Olympus E-3

The First (and Second) Look

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

Here is a brief look at the new, pro-grade Olympus E-3 digital SLR. It is based on about three weeks of (intense) experience with the camera, and it is not intended to replace a full review.

The article may be also useful to those who do not want, at least not now, to go into full detail, but want to get the most important highlights of the new model. Some parts may be of interest mostly to current users of other Olympus SLRs.

The background

It is becoming a general practice on the highly competitive digital SLR market that manufacturers release the specs of a new model well in advance of the actual product reaching the shelves. This is also the case with the new E-3, slated to become the new "professional" (whatever that means) flagship of the Olympus DLR line-up.

The E-3 replaces in this capacity the E-1 of 2003, notable for being the first SLR in the Four Thirds standard (so far limited to cameras by Olympus and Panasonic), followed by a long line of less-than-professional (if very capable) models ranging from the E-300 of 2004 to the E-410 and E-510 of 2007.

The E-3 was preceded by lots of hype; its release was a highly anticipated event among the current Olympus SLR system users. It was announced (with full specifications) on October 16, 2007, then became available late November.

A casual experience I had with the E-3 in December was not enough to come to any opinions on it (except for size, weight, and viewfinder); therefore I was keeping mum on the subject; then recently a fellow photographer living nearby kindly offered to loan me his for a couple of weeks, so that I could have a really close look. And here it is.

The first impression

The first thing you notice is how large and heavy the E-3 is, after you've used the recent Olympus SLRs. Have a look at the size, compared with the minuscule E-410. The camera is full 12 mm taller than the E-1 was (at approximately the same width), and E-1 was already quite big!

(This impression is amplified by the size of the "kit" lens coming with the camera, the 12-60 mm ZD ED SWD, which deserves a separate story.)

The body weight (without the battery) is 820 g, a 22% increase over the E-1; with the standard battery it goes up to 895 g. This is more than double the weight of the E-410. A part of that is certainly due to weatherproofing (gaskets at all body panel joints), another — to the full metal body (not just an inner frame), covered with a layer of polycarbonate plastic. Still, this is a lot, and it shows when you hold the camera.

For a comparison, the recent Canon 40D body weighs about 70 g less (822 g with battery), being about 4 mm wider but 8 mm less tall. While that camera uses a slightly larger APS-C sensor, it does not seem to have weatherproofing at the same level.

Putting size and weight aside (as this is largely a matter of taste and habits), somehow I'm not thrilled with the way the E-3 sits in my average-sized hands. The rubberized grip is well-shaped, the shutter release is exactly where it should be, the thumb grip (?) is large enough to provide a secure hold of camera's weight; there is even a thoughtful indentation at the left so that the E-3 fits naturally into a cradle of your left hand — but the overall feel of "rightness" is not at the level of the E-1 (or the old E-20). Not a love on first sight.

On the positive side, the overall quality of make and finish make the E-3 stand above the competition. Only recently I had an opportunity to compare it side-by-side with the Nikon D300, Canon 40D, and Sony A700, and I have no doubts here. In my book, Olympus comes here first with no doubt, followed by Nikon and Canon; Sony is the distant fourth (only partly justified by the lower price).

The viewfinder

The finder is large and bright, a delight to use. Part of the apparent size is due to an increase in magnification, and an extra 5% — to full image coverage; both factors work together here.

The apparent vertical size of the finder image is currently the largest on the market (excluding 24×26 mm frame cameras, of course), ahead of the Nikon D300; the latter, however, has a (larger) advantage in the horizontal dimension, due to the more elongated 3:2 ratio.

I'm not sure it is just the size; the viewing screen must have been improved, too: manual focusing is actually possible and precise. This is the first time I'm saying that about a Four Thirds or APS camera (except, maybe, for one Pentax model I've tried last year).

Of course, this does not come free: the finder stands quite tall above the lens mount; more than in the E-1, not to mention other E-System cameras. There is also, obviously, an extra weight due to an actual viewing prism (as opposed to a mirror system).

The finder information readout is located below the viewed image, a solution similar to that in the E-1. This is much better than she sidebar solution used in other E-System SLRs. The eye relief also seems good; even if I have to move my eye a bit to see the whole information (glasses!), this does not seem to be a problem like in, for example, the E-510.

