Olympus PEN E-P3 Review

This Olympus E-P3 review provides a high-level overview of the features and functionality available on this advanced PEN camera.

I say advanced for a reason: the E-P3 offers a wealth of features and customized settings, but many of them won't be of much use to you unless you're a more experienced photographer.

This mirrorless PEN will appeal to photographers at two different levels:

  • Intermediate photographers who want a camera that they can grow into
  • Advanced photographers who want a more portable alternative to a DSLR without losing features and functionality

The E-P3 is one of a triad of PEN cameras released by Olympus in 2011: the other two are the E-PL3 and the E-PM1.

The E-P3 is the most advanced of the 2011 PEN models, and the number of buttons, dials and controls can be intimidating to a beginning photographer.

I've used over a dozen different cameras, and it still took me several days of constant use to become comfortable with the controls.

Does this mean that if you're a beginner you can't use this camera? Certainly not — it just means that you'll have a lot of learning to do to master all of its settings.

You can use the E-P3 in full AUTO mode to capture some exceptional images, even if you have no idea what a "custom white balance" is.

Camera Shape and Size

Like many other mirrorless system cameras, the E-P3 without a lens could be mistaken for a large compact camera.

Despite its thin profile, the E-P3 is one solid camera. Nothing on the body feels flimsy or cheap - this is the sort of camera that you could carry with you from the streets of New York to the jungles of the Amazon without worry about how it will hold up.

The best way to get a feel for the heft of this camera is to hold one yourself. For those without that ability, here's a quick comparison of the weight of PEN camers without their lenses:

  • The E-P3 weighs 13oz (369g)
  • The E-PL3 weighs 11oz (313g
  • The E-PM1 weighs a mere 9.35oz (265g)

You would not think that a difference of a few ounces/grams matters, but it can affect how "professional" the camera feels. I tend to prefer cameras with a bit more weight to them — it gives me a feeling of confidence that the camera can hold up to constant use.

Don't think the extra weight makes the camera less portable. The E-P3 is still extremely easy to carry for a full day of shooting, and can be held at arm's length with little effort.

One addition to the camera body that makes it easier to hold is a textured grip. I like the fact that the grip is actually an accessory that screws into the camera body. This gives you the ability to get an alternative grip if you want something deeper than the one that comes with the camera.

Camera Controls

The main control on the top of the E-P3 is the mode dial that lets you select from a variety of automatic and manual photography modes, as well as video.

Once you've selected a camera mode using the dial, you can control additional camera settings using the dials and buttons on the back of the E-P3.

There are three main controls worth noting:

1Dedicated movie record button
2Thumb wheel
3Multi-directional wheel

I've become a real fan of cameras that include a dedicated movie recording button.

It's very useful if you want to capture a quick video when you're in the middle of taking pictures. I'll often find that as I am taking stills, I realize that the action is better suited for video. With the press of a button, I can start recording. As soon as I'm done with the movie, I can go right back to taking pictures.

I've named the second control the "thumb" wheel since that's where it's located: directly under your thumb when you hold the camera in your right hand.

I mainly used this control to select a lens aperture in manual mode and aperture priority.

By far most interesting control on the E-P3 is the multi-directional wheel that sits on the back right side of the camera. Not only can you spin the wheel, you can also press down on the top, right, bottom or left of the wheel (like directional arrows).

It's tricky to describe all the ways in which this controller can be used, but I'll talk about a specific example to help explain it.

Scenario: you're taking pictures in Program (P) mode and want to select an ISO value yourself rather than letting the camera decide which one to use.

  1. Press the SET button in the center of the controller to bring up the camera menu on the LCD
  2. Rotate the dial to select the ISO setting
  3. Press the right side of the dial to select a specific ISO value

In addition to selecting camera settings, I also used the dial to shuffle through images in playback mode, select different art filters and to select shutter speeds in Manual (M) mode. It's definitely one of the most multi-purpose camera controls I've come across.

OLED Touch Screen LCD

As if all those buttons and dials weren't enough to control the E-P3, you've also got a touch screen LCD to play with.

While you can adjust camera settings in a basic fashion using a menu that sits on the right side of the LCD, the most useful feature that I discovered was the ability to select a specific focus point.

You can see this in action in the video below (here the camera is set to also take a picture after the focus point is set):

The focus points on the E-P3 are arranged in a grid pattern that covers most of the LCD. When you are taking pictures of an off-center subject and want to be 100% sure the camera focuses on the right spot, you can just touch the LCD to select a focus point.

Take a look at the photo below.

This image is the sort of thing that's quite challenging for autofocus systems to deal with. There are a lot of different plants at different distances from the camera.

By default, the camera wanted to focus on the plant leaves CLOSEST to the lens. Since I wanted the leaf in the center to be the one in focus, I just touched it on the LCD to set the focus point - now all the other leaves are thrown out of focus except for the one that I want to be sharp.

