A first look hands on review of the new Olympus Pen EP3, EPL3 and EPM1 micro four thirds cameras

Olympus Pen EP3, EPL3 and EPM1

Olympus Pen EP3, EPL3 and EPM1.

A hands on review

Mat Gallagher tries out the trio of new Pen cameras, including the 
flagship E-P3 that boasts the fastest AF of any interchangeable-lens camera

The Olympus Pen E-P1 was the first of the new compact system cameras (CSCs) to move away from the standard SLR styling and offer a more compact shape. Since the original E-P1 there have been three more variations in the Pen series, but these three latest models are set to be the most adventurous yet. The new models span a range from ultra-compact beginner camera through to a semi-professional flagship. All three share the same internal specifications, differing only in size and functionality.

The flagship model is the E-P3, the all-singing, all-dancing replacement for the E-P2. A step below that is the E-PL3, or Pen Lite, which replaces the E-PL2, and below that is the E-PM1, or Pen Mini. The existing E-PL1 will also remain in the range to offer a budget solution for photographers.

Focusing was initially a stumbling block among compact system cameras, as it was for DSLRs when using live view. The problem was that the contrast-detection AF system used by the sensor was not as fast as the phase-detection systems that make use of a mirror-reflex mechanism. As systems have developed, however, contrast-detection AF has improved to the point where Olympus is now claiming for its three new cameras not only the fastest AF in a CSC, but also the fastest among all interchangeable-lens cameras. This is a bold claim indeed, and it includes the caveat that the cameras should be set to their continuous AF modes to achieve these impressive speeds, which means the focus motors will already be active. In each camera there are 35 AF points that are said to cover the majority of the sensor, improved tracking technology and an AF illuminator lamp for low-light shots.

Internal features

The three cameras each use a new 12.3-million-pixel live MOS sensor with FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF and 120fps signal output, which is twice the output of previous Olympus sensors. The cameras also feature a new TruePic VI dual processor to cope with the extra information delivered by the sensor and for fast processing of the art filters. The sensitivity now reaches from ISO 200 to a maximum of ISO 12,800, which is 1 stop higher than previous models. Continuous shooting remains at 3fps and there is still the handy multiple exposure function to raw file.

The face- and eye-detection technology has been expanded to include skin detection, which recognises human skin tones and prioritises them for focus. This is useful when the face is in profile and both eyes cannot be seen. There is also the ability to select priority over the left or right eye for focusing, which may come into play for images with shallow depth of field.

Video capture is now in AVCHD format for high-quality, 1080i, 60fps capture, although for quick editing it is still possible to opt for a 720p Motion JPEG file. Stereo sound is recorded via built-in microphones, and shutter-priority controls are included for 
the more creative videographer.

All three cameras retain a hotshoe and accessory port, making them compatible with a range of adapters, including an electronic viewfinder (EVF), flashguns and macro lights.

Olympus Pen E-P3

Olympus Pen E-P3

The new Pen E-P3 flagship model offers the most control, with lots of quick function access, dual dials on the rear of the body and three custom buttons. The rear screen is a touch-sensitive OLED 3in display with 610,000-dot resolution. It is the first Pen to include a touchscreen display, through which focusing and live guide controls can be selected and adjusted. This looks and feels much like the screens on the new Panasonic G-series cameras, where it has proved far more useful than expected, even for advanced users.

The E-P3 also features a full selection of ten art filters with five effects: pinhole, soft focus, frame effect, starlight and white edge, which can all be added to the filters. The camera also now includes a built-in flash, which until now has been the exclusive preserve of the Pen E-PL1 and E-PL2. As such, the E-P3 feels the most complete Pen camera to date, and with its speedy autofocus it offers a real alternative to some consumer DSLRs. The E-P3 is due to go on sale in early August with an expected price of around £800 with lens.

Olympus Pen EPL3 (Lite)

Olympus Pen E-PL3 (Lite)

The E-PL3 has had a rather major design change from the E-PL2, becoming much smaller and thinner. It is now known as the Pen Lite. Due to the smaller body, there is 
no longer a built-in flash in this model, although a small attachable flash unit is included in the box. This seems a strange choice given that this was a previous complaint of the original Pen cameras, but the body certainly seems tight on space. The 3in, 460,000-dot screen may not be touch-sensitive but, impressively, it is mounted on a tiltable bracket that allows vertical rotation for waist-level or overhead viewing.

There is a new menu interface to allow easier navigation, and although the buttons are reduced from the number found on the E-P3, there is still a rotation dial, shooting mode dial, and a single function button. The shutter button looks more pronounced and feels more positive to press than on previous models. The Lite features six art filters (pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pinhole, diorama and dramatic tone), and also allows the extra filter effects to be added. In many ways the Lite could be the most popular of the three models, as the trade-off between size and handling will appeal to many looking for a pocket-sized creative camera. The Lite is 
due to go on sale in late August, but the price is still to be confirmed.

Olympus Pen EPM1 (Mini)

Olympus Pen E-PM1 (Mini)

The E-PM1 is the only true new addition to the range, and is also known as the Pen Mini. It is designed to be colourful, coming as it does in a choice of six finishes, simple and, of course, mini. There?s no shooting-mode dial ? although these settings can still be accessed via the menu ? and no function button, although it does retain the rotational wheel control. The screen is a wideangle, 3in, 460,000-dot display, without any tilt or touchscreen control. The menu interface is even more graphic-based for simple operation and the art filters are the same six as feature on the Lite, but without the additional filter effect controls. This model is very much aimed at the mass market and those upgrading their compact, but given its internal spec it shouldn?t be underestimated. The Mini is due to go on sale in September at a price to be confirmed.

Olympus Pen Lenses

Olympus Pen Lenses

The standard 14-42mm kit lens has had a slight makeover for this launch, with a new, more finely textured grip added, but most significant is the introduction of two new lenses to Olympus?s Pen range. The M Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2 is a premium wideangle lens with a 24mm equivalent field of view. It has a very traditional design with a push-pull operation of the focus ring to switch between manual and autofocus. The M Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 is an affordable portrait lens equivalent to 90mm, but remains compact thanks to the focal magnification.

It?s very encouraging to see the addition of more prime lenses to the CSC range, as they not only fit the size and style of the cameras but also allow photographers to achieve the best possible image quality. Both lenses are due in September, priced around £300 for the 45mm optic and around £700 for the 12mm lens.