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Olympus E-3 – A Second Opinion

By Mark Pinder

The last six months in the digital SLR world have been very interesting. Just as I thought that technological development would start to level off, the big players, Canon and most notably Nikon, started dropping bombshells into the middle market in the guise of the 40D and D300. Adding to this, some of the more niche manufacturers such as Sony and Pentax, announced products like the Alpha700 and K20D which looked like interesting propositions to photographers like myself who prefer the relative svelteness of cameras like the 30D or D200 over their more hairy-chested brethren such as the 1D’s and D3’s of this world.

And then there was the Olympus E-3. I had always had a soft spot for Olympus, having used their diminutive OM’s during my student days and for quite a big part of my professional career, only succumbing to Canon EOS and ultimately Nikon F100’s when Olympus marketing decided they were a bespoke manufacturer and whacked up their prices from the eminently reasonable to levels that would have embarrassed Leica. I liked my Olympuses, but not that much, and besides, autofocus technology had matured to a level which worked – so regrettably, it was bye-bye Olympus.

Under ideal conditions, the E-3 produces absolutely stunning file quality.

In 2001 I finally went digital, I wasn’t planning to, but a big fee job came in which demanded digital capture, so I took the plunge.  At that time, my choices were the Nikon D1 or Canon D30. I loved the handling and hapatics of my F100 film bodies on which the D1 was based, but could not abide the unpredictability of the D1’s image capture, most notably the awful pink and green colour casts and truly heart stopping flash performance! It would have been first choice to shoot a feature on Barbara Cartland visiting the ‘Emerald Isle’, but that call never came. 

Instead, I plumped for the  D30. Compared to the Nikon, the D30’s body was a dog. The AF was frustrating, the write/playback speeds glacial, the viewfinder was like looking down a very long tunnel, and those wide’s to which we had become addicted like a moggy to catnip became history, at least for a while. But hey, we were second-wave pioneers, we slummed it and learned to work within the limitations. In comparison to the Nikon though, file quality was superb. A bit yellow perhaps, but easily fixed with a bit of added blue in levels. I would not be embarrassed to present a D30 file to this day, and still occasionally do if I’m working in an environment where I’m concerned about  being turned over by the wildlife.

Over the next few years I followed Canon’s upgrade cycle, including a brief sojourn with a 1DII, and then the 20D came out. Finally, there was a mid-market digital camera that ticked all the boxes. It had the responsiveness of a traditional film SLR. AF was good, buffer depth and shutter lag no longer a problem, and most importantly, Canon had cracked high ISO response in their mid-market bodies and maintained that gorgeous low maintenance file quality. The only thing I could have wanted was the beautifully quiet shutter of the 10D, and possibly a better viewfinder, although even that had improved incrementally over the years of model development. Subsequently, the 30D came out, which was better still. The 1DII was swapped with a colleague for a 300/2.8, a 30D was procured, and the 20D became my second body. For the first time in my photographic life, the rapacious beast of consumption in my soul had been quieted, and capitalism vanquished, or so I thought.

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Enter Olympus

During this time, I had always kept half an eye on what Olympus was up to but had rejected the E-1, a camera that was comparatively obsolete the second it appeared. I needed more than 5 megapixels, and the lack of image stabilization found in my 70-200mm and 24-105mm Canon lenses was a deal breaker.

Four years later, on paper at least, the E-3 looked very promising. Ten megapixels is as much as I ever generally need, and the IS issue was addressed by the in-body IS. Additionally, I liked the 6 / 4.5 format that four thirds offered and the different aesthetic that this imposed, as well as the ability to have a 24 to 400mm, (35mm equivalent), range seamlessly across just two lenses, which suited my desire to work as lightly as possible. They had also addressed the issue of truly dreadful viewfinders in the previous E system bodies.

I took the plunge and invested in an E-3 with a 12-60, (24 to 120 equivalent  on 35mm), and subsequently a 50-200mm SWD with an equivalent of 100 to 400mm on 35mm.

The camera has much to commend it. The AF in optimal conditions with the SWD lenses is fast, and I have no doubts to contradict Olympus's claims regarding the speed. The image quality and colour at the lower ISO's is absolutely gorgeous and I do actually think that the two Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses I have are very possibly the sharpest zoom lenses I have ever used on any digital SLR period, they are astoundingly good. The SWD dust filter appears to work as advertised too in that in the 4 months of ownership, I have not had to clean my sensor once, an almost weekly occurrence with my old Canon's.

The autofocus on the E-3 does not like shooting into the light or any situation where flare might cause lowering of contrast.
The AF refused to work on the subjects face and I ended up having to AF from the area where his shoulder met the sky.

