Olympus PEN E-P3 Review
The Olympus PEN E-P3 is the flagship Micro Four-Thirds SLD from Olympus. This digital camera is built around a 12 megapixels Four-Thirds sensor with a maximum ISO of 12800, unlimited 3 FPS full-resolution output and 1080p HD video capability. It features built-in image stabilization, dual control-dials and a dual-axis digital level. The E-P3 is a relatively compact ILC with an interchangeable hand-grip, a built-in popup flash and a hot-shoe with an accessory port which supports an optional add-on EVF.
Video features of the E-P3 are extremely sophisticated including Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority and Manual exposure as well as Art Filters. Video focus modes include continuous autofocus (AF-C), subject-tracking autofocus and direct manual-focus (DMF). Stereo sound is recorded via the built-in microphone or an external one which connects the the hot-shoe's accessory port. This SLD provides a good number of external controls and an exceptional amount of customization.
This digital camera review analyses the ergonomics, usability, performance and image quality of the Olympus PEN E-P3.
Olympus PEN E-P3 Features
- 12 Megapixels CMOS Four-Thirds sensor
- Micro Four-Thirds lens mount
- Sensor-Shift image stabilization
- Built-in ultra-sonic dust-reduction
- ISO 200 to 12800 sensitivity, 1 or 1/3 EV steps
- Auto ISO, customizable limit from 200 to 12800
- ISO Bracketing, 3 frames, maximum 1 EV increments
- 1/4000-60s Shutter-speeds, Bulb up to 30 minutes, 1/2 or 1/3 EV steps
- PASM Exposure modes
- Program-Shift in P mode
- Exposure-Compensation, ±3, 1/3 or 1/2 EV increments
- Exposure-Shift, ±1, 1/6 EV increments
- Multi-Segment, Center-Weighed, Spot, Shadow Spot and Highlight Spot metering
- Auto-Exposure Bracketing, 3, 5 or 7 frames, maximum 1 EV steps except 1/2 EV for 7 frames
- Flash Bracketing, 3 frames, maximum 1 EV increments
- Flash-Compensation, ±3, 1/3 or 1/2 EV increments
- Auto, Redeye, Forced, Off, Slow-Sync+Redeye, Slow-Sync, Rear-Sync and Manual flash modes
- Manual flash power between full and 1/64th power
- Remote-Control flash
- Automatic, 7 presetsSunny, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Underwater, Flash, kelvin and custom white-balance
- White-balance fine-tuning along 2 axis in 15 steps
- Digital white-balance preview
- White-balance bracketing, 1 or 2 axis, 3 frames along each axis, 3 step sizes
- Optional One-Touch custom white-balance
- Optional and automatic long shutter noise-reduction
- Optional high-ISO noise-reduction, 3 levels
- 5 Color and 1 B&W Picture Modes
- Adjustable contrast, sharpness, saturation, 5 steps each
- Adjustable gradation, automatic or 3 levels
- Adjustable tone curve, 15 steps for highlights and 15 steps of shadows
- sRGB or Adobe RGB color space
- 3 FPS Continuous drive, Unlimited JPEG, 17 RAW
- Multiple-Exposure, 2 frames, optional automatic gain and composition overlay
- Self-timer, 2s or 12s
- Single-shot (AF-S), continuous (AF-C), direct manual-focus (DMF) or tracking autofocus
- Manual-focus (MF), optional display magnification up to 14X
- 35-area AF system, automatic or manual point-selection
- Face-Priority toggle
- Optional bulb focusing
- Optionally reset lens focus to infinity
- Controllable focus-ring direction
- Optional AF-Assist lamp
- 1920x1080 @ 30 FPS Video using AVCHD codec
- 1280x720 @ 60 FPS Video using MPEG-4 codec
- Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority and Manual video exposure
- Automatic and Art-Filter video modes
- Optional stereo sound with built-in microphone
- Optional external stereo microphone via a hot-shoe accessory port
Display & Viewfinder
- 3" LCD, 614K Pixels
- Digital-level, 2-Axis
- Optional Live-Histogram
- Optional guidelines, 4 types
- Optional blinking highlight
- Adjustable brightness, 15 steps
- Adjustable color, 15 steps, 1 axis
- Optional 0.2" EVF, 1.4 megapixels
- Optional Touch-Screen controls
- Dual control-dial
- 5 Customizable buttons
- AE-L/AF-L hold and toggle modes
- Customizable AE-L metering mode
- 4:3 Native aspect ratio
- 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 and 3:4 cropped aspect ratios
- 12, 8, 5, 3, 2 and 1.2 megapixels modes
- JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG capture
- 4 JPEG Compression levels
- Optional vignetting correction
- Hot-Shoe for external lighting
- HDMI (1080i) output
- A/V (NYSC / PAL) output
- USB 2.0 connectivity
- Lens stabilization control, 3 modesBi-Directional, Horizontal, Vertical
- SDXC memory
- Lithium-Ion battery
- Customizable battery warning
- Customizable DPI settings
- Copyright data
- Interchangeable grip
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The Olympus PEN E-P3 greatly resembles the original E-PL1, the first compact SLD. While most of the likes and dislikes still apply, there are a lot more similar cameras to compare the E-P3 with, including other models in the Olympus lineup. Being an advanced model with dual control-dials though, true competitors are few.
