Olympus E-P3 Review

 
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Olympus E-P3 Video Recording

High-definition video capture has become ubiquitous in the latest generation of interchangeable-lens cameras, and essentially all the major manufacturers now provide some form of video capture in their compact system cameras.  The most significant changes since the earlier E-P2 model are the addition of Full HD video capture, AVCHD compression, and a dedicated Movie recording button, all worthwhile changes that make video capture with the P3 a more attractive proposition. As the flagship PEN-series camera, the Olympus P3 includes some more advanced features such as full manual exposure control and optional external microphone support, along with consumer-friendly options such as full-time autofocus and pre-capture video filters. Although it does lack audio levels control, built-in microphone connectivity, and the fine-grained control over framerates that are sometimes found on competing models, most non-professional videographers likely won't notice the absence of these features. The absence of a wind cut filter is likely of more significance to consumer users, although use of an external mic with what's commonly called a "dead cat" wind shield would resolve this.

Overall, we found the Olympus P3 to offer a reasonably capable video mode, although pros will find the lack of audio and framerate controls too limiting, and we unfortunately experienced some issues with image stabilization (detailed below) that will likely cause videographers to simply disable this function altogether.

Olympus E-P3 Basic Video Specs

  • 1,920 x 1,080 (Full HD / 1080i), 1,280 x 720 (720p), and 640 x 480 (VGA) recording
  • AVCHD compression at Full HD and 720p resolutions, or MotionJPEG compression at 720p or below
  • MTS file format for AVCHD, AVI for MotionJPEG
  • 59.94 interlaced fields per second at Full HD, 59.94 frames per second for AVCHD 720p, or 30 frames per second for Motion JPEG
  • Autofocus functions during movie recording, includes tracking function, and is essentially silent with MSC-badged lenses
  • Auto, shutter/aperture-priority or full manual exposure, set before recording
  • EV adjustment is available in Program and Aperture Priority AE prior to recording, but not during
  • EV adjustment is available in all auto and semi-auto recording modes
  • Digital image stabilization (often induces very strange jello effect); sensor-shift stabilizer mechanism is disabled for movies
  • Stereo audio recording via built-in microphones or standard external mics via an optional, hotshoe-mounted accessory connector
  • "Art Filters" can be applied to video, but most adversely affect framerate, sometimes drastically
  • Video recorded with Diorama filter plays back at ~15x normal speed, and has audio disabled
  • Stereo audio recording via built-in microphones, plus external input via optional accessory port adapter
  • Digital tele-converter function adds 2x digital zoom
  • Still + Video mode snaps still image at the end of video recording

Olympus E-P3 Video: Image Size, Frame Rate, and Encoding

The Olympus E-P3 records at three different video resolutions in two compression formats, with each combination having a fixed frame rate. In AVCHD format, which is available only for high-definition videos, there are two possible frame rates and two bitrates. Full HD (1080i; 1,920 x 1,080 pixel) videos are recorded at 59.94 interlaced fields per second, and 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) videos are recorded at 59.94 progressive-scan frames per second. In MotionJPEG format, which is available for 720p or VGA (640 x 480 pixel) resolution, the frame rate is fixed at approximately 30 frames per second. Regardless of the compression and frame rate, the actual data is clocked off the image sensor at 30 frames per second, and some art filters reduce the captured frame rate significantly.

Unless audio capture is disabled, AVCHD movies include Dolby Digital (A52/AC-3) stereo audio, while MotionJPEG movies include PCM stereo audio. No spec is provided for the audio sampling rate of AVCHD videos, though video players report 48 kHz at 192 kbps. Olympus specifies a 16-bit sampling rate of 48kHz for MotionJPEG movies, which our video players agree with.

The table below shows the specs for various video recording options.

