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Olympus gets back in the game with the E-3 SLR Digital Camera.
Dec 19, 2007 (Updated Dec 19, 2007)
Review by jvandegr
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Very rugged body with good ergonomics, decent high ISO performance, fast and accurate autofocus.
Cons:A little too expensive for what it offers.
The Bottom Line: I can finally (and happily) recommend Olympus thanks to this professional-grade camera and its complimentary lenses.
Recommend this product?
For a couple years now, Olympus has been showing that they are still a reputable camera manufacturer that can produce quality gear with innovative features. Whenever I walk into my local camera store to preview the new offerings from Nikon and Canon, I always end up picking up an Olympus body and thinking, that's a well-designed camera. Still, with the investment I've made in Nikon glass, I never seriously entertained the thought of building an Olympus setup from scratch. As soon as I picked up the E-3, that changed. I quickly reminded myself that since Olympus doesn't have much to offer in the way of lenses, I shouldn't even be thinking about it. Then I picked up some of the new Olympus lenses and tried them on the E-3. My first impression was, wow. The salesman knew I was a frequent buyer and walked me outside to allow me to take some test shots. I shot for about 10 minutes, then fondled the camera for another 30 minutes, then went home and starred at the images for a couple hours on my computer monitor. Day after day, I repeated this process until I finally went back and bought the Nikon D300. You're thinking, wait, I thought you said "wow" to the E-3 a minute ago!
From Olympus USA's website, I found the following list of features:
- World's Fastest Auto Focus* with the Olympus exclusive 11-point biaxial auto focus system coupled with the new (SWD) Supersonic Wave Drive lenses. It provides exacting auto focus precision at exceptional speeds.
- Continuous shooting, up to five frames per second, means you can capture fast-moving moments in time and get amazing results. The UDMA CompactFlash compatibility enhances capture speeds for the ultimate in shooting performance.
- 1/8000-second high-speed, high-precision shutter enables you to freeze even the fastest subjects. Or, set shutter speeds as long as 60 seconds in Manual or Automatic settings.
- Effectively reduce blur with Olympus' exclusive Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) in-body Image Stabilization System. Get up to a five step EV stabilization effect with all Zuiko Digital Lenses, and all Four Thirds Format Lenses.
- A newly developed high-performance 10.1-megapixel Live MOS Sensor provides the high resolution you need to accurately reproduce subject details with rich tones and natural colors as well as lower power consumption. Increased reading speed supports 5 fps continuous shooting.
- The Olympus exclusive TruePic III digital image processing system produces superior image quality and shadow detail.
- Live View shooting provides the next generation of composition control in digital SLR photography. The E-3's Live Simulation allows you to check exposure, white balance and composition -in real time, while you compose with the integrated Live View technology.
- The 2.5-inch dual-axis, free-angle swivel Live View monitor provides a 100% accurate representation of your shooting scene. Additionally, the E-3's HyperCrystal wide-angle display, with 360-degree articulation, makes composition and image viewing possible at any angle.
- The E-3's proven Dust Reduction System, with the Supersonic Wave Filter (SWF) self-cleaning ultrasonic sensor unit, eliminates dust particles on the sensor by silently vibrating an amazing 30,000 times per second, ensuring spot-free images.
- The 100% accurate high eye point optical viewfinder, delivers the precise compositional accuracy demanded by the most discriminating photographer. When shooting with the E-3, what you see is what you get.
- A Rugged magnesium-alloy construction coupled with advanced splash and dust protection, make the E-3 the perfect choice for photographers who demand the most from their equipment, in any situation.
- Durable shutter mechanism tested to 150,000 cycles. The pro-level shutter ensures reliability, even at five frames per second, thanks to a durable shutter mechanism tested to 150,000 cycles, making the E-3 the camera of choice for photographers who demand durability from their equipment.
As of late December 2007, the Olympus E-3 is selling for $1700 (US) from reputable online dealers.
This is where the Olympus E-3 really shines. This thing is built like a tank. It's better constructed than any camera made by Canon except their top of the line EOS 1D models; the Canon 40D and 5D are simply no match for the rugged construction of the E-3. From Nikon, only the D300 and D3 are equal or better. It feels like a solid brick and has an impressive amount of weather-proofing. Could it withstand professional use? Easily. The Nikon D3 is the last word in build quality, but I don't think the E-3 is too far behind. Olympus claims some of their new lenses are weather-resistant as well. Based on my experience with these lenses, the build quality seems very high. Put it all together with the E-3 body and this is a really tough system.
It may not be as slick in appearance as offerings from Nikon and Canon, but the ergonomics of the E-3 are excellent. The right hand grip is amazingly comfortable and offers a very secure hold on the camera. This grip continues on the back of the camera with a well-designed ridge for my thumb. Buttons and dials are logically placed, but you'll need to spend some time becoming familiar with them if you're new to the Olympus system. I prefer to have more controls on the outside of the camera for quicker access, and in this regard the Nikon D300 is a more ergonomic choice. I wasn't thrilled with E-3's menu system, but this may only be due to the fact that I'm primarily a Nikon user and I just need to spend more time learning Olympus' system.
The 2.5 inch LCD screen is just a little smaller than their competitors models, but so what. I need a 20 inch screen before I'm comfortable viewing my images anyway. Olympus has figured out that what's most important is being able to tilt and swivel the screen. Without question, this is more useful than just having a larger screen. I can get shots I simply can't get with other SLRs. While the live-view 3.0 inch LCD on the Nikon D300 has amazing image quality, the screen is fixed so what's the point of live-view? Even though the E-3's LCD isn't as sharp or bright as the Nikon D300's LCD, Olympus wins this round.
