A hands-on preview of the new Olympus PEN E-P3 compact system camera, accompanied by a gallery of images.
Successor to the PEN E-P2 which was introduced back in November 2009, the Olympus PEN E-P3 is the new flagship of the digital PEN fleet. Boasting a 35-point AF system that Olympus describes as the world’s fastest, the Olympus E-P3 also gains a pop-up flash, an AF assist light, a high-resolution OLED touchscreen, an upgraded accessory port, a redesigned user interface, a removable handgrip and a number of new Art Filters. In addition, the Olympus PEN E-P3 offers Full HD movie recording with manual exposure and gain control, and comes with a re-styled version of the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Mark II lens. At the same time, the new camera retains many of the essential features of its predecessor, such as the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, retro-looking metal housing, full set of manual controls, in-body image stabilisation and small size.
At the heart of the Olympus PEN E-P3 is a new and improved twelve-megapixel Live MOS sensor whose low-light performance is claimed to be better than that of the imagers used in earlier Olympus Micro Four Thirds models. Additionally, this chip is capable of supplying video signals at double the speed of previous PEN sensors, making it a key component of the E-P3’s number one highlight: FAST AF.
The Four Thirds sized sensor and the Micro Four Thirds lens mount of the Olympus E-P3
FAST AF (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology Autofocus) is described by Olympus as a “breakthrough in autofocus technology”. Fed by the new Live MOS sensor, this extremely speedy contrast-detect AF system also benefits from more powerful arithmetic processing and the “Movie & Stills Compatible” (MSC) technology built into the newer M.Zuiko Digital lenses. In actual use, we have found it to be blazingly fast indeed - while we haven’t got the means to verify or refute the “world’s fastest” claim, we can confidently say the E-P3’s autofocus is at least as fast as that of the Panasonic GH2/G3/GF3, quite possibly faster. In good light, we have found focus acquisition to be essentially instant, and there’s no shutter lag to speak of, either. In fact when using the E-P3’s Touch Shutter feature, we found that the camera basically took a picture the instant we touched the screen, with the subject in sharp focus. In low light the AF was still very fast while in near-darkness focus acquisition depended on whether the subject was within the range of the built-in AF assist light. The only time we experienced problems with focus lock was when we tried to focus on an almost featureless subject - but to be fair, that’s an extremely difficult task for any AF system.
Another standout feature of the Olympus PEN E-P3 is its new, high-resolution OLED screen. This is a tack sharp 3” monitor with a resolution of 614,000 dots (probably the same as the one found on the Olympus XZ-1), offering excellent colour retention even when viewed from the most extreme angles. Superb viewing angles notwithstanding we would still have liked the screen to be articulated, primarily because it can still be hard to see outdoors if the sunbeams are hitting it at a certain angle. As noted earlier, this screen is touch sensitive, and provides the user with a set of touch controls. Touch AF allows you to choose a focus point by touch, whilst the Touch Shutter functionality lets you focus and immediately take a picture, without pushing the shutter release. We’ve seen this functionality on other cameras before, but the Olympus E-P3, with its lightning-fast AF, takes it to a whole new level, as discussed above. A small, touch-sensitive virtual button allows you to toggle between Touch AF and Touch Shutter, and also lets you switch both functions off.
The PEN E-P3’s control layout has been revised since the E-P2. The mode dial has moved from its original position at the left of the flash hot shoe (when viewed from above and behind) to the right side, and is no longer recessed in the top plate. The primary reason for this change was that the engineers had to make room for the pop-up flash, which was missing from the E-P1 and E-P2, but as a side benefit the new position of the mode dial also allows it to be operated by the right hand rather than the left, which now has no other task than holding the lens and operating the zoom and focus rings. This move also made it necessary to change the position of the power button. Meanwhile the exposure compensation (EC) button has been turned into a customisable Function button, with EC now available via the Up button on the rear-mounted navigation pad. Since on the E-P2 this button was dedicated to ISO sensitivity, the E-P3 no longer has direct-button access to ISO settings. This would not be a huge problem if you could map this functionality to one of the Function buttons but alas, this is not the case. (You can reprogram the new Flash Mode button for quick ISO access but we’d rather like to be able to assign this function - and White Balance, which has also lost its dedicated control - to the first or the second Fn button.) New rear-mounted controls include a magnification button and a movie shutter release, both borrowed from the E-PL2. Both are welcome additions, although in use we have found the movie shutter button to be somewhat less sensitive and prompt than we’d have liked it to be. This button allows you to start recording a video clip at any time, even if you are not in the dedicated movie mode. However, if you would like to manually control video exposure and gain you will still need to turn the mode dial to the movie setting.
The Olympus E-P3 with its flash raised
You will be able to purchase the Olympus PEN E-P3 with the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens, which was first introduced with the PEN E-PL2, except it now has an ‘R’ suffix appended to its name that probably stands for ‘Restyled’. The changes are minor and concern the finish and the texture of the focus and zoom rings (a removable “beauty ring” has also been added to cover the front bayonet mount that allows you to attach a lens hood and add-on conversion lenses). Note that while this lens is basically only a cosmetic upgrade to the E-PL2’s kit zoom, it represents a major step forward versus the original Mark I version bundled with the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1 cameras. During our few hours of use of the E-P3 in Vienna, we mostly shot it with this lens attached, although we also took a few pictures with the new 12mm f/2 prime. Both lenses focused quietly and very-very quickly on the new camera.
Although we shall reserve final judgment until we can bring you a fully-fledged in-depth review, our initial impressions of the Olympus E-P3 are exceedingly positive. The camera is solidly made, very responsive, extremely fast to focus and has great manual controls (although as noted we missed the dedicated ISO and WB buttons). It’s also compatible with a wide array of accessories including add-on viewfinders, macro LED lights, flashguns, a Bluetooth transmitter and a great variety of lenses.
Below is a hands-on gallery of Olympus E-P3 photos showing it off from every angle.
Make sure to also check out our full-resolution sample shots and sample video captured with this camera.
Click on a thumbnail to see the full version.