Olympus E-P3 Video Options
AVCHD Format (H.264, .MTS files)
Resolution
Aspect Ratio
Frame Rate
Average Bit Rate

1,920 x 1,080

16:9

59.94 fields per second
(interlaced)

20 Mbps
17 Mbps

1,280 x 720

16:9

59.94 frames per second
(progressive)

17 Mbps
13 Mbps
M-JPEG Format (MotionJPEG, .AVI files)
Resolution
Aspect Ratio
Frame Rate
Compression Ratio

1,280 x 720

16:9

30 frames per second
(progressive)

1/12

640 x 480

4:3

1/8

As noted above, the Olympus E-P3 offers two video recording formats, although unless you're recording at 720p resolution, the choice of format is made for you. The E-P3's Full HD video is recorded using the newer AVCHD compression format, which is based upon H.264 compression. At VGA resolution, the E-P3 uses the older, less efficient (but easier to decode) MotionJPEG compression type. At 720p resolution, you can choose between the two formats.

Continuous movie recording is limited to approximately 29 minutes regardless of file format, and maximum movie file size is 4GB. Olympus recommends use of at least a Class 6 Secure Digital card to avoid issues with write speeds during video capture.

Here are some examples of video shot with our sample of the Olympus E-P3:

Olympus E-P3: Video Samples
1,920 x 1,080, 59.94fps interlaced AVCHD, Fine quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,920 x 1,080, 59.94fps interlaced AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 59.94fps progressive AVCHD, Fine quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 59.94fps progressive AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original
640 x 480, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,920 x 1,080, 59.94fps interlaced AVCHD, Fine quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,920 x 1,080, 59.94fps interlaced AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 59.94fps progressive AVCHD, Fine quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 59.94fps progressive AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original
640 x 480, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original

Olympus E-P3 Video-Mode Focusing

For a consumer audience used to camcorders that can autofocus during video capture (and who don't necessarily have the time and patience to learn to pull focus manually), full-time autofocus is a pretty critical feature. When we reviewed the preceding Olympus E-P2, we noted that while full-time autofocus was available in that model, there was certainly room for improvement. A couple of years later, the situation is much better -- a new generation of 'Movie & Still Compatible' (MSC)-badged lenses provide near-silent autofocus on PEN-series camera bodies, and allow faster autofocusing to boot, thanks to a reduction in the mass of elements that must be moved during AF operation. While there's still room for improvement in terms of autofocus speed--the E-P3 takes a little while to decide the focus has shifted, and to regain a focus lock--there's relatively little hunting and disruption to the video feed, and the E-P3 will now meet most consumers' needs in this area.

Olympus has missed one trick with the P3's video-mode AF, however. Although the camera now has a touch-screen panel, this is disabled during video recording, which to our mind is where Touch AF is at its most useful. In competing cameras, a touch screen can make it a very simple matter to indicate to the camera that you wish to shift the point of focus from one subject to another, with relatively little handling noise and shake caused by a gentle touch on the screen. Unfortunately, this isn't possible with the E-P3. Instead your options are limited to either setting an autofocus point before capture starts, or using tracking autofocus to follow a particular subject around the frame.

Olympus E-P3 Video Exposure Control

Some video-capable cameras still offer only fully automatic exposure in movie mode, but the Olympus E-P3 gives you a choice of either Programmed, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority or Manual exposure modes. As well as allowing direct control of the shutter speed and aperture as appropriate to the exposure mode, the ISO sensitivity which the camera will use can also be directly controlled, but only in Manual exposure mode. In Programmed and Priority modes, 3.0EV of exposure compensation is available in 0.3 EV steps. All exposure variables are fixed from the start of video recording.

There are, of course, some provisos. The ISO sensitivity range is reduced to ISO 400 to 1,600 equivalents during video capture, and Auto ISO isn't available in Manual mode. The slowest available shutter speed is 1/30 second. It's also worth noting that while Program Shift is available for still imaging, it isn't applicable to video capture.

White balance settings also carry over to video mode, as do the tone/color aspects of the camera's various scene modes.

It's not strictly an exposure control feature, but this seems as good a place as any to mention the Olympus E-P3's Movie + Still recording mode. Selected via the Movie page of the Custom menu, this option snaps a still image at the end of each movie clip: When you press the shutter button the second time, to stop movie recording, the shutter actuates, and the camera captures a full-resolution still frame. We suppose this is could be useful at times, but in our own movies, the action is usually over by the time we're ending a clip, so that's perhaps not the ideal place to capture a still frame. Still, there are times when we'd like to have a high-resolution still image of a video subject available, and this option is much quicker than having to switch back out of Movie mode to capture one.

