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When Olympus first announced the PEN series cameras, they received much attention. Part of this was because they took a bunch of bloggers and “journalists” and gave them cameras to play with before anyone else had seen them and surprise, the camera got good reviews. It deserved some of those good reviews, perhaps not the super enthusiastic ones. Like all first generation cameras it had issues. Proof? Olympus continues to improve the camera line and in the the third version E-P3 we see lots of improvements.
I was lucky enough to be able to purchase one of the first units shipping in the USA (thanks Adorama) and I ordered the kit with the 17mm Pancake lens and the EVF (Electronic View Finder.) I also bought the SEMA-1 Microphone Adapter Set which allows you to connect an external mic to the camera and provides a decent quality stereo lav mic. I tested the camera the next day just walking around my neighborhood, so don’t look for any Pulitzer Prize Winners. All images are essentially unprocessed in Aperture and may be cropped as indicated.
My first thought was that it’s brilliant of Olympus to give photographers a choice in the kit lens. Most people will pick the 14-42 F/3.5-5.6 zoom. But I think the better choice is the 17mm F/2.8. The zoom (which I previously tested with the E-P1) is a good but not great lens. The 17mm lens (which has an effective focal length of 34mm on the 2x E-P3 sensor) promises to be much better. No matter which lens you select, the price is the same – $899. I wish more camera companies would adopt this idea and give you a choice of kit lens. Way to go Olympus.
On to the basics. The sensor is sort of new – it’s 1 12.3 MP Live MOS design, but it appears to be closely tied to the old sensor design. The sensor performance in my limited test is no different than it was on the previous cameras. The autofocus is absolutely new sporting a “120 Hz Fast AF” system. There are now 35 AF point areas. There is now a built-in flash. The old flash had to mount on the accessory shoe and it meant giving up some utility. Now the flash is built-in and out of the way so you can still use the accessory port for the EVF or other accessories. What’s nice about the flash placement is that it is off center and therefore, will automatically produce less “red eye” effect than one that is mounted on the center of the camera. As for other features: Important to me is the new movie recording capability. It’s bumped to 1080i60 AVCHD format. There’s an improved interface that includes a simple movie record trigger. You can use a built-in mic or via the accessory shoe use external mics.
On the new camera – the grip is now removable and you even have a choice of grips – great for people with small or large hands who are often frustrated by standard camera grips.
I should also note the E-P3 is replete with new “art filters” and special auto modes. I played with a few of them but personally prefer to do those effects in post. If you do them in camera you are stuck with them.
The camera is solid, well built yet light weight. And not that I care, but it is very attractive. It has an unbelievably clear OLED screen that’s very readable, even in bright sunlight. The menus are beautiful and well constructed. It’s probably the best screen I’ve seen on a digital camera at any price. (One thing to note about the screen is that it is unfortunately, not color accurate so don’t think you can rely on it to tell you if you’ve got the color you want.)
Even with the improved OLED screen there are just times you’ll want a closer – more traditional look at the image. Enter the VF-2 electronic viewfinder from Olympus. It’s big, bulky and expensive but wow it is nice. It moves on an angle so you can look down into or it or straight through it and if I don’t need the accessory port for something like a wired mic, I use the EVF all the time.
The first thing I noticed about the camera while shooting is that it’s autofocus is very fast. It’s unusual for these types of cameras to have AF speeds that compete with DSLRs but in this case, the E-P3 is in that league. Olympus even added an AF assist illuminator similar to those used by Canon and Nikon on their DSLRs.
There is no noticeable shutter lag. The menus are easier to navigate. The buttons on the camera make more sense. Just about everything you want to know about as a shooter is improved. Except one important thing.
Low-light sensitivity is still slightly sub-par.
My biggest beef with the E-P1 and E-P2 was poor low-light performance. This appears to be unchanged, even with the new version of the old sensor. I think the problem is that the physical limitations of a small sensor make it nearly impossible to produce superb low-light performance. For me, ISO 800 (maybe 1250 in some cases) is about the limit for this camera and I prefer ISO 400. In bright light, the image quality is stunning. In low light, not so much. (Your mileage and opinion may vary.)
In good light, images are sharp, clear, vivid and offer good color with minimum distortion.
Save this one short coming, (low-light performance) the E-P3 would be the end of the discussion. It would be THE camera to own in this category. It’s probably the best at the moment in any event, but until Olympus makes a bigger EVIL sensor for this camera or, via processing, deals with the poor low-light performance, the E-P3 won’t be king of the hill for long.
There are a few other small things I don’t like about this camera. One I really, really don’t like. You have to use a special cable from Olympus to connect the camera to a computer in order to update the firmware. This is stupid, inefficient and unnecessary. If you misplace the cable you have to try to get another one before you can update your firmware. Simple update via file to memory card is practiced by 98% of the industry. Why does Olympus feel the need to make this hard? So they can make a few extra bucks selling cables? This really annoys me but may be no big deal to you.
If you want to mount a tripod/ball head place to the bottom of the E-P3 you will almost certainly have to unscrew it every time you need to change the battery or the memory card. This is very inconvenient. Other manufacturers of compact cameras have the good sense to mount the tripod hole off center, away from the battery/memory card compartment so you don’t have to go through this step.
The Olympus E-P3 is probably the best camera in its class – for now at least. Compared with the hot Fuji X100 the Olympus is in my opinion, a much better choice. It’s about the same size and price, is more mature, works well on every level, offers interchangeable lenses, has better video and audio and a much better autofocus.
The E-P3 is faster, has a better interface, and better AF than its predecessors. Olympus needs to have a new – and I mean all new sensor to replace this one by the time the next version comes out and it needs better low-light performance. But despite all this – as it sits, it’s a great product. This camera would make an excellent street camera and is starting to grow into something I could easily carry as a backup body. So far, I really like it. Highly recommended.
Olympus is also promising two new lenses for this camera – The Olympus M. Zuiko Digital 12mm 1:2 and M. ZD 45mm 1:1.8. These are very exciting focal lengths. This is the sort of thing the micro 4/3 systems have needed to gain credibility. These two fast lenses with attractive focal lengths are on order and will nicely round out my E-P3 kit – they are slated to appear sometime in September.
Also note that Aperture does not support the conversion of RAW files for the E-P3 as of yet. ACR 6.5 (Beta) does support this format. I expect that Aperture soon will support the format as the camera becomes widely available. For now, you can use the somewhat clunky but never-the-less effective Olympus View software to convert to tiffs or ACR.