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DCRP Review: Olympus E-3  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 13, 2008
Last Updated: February 12, 2012

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The E-3 ($1699) is the flagship camera in Olympus' digital SLR lineup. It is the long-awaited follow-up to the E-1, which was introduced way back in 2003 (back when our reviews were in purple). Olympus didn't just slap a new badge on the E-1 and call it the E-3 -- this camera is new from the ground up. Some of the highlights on the E-3 include:

  • A 10.1 effective Megapixel LiveMOS sensor
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Live view on a flip-out, rotating 2.5" LCD display
  • World's fastest autofocus when paired with the 12 - 60 mm SWD lens pictured above (according to Olympus)
  • Shoots at 5 frames/second
  • Weather-sealed, very well-built body
  • Dust reduction system
  • Large optical viewfinder
  • Dual memory card slots (xD + CF)
  • Hot shoe and flash sync port; supports wireless flashes straight out of the box

And there's a lot more too, and I'll cover those features in the review of the E-3, which starts right now!

What's in the Box?

The E-3 is only available in a body-only kit. Here's what you'll find inside the box:

  • The 10.1 effective Megapixel Olympus E-3 camera body
  • BLM-1 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master
  • 153 page camera manual

Since the E-3 doesn't come with a lens, you'll need to buy one (unless you have some already, of course). The E-3 supports all FourThirds lenses, and there are more than twenty to choose from. If you've got some old OM lenses laying around, you can use those too, with the appropriate adapter. I got to test the new F2.8-4.0, 12 - 60 mm SWD lens with my E-3, and was impressed with its performance and photo quality. I let an Olympus enthusiast friend try it out, and he raved about its build quality and mechanical ring (most FourThirds lenses are electronic in that regard). We both agreed that while it's a fast-focusing lens, it didn't seem that much faster than any other quality lens we've tried.

Digital SLRs never come with memory cards, so if you don't have an xD or CompactFlash card already, you'll have to buy one. The E-3 has dual slots: one for xD and the other for CompactFlash. The CF slot supports Type I and II cards, plus ultra-fast UDMA-enabled cards. I'd suggest a 2GB, high speed CompactFlash card to start with.

The E-3 uses the same BLM-1 rechargeable battery as the E-1 did. This is one of the most powerful lithium-ion batteries on the market, with a whopping 10.8 Wh of energy. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, 50% flash use, live view off
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS-40D 800 shots BP-511A
Fuji FinePix S5 Pro 400 shots NP-150
Nikon D300 1000 shots EN-EL3e
Olympus E-1 * 500 shots BLM-1
Olympus E-3 610 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 450 shots DMW-BLA13
Pentax K20D ** 530 shots D-LI50
Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 650 shots NP-FM500H

* Not calculated with the CIPA standard
** Same as the Samsung GX-20

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The E-3's battery life numbers are just about average in this class. Keep in mind that the numbers above are calculated with live view off -- turning it on will probably knock anywhere from 30 - 50 percent off those scores.

Like all of the D-SLRs above, the E-3's proprietary battery has a few issues worth mentioning. For one, they're expensive, with a spare setting you back at least $36. Secondly, if the BLM-1 runs out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day (unless you're using the battery grip and AA adapter mentioned below).

Olympus E-3 with battery charger

When it's time to charge the BLM-1, just pop it into the included charger. And then prepare to wait for five hours for it to be charged. If you want a faster charger, Olympus would be happy to sell you one -- for $70! Whichever charger you use, you'll have to use a power cable with them, as they don't plug directly into the wall.

Olympus E-3 with battery grip
The E-3 on its optional battery grip; photo courtesy of Olympus

For longer battery life you'll want to pick up the HLD-4 battery grip ($200). This holds two BLM-1 batteries, giving you double the battery life. The optional AABH-1 AA battery holder ($30) will store 6 AA batteries in place of the BLM-1's. The grip is just as weatherproof as the camera body, and it has the extra buttons and dials needed for shooting in the portrait orientation.

Being a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the E-3 supports a ton of accessories. Here's a quick summary of what's available:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The E-3 supports all FourThirds lenses, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio
External flash


From $109
From $204
From $425
More flash power and less chance of redeye; the two "R" models can be used wirelessly
OM adapter MF-1 From $90 Use classic OM lenses with the E-3 (with lots of restrictions, though)
Battery grip
AA battery holder
From $190
From $30
Double the battery life plus extra controls for shooting in the portrait orientation; the AA battery holder lets you use six AAs
Wired remote control RM-CB1 From $51 Take a picture without touching the camera
Wireless remote control RM-1 From $24 A wireless remote is also available
Right Angle Finder VA-1 From $175 Lets you look into the viewfinder from above
Magnifier eyecup ME-1 From $33 Enlarges the viewfinder magnification by 1.2X
Fast battery charger BCM-1 From $70 Charges your battery in two hours instead of five
Semi-hard case CS-7SH From $43
Holds the camera with a lens attached
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

Not a bad selection if you ask me. There are even more accessories available, for more specific applications.

Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X

Olympus includes version 2 of their Olympus Master software with the E-3. Olympus Master is pretty snappy (except when loading a RAW image -- that took nine seconds), the interface is simple, and it can do just about everything you could ever want.

After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders on your hard drive) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related newsfeeds, though it wasn't yet working when I tried it.

Here you can organize photos, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a bunch of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.

