BUILD AND DESIGN
The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) standard might be a relatively new camera form factor, but it has quickly become one of the most robust systems of interchangeable lens compact cameras with both Olympus and Panasonic developing cameras, lenses and accessories for the MFT standard. By eliminating the mirror box and optical viewfinder of an SLR-style camera, the idea goes, a MFT camera functions like a point-and-shoot (with all shot composition taking place on the LCD) but allows for a camera that uses interchangeable lenses and an SLR sensor (with the superior image quality that a DSLR offers) in an extremely compact camera body.
The most obvious difference between the MFT cameras available from Olympus and Panasonic is that Panasonic uses lenses that have built-in image stabilization while Olympus puts the image stabilization system inside the camera so that every lens (even old manual-focus lenses) benefits from image stabilization.
The E-P3 likewise includes built-in image stabilization and dust reduction, but offers an impressive performance boost over the older Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras. Not only that, but the E-P3 is arguably the toughest PEN camera to date. Although the recently announced E-PL2 feels quite solid, the E-P3 feels like an armored tank. Current owners of the older E-P1 and E-P2 will appreciate the durable construction of the E-P3 (which likely has more than a little to do with the $899.99 price tag for this camera). In addition to the premium fit and finish, the E-P3 has a 3.0-inch OLED Touch Screen LCD with anti-reflective/anti-fingerprint coating.
Although the spec sheet makes the E-P3 appear very similar to previous digital PEN cameras, the E-P3 features an all-new 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor with greater low-light sensitivity (up to ISO 12800) and an impressive new "TruePic VI" dual-core image processor which includes the new "Real Color Technology" and Advanced SAT (Shadow Adjustment Technology). Most importantly, the TruePic VI processor lets you use the popular Olympus Art Filters without the lag that all the other Olympus cameras suffered. The E-P3 also gets a new 35-area auto focus system (a step up from the old 11-area auto focus) as well as the new Olympus FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF which Olympus claims is the world's fastest AF system.
The E-P3 is powered by the same proprietary lithium-ion battery as the E-PL2 - the BLS-5 - but the camera is also backward-compatible with the older BLS-1 battery used in the E-P1, E-P2, and E-PL1.
Ergonomics and Controls
The "P" in the E-P3 is a reference to the original "PEN" 35mm film cameras. Like those classic cameras, all of the modern "Digital PEN" cameras have a relatively simple button layout. The E-P3 has classic mode dial located next to the shutter button, a thumb dial/wheel located above the standard four-way control dial on the back along with several other buttons, but the E-P3 is still virtually as simple as a "point and shoot" camera. You can leave the E-P3 in "Auto" mode and just take pictures or you can change the shooting mode to give yourself a little more creative control.
The buttons and dials are small but there is generally enough space between each to prevent you from unintentionally pushing the wrong button. The E-P3 comes with a standard removable grip (MCG-1) and Olympus also offers the optional MCG-2 grip which is slightly larger and makes the grip area feel a little more like a compact DSLR. Of course, you have the option of using no grip at all, but I found this made the E-P3 feel uncomfortable in my hand after more than a few minutes of shooting.
Menus and Modes
For better or worse, the Olympus E-P3 uses essentially the same menu system found on the previous digital PEN cameras. You'll find this "for better" if you owned older Olympus cameras and don't want to learn a whole new menu system. You'll think it's "for worse" if you've never used an Olympus camera and want to change a bunch of camera settings. All of the more in-depth settings (image stabilization, auto/manual focus, flash compensation, movie settings, etc.) are hidden inside multi-level menus and chances are anyone new to Olympus is going to have to open the printed camera manual to figure things out.
As with previous PEN cameras, the E-P3 gets top marks for basic shooting simplicity but this camera's menu system simply isn't all that intuitive for newcomers.
Like most consumer DSLRs, the E-P3 offers a mix of novice-friendly auto exposure options and full manual control for enthusiasts - with the added creative inspiration of Olympus's Art Filter technology. Olympus's latest version of Art Filters serves up 10 photo effects, including filters mirroring the look of shooting with a pinhole camera, "pop art" setting with super-saturated colors and "grainy film" which simulates high-speed monochrome film.
A complete list of the camera's shooting options is as follows:
As previously mentioned, the E-P3's 3.0-inch LCD is an OLED screen with touch panel interface and an anti-fingerprint coating. In other words, it's a very nice touch screen display. The screen resolution is 614,000 dots or about 205,000 pixels, which means the LCD isn't as high-resolution as the ones on cameras like the D7000 (which sports an LCD with 921,000 dots), but it's the standard resolution of 3-inch touch screen LCDs.
It's not uncommon for a camera's LCD to display inaccurate colors compared to what the camera actually records, and the E-P3 is no exception. The display on our review sample showed slightly higher color saturation than the actual final results. So if you like how your images appear on the back of the camera you might need to increase the color saturation level under the picture mode adjustment settings in the camera's menu.
We measured the LCD's peak brightness at 381 nits, which is noticeably less bright than the 575 nits of the E-PL2, but keep in mind that the E-P3 has a touch screen and those are usually dimmer than standard LCDs. Unfortunately, this might make the screen a little hard to see under bright sunlight an force you to use a viewfinder.
As for the viewfinder ... well ... there is none. All of the Olympus PEN cameras lack any type of optical viewfinder. You have to use the LCD on the back of the camera to compose your images or buy an optional viewfinder (either the VF-1 optical viewfinder or the VF-2 electronic viewfinder) which attaches to the camera's hot shoe. Of course, if you have an optional viewfinder connected to the camera that will block the camera's hot shoe and prevent you from connecting an external flash to the camera.
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