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Review: The Olympus E-3 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Vincent Diamante   
Wednesday, 09 June 2010 05:08

My current camera system!

After nearly two years with the Olympus E-3, it's time to put this DSLR back out on the market and into the hands of some other photographer.  Unlike the Pentax K20D that immediately preceded it, I'm letting this camera go with my respect for it and happiness with it at a high... and that's pretty darn high, considering I originally got this as a replacement for the Nikon D700 that disappointed me a while back.  This is a really good, really underrated camera and, under different (financial) circumstances, I would have kept it around for much longer as I continued building up my collection of Olympus gear.

Guess it's high time I do my usual song and dance.  Like I did earlier with the Pentax K20D, here's a rundown of what I liked and what I disliked about the Olympus E-3...

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What I like about the Olympus E-3:

1) Really good OOC (out-of-camera) image quality.  It might seem weird to tout the image quality of this camera, especially compared to the Nikon D700 and Pentax K20D I had before.  Both had larger image sensors (in the case of the D700 almost 4x the sensor area!) and more megapixels.  Both should easily trump the E-3, right?  Well, both also have fairly average JPEG engines, and I'm a JPEG shooter.  Yes, I know that RAW is the way to go for the ultimate in image quality, but... not for me.  When I'm out there as a working professional, I'm doing photojournalism and event photography: stuff where the image I just captured to my memory card needs to be in my editor's hand an hour ago.  Working at such a fast pace, JPEG is the only option.  Lucky for me, Olympus cameras give fantastic JPEG images straight out of the camera.  Way better than anything else I've touched.  Lots of people talk about how shooting RAW is necessity if you want to wring all the available sharpness and dynamic range out of the image sensor.  In the case of the E-3, that simply isn't the case; its JPEGs have all the sharpness and nearly all the dynamic range the image sensor is capable of pulling.  (More on the sensor later...)

2) An excellent body.  Much like the Pentax K20D I had earlier, the E-3 has an extremely strong and weatherproofed body.  The E-3 goes one further for me in having a very quick user interface.  Some people poo-poo the fact that various controls are changed with a push-and-twist two-handed operation.  Many people find the lack of a mode dial and numerous buttons frustrating.  Me, I found the camera far faster to manipulate than any other camera I had previously used.  From image adjustments to wireless flash compensation, I found that I could change variables far faster than on the Nikons, Pentaxes, even the already quick operating Sonys I used in the past.  Personal preference, yes, but I found that this camera really appealed to the musician in me.  Using the E-3 wasn't simply manipulating a tool.  It was a refined and elegant procedure that could be executed quickly and with virtuosity.  And then there's that body feature that I have to give its own numbered point...

3) A full tilt-swivel display.  More than just a screen that I can adjust to the optimum position, it allowed me to capture images I couldn't possibly have otherwise.  Shooting with the camera high above the crowd is one thing, but I'm similarly thankful for how I can use it as a waist level viewfinder, capturing people not just naturally proportioned, but also naturally acting in a way they wouldn't if the camera was to my eye.

4) A catalog of fantastic lenses.  This isn't quite the same as "a fantastic catalog of lenses."  The Four Thirds system that the Olympus E-3 is part of is a fairly new system and, as such, contains orders of magnitude fewer lenses than Canons, Nikons, and Pentaxes can use.  The lenses that are available, however?  They are fantastic.  Olympus and Panasonic know how to design lenses, and from the entry-level to the high-end, the lenses are uniformly excellent: sharp, well corrected, and well constructed.  Olympus's High Grade lenses (their mid-tier offerings) I find significantly better than some of the top-tier offerings from other manufacturers (Sony's G line and Pentax's DA* lenses come to mind as delivering notably less) while the Super High Grade lenses, especially their F2 zooms, are among the best lenses available today.

5) An excellent flash system.  Yep, I use flash.  Whether it be a single flash mounted on the body's hotshoe or multiple flashguns dispersed throughout a room communicating with the body through the infrared wireless TTL system, the Olympus flash system has come through for me time and time again.  More than just being reliable, it's extremely quick to manipulate.  In a recent shoot, I couldn't help but compare how long it takes the E-3 to get to where it can change wireless flash group settings to the Nikon D700; while the D700 involved moving a ways through a menu tree, the E-3's wireless flash settings could be found either 1 or 2 button presses away.  It's design like that makes me not regret that I got rid of what the mainstream public considers the far superior camera.  If the system was compatible with the RadioPopper family of products, it'd be perfect.