Editing JPEGs in Olympus Master 2

Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.

Editing RAW images in Olympus Master 2

Olympus Master also features a basic RAW editor. It lets you adjust exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, noise filter, and more. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master shows you the results after a few seconds of grinding away. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.

Olympus Studio 2 for Mac OS X

If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider Olympus Studio 2 ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, and batch processing.

Olympus Studio 2 - Camera Control Feature

Olympus Studio also lets you control the camera over a USB connection. You can adjust all the settings on the camera, and the images are saved right to your Mac or PC. Unlike with some other D-SLRs, you don't get live view on your computer here. You can get a quick still-image preview, but that's about it.

Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction (well, in theory at least) without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card, and decrease camera performance.

If you want to use something other than Olympus software for RAW editing, rest assured. Adobe's popular Photoshop CS3 photo manipulation software can read them just fine, assuming that you have the latest Camera Raw plug-in.

Updating firmware in Olympus Master

Oh, one more thing. The E-3 and all of the components in its "system" can have their firmware updated from the comfort of your desk. Just plug in the camera, load up Olympus Master, and you can quickly check for firmware updates for the camera body, lens, or external flash. I'm not aware of any other camera maker that lets you do this so easily.

The E-3 is one of the most complex digital SLRs on the market, so it needs a good manual to go along with it. Olympus provides a decent-sized manual that covers a lot of areas, though not terribly in-depth. The manual could also be a little easier to read -- it has a pretty cluttered layout.

Look and Feel

If there was ever a camera that fits the description "built like a tank", the E-3 is it. The camera has a magnesium alloy body, with a minimum of plastic. Everything is sealed against dust and moisture, so you can shoot "in the elements" (note that not all lenses are sealed). The camera has a substantial right hand grip, making it easy to hold onto. Being a fairly large camera, you'll want to use both hands to keep the E-3 steady.

From an ergonomic standpoint, the E-3 is a mess, in my opinion. With over twenty buttons scattered across the body, the E-3 is the poster child for "button clutter". Many of these buttons are not logically placed, requiring the photographer to have to search to find what they're looking for. I found the front command dial to be poorly placed, as well. What I'm getting at here is that you should really try the E-3 before you buy it: it's definitely one of the more difficult midrange SLRs to operate.

Now let's see how the E-3 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS-40D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 740 g
Fuji FinePix S5 Pro 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 in. 74 cu in. 830 g
Nikon D300 5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 in. 75.7 cu in. 825 g
Olympus E-1 5.6 x 4.1 x 3.2 in. 73.5 cu in. 660 g
Olympus E-3 5.6 x 4.6 x 2.9 in. 74.7 cu in. 810 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 5.3 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 62.4 cu in. 480 g
Pentax K20D 5.6 x 4.0 x 2.8 in. 62.7 cu in. 714 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 5.6 x 4.3 x 3.3 in. 79.5 cu in. 690 g

While the E-3 is more-or-less the same size as the E-1, it's about 23% heavier. In the midrange D-SLR group as a whole, the E-3 is above average for both size and weight.

Enough jabbering, let's start our tour of the camera, beginning (as always) with the front of the camera.

Front of the Olympus E-3

Here's the front of the E-3 with the lens removed. The camera has the same FourThirds lens mount as the other E-System cameras, and there are plenty of lenses to choose from. There is a 2X focal length conversion ratio on FourThirds D-SLRs, so a 35 mm lens has the field-of-view of 70 mm. You can release the lens by pressing the button located to the right of the mount.

The E-3 offers a sensor-shift image stabilization system, like the E-510. Gyroscopic sensors in the camera detect the shaking caused by tiny movements of your hands. The E-3's LiveMOS sensor is mounted on a movable plate, when can be shifted in order to compensate for "camera shake". Now it won't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multiple second handheld exposures, but it will allow you to use slow shutter speeds that would be off-limits otherwise. Want to see how well it works? Have a look at this:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken with a shutter speed of 1/4 second. As you can probably tell, the E-3's image stabilizer did the job, producing a sharper photo.

Like all of Olympus' E-Series cameras, the E-3 has the SuperSonic Wave Filter dust removal system. This system literally "shakes off" dust with ultrasonic waves when you turn the camera on, greatly reducing the amount of dust that can litter your photos. Although most of the competition now offers dust reduction on their SLRs, Olympus was years ahead of them in this area.

Above the lens mount is the E-3's pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash has a guide number (GN) of 13 meters at ISO 100, which is tied with the Canon EOS-40D and Pentax K20D for the "most powerful" award. The Nikon D300 and Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 have slightly weaker flashes. If you want to add additional flashes, there are several options available to you. You can add a flash via the hot shoe or flash sync cable, or you can go wireless using the FL-36R or FL-50R external flashes I mentioned earlier. You can have up to three sets of wireless flashes, and you can control the whole thing right from the camera.

If the flash is popped up, the camera may use it as an AF-assist lamp. These flash-based systems all for much faster low light focusing than traditional AF-assist lamps, with the downsides being that A) you must pop up the flash each and B) the strobe can be rather irritating to your subject. You aren't forced to take a flash photo, by the way -- just disable the flash in the menu.

Just under the E-3 logo is the white balance sensor. You can also catch a glimpse of the front command dial and shutter release button. Down near the bottom of the photo a depth-of-field preview button.

