Review: Olympus Pen E-P3

Our score: 4/5
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August 9, 2011 10:54 AM
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Published: August 8, 2011 11:00 PM
By Renaud Labracherie / Morgane Alzieu
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
While the E-P2 brought no radical changes to the Pen range of cameras, the E-P3 breathes new life into Olympus' compact micro four-thirds series by finally adopting some of the technology that they've been severely lacking, such as a flash and HD video. That's not all that's new in the Pen E-P3 though, as this camera has plenty going for it.

Handling

Like previous Pen cameras, the new E-P3 still has a tasteful retro feel and a high-quality build. From the first time you pick it up, this camera feels nice to hold and handle. It fits in your hands nicely (although a deeper grip handle would have been nice), the controls can all be easily accessed and the product finish is excellent.

Olympus E-P3 test review - controls, screen, flash
 
Although the basic shape of the body hasn't changed much since the E-P2, the controls have been reorganised. You many have already have spotted the flash on the upper left edge of the camera, which has consequently pushed the exposure mode-selection dial over to the right-hand side. This part of the camera is now fairly busy, as the mode-selection dial is vying for space with the shutter-release button, the on/off button and a customisable Fn2 button (that can be assigned functions like exposure correction, for example). On the back of the camera, there's the same handy vertical thumb wheel as seen in previous models, as well as a small notched wheel around the OK button for adjusting various camera settings, options and navigating through menus. There's a new video record button too and the button that formerly memorised an exposure setting has been ditched in favour of a customisable button.

Another major new feature is the touch-sensitive OLED screen. This has an excellent contrast ratio and nice, wide viewing angles. On-screen images flow smoothly even in low light and the 640,000-dot definition keeps things sharp and clear. However, the screen surface is too glossy and reflective for use in bright sunlight. A colour fidelity rating—or average deltaE94—of 7.4 means that this screen doesn't do too bad a job of reproducing colours. New touch-sensitive controls mean that you can select the focusing zone directly on the screen and that you can take a picture by simply tapping it. Other than that, the touch-controls are relatively limited—you can't, for example, browse through menus using the touchscreen. The higher-def screen makes the menus easier and more pleasant to use than in the E-P2, although they might still be a bit complicated for beginners to get their heads around. All in all though, we still think Olympus needs to rework its graphic user interface.

Responsiveness

The most eagerly awaited improvement in this field is the new, faster autofocus. The good news is that the Pen E-P3 keeps its promises, as the improved autofocus—bolstered by the new TruePic VI processor—is noticeably faster than previous versions of the camera. In good, bright light conditions, this Pen is really very fast, focusing in under 0.25 seconds, which is faster than certain entry-level SLRs. Note that for results like these, you'll need to equip your E-P3 with an SMC lens, like the 14-42 mm kit lens. One slight disappointment is that these performances soon drop when the light starts to fade. In our test studio, the camera took 1.6 seconds to focus in 3 lux conditions. 

Olympus Pen E-P3 test review - speed

The camera starts up quickly (in under a second) and saves pictures very quickly too. We would have liked to see a faster burst mode though, as at 3 fps we were left wanting more. For a high-end camera that's sold as an all-rounder, this burst mode is a little disappointing. You would, for example, have trouble using it for fast-action sports photography.

Picture Quality

Although the Pen E-P3 has the same 12-Megapixel sensor as all current Pen cameras, the image processing system has evolved considerably. Pictures come out really very well up to 400 ISO, and the first noise processing issues only start to appear at 800 ISO. Even then, smoothing and chromatic aberration (speckles of coloured dots) are kept nicely in control up to 1600 ISO and pictures remain usable up to 3200 ISO. You could even push up to 6400 ISO for 4" x 6" prints (10 x 15 cm) or on-screen viewing. These are very good performances for a sensor that's no longer exactly new.

Olympus Pen E-P3 review - ISO picture quality

The 14-42 mm lens is decent piece of kit, boasting a good build, good optics and good general quality. Plus, the image processing system accentuates JPeg photos to boost visual quality so you won't need to touch pictures up on a computer to get nice prints.

The automatic white balance is reliable in outdoor conditions and just a little too warm indoors, although it's still perfectly acceptable. The sensor's mechanical stabilisation system does its job fine but is far from exceptional, shooting a clear Barbie without flash at 1/30 of a second (see Face-off). We've seen cameras do much better than that.

Video

Video has finally made its appearance in Pen cameras. The E-P3 doesn't do things by halves either, recording 1920 x 1080i video at 30 fps. Video is compressed to the AVCHD format and sound is recorded in stereo. There's also a Motion JPeg mode filming in a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. The continuous autofocus works well and is relatively quiet. In good light, video picture quality is very good, but fuzzy noise soon starts to appear when the light drops. A 'rolling shutter' effect (images are distorted when you move the camera) is also very much visible, and you can't change the shutter speed or aperture while filming. The Pen E-P3 video mode is therefore still quite basic in some respects.

Olympus Pen E-P3 test review - video mode

4/5 Olympus Pen E-P3 DigitalVersus 2011-08-09 00:00:00

Pros

  • Very fast autofocus in good light
  • 1080i HD video mode with stereo sound
  • Noise kept in check up to 3200 ISO
  • High-quality OLED screen
  • High-quality build and finish

Cons

  • Autofocus slows down in low light with the 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens
  • No swivel or tilt screen / No built-in electronic viewfinder
  • No settings (shutter speed, aperture) available in video mode and rolling shutter issues
  • Disappointing 3 fps burst mode
  • Battery life could be better

Conclusion

The Pen E-P3 brings Olympus back into the game when it comes to interchangeable lens compacts. With its boosted responsiveness, HD video mode and sleek OLED screen, the E-P3 now boasts most of the features that were sorely lacking in previous versions of the camera.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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