PDN Camera Review: Olympus PEN E-P3

June 30, 2011

By Theano Nikitas

It’s the summer of compact interchangeable lens cameras, or so it seems with a cluster of recent announcements including the late-breaking news this morning of a trio of new Olympus PEN cameras.

At the head of the Olympus compact system camera (CSC) pack is the 12.3-megapixel E-P3, with several under-the hood improvements including a new image sensor and a new processing engine.

Faster performance—yes, it’s true—and full HD movie capture are only a few of the camera’s new features. Other highlights include a new 3-inch OLED semi-touch screen (more about this later), native ISO up to 12,800 for easier low light shooting and additional flexibility for Olympus’ trademark creative Art Filters.

Olympus’ middle-of-the-night product announcement —1am Eastern Standard Time—also included the unveiling of new lenses and accessories as well as two additional PEN cameras: the PEN Lite E-PL3 and the sweet, petite PEN mini E-PM1.

But it’s the higher-end E-P3, which will retail for $899 with a kit lens when it goes on sale in August, that interested us the most. PDN was able to get its hands on a fully functional, test sample of the E-P3 and we filed the following review of the new camera to coincide with its launch.

Read our review of the Olympus PEN E-P3 below. See full resolution samples captured with the E-P3 by clicking here.

Olympus PEN E-P3 Digital Camera Review

I have to admit that I’ve been a fan of Olympus’ PEN cameras since the E-P1 was first introduced back in 2009. While my affection for the first PEN was more about its design than performance and photo quality, each subsequent model (including the E-PL series cameras) has provided incremental, but noticeable, steps forward.

Available in black, white or silver, the E-P3 maintains the same core look and feel as its predecessors. Although compact, the E-P3’s 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4-inch all-metal body won’t fit in your pocket (unless it’s outfitted with the 17mm pancake lens) and weighs about 13 ounces fully-loaded. Still, it’s a head turner when out on the street and is comfortable to shoot with, especially when the small, removable handgrip is attached. And if you don’t like the low profile grip that comes with the kit, you can buy a different one.

A Real Head Turner
The new 3-inch, 614,000 dot OLED monitor isn’t a full touchscreen but you can tap the LCD to select a focus point and trigger the shutter (the latter can be turned on/off on the screen).

Olympus has extended the area covered by focus points, so you can easily select one that almost reaches the frame’s edge. A virtual slider increases and decreases the size of the focus brackets and a single tap magnifies the focus area, all of which are useful if you don’t mind holding the camera with one hand while you tap with the other.

Focus points can also be manually selected using the left-key of the dial on the rear of the camera body. Working with the camera outdoors in bright sunlight was a bit problematic; I could see the scene to compose the shot but it was difficult to see the quick menu to make changes to ISO, White Balance and other basic settings.

As expected, the E-P3 offers manual and semi-manual exposure modes, along with long list of scene modes, including High Key and Low Key options and the now obligatory 3D MPO. When I first explored the new menu system, I knew that features were missing and it wasn’t until I went into the set-up menu and activated two additional menus that I found the E-P3’s remaining features.

Custom provides access to more advanced features, including the ability to customize the two new function buttons, change noise reduction settings, and access the wind filter, among others. The Accessory Port menu is for working with the PENPAL and Electronic Viewfinder. Be sure to look through the user manual when you get the camera just so you don’t miss anything—there are a number of hidden gems in this camera.

Get Arty
Olympus hasn’t forgotten newbies and snapshooters who are more familiar with generic, non-photo terms for adjusting parameters such as brightness and depth-of-field. It’s doubtful that anyone who knows their way around a camera like this will use this feature but simplified terminology, and the built-in shooting tips guide, might be a bonus if you want a camera that the whole family can use.

I happen to really like some of Olympus’ Art Filters and the E-P3 now offers some additional flexibility. In addition to variations on individual filters, they can now be combined for a single image. Art Filter bracketing is also available, so if you’re in a creative mood, you now have more options than before.

Under-the-hood improvements have tweaked the E-P3’s performance and although it doesn’t (and probably never will) match that of most DSLRs, the E-P3’s autofocus speed is definitely a step above earlier models. On paper, AF speed should exceed those of its competitors and it’s quite possible that it does (I didn’t have cameras to test it against).

Regardless, the E-P3 is responsive and was fast enough to capture a razor sharp series of bee-on-a-flower images, a challenging task even for some DSLRs. Even under low light, AF was pretty good. AF tracking has been improved and if you don’t mind the slight increase in battery drain, full-time AF is available.

Utilizing the dual-core TruePic VI image processor, the E-P3 dedicates one processor to the LCD and one to writing data, thereby shortening the blackout time on the screen and decreasing shot-to-shot time—a claim substantiated by a side-by-side comparison with the E-P2, so even though the fastest continuous shooting is 3 frames per second, single-shot mode is pretty peppy. To get a little extra edge in speed, I tested the camera with a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card and a SanDisk UHS-1 card (the E-P3 is one of the few cameras that can take advantage of UHS-1 cards).

Got Video?
A trio of in-camera image stabilization works well, although I accidentally left one of the panning IS modes on when shooting video. My footage wobbled as much as “Gallopin’ Gertie”—the Tacoma Narrows Bridge—before it collapsed in 1940. But once it was turned off, the E-P3 did a really nice job with its 1080i HD video (although a little too much caffeine is evident in my slightly shaky test clips).

Olympus has incorporated Pixel Binning in the E-P3, which seems to perform as promised since noise levels were generally under control and there were fewer jaggies. Unfortunately, as is all too common these days, the E-P3’s video mode uses AVCHD—a format that is next to impossible for us mere mortals to work with. If you want a Motion JPEG, you’ll have to settle for 1280 x 720. I was pretty impressed with the sound, though—even without an external microphone.

Photo Quality
Still images straight out of the camera looked good, with natural colors. Of course, if you want a little more punch—or sharpness, contrast, saturation or even a change in gradation—the E-P3 offers those options within its multiple picture modes. I shot with the new 12mm f/2.0 lens as well as the 14-42mm MSC kit lens. Both performed well and most of my test shots were nicely focused and exhibited good detail.

Did I see a great improvement in color saturation via the new image processor? Not really. But I think that TruePic VI definitely helped with image noise—often an Achilles Heel for Olympus Achilles. While I tried to keep the ISO at 800 or lower, many test images shot at ISO 1600 were very clean. Above that, you’ll need to measure your (and your image’s) tolerance for soft details and higher levels of noise.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with the E-P3—from performance to image output. This may not be a “must-have” purchase for E-P2 owners (but it’s not a bad idea to upgrade if you have the extra cash), but it’s certainly worth looking into if you want a capable, compact system camera.

The Bottom Line
Overall, I was very pleased with the E-P3’s performance, feature set and image quality. This may not be a “must-have” purchase for E-P2 owners, but it’s not a bad idea to upgrade if you have the extra cash. And it’s certainly worth looking into if you’re in the market for a capable, compact system camera to complement your DSLR or to share with the family. Check out some sample shots I captured with the camera below.

Pros: Improved speed and high ISO performance; beautiful 3-inch LCD with some touch screen capability; good feature set; pleasing image quality for stills and videos.

Cons: New user interface can be confusing with its hidden custom/advanced menu; on-screen menu can be difficult to read in bright light; full HD only available in frustrating AVCHD video format.

Price: $899.99 (body and MSC 14-42mm lens; or body and MSC 17mm lens)