Olympus helped kick off the Compact System Camera revolution with the original PEN EP-1. Now the E-P3 is about to hit the shelves, the big question is, will it be the best PEN camera yet? Let’s take a closer look…
When Olympus announced the PEN E-P1 it sparked great interest. Photographers loved the idea of a small yet creative camera featuring an interchangeable lens design, and though it wasn’t the first Compact System Camera (CSC), never before had so much creative control been packed into such a petite package. It rapidly became the benchmark for many CSC designs, avoiding the shape of a traditional D-SLR in favour of a slimmer, retro-styled body.
In the two years that have passed since the E-P1’s arrival, we’ve seen the E-P2, one of the first CSCs to support an external electronic viewfinder, and now this has been superseded by the latest version, the E-P3.
Sitting at the premium end of the PEN lineup above the newly launched E-PL3 and E-PM1 models, the E-P3 promises new and revised features.
Features & Build
Inheriting the tried and tested Micro Four Thirds lens mount and revising the 12.3Mp Live MOS sensor from the E-P1 and E-P2, the E-P3’s chip produces a 4032x3024 resolution and captures images in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Though the sensor is the same physical size as before (measuring 17.3x13mm) the ISO range has been expanded and now runs from ISO 200-12,800 whereas previously it stretched from ISO 100-6400 on the E-P2. This shuffle in sensitivity makes it one-stop better at the high end for low-light situations and brings it in line with some of its closest CSC competitors, like the Sony NEX-C3.
With a classic retro appearance and the familiar PEN styling it goes without saying the E-P3 is a classy-looking CSC and boasts a very solid feeling construction, thanks to its all-metal body. The 14-42mm kit lens is the Mk II version and although it’s smaller and generally more refined than the original kit lens released with the E-P1 back in 2009, it has a plastic lens mount that’s more susceptible to wear and tear.
One of the most significant technological developments is the E-P3’s new TruePic VI image processor, designed to improve performance. Allied to this is an updated arrangement of 35 AF points which use a Contrast-Detect AF system, and there’s a variety of focusing modes including Single AF, Continuous AF, Manual Focus and AF Tracking for those times when you’d like the camera to follow fast-moving subjects through the frame. For metering it uses a 324-zone multi-pattern system with a choice of fives modes - Multi, Centre-Weighted, Spot, Spot Highlight and Spot Shadow.
If you want to shoot a burst of images,the E-P3 fires at 3fps in its Continuous shooting mode, but unfortunately this isn’t any faster than previously seen on the E-P1 and E-P2.
A novel feature is the 3in, 610k-dot OLED screen at the rear. Being touch-sensitive, it’s Olympus’s first PEN to feature touchscreen functionality and is a well-received upgrade. The arrangement of buttons next to the screen is virtually identical to the E-P2, with the key difference found on the top-plate, where a pop-up flash has meant a change in position for the mode dial. The latter has been moved beside the shutter, making it easier to operate with the hand that’s wrapped around the grip.
For those interested in putting a creative spin on their images, there are 23 Scene modes and 10 Art Filters to explore, two of which were not seen on the earlier E-P2 (Gentle Sepia and Dramatic Tone). There’s also the added benefit of being able to use these Art Filters when recording video.
Another important development sees the PEN E-P3 support Full HD video capture (a first for the series). Capable of recording in the AVCHD or Motion JPEG format, footage is recorded at a resolution of 1920x1080 in 16:9 aspect ratio, although the maximum recording time for a single clip is restricted to a length of 29 minutes.
Performance & Handling
The E-P3 is a fairly chunky CSC and is fractionally larger than the E-P2. Although this means it’s not really ‘pocket sized’, it feels very comfy in the hand with its newly moulded, removable grip and each button is well-placed for single-handed operation. Aperture and Shutter Speed are quickly controlled with their own scroll dials and the function button on the top-plate is handy for accessing Exposure Compensation in an instant. In use, your thumb rests naturally alongside the movie-rec button – handy for spur of the moment video capture – and the updated focusing system has notably improved AF performance over its predecessors; it’s extremely fast and responsive and only occasionally did we experience signs of hunting when panning quickly between subjects while recording videos in Continuous AF mode. Thanks to the 3in touchscreen, a light tap is all that’s required to reposition your chosen AF point and there’s the option of changing AF point size using a vertical scroll bar. Shots can also be taken by tapping the screen, but this feature can be switched off if you prefer to use the shutter button.
The E-P3’s menu system can take a little getting used to; camera settings are split into two camps – Shooting Menu, which lets you control basic settings, and Quick Menu that gives you access to other important variables such as ISO, metering modes and flash settings. The OLED screen at the rear is by far the sharpest, most accurate display we’ve seen on a PEN model to date, thanks to the improved 610k-dot resolution, but if you’d prefer to use it with an electronic viewfinder, it’s also compatible with Olympus’s VF-2 EVF as well as the recently announced VF-3 viewfinder.
Unlike some CSCs, which rely on lens-based image stabilisation, the E-P3 uses the sensor-shift type to counteract any hand-held movement. Effective to at least three stops, it worked well in low-light situations and improved video footage, making it smoother and less shaky.
Setting the Mode dial to ART, we tried out all 10 Art Filters; Dramatic Tone was our clear favourite as it produced striking HDR-style images, recording excellent detail and clarity in the highlights and darkest shadows. Grainy film was another filter that produced strong results on screen but on the computer detail wasn’t as crisp as we’d hoped and we’d be more inclined to create such results using Elements or Photoshop from a standard pic.
Slotting in a SanDisk 8GB Extreme Pro SDHC card and testing the E-P3’s write times saw it save a RAW file in 1.5secs, with a similar time recorded for a Large Fine JPEG. Set to Continuous shooting, it fired off 25 RAWs at 3fps before the buffer filled, but switching the quality over to JPEG, it shot an unlimited amount of frames. On the whole, this strong performance complemented its refined feel in the hand and if white isn’t your preferred colour, it’s also available in silver or black.
At £799 with the 14-42mm kit lens (or £699 body only) the E-P3 sits at the more expensive end of the CSC market and, while it excels in its field, at its current price point you could pick up a great D-SLR with change left over. The price will fall over the coming months, but it has a long way to go before it gets into Panasonic GF3 and Sony NEX-C3 price territory, its closest rivals.
Is this the best PEN model to date? It certainly is! But unfortunately its price is a key factor and one that will keep the E-P3 out of the reach of many. With this in mind, its slightly cheaper sister model – the E-PL3may be the more viable option at £549. It comes with many of the E-P3’s excellent features and uses an identical sensor, but the key differences are it doesn’t feature a touchscreen or include a pop-up flash.
- Street price: £180 (Secondhand price as of July 2016)
- Resolution: 12.3Mp (4032x3024 pixels)
- Lens Mount: Micro Four Thirds
- Focusing system: Contrast Detect AF
- Focusing modes: Single AF, Continuous AF, Single AF+MF, AF Tracking,
- Burst rate: 3fps
- Write Speed: 1.5secs (JPEG),
- 1.5secs (RAW)
- ISO range: 200-12,800
- Image stabilisation: Sensor shift
- Shutter range: 60secs-1/4000sec
- Viewfinder: Optional EVF
- Monitor: 3in, 610k-dot OLED touchscreen
- Live View: Yes
- HD Video: Full HD (1920x1080 @ 60i)
- Storage: SD, SDHC, SDXC
- Weight: 321g (without battery & card)
- Dimensions: 122.0x69.1x34.3mm
- Visit: www.olympus.co.uk
This review was first published in the October 2011 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.