When we were taking a look at the new Digital SLR cameras for our recent Digital SLR Buyers Guide the Olympus E-510 proved to be a really impressive entry - except for one serious flaw. This small, fast, reasonably-priced 10 megapixel DSLR came with kit lenses that were also very small and much better quality than we normally see in kit lenses from the bigger players. It also featured Live View, which was pioneered by Olympus, body-integral Image Stabilization that worked with any lens, and automatic sensor cleaning, which was also pioneered by Olympus but which is now finding its way into cameras from all the makers.
 
We were reminded how far the 4/3 system had developed with the E-510 and made a mental note to take a closer look at the Olympus E-3 to see if Olympus could finally fix their biggest issue.  The E-3 is the Pro level DSLR which had been announced as a replacement for the four year old and seriously out-of-date E-1, and no there was never an E-2. 
 
 
This photo shows the new E-3 with the 12-60 SWD lens beside the current E-410 with standard 14-42mm lens.  The E-3 is about the same size as a Nikon D300, where the E-410/510 are the smallest production DSLRs available today.  The magnesium body and weather-sealing adds size and weight to the E-3 but ergonomics are still excellent.  The top Pro lenses like the 12-60 SWD are also weather-sealed which adds size and weight.
 
I have toyed with the 4/3 digital SLR system several times since it was introduced in 2003, shrugged my shoulders and gone back to Nikon or Canon (or lately Sony/Minolta or Pentax). Frankly, I had about given up on 4/3, but when Olympus dropped the E-3 on us a few weeks ago it showed us that 4/3 really could be all that was promised when it was introduced.  The current E-410/E-510 answer the original 4/3 promise of small, while the new E-3 breaks new ground in 4/3 system performance. 
 
ANY DSLR system is about lenses in the end, and Olympus 4/3 is blessed with superb optics. To get an idea of how really great the new Olympus glass is you need to use some of the top 4/3 lenses. If you are skeptical a computer site like AT can know anything about photography, then be my guest and read a few of the big photo sites like dpreview, imaging-resource, or dcresource. They all have finally admitted in reviews of the E-410 and E-510 that Olympus has the best kit lenses of any camera maker, and that yes the Olympus claim that lenses designed for digital produce better quality images is proving to be true. www.slrgear.com, which is affiliated with imaging-resource, even went so far as to test most of the current Olympus lenses after being so impressed with the kit lenses.
 
The Olympus issue has never been glass, nor has it been mount, since the 4/3 mount is all-electronic with a motor in every lens just like Canon. It has really been the options you had (or rather didn't have) in camera bodies to use with this excellent Olympus glass. As great as the current E-410 and E-510 really are, they are still saddled with the serious handicap of an ancient and not particularly sensitive 3-point autofocus system, and there just wasn't a choice of anything better from Olympus. That is until the E-3.

 

The E-3 takes Olympus AF from outdated technology to state-of-the-art, and as soon as the new 11-point, all cross sensor, dual-plane AF module makes its way down the food chain, no one can ignore Olympus any more. Perhaps Olympus can also find a way to move the terrific E-3 feature of AF with manual touch-up down the food chain as well - because the other big Olympus issue is that stupid "Manual focus by wire" feature and Manual Focus select by menu. Canon has offered the manual touchup after auto-focus as a feature on Pro models for some time and it is good to see Olympus doing the same with their E-3 body and lenses – and SWD (Supersonic Wave Motor) lenses in particular.
 
There are currently 32 lenses available for the 4/3 system plus teleconverters, extension tubes, etc.  You can find a complete listing and specifications at http://www.four-thirds.org/en/products/lense.html.  Four of the lenses are from Leica, and these include the fast normal 25mm f1.4 and three lenses that feature Optical Image Stabilization, which they call Mega O.I.S.  This makes the 4/3 system the only one I am currently aware of that has both body integral mechanical stabilization and optical stabilization as options.  This could be the equipment needed for a very interesting test comparison of mechanical vs. optical I.S. to try provide answers to an argument based on emotion more than fact.  I have tried the Leica 14-50mm f2.8-3.5 on the E3 and both the IS and Optical I.S. worked very well individually.  However, when both were activated they seemed to cancel each other out and were not effective.  

Another interesting lens is the new Leica 14 -150mm f3.5-5.6 Mega O.I.S.  This features a Leica brand lens with an equivalent 28mm-300mm focal length with built-in Optical Image Stabilization.  Lenses that have super long focal length ranges generally make too many compromises, but this Leica walk-around lens is really intriguing with 4 aspherical and 1 ED elements used to correct lens aberrations.
 
