Olympus Pen E-P3 hands-on

Olympus has carved out a crafty little niche in the camera market with its trendy take on the compact mirrorless camera. Previous generations of Pen cameras were adopted for their looks as much as their size and portability. 

The entry level DSLR however has always succeeded in outdoing the Olympus offerings, providing just that little bit more bang for your buck specs-wise. At first glance the E-P3 looks like it might just have caught up with the competition. All the functions are there; proper HD video, touchscreen, in-camera Art Filters and a decent ISO response.

The increasing number of mirrorless Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market also force Olympus to up the ante. Just recently Panasonic pulled the fastest autofocus card with its Lumix GF3. The E-P3 now claims to have outpaced it.

Pick up the E-P3 and you are greeted with a reassuring light yet robust feel. The choice of black, white and silver metallic finish all handle slightly differently. The camera is a combination of tough metal on top and bottom with less exciting plastic wraparound. Personally we liked the look of the black, but the silver offering was by far the most pleasing to the touch. 

The advantage of mirrorless systems is undoubtedly in the weight department. An afternoon spent snapping with the E-P3 left us feeling like we barely had it round our necks. A welcome relief from even the smallest of DSLR competition. All this weight sacrifice can however leave you feeling like you don’t quite have £800 of camera in your hand. 

On the back of the E-P3 is a 3-inch OLED touchscreen. The display boasts no less than 614,000 dots, meaning highly accurate reproductions of snaps. From here just about everything can be controlled camera wise, including ISO, aperture and various other system settings. The screen looked like it coped well in direct sunlight and managed to reproduce our photographic masterpieces with relative vibrancy and clarity. One minor niggle was that the touch to shoot function caused us to constantly snap by accident when holding the camera up to snap.

A left-right scroll wheel is used to control aperture, whilst shutter speed is governed by a round dial. This also acts as a click wheel with which you can navigate menus and options. The wheel itself is tiny, meaning we did manage a few accidental clicks thanks to our abnormally large thumbs. That said controls were silky smooth and it felt nice to have access to a full manual mode on such a tiny camera. 

A set of customisable function buttons, pop up flash, mode select dial and on off switch sit on top of the E-P3. The mode dial can be used to switch to Olympus’s dedicated Art Filters, a sort of in-camera Photoshop that allows for rapid sprucing up of shots. Things like grainy black and white film, bleach bypass and pop art are all included. These can also be stacked on top of each other to create new effects.

Menu-wise, Olympus has kept it as simple as possible. Shooting can be carried out without ever needing to enter the cameras' menu at all. Everything will run smoothly on auto and can be adjusted from within the live view display. There are of course much deeper customisation options, like ISO range, EV comp and things like focus beep, which can be done within camera menus. 

The included Live Guide aims to make photography as easy as possible. Doing away with complex terminology and instead offering sliders for background blur control and saturation. Those who want more control over colour can use dedicated settings like i-Enhance and portrait mode.

The TruePic VI powered 12-megapixel sensor brings with it a much speeded up shooting and autofocus system. Olympus claims to retain the AF speed crown with the E-P3 and from our brief hands-on, we don’t disagree. We pitted the 35 point system against that of a Nikon D700 and the E-P3 most definitely kept up. That said until we truly push the system in low light situations and against awkward to focus objects, it is difficult to say. 

One noticeable jump over the E-P3's predecessor is in the ISO department. The camera now goes up to a maximum of 12800, control over which can be carried out automatically by the TruePic engine.

The E-P3 has done away with most of the nasty shutter lag you get on mirrorless cameras, snapping at the same speed as a DSLR. Olympus also claims an approximately 3 frames per sec shutter with the E-P3. There is a very quick video recording response time. A tap of the dedicated video button will almost instantaneously begin 1080i AVCHD recording. 

All things point to the E-P3 as being a pretty persuasive offering into the mirrorless camera market. The price tag of £800 for lens and body could however persuade many otherwise. From our brief time with the Pen it looks to be a rounded and capable camera package that could be well worthy of the cost. Check back soon for Pocket-lint’s verdict on the brand new mirrorless flagship. 

Mirrorless your thing? Or are you a DSLR kind of person?