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Hands On: Road Trip With The New Olympus E-P3

Hands On: Road Trip With The New Olympus E-P3

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First impressions of the next generation of the camera that started the MILC revolution

June 30, 2011

Last week I had the opportunity to take a full production model Olympus E-P3, announced today, on a road trip through Pennsylvania. Does this re-launch of the Digital Pen represent a fulfillment of the promise of the original?

 

Read the full news report for details about the E-P3 and other new Olympus Pen cameras introduced today.


Few cameras have been accompanied with as much pre-launch buzz as the original Olympus Digital Pen, the E-P1. That camera started a new category of camera that in a very short time has revolutionized the world of photography, but it disappointed when it came to certain performance issues—namely, focus acquisition time (it was sluggish) and shutter lag (ditto). Olympus  made some progress in AF and shutter lag in the second generation E-P1 and E-PL1, but still fell short of the instant reactivity required of a street camera. With the introduction of the E-P3 today, Olympus addresses this important performance issue head-on.

When Olympus handed me an E-P3 a few weeks ago, they made a rather strong claim: Not only have they improved the camera's autofocus performance over previous Digital Pen models (which they proved by letting me compare focus speeds and shutter lag of an E-P3 to an E-P2), but they told the camera would focus at least as fast as an advanced DSLR.

Other features—a revamped look, new cosmetics on the kit lens, a pair of premium prim lenses, a higher-resolution, touch-screen LCD monitor, a wider selection of customizable Art filters (10 effects) were nice and impressive, as is the full 1080p HD video. But I really wanted to see if the lag time has been eliminated, and if AF has been sped up.

Driving through Penn. with a digital Pen

“Let me take this puppy for a ride,” I said.

And so, I did. I took a pre-launch, production version of the E-P3 along with a kit lens on a road trip to Western Pensylvania, grabbing shots at rest stops and at a hotel in Danville. Because it was still a secret camera, I had to shoot more surreptitiously than usual, but I shot over 200 images along the way, and got a pretty good idea of the camera's performance.


With some nasty-looking rest-stop coffee in one hand and E-P3 in the other, I hit the road, keeping the camera hidden from prying eyes. I photographed my flimsy cup of Joe with the E-P3 and 14-42mm kit lens at a rest stop just west of the Poconos.


No Shutter Lag?

And I won't keep you in suspense any longer: The Olympus E-P3 focuses fast, and has one of the fastest-reacting shutter releases I've seen on a digital camera. As promised, focus speed seemed to be comparable to that of my Canon 7D, and when you switch to manual focus, lag time is practically eliminated, except when shooting several shots in rapid sequence. The E-P3's shutter reacted almost as quickly when the shutter release was pressed as my Leica M3. There was only the very slightest perceptible delay. Yes, folks, Olympus seems to have solved the sluggish focus and shutter lag performance issues that plagued the earlier Pens.

For photographers who have been frustrated by the previous Pens' AF and shutter delays, this is a Big Deal.

 

Short of doing street photography on the streets of New York (which might have violated the non-disclosure agreement I'd signed not to squawk about the E-P3 before its official release), photographing my elusive, notoriously camera-shy daughter, Shaina, would be a good test of Olympus's claim of almost no shutter lag. And as you can see from this grab shot of her at a rest stop in Bear Claw, PA, I was able to catch her before she had a chance to turn away (which she did a split-second later). A lesser camera would have missed it. As any member of my family can attest, that's impressively fast!

But wait. There's more.

 

Two Premium Lenses

In addition to the camera and a cosmetically improved 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, Olympus showed me a 12mm f/2 lens (with the Four Thirds Sensor, it is the equivalent of a 24mm on a 35mm camera) as well as as 48mm lens for portrait photography. I was able to field-test the 12mm lens and it blew me away. First there's the brushed metal exterior that oozes quality. Then there's its manual focus. Pull the focus ring towards the camera and it snaps into a manual focus mode and reveals—bless their hearts—a depth of field scale!

 

12mm f/2 Lens in AF mode. Where's the manual focus switch?

 

Pull focus ring towards camera and snap into place to activate manual focus and you get a depth-of-field focus scale for precise control over hyperfocal distance. Note the solid metal lens barrel construction. Nice!


In the field, the 12mm felt like a mechanical manual-focus lens, even though its internal focus mechanism is actually electronic. It had good, smooth action, similar to my precious Leica M lenses. The solid metal lens barrel helped to give it a solid, premium feel. The only things missing? A matching optical viewfinder, and a focus tab for serious street shooters. Maybe that will be added on down the road but in the meantime, I'm going to snarf the 28mm optical viewfinder off my Leica M3 for a future Street Photography Stress Test with the E-P3.

How much will these dreamy lenses cost? The 12mm will run a hefty $800, and will be available in  a few days. The 48mm f/1.8 will cost a somewhat more down-to-earth (but still pricey) $400 and will be available in September.

 

 

Rest stop, central PA. As with other Pens, the E-P3 puts a high-caliber almost-pocketable camera in your hands and gives you no excuse to leave your camera home.

Although it focuses electronically, the lens feels like it is turning mechanically when the focus ring is in manual focus position. The ring rotates about 40 degrees from closest focus to infinity, and that's it. No blind turning ofthe focus wheel, as has been the case with so many interchangeable prime lenses designed for MILCs. Fitted with this lens and an the additional electronic viewfinder, this could be a desirable camera-lens combination for photojournalists and street photographers. The only thing this lens is missing is a matching optical viewfinder.

 

Olympus boasts the E-P3 delivers better color thanks to new technology in the camera. Above: Shot from inside through a window at a convenience store near Danville, PA using the 14-42mm kit lens, in iAuto mode.


Sensational sensor

Olympus says the Four Thirds sensor has been redesigned to be able to produce better image quality at higher ISOs. While I do not have access to DxO lab results yet, I shot at a variety of ISO settings and fund the level of noise to be acceptable at ISO 800 and with noise reduction turned I was able to get very reasonable image quality at ISO 2000. After that, grain becomes more obvious but the bottom line is that image quality seems quite good for a smaller-than-APS sensor camera. For street photographers, documentary photographers and photojournalists, the noise levels should be acceptable for non-flash candid photography under many indoor lighting scenarios.

 

Gas station, Penfield, PA, shot in “Art” mode shows how built-in HDR transforms a commonplace scene into something more dramatic. You can customize the degree of the art effect and add things like the black border on this shot. I'll explore these more in an upcoming full review.


Too expensive? Now there are two alternatives!

Olympus also announced a trimmed-down E-PL3 and a small Pen Mini, with a body that's about the size of your typical pocketable digital compact. While pricing has not yet been announced, you can be certain that both models will cost less than the $800-with-kit-lens E-P3.

Is the E-P3 For Real?

If first impressions are important, the E-P3 gave an impressive debut performance. When equipped with either of the two new prime lenses, the Olympus E-P3 has the look, quick reaction time, and operational feel of that long-anticipated holy grail of street photographers, a “poor man's digital Leica M”. I plan to give this camera a full review as well as a Street Photography Stress Test in the near future. However, with its souped-up autofocus and virtually non-existent shutter lag, my first impression is that the E-P3 looks like it may very well be the swift, high-quality, street-smart little camera previous Olympus Digital Pen cameras aspired to be.

 

Stealth bomber: They never knew I took their picture thanks to the camera's diminutive size and quiet shutter. I shot this at ISO 1000—image quality was surprisingly good for a sub-APS sensor and seems to be better than what previous Digital Pens produced. We'll wait for DxO test results to find out for sure. By the way, did I mention that the rest stop coffee was nasty?

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