Olympus E-P3 Review

 
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Olympus E-P3 Exposure

The Olympus E-P3 offers much the same exposure options you'd find in a traditional SLR camera, plus a few Olympus-specific options. Available exposure modes include Program AE, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes, with shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 60 seconds, as well as a Bulb setting for longer exposures. The x-sync speed for flash photography is 1/180 second. A fully automatic mode called Intelligent Auto (iA) enables Scene Detection, and places the camera in control of almost all functions, to try to deliver optimum results under a wide range of conditions. What few basic options such as exposure compensation that are available to the photographer in this mode are given more friendly names like Brightness, and have simple touch-screen slider controls. The Olympus E-P3 also offers a number of Scene modes and Art Filter functions, as well as a dedicated Movie mode. See the Operation page for more details.

The E-P3 offers an optional live histogram function in all operating modes except Panorama and 3D. Located near the bottom center of the LCD panel, it's rather small, and offers only a luminance readout rather than a full RGBY histogram, but it's still very useful for ensuring your exposures are correct. (It does have the interesting feature that the area of the image under the spot meter is called out in green on the histogram, while areas of under- or over-exposure are shown in red and blue respectively on the histogram.)

Another feature that's rather more common, but still very welcome, is the exposure display visible at bottom right of the LCD when the camera is in Manual exposure mode. This shows the amount the camera thinks an image will be over- or underexposed within a range of +/-3.0EV, based on the settings you have selected, to help you find the best exposure for the subject. (Beyond the 3.0EV range, the value blinks to emphasise that the metering system's limit has been reached.) Together, the live histogram and exposure display make it relatively easy to get suitable exposures even when shooting manually.

Olympus E-P3 Face Detection
The Olympus E-P3 includes Face Detection capability, capable of locating the positions of up to eight subjects within the image frame. This information is taken into account when determining several exposure variables -- focus, exposure, flash and white balance. Although it doesn't go as far as some competing cameras, which attempt to recognize the faces of specific individuals and prioritize them over other detected faces, the E-P3 has a feature that's a little more unique: what Olympus calls 'Face & Eye Priority'. When this extension to the traditional Face Priority is active, the E-P3 will attempt to focus specifically on your subject's eyes. Three modes are available, aiming to focus either on the closest eye, the leftmost eye (as seen from the camera, ie. your subject's right eye), or the rightmost eye (ie. your subject's left eye).

The face detection functionality can also be used to automatically smooth your subjects' skin tones during record or playback, courtesy of the e-Portrait function. In Record mode, the function is used in the e-Portrait scene mode, and automatically saves two copies of each captured image, one with skin smoothing, and one without. In playback mode, e-Portrait is accessed and applied to images through the JPEG Edit function.

Olympus E-P3 ISO Range
The Olympus E-P3 lets you adjust its light sensitivity in either 1 or 1/3 EV steps, within a range of ISO 200 to 12,800 ISO equivalents. There's also an Auto mode in which the camera selects an ISO sensitivity appropriate to the subject's brightness. To keep noise and shutter speeds inside your desired range, you can set both maximum and minimum ISO limits for the Auto mode, within a range of 200 to 12,800 equivalents. By default, Auto ISO is only available when shooting in Program, Aperture-priority or Shutter-priority modes, but through a Custom menu option it can also be enabled in Manual mode. This allows both shutter speed and aperture to be manually specified, while the camera varies sensitivity so as to match the metered exposure. The net result is similar to the unusual Shutter/Aperture-priority (TAv) mode we've seen on Pentax's digital SLRs, although with the disadvantage that exposure compensation remains unavailable since the P3 believes itself to be operating in Manual mode. There is also a useful ISO bracketing feature, where the camera takes three images, varying the ISO but keeping the shutter speed and aperture fixed.

Olympus E-P3 Noise Reduction
The higher ISO settings are helpful when you want faster shutter speeds under normal lighting, to help freeze fast action. Of course, as with all digicams, the higher ISO settings produce photos with more image noise, in much the same way that higher-ISO films show more film grain. To combat this problem, the E-P3's Custom menu offers a variable high ISO noise reduction function--which Olympus calls Noise Filter--with options of either Off, Low, Standard, or High. There's also a separate Noise Reduction option in the Custom menu, which reduces noise in long exposures by capturing a second exposure containing only the dark current noise, then subtracting this from the image. This effectively doubles exposure times when in use. By default, long exposure noise reduction is applied automatically on longer exposures, but the function can also be disabled or enabled manually.

Olympus E-P3 White Balance Options
White balance options include Auto, Sunny, Shadow, Cloudy, Incandescent (Tungsten), Fluorescent, and Flash. Two Custom white balance positions are available, for setting white balance from a white or grey card, as is a direct Kelvin temperature setting ranging from 2,000K to 14,000K. The latter is set by first highlighting the Custom white balance menu item, and then hitting the Info button before turning either Control dial or pressing the Arrow buttons. The One-Touch option is useful for basing the white balance on a white card.

