Conclusion - Pros
- Very good low ISO image quality and resolution
- Fast and responsive operation
- Fast, accurate autofocus
- Full HD AVCHD video
- Attractive styling and solid, metal construction
- A high number of external controls for its body size
- Tilt-screen LCD
- AF assist lamp
- In-camera Raw edit capability
- High degree of camera and menu customization
- Art filters offer fun, creative effects with numerous variants
Conclusion - Cons
- High ISO noise performance lagging behind competitors' newer sensors
- Overly aggressive default noise filter setting for JPEG output
- Digital IS for video capture can introduce unnatural-looking footage
- Size and positioning of control dial makes its use somewhat awkward
- Lack of a hand grip makes for a less comfortable handling experience
- 16x9 format LCD is less than ideal for viewing 4:3 still images
- Use of clip-on flash precludes use of an EVF or any other accessory port item
- No live view in continuous shooting mode
- No touchscreen interface
- No orientation sensor means you have to manually rotate images shot in portrait orientation
- Complex menu system (for its target audience)
- Movie mode preview is inaccurate (camera crops-in when you press the record button)
The E-PL3 combines a small physical size with a lots of external control points in a stylish, attractive body. Among the traits it inherits from its predecessor, the E-PL2, are in-camera raw conversion, a nice selection of art filters and of course Olympus' eminently customizable camera and menu options. Welcome additions range from the cosmetic, in the form of a more contemporary menu design, to the functional, with a tilting rear LCD screen, AF assist lamp and Full HD video capture.
The E-PL3's smaller size, however, comes at a cost. Gone are a hand grip on the front of the camera and a built-in flash. A clip-on flash unit is included with the E-PL3, but by necessity occupies both the hot shoe and the accessory port, making simultaneous use of both flash and the optional EVF impossible. To be fair, these omissions are not likely to cause great concern among users looking to upgrade from a compact camera. The AF speed, camera responsiveness, and of course Micro Four Thirds image quality will be revelations for these users. It's also worth noting just how many features the E-PL3 shares in common with its more expensive sibling, the E-P3.
The E-PL3's now-aging Micro Four Thirds 12MP sensor is capable of very good low ISO output in both JPEG and Raw mode. The competition has not remained still, however, and we are seeing rival cameras with higher resolution sensors and superior noise performance at high ISOs. When evaluating images you'd be hard-pressed to find any significant quality advantage over the E-PL2. Image quality of the E-PL3 is identical to that of the E-P3 and you'll note that our comments in this regard match those of our recent Olympus E-P3 in-depth review.
We've long found in-camera JPEG processing to be one of Olympus's strengths, producing pleasing color balance and accurate metering right out of the box. The E-PL3 carries on this tradition. At the pixel peeping level, however, we're less pleased by the default noise reduction and sharpening settings Olympus has chosen for the E-PL3 (as well as the E-P3). We find the noise reduction to be overly aggressive even at lower ISOs.This problem is solved by adjusting both noise reduction and sharpening to taste, but these steps may be a bit beyond the level of user for whom a camera of this type may be intended. To be fair, when viewing small prints, the effect is much less objectionable.
In terms of handling, the largest adjustment for users coming from a previous PEN series camera will be the lack of a hand grip on the PEN Lite. The camera is still eminently usable without a grip, particularly with the kit lens, and compact-camera upgraders will no doubt feel right at home with a smooth camera front plate. The abundance of external controls exhibited on the E-PL3 is becoming rare in cameras of this class and price. Olympus is to be commended for striking what we feel is a good balance between including dials and buttons for a novice photographer to grow into, without creating an intimidating package. We do feel, however, that control dial's small size and positioning (so close to the edge of the LCD screen) make adjusting exposure parameters a bit more awkward than necessary.
We do regret the lack of dedicated ISO and WB buttons, although these functions can be applied to already-existing buttons on the camera. As noted in our E-P3 review, we'd like to see Olympus move beyond its multi-screen live view interface. In its current implementation, you can only add information to live view by switching to a different screen entirely, rather than simply adding useful shooting or compositional aids one at a time to a given screen. This inflexibility stands apart from Olympus' otherwise highly (dare we say compulsively) customizable interface.
Of course, the PEN Lite does not exist in a vacuum, and as its chief rivals offer compelling touchscreen capability, we would have liked to have seen this functionality trickle down from the E-P3. The tilting rear LCD is, to our minds, a clear upgrade and positions the E-PL3 as the only member of the PEN lineup with this feature. We still wonder, however, about the 16:9 ratio of the LCD screen, as it results in a somewhat smaller viewable area (compared to previous PENs) for still images shot in the camera's native 4:3 format.
The Final Word
The E-PL3 is a small, light, pleasingly-designed camera that handles well and makes everyday picture-taking a fast, intuitive process. Olympus has managed to reduce size and weight in their 'second tier' PEN lineup while maintaining direct control point access to shooting and exposure controls. Overall, the PEN Lite conveys the feel of a well-executed refinement of the E-PL2. While basic image quality is essentially unchanged from its predecessor, the E-PL3's design and handling marks a clearer distinction between Olympus' E-P and E-PL series cameras without making the lower-cost unit feel like a stripped-down budget model.
With the E-PL3, Olympus offers sleek design and fast AF performance in a package priced to appeal to users looking to trade in their compact-camera for higher image quality without adding too much bulk. To consumers for whom the E-P3 is literally too much camera at too high a price, the E-PL3 offers identical image quality and performance with a compelling feature set. While the PEN series menu system still requires an unnecessarily steep learning curve for new users, most will find that after one or two initial visits, time spent scrolling through menu trees will be on the rare side.
We find the PEN Lite to be a well-thought out attempt to lure compact-camera upgraders to both higher image quality and the opportunity to explore manual controls while providing a day to day handling experience that will be far from intimidating. As such, we have handed the E-PL3 our Silver Award. Potentially awkward handling with the control dial, a disappointing noise reduction/sharpening default and and a digital image stabilization system (for video) that can produce less than pleasing results prevent the E-PL3 from receiving our Gold Award.
Olympus PEN E-PL3
Category: Entry Level Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The Olympus E-PL3 offers ample external control points, a tilting LCD screen, and fast AF performance along with high image quality in a small, stylish package. Although the complexity of the menu system may require an initial learning curve for new users, the E-PL3 is a pleasant-handling and very well-specified camera that can capture excellent images with a minimum of fuss.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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