The Olympus E-P3 Review: Retro, Gorgeous and Powerful

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The Olympus E-P3 (also known as the Olympus PEN, EP3 and EP-3) is the company's new flagship Micro Four Thirds camera, and offers a mountain of new changes and upgrades over the previous models. Have you ever had upgrader's envy? Most photographers often feel the need to upgrade when a brand new camera (or the successor to theirs) is announced. If you're already invested into the system, this may be the camera that you'll want to take a closer look at. If not, then perhaps you'll fancy the new 12mm f/2.0.

Technical Jargon

The Olympus E-P3 houses a 12MP Micro Four Thirds sensor that has been developed internally for better dynamic range, color depth and high-ISO image noise control. In addition to these factors, the new sensor plays a big part of the new FAST AF system—making the lens, processing engine and sensor work together to deliver better images at a much faster rate than previously capable.

Upgrades from the E-P2:

- Interchangeable grips: Affix a DSLR-type grip, small rangefinder-styled grip, or no grip at all.

- A pop-up flash that extends out and up; this way the flash is more useful for fill-in.

- The microphones for recording video are placed right by the hot shoe—and there are two of them, which record to the left and right channels.

- The new hot shoe/accessory port now takes the new items, such as PENPAL for wireless upload of your images.

- The camera is now Eye-Fi enabled.

- The mode-selection dial is now on the top right of the camera—which is more similar to that of the Olympus EPL-2 and now the EPL-3.

- There are two FN buttons, one near the shutter release up top, and one around the back. FN1 replaces what was previously the AEL./AFL button.

- The camera now has a magnify button.

- The LCD screen is now 3", and has touchscreen functionality. It also has an anti-fingerprint coating.

- The camera's highest ISO setting is now 12,800.

- The E-P3 records video in 1080i at 60i, AVCHD.

- TruPicVI processing engine (dual-core processor)

- The Art Filters can be further modified and tweaked for more artistic control. For example, all of them can have a pinhole effect applied.

12mm F/2

The new Olympus 12mm f/2 has a 24mm field-of-view equivalent on a Micro Four Thirds sensor. It is silver, and has been designed to have a retro look to it. In fact, it looks a bit like an old Leica lens.

This isn't the only standout feature though: This is the first Olympus digital lens to allow manual focusing to be controlled from the lens. By simply sliding back the focusing ring, the user can enable manual focusing. Speaking of the ring, it feels buttery smooth to focus, with little resistance. It's not too smooth and not too loose; it's just right.

When you hold this lens, you know that it is being targeted at a core segment of the market. It will appeal to veteran photographers from the film days, fashionistas, and those interested in shooting video.

The lens is also very sharp wide open, and due to the nature of the focal length, it vignettes and distorts when shooting up close. All vignetting is gone by f/5.6, and at f/4 it's barely noticeable—unless you're looking at test charts.

As far as distortion goes, it's a problem that is easily corrected in post-production. I've only really seen it when shooting after getting up close and personal to someone's face.

The 12mm f/2 isn't a pancake lens, and it isn't anywhere as compact as the 17mm f/2.8, but it isn't a large lens either. It is still possible to stuff the camera into the Olympus Pen Premium Case with the lens attached.

Look and Feel

The Olympus E-P3 is a gorgeous camera, and almost Leica-like. When holding it, you feel like you're holding an item that has been well crafted, designed, and carefully thought out in the assembly. It feels a bit like the old-time rangefinder cameras, like the Leica CL, but feels more akin to the original Olympus PEN F camera from the film days.

The top of the camera as well, with the dials and buttons, reminds me a bit of the older cameras. But there's something that feels very modern about it—the addition of the pop-up flash. When the user is close to a subject, it provides some of the most even fill light I've seen from a camera. It's even better diffused with an item like the Gary Fong Puffer, due to the way it softens and distributes the light—when it's used correctly of course!

