Olympus E-PL3: Build and Design

September 27, 2011 by Jerry Jackson Reads (31,145)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 7
    • Features
    • 8
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 4
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Expandability
    • 8
    • Total Score:
    • 6.80
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

I’ll be honest, although I own several Olympus Pen cameras, when I first saw the E-PL3 my first thought was that someone took the Sony NEX-3 from last year, chopped off the grip and stuck an Olympus logo on the front. Between the exposed metal lens mount on the front and the articulating LCD on the back you would be forgiven for thinking Olympus hired former Sony designers. Olympus was smart enough to give the E-PL3 an all-metal exterior, but this is a fundamental design departure from all previous Olympus Pen cameras.

Olympus E-PL3

Ergonomics and Controls
Ergonomics? I’m pretty certain the designers who developed the E-PL3 have no idea that word exists. The single biggest problem with the E-PL3 is the combination of a camera with a thin body that is heavily weighted on one side (thanks to the lens mount, clip-on flash and articulating LCD) and the complete absence of a grip on the front of the camera. You have to “squeeze” the camera more firmly with your right hand if you want to hold onto it… which actually caused me to develop a hand cramp after about 45 minutes of holding the camera. Several companies have announced aftermarket grips for the E-PL3 that attach to the front of the camera with double-sided tape, but this half-hearted solution wouldn’t be necessary if Olympus built the camera with a decent grip in the first place.

Olympus E-PL3

On the bright side, the E-PL3 has one of the nicest shutter buttons I’ve used on a camera to date. The shutter button on this camera is “taller” than most shutter buttons which makes it easier to press similar to a “soft release” on an old rangefinder camera. The shooting finger falls naturally across the shutter button, but the camera’s small size and lack of grip means you need to take extra care to avoid excess camera movement when taking photos.

Olympus E-PL3

The camera itself doesn’t have the same number of external controls as the Olympus E-P3, but the E-PL3 still offers more dedicated controls than the Panasonic GF3 or Sony NEX-C3.

Menus and Modes
The menu system on the E-PL3 is largely unchanged from what Olympus has used on every PEN-series camera to date. You’re given a large range of menu options and custom settings if you want them, but you can also use the camera’s “Live Control” and “Super Control” interface to quickly cycle through available settings. That said, the latest Panasonic and even the newest NEX cameras seem to have an easier menu interface if you just want to make some basic changes.

Of course, the camera also has a mode dial for quick changes to the shooting mode. A complete list of the camera’s shooting options is as follows:

  • iAuto: Camera selects all exposure values
  • Program (P): Auto exposure mode with user control for flash settings, metering mode, focus area, etc.
  • Shutter Priority (S): User selects shutter speed, and camera calculates aperture for correct exposure
  • Aperture Priority (A): User selects aperture, and camera calculates shutter speed for correct exposure
  • Manual (M): User selects both aperture and shutter speed
  • Scene (SCN): 23 scene presets (Portrait, e-Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Macro, Sport, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Children, High Key, Low Key, DIS mode, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Document, Panorama, Fireworks, Beach & Snow, Fisheye Converter, Wide Converter, Macro Converter, 3D)
  • Art Filter (ART): The aforementioned art filters, are accessed via a menu from this position (Pop art, Soft focus, Grainy film, Pin hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone). Art Filter Bracketing mode lets you take one photo and develop several images with different art filter effects.
  • Movie Mode: This mode allows you to record video with audio at 30 frames per second in HD (1920 x 1080 or 1280 x 720) or SD (640 x 480) resolutions in either AVCHD or AVI formats

One of the key differences between the E-PL3 and the more expensive E-P3 is the LCD. The E-P3 has a “reasonable” resolution of 614,000 dots but the 3-inch monitor on the E-PL3 has a lower resolution of just 460,000 dots. Unlike the E-P3, the LCD on the E-PL3 can be moved away from the camera body and tilted upwards about 90 degrees or approximately 45 degrees downward.

Olympus E-PL3

The biggest complaint that I have with the LCD on the E-PL3 (and the latest Pen cameras) is the use of 16:9 screens. Yes, 16:9 is good for video, but since these cameras use image sensors with a 4:3 aspect ratio only a small portion of the screen is used. The end result is that the technically smaller LCD on the back of the old Olympus E-PL1 displays an image that is physically LARGER than the image on the back of the E-PL3.

There are optional optical viewfinders as well as electronic viewfinders for the E-PL3, but using either an OVF or EVF means you cannot connect a flash to the camera.



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