The E-PL3 is similar enough to the E-PL2 and original E-PL1 that an owner of either camera will have little trouble upgrading. The major difference in how the E-PL3 feels in the hand versus its predecessors lies in its lack of a hand grip. The front of the PEN Lite is formed of completely flat, lacquered metal - quite a contrast from the moulded, rubberized grip of the E-PL2. Although we are able to maintain a solid grasp of the camera, it certainly isn't as comfortable to hold as the E-PL2, particularly when the camera is used one-handed. Although we can imagine many users welcoming the E-PL3's overall reduction in size compared to the E-PL2, we wish Olympus would market an accessory hand grip for the camera, the way it does for the flagship E-P3.

Overall operation and handling

The lack of a hand grip aside, the E-PL3 is generally a pleasure to use. We find the revised control layout, with button placement above the LCD screen, more ergonomically friendly than what we saw on the E-PL2. The addition of a tiltable rear LCD screen can be a real help when shooting from high or low angles. We often found that dropping the camera to waist level and folding out the screen to 90 degrees improved screen visibility in bright sunlight. Admittedly, the rear-hinged design offers little advantage when shooting images in portrait format. Even if an articulated screen is not your cup of tea, however, its implementation adds very little to the bulk of the camera.

Despite its small size, the PEN Lite manages to includes seven external buttons on the rear of the body, in addition to a 4-way control dial.

While it does have the advantage of tilting, the limitations of Olympus' LCD technology become clear in direct comparison that the E-PL3's OLED screen. Simply put, the PEN Lite cannot match the E-P3 for screen brightness, contrast and resolution. The OLED screen on the rear of the E-P3 is very effective in virtually all lighting environments, while the conventional LCD on the rear of the E-PL3 can become difficult to see when outdoors in bright sunshine.

The 16:9 format of the rear LCD is less than pleasing when shooting stills. With the camera set to its native (and default) 4:3 ratio, this format mismatch results in smaller-sized image views compared to previous PENs. The unusable area (shown below) occupies about 25% of the screen area, with black bars running down the sides of the frame. Olympus has devoted this 'empty' space to displaying camera settings while in live view, which does have the effect of a less cluttered image view. We still find the format mismatch rather awkward, detracting somewhat from the PEN Lite's otherwise elegant design.

Above, you can see the limited proportion of the PEN Lite's screen (outlined in white) that is available to display a 4:3 image (the red box).

Specific handling issues

We find the control dial on the E-PL3 to be rather small and somewhat fiddly. Its location, nearly abutting the edge of the LCD screen makes it unnecessarily difficult to get and maintain a solid grip on the dial's ridged edges. Tasks that require continuous or multiple turns of the ring can be frustrating. Adding additional pressure with your thumb to keep the dial moving can cause you to mistakenly trigger one of the cardinal points. When changing exposure settings in the PASM modes, for example, an inadvertent click on the top cardinal point can activate exposure compensation rather than the shutter speed or aperture value you were in the process of setting. Our opinions in the office are somewhat divided, with some adjusting to the smaller dial and others preferring to simply click on the up and down cardinal points to change these settings; a rather tedious approach when making large changes in values. We all agree, however, that the E-P3, with its rear thumb wheel provides a faster, more efficient method of adjusting exposure values.

The PEN Lite's control dial is small, and cardinal point activation can be inadvertently triggered while turning the ring. The Fn and Movie record buttons share the same list of custom assignments. Regrettably, neither ISO nor WB are among them. These options can only be assigned to the 4-way controller.

The lists of functions that can be applied to the Fn and Movie buttons are long but seem rather arbitrary, omitting key parameters such as ISO and white balance. While it is possible to assign these functions to the flash and drive mode buttons on the 4-way controller, doing so results in contradictory button labelling, which can potentially cause confusion. Furthermore, the Fn and movie buttons share an identical list of alternative functions, which means you could set the Fn button to movie record and the Movie button to AE lock; a combination that would seem to us highly unlikely.

We cannot help but feel that at least some of these handling issues could have been addressed with the inclusion of a touchscreen interface. Given the sterling example set by Panasonic's G-series models, not to mention the inclusion of a touchscreen on the E-P3, it seems reasonable to be able to access some settings and controls via the LCD screen.

Perhaps the most annoying characteristic of the E-PL3, 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 gridlines 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, 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.

We concede that 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 actually prevent you from doing anything you might like to. And in fairness, to some extent they're a result of the PEN Lite offering some features that its competitors don't (such as the highlight/shadow clipping display mode). Speaking of extra features, one final point. As you can see from the previous pages, the PEN Lite allows for a huge degree of customization. The amount of fine-tuning that is possible over virtually every aspect of the camera's performance will be very welcome to keen enthusiasts, but we do worry that this amount of customization in a camera of this type, and the way in which it is implemented, has the potential to cause confusion for less advanced users.