The preset white balances, (especially tungsten), have also given me the cleanest straight out of camera files I have ever seen. The build quality is very very good and the camera does feel nice in the hand, although I must concur with Douglas Brown elsewhere on this site that many of the controls are very badly placed, such as the a rear control dial which even after four months of use I still have to go consciously searching for a dial which should sit naturally close to where the thumb rests.

Also why has Olympus only provided a single button for AF lock and AE Lock which only allows the facility of one function or the other but not both? The AE lock, however, is very well implemented in that the camera allows for the choice of metering pattern when AE lock is activated, ie I can have matrix metering selected when the AE lock is not activated but can have the camera spot meter in AEL mode. Also, why did Olympus not think to include some form of flash exposure lock?  Digital SLR's have been notorious for being difficult with TTL flash, especially if used off camera with a transmitter or off camera lead. The TTL often can't handle the contrast extremes, (especially if the flash lit area is small in the frame), and tends to overexpose the flash badly if you're not careful. Canon on all their cameras from the original D30 in 2000 have had the ability to allow the photographer to zoom in or spot meter the area where the flash is effective and use the AEL lock button to fire a low powered test flash and then lock that flash exposure till the button is released. This has always proven a far quicker and more reliable method than exposure compensation on the flash output.

I emailed and asked Olympus about the inclusion of this feature before my E3 purchase but never received a response. Again, playing with the flash system in the shop or in my office, the system worked very well, but on several occasions when I have had to use the system 'in the field', the experience has been unreliable and often consuming of time I didn't have, and have often elected to use the fl50 flashgun in manual mode instead, which even with the requisite 'chimping' generally proves more reliable than using flash exposure compensation.

To their credit though, Olympus in their FL50 and FL50R flashguns have managed to design the simplest and most intuitive interface I have ever come across in a compact DSLR flashgun. The two wheels on the back for adjusting exposure compensation/flash power etc is by far the simplest and most intuitive control layout I have yet come across anywhere and I shall be keeping a few FL50's and radio slaves for compact lighting set-ups regardless of which camera system I find myself using in future.

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More Serious Issue

An E-3 frame shot at 1600ASA.
Banding is manifesting itself quite obviously in the flat areas of the frame
and there is absolutely no latitude for pushing the exposure in post production.

The above issues are only really minor niggles which I have learned to accept. Unfortunately, there are two very serious problems for me. One is substantially less than acceptable image quality at higher ISO's, and a very flaky autofocus performance, especially with longer lenses.

When the E3 is used in ideal, reasonably well lit conditions, (even at some of the higher ISI settings), the camera is exemplary, colour is great, noise is fine etc, but try out the higher ISO settings in less than ideal conditions, (which is what they're there for after all), and the image quality just starts falling apart. Apply even a small amount of midtone lightening with the middle slider in Photoshop levels and unacceptable amounts of banding start to show.

The Olympus is vastly superior to my old Canon's when it comes to comparing chroma, (colour blotch), noise at high ISO's, but while software such as Noise Ninja can solve chroma noise problems very well, the kind of banding noise inherent in higher ISO Olympus files cannot be fixed.

The banding issue starts to show itself quite badly at lower ISO's too, (especially in the blue and red channels), on even moderately short time exposures, even when dark frame subtraction is used. Dark frame subtraction is pretty much compulsory for any exposures longer than a second or two. Whereas Canons from the 10D onwards, and current crop Nikons can be used for extended time exposures without DFS and still supply eminently high quality files, the same cannot be said of the Olympus.


Banding in long exposure frames is an issue too.
This was a 15 second exposure at ISO 400 and the banding noise in the sky was barely acceptable.

The other serious issue is AF performance. As reported above, in well lit fairly benign situations, the AF works very well, but start attempting to use the system in even some of the slightly challenging situations a professional photographer might put the camera to use in and the implementation just starts falling apart. The continuous AF, especially in multipoint selection, is next to useless. This issue has been raised in some Olympus user forums, with various responses, but at the end of the day, I just want a system that works without having to wait for alternate Thursdays whilst standing on one leg howling at the moon!

A good example of where the system has failed me spectacularly is the press conference or talking head situation which is a staple part of many news photographer's lives. Recently, I was covering a political conference near my home for a big national news agency. The standard method for photographing talking heads on a platform is to choose a focusing point that most closely corresponded to the speakers eyes, set continuous AF and let the camera follow the speakers movements knocking off frames when they did something interesting gesturally or flicked you the occasional glance. Very boring, very easy. In this instance though, the Olympus just didn't want to know. The CAF failed miserably to the point where I stopped using it and started using SAF instead and then SAF decided that there was not enough contrast on the speaker and decided to hunt like mad until AF was achieved long after the speaker had stopped doing what I wanted to capture. As a result the camera turned what should have been simply tedious into a tedious chore, with far less keepers than I had become accustomed to in these circumstances and many frames that were not as sharp as they should have been. Additionally, I was forced into using no ISO's higher than 800, because the banding started manifesting itself quite badly in the shadows and shadow/midtone transitional areas, like the side of the face.

