Originally Posted: June 29, 2011
Last Updated: October 3, 2011
The Olympus E-P3 ($899) may look like the E-P1 and E-P2 that came before it, but it sports some pretty significant changes. Olympus has addressed every complaint I had with the originals (and then some), making the E-P3 an interchangeable lens camera to be reckoned with. Some of the highlights of the E-P3 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
- 3-inch OLED touchscreen display with touch focus/shutter and various playback functions
- Built-in flash (GN10 @ ISO 200)
- Full HD movie mode with stereo sound using AVCHD codec
- Tone Control function lets you adjust shadow and highlight levels individually
- More Art Filters, plus the ability to bracket and fine-tune them
- 3D photo function
- Interchangeable grip
Well that sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? The E-P3 is joined by two other Pens, both of which use the same sensor/processor/AF system as their big brother. They are the Pen Lite (E-PL3), which has an articulating widescreen 16:9 LCD display, and the even smaller Pen Mini (E-PM1), which has a fixed LCD. Neither of the smaller Pens have a built-in flash, instead relying on a small external flash that's included in the box.
You may be wondering exactly how the E-P3 compares to the E-P2 that came before it. Fear not, here's the chart:
So there's a look at the pretty significant differences between the E-P2 and the new E-P3. I'm sure I'll touch on more changes in the body of the review. And speaking of which, let's dive right into our review of the Olympus E-P3!
What's in the Box?
The E-P3 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. In either case, the price is $899. Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those:
- The 12.3 effective Megapixel Olympus E-P3 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
- Battery charger
- Standard camera grip
- 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-P3 with the restyled 14-42 and 40-150 lenses, as well as the new F2.0, 12mm wide-angle lens
The E-P3 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-P3 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-P3, 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-P3 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards (including the new UHS-I cards, though I was getting card errors with mine), and 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 fast card (Class 6 or higher) is a good idea, especially if you'll be taking HD videos. The E-P3 is also Eye-Fi enabled, though I had a lot of weird lockups when I was using my X2 Pro card with the camera.
The E-P3 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-P3:
The E-P3 is tied for second place in the battery life competition, with only the Sony NEX-5 ahead of it. And, in case you missed it, the E-P3 is able to squeeze out 10% more shots per charge than its predecessor!
I should point out a few things about the proprietary batteries used by the E-P3 and every other camera on the above list. For one, they're pretty expensive -- you'll spend around $50 for a extra BLS-1 or BLS-5. Also, should your rechargeable battery run out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day. The only camera in the above table that supports AA batteries is the Canon, which does so via its optional battery grip, which makes the camera a whole lot bigger.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. Then pick up a good book and a cup of coffee, as it'll take 3.5 hours to fully charge the battery. This charger doesn't plug directly into the wall (darn) -- you need to use a power cord.
The E-P3 with the new FL-300R flash
Image courtesy of Olympus
The E-P3 supports essentially the same accessories as the E-PL2. Here are the highlights:
That's quite a list! One accessory you won't find for the E-P3 is an AC adapter -- Olympus seems to have an aversion to them, for some reason.
Let's talk about software now.
Olympus Viewer 2 in Mac OS X
After a brief period of not including any Mac-compatible software with their cameras, Olympus is back with their Viewer 2 product. This is the main image viewer for both Mac and Windows, and it's capable of handling a lot of tasks. The main screen looks like every other image viewer on the market: file browser on the left, resizable thumbnails in the middle, and shooting info on the right (as well as a "box" in which to put photos you want to work on.
Other options here include an image lightbox (for side-by-side comparisons), slideshows, printing, batch processing, and easy skin retouching. You can also update the firmware of both the camera and lenses using Viewer 2.
Editing in Olympus Viewer 2
Olympus Viewer 2 is fully-loaded in the editing department, as well. In addition to a quick "auto tone" fix, you can also adjust the tone curve, color balance, and sharpness. You can also reduce distortion, noise, and vignetting, or apply various filters to your photos. A redeye removal tool is also available.
