E-3; ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?

It's nearly showtime for the Olympus E-1 replacement!


THE E-3 COMETH

There's no doubt - it's coming. For those who always believed Olympus would replace the E-1 with another pro-level camera, not a consumer grade DSLR, the time grows nearer. Most informed opinion suggests a late autumn release (September/October 2007).

The design engineers of the camera division at Olympus Imaging, Japan have certainly been busy this last year. The fruits of that labour started with the European-only E-400 that hit the market late 2006 or early 2007 depending where you were and the new Live View featured E-410 and E-510 which are currently rolling out.

For anyone that was listening Olympus, Japan promised:

There was to be a second wave of 4/3rds machines; it's just happened.

They wanted to make a digital OM1: they did, it's the E-4XX series.

They wanted to carve out a bigger market of global DSLR sales; it's happening before our eyes.

The E-1 replacement would arrive in 2007; and it's nearly here.

WHY SO LONG?

Sensor. Simple as that. The whole team has had to make an adjustment from Kodak CCD to Panasonic LiveMOS and retain those image qualities that are so very 'Olympus'. And these cameras have to both appeal and sell to return research & development investment. (I suspect Kodak is not being abandoned; rather, it's on hold and I'm sure we'll see more great things from this association as Kodak further develop their sensors.)

We'll never know if Olympus was a little naive with the E-1 or were sold the idea that new technology for cramming more pixels onto the small 4/3rds chip without the high noise levels would become available sooner rather than later. Whatever the reason it's fair to say this misjudgement cost Olympus in terms of lost users of the E-system at professional level and left them playing 'catch-up'.

But in this time of catching up Olympus gave us three more (consumer grade) DSLR choices - E-300, 500 and 330 though the E-500 was in response to the poor reception of the rather ugly & rushed E-300. That said the E-500 has put the company back on the DSLR map in a big way as it is a mighty good camera.

The E-330 set a completely new theme for 4/3rds as it endeavoured to conquer the live view (compact advantage) issue. Whilst not perfect Olympus' solution is pretty damn good and requires only a little more engineering to make it a 'natural' feature for every future DSLR regardless of stable. Please note I said 'feature' and I do not mean as a relacement for the reflex screen.

We've had the first part of the second wave of DSLR's (that seem to be well received to date) and now patiently await the finale - the E-1 replacement. And herein lies a conumdrum for Olympus. They have absorbed much (justified) criticism for the delay in replacing the E-1 and have kept very tight-lipped about the E-3. There is now so much anticipation in the air that it is almost inevitable that expectation will not be fully met. I simply hope folks will judge the new camera by its output and not indulge in the comparison game. Remember 4/3rds is incomparable as it still occupies a unique place, being the only digital system designed from scratch with no film baggage, film lenses or compromise.

A LOOK AT THE CONTROLS:

For the rest of this article I'm assuming the recent 'leak' from Olympus is genuine. I know debate rages about its authenticity but it's my belief that it is real and what it discusses is what we are going to get. If it turns out to be an elaborate hoax then I'll have been wrong and you may have wasted 5 minutes reading this article!

The new camera reflects the prototype displayed at March PhotoKina. It is heavily influenced by the E-1's excellent design with the same basic chassis and most of the E-1 characteristics, but given a fresh new look by both design and feature-set demand. Let's have a look.

FRONT GENERAL:

External WB sensor maintained. IR receiver present, as is the Pre-View button. Control wheel for index finger of the right hand is moved into the grip section releasing some real estate above and behind the shutter and note no PASM wheel. This releases space for an array of new control buttons. Shutter button more perpendicular. Flash synch and B/T release plug same as E-1. No custom WB button. More rounded grip shape with a rubber covering that appears more heavily embossed and grippy. The large wheel to affix the grip to base-plate is now on the rear of the grip and the front looks cleaner for this.

REAR GENERAL:

Large prism hump accommodating on-board flash ala E-4XX series. VF exit pupil is embodied in a large protuberance ala E-330. No obvious signs of dioptre adjuster or VF blind so I'm assuming they are on the left side, out of sight. Fully articulating screen similar to C5060, but larger and side hinged. The remainder of the rear is almost the same as the E-1 but the MENU button is moved, as are the WRITE lamp and the CARD door release. There's an obvious addition of the main ON/OFF button and SSWF lamp.

TOP PLATE DETAIL (as far as can be ascertained):

It seems I missed some more detailed shots of the control areas of the new camera posted some weeks ago. Until I saw these I had relied on a couple of different images of the EP-1 prototype. These showed slightly different button count/layouts. My previous interpretation of controls was based on these and appears be inaccurate. However, only Olympus knows the final layout and functionality so don't take everything you see here as read.

