A Second Look: Olympus E-3

With the flurry of winter camera introductions at PMA, it's worth revisiting last fall's most noteworthy DSLR.

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The people at Olympus have been known to joke about the Olympus E-2, the digital SLR that should have succeeded the pioneering but long-in-the-tooth Olympus E-1. I'm not clear how close to reality that camera ever came, but no matter. The Olympus E-3, the E-1's long-awaited, much-anticipated top-of-the-line successor, skips generations not just in name but in technology, and was worth the wait.

We've covered this ten-megapixel DSLR nut by boltelsewhere on the site, so it's not my intent to get into a detailed technical discussion. I shot a lot of pictures with it when it first came out (see the attached gallery, shot in Puerto Rico), and I thought image quality was excellent despite its smaller-than-average Four Thirds-format image sensor. Olympus credits this in part to the fact that the E-3's photodiodes -- which actually do the light gathering -- are the same size as the ones in the 7.5-megapixel EVOLT E-330. (Being a pro-oriented model, the E-3 drops the consumer-oriented EVOLT name, BTW.)

As our colleagues at Popular Photography & Imaging rightly observe, the Olympus E-3's high-ISO JPEGs are visibly noisier than, say, the Nikon D300's, so you should shoot RAW in low light -- but then shooting in RAW format is no big deal in terms of workflow anymore. And there's more to image quality than noise; in fact, I found myself making an unusually small number of adjustments to the E-3's output. The E-3 is so good, overall, that I need to put in my two or three cents. And as I look the camera over again after a few months of not using it, I'm finding features I missed the first time around.

The Olympus E-3 is, in fact, much more sophisticated than I expected it to be, and my expectations weren't low. At about $1,700, it's arguably more camera for the money than you even get with mid-tier models costing a few hundred dollars less. That's because it does lots of things those competitors cannot. Many of these abilities are generally very useful, some less so but valuable for specific applications.

As a result, the E-3 has a level of complexity that I also didn't quite expect, and therefore a steeper learning curve than with competing models. Those models I can pretty much pick up and get a grip on right away, though of course it helps that they have consistent family traits. I didn't have that experience with the E-3. So my advice -- more than ever -- is to read the manual! I did, and while not a page turner it is clear and detailed, with nothing seemingly lost in translation.

BUILD QUALITY

The E-3's build quality is impressively solid. Fully gasketed against the weather, it is certainly up to the hard knocks of professional use, making moot the debate about its "class." When the Olympus folks showed me a sample of the E-3's injection-molded magnesium-alloy chassis (seen here), after I marveled at its lightness -- I found it hard to believe it was metal -- they made me stand on it, which didn't even bend the thing. (And they didn't make jokes about my weight.) I like the way the E-3 handles with its $200 vertical grip/battery booster attached, even when I'm shooting horizontally. The grip's front left corner presses nicely into the palm of a big left hand, leaving fingers loose to operate a zoom ring. And with its two dedicated rechargeable batteries installed, the camera keeps going, and going, and going. (I just wish Olympus offered a dual-charger to speed that process up, but you'll have to go to a third party to get one. It does offer an optional AA battery holder for the grip.)

FAST AUTOFOCUSING

More than anything else what limited the E-1's acceptance among serious photographers was its autofocus system. It was not only slow to find focus, racking the lens back and forth when other cameras would have snapped it right in, but also deficient from the get-go in AF points, having only three. By contrast, the E-3 nominally has eleven widely-spaced focus points, and they cover about two-thirds of the viewfinder horizontally and almost half of it vertically. All are cross-type, meaning that each contains both a horizontal sensor array (to lock on vertical detail) and a vertical sensor array (to lock on horizontal detail). The 12-megapixel Nikon D300 actually has more such points -- 15 of its 51 are cross-type -- but for some reason these are bunched up almost vertically in the center of the frame. All of the nine points in the 10-megapixel Canon EOS 40D are cross-type, but they cover a smaller portion of the frame. And the E-3's math changes if you figure in the second layer of eleven focus points behind the visible eleven, each one offset by half a pixel. The idea is to make sure a subject doesn't fall between the autofocus cracks.

If all that sounds like a PR numbers game, take it from me that the E-3 did a bang-up job of focusing for all the kinds of pictures I like to take. And it gives you as much focusing control as you want. Need to focus manually? The E-3 viewfinder's certainly up to it -- bright and much bigger than the E-1's despite the same 2X FOV crop. (Its 1.15X magnification seems to do the trick.) You can even use the custom menu to reverse the direction of the focusing collar.

