Olympus's mid-range E-PL3 is small, light and finished with a sturdy metal body. With super-fast autofocus is this the PEN Lite the ultimate Micro Four Thirds model...?
Olympus claims that, like the E-P3, this latest Lite model has the world’s fastest autofocus system. It also benefits from a variety of tweaks and improvements compared to the previous E-PL2 model – but can these changes escalate the latest Lite model to new heights?
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Features
The E-PL3’s feature list makes a variety of subtle improvements to the range, yet there are one or two bigger shakeups: the improved and super-fast autofocus is one big plus point; while the metal body and improved AVCHD movie mode set about to answer the criticisms of previous generation models.
The camera’s 12.3MP Live MOS sensor is the same Micro Four Thirds chip as found in all the other PEN models. This is one of Olympus’s strongholds: it’s a company not looking to push the megapixel race to the point of excess, which is of critical importance when dealing with the smaller-sized Micro Four Thirds sensor. There are tweaks however as a top-end ISO 12,800 sensitivity adds one extra stop compared to the E-PL2 model.
The other Olympus staple, its sensor-based image stabilisation system, also means handshake can be countered whatever lens is attached to the camera.
The E-PL3’s rear 460k-dot LCD is a 16:9 widescreen ratio, 3inches in size and mounted on a tilt-angle bracket for 85° upward and 45° downward rotation – ideal for waist or overhead work. While the E-PL3 has no built-in electronic viewfinder the inclusion of a standard hotshoe and Olympus’s Accessory Port 2 (AP2) connection does mean one can be attached. What may come as a surprise, however, is the omission of a built-in flashgun from this model. Instead there’s a small flashgun included in the box (well, there should be, but our pre-release sample didn’t include one). Some may see this as a step backwards given that the previous E-PL1 and E-PL2 models each featured one. On the upside it is possible to control external flashguns using the hotshoe-mounted flash as a trigger which makes the E-PL3 an advanced camera in the right hands.
A top speed continuous burst mode of 5.5fps means the E-PL3 makes for light work of successive snapping, though this is limited to 4.1fps if the image stabilisation system is activated.
Movie mode also sees a reworking. While the ability to shoot M-JPEG (AVI) files is still possible, a new 1080i Full HD AVCHD shooting option captures at 60 fields per second (output at 30fps from the sensor) with a solid 17Mbps data rate to keep the quality standard up.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Design
The PEN range has a unique feel about it compared to other Compact System Cameras, and the E-PL3 continues to raise the bar in quality terms. The model’s metal body is a sure improvement over the plastic casing of the E-PL2. The silver model provided for this review looks classy, and the beveled Olympus logo on the front of the camera shows care and attention to the finish. While the body shape is a simple rectangular shape, the edges have been smoothed out with subtle curves – it’s not a design innovation, yet its bold and simple look is striking.
However, such a smooth finish does mean there’s no textured grip to the camera’s front for any extra sturdy hold onto the body. Furthermore the 3in, 16:9 ratio LCD screen may help in keeping body height to a minimum, but for a camera that shoots 4:3 ratio shots (by default) there’s a loss of viewing real estate. In fact 4:3 shots view at just under 2.5in.
Controlling the camera feels like a hybrid between a DSLR and a compact camera. There’s a main mode dial on top and four-way d-pad that doubles up as a rotational control wheel on the rear. A handful of extra buttons, including a one-touch movie activation, also appear on the body, while menu access is divided into a quick selection via the OK button or a more in-depth (though ultimately similar set of choices) selection via the main Menu button. The only qualm here is that the placement of the shutter button and the mode dial feel a teeny little bit unnatural.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Performance
For those looking for a point-and-shoot model the E-PL3 will take control of settings when set to its iAuto (intelligent auto) mode. Art Modes and a variety of Scene options also feature alongside the more advanced manual settings – making it an easy to use the camera whatever your level. If you’ve got higher end projects in your mind then the E-PL3 can even control external flashguns wirelessly (4 channels in 3 groups).
Recent Compact System Camera releases have seen dramatic increases in autofocus speed and the E-PL3 is no exception. With an AF system as per the E-P3, Olympus claims the latest PEN models have the world’s fastest autofocus system. Yup, you read that right – faster than any DSLR or other camera type. While we agree it’s very fast and on par with Panasonic’s GF3/G3 models, there are situational hurdles that don’t maintain that super speed throughout. Pop the camera into continuous AF (C-AF) or its tracking mode (C-AF TR) and it can be painfully slow to keep up with subjects, exacerbated by low light conditions causing a further struggle. Ignoring that aspect, however, and focus speeds can be some 25% faster than the previous generation model. Plus the latest 35-point AF arrangement (which covers all but the far horizontal reaches of the screen) is vast compared to the old 11-point system. A quick left tap on the d-pad and it’s possible to manually select any one of these AF points, which are each backed up against one another in a grid arrangement. All in all these steps make focusing impressive for the most part and a big step up from the E-PL2 model.
From fast autofocus to a fast burst mode of 5.5fps, the E-PL3 can shoot up to 8 RAW+JPEG shots in succession before a brief pause, or up to 10 JPEG Fine files (tested using a Class 10 SDHC card). The buffer is quick to clear, particularly when shooting JPEG only. However the image stabilisation (IS) system will restrict the burst speed to 4.1fps when activated.
