Olympus E-3 Overview
by Shawn Barnett
Update: 11/15/2007 Full test results and analysis posted. Look for the full review by the end of the month.
Update: 11/17/2007 Shutter lag data updated to account for "finger detector" in shutter button, see performance tab.
Update: 12/06/2007 Added index to RAW files! Click on the RAW File Index subtab under the Exposure tab.
Update: 12/22/2007 Added Imatest results! Click on the Imatest Results subtab under the Exposure tab.
Olympus has finally announced their long-awaited flagship DSLR camera, the E-3. Billed as a pure pro camera, the Olympus E-3 is really more comparable to the cameras by Olympus's competitors that we've been categorizing as semi-pro, such as the Pentax K10D, Canon 40D, and Nikon D200. Whatever you call it though, there's no question that the new E-3 represents a sizable leap forward in technology and sophistication for the Olympus SLR line.
With the E-3, Olympus introduces their first new autofocus sensor in years: an 11-point array, each point consisting of twin cross-type AF sensors. They're claiming this is the fastest AF system on the market. Combined with greater 1.15x magnification in the E-3's viewfinder, framing and focusing with this Four-Thirds camera is a lot easier than past Olympus models.
A new shutter mechanism in the Olympus E-3 delivers 1/8,000 second speed, and 1/250 flash sync, and an expected lifetime of 150,000 cycles. Mirror blackout time is also said to be low, but there are no official numbers yet. Three dedicated processors handle three separate functions: one for image stabilization, one for autofocus, and the TruePic III for image processing. A UDMA-compatible CompactFlash slot promises fast write times, and the additional xD-Picture Card slot adds extra storage.
Body-based image stabilization is built into the Olympus E-3, taking advantage of the company's Supersonic Wave Drive motor technology to drive the anti-shake system. A separate motor drives the Supersonic Wave Filter to remove dust.
Though the Olympus E-3 has a 10-megapixel sensor like the E-510 and E-410, the new sensor has been improved to support the faster read speed to help enable five-frame-per-second continuous shooting. Metering options include 49-zone ESP metering, Spot, Center-weighted, and a new Highlight/Shadow spot metering mode.
Another major highlight to the Olympus E-3 is the articulating LCD on the camera back, which makes Live View mode so much more valuable. It's not the first such design to appear on a digital SLR, that distinction goes to the Panasonic Lumix L10, Olympus's Four-Thirds partner, but it's an incredibly versatile design, with the ability to face up down, left, right, and even forward, toward the subject.
Built on a magnesium alloy frame the Olympus E-3 feels solid, and is sealed against dust and splashes. Connections include a USB 2.0 high-speed jack, an AC power jack, video out, remote control, and an x-sync terminal. The introduction also includes five new optics and two new flashes that can be remote controlled from the Olympus E-3's onboard flash in three groups. A new battery grip works with the E-3 to double capacity, and duplicate key controls for vertical shooting.
The E-3 is exactly the camera Olympus needs to break into this prosumer SLR market, which is already dominated by Canon and Nikon, with Pentax, Sony, and Panasonic starting to fill in the gaps. Expected to retail for about $1,700, the Olympus E-3 is slated to ship in November 2007.
Olympus E-3 Hands-On Preview
by Shawn Barnett
Look and feel. Aimed squarely at the Nikon D300 and Canon 40D, it's no surprise that the Olympus E-3 is big and teeming with buttons and controls. Its overall feel is very tight, solid, hefty, and well-thought-out. It is easily the finest experience I've had with an Olympus SLR, and probably the best Live View experience I've had with any SLR to date.
The Olympus E-3's large pentaprism protrudes proudly above its sloping shoulders, just a bit higher than its competitors. Inside is a real glass pentaprism that's bigger and brighter than any Olympus has offered on its Four-thirds cameras. Its 1.15x viewfinder is big and bright, appearing just slightly larger than the Canon 40D, despite the E-3's smaller sensor size.
The Olympus E-3's viewfinder status display runs along the bottom, not off to the right as on the E-410 and E-510. It's still a little tight to see all of the frame plus the status display with my glasses on, but there's a nice big rubber eyepiece protector to prevent my glasses from scratching.
The Olympus E-3's grip is very comfortable, shaped a little differently from the E-510, a little less aggressive on the forward curve, which gives the middle finger a more confident grip overall. It's also a little fatter and contoured, with a nice, tacky rubber surface for excellent traction.
Though it looks a little high in pictures, the Olympus E-3's shutter button is in just the right position when I grip the camera, with a nice finger well to guide me to the button. On the rear, the thumb grip is so comfortable it's easy to forget it's a grip at all. Function and AF-point selection buttons are nearby, but not easy to press accidentally.