Olympus says that the E-3's autofocus is the world's fastest -- a claim it never could have made with the E-1 -- when used with its new Zuiko Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) lenses. These include the ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD (which I mainly shot with) and the ED 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD (which I also used), plus the newly introduced Zuiko ED 14-35mm f/2.0 SWD (fast in the old-fashioned sense as well). That may or may not be true by today's split-second DSLR standards, and I don't have the second-splitting machinery to vouch for it. All I know is that when you're shooting, the autofocus is virtually invisible, and that's the way we all want it, right?

In a quiet room the E-3's AF operation makes just a bit more noise than a smooth-focusing Canon. But hey, a smaller mirror makes its shutter a lot quieter than the EOS 5D's. Speeds range up to 1/8000 second, more than I need for stopping action but useful for setting wide apertures to get shallow depth of field in bright light. And it goes as slow as 60 seconds -- though with a "normal" Four-Thirds focal length of about 25mm you won't need a tripod for sharp pictures until you get down to about half a second, thanks to the E-3's body-integral, sensor-shifting image stabilization. Olympus claims a five-stop gain rather than the usual three or four, but I'm not that steady to begin with so didn't find I could push it that far. (FYI, framing rate is five frames-per-second even in RAW, faster than I'll ever need.)

LIVE VIEW

The camera's live view function is great to have for a number of purposes. Not among these, in my opinion, are evaluating white balance or exposure except to catch gross errors. Nor is depth-of-field preview, which never really worked for me on 35mm SLRs. It's quicker and easier just to play back what you've shot, if you can't wait to check these things until you get to your computer. (Scrolling though pictures on the screen is really fast.) That said, I think Olympus was smart to trade off a little LCD screen size -- the E-3's is 2.5 inches rather than the now more typical three -- to make room for articulating hardware. A big monitor isn't such a big deal on a DSLR anyway, IMHO, unless you really want to use live view a lot.

The best thing about live view for me is simply that, in combination with an articulating LCD, it gives you the ability to compose from other angles without having to wrangle your eye to that spot. My only complaint with the E-3 is that in order to tilt up the LCD screen so you can compose from waist level, or from any angle below eye level, you have to swing it to the left of the camera. I find that a little disorienting: I'd rather have my viewfinder, whether screen or eyepiece, on axis with the lens and lined up with the subject, the way it is with an old twin-lens reflex. (Call me old-fashioned, except that I can count the number of rolls of film I ran through a TLR on one hand.) The LCD screens on the just-introduced, live-view Sony Alpha 300 and 350 can be tilted up in this way.

BUTTONS, BUTTONS

The E-3 even has a button timer function, accessed through one of the custom menus, that allows you to dial in a given adjustment after you release the button. Arcane? Actually, no. Stiff hands make it a little awkward to hold down the AE compensation button as I turn the rear control dial, which is why I set the timer feature so that when you press the AE compensation button, rather than having to hold it down to dial in the adjustment, I can release it and have five seconds in which to adjust the exposure. You can also set the time delay for three seconds or nine seconds, or to hold, in which the button must be pressed a second time to lock in an adjustment you've made. Otherwise, adjustments go into effect as soon as you touch the shutter button.

And, as with the competition, you can swap button functions on the E-3. Since I almost always take more than one shot without significant change in camera-to-subject distance, I transferred AF activation from the shutter button to the AEL/AFL button. This way I can press the latter once to put the focus where I want it, then press the shutter button repeatedly without the autofocus jumping around and possibly slowing down my shooting.

Editor's Note: Thanks to everyone who wrote in with advice on how to turn off the E-3's focus beep sound, too many of you to name. Here's the definitive word from Sally Smith Clemens, Product Manager for Olympus Imaging America:

If you want to turn off the AF confirmation audio beep on the E-3 do the following:

Press the MENU button on the back of the camera
Go to WRENCH 1
Within WRENCH 1 scroll to the sub menu 'D' - which displays the following; DISP/icon for sound/PC
Once in this sub menu the very first option is to adjust AUDIO (icon) ON or OFF
Make the desired adjustment and depress the OK button to get out of the MENU completely

You are now officially in the stealth AF mode... :>)

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