Field Report: Olympus E-3

A new DSLR takes on Old San Juan and other Puerto Rican classics.

Field-Report-Olympus-E-3
Field-Report-Olympus-E-3

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.

**** FAST THINKING** **

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.

GET NEW PERSPECTIVE

Another example of how the E-3 can help with new perspectives came in Ponce at the Castillon Serralles. This 1930s Spanish-revival-style mansion was the home to the distillers behind Don Q rum, and today is a museum with beautifully maintained gardens. I wanted a low shot of a fountain and pool on the grounds. With a conventional DSLR, it would have meant getting down on my stomach and looking through the viewfinder. Even with one of the new breed of live-view DSLRs, it wouldn't have been easy.

But the E-3 has, in addition to live view, a swiveling and rotating LCD screen (much like the one on Panasonic's new Lumix L10). Though it doesn't swivel around continuously as the pull-out screens on many camcorders do, this 2.5-inch LCD goes 360 degrees and can be positioned any way you want, so that getting low-down shots doesn't require gymnastics. I simply put the camera down at pool level, knelt next to it, and tilted the LCD for an optimum view. (Pressing the live view button on the back of the camera pulls up an on-screen reminder to throw the little lever that prevents light from entering the viewfinder eyepiece.)

The live view on the E-3 lets you see the scene along with the effects of adjustments of everything from focus to white balance before you take the shot. You can even zoom in 10x during live view.

While 3 inches is the new benchmark in fixed LCDs, the E-3's 2.5-incher doesn't give up much in the way of function. It's 230,000-dot/77,000-pixel resolution is mid- pack (the new Sony Alpha 700 has almost twice the resolution), and it can rotate images as you rotate the camera, and also show you photos side-by-side for comparing settings and composition. Want to see the I.S. in action? You can do that, too, in live view.

As good as the live view is, for the most part, I stuck to the optical viewfinder. If the old E-1 gave photographers the impression that a tunnel-vision viewfinder was the price of a Four Thirds System DSLR, the E-3 completely dispels that notion. Twenty percent larger than the E-1's, the E-3's finder is big, bright, and backed by a pentaprism that serves up a high eyepoint and 100 percent accuracy.

SERIOUS CONTROL

If you're used to a mode dial that lets you get lazy and turn to the little running man for a sports shot, or the mountain for a landscape, well, forget it. The E-3 is more serious than that. But if you want virtually total control, this is your camera.

The body is festooned with more than 20 buttons and dials, along with an encyclopedia of menus. Sound daunting? It can be if you're not willing to put in some time. But it doesn't take long to see that there are three big advantages:

You can adjust almost anything -- from AF with manual or without manual override to an underwater macro setting.You can find a way that is most comfortable for you -- since there are several ways to make most common adjustments.With practice, you'll get really fast at getting the settings you want.

Exposure compensation? That's a typical button-press and dial turn. But you also can use the spotmeter's highlight control and shadow control to add or subtract exposure. Say, for instance, you're shooting a bright background and want to add some exposure to keep the whites from turning gray. Switch to highlight control, put the spotmeter on a white target, and shoot. The gray is gone. Vice versa for shadow control.

Color settings from muted to vivid (which I used for the pastels of Old Juan) are easily reached, as are gradations that give you a high-key (brightly lit) or low-key (heavily shadowed) look.

FLASH OF BRILLIANCE

Perhaps the most fascinating controls are those that let you take charge of the new FL-50R. With this wireless flash, Olympus moves into the big leagues, as it lets you control the flash output from the camera on any or all of four channels. I used it for side light in portraits, and to brighten a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked in the shadows of an otherwise bright setting. While the system can control a couple hundred flashes, I can see how three or four could give you enough pop to light just about every small- to mid-sized scene.

This flash shows how serious Olympus is about building out its DSLR system. And it is indeed a system, with an ever-expanding line of lenses. I spent at least half my time in Puerto Rico with the 8mm f/3.5 Zuiko fisheye on the E-3. The 35mm equivalent of a 16mm thanks to the 2x lens factor of the Four Thirds System, this gorgeous piece of glass serves up sharpness along with all the bowed distortion that makes a fisheye such a great creative tool.

After all, I didn't go all the way to Puerto Rico just to come home with the same pictures as everyone else.

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