Olympus PEN E-P3 Overview
by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview posted 6/30/2011
Review posted 1/16/2012
A couple of years have passed since we reviewed the very first Olympus PEN camera, the E-P1. It seems longer, because so much has changed in this space. The PEN E-P1 was the first of the small Micro Four Thirds cameras, at the time the smallest, but since its debut a war has broken out for the title of the smallest compact system camera. While the smaller Olympus PEN Lite and PEN Mini have entered the fray in the "small" arena, Olympus saw fit to also update and revamp the original PEN with more functionality.
Sensor size remains the same, but Olympus says that it's been optimized for better high ISO performance. The company also added a removable, upgradable grip, an AF-assist lamp, a pop-up flash, and optional touchscreen control, among other things. Though it's a little surprising they stayed with the basic overall size and shape given the competitive environment, it does give them a larger platform to hang features on, better for the more serious photographer, who's likely to prefer the extra dial and buttons. Perhaps the most important improvement is the extremely fast autofocus, which rivals the fastest digital SLRs, a remarkable achievement, quite vindicating the brand after legitimate complaints of very slow autofocus with the first camera and lenses. That's all turned on its head now, as all of the current Olympus optics are fast and quiet, and the new FAST AF engine in this new line of cameras completes the picture.
The new 14-42mm kit lens design, which debuted with the E-PL2 in 2010, has a new look, with a silver body and finer knurling on the rings. The old design also left the bayonet exposed, while the new adds a silver beauty ring for a more finished look. Removing the ring exposes the black bayonet mount for adding optional adapter lenses. The E-P3 we received had a champagne finish, making the silver lens look almost blue by comparison.
From the view at right, you can see the new Pop-up flash, tucked into its silo in this shot. Since this is where the Mode dial used to reside, they moved it to the right next to the shutter button, making it easier to see and use.
Build. Fully outfitted and ready to shoot, the Olympus E-P3 weighs just over a pound, or 16.96 ounces (1.06 pounds, 481g) with the lens, battery, and card. The original E-P1 configured the same with its original lens weighed a little more at 18.58 ounces (1.16 pounds, 526.8g). Dimensions seem similar to the E-P1 as well, at 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.35 inches (122 x 69 x 34mm). Measuring with a caliper, the actual dimensions are different: 123 x 71 x 35mm for the E-P3, versus 122 x 71.5 x 35.3mm. So, pretty close: a little shorter, a little wider, and a little thinner front to back. Note, I did include the hot shoe and lens mount, but not the strap lugs or grip.
Prominent in this shot is the pop-up flash. It looks like the tube is about the same size as the flash on the E-PL2, but the mechanism is a little better built, with metal parts for more precision actuation. There's nothing wrong with the other design, by the way, it just makes more of a boing sound while this one is a single, solid click.
The new stock Olympus grip has a little more of a finger grip than the old design, which was more of an uncomfortable wedge. The new grip is removable, or you can replace it with a thicker, more aggressively hooked grip. I prefer it removed, so far. I always wanted to see if I could scrape the old one off, but never wanted to ruin it. Now I'd like to put some leather on the panels to make it small, yet grippy.
Also new on the front is the AF-assist lamp, which glows a bright amber when activated; it also flashes less brightly for the Self-timer. The Olympus logo, which was flanked by stereo microphone holes, now looks cleaner, as the microphone holes have moved to the top deck.
The color difference between the silver body and the silver lens is more dramatic in this view, but Olympus's own shots show this difference, so it's intentional. Those microphone holes push the hot shoe back a bit, or else that could be moved to accommodate the AP2 accessory port (below). The Mode dial is better positioned on the right side, but it doesn't match the rest of the camera as well. The power button has moved, and the SSWF (supersonic wave filter) is replaced with a blue power-on lamp. The shutter button is slightly smaller, and what used to be the Exposure Compensation button is now a programmable Function 2 button.
Major controls on the back match those on the original camera in orientation, though some have changed their purpose. New are the Pop-up flash release and the Record Start button, for instant access to movie recording. White Balance is no longer available on the right of the Arrow Pad/Main Dial, shrewdly replaced by the Flash Mode button. Though the vertical Sub dial on the upper right still serves to zoom in and out on images, there's a Zoom button where AE/AF Lock used to live. The other new control is the big rectangle to the left, the new touchscreen. Thankfully, its use is limited, meaning most of the functions haven't been delegated to the screen. Mostly Live Guides, touch focus, touch tracking, and zooming can be done via touch. I'm no fan of touchscreens, but this implementation might change my mind. The 3-inch monitor isn't an LCD, but an OLED with about 614,000 dots.