You can also adjust the white balance for all but the Kelvin option, controlling the amount of amber-blue and green-magenta bias in the color balance in +/- 7 steps. This ability to "tweak" the white balance, called White Balance Compensation, is very helpful when dealing with difficult light sources. Unlike many cameras, which provide direct access to the adjustment from the white balance selection dialog, the E-P3 hides it in the Custom menu.

The E-P3 also features white balance bracketing. If activated, the camera will write three separate images for each press of the shutter button, either biasing between amber and blue or green and magenta. You can set the images to vary by two, four, or six arbitrary adjustment steps.

Olympus E-P3 Metering Options
Five metering systems are available on the Olympus E-P3: Digital ESP, Center-weighted, Spot, Spot HI (highlights), and Spot SH (shadows). All are accessed through the various menu systems on the camera's LCD monitor. Under the default Digital ESP setting, the camera takes an exposure reading from 324 segments of the image, and chooses the best exposure based on brightness and contrast across the entire scene. Center-weighted metering reads from the center of the frame, but from a fairly large area. Spot metering simply reads the exposure from the very center of the image, so you can pinpoint the specific area of the photograph you want properly exposed. (Spot metering is very handy when you have a subject that's backlit, or that has a very different brightness, either lighter or darker, than the background.) The two additional Spot options provide highlight and shadow control, whenever shooting in very bright or very dark conditions.

Exposure and autofocus are optimized for faces when Face Detect is enabled. Metering range is from -1 to 18 EV, at room temperature with a 50mm f/2 lens at ISO 100. Either the Fn1 or Movie buttons can be configured to serve as an AE/AF Lock button, which locks the current exposure settings whenever pressed, so you can independently lock exposure and focus. (AE Lock is useful when you want to base your exposure on an off-center subject. Point the camera at the subject, lock the exposure, then recompose your shot however you like. Your subject will be correctly exposed, regardless of what might be in the center of the frame when you finally snap the shutter.) Through a Custom menu, you can designate the function of the AE/AF lock button, and how it works in conjunction with the Shutter button.

Olympus E-P3 Exposure Compensation & Bracketing
In situations where exposure compensation is necessary, simply press the Exposure Compensation button on the rear of the E-P3 (a secondary function of the Up Arrow button) and turn either control dial or press the left and right Arrow buttons. In all exposure modes except Manual and Bulb, the exposure value scale will display on the LCD, and you can increase or decrease the exposure in either 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0 EV increments (selected via a Custom menu option), up to a maximum of +/- 3.0 EV. Or, you can use the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function to automatically bracket three frames at 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0 EV steps each. The auto bracketing will center its efforts around whatever exposure you've chosen as the starting point, including any exposure compensation adjustments you've made -- meaning that it's possible to bracket one exposure as far as 4.0 EV on one side of the metered exposure value. AEB is handy for those times when you want to make sure you get just the right exposure for a critical subject.

The Olympus E-P3 also gives you the ability to individually tweak the exposure of each metering mode, via a Custom menu option called Exposure Shift. This allows you to assign a separate compensation in 1/6 EV steps between -1 and +1 EV for Digital ESP, Center-weighted, and Spot metering modes. Unlike exposure bracketing, the exposure shift function is limited to operating within the camera's standard exposure compensation range. That is to say, if you dial in a -1.0 EV exposure shift, and the maximum -3.0 EV of exposure compensation, the camera will only reduce the metered exposure by 3.0 EV -- it won't go outside of the maximum exposure compensation range to a -4.0 EV exposure. Unlike the exposure compensation function, use of exposure shift isn't indicated on the P3's record or playback-mode information overlays.

Olympus E-P3 Panorama
Although the Olympus P3 does include a panorama mode, it's much more basic than is typical these days. Where many cameras automatically capture images and stitch them together simply by sweeping across the scene with the shutter button held down, the P3 requires you to frame the scene and press the shutter button, for as many images as you need for the full panorama. There's a guide of sorts, but it doesn't show the previous image to help you line shots up. Instead, it simply draws two rectangles at the edges of the frame, and expects you to remember what was at one edge of the frame for the previous shot, then line that same area up at the opposite edge for the next one. The panorama also isn't stitched in-camera, but rather on your computer using the supplied software.

Olympus E-P3 3D Photography
TheP3 also offers a 3D photography function, although again it's not as sophisticated as those on some competing models. When in the 3D photography scene mode, the P3 prompts you to capture an image, then overlays a ghost of this shot in the center of the frame. You shift the camera right a short distance to line up the live scene with the ghost and capture a second frame, and the result is saved as a Multi Picture Object (MPO) file which contains two JPEG images with left and right views, suitable for viewing on a 3D-capable display.

Olympus E-P3 Drive Modes
The Drive setting accesses Single-shot and Continuous modes, as well as Self-timer modes. Single-shot shoots one frame per shutter press, while in our testing we found that Continuous mode shot bursts at about 3.1 frames-per-second, just slightly better than the rated 3 fps. Burst depth is about 19 JPEG, 12 raw, or 9 raw+JPEG frames.

