Olympus E-P3 Camera Review

If this were Microsoft, the third version would be the one where they got it right.


What is It?
The E-P3 is Olympus' third iteration of the micro 4/3 Pen concept, and comes just over two years since the original version. I mention that fact because, in two years in the camera business you expect a complete makeover of any individual model. If you're not familiar with the Pen concept, please read my E-P1 review before embarking on this one.

Just looking at the E-P3 versus the E-P2, the newer camera seems to be bigger. It isn't, at least in any meaningful way. Some of the subtle design cues--the chrome stripes around the camera, for example--produce optical illusions on casual glance. The materials used also have a subtle effect on how your eye sees the full product.

The front of the camera has a noticeable difference: the grip. The E-P1 and E-P2 had a shallow ramp of a built-in grip. The E-P3 has choosable grips. It comes with one that is shallow like the original, but is notched for finger hold. It's an improvement functionally, but aesthetically the large "screw" at the side holding the grip to the camera is ugly. An autofocus assist lamp is now on the left side as you face the camera and there are no microphone ports on the front of the E-P3 (they've moved to the top).

The E-P1/2 had a metal door over the connectors on the side of the camera, the E-P3 has a plastic one that feels odd compared to the other materials used on the camera, plus it has to be pulled out a bit due to the close proximity to the new optional grip. Feels flimsy compared to the old way, but still perfectly functional.

On the top of the camera we get some big changes. The Mode dial has moved from one side to the other and is no longer "embedded" but a rather shallow stick-up dial. The Mode dial on the E-P3 is not stiff and can be dislodged easily. The On/Off button (please, Olympus, a switch next time) moves from alongside the shutter release to offset slightly behind it. Unlike the outer green glowing ring of the older body we now get a dedicated blue LED. The LED is more obnoxious than the ring and is a step backwards. The exposure compensation button has changed into the FN2 button, which is programmable and defaults to exposure compensation. Unfortunately, this isn't exposure compensation the old way (hold button and rotate dial), it's new: press button, rotate dial, press button. True, you can directly assign exposure compensation to the dial (no button push), but because of your hand position on the camera, some may find that this has a tendency to induce accidental exposure compensation. Nice that Olympus gives us the option, but it feels like both options are a little sub-optimal.

The microphone inputs are now on the top of the camera, I suppose because Olympus now thinks we users want to talk to our camera while recording videos. So much for weatherproofing. 

The big addition up top is a pop-up flash. The mechansim for popping it out of the body looks a bit like it's out of a Transformers movie (e.g. a bit complex) and, surprisingly after the E-PL series, is not tiltable. Indeed, even a small bit of pressure downward on the flash when it's popped up will cause it to not fire. A step backward.

It's on the back of the camera that we see the most obvious differences. The E-P3 has a wider, better LCD (though surprisingly, it's aspect ratio is not optimized for 4:3 or 16:9, so you get bars of not useful space when framing). The LCD is touch-sensitive and can be used to do things like set the point that will be focused on, fire the shutter, choose functions, and the usual flicks and pinches in playback.

The big discussion topic, though, is the "button realignment." We get a dedicated Record Movie button and lose the AE-L/AF-L button. The playback button moves from being #2 on the stack to #3, the delete button from #3 to #4, the Menu button moves off stack and goes where the Info button used to go, the Info button moves up to where the Fn button was, and the Fn1 button now appears at #2 in the stack. If that weren't enough, on the Direction pad up was ISO and now is exposure compensation, left was AF and now is ..., down stays the same, and right was WB and now is flash. We've lost Protect as a button function and gained zoom and thumbnail buttons (the latter of which doubles as Fn1).

I wrote it that way for a reason. Sounds like a lot of nonsensical migration, right? It is in one sense. The original E-P1 and E-P2 design was unorganized. The vertical four-stack went: shooting function, playback function, playback function, camera setting function. Now they go playback function, playback function, playback function, playback function (though two of them also have some shooting functionality. So in one sense, things have improved. But in another, they haven't. By making the Fn1 button one the second of a stack, you can't easily find it while shooting by touch only. You'll grope around trying to read the braile layout and maybe find it (which isn't good, because it's default is a useful AE-L/AF-L function). 

