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Olympus PEN E-P3 in-depth review

August 2011 | By Andy Westlake, Richard Butler

Review based on a production E-P3 running firmware 1.0

The Olympus PEN E-P3 looks a lot like its forebears - not just the E-P1 and E-P2 but, just as significantly, the company's film era Pen F camera. Significantly because, in an age in which the major electronics giants are building their photographic presence, Olympus is one of only a handful of companies with genuine heritage to turn to. And, despite modern cameras making high image quality more accessible than ever, there is an undeniable reverence for the look and feel of 1960s cameras.

Just like Fujifilm's X100, the Olympus PEN E-P1 generated a lot of excitement at its launch thanks to its elegant traditional styling. And, in common with the X100, the shooting experience didn't always live up to the high expectations that its classic looks might have engendered. The E-P2 was a slight reworking of the E-P1, doing little more than adding the ability to use the excellent VF-2 electronic viewfinder, and could still be a slightly slow and awkward camera to actually use.

The E-P3's similarity of appearance to its predecessors could, all too easily, suggest that Olympus has again been subtle with its changes. But this isn't the case at all, and the new model brings with it a whole raft of updates and refinements. Olympus has addressed many of the key criticisms of the older models, to the extent that we'd be tempted to say that the E-P3 is finally the camera that the PEN has always promised to be.

The changes may be somewhat hidden but they are certainly there. Physically the biggest addition is a built-in flash - deliberately styled so that the pop-up element doesn't interrupt the front plate of the camera. The accessory port is also more neatly integrated into the body design than before. The other big physical change is a removable hand grip; a large screw now holds the rectangular grip in place, giving users the choice of removing or swapping it for a more substantial design (in a fashion more than a little reminiscent of Olympus's OM-4 film camera).

But it's inside the camera that the biggest changes have been made: the sensor is still the familiar 12MP unit but the camera's processing is greatly improved. The latest TruePic VI processor is much faster than previous designs, allowing the camera to check focus 120 times per second. This, of course, means that it can adjust focus more often and therefore confirm focus more quickly. The dual core processor also means image processing and live view can be run in parallel, decreasing the blackout time after each shot.

In addition, the E-P3 has a 614,000 dot OLED screen that is touch-sensitive. This particular panel uses Samsung's Pentile dot layout to give VGA-equivalent resolution, coupled with capacitance-type touch technology similar to the Apple iPhone. The touch screen can be used to set the focus point and optionally fire the shutter, and can operate some of the camera's other functions too. Crucially though this is always in addition to the rest of the camera's controls, rather than attempting to replace them. If you decide such features don't have a place on such a traditional-looking camera, they can be disabled with no overall loss of functionality.

Another very welcome addition is a built-in autofocus illuminator light, in the form of a bright orange LED on the front of the camera (previous PENs were notorious for their reluctance to focus in low light). The autofocus system has been updated too, with 35 zones covering most of the image area. The movie recording specification has also been significantly upgraded, and the E-P3 can now capture full HD 1080i60 movies in AVCHD format.

The control layout has been revised too, most notably by the addition of direct movie record and display magnification buttons - indeed overall it's now much more closely related to the E-PL line than the older E-P models. As is the Olympus way the camera's controls are remarkably customisable - no fewer than five buttons can now have their functions defined by the user. All of the goodies that Olympus introduced in the E-PLs have also found their way across - ranging the beginner-friendly 'Live Guide' control and iEnhance colour mode, through to the ability to display user-configurable shadow and highlight clipping warnings in live view.

The Art Filters have been expanded dramatically too, with a number of additional filters plus the ability to tune their looks and add effects such as frames and even a digital 'starburst' filter on point highlights. There's also a new tonal control that allows you to manually adjust shadow brightness independent of overall exposure. Last, but by no means least, the menu system has finally benefited from a substantial makeover, and is not only much easier on the eye, but easier to find your way around too.

Olympus E-P3 key specifications:

  • Updated 12MP Live MOS sensor
  • 120 Hz 'Fast AF' focus system
  • Built-in pop-up flash
  • Built-in autofocus illuminator light (orange LED)
  • Touch-sensitive VGA-equivalent 614,000 dot OLED screen (3:2 aspect ratio)
  • Dual-core TruePic VI processor
  • 1080i60 movies in AVCHD format
  • Independent Shadow and Highlight tone adjustment controls
  • Interchangeable hand grips
  • In-body image stabilisation (works with all lenses)

What's new / changed (vs E-P2)

  • 35-area AF system
  • Touch AF and Touch shutter
  • Direct movie record and display magnification buttons
  • E-PL2-style control layout, 5 customisable buttons
  • Live guide control in iAuto
  • iEnhance colour mode
  • Revised and expanded Art Filters (with quick preview option)

If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

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This article is Copyright 2011 and may NOT in part or in whole be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author.

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Very nice review. Hey, I just wanted to point out a small typo I came across in the article, "A full run-down of very feature is far" should read, "of every feature". Hope this helps.

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