At the top left photo (under a screw-on plastic cover) is the flash sync port. Below that is receiver for the optional remote control, as well as the self-timer/remote control "countdown" lamp.

Back view of the Olympus E-3

One of the stand-out features on the E-3 is its flip-out, rotating 2.5" LCD display with live view. Once the LCD is flipped to the side it can be rotated 270 degrees, from facing your subject all the way to pointing at the ground. This may sound gimmicky if you haven't used a rotating LCD before, but trust me, it's nice. Shooting over people's heads or taking ground-level photos without throwing out your back is easy with the E-3. The LCD can also be put in the "traditional" position (see below), or closed entirely.

Back of the Olympus E-3

The LCD (with "HyperCrystal" technology) has 230,000 pixels, which is a pretty standard resolution for a D-SLR these days (with the D300 and A700 being exceptions). That little white dot on the upper-left of the screen is a light sensor. This allows the LCD to change brightness automatically depending on conditions. I didn't particularly care for this feature (especially indoors), and quickly turned it off.

Olympus was the first SLR manufacturer to offer a camera with live view (the E-330), and the E-3 has the latest iteration of that technology. If you're using to composing photos on the LCD on your compact camera, then things will be similar here -- more or less. You get to see 100% of the frame, white balance is previewed, and both a histogram and framing grid are available.

The live view isn't quite as sharp or as fluid as a compact camera, and the snappy contrast-detect autofocus you may be used to is not available. If you want to use autofocus, you must press the AE/AF lock button, wait for the camera to perform some mirror acrobatics, and then you can take the photo. This feature is not suited for action shooting, that's for sure. Some camera manufacturers are starting to add contrast-detect AF to their live view D-SLRs, and Sony in particular has come the closest to simulating the point-and-shoot experience.

Outdoor visibility in live view mode is good, though not spectacular. At default settings, it can be hard to see what's on the screen in low light situations. However, turn on the "live view boost" feature (custom settings menu) and you'll get a much brighter view, although it'll be in black and white.

When you're using manual focus in live view mode you can enlarge a part of the frame to verify proper focus. Just press the Info button, move the green square to the area you want enlarged, and press the OK button. The image can be enlarged by seven or ten times. This is where live view really shines, in my opinion.

Info display on LCD when using viewfinder Changing settings on the LCD

When you're shooting using the viewfinder, the LCD displays a myriad of information about current camera settings. It's a bit cluttered, but boy is it complete. A lot of this same information is available on the info display on the top of the camera that you'll see in a bit. If you want to change any of the settings displayed, you can press the OK button (in the four-way controller), navigate to the option you wish to adjust, and change away (see example). After a few seconds, the info display turns off the backlight (it kind of looks like a digital watch at this point), though outdoors you can still see it fairly easily.

Above the LCD is the E-3's giant optical viewfinder. With a magnification of 1.15X, the E-3's viewfinder is larger than any other midrange D-SLR on the market. Not only is the viewfinder large -- it shows 100% of the frame as well. The camera's eleven focus points are superimposed over the frame, and below the field-of-view is a line of data showing current exposure settings, shots remaining, and more. A diopter correction knob, located at the top-left of the viewfinder, can bring things into focus for folks with less-than-perfect vision. There's also a switch that closes a little door over the viewfinder, which you may want to do when using the live view feature (don't worry, the camera will remind you).

Immediately to the right of the viewfinder is the AE/AF lock button, plus the rear command dial. Below that is the button used for entering playback mode. At the top-right are the Function and Focus Point Selection buttons. The Function button is customizable, and I'll tell you exactly what can go there in the menu section of the review. The focus point button lets you select one of the camera's eleven focus points (more on this later).

Now I'll tell you about the buttons just to the right of the LCD. First up is the four-way controller, which is used solely for menu navigation and setting adjustments. Below that is the IS button, which lets you select from two image stabilization modes, or just turn the whole thing off. IS Mode 1 is regular old image stabilization. Mode 2 only stabilizes vertical motion, which is perfect for "panning" shots. Turning off the IS system is advisable when the camera is on a tripod.

Below those buttons we find the power switch, as well as the release for the door over the memory card slots.

The four buttons located below the LCD include:

  • Delete photo
  • Info - toggles what's shown on the LCD
  • Menu
  • Live view (on/off)

And that's it for the back of the E-3!

Top of the Olympus E-3

The first things to see on the top of the Olympus E-3 are the three buttons on the left side of the photo. The location of these buttons isn't terribly convenient, and since they do multiple things, you'll be stopping to read the labels to see what does what. I would've preferred that Olympus took advantage of the four-way controller for some of these items. Anyhow, the buttons control the following:

Button Function w/rear dial Function w/front dial
FLASH Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off, slow sync w/redeye reduction, slow sync, 2nd-curtain slow sync, full power, 1/4 power, 1/16 power, 1/64 power) Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments)
MODE Shooting mode (Program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, bulb) - see below Drive (Single-shot, high speed continuous, low speed continuous, 12 or 2 sec self-timer, 0 or 2 sec remote control) - see below
AF Focus mode (Single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF + MF, continuous AF + MF) - see below Metering mode (ESP, center-weighted, spot, spot w/highlight control, spot w/shadow control) - those last two basically ensure accurate whites and blacks, respectively
MODE + AF AE bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV, 5 frames/0.3EV, 5 frames/0.7EV, 5 frames/1.0EV) - takes 3 or 5 shots in a row, each with a different exposure value

