High Performance: Test Driving the New Olympus E-P3 Camera System

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Since the release of the original Olympus Pen cameras about two years back, there’s been a growing interest in Four Third and Micro Four Third format mirrorless cameras, based on the promise of DSLR image quality in a smaller, lighter package. Although the first Digital Pens delivered decent image quality, they fell short in terms of autofocus performance, especially in low light. Based on an hour or so of prowling the streets of midtown Manhattan with an early sample of the Olympus E-P3, I’m pleased to say the new camera performs the way you’d expect a camera of this intended caliber to perform.

Visually, the Olympus Pen E-P3 bears strong resemblance to its predecessors, which should sit well with Olympus enthusiasts. But it’s the performance levels of the camera that truly count—and performance is where the E-P3 quickly parts from previous-generation Olympus Pens. The good vibes start when you pick up the new Digital Pen. The camera, which features all-metal construction, has more of a solid feel than most DSLRs in its price class, and the sound of the E-P3’s shutter is firm and reassuring compared to the tinnier tones common to other cameras in the E-P3’s price range.

As mentioned up front, the all-new 35-point FAST AF Tracking System employed by the E-P3 performed lightning fast, and seemed to have no trouble finding its target. It’s safe to say if the new AF system was in place when the original Digital Pen was introduced there’d be a lot more people slinging “E-Ps” over their shoulders today. But such is life…

The E-P3 captures stills (JPEG or RAW) and up to 29 continuous minutes of full-HD video (1080 60i with uncompressed CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz Linear PCM stereo recording or AC3 Dolby Digital Audio) for which the Olympus Pen E-P3 relies on a new 12.3MP Live MOS imaging sensor, which is supported by an also-new TruePic VI image processor.

For composing and reviewing your stills and video, the E-P3 sports a bright 3.0” (614,000-dot) OLED screen that displays life-like imagery in all but the brightest lighting conditions.

Note: If you plop down the bucks for an Olympus E-P3 or any other mirrorless camera, for that matter, go the extra mile and get the optional Olympus VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder… you’ll thank me for this one… promise.

For critical eyeballing of stills, you can quickly zoom in up to 14x by rolling a silver thumbwheel that sits adjacent to the OLED screen, though on the few frames I shot at Medium resolution, the images started appearing mushy once I zoomed past about the 5x mark (full-res images looked fine). As for the other control dials and buttons that adorn the rear panel of the camera, the layout and logic behind them is quite traditional, though I found the font size used to label these dials and buttons to be smaller than the font sizes used on tinier cameras, and without my reading glasses, they were difficult to decipher.

The Pen E-P3 has a hot shoe for attaching accessory flashguns, GPS devices and perhaps more importantly, the previously mentioned VF-2 electronic viewfinder. There’s also a built-in pop-up flash, which rises up and out about an inch above the top deck, with the flip of a switch.

Our test shots were captured under sunny skies at the camera’s native ISO 200, and while the E-P3’s ISO sensitivity range extends all the way to 12800, we didn’t have an opportunity to test the camera at the higher ISO ranges. We hope to explore these upper reaches in a follow-up review in the near future. As for the pictures we did capture during our less-than-three-hour tour, they were quite impressive.

Other standard features found on the Olympus E-P3 include burst rates of up to 3 frames per second, multiple-exposure capability, film emulsion emulators for a selection of popular Fuji transparency films as well as monochrome, a choice of aspect ratios, a 3D still mode, image overlay (up to 3 RAW image files), 3 image stabilization modes, more than 20 Scene modes and a choice of 10 Art Filters that can be applied in camera to both stills and video. Monochrome enthusiasts will also want to take advantage of yellow, red, orange and green filter emulators designed for use with the camera’s black-and-white capture mode.

Our test camera, finished in white enamel with two thin silver belt lines going around the upper and lower portions of the camera body, was outfitted with an M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0, Olympus’s new high speed wide-angle lens. Like the E-P3, the new lens features all-metal construction, is solid to the touch, and unlike many AF lenses nowadays, displays zero in the way of wiggle and jiggle—it’s a solid piece of glass! For times you want to focus in manual mode, it’s simply a matter of pulling the focus ring back a notch, which engages the lens’s manual focusing mechanism. Here too, the E-P3 shines in terms of smooth, solid performance. 

The Olympus E-P3 will be available in a choice of white, black, and silver, is coming in August, along with the M.Zuiko 12mm f/2.0, available sometime in July, and its new telephoto counterpart, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8, expected sometime in September.

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Would have liked to have seen more detail about how the new features handled like the autofocus light, and the new autofocus points. Furthermore why no low light testing? Would have liked to have seen more of that. One last note, why weren't any decent landscape shots taken with no filtering? It seems like all the shots seem to have a dark shade over them and not really showing the full light capture ability of the new processor.

Would like to read a more indepth review before considering this. Was let down severely by my e-pl1, which I use as a point-and-shoot and have put it away to gather dust which is a shame.

The sample photos are good but they captured with a $800 lens and the camera itself is $900. Throw in an additional $250 for an EVF. Memory cards and additional batteries will make it past magic $2K mark. Only for enthusiasts I think. Nobody would want to build a semi DSLR system unless they are convinced that the Semi Pro-level DSLRs are not for them. Then there is limited (but may be growing) selection of lenses. Tough buy for me!