By Eamon Hickey
So what's my final verdict on the E-3? I don't really have one, as such. I'm not going to give a drawn-out analysis of its pros and cons against all possible competitors—I haven't used those competitors enough to give an informed point-by-point comparison. So instead, I'll touch on some of what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the E-3 and the E-system in general. (This will not be an exhaustive list.)
On the strength side, the E-3 offers good performance across what has become the usual range of SLR technologies, including some, like autofocus and wireless flash, where Olympus had previously lagged significantly behind the leaders. Importantly, it also collects together cool and useful new technologies like in-camera image stabilization and a decent (for today) implementation of Live View. Finally, in combination with the somewhat unusual E-system lens lineup, you can put together a package that combines high capability and quality with moderate size and weight. Trying to figure out a way to visually illustrate that, I started digging around in my closet and found my old Lowepro Orion AW bag, a large (but not huge) belt pack I've had for ten years or so. I started stuffing my loaner gear into it, and, lo and behold, all the good stuff fit, even including a back-up body.
Nestled in my belt pack are: two DSLR bodies (E-3 and E-510), excellent moderately fast-aperture lenses covering 24-400mm (35mm-e), two wireless TTL flashes (with cool mini-stands), and all the sundries (extra batteries, chargers, flash bouncers, and cards of the compactflash, gray, and business variety), all image-stabilized and the E-3 and lenses are shootable in rain, dust, snow, locust plagues, etc.
One of the many lives I have imagined but will never actually lead is that of free-roaming foreign correspondent (others include luxury yacht captain and proprietor of a beachside gelato stand in Rio de Janeiro). I could cover an awful lot of different kinds of stories with the E-system gear that Orion fanny pack will hold, and the prospect of dragging it from Budapest to Bangkok to Bogotá does not fill me with dread. And therein lies what the marketing folks like to call a "value proposition." If you want good performing stuff, with a very high degree of versatility and durability, in a comparatively portable setup, the E-3 and the E-system in general are worth very serious consideration.
Now all that said, there are shortcomings and caveats. I already mentioned the modest high ISO issue, which could certainly be determinative for anyone who shoots a lot of low-light pictures. If you buy into the E-system you better like zoom lenses; Olympus has skimped on primes, so far, much to my displeasure. There is no really correct portrait lens in the E-system, a stupid and frustrating omission. How hard is it to make a roughly 80mm-e ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2 prime of moderate size and cost, with nice bokeh? C'mon. I think even the cavemen had them. Olympus's software for converting their raw files is also at least a generation behind equivalent software from Canon and Nikon. (I should say here, however, that Olympus Studio 2.0 is usable in more than just emergencies, albeit only barely so, on my MacBook Pro. Studio 1.x was intolerable, so the current version is a significant step up, for which Olympus should be congratulated. And, oy, Pentax's software—let's not even mention it. So Olympus is not the worst.)
There are also some frustrations associated with using a system with such small market share. (These are shared, to one degree or another, by Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, and Samsung DSLR users, among others.) Third-party manufacturers of lenses, flashes, flash accessories, and other gadgets just don't have much economic incentive to support any camera brand with 5–6% market share (or less). So there are relatively few third-party lenses for the E-system (and what there is, all from Sigma, was designed for 35mm and APS-C formats, so the focal lengths don't make a lot of sense for the Four-Thirds format). Another example: the recently introduced Radio Poppers, a potentially very cool wireless flash accessory, are not officially certified for Olympus. They may turn out to work, but if not, it seems doubtful that Radio Popper will spend the R&D resources necessary to build a version for Olympus. My experience with raw files from my Olympus and Pentax DSLRs compared to those from Canon and Nikon DSLRs makes me suspect that third-party software developers, overall, also spend a lot less time optimizing their products for the companies with small market shares. This makes the shortcomings of Olympus's own software all the more painful.
Speaking purely subjectively (meaning the comments that follow reflect my prejudices, not the capabilities of the E-3), since I will not soon be embarking for Budapest, and I don't really need the versatility embodied in the above photograph, I don't have any plans to buy an E-3. For my current life, my idea of a good DSLR system might comprise something like (sticking with mid-level DSLRs) the responsiveness and user interface of the Nikon D80, with the size and feature set of the Olympus E-520 (but with an articulating LCD), and using the several wonderful compact prime lenses in the Pentax lineup.
But if some benevolent wizard appears and offers me that foreign correspondent gig, the kit you see in that picture above would be seriously in the running. (I have yet to decide what camera gear I'll need if the beachside gelato thing comes through.)
And on another topic entirely, if you're looking for a place to park your paddlewheeler, I know where you can get a good deal.
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)