New popup flash

The newest member of the Micro Four Thirds Olympus PEN family is without a doubt the company's best model to date. I was fortunate enough to receive an Olympus PEN E-P3 well before the camera's August release date in order to crank out this full review. At the end of my quest with the Olympus PEN E-P3, I was left in a mound of shrapnel from all of the exploding awesomeness that the camera succeeded in exuding throughout the course of my testing. Typically, a manufacturer will retain last year's imaging sensor and throw in a few additional scene modes or manual controls. Not Olympus. The E-P3 is a radical divergence from the first and second-generation Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 cameras.

First off, the E-P3 utilizes a capacitive touchscreen LCD for particular menu operations, focusing, and touch capture. I was skeptical at first, but wait until you read of my findings. Olympus also tacked on a pop-up flash that was missing in action on the E-P2, and significantly fortified the camera's Art Filter shooting mode. The addition of 1080i AVCHD video recording also graced the likes of the E-P3 in order to contend with Panasonic Micro Four Thirds machines like the Lumix DMC-GH2 and newly announced DMC-GF3. But the nacreous core of the Olympus E-P3 has been entirely revamped with a brand new 12MP Live MOS sensor and dual-core True Pic VI image processing. And how about the expanded 35-point AF, quicker focus times, manual controls in video mode, and, well, let's just start the engine and Zamboni our way through the full review.

Olympus PEN E-P3 Pros

  • Exceptional overall image quality and improved video quality
  • Revamped design and menus
  • Faster than a Kenyan
  • Most creative PEN yet with enhanced Art filters

Olympus PEN E-P3 Cons

  • Questionable noise at long exposures
  • Touchscreen a tad stubborn with small virtual buttons
  • 3D capability is limited to expensive 3D televisions

Best For: Advanced Amateurs, Students, Budget Photographers, Pros needing a compact alternative to a DSLR

Company Website: http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/cpg_digital_pen.asp

Suggested Retail Price:

Olympus PEN E-P3 Body with MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm II R f3.5/5.6 Zoom Lens $899.99.

Olympus PEN E-P3 Body with MSC M. Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f2.8 Prime Lens $899.99.

Olympus PEN E-P3 Design


Optional VF-2 electronic viewfinder attachment

Touchscreen LCDs have not been kicking around the digital camera circuit for that long, and the ones we've seen implemented on point-and-shoots leave much to be desired. That's why I was blown away to see that Olympus went with a 3-inch 610,000-pixel OLED capacitive touchscreen—yes, the same technology borrowed from smartphones. The screen also had a fingerprint-resistant coating that actually staved off smudges fairly well. Fortunately, Olympus retained all of the physical controls on the E-P3, including the circular Control dial, Barrel dial, and even added a Video Record button to the back. As a result, the touchscreen was optional, though we did find it helpful in Playback mode while swiping between images and double-tapping to zoom. Don't expect HTC Sensation type sensitivity here, for we did experience some minor lagging. But when it came to using the Touch Capture and Touch Focus functions, the Olympus E-P3 did not miss a beat.

I also welcomed the addition of the popup flash—a clutch feature that was missing from the Olympus E-P2. Since the Olympus E-P3 also carried over the hot shoe, I was now able to use the detachable electronic viewfinder in conjunction with the flash, rather than having to swap each accessory out. Olympus also redesigned the popup flash so that it deployed within a split second with oodles of Flash settings to choose from including multiple Slow Synchro and various shutter speed settings. Olympus also added to the E-P3's modular capabilities by including a removable right side grip that could be screwed into place with pocket change. A larger grip will also be available to further enhance the E-P3'a customization, and we could also leave it off if so desired.


Customizable grip

Now let's talk lenses. The Olympus E-P3 will ship in two variations—one comes with the 14-42mm II R f3.5/5.6 Zoom Lens while the other ships with the 17mm f2.8 Prime Lens. I recommend going for the 14-42, since it will cover more bases than the Prime will. Olympus was kind enough to send their new 12mm f/2.0 lens equipped with Snap Focus, which is a ring on the lens that can be snapped down to activate Manual Focus. The Micro Four Thirds lens family is developing, so there are some worthy options out there. Before we get into shooting features, it's worth noting that the Olympus E-P3 has Mini HDMI and USB/AV Out terminals and captures RAW/JPEG images and AVCHD/Motion JPEG videos to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. Overall, the E-P3 was nearly identical in size to the first and second generation PENs, but the camera's overall design trumped them both.

Olympus PEN E-P3 Shooting Features


Art filter variations

Courtesy of the Olympus PEN E-P3's dual core image sensor, the camera was capable of exhibiting one of the speediest Auto Focus performances I've ever seen. Olympus also expended the 9-box AF area to 35 boxes with the ability to adjust the box size to one of four different dimensions. I will say that the Auto Focus response on the Olympus E-P3 rivaled Speedy Gonzales and the Roadrunner on a 3-day Red Bull binge. We're talking split second lockdowns in rapid succession. The interface and firmware were also blazingly quick for a camera, and Olympus even heeded years of complaints regarding its drab menu designs and sexified the main menu on the E-P3. One of my favorite features was the new Tone Control function that adjusted shadows and highlights on the spot via a 14-point scale, similar to Shadow/Highlight control in Photoshop.

