Olympus E-P3 Flash
To the disappointment of some, the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 didn't have a built-in flash. Thankfully, the E-P3 corrects that oversight. Available flash modes are: Auto, Fill-in, Off, Red-eye reduction, Slow synchronization (1st curtain), Red-eye reduction slow synchronization (1st curtain), Slow synchronization (2nd curtain), and Manual. To release the flash from its compartment, slide the flash switch on the rear panel behind the flash housing. Close it again by pushing the flash head back down. This flash does not auto-deploy.
The Olympus E-P3's built-in flash has a Guide Number (GN) of 10 meters or 32.8 feet at ISO 200, the same as that of the E-PL1 and E-PL2. It's pretty weak, but understandable given its miniscule size, and still quite useful as a fill flash, or when ambient lighting is too low for near-by subjects. Maximum sync speed is 1/180s, just like the E-PL2, and slightly faster than the 1/160s of the E-PL1. Through a Custom menu setting, this upper limit can be reduced in 1/3 EV steps to a minimum of 1/60 second. A separate Custom menu option allows configuration of the minimum shutter speed at which an attached flash will fire. The default is 1/60 second, and can be altered in 1/3 EV steps, within a range of 1/30 to 1/180 second. (If you set a value higher than the currently configured X-sync speed, this will automatically be updated appropriately.)
Like the Olympus E-PL1 and E-PL2 (and quite unusual for its class), the E-P3's built-in flash can act as a wireless controller to remote slave flashes with wireless capability, specifically the Olympus FL-50R and FL-36R. Four separate control channels are available for wireless operation, to allow multiple photographers to work wirelessly in the same area without interfering with each other. There is also support for controlling three separate groups with individual control for flash mode and flash intensity per group.
The E-P3 also has a dedicated hot shoe (shown to the left with the included cover installed), for mounting external flash units like Olympus's compact FL-14 flash. Other Olympus flash units such as the FL-50R, FL-36R and FL-300R also work, and non-dedicated units can also be used provided they have a compatible trigger voltage and polarity. (Olympus hasn't stated the trigger voltage or polarity, though they do warn against using older flashes with trigger voltages higher than about 24v.)
Note though that the hot-shoe offers photographers an either/or decision: if you want to use the shoe-mounted external electronic viewfinder or external mic input adapter, then the hot shoe isn't available for use with an external flash strobe. That's less of a problem than it was in the P1 and P2, however, given that there's now a built-in strobe with wireless flash support.
The advantages of a good external flash are many: more power for increased range, faster recycle times, longer battery life, reduced red-eye, auto zoom to match coverage to the current focal length, and the ability to adjust the tilt and swivel of the head to allow light from the flash to be bounced off nearby surfaces such as a ceiling, for a diffuse effect. (The FL-14 does not, however, tilt for bounce-flash operation.) Many external flash units have a powerful AF assist illuminator, and other useful features such as modeling flash and high-speed focal plane (FP) sync mode are common on higher end models.
Flash control modes for the external flash consist of TTL Auto (TTL pre-flash mode) and Manual (with full, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64 power output settings). Super FP shooting with shutter speeds up to 1/4,000s is available with Olympus FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, and FL-36 external flash units.
The Olympus E-P3 allows you to adjust flash and ambient exposure independently of each other, by providing flash exposure compensation between -1 and +1 EV in one-third EV increments. An option in the Custom menu also allows for flash exposure compensation to be independent or additive to ambient exposure compensation. Flash exposure bracketing is also supported, where three shots can be taken at one-third, two-thirds, or one EV of positive and negative flash exposure compensation.
Flash Test Results
Coverage and Range
A very weak flash, with somewhat narrow coverage. Our standard flash shots were underexposed despite using +1.0 EV flash exposure compensation.
+3 (+1.0 EV)
+2 (+0.7 EV)
Coverage and Exposure. Flash coverage was uneven at wide-angle (14mm), but much more uniform (albeit quite dim) at full telephoto (42mm). In our Indoor Portrait flash test, the Olympus PEN E-P3's flash underexposed our subject. Increasing flash exposure compensation above +0.3 EV did not improve exposure, so even +1.0 EV shown above was dim (and +0.7 was slightly brighter). The average amount of flash exposure compensation needed for this shot is +0.7 EV. The camera's Slow-Sync flash mode produced much better results, aided by the slow 1/6 second shutter speed, though with a stronger pinkish-orange cast from the ambient room lighting.
ISO 200 Range. Flash exposure started out dim at 6 feet at wide-angle, then became dimmer as distance increased. At telephoto, flash exposures were even dimmer at 6 feet than they were at wide-angle, and gradually became dimmer as distance increased. Poor results here especially considering base ISO is 200 (we normally test range at ISO 100 if the camera supports it), but not surprising given the tiny flash.
Manufacturer Specified Flash Test. The Olympus PEN E-P3's built-in flash has a Guide Number (GN) of 10 meters at ISO 200. That works out to about 9.4 feet at f/3.5 and 5.8 feet at f/5.6, the maximum aperture of the kit zoom lens at wide-angle and telephoto respectively. In both the wide-angle and telephoto shots above, the E-P3 did not perform as Olympus says it will, producing dim exposures at the rated distances. At wide-angle (14mm), the flash target was underexposed by just over 0.8 EV. At full telephoto (42mm), the target was underexposed by about 2/3 EV. Our standard test method for flash range uses a fixed setting of ISO 100 (when supported), to provide a fair basis of comparison between cameras. We've now also begun shooting two shots using the manufacturer-specified camera settings, at the range the company claims for the camera, to assess the validity of the specific claims.