Originally Posted: October 3, 2011
Last Updated: October 3, 2011
The Olympus E-PL3 ($699 with lens) is the midrange model in the "Pen" lineup. This camera, also known as the Pen Lite, sits between the entry-level E-PM1 ($499) and the higher-end E-P3 ($899). As you might have guessed, it's also the replacement for the E-PL2, and there are some major changes to be found. These include:
- A new 12.3 Megapixel Live MOS sensor
- New dual-core TruePic VI image processor with "Real Color Technology" and "Advanced Shadow Adjustment Technology"
- World's fastest autofocus system (when it was announced, at least)
- 3-inch, tilting LCD display with 460,000 pixels
- No longer has a built-in flash (Olympus includes a small external one, instead)
- Full HD movie mode with stereo sound using AVCHD codec
- Tone Control function lets you adjust shadow and highlight levels individually
- Art Filters can be bracketed and fine-tuned
- 3D photo function
The chart below compares the old E-PL2 with the brand spankin' new E-PL3:
What does stepping up to the E-P3 get you? You get a larger, classic rangefinder-style body, an OLED touchscreen display, interchangeable grips, a few more Art Filters, and an electronic level.
Read on to find out if the Olympus E-PL3 is the compact interchangeable lens camera that's best for you!
Due to their similarities, significant portions of the E-P3 review will be reused here.
What's in the Box?
The E-PL3 will be available in two kits. You can get it with the newly restyled (but internally unchanged) F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm II R zoom lens, or with the F2.8, 17 mm pancake lens (black model only). In either case, the price is $699. Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those:
- The 12.3 effective Megapixel Olympus E-PL3 camera body
- F3.5-5.6 II R, 14 - 42 mm MSC M.Zuiko zoom lens [zoom lens kit only]
- F2.8, 17 mm MSC M.Zuiko pancake lens [17mm kit only]
- BLS-1 lithium-ion battery
- FL-LM1 external flash
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Olympus Viewer 2 and [ib] software
- Concise manual (printed) + full manual on CD-ROM
The E-PL3 comes with a restyled version of the F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens that was introduced alongside the E-PL2. This lens is "MSC", or movie and still compatible, meaning that it focuses quickly and quietly (perfect for moving recording). This lens is also quite unique in that it supports a trio of conversion lenses: wide-angle, fisheye, and macro. The 14-42 offers good corner-to-corner sharpness and relatively little purple fringing. The other kit lens is the classic F2.8, 17mm model that's been around for a few years. Sharpness is good and distortion and aberrations are minimal.
The E-PL3 also works with "legacy" Four Thirds lenses, via the optional MMF-2 adapter. Do note that some older Four Thirds lenses may not support autofocus. You can also use classic Olympus OM lenses via another optional adapter (MF-2), though all of these lenses will be manual focus only. If that's still not enough, I don't see any reason why you can't use Panasonic's Leica R and M-mount adapters, as well.
Regardless of what lens you have attached to the E-PL3, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio. Therefore, the 14 - 42 mm kit lens has a field-of-view of 28 - 84 mm.
Interchangeable lens cameras (which includes D-SLRs) never come with memory cards. So, if you don't have one already, you'll need to pick one up. The E-PL3 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards (including the new, super fast UHS-I cards). If you're mostly taking stills, then a 2GB or 4GB card is probably fine. If you plan on taking a lot of movies, then you'll want something like an 8GB or 16GB card, instead. Picking up a high speed card (Class 6 or higher) is a good idea, especially if you'll be taking HD videos.
The E-PL3 can use either the classic BLS-1 or the newer BLS-5 lithium-ion batteries. As far as I can tell, they are identical, both packing 8.3 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which is quite good for a camera this size. Here's what kind of battery life you can expect from the E-PL3, with a comparison to other interchangeable lens cameras:
The E-PL3's battery life is a bit above average among this group of interchangeable lens cameras. Its numbers are also an improvement over its predecessor. Something to keep in mind: as with all of the cameras in the above table, the E-PL3 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery. A spare BLS-5 will set you back around $50.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. Then go for a scenic drive, as it'll take 3.5 hours to fully charge the battery. This charger doesn't plug directly into the wall (doh) -- you need to use a power cord.
The E-PL3 supports a wide variety of accessories . Here are the highlights:
And that's only a partial list! One accessory you won't find for the E-PL3 is an AC adapter -- Olympus seems to have an aversion to them, for some reason.
