The latest Olympus Pen models are claimed to have the fastest AF of any interchangeable-lens camera. We find out how the new E-P3 handles and if it lives up to this bold statement
- 12.3-million-pixel, Live MOS sensor
- TruePic VI processor
- Micro four thirds mount
- Sensor-shift stabilisation
- 3in, 610,000-dot, OLED touchscreen
- 324-zone, multi-pattern, TTL metering
- 1080i HD video capture
- Street price around £799 (with 14-42mm lens)
The Olympus Pen series of compact system cameras (CSCs) brought a classic feel to the market and attracted a more fashion-conscious user to this type of camera. The latest incarnation sees the range expanded to three models, headed by the flagship E-P3.
In looks the Olympus Pen E-P3 isn’t a huge departure from the original E-P1, but in terms of features it is a huge step forward, even from the E-P2 model that was launched just over 18 months ago. Although the sensor resolution remains unchanged, the E-P3’s new processor allows for faster operation and focusing. The focusing has been improved to such an extent that Olympus claims it is the fastest of any interchangeable-lens camera. This claim is based on its full-time AF system, which is designed to adjust the focus constantly rather than waiting for you to half-press the shutter – so even if it is as fast as they claim, it is not based on the standing start you might expect.
For the first time in any Pen model the display is a touchscreen, allowing touch focus, touch shutter and some adjustment control directly on the screen. Another first for the E-P3 is a built-in flash. While Olympus E-PL models had this, previous E-P cameras featured a hotshoe addition only. The new range also sees the selection of art filters expanded to include secondary options and the ability to maintain exposure control with some settings.
So the E-P3 certainly looks to be the most complete and most impressive Pen model to date, but with the competition having also progressed rapidly over the past year, expectations are higher than ever.
Despite there being no increase in resolution from previous models, the Olympus Pen E-P3 does have a brand-new sensor. The 12.3-million-pixel Live MOS sensor produces 4032×3024 images in either its native 12-bit ORF raw format, JPEG, or both raw and JPEG simultaneously. This means a 10x13in image can be produced at 300ppi without resampling.
The sensor outputs data to the processor at twice the rate of the older sensors, providing 120fps compared to a previous 60fps, which helps focusing abilities through the frequency acceleration sensor technology (FAST). This is not related to the available continuous shooting speed, though, which remains at 3fps.
The ISO range has been increased at the top end to reach 12,800 compared to a previous 6400 when high ISO is made available from the custom menu, but by default it retains a standard ISO 200-1600 range. The sensor is twinned with a new processor, the TruePic VI, which is a dual-processor unit to cope with the increase in data. Video-capture abilities have been bolstered to record in 1920×1080-pixel 60i HD, which are saved in the AVCHD format, although AVI format is selectable for 720p HD recording.
The E-P3 offers a choice of metering modes with its 324-zone system, including ESP evaluative, centreweighted and spot, plus highlight and shadow. Exposure compensation gives ±3EV and bracketing can be set for up to seven frames. The focusing allows a selection of up to 35 points – increased from 11 on the E-P2 – and touch focusing selection on the rear screen. It also offers extended face-detection control with eye-detect settings for left, right or nearside priority.
For moving subjects there are focus tracking and continuous focusing options, plus full-time AF, which must be activated for the fastest focusing abilities. Manual focusing is aided by a focus-assist confirmation and an enlarged view while focusing. Anti-shake is built into the body of the camera by stabilising the sensor, as is dust reduction in Olympus’sown Super Sonic Wave (SSW) form.
The micro four thirds mount now includes 11 lenses from Olympus and 11 from Panasonic, while Sigma is expected to release its own versions in the near future. By using Olympus’s own adapters, you can also fit four thirds and OM-mount lenses.
Art filters have featured across all previous Pen models and the more recent Olympus DSLRs. Although initially the effects were very much a one-trick affair, recent versions have added more control to the user. The E-P3 features ten art filters and most allow a choice of secondary presets or the addition of borders or other effects. The cross-process filter, for instance, allows you to add a pinhole effect to create Lomo-type pictures.
