Olympus Pen E-P3

The E-P3 is the ultimate combination of style and substance. With its gloriously retro chassis and competent image-taking base, we're sold on the new Olympus generation of hybrid cameras.


8.5
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CNET Editor

Lexy spent her formative years taking a lot of photos and dreaming in technicolour. Nothing much has changed now she's covering all things photography related for CNET.


This camera is the flagship of the Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. It's styled in a similar, retro-tastic fashion to previous iterations like the E-P1 and the E-P2, and makes a few improvements to ergonomics, shooting design and the graphical interfaces.

Design and features

While interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) are designed to be a small and lightweight alternative to a digital SLR, the E-P3 is a little bulkier than one might expect. Thanks to the metal construction, it feels sturdy and weighs an impressive 321 grams. There is a chunky plastic grip on the front of the camera, which can be removed as desired, and the entire unit is very sleek. One of our biggest bugbears with the previous models was a lack of a built-in flash: the E-P3 fixes that by having a discreet pop-up unit in the top panel.

Elsewhere at the top, the design doesn't stray too far from what you might expect on a camera of this class. There's a mode dial, with selections including full PASM control, movie mode, scene modes, art filters and intelligent auto mode, plus the hotshoe, which also acts as the gateway to the accessories port just underneath.

Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3Olympus E-P3

Click through for a complete photo gallery of the new Pen cameras. (Credit: CBSi)

Around the back, the 3-inch screen has been given an overhaul for the better compared to previous versions. It's now an OLED touchscreen, is higher resolution at 610,000 dots and looks amazing. It also manages to be fingerprint-proof, somehow. The touchscreen also allows plenty of interaction options that you would expect, including touch to release the shutter, as well as swiping through photos in playback mode. The menu system has also been given a much-needed overhaul with the graphical interface much easier to use than before.

E-P3 menu

The menu system of the E-P3 is much more refined (and prettier!) than on previous versions.
(Credit: CBSi)

Connectivity is provided via proprietary mini-USB and a mini-HDMI port. Wireless flash control, long a mainstay of many Olympus SLRs, is on the E-P3, and the pop-up flash can act as a controller. Underneath the hotshoe is an accessory port, which allows you to attach peripherals like the VF-2 electronic viewfinder.

E-P3 viewfinder

The electronic viewfinder mounted on the E-P3.
(Credit: CBSi)

Art filters

No Olympus camera is complete without the requisite art filters applying different effects to your images. The E-P3 trumps all previous cameras, and makes do with 10 fun filters. While there's still no precision tweaking or exposure control when you use them, they make casual photography fun — which is what this game is all about.

E-P3 art filters

(Credit: CBSi)

At the very bottom of the scene mode menu, there's also an option for 3D shooting. In addition to the art filters, the E-P3 also comes with picture modes, which include i-Enhance, vivid and monochrome.

Compared to

E-P3

Olympus E-P3 Panasonic Lumix G3 Samsung NX11
12.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor (four thirds type) 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor (four thirds type) 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor (APS-C size)
3-inch, 610,000-dot touchscreen OLED 3-inch, 460,000-dot touchscreen LCD 3-inch, 920,000-dot AMOLED
Full HD video (1080i, 24fps) Full HD video (1080p, 30fps) HD video (720p, 30fps)
35-point AF 23-point AF 15-point AF
3.2fps 4fps 3fps

Performance

General shooting metrics (in seconds)

  • Time to first shot
  • JPEG shot-to-shot time
  • RAW shot-to-shot time
  • Shutter lag
  • Olympus E-P30.80.70.70.2
  • Samsung NX111.11.21.10.3

Continuous shooting speed (longer bars indicate better performance)

  • Olympus E-P33.2
  • Samsung NX113

Olympus rates the battery at 330 shots.

Image quality

Overall, we were particularly pleased with the image quality from the E-P3 on default settings. The camera excelled in outdoor situations, delivering clean images at low ISO levels and capturing photos as JPEG. Colours straight from the camera are particularly pleasing, exhibiting great saturation and smooth gradation.

We had the opportunity to test the E-P3 with a variety of lenses, from the twin lens kit to the 9-18mm and the 12mm f/2.0 prime. We'll have reviews of these lenses soon.

All the lenses that we tested with the camera were sharp, with images maintaining a very good level of edge-to-edge sharpness. Considering the key audience of the Pen cameras (and ILCs in general), the E-P3 does an excellent job of exceeding image quality delivered from a compact camera.

