Sunday, June 14, 2009

Olympus E-3 System Six Months On

It's been six months since December of last year when I first opened all the boxes on my E-3 and its lenses and equipment. While it isn't perfect (what camera truly is), I'm satisfied with it to the point where I'll give it up when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

System Specifics

With the exception of two lenses (the Zuiko 9-18mm and Sigma 30mm) every piece of equipment was purchased back in December of 2008, when the prices were anywhere from 35%-50% off of MSRP. It was remarkable. Since that time the prices have risen back to reclaim half their mark-off. I wish I'd purchased more, but my budget had a firm fixed limit.

My system is composed of the following:
  • E-3 Body
  • HLD-4 vertical grip
  • FL-50R flash
  • 12-60mm Digital Zuiko High Grade ED SWD 5:1 zoom
  • 50-200mm Digital Zuiko High Grade ED SWD 4:1 zoom
  • 9-18mm Digital Zuiko Standard Grade ED 2:1 zoom
  • 30mm Sigma DC HSM f/1.4 prime
Other bits and pieces include a pair of SanDisk Extreme III 30MB/s Compact Flash cards, Hoya Pro1 Digital Filters for everything but the Sigma (it has none at this time), a Hoya Pro1 Digital circular polarizer (72mm for the 12-60mm and the 9-18mm), extra batter packs (WASABI Power 1900mAh BLM-1 replacements from Blue Nook), all of which is kept in a Kata OC-82 camera bag.

Camera bag: Kata OC-82 Interior

Although the Kata looks large in the picture, it fits easily over my shoulder and the whole kit is light enough and rugged enough for travel to just about anywhere. When I'm out shooting for real I use two bodies, the E-3 with the 50-200mm mounted and my older E-300 with the 12-60mm.


As I said earlier I'm quite satisfied with the whole system, but it does have its quirks. I'm going to begin to document my observations. I won't get to all of them (after all I want to write more than one post about this wonderful camera). Here goes.
  • General Fit and Finish - Because it was released in November of 2007, there were already a number of very long reviews of the E-3 and many of the lenses I own (see links below). I read each and every one, paying attention to comments about the camera's quality, as well as looking at sample shots. Based on what I read I pulled the trigger and ordered everything on-line.

    When I ordered the E-3 body, I ordered it as part of a kit that included the 12-60mm and the FL-50R flash. The body was the first item that came out of packing and as soon as my hands touched it I could tell immediately that it was a well crafted, precision instrument. Then I unpacked and mounted the 12-60mm and attached the HLD-4 vertical grip. Each component also exuded the same quality feel, fit, and finish. As soon as the lens and vertical grip were mounted and the E-3 was 'complete' it felt like it was molded specifically to fit my hands. Although there was weight and heft to the total package it didn't feel overly heavy, just substantial. After six months of constant use nothing has changed. If anything, my attachment to the camera has grown stronger. The E-3 plus 12-60mm goes with me in my car everywhere I go. As soon as my hand lifts it up the camera system is ready to take any picture I care to take.

  • Battery Operation - I run the E-3 with the Wasabi's, choosing to put the original Olympus BLM-1's in another vertical grip mounted on my E-300. I've discovered that I get the longest battery times when shooting strictly through the viewfinder. Using live view will cut into the time between battery changes/recharges. One way to really kill the battery life is to use the USB port to view images on the compact flash. I don't know why. When pulling images off the card I turn the camera off, remove the compact flash, and use a SanDisk USB 2 reader with Olympus Master 2 to view and post-process the images.

  • Live View - As mentioned above, running Live View can be a real battery killer. And yet, in spite of that, when you need Live View you really need it, and it's worth the cost in battery life. It's just not something to be turned on and left on.

    I use Live View for the odd shot; camera above my head for the downward look, or off to the side, or sitting on a flat surface such as a table or railing for support. To make it most effective I pre-focus so that when it's active I see the scene in focus. That's because autofocus doesn't work until you press the shutter, and the mirror drops down to allow autofocus to work. That's the bad part of Live View as it's implemented on the E-3; when you enable it the mirror goes up allowing the output of the sensor to be seen directly on the back pivoting LCD. It allows you to really see the scene in detail, but when you press the shutter for your exposure, the mirror is dropped down, the camera then attempts to autofocus and set exposure, after which the mirror then snaps back up out of the way, the shutter is triggered for the exposure, and then Live View continues. It's great for thoughtful shooting, but not so much for fast action.

    Live View does have one excellent feature. I can use live view to immediately gauge proper white balance and exposure compensation (if in program mode) or how manually setting shutter speed and aperture effect exposure before taking the shot, even using live histogram through the INFO button on the back of the camera.

  • Auto Focus - Auto-focus speed and accuracy varies with the lens in use. The fastest and most accurate auto-focusing lens I have is the 12-60mm. It is lightening fast and always (and I mean always) dead on. I have never had a problem with autofocus with that lens.

    Autofocus with the 50-200mm is a little less satisfactory. Focus speed is fast, but not as fast as the 12-60mm. Furthermore there has been the rare but occasional time where the 50-200 has refused to focus lock. I shoot single-focus plus manual, so when the 50-200mm starts to hunt I grab the focus collar and manually focus myself.

    The 9-18mm, not being an SWD lens, is much slower than either the 12-60mm or the 50-200mm. But it is as accurate as the 12-60mm. My biggest complaint with it is the lack of weather sealing and its slower f-st0p. But the only really good alternative is the Super High-Grade 7-14mm, and it costs 3 times as much as the 9-18mm. For my needs I can live with the 9-18mm; it's an Olympus and it still produces beautiful images.

    The final lens in the collection is the Sigma 30mm. The Sigma is notorious for suffering from back-focus and front-focus problems, especially on the E-3. I've been lucky in that mine seems to focus reasonably well. But the problem with the 30mm is the knife-thin depth of field wide open. It isn't so much that it front- or back-focuses but that it wrong-focuses. As a consequence I usually put the 30mm on manual focus and just focus the Old Fashioned Film Way with the viewfinder. Every time I hear about how images are out of focus with the 30mm, I'm reminded of the film days when people would complain about out-of-focus or blurry shots made with 50mm f/1.4 or faster primes. The advice given back about how to use those lenses still applies today. In spite of its occasional problem, when it works it works beautifully, producing quality images that stand with Olympus glass.

  • In Body Image Stabilization - It works. Regardless of what you may read on dead trees or in forums, Olympus IS on the E-3 is an image saver, especially when hand-held shooting with the 50-200mm at 200mm (400mm effective 35mm focal length). And because it's in-body it works with every lens attached to the E-3. For tripod work (studio, some outdoor architecture and panorama work) it's not that important a feature. But for all hand-held work I can't stress enough how much it helps get the shot, especially in dodgy light.

  • Weather Sealing - The E-3, the 12-60mm, and the 50-200mm are all weather sealed. I can't count any more the number of times I've been caught out in the Florida rain with my E-3 and 12-60mm. And I mean drenched. All I have to do is dry both myself and my camera off, and every thing's good. The other good reason for weather sealing is the transition from air conditioning to the hot muggy out-of-doors. During the transition from cold to hot all the glass surfaces get coated with moisture. After about a minute the camera warms up to the ambient temperature and I'm off shooting. But the sealing does keep the moisture from building up in the body, for which I am thankful.
There's quite a bit more to write about; each lens in particular and the flash are deserving of their own entry. Suffice to say that it's a great camera, a great system, and it is an excellent value for the money spent.


Olympus E-3 A Technical Review and Reference
Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm 1:2.8-4.0 review
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm 1:4-5.6 review

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