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Review | Olympus E-P3 Digital PEN Micro 4/3 Interchangeable Lens Camera (Part 1)

Third Generation Olympus E-P3

Olympus E-P3 Review

The Olympus E-P3 is the third incarnation of the market-shaking Olympus E-P line. Back when the original and beautiful Olympus E-P1 was first released, the camera sold like hotcakes as it was basically one of the first ‘retro’ inspired designs that offered the convenience and technology of digital, while retaining the character of an old Japanese rangefinder camera.

The Micro 4/3 system offered interchangeable lens technology in a small and stylish package, they practically didn’t have any direct competition until Panasonic hit the market with the Panasonic Lumix GF1.

The original Olympus E-P1 was a good camera, but plagued with well-documented auto-focus issues in the camera as well as the first generation zoom lenses.

The smaller Olympus E-PL2 series came out last year and solved many of the E-P1 and E-PL1′s woes so Olympus fans are anxious to see what the flagship Olympus E-P3 has to offer this time around.

Without giving too much of the review away, I can assure you that a lot has changed – in a very good way. This review is split into two sections:

Part 1 (this page) covers the external and physical aspects of the Olympus E-P3, and Part II covers the image quality, and image features of the camera.

Olympus E-P3 Specifications and Overview

The changes in appearance of the Olympus E-P3 seem minimal in photographs compared to the E-P1 and E-P2, but you’ll appreciate the changes when you grab hold of it. The Olympus E-P3 has a slew of changes inside the camera that will make your head spin. The Olympus E-P3 may look like a stylish, non-serious camera, but none of its specifications are lightweight.

Construction Metal and Plastic
Sensor & Processor • 4/3″ Hi-Speed Live MOS sensor
• 17.3 x 13.0 mm active area
• 13.1 million total pixels
• 12.3 million effective pixels
• RGB (Primary) color filter array
• Fixed low pass filter (anti-alias filter)
• TruePic VI
Image stabilization • “Supersonic Wave Drive” (in-body sensor shift)
• Three modes: Horizontal+Vertical, Vertical only, Horizontal only
• Up to 3 EV compensation
• Digital IS in Movie Mode
Movie Modes AVCHD Format (Frame rate of image sensor output is 30fps):• FullHD Fine : 1920×1080, 60i Recording, 17Mbps
• FullHD Normal : 1920×1080, 60i Recording, 13Mbps
• HD Fine : 1280×720, 60p Recording, 17Mbps
• HD Normal : 1280×720, 60p Recording, 13MbpsMotion-JPEG Format:
• HD: 1280×720, 30fps*, Aspect 16:9
• SD: 640×480, 30fps*, Aspect 4:3 (VGA)
File Format • RAW
• RAW + JPEG
• JPEG
• MPO (3D still)
• AVCHD
• AVI Motion JPEG
Display • 3.0″ 3:2 OLED with Anti-Fingerprint Coating
• Touch panel
• 614,000 dots
• 100% frame coverage
• Brightness adjustment +2 to -2
• Color Temperature adjustment +3 to -3
• Vivid / Natural
Auto Focus • Imager Contrast Detection AF system
• 35-area multiple AF
• When non High-speed imager AF compatible lens is used, works as AF assist.
Focus Area Selectable• Automatic
• Manual
• Auto from 35 area, Single area from 35 area, Group target (9 area) from 35 area
• Auto from almost all area when Face detection is ON
• Free selection when Magnified View Mode is selected
Eye Detect AF• OFF
• Near side eye priority mode
• Right side eye priority mode
• Left side eye priority modeFocus modes• Single shot AF (S- AF)
• Continuous AF (C-AF)
• Manual focus (MF)
• Single + Manual (S-AF+ MF)
• AF Tracking (C-AF+ TR)
• Focus mode can be set in still and movie modes separatelyAF assist lamp• Yes
Exposure Modes • iAuto
• Program AE (with shift)
• Aperture priority AE
• Shutter priority AE
• Manual
• Art Filter
• Scene select
ISO Range • Auto : ISO 200 – 12800 (customizable, Default 200-1600)
• Manual ISO 100 – 12800, 1/3 or 1 EV steps
Metering • TTL Image Sensor metering system
• 324-zone multi-pattern
• Digital ESP (324-area multi-pattern metering)
• Center-Weighted Average
• Spot (1%)
• Highlight based spot
• Shadow based spot
Flash System X-Sync Speed• 1/30 – 1/180Built-in Flash• Available
• Guide No: 10m at ISO 200
• Mode: TTL-Auto, Manual (Full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64)
• Wireless flash (4 channels, 3 groups + built-in flash)External Flash• Hot-Shoe
• Compatible with E-system Flash (FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, FL-300R)
• External Flash Control : TTL Auto, Auto, Manual, FP-TTL-Auto, FP-Manual
• Modes: Auto, Red-eye reduction, Red-eye reduction slow sync., Slow sync at 1st curtain, Slow sync at 2nd curtain, Fill-in, Manual (1/4, 1/16, 1/64), Off.
• Flash power: Up to ± 3EV in 1, 1/2, or 1/3 EV steps
Storage • SD (SDHC, SDXC, UHS-I compatible)
• Eye-Fi compatible
Power and Battery • BLS-5 Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery (supplied & charger)
• Approx 330 shots (CIPA test standard)
External Dimensions 122mm (W) x 69.1mm (H) x 34.2mm (D) (excluding protrusions)
Weight (no batt) 321g
(with batt & card) 369g
External Ports • Motion JPEG Format / Picture with Sound: Wave Format Base (Stereo PCM/16bit, 48kHz)
• Max Recording Time 9Picture with Sound) 30 sec
• Mic / Speaker: Stereo / Mono
• USB 2.0 (Hi Speed)
• Mini HDMI
• Video Out (NTSC / PAL)
• Accessory Port AP2
Box Content Body, Li-ion battery BLS-5, Li-ion battery charger BCS-1, USB/Video Multi cable, Shoulder strap, OLYMPUS Master CD-ROM, Instruction manual, Warranty card.