Storage and battery. The Olympus E-P3 stores images and movies on Secure Digital cards, and is compatible not only with the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC card types, but also with higher-speed UHS-I cards -- still a relatively rare capability as of this writing (June 2011). The E-P3 also supports Wi-Fi enabled Eye-Fi Secure Digital cards, for wireless transfer direct from the camera body.
The Olympus E-P3 draws power from a proprietary BLS-1 (or BLS-5) lithium ion battery pack. Battery life is rated to CIPA testing standards as 330 shots with 50% flash usage, when writing to a class 6 SDHC card.
Olympus PEN E-P3 Technical Info
by Mike Tomkins
Sensor and processor. At the heart of the Olympus E-P3 lies a new 12.3 megapixel Live MOS image sensor, whose output is handled by a TruePic VI image processor. The E-P3's imager has a 4:3 aspect ratio, and allows capture of still images at a maximum resolution of 4,032 x 3,024 pixels. Sensitivity ranges from a base of ISO 200 equivalent to a maximum of ISO 12,800 equivalent, controlled automatically or manually in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps. (By default, the maximum sensitivity is capped at a more modest ISO 1,600 equivalent, however.)
Two generations removed from the TruePic V chip featured in earlier PEN-series models, the new TruePic VI image processor retains the Fine Detail Processing technology introduced in the E-5 digital SLR's TruePic V+ chip, and adds Real Color technology that's intended to improve rendering of emerald green, yellow, and magenta hues. TruePic VI also includes an updated version of the company's Shadow Adjustment Technology, which operates in iAuto mode or when the Auto Gradation function is enabled, and aims to restore shadow detail without adversely affecting highlights.
Another new feature of the TruePic VI processor allows it to perform noise reduction using information spanning multiple frames, which should allow reduced noise levels both for video capture, and for the live view feed used to frame and review images. TruePic VI also brings a significant improvement in operating speed, most notable in the camera's autofocus system (which we'll come to in a moment), as well as in its ability to capture Full HD video -- a first for a PEN-series camera. Shutter response time is rated by the manufacturer at less than 60 milliseconds, a number confirmed in our lab.
Focusing. Perhaps the biggest news in the Olympus E-P3 is to be found in its overhauled autofocusing system. It still uses contrast detection autofocusing, but Olympus has improved the speed of its system significantly, and branded it as "Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology", or "FAST" AF for short. Olympus claims its new system offers the world's fastest autofocusing with standard zoom lenses, finally bringing contrast detection autofocus on par with phase detection in terms of speed: comparing to its own product line, Olympus suggests that the E-P3 can focus as quickly as its prosumer Olympus E-5 digital SLR. The improvement in speed has been achieved by reducing the time taken for the autofocus system to begin operation after half-pressing the shutter button, doubling the sensor readout speed to a whopping 120 frames per second, and increasing the speed with which contrast detection routines operate. Olympus' "Movie and Still Compatible" lenses are also said to play their part in the system's speed, and third party lenses or older Olympus models are likely to operate at reduced speed.
As well as improving autofocus speed, Olympus has also increased the total number of focus points in its system, which still has fixed point locations, even though it uses contrast detection. Where earlier PEN-series cameras offered 11-point autofocus, the Olympus E-P3 now offers up 35 point focusing, with the points are arranged in a 7 x 5 array that covers most of the image frame, with the exception of the extreme edges. The E-P3 also provides the ability to configure the camera to address 3x3 groups of focus points instead of individual points if preferred. Olympus further notes that it has improved autofocus tracking performance, and can now use color information and account for the locations of faces in tracking a moving subject. One final difference of note with respect to autofocusing is that the Olympus E-P3 now includes a small, built-in autofocus assist lamp, positioned roughly where the self-timer lamp was in earlier cameras.
Optics. Like all PEN-series cameras, the Olympus E-P3 features a Micro Four Thirds lens mount capable of accepting quite a selection of dedicated lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, and Voigtländer. Courtesy of several adapters, it can also accept older glass including OM-series lenses, Leica's M and R-mount lenses, and lenses made for Olympus and Panasonic's full-sized Four Thirds cameras.
As noted previously, the new "FAST"-branded autofocus system derives the best benefit with Olympus' MSC lenses, and so E-P3 owners will likely want to stick with these models for swifter, quieter autofocus. As of this writing (late June 2011), there are five MSC-branded zoom lenses on the market, covering everything from an 18mm-equivalent wide angle to a 600mm-equivalent telephoto, and prime-lovers will be happy to hear that Olympus has just announced two MSC prime lens models due to ship soon.
