Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent build quality, weatherproofing, 150,000 shot shutter life
- Big, bright viewfinder with 100% view
- Articulated screen
- Effective sensor-shift image stabilization
- Very fast focus with new SWD lenses (less impressive with other lenses, however)
- Info screen offers quick and easy access to most commonly used controls
- Excellent color, good daylight white balance
- Excellent JPEG output, plenty of detail, well balanced processing
- Low noise at ISO 100-400, more usable up to ISO 1600 than previous E series cameras
- User control over ISO noise reduction ('Noise Filter')
- Through the lens Live View with Auto Focus (although requires mirror up/down)
- Up to ten times magnification in Live View for manual focus
- Supersonic Wave Filter ensures no dust on sensor (small point: would sometimes be nice to be able to turn it off for faster startup; there's custom functions for everything else)
- Responsive in use, shutter lag short
- Extensive feature set and a huge range of customization
- Black and white mode with selectable filters
- Kelvin white balance option, all white balance presets fine tunable
- Fully customizable RAW+JPEG (many competitors have fixed JPEG settings)
- Spot metering with shadow and highlight based spot
- Mirror lock-up with custom delay
- Good (if not class-leading) continuous shooting
- Good range of playback options / views
- In-camera RAW development and JPEG image editing
- Well priced for the feature set
Conclusion - Cons
- Resolution not as good as best in class (stronger AA filter?), though you won't see it in JPEGs
- Highlight dynamic range not quite as good as competitors (better than other E-Series cameras):
Some highlight clipping on bright days unless you reduce exposure
- Poor auto white balance in artificial light
- Very little resolution and not a lot of dynamic range headroom in raw files
- Some ergonomic issues (control layout, small buttons, user interface)
- Long, unstructured menus make finding some settings frustrating
- Some menus cannot be dismissed using the shutter release, making missed shots possible
- Live histogram and preview brightness inaccurate if you use Live Preview Boost.
- Noisier results than most competitors above ISO 400 (usable up to ISO 1600)
- New multi-point AF system seems easily confused, single point AF also a lot faster
- Focus hunting in low light
- Occasional metering errors (possibly linked to AF point in multi AF mode)
- Flash must be raised for AF assist (no dedicated AF assist lamp)
If you've taken the trouble to read every page of this review you'll already have a good idea where this conclusion is likely to go. To start with there's no doubt that the E-3 is, without a shadow of a doubt the best Four-Thirds camera ever made and a more than worthy (if a little tardy) successor to the original E-1. It offers users of Olympus 'mid range' SLRs an affordable way to upgrade to a faster, even more customizable camera with a pro-grade weatherproof body and a significantly bigger, brighter viewfinder. But does it offer enough to tempt users of other systems over to the Four-Thirds camp? The answer to that question is far less clear-cut.
Let's start with the good stuff; for the price the E-3 offers a compelling and highly competitive feature set, some of which (such as the tilting screen, in-body IS, SSWF dust removal, splash proof body) is unique at this level. On paper the E-3 ticks all the right boxes, and in the hand it feels well balanced responsive and rock-solid. Focus with SWD lenses is indeed very fast, though I'd love to know under what circumstances the 'world's fastest focus' claim comes stands good, as we found using multi-AF or shooting in low light at longer focal lengths was often downright sluggish. That said, the camera's overall performance is excellent (as long as you ignore the vestigial tail that is the xD Picture Card slot).
Compared to the best competitors in the 'semi pro' sector the E-3's achilles' heel is without doubt its Four-Thirds sensor, which struggles to match the high ISO performance and dynamic range of the best APS-C based models (such as Nikon's new D300). The lower resolution and slight softness (which we presume to be the result of a stronger anti alias filter) seen when viewed up close will only be a problem if you're in the habit of producing colossal enlargements or cropping excessively. At normal viewing sizes you're more likely to be appreciating that lovely Olympus color than worrying about pixel-level sharpness, but this still has to be considered a demerit for a camera competing at this level.
It's also worth noting that you won't see the difference in resolution between the E-3 and its competitors unless you're shooting raw (the E-3's JPEGs are actually very good), and that we're not talking about huge differences here. But anyone used to pushing raw files to the limit will be disappointed with the E-3; resolution aside, there's little latitude for exposure changes; push it more than a stop or so and you'll see noise in the shadows even at ISO 200, pull it back and you'll find there's precious little highlight headroom.
The E-3 is then a camera that produces fantastic results as long as you stay within its comfort zone. Thanks to the limitations of its sensor, if you push the envelope at all (trying to capture too much dynamic range, pushing the sensitivity in low light, trying to eke the finest detail out of a scene) it starts to under-perform compared to the best of its competitors. If your photography regularly takes place at the point where all cameras start to demand compromises, pushing hard against the edge of acceptable performance, the E-3 is not the camera I would recommend.
Ironically the exact opposite is true when shooting in extreme environmental conditions, where the E-3's superior weatherproofing puts it in a different class altogether to any camera in this price bracket. If you want to shoot in dirty, damp or humid conditions the E-3 should be high on your shortlist.
Image quality aside the E-3 has a few minor issues worth mentioning, none of which would be 'deal breakers' alone, but when added together should cause anyone thinking of selling their existing system for an E-3 to pause for thought. Many are subjective; we found the body control layout confusing and the buttons fiddly and hard to reach, whilst the menu system needs a serious overhaul. Others are only really applicable to users who leave everything on automatic (the multi-zone metering and focus systems aren't reliable enough for 'point and shoot' operation). It's also worth mentioning that the E-3 is, despite the claims made for the advantage of a smaller sensor format, one of the biggest, heaviest cameras in its class - especially when you throw in one of the top quality SWD zooms.
And so, in conclusion, how is the E-3 to be judged? No camera is perfect, and whilst there are areas where the E-3 trails the competition slightly there are also other areas where it leads. And inevitably there are some types of photography it excels at, some it doesn't: the live view, magnified manual focus and tilting screen make it a superb still life studio camera; the build quality and weather sealing make it perfect for shooting in challenging environments, be they dusty deserts or icy mountaintops. Our experiences with the focus in low light and at the long end of the zoom would seem to suggest that what it isn't ideal for is shooting indoor sports (and in fact if you want to shoot at high ISO settings there are better alternatives out there, full stop).
Its also a camera that will only produce the best results in experienced hands; you need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and take control of metering, exposure, focus and (unless you're shooting raw) white balance; the automatic systems are over sensitive and sometimes go seriously awry.
Ultimately though, despite its foibles, we liked the E-3; it feels great in the hand (even if it demands a longer than average learning curve), produces pleasing output most of the time, and has some really useful features. It sits at the heart of a system that is slowly maturing into a serious competitor for the dominant players, with some superb lenses, particularly the fast zooms.
If Olympus could only find a sensor to match the quality of the camera itself and the lenses available, the E-3 would have been lifted into a class of its own. As it is, this is a camera that will keep the faithful happy, and one that offers some unique features at a good price, but one that is unlikely to see eBay suddenly flooded with high end Nikon and Canon gear as professionals and serious photo enthusiasts dump their systems and jump trains to the Four-Thirds express. Features like in-body IS and a tilting screen are all well and good, but a camera at this level needs to offer the ultimate image quality and total shooting versatility, and here the E-3 can struggle to match its direct competitors.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.0|
Highly Recommended (just)