DCRP

Olympus E-PL3 Review

Performance & Photo Quality

As you'd expect from a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the E-PL3 is a solid performer. In one area in particular (continuous shooting), it's even faster than the more expensive E-P3. The table below summarizes what kind of performance you can expect from the camera:

Timing Measured Performance How it Compares
Startup 0.8 sec Average
Autofocus *
(Normal light)
0.1 - 0.3 secs Above average
Autofocus *
(Low light)
~ 1 sec Average
Shutter lag Not noticeable Above Average
Shot-to-shot
(No flash)
~ 1 sec Above average
Shot-to-shot
(Included flash)
~ 3 sec Below average
* With 14 - 42 mm kit lens

In most cases, the Olympus E-PL3 is average or slightly better than average when compared to other mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. It's really only sluggish when focusing in low light, or when recharging the external flash that comes in the box. As I mentioned earlier, be sure to watch your fingers when shooting in low light, as it's quite easy to accidentally block the AF-assist lamp.

One rather surprising fact about the E-PL3 is that it shoots continuously at a faster rate than the more expensive E-P3. That's due to a new shutter design that Olympus created in order to create such a compact body (the same thing goes for the E-PM1). There are two speeds to choose from in burst mode (low and high), and for both of those you can choose the frame rate you want to use (1-3 or 4-5 fps, respectively). Do note that having image stabilization turned on will knock at least 1 fps off the burst rate in high speed mode.

Here's what kind of performance you can expect in burst (AKA sequential) mode:

Image quality Low speed * High speed **
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 9 shots @ 3.0 fps 8 shots @ 5.7 fps
RAW 11 shots @ 3.1 fps 8 shots @ 5.7 fps
Large/Fine JPEG 16 shots @ 3.1 fps 9 shots @ 5.6 fps
* At 3 fps setting
** At 5 fps setting, IS off

As you can see, the E-PL3 can fire off photos very quickly in its high speed burst mode. Unfortunately, that doesn't last long, as the camera doesn't have much in the line of buffer memory. Shooting doesn't stop when those limits are reached -- the burst rate just drops dramatically.

Now let's see how the Pen Lite's image quality stacks up!

Our macro test shot, taken with the kit lens, looks very good. The subject is tack sharp, with plenty of detail captured. Colors are accurate and are what camera companies call "consumer-friendly" (I call them "vivid"). I don't see any noise here, nor would I expect to.

The minimum distance to your subject depends on the lens you're using. For the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, it's 25 cm, while the 17mm pancake lens has a minimum distance of 20 cm. Olympus doesn't make any dedicated Micro Four Thirds macro lenses, but Panasonic has an F2.8, 45mm Leica lens that'll work just fine.

I took our standard night shot with the restyled Olympus F4.0-5.6, 40 - 150 mm lens. The results are on the soft side and some highlights are clipped, but otherwise things look pretty good. The camera can take in plenty of light, thanks to its manual exposure controls. If you don't want to deal with manual controls, you can use scene modes to accomplish the same effect. There's a bit of noise in the above photo, but it's not enough to concern me. There is some mild purple and cyan-colored fringing, but again, it's fairly minor.

Now let's use this same night scene to see how the E-PL3 performed at higher sensitivities:


ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

There's very little difference between the ISO 200 and 400 crops. At ISO 800 we see more noise and detail loss, but it's still usable. Things get slightly worse at ISO 1600 but this won't keep you from making a small or midsize print at this sensitivity. I probably wouldn't go any higher, at least if you're shooting JPEGs, as detail loss becomes pretty strong. The two highest sensitivities should be avoided at all costs.

I also like to demonstrate one of the benefits of the RAW format, namely the ability to get more detail out of photos. I took the ISO 1600 image from above, converted the RAW image to a JPEG, and spent about 60 seconds post-processing it. Let's see if that helped.

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

I don't know about you, but I think the cleaned up photo looks a lot better than the original JPEG. Yes, there's more visible noise, but there's also a lot more detail (and less smudging). There's also less highlight clipping than in the JPEG. While shooting RAW and post-processing won't make the ISO 6400 or 12800 photos usable, it definitely improves things at middle sensitivities.

We'll see how the E-PL3 fared in normal lighting in a moment.


Straight out of the camera


After using Redeye Fix in playback mode

The redeye test results for the E-PL3 were exactly the same as they were on the E-P3. Despite firing the external flash a few times before taking a photo, the resulting photo still had redeye. I ran that photo through the redeye fix tool in playback mode, and it only worked in one eye. While your results may vary, don't be surprised if you have to clean up your people photos at times. Using an external flash will reduce this phenomenon significantly, by the way.


14 - 42 mm kit lens


17mm kit lens

Since there are two kit lenses available for the E-PL3, I've got distortion tests for both of them (both from previous reviews). The 14-42 has fairly mild barrel distortion, and you can see the real world consequences of that in this photo. This lens is sharp from corner to corner and vignetting wasn't a problem either. As for the 17mm pancake lens (which I tested way back in my E-P1 review), it was fairly mild barrel distortion, good sharpness, and no vignetting.

Now it's time to see how the E-PL3 performed in our studio ISO test. Since these photos are taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that the crops only show a small portion of the test scene, so view the full size images too. And with that, let's travel from ISO 200 to 12800!


ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

Everything is as smooth as butter through ISO 800. At ISO 1600 there's a very slight increase in noise, but that won't prevent you from making large prints at that setting. Noise reduction really starts kicking in at ISO 3200, with details getting smudged and color saturation dropping. This is my recommended stopping point for those of you who are sticking to JPEGs -- RAW shooters can go a bit higher. ISO 6400 looks pretty lousy as a JPEG, and the top sensitivity of ISO 12800 is a complete mess.

Want to see what a minute of Photoshop work can do for those ISO 3200 and 6400 test photos? Me too, so let's take a look:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

Shooting RAW and post-processing definitely improved both photos -- especially the one taken at ISO 3200. As I mentioned earlier, you are trading smudged details for noise, but I think most folks will prefer the latter, which tends to disappear when photos are printed or downsized. Notice also that the converted photos have brighter colors than the original JPEG. If you don't want to bother with RAW, it may be worth playing with the Noise Filter option, which can be found in the custom settings menu.

Seeing how it shares the same sensor and image processor as its more expensive sibling, it's not surprise that the E-PL3's photo quality is identical to that of the E-P3. That means that it's very good, though there's room for improvement in some areas. Exposure was generally spot-on, with little need for exposure compensation (unlike many other interchangeable lens cameras). Like all Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-PL3 will clip highlights at times. Colors look good, especially if you use the i-Enhance Picture Mode, which is the default when shooting in iAuto mode. Photos can be on the soft side at times, and it's probably due to a combination of conservative in-camera sharpening and noise reduction. The camera's sharpness setting can be adjusted by using Picture Modes, and noise reduction can be tweaked by accessing the Noise Filter option. On a related note, I found that, like the E-P3, the Pen Lite tends to smudge details in shadows and low contrast areas of photos, even at ISO 200. The sky can appear slightly mottled, as well. That said, you won't notice these issues unless you're viewing the photos at 100% on your computer screen, or if you're making very large prints. Purple fringing popped up here and there using the kit lens, but it was never very strong.

Don't just take my word for all this. Have a look at our photo gallery and see if the E-PL3's image quality meets your expectations!

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