I am completely and totally impressed with the E-3. All the lenses are designed for 4/3 mount and for best performance on a 4/3 camera - they aren't 35mm film designs. No other camera in its class offers the combination of effective live-view, built-in image stabilization, the best auto sensor cleaning you can buy, an articulating LCD that can fold away for protection (AND a top LCD for basic data that is missing from the Sony A700), a built-in pop-up flash, effective dust and splash sealing of the camera AND the lenses, a popularly-priced zoom that covers the equivalent of 140mm to 600mm and does Macro up to equivalent life size (70-300mm), MUCH improved noise reduction that goes to ISO 3200, user-programmable Auto ISO that can cover the full ISO range (Canon still stubbornly refuses to fully offer this option), and the best range of available lenses DESIGNED FOR a digital camera system.
 
At first it looks like the 10 megapixel Live MOS sensor is a bit pedestrian for a new Pro camera until you do the sensor math. The truth is that 4/3 and APS C sensors are almost exactly the same height, and the only real difference is the width for 4:3 is around 18mm compared to the 22.2mm for the 35mm shape 2:3 ratio APS C sensor. Put another way if you take a 10 megapixel 4/3 sensor and filled in the sides to 2:3 ratio the sensor would have 12.5 megapixel resolution. This means a 10 megapixel 4/3 sensor is very similar in resolution in the shared photo (4:3) area to a 12 megapixel APS C sensor. There is no substantive difference in the size of a 4/3 sensor and an APS C, and those who think the 4/3 is much smaller need to do some research. This was demonstrated recently by PopPhoto in a review of the Panasonic DMC-L10 and the Leica 14-50mm F3.8-5.6. They found resolution for the L10 as 2350 lines at ISO100, which out-resolves the Sony 12.2MP A700 (and presumably the Nikon D300 which uses the same sensor). The difference is ratios and diagonals.  4/3 tries to match photo sizes and the 4/3 ratio yields a smaller diagonal  and APS C tries to match the shape of 35mm with a 3:2 ratio and a larger diagonal (image circle). Olympus, Leica, and Panasonic also use a Panasonic MOS sensor and not the Canon or Sony used by everyone else.
 
The E-3 is a bargain for a true PRO grade camera - and it is easily built as well as the Nikon D3 or the top Canons which are $5000 or more. However, most will find the E-3 expensive unless they are serious photo hobbyists or Pros, and Olympus needs to move the E-3 refinements down to E-510 price levels as fast as they can.
 
This time around I bought an E-3 and a 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 SWD - and the tiny little excellent-quality kit lenses for when the 12-60mm weighs too much and I can compromise just a little on quality. The system has been quickly filled out with other 4/3 lenses and accessories. It now sits beside my Canon and Nikon equipment, and one of those systems will liquidated.
 
The E-3 is a great piece of creative engineering, an area Olympus is known for. After all they invented auto-sensor cleaning and live view - features which are now finding their way to every DSLR. This is the best Olympus camera EVER, and once you have used it you will be hooked. 
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  • Roy2001 - Monday, December 31, 2007 - link

    It did/does not deliver what it promised: lighter lens/body with lower price. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, January 4, 2008 - link

    I have added a photo to the blog of the E3 with the stock 12-60mm SWD lens beside the tiny E-410 with the stock 14-42mm lens. The E-3 is about the size of the Canon D40 or Nikon D300, so you can see how tiny the E-410/510 are by comparison. The E-510 is the same size as the E-410 but adds a deep handgrip and in-body image stabilization.

    It seemed a picture did the best job of showing how small the mainstream 4/3 cameras really are in this generation. The E-3 is built like a tank and weather-sealed. It certainly shows in the size and weight compared to the more mainstream cameras.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, January 4, 2008 - link

    The E-410 is the smallest and thinnest production DSLR, and the 14-42mm and 40-150mm (35mm equivalent 28-300mm total) kit lenses are absolutely tiny. The E-510 is the same camera with a larger hand grip and built-in image stabilization. Early 4/3 cameras were not smaller, but the recent models are finally delivering on the 4/3 promise.

    It is true the E-3 is a large camera - about as large as the D300 or 40D, but it is a full magnesium-alloy frame body with full dust and splash sealing of the body and the larger Pro series lenses. However, it is much smaller than the Nikon or Canon Pro models like the D3, which have the same shutter life specifications and truly comparable wether sealing. The 70-300mm (140-600mm equivalent) lens is very small compared to any other lens capable of the same equivalent focal length on any other brand. The 35mm f3.5 is the smallest and lightest full macro lens (1:1 native and 2:1 35mm equivalent) lens you can buy.

    The promise of smaller with 4/3 is certainly real with the current cameras and lenses.
    Reply
  • Roy2001 - Monday, December 31, 2007 - link

    It did/does not deliver what it promised: lighter lens/body with lower price. Reply
  • JeffDM - Thursday, January 3, 2008 - link

    >>It did/does not deliver what it promised: lighter lens/body with lower price.<<

    In a way, it does. I think the E-410 is the smallest dSLR available right now. The E-510 2 lens kit offered me more features that I need at a price that's $200 less than the XTi 2 lens kit, and I think the E-510 set is lighter too.
    Reply
  • melgross - Friday, December 28, 2007 - link

    Other than the sensor argument here, we must be careful when discussing the question of what is a "pro" body.