External controls

Obviously, in a camera aspiring to a pro category most of the frequently used adjustments are accessible via dedicated buttons and/or dials. Providing that is, however, not an easy task, because the number of these functions is quite large — much larger than in a film camera. No wonder all camera manufacturers are still struggling with the "right" design here.

Olympus is no exception in this aspect, and in the E-3 the results are, I would say, half-way successful.

The first thing you will notice trying to operate the camera is that the familiar mode dial on the top is missing. Oh, well, with the top deck real estate being at premium, Olympus decided boldly to get rid of it, giving more room to the LCD control panel (monochrome, low-power, as opposed to the color monitor). At first I found this a bit unusual, not to say confusing, but then I got used to the press-and-turn way of switching between exposure modes; more on this later.

Having a relatively large body at their disposal, and without having to economize, the designers managed to put 16 buttons on the camera's back and top, and that's in addition to the cursor key cluster (additionally, there is a depth-of-field preview button at the front). There are two control dials: back and front. Almost all adjustments are done by pressing a button and turning one of the two control dials (with a grace period); the changes are shown in the top status display, color monitor (if not closed), and in the viewfinder display, in a slightly different way in all three cases.

So far so good, but the devil is in details, and things get a bit messy here. Feel free to skip some of the examples of (what I consider) bad design, outlined in the smaller print below, unless you do not want to take my word for it.

Most of all, I do not like the exposure mode sharing its button with another function; this one is quite special and deserves more. A number of other quibbles I have about the controls in this camera can be found in the Direct Controls section of my full review.

OK, so I am not thrilled with the external controls design on the E-3. It is just a run-off-the mill, uninspired design. I find it better than on the Canon 40D, but not quite as good as on the Nikon D300. Certainly, a far cry from the promise of "a completely re-designed button layout that dramatically improves the ease of both visual and touch-based recognition" claimed in the Olympus Passion blurb, as a result of "SRBO, or a Speedy, Rhythmical and Blind-touch Operation" concept. No, I'm not inventing this; someone else did.

The way things are, I'm a bit disappointed; while this is not a bad control system, I was hoping for more. Well, maybe my hopes were a bit too high...

There are also, of course, improvements from the E-510, which I find welcome: direct access to exposure bracketing (by pressing two direct buttons together; the E-1 was better here); another — a dedicated DoF preview button just below the lens, like on a film SLR.

Last but not least, the external controls are quite customizable from the Settings menu, and this I like a lot.

Monitor, Control Panel, and menu system

Having used the Control Panel on the E-500, E-410, and E-510, I was glad to see that Olympus was not trying to "improve" on that design, as good as it already was; just a few minor modifications, necessitated by changed or added functionality. Actually, I found myself using that way of adjusting the camera's settings at least as often as the "direct" buttons. (Maybe being new to the E-3 was a factor here; things may change in the future.) Anyway, this is the best screen-driven adjustment system I've seen on any camera yet.

The menu system, albeit significantly improved from previous models, is still quite complex and sometimes cluttered with settings which are easily accessible via the Control Panel.

The improvements are most visible in the Settings 1 (customization) menu, which, at long last, has been split into sub-menus, grouping related items (for example, focusing, or image quality and color). Overall, a visible improvement, although still a way to go.

Some menu items are named in a somewhat misleading way, and some are assigned to sub-menus in a less-than-obvious fashion; for examples see my full review.

This is, however, a minor complaint, as the menus are really needed only for camera customization and a few, relatively rarely performed, adjustments. In practice, once you've set up the camera to work your way, you can forget about the menu system and its idiosyncrasies.

The top-deck status display is quite large and readable, in addition to being tilted backwards, a nice touch. It has backlighting, activated by a button nearby. The information it provides is detailed enough. After a few years of using cameras without such a display, I'm re-learning to depend on it.

Actually, I would gladly live with a smaller, less overwhelming status display, showing just the essential information, especially if the space could be used for a regular mode dial.

If you do not mind using more juice from your battery, or confirming the settings by looking at the back of the camera (as opposed to the top), you may be better off just depending on the color Control Panel, which seems (maybe a matter of habit?) more readable at a glance. There are, however, exceptions from this, see below.