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Like any other camera, the Olympus E-3 isn't perfect.  Here are a few things that bugged me:

1) Inconsistent, middle-of-the-pack autofocus.  When the E-3 came out, Olympus touted it as the fastest in the world when paired with the new 12-60mm SWD lens (which I bought at the same time).  Indeed, this body/lens combo makes for a very quick and decisive combination.  Most of the time it just works, and often better than I was getting with the Nikon D700 with various lenses.  It would hit focus quickly, silently, and accurately.  Sometimes, however, the E-3 will, after quickly and decisively racking from close focus to infinity and back, consider a scene to be unfocusable and refuse to release the shutter.  Times like that I'll just move the focus ring on the lens a bit, hit the shutter button half way again and voila!  Finally the camera brings the subject into focus.  Also, the continuous autofocus works, but it's without a doubt behind the AF systems created by Canon, Nikon, and Sony when it comes to subject tracking.  It's better than the Pentax system, and a huge evolution from what Olympus previously had in their cameras, but the E-3 definitely trails the market leaders.

2) A merely okay sensor.  The Panasonic Live MOS sensor in the Olympus E-3 is pretty decent. Pretty decent in today's market place, however, means trailing everyone else, and I do mean everyone.  Yeah, it performs well considering its size, but the fact of the matter is that as a professional DSLR, it's going to be compared to full-frame Nikon sensors with gobs of dynamic range, Canon sensors with super clean high ISO unfathomable only a few years ago, and Sony sensors that are fantastic resolution-to-dollar value propositions.  The sensor never really got in the way of the work I as doing for either print or web, but as I shot, I was always aware of how the sensor was being tasked, and I couldn't just shoot away without thinking of the image quality that was being given away by being in a particularly demanding low-light or high contrast situation.  The sensor just can't record as much information as the Nikons and Canons can.  (Thankfully, my images can compete as the JPEG engine makes the most out of that raw sensor data.)

3) A small selection of lenses.  The Olympus Four Thirds lens line up has a fine collection of zoom lenses for nearly any situation.  Prime lenses, though, are lacking.  As in: almost non-existent.  Want a fast normal prime?  Your only options are the expensive and often out-of-stock Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4, which is 3-4 times more expensive than equivalent 50mm lenses in other manufacturers' catalogs, the Sigma 24mm f1.8, which is a huge lens designed originally for the last generation of film SLRs, and the Sigma 30mm f1.4, which is hit-or-miss in terms of the out-of-the-box focus accuracy.  Want a fast portrait prime?  You're not going to find it here; your only options are the extremely sharp but not portrait application-specific Olympus 50mm f2 macro and the 35mm full-frame designed Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM, both of which are a little long compared to the 85mm lenses that many are used to.  Want a tilt/shift lens?  Move along, no such beasts here.  How about a compact wide angle prime?  Again, nothing to be found.  To the Four Thirds system's credit, the zooms really are excellent, to the point where resolution-wise there's little advantage to be had shooting an equivalent prime lens; however, the lack of prime lenses, especially fast (wider than F2) lenses can be frustrating, especially considering the smaller sensor format's inherently greater depth of field at equivalent field of view and higher noise floor.

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The Olympus E-3 has served me well over the last two years, and I hope someone else will make good use of it.  Unlike other times when I got rid of an SLR, I'm not going to be leaving the family.  When I decided to leave Sony/Minolta DSLR family, I was moving from a non-rugged A700 to a weather-proof Pentax K20D.  When I left Pentax, I was getting away from their non-existent customer service to Olympus and their local service center.  While the E-3 wasn't perfect, it's been a super successful ride with Olympus thus far and I'm looking to continue it.  Though the E-3 is now on Ebay, I'm hoping to continue to use my Four Thirds lenses, flashes, and other accessories on my Micro Four Thirds Olympus E-PL1, and I'll be anticipating Oly's next move in the high-end professional DSLR space.


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