There's lots to talk about here. First, those shooting modes. The E-3 doesn't pretend to be a consumer camera: you won't find any scene modes here. The Program mode is the closest thing to a full automatic mode on the E-3, with the camera selecting the aperture and shutter speed automatically. Should you want to adjust those, you can use the command dials to move through various aperture/shutter speed combinations (this is called Program Shift). The aperture priority mode lets you select the aperture yourself, with the camera handling the shutter speed duties. The aperture range will vary depending on what lens you're using (the 12-60 SWD lens has a range of F2.8 - F22). Shutter priority mode is just the opposite: you select the shutter speed (from a range of 60 - 1/8000 sec), and the camera picks the proper aperture. The full manual (M) mode lets you select both the aperture and shutter speed, using the same ranges as before. There's also a bulb mode, which will keep the shutter open for as long as you have the shutter release button held down.

There are two continuous shooting modes on the E-3: low speed and high speed. In low speed mode, you can select a frame rate ranging from 1 to 4 frames/second. The default setting is 3 fps, and sure enough, that's how fast the camera was able to shoot. It kept shooting for 16 RAW+JPEG, 19 RAW, and a seemingly unlimited number of JPEG photos. Move up to high speed mode and the frame rate jumps to to 4.8 frames/second, which is slower than the advertised 5 fps. The number of photos you can take drops slightly, with the burst rate slowing down after 15 RAW+JPEG, 16 RAW, and 28 JPEGs. As you'd expect, the live view turns off as soon as the camera starts shooting continuously.

What about those focus modes? Single AF is what most of you are used to: press the shutter release halfway, and the camera locks focus. Continuous AF will keep focusing for as long as the shutter release is halfway-pressed, even tracking a moving subject around the frame. Manual focus does just what it sounds like: you'll use the ring around the lens to set the focus distance. The S-AF+MF and C-AF+MF modes let you manually focus after and before autofocus is run (respectively).

Enough buttons for a minute -- let's talk about the E-3's hot shoe. This is one of three ways in which you can use an external flash, with the other two methods being wirelessly, or via the flash sync port. The hot shoe works best with the Olympus FL-20, FL-36(R), and FL-50(R) flashes, which synchronize with the camera's metering system. Third party flashes will work too, though you may need to manually select the flash settings. The fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/250 sec, unless you're using the FL-36R or FL-50R, in which case you can use the Super FP mode, which lets you use any shutter speed.

Moving to the right now, we find the camera's LCD info display. This displays virtually every camera setting imaginable (I'm not listing them here), and there's a backlight you can turn on so you can see it in the dark.

Above that we have buttons for turning on the info display backlight, white balance, exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments), and ISO sensitivity. I'll list the available options for the other buttons later in the review.

Side of the Olympus E-3

First up on this side of the E-3 is the flash release button, located at the top of the photo. Moving to the lower right, we find the port for the optional wired remote control, which is protected by a screw-on cap.

Continuing to the southeast, we reach the I/O ports, which are all under sealed rubber covers. The ports here are for USB, video output, and DC-in (for optional AC adapter). As you would expect on a midrange D-SLR, the E-3 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Side of the Olympus E-3

On the other side of the camera you'll find its dual memory card slots, which are protected by a sturdy, sealed plastic door. The slot on the left is for xD Picture Cards, while the slot on the right is for CompactFlash cards. The CF slot supports the "thicker" Type II cards, as well as those that are UMDA-enabled (for fast read/write speeds).

Bottom of the Olympus E-3

On the bottom of the E-3 you'll find a metal tripod mount (in line with the lens, of course) and the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment is sturdy, and includes a locking mechanism.

The BLM-1 lithium-ion battery is shown at right.

Using the Olympus EVOLT E-3

Record Mode

The Olympus E-3 performs its dust reduction "shake off" and is ready to start taking pictures in one second. There are faster SLRs out there, though they either lack dust reduction, or perform the cleaning at shutdown only.

Olympus claims that the E-3, paired with the 12-60 SWD lens, is the fastest focusing SLR in the world. Well, I don't have the equipment to verify that claim, but yes, it's pretty fast. In the best case scenarios (wide-angle, good lighting), focus times were practically instant. Telephoto focusing speeds weren't much slower. On some occasions, especially in low light (even with the AF illuminator), the E-3's focusing was pretty sluggish, with delays exceeding one second. The camera did eventually lock focus, but still, pretty disappointing for a midrange D-SLR.

Shutter lag isn't an issue if you're shooting with the viewfinder. However, if you're using live view mode you can expect to wait about a second between the time you fully press the shutter release and when the photo is actually taken.

Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, regardless of the image quality setting or whether the flash was used. You can keep shooting until you fill the buffer, which takes some work.

There's no way to delete a photo immediately after taking it -- you must enter playback mode first.

