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Olympus E-P3 review: Olympus E-P3

Olympus E-P3

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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10 min read

I really wanted to love this camera. I mean, really. Olympus' PEN line has frequently delivered great photo quality in well-designed cameras, albeit with poor performance. But Olympus worked hard on shooting speed, and I figured that if it was fixed, all would be right with the world. But while the company handily achieved the performance goals in the PEN E-P3, while maintaining its design and features strengths, it seems to have taken a step back on photo and video quality. I don't think there's anything wrong with the camera that can't be fixed by a firmware update, but for its high price I expect better photo quality out of the box.

Samsung PN51D7000
7.6

Olympus E-P3

The Good

The <b>Olympus PEN E-P3</b> is an attractively designed camera that's now one of the fastest in its class.

The Bad

Poor video quality and suboptimal default image settings aren't that great, so you really need to shoot raw to get good results at midrange to high ISO sensitivities.

The Bottom Line

While the Olympus PEN E-P3 shoots out in front of its class for performance and holds its own on features and design, it's a bit expensive and you'll need to tweak its JPEG settings to get the most out of its images.

Olympus developed a new sensor for the E-P3 and its latest siblings, ostensibly to achieve higher ISO sensitivities, among other things. Yes, it now goes up to 12,800--but you'll never want to use it at that level. Without the ability to view the raw files, it's hard to make a judgment about the camera's optimal noise level, and the E-P3 complicates it by defaulting to what I think is an overly aggressive noise reduction setting for the JPEGs. The midrange ISO sensitivities of our lab shots look a little better than in shots taken in the field, but I generally wouldn't shoot JPEG beyond ISO 200 with this camera on standard noise reduction, and guesstimate not beyond ISO 800 for raw. You can see the detail start to degrade between ISO 400 and 800, and can spot the color noise at ISO 1600. My out-of-the-box shots at ISO 400 were horribly disappointing, especially given that I shot them with the expensive new 12mm lens.

But scaling back the noise reduction to low--or even off--produces much better results. The photos are grainier, but it's not an unattractive look and preserves a lot more detail. I suspect that shooting raw and processing with better noise-reduction software will gain you at least a stop of latitude of grain.

Like the noise reduction, the default sharpening seems a bit aggressive to me; it's sharper than I'd like unless I were going straight to print. It's a very consumer look that doesn't belong in a camera of this class. You can scale that back as well, however. The E-P3's color rendering looks quite accurate and pleasantly saturated. It helps that the camera defaults to a neutral image style. By default, the camera seems to underexpose a bit.

A combination of its tendency to underexpose and a flash without a lot of throw (despite a guide number typical for its class) results in very nicely exposed close-up flash shots. Olympus includes a couple of useful flash options: you can opt to keep a warm white balance when shooting with flash in auto WB and you can set it specifically to change to flash WB when using flash.

However, Olympus takes a serious misstep when it comes to video. While it ups to full HD, and offers a full set of manual exposure capabilities as well as support for all the art filters in video, the quality is terrible because of egregious rolling shutter (wobbling) that appears with the slightest camera movement. (Subject to correction: I was operating without a manual.) With this camera, Olympus introduced pixel-binning technology--in this case, combining multiple rows and columns to achieve "better" results (possibly to compensate for the fact that the AVCHD video is interlaced?)--to the video processing. It's a technique that's usually used to increase low-light sensitivity for stills, and I suspect it's the culprit, exacerbating the normal tendency of the sensor to rolling- shutter artifacts. I think it might be firmware fixable.

Olympus E-PL1 Olympus E-PL2 Olympus E-P1 Olympus E-P2 Olympus E-P3
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x
Imaging engine version TruePic V TruePic V TruePic V TruePic V TruePic VI
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 3200 ISO 200 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
18 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
17 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
12 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
12 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
None Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 35-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Metering 324 area 324 area 324 area 324 area 324 area
Flash Yes Yes No No Yes
Image stabilization Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift
Video 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps
Maximum HD clip length 2GB/7 minutes 2GB/7 minutes 2GB/7 minutes 2GB/7 minutes 4GB/29 minutes
Audio Mono Mono; mic input Stereo Stereo Stereo; mic input
LCD size 2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 290 shots 280 shots 300 shots 300 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.5 12.7 13.9 13.5 13.0
Mfr. Price $449.99 (est, body only) n/a $449.99 (body only) n/a n/a
$499.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc II lens) $499.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc II lens) $899.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc II lens)
$699.99 (with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) $799.99 (with 14-42mm II and 40-150mm lenses) n/a n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date March 2010 January 2011 July 2009 December 2009 August 2011

One way in which the E-P3 unambiguously outdoes its predecessors is performance. The improvement stems from two main enhancements: a new autofocus system with more AF points, which like Panasonic's Light Speed drives the sensor at 120 frames per second while focusing for faster feedback, and increased parallel processing. This overcomes two of the biggest bottlenecks in everyday shooting performance. Olympus dubs the scheme "FAST" for "Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology."

As a result, the PEN series has gone from sluggish to one of the fastest in its competitive class--faster overall than all other mirrorless ILCs, about the same as Sony's fixed-mirror SLTs, and just a bit slower than comparably priced dSLRs like the Nikon D5100 and Canon EOS Rebel T3i. It powers on and shoots in 0.6 second, with an excellent shot lag of 0.3 second in good light and 0.6 second in dim. Shot-to-shot time typically runs 0.7 second (JPEG) to 0.8 second (raw), and enabling flash adds about a second to that.

The only aspect in which the E-P3 lags in the field--and even the E-P2--is for continuous shooting, which runs about 3fps. However, this isn't a camera you buy for shooting action that way; none of the compact-ish models are.

If you're planning to upgrade from an older model or cross-grade from a Panasonic, keep in mind that your old lenses will require a (free) firmware upgrade in order to take advantage of these performance enhancements. And it's well worth it--when switching to the older 17mm f2.8 it reverted to its irritating hunting behavior. In a better-late-than-never move, the updated AF system also includes an AF illuminator, which also helps with low-light focusing. I've always liked Olympus' dSLR autofocus implementations, and it adds one of my favorite features to the E-P3: selectable groups of AF areas. There's also tracking AF, which works well, if not perfectly.

Olympus also took the opportunity to redesign all its lenses, adding touches like a cover for what used to be an exposed bayonet mount on the front.

The camera body is about the same size as the E-PL2. With the shrinkage of the E-PLx models, that makes it the largest model in Olympus' 2011 lineup. Though it's still an attractive, sturdy all-metal body, the black model at least feels and looks a bit more like plastic than its predecessor and than the other colors. In the box, Olympus includes an optional shallow grip that screws in if you don't like the feel of the flat front, and you'll be able to buy a deeper grip as well--that should make shooting with longer or original Four Thirds lenses a little more comfortable.

Olympus updates the camera with a 3-inch OLED touch-screen display. It's a very nice LCD--bright and saturated, fingerprint-proof, and you can choose whether to display colors as natural or vivid. The company redesigned the user interface to take advantage of the higher-resolution display, but it's generally the same as in previous models. Though it's a touch screen, only part of the interface takes advantage of it--touch shutter and the Live Guide interface. The latter allows you to adjust saturation, warmth, brightness, shutter speed, and aperture via onscreen sliders. The Live Guide is now available in all modes, not just auto, but I can't see it really fitting with the buyer of this camera.

Fujifilm FinePix X100 Olympus E-P3 Sony Alpha NEX-5
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3 megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
23.6 x 15.8mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 5fps
10 JPEG/8 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optical
90 percent coverage/
EVF
1, 440,000 dots 0.47x
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
None
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 30 - 1/4000 sec; bulb to 60 min 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 40 segment
Flash Yes Yes Included optional
Image stabilization None Sensor shift Optical
Video 720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i AVCHD
Audio Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 330 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0 x 2.9 x 2.1 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 15.8 13.0 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash)
Mfr. Price n/a n/a n/a
$1,195.95 (built-in 35mm lens) $899.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc II lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens) $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date March 2011 August 2011 July 2010

The camera retains the solid control layout of its predecessor. The top controls are pretty simple: a basic mode dial and programmable function button. Though there's a movie option on the mode dial, you don't need to be in the mode to shoot video. Similarly, the art filters are available via the quick menus on the screen, so you don't have to use the dedicated mode.

There's now a movie record button on the back; it's in a good place for thumb-based operation, but in order to prevent accidental presses there's a lip around it which makes it hard to press, even intentionally. Olympus has dropped the dedicated autoexposure/AF lock button, and I miss it. There are now two customizable function buttons, but I think they carry too much of the interface burden. For instance, in order to use custom settings you've got to assign them to an Fn button, and hold the button down while shooting. So in order to shoot with a custom burst set (one Fn button) plus a JPEG override for raw+JPEG (the other Fn button), I ran out of fingers.

That said, the camera has a solid creative feature set, including 7-shot bracketing, multiple exposures, a great set of art filters that get increasingly customizable (and can now be bracketed), and the ability to adjust the tone curve for highlights and shadows separately before shooting. With Eye-Fi and its own PenPal support for wireless and geotagging, the only thing I can think of it lacks (within reason) is an intervalometer and an articulated display.

Conclusion
For what it delivers, the E-P3 is quite expensive--especially since the new models expected in the fall are supposed to have the same performance and sensor. Even if they're not as fast, they'll probably be fast enough. Once I get raw software and if Olympus possibly tweaks the defaults I may boost the image rating and the camera might rise in my estimation. But if you're looking for a sleek model that delivers superb image quality, spend the extra $200 on a Fujifilm X100; if you instead want to solid step up from a point-and-shoot, I'd wait and see what arrives in the second half of the year.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Canon EOS Rebel T3i
0.3
0.5
0.4
0.6
0.3


0.6
0.8
0.7
0.6
0.3

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2
0.4
0.9
0.7
0.7
0.4

Sony Alpha NEX-5
0.8
0.9
0.9
0.8
0.4

Fujifilm X100
2.6
2.1
1.5
0.9
0.5

Olympus PEN E-P2
1.6
2
1.9
1.1
0.9

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Samsung PN51D7000
7.6

Olympus E-P3

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Image quality 7
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