Street Photo Stress Test: Olympus E-P3

Did the latest Digital Pen do the job on the hot streets of New York?

The first thing Sally from Olympus told me about the E-P3 was that the camera had virtually no shutter lag. “Here, try it yourself,” she said. I did. It was fast—comparable to a DSLR, and faster than the E-P2.

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The Olympus E-P3 brags DSLR-speed autofocus and a practically instantly responding shutter release. While it has many other features which I cover in my full review, Leica M-like shutter responsiveness—if that's really what it offers—would be the biggest news for street photographers, for whom capturing the decisive moment means split-second timing is everything and “pretty darn fast” isn't good enough.

Ever since the “posh compact” category hit the scene, street shooters have been looking for the “poor man's Leica,” a camera with the right combination of fast reaction, image quality and relatively affordable price. With the Leica M9 out of the reach of most mortals at $7,000, many have either stayed with their film M's or settled for slower cameras and/or lower image quality. Could the E-P3 possibly be this long-sought holy grail?

If you're not familiar with street photography, read my introductory article, Sidewalk Serendipity, and if you're wondering what the significance of a Street Photography Stress Test is for non-street shooters, read What's a Street Photography Stress Test and Why Should You Care?

 

Tricked out for the street

 

On a hot July afternoon I spent two hours photographing the usual throngs on the sidewalks of New York City with a black bodied E-P3, along with the very street-friendly Olympus Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 Zuiko that was introduced with it at the same time (read my review of the lens). Since I was not supplied with an eye-level finder, I tricked out my E-P3 by borrowing a 28mm optical finder from my Leica M3, knowing I'd be covering a wider angle than the finder showed. I recommend the Panasonic DMW-VF1, at $140, to go with the 12mm Zuiko—until Olympus comes out with their own.

After shooting over 300 frames, how did the E-P3 do?

Shutter responsiveness:  I found no noticeable shutter lag when shooting in manual exposure and manual focus. A+!

Focus: The 12mm f/2.0 is the near-perfect complement to the E-P3 for street photography because the lens has a focusing scale that you see when it is in manual focus mode. No semi-blind wire focusing (which is a problem with nearly all “pancake” type lenses for MILCs). A!

Handling: Adjusting aperture and shutter speed in manual mode meant referring to the LCD monitor, and I occasionally had to correct my settings because I jostled the camera and this changed the aperture or shutter speed. By the end of the day I'd gotten the hang of it. A-

Control layout: Logically placed but spacing limited by camera size so it's a bit cramped but again, I got the hang of it. B+

Durability: A The camera is solid, although the viewfinder I borrowed for the occasion needed a bit of gaffer tape to prevent it from slipping off. A-

The experience: I was able to work fast and unobtrusively, and never felt that technology got in the way of my ability to quickly react and get the shot. The only other digital camera that has given me a better street photography experience was—you guessed it—the Leica M9. A+!

Image quality: Not as good as what a full-frame sensor ligke the Leica M9's can deliver, but it came very close. I was able to get 16x20-inch prints of ISO 800 images that looked excellent, with almost no grain. My main complaint: When shooting in bright sunlight, highlight and shadow detail was clipped a bit more than usual, a sign of limited dynamic range that was confirmed by DxOMark lab tests released yesterday and covered in my full report. Post-processing RAW images helped to compensate. Images I converted to black-and-white looked great. B

Overall: While the E-P3 is not an inexpensive camera—well over $1,500 with the 12mm lens and 24mm finder—it is much less than the $7,000 Leica M9 and will deliver great images. More importantly, it lets you work quietly, unobtrusively, and quickly, and I immediately felt comfortable using it. Olympus has produced a winner. A-

Street Photography Stress Test portfolio

OK, enough talk. Let's look at some sample shots, taken over a two-hour period in New York City, a mix of Black and White and Color and all shown full-frame. Then take a look at my report on the street-shooting capabilities of the original Olympus E-P1 to get a better sense of how big an improvement the E-P3 is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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