiko lenses, such as the 12-60mm f/2.8-4 that came with the E-3 I used. As one Olympus engineer described it, the motors grab and grip the turning mechanism much the way a horse's hooves move along the ground. This gives the new lenses faster AF acceleration and braking than their predecessors.
Fast AF is accompanied by a robust 5-frames-per-second burst rate. Again, not the highest in the competitive set, but impressive. Especially when all of those 5 frames can be in RAW, with the buffer gulping down 17 frames before it starts to slow to about 1 frame per second, depending on the speed of the memory card.
HOLD THAT THOUGHT
The notion of speedy shooting is underscored by the E-3's image stabilization system. A sensor-based approach that ups the sensitivity and alacrity of the I.S. system used on early 2007's Olympus E-510 DSLR, it helps keep the tripod tucked away.
The I.S. has three settings -- off, all-around stabilization, and vertical-only stabilization for panning. Shooting handheld, I kept the all-around I.S. on during my whole time in Puerto Rico, and never encountered blur. But then, I never went below 1/25 sec. The reason? I couldn't resist dialing up the ISO. Although the results aren't yet in from the Pop Photo Lab, it's clear to me that the E-3 is among the new breed of low-noise DSLRs.
One evening in San Juan, as dancers performed in the courtyard of the sprawling 17th-century fort, Castillo de San Cristobal, I was able to shoot at 1/500 sec, thanks to triple-digit ISO. Low light? ISO 3200 is just a thumbwheel turn away.