As my first ever camera was an Olympus OM-1 I have fond memories of the Olympus brand. When Nikon and Canon lead the way in the pro arena with models like the F3 and F1n Olympus beavered away on models that were lighter and quieter. but lacked in durability so when AF arrived Canon and Nikon both lead, leaving Olympus to concentrate on compact cameras. Now things have changed. The E-1 made a small dent in the pro arena but this all-new E-3 looks set to reshape Olympus' pro business and become a serious competitor in the field.
Olympus invited a selection of photography magazine editors from around Europe for an exclusive trial of the E3. I joined them for the event in Istanbul on what they'd hoped would be a sunny day but turned out to be wetter than a typical UK day in April. Luckily the camera has waterproof seals!
It was quite a rushed experience giving us a flavour/opportunity to sample many of the camera's features over three assignments - a fashion shoot, an editorial travel assignment and a low light architectural feature.
Olympus E-3 Specifications
- Sensor: 10.1Mp 4/3 Hi-speed Live MOS sensor
- Lens: Olympus Zuiko 14-54mm or 12-60mm
- Focus: TTL phase difference detection, 11 point Auto/Manual
- ISO range: ISO100-3200
- Shutter speed: 1/8000-60sec plus bulb up to 30 minutes
- Exposure: Program/AP/SP/M
- Metering: Multi Pattern/ESP/Spot/Centre-weighted
- Monitor: 2.5in Hypercrystal LCD
- Storage: Compactflash, xD Picture card
- Batteries: BML-1 Lithium Ion
- Video Output: NTSC & PAL
- Size/Weight: 142.5 x 116.5 x 74.5mm/810g
- Transfer: USB 2.0
The E3 comes with a hotshoe for external flash to be fitted which helps for low light portraiture or when the pop up flash just can't cope.
Flip out Live view LCD screen
The screen of the E3 is not just Live view capable, but also flips out and swivels for getting those shots that are normally impossible, like over someone's head if you're at the back of a crowd or shooting from ground level. It also flips totally over on the body to act as a full protector.
Top plate display
The top LCD display screen will show critical information like Activated AF points, Exposure information, Drive, Flash and Metering modes. Other information like White balance and ISO can be also be seen on this display.
The Navigation pad is for finding your way around the Menu systems of the E-3.
The IS button is to activate the Image stabiliser which is built into the body and will help steady camera shake if using a long telephoto or a slow shutter speed in low light. IS works with all lenses and can be set to full two dimension IS mode or one dimension that can be used when panning a moving subject.
The Display button will toggle through the display preferences of the E-3 showing information like a histogram, image information, shutter speed and aperture, ISO rating, White balance and how many pictures are left on the card.
Olympus E-3 Build and handling
The body of the Olympus E-3 is made out of Magnesium Alloy and is Dust and splash proof so no need to worry when it starts raining. Should any dust get into the camera when changing lenses, it does have a dust removal facility using the Supersonic Wave filter to shake debris off the sensor. I saw a sample of the alloy chassis and it's extremely light, but also strong enough to support the weight of an adult standing on top of it. I tried to bend it in my hands and, despite the thin appearance there was not a sign of any flexing. I also used it on an appalling rainy day and I didn't have to worry about the wet, apart from it falling on the front lens element!
The E-3 has a new Autofocus sensor from which is an 11 point array. Three dedicated processors can be found inside the camera, one for the Autofocus, one for Image stabilising and the Trupic Turbo III for processing the images. The Compact flash slot is UDMA compatible to make use of the ultra fast cards that are starting to emerge onto the market.
The body is festooned with buttons which are supposed to make setting any mode a quick experience. I actually found the set up quite challenging. We had the opportunity to shoot fashion, reportage using wireless flash and extremely low light interiors, each needing very different use of modes and menus. Changing from something a simple as Program to Aperture Priority, for example, is better served on cameras with a mode dial on the top plate. I guess with time the use of all the features would become second nature but they don't appear as intuitive.
Olympus E-3 Modes and features
The E-3 has a new 10Mp sensor which has a faster read time to help enable the 5fps continuous shooting facility and the top speed of the shutter is 1/8000 sec.
The buttons on the back of the camera consist of the Exposure and Focus lock, the Function button which is a small Menu for access to the most frequently used features. Other buttons available for wandering fingers are the Focus point selector, Playback button, the Navigation pad and Image stabiliser . These are to the right of the flip out screen and four other buttons are found beneath it. They are the Delete, Info, Menu and Display options. The Power switch can be found at the bottom as well as a release switch for the
The top of the camera has access to the White balance and ISO ratings as well as a useful reset option by pressing two buttons simultaneously. Bracketing adjust can be found just above the shutter release button.
To the front of the grip is a dial for adjusting the Aperture and the dial to adjust the Shutter speed is located on the back of the camera to the right of the viewfinder.
Olympus E-3 Performance
After a brief presentation of the Olympus E3 and its features I was let loose with the camera. First thing was to try the 11 point AF as I was eager to test the super fast focusing. The photo below left is what I got!
The apple was originally in the same place as the jug. I was in front of the serving area and the apple, which shouldn't have been a problem, could not be focused on. The E3 made no attempt to latch onto the plates or the edge of the metal shelf. I called over the Olympus product manager for his view. He stood in the same place but was at a higher viewpoint which presented him with no issues. I asked him to try from the same position and he got the same poor response. So we swapped cameras and the result was the same! Yet in Spot focus mode it focused as quickly as I'd expected, resulting in the shot above right.
