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Product Review: Olympus E-P3

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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Product Review: Olympus E-P3

DSLR performance in a small interchangeable-lens camera

With the E-P3, Olympus has solved the sluggish autofocus problems that plagued the earlier digital Pen series cameras, and has substantially reduced shutter lag time. But while these are the big stories, the E-P3 has many more new features and capabilities that make it the category leader...for now.


Olympus E-P3: What's new

  • 12MP Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor
  • Built-in, pop-up flash
  • TruePic VI Image Processor
  • 35 AF focus points and Tracking AF with selectable focus points and groups
  • ISO range 100-12,800
  • Claimed 60 millisecond shutter response speed
  • 1080i HD Video up to 29 minute continuous clips
  • Uncompressed CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz Linear PCM stereo recording or AC3 Dolby Digital Audio
  • 3-inch 614K pixel OLED monitor with touch screen operation
  • 10 Art Filters with customizable and bracketing functions
  • Dynamic 3D MPO-format images
  • Price: $899 with kit lens


Let's take a closer look at the E-P3.

 


 

New and Improved Features

Olympus was a pioneer in built-in filters, known as the Art Filter system. The
E-P3 offers 10 Art filters—4 more than other models—and gives you the option to customize them (for instance, you can add a “filed-negative” type border) and lets you bracket the filter effect so you can control how strong it would be. I kept playing with the Dramatic Tone mode, which offered the extreme HDR look in bright sunlight and a painterly effect at dusk.

With the addition of a built-in flash, you have TTL-auto flash with wireless control, first-and-second-curtain flash, and synch speeds of 1/30-1/180 sec. You can choose one of the seven default White Balance settings, create up to 12 custom presets, or adjust based on Kelvin temperature.

Another key feature is a new fine-tuning of AF: Eye priority mode. When shooting a portrait, you can control whether the camera will automatically focus on your subject closer or farther eye. This could be very useful when shooting with the 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens at its widest aperture.

 

The E-P3 is a great street photography camera! Look for my Olympus E-P3 Street Photography Stress Test for more street photos! Above: Exposure, 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 800; focus and exposure set manually. Lens: Olympus Zuiko 12mm f/2.0.



In the hands

The E-P3 is a good-looking camera, especially if you're into the retro look, and even more so with either the 12mm f/2 or 45mm f/1.8 prime lens attached. The removable handgrip that is included with the camera can be removed and replaced with a thicker grip that I felt more comfortable with. Fortunately, this extra grip can be had for a mere $20. You can also shoot with no grip at all, but I don't recommend that because the camera surface smooth and may not be as easy to grasp. The camera has good heft for its compact size, belying its solid build.

Although the camera does not come with the VF-2 electronic viewfinder, I highly recommend getting one even though, at $250, it is pricey. Having eye-level viewing capability is essential even though the 3-inch LCD finder  is quite good, and with the electronic viewfinder capability you could use it with any lens that you may add to your kit down the road.

Neatly hidden in the top of the camera is the first major change: a pop-up, built-in flash! This is a feature many felt the earlier E-P cameras were missing. With an EV of 30 feet at ISO 200 it's reasonably powerful for a built-in, but I would use it primarily as a fill flash. Fortunately, the hot shoe accommodates all of Olympus's E-system Flash (FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, and FL-300R) and can handle up to 4 wireless flash channels (3 groups plus the built-in flash).

The hot shoe also accommodates either an optical viewfinder or the electronic viewfinder, which I recommend for eye-level viewing.

To the right of the hot shoe is the shooting mode dial, no longer hidden under the top plate. Selecting exposure mode, iAuto, Video, Art or scene modes is easily done and the turning action and clicks are decisive. A programmable function button is located to the right of the generously-sized shutter release.  Press the on-off button and the camera is ready to go within half second, which is an improvement over older models.

The back of the camera is dominated by the 3-inch touch screen LCD, which I'll talk about in more depth in a couple of paragraphs. When using the touch screen, the bulk of the camera's operation is accomplished via a thumb wheel at the upper right corner and a control dial in the center of the back area to the right of the LCD. This allows you to quickly scroll through key modes by pressing OK then navigating up and down Image Stabilization (horizontal, vertical, auto and off modes), color modes (including art filters), white balance, drive mode, aspect ratio, image quality, HD video mode, flash control, meter pattern, AF mode, ISO, iAuto variation, and movie record on or off.

 

 

Use the Info button to change the view from showing mode status to histogram to a plain image with no info showing. For set-once type settings, use the Menu button to navigate. This will also take you to custom mode setup. A bright red button towards the top activates video record, but can be deactivated (see above) so you won't start recording videos accidentally.