External and Ergonomics

Externally, the Olympus E-P3 has very subtle changes but several key changes are visible right away compared to the E-P1 and E-P2 namely:

  • Pop-up flash
  • Removable hand grip
  • Shooting mode knob moved near the shutter button (to accommodate the flash)
  • Stereo microphone slots
  • Slight button layout changes
  • Larger screen
  • AF assist light

Buy Olympus E-P3

The subtle changes in body design means that the ergonomics have improved vastly. The Olympus E-P3 feels tremendously natural in the hands with the new grip (both front and back). It’s a far, far cry from the E-P1′s handling. There’s really nothing to complain about in terms of how the camera feels in your hand and how well you can handle it in field use.

The photo below shows the Olympus E-P3 with the new M.Zuiko 40-150mm zoom lens.

Olympus E-P3

In terms of access control, however, Olympus still needs quite a bit of soul-searching as the menu system, how the adjustments can be accessed, as well as several dated approaches to user-interface design are still apparent.

The lack of physical buttons is becoming a frequent issue with these advanced, but small, mirrorless cameras. The amount of menu options in the Olympus E-P3 coupled with just 5 customizable buttons mean that you’ll be scrambling to use the complex menu system of Olympus.

Olympus E-P3 Touch Screen

The new Olympus E-P3 gets a touch-screen system that you can use to adjust settings, choose focus (ala iPhone 4 and up), and even trigger shutter. It has a very clever design and is actually quite useful, particularly when shooting still-life on a tripod or shooting at with the camera away from your face.

Olympus E-P3 Review

I like shooting strangers where the camera is at my waist/chest level and just use the touch-screen to capture images in rapid succession. The angle is better and you’ll catch more spontaneous moments.

Olympus E-P3 Review

Olympus E-P3 Review

The touch-screen functions can be turned off easily and isn’t required to access or use any of the camera’s functions, so it’s a complimentary feature rather than a replacement to standard button access.

There are still quite a few bugs with the system, however, as the controls seem to lock up quite frequently once you access the touch-screen.

Lastly, this is more like a tip than a quirk, make sure you turn off the touch-screen function when you’re just dangling the camera off your neck, or you’ll end up with a picture every time the camera’s screen bumps your body.

Battery Life and Storage

The Olympus E-P3 uses a standard, SDHC or SDXC card. It’s also Eye-Fi compatible for wireless file transfers. If you plan to shoot video a lot, best to invest a higher speed card.

The BLS-5 battery is rated at around 330 shots CIPA test standard. In my field test, the approximate battery life with the usual LCD chimping and occational flash and movie shooting lasted between 250-300 shots.

As with any non-optical viewfinder camera, it’s best to have at least an extra battery every time you’re going out for a shoot.

LCD and External Viewfinder

The new 614K dot LCD offers 100% frame coverage and touch-panel capability. The 3″ 3:2 OLED with anti-smudging coating is very well made and offers good visibility even in bright sunlight. The anti-smudge coating works really well too! Great job Olympus.

