In the years since the original E-1 Olympus has moved a long way from the unusual (sometimes controversial) styling that characterized its earlier D-SLR models; the E-3 is anonymously conventional and, though it's lost some of the individuality that models such as the E-300 and the E-1 offered, it looks a lot more like what most people expect a camera to look like. The viewfinder has moved back to the center of the body (where it should be), and the front dial is now below the shutter release (another big improvement over the E-1). The grip is considerably better than the E-1 too.
But it's not all new of course; the external controls may have been moved around and redesigned a little but anyone who's ever used an Olympus SLR (or even one of the high end compacts from a few years back) will feel completely at home here. It's worth noting too, that the E-3 has a very similar set of external controls to the E-510 (though the larger body means they've been given a little more room to breathe and a few have moved to completely different positions).
Like the E-1 before it, the E-3 is incredibly solid (more so than the slightly cheap-feeling plastic cladding would initially suggest) and appears to be built to withstand some pretty heavy wear and tear. The environmental sealing (the camera and lens are splash and dust-proof) makes the E-3 uniquely capable in challenging conditions (there's no comparable SLR I'd feel safe using in a rain shower), which together with the tank-like construction gives you real confidence that it won't let you down no matter what you throw at it. Of course we didn't really put this to the test during our review, though we suspect Olympus wouldn't make these sort of claims if they couldn't deliver on them!
Side by side
The E-3 is not a small (or lightweight) camera - though compared to the true 'big beasts' in the professional digital SLR jungle (the Nikon D2/D3 and the Canon 1D series) it's a mere slip of a thing. The truth is that this is a camera that goes head to head with the 'semi professional' models shown below (Olympus themselves consider the 40D and D300 to be its closest rivals), and the E-3 is (by a whisker) the largest camera and is second only to the D300 weight-wise. Of course how this fits with the whole 'smaller sensor means we can make smaller cameras and lenses' ethos of the Four-Thirds system is something only Olympus can answer. I've also included the E-510 in this chart to show how much more you're carrying should you decided to upgrade from the E-3's little brother.
(W x H x D)
(inc. battery & card)
|Canon 40D||146 x 108 x 74 mm( 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in||822 g (1.8 lb)|
|Olympus E-3||142 x 116 x 75 mm (5.6 x 4.6 x 2.9 in)||875 g (1.9 lb)|
|Olympus E-510||136 x 92 x 68 mm (5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in)||535g (1.25 lb)|
|Sony DSLR-A700||42 x 105 x 80 mm (5.6 x 4.2 x 3.2 in)||768 g (1.7 lb)|
|Pentax K100D||129 x 93 x 70 mm (5.0 x 3.7 x 2.8 in)||660 g (1.5 lb)|
|Nikon D300||147 x 114 x 74 mm (5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 in)||925 g (2.0 lb)|
In your hand
The E-3 is, like most cameras in this class, pretty big and relatively heavy, but overall handling is excellent. The camera sits comfortably in the hand and the excellent grip and shutter release / control dial positioning combine with a well balanced distribution of weight to give a solid, stable impression in use. If the definition of good handling is that the camera feels like an extension of your arm, then the E-3 is a very successful design. It's unfortunate that the initially excellent impressions the E-3 gives 'in the hand' are spoilt somewhat once you start trying to change settings on the fly, but more of that later. For now we'll stick to giving Olympus credit for producing a compact professional grade camera that sits very well in the hand and handles like a dream.
The E-3's new 2.5" screen is a lot larger (and has around 75% more pixels) than the 1.8" screen on the E-1, but then we are talking about over four years since the E-1, and in truth the E-3's LCD, though excellent, pales in comparison with the superb 3.0" screens found on several of its competitors. This is particularly true of the Nikon D3/D300 and the new Sony Alpha 700. Of course the E-3 has one thing none of these cameras can match - its screen is fully articulated, something that brings a whole new dimension of usability to the must-have feature of 2008; live view.
One of the small criticisms of many recent digital SLR offerings has been that the usefulness of Live View is somewhat compromised by the lack of an articulated screen. The E-3 not only brings back the articulated screen (last seen on the E-330), but does so in a much more versatile 'swing out and rotate' format, much the same as that used by Canon on its PowerShot range (suggesting that the patent issues that have forced other manufacturers to avoid this system have been overcome). The screen swings out through 180° and swivels through a full 270°, meaning you can view it from pretty much any angle you wish. The screen can be stored 'face in' to the body when not needed.
Although the usefulness of live view in everyday photography is questionable (thanks to the shutter delay and drain on battery life), we can confirm from experience that in the studio the powerful combination of live preview and a multi-angle screen should not be underestimated.
Although it has a top plate LCD control panel the E-3 offers what Olympus calls a 'Super Control Panel' on the LCD screen, accessed simply by pressing the INFO button. You can press the OK button to change settings as they appear on the display (functions with dedicated external controls also work here). It's essentially the same as the 'advanced' version of the info panel displayed by the E-410 and E-510, and is a faster and more intuitive 'at a glance' way to change image parameters than the top control panel (or the endless menus). We like very much.
On top of the camera is the control panel, which is angled very slightly towards the photographer (rear of the camera). It provides an overview of the current camera settings as well as remaining storage space (number of frames), buffer status and other options. When changing settings such as ISO and White balance the panel changes state to display the current selection. This panel also has a back light which can be activated by pressing the LIGHT button.
A detailed breakdown of displayed information can be found on the diagram below.
One of the big differences between the E-3 and just about every other Four-Thirds SLR ever made is that Olympus has put a huge amount of effort into producing a viewfinder that doesn't suffer from the 'looking down a tunnel' problem arising from the smaller sensor format. And to its credit the result is very impressive; with a true 100% field of view and 1.15x magnification it's as good as most APS sensor cameras, and a good deal better than many. There is an eyepiece shutter (for ensuring accurate metering in live view mode) and a dioptre adjustment dial just to the right of the eyepiece.
Comparing the E-3's viewfinder directly to the Nikon D300 and the Canon EOS 40D it's obvious that Olympus has done a superb job of overcoming the limitations imposed by the smaller format - it's easily as big and as bright (in fact the 4:3 format means it's actually slightly larger).
The viewfinder isn't only bigger and brighter than previous E-System cameras; there's differences in what you see when you look through it too. Obviously there's now more focus points (up from three to 11), but we were also pleased to see that Olympus has moved the (redesigned) information display back to the bottom of the frame too (consumer level E-system cameras have their information displays to he right of the frame, which is much more difficult to see).
Viewfinder information is comprehensive and, importantly, includes ISO sensitivity.
The E-3 uses the same BLM-1 battery as pretty much every other E-Series camera ever made, and you can comfortably expect to get well over 600 shots on a single charge (providing, of course, you don't use Live View, which by our reckoning drops the capacity to 100-200 shots). The battery fits into the base of the camera on the hand grip side behind a locked door and has a small retaining clip to prevent it falling out. As long as your platform isn't too large you can remove the battery without taking the camera off the tripod. The battery takes approximately 2 hours for a full charge.
An optional accessory allows you to replace the BLM-1 with three commonly-available CR-123A Lithium batteries, which might be a useful - though expensive - standby option should you find yourself shooting far from any mains power.