Written by Gordon Laing
The Olympus E-3 is the flagship DSLR of the Four Thirds standard. Officially announced in October 2007, it comes four and a half years after its predecessor, the E-1. The original E-1 was the camera which launched the Four Thirds standard back in mid 2003, and it’s fair to say it’s been looking more than a little long in the tooth compared to rivals.
Olympus recognised this and certainly hasn’t been shy about talking-up a successor, with prototypes shown as long ago as Photokina 2006. After numerous leaks and official previews, there’s actually not many surprises about the E-3’s final specifications, but as you’d expect given the gap between it and the E-1, it’s a significantly more powerful camera in every respect, while also managing to address many of the criticisms of the Four Thirds standard to date.
The resolution has unsurprisingly increased from the E-1’s 5 Megapixels, although the E-3’s 10.1 Megapixels may not be as high as many had hoped for given the price. But it’s important to note this is not the same sensor as found in the entry-level E-410 and E-510 models – the E-3 employs a new design to support faster 5fps continuous shooting, and the fastest shutter is 1/8000; the highest sensitivity is 3200 ISO. Like the consumer Olympus DSLRs, the E-3 also supports Live View.
Following on from the E-510, the E-3 features built-in stabilisation by physically shifting its sensor. Olympus makes big claims of up to five stops of compensation, and this is something we’ll be testing in this review. The camera of course also employs Olympus’ SuperSonic Wave Filter (SSWF) system to combat dust, which in our tests with earlier E-Series DSLRs has proven the most effective system to date.
Until now, all Olympus’s DSLRs employed a fairly basic three-point AF system which while acceptable on budget models, was a weak point for a higher-end camera. Thankfully the E-3 now features a brand new 11-point AF system. All 11 points are fully biaxial and Olympus claims it’s actually the world’s fastest AF system when used in conjunction with the ED 12-60mm 1:2.8-4.0 SWD lens.
Composition is a highlight on the E-3. The optical viewfinders on Four Thirds DSLRs have always appeared smaller than rival cameras, but with the E-3, Olympus has pulled out all the stops with a large penta-prism to deliver 1.15x magnification and an impressive 100% coverage.
We’ve long-known from various previews the E-3 would feature a fully-articulated flip-out screen, but it’s still a joy to find it round the back. It’s a 2.5in 230k model which can flip to any angle including facing the photographer. This makes the E-3’s Live View facilities that more useful, although it’s interesting to note the camera doesn’t support contrast-based AF in Live View – so there’ll still be the usual delay as the camera flips the mirror down and up again to take a reading.
Physically speaking the E-3 is also very tough, sporting a magnesium alloy body and environmental sealings which make it both splash and dust-proof.
So with the E-3 Olympus has addressed several criticisms against the Four Thirds system. The viewfinder is much larger than previous models and also delivers 100% coverage. The 3-point AF system has also been replaced by a new 11-point system which with the right lens claims to be the world’s fastest. And Live View has been made much more useful with a fully articulated screen.
It’s certainly an impressive specification, but up against very tough rivals in the form of Canon’s EOS 40D, Nikon’s D300 and Sony’s A700. The Canon and Sony are priced noticeably lower and while the Nikon costs roughly the same, it offers one of the most powerful feature-sets on the market today.
So while Olympus has pulled-out all the stops for the E-3, is it sufficient in today’s highly competitive semi-pro market? Find out in our Olympus E-3 review where we’ll compare it against these key rivals and see how its features weigh-up. And as always, for a demonstration of its key features, check out our Olympus E-3 video tour.
We tested a final-production Olympus E-3, running firmware version 1.1. Following our convention of testing cameras using their factory default settings unless otherwise stated, the E-3 was set to Large Fine JPEG quality, Auto White Balance, ESP with AF metering and with the Natural Picture Mode and Normal Graduation; Noise Reduction and the Noise Filter were set to their ON and STD settings respectively. In-camera IS was enabled for handheld shots and disabled for tripod-based compositions.