The back of the camera is characterized by some very simple, yet powerful controls. First off, it's important to note that nearly everything is easily controlled using one's right hand, due to the placement of the buttons and dials. Notice how nearly nothing requires the left hand, with the exception of perhaps the pop-up flash. What this means, practically speaking, is that you can spend more time with your left hand around the lens and your right hand where it belongs—gripping the camera.

The Olympus E-P3 retains the dials of its predecessor, and for the most part, all of the buttons—with the exception of the Auto Exposure/Autofocus lock. It has been replaced by FN1, which brings up the camera's Live Guide by default, but can be programmed to do other things, such as a depth-of-field preview. Also new to the camera is a magnification button, a one-touch movie-record button, and the exposure-compensation button, now located at the top of the circular dial.

Note that the only ports on the camera are HDMI out, and a USB port. With the camera's Eye-Fi compatibility, though, I've never needed to plug the camera into the computer.

Also note that the front grip can be removed simply by unscrewing it. The user can then choose to go gripless, or mate the camera with another grip.

Focusing

Focusing can be done in a few different ways with the Olympus E-P3:

- Like all regular cameras, one can half-press the shutter button and the camera will autofocus amongst its 35 AF points. You can choose which point you want by pressing the left button on the dial for semi-manual control.

- The new touchscreen has three different touch functionalities when it comes to shooting and focusing. The user can:

A. Press a spot on the screen, and the new FAST AF system will work together to focus on that area super quickly, and then take the shot. This works very well in combination with Olympus's image stabilization system.

B. Change the setting to manually place the reticule, and then adjust the size of it accordingly to be larger or smaller. Smaller reticules are very nice for focusing on fine/small objects, like the head of a toy.

C. Disable the touchscreen altogether.

Once again, focusing is done extremely quickly, among the fastest I've seen. My only peeve is that the same amazing focusing system becomes null in the camera's movie mode.

Image Quality

Note: These images were shot in small JPEG and then sized down for the web, with no editing done.

In previous Olympus cameras, the white balance/color temperature has often leaned towards the cooler side. That's been done away with, and the E-P3 now delivers extremely color-accurate images in nearly any lighting condition. Users that want to do less work in the post-production process will greatly appreciate this. However, I'd still bring along an Expodisk, just in case.

Additionally, the camera's metering is also quite commendable, and if you're not completely happy with your images, you have the option of setting the exposure manually, or applying an art filter for a wacky effect, or something really awesome.

The image above was shot with the Dramatic Tone art filter, and it gave it a bit of an HDR-type look. Notice the extra detail in the Truck Route sign.

Combined with the 12mm f/2, the camera and lens deliver very good detail, and provide a blurred background that is smooth, though not as creamy as options from Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica, to name a few.

High ISO

Noise control from the new TruPicVI processing engine is better than that of previous camera models, but still won't match options like the Nikon D7000, Fuji X100 and Canon 5D Mk II. To be fair, those cameras have significantly larger sensors, and are a different class of camera (with the exception of the Fuji). Make no mistake, you won't be able to match the Fuji X100's dynamic range and high-ISO noise control, but the E-P3's colors can be just as good (if not better).

The E-P3 retains lots of detail for a 12MP sensor when the noise reduction is turned off. Turn it back on, and you may lose certain things to smudging (if you're a pixel peeper, that is).

Most users will find the high-ISO ability of this camera to be good enough. Indeed, noise control has been a problem for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras for a while. A sigh of relief can now be breathed by investors into the system.

In Use for Real Life

The Olympus E-P3 has some of the fastest focusing of any camera that I've used while casually walking around in public. This is paramount during street photography. For the image above, I simply walked up to the gentleman, pointed the camera, tapped his face on the screen and the camera did the rest. It's really, really remarkable that technology has come to the point of where contrast detection is finally fast enough to be used for professional purposes.

If you're shooting a moving subject, though, just remember to pan with them.