Olympus includes two software products with the Pen Lite. First is Olympus Viewer 2, which can be used to transfer, organize, edit, and share your photos. There are numerous editing controls, plus the ability to work with RAW files. You can also use Olympus Viewer to update the firmware on your camera and lenses. The other piece of software is called [ib], and is for Windows only. This does many of the same things as Olympus Viewer, just with a flashier, more consumer-friendly interface. You can read more about both of these products in my E-P3 review.
You can also use Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to edit the E-PL3's RAW file, as long as you have version 6.5 or 3.5, respectively. Oh, and in case you don't know: RAW files contain unprocessed image data straight from the camera's sensor. This allows you to adjust things like white balance, sharpness, color, noise reduction, and more -- all without degrading the quality of the image. The downsides are larger file sizes and slower processing speeds.
Wondering about how to edit the AVCHD videos that the E-PL3 produces? Mac users will want to use iPhoto or Final Cut Pro X, since Olympus Viewer cannot work with them. Windows users will be able to view AVCHD videos in Olympus Viewer, but you'll need something more robust (Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, etc.) to edit them.
While my early production camera did not come with a manual, I imagine that they will be the same as on the E-P3. In the box there will be a concise manual to get you up and running. If you need more details, you'll need to load up the full camera manual, which is in PDF format on an included CD-ROM. Neither manual is terribly user-friendly, and they could be more detailed, as well.
Design & Features
The Olympus E-PL3 is a fairly small mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. It's generally very well built, save for the usual flimsy plastic door over the battery/memory card compartment. The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, with a nice thumb rest, though you'll probably want to support the lens with your left hand. Speaking of your left hand, make sure that you don't block the AF-assist lamp with it! The E-PL3 does have its share of buttons, and I found many of them to be quite small -- especially the shutter release button and four-way controller/scroll wheel combo. Thankfully, most of the buttons control just one function, which keeps the Pen Lite accessible to beginners.
Image courtesy of Olympus
As with its predecessor, the E-PL3 comes in four colors: silver, black, white, and red.
Now let's see how the E-PL3 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
As you can see, the E-PL3 is one of the larger cameras in this small group, not to mention the heaviest. Both the Nikon J1 and the Pentax Q uses smaller sensors than the APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras in the table, allowing for them to be even smaller.
Ready to take a tour of the Olympus E-PL3 now? Then keep reading!
As I mentioned, the E-PL3 uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, with a 2X crop factor. There are several adapters available to allow the Pen Lite to use other manufacturers' lenses, as well.
Olympus builds image stabilization right into their camera bodies. This sensor-shift system helps to reduce the risk of blurry photos, which can occur in low light or when using a telephoto lens. You're stuck with an electronic system in movie mode which, while fairly effective, increases the apparent focal length.
Seeing how the sensor is exposed to the elements, it's more likely to capture dust than a traditional D-SLR. The E-PL3's Supersonic Wave Filter sends ultrasonic waves through the sensor, literally blasting dust away. I've had a Micro Four Thirds camera for many years and have found this system to be very effective.
Something Olympus axed on the E-PL3 is a built-in flash -- presumably to cut down the size of the camera. Instead, they now include a small external flash, which connects to the hot shoe and accessory port on the top and back of the camera (respectively). This flash has a guide number of 7 meters at ISO 100, which is the same as the built-in flash on the E-PL2, and competitive for this class of camera. You raise the flash when you want to use it, and lower it when you're done. If you want a beefier external flash, the hot shoe is yours for the taking.
The E-PL3 has an AF-assist lamp, located at the top-right of the above photo, which is used as a focusing aid in low light situations.
One big change on the E-PL3 compared to its predecessor is that the LCD is now articulating and has a 16:9 aspect ratio. The LCD pulls away from the body and can tilt upward 90 degrees, or downward 45 degree. This allows you to take photos when you have people in front of you, or take ground-level pictures of your kids or pets. Naturally, the LCD can also be put in the traditional position, shown in the next tab.
While having a widescreen LCD is great for HD movie recording, you end up with a lot of wasted space when taking stills, at least at most aspect ratios.
Here you can see the Pen Lite's 3-inch LCD in a more traditional position. This screen has 460,000 pixels, so everything's quite sharp. Outdoor visibility is quite good, and the screen "gains up" nicely in low light (especially if live view boost is turned on), so you can still see what you're trying to take a picture of.
Above the LCD is the camera's Accessory Port, which is where you plug in a number of accessories, like the PENPAL, Macro Arm Light, and either of the electronic viewfinders. A plastic cover protects both the port and the hot shoe when they're not in use.