Throughout the rest of the day I had no issues with focusing on any subject or lighting condition. So all I can think is that the highlight on the left caused the left-most sensor to juggle with the centre one, causing chaos. Could the same happen again? We'll let you know when we get a sample for our full review later in the month.
The first main assignment was with a fashion photographer who was showing us the benefit of creative use of the E3's white balance mode and the paparazzi style speed of the focusing.
We were working in a small room with a model, photographer, assistant and stylist. The photographer suggested what we set the camera to and gave us a couple of minutes with his model while overseeing the shoot. The shot on the right was taken with the 8mm 1:3.5 Fisheye while Georgie of Photography Monthly took some portraits.
The photographer was using Quantum flash as the main light source which had a blue filter over it. This was a good opportunity to test out the ISO capability so I took a few shots without flash while the model was being photographed by my editorial friends.
Olympus E3 Noise test
||This shot was taken from the top deck of a small boat. The water was choppy and it would have been impossible to hand hold at a low ISO setting so I had to rack it up to ISO3200 to be sure of a shot. The noise is poor compared with the black & white option above but, even so, I got a surprisingly sharp shot considering it was taken one handed as I clutched for life on the rail with my other hand.
Above is one of the shots I got using the ED 12-60mm 1:2.8-4.0 SWD lens. I'm not overly keen on this style of photography using a blue gel and cloudy white balance, but it does show the camera's resolution. The shot on the right is using the black & white shooting mode with a green filter setting. I really didn't like that Quantum flash set up.
Olympus E3 Shadow Adjustment Technology test
Up close 12-60mm, continuous shot AF and a wet Pete and camera, but a very happy model, and a very waterproof camera!
Olympus E-3 Sharpness test
|The E3's Shadow adjustment technology (SAT) is impressive. Seen here turned off (left) and on (right) This could be done in Photoshop, but is perfect for those who don't want to/can't spend any time at the PC after.
Olympus E3 Exposure test
||You can get a feel for sharpness from most of the shots in this test but i added this one as a stand alone test. It's a shot of a spice market stall in Istanbul. The camera was at ISO400 and almost wide open at f/3.8 to ensure a speed of 1/80sec in aperture priority mode. The 12-60mm lens was set at 37mm and hand held. A grab shot with no processing or white balance correction. Looks fine to me.
Olympus E3 Wireless Flash test
Here's a great test of awkward light and shadow adjustment technology in its elements. The dim illumination in the building presents a yellow cast while the outside late day light is a cool blue.
The camera has balanced the auto white balance well and has created an impressive exposure. This would have been impossible for some cameras. Even the computer monitor is balanced.
I used the E3 in pattern metering mode. The exposure mode was Aperture Priority set at f/4 which gave a shutter speed of 1/30sec at ISO400.
Olympus E3 Image Stabiliser
|Our group crowded into a small carpet store to be shown how to make the most of the remote flash feature. Our photographer guide walked us through the wireless control system of the E3 which would then be used to light the smoke of the carpet maker. The flash was hidden behind a stack of carpets. The main camera flash was set to -3 exposure. We didn't have a lot of room or time, but enough to show the benefit possible from the flash system, and once again the camera's ability to expose well. The shot on the left shows the group, taken with the 8mm fisheye, and right the sort of shot possible as an unedited RAW file.
I'm not totally convinced about the IS system and claims it can be effective with up to 5 f/stops at this stage. This was my attempt using the new ED 50-200mm 1:2.8-3.5 SWD lens. The camera was hand held at 200mm with a shutter speed of 1/30sec. There's a known rule that you should always use a shutter speed at least the same as the focal length so that would be around 1/500sec. Taking that to Olympus' claim suggests I should be able to shoot at 1/15sec. I need to do more tests with this to form an opinion, but so far I feel the claims are exaggerated. Above left is without IS and right is with it turned on, so there is a noticeable improvement, but not enough to give a sharp shot.
Olympus E3 Live View
Olympus E3 Live View is one of the most talked about features. It gives you all the benefits of a TTL viewing system with the added advantage of seeing exposure compensation, dynamic range depth of field, etc, that is not possible with conventional viewing. The downside is that AF is slower so they provide a pre focus feature on the E3.
I didn't have a chance to use it in bright daylight to see how well the image could be seen. It was perfect for shooting from a church floor using the fisheye lens. I could lay the camera on its back, flip the LCD 180 degrees and see the view above which being fisheye meant I could move to prevent me being in the shot. This is impossible on cameras without a rotating LCD.
Olympus E-3 Verdict
I've not been an Olympus user for years, and didn't really find the E-1 that exciting. This camera would certainly tempt me into the world of the FourThirds system as I can see some clear advantages. It's a solid built model that handles well, menus are complex, but I'm sure anyone who's already a regular Olympus digital User will soon get to grips and those who arent may just need some help from the manual for a few weeks.
The focusing problem I encountered on the first shot is worrying, but as it didn't struggle in any other situation it may have been just one very extreme circumstance. I would suggest you have a good play around with it in your dealer if you're considering buying one. Take advantage of the roadshow that's running around the country from 7th to 24th November 2007.
The E3's exposure system was one of the best I've used, compensation was rarely needed. I wish that was the case with the Pentax K10D and *ist D I use regularly and the Konica Minolta 7D I also use occasionally.
I'm looking forward to spending more time with this camera in the near future.
The Olympus E-3 costs around £1099 body only and is available from the ePHOTOzine shop, along with other lenses, here.