Olympus E-P3 Review
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus E-P3 is a welcome upgrade to the E-P1 and E-P2, offering significant improvements in usability and performance. While its rangefinder-styled body is mostly unchanged since its predecessors, the E-P3 has gained a beautiful 3-inch OLED display, a built-in flash (finally!), and interchangeable grips. Other big features include super-fast autofocus, sensor-shift image stabilization, plenty of manual controls, lots of consumer-friendly features, Full HD movie recording, and above average battery life. While not class-leading, the E-P3 still offers very good photo quality, and the lenses that Olympus includes are better than average. Downsides include mild noise reduction artifacts at the base ISO, hit-or-miss focusing in low light, a lack of "real" image stabilization in movie mode, and the fact that the otherwise great OLED display is hard to see outdoors. Despite a few issues, the E-P3 is a really impressive interchangeable lens camera, and it earns my recommendation.
The E-P3 looks just like the E-P1 and E-P2 that came before it, and that's a good thing. The retro, rangefinder-style body is eye-catching and well put together (it's mostly metal). The E-P3 is somewhat unique in that the right hand grip is removable. You can go "nude", use the standard grip, or buy a larger one for $20. My only real complaints about the design are the small and cluttered controls on the back and the fact that you can't access the memory card slot when using a tripod. The E-P3 is a Micro Four Thirds camera, supporting both Micro and classic Four Thirds lenses (via an optional adapter) with a 2X crop factor. Since the camera has image stabilization built right into the body, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. New to the E-P3 is a pop-up flash, which is secretly tucked away on the top of the camera. This flash has a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200 (7 meters at ISO 100), which isn't terribly strong, but typical for a camera in this class. The E-P3 has a hot shoe, and can also control an external flash wirelessly. On the back of the camera is one of its highlights: a 3-inch, OLED display with 614,000 pixels. The screen is super-sharp, the colors vibrant, and the viewing angle superb -- and it's touch-enabled! It's a pleasure to use, except in bright outdoor light, when it becomes a lot harder to see. If you shoot outdoors a lot, you might want to consider picking up the optional electronic viewfinder. Speaking of accessories, the E-P3 supports a ton of them, including a wired remote control, Bluetooth transmitter, macro arm light, and external microphone adapter.
The E-P3 has a nice feature set that both beginners and enthusiasts will enjoy. Those who are starting out will appreciate the auto scene selection in iAuto mode, the help screens and shooting tips, and the Live Guide, which lets you adjust settings with sliders on the display, using easy-to-understand terms. As I mentioned, the E-P3's OLED display is a touchscreen, and you can touch the screen to focus, take a picture, or review photos that you've taken. I like how Olympus didn't go over-the-top with their touchscreen, unlike their Micro Four Thirds counterparts from Panasonic. Another fun feature are the ten Art Filters on the camera, which you can now combine and even customize a bit. In terms of manual controls, the E-P3 offers you shutter speed, aperture, and focus adjustment, plus numerous white balance controls and the requisite RAW format support. There are also five types of bracketing, including a new option for Art Filters. The camera has two dedicated custom buttons, and you can also redefine the function of three additional buttons. The E-P3 has a Full HD movie mode that records 1080/60i videos (sensor output is 30p), complete with stereo sound and continuous autofocus, using the AVCHD codec. The bad news is that you can't use the camera's sensor-shift IS in movie mode (the electronic equivalent is no substitute), and the AF system was a bit slow to reach to subject movement.
Camera performance is very good in nearly all respects. The E-P3 is ready to start taking pictures in about half a second, and that includes the time spent removing dust from the sensor. One of the biggest improvements on the camera is in terms of autofocus performance. The E-P3's contrast detect AF is extremely quick, and can lock focus in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle and 0.5 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto (using the 14 - 42 mm kit lens). The only time the AF was a little weird was in low light. Sometimes the camera locked focus quickly, while other times it would hunt for about two seconds before finally locking on. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were brief, even when using the flash. The E-P3's burst mode hasn't changed since its predecessor -- it still shoots at a sluggish 3 frames/second, and not for very long. Battery life, on the other hand, is 10% better than on the E-P1/P2, and above average for the interchangeable lens camera class.
Photo quality was very good, though I found room for improvement. The E-P3 takes well-exposed photos, with only occasional underexposure and highlight clipping. Colors were vibrant, though a bit warmer than I prefer. Photos are a bit soft with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, but not horribly. What bothered me more was some mild detail smudging (especially in shadow areas) due to noise reduction -- even at the base ISO of 200. Things don't get much worse until the ISO reaches 3200. While that setting as well as the one above it can probably be salvaged by shooting RAW, I think it's safe to say that ISO 12800 is not usable. Purple fringing is a lens issue, and it was mild using the 14 - 42 mm lens. Redeye was a problem, though you should be able to remove at least some of it using the tool in playback mode.
There are a couple of other things to mention before I wrap up this review. First, I ran into some bugs on my E-P3 that may or may not be on the cameras you'll actually buy in stores. I had numerous card errors with a variety of memory cards, including my trusty Eye-Fi X2 Pro. Fixes for these errors ranged from removing and reinserting the card to formatting it if nothing else worked. I also had a strange, intermittent issue where, when single-point AF was selected, the camera will not illuminate the focus point or give the confirmation beep when focus was locked. I've alerted Olympus to these issues and if they can replicate them, odds are that a firmware update will fix them. The only other complaint I have is that the full manual is in PDF format on an included CD-ROM, and it's neither user-friendly nor detailed.
All things considered, Olympus has done an impressive job with their new E-P3. Its classic rangefinder styling, combined with excellent AF performance, a beautiful OLED display, and very good photo quality make it a compelling product. As someone who's disappointed with the direction that Panasonic has been taking their GF series lately, the E-P3 may be a camera that I consider the next time I'm ready to upgrade. Whether you're an E-P1 or E-P2 owner looking to move up to something better, or just starting out with interchangeable lens cameras, then I can highly recommend taking a look at the Olympus E-P3.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
- Solid, eye-catching rangefinder-style body; interchangeable grips let you find the right comfort level
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Stunning 3-inch touchscreen OLED display offers great color, sharpness, and viewing angle
- Very fast autofocus performance in nearly all situations
- Full manual controls, with lots of white balance options, five kinds of bracketing, and tons of custom functions; RAW format supported
- Five customizable buttons
- iAuto mode picks a scene mode for you, finds and tracks faces, and enhances colors
- Built-in flash (finally), albeit a relatively weak one
- Hot shoe + wireless flash control
- Live Guide, menu help screens, and shooting tips make camera accessible to beginners
- Fun Art Filters, now customizable and bracketable (I think I just made that word up)
- Full HD video recording using AVCHD, with stereo sound and continuous AF
- Lots of optional accessories, including: PENPAL (Bluetooth transmitter), Macro Arm Light, conversion lenses, electronic viewfinder
- Above average battery life
What I didn't care for:
- Some noise reduction artifacting visible at base ISO
- Colors a bit warm for my taste at default settings (totally subjective, of course)
- Hard to see screen in bright outdoor light
- Camera can struggle to lock focus in low light
- No sensor-shift IS in movie mode; AF system slow to react to moving subjects
- Some redeye
- 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 (though printed basic manual isn't bad)
The closest competitors to the Olympus E-P3 include the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, Pentax Q, Samsung NX100, and Sony Alpha NEX-5. You may also want to consider these compact D-SLRs: Canon EOS Rebel T3i and the Nikon D5100.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Olympus E-P3 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our photo gallery to see how the E-P3's image quality looks!