Olympus E-P3 In-Camera Image Adjustment for Movies

Olympus has for some time now made a big deal of their Art Filters in marketing their DSLRs. We know people that like these effects a lot, but confess that we've personally never found them very compelling. With the E-P3, Olympus has again carried the full set of Art Filters over into Movie Mode, so those users who are into such things can take advantage of the same effects in their videos. With the higher maximum resolution and switch to processor-intensive AVCHD for high-def videos, though, the E-P3 clearly doesn't have the processing power to handle real-time art filters alongside encoding. Where with the E-P2, a few of the filters were usable without affecting frame rates, the E-P3 can't record AVCHD video with any art filter active, without dropping the frame rate to two frames per second.

When using MotionJPEG encoding, there are a few filters that are usable at 720p resolution without adversely affecting the frame rate: Pop Art, Pale & Light Color, and Light Tone. All other art filters reduce the 720p frame rate to somewhere between two and 15 fps, although in some cases the video file itself is still written as a 30fps file with duplicate frames.

Here's a summary of what we found when shooting video using the various Art Filter effects:

Frame Rate Limits with Art Filters Applied
Art Filter
Frame Rate
1080i AVCHD
(all encoded as 29.97 fps, with duplicate frames if applicable)
720p M-JPEG
(all encoded at stated rate without duplicate frames, unless otherwise noted)
None
29.97 fps
30 fps
Pop Art
2 fps
30 fps
Soft Focus
2 fps
6 fps
(encoded as 30 fps with duplicate frames)
Pale & Light Color
2 fps
30 fps
Light Tone
2 fps
30 fps
Grainy Film
2 fps
6 fps
Pin Hole
2 fps
2 fps
Diorama
Records at 2fps, file is encoded at 29.97fps with every other frame being a duplicate, so plays back greatly accelerated. Audio is disabled.
Records at 2fps but file is encoded at 15fps, so plays back greatly accelerated. Audio is disabled.
Cross Process
2 fps
15 fps
(encoded as 30 fps with duplicate frames)
Gentle Sepia
2 fps
15 fps
(encoded as 30 fps with duplicate frames)
Dramatic Tone
2 fps
10 fps
(encoded as 30 fps with duplicate frames)

The Diorama filter in particular is a curious beast in video mode. While all other art filters have no effect on audio, Diorama videos are recorded without audio, and effectively play back at 15 frames per second, although the original video is captured at two frames per second. This causes playback of diorama videos to appear accelerated by ~7.5x.

Olympus E-P3 Movie-Mode Image Stabilization

Olympus E-P3: Video Image Stabilization Samples
1,280 x 720, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
Image Stabilization: Off
View on Vimeo | Download Original
Image Stabilization: Mode 1
View on Vimeo | Download Original
Image Stabilization: Mode 2
View on Vimeo | Download Original
Image Stabilization: Mode 3
View on Vimeo | Download Original

Although the Olympus E-P3 incorporates a sensor shift-type image stabilization system, this is disabled during video recording, and the camera instead relies solely on digital image stabilization. Unlike a mechanical system, this allows completely silent operation, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. The system works by creating the video feed from a 'window' of pixels in one particular location on the sensor, with the location of the window moved around the sensor as needed to correct for motion. For this system to function, you need to leave a band of "spare" pixels around the periphery of the sensor, and in the process, you effectively increase the effective focal length crop slightly. While for telephoto videos this may in fact be desirable, it means that if you want the widest possible field of view, you'll need to disable image stabilization.

The point may well be moot, however, as we didn't find the Olympus E-P3's image stabilization very useful. The problem is that although the system is reasonably effective at correcting minor camera shake, it has a tendency to introduce a bizarre double-axis jello effect with even relatively moderate shake. (While a little difficult to describe, the effect is very easy to see in the sample videos with stabilization enabled above.) We found this to be significantly more objectionable than the shake that the camera was supposed to be correcting, and so preferred to leave image stabilization disabled altogether. We've reported the issue to Olympus, but to date haven't seen a fix as of the latest available firmware (v1.1; December 2011).