The color LCD monitor itself is 2.5" across, and it contains 230,000 RGB points, or 70,000 pixels. This is the same resolution of 240×320 pixels as in the E-510 (or, for that matter, the Canon 40D). It looks nice, sharp and bright, but not as outrageously nice as the display on the Nikon D300 (which has three times more pixels, or, averaged over two dimensions, a linear resolution 1.7× higher, shown on a screen of a 3" diagonal).

The big thing about this monitor is that it is tiltable, with two degrees of freedom. Among digital, interchangeable-lens SLRs, only the Olympus E-330 and Panasonic L10 share this feature. Its importance in Live View applications is hard to overestimate. I've been recently using both the E-3 and E-510 for some tabletop shooting, and because of this feature there was simply no contest.

February, 2009: Other manufacturers are not quite catching up yet: the recent Sony A-350 has a nice, articulated screen, but that's about it

Because of space constraints, the monitor swings to the side (very much like in the C-5060WZ). While some people like that, I preferred the vertical-swing approach used in the E-330. The nice thing is that the monitor can be folded flush with the body, facing inwards; this can be useful if you want to protect it from damage. In such situations, the top, B&W panel comes handy, still allowing for most adjustments.

The new AF system

This is a feature strongly advertised by Olympus, and I am sure it will also please all feature-counters out there. The new system has eleven sensors, placed in three rows, and all are of the cross type (sensitive to both horizontal and vertical lines), which should bring visible benefits.

The AF system can be set to use all eleven points, or a cross pattern consisting of just five, or just a single point. In the last two cases the focus area can be moved around between eleven available locations.

After a few days of using the camera, I settled down to the third option (five-point cross), as it best fits my needs and habits. I do not have much need to move the focus area in the screen (although this can be useful in tripod work), and I'm also feeling a bit uneasy to let the camera choose one of the eleven points to focus on. Still, the latter can be useful in casual, impromptu shooting (or if you hand the camera to a stranger to take your picture), and most of the time the E-3 seems to do a reasonable job in making its choice, trying to stick to the central point if possible.

The manual does not provide any information on how the AF point selection is being made. Just trust us, and you will be fine.

Anyway, in outdoors shooting the AF system performed fast, although sometimes it refused to focus on an area with seemingly enough detail to focus on. Perhaps a matter of encountering a periodic pattern (a fence, in this case), fooling the elements of the AF sensor?

In a relative dimness of my study (1/4 s at F/2.8, ISO 100, or EV 5) the camera was able to get the focus in many, but not all, cases in which the E-510, using a lens of the same aperture, would just say no. The response was, however, slower. Two weeks earlier I've played casually with a Nikon D300, under the same conditions, and that camera has a better, if not perfect, success rate. Not a big deal, though, unless you are an available-light photographer.

A front-focus problem? Some users have reported that their E-3's seem to focus ahead of the subject, at least when the 12-60 mm ZD lens is used at the wide end. and I have already received a dozen or so emails asking about it. Therefore I dropped the work on this article, and devoted a day of my life to the investigation.

While the full results (including test samples) will have to wait for a separate article, here are the basic conclusions: (a) Yes, under some circumstances the E-3 focuses somewhat closer than it should; at the 50 cm shooting distance the error is maybe 6 or maybe 10 mm; (b) This happens for both 12-60 mm ZD and 14-54 mm ZD, at shortest focal lengths, gradually disappearing at larger ones; (c) This happens at lower light levels (7 EV checked) but not at higher ones (12 EV checked). I haven't tested the behavior at light levels below 7 EV, or at larger focusing distances. And yes, reference shots of my test target taken with manual focus using magnified Live View look like they should.

Clearly, the problem is here, and it seems to be firmware-related: a mechanical misalignment of the AF sensors would show also at higher light levels. On the other hand, while you can see it when pixel-peeping the image on a computer screen, it is visible mostly because the lens and the imaging pipeline deliver such astounding resolution. At 12 mm and F/2.8, and at the shooting distance of 50 cm, the depth of field extends about 60 mm in each direction from the focus plane. The error we are talking about is 10-20% of that value.

Before you start sending me emails on this subject, please wait for my front-focus article; it may answer some of your questions.

