By Eamon Hickey
I mentioned in my earlier post related to the E-3's autofocus system that Olympus has had to do some rapid catching up on certain areas of SLR technology that emerged in the 1990s when the company was concentrating almost completely on point-and-shoots. Wireless TTL off-camera flash is another of those technologies, and the E-3 marks the debut of Olympus's version of this feature. (The new E-420 and E-520 also support it.) I didn't give the system a complete test, but I've got a few comments.
Olympus's system uses visible light from the E-3's built-in flash to control all of the flashes in your setup, as opposed to infrared signals, which are used in the Nikon and Canon wireless off-camera systems. In all of these systems, there is a line of sight issue: the slave flashes must be able to "see" the master controller (which is normally at camera position) and the control signals, whether infrared or visible, must be detectable against the ambient light in your environment in order for it all to work.
With the E-3's system, you can in theory control any number of off-camera flashes in three separate groups, and you can vary the lighting ratios of each group, just as you can with other similar systems. I found it easy to set up and use; it's a simple and very quick matter to turn a flash on or off, or increase or decrease its light output, all from the camera. I shot in a studio setting, and in that environment the system was not very persnickety about maintaining a clear line of sight. I used both an FL-50R and an FL-36R, and they were often behind umbrellas, or sharply to the side of the camera, and probably outside the permissible coverage angle of the controller (i.e. the built-in flash). Everything still worked well nearly all the time, and I was able to shoot pretty freely without a lot of fiddling and re-positioning.
Three shots of Luda, a photographer friend of mine, and her amazing cat, Bizet. Main light is the FL-50R through an umbrella, and the sequence shows, from left to right, no background flash, a background flash (FL-36R) on the floor set for about "+1" exposure compensation, and finally the background flash set for about "+2" exposure comp. All controlled TTL from the camera.
In TTL mode, I got some modest exposure variation from shot-to-shot, but this is not unusual for wireless off-camera flash exposure systems. You can forego TTL exposure control and use the system to manually set the output of your slave flashes, still from camera position, which is how I would use it in real life if I owned an E-3. The convenience of being able to adjust your flashes individually from the camera is actually really nice. For the relatively simple environmental portraits that I sometimes shoot, where I often use two flashes off-camera, I'd be happy to have this capability, and I'm confident it would work well. I did not get a chance to test it outdoors, however, so I can't comment on how it's affected by strong sunlight, or how it would perform in very large rooms and more fluid scenarios like you'd encounter shooting a wedding reception dance floor, for example. One note: on a couple of close-up product test shots (at a distance of about three feet) I did notice that the control signals from the built-in flash were actually contributing a bit to the exposure, which I didn't want. I'd have to gobo the built-in flash for any close-up images I actually cared about.
Luda does a lot of self-portraits with wigs, props, and whatnot and, though I did not set out to make a kind of sex-bomb kitsch shot, it happened anyway. Lighting is the FL-50R and the FL-36R on each side of her, through umbrellas, controlled TTL with negative exposure compensation. The blue background is a gelled Nikon SB-26 on manual output.
Switching gears entirely (thus this post's title), I'll briefly outline my prejudices related to image quality—on the E-3 and otherwise. I'm not going to give an exhaustive pixel-level analysis of the E-3's files here. My approach to image quality is to determine what's technically sufficient for me based on my enlargement goals and what I like to shoot and then stop worrying about the files and start worrying about the content of the pictures. In my case that's a practical enlargement limit of 13x19 inches or so (or, possibly, magazine double-truck), and I shoot general subjects with an emphasis on people pictures.
The E-3's files are more than fine for me. In areas such as detail resolution, tonality, dynamic range, artifacting, elasticity (i.e. torturing them in Photoshop), and the like, there's nothing significantly out of the ordinary—in either direction, better or worse—for a 10-megapixel, large-sensor camera in the files I shot with the E-3. If ten megapixels will do what you want to do, the E-3 should work just fine. The one exception that I can see to that is if you need to shoot a lot at high ISO settings. The E-3 is not bad at all at ISO 1600 or even 3200, but if I shot a lot of indoor sports or was working on a documentary project about nightclubbing in the big city, I'd choose a different camera, a few of which are significantly cleaner at high ISO. (Note that the issue with high ISO noise is not that it renders images unusable; it just limits how much they can be enlarged. I don't shoot all that much at ISOs above 800, so if I have to settle for a somewhat smaller print on the few good shots I do make at high ISOs, it's not the end of the world for me.)
Please note that I am not arguing that small nuances of image file quality shouldn't matter to anyone. For some photographers, if Camera A makes files that are 5% better than Camera B, that might be a very legitimate reason to buy Camera A, and I have no quarrel with that. If I were trying to sell 40x60-inch fine art landscape prints, I'd be saving up for a 16 or 20-megapixel camera and minutely scrutinizing every pixel of its output, probably with a Schneider loupe pressed against the glass of my monitor. But my interests are different, and for me it's a matter of sufficient quality, not small degrees of comparative superiority, so you're not going to get that level of granular file analysis in my cockamamie musings on the E-3. Glad we settled that.
Luda lit with the FL-50R at camera right in an umbrella, on "1/16th" power manual output set from the camera, and a touch of fill from the FL-36R at "1/80th" manual output. Very convenient to try multiple test shots at different power levels without having to leave my sitting position on the floor.
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)