I bought an Olympus E-3 a couple of days ago. Its full name is the EVOLT E-3, and it was Olympus’ flagship DSLR back in 2007. It was announced on October 17, 2007 and it became available on November 23 of that same year. I realize it’s now 2020, thirteen years later, but I found it online in really good condition, with a low shutter count (only 8000 or so exposures) and at a good price. Other than a small crack in the lower left-hand corner of the LCD, this camera is in great shape and it’s a real joy to use.
I was present at the camera’s launch party in NYC on October 16, 2007. You can see my write-up of the event, with photos and video, in this post. I would have loved to purchase the camera at the time, but I was invested in Canon gear at the time. The E-3 was a great camera for its time, quite ahead of the competition in many ways. The supersonic dust reduction function that’s so common on all of the interchangeable-lens cameras nowadays was then only present on Olympus cameras, because they came up with it. The swiveling LCD, also ubiquitous nowadays, was a novelty only present on this camera and on an older model, the EVOLT E-330 DSLR. The in-body image stabilization, a big selling point on so many expensive cameras nowadays, was yet another feature that Olympus invented and was only present on their latest cameras such as their new flagship and other models launched that year. The E-3 was a dustproof and splashproof camera, and at least two of the lenses also launched with it, the Zuiko 12-60mm SWD f2.8-4 and the Zuiko 50-200mm SWD f2.8-3.5, were also dustproof and splashproof. This was incredible at the time. All these features and capabilities seem normal now, but they were extraordinary back then.
Here is a gallery of photographs of the camera. Please forgive the dust specks. These are real world photographs of equipment that’s actively in use. It’s not a photo shoot. I didn’t airbrush it. I didn’t clean all its nooks and crannies. I simply placed it on a piece of furniture and took these photos.
One of the big concerns with Olympus cameras at that time (around 2007) was their performance in low light (at high ISO settings). Typically there was quite a bit of noise at 800 ISO and above, but not so on the E-3, where low-light performance was much better than that of less expensive cameras such as the E-510, which had been launched earlier that year. The E-3 was a flagship camera after all. As a matter of fact, when I look at low-light photos taken with the E-3 now, they’re just as good as the “gold standard” of the day, the Canon 5D, and this is remarkable given that the E-3 could only gather half the light with its Four Thirds sensor size. Since 2007, the noise reduction capabilities of software such as Lightroom have also improved by leaps and bounds, to the point where high-noise photos from the past can look quite good when developed within the software. I admit that I also like a bit of noise. Sometimes I like a lot of noise (up to a point). It adds character to an image. Granularity, that organic quality of film that’s missing from crisp, clean and clear digital images taken at 100-200 ISO, tends to make a photograph more endearing.
When I began to use the camera in earnest, I looked for the mode dial out of habit. There wasn’t one where I’d typically find it. Believe it or not, I hadn’t noticed this at the camera’s launch event and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t noticed it in press photos of the camera either. Now I began to panic a bit. Where was the damned thing? Did it break off? After all, this was a second-hand camera. Where was it?!
It wasn’t to be found, because there isn’t one. I had to look up the user manual on the Olympus Japan website in order to find out that indeed, it didn’t break off and there isn’t one. You switch the mode by pressing the Mode button on the left-hand top side of the camera and by rotating the dial on the back of the camera. Once you do it, it becomes second-nature and you begin to wonder why other cameras have to have specific mode dials. After all, how often do you switch the mode? Really, how often? My cameras typically stay on Aperture priority virtually all of the time. I switch to Shutter priority when I have to capture high-speed images or when I want to force motion blur, but that’s seldom, and when I do night photography, I stick it in Manual mode, but really, the camera stays in Aperture mode most of the time.
I thought I’d do something now that I couldn’t do at the time of the E-3’s launch, which is to sit the camera side by side with my 5D and see how the two stack up. Which one’s taller? Which one’s wider? How do the grips compare? How do the various buttons compare? I was surprised to find out that the E-3 is just a bit taller than the 5D, and that the 5D is quite a bit wider, about 2 cm wider. You don’t feel this until you take the cameras in your hand. The E-3 sits a little better in the hand while you can feel the 5D’s center of gravity pulling it to the left a bit. I also like the E-3’s many buttons, which make it easier to get to certain features that are otherwise buried in the menus. And that’s another thing: the E-3 is packed with features compared to the 5D. The 5D’s design is simple and curved, while the E-3’s is angled, full of corners and turns and also some curves — like this lovely curve on the left hand side, near the lens release button.
The E-3 may have a more complicated design, but I like it. I liked this camera from the get-go, and I’m glad I could buy it now, almost thirteen years after it was made.
Having just compared the looks of two of the leading cameras of their day, I will also say this: comparing the features of various cameras in an effort to see which one’s better is useless. Yes, I mean that! It’s useless because in the end, what really matters are these two things:
- Do you like that camera? If yes, buy it.
- Can you take the photos that you want to take with that camera? If yes, buy it.
Worrying about this and that feature and why it is or it isn’t present on a particular model is a waste of time. Watching camera comparisons and reading reviews ad nauseam is useless. You need to know what you want from a camera, come up with a list of “finalists”, and then you need to go and hold those cameras in your hand and see how they fit you, see how easily you can access the functions that matter to you. Get the one that you like best. That’s it. I know this is a bit of a rant, and it’s as much addressed to me as it is to you, because in spite of knowing these things, I still tend to obsess over some features sometimes.
I got the E-3 with the 40-150mm f3.5-4.5 lens, which was at the time a premium version of the regular (kit) 40-150mm lens, whose aperture range was f4-5.6. This is a wonderful lens. And now that I have a Four Thirds camera, I will likely get other Four Thirds lenses, such as a wide zoom, a large aperture prime, perhaps a macro, a 35-100mm f2.0 SWD zoom, I’ll see…
I’ve been taking quite a few photos with the E-3 since I bought it, and I’ve been carrying everywhere with me. As I say elsewhere on this site and on other sites, I always have a camera with me. I seldom rely on my phone to take photos that I care about, simply because taking photos with a mobile phone is a constant disappointment to me when it comes to the quality of the images. In order to get proper keepsakes, you need a real camera, and the E-3 is a real camera. It’s a flagship camera and it feels like a flagship; it’s solidly made and it has withstood the test of time beautifully. Everything still works on it: all the buttons, all the switches, all the features — and the images I get with it are wonderful. I also love the mechanical sound of the shutter on it. The shutter sound is after all the most prominent sort of feedback one gets from the camera when they use it, and I want my cameras to sound good to my ears. The E-3 definitely sounds good. I’m so glad I had the chance to buy this camera after all these years!
I’ll leave you with a few of the images I’ve taken with it. Enjoy!