Olympus PEN E-P3 in-depth review
Conclusion - Pros
- Beautifully-styled and built, with lots of external controls
- Excellent JPEG output: warm, saturated colours, but not cartoonish
- Reliable metering and white balance
- Extremely fast, accurate and near-silent autofocus with MSC lenses (including kit zooms)
- Bright, sharp OLED screen works well for composition even in bright light
- Useful touchscreen functions (e.g. touch focus) complement rather than replace external controls
- Hugely customizable and flexible controls
- Dual control dials (although wheel around 4-way controller is small and fiddly)
- Built-in image stabilisation works with all lenses (including adapted 'legacy' manual focus ones)
- Dual-axis electronic level
- Wide range of Art Filter effects encourages creative experimentation
- Superb optional electronic viewfinder (now with improved live view feed)
- Collapsible 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 II kit zoom aids portability
- Built-in flash offers wireless control of external units
Conclusion - Cons
- Ageing sensor means resolution and high ISO noise performance can't match the competition
- Multi-screen Live View interface is beginning to look very dated
- No dedicated ISO or WB buttons (but can be assigned to Drive or Flash mode buttons)
- No Live View during continuous shooting
- OLED screen isn't terribly colour-accurate, and not so great for reviewing images
- Touch focus mode could be better-implemented
- Touch screen has some bugs (controls can unexpectedly lock up while you contact the screen when touch functions aren't available)
- Extremely complex menu system (although now prettier and easier to navigate)
- Movie mode preview is inaccurate (camera crops-in when you press the record button)
The E-P3 is, in many ways, the camera we always hoped the PEN would be. It addresses the major weaknesses and criticisms of the E-P1 and E-P2, most notably with substantially faster focusing, a much better screen, and the addition of a built-in flash. These improvements, along with its plethora of external controls, excellent JPEG image quality, and hugely attractive design, make the E-P3 a very desirable camera indeed.
But there's a host of less obvious improvements too, many of which are inherited from the E-PL2. The control layout has been revised and improved with the addition of dedicated movie recording and magnification buttons, and on balance we'd say improved. All sorts of other features, from the beginner-orientated Live Guide interface to the fully-customisable exposure warning screen have trickled-up to the top model in the PEN range too. All this means that not only is the E-P3 a hugely capable and well-featured camera, but it's a pleasure to shoot with (although not entirely free of irritations).
If there's one area of disappointment with the E-P3, it's that the image quality hasn't really progressed from previous PENs - in essence it's very similar to the E-PL2. This does mean that the images are slightly sharper than those from the E-P1/2, due to the use of a slightly lighter anti-aliasing filter, but it's impossible to ignore that the E-P3 lags behind the current round of 16-18 MP sensors in terms to the detail it can capture.
High ISO noise is also much the same as before - there's some improvement in suppressing shadow noise in the camera's JPEG processing, but the underlying raw output hasn't changed. Given that this has been a weak point for Micro Four Thirds cameras for the last couple of years, it means the E-P3's high ISO output now looks distinctly weak against the latest APS-C cameras or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3/GH2. However it's worth remembering that the E-P3's inbuilt image stabilisation means you can often use slower shutter speeds and therefore lower ISOs compared to other cameras (as long as your subject isn't moving).
Of course image quality isn't all about captured detail or high ISO noise, and in other equally critical areas the E-P3 really shines. Metering, white balance, and especially JPEG colour palette are all excellent (all of which are traditional Olympus strengths). Few cameras are capable of generating more appealing JPEG images straight out of the camera with minimal user intervention, so if you prefer not to dabble in raw processing after the event the E-P3 is worth a serious look.
The E-P3 has a revised control layout that owes much more to the E-PL2 than the E-P2. This makes it, in our opinion, one of the best-handling cameras in its class, and - just at the moment - arguably the best-suited to the enthusiast photographer. Its body is adorned with plenty of direct-access buttons and dials, which are phenomenally customisable - you can re-assign no fewer than 5 buttons to a wide range of functions, and set up the dials to behave pretty well as you please. This means that most users will be able to set the camera up to suit their personal way of working.
