Here's a frustrating combination: traveling and serious photography. At precisely the time you want to photography interesting new surroundings, you also don't want to be burdened with inordinate amounts of gear.
Olympus has one interesting answer to the conundrum, though: the E-3 (click here for CNET's full-on review). Its top-of the line SLR is rugged, waterproof, and when combined with the company's Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm F2.8-4.0 SWD and 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 SWD lenses provides a flexible package that's portable if not actually lightweight.
I hauled the E-3 with those lenses and the Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F4.0 wide-angle zoom to Argentina for a month of vacation and was pleased with the performance. I had to lug the gear not only on the usual buses and city tours, but also in much more demanding conditions: two four-day backpacking trips with a three-year-old, Patagonia's uncertain weather, and serious weight-carrying constraints.
The result was good photos of people, flower close-ups, skittish wildlife, and beautiful mountains.
The gear costs about $1,950 for the camera and 12-60mm lens, $950 for the 50-200mm lens, and $1,400 for the 7-14mm lens.
The E-3 is the most impressive camera so far to use the Four Thirds sensor and lens technology, created by Olympus and drawing support from Panasonic. Unlike Nikon and Canon, which preserved compatibility with older lenses dating back to the film era, Olympus started from a clean slate with a digital-only design.
Four Thirds uses a sensor that's smaller than mainstream and market-leading SLRs from Canon and Nikon, not to mention higher-end competitors whose sensors are the size of full frame of 35mm film. A smaller sensor poses challenges for curtailing image noise and working in dim light, but what the travel photographer might find particularly appealing is that it also enables use of smaller lenses. Big telephoto lenses that are well suited for safari photography can break the back as well as the bank, but Four Thirds can help.
With the smaller sensor--and its 4:3 aspect ratio that's a bit squarer than the 3:2 ratio of most cameras--Four Thirds lenses have a narrower field of view than 35mm film cameras of yore and of mainstream digital SLRs. A 200mm telephoto lens on a Four Thirds camera has the feel of a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera or about 250mm to 270mm lens on mainstream models from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony.
That telephoto strength, combined with the E-3's ruggedness, were my favorite features of the camera. The 50-200mm lens let me capture a distant flock of parakeets flying in front of the deep blue ice face of the Perito Moreno Glacier, a skittish spider in Iguazu Falls, and the exploding icefalls of glaciers crumbling down the cliffs of Torres del Paine. It wasn't a monster telephoto that bird photographers crave, but I wouldn't have been able to carry supertelephoto on a backpacking trip.
I carried a monopod, but except during dim moments such as sunrise on Mount Fitzroy, it generally wasn't necessary. The E-3's in-camera image stabilization, which moves the sensor to compensate for camera shake, was a boon here, though I missed seeing it in action as happens with the lens-based anti-shake mechanisms from Nikon and Canon. Lens-based systems force you to pay for the feature with every lens, and generally mean you won't find it at all on wide-angle lenses, but I like being able to gauge visually if I'm steady enough for a shot. I'd prefer that Olympus switched on image stabilization by default, though.
My surprise favorite lens, though, was the 12-60mm. It's compact and sharp with a versatile range. The 7-14mm wide-angle zoom worked well, especially with Argentina's glorious skies, but was a brute to haul around unless you really like indoor architecture shots or sweeping vistas.
One of the camera's distinctive features is an LCD that can be pivoted out and twisted into different orientations. Combined with the E-3's Live View, this feature was handy for me taking some shots that were very low to the ground and a few above my head. And once, photographing a tile panel that was around a corner and locked behind a barred gate, I was able to compose the photo at arm's length through the bars. Very clever!
But mostly I didn't use either Live View or the pivoting LCD except to flip the screen inward to protect it during travel. Live View has promise for those moments when photographing people--kids notably--who would rather see you than a chunk of electronics and optics in front of your face, but the autofocus just isn't up to regular performance.
Image quality was generally good. I loved the skin tones, colors, and automatic white balance. I shoot raw, so white balance is easily adjusted, but having shots properly set out of the camera was wonderful, especially as tried to manage my images on the road.
However, the camera's dynamic range was nothing to brag about. And shooting at ISO 3,200 was to be used in emergencies only. I had one such emergency, shooting after sunset in a darkened bus, and was glad the option was there.
The E-3's ability to adjust exposure up or down by three stops was great and put to shame higher-priced cameras--Canon's 5D Mark II springs to mind. But be careful where you leave camera settings such as aperture, because the camera remembers them a long time. I thought I had a terrific parakeet shot until I found it had been taken at f/22, which meant the otherwise sharp image was degraded by the lens' diffraction effects.
Surprise: ISO bracketing
One surprise feature is the ability to use ISO bracketing, which takes a trio of images, adding one at half the camera's sensitivity setting and another at double that amount. It's a neat feature, especially since it captures all three with a single click of the shutter. One tricky thing: Adobe Systems' Lightroom thought the images were duplicates, so be careful on import. And this is definitely a situation where you want fast flash memory cards, though.
I tried the camera with Ultra Direct Memory Access CompactFlash cards--300X speeds from Lexar and 266X from Kingston--as well earlier 133x cards from those companies and Transcend. The slower cards worked fine, but the faster cards made a big difference: the camera's buffer would clear faster, I could review images sooner after taking them, and cycling through earlier shots went much more swiftly. The fast cards are more expensive, but they make the camera much more responsive.
The E-3 comes with a second slot, too, for xD flash memory cards. But I've never been a fan of the relatively uncommon format from Olympus and Fujifilm; an SDHC slot would have been much more useful given how many other devices use the SD format.
For traveling, some will no doubt look to the newer Olympus E-30, which fits in one sot below the E-3 in Olympus' lineup. It lacks the E-3's weatherproofing and ruggedness, though.
The real potential for traveling and Four Thirds, though, might be in a more compact variant called Micro Four Thirds that uses the same size sensor and smaller but still interchangeable lenses. These models requires you to focus and compose with electronic viewfinders or the LCD, though, so expect shorter battery life. Panasonic's G1 is the only model out so far.
What might be even more appealing is if Olympus took its waterproof and shockproof compact camera designs and brought them to its Micro Four Thirds models. One of my favorite features of the E-3 was its rugged design, and it would be great to see that ability on a small camera with a high-quality sensor.
I had some glitches with the E-3, including one moment when the camera mysteriously reused the same filename for different photos; I had to rename three. A battery connection issue fooled me into thinking I'd left my hostel with a dead battery at one point.
And the 50-200mm lens suffered a gasket failure, thankfully on my last day. Perhaps because it was humid, the zoom lens pulled the gasket out until it got stuck and basically seized up the zoom function. And the camera had a hard time estimating how many images the card still had room for, showing an extremely conservative estimate that apparently.
Those problems were the exceptions, though, during a trip that gave the camera plenty of heavy use in tough conditions, from howling sandstorms to cold rain. The E-3 muscled its way through a tough assignment with aplomb.
Updated January 6 with pricing information.