Olympus E-PL3 Review


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

The closest competitors to the Olympus E-PL3 include the Nikon 1 J1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, Pentax Q, Samsung NX200, and Sony Alpha NEX-5N.

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!

Photo Gallery

Check out our photo gallery to see how the E-PL3's image quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.