• Price When Reviewed: 1446

  • Pros: Solid, weatherproof construction; effective anti-shake and anti-dust system; fast AF operation, with new 11-point focus detection; superb handling; and impressive range of pro-spec lenses.

  • Cons: Some white balance inaccuracies; moderate noise at ISO 1600 and above.

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

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A successor to the Olympus pro-grade E-1, the E-3 features a 10.1-megapixel-resolution Live MOS sensor with live view and built-in image stabilization.

Like its earlier model, Olympus is billing the E-3 as a pro-spec camera. While not quite in the same league as the Nikon D3 or Canon EOS 1D MkIII, the E-3 is well made and a notch or two above semi-pro models.

If you find the Nikon and Canon models too large and cumbersome, the E-3 could be a good alternative. Weighing 810g for the body only, the E-3 is a good deal heavier and larger than rival semi-pro models, but it’s incredibly comfortable in use.

Pro-level features include a weather-sealed magnesium-alloy shell, a shutter tested to 150k cycles (a 50 per cent increase on the EOS40D and D300), 100 per cent viewfinder coverage, and an eyepiece blind that’s especially handy with live view.
Also useful is a new 11-point AF system, 5fps burst mode and built-in wireless flash control for the optional new
FL-50R and FL36R flash guns. As well as this, the E-3 boasts a pull-out and reversible 2.5-inch colour monitor.

In the past, one of the main criticisms of Olympus’ offerings has been its cramped and dark viewfinders, but with the E-3 this is not the case; it’s easily as bright as rivals, and, thanks to a new optical system, magnification is now 1.1x, which is large enough for focus to be confirmed with ease.

Although the shooting dial has been dropped from the E-3, any of the features accessed from a dedicated button, such IS, AF, ISO, exposure and drive modes, WB and the like can all be selected without taking the camera from the eye. The auto-ISO feature isn’t new, but just as the shutter speed and aperture is visible, so, too, is the varying sensitivity. It is features such as this that separate the E-3 from the rest.

Autofocus operation has always been pretty brisk with Olympus’ DSLRs, but the E-3 now adds a new
11-point AF detection system.

With the optional Zuiko Digital 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD (silent wave) zoom, AF is blazingly fast and easily a match for the EOS 40D and D300. It is a truly brilliant all-round lens, too, with superb optical quality and excellent close-focus performance.

Until recently, optical image stabilization has had the edge over body integral sensor-shift systems but the Sony Alpha 700 – and now the E-3 – are proving that this no longer the case. In our tests, we achieved acceptably sharp hand-held shots at just 1/4sec at 60mm (120mm equivalent), and this tallies with the maker’s five-stop claim.

If we have to find fault, there were some white-balance inconsistencies, which were likely to be the result of covering the back-up external sensor (though that can be turned off, if necessary). And while noise levels at ISO 1600 and above are well-controlled, the E-3’s performance in this regard is no match for the Nikon D300. Images have similar levels of fine detail, however, and files at low ISOs are silky smooth, and display superb colour rendition.

Ultimately, the E-3 is Olympus’ most convincing pro-level DSLR to date – a real alternative to the Canon EOS 40D, Alpha 700 and Nikon’s D300 – and, in many cases, it’s the better camera.