February, 2008: This is probably unrelated to the recent Olympus service announcement, offering a free repair of an autofocus problem ("less than optimal autofocusing response") in some of the 12-60 mm ZD lenses, with serial numbers 230005416 to 230010688.

A speed-shooter

The sequential speed has been increased to five frames per second, and I was able to confirm that (or a tad more). The buffer size allows for 18 raw files to be stored before the shooting speed becomes throttled with that of card writing. SHQ JPEGs (1:2.7 compression) will fill the buffer after 30 frames, at least with the SanDisk Extreme IV card I've tried. A faster card may result in longer sequences.

I don't think many of us will need this shooting speed, but I have to admit I've enjoyed it when shooting bracketed sequences. A brief rattle, and a series of three bracketed frames is done in less a half-second. Nice.

The bad news is that activating exposure bracketing does not automatically switch to the sequential mode; this is a separate setting. A small but annoying omission (also present in the E-510). When did I last need to separate my bracketed frames five minutes apart?

On the other extreme, time-lapsed sequences are still a missing feature. I've seen that implemented in cameras costing $150 or so; are there any real reasons beyond this omission?

Under the hood

At a few occasions Olympus made claims that the image pipeline will be the same in their all cameras of 2007 (i.e., the E-410, E-510, and E-3). This does not seem to be true: at least the image processing (including raw-to-RGB conversion) seems to be quite re-worked in the E-3.

Over the last five weeks I've shot close to three thousand frames with this camera; while many are still waiting to be analyzed (a Benedictine work, indeed!), I can already say a few things: they can be found in the Image Quality section of the full review, as well as in the image samples write-up.

Here I will only say that in this aspect I do not have a single complaint, being most pleased with the images I'm getting from the E-3 — but so was I with the results from the E-510 at half the price! While sometimes I think I can see some more "tonal smoothness" and better shadow rendition in pictures from the new camera, this is hard to tell from wishful thinking. Once again, I will have to go through a few hundred of samples I've shot (some of them side-by-side with the '510) to possibly say more on the subject. But the differences, if any, are subtle, not staggering.

The 12-60 mm ZD lens

The E-3 is often sold as a kit with this, new "standard" lens, sporting an F/2.8 aperture at the wide end, and F/4 at the long one. While the extra 6 mm of telephoto reach is barely noticeable, the extra 2 mm at the other extreme is a visible difference. Indeed, this reminds me of the beloved 24-90 mm Nikon zoom from the last days of the film era, an almost-perfect walk-about lens for many users.

Compared to the "old" standard, the 14-54 mm ZD, this lens is just 140 g heavier — still providing the same aperture at the wide (wider!) end — and 11 mm longer, not bad! The burning question I had was if optically it is up to the quality of its predecessor.

Details aside (see my User Report for that) — yes, it is. My analysis of close to two hundred samples shot with both lenses shows the new Zuiko to be consistently better than (or, at least, equal to) the old one. The differences are small, but statistically solid, with the 12-60 gaining somewhat more off-center.

Well, they better be! At the asking price of $900 (in the U.S.) they darn better be!

An often-overlooked change in the new lens is the new manual focusing mechanism. The older fly-by-wire mechanism (ironically, much improved in the recent "kit" zooms for the E-410 and E-510) went to sleep with angels, replaced with silky-smooth and precise coupling, a delight to use. (The coupling may still be electronic, but it feels like a mechanical one in some luxury lenses of yesteryear.) Manual focusing can be used even in the AF mode (the "AF+MF" setting is therefore needed only for other lenses), or when the camera is turned off. And the MF ring does not rotate when the camera autofocuses, so there is no interference.

On the flip side, the zooming ring action is less even and precise than in the 14-54 mm ZD, at least in the 12-60 I've been using.

Last but not least, the 12-60 mm ZD will happily do close-up (almost macro) work, providing at the long end, a field of view just 60 mm across (almost identical to the 14-54), with the lens rim about 5 cm from the subject.

To add all this up: this is the best general-purpose zoom lens I'm aware of, regardless of brand or system. Obviously, you get what you pay for (or perhaps a bit more).

Taken for granted

If, by any chance, you are unfamiliar with Olympus Four Thirds digital SLRs, then I have to apologize: this write-up did not dig into some features of the E-3 which users of those cameras learned to take for granted. Here is just a quick list.

