Olympus E3 Digital SLR Camera
At a Glance
Updated 12/23/08: The 10.1-megapixel E3, the top dog in Olympus's line of digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) cameras, is an attractive package for both pros and serious amateurs. You have to be serious about your photography--and have plenty of arm strength--though, because the bulky E3 body alone costs $1700 and weighs just under 2 pounds. Adding the lenses increases both the cost and the heft: The 12mm-to-60mm (24mm-to-120mm, 35mm equivalent) zoom I received with the E3 makes the package $2700, and together the body and lens tip the scales at an arm-fatiguing 3.25 pounds.
Like most DSLRs, though, the E3 provides speed and flexibility, and this camera offers them in spades. Tested against my now aging Canon 30D and the new Nikon D300, the E3 delivered lightning-quick auto-focusing, noticeably faster than either of the other cameras did. The E3 will capture up to five frames per second--not quite up to the Nikon's six-frames-per-second burst-shooting speed, but still quite fast.
The E3's flexibility starts with its bright, 2.5-inch color LCD, which swings away from the camera body and swivels. I loved this feature in my old Olympus C-5060, and the company had a good reason to add it to the E3: Pressing the live-view button, you can compose your shot on the LCD screen. (A simple thing that every digital point-and-shoot does already.) The design makes shooting still lifes with a tripod, paparazzi pics over crowds, or macros of low-lying wildflowers much easier on the back. The LCD has one other extremely useful trick: Like most DSLRs, it displays a concise summary of current camera settings. Unlike with most of the competition, though, you can also use the four-way navigation buttons to highlight a specific setting and change it on screen, or you can use them to create a custom group setting--especially useful when you want to make several changes at the same time.
The E3 has highly customizable controls. Dual selector dials--one on the back, one on the front--are now commonplace on DSLRs. But you can reassign the E3's dials in a number of useful ways; you can, for example, set one to adjust the f-stop and the other to change the shutter speed. The same is true for the camera's many other controls; for example, the AE/AL button can lock the exposure value, or the focus, or both. All of that means less adapting to the camera and more adapting the camera to your way of shooting.
The theme extends to many of the creative controls in the E3's menu system. Some examples include the E3's implementation of automatic bracketing, which includes options for exposure, white balance, flash, and (new to me) ISO or image sensitivity bracketing. The E3 offers extensive control over color balance, as well: You can fine-tune all of the presets and color temperature settings along the red-green axis.
That level of control is a good thing, because the E3's color balance was off in some shooting situations. When I first started shooting with the E3 I was, to put it mildly, disappointed in the photos. For shots taken under difficult conditions--landscapes with lots of snow, water, and sky--all of my images were a stop-and-a-half underexposed and looked as if I had forgotten to remove a dark-blue filter. Correcting these shots (taken in RAW format) on my computer soaked up a lot of time. Extensive use of bracketing helped only a little. Fortunately, subsequent sessions with more mundane subjects, such as cars, homes, small still lifes, and dogs, produced far better results--accurate colors, outstanding details, and only the slight underexposures that are common in DSLRs.
Among the more interesting controls found in the E3 is an antishock mode, which trips the shutter from 1 to 30 seconds after you press the shutter release and the mirror snaps up--useful for macro work where you remembered to bring your tripod but forgot the (optional) wireless remote. Image stabilization is controlled within the camera, so the function works with all Olympus Zuiko lenses.
The Master 2 image editing application included with the E3 is a capable product, with a good selection of editing tools. If you want batch-processing capabilities, you'll have to upgrade to the $100 Studio 2, available from Olympus as an online download. (A 30-day trial version of Studio 2 is included on the Master 2 CD.) If you are an Adobe Photoshop CS3 jockey, the latest version of Camera Raw reportedly supports the Olympus RAW format. If you're on Photoshop CS2, you're probably facing an expensive upgrade, because the older version of Camera Raw that's compatible with CS2 won't recognize the E3's files.
Overall, I enjoyed using the E3. It feels comfortable in the hand, its magnesium body looks and feels durable--ready for extensive time in the field--and operating the controls is quick and efficient. And unlike my experience with many cameras, I could read the color LCD, even with my dark, polarized sunglasses on. As someone who shoots extensively in the mountains, my only concern is the color balance issue.