The Olympus E-P3 also offers two Self-Timer modes for self-portraits or those occasions when you don't want to risk camera shake on a long exposure by pressing the Shutter button to trip the shutter. You can choose between a 2 or 12 second countdown. The 2 second countdown is useful for times when you're taking a long exposure with the camera on a tripod. Surprisingly for a camera without a mirror, there is also an Anti-Shock option, which allows a programmable delay from 1/8s to 30s between the shutter button being pressed and the actual exposure being taken.

When the optional RM-UC1 Remote Cable is attached via the USB-AV/OUT port, remote operation is available. No wireless remote is available for the E-P3.

Olympus E-P3 Picture Modes
There are also options on the Record menu to set the color mode. As well as the Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait, Monotone, and Custom options found in the E-P1, the E-P3 retains the i-Enhance option that was added in the P2, which automatically detects the main subject in any scene, then boosts brightness / saturation selectively for those areas of the image so as to draw your attention to the subject. This effect is intended to better match what the human eye sees. Contrast, Sharpness, and Saturation levels may be adjusted in five steps for i-Enhance, Vivid, Natural, Muted, and Portrait; while Contrast and Sharpness levels can be adjusted in five steps for Monotone. Yellow, Orange, Red, or Green filter effects are available for Monotone, as well as Sepia, Blue, Purple, or Green picture tones. In addition, the Olympus E-P3 has a Gradation setting to control the brightness of the entire image. You can choose between the Auto, Normal, Low, and High Key settings. Finally, the i-Enhance mode offers three-step control over the strength of the effect -- High, Standard, or Low. A color space option under the Custom menu lets you choose between sRGB (for Windows machines) and Adobe RGB (for Adobe Photoshop) color options.

Olympus E-P3 Multiple Exposures
The Olympus E-P3 supports multiple exposures overlaid as one image. You can overlay two subsequent images while they are being taken and save the result as a JPEG or Raw file. By enabling the Auto Gain feature, the camera can automatically adjust the gain so that the resulting image is averaged from the source images . Alternately, the result can be additive (as it would be in a multiple exposure shot with a film camera) if auto gain is left disabled.

It is possible to combine more than two images by using the Overlay function, which allows selection of any preexisting Raw image to use as a starting point for the multiple exposure. By saving each multiple exposure as a new Raw file, it's possible to combine an essentially unlimited number of exposures into a single image, although doing so requires the overlay image to be manually reselected through the menu system after each shot, a somewhat tedious process that requires at least seven extra button presses.

When shooting static subjects -- or those where blurring is desirable, such as waterfalls -- the auto gain function can also be used to reduce image noise in-camera by averaging it out across multiple exposures. This technique allows the use of higher ISO sensitivities than might otherwise be advisable, and the optional RM-UC1 tethered remote cable release can be used to prevent the camera being moved between shots. Uunfortunately, the cable release doesn't allow navigation of the menu system, which would be required to merge more than two subsequent exposures in-camera.

The E-P3 offers one further method of creating multiple exposures through its Playback menu Image Overlay function. This allows selection of either two or three Raw images which are then combined into a single combined image, which is saved as a new Raw file. This allows a greater degree of control over the combined image than the Record-mode multiple exposure function, since the brightness of each source image can be adjusted separately in twenty steps.

Olympus E-P3 Shading Compensation
Like many of the companies other SLR and SLD cameras, the E-P3 implements what the company calls Shading Compensation -- another term for lens vignetting or corner shading correction. It's not clear whether the camera applies fixed compensation based on lens type, or by analyzing the actual light fall-off in the corners of captured images. The function doesn't work when using teleconverters or extension tubes, and may lead to increased noise levels in the corners of image where the correction has been applied.

Olympus E-P3 Art Filters
The Olympus E-P3 offers a generous selection of what the company calls Art Filter effects. There are ten to choose from, two more than were offered by the E-P2. As well as the Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Cross Process filters of the previous camera, the E-P3 also includes Gentle Sepia and Dramatic Tone filters. What's unusual about Olympus' implementation is that the camera performs these filters as it captures the image, taking them into account when determining exposure variables. The effect is also previewed on the camera's LCD or electronic viewfinder while framing the shot, although in a couple of modes the preview is rather coarse, and noticeably slows down the live view. A function in Custom menu D allows a less accurate preview of the filter's effect, but with less effect on the live view feed's frame rate. It's also possible to bracket art filters, with each image being saved with each possible effect applied. (This does rather slow down shooting, however.)

 As one might expect, Art Filters are not applied to RAW files. If RAW mode is chosen, the camera will automatically enable LN+RAW mode, and save the modified image as a large/normal JPEG. For the two new filters, Gentle Sepia adds a soft, warm tone to the image while leaving blacks true, while Dramatic Tone adds a punchy, high-contrast look like that which has become a cliche among fans of high dynamic range photography (but it's not true HDR, as it's achieved from a single shot).

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Olympus PEN E-P3 Photo Gallery.

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Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Olympus PEN E-P3 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

Olympus E-P3

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