Performance. The big story of the Olympus E-P3 in terms of its performance is to be found in the aforementioned autofocus system. Burst shooting performance is rather more modest, being manufacturer-rated at three frames per second. Thanks to support for high-speed UHS Secure Digital cards, burst depth is pretty good, however. The Olympus E-P3 is capable of shooting as many as 17 raw frames in a single burst, and will continue to capture large/normal JPEG still images without slowing for as long as there's available card space and battery power to do so, presuming the card being used is up to the task.
Stabilization. As with its predecessors, the Olympus E-P3 includes a sensor-shift image stabilization system with three operating modes. In Mode 1, the E-P3's IS system will correct for either horizontal or vertical motion. In Modes 2 and 3, the IS system will instead correct only for vertical motion, allowing horizontal panning with landscape or portrait-orientation framing respectively.
Dust reduction. Another function that's held over from past PEN-series models is Olympus' patented Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system. This operates by using a piezoelectric element to vibrate a filter glass overlying the sensor, shaking free dust and other particles which are then captured on an adhesive membrane beneath the imager. The system operates whenever the camera is powered on, and we've subjectively found piezoelectric systems like these to be significantly more effective than those using lower-frequency motion from a sensor shift assembly.
Display. On the rear panel of the Olympus E-P3 is a 3.0-inch, 3:2 aspect Organic LED screen with a touch panel overlay, allowing it to serve double-duty as an input mechanism. The E-P3's OLED panel has a total resolution of 614,000 dots, equating to approximately 205,000 pixels, with each pixel comprising separate red, green and blue dots. The display has a wide 176-degree angle of view and is said to be bright enough to compose images "even in harsh midday light". It offers two operating modes--vivid and natural color--as well as a +/- two step brightness adjustment, and a +/- 3 step color adjustment.
Viewfinder. The Olympus E-P3 includes a small accessory port just beneath and behind its flash hot shoe, a design first seen in the preceding E-P2 model which allows the camera to accept a number of accessories, including the VF-2 electronic viewfinder. We've described this device in past reviews, and it's rather a nice design. A little bulky perhaps, and its use prevents an accessory flash strobe being mounted, but it has high SVGA resolution, a 100% field of view, 1.15x magnification, and a tilt mechanism allowing viewing from overhead.
The same accessory port also accepts Olympus' EMA-1 external microphone adapter, MAL-1 Macro Arm Light, and PENPAL Bluetooth Communication Unit accessories, making upgrading from earlier models which accepted the same accessories a rather more attractive proposition.
Exposure. The Olympus E-P3 offers a full range of exposure modes, including iAuto, Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual. There's also a Scene mode that offers no less than 23 different options: Portrait, e-Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Macro, Sport, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Children, High Key, Low Key, DIS mode, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Document, Panorama, Fireworks, Beach & Snow, Fisheye Converter, Wide Converter, Macro Converter, and 3D. Olympus' pre-exposure Art Filter function, described in the Creative section below, also merits its own position on the Mode dial.
The E-P3 provides shutter speeds ranging from 60 - 1/4,000 seconds, as well as a bulb mode that can be configured to allow exposures as long as 30 minutes. Exposures are determined using a 324-area multi pattern metering system, which also provides center-weighted and 1% spot metering modes. The metering system has a working range of EV 0 to 20 (17mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100). Exposures can be tweaked with +/- 3.0 EV of exposure compensation in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps, and an AE Hold function is available to lock a metered exposure. In addition, the E-P3 provides a handy 2, 3, 5, or 7 frame exposure bracketing function, with a gap between frames of 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, or 1 EV (with the exception of the 7-frame mode, which is limited to a maximum of 0.7 EV steps). Unusually, the E-P3 also allows users to fine-tune the metering system to suit their own tastes, courtesy of an additive +/-1 EV adjustment in 1/6 EV steps.
Flash. A built-in, pop-up flash strobe resides on the top panel of the Olympus E-P3, and has a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200 equivalent. Flash exposures can be determined with TTL auto metering, or controlled manually at anywhere from 1/64 to full strength. The E-P3 also provides for external flash strobes courtesy of a hot shoe, but note that it is shared with the accessory port, so use of flash or accessories is an either / or proposition. The E-P3's hot shoe is compatible with the FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, and FL-300R strobes. Flash sync is possible between 1/60 and 1/180 second, and the E-P3 also allows Super FP flash between 1/125 and 1/4,000 second, if supported by the attached flash. Flash exposure compensation is available within a range of +/- 3.0 EV, in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps. Finally, the E-P3 supports four-channel wireless flash with the built-in strobe acting as a master, and off-camera flash strobes configured in up to 3 groups.