Two other items of note include the customizable Function button (to the right of the Accessory Port) and a dedicated movie recording button at the top-left of the photo. The movie button is customizable as well, for those of you who don't plan on taking a lot of video clips.
The combination four-way controller / scroll wheel is used for menu navigation, adjusting manual exposure controls, reviewing photos, and quickly accessing things like exposure compensation and the drive mode. I did find these controls to be too small for my large fingers.
On the top of the E-PL3 we've got stereo microphones, plus the speaker, hot shoe, mode dial, and the shutter release and power buttons.
The hot shoe is where you'll attach the small GN 7 flash that Olympus includes in the box. It doesn't do anything terribly fancy, but it can control other flashes wirelessly. The maximum x-sync speed for this (and most other) flashes is 1/160 sec. If you have the FL-36R or FL-50R attached, those will be able to sync at fast shutter speeds.
As you can see, the mode dial has plenty of options, including an Intelligent Auto mode, manual exposure controls, and both scene and art filters. I'll have more details on those later.
While it looks nice, I think the shutter release button could've been a little bigger.
Not much to see here, other than to point out that both the 14 - 42 mm kit lens and the external flash are in their "off" positions here.
On the right side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover. The ports include USB + A/V out + remote control (one for all of those) as well as mini-HDMI.
The only other thing to mention is that the 14 - 42 mm kit lens is at the telephoto position.
On the bottom of the E-PL3 is a metal tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The door is a bit flimsy and will pop right off if you force it, but thankfully you can snap it right back on. As you can probably tell, you won't be able to access the memory card or battery while the camera is on a tripod.
Speaking of batteries, the include BLS-1 battery can be seen at right.
The "view" in live view, complete with histogram
Before I begin talking about features, let me remind you that since the E-PL3 is a mirrorless camera, all photos are composed with live view on the LCD or optional electronic viewfinder. There you'll get fast contrast detect autofocus, face detection, a live histogram, focus point enlargement, and more. While you can still take photos with an optical viewfinder, it's optional, and only works with the 17mm pancake lens.
Now, let's talk about what you'll find on the camera's mode dial:
|The Live Guide can be opened using the touchscreen or the four-way controller||Adjusting color saturation using the Live Guide|
Want a point-and-shoot experience? Then just set the mode dial to the iAuto position, and the camera will do the rest. It'll pick a scene mode for you, enhance colors (more than in other modes), and detect any faces in the scene. You can adjust various settings using the Live Guide interface, which allows you to change things like saturation, tint (white balance), brightness, shadow and highlight detail, background blur, and motion freezing (for lack of a better word), without knowing any technical details.
Art Filter menu
The camera has plenty of scene modes (include one for taking 3D photos, which are saved in MPO format), plus six of Olympus' now famous Art Filters. Several of the Art Filters now have multiple styles, and you can also add special effects (including another Art Filter) to them. There's even a way to take a picture using several Art Filters with one push of the button, using the camera's robust bracketing system.
And, of course, the E-P3 has full manual exposure controls at your disposal. You can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, or both. There's also a bulb mode, and I'd recommend picking up the optional wired remote if you plan on using that. A "bulb timer" lets you select how long the exposure will last, which will give your finger some rest. While there's no custom spot on the mode dial, you can store up to four sets of camera settings in memory, and recall them easily via either of the customizable buttons.
Fine-tuning white balance in the amber-blue or green-magenta directions
You can also adjust the white balance in numerous ways. There are the usual presets, two custom spots (for using a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. You can also fine-tune the white balance, or bracket for it.
|The Live Control Menu is a quick way to adjust camera settings.||You can turn the Super Control Panel on by going to the Control settings section of the Disp/Sound/PC section of the menu.|
When you're shooting in the P/A/S/M modes, you can use the Live Control Menu shown above left. Old-time Olympus users may miss the Super Control Panel, but don't worry, it's there -- just buried in the custom settings section of the menu.
Shooting menu, with help screen
All of the other photo-related features that I want to talk about are in the E-PL3's menu system. The menus are attractive, though some items are buried way too deep in the custom settings menu. Speaking of which, you'll need to turn on that menu -- as well as one for the Accessory Port -- before you can access any of the items in it. By pressing the Info button, you can see a brief description of the selected menu item, which is a nice touch. Alright, here are the most interesting features from the menus:
- Picture Mode: each "mode" contains a set of image parameters, which include contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, B&W filters, and monotone filters; there are six preset modes -- including an i-Enhance mode (only used in iAuto mode) that enhances the primary color in a photo -- and each of these can be tweaked to your heart's content. This menu is also how you'll access Art Filters in the manual shooting modes.
