Olympus Pen E-PL3 Hands-on Preview
by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, and Zig Weidelich
As compact system cameras get more and more compact, Olympus's offerings have seemed rather large by comparison. Clearly the company hasn't been resting, introducing three cameras in one day, two of which address the size issue. The Olympus Pen Lite E-PL3 is quite a bit smaller than its predecessor, as well as the E-P3 introduced at the same time. The new camera also finally embraces the Pen name more boldly, with the suggested shorthand being Pen Lite. The third camera announced is the Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, which is slightly smaller than even the E-PL3, with a simplified interface that you can read about in that preview.
Though the E-PL3 has the same 12-megapixel resolution, Olympus says they've improved high ISO performance. We'll have to wait for a shipping version to confirm, but one thing that's improved over any past Pen design is the autofocus speed, which rivals and even bests some digital SLR designs. Called FAST AF, appropriately enough, the new AF system really makes up for the slower autofocus of previous Pen cameras. Also new is the AF-assist lamp, helping the camera focus in low light, and the tilting LCD screen.
With a sleek, straightforward exterior, the Pen Lite has been compared to the company's own Olympus XZ-1 in size, and save for the thickness from the tilting LCD screen and of course the lens, it isn't far off (see comparison photos below). The more slender lens design looks more at home on the E-PL3 than it did on the E-P2, and its new knurled ring and silver color look quite nice on the silver-bodied Pen Lite.Richard Franiec will respond quickly to this one; his past grip designs have always satisfied.)
Raised lines on the tilting LCD help when pulling it out from the body.
Zoom in and out buttons have made a return from the E-PL1 design, and the red dot marks the Movie Record button. A hard rubber beveled thumbgrip provides slightly awkward grip assistance, but it'll do. Info and Menu buttons are slightly difficult for me to press, thanks to their proximity to the LCD. If I have difficulty (something I could easily bear), others might really wail about this one. The Main Dial is also harder to turn for this reason, and the AF button (marked by the three dots on the left of the dial) is harder to depress. Just facts, not deal-breakers.
Sensor and processor. At the heart of the Olympus E-PL3 lies a new 12.3 megapixel Live MOS image sensor, whose output is handled by a TruePic VI image processor. The E-PL3'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 features 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.
Focusing. Perhaps the biggest news in the Olympus E-PL3 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-PL3 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, although we don't yet have any quantitative data in this area.
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-PL3 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-PL3 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.
Optics. Like all PEN-series cameras, the Olympus E-PL3 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-PL3 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-PL3 in terms of its performance is to be found in the aforementioned autofocus system. Burst shooting performance is fairly swift too, though, being manufacturer-rated at 4.1 frames per second. Interestingly, if the E-PL3's image stabilization system is disabled, burst shooting performance increases still further to a manufacturer-rated 5.5 frames per second.
Stabilization. As with its predecessors, the Olympus E-PL3 includes a sensor-shift image stabilization system with three operating modes. In Mode 1, the E-PL3'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-PL3 is a 3.0-inch, 16:9 aspect HyperCrystal LCD mounted on an articulation mechanism, allowing it to be pointed upwards or downwards for viewing over your head, or down low to the ground. The E-PL3's LCD panel has a total resolution of 460,000 dots, equating to approximately 153,000 pixels, with each pixel comprising separate red, green and blue dots. The display has an anti-reflective coating, and provides +/- seven step control over both brightness and color adjustment.
Viewfinder. The Olympus E-PL3 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-PL3 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 25 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, 3D, Underwater Wide, and Underwater Macro. Olympus' pre-exposure Art Filter function, described in the Creative section below, also merits its own position on the Mode dial.
The E-PL3 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-PL3 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-PL3 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. Although the Olympus E-PL3 lacks any internal flash strobe, it 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-PL3 comes bundled with an accessory flash which 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-PL3'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 1/160 second, and the E-PL3 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-PL3 supports four-channel wireless flash with the bundled strobe acting as a master, and off-camera flash strobes configured in up to 3 groups.
Creative. Like past PEN-series models, the Olympus E-PL3 includes a 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, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone. The E-PL3 also provides a selection of Art Filter variations and enhancements, as well as 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.
3D imaging. Olympus has included an interesting multi-shot 3D Photo mode in the E-PL3, 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 scene with the E-PL3, 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-PL3 also provides for high definition video capture. The E-PL3 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, and a maximum clip length of 29 minutes. Audio is included, and encoded as either AC3 Dolby Digital or uncompressed 16-bit, 48kHz Linear PCM. 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-PL3 provides image stabilization during movie capture, this is achieved in software, and the sensor shift stabilization system is disabled throughout. Unusually, the E-PL3 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-PL3 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.
Storage. The E-PL3 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-1 cards -- still a relatively rare capability as of this writing (June 2011). The E-PL3 also supports wifi-enabled Eye-Fi Secure Digital cards, for wireless transfer direct from the camera body.
Power. The Olympus E-PL3 draws power from either a proprietary BLS-1 or BLS-5 lithium ion battery pack. Expected battery life had not been disclosed at press time. Like other PEN models, no DC-input port is provided.
Bundle. The Olympus PEN E-PL3 will be sold in the US market in two different kits, differing solely in the choice of bundled kit lens. One kit will include the MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm II R f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, and the other will ship with the MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f/2.8 prime lens. Pricing and availability information had not been disclosed at press time.
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