Olympus is known for its Art filters when it comes to the PEN family, and the E-P3 got the fireworks. I could now choose different filter types within a particular Art filter. For instance, Pop Art now offered a dark and a light variation, Soft Focus could shoot with a White Edge or Starlight effect, and Cross Process could be merged with Pin Hole effect. Those are just a few options, but the most exciting part about the Art filters was that they could now be bracketed. Say you want to shoot something with a gaggle of different in-camera filters. Well, all you have to do is go to Art Bracketing and select each filter you want. When you snap, the E-P3 will record the image in each of the variations that were selected and save them all individually. Furthermore, the E-P3 offered four other types of bracketing, including AE and WB.


Sexified new menu system

For beginners, Olympus spiffed up the Live Guide menu with touch-sensitive control and retained sliders such as "Change Color Saturation" and "Blur Background." Various new Scene modes also made their way onto the E-P3, including 3D! Yes, the Olympus E-P3 can shoot 3D pictures, though it lacked the capability of displaying them in 3D due to its standard LCD. As a result, the images have to be viewed on a 3D television, which are highly expensive and gimmicky. Still, the option was there. When it came down to the nitty gritty with manual controls, I loved the 60-second shutter for long exposures, expanded 12,800 ISO cap, and programmable Kelvin meter for White Balance. What I love about PEN cameras is that they are capable of delivering many of the advanced DSLR features in such a portable package.

Image Quality

One of the most bewildering moves on Olympus' part was their total renovation of the first and second-generation PEN image engines. I was completely geared for the same sensor from last year, but the company hit the dance floor with a brand new 4/3-size 12-megapixel Live MOS chip that enabled the E-P3 to reach that steep 12,800 ISO and record 1080i AVCHD videos. In fact the E-P3's, TruePic VI processor is a dual-core, so while one processor is working on storing an image, the other one is taking you right back to the camera mode so you can shoot again right away. The Live MOS sensor also utilizes pixel binning technology, which is aimed at smoothing diagonal lines in order to maximize smoothness and gradation.

Now specs are meaningless without results to back them up. In ideal lighting, the Olympus PEN E-P3 was a rockstar. Detail, color, gradation, and overall lifelike quality were exceptional. For dramatic portaits, the E-P3 will transcend most expectations. When I took the E-P3 under a glaring sun for some motorcycle photography, the camera retained that fantastic detail, though I had to dial down the Exposure Compensation to stave off blown highlights. That's where the Tone Control function came into play, so be prepared to manually adjust the E-P3 when lighting is not optimal.

In low light, the Olympus PEN E-P3's sensitivity and noise management at higher ISO levels was a definite improvement. I was able to shoot at ISO 1600 without thinking twice, and even 3200 yielded favorable results. At 12,800, gradation took a dive and noise was at its peak, though for quick emergency shots that are going to be sized down, the E-P3 proved itself as a high ISO champ. My main concern regarding overall image quality was discovered on the playground doing light graffiti at a 60-second shutter speed. While analyzing the images, they all had varying degrees of miniscule white noise that blanketed the entire image. I'm hoping this is a pre-production glitch, but it was certainly noticeable at full resolution, and rendered a few images unusable. I also encountered a dead pixel while shooting indoors at a higher ISO, so those were my only image-related frets.

On the bright side, video quality was improved, thanks to the AVCHD format and ability to manually adjust video parameters. While the E-P2 saddled us with .AVI Motion JPEG videos, the Olympus E-P3's AVCHD was a refreshing splash in the face. We could even shoot in Art Filters as well, and the E-P3 featured a built-in stereo microphone with enhanced sound quality. Low light sensitivity was even boosted, and the E-P3 finally showed the digital camera world that a PEN could match a Panny when it came to video.


Olympus-PEN-E-P3-DiagonalAs our quest comes to an end, I can reflect on the first two PEN cameras and find solace in the fact that Olympus is gaining speed rather than blowing smoke out of its exhaust pipe. The Olympus PEN E-P3 is a significant upgrade from the E-P2. It gave us a popup flash, touchscreen control, enhanced Art filters, customizable grip, robust manual control suite, AVCHD video, and several other nuances like Tone Control that made shooting all the more enjoyable.

But the fact that Olympus stuffed a brand new imaging engine and dual-core processor inside the E-P3 is a grand thing. The E-P3 was one of the quickest cameras I've ever shot with, and its image quality was at the tiptop of its game. The 3D portion of the camera was a bit gimmicky, especially since we could only view images on a 3D television, and the touchscreen was finicky at times. Also, I was concerned with that minute showering of faint noise that accompanied most of my long exposure shots.

But as an all-around, super versatile interchangeable lens camera, the Olympus E-P3 is definitely worth its $900 price tag. If you're looking to upgrade from that old point-and-shoot or even just looking for a compact companion for your DSLR, the Olympus E-P3 is a championship option. The best part is that the Olympus E-P2 will now be dropping in price, but if I were you, I'd hold out until August for the E-P3. Long live the PEN!