Monday, April 06, 2009

Olympus E-3 System 90+ days on

Orchids 18It's been a good three months since I got the Olympus E-3, and I've had tons of opportunities to use the equipment in many different and challenging situations. One such situation for me was at the Central Florida Orchid Society's Celebration of Orchids Show they held this past weekend at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. They were in one of the buildings, and it was filled with hundreds of flowering orchids, many I've never seen before.

It was a photographer's dream; they invited photography (as well as purchasing orchids; I purchased two and won one as a door prize Sunday) and there was no-one to throw me out. So I took as many as I cared to, especially the ones that caught my eye. The orange orchid to the right was a little thing that was tucked down in between many larger ones, and I almost missed it.

What the photo to the right helps illustrate is a key feature of the E-3 (and a number of other Olympus models, in particular the E-520, E-620, and E-30), and that's in-body image stabilization (IS). I was using the Oly 50-200mm SWD zoom lens and shooting hand-held at ISO 800 and with IS enabled. And it's a good thing it was. I was dismayed to watch the image weave and bob in the E-3's finder, thinking that I couldn't get a decent shot without a tripod. But sure enough I got plenty of decent shots under low light without flash. The only time I needed to use the E-3's built-in flash was when the lighting and contrast were so low that I had to use flash to pull the subject out of the background. The E-3's flash is even and doesn't cause harsh highlights. All my doubts about the usefulness of IS were put to rest this past weekend. When you can use it, Olympus' IS is a powerful feature in the E-3's extensive arsenal.

Long Zoom

The 50-200mm SWD is a remarkable 4-to-1 zoom. As excellent as it is I have two complaints. My first complaint is that at 200mm (400mm effective 35mm focal length) you can really see hand shake in the finder. And that's not a flaw of the lens as it is with me. As a consequence I try to either shoot in bright light, or baring the use of a tripod, find a convenient prop to lean against. But if I can't do any of that, I can still count on IS to help pull out some decent shots in adverse light and conditions.

A bigger complaint I have with the 50-200mm is with autofocus. There are times when the lens will hunt all over the place. Unfortunately it's very inconsistent when it decides to occur. For example, there were only two instances over the weekend where focus hunt took place; I expected it to occur a lot more. And there have been several instances in bright sunlight here in Florida where it's also happened. I think I'm beginning to note a pattern, but it hasn't happened often enough for me to speak with any great authority as to its cause. In spite of that, the 50-200mm is a beautifully-built, optically remarkable lens at all focal lengths and from wide open down to at least f/11.

Moderate Zoom

The 12-60mm SWD 5-to-1 zoom has lived up to its legendary reputation. When I was pulling together my current system, I went immediately for the lens before I went for the body. I had intended to buy just the lens for my E-300, but there appeared a number of body-lens-flash combos on the market that it made better sense to get the combo (I was also going to get the flash, the FL-50R). It stays on the body when I'm not using another lens, and when I travel it goes with me on my E-300 while the rest of my gear stays at home. The only other lens I've seriously thought of getting in this range is the higher-level 14-35mm f2 SWD, and that jewel will set you back a pair of Grover Clevelands plus change. For my use the 12-60mm is a superb workhorse.

Wide Zoom

The 9-18mm 2-to-1 zoom was the last lens I purchased, and the only one purchased in Orlando. While built at the Olympus Standard Grade, it's optical performance is outstanding, again from wide open down to about f11. It's small, compact, and a lot of fun to use. If it were built as a splash- and dust-proof lens, then it would probably cost as much as the 7-14mm lens (around $1,500), at which point you might as well get the 7-14mm. And while it's 'only' 3mm wider than the 12-60mm at its widest, the FOV at 9mm is 22 degrees wider, which makes indoor shooting and some types of architecture shooting easier to capture. It's a great wide-angle zoom at a great price.

Batteries

I've been purchasing alternative BLM-1 battery packs online from Blue Nook. My dad, who shoots with an E-300, brought them to my attention. The batteries I buy from them are made by Wasabi Power and sell for around $29.00. They're rated 1900mAh at 7.5 volts. They charge in the standard Olympus charger, or you can get an inexpensive Wasabi charger from Blue Nook as well for $25.00. I've purchased four packs so far. I've got battery grips for the E-3 (HLD-4) and the E-300 (HLD-3); both grips hold two packs each. I use the Olympus BLM-1's as the swapping pair, keeping them in the charger and rotating them out when either camera shows low battery. So far the Wasabi's have worked quite well, and at half the price of the regular BLM-1's and at a slightly greater capacity (1900mAh vs the BLM-1's 1500mAh) they're a pretty good bargain. And Blue Nook is a good place to buy them online. I don't know how long the Wasabi's will last; the original BLM-1 that came with the E-300 in 2006 is still working quite well, so the Wasabi's will have to work at least as long as that BLM-1 to be as good. As they say, only time will tell.

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