Sunday, February 08, 2009

Olympus E-3 System 30+ days on

I got the core of my new E-3 system for Christmas (body, two lenses, and flash), so it's been more than 30 days (more like six weeks) since I opened everything up and started to use it. For the most part I've had a wonderful time.

Olympus E-3 Body

Some complain about the size of the body. In my hands, with the HLD-4 battery pack attached, it fits like a glove. I have a camera which for the first time fills my right hand completely and comfortably. The weight is generally not an issue unless I attach the 50-200mm and carry that around for a while.

More complain about the placement of the controls. I'll admit that when I want to change something I still have to stop and look rather than just instinctively touch and move a control. I got used to Olympus camera controls with the E-300, so I wasn't to concerned about control placement on the E-3's body. But it is going to take some more time before it becomes more "finger-tip knowledge". As far as instinctive camera control is concerned nothing will replace the OM series of film cameras. They were brilliantly simple manual film cameras and for me an ergonomic masterpiece. The shutter speed dial was actually wrapped around the lens mount next to the body. That left the aperture ring next, followed by a focusing ring, and for zoom, the zoom ring. Everything was right there in my left hand. That left my right hand to simply wind and trip the shutter. The E-3 is more heavily automated, so shutter and aperture are selected for you based on camera settings. It's those camera settings, or the tweaking of them, that make you pull the camera away from your eye while you make the changes. Once I get more comfortable with the camera those tweaks will become increasingly rare, except for special circumstances. Right now I'm still in that "what does this do" mode of experimentation.

Olympus 12-60mm 1:2.8-4 ED SWD

Yes, a long name for a short lens. This mid-teer High Grade lens from Olympus has a solid 5-to-1 zoom range and, when attached to the E-3, one of the fastest autofocus capabilities I think I've ever seen. It's also one of the sharpest lenses I've ever used at every nearly every focal length from wide-open to at least f11. The lens has a near-legendary reputation in the Olympus community, and as far as I can see, it deserves that reputation.

Unfortunately the lens was away for nearly two weeks due to an accident here at the house. It all started one Saturday morning in late January. I was planning on going out with some friends to shoot, so I was in the kitchen putting everything in my bag for the Great Expedition. Unfortunately, Ruby, our yellow Lab female puppy, was in there with me. I set the E-3 with the 12-60mm mounted on the body on the table such that the camera strap was hanging off the edge, getting ready to pack it away. I wasn't fast enough. Either Ruby deliberately grabbed the strap thinking it was something to play with, or else she was bouncing around and whipped her head and caught the strap. Whatever the reason, the effect, unfortunately, was still the same. The camera came down off the table and hit the floor lens first.

I almost started to cry.

The lens had both its front cap and a 72mm Hoya Pro1 Digital UV filter on it. The cap absorbed most of the impact, and the Hoya filter shattered. I stood there in stunned silence, and then started yelling at Ruby. "Bad dog! BAD DOG!" I screamed. Ruby knew she'd really screwed up and immediately backed into the corner of the kitchen that was opposite from me and the camera.

I was able to brush out the filter fragments and to see that the front element was unharmed. Miraculously there were no scratches. I quickly checked out the camera and lens with a number of test exposures and saw that it was still quite operational. I then tried to unscrew the Hoya outer ring and ran into a problem. It was stuck. Hard. Rather than run the risk of another accident, I made the fateful decision to head over to a local camera shop and have them take it off. I called my buddies and told them I wasn't coming with them and why. Then I headed downtown to Colonial Photo and Hobby.

I've known about Colonial for nearly as long as I've lived in Orlando. I've purchased supplies there, gotten film processed there, and had several of my cameras serviced there. I didn't get the E-3 there because their price for the body as a good $750 over what I could get from Amazon. I didn't want to do that, but I managed to save 40% off the entire kit price by buying from Amazon. And that's an awful lot of money save.

When I got there I handed the lens over to one of the staff, who took it into the back and their repair area. After 10 minutes of waiting, the staff person came back with a grim look on his face. He started out by apologizing for the fact he'd damaged the front element trying to take of the Hoya ring. I looked on in shock and growing anger while he calmly and quickly explained what happened while I looked at the nice fresh divot that had been dug right into the center of the front element. He finished the explanation by saying that Colonial would send it into Olympus for me and that they would pay for it. At that point all I had left was my shock.

I almost started to cry again.