If the problem can be corrected, then the P3's image stabilization will be quite worthwhile, although we'd like to see the ability to enable true hardware image stabilization as well, something that's available in competing cameras with in-body stabilization. As-is, though, the P3's video stabilization is essentially of little use in the situations where you'd most need it, unless you've a very steady hand.

Leaving that aside, though, the P3's in-body image stabilization system essentially allows any lens attached to it effectively becomes an image-stabilized model. (Note, though, that when using a lens that has its own image stabilization, you have to choose either the camera's IS or that in the lens; they won't work together.) All three IS modes the E-P3 offers are also available while recording movies. The available modes are Off, IS 1 (stabilizer on in both axes), IS 2 (horizontal panning), and IS 3 (vertical panning). As in still-capture mode, you can also set the focal length of the lens explicitly, from 8-1,000mm, for use with non-Micro Four Thirds/Four Thirds system lenses that don't communicate their focal length to the camera.

Olympus E-P3 Video: Audio Recording

Audio recording in movies is optional with the Olympus E-P3. Audio can be turned on or off in the Movie page of the Custom menu, or via the Live Menu, accessible by pressing the OK button on the camera's rear panel. Audio for AVCHD movies is recorded as 48kHz, 192kbps Dolby Digital (A52/AC-3) stereo, while for MotionJPEG videos it is recorded as 16-bit, 48 kHz stereo PCM. Stereo recording is done either via two microphones on the camera's top face, with each channel having a separate two-hole grille in front of the flash hot shoe. Alternatively, a standard 3.5mm stereo microphone can be attached via a SEMA-1 adapter that connects to the accessory port (shown at right mounted on the preceding Olympus E-P2, with the ME-51S stereo mic and extension cable attached).

Audio recorded with the camera's internal mic sounded clear, but we do no tests to measure frequency response or sensitivity, so can't comment quantitatively. We did notice that there was an audible hiss accompanied by a quiet humming in audio tracks recorded with the in-camera mic in relatively quiet environments, which while not terribly severe (and likely relatively easy to clean up in post processing) was more noticeable than we're accustomed to on competing models.

As noted above, the autofocus drive on the 14-42mm kit lens was effectively silent, in that its operation couldn't be heard on the audio track, even with no background noise. Zooming the lens could produce audible noise, as could changing our handhold on the camera or using the physical controls, but these issues could likely be mitigated significantly with the external mic accessory.

As with most of its competitors, the Olympus E-P3 doesn't have any provision for manual audio level control, whether working from the internal or optional external mic. Nor is there a wind cut function, something which may be slightly more of an issue for the P3's primary target buyers. It is, however, possible to disable audio capture altogether.

Olympus E-P3 Movie Recording / Playback User Interface

Although--like its predecessor--the Olympus E-P3 still has a separate Movie mode accessed via a separate position on the camera's Mode dial, there's now a dedicated Movie record button on the top of the rear panel. This allows movie capture even when set to one of the still image exposure modes, although confusingly, the exposure mode will be ignored and the movie will be recorded with Program autoexposure, unless you're using the Movie mode position. In Movie mode, you can set the camera to use priority or manual exposure, using an option hidden in the Movie Live Menu. It's not terribly intuitive, but it does work. Note though that in movie mode, the same option used to select the exposure mode also selects the art filter modes, and hence it isn't possible to combine art filters with priority or manual exposure.

With the addition of the dedicated Movie record button, the Shutter button no longer starts or stops video recording even when in Movie mode: instead, it captures a still image. The separate buttons do make it quicker to jump from capturing stills to movies and vice versa, since you needn't necessarily move the Mode dial unless you need more control over the resulting image or movie than is possible in the current mode. The new Movie record button, however, is quite strongly spring-loaded, and this coupled with its relatively deep throw compared to other rear-panel controls makes it quite difficult to press without jostling the camera, and indeed we found ourselves routinely starting video capture early, in anticipation of losing the first couple of seconds of video to steadying the camera.