Level Gauge. To help ensure level horizons and avoid converging verticals, the E-P3 includes a dual-axis electronic level gauge. This indicates both front-to-back pitch and side-to-side roll on the live view feed, ensuring your framing is straight and even.
Creative. Like past PEN-series models, the Olympus E-P3 includes a generous selection of pre-capture Art Filter functions, and all of these are applicable not only for still images, but also movie capture as well, although they may affect frame rate. Art Filters include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Gentle Sepia, Cross Process, and Dramatic Tone. There are also nine Art Filter variations and enhancements, including a new Pale & Light Color II filter, and five post capture Art Filter Effects, including new Star Light and White Edge filters. An Art Filter Bracketing function helps users to see the effect of different filters by saving multiple copies of each individual shot, with different filters applied. Further catering to creative types, the E-P3 also offers an in-camera Multiple Exposure function, a selection of different aspect ratios, and an in-camera editing function.
3D imaging. Olympus has included an interesting multi-shot 3D Photo mode in the E-P3, allowing in-camera creation of 3D images in the industry-standard Multi Picture Object (.MPO) format. MPO files contain multiple JPEG still images with slightly differing perspective, and can be viewed on some 3D-capable high-def displays. To capture a 3D image with the E-P3, you hold down the shutter button and slowly pan across the scene, until the camera automatically takes a second image with slightly differing perspective.
Video. As you'd expect these days, the Olympus E-P3 also provides for high definition video capture. The E-P3 offers recording at up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution (commonly known as Full HD, or 1,080i), with a rate of 60 interlaced fields per second. At Full HD resolution, videos are saved in AVCHD format with AC3 Dolby Digital audio. At 1,280 x 720 pixels (720p high definition), videos can be saved in either AVCHD or Motion JPEG AVI formats, with the latter including uncompressed 16-bit, 48kHz Linear PCM audio. Finally, 640 x 480 pixel (VGA standard definition) video is saved as Motion JPEG AVIs. Recording is initiated with a dedicated Direct HD video button.
Although the E-P3 provides image stabilization during movie capture, this is achieved in software, and the sensor shift stabilization system is disabled throughout. Unusually, the E-P3 allows not only Program exposure for movies, but also allows Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual exposure, as well as use of its Art Filter functions. Shutter speeds in Shutter-priority or Manual modes are 1/30 second or less, and some Art Filter functions may adversely effect frame rate of recorded video.
Connectivity. The Olympus E-P3 includes USB 2.0 High Speed data connectivity, Type-C Mini HDMI high definition video output, and NTSC / PAL switchable composite standard definition video output with monaural audio. It's also compatible with Olympus' optional RM-UC1 USB remote control unit, which plugs into the combined USB/AV port. As mentioned previously, the E-PL3 allows for Bluetooth data transfer with the optional Olympus PENPAL accessory. Like other PEN models, no DC-input port is provided.
Olympus E-P3 Size Comparison
Olympus E-P3 vs E-P1
Olympus E-P3 Shooter's Report
by Shawn Barnett
When I set out with the Olympus E-P3 and E-PL3, I expected to prefer the latter camera for its smaller size and more modern appearance. But as I wandered around, I found I preferred some of the extra features that are only present in the E-P3.
Level Gauge. Nothing ruins a shot like a crooked horizon line. Since we shoot our Gallery shots for unmodified publication so you can see what comes right out of the camera, I can't straighten horizon lines before posting to the site. So the Level Gauge function, an Info screen option that's set to off by default, was a welcome aid as I shot for this report. On the E-P1 and E-P2--the only other PEN models to have the feature--the Level Gauge screen shows only the levels, leaving you completely in the dark on the basics, like shutter speed and aperture--even in Manual exposure mode. Yes, if you turned either the Main or Sub dial, the aperture and shutter speed info would return, but the levels would go away. That's fine on a tripod, but less than ideal when manipulating controls handheld. The new Level Gauge screen, however, includes both of these critical bits of information, and in Manual mode there's also an EV gauge.