The rear-selection dial in the art shooting mode now remains active, allowing you to adjust the aperture for greater creative freedom. The camera also features a set of 23 scene modes, including a 3D mode that allows you to take two images to produce the effect. There’s an iAuto mode for simple point-and-shoot use, and the usual arrangement of manual, program and priority exposure modes for creative shooting.
For the first time in a flagship Pen model, the E-P3 features a built-in flash, which pops up from the top panel when the flash button is pressed. This has a guide number of 10m @ ISO 200 (GN 7m @ ISO 100). It offers auto and manual power control, slow synchronisation, redeye and second-curtain options, and there is also support for hotshoe and wireless flash control of up to four channels and three groups using the FL-50R, FL-36R or FL-300R units.
Storage is in the form of an SD memory card, with both SDHC and SDXC formats also supported. Using a SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card, the camera takes roughly 1sec to write a JPEG and 1.5secs to write a raw file (2secs for combined raw+JPEG). In continuous shooting mode it can maintain the 3fps for 11 raw files or 27 JPEG images before slowing.
Build and handling
The Olympus Pen E-P3 is similar in size to the E-P2, give or take a few millimetres. This makes it quite large in compact system camera terms as the competition has slimmed down over the years, although it will fit into a large coat pocket should you wish to venture out without a camera bag. The camera feels solid, thanks to its metal body, and it weighs a reassuring 321g (plus battery).
One significant change to the handling is the new interchangeable grip on the front. The included grip is slightly raised to give an acceptable amount of stability for this type of camera, but this can be removed for a completely flush design or replaced with a more significant grip. There is also a choice of colours and designs for the grips should you wish to customise the look of your camera. Most users, however, are unlikely to change the supplied option.
The top of the camera has been kept fairly clean, with just a single function button accompanying the power and shutter buttons. The flash remains nicely hidden beneath a panel until deployed.
Although the E-P3 features a touchscreen, the menu and control features are mostly restricted to the buttons and dials, which is a slight relief as too much screen pressing can slow handling. The only on-screen adjustments come in the focusing and magnification controls, and for the live guide controls when in iAuto mode.
For manual control the thumb wheel and rotational functionality of the multi-controller dial mean that shutter and aperture can be controlled easily. The quick menu – accessed by the OK button – provides most of the required quick functions. The two function buttons can be customised for your most-used functions, such as manual focus or raw shooting, although annoyingly neither ISO nor metering can be set here.
The increasing importance of video in cameras such as this means that a direct movie record button now also sits on the back, allowing you to record from any mode. Like the models before it, the E-P3 also features an accessory port below the hotshoe, allowing you to attach an electronic viewfinder, or items such as a macro light or microphone.
Serious videographers would probably have preferred to see a regular 3.5mm mic port, too, but this is sadly missing.
Shooting with the E-P3 is generally an enjoyable experience. The slightly larger size means you can take a solid hold of the camera and the controls fall easily to the hand. I found the strap eyelets a little restrictive, particularly on the right as it sits under your first finger.
Also, the function and info buttons can be swapped around to make the function button more easily accessible. Using the rear screen to compose your shot results in a holding position that is less stable than with an eyepiece, but as the camera is quite light, with one hand on the lens I felt I could achieve a satisfactory stance.
Focusing has been one of the big sticking points of compact system cameras and any use of contrast-detect-based systems. Panasonic showed the biggest step forward with its Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, which finally offered near DSLR-speed focusing, but the latest system in the Olympus Pen E-P3 claims to better even its DSLR cousins.
However, this bold claim has a few caveats. First, it requires the use of the latest MSC lenses, although as this includes the new kit lens it isn’t much of an issue. It also requires you to engage the camera’s full-time AF from the custom menu. This allows the camera to continue to focus even when the shutter is not half-pressed, so in theory your subject could already be focused before you go anywhere near the shutter button – cutting your focusing time down to practically zero.
The full-time AF works quite gently, which makes it ideal for video, but if you are moving to a new subject quickly it might not have caught up by the time you want to shoot so the focusing required by the half-press is still significant. Also, the continuous focusing struggles in low light, which can leave the camera hunting forward and back as you try to lock on.