  • Four Thirds system compatibility: this is the only standard with lens/mount geometry not inherited from film cameras. In particular, the lens mount is (compared to the sensor size) larger than in any other existing system, which allows for a better angle of sensor illumination (to simplify things a bit).

    (How important this is in practice is still under dispute, but, all other things equal, it should provide better images away from the optical axis.)

  • The dust removal system, shaking any impurities from the protective filter in front of the sensor by means of ultrasonic vibrations. The industry providing various anti-dust solutions: swaps, sticky pads, blowers, brushes, and voodoo sticks, never made any money on Olympus users. Some other manufacturers initially claimed that their cameras do not need such a system, only to introduce something similar a few years later. Still, the original Olympus solution seems to work best, according to the few published sources I've seen.
  • An in-body image stabilization. While makers of systems using lens-based stabilization claim that it may be better tuned to a particular lens, I still have to see any tests I would trust, proving the superiority of one solution or the other. The fact is that body-based stabilization works with any lens and is therefore more cost-effective.

    Olympus claims the IS in the E-3 provides 2 to 5 F-stops (EV units) of an advantage, i.e., allows for handheld shutter speeds 4 to 32 times longer than without stabilization. Working myself in high-tech industry, I know how such claims are often made, and I have serious doubts about accuracy of this one. My own study of the IS system in the E-510 shows a gain between 1 and 2.2 EV (shutter speeds from 2 to about 5 times longer). I already collected the data for a similar estimate of the gain in the E-3; I will publish the results as soon as I do the statistical processing.

    Still, even a 2 EV benefit (at longer focal lengths) is worth a lot, especially when you do not have to pay for it again when buying a new lens — and the choice of stabilized lenses for those systems is limited.

  • Interoperability with legacy lenses. Because of smaller backfocus distance (between the lens flange and the image plane), Four Thirds cameras allow for use of legacy (pre-digital) SLR lenses from almost any SLR system. While the "classic" OM glass seems to be most popular among Olympus E-System users, you can get an adapter allowing you to use lenses for Nikon, Canon, Mamiya, Pentax (K), Praktica (M-42), Exakta, and other systems.

    This is nice, but you have to remember that with those lenses you have to focus manually, and exposure automation will work only in the stopped-down aperture priority mode. Life is tough. Still, try to use a Canon FD lens on a digital Nikon.

    In January Olympus released an update to the E-3 firmware; it allows to use image stabilization with legacy lenses (very much like in Pentax SLRs). This makes the option of legacy lenses more attractive.

  • Live View: another first by Olympus, allowing for digital live preview of the scene on the camera's monitor. This is something standard in non-SLR cameras, but, until recently, it was not available in interchangeable-lens SLRs. And, again, the "big" makers initially claimed this is a feature nobody needs, only to introduce it later; more, to claim it to be their "domain".

    To be honest, I consider this feature to be of secondary importance, except in some applications (macro, tabletop, and low-angle, microphotography, infrared). Still, if you need it, it is helped a lot by the tiltable monitor in the E-3, a feature which is quite unique on the E-3 (shared only with the Olympus E-330 and Panasonic L-10).

Have I missed something? Maybe, but these seem to be the most imported "given" items in the Olympus E-System. If I have, I will update this list as needed.

Still missing

For reasons unknown (at least to this writer, that is), the E-3 is still missing some features which seem quite obvious and which would make the camera better. Here is my personal list.

