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Olympus E-3 Review

February 2008 | By Simon Joinson


Review based on a production E-3

Four years is a very long time in the digital camera market, and four years in the digital SLR market is virtually a lifetime. In the four-odd years between the launch of the Olympus E-1 - the camera that heralded the first all-new SLR system for over a decade - and its successor the E-3, the DSLR landscape has changed beyond recognition, with prices dropping and capabilities soaring. The world moved on whilst the Olympus professional system stood still, looking more and more irrelevant and less and less like a serious contender to the long-standing Canon/Nikon duopoly in the pro market.

Of course the Olympus range itself wasn't standing still, and after a few false starts (mainly caused by the almost suicidal tendency for Olympus industrial designers to produce cameras that didn't look like cameras) and some flashes of inspired innovation (bringing live view, kicking and screaming, to the SLR market, for example) the E-series started to be taken a lot more seriously.

But whilst Olympus fans' spirits were buoyed by the introduction of well-reviewed and popular models such as the E-500 and the current E-410/E-510 duo, the lack of a high end model to replace the ageing E-1 - or anything in the E-series range to compete with high end 'semi pro' models like the Nikon D200 - was the cause of great concern. It's all very well having superb glass (and few would disagree that Olympus produces some of the best lenses on the market today) if there isn't a similarly well-specified camera to put behind it.

And so the E-3, the long-awaited successor to the E-1, has finally arrived. To say that it carries a heavy weight of expectation on its broad shoulders is putting it lightly; this is the camera that will decide for once and for all whether Olympus has what it takes to crack the Nikon/Canon stronghold, or is to remain forever a niche player in the professional market.

Compared to E-1 - key differences

It almost seems pointless to talk about how the E-3 compares to its predecessor; the time gap between them is so great that they have very little in common; the E-3 is a totally new camera that has obviously been designed to go head-to-head with the likes of Nikon's D300 and Canon's 40D at the very top of the market, at the point where the distinctions between 'high end enthusiast', 'semi professional' and 'professional' get very blurred. Before we return the E-1 to the museum of digital antiquities for good let's have a (brief) look at what's changed - and what hasn't - in the in intervening years.

  • New sensor (10MP Live MOS vs 5MP CCD) and latest TruPic III processor
  • Live view
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • All-new autofocus system (11-point AF, claimed to be world's fastest with certain zoom lenses)
  • Faster continuous shooting, bigger buffer
  • Higher top shutter speed (1/8000 sec) and higher flash sync speed (1/250 sec)
  • Improved viewfinder (bigger, brighter)
  • Bigger, higher resolution vari angle screen
  • Masses more customization options

Key feature comparison (vs E-1 and E-510)

Looking at the spec comparison between the E-1 and the E-3 i decided it would be sensible to also throw the E-3's 'baby brother', the E-510, into the mix. There will surely be current E-510 owners (or owners of the E-510's predecessors) considering a move up to the E-3, so what can they expect to get? To be honest the main differences are physical; the E-3 is a considerably heavier, larger and more solid camera with weatherproof sealing and an articulated screen, with a better viewfinder and the option to add a vertical grip for considerably improved handling in portrait operation.

Under the hood the main differences are in the autofocus (which has more focus points and should be a lot quicker), continuous shooting speed, and the sensor (which has a similar spec but is claimed to offer superior results - we'll find out how much better later). So let's have a look in more detail at the differences between the E-3, its predecessor the E-1 and its baby brother the E-510 (apologies if this list isn't exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of where the key differences lie):

 
Olympus E-3 EVOLT


Olympus E-1 EVOLT


Olympus E-510 EVOLT
Sensor

• 4/3 type Hi-Speed Live MOS
• 11.8 million total pixels
• 10.1 million effective pixels

