Using the E-P3 / Handling

The E-P3 is an evolution of previous PEN designs, and in our opinion the layout changes made over the E-P1/2 make it a better-handling camera overall. All of the camera's buttons and dials are well-positioned to be operated by your right hand, leaving the left hand free to control the lens, the vertical thumb roller on the back that's used to change exposure parameters makes it a much more pleasant camera to shoot with than the E-PLx models, and the high degree of customizability means you can almost certainly set it up to suit your personal preferences.

Overall, this means that not only is the E-P3 probably the best-handling PEN yet, it's also arguably the best of the current crop of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras for the enthusiast photographer.

Overall operation and handling

The E-P3 is, in most regards, an absolute joy to use. It sits nicely in the grip, and pretty well all of the key controls fall perfectly to hand. For those few functions that don't have direct buttons, both the Super Control Panel and Live Control menu offer quick access; just pick whichever suits you best. The OLED screen provides a bright, detailed view of the world, although one that's also somewhat over-saturated and not necessarily colour accurate (especially for Caucasian skin tones). This makes it rather better for shooting than for reviewing images.

The standard grip has been subtly reshaped compared to the E-P1/2's, and the E-P3 feels solid and stable even when held one-handed.

The E-P3's huge degree of customizability means you can set it up pretty well how you choose to suit your personal preferences. You can tweak almost every aspect of the camera's operation, from the functions of the dials, through the calibration of the light meter (independently for each metering mode), to the direction of operation of the focusing ring. If you don't like some of the colour modes or Art Filters, you can just turn them off in the Custom menu. For enthusiast photographers who know exactly how they want the camera to behave, the E-P3 is a dream come true.

Nothing's ever perfect, of course, and the E-P3 is no exception. Most disappointingly, there's no direct ISO or white balance buttons, and while these functions can be assigned to the flash and drive mode buttons on the 4-way controller, this means you can only get direct access to two of these four at any given time.

Specific handling issues

If there's one physical control that slightly lets the E-P3 down, it's the rear dial around the four-way controller. It's small and fiddly, and this is compounded by the fact that the elegantly-styled fairing around it somewhat obstructs its operation. Opinions are divided in the dpreview office on exactly how bad it is: some of us find it acceptable for controlling exposure compensation (which rarely requires large changes to be made), while others find it essentially unusable and prefer to use the thumb roller to change exposure parameters (in concert with the '+/-' button).

The rear dial is small, and not especially positive in operation. The E-P3 has 5 customisable buttons, but certain key functions (e.g. ISO) can't be assigned to Fn1, Fn2 or the movie button.

Ironically, for a camera that's ridiculously customisable with no fewer than five user-assignable buttons, it's the available options on these that provide our second gripe. The lists of functions that can be applied to the Fn1, Fn2 and Movie buttons are long but oddly not very comprehensive, and don't include certain key parameters (most notably ISO and white balance). Instead these can only be assigned to the 'right' or 'down' buttons on the 4-way controller, thereby overriding their printed-on functions of flash and drive mode respectively. This is all the more odd given that it's entirely possible to configure the E-P3 with four buttons all controlling exposure compensation simultaneously.

Perhaps the most annoying characteristic of the E-P3, though, is the way the user interface relies on multiple screen modes, which are cycled through using the 'Info' button. So rather than being able to turn such things as the live histogram or electronic level on and off as individual display elements, you have to enable them as their own, separate screens, and switch through them one by one.

This irritation is compounded by the fact that the live view magnification mode is yet another display mode, although accessed via its own button. This requires two presses of the button to work - one to activate the display mode, another to actually zoom in to the live view display. Also you can't then exit magnified view with a half-press of the shutter button, you have to press the 'OK' button instead. Overall this is unnecessarily awkward compared to the simpler approaches found on other, similar cameras.

The upshot of this is that you simply can't display combinations of information on the same screen as you might take for granted on other cameras. The gridlines, electronic levels, live histogram and the exposure clipping warning are all mutually incompatible, and if you regularly use more than one of these displays (and part of the problem is that they all useful in their own ways) you'll find yourself pressing the Info button an awful lot to cycle between them. Then if you use touch-based focus point positioning, the camera will switch into 'magnify' mode, removing any other display elements you happened to be using from your screen.

One the whole, though, these are more likely to count as irritations rather than deal-breakers for most users. They make the shooting process less fluid than it should be, but don't actaully prevent you from doing anything you might like to. And in fairness, to some extent they're a result of the E-P3 offering some features that its competitors don't (such as the highlight/shadow clipping display mode).

Touchscreen bugs (control lockouts)

The E-P3 represents Olympus's first implemention of a touch screen on the PEN series, and perhaps not surprisingly it comes with a couple of bugs (although one related to use with EVFs has been fixed under FW 1.1). These occur under conditions when no touch functions are available: then if you hold the camera such that you're touching the screen, most of the controls will freeze and become inoperable. Luckily the one exception is the shutter button, so the camera will still autofocus and take a picture.

We've found these specific circumstances where this can be problematic (it's possible there may be others):

  • When shooting using the rear screen with the mode dial set to movie mode, no touch functions are available (e.g. touch focus). However holding the camera such that you're touching the screen - most likely with your left thumb - inactivates the rear controls, including (of course) the movie record button.
  • When shooting stills using the rear screen with touch focus and shutter turned off (via the on-screen touch button), again any contact with the rear screen will freeze the controls.
  • When shooting with an EVF, any inadvertant contact between your nose and the touchscreen will inactivate the controls. This tends to be highly dependent upon precisely how you hold the camera and what button or dial you're trying to use, and we've therefore found it to be intermittant and highly unpredictable. (Fixed under Firmware 1.1).

Once you know about this, it's easy enough to 'unlock' the camera simply by removing contact with the touchscreen. But until you realise what's going on, it's disconcerting to say the least (the problem being that the camera provides no feedback at all as to why it's not responding). If you don't want to use any touch functions at all, you can solve the problem entirely by turning the touch screen off altogether, using the 'Touch Screen Settings' option on the Custom J menu.