The software can also edit RAW files, with things like exposure compensation, white balance, Picture Mode, gradation, and the noise filter all being adjustable. Not too shabby!
Olympus [ib] software in Windows
Also included is Olympus' strangely named [ib] software, which is for Windows only. This software, complete with an overly flashy interface, is aimed more toward consumers than the Viewer product described above.
The photo import process involves naming events (just like iPhoto), tagging any faces, and selecting the location in which a photo was taken. You can't choose individual photos to import -- it's either everything in an event or all of the photos on the camera. Once you get to the main screen, you'll find the usual thumbnail view, which is broken down by event. Over on the right side of the frame are windows for faces the software has identified, as well as a map showing the locations you've tagged.
You can also print photos, stitch together panoramas, and update the firmware on your camera from the main page. If you register the [ib] software, Olympus also gives you 2GB of online photo storage.
Editing JPEGs in Olympus [ib]
The [ib] software has a nice set of image editing tools. You can rotate or level images, correct for distortion and redeye, smooth skin tones and remove blemishes, or add special effects to your photos. Of course, basics like brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness can be adjusted as well. In addition to its JPEG editing duties, the [ib] software can also edit and export RAW images. RAW properties that can be adjusted include exposure, white balance, Picture Mode, contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, and the noise filter.
If you want to use something other than Olympus' software to edit the E-P3's RAW files, then you'll have to wait a little while. Adobe's Photoshop CS5 will be an option at some point, once their Camera Raw plug-in is updated to support the E-P3 and its siblings.
And what is this RAW thing all about, anyway? RAW files contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.
The manuals for the E-P3 are split into two parts. When you open the box you'll find a printed "concise version" of the instruction manual. That'll get you up and running, but if you want more details, you'll have to load up the full manual, which is on an included CD-ROM. Neither manual is terribly user-friendly, and they could be more detailed, as well. Documentation for the software bundle is installed onto your Mac or PC.
Look and Feel
The Olympus E-P3 is a rangefinder-style camera whose design closely resembles that of the E-P1 and E-P2 that came before it. It features an all-metal body, which is very solid. The only weak spot is a common one -- the door over the battery/memory card slot. The camera is easy to hold, and now Olympus has given you the choice of two different grips (the large one being optional), or no grip at all (more on that later). Controls are a bit cluttered on the back of the camera, and I'm not a huge fan of the tiny four-way controller/scroll wheel combo.
|A pretty darn close-to-scale comparison of the E-P2 and E-P3
Some images courtesy of Olympus
Some of the physical differences between the E-P2 and E-P3 can been seen above. On the front, you'll see that the E-P3 now has a pop-up flash (which Olympus does a good job of hiding when it's down) as well as an AF-assist lamp. The stereo microphone has moved to the top of the E-P3, and you can also see that the mode dial has been moved over to the right side of the hot shoe. The exposure compensation button has been replaced with a customizable Function button, one of two on the camera. On the back of the E-P3 you'll see that the LCD (err, OLED) surround has changed for the better, and there's now a dedicated movie recording button. As you can see, the twin dial system has not changed.
Image courtesy of Olympus
The E-P3 will be available in three colors: black, silver, and white.
Now let's see how the E-P3 compares to other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight. As with the battery life comparison, I'm including a few smaller-sized D-SLRs here as well.
The E-P3 is one of the larger interchangeable lens cameras in our group. That said, it's not even close to the two gigantic D-SLRs that I've also included in the above table. The E-P3 won't fit in your jeans pocket, but it travels in a small bag or over your shoulder with ease.
Ready to take a tour of the Olympus E-P3 now? Then keep reading!
Here you can see the front of the E-P3 with the lens removed. As I mentioned earlier, this is a Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which has a 2X crop factor. I've also already told you about the various lens adapters available, whether its for regular Four Thirds, vintage OM, or Leica M and R-mount lenses. To remove an attached lens, just press the button to the right of the mount.
Right at the center of the photo is the E-P3's new 12.3 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor, which is different than the one found on the E-P1/P2 (i believe it may be the same as on the Panasonic GF3). This sensor features a 120 fps drive speed, twice that of previous models, which allows for the E-P3's ultra-fast autofocus speeds. It also uses pixel binning to provide higher quality Full HD video, with the side benefit being improved live view quality.
The sensor is mounted on a moveable plate, which makes up part of the camera's sensor-shift image stabilization system. The E-P3 detects the tiny movements of your hands that can cause "camera shake" (which can blur your photos), and then moves the sensor to compensate for it. Want to see how it works in the real world? Have a look:
Image stabilization on
Image stabilization off
Both of the above photos were taken at the very slow shutter speed of 1/2.5 seconds. As you can see, the E-P3's sensor-shift image stabilizer did its job, produce a much sharper photo. Unfortunately, you cannot use the sensor-shift IS system in movie mode -- it's an electronic system, instead. The angle-of-view is different when digital IS is on, so things aren't as wide as they would be for a photo.
Interchangeable lens cameras essentially require a dust reduction system, since there's no mirror to protect the sensor. The E-P3 uses the same Supersonic Wave Filter that Olympus pioneered several years ago. When the camera is turned on, ultrasonic waves are sent through the low-pass filter, which literally shakes dust off the sensor. I am yet to have a dust problem with any of the Micro Four Thirds cameras that I've tested (or owned).
One of the features that was really missed on the E-P1/P2 was a built-in flash. Olympus has taken care of that problem on the E-P3, providing a pop-up flash that is released manually (and neatly tucks away into the top of the camera when not in use). This flash has a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200, which is equivalent to a GN of 7 at ISO 100. That makes it a bit stronger than what's found on most cameras in this class, but not nearly as powerful as what you'll find on a traditional D-SLR. If you want more flash power and a reduced likelihood of redeye, then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a bit.
The only other item of note on the front of the camera is its AF-assist lamp, which is (believe it or not) a new addition to the E-P3. The camera uses this as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
The E-P3 is quite unique in that its grip is interchangeable. When you unpack the camera, you'll find that it's "nude", though the standard grip is included in the box. If you want something more substantial to hold onto, then you can buy the larger grip for $20.
To attach or remove a grip, just grab a coin or a screwdriver. Tighten the screw you see above and you're all set!
One of the huge changes on the E-P3 can be seen in the back view. This may look like just another LCD, but in fact it's an OLED (organic light emitting diode) display. This is essentially the same 3-inch, 614,000 pixel display found on Olympus' XZ-1 compact camera, with the addition of an anti-fingerprint coating (which may help... a little). OLED screens offer brilliant color, high resolution, and an excellent viewing angle. The downside is that outdoor visibility isn't all that great compared to the best "traditional" LCDs.
|The "view" in live view. Note the live histogram.||Here's the electronic level. You can see that the camera's tilt is level, but not its pitch.|
Being a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, you'll be composing all of your photos on the E-P3's LCD or optional electronic viewfinder. The live view feature on the E-P3 is dramatically improved compared to its predecessor, mainly due to huge gains in autofocus performance. Features available in live view include a real-time preview of exposure, white balance, and depth-of-field, a live histogram, composition grids, and an electronic level (that shows both tilt and pitch). The camera uses its Live MOS sensor to provide contrast-detect autofocus, which is now the fastest in the world (according to Olympus). This 35-point autofocus system also offers face detection (with the ability to focus on an individual eye!) and subject tracking. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, outdoor visibility is just okay. In low light, the view on the OLED display brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject (and you can brighten things further by turning on live view boost).
Zoomed in 7X while manually focusing
To help you precisely focus, you can zoom in by 7X instantly by pressing the button with the magnifying glass on it (you can get even closer by using the scroll dial or the info button). You can also scroll around the enlarged area using the four-way controller. This comes in handy when focusing manually.