- Image quality: there are numerous resolutions and quality settings to choose from, plus RAW and RAW+JPEG support. A RAW image takes up about 13.8 MB of space on your memory card, while a Large/Fine JPEG weighs in at 5.9 MB.
- Image Aspect: choose from 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 6:6, and 3:4; while JPEGs are cropped, RAW images have the cropped area selected, so you're not totally committed to the chosen ratio
- Drive mode: here's where you'll get to the low and high speed continuous shooting modes (more on this later), as well as a 2 or 12 second self-timer
- Image stabilizer: choose from auto, vertical, or horizontal (panning) modes, or just turn the whole system off
- Bracketing: the E-PL3 can bracket for exposure, white balance, flash exposure, ISO, and Art Filter. Most of these take three shots, except for AE bracketing (up to seven) and Art Filter (up to six). Very nice!
- Multiple Exposure: combine up to two exposures into a single image
- Flash RC mode: turns on wireless flash control, assuming that you have a flash attached to the hot shoe!
- AF area: choose from all targets (35-point), single target, or group target (9-point)
- Face priority AF: turn face detection on or off; you can even select which eye the camera focuses on (!)
- Button function: you can assign the function of the Fn and movie recording buttons, plus the right/down buttons on the four-way controller
- Record Control settings: this is where you turn on the Live Control and Super Control panel, among other things
- ISO settings: you can select from ISO 200 and 12800, or use Auto ISO. An option is available that lets you pick the lower and upper limit used in Auto ISO mode
- Noise reduction: you can turn long exposure NR on or off, and you can also adjust how much noise reduction is applied to high ISO images by adjusting the Noise Filter
- White balance options: you can fine-tune the white balance for all settings at once, keep warm colors using auto WB, and select the WB setting to use with the flash
- Shading compensation: supposed to reduce vignetting
That's just a quick look at the most significant of the many options in the E-PL3's menu system. If you want the complete laundry list of menu options, check out our E-P3 review.
Now I want to talk about the E-PL3's movie mode. The camera can record Full HD video (1920 x 1080) at 60i (sensor output is 30p) with stereo sound, using the AVCHD codec. You can record until you reach 29 minutes, or the file size hits 4GB. There are two quality levels to choose from at the Full HD setting, with the only difference being the bit rate. You can also shoot at 1280 x 720 (60p). If you don't want to use AVCHD (which is hard to edit and share), you can use Motion JPEG, though 720p (30 fps) is the highest resolution available, and recording ends when the file size reaches 2GB, which doesn't take long.
You can record movies in any shooting mode using the "red button" on the back of the camera. Put the camera into the dedicated movie mode and then you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You can use any of the Art Filters in your movies, as well, though the frame may drop for some of them.
The E-PL3 can focus continuously while recording a movie, so you need not worry if your subject is moving around, or if you've readjusted the zoom lens. The optical image stabilizer is not available in movie mode, though the electronic version works fairly well. While you cannot take a still while you're recording a movie, you do have the option to take one when the clip ends.
The are no movie editing features available on the E-PL3.
Below is a sample movie (two combined into one, actually) taken at the Full HD setting. I used Final Cut Pro X to convert them to a web-friendly size, though you can download the original MTS files if you wish.
Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 28.8 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original AVCHD movies (23.3 and 19.2 MB, MTS format)
The E-PL3 has a pretty nice playback mode, with quite a few editing options (for stills, at least). Some of the notable features you'll find here include:
- Calendar view: quickly jump to photos taken on a certain date
- JPEG edit: allows you to brighten shadows, remove redeye, change a photo to B&W or sepia, and more
- RAW edit: applies the current camera settings to a selected RAW image, and saves the changes as a JPEG
- Image overlay: combine up to three RAW images into a single photo
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, a quick press of the info button will give you a lot more, including histograms and "blinking" over and underexposed areas of your photo.
The E-PL3 between photos instantly in playback mode.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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!
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:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
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!
The Olympus E-PL3 (also known as the Pen Lite) is a compact interchangeable lens camera that uses the Micro Four Thirds standard. The camera body, available in four different colors, is made mostly of metal, and feels solid in your hands. While the important controls are easily accessible, many of the buttons are very small, and the AF-assist lamp is easy to block with your fingers. You won't be able to access the memory card/battery compartment when using a tripod, either. The E-PL3 supports all Micro Four Thirds lenses, plus "classic" Four Thirds lenses, with a 2X crop factor. Since it has sensor-shift image stabilization built into the body, every lens you attach will have shake reduction (though only for stills). On the of the camera is an articulating 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels. The screen is bright, sharp, and easy to see outdoors. While it's 16:9 aspect ratio is great for shooting video, it's not as desirable for stills, as you end up with black borders on both sides of the image you're composing. While the old E-PL2 had a built-in flash, you'll need to attach the included external flash to the E-PL3 if you need to shed some light on your subject. The flash has a guide number of 7 meters (typical for a camera in this class) and can control other flashes wirelessly, though it's prone to redeye and is slow to recharge. The camera's Accessory Port supports an electronic viewfinder, stereo mic adapter, Bluetooth adapter, and more.
