Olympus E-P3 Review

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.

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 in. 62.9 cu in. 515 g
Nikon D5100 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 58.9 cu in. 510 g
Olympus E-P3 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 in. 18.1 cu in. 321 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 NX100 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 282 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 229 g

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!

Front of the Olympus E-P3

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!

Back of the Olympus E-P3

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.

The accessory port on the E-PL1

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:

Quality setting Frame rate
RAW + Large/Superfine JPEG 9 shots @ 3.1 fps
RAW 10 shots @ 3.1 fps
Large/Superfine JPEG 14 shots @ 3.1 fps
Tested using a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

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.

Top of the Olympus E-P3

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:

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 or either of the dials 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. A bulb mode is also available, which keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release 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, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film, pin hole, diorama, cross process, gentle sepia, and dramatic tone.

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.

Side of the Olympus E-P3

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.

Side of the Olympus E-P2

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.

Bottom of the Olympus E-P3

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.