  • Time-lapse sequences. I had this feature in Olympus E-10/E-20, and in some non-SLR models. It can be implemented entirely in the firmware: taking one picture every n seconds. What's so hard about it? I may need this twice a year, but when I do, I do.
  • Auto-focus confirmation for manual-focus (legacy) lenses. Once again, I would imagine this is purely a firmware thing; some other systems offer it. While I'm not using manual lenses a lot, some people do, and this would be a godsend.
  • Automatic switching to (limited-length) sequential drive mode when exposure (or other) bracketing is activated. This was the norm in film SLRs, and this is the right way to do it. I do not want to press the shutter release five times in exposure bracketing, or to remember about switching into sequential mode and count frames.
  • Manual focus bracketing: a very nifty feature, introduced in the E-500, and then taken away. I found it very useful in some situations, when switching to manual focus, but activating AF "on demand". I have learned in the kindergarten that giving someone something and then taking it away is not nice. (The only other thing I remember from that period is playing doctor behind a fish tank, but let me save you the details.)
  • Not missing, but in need of improvement (or retirement): remote and flash socket covers. I hated them in the E-10/E20 and in the E-1, and I hate them now. Difficult to remove or to put on, easy to lose. Did I mention I hate them?
  • Still broken: the "live" histogram in the Live View, if the monitor adjustment ("boost") is enabled. Well, at least the feature seems to work now when the "boost" if off, and that's an improvement from the E-510 (where it was unreliable at low light levels), but still. I understand, this may be a limitation caused by the view adjustment, but then the histogram should just be disabled in this mode. I wouldn't have to remember if the boost is on, and if the histogram can be trusted. Besides, this would be just the right way: if a feature cannot work, disable it.

Once again, I might have missed a few points, so this list may still grow in the next few weeks.

The bottom line

The E-3 is an excellent picture-making tool, capable (in right hands, as always) of delivering outstanding results. Actually, for me the only disappointment was the external control system; the shape, while quite ergonomic, is just a solid brick of a workhorse. Not thrilling, I would say, more like a result of a committee deciding what and where to put, than a brilliant idea of an inspired individual.

I'm a believer in advantages of the Four Thirds system, and I like the way in which Olympus engineers solve their problems and make their compromises. The E-3 is, clearly, an Olympus-tradition camera, with many attractive features (not to mention performance), yet, somehow, the total seems less than the sum of all parts. I can't prove it, but I can feel it; it may be personal, or maybe not.

Will I buy an E-3? Money constraints aside, I'm not sure. My vague reservations voiced above do not matter much here: after a week or so I've got used to this camera and can operate it with ease, even if without this special "harmony in the hand" feeling. And I am very pleased with its performance and results it delivers. The problem is more a matter of my personal preferences: the E-3 is just too big and heavy for my taste. Do not consider this a criticism: you cannot criticize a camel for not being a horse; each has its own place in the grand scheme of things.

Weather- and abuse-proofing is not a real deal-maker for me (it may be for you, though). On the other hand, I've already grown to enjoy the lightweight yet solid E-510, and I still don't think I'm fully using the capabilities of that camera. But yes, I want to get the 12-60 mm ZD, and if I have another $1500 left, I will gladly spend it on the 7-14 mm zoom.

Should you buy one? This depends; there are a number of different answers possible.

  • If this is going to be your first digital SLR, even if you have money to burn, then definitely no. Get an E-510 instead, and spend a year with it first.
  • If you are already using an E-500 or E-510, getting, mostly at least, very good (or better) results, then probably yes. Your pictures may, in some cases at least, improve. On the other hand, if you are unhappy with your current results, blaming your camera for that, then, just think about it, maybe you are a bottleneck of the process, not your gear. You haven't outgrown your previous camera yet; upgrading will not help.
  • If you are a serious photographer and need a well-performing camera with pro-level resistance to abuse and elements, then the E-3 is a safe bet (although in this case you wouldn't be, most probably, seeking my advice). It offers these features, together with all time-proven Olympus solutions (Live View, dust shake-off, body-based image stabilization) and impeccable image quality, plus the available optics is first-class. This is even more true if you need a serious wide-angle capability with a frame less than 24×36 mm.
  • If you just have to have the latest and greatest, then you would not listen to me anyway (I'm talking to you, _____, just fill the blank, you know who you are!).
  • February 2009: With the new E-30 available, things get more complicated. That camera has most of the E-3 features and capabilities, with two significant exceptions: weatherproofing and the larger viewfinder. Your choice will depend on how much you need these two features.

Treat this advice with a grain of salt. I may be not impartial to Olympus cameras which I have used for many years now, and, obviously, my experience with other brands, as much as I may try, is limited. But then, a similar limitation is suffered by most people who write about equipment; most of us are used to this or that way of doing things. On the other hand, using all brands is like using none: you do not really learn what a given camera may deliver.

It also has to be noted that, being more familiar with Olympus and having high expectations from their engineers, I may be often critical about issues other writers won't even notice. This also may count.

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2008/01/30; last updated 2009/02/14 Copyright © 2008-2009 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak