Olympus E-PL3 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus E-PL3 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 16.1 cu in. 265 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 in. 14.2 cu in. 222 g
Pentax Q 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 179 g
Samsung NX200 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 220 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5N 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 210 g

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!

Front of the Olympus E-PL3

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:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection.
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access; a Program Shift option lets you use the four-way controller to select from various shutter speed/aperture combos.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached. For the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - F22.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. The bulb and timer modes can be used to keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release button is pressed.
Movie mode You can take movies in any mode using the red button, but this is a dedicated mode for video recording.
Scene mode You pick the scene, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from portrait, e-portrait, landscape, landscape+portrait, sport, night scene, night+portrait, children, high key, low key, digital image stabilization, macro, nature macro, candle, sunset, documents, panorama, fireworks, beach & snow, fisheye lens, wide-angle lens, macro lens, and 3D photo.
Art filter mode Shoot photos with unique effects, including pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pin hole, diorama, and dramatic tone.

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.

A photo taken with the Dramatic Tone art filter

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.