With the world’s fastest autofocus system is the latest PEN the best Compact System Camera yet? The What Digital Camera Olympus PEN E-P3 review reveals all…
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Features
The E-P3 has a 12.3MP Micro Four Thirds standard Live MOS sensor at its core, coupled with a new and improved TruePic VI image processing engine. Unlike many other manufacturers, Olympus has so far refused to up the megapixel count, instead relying on that ‘sweet spot’ of enough resolution married with decent final quality as a result of not over-populating the sensor. In the latest incarnation stills sensitivity ranges from ISO 200 all the way up to ISO 12,800 at full resolution.
Gone is the LCD technology as found on the previous E-P2 model, with the E-P3 embracing the new: on the rear is a 3in, 610k-dot OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen for lower power consumption, improved black-to-white contrast ratio and more fluid playback. Not only that but it’s touch-sensitivity means touchscreen control for the likes of There is no built-in viewfinder, however, though the Olympus Accessory Port and hotshoe is available for an additional accessory should you so wish.
The E-P3’s new ‘FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF’ is said to be the world’s fastest, and is achieved by using a faster sensor that now outputs at 120 frames per second (twice the refresh rate over the previous E-P2’s 60fps outage) coupled with an improved AF unit, new focusing algorithm and a control system that’s always ready to go when the shutter’s pressed. A new AF illuminator lamp also features for assisting focus in darker conditions.
Although the autofocus may be fast, the E-P3’s three frames per second (3fps) burst mode remains the same as the model before it. Although not an unreasonable speed, many expect a faster burst rate.
As well as stills the E-P3’s movie mode now offers AVCHD or Motion-JPEG capture at Full HD 1080i. An on-board microphone captures stereo sound and although there’s no 3.5mm jack for external microphones the Accessory Port can accommodate a specific Olympus SEMA-1 external microphone (sold separately).
The new built-in flash gun is a much needed addition to the range, plus the inclusion of wireless control means it’s possible to fire off-camera flash guns too. Such high end features are what makes the PEN stand out from the crowd.
As is synonymous with the PEN range, the E-P3 continues the legacy of Art Filters. There are 10 main options in total – including Sepia, Dramatic Tone, Grainy Film and more – plus some can be ‘stacked’ with others for even more dramatic results straight from camera. Other modes include multiple aspect ratio formats (4:3, 3:2, 6:6, 16:9) and Picture Mode that allows a choice of Natural, Vivid, Portrait, plus many more and is the access point for Art Modes when in manual control modes.
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Design
Design-wise the E-P3 doesn’t look very different to the E-P1 and E-P2 models that came before. The metal finished body is the same size as before, as this area of the PEN range is more about style than miniaturisation – the forthcoming E-PM1 is reserved for that. The addition of the built-in flash does mean that the arrangement is now slightly different, with the mode dial shifting over to the shutter button side of the camera.
One new quirk of the E-P3 is the addition of an add-on grip that screws into the front of the camera. The idea here is that other different designs will also be available for puchase so you can individualise and ‘jazz up’ your PEN however you so wish.
The new touchscreen is only used for a limited number of tasks. It’s possible to switch between touch shutter (to focus and fire a shot by pressing the screen) and AF Area (to select the focal area on screen) or deactivate the touch sensitivity. The quick and main menus are not responsive to touch, instead requiring the usual buttons to select options. This is a bit of a missed trick – having a quick menu with user-defined options that can be quickly selected by (quite literally) hand could make for improved shooting. A similar feature can be found on the Panasonic Lumix G3 where it’s possible to not only select options from the Quick Menu but customise what features in the menu too.
The E-P3 has two main dials on the rear – a rotating d-pad with the usual four-way controls and OK button, plus a rotational thumbwheel-like dial above this. Having two dials means DSLR-like control and is particularly useful for manual control settings, though the proximity of both dials makes for a unique form of control. Switching your thumb between one dial and the next is very easy as they’re well positioned.
There are also two function (Fn1 and Fn2) buttons for quick access to particular settings. Although these are customiseable the list of options that can targeted to each button isn’t as extensive as we’d liked to have seen. It’s not possible to assign ISO sensitivity to either, for example, meaning the Quick Menu needs to be used more often than you may wish.
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Performance
First thing’s first is the E-P3’s super fast autofocus system. It’s a much needed improvement that’s far faster than previous generation PEN models and whizzes into place when targeting static subjects or wider scenes. However, and here comes the ‘but’, Olympus’s in-house claim that it’s the ‘world’s fastest’ doesn’t apply to all situations. Sat side by side with a Panasonic Lumix G3 the focus is very, very similar. Where this differs, however, is once focus is acquired – the E-P3 will always quickly browse the nearby range when re-focusing, even when shooting the exact same frame, whereas the Lumix G3 will immediately acquire focus without searching the range, thus making it the faster of the two in this scenario. Furthermore the E-P3’s Subject Tracking AF just isn’t up to scratch. Although Continuous AF (AF-C) is great to have, it’s outsmarted in lower lighting conditions and doesn’t update rapidly enough for successful tracking on all occasions. Again, a decent spec DSLR will perform better in such a scenario. So although the E-P3’s focus is definitely very, very fast, it’s also not the best overall AF system out there. That’s not to detract for its merits however – it’s a vast and welcome improvement.
The E-P3’s new OLED screen is a great thing to behold, though bright sunlight will be problematic when it comes to composing. The touchscreen mechanism is sensitive and useful for pinpointing focus by pressing a finger to the screen itself, though do watch out for the ‘bordered off’ edge that prevents edge-to-edge focusing.
The E-P3’s sensor-based image stabilisation system also means sharper images whatever lens you have attached to the front. It can be switched off or set to Auto (IS1), Vertical correction only (IS2) or Horizontal correction only (IS3). These various options mean panning horizontally or vertically will still produce the desired results.