Sub dial. Most consumer-level SLRs and CSCs have only one dial, with a button to switch between the two main exposure options. When shooting in Manual mode, I prefer having two dials, one dedicated to aperture, and the other to shutter speed. If you plan to shoot in Manual exposure mode a lot, the E-P3 is the camera for you, as it has both the Sub dial and Main dial. EV adjustments and Program Shift when in Program mode are also made easier with the Sub dial. In the crop at left, the Sub dial is in the upper right, and the Main dial is at the bottom.
Touchscreen. I'm not a major fan of touchscreen cameras, many of which rely on the touchscreen for all controls. The main places they make sense is for focus point selection in record mode and flipping through and zooming in on photos in Playback mode. With the E-P3, you can also touch an icon on the screen to zoom in on a certain area of the screen to confirm focus. Of course, they've also built in a touch shutter, which sets the focus point where you've touched, focuses and immediately fires the shutter. You cycle through the settings with a single icon on the left of the screen: Touchscreen Off, Tap-to-Focus, and Tap to select a focus frame. The size of the AF area can be zoomed via a slider on the right, ranging from 5x to 14x zoom. Once zoomed in, you can just swipe your finger to move around the image area, all before image capture.
Post-capture, you can swipe left and right to move between photos, or double-tap to zoom in on an area. Once you've zoomed, a slider appears on the right of the screen, which you can use to zoom in up to 14x.
In Intelligent Auto mode, the E-P3's Live Guide mode can also be accessed via touch, which a menu that slides out from the right side and allows selection and slider setting of each tool's effect.
Larger display. Compared to the E-PL3, the E-P3's OLED delivers a larger image in 4:3 aspect mode. While on the spec sheet both are 3-inch displays, the E-PL3's has a 16:9 aspect ratio, making the full-frame 4:3 image appear to be about 2.4 inches diagonal. The E-P3's 3:2 screen is therefore much better to use for checking focus. Add its higher resolution of 614,000 dots, and it's even better for finer work.
Menu. Olympus left the structure largely the same, but they improved the graphics and fonts on the Menu, making it noticeably easier to read. The former treatment was all caps, white on black letters. The new menus have a smaller font, and use both upper and lower case letters, improving readability tremendously.
Art Filters. All three of the new PEN models have Art Filters, but the E-P3 has more. I'm not too jazzed about most of them, and the four extra that are on the E-P3 are the least desirable: Light Tone, Pale & Light, Cross Process, and Gentle Sepia, so there's not much advantage there. Overall, I've found Pop Art, Grainy Film, and Dramatic Tone to be the most useful. Dramatic Tone is hit and miss, however. It darkens blue skies, but plays interestingly with more cloud-filled skies, so it's better used when puffy clouds are in the sky.
I shot this scene first with the Pop Art filter set, then I added the Filter II, then I subtracted that and added the five available Effects: Soft Focus, Pin-Hole, White Edge, Frame, and Star Light. After that exercise, I just shot the each Art Filter without its available options. I also added two of the three options to the Dramatic Tone feature at the end.
ART Filter Bracketing. As mentioned, you can layer Art Filter on top of Art Filter, stacking them up, but I wasn't as interested in that as in Art Filter Bracketing. I only occasionally like to use the Pop Art filter, and sometimes Dramatic Tone, so I usually just leave the Art setting on the dial set to one of those two, flipping the dial there when I want to try it. But with the Art Filter Bracketing, you can have the camera save a file for each selected filter for each shot you make. And despite its name, it's not limited to just Art Filters. You can also add color modes, like Vivid and Monochrome. When I first started shooting galleries, I turned on a few filters to see what they'd do with different subjects. As I went through them later, I picked out both the original image and the filter I liked best.
The new dual processors in the E-P3 whip through them pretty quickly, showing each image as it's processed and saved; the good news is I didn't have to wait, but was able to just half-press the shutter and keep on shooting. Of course, the more filters you add, the more files you save, and the longer it will take. The camera, to its credit, adjusts its image count to include the multiple files, so that each set you shoot only lowers the count by one or two (depending on how easily the subject compresses). After that initial shoot, I was more interested in seeing an additional image shot in Vivid and Monochrome modes. Going forward, I'll switch from Neutral, which I think is too muted, and probably just shoot in Vivid mode, also recording a Monochrome image.
Flash. I'm glad the E-P3 has a built-in flash, but it's not an element I use a lot. I do tend to carry the E-PL2 on quick family outings to have a little fill flash on sunny days, or indoors in very low light, but otherwise I don't bother. The new FL-300R external flash is interesting, and would do if I wanted to travel light. The slender flash uses two AAA batteries, and slips into the hot shoe easily, locking in place. You can fold it down for storage, flip it up for shooting macros at 30 degrees forward, shoot it upright, or tilt it back to bounce light off the ceiling. An internal flash diffuser slides into place via a mechanical switch. One slight drawback to the FL-300R is that when folded down it's harder to see the Mode Dial's setting (although not as troublesome as on the E-PL3).
That R designation also makes it a wireless-capable flash, working with Olympus's other R-series flashes, serving as part of group A or B. It can even be controlled by the E-P3 itself, making the FL-300R and the E-P3 a rather capable combo. Buy a few, and you could take control of light in all manner of settings for only a little money. It comes with the traditional foot so it can stand freely or mount on a tripod via its brass tripod socket, and a small cloth bag for storage. You can even leave the foot on and fold it up into a tidy package that fits into the bag just right. Available now, the FL-300R is priced at US$169.99.
New lenses. Fans of Micro Four Thirds cameras have been waiting for Olympus to produce some more refined optics, now that they have most of the zoom ranges covered. That day has finally come, as Olympus announced the 12mm f/2 M.Zuiko wide-angle lens (24mm equivalent) and the 45mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko portrait lens (90mm equivalent) along with the new cameras. Though I've handled and looked through both, I've only had a chance to use the 12mm extensively. It has an anodized metal barrel with a metal focus ring. And the ring does a little trick: Though it spins freely like most Olympus focus rings, which focus electronically, you can pull back on the ring and switch into a manual focus mode, complete with a distance scale with matching depth-of-field markings to boot, a very rare feature on modern compact system cameras. The ring slides smoothly, too, giving slowly then more rapidly, as if cammed. Sweet.
I initially thought it was a pure mechanical focus once switched into this mode, but the lens still moves stepwise in response to electronic signal, something that isn't obvious until you zoom in to 10x or 14x while turning the focusing ring. There's still a little more smooth resistance with the ring pulled back, and the ring stops turning when it reaches the limits of the mechanism's travel.
The railroad station shots above were made with the 12mm, along with a few in the gallery. We've run it through our SLRgear.com lab tests, where it turned in a pretty impressive performance. Because it's an MSC lens, focus is fast and silent. A rectangular lens hood (LX-48) is available, but not included with this US$800 lens, which started shipping last June.
The 45mm f/1.8 is narrower than the 12mm. It's also a third stop faster than the 12mm, but there's no mechanically activated manual focus mode; of course manual focus is just a menu setting away. This lens offers shallow depth of field with good bokeh, and focuses quickly and near-silently. Availability since Fall 2011 for around US$400, this lens was also a great performer in the SLRgear.com lab, and all the more attractive for its affordable pricetag.
Focus. Olympus has steadily improved the focus speed of the PEN cameras and lenses. Though the original lenses were indeed very slow, it seldom bothered me. Now that the latest PEN models focus as fast as many digital SLRs, I don't even think about it anymore. With the kit lens the E-P3's shutter lag tests at 0.22 second at wide angle and 0.21 second telephoto. Add the AF-assist lamp for low light, and even darkness isn't a problem, though it is sometimes a little slower.
Shooting with the E-P3 more over the weekend, I got to know it better. I snapped the 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens on, attached the strap, and went out with relatives for the weekend. Through a variety of activities, the Olympus E-P3 proved its mettle, and I learned a few more things about the E-P3 along the way.
Tummy touch. Perhaps the most important lesson was that one cannot leave the touchscreen option active while wearing the Olympus E-P3 around your neck, even if you turn it off via the onscreen button. Eventually your stomach presses that button, activating the rest of the touchscreen, and then begins detecting every touch of your stomach as a press on a certain part of the screen, whereupon it's intent to focus and fire. I found myself taking several shots of myself pouring a cup of water on that very hot July day, an event I had no intention of capturing. You have to drill down into the last of the Options menu to turn the touchscreen off altogether; thankfully, though, I knew right where it was and was able to snuff it without a fuss.
Despite its faster focusing ability, there were still a few instances, usually in low light, where the Olympus E-P3 declared a subject in focus when it absolutely was not, particularly with the 14-150mm lens. This happened one out of ten times on those difficult subjects, so it wasn't a huge ordeal where it was out of focus over and over again.
I spent a lot of time shooting the 14-150mm lens at its extremes, enjoying that 300mm equivalent setting for its ability to cut out the nonsense. But the lens isn't tack sharp at that setting, so some of my results were disappointing, both from lack of sharp focus at some aperture settings, and from glare (the lens needs a hood). I was pleased to have such a small camera and lens along as we marched in the parade and during our other activities, as my SLR and 70-200mm would have weighed me down, especially in the parade.
