(on its way)
More pictures to follow, though the info is all in the words :-)
The arrival of my E-3 was something which I didn't know whether to long for or dread... I couldn't house it yet to use it underwater but I'd began to salivate over the ultrafast focus and super speed for general photography. My other vacancy was for a better 'deck' camera to shoot dive trips in action, our little flat Mju has been great but it can't quite rival a big camera... and the E-3 is a big camera.
This is gonna be big
None of the other reviews pretend the E-3 is small. It's not even small compared with all but the biggest cameras - the top rank mega SLRs are massively bigger (well for another £2k you'd expect more metal). So the E-3 is intentionally large, built like a tank with no hint of compromise. Even though it is large it is dense too; it feels like you could beat off thugs or rabid dogs, hammer in nails, chock truck wheels and then shoot for vogue with it. The casing is exotically cast magnesium somehow made black rather than feeling painted with no bling no chrome and no nonsense. Every opening is gasketed and sealed although some of those are plastic. The lens mount actually looks quite small on this chassis. Towering over the hefty body is the pop-up flash which covers a noticeably large penta prism bulge... more on that very soon.
The power bulge is part of the E-3's mission statement - no compromise. The 4/3 cameras have been criticized for their small viewfinders - though they are pretty similar to most other APS-C cameras. the conventional thinking was that viewfinder followed sensor size and while other brands saved a bit of money and space by fielding a reduced view poor Olympus could never exceed the 95% coverage they offered in their lower tiers... well that wasn't quite true. The E-3's viewfinder has been roundly admired and I like it too, it gives 100% coverage and 1.15x magnification. It's big and bright enough to want to look around, in fact its so spacious that at the moment I have to look around rather than taking it all in in one go. That must be a psychological problem an my part though :-) Perhaps its because the viewfinder information has moved from the right side to the bottom - which is a good thing according to the reviews but seems something of a non-issue to me. I suppose both formats could be supported... on the right it 'fills in' the narrower aspect ratio of the 4/3 system, at the bottom it produces a square of useful view. Six of one and half a dozen of another. The display does include more information than before, including ISO which can be interesting when using the Auto-ISO setting.
Right on the button
Where the 400 series bodies are tiny the muscular E-3 has space to spare for dedicated buttons, they pepper the upper of the body allowing direct adjustment of most parameters - often two at a time by choosing to use either the front or rear dials. That'll be the fast way once you've learnt the button layout but there's still the 'super control panel' which seems like such a natural way to configure a camera on the other Olympi that I could never really believe that it was a unique feature. You need to take your eyes off the viewfinder of course but it's a very fast way to access the key controls. There's menu control too but that can be saved for delving deeper into the myriad other options.
While I find the hand grip ideal and the shutter perfectly placed my small hands need training to find the buttons around the righthand side, when I checked they actually fall right under my shutter finger and thumb but the mental swap to control the front dial with my second finger is a bit of a jump after just having one dial on the other models. My problem... as usual :-)
The number of controllable parameters on the E-3 is overwhelming... I'm used to cameras where you could (potentially) remember the parameters you tried last time and tweak and refine that set. The E-3 allows almost everything to be tuned and at the moment I can't hold it all in my head. I imagine this problem is common to most of the big cameras but it may be worth bearing in mind that this camera makes few concessions to the beginner, that's great as it challenges you to think about your photography but tougher when you're under pressure.
In action the E-3 feels fast, really fast. I had a chance to play with its complementry kit lens, a rather useful 12-60mm, before the E-3 arrived on E-420 and E-330 bodies and appreciated the focus motor upgrade which this and a few select others had received. The new SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive!) motors are very fast, very smooth and quieter than the ones I was used to. They put Zuiko on a level footing with their competitors who have established stables of ultrasonically motivated lenses. Coming late to a party does have its advantages and for the moment the 12-60mm is claimed to be the world's fastest when paired with the E-3. It is a fantastically useful lens fulfilling the inevitable a 'bit wider' and a 'bit longer' wishes of every kit lens. It may answer other prayers too, it you desparately needed more weight for a workout :-) As always good glass isn't light but compared with the competition it's compact for it's range and has already been rave reviewed - if you only had space for one lens this would probably be it, luggage allowance permitting. It is sharp all the way through the aperture range, zoom range and from edge to edge making it perhaps the ultimate 'kit' lens at the moment - its speed is a bonus.
