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Olympus E-P3 Review
by Jerry Jackson -  6/29/2011

If you've been watching for new digital cameras over the last 12 months then you know that a new compact interchangeable lens camera gets announced almost every other week. If you're someone who wants to step up from a "point and shoot" camera, or if you hate the bulky size and weight of your DSLR, then cameras like the new Olympus E-P3 might be the perfect solution for you.


However, with so many compact interchangeable lens cameras on the market priced between $500 and $1,000, how can you be sure that this week's latest camera is the best camera for your needs? The Olympus E-P3 hopes to make your buying decision less complicated by offering blazingly fast auto focus, impressive image quality, creative art filters, and a compact camera with tough metal construction. Keep reading to find out if the latest and greatest camera from Olympus belongs in your camera bag.

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.


Original

Pop Art

A complete list of the camera's shooting options is as follows:

Display/Viewfinder
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.

PERFORMANCE
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.

Shooting Performance
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)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 0.01
Olympus E-P3 0.01
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05
Samsung NX10 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-P3 0.22
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 0.23
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Samsung NX10 0.50

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.

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
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.

Video Quality
Of course, the E-P3 features the ability to record HD video like virtually every modern compact camera and DSLR. While previous PEN cameras were limited to shooting HD video at a resolution of 1280x720, the E-P3 will shoot up to 29 minutes of full 1080i HD video in either AVCHD or AVI formats. To get a handle on baseline video quality, we've included samples of the video playback below. Overall we found the video quality to be quite good - smooth, crisp, and highly detailed.

To download the original file in its native resolution and format, click the link below.

Sample Video File Download

As with any modern DSLR, the E-P3 gives the ability to capture video in aperture priority for depth of field control and allows single auto focus or continuous AF with compatible lenses when shooting video. As previously mentioned, you'll want to use a lens that carries the Olympus Movie and Still Compatible (MSC) label so that you won't hear the AF noise in your video. In terms of the continuous AF during video, the E-P3's AF system still get confused when you pan the camera or there are multiple high-contrast objects moving in the foreground and background. Yes, you can still shoot video in manual focus mode if you don't want to deal with the possibility of auto focus problems.

One added bonus that the digital PEN cameras offer is the ability to add complex digital filters to your video footage in camera. Video can be shot using any of the camera's Art Filters, meaning you can get film-esque black-and-white or high-saturation video straight from the camera.

Image Quality
The new E-P3 uses a brand-new Live MOS sensor with 12.3 megapixel resolution that offers higher sensitivity for low light shooting with ISO up to 12800. This is where I normally complain about the fact that every other major camera manufacturer has released cameras with higher resolution image sensors while Olympus has remained at 12 megapixels since 2009.

It's true that some megapixel-obsessed shoppers will probably overlook the E-P3 since you can buy cameras with higher-resolution image sensors like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 or Sony Alpha NEX NEX-5 for less than the price of the E-P3. That said, you can still produce some huge prints with a 12-megapixel image file and if you only display your images online you'll never notice the difference between a screen-sized image from a 12-megapixel camera and a 40-megapixel camera. At the end of the day, the relatively low resolution of this camera shouldn't be a concern to most people.

Another reason we're probably not seeing a big increase in resolution from Olympus is the physical limitations of the Four Thirds sensor format. The Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the size of the APS-C sensors used in most DSLRs. Engineers can only squeeze so many pixels into that smaller space. The more pixels you pack into a space, the less efficient they become at collecting light (image data).

Thankfully, Olympus engineers have been working on overcoming the physical limitations image sensor size with some help from the new TruePic VI dual-core image processor. TruePic VI brings two things to the table to help improve still images: Real Color Technology and Advanced SAT (Shadow Adjustment Technology). The new Real Color Technology improves color reproduction and color gradation (color transitions) of specific colors and fine details.

The colors which are most impacted by the Real Color Technology are "emerald green" (commonly found in photos of water such as oceans or aquariums), yellow, and magenta. Advanced SAT is activated when iAUTO or Auto Gradation is turned on in the camera's menu. This both improves tones in backlit or high-contrast shooting situations and helps reduce shadow noise and loss of fine details in shadows.

These technologies are clearly coming to bear in the EP-3. Colors appear more true to life (if a little under saturated compared to a point-and-shoot camera) and there is far less destructive shadow noise visible in photos from the E-P3.

White balance is generally good on the latest generation of Olympus cameras, but I did notice that the auto white balance is more accurate under sunlight or flash than it is under incandescent or florescent lights. It's also worth mentioning that the "i-Enhance" picture mode setting does a remarkable job of helping tweak white balance while simultaneously adjusting exposure.

Both measured and Kelvin temp custom white balance options are available, and in this case, I found the user-set modes more accurate than the presets for getting natural looking white balance.


Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Shots are exceptionally clean through ISO 800 and even rival what we see from larger APS-C cameras. There is some shadow noise showing up at ISO 1600, but even at this high ISO setting the image quality remains quite good.


ISO 200

ISO 200, 100% crop

ISO 400

ISO 400, 100% crop

ISO 800

ISO 800, 100% crop

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, 100% crop

ISO 3200

ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 6400

ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 12800

ISO 12800, 100% crop

Some fine details are still quite visible up into ISO 3200, but it's in this area where color starts becoming less accurate and details begin to get smudged. ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800 are there as a "last resort" but you'll end up with images that lack fine detail and color fidelity.

Additional Sample Images

CONCLUSIONS
Although you might have a hard time telling the new Olympus E-P3 apart from older Olympus PEN cameras, the E-P3 is unquestionably the preeminent Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera. On paper this might seem like just another modest upgrade in a string of modest upgrades to the digital PEN line, but the E-P3 resolves virtually every complaint leveraged against the old Olympus cameras. The E-P3 is a solid camera with great image quality, fantastic speed (including art filters that don't make the camera painfully slow) and it offers 1080 HD video on par with the competition.

 


Still, the E-P3 has a few flaws under all that metal armor. As mentioned, our review unit had the nasty problem of giving AF confirmation beeps when nothing was in focus. This usually only happened with macro shots in single-area AF, and even then it only happened sometimes, but many people rely on the camera's AF confirmation beep to tell them when the subject is in focus. It's too early to tell if this was a problem with our camera or something that will require a firmware fix from Olympus. We will update this review if we learn more.

The other, potential problem for the E-P3 is price. Although $899.99 might sound reasonable for a metal-bodied camera, almost every camera manufacturer now offers cameras with better technical specs than the E-P3 at a lower cost.
At the end of the day the Olympus E-P3 is the greatest Olympus PEN camera to date. It just remains to be seen whether that is enough to make it a great seller in stores.

Pros:

Cons: