By Eamon Hickey
For reasons partly explained in my earlier "preface" post on the E-3, I didn't get a chance to start shooting with the camera until early April. And because the E-3 began shipping last November, a fair number of comprehensive reviews of it have been published by now, so I don't see much to gain by duplicating those efforts. Instead, I'm going to ramble a bit and see where the discussion leads me. Back in 2003, I took a skeptical-but-hopeful early interest in the Four-Thirds system that Olympus launched that year with the E-1. I was attracted by its potential for smaller gear, and the idea of an open (or quasi-open) lens mount standard, as well as a desire to see an expansion in the number of manufacturers having success in the DSLR business. Ultimately, I ended up buying a refurbished (read: cheap) Olympus E-1, which I've used quite satisfactorily for a couple of years now. (I also own or have owned Canons, Nikons, and Pentaxes, and have reviewed and/or used 15-odd other DSLRs of all types.)
My dream for the E-1's successor, to the extent that I had one, was for a camera of similar build quality and basic capability level but shrunk by about twenty percent. Dashing my faint hopes, the E-3 turned out to be a little bigger than the E-1, but the obvious rejoinder to my irrational obsession with compactness is that Olympus has added a lot of good new stuff to the camera. This includes a big new viewfinder, in-camera image stabilization, and an articulated LCD (paired with Live View)—all in a body that is, by all accounts, quite weather resistant. As highly capable DSLRs go, the E-3 is not that big. But the same can basically be said of the Nikon D300, Canon 40D, and Pentax K20D. Still, if you add in the size and weight of good quality lenses, especially if you need telephoto focal lengths, it is possible to put together an advanced photographer's E-system kit that is a little bit lighter and less bulky than similarly capable gear from the Big Two. This remains for me a moderately attractive aspect of the E-system, but I've been disappointed that Olympus (or Panasonic, also a Four-Thirds DSLR maker) hasn't done more in this area. I'd love a camera the size of the Olympus E-420 but designed for a serious photographer. (I personally would not even consider buying a Canon 1-series or Nikon D-series behemoth, whose owners, in my firm opinion, should sue those two companies for aggravated assault. But it is undeniable that those cameras are in their own league in several ways and if you need them, you need them. And then you need a chiropractor.)
So, after unpacking it, I took the E-3 out for an initial getting-to-know-you walk around the East and West Village. (All of the pictures accompanying this post are from that first walk, taken on one of the few really nice evenings we've had in New York so far this year.) On the responsiveness front, the E-3 is more or less indistinguishable from similar DSLRs (such as those named above). It does stuff fast. Shutter response, image display and saving, buffer size, menu response, mode switching, autofocus (more on this later)—all those kinds of things are very responsive in this camera. I like responsive cameras a lot, so I don't mean to sound blasé about it, but really this is almost a given in an advanced DSLR at this point. The basic user interface is also pretty much the same as every other serious photographer's DSLR. I don't mean that the button placement and menu arrangement is identical—it obviously isn't—but the experience of operating these cameras is, overall, far more similar than different. This is really apparent if you test a lot of different models. And mostly, it's a good thing—the E-3, like its competitors, is efficient to use in nearly all ways. Bottom line is that on the overall user interface and responsiveness fronts, there's nothing that remarkable either way about the E-3, which is just fine.
In my first version of this post, I spent some time carping about the E-3's limited functionality in record review—i.e. when the picture you just took pops up on the LCD for review. If you were using, say, the histogram view in playback, you'll see the histogram view in record review, and you can't change it, nor can you delete the picture. I've subsequently learned that this default behavior can be changed, enabling full playback functionality in record review, including the ability to delete the shot you just took or change the display view (from histogram to highlight warning, for example). The setting that makes this change is a bit obscure and oddly described, and I think full playback functionality should be the default, but those are quibbles. I'm chagrined to have gotten this wrong in the first place.
The playback mode itself could use one major improvement. You press the "INFO" button to change from one view to the next—from histogram to highlight warning, say—but it operates only in a fixed-sequence loop. If you are viewing the highlight warning, you have to press the "INFO" button six times, looping through five views you don't care about, to get to the luminance histogram view. You should be able to toggle directly between the histogram and the highlight warning views. It's not the end of the world, but on the other hand, it's a small irritation, and causes a small delay, every single time you want to analyze an exposure, which, for me, is nearly every time I shoot a new scene. This is probably fixable with a firmware upgrade, and I hope Olympus does so, but really, by now—2008, for cripes sake!—it should be an elementary component of digital camera design. (Nikon's D300, for example, gets all this exactly right.)
I'm guessing here, but things like this make me wonder how much the legacy of film camera thinking hampers the designers of these cameras. But just to undermine my own theory, I'll give Olympus credit for going some way towards understanding that the camera's ISO setting, in the digital era, really should be treated like shutter speed and aperture—i.e. as a setting that you might want to be able to change quickly from shot to shot. I would, in fact, consider adding a third control wheel to any serious camera I was designing, so that you could have direct control of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in manual exposure mode. On the E-3, the button to change ISO is right behind the shutter release, as easily accessible to your right forefinger as the exposure compensation control, so you can change ISO very quickly, even with your eye to the viewfinder. Nikon's D300, which I praised above for its good digitalness, flubs this by default, sticking ISO over on the left top-deck, where it's harder to change from shot-to-shot. Puzzling, sometimes, the way these guys think.
Since I'm on the topic of digitalness, I'll quickly mention two of the E-3's major digital-enabled features: in-camera image stabilization and Live View. Mike has written about in-camera image stabilization before, so I'll keep my comments brief, but I just want to add two cents: this one is a no-brainer. Built-in IS is a really good thing. Every digital camera of any type that isn't dirt cheap should have it, and eventually they all will. It's like automatic exposure was in 1975—new-ish but soon to be universal. (I hope this doesn't trigger the in-camera vs. in-lens IS debate, which I find goofy—Canon and Nikon were forced to start with in-lens IS because they developed the feature when film cameras were their dominant business, but they can easily commingle in-camera IS with their in-lens IS systems, and the market will probably force them to in upcoming years, no matter if in-lens IS is better in some ways or not.) I did not do any careful tests of the E-3's IS, but it's clear to me that it works very well. None of this is to say that you can't take good pictures with a camera that lacks IS—all the cameras I own lack it, and for many, many pictures it's irrelevant—but in the not-too-distant future, we'll all have it and we'll be glad we do.
Live View is also really interesting to me, and on that subject I have much more to say (it's a no-brainer, too), but I'm saving that for a post of its own later in my E-3 ramblings.
Olympus E-3 Review Part 1 (preface)
Olympus E-3 Review Part 2 (first impressions)
Olympus E-3 Review Part 3 (lenses and autofocus)
Olympus E-3 Review Part 4 (live view)
Olympus E-3 Review Part 5 (miscellanea)
Olympus E-3 Review Part 6 (conclusion)