Olympus E-P3

The LCD, strangely, is 2:3 format and not 4:3 format. Since the native sensor size of the Olympus E-P3 is 4:3, you’d think that they’ll default the LCD size to that as well.

While the screen is a huge improvement from the previous Digital PEN models, it’s still a bit lacking compared to most of its competitors especially in the accuracy department. The colors on the E-P3 LCD isn’t that accurate and shows a lot more saturation and clipping than it should, primarily with red/magenta hues.

The Olympus VF-2 Electronic ViewFinder is a good addition to the kit as it makes shooting much more natural (eye-to-the-camera) and the viewfinder has improved dramatically from the VF-1. It fits better too on the hotshoe slot.

Olympus E-P3

The port also lets you use the new Olympus PENPAL device. The PENPAL is a Bluetooth accessory released alongside the E-PL2. The PENPAL obviously allows you to transmit photos via Bluetooth and acts as a storage device as well. It’s not the best implementation in the world though, as the software side of things make the device really difficult to use.

M. Zuiko 14-42mm MSC Kit Lens

Like in the Olympus E-PL2, the Olympus E-P3 comes standard with the M. Zuiko 14-42mm kit zoom lens. The 2x crop factor of the micro-4/3 format results to a field of view of 28-84mm of a standard 35mm camera, so the zoom range is highly usable for daily use.

However, since the distortion of a wider lens is still present, you’ll need to make sure you’re not too close to your subject when shooting portraits to avoid visible (though minor) barrel distortion.

This newer MSC (movie and still compatible) kit lens is fast and sharp as well. Not much to complain here.

Flash

At long last, the E-P series finally came with a built-in flash and better yet, Olympus has separated the AF-assist beam from the flash itself.

Olympus E-P3

The flash sits flush on the top plate, allowing the camera to retain a clean, classy look. It pops out from the E-P3′s body in a less ‘complex’ manner than the Olympus E-PL2, maybe because of a larger housing on the body.

Flash performance is good enough for the system’s purpose. The coverage is even (compared to the E-PL2) and exposes accurately as well.

In addition, the Olympus E-P3 pop-up flash can control Olympus flash units wirelessly as well. Sending TTL signals and triggering signals with no additional hardware in between.

I really like the fact that Olympus allows you to adjust the flash power manually in addition to flash exposure compensation. It surely helps a lot when you’re shooting stills, for example.

Of course, with an external hotshoe, you’re can purchase a more powerful external flash such as the Olympus FL-300R Compact Flash for Olympus E-P3 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera, but I don’t recommend this flash as it’s weak and one-dimensional. If you must buy an external flash, consider the Nissin Speedlite Di 466 for Four Thirds System instead because you can tilt and swivel and is more powerful too.

Olympus E-P3

Auto-Focus

There’s a reason why this review is only a 2-part series instead of 3 like the E-P1 before, that’s because the auto-focus system of the Olympus E-P3 system is no longer an issue.

In a nutshell, the Olympus E-P3 AF system is fast, accurate, and very usable in low-light! AF used to be the PEN series’ Achilles heel and a lagging behind Panasonic’s AF system by a mile, those days are gone. Not only is the AF fast, it’s quiet as well. I’m actually very surprised at how well it performed in low-light.

Olympus E-P3 Review

It’s obviously hard to show how ‘fast’ an AF system is with stills, but the photo above was taken in near darkness, dark enough that even a DSLR won’t be able to find focus without AF assist. The Olympus E-P3′s AF assist coupled with the flash allowed me to take a sharp and focused shot. Remember that we’re using a slow kit lens as well, not a fast prime.

Image Stabilization

The Olympus system’s in-sensor, Super Sonic Wave Drive claims 3-stops of image stabilization. The SSW system has 3 modes of image stabilization, both X-Y axis, horizontal panning only, and vertical panning only. The in-sensor design means that all compatible lenses will receive the image stabilization benefit as opposed to a lens-based system.

Olympus E-P3 Review

The image above was shot with relatively slow shutter speed at 300mm equivalent focal length, hand-held. For stills, it works pretty well. Not sure about the 3-stop advantage though, as that’s very user dependent 3-stops from 1/1000 is definitely different from 3-stops from 1/20, for example.

However, sensor-shift image stabilization in the Olympus E-P3 doesn’t work in video mode, which is a strange omission, instead, they rely on ‘digital stabilization’, which doesn’t work that well.

Read Part II of Olympus E-P3 Review where I’ll discuss the image quality and ISO performance.