    Basically, it is a body that pro's use. That pretty much defines the category.

    I have a Canon 5D. This camera is pretty rugged, but has little weather sealing. Have I used it in poor weather? Yes. Has it gotten damaged because of it? No.

    Quite a few pro's use this body, not just for backup, but as a prime body. The same thing will occur to the successor of this, possibly in March.

    The Nikon D200 has also been a favorite with pro's as will the D300.

    I'm not so sure about the Olympus.

    With Canon and Nikon dominating the D-SLR field by 90%, there isn't much room for all of the other manufacturers together. I doubt if any of those others has more than 2% of the pro market.
    Reply
  • haplo602 - Thursday, December 27, 2007 - link

    I read the discussion and the article with a slight amusement. I'd have a few points to note:

    1. The claimed lens selection. Most of the Sigmas are DG lenses - FULL frame. Some are DC lenses - APS-C frame. The the rest are native 4/3. This makes a HUGE MESS in focal length calculations. Also the depth of field calculations are vastly different. Same goes for sharpness.

    2. Sensor size. IIRC Olympus came with 4/3 as a computer presentation format. Most of the screens at that time were 4/3. Widscreen formats and some of the odd resolutions (1280x1024) make that difficult.

    3. Lens quality. This goes hand in hand with sensor size. The smalles the sensor, the smaller the photosites and the better the lens resolutions HAS to be. There is no other option. So arguing about lens quality is not a big point in this case. If you put a 35mm lens on a 4/3 sensor, it may not even match the resolution of the sensor, so you loose sharpness and detail. In that case your dedicated 4/3 lens has to keep up with the sensor resolution and this vastly increases the price for design/construction. You'll see that when 12+MP 4/3 sensors start to appear (some comments already noted the prices).

    4. Accessory availability. 30 lenses is not much. Go look on ebay for used equipment. Canon/Nikon/Pentax rule there. You can get used but great equipment very cheap. Try that with 4/3.

    The Olympus bodies may have nice features, but the 4/3 system is new and unproven (yet). I guess Olympus did not want to create yet anothe APS-C mount and camera line, they would drown in the market. So they are heavily screaming 4/3 and trying their best to make a difference. They will just drown a bit later.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, December 27, 2007 - link

    [quote]Most of the Sigmas are DG lenses - FULL frame. Some are DC lenses - APS-C frame. The the rest are native 4/3. This makes a HUGE MESS in focal length calculations. Also the depth of field calculations are vastly different. [/quote]

    50mm is 50mm, regardless of lens format. any 50mm lens on 4/3 will frame like a 100mm lens on 35mm, regardless of whether it is a native 4/3 lens or covers a 35mm frame (though even the equivalent thing is odd since the aspect ratio of the frame is different).

    Depth of field depends on lots of variables, which is why I have not even mentioned it. The 4/3 sensors have more depth of field for a given aperture and "equivalent" focal length than APS-C or FF. If you like shallow DOF, this is bad, if you like lots of DOF it is good.
    Reply
  • haplo602 - Thursday, January 3, 2008 - link

    Not quite.

    50mm lens full frame has:

    50mm field of view on 35mm camera
    75mm on APS-C DSLR
    100mm on 4/3

    50mm APS-C has:

    Nice vignet on full frame
    50mm on APS-C
    75,, (?) on 4/3

    50mm 4/3 has:

    BIG vignet on full frame
    vignet on APS-C
    50mm on 4/3

    Not that you can mount a 4/3 lens on full frame, but you get the idea. If you are buying the famous 30mm DC Sigma, you get 45-50mm fov on 4/3. However if you buy a 30mm DG Sigma, you get a 60mm 4/3 fov.

    The lenses are branded with thir true focal lenght, regardless of the image circle they produce. So when you are deciding on a lens, you have to be very carefull what format the lens is for originaly and what fov you want.

    example:

    you are looking for a 50mm fov prime on 4/3, you options are:

    1. 25mm 4/3 native
    2. 30mm APS-C
    3. 50mm full frame (afaik does not exist in 4/3 mount)

    The most logical answer (3.) is the worst choice actualy. This is the confusion I wanted to point out.
    Reply
  • JeffDM - Thursday, January 3, 2008 - link

    >>50mm lens full frame has:

    >>50mm field of view on 35mm camera
    >>75mm on APS-C DSLR
    >>100mm on 4/3

    Crunching through the numbers, It looks like it should be 81mm FOV.
    Reply

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