I could be wrong, but suspect that these circumstances with longer lenses show one area where in-lens IS is superior to the in-body IS of the Olympus. In 'in lens' systems, the IS function is performed before the image is presented to the focusing system, providing a fairly stable point for the AF to lock onto, whereas in 'in body' systems the IS is performed in the optical path after the AF system, which I suspect has a much harder time trying to lock focus on something which is jiggling around quite a lot, due to the magnification factor inherent in long lenses. This is just a hypothesis though.

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Pricing

Another major issue with the Olympus is the insane pricing of their top pro lenses. The two lenses I own are absolutely brilliant and very correctly priced in their market niches. Unfortunately, I don't think the same can be said for their top pro offerings. Alternatives with more engineering can be had for substantially less from the competition. The 1.4 converter is a case in point.

The Best price I have seen in the UK is £299 as opposed to around £210 for the Canon Equivalent, or the 300 f/2.8 £4700 for the Olympus as opposed to £2900 for a Canon 300 ff2.8 which also includes the engineering expense of IS. Ah yes, you say – but the Olympus is the equivalent of a 600mm as opposed to 480mm on a Canon. But I can put my 1.4X on a Canon 40D, to give me 672mm effective FOV (admittedly losing a stop), but I can also crank up the ISO at least a stop above the Olympus and still get a superior result. I used to use Olympus in my film days, and really loved my OM1's and 2's, but Olympus marketing, for whatever reason, suddenly decided they were a bespoke manufacturer and whacked the prices up for lenses which went from the extremely reasonably priced to the ludicrously expensive. So shifts to Nikon and eventually Canon happened when I eventually needed to upgrade.

I've never tolerated this kind of pricing nonsense from Leica, (unlike many), and I most certainly won't take it from Olympus.

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Summary

In conclusion, I really do want to like this camera. I understand that the 4/3 sensor provides engineering issues over the larger sensors, but whilst Canon and especially Nikon are providing ISO's in their reduced sensor cameras that are eminently usable at 3200 or even up to 6400 ISO (in the case of Nikon's D300), I would really like it if Olympus could engineer a camera which was capable, (image quality wise across the board), of matching my EOS 30D, which goes back a generation of model development. 6400 ISO would be nice, but for me, the IQ and functionality of digital reached a point I was happy with several years ago, and the Olympus just does not reach this.


An example of where some kind of flash exposure lock would have been very useful.
The flash was on TTL auto to my left and had to be turned down about 2 stops to prevent blowing the left hand side of the frame.

The E3 promises much on paper, and is a quantum leap up from the E-1 in terms of usability and speed, but unfortunately Olympus have managed to pull off that trick again of producing a product which is seriously compromised in comparison to what their competitors offer for the same or even substantially lower price. The Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 40D springing immediately to mind.

The E-3 has the potential to be a great camera, but only if Olympus acknowledge the competition and do something about sourcing a sensor that is capable of paying a compliment to the engineering of the rest of their system, AF excluded.

I am going to continue to use the E3 as a primary camera, but I'm going to have to keep my old Canon kit back for certain things. It's nice to have this luxury, but if I had to weigh up the pros and cons of what was available on the market and only choose one system, it would unfortunately and regrettably not be the Olympus. For these reason's, I don't think that the Olympus E3 will ever be taken seriously amongst most working photographers, who, (like myself), need kit that will deliver the goods regardless of circumstances, rather than just 75% of the time. If they could deliver an IQ, (and introduced a few firmware tweaks), that even matched a four year old canon 20D, they would be well on the way. As they say: 'When the going gets tough........'

April, 2008

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Mark Pinder is a freelance editorial photographer based in the north of England.


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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Nikon, Canon EF-S lens mount, Canon EOS 30D, Single-lens reflex camera, Film speed, APS-C, Camera

Entities: Canons, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Pentax, DFS, Nikons, UK, Olympus, ISO, AF, CAF, Michael Reichmann, Barbara Cartland, Douglas Brown, Olympus E-3, D1, D300, OM1

Tags: camera, flash, Nikon, old canon, flash exposure, ae lock, image quality, digital, digital slr, flash exposure lock, higher iso, dark frame subtraction, Olympus E-3, Canon EOS, higher iso olympus, continuous af, Olympus user forums, Olympus E3, longer lenses, lower iso, 24-105mm canon lenses, high iso, ideal conditions, bespoke manufacturer, exposure compensation, file quality, sensor, model development, mid-market digital camera, time exposures, Canon EOS 40D, camera spot meter, old canon kit, sharpest zoom lenses, Canon D30, AEL lock button, flash exposure compensation, digital slr world, higher iso settings, high iso response