Setting adjustments in movie mode are mostly made via a Live Menu, which appears down the right side of the LCD when you press the OK button on the camera's back, although a handful of options are placed in a separate page of the Custom menu. Options on the Live Menu for video recording are:

Movie Live Menu Options:
Top-Level
Selection
Second-Level
Notes
IS Mode
- Off
- IS1 (Normal IS)
- IS2 (Horizontal panning)
- IS3 (Vertical Panning)
- (Select focal length)
Focal length setting option is for use with non-system lenses.
Exposure Mode
- Program Auto
- Aperture Priority
- Manual
- Pop Art
- Soft Focus
- Pale & Light Color
- Light Tone
- Grainy Film
- Pin Hole
- Diorama
- Cross Process
- Gentle Sepia
- Dramatic Tone
Pop Art through Cross Process are the ten Art Filter modes. All severely affect frame rate for AVCHD recording, and many do for MotionJPEG as well. See discussion under "In-Camera Image Adjustment" further up this page.
White Balance
- Auto
- Sunny
- Shadow
- Cloudy
- Incandescent
- Fluorescent
- Flash
- Custom 1
- Custom 2
- Kelvin (2,000 - 14,000K)
Drive Mode
- Single
- Continuous
- 12 second self-timer
- 2 second self-timer
Focus
- Single
- Continuous
- Manual
- Single plus manual focus
- Continuous + Tracking
ISO
- Auto
- 400
- 500
- 640
- 800
- 1000
- 1250
- 1600
Options other than Auto only available with Manual exposure. Auto not available for Manual exposure.
Recording Quality
- FullHD F (1,920 x 1,080, AVCHD, Fine)
- FullHD N (1,920 x 1,080, AVCHD, Normal)
- HD F (1,280 x 720, AVCHD, Fine)
- HD N (1,280 x 720, AVCHD, Normal)
- HD (1,280 x 720, MotionJPEG)
- SD (640 x 480, MotionJPEG)
Movie Audio
- Off
- On

 

Rolling Shutter Artifacts ("Jello Effect")

Olympus E-P3: Rolling Shutter Artifacts
1,920 x 1,080, 59.94fps interlaced AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 59.94fps progressive AVCHD, Normal quality
View on Vimeo | Download Original
1,280 x 720, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original
640 x 480, 30fps progressive MotionJPEG
View on Vimeo | Download Original

DONE TO HERE Essentially every video capable digital SLR/CSC currently on the market exhibits some level of motion-related distortion called rolling shutter artifacts. These are caused because the image data is captured and then read off the chip sequentially by rows, rather than each frame's data being captured all at once. In the case of the Olympus E-P3, this means that image data for the last row of a given frame is captured and read out as much as 1/30th second after the data for the top row was captured. The effect on moving objects is like that of a focal plane shutter in an SLR, but more pronounced, because the video frame is read out much more slowly than the slit of a focal plane shutter moves across the sensor.

For a camera that scans video frames vertically (as all do that we're aware of), rolling shutter artifacts will be most noticeable for subjects that are moving rapidly side to side, or when the camera itself is being panned horizontally. Verticals in the scene will appear tilted to the right or left, depending on the direction of camera motion. As an example, consider the case of a camera being panned from left to right, with a flagpole or other vertical object in the middle of the scene when recording for a particular frame begins: If the top of the object was centered horizontally when the first line of the video frame is acquired, by the time the last line of the frame has been captured, the bottom of the object will have shifted to somewhere left of center: As a result, the vertical object would appear to be leaning to the right.

Computer Requirements for Viewing HD Video

A typical computer these days has little trouble dealing with still images, but high-definition video can be another matter. Depending on the file format involved, it can take a pretty beefy computer to handle HD-resolution video playback without stuttering or dropping frames. The AVCHD image compression used by the Olympus E-P3 is one of the more compute-intensive formats, and its high maximum resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels resolution means there's a lot of data in each frame to deal with. The net result is that you'll need a reasonably recent computer to play the PEN P3's Full HD video files smoothly, and will want a pretty powerful machine for Full HD video editing. When recording at 720p resolution or below, you can opt for MotionJPEG compression, though, which is one of the less compute-intensive formats and should prove easier to edit (albeit less efficient to store.)

You can of course view your movies on a high definition TV via the HDMI output, or a standard-def TV via the combined USB / Video output.

 

Olympus E-P3

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