The E-3 has a ton of image size and quality options, and even I was a little confused by all of them. Hopefully this chart makes some sense:

Resolution Compression Approx. file size # images on 1GB xD card (optional)
3648 x 2736
None 11.0 MB 91
3648 x 2736
Super fine 6.8 MB 147
Fine 4.7 MB 211
Normal 2.2 MB 460
Basic 1.5 MB 687
3200 x 2400
Super fine 5.3 MB 187
Fine 3.7 MB 267
Normal 1.7 MB 597
Basic 1.1 MB 888
2560 x 1920
Super fine 3.6 MB 280
Fine 2.2 MB 466
Normal 1.1 MB 927
Basic 700 KB 1361
1600 x 1200
Super fine 1.3 MB 799
Fine 800 KB 1163
Normal 500 KB 2284
Basic 300 KB 3198
1280 x 960
Super fine 800 KB 1230
Fine 500 KB 1776
Normal 300 KB 3366
Basic 200 KB 4920
1024 x 768
Super fine 500 KB 1881
Fine 400 KB 2665
Normal 200 KB 4920
Basic 100 KB 7107
640 x 480
Super fine 200 KB 4569
Fine 200 KB 6396
Normal 100 KB 10661
Basic 100 KB 12793

Now that's a lot of options. To make things even more confusing, you can take a RAW photo along with any of the JPEGs listed above at the same time.

Olympus uses a rather unusual file naming convention on their cameras. Files are named PMDD####.JPG where M = month, D = day, and #### = 0001 - 9999. Photos taken with the AdobeRGB color space start with an underscore, instead of a "P". You can customize the first two characters of the file name in the setup menu, if you wish.

The E-3 has a detailed, complex menu system. There are a lot of options to be found here, some of which are buried pretty deep. Unlike many of Olympus' consumer camera, there's no in-camera help available in the menus. The manual doesn't explain things terribly well, either. The menu is divided into five tabs, covering shooting, playback, and custom options. Here's what you'll find:

Shooting Menu 1
  • Card setup (All erase, format)
  • Custom reset setting (Reset, reset 1, reset 2) - reset to defaults or to settings of your choice
  • Picture mode (Vivid, natural, muted, portrait, monotone, custom) - more below
  • Gradation (Auto, normal, high key, low key) - see below
  • Image quality (RAW, Large/Fine, Large/Normal, Medium/Normal, Small/Normal, RAW+LF, RAW+LN, RAW+MN, RAW + SN)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, one-touch 1-4, color temperature) - see below
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - for long exposures only; increases shot-to-shot speeds
  • Noise filter (Off, low, standard, high) - amount of noise reduction applied to images
Shooting menu 2
  • Metering (ESP+AF, ESP, center-weighted, spot, highlight control spot, shadow control spot) - see below
  • Flash RC mode (on/off) - for controlling wireless flashes
  • Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • AF mode (Single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF + MF, continuous AF + MF) - described earlier
  • AF area (All target, single target, dynamic single target) - see below
  • Anti-shock (Off, 1 - 30 secs) - flip the mirror out of the way for a set interval before the shot is taken
  • AE bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV, 5 frames/0.3EV, 5 frames/0.7EV, 5 frames/1.0EV) - described earlier
  • WB bracketing (Off, 3 frames/2 steps, 3 frames/4 steps, 3 frames/6 steps) - camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different white balance setting; you can bracket in the red/blue and green/magenta directions
  • Flash bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV) - same as exposure bracketing but for flash exposure
  • ISO bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV) - same as exposure bracketing, but for ISO sensitivity
Playback Menu
  • Slideshow (1, 4, 9, 16, 25 frames)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - rotates images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Edit - I'll discuss these later
    • RAW Data Edit
    • JPEG edit
  • DPOF print marking (One, all)
  • Copy all - from one memory card to another
  • Reset protect (on/off)
Custom Menu 1
  • AF/MF
    • AF illuminator (on/off)
    • Focus ring (Counterclockwise, clockwise) - which way the focus ring operates; for electronic focus rings only
    • C-AF lock (on/off) - prevents the focus from changing in C-AF mode
    • AF area pointer (on/off) - whether the focus point is illuminated in the viewfinder
    • AF sensitivity (Normal, small) - size of the focus point
    • Focus point setup (Off, loop, spiral) - how the focus points are navigated
    • Reset lens (on/off) - resets lens to infinite focus when camera is turned off
    • Bulb focusing (on/off) - whether you can focus during a bulb exposure
  • Button/Dial
    • Dial - select what the rear and front command dials control
      • Program mode (Program shift, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Aperture priority mode (Aperture, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Shutter priority mode (Shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Manual mode
        • Main dial (Shutter speed, aperture)
        • Sub dial (Shutter speed, aperture)
      • Menu
        • Main dial (Left/right, up/down, value)
        • Sub dial (Left/right, up/down, value)
    • AE/AF lock button - how this button works; I'll save the details for the camera manual
      • S-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
      • C-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3, 4)
      • MF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
    • AE/AF lock memory (on/off) - whether the lock "sticks" when you let go of the button
    • Function button (Preview, live preview, one-touch WB, home focus point, manual focus, RAW quality, program mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, manual mode, test picture, My Mode, underwater, underwater macro, off) - define what this button does
    • My Mode setup (My Mode 1, 2) - save your favorite camera settings here
    • Button timer (Off, 3, 5, 8 sec, hold) - how long the "direct buttons" are active
    • AE/AF lock <-> Function button (on/off) - swap the function of the two buttons
  • Release/Continuous
    • Release priority S (on/off) - whether focus lock is required for shutter release
    • Release priority C (on/off) - same as above, but for continuous AF mode
    • Low speed continuous rate (1 - 4 frames/second)
  • Display/Sound/PC
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Sleep (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
    • Backlit LCD (8 sec, 30 sec, 1 min, hold) - this is for the main LCD
    • 4 hour timer (Off, 4 hr) - turns off camera after 4 hours
    • USB mode (Auto, storage, MTP, control, easy PictBridge, custom PictBridge)
    • Live view boost (on/off) - boosts low light visibility
    • Frame assist (Off, grid, golden section, scale) - composition aids
  • Exposure/Metering/ISO
    • EV step (1/3, 1/2, 1 EV)
    • ISO step (1/3, 1 EV)
    • ISO Auto set - set the upper limits for auto ISO
      • High limit (100-3200)
      • Default (100-3200)
    • ISO Auto (P/A/S/all) - when auto ISO is available
    • AEL metering (Auto, center-weighted, spot, spot highlight, spot shadow)
    • Bulb timer (1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 20, 25, 30 mins) - preset a time for bulb mode
  • Flash custom
    • X-sync (1/60 - 1/250 sec)
    • Slow limit (1/30 - 1/250 sec)
    • Flash exp comp + exp comp (on/off) - I believe this rolls flash exposure compensation into exposure compensation
  • Quality/Color/WB
    • All white balance compensation
      • All set (-7 to +7) - in either the amber or green directions
      • All reset
    • Color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB)
    • Shading compensation (on/off) - supposed to help reduce vignetting
    • Image quality set (Large/Medium/Small, Superfine/fine/normal/basic) - select the size and quality of the four image quality settings
    • Pixel count - select the resolution for these two sizes
      • Middle (3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200)
      • Small (1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480)
  • Record/Erase
    • Quick erase (on/off) - whether camera prompts you to delete a photo
    • RAW+JPEG erase (JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG) - what's removed when you delete a RAW+JPEG photo
    • File name (Auto, reset)
    • Priority set (No, yes) - initial position of the cursor when All Erase or Card Format is selected
    • dpi setting (Auto, custom) - the latter lets you select the dpi of your choosing
  • Utility
    • Cleaning mode - flips the mirror up, for manual sensor cleaning
    • External WB detect (on/off) - whether the external white balance sensor is used

