Olympus E-PL3 Review: Almost a Great Camera
by Jerry Jackson -  9/20/2011

For those of our readers who don't already know, the joint development of the Micro Four Thirds system by Olympus and Panasonic in 2009 allowed for the creation of a whole new category of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that have since flooded the enthusiast photography market.

With cameras like the new Olympus E-PL3, you get DSLR-like image quality and the ability to use interchangeable lenses in a camera that is only slightly larger than a point-and-shoot digital camera. What's not to love? On paper the E-PL3 looks almost perfect... but there's an old saying about things that look too good to be true.

The 12 megapixel E-PL3 includes built-in image stabilization and dust reduction like the rest of the Olympus Pen series, but offers an impressive performance boost over the older Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras thanks to speedy autofocus and a noticeably faster burst shooting speed (more on that later).

The E-PL3 has a 3.0-inch articulating monitor, can shoot 1080i HD video, provides automatic and full manual controls as well as the ability to shoot JPEG and RAW. There's also face detection with the all-new Olympus FAST AF system, and the new "TruePic VI" dual-core image processor which includes "Real Color Technology" and Advanced SAT (Shadow Adjustment Technology). The E-PL3 loses the built-in flash found on previous models and has replaced it with a "clip-on" flash that slides into the camera's hot shoe and is powered by the accessory port.

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:

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.

One of the main reasons to purchase a compact interchangeable-lens camera (other than the ability to mount different lenses) is the size of the image sensor. The micro Four Thirds sensors used in the Olympus Pen series typically deliver better image quality than a compact point-and-shoot camera. Does the E-PL3 keep pace with other mirrorless cameras or not?

Shooting Performance
The E-PL3 powers up fairly quickly, and you should be able to capture an image in less than two seconds. Continuous rates vary based on whether or not you have image stabilization enabled: 4.1 frames per second (fps) with IS on or 5.5 fps with IS off. Interestingly, both the continuous/burst speeds are faster than the more expensive Olympus E-P3.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PL3 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.01
Samsung NX10 0.05
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PL3 0.13
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.22
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Samsung NX10 0.50

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Olympus E-PL3 11 5.5 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 20 4.2 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.

Shutter lag came in at 0.01 seconds - making the E-PL3 just as fast as the speedy Olympus E-P3. AF acquisition at 0.22 seconds makes this camera as fast or faster than any other mirrorless camera we've reviewed. That said, AF acquisition times are always lengthened under dim lighting conditions.

Olympus includes a "clip-on" flash that slides into the camera's hot shoe and connects to the accessory port above the LCD. This flash has a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200. By default, flash exposures are set using the camera's TTL auto metering, but you can also manually control the flash output from 1/64 to full strength. The E-PL3's hot shoe is also compatible with the FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, and FL-300R flashes.

Olympus lists a battery life of the E-PL3 at about 330 images using a CIPA standard (interesting how this is identical to last year's Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 cameras). Of course, if you use the included clip-on flash (which uses the camera's battery for power) for all your images then the battery life will be greatly reduced.

Lens Performance
The new M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R kit lens works as expected and delivers noticeably faster AF speed and is absolutely silent when focusing (making it ideal for shooting video). Like all Four Thirds models, the E-PL3 registers a 2x crop factor, meaning the 14-42mm kit lens performs like a 28-84mm zoom in familiar 35mm terms.

My only complaint about the new 14-42mm kit lens is the plastic lens mount (plastic just feels out of place when using the metal-bodied camera). Another thing to keep in mind about the E-PL3 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
No modern camera would be complete without the ability to record HD video, and E-PL3 is no exception. Older Olympus PEN cameras were limited to shooting HD video at a resolution of 1280 x 720, the E-PL3 shoots 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-PL3 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-PL3's AF system still gets confused when you pan the camera or there are multiple high-contrast objects moving in the foreground and background. Of course, you can still shoot video in manual focus mode if you don't want to deal with the possibility of auto focus problems.

Image Quality
Default images out of the E-PL3 were very pleasing in terms of image quality and color accuracy. The new TruePic VI dual-core image processor with "Real Color Technology" improves color reproduction and color gradation (color transitions) of specific colors and fine details (particularly with greens, yellows and magenta. Image sharpness is good with the 14-42mm kit lens but images are rendered a little "harsh" for typical portraits.

In addition to the basic color options, Olympus's Art Filter technology allows you to use a number of different creative filters to give your images a more artistic look. While the E-P3 features 10 different art filters, the E-PL3 has only six (this camera lacks the Pale Light & Color, Light Tone, Gentle Sepia and Cross-Process filters). My personal favorite filters are the "grainy film" filter which simulates high-speed monochrome film, "pin hole" which adds dark corners and an old-fashion color palette, and "dramatic tone" which gives the images a grunge-like appearance. You can also add borders to the art filters if that is something that interests you.

It's true that the 12-megapixel image sensor lacks the impressive resolution of newer 16-megapixel and 24-megapixel cameras. Still, you can produce some huge prints with a 12-megapixel image file and if you mostly display your images online you'll never notice the difference between a screen-sized image from a 12-megapixel camera and a 24-megapixel camera. At the end of the day, the "relatively" low resolution of this camera shouldn't be a problem.

Multi metering did a good job overall with most scenes but highlight clipping is an obvious problem (bright parts of the photo turn completely white with no image detail being recorded in those areas). Center-weighted and spot metering options are available and I found that the E-PL3 did a better job correctly exposing light skin tones when the camera was set to spot metering. Auto white balance was also good overall, but shot warm in the studio under incandescent light. There are seven standard presets plus two custom presets and a Kelvin color temperature option available in addition to auto.

Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The noise performance of the Olympus E-PL3 is on par with the latest micro Four Thirds cameras, but images appear slightly noisier than what you see from cameras using APS-C image sensors (Sony NEX-5N, Fujifilm X100, etc.). Images up to ISO 800 are reasonably noise free but you start to see some heavy grain above ISO 800 and beyond ISO 3200 the noise/grain becomes distracting in the image.

Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 200
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 400
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 800
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 12800
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop

Overall, the latest generation of Olympus image sensors is doing a good job delivering decent high ISO performance but there is only so much you can do with an image sensor that is physically smaller than the APS-C size sensors in most DSLRs and larger mirrorless cameras.

Additional Sample Images
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image Olympus E-PL3 Sample Image

The Olympus E-PL3 is a camera that I genuinely wanted to love, but at the end of the day I can't be very enthusiastic about this camera. For starters, not only does the lack of a grip make the E-PL3 uncomfortable to hold, but I can't escape the feeling that the Olympus design team did little more than copy the shape of last year's Sony NEX-3. The E-PL3 is compatible with the vast selection of Micro Four Thirds lenses and it features blazingly fast autofocus, but things like the lack of a built-in flash and the strange choice of a 16:9 ratio widescreen LCD on a camera that produces 4:3 ratio images make the E-PL3 that much less appealing.

Video quality is good, and the one-button video mode combined with silent auto focus (with kit lens) make the E-PL3 a great choice for people who want an interchangeable lens camera and a HD video camera in one package. If high ISO performance and dynamic range were just a little better I would have absolutely no complaints about the image quality coming from this camera.

At the end of the day, whether or not you buy the E-PL3 is largely a matter of tradeoffs. If you want a compact camera with articulating LCD, a great selection of lenses and very good image quality, the E-PL3 is a smart choice. However, you have to put up with a camera that is downright "painful" to hold, displays a relatively tiny image on only part of the LCD, lacks a built-in flash, and doesn't deliver noise-free high ISO.