The E-P3 is a mostly rectangular camera with considerable amount of stylized curves. The front shows a small interchangeable hand-grip which provides a reasonable hold over the camera. A single screw can be used to replace it with a more substantial grip. The protruding curve at the rear which holds the upper control-dial adds good purchase to camera. Somewhat uncomfortable though is the position of the strap eyelet which digs into the index-finger while reaching the shutter-release.
The top-plate of this SLD is quite busy. Towards the grip, almost flash with the surface, is the power button. In front of it is a customizable button called Fn2. This one can be set to a number of functions including EC which is the most likely candidate since the normal control is uncomfortably low for frequent use. Sadly, regardless of which button is used to activate EC, this is a modal operation, meaning that the button must be pressed again to resume normal operations.
To the left is a standard two-stage shutter-release with short travel and a soft half-way point. This makes it very fast to release but easy to accidentally take a shot too early. The position of the shutter-release works but would be more comfortable closer to the outer edge of the camera. Further left is a stand mode dial with good detents. The standard PASM modes are present plus a fully automatic mode called iAuto, Art Filter mode, Scene mode and a dedicated Movie mode.
Art Filter, Scene and Movie modes all offer a choice of sub-modes. Notable among Scene modes is a Panorama Assist mode. Movie mode now offers a choice of PASM exposure but, most importantly, we are thankful that there is a movie mode. This lets the E-P3 almost preview for correct framing and be ready to immediately record. Inexplicably, there is a slight reduction of field-of-view when filming starts. Hopefully Olympus can update the firmware to show correct framing to start with. Turning on stabilization introduces another slight reduction in field-of-view, hinting that it is done digitally for video.
The camera top-plate also houses the hot-shoe, stereo microphone and built-in flash. While the shape of the hot-shoe is standard, Olympus pairs it with an Accessory port to support more sophisticated accessories in addition to standard flash units. The most desirable accessory is clearly the optional EVF which shows a clear eye-level view with HUD. Other optional accessories include a stereo microphone and Bluetooth transmission device called PENPAL. One was provided for this review but was not compatible with available devices, so we recommend checking compatibility with Olympus before purchasing. The catch of such an Accessory port is that only one device can be hooked at one time.
All remaining controls are found on the back of the camera which has no less than 8 buttons, 2 control-dials and a 4-way controller with central OK button. Of course, the compact size of the E-P3 means space on the back around the 3" LCD is limited and only a small area remains to rest the thumb.
The unusual vertical control-dial is excellent. It has light detents and is nicely textured. This one is used to change the main parameter in each exposure-mode. In P mode is serves as Program-Shift. In M mode, it can be configured to change either aperture or shutter-speed. In this aspect, the E-P3 is extremely configurable and the function and direction of dials can be separately for each mode. The missing option there is to bind the unused dial to ISO sensitivity. The vertical control-dial is also used to set the amount of EC.
The second control-dial is found lower around the 4-way controller. This one is rather slim and spins freely, making it too easy to accidentally change something. This occurs most often when changing settings through the Super Control-Panel described below. This control-dial sets the second exposure-parameter in M mode and scrolls through images in Playback mode.
The 4-way controller has functions assigned to each direction when the camera is in Capture mode:
- Up enters Exposure-Compensation mode where the left and right arrows, as well as the vertical control-dial, set the amount of EC. This is adjustable ±3 stops in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps.
- Right defaults to Flash mode but is configurable. The most useful setting to have there is ISO since the E-P3 does not have a dedicated control for it.
- Down defaults to Drive mode, which is probably the most sensible use for this configurable button. There are 4 options available: Single-Shot, Continuous (3 FPS), 2s Self-Timer and 10s Self-Timer.
- Left enters the Focus-Area Selection screen. From there, the 4-way control selects a specific area and the central OK button exits the screen.
Just above the 4-way controller is the Info button which cycles through a configurable set of display modes. The 2-Axis digital-level and the histogram are among those. Annoyingly, the histogram disappears when EC is being set, which is when it is needed the most. The Digital-Level is mutually exclusive with detailed status information which is too bad as well. Below the 4-way controller is the Menu button which does exactly what is expected.