What's even better is that the camera doesn't look intimidating at all. (I'm using the white one.) Additionally, when you bring the camera up to take a photo, you're naturally holding it like a point and shoot with a grip. All you need is to tap the screen and you'll be able to snap a photo and move on.

It's not all perfect, though: The camera's shutter could be quieter. It's not a loud slap like a medium format camera, but you'll hear the shutter if you're a couple feet away—the distance used by most street photographers. With that said, though, it doesn't exactly sound like a shutter—more like the sound of a magnetic button of a camera bag snapping shut.

When shooting wide open with a lens, one can come to really appreciate the depth of field preview functionality when programmed to one of the camera's custom program buttons.

Being able to adjust the reticule to be smaller or larger is also quite a lifesaver, due to the fact that it can help you to focus on tiny objects much more easily. Macro shooters will fall in love with that feature.

Conclusions

Overall, the new Olympus E-P3 is one heck of a powerhouse in a sleek package. Somehow, the company has found a way to combine versatility, power, and compactness into an almost (and I stress almost) perfect package. Users can choose from white, black or silver bodies, and further customize their camera with interchangeable grips to suit their needs and style. Additionally, they can choose to use the standard images that come out of the camera, or choose from the wide variety of art filters (then further fine tune them for even more unique looks!) The camera is also very light in the hand, and feels even a bit lighter than the EP-2. However, it doesn't feel like a toy, which is really nice for photographers that prefer that feel.

Perhaps one of the most important features of this camera is the new touchscreen. As a DSLR user, I'm not a big fan of touchscreens. However, this one is actually very good. I'm not alone on this one though—many of my co-workers felt the same way about this camera when they got to play with it. Indeed, it can be the very heart of controlling the camera, if you so choose.

The image quality from the newly developed sensor is also quite stellar, and the company should be praised for the successful effort. Combined with the new TruPicVI processing engine, the high-ISO noise control is also very good.

The TruPicVI engine is also part of the core trinity that affects the new FAST AF system. When the technicians held a meeting with me, it started to make sense that the lens, sensor and processor should work together to focus on an object. Granted, you'll get the best results with MSC lenses only. That means that with something like the 17mm f/2.8, you'll experience a bit slower performance, though it won't be like looking at molasses fall from the jug.

The combination of all this makes the Olympus E-P3 a winner in most aspects. The camera does have some quirks though, such as the metering in movie mode being thrown off when the 12mm F/2 is switched into manual mode (at least with my unit.) Also, the 1080i video has more jello than I'd like to my video. Finally, when the camera goes to sleep and then reawakens, the touchscreen won't always work, and may be deactivated. To remedy the problem, I've needed to turn the camera off and then back on again. Those are some of the main problems of the camera—nothing that can't be fixed with a firmware update. Hopefully the company will take the initiative and fix them.

But is it worth upgrading from the E-P2? It really depends. I can see why one would want to, with the mass of new changes, but the EP-2 is already very good. One would surely want to upgrade from the EP-1 and EPL-1. If the user wants better autofocus and significantly improved high-ISO abilities, they may consider selling their EPL-2 to our used store.

Myself, I'm still considering it. I've become smitten with the camera, but there are certain aspects of my E-P2 that I love (such as the further emphasis on simplicity). I've often used that camera as my ambient light body and the E-P3's pop-up flash (and wireless flash control) will make me want to purchase lots of Olympus flashes.

In the end, it's all about personal tastes. And the Olympus E-P3 has class, quality and good looks written all over it.

If you're interested, also consider looking at:

The Olympus EPL-3, which is around 25% smaller than the E-P3.

One of the standout features is a tilting LCD screen.

If you're a portrait photographer, the 45mm f/1.8 may be an object of desire for you.

Also the Olympus FL-300r is a new flash with a tilting body design, which makes shooting with bounce flash much easier.

Finally, the Olympus PEN Mini is even smaller, comes in a wide variety of colors, and is targeted towards those wanting to step up from a point-and-shoot to something more powerful, while retaining simplicity.

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nice camera