After the parade while we were all waiting in the shade for our rides to arrive, I noticed a young woman practicing with her horse across the parking lot. The zoom wasn't quite sufficient to reach from my spot in the shade, and I didn't want to miss the moment by walking closer, so I shot from where I stood at 300mm equivalent. The E-P3 got several in-focus shots, and this one was both in focus and a good peak moment. So I spent a few minutes in Photoshop, cropping substantially, removing powerlines, and adding a little blur to the cars in the background. It was mostly so the kids could have a shot to hang on the wall, so I didn't want to spend a lot of time on it. Even cropped so dramatically, the 12-megapixel resolution was just fine, so I figured it was worthy to include here as well.
Unfortunately we did hit a problem that makes image stabilization of little use during video capture. More details on that on the Video page, but that wrinkle aside, the P3 was also quite adept at video capture, at least by enthusiast camera standards. It's a great shame that touch screen AF is disabled for video capture, though, as to my mind that's one of the most useful places for a touch panel, making it easy to change subjects near-silently and with a minimum of shake as capture continues. Hopefully Olympus will revisit this decision in a future firmware version.
I enjoyed my time with the Olympus E-P3. It's just the right amount of camera for photographs of family activities, and I love how small it all packs when traveling. I would leave the touchscreen off except for special occasions, but I'm pleased it has a small flash for fill or indoor use in a pinch; and the leveling feature gets a lot of use when I can't see the horizon. Though it's not exactly improved from the last generation, as our crops below will show, image quality is still quite good, and I can crop liberally from the middle of the image and still get a great 8x10. Can't ask for much more than that.
Olympus E-P3 Image Quality
Most CSCs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. I also choose 1,600 because I like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.
Olympus E-P3 versus Olympus E-P2 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P3 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P3 versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P3 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P3 versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600
Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.
Olympus E-P3 versus Olympus E-P2 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P3 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P2 at ISO 3,200
ISO 3,200 is where we start to lose some color saturation in both the old and new cameras. Contrast is improved, as is noise suppression, again at the expense of detail.
Olympus E-P3 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P3 versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P3 at ISO 3,200
Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
The E-P3 does noticeably better than the NX100 at ISO 3,200. The NX100 has an odd blue cast to the image and employs such aggressive processing its images look odd.
Olympus E-P3 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
The NEX-5's noise processing, while aggressive, does better with the noise in the shadows, and the mosaic bottle image is less washed out. The red leaf swatch also looks better.
Olympus E-P3 versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
The NEX-C3 also does a little better with the subject, as described above.
Detail: Olympus E-P3 versus Olympus E-P2, Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic GF2, Panasonic G3, Samsung NX100, Sony NEX-5 and Sony NEX-C3
Olympus E-P3 Print Quality
ISO 200 shots look good printed at 20x30 inches.
ISO 400 shots are usable at 20x30, but select elements start to blur, making 16x20-inch prints preferable.
ISO 800 shots look good at 16x20 inches, with only some softening of detail, and low-contrast red areas are often softer than they should be.
ISO 1,600 images are also usable at 16x20 inches. Noise in the shadows is very well controlled, and only reds show a real loss of detail (this is very common). Soft elements do look better, and really become a non-issue when printed at 13x19 inches (except for the red elements, which continue to deteriorate from this setting on up).
ISO 3,200 shots are downright mushy even at 13x19 inches, and reduction to 11x14 inches helps high-contrast areas, but low-contrast areas continue to appear mushy, almost as if they were printed on old newspaper. Printing at 8x10 tightens up this effect.
ISO 6,400 images look good at 8x10.
ISO 12,800 images are too jumbled for printing at any size larger than 4x6. On close inspection, detail in solid colors is obliterated, but that won't matter too much for most subjects at this size.
Overall, the Olympus E-P3 does well from 200 to 1,600, when reds become a problem. Still, you can make a usable print at normal sizes up to ISO 6,400 with good quality, and shots made in darker settings should look fairly natural printed at 4x6. This tracks fairly well when compared to the E-P2's print quality results, though shifted up one stop in ISO settings, and ISO 12,800 is a little rougher than was 6,400 on the E-P2 (its highest setting).