The camera can now hit a maximum ISO of 12,800, although, from our test shots, this sensitivity is best avoided, as it imbues images with some rather distinct colour noise and colour shifts. One area that the E-P3 struggled with was automatic white balance under artificial, incandescent and indoor lighting. While this is easily fixable by manually taking a white-balance reading if shooting JPEG or, of course, tweaking in RAW in post-processing, it was disappointing to see the camera struggle. Images were far too warm, with a distinct yellow tinge.

E-P3 higher ISO

An image taken at ISO 1600 and the 100 per cent crop inset.
(Credit: CBSi)

Autofocusing

Olympus has made some bold claims about the speed of the E-P3, which it puts down to the FAST (Frequency Accelerated Sensor Technology) system. This is a combination of the MSC (movie and still compatible) lens technology, the sensor, focusing algorithm and a dedicated focusing processor in the TruePic VI engine. While this might not mean too much to the everyday photographer, what it does do is vastly improve the performance, responsiveness and overall speed of the E-P3 compared to previous Pen cameras.

Olympus claims that the E-P3 (and the other two Pen cameras) have the world's fastest autofocus. While remaining quiet on actual numbers and figures, the company did cite its own internal testing of the AF system against other cameras on the market, including traditional SLRs like the Nikon D3100, the Canon 7D and even the 1Ds Mark IV, as well as other interchangeable lens cameras, such as the Panasonic GH2. Make sure to watch our review video soon to see how the autofocus responds in a real-world situation.

RAW vs. JPEG
E-P3 RAW JPEG

A comparison between the RAW and JPEG files produced by the E-P3.
(Credit: CBSi)

Video quality

While the AVCHD video produced by the E-P3 is acceptable, it's not up there with the best implementations in its class — particularly from competing Panasonic and Sony ILCs. The video image is not particularly sharp, even when using the 12mm lens that we love so much. Sound quality is good, though, and the automatic exposure is on the mark. There's also manual exposure control for those so inclined. You can also record video in art filter modes, although you probably won't want to make a habit of doing this, as the frame rate drops dramatically.

Image samples

Exposure: 1/320, f/8, ISO 200

Exposure: 1/4000, f/2, ISO 200

Exposure: 1/400, f/6.3, ISO 200

Exposure: 1/15, f/2, ISO 1600

(Credit: CBSi)

Conclusion

The E-P3 is the ultimate combination of style and substance. With its gloriously retro chassis and competent image-taking base, we're sold on the new Olympus generation of hybrid cameras. If the asking price is a little too much, remember that the same internals can be found on the smaller Pen cameras released at the same time as the E-P3, the Lite and Mini, just in a different casing.

The E-P3 is available for AU$999 in a single lens kit, and the camera itself comes in silver or black.

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Tazbags posted a comment   
Australia

Hi Alexandra
I love all your reviews and have been agonising for months over which camera to get as my first upgrade from a point-and-shoot. I've gone from the Canon 600D to the Nikon D5100 and finally (I think) arrived here, on the Olympus Pen E-P3. I'm not looking at getting into professional photography but would love be able to take some nice pictures for framing etc. My questions for you are
1- Do you think I'm heading in the right direction with this camera? (I figure if I ever get really serious about photography I'd want a better camera than the Canon 600D or Nikon D5100 anyway)
And 2- Do you recommend buying the kit with just the 14-42mm II R lens, the kit with the 14-42mm lens as well as the 40-150mm R lens OR just buying the body and getting lenses separately as my budget and skills increase? I have read good things about the 12mm f/2.0 prime and the 45mm f/1.8 prime.
I'm more than a tad confused so any light you could shed would be appreciated. Thanks!!

 

KarenB3 posted a reply   

Hi Tazbagz

Did you get a reply to your questions above, as I am agonizing over the same decision. I seem to want the same thing out of a camera and am looking at the Sony NEX-C3, NEX-F3, HX30-V or E-PMI/E-PL3/E-P3.




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User Reviews / Comments  Olympus Pen E-P3

  • Tazbags

    Tazbags

    "Hi Alexandra
    I love all your reviews and have been agonising for months over which camera to get as my first upgrade from a point-and-shoot. I've gone from the Canon 600D to the Nikon D5100 a..."

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