Olympus has moved the Olympus E-3's Main Dial on the back relative to the more recent models, but this is indeed where it's located on the Olympus E-1, so they stuck with what upgrading E-1 owners will be used to. Also, both the E-410 and E-510 had no monochrome status display on the top deck, so there was room for a top-mounted Main Dial. The Olympus E-3's dial does not have as good a feel as the metallic dial on the E-510, but it does have good, firm detents. The same goes for the Sub-dial on the front of the Olympus E-3's grip.
Speaking of dials, there's no Mode Dial on the Olympus E-3, instead you press a button on the top deck, left of the pentaprism, and roll the Main or Sub-dial, while changes appear on the Status display.
The E-3's four-way navigator, which Olympus calls an Arrow pad, is well-positioned for easy access, and it's even angled a bit toward the right to accommodate the thumb's angle of attack. Other buttons on the back and top are clearly marked for easy comprehension. The Olympus E-3's rear LCD also serves as a Status display whose settings are accessible via a press of the center OK button.
The Olympus E-3's Power switch is located in a familiar place for Canon prosumer SLR owners, just off the lower right corner of the LCD display.
Opening the Olympus E-3's Card cover is awkward at first, but if you just rock the camera to the left and hold it in your left hand, a simple upward flip of the right thumb moves the release lever and the door pops open to reveal not only a CF card slot, but an xD-Picture Card slot as well.
Build. The Olympus E-3's body is a die-cast magnesium alloy whose two shells pretty well completely enclose the E-3 for a very solid feel. Olympus says they use a Thixomold process to make these shells, a method that promises greater durability, with less potential for bubbles or seams in the magnesium alloy shell structures. We don't know whether other manufacturers do the same, but this low-temperature technique is one of three major methods to cast this increasingly popular metal, and is supposed to give better crystalline structure to the material than the more common hot die-cast method.
Without a lens, but with a battery and a CF memory card, the Olympus E-3 preproduction camera weighs just under two pounds (1.97 pounds), or 31.6 ounces (896 grams). Add a lens, and the E-3 is hefty, but it's a good heft. It is a lot of body for a Four-Thirds sensor, but regardless of sensor size, I prefer some substance in an SLR. For comparison, the Canon 40D weighs 1.86 pounds, or 29.8 ounces (844 grams) with card and battery, and the Nikon D300 weighs 1.8 pounds (825 grams) without battery and card.
The body of the Olympus E-3 is sealed against dust and water, even the flash and swiveling LCD. Technically, the body is splashproof, not fully waterproof.
Size comparison: Olympus E-3 vs Canon EOS 40D
Multi-point AF. Olympus has had a three-point autofocus system since way back in the film days with the Olympus IS-1 ZLR. That's finally changed, and in no small way, as the E-3 has an 11-point autofocus system. Each of those points is a twin cross-type for greater accuracy across the frame, and greater accuracy at each point. 11 small squares are arrayed across the frame, looking very similar to Canon's AF-indicators, and they light when a given point is in focus.
You can select focus points manually, let the Olympus E-3 do the picking, or confine the pattern to a group of four to five AF points across the array, and again let the camera do the selection from those points. Changing among these three modes is the only difficult part, as you have to use your thumb to press and hold the AF area button on the back and use the Sub-dial on the front to choose.
You can also set the E-3's autofocus sensitivity to the sensor's full width (Normal), or confine the focus to consider only the area inside each AF box for greater precision.
In use, I found the AF system on the prototype we saw to be pretty reliable, and though it sometimes took its time deciding where to focus, it fairly zipped into focus once the decision was made, thanks to the SuperSonic Wave Drive motor on the new 12-60mm lens. This of course was a prototype, so the finished Olympus E-3 could very well be faster at the decision-making aspect. Olympus says they will be calling their AF system the fastest on the market, so we'll be interested to run the production version through our tests.
Articulating LCD. While having a live LCD view can be useful for taking shots from odd angles, its value is not complete without a display that can turn to face you from at least a few of those angles. The Olympus E-3's LCD looks rather military-grade, but feels a little lighter than I expected. You have to insert your left thumb into the relief on the right of the LCD and give it a good tug to release the frame from the locking cam down inside. Then it articulates pretty much like we've seen on most Canon-style swivel-screens. You can view it from in front of the Olympus E-3, from the left or right, and from above and below, and you can fold it in toward the camera to protect it. The hinge is just a little loose, but again, this is a prototype camera, so we'll reserve judgment.
There's an Illumination sensor in the upper left corner of the Olympus E-3's LCD that can be set to dim or brighten the LCD automatically depending on the ambient light.