It's not perfect, though. Inexplicably for an enthusiast-orientated model, there's no direct ISO or white balance buttons, and these functions can only be assigned to the 'right' and 'down' keys on the 4-way controller that by default operate the flash or drive modes. This means that you can only get direct access to 2 of these 4 key functions at any given time. Luckily this is mitigated substantially by the excellent on-screen Super Control Panel, which offers quick and easy access to a wide range of functions.
The biggest annoyance with the E-P3's handling is probably its multi-screen live view interface, which is essentially inherited from Olympus's old Four Thirds SLRs (that were never really designed around live view in the first place). This employs several separate screens to display specific information - one for the electronic levels, another for the live histogram, etc. - which have to be cycled through using the 'Info' button. This can quickly become irritating in practical use, and is starting to look very dated compared to the increasingly-slick interfaces offered by the competition (to be fair, though, you can turn off the screens you don't want to use).
The E-P3 adds a touch screen to its more-conventional controls, and we're pleased to see that Olympus has used this to complement, rather than replace buttons and dials. Because it uses capacitative technology it's also a bit more responsive than the resistive screens used by Panasonic. Probably the most useful function is touch focus, which allows you to specify your desired focus point simply by touching the screen; however its implementation leaves a little to be desired as it doesn't integrate perfectly with the other controls. The touchscreen also has some bugs you need to be aware of (described in more detail here), as inadvertent contact with it can lock up the controls under certain conditions (although to its credit Olympus has fixed lockups when shooting with the EVF, with the release of firmware version 1.1).
The Final Word
When the E-P1 was launched we commented that it was a camera you'd buy with your heart rather than your head - despite its lovely styling and superb image quality, it could be frustrating to shoot with due to its sluggish autofocus, fussy operation (especially as regards menus) and low-res display. With the E-P3 Olympus has addressed many of its predecessors' biggest problems - the camera is now much quicker to focus, and together with the revised control layout and sharper, brighter OLED screen this transforms the shooting experience. No longer is the PEN the poor relation to Panasonic's G series - the E-P3 is one of the fastest-focusing and most responsive cameras around.
However while many of the objections to buying a top-end PEN have disappeared, a couple still remain. The user interface could do with an overhaul, with its reliance in multiple screens to show different shooting information. The hugely complex menu system takes a while to get to grips with too, although to be fair you don't need to visit it very often.
The E-P3's biggest problem, through, is that its 12MP sensor is essentially the same as that which we first saw in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 almost three years ago, and in the face of rapid progress from other manufacturers it's now looking distinctly dated. How much this matters depends on whether you really need the increased resolution or better high ISO performance on offer elsewhere, particularly in the light of the EP-3's fine out-of-camera JPEGs that make raw shooting distinctly an option rather than a necessity. But it can't be ignored in the face of less-expensive cameras sporting higher resolution sensors that deliver impressive image quality at ISO 3200 or even 6400 - it's a pity the E-P3 doesn't use the same 16 MP sensor as the Panasonic G3.
Enthusiast users looking for a highly-capable, compact-bodied mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera could well have been forgiven recently for wondering if the market was passing them by, with the apparent emphasis on smaller, simpler cameras aimed at compact camera upgraders. Thankfully Olympus has decided that there's space in the market for a camera that caters to their needs, and the E-P3 hits the mark with style (in the most literal sense possible). Less-experienced users may well prefer to opt for the smaller, simpler E-PL3 or upcoming E-PM1, but serious photographers interested in a small system camera should certainly place the E-P3 towards the top of their shortlists. Only its ageing sensor costs it our top award.
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Olympus PEN E-P3
Category: Mid Range 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 PEN E-P3 is, in many ways, the camera we always hoped Olympus would produce at this level. Fast, pleasant to shoot with, and undeniably stylish, it produces excellent images with the minimum of fuss. However its aging sensor is unable to quite keep up with the best in class at high ISOs.
Jan 19, 2012
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