Cameras

Olympus PEN E-P3 Review

The E-P3 is the latest flagship Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus.

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Introduction

The E-P3 is the latest flagship Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus. It sports a new touch-enabled 610k-dot OLED screen, an interchangeable grip, a lightning-quick contrast autofocus system, a new built-in flash, and that well-loved retro styling from previous Olympus E-Ps.

But the E-P3 is still saddled with a slightly outdated 12-megapixel Live MOS image sensor, so where its performance will land with comparison to the rest of the 2011 competition remains to be seen.

Design & Usability

The Olympus E-P3 offers interchangeable grip, Micro Four Thirds lens compatibility, and a slightly improved menu system.

The Olympus E-P3 features subtle design changes from the E-P2, with new interchangeable grip options, a more traditional mode dial, a high-resolution touchscreen, and a built-in flash. The new interchangeable grip that can be taken off the body, allowing users to shoot either with one of two grips designed by Olympus, or without it entirely. Even without the grip, the brushed metal body offers a great deal of purchase. You’re still getting the same vertical thumb dial and rear control dial combination, though the E-P3 has no electronic viewfinder. Instead, users get a high-resolution, 3-inch touchscreen.

Two programmable function buttons are there if you need them and a new pop-up flash extends up and out. A hot shoe is on hand as well. The E-P3 also comes with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R MSC kit lens (the “R” refers to slightly more comfortable zoom and focus rings—the interior optical design is the same—and the MSC refers to “Movie Still Compatible” motor, which allows for quiet, quick focus without moving the front lens element and without making any noise that will be audible on the internal microphone during video capture).

There is some touch integration in playback, but not in the regular menu.

We weren’t huge fans of Olympus's unorganized menus on the earlier EP and EP-L series, and the E-P3's menu isn’t much better. At least the new menu is much more clear and attractive, owing to the high-resolution screen, but don't expect touchscreen control over the shooting menu. There is some touch integration in playback, but not in the regular menu. The menu is largely secondary in most shooting situations, however, because the OK button on the rear of the camera offers quick access to just about every important shooting variable.

Features

For $899, we were expecting no less than a full suite of features, and the E-P3 did not disappoint.

The E-P3 features standard shooting modes for its class: a full suite of priority and manual controls, an all-automatic mode, a movie record mode, and both scene and art filter modes.

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This was the snappiest non-phase detection autofocus we’ve seen in any camera with a sensor of this size.

Another fine feature is the E-P3's autofocus, which is outstanding in situations where light is plentiful. This contrast-based detection system feels just as snappy as any phase detection system we’ve tested. Olympus claims that an increased “dual-core” processing power works in concert with “MSC” lenses to enable lens elements to move quickly and silently. We found that autofocus was indeed a bit slower with non-MSC lenses—it hunted quite a bit in low light situations, even with an AF illuminator. Focus was dead silent, however, even in video recordings. Overall, this was the snappiest non-phase detection autofocus we’ve seen in any camera with a sensor of this size.

Shooting features are plentiful. The E-P3's manual focus is quite easy, thanks to the large, 3-inch OLED screen, which offers several options to digitally zoom, bringing details in closer. We just wish there was a focus peaking functionality. A custom “button function” menu allows users to map controls for the movie record, and two dedicated function buttons await assignments, as well, so shooting can be very tailored. Finally, an SCP (Super Control Panel) can be activated by pressing the OK button, but only after users have deactivated the live control and live guide modes through the custom menu. SCP is not really any more useful than the other menus, and it overlays the entire image, but it relies less on the small symbols that the live control menu uses.

Performance

While noisier in some respects than we would have liked, the Olympus E-P3 performed very well in the areas of sharpness and color.

The major issue with the E-P3 came at moderate to high ISO performance. At nearly every ISO setting along its default 200-12800 range, dynamic range lagged behind the competition. Image noise also quickly became a problem at ISO speeds greater than 800. While noise reduction greatly limited that, it does so at the expense of most of the image’s fine detail.

The E-P3 delivered blazing fast autofocus performance, but in low light, that advantage is greatly reduced.

The E-P3 did have phenomenal color accuracy in bright light conditions, but a combination of custom tinkering and a higher quality lens is needed in order to get the most out of this camera in anything less than ideal light.

These troubles aside, the E-P3 delivered blazing fast autofocus performance, especially for a contrast-detection system. Again, in low light, that advantage is greatly reduced, but it may be the snappiest contrast-only AF system we’ve tested to date.

Conclusion

The Olympus E-P3 is the newest flagship Micro Four Thirds camera from the co-creators of the format—and a bit of a mix of old and new.

The E-P3 is pushing forward with the retro styling that made the E-P2 and the E-PL2 so popular, but it’s also got a new interface, a new dual processor, and a speedy new AF system. If only it wasn't still saddled with what is essentially a two-year-old image sensor. It’s definitely the best Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus yet, but its low light, noise, and dynamic range performances are not the best.

Whenever light is less than ideal, the E-P3's sensor is simply outdone by the competition.

With competing systems from Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and now Pentax, the compact system market has become quite fierce. This year, we have already seen the Panasonic G3, soon to be followed by the Sony NEX-C3, not to mention updates from the rest of the market. The E-P3 did have very accurate colors, but we found it lacking in overall performance compared to the G3 and last year’s Sony NEX-5. It’s certainly an attractive camera, and its blend of style, excellent video, and customizable options are an enthusiast’s dream, but its dynamic range and noise performance left something to be desired.

We look forward to seeing what Olympus can do with this new AF system, and we appreciate the thoughtful, innovative design changes, but whenever light is less than ideal, the E-P3's sensor is simply outdone by the competition.

Science Introduction

The Olympus E-P3 (MSRP $899) is a decent performer within the competitive market of compact system cameras. While some of its specs fall into the outdated zone by a marginal amount, its color accuracy was still excellent. The E-P3 tested well in most categories, though it did have one drawback related to its noise reduction. It also tends to favor over-saturated, vivid colors.

Sharpness & Stabilization

The E-P3 gets quite a bit out of its 14-42mm kit lens and its 12-megapixel sensor, offering sharp images with very little distortion and average chromatic aberration.

With the 14-42mm kit lens, the E-P3 was quite sharp, with an average sharpness of well over 1600 LW/PH across the board. Some sharpening is applied by the camera in its JPEG conversion, but the lens itself is quite sharp on its own.

The Olympus E-P3 had very effective horizontal image stabilization across the board, too, especially in our low shake testing. The only time that it had a negative impact was in high shake testing at a shutter speed of 1/500s, where the system over-corrected, resulting in fewer sharp images. At slower shutter speeds, the improvement was marginal in high shake testing, but quite effective when shake was low to moderate.

Color Accuracy

The Olympus E-P3 favored over-saturation and vibrant colors, but its muted color mode was very accurate.

The Olympus E-P3 features a number of art filters and color modes that can be combined to your heart’s content, should you choose. We found that, of all the color modes, the “muted” mode was by far the most accurate, with an average color error of approximately 2.5. Every other mode returned an error of 3.2 or greater.

The muted mode wasn’t all that muted, with a saturation level of around 99% of the ideal. The other color modes were all over-saturated, resulting in images that were less accurate, but popped in aesthetically pleasing ways. For these reasons, we conducted our tests in the muted mode, in order to achieve the most accurate results for the E-P3. All these color modes are customizable, however, so users can make adjustments to hue, brightness, and saturation through a touchscreen picture adjust menu.

Noise Reduction

This is one of the noisier compact system cameras we’ve seen this year, though noise reduction mitigated that somewhat.

Noise mounts quickly from ISO 1600 and upward, spiking all the way to a ridiculous 7.66% at ISO 12800. Anything beyond 2.5% generally yields a useless photo, and with noise reduction off, the E-P3 crosses that threshold at ISO 3200. With noise reduction set to on (or automatic, which will engage it at higher ISO speeds anyway), the E-P3 only crosses 2.5% at ISO 12800, but detail is greatly smeared as a result. The E-P3 offers the option to hit ISO 25600, but with results already looking poor at 6400, this is hardly a useful feature.

The option to turn off noise reduction is buried fairly deep within the custom menus on the Olympus E-P3, though it’s easy to see why—just look at any shot taken beyond ISO 800. The E-P3 features what is now a fairly outdated 12-megapixel sensor, so while it shows some improvement over the E-PL2, released earlier this year, it doesn’t quite have the low light guns to match the competition. If you’re shooting with the E-P3, leave NR on and hope for the best.

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