A Focus on Focus for New Olympus Professional Camera

Claims E-3 SLR has fastest-focusing lenses in the business Unless you’re shooting a still life, fast focus is key to … Continued

Claims E-3 SLR has fastest-focusing lenses in the business

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Unless you’re shooting a still life, fast focus is key to getting good photos—as I found out after taking a cardfull of blurry snaps at a dance party over the weekend.

And by its own admission, Olympus has been, er, not famous for the focus speed of digital SLR cameras and lenses. But the company claims its new E3 model is the world’s fastest—from 33 to 200 percent faster than any competitors. Them’s fightin’ words in the pro arena, where photojournalists embrace or shun a brand based on split seconds. (Canon’s speed advantage a few years ago allowed it to overtake and nearly burry Nikon.)

Olympus, famous for introducing technologies that competitors eventually copy, has developed several new tricks for the E3. It starts with the autofocus chip, featuring 11 cross-shaped sensors, for a total of 44 data points. Olympus overlaid an identical set of sensors—creating a houndstooth pattern they call cross-lamination. So if one set can’t lock on an exceptionally dark or smooth surface, the other set may pick up.

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Then things get crazy-precise. A temperature sensor by the focusing chip allows the camera to determine how far the plastic mount has expanded or contracted, and adjust focus calculations accordingly. Instructions go to the new lenses which focus using “supersonic wave drive” motors that turn in increments as small as five microns—less than the diameter of a human red blood cell.

Given my experience over the weekend, I’d have been happy to get the lens in focus within the diameter of a human finger. But the Olympus tech might not have helped me at the party, because it was so dark. Like Canon (whose Rebel XTI SLR I was using), Olympus doesn’t put a focusing lamp on the E3. (Nikon does, however, and I’m contemplating switching.)

The E3 goes on sale in November for $1,699 along with Olympus’s first supersonic wave drive lens, a 12- to 60-millimeter zoom selling for $1,000.—Sean Captain