To me, Olympus has gone from bad to bad. While there's some organization to the buttons, finding what you want to set will be "look to see what I'm pressing" game. Of course, as long as you're composing with the color LCD, that's not a terrible problem. Put one of the optional electronic viewfinders (EVF) on and look through it and you'd better have small fingers and good muscle memory, though. And, oh, in winter? Forget it. Apparently no one ever wears gloves in the Olympus camera design group. Not even thin ones. 

As with the E-P1 and E-P2 we still have the "accidental setting" problem. Set what I feel is the most useful way (and some of it is the default), the chances of accidentally bumping a control and having something changed on you is still very, very high. Instead of "if it ain't broken, don't fix it," the Olympus mantra seems to be "if it's broken, don't change it." In over two years of shooting with the Pens, I've lost at least a dozen shots because of this problem as I pull the camera out of the bag and try to frame something up quickly only to find that a critical setting is no longer where I want it. Coupled now with a Mode dial that can get reset by brushing against it, I can see I'm going to lose more pictures. Obviously, Olympus rethought the rear controls since they moved all of them, but they didn't bother rethinking one critical thing: what happens when they're bumped. 

I saw someone elsewhere rave about the new menus and icons. Must be a twenty-year old. The font used is indeed less crude, but it's way smaller (and Olympus is now using lower case, too). There are gratuitous graphics (guess they had some extra firmware space), and adding different colors to A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. does help you realize you've changed sections while scrolling through the long list of custom settings. But the one thing that Olympus did that helps the menus most is put a constant Help box under the selections as you scroll through. Wonder what Art LV Mode is? Well, now you also get the helpful "Choose how art filter effects are displayed on the monitor." Bingo. For me, the new fonts and colors and visual gee-wiz add very little, if anything, but the one thing that does make a difference is that Olympus actually paid some attention to the information being displayed. Contextual help is good. Small fonts, bad. 

On the plus side, Olympus hasn't messed much with some basic things: the hot shoe is still centered over the lens, the battery is updated but compatible with the old one, the accessory connector under the hot shoe still lets you run all your old accessories (EVF, PenPal, etc.). 

So let's go inside and see what's new there.

Olympus says it's a new Olympus-designed sensor. I'm guessing no. It may be Olympus-tweaked, but it isn't a new sensor in the sense that its underlying sensels have changed. The big change in the sensor is in how it offloads information: basically the sensor can pull 120 fps off at least some subset of the photosites instead of 60 fps. That's not a video thing, it's a display refresh and data-for-focus-system thing. You can see the refresh difference by pointing at a television screen: the interference patterns are different (the TV screen is outputting at some fps, often interlaced, and the camera is inputting at some fps, not interlaced, so you typically get beat patterns when these aren't matched; a difference in beat pattern indicates different refresh). It's extremely subtle on static scenes, but I get a more stable sense of the live view out of the new system than the old, and that's probably due to a higher refresh rate.

For focus, 120 fps means more information for the focus system and more importantly, less lag in the last update prior to snap. Personally, I never found the Single Servo focus speed of the E-P1 and E-P2 to be all that limiting in my shooting, but the E-P3 is noticeably quicker. It feels like "half the time," which likely it is close to because of the doubling of frame rate. In Continuous Servo, however, things aren't so great. We basically have the same behavior as before, only faster. What do I mean? Well, there are two components to continuous focus that tend to rob you of shots: lag before changing focus, and a quick in-out-in change as focus is reaquired. Both lead to a lot of out of focus shots in continuous shooting, in my experience. The fact that the system is "faster" doesn't necessarily help with either problem as much as we'd like. Yes, the lag is shorter, but it is still present and significant. Yes, the in-out-in is performed faster, but it, too, is still there and significant. An improvement, yes, but is it truly usable (i.e. is the E-P3 now capable of solid sports action?), no. 

We also now get 35-area AF (up from 11 or 25). I should also note that Olympus in technical briefings also talks about faster focus motors in some lenses. They use the value 3x in terms of motor speed, but I'm not sure that accurately describes the difference. There are lot of things that are relevant in focus motor performance (torque, speed, accuracy, etc.), so I'll just report the marketing number and say that, yes, it does appear that some of the revised and newer lenses have more spunk to them than the older model. 

