What do Nikon, Olympus, and Sony have in common? For starters, they, along with two other DSLR manufacturers (Canon and Panasonic) have just introduced astonishing, state-of-the-art new cameras in the high- and middle-tier DSLR categories (see our previous two issues for the overviews). Besides that, the first three, starting in mid-August, took groups of editors and reporters out for a few days. We had previews of the new products, some hands-on experience, photo-taking tours, plenty of eats, schmoozing, and opportunities to hang out with a few company executives for casual bonding or, better yet, casual interviews.
Funded by the respective hosts' PR budgets, the outings had a philosophy at their base that was assumed more than stated-grab a bunch of writers by their digestive tracts, and their hearts and minds will follow. It's a tricky proposition for the hosting company, though-for if the writers and editors gorge and imbibe on their competitors' ticket as well as their own, everyone winds up on an equal footing again, and it's back to their products to speak for themselves.
According to the tastes and needs of each sponsoring firm, the design and timbre of each expedition was quite varied, one to the next. Nikon's was first, a press conference in Japan, with announcements profound enough that the international press should be at hand. Sony's was next, with picture-taking expeditions through the surroundings of Bar Harbor, Maine, using A700s for a mass familiarization.
Olympus' press event, just a couple of weeks before their E-3 was introduced, was called a workshop, but it acquired something of a boot camp tone. You know, up early, an hour or two of seminar, out into the world to practice and to learn all the many things the E-3 can do.
Preparing the Pudding
Neither Nikon nor Sony had full production models at the time of their gatherings, so while the samples at hand gave intimations of their final output, it could be quite far from the final quality of the shipping models later on.
Sony seemed to be further along at that point than Nikon and had plenty of working A-700s to hand out to their assembled guests. But even though working, Sony considered the camera a work-in-progress, not ready for the mantle of final v.1. They extracted our solemn promise that pictures made in Maine should never, ever be published. The pictures looked good to us, but a promise is a promise.
Olympus, on the other hand, being just a couple of weeks away from shipping dates, did have production models. Eight of them. They also had eight of their brand-new 12-60mm f/2.8-4 Zuiko lenses, FL-50R wireless flash units, and power bases (holding two batteries each, and permitting vertical handling of the camera). So they invited eight editors and reviewers to Puerto Rico to train on them.
Olympus has a group of professional photographers called Visioneers to represent the company at tradeshows and at other activities where the presence of a noted pro supports the idea that the company is serious. Two were along on the Puerto Rico trip, mostly to provide the benefit of their experience with a new, advanced, heavily feature-laden camera.
The Olympus E-3 is the new flagship of the company's pro line, taking up what their E-1 started in 2003. Why wasn't there an E-2? Company reps were, shall we say, general on the subject, but the drift was that the manufacturer didn't get the resources needed to reach targeted levels of performance. So they scrapped the E-2 and launched into the E-3. "We're not a Nikon or Canon," said the company's John Knaur. "We can't afford a camera that isn't a leader. They have several professional-level models, we have one." With their eggs in that basket, Olympus concocted the most fully featured, technically advanced camera to bear the "pro" mantle.
What makes a camera "professional"? There are plenty of good answers. But in a day when even low-priced cameras have refinements beyond the most advanced pro models of a decade ago, an especially good definition of "professional" is robust construction and a sealed exterior, making the camera that much more environment-proof. The E-1 was the first midrange DSLR to offer a "weatherproof" construction for both body and lens (at that time, it was actually a low-priced DSLR at around $1,900, as the sub-$1k category hadn't taken off yet). The E-3, with a starting price about $500 less, continues the ruggedized tradition with an inner body that is surrounded on all sides by a magnesium shell. The shutter is rated for 100,000 exposures.
The E-1 came with a 5-megapixel Four Thirds imager; the E-3 comes with a 10 (3648x2736 pixels). The E-3 includes a pop-up, on-camera flash that was absent from the E-1, and it has a Live View monitor system that didn't exist until the arrival of the Olympus Evolt E-330 two years ago. Where the E-330's screen could be swung upward in a right-angle arc, the E-3's can be twisted and turned through a 270-degree range.
The E-3's pivoting screen introduces many novelties to the pro DSLR tier. Chief among them, it can be closed-turned around to face inward against the back of the camera, snapped shut. Presto-it's protected between uses.
It can also be flopped over flush against the back, facing outward, looking like the fixed-position LCDs of all other DSLRs (with and without Live View).
And it can be opened and angled upward, so you can look at it from above; or angled downward so you can look from below, angled sideways and backwards, enabling the camera to be placed in settings and in positions you wouldn't have considered before. It can be swung around so the camera can face the scene behind the photographer.
It's not a great leap forward in camera technology, having appeared almost universally in video camcorders for the past 20 years, but it's an enormously valuable redeployment of off-the-shelf stuff in a digital still camera.
Starting our first day in the trenches, Olympus' Sally Smith Clemens encouraged the eight recruits to do things that scared them as photographers, things they hadn't done before and now maybe were hesitant, but should try in a camera with a broadened range.
For yours truly, that meant using the new FL-50R wireless flash system handheld, off-camera. We normally dismiss flash as a crutch for wimps who can't deal with available light. But okay, we agree, using off-camera flash does do certain useful things, so we psyched ourselves up to find situations requiring it.
It's a funny thing about a photographic resource. Sometimes you don't think you'll need it until you have it. Then, having it, you also have the thought of having it. And that thought somehow provokes situations where the need for the resource becomes obvious and compelling. This isn't the simplest train of thought to express to a customer. But it's a fact of life, and if you can express it in 25 words or less, you have a compelling argument for the purchase of accessories.
The E-3 has image stabilization for use at slow shutter speeds, so who needs an off-camera, wireless flash? Well, when you're in the Puerto Rican rain forest, where the light is pretty low and very flat, the off-camera flash can be used to create highlights on whatever leaf or flower has caught your eye. Flash may be for wimps, but it's also for he-men who like to see the texture and detail of their subjects in unfavorable light.