For a fair comparison, I tried the E-P3 against the mid-consumer range Canon EOS 7D. Under bright conditions (with full-time AF selected and a static scene) there was little between the two.
However, in low-light conditions, especially when switching between close and distant subjects, the Canon EOS 7D was leagues ahead. As compact system cameras go, the autofocus is generally impressive, but it is still no match for a decent phase-detection system.
White balance and colour
The white balance menu in the Olympus Pen E-P3 is quite extensive, with six presets, a colour temperature setting, two custom reading memories and white balance compensation. You can even bracket for up to three frames and choose whether to retain warm colours for indoor shooting using the auto mode. The auto setting performs so well, however, that you are unlikely to need to use many of these controls.
The custom settings are perhaps the exception, should you want to set your white balance for critical use, such as studio or portraiture work. This is set by using Olympus’s one-touch system (actually it’s two buttons) and asks you to point the camera at a white sheet of paper (or white card), press the shutter and then confirm to store.
The colour settings sit in the quick menu options and provide a choice of five main colour styles comprising i-enhance, vivid, natural, muted and portrait. For the most part, natural or i-enhance (which adds a little more punch) are the best options for natural colours, although even the vivid mode seems relatively tame after playing around with the art filters. The art filters can also be selected from the colour settings menu – as on the E-3 – which means they can be used in any shooting mode.
Image: The pop art filter gives a highly saturated effect, which is great for bold colours
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
The Olympus Pen E-P3’s sensor has the same 12.3-million-pixel resolution as the first Pen back in 2009.
Although this is a new Live MOS unit and promises improved noise performance, Olympus has chosen not to step this up to a 16-million-pixel sensor, as Panasonic has done with its Lumix DMC-G3 and GH2 models.
At base ISO 200 the E-P3 reached 22 on our chart for both raw and JPEG files. The detail is well maintained to ISO 1600, still scoring a 22, and at high ISO shows an improvement, scoring higher at ISO 12,800 than the previous sensor on the E-PL2 was capable of at 6400.
This puts it slightly behind the Lumix GF3 and G3 models overall.
Noise is present in the images from around ISO 2000, but remains monochrome and well controlled up to ISO 6400.
At the highest ISO 12,800 setting the images start to lose saturation and gain magenta noise.
Overall, though, this is an impressive performance and much improved from previous models.
Image: At the camera’s highest setting of ISO 12800, coloured noise starts to show itself in the image and detail becomes muddied
Olympus Pen E-P3 – Resolution
Noise, resolution and sensitivity: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 14-42mm kit lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
The 324-zone multi-pattern metering features Olympus’s digital ESP evaluative system, which does a decent job at maintaining an accurate exposure. To maintain even midtones, however, the highlights are often clipped, so shooting at 1⁄3 or even 2⁄3 of a stop under is recommended to retain the most detail.
A slightly underexposed image provides more opportunity for correction, particularly in the case of raw files. For more selective metering there is a choice of centreweighted and spot options, and also highlight and shadow priority, which come in useful when the dynamic range is limited.
Image: The metering system produces decent results, only clipping highlights slightly when the tonal range exceeds that of the sensor
Dynamic range remains an issue for smaller sensors such as micro four thirds, and little appears to have changed in this new model. According to DxO (DxOmark.com), the new sensor reaches just 10.1EV at its base ISO 200 and falls to 6EV by ISO 6400. This is a fairly standard reading for a sensor of this type, but it highlights where it loses out to cameras with larger APS-C-sized sensors, such as the Sony NEX-5, which gives 12.2EV at ISO 100.
Image: Low-light shots, such as this taken handheld at ISO 800, still deliver rich colours and low amounts of noise
LCD, live view and video
The new 3in touchscreen display is impressive, and although it appears slightly duller than a regular screen (as all touchscreens tend to do), the 610,000-dot resolution leaves a very crisp image display and really helps to show off the new slick menu system.
Touch pressure is very responsive, with focus selection and even the dragging of sliders requiring only a light touch. The quality of the screen is even more important here as there is no viewfinder included. The viewing angle falls off slightly from above, but from all other views it remains detailed. Touchscreens have an added hindrance of fingermarks on the screen, but overall this screen copes well with reflections and bright light.
