Olympus E-P3 Review
The E-P3 is the latest flagship Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus. Allegedly featuring the world’s fastest auto-focus system, the Olympus E-P3 also offers a 12.3-megapixel High Speed Live MOS sensor, 610K dot OLED touch-screen, a pop-up flash and external flash hot-shoe, sensitivity settings of ISO 200-12800, 1080i/60fps high-definition video recording with stereo sound, built-in image stabilisation and 3fps continuous shooting. The Olympus E-P3 is available now in black, silver or white for £799 / $899 with the new 14-42mm kit zoom lens.
Ease of Use
The third generation of Olympus' mirror-less Micro Four Thirds system flagship digital 'Pen' has arrived with us, once again with the aim of providing the usability of a compact with the performance of a DSLR. Whilst perhaps its arrival has been to less fanfare and interest than greeted the original E-P1, with its very similar retro styling, the jump from its successor the E-P2 to the E-P3 is arguably greater than that from E-P1 to E-P2.
While its forebear's addition of an accessory port to allow for the attachment of an electronic viewfinder and the likes of a stereo microphone was chiefly its greatest improvement, the new E-P3 goes further still. While it's not a textbook revolution when compared to its predecessor, it at least feels more than just mere refinement.
There's first a price tag the match of a mid range DSLR to contend with though. The least expensive option, and the one that will hold the greatest appeal for those looking to adopt a Pen for the first time, is to go for the bundle that includes the camera body and second generation 14-42mm 'MSC' zoom lens, claimed to be quieter in operation than the previous optic. Supported by built-in sensor shift image stabilisation, undoubtedly the greatest improvement witnessed is when utilising auto focus for shooting video, sharpness drifting briefly as you pan between subjects before snapping into focus. This camera and lens bundle is a manufacturer's suggested £799, but at least that's £100 cheaper than the E-P2 was with kit lens on launch. The UK's largest e-tailer was selling the combo for £765 at the time of writing.
With white or black body choices also offered, we had the silver version of the E-P3 in for review and, with its brushed stainless steel exterior recalling an old fashioned cigarette case, it's perhaps inevitable that memories of 2009's original E-P1 come flooding back, as the subsequent E-P2 was originally available only in black. But, as we have suggested, although there are similarities the E-P3 is a slightly different beast, and largely the better for it.
That's just as well, as with every day that passes there is increased competition in the Compact System Camera (CSC) market, with Sony NEX-C3 and Pentax Q system models recently added. The closest rival for the Olympus E-P3 is probably, however, still Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF2, an older but still current CSC. However Panasonic has indirectly done Olympus a favour by pitching its more recent offering in the GF3 at a younger, more mass-market audience, leaving the field wide open for Olympus to sweep in with a new top-end enthusiast model and grab the glory. If you're weighing up which one to go for and have the budget not to be concerned purely about price, then the Olympus E-P3's feature set in our opinion amalgamates some of the best attributes of both Panasonic models.
For starters the E-P3 is the first digital Pen to arrive with us featuring touch screen operation, although, as with most Panasonic G-series models, you can for the most part get away without using it much at all, as there are a plethora of physical buttons ranged alongside it, which are either dedicated to specific functions or can be customized to suit. Indeed, the screen's implementation here hasn't led to a cleaner or more pared-down minimalist look for the Pen, as say the touch screen on Panasonic's latest GF3 has.
So, dare we suggest this is a feature implemented because it could be, rather than should be? That comment would be justified, perhaps, if the 3-inch 4:3 aspect ratio screen wasn't also an OLED panel, as opposed to common-or-garden LCD, with a super bright 610k-dot resolution. That's quite a jump up from the 230k dots LCD of its forebear and about time too. Images look particularly vivid with plenty of contrast when viewed on the E-P3's screen and happily this carries over when results are downloaded to your desktop. When viewing the default setting JPEGs, and when the AF gets it right, the E-P3's shots deliver plenty of bite.
Low light sensitivity has been boosted on this latest Pen, jumping from ISO6400 to a semi pro-like ISO12800. This is partly down, says Olympus, to the implementation of a noise reducing Venus Engine VI processor. However we did find the auto focus struggles to lock on to target in lower light, the lens 'hunting' to no avail.
Unsurprisingly the E-P3 retains the Olympus USP of on-board Art Filters, which are also worth singling out for praise, with the new appearance of Dramatic Tone mode being, as its name suggests, especially gritty and vivid. These filters can be applied to Full HD video as well as stills, recordable in AVCHD or reduced resolution Motion JPEG formats, which helpfully ups the E-P3's game.
The E-P3 is also the first flagship Pen to - finally - feature a built-in flash, here of the pop up variety which means it has been neatly and unobtrusively sunk into the top plate, as with Panasonic's GF series models since the start. Only included on the more consumer orientated E-PL models until now, integral flash has been a big omission for the Pen lineage and so we're pleased to see it implemented here, activated with press of a dedicated button sitting just behind. It's also cleverly been added without adding to the bulk.