On a smaller E-Series body the 12-60 is fast but on the E-3 it really flies. The E-3 has upgraded everything to partner the rapid lens and this includes 11 focus points - really 44 as each is a 'cross' detector with dual offset sensors horizontally and vertically. They form a net over a central oval on the screen and impressively catch anything that strays inside. As a dyed in the wool single point man I can't decide if this is a good thing (for me) and the first thing I did was to swap to just one point (using the dedicated button) so I was choosing not the camera - a lot of the stuff I take is too small for there to be any decision to be made about what should be in focus... but I've already found circumstances where I need to cover larger areas and been happy to swap back - shooting cats for example. The focus really does snap into place and is most dramatic when switching from macro to distance objects and back. Talking of macro the 12-60mm can focus down to about an inch from the glass so can do double duty for light close up work, it is a stop darker at the tele end but that's the only significant real world compromise. The SWD motor speed is something I would love to see as an upgrade to either of the two Zuiko macro lenses as with their long travel they can be slow to rack through their range at the moment... 50mm SWD please!
Recently I went to a cool village music event where a guy on a tiny stage in a garden marquee was lit by a few coloured bulbs. I didn't want to appear intrusive or nerdy and tried a few snaps with the E-410 I had in my bag - they didn't look bad. Then I remembered I had the E-3 as well so I took a deep breath and prepared for some raise eyebrows, it was wearing the 50-200mm lens. It was worth it though, not least because I had left the noise reduction off on the E-410 and had to use ISO1600 with the darker kit lens. Set to Auto ISO with IS on the E-3 was able to take sharp pictures at around 1/5th second even at 200mm! Of course it depended on the singer staying reasonably still but I was able to snap without flash and the audience forgave me. The results were - to my eyes - amazingly good - and I'll be proud to offer them to the performer without any excuses.
The one weakness which has really made itself apparent is the drain that the stabiliser adds. Battery life isn't a patch on the little E-410/420s (which continue to impress) and the use of the image stabiliser as a default soaks up even more. That the on board flash is impressively able to light huge spaces only aggravates the problem as it too can give the battery a beating. It's not a hardship to carry another battery and super nerds will buy the grip which houses two batteries and makes them look like paparazzi anyway. I guess you can run to at least 250 and 300 shots on one BLM-1 and if you don't hang around filling an 8GB card shouldn't be a problem.
So is it worth the premium over other cameras and more particularly other E- series bodies? I'd like to avoid answering that quickly, as the best answer - just as when asked which camera you recommend is to ask what you want it for. If you need a simple camera this isn't it - nor is it small, light or cheap either. Something like the E-410 or E-420 fills that role perfectly - though they can stretch your creativity too as they are by no means crippled. If you want something larger and more obviously capable, with extras like image stabilisation then the E-510/520 is the smart choice. So where does that leave the E-3? If you want a weatherproof body to match your weatherproof lenses for tough shoots or just wet walks we're getting on the right track. Add a preference for a larger brighter viewfinder, faster focus and direct button access to key parameters for shooting without looking away from the subject and now you need one of these. I guess very few of us really need everything that our cameras can do but we revel in the features which are key to the way we like to shoot.
I'm really enjoying shooting with the E-3 and one thing I have found most useful is the low light shooting - cleaner higher ISO performance bolstered by IS, which I now tend to leave on. The big, bright viewfinder is a pleasure for landscape and portrait and I've even used the mirror flip live view for over the head crowd shooting which I swore I'd never do in memory of the 'real' liveview on the E-330 ;-) The E-3 just begs you to try harder and think more - which has made it worth the premium for me.
Olympus are famous for one thing above all else, glass. Their background in medical optics and an eccentric, single minded approach to product development has led to many great lenses and some opportunities which just aren't available from other companies. If you fancy a read about those look here:
Just in case you wonder the bulky rubber rings on the lenses in the photos are so that the zoom rings can be controlled in underwater housings - not a standard feature. The list is in order of increasing focal length.
Vivid Oceans and Secret Seas