In the Box
The Olympus E-P3 ships with the following items in the box:
- Olympus E-P3 body
- Either MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm II R f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens or MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f/2.8 prime lens (in US kits; other kits may be available outside the US market)
- Body cap
- Front and rear caps for lens
- MCG-1 camera grip
- BLS-1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (BLS-5 included instead in some markets)
- BCS-1 battery charger and power cord (BCS-5 charger included instead in some markets)
- CB-USB6 USB cable
- CB-AVC3 video cable
- Shoulder strap
- Olympus [ib] Software CD-ROM (Olympus Viewer 2 included instead in some markets)
- Instruction manual
- Warranty card
- Extra battery pack
- VF-2 (higher-res) or VF-3 (smaller, cheaper) external electronic viewfinder or VF-1 external optical viewfinder (only has guide marks for 17mm lens)
- MCG-2 camera grip (if you prefer a larger grip)
- PENPAL PP-1 Bluetooth transmitter (for cable-free image transfer to phone or compatible PC by Bluetooth)
- RM-UC1 remote cable
- SEMA-1 external stereo microphone kit or EMA-1 microphone adapter kit if you prefer to supply your own mic
- External flash strobe (FL-300R looks to be particularly well-suited for the P3)
- MAL-1 macro arm light
- MMF-2 mount adapter (if you want to use Four Thirds lenses; many other adapter types are available)
- Protective case
- Large capacity, high-speed SDHC/SDXC memory card. 8-16GB or larger makes sense if you plan on shooting lots of HD video. Look for a speed grade of at least Class 6 for HD video capture.
Olympus E-P3 Conclusion
Along with partner Panasonic, Olympus pretty-much invented the Compact System Camera sector a couple of years ago, and since then their PEN-series models have gone down a treat with the buying public. It's a market that's becoming increasingly competitive, however, with essentially all of the major camera manufacturers except Canon having tossed their hat in the ring. Battle lines have been drawn between a variety of competing formats and form-factors, and one of the main areas in which manufacturers are waging war is on the size and weight of their offerings. While Micro Four Thirds cameras have a bit of an advantage over Sony's popular NEX-series models, the E-P3--which is near the same size and weight as the P1 was--no longer cuts quite as trim a figure as its predecessor once did, when compared to the current competition. With that said, it's still quite a bit more compact than even the smallest and lightest of digital SLRs, and by not focusing on size first and foremost, Olympus has been able to pack in a lot of features into what's still a fairly small camera.
The Olympus E-P3 also sets itself from much of the competition with a really fast autofocus system, which matches up well even with SLRs using dedicated autofocus sensors, in terms of speed. Arguably, it betters them in terms of versatility, thanks both to the ability to set the focus point anywhere within the image frame, and to the fact that contrast-detect systems are relatively free of issues like front- and backfocusing that plague even professional SLRs. While we're not typically huge fans of touchscreen panels as a method of controlling and configuring camera setup, there's no question that coupled with the fast AF system, it makes light work of identifying and focusing on your subject in the P3. It's a crying shame that the feature is disabled where it's of potentially the most advantage, in movie mode, though.
While the E-P3 is incredibly fast-focusing, it's unfortunately a little sedate in some other areas. When some rivals can just about manage burst shooting speeds reaching to the double digits, the three frames-per-second of the PEN E-P3 can feel a bit limiting, when you're chasing a hyperactive child around the room trying to capture the perfect expression. Switching to playback mode also feels quite slow, and shot-to-shot times in playback are quite a bit slower than the P2, but thankfully the UI is otherwise reasonably snappy--if rather overly complicated. Finding a rarely-used option in the lengthy fifteen page, ten tab Custom menu can prove a little overwhelming, even after you've been using the camera for a while, but that's not so much of an issue for more frequently-used options, once you've learned where they reside.
At the end of the day, though, the most important questions with any camera are twofold. Does it take good pictures, and is it fun to shoot with? The answer to both questions is "Yes". While it doesn't quite match up to its APS-C sensor-based rivals in terms of high ISO and dynamic range performance, overall the E-P3 yields good, sharp images with accurate color. It also handles quite well, catering to different hand sizes with a choice of interchangeable grips, and providing a good selection of external controls that reduce the need to visit the menu system. The fast AF and minimal shutter lag are a combination that really make the P3 a pleasure to shoot with. If you shoot a lot of handheld video, you'll want to be aware of the strange jello effect we found when image stabilization was enabled, but if you shoot predominantly stills or tripod-mounted video--and we suspect there are still plenty of us who still do--then you'll very likely enjoy shooting with the Olympus P3. That slight proviso about video stabilization aside, the Olympus E-P3 is a pretty clear Dave's Pick.
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