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Olympus’s Four Thirds sensor limits your lens choices, but the E-3 takes excellent pictures.
The Olympus E-3 is a beefy, 10-megapixel, semipro DSLR aching to beat up on the competition. But at $1,700 for its magnesium-muscled body and another $900 for a top-of-the-line Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) lens, it may be tough to take on contenders that offer as much (or more) for the money.
Though it has an exceptionally strong build—and controls in all the right places—its Four Thirds sensor size (a trademark of Olympus DSLRs) is smaller and proportionately different than those of most other DSLRs. If you’ve shot a lot of full-frame 35mm film or used digital cameras with a traditional 3:2 image format, it may take some time to feel comfortable composing smaller, boxier images. Lens selection is also limited compared with other brands.
On the upside, the E-3 has excellent ergonomics, and though it’s a bit heavy at about 2 pounds without a lens attached, it feels well balanced. The 1/8000-second shutter speed is an impressive feature, enabling you to freeze fast-moving subjects, provided you have enough light to correctly expose at that speed. The flash also wields a lot of firepower; we shot perfectly exposed photos from more than 30 feet away using an aperture of f/4 with the ISO set to 1600 (the highest available is 3200).
The E-3 is whip-fast when it comes to focusing, and its internal image stabilization (IS) system will steady any Olympus lens. Unlike Nikon and Canon, whose pricey IS systems are built into individual lenses, Olympus compensates for shaky images with the camera’s sensor-shifting technology. Many of the 700 pictures we shot before the battery needed recharging were handheld, and at slow shutter
speeds. The E-3’s IS gave us pictures as sharp as if we had shot them at shutter speeds two to three times as fast.
We periodically checked the efficacy of the camera’s ultrasonic dust-reduction system by scoping the sensor with VisibleDust’s Sensor Loupe (4 out of 5 stars, Dec/07, p70). Though we made more than a dozen lens changes under less than pristine conditions, the sensor remained virtually spotless.
The E-3’s Live View feature lets you preview your shots on the bright, 2.5-inch TFT screen instead of through the viewfinder. Here, Olympus leads the pack. A swiveling LCD finally makes Live View useful—you can frame your image precisely when shooting high- and low-angle shots while holding the camera overhead, at ground level, or anywhere in between.
The E-3’s image quality is outstanding—we rolled brilliant 13-by-19-inch, color-perfect prints out of Epson’s new R1900 printer and also used Epson’s high-definition 8.5-by-11-inch R280 model to print others. We saw excellent details in both highlights and shadows, which is the result of good lens design, sophisticated in-camera processing, and printers that can deliver.
Most of our shooting was done with Olympus’ new f/2.8-4 12-60mm SWD lens, which maximizes the camera’s blazing-fast focus. This autofocus zoom (the equivalent of 24-120mm on a 35mm camera) produced extraordinary images with minimum distortion at its widest-angle setting—a perfect match for the E-3. We also used a 14-42mm (28-84mm in 35mm terms) f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens that costs just $250. It, too, produced superb images, though it doesn’t have the zoom range, focusing speed, or maximum aperture of the 12-60mm.
If you’re still playing the field, looking to make a commitment to a DSLR system, the E-3 has some excellent features other cameras don’t offer. If you’re already wedded to the Four Thirds system and have a fair complement of Olympus lenses, don’t even think divorce. Just renew your vows with an E-3 at your side and then go shooting off into the sunset.
PRICE: $1,700 body only; SWD 12-60mm lens (equivalent to 24-120mm on a 35mm camera) additional $900
Solidly built, weatherproof, excellent picture quality, Live View with articulating LCD screen.
JPEG images a bit noisy above ISO 800; requires expensive Supersonic Wave Drive lenses for maximum focusing speed.