Custom Menu 2
  • Date/time (set)
  • CF/xD - choose which card slot to use
  • Edit filename - modify the file naming system a bit
    • AdobeRGB (Off, A-Z, 0-9)
    • sRGB (Off, A-Z, 0-9)
  • LCD brightness (Auto, -7 to +7) - here's how to turn off the auto LCD brightening, if you wish
  • Language
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Rec View (Off, auto play, 1 - 20 secs) - post-shot review; the auto play option enters playback mode after a photo is taken
  • Pixel mapping - blocks out bad pixels on the sensor
  • Firmware - displays the firmware version of the body and attached lens

Picture Mode menu Available options for a custom Picture Mode

There's plenty to talk about here, and I'll start with the E-3's Picture Modes. The presets are fairly obvious: vivid, natural, or muted colors, plus portrait for smooth skin tones. For each of those, you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, and saturation. For black and white shooting, there's a monotone mode. There you can apply virtual color filters, or add a color tint to the image. Finally, a custom option lets you select a Picture Mode as a starting point, and you can then adjust the settings I just mentioned, plus the gradation, which I'll cover below.

The gradation feature takes advantage of Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology. When you set this to "auto", the camera will break the image into smaller sections, analyzing and adjusting the brightness in each individually. This is white similar to the Advanced D-Range Optimizer on Sony's D-SLRs. Does it work? You bet:

Normal gradation

Auto gradation

Now that's a whole lot nicer if you ask me. Naturally, there is a trade-off involved with this feature: more noise. You probably won't notice at lower ISOs, but at higher ISOs, you may not want to use this feature. If you shoot in RAW mode, you can turn gradation off in Olympus Master or Studio if you don't like the results, and it'll disappear like magic. Two other gradation options are high key and low key. Olympus says that high key is for bright subjects, while low key is for dark subjects. Easy enough.

AF area menu Dynamic single target AF mode

There are three AF area modes on the E-3. First up is "all target AF mode", which lets the camera automatically select one of the eleven focus points. Single target AF lets you select one of the focus points. You can adjust the size of the focus point with the AF sensitivity option in the custom menu. A third AF mode is called dynamic single target mode. This is like single target AF, but if the camera cannot find anything at that point, it'll check the adjacent points as well.

The E-3 has four types of auto bracketing. You can bracket for exposure, flash exposure white balance, and even ISO sensitivity. If you've got the space on your memory card, this is a good way to always get the shot you want. Since my E-3 seemed to underexpose a lot, I found myself using the auto exposure bracketing often.

There are numerous white balance options available on the E-3. First, you've got the usual presets, and each of those can be tweaked in the amber/blue or green/magenta directions. The camera can also store up to four sets of custom white balance settings, which you set by taking a photo of a white or gray card. You must set the Function button to One-touch WB first, though. I don't know why Olympus (and Nikon, for that matter) makes this so difficult. You can also set the color temperature, with an available range of 2000K - 14000K.

I don't know about you, but I'm sick of talking about menus. So, let's move on to photo tests now. Since there's no kit lens offered with the E-3, I'm skipping the distortion test.

The E-3 (paired with the 12-60 lens) did a really nice job with our macro test subject. The colors are super-saturated, and that's at the "natural" Picture Mode, too! The white background does have a slight brownish cast, though you may be able to remove that by fine-tuning the white balance a bit. The subject has the "smooth" appearance that you'd expect to see on a D-SLR, though plenty of detail is still captured. If you're looking for noise, good luck: there isn't any.