But wait, there's more! This OLED display is also touch-enabled, though Olympus has been very conservative with what you can do with it. You can touch the screen to focus (with the same ability to enlarge the frame), take a picture, operate the sliders in the Live Guide, and review photos you've taken. To activate the touch features in record mode, just "tap" the little icon on the left side of the display -- this activates touch shutter. Tap it again for touch focus, and once more to shut it back off. There are no touch-based menus on the E-P3, which I think is a good thing.
|The Live Guide can be opened using the touchscreen or the four-way controller||Adjusting color saturation using the Live Guide|
If you're in iAuto mode then you can use the E-P3's newly enhanced Live Guide feature. Press the OK button or tap the right side of the OLED and you'll see five "sliders" move onto the screen. These sliders handle color saturation, color image (white balance), brightness (exposure compensation), background blur (aperture), and "express motions" (shutter speed). Only one of these sliders can be adjusted at a time, so you can't mix and match.
Tips for taking photos of children
Something else you'll find in the Live Guide is a Shooting Tips section. Here you'll find advice about taking better photos of children, pets, flower, and food -- plus general some general tips about composition.
Adjusting white balance using the Live Control menu
The enthusiast crowd gets to control the camera using the aptly named Live Control menu, instead of the Live Guide (though you can have that too, if you really want). This is a shortcut menu, and it has changed little over the years. Settings that can be adjusted here include:
- Image stabilizer
- Picture mode
- Scene mode
- Art filter mode
- Movie mode
- White balance
- Sequential shooting / self-timer
- Aspect ratio
- Record mode
- Flash mode
- Flash intensity control
- Metering mode
- AF mode
- ISO sensitivity
- Face priority
- Movie sound recording
I'll give you more details about those later in the review!
|Using Perfect Shot Preview to compare white balance settings||The famous Super Control panel|
Old time Olympus users may be wondering what happened to the Perfect Shot Preview and Super Control panel features. They're still here, though you'll have to dive deep into the custom settings menu to turn them on. The Perfect Shot Preview feature (now known as Multi View) displays thumbnails of what your photo will look like at different exposure compensation or white balance settings. You can pick the one you like the best and the camera will use it. The Super Control Panel shows virtually every camera setting imaginable, and you can adjust them with the four-way controller.
Enough about live view for now -- let's get back to our tour. I want to quickly show you the Accessory Port (v.2), which is normally protected by a plastic cover. This port is where you plug the optional electronic viewfinder, PENPAL Bluetooth transmitter, or Macro Arm Light. Just to the left of the Accessory Port is the release for the pop-up flash.
Let's jump back to the full photo of the back of the E-P3 and talk about all those buttons and dials on the right half of the photo. The five buttons immediately to the right of the OLED include:
- Movie recording - press once to start, again to stop; movies are recorded with automatic exposure; this button's function can be customized
- Zoom-in (works in record and playback mode)
- Function 1 (custom button) + zoom out (in playback mode)
- Playback mode
- Delete photo
To the right of those you'll find the camera's speaker, the silver-color subdial, buttons for toggling the information shown on the LCD and entering the menu system, plus the four-way controller. The four-way controller is quite small and too easy to bump in the wrong direction. Around it is the camera's main dial, which is used to adjust manual exposure settings, navigate through menus, scroll through photos, and much more. If you press the four-way controller in various directions then you can also adjust the following:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV) + Program Shift + Tone Control
- Down - Drive (Single-frame, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
- Left - AF target selection (Multi-area, single-point) - select one of thirty-five points yourself, or let the camera do it; don't forget that you can use the touchscreen to focus, as well
- Right - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash, flash off, slow sync w/redeye reduction, slow sync, 2nd-curtain slow sync, full strength, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64 strength)
- Center - Live Guide / Live Control menu + OK
I should mention that the "right" and "down" directions of the four-way controller are also customizable! I'll tell you what options can be mapped to those buttons later.
I've highlighted the tiny tone control icon for you
One of the E-P3's new features, tone control, is accessed with some difficulty via the four-way controller. First, press "up" to get the exposure compensation screen. Then, press the Info button, and a tiny box with a number below it will appear. This allows you to adjust the shadow brightness. Press Info again and now you can adjust the highlights.
The continuous shooting mode has not been improved upon since the original E-P1, which is a shame. Even the new E-PL3 and E-PM1 can shoot faster! Here's what kind of performance you can expect out of the E-P3:
The E-P3 certainly won't win any awards for its burst mode -- pretty much all of the competition does better in this department. Those aren't hard limits above, by the way -- the camera will keep shooting, just at a slower rate. The live view lags a bit when you're shooting, though you should still be able to track a moving subject.
Whew! That was quite a lot for just one side of the camera! Let's move on now.
The first thing to see here is the flash, which is in the recessed position. Holding the camera becomes a bit more difficult when the flash is popped up, as the solid surface is replaced by a hole.
At the center of the photo is the E-P3's hot shoe, with the stereo microphone above it. You'll have the best experience if you pair the E-P3 with an Olympus-branded flash, as the two can share information from the camera's metering system. If you're using the new FL-300R, FL-36R, or FL-50R flash, they can be used wirelessly with the camera serving as the controller. The FL-36R and FL-50R also support Super FP high speed flash sync. If you're not using an Olympus flash, you'll probably have to set the exposure manually. The camera can sync as fast as 1/180 sec with a (non-Olympus) external flash.
Continuing to the right, we find the E-P3's mode dial, which has been relocated to make way for the flash. The options here include:
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. This is also how you'll get to the Live Guide interface that I showed you earlier.
Scene mode menu
If you want to pick a scene mode yourself, you'll find plenty to choose from in the SCN menu. Most of the scenes are self-explanatory, but I should mention a few of them. The e-Portrait feature removes wrinkles and other skin blemishes from your subject, right as the photo is taken. The camera actually saves two images -- one retouched, the other untouched. Do note that the retouched image is saved at the medium size. The new 3D photo mode assists you with taking two photos the proper distance apart, and they are combined into a single image using the MPO file format. There are also three scene modes that are meant to be used with the optional conversion lenses.
|Grainy film filter||Dramatic tone filter|
Naturally, the E-P3 has Olympus' famous Art Filters, which you can use for both stills and movies, in any shooting mode (look in the Picture Mode menu when outside of the dedicated Art Filter mode). The filters on the E-P3 include pop art, soft focus, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film, pin hole, diorama (miniature effect), cross process, gentle sepia, and dramatic tone. New to the E-P3 is the ability to fine-tune a filter, or to combine two of them. For example, there are three pop art options to choose from, and you can combine that with the soft focus or pin hole filter, run it through a starlight effect filter, or add a virtual picture frame or white edges. You can only do this for certain Art Filters, though.
And of course, the E-P3 has full manual exposure control, as well. 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 one of the Function buttons.
The final three items on the top of the camera include the shutter release, power, and Function 2 (customizable) button.
There's nothing of note on the body of the E-P3 in this photo. I do want to point out that the 14 - 42 mm lens is in its "closed" position here.
On the other side of the camera you'll find it's I/O ports, which are protected by a plastic cover. The ports here include USB + A/V output (which is also where you plug in the optional wired remote), as well as mini-HDMI.
You can also catch a glimpse of where the grip attaches to the camera here.
The 14 - 42 mm lens is at full telephoto here.
On the bottom of the E-P3 you'll find an off-center metal tripod mount, plus the battery and memory card compartment. The plastic door over the memory card slot is of just average quality and, as you can see, you won't be able to access the card when the camera is on a tripod.
That's the BLS-1 lithium-ion battery over on the right side of the photo.
Using the Olympus E-P3
Press the power button and about a half second later, the E-P3's live view is up and running.
As I mentioned at the start of the review, autofocus performance has improved in a BIG way on the E-P3, courtesy of its new Live MOS sensor, which has double the "drive speed". According to Olympus, the E-P3 can focus faster than any camera on the market -- even those really expensive ones that sports photographers use. For best results, you'll want to use an MSC lens, a label which most of the newer Micro Four Thirds lenses carry. With the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, expect focus times between 0.1 and 0.3 at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto (this one really seemed to depend on the available light). Low light focusing was hit-or-miss. Sometimes the camera focused quickly (in a second or less), while other times it hunted back and forth for two seconds before (usually) locking focus.
Shutter lag wasn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be. Shot-to-shot delays are virtually non-existent, except for when the flash is being used, where you'll wait about two seconds before you can take another photo.
There is no quick way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you'll have to enter playback mode for that. To save you a button press, you can set Auto Review to "Auto Playback" and the camera will go there after a photo is taken.
The E-P3 can shoot at many different resolutions, though only four are available at any one time (in addition to RAW). Both the middle and small image sizes can be adjusted, and you can also choose to unlock a "Super Fine" quality setting, as well. Since I don't have official numbers from Olympus yet, this chart is ripped from the E-PL2 review.
Whew, that's a very long list... and that's only at the default 4:3 aspect ratio, too (there are four more to choose from).
You can take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG at the size of your choosing. To see how much space a RAW+JPEG combo takes, just "do the math" using data from the above chart. I explained the benefits of the RAW format earlier in the review.
Help screens are a new addition to the E-P3's menu system
The E-P3 has a restyled version of the menu found on its predecessor. It looks good, is easy to navigate, and you can see a description of any of the menu items by pressing the Info button. The menu is divided in several tabs, covering shooting, playback, custom, Accessory Port, and setup options. Do note that the custom and AP menus must be turned on in the setup menu in order to see them. Ready to take a trip through the E-P3's menus? Let's do it!
|Shooting Menu 1
|Shooting menu 2
|Custom Menu - must be turned on via the
Accessory Port Menu
While I described as many of the options as I could up there, some of the options require more than a single sentence. So, here's some further explanation about some of the most interesting options in the menu.
|Picture Mode menu||Editing the Natural picture mode|
Let's start with the Picture Mode feature. A Picture Mode contains contrast, sharpness, saturation, and gradation (shadow brightening) settings. There are several presets, including vivid, natural (the default), or muted colors, portrait for smooth skin tones, and monotone for black and white shooting. There's also an i-Enhance option (which is the default in iAuto mode), which finds the primary color in a photo and boosts the saturation and contrast of just that color. You can tweak the aforementioned settings for each of the presets, with the monotone option also letting you add a filter or tint to the image. There's also a custom option lets you select a Picture Mode as a starting point, and you can then adjust the settings I just mentioned, plus gradation. You'll also find all of the Art Filters in the Picture Mode menu, which allows you to use them in shooting modes other than the dedicated Art mode. You can select which Art Filters are shown on the list, so you don't have to scroll past filters that you'll never use.
There are three different image stabilizer modes to choose from on the E-P3. Mode 1 is for everyday shooting. Mode 2 is for horizontal panning, while mode 3 is for vertical panning. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which is a good idea if you have the camera on a tripod.
There are a whopping five types of bracketing on the E-P3. You can bracket for exposure (taking 2 to 7 shots per sequence), white balance (in both the amber-blue and green-magenta directions), flash exposure (3 shots), ISO (also 3 shots), and now Art Filters. Art Filter bracketing allows you to take one exposure but get photos with as many filters applied as you want!
The E-P3 has the same multiple exposure feature as the other members of the PEN family. This lets you take two exposures and combine them into a single image. You can also overlay new images onto an existing one. You can leave the brightness of each image untouched, or you can turn on the "auto gain" feature to make things blend in better. In playback mode, you can use the image overlay feature to combine up to three RAW photos that you've already taken into one, in much the same way.