This is a fast and intuitive way of selecting a focus point to ensure the camera focuses exactly where you want it to.

In addition to its touch screen, the OLED LCD on the E-P3 is exceptionally sharp and colorful. It makes checking your images in playback mode a real pleasure.

After using it for a week I used my 5-year-old Canon digital SLR — every photo I checked on that LCD looked out of focus and bland compared to the sharpness and vibrant colors of the E-P3's display.

Is it hard to see outside in direct sunlight? Yes, it's challenging.

However, I found that I was often able to position my body to cast a shadow on the screen so that I could see it clearly.

If you intend to spend a lot of time taking pictures outdoors in full sunlight, then you might consider the optional VF-2 electronic viewfinder. The viewfinder will help you compose images perfectly, even in bright direct sunlight.

ISO Performance

One of the many advantages that mirrorless cameras have over regular compacts is their larger sensors.

These large sensors not only help to create images with sharp foregrounds and blurry backgrounds (also called shallow depth of field), they also help reduce image noise at high ISO settings.

The Olympus E-P3 has ISO settings that range from 200 to a massive 12800.

While you certainly can select ISO 12800 for your photos, it's not something that I'd recommend if you want your photos to look "clean".

ISO 12800 creates SO much image noise that the finer details of your photo will be lost (see below).

The good news is that it should be a rare day that you have to use ISO 12800. The better news is that if you use any ISO lower, you're going to get great results.

The Olympus E-P3 keeps noise to a minimum up to ISO 1600. By ISO 3200 noise is evident in areas of shade/shadow and by ISO 6400 some finer details start to disappear.

Don't take my word for it - take a look below at the images below. I kept all settings besides ISO consistent, only increasing shutter speed so that the exposures are consistent.

ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
 

Movie Mode

The movie mode on the Olympus E-P3 is pretty straightforward: press the red button to start and stop recording.

You can record movies in any camera mode, although there is also a dedicated movie option on the camera's main mode dial.

Unlike some other mirrorless system cameras where you can control the movie frame rate, the E-P3 only offers one option for each "quality" setting:

MOVIE QUALITYSIZEFRAME RATE
Full High Definition (HD)1920 x 108060 frames/sec (interlaced)
High Definition1280 x 72060 frames/sec (progressive)
Standard Definition (SD)640 x 48030 frames/sec (progressive)

This is good news if you'd like to capture high-quality video without fussing with a lot of settings and not so good for those who'd like their mirrorless camera to make independent feature films.

The E-P3 lets you control the exposure settings for any movie you capture, which allows for more creative freedom. If you want a scene to be very bright, you can intentionally over-expose and you can tone down the brightnesss of a sunny day with under-exposure.

Audio for movies is captured with stereo microphones positioned on the top of the camera.

Like most microphones, these picked up a lot of noise on a windy day — but for all other uses I found that they were quite good at clearly capturing audio with minimal extra background noise.

When you capture movies, the camera switches to continuous autofocus, and the focus on the E-P3 seems much better than other other cameras that I've used where the focus point can shift a LOT during movie capture.

The E-P3 was quite good about picking ONE point to focus on, but as other objects moved closer, it refocused quickly to get a clear shot.

Take a look at the sample movie below, which was taken on a very windy day.

Notice how the leaves in the foreground are initially out of focus, but as they move back and forth, the E-P3 adjusts focus so that they appear sharp.

Artistic Effects

OK fine — I'll admit it. I had a lof of fun playing with the artistic filters for this Olympus E-P3 review.

I've never really been enthusiastic about manipulating my images — I try to make the photos I take stand on their own without a lot of "effects" applied.

Having said that, the artistic effects provided in the E-P3 can turn otherwise drab photos into interesting ones.

Realize this: once you capture an image using an art filter, there's no going back. The filter is applied instantly when you take the picture and a JPG file is saved with the chosen effect.

Instead of limiting your creativity, this actually enhances it.

I started out by trying each one of the available filters to find out what sort of "look" it would add to the photo. Once I had a handle on each effect, I found myself visualizing shots with a specific effect applied.

The list of filters available on the Olympus E-P3 include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Cross Process, Gendle Sepia and Dramatic Tone.

For example, a photo of a richly colored flower did not have enough impact in dull overcast light. I switched to the "Pop Art" filter and POW — all the color I wanted was there.

A photo of an alleyway wasn't terribly interesting, but with the "Dynamic Tone" filter applied, it had a lot more character icon.

I used this same filter taking pictures of my son's baseball game. Having used it previously, I knew that it would add dimension to the overcast sky.

I used the "Pinhole Camera" and "Gentle Sepia" filters to create images with a nostalgic look to them.

However you use them, it's nice to know that the filters are there. Whether you specificially take a photo with one in mind, or just use them as a creative exercise they can create some images that are quite unique.