The control layout is generally well thought out, although I found the action on the control ring on the back of the camera to be a bit loose and one could  accidentally change settings. Same with the thumb wheel: I found that my thumb would rest against it, occasionally causing it to change a setting. This was something I had to especially careful of when shooting in manual exposure mode, since the thumb wheel ring adjusts shutter speed and the thumb wheel adjusts aperture. With practice I was able to avoid this so I'd file this under “minor nitpicking.”

The good news is that if you want to take full manual control over exposure and focus, Olympus has made it easy and intuitive. An advantage of shooting in all manual is that lag time is virtually eliminated because the camera doesn't have to spend time focusing and calculating exposure.

 

For more hands-on reporting on the E-P3, read Hands On: Road Trip With The New Olympus E-P3.

 

Art Filter Portfolio

I had a ton of fun playing with the Art Filters, especially the newer ones. Here's a quick portfolio of shots I got in different Art modes. With ten art filter modes and many custom options, there's a lot you could do here...

Grainy High-Contrast B&W

 

Pinhole

 

Toy Camera

 

Pastel/Diffusion

 

Fine Art

 

Fine Art with pop-up flash--unexpectedly cool effect!




Using the Touch Screen


Touch screen is an “oh wow” feature for some, but if you're taking something other than snapshots, you will likely grow tired of it. First off, it forces you to hold the camera with one hand while pressing the screen with the other, increasing the likelihood of camera shake. That said, Touch AF is cool: Touch the screen to select focus and immediately image snaps into focus, an the shutter release goes off.

To activate the touch screen, simply press the Info button until it shows up on the left corner of the LCD. Then you can select touch focus, touch shutter release, or disable touch screen. But where touch screen shines is in iAuto. Touch a tab on the right side of the screen and a menu will appear, designed for tyros, with image quality adjustments that are presented with visual cues that help you choose from color saturation, contrast, sharpness, brightness, “blur background” (aperture adjust) “express motions” (shutter speed), and picture-taking tips.

These image adjustment tools are fine for beginners but will be of limited use in bright sunlight, where the effect will be harder to judge. Consider investing in a screen shade such as the Delkin 3-inch shade for point-and-shoot cameras, so you can see images better in bright light—although the best way to monitor such effects would be to view them through the optional Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder.

Simply touch the image quality you want to adjust and a slider appears. Easy! The picture-taking tips offers advice for child, pet, flower, and food photography. This feature is likely to be more useful on a lower-end model such as the E-PL3 or Pen Mini, since the E-P3's primary audience is more advanced photographers; for snapshooters, this camera may be overkill.

One of the nice touch screen features is the image preview mode. To move from one picture to the next, simply swipe your finger across the screen and the next photo slides in, similar to the Camera Roll feature on an iPhone.

 

 

In the field

I spent three weeks shooting with the E-P3 under a variety of situations. When doing street photography I was able to work quickly without being noticed, especially with the lens on manual focus mode and with manual metering. The shutter release is quiet (although I wish I could easily disable the focus confirm beep when in AF mode).

When in AF mode, focus was very fast. How fast? I ran a  comparison test with the E-P3 and redesigned 14-42mm kit lens vs. a Canon 7D with a basic 18-55mm kit lens, and after 100 shots focusing at a variety of targets with each I couldn't tell which one focused faster. That's a good sign and seems to confirm Olympus's claim that the new system can focus at least as fast a good DSLR. The only area where the E-P3's AF system had difficulty was when I tried photographing low-contrast subjects in low light. In those cases, focus was just as searchy as the Canon.

Once I got used to the new system, navigating top-level controls was a cinch thanks to the completely redesigned user interface.

My setup included the superlative 12mm f/2.0 prime lens but since I was not loaned an eye-level viewfinder, I borrowed a 28mm optical finder from my Leica and used it for approximate composition, knowing there would be a little extra beyond the finder's borders in the final image. I found the finder sat a bit loosely in the hot shoe and used gaffer tape to prevent accidental slips.

 

Image quality

I photographed a subject with a wide range of light values from highlight to shadow at all ISOs with the camera carefully focused and mounted on a tripod. From ISO 200-400 there was virtually no digital noise, with some noise creeping in by 800 and a bit more apparent by ISO 1600. By ISO 3200 noise becomes moderate and is pretty overwhelming by ISO 6400. While it may be up to the quality of the the latest APS-sized sensors, this appears to be a 1-2 stop improvement over the previous E-Px sensor. If you shoot in black-and-white, you can probably get away with ISO 3200 looking somewhat like Kodak Tri-X as far as graininess goes. That's pretty good and should cover most uses.

