If you take a quick look at the spec sheet for the E-P3 there isn’t much that sets this camera apart from every other Olympus digital PEN that came before it. Thankfully, there are some pretty impressive changes inside the E-P3 if you’re willing to look a little closer than just megapixels and burst speeds.
The expanded 35-area contrast detection auto focus system inside the E-P3 uses the image sensor to determine auto focus (similar to a point-and-shoot compact digital camera) rather than a separate phase detection auto focus system such as the ones used inside DSLR cameras. Contrast detection AF is generally slower than phase detection and we’ve criticized previous Olympus PEN cameras for slow focus speed. Has Olympus managed to improve AF speed and make the E-P3 fast enough to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments? The focus speed test results below don’t lie.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3||0.01|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3||0.23|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.39|
As you can see, the E-P3 doesn’t suffer from any obvious shutter lag and the AF acquisition speed is among the fastest cameras in its class and even rivals entry-level DSLRs. To meet the increasing demand for focusing speed, Olympus has introduced the new FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF Tracking System. The FAST AF Tracking System features 35 focus points as well as new Tracking AF and improved AF calculation speed to ensure fast and accurate focus each and every time … at least, that’s the goal.
The new “FAST AF” system is indeed faster than the previous generation E-PL2, and it is generally reliable, but we did encounter a problem that suggests there is an issue with auto focus on the new E-P3. When we put our E-P3 into single point AF mode we discovered a possible firmware glitch or issue with our particular review unit where the E-P3 gave an AF confirmation beep even when nothing was in focus where the single point AF was set. We were able to repeat this problem numerous times in the field and in lab tests.
The out-of-focus sample image above is a photo of the Olympus logo on an E-PL1 camera taken with the E-P3 mounted on a tripod and the center AF point selected. Our review unit of the E-P3 gave an AF confirmation beep when nothing is in focus where the single point AF was set. We repeated the test many times with many different subjects and found the E-P3 produced the erroneous AF confirmation beep roughly as much as 10 percent of the time with macro shots and about 1-3 percent of the time with more distant subjects. It’s normal for a camera to occasionally fail obtain accurate auto focus but it’s a MUCH worse problem for a camera to tell you that it has AF lock (with the AF confirmation beep/light) when the image is completely out of focus.
Hopefully our review unit is an anomaly, but if other E-P3 cameras exhibit this issue then we hope Olympus has a firmware fix to prevent the faulty AF confirmation problem.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3||18||4.5 fps|
|Olympus E-P3||13||3.3 fps|
|Samsung NX10||12||3.3 fps|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||∞||2.6 fps|
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Continuous shooting is pretty good when compared to a point-and-shoot digital camera, but compared to similarly priced DSLRs, the burst shooting performance is subpar. The top continuous shooting speed in our lab came in at 3.3 frames per second (faster than the advertised 3 frames per second) with a fast class 10 SDHC memory card. However, most DSLRs in the same price range are now advertising burst speeds of 4fps or more.
The maximum number of JPEG images that the E-P3 can capture in continuous shooting mode is limited only by the speed and capacity of your memory card. If you’re shooting RAW image files then the maximum number of images you can capture in burst mode is 17 RAW files.
Built-in flash performance on the E-P3 is basically identical to the E-PL2 and E-PL1. The built-in flash on the E-P3 has a guide number (range) of 10 meters at the camera’s ISO 200 setting. This means the flash is fine for close-range snapshots or outdoor photos that need some fill flash to balance shadows under bright sunlight, but you’ll get far better flash results by using an external flash in the camera’s hot shoe.
The E-P3’s hot shoe provides full TTL communication with Olympus’s current flashguns. Just like the E-PL1 and E-PL2, the E-P3 allows you to use the camera’s built-in flash to wirelessly control multiple external flash units.
It’s unlikely that most of the photographers who purchase this camera will use the wireless flash feature (since it requires purchasing one or more compatible external flash units) but it’s a nice feature to include with this camera and increases the likelihood that professional photographers might purchase the E-P3 as a travel or backup camera.
As noted, an in-body sensor shift mechanism provides image stabilization (IS) for the E-P3 – a welcome feature on any camera this small. The IS menu is buried among the clutter of the camera’s menu options and can be used to engage or disengage IS, and select from one of three (normal, plus two panning modes) options for the system.
We used the new M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R kit lens and the 17mm M.ZUIKO DIGITAL f/2.8 and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lenses during our testing period. I also tested a Micro Four Thirds to Four Thirds lens adapter and took photos with the Olympus 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0. lens. All three of the lenses worked as expected, but the new 14-42mm delivered noticeably faster AF speed and was absolutely silent when focusing (making it ideal for shooting video). Like all Four Thirds models, the E-PL2 registers a 2x crop factor, meaning the 14-42mm kit lens performs like a 28-84mm zoom in familiar 35mm terms.
My only complaints about the new 14-42mm kit lens are the plastic lens mount (plastic just feels out of place when using the metal-bodied E-P3) and the lack of a bayonet mount on the front of the lens for a lens hood. I’m sure most people don’t care about lens hoods, but they do help prevent lens flare and provide added protection to the front of the lens.
Another thing to keep in mind about the E-P3 is that it doesn’t remain particularly “compact” when the zoom lens is in the shooting mode. You have to “extend” the lens barrel on the 14-42mm lens in order to take photos and that essentially defeats the purpose of such a small camera. The only truly “compact” or “pocketable” lenses are pancake style prime lens such as the Olympus 17mm f/2.8 or one of the several Panasonic Lumix pancake lenses.