At the center of the 4-way controller is the OK button which invokes the Quick-Menu, the Super Control-Panel or both. These are interactive ways for changing various camera settings without the menu system. The Super-Control Panel can set more options including WB Fine-Tuning and most Image Parameters. It is both more efficient and prone to accidental changes. To operate it, the 4-way controller selects an option and a control-dial sets the amount. Unfortunately the lack of detents on the lower control-dial makes it easy to change things while navigating the Super Control-Panel.
A vertical row of buttons is aligned with the edge of the LCD. At the top is the Video-Record button which can fortunately be reconfigured as AE-L button. Since the camera has a dedicated Video mode, a separate button is not needed and setting up framing is not possible anyway without entering video mode.
Next is the Electronic Magnification button which magnifies the view up to 14X to aid manual focusing. This works extremely well and allows precise adjustment of focus. Cleverly, when a fly-by-wire focus-ring is turned, the E-P3 automatically zooms in the display. When using the Zuiko 12mm F/2 ED
Zuiko 12mm F/2 ED which can shift between fly-by-wire and mechanical focus, the view only gets automatically magnified in fly-by-wire mode which is why the Electronic Magnification button is truly needed. This automatic feature can also be disabled.
Below is another configurable button, labeled Fn1. This one can be customized to activate One-Touch Custom White-Balance or one of 13 other settings. Below that are the Playback and Delete buttons. The Olympus PEN E-P3 is generally Shooting-Priority and gets back to capture mode as soon as the shutter-release is touched. The Delete button does nothing in Capture mode, even during instant review. To delete an image one has to enter Playback mode.
Given the total number of customizable buttons, the E-P3 can be made to have most commonly used functions accessible. Still, it is surprising that AE-L, ISO and WB did not get assigned positions by default. AE-L on this camera is particularly clever. Not only does it have the usual Toggle and HoldCalled Memo by Olympus options, it also offers a choice of metering modes. This makes it possible to access Spot metering very quickly when needed. AWB includes an option for keeping warm lighting, something originally introduced by Pentax with the K-7
Pentax K-7 but now available from other brands too.
The large rear 3" LCD has 614K pixels and is quite sharp but not class-leading. Still, it is sufficiently sharp to confirm focus without magnifying. Visibility is excellent and the anti-reflective coating does a fantastic job. Color temperature and brightness for the LCD can be set. Due to the limited contrast of the display, nuances in highlights are hard to see, particularly to evaluating image parameters.
The preview on the LCD is not Exposure-Priority, although it shows a good approximation in Manual exposure mode. In all other modes, it shows the metered exposure offset by EC. The Live-Histogram is unfortunately based on the display brightness it is of no help either outside of M mode.
This digital camera feels very solid with a confidence-inspiring weight. Even the combined memory and battery is tougher than average. Not far from it is a metal tripod socket which is neither inline with the optical center not the physical center of the camera. The popup flash mechanism seems durable too. The weakest component is certainly the thin plastic cover for the I/O ports.
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Performance starts with image quality, which is the criteria used as the foundation of our digital camera ratings. Ergonomic issues may get in the way, but in the end, image quality counts the most. For an ILC, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, exposure and dynamic-range are properties of a camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness and contrast depend on the weakest link. That is, a camera cannot capture more details than a lens lets through. Conversely, it is quite possible for a lens to transmit more details than a sensor can capture.
Image Noise & Details
The Olympus PEN E-P3 shows good image quality with relatively low image noise up to ISO 800. Noise is easily noticeable at ISO 1600 and slightly more pronounced at 3200 but both settings remain usable for medium sized prints. At ISO 6400, noise becomes destructive and fine details clearly disappear. At this point, only small grainy prints are possible. The maximum sensitivity of 12800 is extremely noisy and is best avoided.
One may notice that Olympus remains at 12 megapixels since their original E-P1. However, the performance is marginally improved, most likely due to improved image processing since sensor-design appears the same. This is a good performance but one should note that the quality gap between Four-Thirds and APS-C sensor cameras is currently widening.
There are 3 levels of noise-reduction available. NR can also be turned off entirely which avoids increased softness at high sensitivities. Best results are obtained with the NR Off and Sharpness at the default setting. Anything higher shows clear sharpening artifacts on this camera.
Color & White Balance
The E-P3 struggles with color accuracy. There are plenty of Picture Modes but produce colors resembling reality across the spectrum. Natural and Portrait both come close but show excessive amounts of red component. All the while, certain colors appear under-saturated, so shifting saturation improves some while making others worse.
Automatic While-Balance performance is far from perfect. While it can give really good results under a variety of conditions, the AWB system fluctuates widely, even under relatively static conditions. This suggests that it is based on a excessively small sample of the scene. Regardless of the cause, the E-P3 struggles more than most modern cameras when it comes to AWB. Custom White-Balance on the other hand works just right and extremely easy to use with the One-Touch WB function assigned to a customizable button.
This digital camera has a good multi-segment metering system. It is very conservative and overexposes only when there are rather small bright highlights. This means it requires more positive exposure-compensation than most. Low contrast scenes tend to come out quite dark since it unfortunately prefers exposing to the left than to the right. Still, contrast in not lost in those cases, only nuances within shadow areas, so brightening such an image is likely to produce banding.
It is important to know that the LCD clips extreme highlights which may still be correctly captured. When in doubt then, the Playback histogram should be checked. The same happens when adjusting the highlight tone-curve. Differences are not seen on the LCD but the image is in fact captured differently. Changes to the shadow tone-curve are much easier to see.
The PEN E-P3 finally has a fast contrast-detect autofocus system. This is the most improved aspect compared to the original SLD. This model locks focus really quickly. Even in moderately low light, focus rarely takes more than ½s. Often, and particularly when light-levels are good, the E-P3 locks focus in about ¼s. It does happen that things take longer, particularly at close range, up to 1s before giving up.
With most Micro Four-Thirds lenses, focus is done via a fly-by-wire ring around the lens-barrel. The E-P3 follows well with no perceptible lag. In DMF mode, a slight turn of the focus-ring shift into manual focus. Because the ring is fly-by-wire, this camera can reverse the direction for focusing except for those few lenses with a mechanical focus-ring.
The E-P3 is a rather responsive digital camera. It is clear that Olympus put a lot of work into improving the speed of this SLD and with reason. While such cameras still show a performance gap compared to DSLRs, the gap is greater in terms of speed than image quality. This Olympus responds to all buttons and dials instantly. The following measurements characterize its performance:
- Power-On: 1½ seconds.
- Power-On to First-Shot: 2 seconds.
- Autofocus: 1/3s on average, rarely more than ½s.
- Shutter-lag: Nearly instant with about ¾s blackout.
- Shot-to-shot: Just under 1¼s
- Playback: 1s to enter, ¼s to exit
- Power-Off: 1 second
- Video: ¼s to to start, instant stopping
With numbers like this, the Olympus E-P3 rarely gets in the way for non-action shots. Autofocus speeds are great. Shot to shot speeds are just a little slow, particularly because of the black out to follow action, but for general use this camera performs well.
These are awesome numbers for video. The start delay is barely perceptible while the E-P3 adjusts the visible angle-of-view and starts recording. While both continuous and tracking AF work quickly during video capture, the back-and-forth lens movement required by Contrast-Detection is still occasionally noticeable. Plus, as with any autofocus system, the camera may incorrectly switch focus off the main subject. Between photos this is not an issue but during video it is.
The Olympus PEN E-P3 is powered by a proprietary Lithium-Ion battery which provides 330-shots per charge with 50% flash use. This is below average among SLDs yet should be enough for a day of shooting.
The Olympus PEN E-P3 rightfully deserves its flagship status among Micro Four-Thirds SLDs. By keeping the already great design of its predecessor and refining the internals, particularly the autofocus system, Olympus produced an excellent camera that is even more usable. True to the ideal compromise between performance and size, the PEN E-P3 compares well to previous generation entry-level DSLRs in terms of performance while offering it in a size comparable to a compact camera.
Image quality of this digital camera is indeed good with low image noise up to ISO 800 and usable results up to ISO 3200 at reduced print sizes. Dynamic range and exposure are quite good while there is some weakness in terms of color and automatic white-balance accuracy. Those shooting RAW can obviously safely ignore those problems but JPEG shooters should except issues. The improved autofocus is speedy and quite usable even in moderately low-light, making this model suitable for social occasions and other slow-moving events.
The unexpected upside of the E-P3 is its video recording performance. Although the preview framing is not entirely accurate, the E-P3 is much better than most modern cameras in this regards. Plus, there is virtually no delay when starting to film. With accessories, the E-P3 can also record video at eye-level and use an external microphone, although not both at once.
As an advanced model, it is natural to consider the controls of the E-P3 which include dual control-dials and a large number of external controls, several of them customizable. In use, after getting accustomed to some odd quirks, these make the Olympus PEN E-P3 quite efficient.
Olympus E-P3 Facts
Mirrorless digital camera
|12 Megapixels Mirrorless (SLD)||ISO 200-12800|
|Micro Four-Thirds Mount|
Sensor-Size: 17 x 13mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|0.20" Optional EVF 1.4 Megapixels (0.58X)||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|2 Axis Digital Level||Spot-Metering|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Hot-Shoe|
|3 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|1920x1080 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
|3" LCD 610K Pixels|
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