• 4/3 type CCD
• 5.6 million total pixels
• 5.1 million active pixels
• 4.9 million output pixels
• 4/3 type Live MOS
• 10.9 million total pixels
• 10.0 million effective pixels
Body Material Magnesium alloy Magnesium alloy Plastic
Weatherproof? Yes Yes No
Stabilization? Yes, Sensor-shift No Yes, Sensor-shift
Live View? Yes No Yes
File Formats • RAW
• RAW + JPEG
• JPEG (EXIF 2.2) - 3 levels
• RAW
• RAW + JPEG
• TIFF
• JPEG (EXIF 2.2)
• RAW
• RAW + JPEG
• JPEG (EXIF 2.2) - 3 levels
Processor TruePic III TruePic TruePic III
Continuous • 5.0 fps
• RAW: 19 frames maximum
• JPEG: Up to card capacity @ HQ 1/8 (with high speed media)
• 3.0 frames per second
• RAW or JPEG: 12 images in a burst
• 3.0 fps
• RAW: 6 frames maximum
• JPEG: Up to card capacity @ HQ 1/8 (with high speed media)
My Mode? Yes (2) No Yes (2)
Max Shutter Speed 1/8000 sec 1/4000 sec 1/4000 sec
Sensitivity • ISO 100-3200
• 0.3, 0.5 or 1.0 EV steps
• ISO 100-3200*
• 0.3, 0.5 or 1.0 EV steps
(* ISO 1600 and 3200 only with ISO Boost on)
• ISO 100-1600
Metering • 49-zone multi-pattern
• Range ( ESP): 1 to 20 EV
• Range (Spot): 3 to 17 EV
• 3-zone multi pattern
• Range: EV3-20 (EPS, CWA)
• 49-zone multi-pattern
• Range ( ESP): 1 to 20 EV
• Range (Spot): 3 to 17 EV
Metering modes • Digital ESP
• Center-Weighted Average
• Spot (2%)
• Highlight based spot
• Shadow based spot
• Digital ESP
• Center-Weighted Average
• Spot (1.8%)
• Digital ESP
• Center-Weighted Average
• Spot (2%)
• Highlight based spot
• Shadow based spot
Auto Focus • 11-point TTL Phase Difference Detection
• Automatic or manual point selection
• EV -2 to 19 (ISO 100) detection range
• AF assist using pop-up flash
• 3-point TTL Phase Difference Detection
• Automatic or manual point selection
• EV 0 to 19 (ISO 100) detection range
• AF assist lamp
• 3-point TTL Phase Difference Detection
• Automatic or manual point selection
• EV -2 to 19 (ISO 100) detection range
• AF assist using pop-up flash
Flash • Built-in pop-up
• TTL auto / manual
• Guide no. 13
No built-in flash • Auto electronic pop-up
• TTL auto / manual
• Guide no. 12
Scene modes None None 18 scene modes
Vertical grip option? Yes Yes No
Viewfinder

• Eye-level TTL Optical Pentaprism
• Field of view approx. 100%
• Magnification 1.15x with a 50mm lens and -1 dioptre
• Dioptre adjustment -3 to +1 dioptre
• Built in eyepiece shutter
• Focusing screen: Interchangeable type
• Mirror: Quick return mirror

• Eye-level pentaprism TTL
• Magnification approx. x0.96
• Eye point 20 mm
• 100% frame coverage
• Dietrich adjustment (-3.0 to +1.0)
• Internal eyepiece curtain
• Interchangeable focusing screen with center circle and AF areas (FS-1)

• Eye-level TTL Optical Pentamirror
• Field of view 95%
• Magnification 0.92x with a 50mm lens and -1 dioptre
• Clip-fit eyecup

LCD monitor • 2.5" HyperCrystal TFT LCD monitor (wide viewing angle, semi-transmissive)
• Vari-angle (swing and tilt)
• 230,000 pixels
• 100% frame coverage
• 15 step brightness adjustment
• 1.8" TFT LCD
• 134,000 pixels
• 100% frame coverage
• 15 brightness levels (-7 to +7)
• 4x magnification playback
• 2.5" TFT LCD monitor (wide viewing angle, semi-transmissive)
• 230,000 pixels
• 100% frame coverage
Top panel info LCD? Yes Yes No
Connectivity • USB 2.0 (Hi Speed)
• Video Out (NTSC / PAL)
• IR Remote control (optional)
• DC-IN
• Remote terminal
• PC Sync flash terminal
• USB 2.0
• Firewire IEEE 1394
• Video out
• DC-IN
• Remote terminal
• PC Sync flash terminal
• USB 2.0 (Hi Speed)
• Video Out (NTSC / PAL)
• IR Remote control (optional)
Dimensions 142 x 116 x 75 mm (5.6 x 4.6 x 2.9 in) 141 x 104 x 81 mm (5.6 x 4.1 x 3.2 in) 136 x 92 x 68 mm (5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in)
Weight 800 g (1.8 lb) 660 g (1.5 lb) No battery • No battery 460 g (16.2 oz)


If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

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This article is Copyright 2008 dpreview.com and the review in part or in whole may NOT be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. For information on reproducing any part of this review (or any images) please contact: Phil Askey

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