Olympus’s E-3 digital single-lens camera (DSLR) carries forward the great feel and build quality from its predecessor, the E-1, but the E-3 also includes an improved body design and a modern set of features, performance, and capabilities. The E-3 has its shortcomings, but it goes a long way toward re-establishing Olympus as a player in the mid-range SLR market. (The E-3 is available body only. We tested the E-3 with Olympus’s 12mm to 60mm SWD lens ($1,000), which has a 35mm equivalency of 24mm to 120mm.)
The E-3 has a 10.1-megapixel sensor. The E-3 produces very good images, however its low-light, high-ISO performance is not as good as competitors such as Canon’s EOS 40D ( ) and Nikon’s D300 ( ). The E-3 has a smaller dynamic range than the EOS 40D and D300, and this results in noisier shadow details. Keep in mind that this is a subtle difference that will only show up in certain situations; serious photographers might feel constrained when shooting subjects with an extreme range of tonal values. But overall, you get great images from the E-3.
Like many of the other cameras in this market, the E-3 has a cleaning mechanism for the sensor. This removes specks of dust from the sensor that could mar your images.
Long-time photographers are familiar with Olympus’s reputation for non-traditional camera designs; the E-1 looked like it was missing its right half, while the Evolt E-300 ( ) looked like its top had been cropped off. With the E-3, Olympus has produced one of its most traditional-looking DSLRs to date.
The E-3 is a large camera, and at almost two pounds, it’s not light, but it’s comfortable to hold and incredibly well made. You won’t hear any squeaks or creaks from this DSLR, and it’s the only camera in this market that offers full weatherproofing. You can take it into harsh, dusty or moisture-filled climes without worry. (The D300 comes close, so if you’re a foul-weather shooter, consider that camera as well.)
Because of the E-3’s size, some of the controls are difficult to reach. You have to shift your grip to get to the essential controls, which is a frustrating distraction when trying to get into a shooting flow. In addition, the menu system could use major re-thinking—it’s far more complex and cumbersome than many competing DSLRs.
The E-3 offers speedy burst shooting and image throughput. It has a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second and a burst rate of 5 frames per second. To further facilitate high-speed shooting, the image buffer allows up to 19 raw frames in a single burst. The E-3’s auto focus is blazingly fast (Olympus claims it’s the fastest in the world, but that’s a difficult claim to back up with hard data) but in low light situations the auto focus performance bogs down a little.
The 2.5-inch rear LCD is bright, clear, and can be seen from a wide angle. The D300 and EOS 40D offer larger 3-inch LCDs, but the E-3 LCD scores with its ability to swing and tilt away from the camera. When you combine the tilt LCD with the E-3’s live view feature (the ability to preview a shot in the rear LCD), studio shooters, macro photographers, or anyone who shoots in less conventional situations have newfound flexibility when framing a shot.
The E-3 uses sensor-based image stabilization, where the sensor moves to compensate for camera shake. The E-3’s stabilization is good and scores over lens-based image stabilization systems because it works with every lens you put on the E-3. However, lens-based stabilizers have the advantage of producing a stabilized image that’s visible in the viewfinder, and they’re also stronger at image stabilization overall.
Because the camera conforms to the Four Thirds specification, the E-3 shoots images with a 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to the wider 3:2 aspect ratio of most DSLRs. Personally, I prefer a 3:2 aspect ratio, but if you’re making the transition from a point-and-shoot camera, the E-3’s 4:3 ratio could feel more comfortable.
The E-3 has a good feature set, though it doesn’t compare to the D300. Overall the E-3 is weak on customization. That said, you won’t be lacking for any essential features.
Macworld’s buying advice
The Olympus E-3 is a very good camera and one that deserves serious consideration. More than any other mid-range DSLR on the market right now, though, you need to handle the E-3 before buying. Its size and weight are formidable enough that you’ll want to be sure that you like its handling. On the upside, the heavier body makes for stable shooting. If you shoot in harsh environments, or in locations that would be helped by a movable LCD with live view, this just might be the camera for you.
[Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, fourth edition. (Charles River Media, 2007).]