Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
- Fast focus, live view, dust reduction, great build, good images
- Pictures are a little soft in some situations at high magnification, some competing models offer faster burst mode
E-3 is a great SLR and Olympus's best model to date. While it may not usurp the dominant forces of Canon and Nikon in this space, its combination of great features and good quality pictures make it a viable alternative for people after something a little different.
Price$ 2,499.00 (AUD)
In the compact camera space, Olympus is well established as one of the brands to beat; however, as a relatively new entrant to the SLR market, it is here the company has been struggling to get a foothold. Olympus's latest model, the E-3, is targeted at 'professionals and experienced amateurs' but it sits at a price point that has it competing firmly with Canon's EOS 40D and Nikon's D300. Fortunately Olympus has made some major improvements with this model, and the E-3 is without a doubt the best D-SLR the company has released.
One of the critical changes Olympus has implemented here is improving the auto focus. The new 11-point focus system not only offers much speedier and more accurate focusing, but every one of those points offers full cross-hatch coverage, meaning they can all focus along both the horizontal and vertical axes. We found the focus system was generally very speedy and is definitely comparable to competing models. Occasionally it struggled a little to focus on some particularly difficult targets, but overall we were impressed.
Once again Olympus has built image stabilisation into the body of this model, taking advantage of their Supersonic Wave Drive (used for dust reduction) to protect your shots from camera shake. We tested using a mammoth 300mm lens at maximum extension and, even without a tripod, the shots came out crisp and clear at a reasonable shutter speed. Olympus claims the E-3 has five EV stops of stabilisation which is higher than any other model on the market, and while we didn't find it to be noticeably better, the IS definitely worked well.
Olympus's famous dust reduction also makes a welcome return. Olympus was the first company to introduce this feature and in the years since many others have jumped on the bandwagon, but we still feel the original system is the most effective. The E-3 uses Olympus's Supersonic Wave Drive to shake dust-free every time the camera is powered up. Despite changing lenses outdoors several times, including one particularly windy day at the beach, our shots were spotless.
The E-3 sports a 10.1-megapixel sensor, which puts it on the same footing as the Canon EOS 40D and slightly behind the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D300. Nonetheless it captures some impressive shots.
We tested using a variety of lenses, but the bulk of our time was spent with the default 12-60mm kit lens. Many companies skimp when it comes to the default lens, but Olympus has done no such thing; this lens performed extremely well. There were no chromatic aberration issues and no haloing even in high contrast areas (a problem many cheaper lenses exhibit). There was some minor barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens, but it wasn't problematic in most situations. You should also note that as this camera uses the four thirds system, it is not only compatible with regular Olympus lenses but also those produced by other four thirds manufacturers, notably Panasonic and the lens giant Sigma.
Pictures were crisp and sharp as you'd expect from a high-end SLR. We made several large prints of our shots and they turned out beautifully. We still give the edge to the EOS 40D in some situations, as we did encounter some minor softness and loss of detail at large magnifications, but for the most part the E-3's images impressed.
Colour balance tended slightly towards over-saturation, particularly in reds and blues, but it wasn't nearly as bad as we've seen on some competing units and many people prefer a strongly saturated shot. In general, we were pleased with the colour reproduction, particularly in our outdoor shots, which achieved a great balance between blue skies and green foliage.
Noise was also not an issue up to ISO 800. Our shots were clean and speckle-free. It wasn't until we took it up to ISO 1600 that we began to spot some chroma noise, but even shooting at the maximum sensitivity of ISO 3200 produced pictures we wouldn't mind using for small prints. The E-3's high sensitivity performance was as impressive as we've seen on any SLR to date.
Speed wise, the E-3 is an excellent performer. It isn't just the auto focus that has received a tune up. The processor is now capable of snapping a very speedy five frames per second. Again this isn't quite up there with the likes of the EOS 40D, but it is close and five frames per second will be more than adequate for many users. There was no shutter lag to speak of and the camera is up and ready the instant you power it up.
Another excellent inclusion is the full frame viewfinder. Unlike most competing models that only offer 95 per cent coverage or less, the E-3's viewfinder displays the full 100 per cent of a frame. It also has the advantage of being considerably larger than most, making the user experience a lot more enjoyable.
Of course with Olympus SLRs you don't have to use the viewfinder if you don't wish to. Their live view technology allows you to frame those difficult angle shots with ease. This time around the screen is on a hinge, so it can be flipped out and rotated to suit your needs. While there is a short delay when auto focusing with live view switched on, it is still very useful in a variety of situations.
The feature set is, as you'd expect, quite robust. The new 49-zone metering sensor offers great exposure adjustment, while the ability to synchronise with up to three wireless flashes will be a big boon for those who regularly shoot portraits. You can sync with the flashes up to a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, which is more than adequate for most situations. ISO sensitivities extend to ISO 3200 and shutter speeds go from 60 seconds to 1/8000th of a second.
One thing experienced SLR users will instantly notice is the unit's design. Built from a magnesium shell, the E-3 feels extremely solid. It sits nicely in the hands, and although the two scroll wheels could be arranged slightly more comfortably, the overall control layout is very intuitive. The body is also splash proof and as we watched someone poor a jug of water over the camera and then have it keep on going straight away, we can definitely attest to how effective this is.
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