Four long years have passed since Olympus launched its first professional digital SLR. During that time there may have been moments when some Olympus fans doubted there would ever be a successor to the much-loved E-1.
Now the wait is finally over with the launch of the E-3. And it's causing quite a stir, thanks to a big dose of innovation and a rather bold claim to be the world's fastest autofocusing SLR.
From the moment you pick up the E-3, you feel like you're holding a thoroughly well-built piece of kit. The ergonomics are superb and despite being a fairly bulky camera it feels good in the hand. The build quality is excellent and everything from the switchgear, to the seals that keep out dust and water, are just right.
Our first experience with the E-3 was during a torrential downpour at the camera's launch. Thankfully, not one of the 40 review models being tested broke down. That, in itself, is proof enough that Olympus has made a camera that can properly withstand the stresses and strains of a professional use. This is a photojournalist's camera: tough yet light enough to perform in harsh conditions for both camera and photographer.
At the heart of the E-3 is a new Four-Thirds Panasonic 10MP NMOS image sensor. A Four-Thirds sensor is quite a bit smaller than the APS-C sensors found in most other D-SLRs and yet the E-3's high ISO performance looks very good indeed.
Okay, it might not be able to match the very best in APS-C sensors, but even at ISO 3200 the chroma noise is very low. And let's not forget that there are some advantages in using a Four-Thirds camera when it comes to weight and lens design. The range of Zuiko lenses for Olympus D-SLRs is second to none in terms of optical results and build quality.
But perhaps the proudest boast for Olympus is the speed of the E-3's all new 11-point biaxial auto-focus system. When used in conjunction with the brand-new Olympus Zuiko 12-60mm SWC lens, it's said to be the world's fastest AF system. There's no doubt about it - the speed and accuracy are thoroughly impressive. What's more, the silence and precision of the new ranger of Olympus SWC lenses is superb.
But it isn't just the autofocus that's had a bit of a boost. The E-3's shooting speed now trots along at a respectable five frames per second, and that speed can be sustained for up to 19 RAW files or an unlimited number of JPEGS - and unlimited means until the memory card is full up.
There's a choice of using either Compact Flash or xD-Picture cards, and the architecture of the camera enables some very swift write speeds thanks to the UDMA file structure used.
So, it's a 10MP SLR, with a waterproof body and an extremely fast autofocus system. But is that enough to make the E-3 stand out from the crowd? Probably not... but the twist-and-swivel 2.5-inch LCD could be the deal breaker.
It may sound like a bit of a gimmick but that flexible screen gets you thinking about shooting from a variety of different angles without worrying about how to achieve them. It also means that when you use the E-3's Live View mode, almost any platform or surface can be turned into a tripod or rest. Overhead shots become simple and low-level floor shots are possible without the need to crawl on your belly to get them.
Also built into the E-3 is a CCD-based image-stabilisation mechanism that offers sharp hand-held shots down to 1/8th of a second... and it really works. The sensor also has the Olympus Super Sonic Wave anti-dust mechanism. The Olympus dust-busting system seems to be one of the most effective on the market and it's reassuring to have that on board too.
The all round performance of the E-3 is excellent. Olympus has managed to tame the noise of the smaller sensor and it's also addressed autofocus performance and continuous shooting rates. There's the twisty screen, image stabilisation and anti-dust system, but is there anything else to differentiate the E-3 from other pro SLRs on the market?
Easy to use
The first thing you notice is how great the E-3 feels to use. The build quality inspires confidence and the shutter response is sharp. The huge viewfinder addresses the past grievances and the autofocus is as fast as you need. And when it comes to exposure the E3 is spot on thanks to the ESP metering system.
However, even with all those features there's still something else that the E-3 brings to the party. The first thing is the film-like quality of E-3 images. It's hard to put it into words, but even when there's noise in an image, it's nice noise... like film-grain.
The second point is that the colour is stunning. Colours straight from the camera have a Kodachrome quality that most other DSLRs fail to capture. Shots leap out at you. The experience is close to the colours that Fujifilm has been producing with its SLRs for a few years now.
It's nice to see another camera manufacturer realising that the texture and colour of an image is as important as the numbers on the spec sheet - perhaps even more so. Buying and using a camera is about more than comparing numbers. How a camera feels and the atmosphere of the images it produces count for so much more than sterile laboratory tests.
During our review period we spent many happy hours shooting with the E-3 in all kinds of conditions and weather - from the lowest light levels to driving rain. And at all times the E-3 was a real pleasure to use and great fun to handle.
It may not tempt dyed-in-the-wool Nikon or Canon users to desert their chosen systems and lenses, but for anyone who wants to trade up to a more professional camera system, or for existing Olympus E-1 owners who really need to replace their trusty camera bodies, the E-3 offers an awful lot for its fairly modest £1,099 price tag.
When used with the sublime Zuiko 12-60mm f/2.8-4 SWC zoom lens, the Olympus E-3 makes for a compelling photographic tool that we simply couldn't help falling in love with.