Once again video is a bit behind the times: we get 1080i/60 and 720P/60 as the max outputs, but the AVCHD compression is a little heavy, maxing out at 17Mbps (with a lower quality of 13Mbps available, too). If you want something more editing friendly, there's also a 720P/30 Motion-JPEG option that would be of lower visual quality. Olympus does make a very nice and compact stereo microphone (EMA-1) that plugs into the electrical connections behind the hot shoe, and audio as you'd expect from Olympus is top notch (Dobly Digital for AVCHD, 16-bit 48Khz PCM for Motion-JPEG). One nice thing about recording videos is that you can get manual exposure control if you want it, and the experimental amongst you will probably like that some Art Filters can be applied as well.

The built-in flash isn't very powerful, but it's flexible. The GN of 10m (at base ISO) means at f/5.6 you've got not quite a 2m range (maybe 5-6 feet). Besides doing TTL flash, you've also got manual flash at full down to 1/64 power, plus wireless flash capabilities (up to 4 channels, 3 groups plus the built-in flash). The system is compatible with the FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, and FL300R flash units from Olympus, so you've got a range of larger, more powerful flash options, as well.

Rounding out some of the feature list are things like 2, 3, 5 or 7 frame exposure bracketing (7 frame maxes out at 0.7 EV steps for some odd reason), 3-frame white balance bracketing, 60 second to 1/4000 second shutter, 1/180 flash sync, 3 fps continuous shooting speed (unlimited JPEG buffer, 17 shot raw), and a ton of scene modes and art filters. 

Kudos to Olympus for keeping battery continuity in the line. The original models used the BLS-1, and that can be used in the E-P3. More recent Pen models have used the BLS-5, and that's what comes with the E-P3.  

How's it Handle?
I've already addressed a number of points in the first section of this review, but I've a few further comments.

The touchscreen bit is, well, both a gimmick and a useful thing. Because the camera is reasonably responsive in focus performance, you can literally touch the screen where you want focus and get a near instantaneous shutter release in many situations. I can usually manage to keep the camera still with both hands and do that with my left thumb. Great.

But you'd better remember to turn that off when you're not using it. In heated shooting in Africa I kept forgetting to turn it off and kept getting random shots when I touched the screen with some other part of my body accidentally. This is just another example of what I call "fussiness." Coupled with the other accidental setting possibilities, you have to be a quite attentive shooter to make sure you camera isn't doing something you don't want it to.

Sure, you can turn off all the things that might cause an accidental shot or setting, but then the camera becomes less spontaneous--indeed, some things will then get buried in menus if you want to change them. There has to be a better set of design choices than the ones Olympus made.

I've already touched on the small buttons, but almost everything is small. The wheel around the control pad is smaller than the Canon S90/95/100's! My mom when she finds controls this small gets out her "stick" and starts poking at them. If you've got large hands, are using gloves, or just don't have a lot of finger dexterity, the E-P3 (and it's predecessors) are not for you. 

It's not just the small size of the controls, it's their location relative to one another, too. I've got a Nikon 1 on my desk at the same time as I'm writing this, and I'm struck by how Nikon carefully arranged the small buttons (still bigger than Olympus's) so that the were obviously set apart. I'm sure in Japan this is no big thing. I've encountered many Japanese products intended for their home market where button proliferation and closeness just don't seem to bother anyone. But it makes you stop and think about why the Pen series is so popular in Japan but not so much in the US. It very well could be that they simply aren't designing right for a global market. 

The new optional grips are a nice touch, as it makes it far easier to one-hand the camera, but let me simplify it for you: get the biggest grip they make. Why? Because even the biggest one isn't going to stick out past any lens you put on the camera, and bigger is better for a camera you're likely to handhold a lot. We actually didn't need optional grips at all, we just needed the big one.

It's still not obvious which way to insert a battery (Nikon got this right with their curved fronts on their DSLR batteries), which always frustrates me when I'm in a hurry to change batteries. 

The Mode dial is much more likely to move when you're handling the camera (or taking it out of a bag or putting it away). The new shutter release does have a nice feel to it.

