By Eamon Hickey
When Olympus sent me the E-3 to review, they also sent their two new Zuiko Digital SWD lenses, the ED 12–60mm ƒ/2.8–4.0 (24–120mm 35mm-e) and the ED 50–200mm ƒ/2.8–3.5. (100–400mm 35mm-e). The "SWD" acronym stands for Supersonic Wave Drive, which is Olympus's marketing name for piezoelectric autofocus motors (what Canon calls "Ultrasonic" and Nikon calls "Silent Wave"). These are the first lenses from Olympus to use such motors.
They are both part of Olympus's mid-range lens line, which they call the "high grade" class and which doesn't really have an exact equivalent in other manufacturers' product catalogs. I think the high grade line is an interesting approach. These lenses combine top-notch optical quality, very good build quality (including full weather-sealing), and moderately fast variable apertures. The variable aperture construction helps Olympus keep weight and bulk down. Typically, with other manufacturers, to get uniformly similar levels of optical and mechanical quality you need to stick with their pro-level constant aperture (usually ƒ/2.8) lenses, which are all pretty big. Their variable aperture mid-range zoom lenses are smaller, but nearly all are not as well made as the Olympus high grade line, and optical quality is more variable (some are very good; some not so much). The upshot is that the high grade lenses can be part of a recipe for putting together an advanced SLR system that is a little less bulky but compromises little or nothing on durability and optical performance. It would, of course, compromise some low light capability, especially given the modest but real high ISO deficits of the smaller Four-Thirds format sensor, but I think Olympus is offering a worthwhile alternative here. As with many things, it's a matter of picking your poison. I won't make an exhaustive analysis of either lens (detailed tests are available in several places on the Internet). Like all other Zuiko Digital lenses I've used (half a dozen), they're very, very good. Because it can be hard to correct, I will mention one thing I noticed in some shots with the 12–60mm lens at 12mm, which was a modest amount of mustache, or wavy line, distortion.
Autofocus is hard
The Supersonic Wave Drive component of these new lenses is clearly a major ingredient in Olympus's effort to upgrade their autofocus, which has inevitably been a big hurdle for them. Only Canon and Nikon really pushed hard on the development of AF in the 1990s when the SLR business was flat and not very profitable, and they (especially Canon) opened up a big lead on everyone else as a result. And autofocus, it turns out, is hard. Who knew? It's especially hard when you try to track moving subjects while running the motor drive at high speed. (During a motor driven sequence, autofocus detection can only happen during the brief moments when the mirror is fully down.) I did not expect Olympus to easily catch up, and the early history of the E-system did not cast doubt on my powers as a sage.
With that in mind, I was curious to see how far Olympus had come with AF and spent some time shooting a few different sports (not normally a subject I'm overly interested in). The E-3 is a major step forward for Olympus autofocus. With either SWD lens, it's extremely fast on stationary subjects in decent light. But that's the easy job in autofocus. Much more impressively to me, the E-3 is also capable of credible focus tracking of moving subjects while maintaining its high frame rate (5 frames per second). I got a reasonable percentage of sharp pictures in two and three second bursts of soccer, basketball, and even rugby players (in a very dark stadium). Now, it should be noted that there is still a substantial gap between the E-3 and the very best AF cameras in the world, which can give good percentages of sharp pictures at eight or nine frames per second. The E-3 is not the right camera for a professional sports photographer shooting for competitive media clients (but neither are its direct competitors, the D300, 40D et al). But for more general photographers who might occasionally need to get a few good shots of a sporting event, the E-3 can do a credible job. Taking that idea of a general photographer with modest action shooting needs a step further, the 50–200mm SWD (below) would pair nicely with the E-3, offering an appealing combination of excellent quality and durability with a lot of capability at reasonable size and weight. (All of the pictures accompanying this post were shot with it.)
In low light
I've seen complaints about the E-3's low-light AF performance, but my experience was fairly good. The camera slows down somewhat in low light, but I found it perfectly adequate all the way down to EV-Really-Dark. I did not experience any notable problems in light levels typically faced by an event shooter (parties, weddings, and the like) and had no trouble in a fairly dark (no modeling lights) studio setting.
Three shots from a 12-shot sequence where the player covered 30–40 yards. I was on and off the motor drive a bit during his run, but 9 out of 12 of the images were well focused. Playing Fields at Pier 40, Hudson River Park, NYC.
All in all, the E-3 gets Olympus autofocus into the game, offering good performance and reliability across a wide range of subjects, including some hard ones.
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)