The viewfinder on the E-3 was a pleasant surprise. It's larger size and better than average brightness made the ergonomics of the E-3 even better. Indeed, I prefer this viewfinder to that of the Canon 40D and Canon 5D. Neither of these Canons have poor viewfinders, but the Olympus is noticeably better. The Nikon D300 also has a nice viewfinder, but I think the E-3 is still probably best in class.
The autofocus system of the Olympus E-3 is truly impressive. Even in low light conditions, the focus locked on target again and again. Indeed, try as I might, I couldn't really fool the accuracy of the autofocus system. In the same low light, autofocus accuracy on the Nikon D300 was also impressive, although I was able to fool it once, as I was with the Canon 40D. Speed was also quite amazing on the E-3 and it kept up with a Canon USM lens on the Canon 40D with no problem. The Nikon D300 has incredible autofocus speed and with an AF-S lens and it seemed just barely faster than the Olympus E-3. Barely. So, Olympus claims to have the fastest autofocus speed in the industry, but I couldn't duplicate their results in real world testing. That being said, focus speed with the E-3 and a 12-60mm lens is very, very fast. In summary, Olympus can now easily compete with some of the better cameras from Nikon and Canon.
Of course, autofocus speed is only worth mentioning if you can get the camera turned on quickly and take a shot without having to worry about shutter lag. Thankfully, the E-3 takes no longer than about a second to turn on and be ready to shoot. I confirmed this several times using several different lenses. I found shutter lag to be minimal (less than one second) and seems to be on par with the Canon 40D and Nikon D300, if not just a tad slower. Again, I feel the E-3 turns out a professional performance here.
Metering was very accurate in all of my outdoor and indoor test shots. In a couple instances, it was off by 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop, but I've found this to be true of all SLRs every now and then. This small amount of error is easily correctable in any modern photo editing software, so I'm not really concerned. In fact, none of my hundreds of test shots revealed any serious concerns, regardless of which metering mode I used. In fact, I was happily surprised at its low light performance inside the camera store.
Image Quality and Image Quality Comparisons
Please note: All observations are based on RAW file shooting for all cameras.
The Olympus E-3's most obvious competitor is the Nikon D300. Both are priced around $1700 with similar build characteristics. From Canon, the most obvious competitive model is less obvious. On the low end is the 40D, on the high end is the 5D.
Although the E-3 keeps noise well-controlled up to ISO 1600, it is absolutely no match for the D300. Based on my test images of the same outdoor subjects captured with the same atmospheric conditions, ISO 800 on the Olympus E-3 is similar to ISO 3200 on the Nikon D300. This two stop advantage is most readily apparent in the shadow areas of my images, but can also be seen in the lighter mid-tones. Compared to the Canon 40D, noise levels seem comparable and I wasn't able to pick a clear winner with the particular test shots that I was able to take. With similar wide-angle zoom lenses, sharpness and color rendition were also very similar between these two cameras. The Canon 5D produced some amazing test shots that showed approximately the same amount of noise at ISO 1600 that the Olympus E-3 had at ISO 800. This one stop advantage is noticeable, but potential Canon buyer's should really give the Olympus E-3 a look before letting one stop of noise make their purchasing decision.
The sharpness of the Olympus images was sometimes just ever so slightly better than the D300 images, at default settings. I'm convinced the D300's default camera settings, and not the sensor itself, are responsible for this. I've found my D300 to produce fairly soft images at default sharpness. I actually prefer slightly soft images because it gives me more room for adjustment in my editing studio. Of course, optics play a huge role in sharpness as well and I suspect the Olympus 12-60mm was slightly sharper than the Nikon 18-55mm that was available at the camera store. In my test shots, I was surprised to see the Olympus yield slightly sharper images than the Canon 5D and 40D. Perhaps the Olympus 12-60mm is just a much sharper lens than I imagined. I hope to be able to try some better "L" glass from Canon soon and run this comparison again.
Color rendition on the Olympus E-3 was impressive. Not only were the colors saturated without being over-saturated, but they had a film-like quality to them. Until I noticed the blown highlights. The E-3 has less dynamic range than the D300, although I don't have enough information to say exactly how much at this time. I was also noticing more chromatic aberrations with the E-3 than I did on the D300. This can be lens specific, so I can't yet fault the E-3's sensor. Finally, I've noticed impressive contrast across my images when using the Olympus 12-60mm lens. In general, I'd say contrast was at least as good as my test shots from the Canon 40D and Nikon D300. Again, contrast is significantly influenced by lens characteristics, so this is only a general observation.
The Olympus E-3 is an excellent digital SLR that is very well built with enough professional specs to give Nikon and Canon owners reason for pause. The gap between the Canon 40D and the Canon 5D is just large enough that the Olympus E-3 might have found a niche and I would strongly recommend looking at the E-3 if you're thinking about a 40D or 5D. It has much better build quality than either of these cameras and Olympus has proven they can make the glass to compete. However, my tested setup of an E-3 body and a 12-60mm lens cost a total of $2600. For the same cost, I can get a Nikon D300 setup that simply offers better performance and image quality. The bottom line is this: If Olympus can innovate and catch up to Canon and Nikon, that's great, but they also need to prove to me that they can offer at least a little more for the same amount of money. Right now, the E-3, a great SLR in its own right, can't quite catch Nikon.
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