Olympus E-3: Initial Impressions

Well, Canon did as predicted at Photokina: finally producing the Canon 5D Mark II and pretty much fulfilling expectations if not hopes. Much more resolution. A bigger, better screen. Supposedly better high ISO performance. The downsides: the autofocus system has been left untouched. Weather sealing is perfunctory: enough to put it on the brochure, but not enough to give anyone confidence to risk a $2700 USD camera in the rain or at the beach. I’ll get one, for sure. For landscapes and portraits it is, on paper at least, the top of the leader-board. But, alas, the handicapped and antiquated autofocus system and its continued vulnerability to the elements means that it cannot be a one-stop solution for all my photographic needs.

Step up to the plate: an Olympus E-3. Sporting a sensor only half the size of the 5D Mark II and a relatively paltry 10 megapixels, it has something that other four-thirds cameras do not: probably the best weather sealing on the market (of any camera), a brilliantly fast autofocus system, and a decidedly large viewfinder. The smaller sensor means that the focal length of a lens needs to be multiplied by 2 to give its equivalent length on a camera with a full-frame 35 mm sensor such as the Canon 5D Mark II. Thus, a 50-200 mm f2.8-3.5 lens is the equivalent of a 100-400 f2.8-3.5 lens used on a 5D: a definite plus for things like wildlife photography. In addition, the E-3 comes with image stabilisation built into the camera body. Sounds good so far – but how did it pan out in the flesh so to speak.

I’ve had the E-3 for less than two days, so this is simply a record of my immediate impressions.

First: it’s quite big. Solid. In the same ballpark as a Canon 50D or 5D Mark II. No weight advantage there. It’s in the lenses where the four-thirds system provides less bulk for a similar reach and aperture. I’d read all sorts of nonsense about how the E-3 was an abomination of a design, so I was pleasantly surprized with how comfortable it was in my hands. On hand I had a Canon 20D and a Leica Digilux 3 to compare: the E-3 felt better than the Canon, and only a masochist like myself could say they even enjoyed holding the ergonomically-challenged Leica. There has also been much written about the location of all the buttons on the E-3 that provide direct access to just about every facet of the camera. After just a few hours use, I don’t think it is fair for me to comment too much on how intuitive the camera may or may not become to operate, but I will say this: I don’t find it awkward to reach and operate most of the buttons even when keeping my eye to the viewfinder. I have big hands and the location of the buttons and dials has not been an issue for me yet.

Compared to other four-thirds cameras the viewfinder is in a league of its own and, were all other things equal, it would still be reason enough for four-thirds users to upgrade to an E-3. I haven’t as yet had cause to put the weather-sealing to any sort of test, but the rugged nature of the camera’s construction really inspires confidence: this is not a camera you feel inclined to treat with kid gloves, like I do the Leica.

The dynamic range seems fine. If anything the Olympus metering is somewhat conservative, so there is seldom any risk of blowing highlights and, unlike other cameras I’ve used of late, I have only had one occasion where I had to dial in compensation to keep the histogram within the margins where the highlights were not clipped. I hear a lot of talk about Olympus colours on the boards, and while I don’t doubt that in a digital medium like this you should be able to get the outputs from various camera manufacturers to match each other with the right amount of tweaking, the fact is that colours output directly from the camera tend to look better to my eye from the Olympus E-3 compared to those from Canon (note: the Leica is more similar to the E-3, which may stem from the sensors of both originating from Panasonic if I am not mistaken).

Focusing with the Olympus 12-60 f2.8-4 SWD lens is superfast and it nails focus first time in most instances. The Olympus 50-200 f2.8-3.5 SWD lens is also very fast to focus and is so sharp that it should probably be registered as a lethal weapon. The combined bulk of those two lenses and the E-3 is considerably less than that of a Canon 20D with the Canon 24-104 IS and Canon 100-400 IS.

A terrific start. So where’s the downside you ask? Well, I’m not really a high ISO shooter. I most often shoot at 100 or 200 ISO. I haven’t put the E-3 through its paces in this regard, but the shots I took at ISO 800 indicate that while the E-3 produces passable results in this arena, it is no match for a Canon 5D and probably not a 50D either (which, ironically, with its 15+ megapixels is not too far off the E-3 when it comes to the size or pitch of individuals pixels on the sensor): so that noise at high ISO is not the E-3’s strength, even if it is not the achilles heel that others would make it out to be either.

In-camera image stabalization (IS) sounds like a wonderful attribute – and it is – reducing the likelihood and extent of motion blur with all lenses that are attached to the camera. But this is what I’ve discovered so far.
1. The claims made by Olympus for its in-body IS of a 4-5 stop advantage are ludicrous.
2. In-lens stabalization is superior to in-camera stabalization.

My guess is that the E-3 buys you about 1-2 stops of hand-holdability over a non-stabalized lens. Whereas, good in-lens stabalization will get you an extra stop or so in addition. I was able to confirm this using the Leica 14-50 lens, which is optically stabalized. Whether mounted on the E-3 or D3 it consistently took photographs less affected by camera shake than that of the Olympus 12-60 when using the in-camera IS. To test this further, I mounted the Leica 14-50 on the E-3 and used the camera’s IS with the in-lens IS turned off. Even the best of the resulting images were worse than any of the images obtained when using in-lens IS. In-camera IS seems a lot more variable in its results than in-lens IS.

Olympus E3 with IS turned off using Leica 14-50 lens with IS turned on

Olympus E-3 with IS turned on using Leica 14-50 with IS turned off

Best of in-lens IS left (f4 1/13sec), best of in-camera IS right (f3.5 1/20sec)

In-lens IS at same settings (f3.5 1/20sec) as in-camera IS above right

Resolution-wise: in real world usage there is not much extra detail in photographs from a 10 megapixel camera (like the E-3 or Canon 40D) compared to the 8 megapixels of the Canon 20D or even the 7.5 megapixels of the Digilux 3. Don’t expect to see worlds that you could not see before. The E-3 is much more about the “ease” of seeing photographic opportunities and being able to record them in the way you wish than it is about the resolution in a single image. It’s too early for me to say yet with confidence: but my initial impressions are very positive. This is a camera that is about being a tool. It’s not just concerned with the ends, but the means of getting there.