Some people will look at a piece of camera gear and say "so what". Some, like me, will quickly grow attached to a particular piece of equipment, such as my 12-60mm, and feel a great loss if something, anything, happens to it. The image quality of the 12-60mm is phenomenal, and to use that lens is to grow in love with glass and metal wrapped in plastic. It's irrational, but then guys with special gadgets have always been irrational about their special gadgets down through the ages.

So I went home, depressed, and waited until I could bring the lens back to Colonial the following Tuesday so they could send it off. When I dropped it off they told me it would take a horribly long 4 to 6 weeks to turn it around. Grumble. In the mean time I switched back to the 14-45mm kit lens that came with the E-300. As good as that lens can be, it was not up to the same level as the 12-60. It was never meant to be.

Then, this Saturday, less than two weeks after they'd shipped the lens, Colonial called to say they'd gotten the lens back. What an incredible surprise. Judy and I were already planning to go to Greek Fest, so when we left the house we made a quick detour to Colonial to pick the lens up. They had daddy's special lens, and they absorbed all costs. Colonial really made good on their promises. The 12-60mm was back in my hands and I was able to use it this weekend. There was such great joy in Beebeville this weekend that I was almost ready to dance like a Greek.

Olympus 50-200mm 1:2.8-3.5 ED SWD

The 'short' telephoto zoom, and another phenomenal performer. The damage to the 12-60mm and its subsequent trip to the depot forced me to really use the 50-200, far more so than I would have normally. The 12-60 was so good that I was getting into the rut of using it almost all the time. If there was any good from the accident it's that I learned a lot more about this lens and became more rounded experience-wise for it.

Focus on the lens is almost as fast as the 12-60mm, and produces tack-sharp results throughout its range and nearly all f-stops, including wide open. If there's a con to the 50-200mm it's the size. It makes the 12-60mm seem petite by comparison. The size also makes me realize that this is the largest lens I'll get for the Olympus. Everything else is bigger and/or costlier; all the lenses in the Super High Grade line are too rich for my budget. But it's good that the 50-200mm is as good as it is. I'm certainly quite satisfied.

Olympus 9-18mm 1:4-5.6 ED

Unlike the first two lenses mentioned, I purchased the 9-18mm on Saturday from Colonial. As far as cost was concerned the price difference between on-line and Colonial was only $50. And they had it there on the shelf. And they let me try it out. That and the fact that Colonial's handling of the 12-60mm restored my faith and trust in the store and its staff. So on the way home from Greek Fest on Saturday I stopped back by Colonial and bought the lens. I do feel better that it was a local purchase with a local store. And they are an authorized Olympus reseller.

Colonial Photo and Hobby test

While I was playing around with the 9-18mm on my E-3 I took a quick shot of three of the staff (and another Olympus customer on the right edge). This was at 9mm. The gentleman on the far left was the individual responsible for personally expediting my 12-60mm repair. He was the one who called on Saturday to let me know it was in. I eventually purchased the 9-18mm from him.

Close up of the back of my 12 to 60

The photo above illustrates two features of the lens. First is the close focusing of the lens. That's the back of my 12-60mm on the counter shot with the lens at 18mm. The front element is mere inches from the lens bayonet. The second is that even at 18mm the lens has noticeable bokeh. I'm no bokeh fanatic (in fact I can't stand the over-emphasis that seems to grip so many forums), and I intend to use the lens so that it never really shows, but I was still impressed by the quality of the 9-18mm even wide open.

The 9-18mm is from the Standard line. That means it's not splash-proff like the 12-60mm and 50-200mm. But it's fit and finish are still quite high and it's compact. Although I've only had a chance to use it for two days, I've shot enough to come to the realization that I made the right choice in getting this lens instead of the costly 7-14mm f/4. The 7-14mm is three times the cost of the 9-18mm. Considering the circus over the nick on the 12-60's front element, I think I'd have cardiac arrest if I owned that lens and something were to happen to it's big bulging front element. No. As wonderful as the 7-14mm may be, the 9-18mm is an excellent performing and quite practical lens, and for me gives excellent value.


I believe the E-3 system I've put together is the best camera system I've ever owned. I appreciate the quality and the workmanship of every individual piece. I appreciate the output of the lenses as well as the sensors in the body. It's an awful lot of fun to use. I'll never be a pro, and if you have need one then look elsewhere. For me, Olympus is well more than enough camera. I'm going to have a lot of fun learning how to get the most out of system, and if it lives as long as some of my film cameras have then it'll still be a good camera for my girls and their kids.

As for Ruby, I still love her. She still romps around the place and her little psyche doesn't show any permanent damage. But she has certainly learned to avoid the E-3 like the plague.

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