The E-PL3 is accessible to beginners, yet powerful enough to please enthusiasts. For a point-and-shoot experience with a twist, try the camera's iAuto mode. The E-PL3 will select a scene mode for you, detect faces, and use a more consumer-friendly level of color saturation. The "twist" is the Live Guide, which allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure compensation, aperture, and shutter speed -- without having to know what any of those things are. The Pen Lite also has six fun Art Filters -- which can be modified or combined -- and plenty of scene modes, too. More advanced users will find full manual exposure controls, numerous ways in which to adjust white balance, five types of bracketing, and support for the RAW image format. RAW images can be processed right on the camera, though the process is a bit clunky. As wtih most cameras in this class, the E-PL3 can record Full HD video (1080/60i, though sensor output is 30p) with stereo sound and continuous autofocus, using the AVCHD codec. The only real downside is that you can't use the sensor-shift IS system while taking a movie -- a decent electronic version is available, though.
Camera performance is average or better in most situations. The E-PL3 is snappy when you power it on, focus in good light, and take photos without the flash. Low light focusing is just okay, and the camera's included external flash takes a bit longer to recharge than I'd like. The E-PL3's burst mode is actually faster than that of the more expensive E-P3, with the ability to shoot at up to 5.7 frames/second (with image stabilization turned off). The bad news is that the buffer fills up in less than ten shots. Battery life is a bit above average for the group.
As for photo quality, the results are the same as they were for the E-P3, which isn't surprising, since the cameras share the same "guts". The E-PL3 takes well-exposed photos, though like all Four Thirds cameras, you will see highlight clipping at times. Colors are pleasing, and I especially like the extra saturation that comes along with the i-Enhance Picture Mode (the default in iAuto mode). The E-PL3's photos are somewhat soft, and noise reduction smudges fine details and sometimes gives the sky a mottled appearance -- even at the base ISO of 200 -- though most folks probably won't notice in real world usage. You can safely shoot JPEGs at ISO 800 in low light and ISO 1600 in good light, and using RAW and post-processing is definitely worth it at higher sensitivities (to a point). Redeye is an issue with the included flash, and the redeye fix tool could not completely remove that annoyance. Purple fringing levels were generally low when using the 14 - 42 mm kit lens.
Overall, the Olympus E-PL3 is a well-appointed, relatively inexpensive interchangeable lens camera that offers a lot of bang for the buck. It produces high quality stills and videos, offers features for both beginners and enthusiasts, and has generally very snappy performance. While there's some room for improvement, Olympus' midrange Pen is definitely worth checking out.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
- Relatively compact body, with mostly solid construction; comes in four colors
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Articulating 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels, good outdoor/low light visibility
- Very fast AF performance when lighting is good
- Full manual controls, with lots of white balance options, five kinds of bracketing, and tons of custom functions; RAW format supported
- iAuto mode picks a scene mode for you, finds and tracks faces, and enhances colors
- Impressive burst mode, though buffer fills quickly
- Hot shoe for external flash; a compact GN 7 flash is included, as there isn't one built-in
- Live Guide, menu help screens, and shooting tips make camera accessible to beginners
- Fun Art Filters, which you can bracket for and combine
- Full HD video recording using AVCHD, with stereo sound continuous AF, and manual controls
- Lots of optional accessories, including: electronic viewfinder, Bluetooth transmitter, Macro Arm Light, and underwater case
- Above average battery life
What I didn't care for:
- Noise reduction smudges details and mottles the sky at times, even at base ISO
- Some highlight clipping
- Low light focusing could be better
- No sensor-shift IS in movie mode; AF system slow to react to moving subjects
- Lacks a built-in flash; included external flash is slow to charge and has redeye issues
- Buttons on the small side; AF-assist lamp is easy to block with your fingers
- Can't access memory card slot while camera is on a tripod
- No AC adapter available; slow battery charger included
- Full manual on CD-ROM
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Olympus E-PL3 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our photo gallery to see how the E-PL3's image quality looks!