Live View. All 11 AF points appear in the Olympus E-3's Live View mode, and light up very similar to how they do in the optical viewfinder, except that the whole dot illuminates. There's not much else new to Live View, it works just like the E-510, except that there are more autofocus points. You can still preview the exposure, white balance, and depth-of-field accurately on the screen, a major benefit to Live View, and there's a new Shadow Adjustment Technology that helps you assure that you'll maintain detail in the shadows.
To focus when in Live View mode, you have to press the AEL/AFL button, or just press the shutter release and the Olympus E-3 will focus before it captures the image. As is true with all Live View SLRs, there's significant shutter lag, but that's the price of the feature at this point. Though the E-3 by default re-focuses whether you've pre-focused with the AEL/AFL button or not, you can set it Release Priority S or C and it won't attempt to refocus. There will still be some delay as the Olympus E-3 re-checks exposure, but not nearly as long or as random as it can be while the camera tries to focus.
Finally, you still have to close the Olympus E-3's optical viewfinder's shutter when enabling Live View to prevent stray light from affecting the exposure. I submit that they should have either built-in an electronic viewfinder shutter that closes automatically, or let the shutter-close switch also activate Live View.
Shutter. Shooting with the Olympus E-3 was a great experience. The shutter is very quiet, with no buzzing or winding like many other cameras do, including the E-410 and E-510. Viewfinder blackout is brief enough that you can stay on your subject.
The Olympus E-3's new mechanism can deliver up to 1/8,000 second shutter speed, and can actually stick with you for up to 60 seconds on long exposures, twice as long as the usual 30 seconds. X-sync is up to 1/250 second, and FP mode can sync up to 1/8,000 second.
Flash. Which brings us to Olympus's new flash system. Two revised strobes, based on the existing flashes, will allow the Olympus E-3's built-in flash to wirelessly control the new FL-50R and FL-36R strobes. The new RC Data Transfer System built into the E-3 allows the built-in strobe to control up to three groups of RC flashes inside a 120 degree area in front of the camera without requiring an separate on-camera commander unit.
At right you can see the Olympus E-3's on-camera commander screen, which seems to allow the E-3 comprehensive control options.
Sensor. Though it's still a 10-megapixel sensor, Olympus says that the E-3 uses a newly developed Live MOS sensor. The two major changes include less space between the microlens array and the light sensitive area, and a faster readout speed to help enable five-frame-per-second shooting.
Meter. Information from the Olympus E-3's new 49-zone metering sensor is paired with data from the autofocus sensors, according to the company. It's part of a revised ESP algorithm.
A 2% spot meter is also available on the Olympus E-3, marked by the circle in the center of the viewfinder frame. Of course there's also Center-weighted average metering. A new Highlight/Shadow metering mode biases exposure to maintain either shadow or highlight detail. Details on this mode were not available as of this writing.
Dust Reduction. Like all Olympus SLRs, the E-3 has the company's Super Sonic Wave Filter, which shakes the sensor's cover glass at more than 30,000 times per second. There appears to be nothing new here. Be aware that no current dust reduction technology can completely remove dust from a sensor, but Olympus's system is quite good.
Battery pack. An optional battery pack/vertical grip is available for the Olympus E-3 as well, the HLD-4. The pack duplicates the Function and AF-selection button, the Main dial, the Sub-dial, and the shutter button. It takes two BLM-1 lithium-ion batteries, and also comes with an AA battery holder for alternate power. It uses a tower that goes up into the E-3's battery socket, so it only doubles the Olympus E-3's capacity. There's also a grip strap available, as shown at left.
Lenses. Four new lenses and a 2.0x teleconverter were also announced with the Olympus E-3: the Zuiko 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD; the Zuiko 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD; the Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 SWD; and the Zuiko 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6. The first three three use Olympus's new Supersonic Wave Drive focusing motor, which the company calls the "World's quickest."
We were able to try Olympus E-3 with the Zuiko 12-60mm SWD, which offers the equivalent of a 24-120mm lens, and were impressed. We haven't tested its optical quality, but its feel and focusing speed were quite good. I've used a lot of autofocus SLRs over the past 20 years, and this may be the fastest I've seen. That's just a sense, though, so we'll have to try to figure out a way to either compare or test this when we get the shipping unit.
Analysis. The Olympus E-3 is by far the most advanced Olympus digital camera I've used, very satisfying to shoot with, and one of the more compelling SLRs launched this season. Its design, though big, is ergonomically pleasing and handsome, and it gives you a feel of confidence and control. The E-3's build matches the sturdy feel of Olympus's high-end lenses, which are some of the tightest we've seen.
At this point we can't comment on image quality, because what we saw wasn't final, but overall mechanical performance was quite good.
The Olympus E-3 is expected to ship in November 2007, at an estimated street price of US$1,699, body-only.