As of this writing, the only way to open and convert RAW images is via Olympus's included RAW converter software. Hopefully Adobe will offer a plug-in for Photoshop soon. However, the extra step seems to be worth it, as JPEGs appear somewhat contrasty with very bright reds and oranges. RAW files show a wider tonal range and more realistic color, along with more noise (which can be reduced in Photoshop, eventually.)



Image Quality: DxOMark Lab Test Results

Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 500
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 400
Color depth: Very Good (20.8 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Good (51 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 10.1 stops

The Olympus E-P3 shares a sensor with the E-PL2 and the scores are similar: It shows an improvement over previous Pens in ISO, but the overall performance is modest compared to other APS cameras based on color depth and dynamic range, both of which drag the overall score down. However, the differences, according to DxO, are barely noticeable in actual prints. Actual ISO is approx. 2/3 of a stop lower than the indicated speed.

Test results are copywright DxOMark; Used by permission.

 


 

Image Quality: Test shots

 

For an informal image quality test I chose an area of my backyard with bright, mid-range and low-light areas to show the dynamic range. I focused on the fence to compare detail. I shot this at ISO 200. The following shots are a representative selection showing key differences at selected ISOs.

 

ISO 200, 100% detail: Nice and sharp, no noise.

 


ISO 800,
100% detail: Quality is still pretty good, although grain reduction starts to show smoothing artifacts in JPG.

 

ISO 1600, 100% Detail: Grain reduction works overtime. RAW image file shows moderate grain, but either version is useable.

 

 

ISO 3200, 100%: Grain finally becomes obvious and unacceptable in both JPEG with noise reduction (shown) and RAW (not shown).

 

 

ISO 3200, full image: Shadow and highlight details start to block up at ISO 3200.


How does it stack up to the competition?

If you're a photojournalist-type and are eyeing the E-P3 and 12mm f/2.0 lens combo (perhaps with either an optical viewfinder like the Olympus VR-2 electronic viewfinder) as a smaller, less attention-attracting adjunct to your main gear, you are probably also considering the Leica X1 and Fujifilm X100.

The Olympus E-P3 costs $900 (at the moment, it's only available with either the kit zoom or 17mm prime pancake lens), plus the 12mm lens for $800, plus a finder for $100-$250  so it's already considerably pricier than any of these competitors, which all clock in at under $1500, even with an optical eye-level finder thrown in where needed). Both the Leica ($2,000, plus optical finder)  and Fujifilm ($1,200) cameras offer far better image quality, especially at higher ISOs, but are slower focusing and have more shutter hesitation than the E-P3. And of course, the Leica and Fujifilm's lenses built in, while the E-P3 offers the flexibility of interchangeable lenses So it's a matter of what your priorities are: Swift and stealthy, or amazing quality and stealthy.

What about the Sony NEX series cameras? The NEX models use a larger APS sensor, so image quality is better on the Sonys. Shutter lag and autofocus are fast although not quite as fast as the E-P3. The Sonys have a more “digital” feel to them, with commonly used features accessible only via menus, while the E-P3 has a more traditional feel, with many nods both visual and practical to its film forebears. Sony wins on quality, Olympus wins on speed and handling ease.

The Panasonic Lumix GF-2 may be the E-P3's biggest challenger, with a price that's a couple of Benjamins less that of the Olympus. Both cameras match up fairly closely spec-wise, but the E-P3 has the edge in image quality, thanks to its newer sensor. Although I haven't been able to conduct side-by-side performance comparisons, the E-P3 seems to have the advantage, with faster AF acquisition speed and shutter release.

 

How fast is the E-P3? I had a split second to react to this incongruous scene outside Macy's on Broadway in Manhattan. The E-P3 reacted instantly and I got the shot. Other cameras in its class probably would have missed it.

Conclusion and recommendation

With the E-P3, Olympus has raised the bar for  both the Micro Four Thirds and mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact digital camera categories. It is the fastest camera in its class for both focus and lag time, comparing favorably with DSLR speed. With a plethora of Art filters, plenty of shooting modes and the ability to capture full 1080i HD video, it has caught up with, and in some areas surpassed, Panasonic's current offerings. The E-P3 has an improved control layout, its updated sensor produces better image quality than its predecessors, and the LCD finder has better resolution.

Would I recommend this camera for photojournalism, street, documentary, and travel photography? Absolutely—even with the higher price tag, and even though I would have to pay extra for an eye-level viewfinder—because in the tradeoff between speed and quality, in these particular areas of photography speed will inevitably win, and the E-P3 is faster than anything else out there in its size and price class for capturing the decisive moment. If you're a pixel peeper, want to shoot in very low light, and don't require split-second timing, you might do better with another model. However, for those who have been searching for a small, fast little camera that would be a lower-cost alternative to the Leica M9, and the E-P3 is the best I've seen so far.

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