Some may wonder why I'm so critical about small details on this camera (and its predecessors). One simple reason: I like it. The E-P3 is currently the mirrorless camera I'm most likely to pick up if I want to go light. Some of that is availability of lenses, some is image quality at low ISO values, some is that I've found it reliable in my types of shooting, and given where I've dragged these cameras all over the world, they've proven reliable, too. 

But it's those little details I've written about here that constantly present some level of frustration to me. I'm of the opinion that a good camera design should never do anything that gets in the photographer's way of getting the shot at the very precise moment in time he or she wants it. Too often the things I've written about above do just that.

If you take one shot at a time in a careful, controlled manner and are very diligent about running an instrument check before each shot (hope the subject didn't move ;~), then you might actually love the E-P3. For me, though, handling remains the one area of concern. I have to watch the camera too much, when I should be watching my subjects.

How's it Perform?
Let's get the simpler part out of the way first: image quality in raw files is as close to identical as the E-P1 and E-P2 as to ignore any difference that might be there. I've never been disappointed with the raw files I get from the P# series, and the E-P3 is no different. 

There is a small change in JPEG quality. I'm not sure it's for the better or worse, as basically it appears to me that the noise reduction is working harder. That means less noise, but it also means edge acuity changes for the worse. It's not a big change, but it's definitely there. There's also more contrast in the high ISO JPEG results than before, which tries to make up for the noise reduction blurring. It's a tough judgment call--some people will like the new high ISO JPEG handling better, some won't. I could go either way.

Olympus made a big deal of the autofocus system ("Blazing fast" and "World's Fastest AF speed") at the launch of this camera. You probably want to know whether they were pulling a fast one (pardon the pun) or telling the truth. The answer is both. 

There's no doubt that with the new lenses in good light AF acquisition for AF-S is noticeably faster. Yes, probably in DSLR class speed for acquisition. So it's snappy, right? Not so fast, dear reader. Put the camera in AF-C (continuous autofocus) and you start to see that it's not quite up to the DSLR level. It certainly is far better than the initial Pens, but you're not going to be shooting NBA basketball at court level and getting solid tracking focus. As with most contrast focus systems, it has a tendency to overshoot and respond on motion towards or away from the camera.

That said, I've actually got no real complaints about the autofocus system. It's fast enough for most purposes. Just don't think that you've got a Nikon D3s or Canon 1DIV in your hands. Not even close. But you do have something that's better than most contrast-based focus systems on the market.

Final Thoughts
The sad thing is that we're now in year three of the Pen, and the E-P3 hasn't really budged the image quality bar. It's a solid 2009-era 12mp camera. Unfortunately, it's 2011. I'd expect more than a small nudge on noise reduction in terms of image quality change at this point. That said, go look at my gallery photos that were taken with Pens: with care you can extract some very nice 12mp data out of these cameras. Still, I'm extracting 16 to 24mp out of other competitive cameras, and in many cases better.

For me, the choice of the E-P3 over most of the other mirrorless cameras I have available to me boils down to lenses. I can pretty much duplicate my full frame kit with m4/3 lenses at this point, and not just any old lenses, but optically very good ones. So the E-P3 is my current backcountry camera of choice, where I'm on those long 10-mile or longer dayhikes to exotic locations far from the road. Given the type of photography I normally do (nature and scenic), my camera of choice really ought to be a Sony NEX. The problem is that the lenses for NEX aren't there yet.

And that's the thing about all the mirrorless cameras: they aren't a full system camera (e.g. Nikon D3s), nor are they a compact camera (e.g. Coolpix). They're compromise cameras. No matter which one you pick, there will be things that you're compromising. So far, the different camera makers have been compromising different things, which might make your choice easy or tough. 

I can say that overall I remain pleased with my Pen cameras and have gotten shots with them I wouldn't have gotten with something else. I have to take more care about some things than I'd like, but I don't mind that too much for the benefits I get: small, light and competent. My earlier Pens made it through drops, blizzards, sand storms, elephant charges, bouncing around in planes and vehicles, and a host of other challenges. Some of the other mirrorless cameras I've tried didn't survive as well (my original Sony NEX-5 is a sad-looking hunk, done in by a horse ride and a rock climb on which my Panasonic GF1 and Olympus E-P2 came through unscathed).  

2018: this model is out of production and no longer available new. But used copies can easily be found. Also look at a current model, which would be the E-P7.

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