Feeling robust and reassuringly solid in the palm thanks to the retained metal Tonka-toy-like build in the palm, Olympus hasn't thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the E-P3's design and the overall look and feel, apart from the notable exceptions already mentioned, remains mainly unchanged from the E-P1, which is a good thing. The E-P3's dimensions are 122x89.1x34.3mm, so, even with the newly added ability to unscrew the handgrip, it's still one for camera bag rather than pocket if test lens attached, with a body-only weight of 321g (a smidgeon lighter than the E-P2's 335g). Without the handgrip, unscrewed in the field with the aid of a coin, the solidity is sufficient to be able to still hold the camera nice and steady when shooting handheld, and without the workmanlike black plastic grip the camera actually looks a lot more stylish, its brushed metal faceplate fully on show.
The Live Guide first seen on the E-PL1/E-PL2 has been implemented here. This lets users try out picture adjustments with the aid of an onscreen slider bar to adjust the likes of depth of field and see the results in real time before pressing the shutter release button with accessibility extended beyond iAuto mode. We also get a less welcome (but also avoidable) scroll wheel at the back, encircling the Olympus' multi directional control pad.
From the front of the E-P3 it's pretty much business as usual, with chunky lens release button to the left of the lens mount and Micro Four Thirds system logo directly beneath. What hasn't changed and surprisingly so, given that it's been two years since the E-P1, is the camera's resolution. The E-P3 keeps a 12.3-megapixel resolution from a 4/3-rds type Live MOS sensor, whereas rivals in Sony's NEX-C3 and Panasonic GH2 are fielding 16 megapixel chips.
Like the Panasonic, which also utilises contrast rather than phase detection AF, Olympus is claiming the world's fastest auto focus system among interchangeable lens cameras with the E-P3. We were lucky enough to have a Panasonic GF3 in our possession at the same time as the Pen and can testify that in terms of the swiftness of locking focus onto target the two are identically matched.
It's when gazing down on the Olympus' top plate however that change is much more noticeable. While the vacant hotshoe sits directly above the lens, the recessed shooting mode dial that was formerly to its right hand side, again if viewing the camera lens-on, has swapped to the opposite side of the hotshoe to make room for embedded flash. Rather than being recessed any longer, the coin-like shooting mode dial is now proudly raised and has been given a surrounding ridged edge for easier purchase. The options on the dial have however remained the same as the E-P2's, the shooting options being program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, video, scene modes, Art Filters and - the most obviously highlighted of all - iAuto mode. Art Filters have also swelled from eight to ten in number. Dramatic Tone, added here alongside the self explanatory 'Gentle Sepia' as we've noted worked the best for us, adding an intensely gritty, look, as if a photograph has been photo copied and vividly hand coloured.
As with its predecessor in the E-series the Art Filter digital effects are applied at the time of capture which means write speeds are inevitably a couple of seconds longer than for regular images. When shooting using certain filters, such as Diorama or Dramatic Tone, the screen's refresh rate slows, though not as dramatically as on the E-P2, providing a real time preview of how the eventual image may look.
Controls adjacent to the shooting mode dial have also shifted around slightly; the little indicator bulb for the Sonic Speed Wave Filter of the E-P2 has vanished, the adjacent shutter release button is now slightly smaller but just as usable, and the dedicated exposure compensation button of the E-P2 has become a non specific user attributable 'Fn2' function button, on our review sample given over to adjusting exposure compensation (+/- 3EV). The on/off button has on the E-P3 now shifted right to the camera edge, where it's slightly less prominent than before and requires a more precise fingernail press to get a response. Almost too easy to overlook in comparison to the larger changes are a pair of stereo microphones located just in front of the hotshoe and directly above the lens mount.
Despite the switch around we didn't find ourselves missing the previous layout when using the E-P3 on a daily basis and the slightly smaller controls are, we feel, a small price to pay for the welcome inclusion of flash, the activation of which meets an instant response, sound-tracked by a satisfyingly robust 'clunk' as it's raised approximately an inch above the body on a spring-loaded Meccano-like mechanism.
Press down on the top plate power button and the Olympus E-P3 readies itself for action in a second or so; that is, as ever, if you've first manually unfurled the retractable 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (equivalent to 28-84mm in 35mm terms). Otherwise you're faced with a text message on a blank OLED screen asking you to perform this action before a picture can be taken, which is slightly irritating. For street photographers for whom the E-P3 is otherwise ideal, the business of extending the lens does inevitably lengthen the time between seeing something that might make a good picture and actually being able to take said picture. If wide angle is your want there is of course the alternative of Olympus' gorgeously metal build 12mm prime lens announced alongside the E-P3, which we were able to briefly try out and which makes for a perfect accompaniment if you want to get up and running quicker. But, with a massive £749 price tag, it's hardly an impulse purchase.
