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Olympus E-3 Field Report: Iceland

in Olympus E-System , Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A few days ago I returned from a 9 day journey around a wintery, snow blown Iceland in the company of nature photographer (and crippled 4x4 driving maestro) Daniel Bergmann. I was using the Olympus E-3 seriously for the first time, and could compare it alongside Daniel's Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII.

On my previous 4 trips to Iceland I used the E-1, and shot over 4000 frames, of which at least 3 are quite nice. The E-1 took everything Icelandic weather could throw at it, and just shrugged. It never missed a beat, and never picked up any sensor dust. However, its 3 point auto focus was far from ideal for wildlife, and the 5 Megapixel sensor was a bit limiting. So, now was time to hand over to the E-3 with 10 Megapixels and a totally new state of the art AF system, not to mention in-body stabilisation.

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The weather was again up to the challenge, and the E-3 had to put up with the elements, although not to the extent the E-1 has gone to. However, it looks like it is well up to the standards of its illustrious predecessor. Temperatures were between -10 and +5, usually around -2. And it snowed. A lot.

The viewfinder on the E-3 is fantastic, and nobody should have any trouble with manual focus. In theory, Live View should also be useful, but to be honest, on at least half of my attempts to use it, I gave up, as the screen simply wasn't readable enough. The screen is one area where the EOS 1Ds blows the E-3 out of the water. The Canon's screen is simply gorgeous, and usable even in bright light. The E-3's is adequate, but frankly it should be a lot better. Having said this, I did not use the auto brightness adjust feature, which might make things better, but on the other hand, it screws up colour reproduction. Anyway, I did get a least one shot with Live View that would have been very tricky without it.

I also notice that the screen brightness seems to suddenly jump or fall a few notches, in all modes (playback, menu, info). This may be a fault, or an undocumented feature. Classify under mildly annoying, for now.

I quite frequently made long exposures, using either an infrared blocking filter or a Singh-Ray Vario-ND filter. I noticed that the camera makes a very pronounced noise (the audio kind) when the mirror is up. Again, I'm not sure if this is normal or not. Actually, it may well be because I forgot to turn IS off... Long exposure performance with the E-3 is simply exceptional compared with the E-1. However, I cannot recommend the Singh-Ray filter, as it introduces some very nasty colour shifts and irregular darkening. This is partly due to the design, based on two polarisers, but frankly, it is way over-priced and clumsy to use. It seems worse on the E-3 than the E-1 or E-400, but it isn't brilliant on them either. I'll be sticking to B&W NDs in future.

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Given the specifications, and the temperatures, one thing that really surprised me was battery life. And not in a good way. The E-3 munched its way through 3 fully charged BLM-1s, for 750 frames. Two of these batteries were brand new. I did not indulge in anything like excessive chimping, and set review time to 2 secs when I was unsure of exposure, or off otherwise. Not impressive.

Speaking of exposure, that is another area Olympus needs to look at. Spot metering works fine, as it should, but ESP metering is really all over the place. Very inconsistent and very sensitive. Ok, so snow and ice are not easy targets, but getting 2 stops over exposure on snow is pretty impressive... not to mention following up with 1 stop under on a nearly identical scene. This is not news to me - it is equally hopeless on the other 2 cameras.

Auto Focus, on the other hand, is dramatically better. Using the 50-200 (non SWD) I did get some hunting, but nothing like with the E-1, where hunting is the norm, and acquiring focus is a rare event. I usually used a single, central focus point. Panning on moving targets worked far, far better than anything I've used before.

The ergonomics are not as good as the E-1. No contest. The loss of the mode dial is bloody stupid, and the dual-purpose direct buttons are a pain in the posterior. Remembering which button & dial combination to use for shooting mode or AF mode is neither intuitive nor a pleasant user experience. Otherwise the handling is ok, but I do not find the position of the shutter release to be quite right. It is an ok camera to use, but it has lost the fluidness of the E-1.

As for using it with gloves, well it depends on the gloves. With North Face windstopper trekking gloves, it is pretty tricky, although not impossible. With LowePro photographer's gloves - which are fine at -5C - it is absolutely not an issue.

Compared to the EOS 1Ds MkIII, the camera is noticeably smaller, but the weight feels similar. The EOS is lighter than it looks, and the E-3 heavier than it looks. Obviously the EOS delivers much higher resolution, but the difference between the two in terms of lens performance is impressive. The ZD lenses simply do not vignette, and are sharp right into the corners, wide open. On the other hand, the 1Ds delivers a degree of vignetting and corner softness that will have 'em drooling on Flickr :-). However, as mentioned before, the 1Ds has a truly fabulous screen.

I used three lenses, the 14-54, 50-200 and 7-14. This was also the first time I used the 7-14 seriously, and I was very impressed. It delivers an incredible sense of depth, almost three dimensional, and controls flare extremely well. An expensive lens, but worth it.

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So, in conclusion, there is much to like about the E-3. In terms of delivering images, it is a huge advance over the E-1. In terms of ruggedness and all terrain capability, it is equal. But in terms of ergonomics, well, sadly, it doesn't quite hit the same heights of perfection.
Posted in category "Olympus E-System" on Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 06:08 PM

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