The long-awaited Olympus E-3 is the flagship model in the company's E-Series range of dSLRs. The E-3 boasts live view and assorted features in a dust and splash-proof body. With its lacklustre 10 megapixels and average-sized screen, we wondered if the £1,500 E-3 was already all washed up when compared to the competition.
The magnesium-alloy body is reinforced with weatherproof seals to keep out dust and splashes. It feels heavy compared to other dSLRs, seeming to us weightier than the Nikon D300 while still being more compact. The E-Series also is built around the Four Thirds lens standard, which means that lenses made by other manufacturers such as Panasonic and Sigma are compatible.
Despite a wealth of controls, we find the E-3 had a friendly learning curve. Most functions are controlled by two dials at the front and back of the chunky right hand-grip. This allows the forefinger to control aperture with the front wheel and the thumb to control shutter speed at the back.
Holding down any of the other buttons modifies the dials so they alter settings like white balance, ISO sensitivity, flash or focus and program modes. The multi-button combinations were no problem for our fingers, but we found the thumbwheel was placed a little far to the left, so we recommend a thorough hands-on test if you're considering a purchase.
The viewfinder is large and clear, with 100 per cent of the frame in view. A viewfinder shield can be clicked into place to prevent light leaking when switching to live view.
Olympus pioneered the live view technology, and despite a slightly annoying reminder to close the shield, the E-3 boasts one of the best implementations of the concept we've seen. Image stabilisation and depth of field can be previewed onscreen. Like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, the screen flips out camcorder-style and can be angled or hidden away completely.
The E-3 is topped off with an accessory shoe and a pop-up flash, although there are a couple of quirks to its operation. You have to manually open the flash hood even in automatic flash mode, and instead of a dedicated focus assist lamp for low light the flash strobes somewhat intrusively.
Compared to other professional dSLRs, the E-3's 10-megapixel MOS sensor seems weedy. But the E-3 packs in plenty of features within easy reach of the straightforward control system.
Settings are viewed via a small LCD status display on the right shoulder. The untrained eye will need a while to get used to the mass of figures without much explanation, but with a bit of practise, the screen makes a handy quick reference.
The 'Super Control Panel' on the main screen is easier to use if you are ready to take the camera away from your eye, as it shows what each setting is. You navigate around the shooting options with the D-pad, and use the dials to change settings.
There are two customisable 'My Mode' options. When you have the camera configured as required, you register the settings to one of these custom modes. Holding down the 'Fn' button will then default to one of these custom modes regardless of how the camera is currently set up. It could be easier, however, to switch between the two My Modes.
As well as sensor-shifting image stabilisation, there is a function to stabilise the camera vertically when panning in order to achieve pleasing motion blur in the background. This can be previewed on the live view screen. Live view also allows 7x or 10x magnification for carefully checking focus, while up to 14x magnification is available in playback mode.
Other features include an orientation sensor, maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second and a dust reduction system.
The E-3 starts up and is ready to shoot in less than 1.5 seconds. Shot-to-shot time is better, focusing and shooting in 0.3 seconds and 0.6 seconds.
Olympus claims the E-3 will capture 5 frames per second, and although we didn't manage that, we were able to produce a lightning fast 4.5 fps with a Kingston CompactFlash card. The camera kept this formidable pace up for 30 seconds before slowing slightly, but even then it kept snapping at a dignified clip and showed no sign of stopping until space on the 1GB card ran out.
Higher-end models may be faster, as with the Canon EOS-1D Mark III's 10fps, but the E-3 really impressed us with its unstoppable ability to keep blasting away without drawing breath -- and at full resolution no less. The E-3 will even capture up to 19 raw images in one burst, which is more than enough for us.We found the E-3 produced images of excellent quality. Colours are particularly good, both accurately reproduced and vibrant. White balance is capable, and noise reduction manages not to smear images while noise is itself unobtrusive.
Battery life is also good, with a single charge coping with more than 500 test shots, although heavy use of live view will eat into that.
The Olympus E-3 is a truly excellent camera. Straightforward controls, accessible control panels, a compact frame and feature-rich live view make this a more consumer-friendly camera than the price would suggest. Meanwhile excellent image quality, a clever feature set and unstoppable burst shooting are attractive to the professional and prosumer market.
It took a lot to shake the nagging feeling that the delayed E-3 has already been left behind by other cameras like the Nikon D300 or Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 with their bigger screens and 12 megapixels, but in terms of usability and picture quality the E-3 more than holds its own.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday