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Review | Olympus E-P3 Digital PEN Micro 4/3 Interchangeable Lens Camera (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of Olympus E-P3 Review

Olympus E-P3 Image-Related Review

The second part of the Olympus E-P3 full review covers the stuff that matters, metering, imaging features, image quality, and of course, ISO noise control and dynamic range. I don’t expect much to change from the Olympus E-PL2 review as the sensor’s pretty much identical and the processing changes hasn’t changed much either, so I won’t expect drastic changes, good or bad, with the E-PL2.

If you’re looking for exterior and specification review details, read the first page of this Olympus E-P3 review first.

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Metering / White Balance

The Olympus E-P3 meters very well, the exposures are very good and offers very little surprises and complexity. Unless it’s super high-contrast like shooting into the sun or something drastic, exposures are spot-on.

The Olympus E-P3 balances out the dynamic range distribution nicely and results to very usable exposures without much tweaking. Interestingly, the Olympus E-P3 also has two additional metering options other than the traditional matrix/center/average/spot. There are Highlight preference metering and Shadows preference metering options as well.

The Highlight mode is interesting and can be very useful when you primary subject is a couple of stops above mid-tone. Using this mode allows you to just point the meter at a white area of the subject and take a shot without fussing over exposure compensation.

Normal Evaluative (+0.3 EV)

Highlight Metering (oEV)

Shadow Metering (0EV)

I can see this being a good metering mode to use when shooting a bride in a white gown, outdoor winter trips, or anywhere where white is dominant in the scene. Of course, the shadow metering is the opposite, where the area you’re metering is assumed to be at least 2-stops darker than mid-tone. Auto-balance works well enough in most situations other than incandescent/tungsten light.

Olympus E-P3 JPEG Image Quality

The colors are very nice and not overly saturated. The only noticeable difference I see between color presets affect the primary colors and skin tone. I prefer using the “Muted” preset in this case. The colors pop out really well without looking comical or radioactively saturated. It looks like a good slide film, which is nice.

Olympus E-P3 Portrait Sharpness

That’s a straight upload from camera to Flickr image (Flickr resized it, of course). I love how the reds stayed true. Something that I find troublesome with some Canon DSLR defaults where the reds tend to turn a little magenta.

It’s one of the very few advanced cameras that allow you to take in-cam JPEGs and post it directly on the web or print it out with no modification or adjustments.

Olympus E-P3 Image Sample Olympus E-P3 Image Sample

Olympus E-P3 Image Sample

The colors are rich, images are adequately sharpened, the exposures are good, contrast is punchy but not overly so. In tougher lighting, the matrix metering actually does a very good job still, and the fact that the Olympus E-P3 offers more precise metering options such as center and 1% spot makes it a non-issue if you need pinpoint accuracy in exposure.

In the photo below, I metered for the sky and there’s still amble details retained despite the disparity in exposure between the sky and the foreground.

Olympus E-P3 Image Sample

Shooting JPEG with the Olympus E-P3 actually makes more sense to me than shooting RAW, that’s from someone who never shoots JPEG unless I’m using a phone camera.

Gradation Settings

The Olympus E-P3 comes with four levels of Gradation settings. These four options include “Normal”, “Auto”, “Highlight”, and “Shadow”. Adjusting these settings changes the tone map distribution within the dynamic range, basically, the Olympus E-P3′s processor will adjust certain tonal range’s exposure only and not to the entire photo.

The “Auto” setting, for example, attempts to lighten-up the shadows so there’s more midtone showing in relation to the rest of the scene.

Here’s a comparison of the four modes:

Olympus E-P3 Gradation Normal
Normal

Olympus E-P3 Gradation Auto 
Auto

Olympus E-P3 Gradation Highlight 
Highlight

Olympus E-P3 Gradation Shadow 
Shadow

If you’re familiar with post-processing tools, consider these adjustments as your “Levels” slider where you can adjust certain areas of the histogram specifically without affecting the rest of the scene. In general, “Normal” would be more suitable for ‘balanced’ scenes. Use the “Auto” setting when shooting in high-contrast scenes like during high-noon, for example.

Compare the area under the bridge and the windows between “Normal” and “Auto” and you’ll see the difference. Be careful when using “Auto”, however, as the Olympus E-P3 tends to increase shadow noise quite a bit on any ISO beyond 200 – 400.

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3D Feature

The Olympus E-P3 comes with a “3D” feature where you take a first ‘normal’ shot and take another shot slightly skewed to the side. The Olympus E-P3 display shows you a faint ghost-outline to align the second image, then it merges both to create a binocular image. Not exactly 3D but you’ll see a better sense of depth.

Much like the Art Filters (which I’m not a fan of), it’s a point-and-shoot affair that won’t allow you a lot of changes. Also, the 3D effect works better if there’s significant distances between the foreground subject and the background. Otherwise, it’ll just look like you shot the image with a small aperture focused at hyperfocal distance.

ISO Noise

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the sensor is practically unchanged from a year ago, and the processor didn’t really make that much changes so the noise performance is quite similar to the older Digital PENs. That means that the traditional Olympus E-P series aggressive noise reduction is still there. The noise reduction introduces quite a bit of artifacts and smudging even at base ISO 200, which can be quite annoying although doesn’t really bother you that much if you print the images. On screen, however, it’s quite apparent even at 50% size. The image crops below start at ISO 200 all the way up to ISO 6400

In good light, ISO 1600 is very usable still, but color saturation and dynamic range starts to suffer. It’s best to keep the camera under ISO 800. In lower light, usable ISO stretches to about ISO 1600 for small displays (or small prints).

Conclusion on the Olympus E-P3

The Olympus E-P3 Digital Pen finally reached it’s third incremental version, and I have to say that Olympus has finally reached the stage where the E-P series is a complete product. The E-P1, while expected, was a bit of a rush. It capitalized on a niche hole in the market for an incredibly good-looking camera with interchangeable lens features and DSLR-like image quality while sacrificing their developement in lenses, auto-focus system, flash technology, and others.

The E-P2 looked more like a minor facelift and should’ve been called the Olympus E-P1.5 instead.

I consider the Olympus E-P3 a complete product and what the E-P1 should’ve been.

It is truly a good camera to own, and mighty good looking as well if you’re tired of clunky black boxes or trying-hard-to-be-funky colorful bodies. While it’s not perfect, with its dated sensor, aggressive noise reduction, and clunky user-interface (both menu system and button arrangement), those are still very minor complaints if we’re talking about the entire package. It does, however, faces stiff competition now that Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and Nikon all have really good contenders in this mirrorless camera space. Olympus will need to rely more than great looks to woo the more technical buyer.

Buy Olympus E-P3

I do not hesitate recommending this to any serious buyer who’s looking for a better-than-point-and-shoot camera that offers interchangeable lenses, fast focus, and great out-of-the-box image quality. If you’re after a travel camera where all you need to do is to put the camera in the right metering mode and ISO, you’re bound to get a lot of keepers with the Olympus E-P3 Digital PEN camera.