Thanks to one of our readers (Paul) for providing the above images (sorry for the typical web quality).

LEFT SHOULDER:

On the left side of the prism hump is the mechanical FLASH release button. Behind this are 4 icons; Flash Compensation, Drive choice (standard icon for fps, timer, IR release), Metering and nearest the back is the green COPY icon suggesting an xD card slot as well as CF; Why? (to reflect other Olympus DSLR?) On the left shoulder there appears to be three control buttons; these are FLASH, MODE and A/F. MODE appears to replace the PASM dial of the older E-1 and it will be interesting to see if the A/F selection includes an IS (image stabilization) selection or if this function has to/can be assigned to a free Fn button. The latter buttons are bracketed together with BKT indicating when pressed together the cameras various BRACKET functions can be selected. I anticipate some buttons will be allocated dual functions depending on which control wheel is turned with the button held down. Also it's plain to see the dioptre click wheel and the V/F blind switch lurking behind the rubber V/F eye-piece surround, as suspected.

RIGHT SHOULDER:

The right side of the prism has some major changes but it's good to see the LCD command screen is maintained and its LIGHT button. As mentioned there's no PASM dial and the frontal control wheel is now buried in the grip. There are two button areas; the top area immediately adjacent to LCD command panel that houses LIGHT and WB buttons. Then there's a flat sculpted area immediately behind the shutter button, down and right from the command panel that looks to sport two or probably three control buttons. I've been told the button layout on this lower area is likely to be ISO on the outer edge with COMP further along; that's two buttons. I'm not convinced. On the images at the top of the page and earlier images seen, there are 3 buttons plainly seen in this area; the flat topped ISO button on the outside and two further raised and shaped buttons, the inner one has a domed top and nipple and the other, in the centre, is proud and either square or oblong. Also, study the icon in front of the domed button; it has two circles and is unlike anything I've seen so far. It does not appear to be the usual COMP icon seen on all 4/3rds cameras to date. So, I'm hoping these two buttons will be highlight and shadow controls ala OM4. Is this not exactly where you'd expect those critical exposure controls to be?

REAR DETAILS:

High on the back plate right of the V/F housing is the AEL/AFL button with the rear control wheel immediately below. Moving further right there's a new Fn (programmable function) button and the AF POINT selector button. The REVIEW button is above the 4-way toggle which now contains the OK button in its centre. Below this a second Fn button is provided and then two mechanical switches for ON/OFF and card door OPEN.

Lying directly beneath the monitor screen are 4 additional buttons; DELETE, INFO, MENU and MONITOR (LV). The blue SSWF lamp completes this row. The right hand edge of the screen is deeply recessed and there is a heavily sculpted area near the SSWF lamp that allow the users finger to flick the screen outwards. It seems the screen in the above image is in the review position and I anticipate its other side will have a hard plastic cover to protect it (ala C5060) when closed properly. The universal joint that attaches the screen to the body allows it to be swung left by 180+ degrees and its rotation at this point will be 360 degrees. However, it seemingly cannot be used in the same way as the useful single plane movements of the E-330 and C5050, that are in line with their viewfinders and make composing via the monitor straightforward.

What about LiveView? As there have been two new LV models without modes A or B like the older E-330, it seems that technological solution is now obsolete. It is likely that only one LV mode is present ala E4/510 and if true, the screen/monitor button below the rear LCD panel will switch the monitor ON/OFF in LV.

This completes the camera controls but the new grip offers a duplicate AF POINT selector button, a new Fn button, a command dial LOCK as well as two command dials and a shutter button. The BLL-1 is abandoned in favour of two BLM-1's which, in many ways, makes a lot of sense (and was predicted).

A LOOK AT THE (leaked) SPECIFICATIONS:

PIXEL COUNT: 10MP. This is enough for all but the most dedicated landscape photographer. I'd suggest anyone wanting more should consider a move to medium format. An additional 2MP is going to make no perceivable difference to anything but the largest of enlargements. Remember that to double resolution you have to quadruple pixel count. And, of course, the original advantage arguments for 4/3rds format still apply.

5 FPS RATE: For many this is important. For a few 5fps is insufficient. For my sort of use it's welcome but not a deal maker.

FULLY ARTICULATING SCREEN: As a C-5050 user I was always a little envious of the C5060's screen movements. As an E-330 user it's obvious that a LV screen has got to be mobile. Having it fully mobile has got to be the best option, though I haven't quite worked the E-3's articulation yet. This type of screen is more vulnerable to damage but it's advantages are enormous. I see already complaints that E-410/510 screens are restricted because they're fixed.