The minimum focus distance will depend on what lens you have attached to the E-3. If close-up photography is your thing then you may want to consider one of the dedicated macro lenses that Olympus offers.

The camera did a great job with the night scene, as well (using the F3.5-4.5, 40 - 150 mm lens). Taking in enough light was easy, thanks to the E-3's manual shutter speed controls. The E-3 did have some trouble with the US Bank sign in the center of the photo: it's blown out, and there appears to be a hot pixel there as well. The buildings are nice and sharp, with minimal visible noise. Purple fringing is evident, though closing down the aperture a bit eliminates most of that.

I have two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene above. Here's how the camera performs at each ISO sensitivity in low light:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 800, noise filter off (RAW conversion)

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

While the ISO 100 shot is clean, noise and noise reduction artifacts start to show up as soon as you hit ISO 200. Details start to get eaten away at ISO 400, and even more so at ISO 800. Turning off the noise filter trades the smudged details for noise, though even noise reduction software can't make the E-3 perform as well as the D300 or 40D. Noise and noise reduction continues to worsen at ISO 1600 and 3200, and you get something else, too: horizontal banding. It didn't matter if I shot in RAW or JPEG mode, the banding was always there.

We'll see if the E-3 does better in good lighting in a moment.

I wouldn't expect to see redeye on a camera with a big pop-up flash, and sure enough, there isn't any on the E-3.

And now it's time for our second ISO test. This one is taken in our studio, and is comparable between cameras that I've reviewed. So, now's as good a time as any to pop open the EOS-40D, D300, and A700 reviews for comparison purposes.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

The ISO 100 - 800 crops are buttery smooth, with no visible noise, and minimal noise reduction artifacts. Making large prints at these settings are no problem. Noise does become visible at ISO 1600, though details are left intact, allowing you to remove the noise using software like NeatImage. I would say that a mid-to-large print is still easy at that setting. At ISO 3200, some detail is lost, but again, with noise reduction software, you can still get a printable image. The E-3 definitely holds its own -- and in some cases, surpasses -- the competition in good lighting.

Overall, I was very pleased with the photos produced by the Olympus E-3. Colors were accurate, and quite saturated as well. Photos are slightly soft, though not as much as on some other D-SLRs. If you want to bump up the sharpness a bit, you can use the Picture Mode feature to do so. The E-3 goes easy on the noise reduction, so details are left intact, even at higher ISOs. As the previous test illustrated, noise levels are low until you get to ISO 1600, though even then, noise reduction software can clean things up nicely. Purple fringing was not a problem.

The main issue I had with the E-3's photo quality was that exposure was often hit-or-miss, much like on the E-410/E-510. Usually they were underexposed by 1/3-2/3 stop, though a few times it was the other direction, for no apparent reason (example). Most of the photos in the gallery have some exposure compensation applied to them, and the studio shots were taken 2/3-stop above what I usually use. Thankfully this issue is manageable, so watch those histograms!

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, printing a few pictures if you can, and then decide if the E-3's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Digital SLR cameras do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The E-3 has a fairly nice playback mode by D-SLR standards. Basic features such as slideshows, DPOF print marking, image rotation, image protection, and zoom & scroll are all here. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo by as much as 14X, and then scroll around to make sure that everyone's smiling.

Photos can be viewing one-at-a-time or as thumbnails of varying sizes. You can also navigate to photos that were taken on a certain date by using the calendar view (pictured).

The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs, another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you downsize an image, or apply shadow adjustment technology (described back in the menu section) to an image. The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG.

Side-by-side image viewer

Another nice feature is a side-by-side image viewer. Press the focus point selection button to split the screen, select the image you want for the right half, and then you can compare them easily. When you scroll one image, the other one scrolls with it. Very handy!

Since the E-3 has two memory card slots, it's not surprising that it lets you copy photos back and forth between an xD and CompactFlash card.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button a few times and you'll get a lot more.

The E-3 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

The Olympus E-3, the flagship of Olympus' lineup, is an excellent camera which keeps up with the best midrange digital SLRs. The E-3 offers a very solid, all-weather body, sensor-shift image stabilization, dust reduction, full manual controls, live view on a rotating LCD, and all the expandability that you'd expect from a D-SLR. There are some downsides, including a clunky, confusing control system, sluggish low light focusing, so-so low light/ high ISO performance, and the tendency to underexpose. Now, I don't see Canon and Nikon owners selling all their gear and buying an E-3. But for those upgrading from an older FourThirds D-SLR, or just starting out, the E-3 is absolutely worth a look.

The E-3 is a fairly large and heavy digital SLR. It has a magnesium alloy frame, giving it a tank-like build quality. Everything is sealed, so if you want to take pictures in a dust storm or pouring rain, go right ahead. Speaking of dust, the E-3 has the same Supersonic Wave Filter as Olympus' previous D-SLRs, which should keep this annoyance to a minimum. The camera has a good-sized, rubberized grip, allowing it to fit comfortably in your hands. The E-3 is a poster child for button clutter, with over twenty buttons scattered around the body, some of which require you to pull the camera away from your eye so you can find it. I also did not care for the location of the front command dial -- it's too much of a stretch for my fingers. Like all of Olympus' SLRs, the E-3 supports FourThirds lenses, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio. And, since the camera has sensor-shift image stabilization, so every lens you attach will be able to battle the evil forces of camera shake.