One of the E-P3’s drawbacks is that the battery life is only good for around 300-330 shots from a full charge. It needs to be used conservatively to avoid running out, so it’s a shame a higher capacity battery hadn’t been developed for this model.
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Image Quality
Olympus E-P3 – Tone & Exposure
In bright sunlight it can be tricky to assess exposure so the bracketing feature came in particular use. Shots are well-exposed for the most part, with a good range of tones.
Olympus E-P3 – Colour & White Balance
Auto White Balance can produce shots that are a little warm, particularly in a studio environment where magenta casts are noticeable. In everyday environments we were happy with the realistic colours produced in shots, and these are well maintained even to the higher ISO settings (ISO 12,800 excluded). Art Modes provide instant in-camera results and all the options have practical uses, such as the Sepia example below:
Olympus E-P3 – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
ISO 200 is the lowest available setting, an ongoing trend in recent productions from a variety of manufacturers. We’d rather see an ISO 100 (or even ISO 80) option rather than such a high starting point. Saying that ISO 200-800 produce crisp and clean images that, considering the Micro Four Thirds sensor (it’s smaller than that found in most DSLRs and other Compact System Cameras), is an achievement.
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 ISO 6400 it becomes more noticeable and at ISO 12,800 a wash of red colour noise is problematic.
All in all there’s plenty of detail considering the smaller sensor size, something that shows keeping the resolution to a ‘safe’ level really pays off.
Olympus E-P3 – Sharpness & Detail
It is possible to resolve fine detail at ISO 200, though very fine single pixel lines don’t always stand out individually and processing can blur away the detail somewhat. Standard sharpening isn’t over the top, though does see a boost from ISO 800 and above where there are more signs of processing. ISO 1600 is where detail begins to diminish at the fine end of the scale, though that’s still an impressive result for a Micro Four Thirds camera.
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Movie/Video Mode
Olympus E-P3 – Movie/Video Quality
The E-P3 offers two choices here: AVCHD and M-JPEG. The former, a first in the PEN series, means good quality 1080i files where file sizes are kept to a minimum. However, to use the MTS files off-camera you’ll need to process the clips into a more useable format such as MOV (this can be actioned using Windows Movie Maker or iMovie at no extra cost, so long as your operating system’s up to date). The M-JPEG option is like taking a series of still JPEG images and compressing them into an AVI video file – the final quality is not as good, the file size is larger, but the format can be used straight from camera with no processing. There’s the best of both worlds here.
As per many competitor cameras the ‘Full HD’ resolution needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as the interlaced (i) capture can cause some blurring issues compared to (unavailable) progressive (p) capture. However, the 20Mbps data rate means lots of detail in files, so resulting quality is very good indeed.
The one very big nuisance is that even with the 16:9 borders marked out on the rear screen and the mode dial set to Movie, pressing the one-touch movie button still causes the camera to ever so slightly crop into the frame. As such accurate pre-framing is not a possibility.
Olympus E-P3 – Movie/Video Record Time
At fullest 1080i quality files can be recorded up to 22minutes. Using the M-JPEG feature this is limited to 7minutes due to the larger file size (and 2GB file size limitation). Step down in resolution to 720p and the E-P3 can record for 29minutes (or up to 4GB max due to file size limitation).
Olympus E-P3 – Movie/Video Focusing Modes
Another top area, the E-P3 provides Single (AF-S), Continuous (AF-C) or Manual (MF) focusing options. All are very successful, particularly continuous focus that slips between subjects with ease. It can falter somewhat with close-up focusing, but is generally ideal for point-and-shoot capture. The lens is near silent too so no irritating focusing sounds will be picked up during capture.
Olympus E-P3 – Movie/Video Manual Control
Another strong area, the E-P3 offers full manual control for its movie capture. This means full shutter and aperture control and the use of exposure compensation. However all these settings can only be set before commencing recording – a frustration as the exposure compensation really ought to be available at the very least during recording. Manual focus also lacks any zoom assist for fine tuning focus, another misgiving as there’s a magnification button available on the camera’s rear that’s out of use during recording. Still, overall this is a very well specified movie camera that will see of the likes of many DSLRs and CSCs.
Olympus E-P3 – Movie/Video Sound
The stereo sound is of good quality, but the lack of any 3.5 or 2.5mm mic jack means there’s a strict limitation on which microphones can be used. At present Olympus makes its own Accessory Port-fitted mic, but adding this will mean attaching anything else via that fitting isn’t possible. A more suitable solution (E-P4, anyone?) would be to provide a mic fitting for third party microphones.
Value & Verdict
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Value
Since its launch the PEN range hasn’t been targeted at the ‘budget’ end. The E-P3’s RRP is £799 with the 14-42mm kit lens which makes it among the more expensive of Compact System Cameras. It is, however, a good £120 less than the E-P2 was upon its launch, so at least that’s a step in the right direction.
Main competitors include the Panasonic Lumix G3 for around £620, the Sony NEX-5 for £510 and the Samsung NX11 for £420.
Olympus PEN E-P3 review – Verdict
The E-P3 is an impressive Micro Four Thirds camera. It’s well built, looks the part and takes great pictures to high ISO settings too. The inclusion of a new built-in flash and AF illuminator finally lays to rest the complaints of previous models. Furthermore the FAST AF system is truly superfast, though the tracking modes aren’t up to scratch for action shots. Although there’s no built-in viewfinder and £800 isn’t cheap in this market, the inclusion of a touchscreen OLED and manual movie mode are further justification for the cost. This is certainly the best PEN yet, and is among the best Compact System Cameras on the market.