IMPROVED SSWF: If this means selectable or programmable - great. Speeded up would be welcome, but again, for me, no big deal.

WIRELESS FLASH: Very welcome for most studio applications and situations. IR is direction limited and I'd like to think the additional hump behind the prism and under the flash shoe hides a rear facing IR sensor.

FASTER AF: Claimed to be a world leader with SWD lenses fitted. If true that's some advancement over the current rather sedate performance. However. I'm pretty happy with the current AF speed the newer bodies provide over standard E-1, though more speed and accuracy is welcome.

11 POINT AF: I've got mixed views on this. I've been very happy using the centre one of the three offered. To me more choice = more potential mistakes. YMMV.

ALL CROSS SENSORS: This represents a massive improvement. I'm looking forward to seeing just how good the new AF system is and how it works with non-SWD lenses.

IMPROVED CONTINUOUS AF: I avoid this setting. Whether the new AF implementation allows its use without the downside remains to be seen. For many others this is highly significant.

IMPROVED LOW LIGHT PERFORMANCE: Great! This is likely to be the most impotant aspect of upgrading the AF system. Combining all the AF improvements above should push E-3 performance well into higher levels of competance.

INCREASED SHUTTER MAX: 1/8000th is better for me and will improve the systems responsiveness. Others will demand more, no doubt. Much depends on your particular modus operandi.

INCREASED FLASH SYNCH: Not a vast improvement but at least it's rising. I can get 1/320th now from my E-1 + T32.

LARGER VIEWFINDER: Excellent. Though I have no problems myself I've had time to adjust from the CinemaScope look of OM screens. For new converts and current users of EXXX series machines who may be thinking of upgrading, this will be important. Good to see Olympus are maintaining 100% coverage. This is how it should be.

IMPROVED VF MAGNIFICATION: As long as the impact of this does not affect the other aspects of VF physics too much, then fine (but something has to give). I just have a little niggle of doubt over this 'improvement'.

SHADOW ADJUSTMENT TECHNOLOGY: This new feature might be the most significant new function of all. At its most optimistic SAT may imply a completely new system of 'waved' exposure data reads during the 'open' photosite phase. Such readings will store information at both 'light critical' ends of the phase (shadow and highlight) and by a complex comparison algorithm reclaim data from both critical ends, thus effectively increasing the dynamic range of the sensor. This data could be processed in-camera via the jpeg engine or left as a separate attribute of RAW data. Intriguing! NOTE: I read many documents and patent applications while undertaking research for this item. Olympus' integration of SAT as a core technology may or may not accord with my understanding; I've simply endeavoured to offer an explanation of its ultimate possibilities.

NEW GRIP POWER: Some folks will be annoyed that the 'system' grip for the E-1 will not fit the new model. I agree with this but can also see the advantage of abandoning the BLL1 powered grip for a 2X BLM1 unit. As long as the new grip is more sensibly priced than the SHLD2 then I can live with it.

COMMENTS:

Most of the above could, and have, been predicted. There are a few surprises and a possible technological breakthrough, but overall the specs of the camera reflect Olympus' determination to offer a real alternative to the oppositions 'pro' level options. Of course the biggest question remains unanswered - PRICE. My personal guess (and it is just that), remains at around 1299 in UK including the new ZD12-60mm zoom. (This equates to around $2600 or 2000). At this level it is going to struggle against the opposition unless there is some form of cross-subsidy within the DSLR series; if so Olympus might come in lower to guarantee sales. The E-510 has just hit the streets in the UK with a twin lens kit priced at 699, and no doubt this will fall soon. The E-510 has IS and LV and apparently shares the same sensor chip but not necessarily the same processing engine(s). Yes, the E-3 is better specified and will include the Pro-Level ZD12-60mm, weather-proofing, a fancy screen etc, but these do not amount to another 600 surely? It is imperative the E-3 competes with its siblings to encourage existing E-system users to upgrade, as well as offering an alternative to other manufacturers offerings. E-3 pricing is paramount to its success; Olympus cannot afford another E-1 marketing misjudgement.

I cannot see the new machine competing with the top gun Canikon offerings, but rather offer an alternative to the mid-way 'pro' level users, and Olympus' other major customer at this level, the advanced amatuer. That's not to say professionals will not be tempted by the new model from Olympus, many will. And in doing so they'll give themselves access the superb range of 'designed for digital' ZD's; in particular the wide angles especially the ZD7-14mm zoom, which is unsurpassed.

As with most of the articles on this site few are ever 'complete'. I will update this article as and when more information is available.


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Posted June 2007 Copyright © 2004/05/06/07 John Foster