The E-P3 is Olympus’ flagship Micro Four Thirds system camera. Claiming the fastest autofocus of its class, it’s clear it means business.
The compact system camera market is continually expanding, with Olympus now an old hand at producing these stylish, highly portable cameras. The Olympus PEN E-P3 is another offering that oozes retro cool, but looks are where the salute to yesteryear ends. The E-P3 is packed with the latest technology, including a 12.3MP sensor and a new processor designed specifically for mirrorless cameras – the TruePic VI, which is the power behind some of the features we’ll be looking at in more detail.
This new PEN joins a family of Olympus CSCs that are compatible with 20 Micro Four Thirds and 27 Four Thirds lenses. With in-built sensor shift image stabilisation, every one of these lenses, plus another 500 that can be used with an adapter, can be stabilised. Buying into such a well-established system is rarely a bad thing, but do the features behind the design live up to expectations?
The simple answer is yes. Highlighted by the FAST AF (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology), which is perhaps the jewel in the E-P3’s crown, there are 35 focus points spread over most of the sensor and you can place a point over pretty much any part of the frame. This autofocus is claimed to be the fastest of its class and there’s no doubt that it’s quick – switching between near and far subjects, it literally takes a split second for the focus beep to sound. A helpful addition to this is full-time AF where focus remains permanently active so the camera can focus quicker when the shutter button is depressed. There’s also AF tracking that can track subjects moving in and out of the frame. This is extremely handy for unpredictable, fast-moving subjects.
The screen on the E-P3 is a 3in, 610,000 dot OLED touchscreen display that produces noticeably higher image quality and uses less power than a standard LCD. The touchscreen can be used to set focus points, scroll through images, zoom in and out, and scroll around zoomed images. A really interesting feature for the DSLR user is the ability to choose a focus point then release the shutter in a single press of the on-screen image. Overall, the touchscreen is very responsive and only requires a light touch, unlike some of its competitors that need nothing less than a hard poke to take advantage of the feature.
Like compact cameras and some DSLRs, the E-P3 comes loaded with 24 Scene modes providing predefined settings designed to produce good results when shooting the most popular subjects. The reality of Scene modes is that some work well and others are completely pointless, but usability varies widely depending on the camera. The one that stands out on the Olympus is 3D Photo. It’s easy to shoot a 3D photo but to view the images you need a 3D TV, and since we don’t have one we can’t report on the final result. Then there are ten creative filters that can be used with both photos and HD movies, including Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pin Hole and Diorama.
It’s becoming more common for cameras to come with a range of creative filters that can be applied to photos. Olympus has included this function in DSLRs for a number of years, so including them in a CSC is an obvious move. With ten creative filters to choose from – including Dramatic Tone shown here – adding a new perspective to your shots couldn’t be easier. It’s also possible to apply the effects when actually recording movies, which is easier than applying them in post-production.
With super slick touchscreen mobile phones available from the likes of HTC and Apple, touchscreen technology is fast becoming a standard feature on digital cameras. Unlike on phones, touchscreen on many cameras is sluggish and unresponsive, but the E-P3’s screen is refreshingly touch sensitive and can be used without the need for a hard finger-jabbing motion! It’s not in the same league as HTC or Apple, but it’s still very good.
Handling & performance
Retro never seems to lose its cool, and there’s no doubt that Olympus has thought long and hard about the way the PEN range looks. With white paint reminiscent of a Matchbox car from the 1980s, and a lens with a brushed chrome-style finish, the E-P3 definitely has visual appeal. Unfortunately, the camera feels slippery in the hand and this combined with its weight makes it uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to hold. There are silver and black versions that we are told are less slippery than the white model.
The menu system, or Super Control Panel, where most of the commonly used features are controlled, is easy to navigate and accessed at the touch of a button. This really is an easy to use camera with an intuitive menu system. Like any new camera it takes a little getting used to, but becoming familiar with the E-P3 doesn’t take long at all.
Weight, looks and feel aside, the E-P3 has a number of advanced features that could put many DSLRs to shame, including wireless flash control, 3fps continuous shooting and HD video. This is the flagship PEN and it’s clear Olympus has loaded it with everything it needs to stand out in the crowded CSC marketplace, but as one of the more expensive options it still faces some tough competition.
ISO has been judged on JPEG quality, not RAW. The E-P3 is a very able ISO performer, with good results up to the default maximum of 1600. ISO extends up to 12,800 and at 3200 there’s a noticeable drop in quality, but sharpness remains and colours only shift slightly. ISO 6400 isn’t horrific, and could be used in emergencies, but once you jump up to the maximum extended ISO of 12,800 photos become pretty much useless.
Despite its relatively small size the E-P3 feels heavy in the hand and the white paint finish of the model we tested has a slippery feel. You’d definitely want to use a camera strap because it’s not the most comfortable camera to carry around for long periods. However, with features such as the superfast autofocus and HD video recording, the E-P3 is packed with everything you could ever need. The OLED screen is extremely clear and perfect for viewing the high quality images produced. Overall, a great camera but the price and weight are a turn-off.
Street price £699 (body only)
Effective resolution 12.3MP
Sensor type 17.3x13mm Live MOS
Lens mount Micro Four Thirds
Focusing system Contrast detection 35 points
Metering 324 zones Multi-pattern Sensing System
ISO range 200-1600 (extendable 200-12,800)
Shooting speed (max) 3fps
Card type SD, SDHC, SDXC, UHS-I
LCD size 3in
Live View Yes
Built-in stabilisation Yes
Body weight/size (wxhxd) 380g/122x69.1x34.3mm