On the back of the camera is a flip-out, rotating 2.5" LCD display, with 230,000 pixels. As is the case with the E-410 and E-510, the E-3 supports live view, so you can compose your photos just like you can on a compact camera. Well, sort of. If you're using the halfway-pressing the shutter release and having the camera autofocus, you won't find that here. You can still autofocus by pressing the AE/AF lock button, but it's not nearly as responsive as on a fixed-lens camera. The view isn't as sharp or fluid as most compact cameras, either. Live view really shines in manual focus mode, where you can zoom in and make fine adjustments to the focus. The rotating LCD makes things even easier, as you don't have to crane your neck to take over-the-head or ground level shots. Just north of the camera's LCD is its large optical viewfinder. With a magnification of 1.15X and 100% coverage, the E-3's viewfinder is arguably the best in its class. The E-3 has two memory card slots, one for xD and the other for CompactFlash. The latter supports the new ultra-high speed UDMA cards, for those who demand maximum performance.

The E-3 doesn't pretend to be a consumer camera: this one's for people who know what they're doing. There are no scene modes and no help screens here. What you will find are full manual controls, four types of bracketing, and numerous ways to set the white balance. The camera supports the RAW image format, and is able to take a JPEG at the same time. There are plenty of custom functions to play with, as well. Some other nice features include shadow adjustment technology, which is disguised as the "auto" option in the gradation menu option. This brightens up the dark areas of your photos, and quite nicely might I add. You can also use this feature in playback mode. The E-3 can "develop" RAW images in the camera, so if you botched the white balance, you can fix it right on the camera, and save the resulting image as a JPEG. The camera can be controlled from your Mac or PC, though the software is $100 extra (it's bundled on other midrange SLRs), and live view is not supported.

Camera performance was very good in most respects. The E-3's one second startup time isn't quite as fast as the competition, but you're getting a "dust off" in there, so I think it's worth the tradeoff. The E-3 is a fast-focusing camera in most situations, though it doesn't necessarily feel like the "fastest focusing camera in the world", even with the much-vaunted 12-60 mm lens. Low light focusing was just the opposite -- sluggish -- even with the flash-based AF illuminator. Shutter lag wasn't a problem normally, though there's about a one second delay in live view mode, while the mirror flips down and then back up again. Shot-to-shot delays were minimal. The E-3's continuous shooting mode isn't as fast as the 40D or D300 (nor is it as fast as advertised), but 4.8 frames/second is fast enough for most purposes. Battery life was right about average, and you can double it by purchasing the optional battery grip. The E-3 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

Though not without a few flaws, the E-3 produced very good quality photos. They were colorful, and full of detail. Some may consider the photos slightly soft (as is the case with most midrange SLRs), but fixing that is easy enough. As with the E-410 and E-510, the E-3's metering system seemed a bit wonky at times. It usually underexposed by 1/3 - 2/3 stop, but on rare occurrences, it would totally overexpose, blowing out the highlights. In good light, the E-3's noise levels are very low all the way through ISO 800. At ISO 1600 and 3200 it's quite apparent, though details are still intact, allowing for you to use noise reduction software effectively. Things aren't as good in low light: noise and noise reduction artifacting shows up at ISO 200, though it doesn't become "bad" until ISO 800. You can shoot in RAW or turn the noise filter off to improve things, though I think the D300 and 40D perform better in these situations. Purple fringing levels were low, and redeye was not a problem either.

All things considered, the Olympus E-3 is a solid midrange digital SLR, in more ways than one. It does almost everything well, with just a few weaknesses, most of which have easy workarounds. If you're an enthusiast looking for a powerful D-SLR that doesn't mind if it gets a little bit wet, then I can highly recommend taking a look at the E-3.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality in most situations (see issues below)
  • Optical image stabilization for every lens you attach
  • Superb build quality; body is sealed against dust and moisture
  • Supersonic Wave Filter "shakes" dust off sensor
  • Live view on a flip-out, rotating 2.5" LCD display (though see issues below)
  • Large optical viewfinder with 100% coverage
  • Full manual controls (and then some)
  • RAW image format supported; good conversion software included
  • Snappy performance in most areas; nice continuous shooting mode
  • Impressive shadow adjustment technology (aka gradation) feature
  • Three ways to control an external flash (hot shoe, flash sync port, wirelessly)
  • Redeye not a problem
  • Optional battery grip
  • Dual memory card slots; CF slot supports ultra-fast UDMA cards
  • USB 2.0 High Speed protocol supported

What I didn't care for:

  • Camera tends to underexpose
  • Low light / high ISO performance not as good as some of the competition; banding visible at highest sensitivities
  • Too many buttons on camera body + poorly located front command dial makes E-3 more difficult to use than most
  • Live view isn't as sharp or fluid as other midrange D-SLRs, and most compact cameras; autofocus requires extra button press; adds 1 second of shutter lag
  • Sluggish low light focusing
  • Camera control software costs $100 more, doesn't support live view
  • Manual could be a lot more detailed
  • Slow battery charger included

Some other midrange D-SLRs to consider include the Canon EOS-40D, Fuji FinePix S5 Pro, Nikon D300, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Pentax K20D / Samsung GX-20, and the Sony DSLR-A700.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the E-3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Have a look at our photo gallery and judge the E-3's image quality with your own eyes!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.