The E-P3 has a ton of white balance options, including the bracketing feature that I mentioned above. You have the usual presets like sunlight and cloudy, and you can also use a white or gray card to get accurate color in more unusual lighting. If any of those need further tweaking, you can fine-tune things in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions (for one WB setting or all of them at once, if you wish). You can also set the white balance by color temperature, with a wide range of 2000 - 14000 Kelvin.
The PENPAL sits atop last year's E-PL2
Now I want to take a moment to tell you more about the PENPAL, an optional accessory that debuted with the E-PL2. The PENPAL is a Bluetooth receiver that attaches via the hot shoe, and plugs into the Accessory Port. In addition to its Bluetooth talents, the PENPAL can also store up to 2600 of your photos. Once attached to the camera, your first mission is to get the PENPAL paired up with another Bluetooth device. Doing this is harder than it should be, due to the clunky interface on the camera. Once you're paired up, you can transfer your photos to your phone or other device. After that's done, you need to figure out what to do with them, since there's no app on the other end to handle the incoming file.
Let's do our photo tests now, shall we?
Our macro test subject, taken with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, looks very nice. The colors are quite saturated -- especially the reds, and the image is nice and sharp. I don't see any signs of noise or other unusual artifacts, and I sure wouldn't expect that from a camera in this class.
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 available that'll work just fine.
The night shots, taken with the also-restyled Olympus F4.0-5.6, 40 - 150 mm lens, turned out pretty well. Taking in plenty of light was a piece of cake, as you've got full control over the camera's shutter speed. There is some highlight clipping present, but it's not as bad as on some older Micro Four Thirds cameras. While the buildings are sharp from one edge of the frame to the other, you can spot slight detail loss due to noise reduction -- not something I like to see at ISO 200. Purple fringing levels are moderate.
Now let's use this same night scene to see how the E-P3 performed at higher sensitivities:
There's a bit more detail smudging at ISO 400 and 800, but it's not horrible. That changes at ISO 1600, where enough detail is lost that the corners of the skyscrapers are disappearing. Things go downhill rapidly after that, with the top two settings being unusable. My advice is to keep the sensitivity below ISO 800 in low light, and switch to RAW for ISO 1600 and 3200.
Look for our studio ISO test in a moment.
Straight out of the camera
After using Redeye Fix in playback mode
I wasn't too surprised to see some redeye in the flash photos that I took with the E-P3, seeing how close the flash and lens are. I used the removal tool in playback mode to try to get rid of it, but it only worked on one eye (your mileage may vary). The best thing to do to avoid redeye entirely is use an external flash (or just turn up the lights).
14 - 42 mm kit lens
17mm kit lens
Since there are two kit lenses available for the E-P3, I've got distortion tests for both of them. The 14-42 has mild-to-moderate 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-P3 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. And with that, let's take a look at the crops!
The first three crops, covering ISO 200 - 800, are all very clean. At ISO 1600 you start to see some hints of noise, but it's still very usable. Things change at ISO 3200, though, where you really see a noticeable drop in both detail and color saturation. Things go downhill rapidly after that, with lots of detail smearing and noise, so I'd avoid using those settings, at least as JPEGs. The E-P3's performance here is pretty average for a Micro Four Thirds camera. Cameras with larger sensors, such as Sony's NEX-5, do a better job in the noise department.
Can we makes those ISO 3200 and 6400 shots look better by shooting RAW and post-processing? Let's take a look:
You don't have to be a professional camera reviewer to see the benefits of shooting RAW and doing some easy post-processing (noise reduction and sharpening). Yes, the processed images have more noise, but they have a heck of a lot more detail, too. The visible noise should blend away when you print or downsize the photos.
|RAW conversions added 10/3/11|
I was generally pleased with the photo quality on the E-P3. Exposure was generally spot-on, with only occasional underexposure. Like other Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-P3 will clip highlights at times, though it doesn't seem as bad as previous models. Colors were generally accurate, though they were a bit "warmer" than I would've liked, at times. Images are a bit soft, especially with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, and you can solve that issue by increasing the sharpness in the Picture Mode that you're using. I did notice that there are signs of noise reduction in the shadow areas of photos, even at ISO 200. You can see some of this in the shadows in this photo (check the windows and under the roof). Really blue skies have some mottling, as well. This is all pretty minor, and will likely not show up in your prints, but it's worth pointing out nonetheless. You can try turning down the noise filter to see if that helps, or shoot RAW. In terms of grain-style noise, you won't see that until ISO 3200, as the test above illustrates. Purple fringing is typically a lens issue, and there were mild to moderate amounts with the 14 - 42 mm lens that came with my camera.
Don't just take my word for all this. Have a look at our photo gallery and see if the E-P3's image quality meets your needs!
The E-P3's movie mode has been greatly improved upon since the E-P1/P2. You can now record Full HD video 1920 x 1080 / 60i video (sensor output is 30p) with stereo sound for up to 29 minutes (I think you'll hit the 4GB file size limit after 22 mins at the Full HD fine setting, though). The camera uses the AVCHD codec, which is easy to view on an HDTV and not-so-easy to edit and share on your Mac or PC. You have two quality levels to choose from (high and normal), with bit rates of 20 and 17 Mbps, respectively. The E-P3 uses pixel binning to reduce "jaggies" on diagonal lines in your videos.
If you don't need to record at Full HD, then you can downsize to 720p. These movies are recorded at 1280 x 720 at 60p, again using the AVCHD codec. The E-P3 also offers the good 'ol M-JPEG codec, for those who want something that's easier to work with. You can record at 1280 x 720 or 640 x 480, both at 30 frames/second, though recording stops when the file size reaches 2GB (which doesn't take long).
The E-P3 has the ability to focus continuously while recording a movie, including tracking a designated subject as they move around the frame (face detection is not available, however). This also means that you can zoom in and out with your heart's content. The 14 - 42 mm MSC lens focuses quietly and relatively quickly, though it struggles a bit with rapidly moving subjects. One thing you cannot use in movie mode is the sensor-shift image stabilization system. Instead, there's a digital IS system, which increases the focal length a bit.
There are full manual controls available in movie mode, though you need to set the mode dial to the movie position to get to them. Once there, you can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO manually. You can also apply any of the ten art filters to a movie, though some of them will significantly reduce the frame rate. The Movie+Still image option will save a full resolution still image of the last frame of your movie, automatically. You can take a still photo as you're recording, but the current clip will stop and a new one will begin after the image is saved.
Here are two sample movies for you, both of which contain subjects in motion. I converted the AVCHD files using Final Cut Pro X (ugh), and have also included the original MTS files, which you can view or convert at your leisure.
The E-P3's playback mode is more-or-less the same as before, and that's fine with me. Basic features include slideshows (now with transitions), DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions, and zoom & scroll (playback zoom). The playback zoom and thumbnail view features can be operated with the touchscreen, and it works quite well.
Photos can be viewing one-at-a-time or as thumbnails of varying sizes (some of which are tiny). You can also navigate to photos that were taken on a certain date by using the calendar view shown above. There is also a side-by-side comparison tool (called lightbox here), but I've never been able to get it to work on Olympus cameras of late.
|JPEG edit menu||Shadow adjustment technology in action|
The E-P3 has the ability to edit both JPEG and RAW images, though the former is a lot easier to use than the latter. The JPEG editing feature lets you brighten shadows (see above right), remove redeye, crop a photo, change the aspect ratio, apply the e-Portrait skin smoothing filter, adjust saturation, or convert it to black and white or sepia. Photos can also be rotated and resized.
The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode (as you can on Nikon's cameras), you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG.
Something else you can do in playback mode is overlay RAW images. You can select two or three images and combine them into one photo. You can adjust the gain for each of the photos.
One thing that's sorely missing from the E-P3's playback mode is any sort of movie editing feature. You can't even trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip, which sure comes in handy.
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-P3 between photos instantly in playback mode. You can do this with the four-way controller, main dial, or by swiping your finger on the touchscreen.
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!