The screen offers a choice of views, either a clean view or with an amount of shooting information shown, including a live histogram view, which is handy for metering use in difficult lighting. It provides 100% coverage, although neither the 35-point selection nor touch focus allows focusing right to the edge of the frame, instead leaving a small border.
The Pen E-P3 makes the move over from motion JPEG to AVCHD format for video capture, allowing it to record in full 1080HD with 60 interlaced frames per second. In this format a 29min clip can be recorded and the built-in microphone offers stereo recording in Dolby digital. Aperture or shutter priority, art filters and manual exposure can all be used in video for creative effects.
M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2 lens
The M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2 lens is both a step forward and a look back for Olympus, as it has the look and feel of a lens from years gone by yet includes the latest MSC (movie and still compatible) technology for fast and quiet AF operation.
The 12mm gives an equivalent of a 24mm field of view, so it’s a fairly serious wideangle lens, yet with an aperture of f/2 and a close focus of 20cm you are able to create dynamic shots with a shallow depth of field.
The look really suits the E-P3, as it is compact and resembles a rangefinder-style optic. The focus ring uses an electronic connection, but is weighted to give a very natural feel and is only active when the ring is pulled back to reveal distance guides on the barrel.
It works well for landscapes and cityscapes, and is very sharp, although it would be nice to see a 25mm version (giving a 50mm equivalent view). A 45mm f/1.8 prime lens is also to be launched, but wasn’t available at the time of testing.
This will be a less expensive lens, though, and is not expected to have the same premium feel as the 12mm. The only slight downside is the price, with the 12mm f/2 due to cost around £600, which is almost the same as the E-P3 itself.
The Olympus E-P3 is positioned as a high-end compact system camera. Therefore, it competes against the likes of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 more than the new GF3, which has been aimed at a lower end consumer market.
The G3 shares a touchscreen display, but has a vari-angle screen and an in-built viewfinder to its credit, not to mention the higher resolution sensor and smaller price tag.
The Sony NEX-5 is the Olympus’s next biggest rival. With its larger sensor it offers improved dynamic range and equals the E-P3’s high ISO performance. The handling is slightly lacking for the advanced user, though, and it has been on the market some time. An update later in the year is possible for the NEX-5, which could dominate the high-end CSC market.
Having used the Olympus Pen E-P3 for a few weeks, it is certainly a camera that ticks a lot of boxes for me. It handles well and allows easy creative control.
While the AF system is generally fast if using one of the new MSC lenses, it is not always up to DSLR speed in low light so it’s not time to abandon phase detection just yet. At high ISO it delivers low noise and natural colour, producing rich tones even at ISO 800 and above. The compact-style body is more pocket-friendly than the SLR-styled versions and the accessory port on the E-P3 means you can always add an electronic viewfinder should you want one.
Despite the improvements to this new sensor, it would have been nice to see the E-P3 sporting a 16-million-pixel resolution, although a boost in dynamic range would be more useful from a quality point of view.
The £799 RRP of the E-P3 with 14-42mm lens is on the high side and will need to come down to meet the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 that now has a street price of £525 with lens. But so long as you have deep pockets – both literally and metaphorically – the E-P3 is a great little camera.
Olympus Pen E-P3 – Key features
Positioned underneath the hotshoe, this connection port allows the attachment of an electronic viewfinder and a range of accessories
The 610,000-dot, 3in display is touch-sensitive, allowing for direct control of the autofocus position, among other functions
The E-P3 features a sensor-based stabilisation system inside the body, which means that any lens placed on the camera can benefit from the anti-shake technology.
The Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery in the E-P3 suggests a life of around 330 shots per charge, using thelive view display for every shot.
The latest version of the art filter selection includes ten main modes with additional adjustment for most, and can also be accessed from the colour mode.
Camera Raw support
The included Olympus Master 2 software provides raw support and conversion facilities. Adobe’s next update to Camera Raw is also expected to support the files.
One of two buttons that can be customised for a range of quick functions from the main menu
This scroll wheel provides quick adjustment of either shutter or aperture control and other functions