Olympus E-3 DSLR camera review

4.5 out of 5
£1099

For

Excellent image quality, good ergonomics and build, menu system, comprehensive feature set and customisability, super control panel, top plate display, responsive, good dust reduction system, great weather sealing

Against

Fastest focus rate only available with Olympus’ Super Sonic Wave drive lenses, bulky for its class but particularly for a FourThirds Format camera! Cramped top plate buttons, not much headroom in RAW files, complex menus

Olympus’ E-3 is the company’s flagship DSLR and provides a professional level of build and specification at a semi-professional price point. The first thing about the camera you notice however is its bulk.

The magnesium alloy body weighs in at 810g body only and its size means it’s a bit of handful. And this is slightly at odds with the FourThirds System "advantage", i.e., smaller, less heavy, cameras.

Not so here, as the E-3 is as big as if not larger than a lot of cameras in its class from Canon, Pentax, Sony and Nikon, but it does provide a good level of environmental sealing. So, while it may be rather bulky, it is a go anywhere camera if you’re up for dragging the thing around with you be it rain, shine, or even in a dusty environment.

Olympus’ famed dust reduction system is built-in too and is effective indeed, probably the best dust reduction system of any camera currently on the market. For those not in the know, the FourThirds System Format uses a 4/3rd format sensor that has enabled more compact (yeah right!) designs of DSLR to be built but significantly it also allows lenses to be much smaller for equivalent focal lengths and aperture ranges.

Olympus’ FourThirds Format system is now maturing nicely, with a range of DSLRs from mid-range compact bodies such as the E-420 and E-520 to this, the E-3. And so, what does the E-3 offer in terms of specification and shooting tools?

For a start, if used with Olympus’ latest Super Sonic Wave Drive lenses you get a claimed "World’s fastest focusing" speed, with more standard lenses however, the focusing, while not sluggish, is average for a camera at this level.

A new bi-axial high speed, 11-zone AF set-up provides 44 focus data points and is a vast improvement over the three zone AF set-ups used on all other Olympus DSLRs since the E-1. It’s very accurate too although the auto AF selection system is a lot less so if left to its own devices.

In fact, that sums this camera up nicely, since it has so much in the way of advanced snapping equipment and a stunning level of customisability that while it can be left to its own devices, the camera is much better when you take control of the reins.

For example, completely customisable white balance (WB) controls perform superbly when you apply the correct WB to the ambient lighting you’re shooting in. Turn on the auto white balance and then the system can falter, particularly indoors in mixed lighting.

Alongside the accomplished focusing performance sits a superb 49-zone TTL metering system that works extremely well overall but also provides centre-weighted and spot modes, each helping tame hard to meter subjects or when shooting portraits for example.

However, and just like its smaller E-series siblings, there are dual high and low key metering modes designed to get the best from those respective lighting "looks", but they can be a bit hit and miss to get right but it’s good to have these extra creative options to hand if you need them. I found the high key mode useful for some wedding shots I took providing a great high key look to some images of the happy bride.

In terms of handling the relative bulk of the camera is somewhat compounded by a seemingly confusing array of buttons and controls. However, the apparent randomness of the control layout belies the use of the camera with key buttons for auto exposure and AF lock set within easy reach of your thumb on the top of the back plate. It sits next to another button the "Fn" (incidentally my favourite button, if there is such a thing) that is customisable to give you fast control over specific controls, in my case using it to control the depth of field preview.

Other options include switching between underwater modes (!), off, My Mode (one of the customisable user settings, so you get a custom mode within a custom setting) test picture mode (without saving), fast switching between P, A, S and M shooting modes, switching between quality (including RAW and RAW+JPEG) modes or focus modes.

It can also provide a fast "home" position for the active AF areas or one touch WB, for fast and accurate WB settings. You can also set it to provide the depth of field preview via the Live View which, cleverly, activates the Live View on the camera’s LCD, stops down to the set aperture and gives you a larger way to assess depth of field, something that I found particularly useful when shooting using Olympus’ F/2 50mm macro lens.

Despite this, the (optical) pentaprism viewfinder is big and bright, the best in fact (as you’d expect as the flagship camera) of the E-series and it is as good as any of the APS-C equipped sensor competitors out there at the moment. It’s also easy to use for depth of field assessment but the Live View version allows better viewing when tripod mounted or if you’ve got the camera setup at an angle too awkward to easily see through the viewfinder.

The screen also provides Olympus’ Super Control Panel functions, where you can scroll around the comprehensive shooting settings displayed on it, allowing you to activate and change said settings without having to dip into deeper menus. The four-way jog buttons and their central "OK" button provide scrolling and activating options, although you can also scroll via the rear control dial that sits just right of the viewfinder.

Across the bottom of the screen are the menu, display, delete and info toggle buttons while the AF point selector, playback, image stabilisation, on/off switch and memory card port opening switch make up the rest of the back plate controls.

Even though the Super Control Panel provides comprehensive control and support, you still get an excellent "traditional" top plate (and backlit) data LCD, this sits alongside a disappointingly fiddly to use ISO direct select button and exposure compensation buttons, The direct WB button is also a bit fiddly as it requires a good finger stretch to get to it from the shutter button.

Nevertheless, the lack of a mode dial means you have the space for the data LCD but also means you need to use another button, the Mode button, to switch between the Program, Shutter and Aperture priority modes and the fully Manual mode. This sits to the left of the pentaprism hump with its built-in pop-up flash unit along with a flash mode button and focus mode button.

Anyway, you get the idea. All these buttons mean if you’re not familiar with Olympus DSLRs, it can take awhile to familiarise yourself with the camera’s controls and you’ll need to dip in and out of the manual occasionally too perhaps. But used to the camera’s control layout, it’s actually less daunting that it first appears.

However, the level of customisation available to you is something that can be very daunting indeed. "If it can be adjusted, make sure it is adjustable" seems to be the ethos behind the camera and so when you delve into the menus you get no less than 46 custom menu options, each option with its own sub-set of adjustable modes or menus.

Getting to grips with the level of control is the major task on the E-3, be it fine-tuning the WB, the compression used in JPEG capture, how the AF behaves or, perhaps have the manual focus ring turn clockwise or anti clockwise depending on your proclivity. Nevertheless, it provides a supreme level of control that once you have got to grips with means you have almost peerless command of how your images are captured.

So, while handling might be a bit of challenge (at first) the camera’s build is excellent with environmental seals for almost any climate or conditions be it raining or very dusty so using outdoors (assuming you have the pro level lenses with equivalent protection) even in the wind and rain is not a problem.

And so, what of the image quality? I’m happy to report it’s excellent; colour reproduction is superbly natural, in fact probably the best I’ve seen at this level. WB is a little less accomplished, the auto mode sometimes getting its knickers in a twist in mixed lighting indoors. However, the JPEG quality is good with a Super Fine (another custom option this, by the way) available for superbly detailed images.

Noise is the only issue but only above ISO 800 where it is visible within shadows. Up to ISO 1600 things aren’t too bad but at the top ISO 3200 setting noise is nothing like what you’d expect from a camera of this price and simply cannot compete with some of the full frame DSLR competition from Nikon and Canon in that regard.

Verdict

The E-3 provides a level of control and build usually only available on professional level DSLRs but it lacks the panache of some of the fully professional models available - but then it is much less expensive. Whether or not this is camera that will make you jump ship if you’re already a Nikon or Canon owner is another question and one I believe the answer is harder to pin down.

Yes, the FourThirds format provides a more compact system as a whole, the E-3 is not that compact, so a trick may have been missed here, but even so the camera is an accomplished performer, available in a broad range of kit options and as such is well worth considering for the price.