Squeeze down halfway on the shutter release button and as previously indicated the E-P3 very nearly instantaneously responds, the screen very briefly blurring before snapping back into focus, AF point flashing up in green with accompanying bleep of confirmation.
Take the shot and even when shooting RAW and Fine (top quality) JPEG in tandem there's a wait of an acceptable three seconds before the shot is fully committed to card. Buffer memory is such however that you don't have to wait that long to squeeze off another shot if the opportunity presents itself.
Moving to the backplate of the E-P3, again the lineage from the E-P2 to this model is clear. While the accessory port, now an Accessory Port 2, has been retained directly below the vacant hotshoe, and the spacing of the control layout is similar, some of the button functions have switched around between the E-P2 and E-P3 however.
The first control button we come to, top right of the screen and that was formerly an auto exposure/auto focus lock button has disappeared entirely, to find a smaller red video record button in its place. Press this to record, or stop recording, no matter which shooting mode is otherwise selected on the top dial. There are now five smaller buttons to the right of the screen rather than the four larger ones on the E-P2. So, ironically perhaps, now that we have a touch screen to share the operational tasks, we actually have more buttons alongside it on the E-P3 than before.
The next button on the vertical strip of five is for enlarging an image up to 10x in shooting mode to aid manual focusing (with up to 14x available in playback mode), and immediately below, a double use button that zooms out and presents images as a series of thumbnails when in playback mode, or, as a default in a capture mode, calls up the aforementioned Live Guide on screen. The focus options here are single shot AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF plus MF, or the now ubiquitous continuous AF tracking.
The Live Guide options are presented as a colourful toolbar on the left hand side of the screen. From the top we have the ability to change colour saturation, from 'clear & vivid' to 'flat & muted', next down is the ability to alter 'colour image', which translates as shifting the tone between warm and cool via slider bar, with the third option shifting brightness/exposure between a simple bright and dark. The fourth option down is probably the most interesting/effective in that it provides the ability to incrementally blur the background of your shot by again dragging an indicator on a slider - thus providing a similar shallow depth of field effect to that achievable with a DSLR and suitable aperture.
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For its fifth Live Guide option Olympus has retained the curiously named 'Express Motions', which to us has always sounded more like a bowel movement than the actual emphasizing of subject motion by introducing blur. Well, in fact, there's the option to both blur any movement or stop it in its tracks, again achievable by dragging a slider indicator. The last option on this tool bar is a on-board shooting hints and tips manual, with the usual 'suspects' of photographing children and pets given the most prominence ('take a picture at their height level' being a summation of the level of advice imparted). We even get tips, as a bit of closet advertising, for attaching Olympus accessories, such as lens converters.
Just below these two mid backplate buttons are dedicated and self-explanatory playback and image deletion buttons. The button above the four-way control pad on the E-P2 that was a singular function button is now the info button, and what was the info button on the E-P2 is now the menu button on the E-P3. Still with us? Again, because all these buttons are clearly marked, and they're largely the same if in a different order, switching from the E-P2 to E-P3 didn't leave us scratching our heads.
Apart from the continuous shooting/self timer option on the E-P3's backplate control dial/pad, the other three options to be found on this pad have changed. The dedicated ISO setting on the E-P2 has given way to exposure compensation on the E-P3, which feels like an unusual choice. White balance has been usurped by a flash settings option, which is more sensible, as is the ability to manually specify the AF point. Of course dragging a finger, and so the AF point, around the screen will achieve the same end, though inadvertently subsequently taping it will cause the shutter to fire. Yes, this facility can be deactivated by prodding the relevant shutter button icon on the touch screen, but it's just as easy to accidentally turn it on again; even via an action as incongruous as the button of your shirt connecting with the screen as you're wearing the E-P3 on a neck strap, or the thumb of your left hand straying as you handle the camera.
While chunky lugs for attaching said strap hang at either side of the camera, thankfully out of the way of fingers and controls, on the right hand flank, if viewing the camera from the back, we find a pair of covered ports for joint USB/AV output and mini HDMI output respectively. This cover, being a weaker plastic element amidst the surrounding brushed metal, is one of the very few flimsy points on the outwardly covetable camera.
Also plastic-y, but more reassuringly chunky, is the flip open cover protecting the joint battery and card compartment at the E-P3's base, which again is unaltered from the E-P1. There is the option here to use all varieties of SD media card, up to and including SDXC cards. Slightly off-centre is a screw thread for attaching a tripod.
The PS-BLS1 rechargeable lithium ion battery supplied with the E-P3 is good for around 330 shots; we were using the camera on and off over a two week period and the battery icon was only beginning to flash red towards the end of the second week. While all of the above may be suggesting to anyone who has formerly considered owning a digital Pen that now might be a good time to jump in, what of the pictures that the E-P3 produces. Can, or should we, expect any change from its predecessors?
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