Power is dealt with via the rechargeable li-ion battery that provides 330 shots per charge according to Olympus’s official figures. It’s the same battery as found in the E-P3 and, all things considered, we found the total number of shots achievable to be a little on the low side. Some extra juice per charge would go a long way for the PEN range, though with the Lumix G-series providing a similar low ratio of shots per charge the Olympus isn’t the only culprit in this department.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Image Quality
E-PL3 review: Tone & Exposure
The E-PL3 tends to opt for slight underexpose, which one the one hand can help to save highlight detail but on the other can also leave shots looking a little too dark in the areas where it matters. Quick exposure compensation adjustment or exposure bracketing can help and can be particularly useful when shooting in bright sunlight as accurate exposure assessment on the LCD screen is tricky.
E-PL3 review: White Balance & Colour
The E-PL3’s Auto White Balance (AWB) errs towards a warmer, magenta cast. A little extra exposure goes some way to dialing out this colour cast, or manually adjusting the white balance to compensate.
Art Modes – Olympus’s in camera effects – provide instant results that are most useable, including Sepia, Dramatic Tone, Grainy Film, Pop Art and others.
E-PL3 review: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
With the very same sensor and processing engine as the Olympus E-P3 the quality from the E-PL3 is an identical match.
The E-PL3’s ISO 200 is the camera’s lowest sensitivity, with no option for ISO 100 a disappointment. At this lowest ISO 200 setting shots are of good quality, sharp and defined through until ISO 400. There’s a slight dip in sharpness at ISO 800 due to processing but the results are still very good indeed and such issues posed few problems in real world shots. In lab tests the finer detail diminishes at ISO 1600, and this progresses further at ISO 3200. Colour noise is only a subtle background hint from ISO 1600 and above, though at ISO 6400 it becomes more noticeable and by ISO 12,800 a wash of red colour noise is problematic – the decision to add an extra stop of sensitivity has had little benefit.
Overall the E-PL3’s images are impressive considering its Micro Four Thirds sensor size. While higher sensitivities (over ISO 1600) aren’t quite as hot, we’re more impressed with the image noise reduction process than in the Panasonic Lumix G-series range.
E-PL3 review: Sharpness & Detail
The E-PL3’s 14-42mm collapsible kit lens is reasonably sharp, though other Micro Four Thirds lenses will open the door to yet crisper shots.
Fine detail at ISO 200-400 is a little soft and can’t quite be resolved to single pixel line detail. JPEG sharpening isn’t over the top but does see a boost from ISO 800 and above. ISO 1600 is where detail begins to diminish towards the finer end of the detail scale.
E-PL3 review: Raw vs JPEG
The E-PL3 also comes bundled with its own Raw conversion software to get you started if you’re new to image editing. The camera’s JPEG images display a touch more contrast and sharpness than their Raw counterparts before processing, but the extra flexibility that the ORF Raw files provide will allow you to push your images much further.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Movie/Video Mode
Movie modes in stills cameras are becoming evermore important and in this competitive market Olympus has upped its game and made the E-PL3 even better featured than its predecessors.
The main improvement comes down to capture format: the new AVCHD mode can record Full HD files using a decent 17Mbps data rate to maintain quality and files are better than the Motion JPEG process (though this is also available if you prefer AVI files direct from camera). However the 1920×1080 resolution is let down by the interlaced 60 fields per second frame rate. Interlaced capture means that even lines are captured on one pass of the sensor, followed by odds on the next pass. This is common at this level however, and the E-PL3 matches up to its nearest competitors in this department.
Where the camera pulls ahead, however, is by offering full control the recording process. Set the camera to ‘Movie’ on the top dial and it’s possible to use any of the P/S/A/M modes to set aperture and shutter for more dramatic exposure control. Exposure compensation and all focusing types can also be selected as you please. Leave the camera in any of the automated modes and it’ll happily adjust exposure and to great effect of course, but many of its competitors won’t provide full manual control.
While autofocus can be a little slow to play catch up it does slip effortlessly into focus within considered parameters – over- and under-focusing is seldom an issue.
For all its good there’s one major downside to the E-PL3’s movie mode, and that’s the inability to accurately frame a shot prior to recording. As a different portion of the sensor is used than when capturing stills (at any aspect ratio, including 16:9) the press of the one-touch record button will crop slightly into the frame. It’s subtle enough, but with all the other manual control available this is an oversight that should be adjusted for future generation models.
Value & Verdict
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Value
Available for £550 upon launch the E-PL3 is slightly pricier than its closest Compact System Camera competitors. By comparison the Panasonic Lumix G3 (which has both a built-in flash and electronic viewfinder) can be bought online for £490 with a 14-42mm lens.
That’s not to say the E-PL3 doesn’t post good value however. It produces images of a better quality than its Micro Four Thirds competition (though doesn’t outsmart the APS-C Samsung and Sony competitors) and has features such as wireless flash control that offer bags of potential. The metal body also exudes quality that’s worth paying for. It’s just a shame to lose the built in flash that the E-PL2 featured at the expense of the E-PL3’s new, smaller body size.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 review – Verdict
Small and with an elegant metal finish the E-PL3 brings together much of what was lacking from its predecessors. This middle-of-range model is shrewdly positioned yet still offers the same autofocus speed and image quality of its bigger brother E-P3 model for some £250 less. While the E-PL3’s £550 asking price may not be the most budget out there, it significantly cuts back on the rather expensive E-PL2 kit which will open it up to more users.
There are one or two issues: The 3in, 16:9 ratio screen shows 4:3 shots closer to 2.5in in size; while the lack of a built-in flash seems a backwards step from the E-PL2 (though there is a flash in the box and the hotshoe mount formula may be the best solution for those wanting to get involved in the E-PL3’s wireless flash capabilities).
With so much else going for it, including the improved AVCHD-able movie mode with full manual exposure control, and decent image quality at the lower ISO settings, the E-PL3 is among the better-equipped Compact System Cameras out there. We like it a lot.