Image Size and Quality

In addition to the art filters, the E-P3 also lets you take photos with different dimensions.

DIMENSIONSUSAGESAMPLE
4:3The default setting for the camera, this is good for images that you want to print at the larger 5x7 or 8x10 sizes
3:2This matches the dimensions of a standard 4x6 print so it's good if you want to print a lot of your images at a regular size
1:1Often used for artistic images, the square format is great for portraits
16:9This wide setting is great if you want to display photos on a widescreen monitor or TV, and it's also good for landscape shots

You can certainly crop your photos after the fact into any one of these formats, but when you know how you want to display your photos it can save time to pick the right format in advance.

For example, if you have no intention of printing lots of your photos, but instead want to display them on your widescreen computer monitor or television, then the 16:9 format is best. Any image you decide to print can be cropped to the right dimensions.

However, if you want to make a lot of 4x6 prints of your pictures (or turn multiple images into a photo book) then the more standard 3:2 is a better choice.

Uses for the E-P3

I mentioned at the top of this E-P3 review that the camera is a more advanced model, better suited for photographers with some experience using manual controls.

Because it is advanced, the E-P3 is also extremely versatile, and is not limited in terms of the subjects that it can capture.

When it comes to photography, I am a generalist: I admire any well-executed photo, whether it is landscape, portrait, action, macro or travel. You could say that the E-P3 is also a "generalist":

  • If you want to take portraits, you can add a more powerful flash to the camera's hot shoe, or even fire an off-camera flash
  • If you want to take landcapes,you can customize the look of your images by adjusting the color controls
  • If you want to take pictures at night, the E-P3 lets you use a shutter speed as slow as 60 seconds
  • If you want to take action shots, the fast 35-point autofocus and 5.5 photo per second speed gets the job done

I took a wide variety of pictures for this Olympus E-P3 review and found that there were practically no instances where the camera didn't perform exactly as I hoped.

Of all the different types of photography, action is the most demanding for any digital camera.

For portraits and landscapes, your subjects are essentially static. They are willing to sit still for a period of time while you fine-tune the color, composition and focus.

Action subjects are zipping past and capturing a memorable shot requires timing, patience and a camera that can keep up.

When it comes to fast-moving subjects, the E-P3 performs remarkably well. I took a variety of shots of my daughter in a swing, where there's only a fraction of a second to get the shot.

Right as she reached the highest point, I'd take a picture — the E-P3 locked focus, grabbed the shot, and was ready to take the next one as soon as I wanted.

Not bad for a camera that can almost fit in your pocket.

Lenses

The two lenses that I used for this Olympus E-P3 review were the M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (the lens most often bundled with the camera as a kit) and the M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8.

For maximum portability, the 17mm pancake lens can't be beat.

Measuring less than an inch (about 22mm) in depth, the 17mm pancake doesn't stick out too far from the front of the E-P3. I was able to stuff both camera and lens into a large jacket pocket, but it was a bit of a squeeze.

The 17mm is also definitely the lens of choice if you want your camera to have retro style. When I had it attached to the E-P3, at least 3 different people mistook the camera for an antique film camera.

You can imagine their surprise when I showed them the digital display on the back.

The 14-42mm lens is a great walk-around lens and works equally well for landscape and portrait images. I was also able to isolate specific subjects with the lens, like a small cactus icon and flowers icon.

It's also a superb lens if you want to capture videos, since the autofocus is smooth and quiet. By contrast, the 17mm lens will sometimes hunt for a focus point during a video shoot and the sound of the lens focusing is audible (see below).

If you really want to take lots of video with the 17mm lens, I'd suggest switching to manual focus so that it doesn't try to re-focus right in the middle of your shot.

The 17mm is the better choice if you want to take a lot of photos in dim available light without flash. The wide f/2.8 aperture ensures that a lot of light gets through the lens, increasing shutter speeds and eliminating image blur.

Summary

The Olympus E-P3 is a powerful and versatile camera in a small portable package.

Even though it is small in size, the E-P3 body has a solid feel — you don't get the impression using it that you're working with a toy camera.

The various control dials provide quick and easy access to the most common camera controls like aperture, shutter speed, ISO and movie mode.

Autofocus - whether you're shooting stills or video - is exceptionally fast and responsive. The ability to touch the OLED LCD to select one of the 35 focus points is especially nice.

Being creative with the E-P3 couldn't be easier thanks to its many Art Modes. Since you can preview the effect on the camera's LCD before you take the photo, you know exactly what you'll get.

The video frame rates are limited when compared to other mirrorless cameras, but this is just fine if you primarily want to use the camera to capture stills.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed using the E-P3 for this review, and would recommend it to photographers with some experience using manual controls or beginners interested in developing their photographic skills.

Release Date: August 2011
$900 USD (with lens)