Olympus have only just unveiled their brand new flagship Pen E-P3 camera and we were on hand to take a look.

The new Pen is a major step in the right direction for the mirrorless camera, boasting what could be a spec sheet that brings it up to speed with the DSLR competition. Until now Micro Four Thirds systems have tended to struggle in the autofocus and low light department. Olympus plans to change all that with a 12,800 ISO range and what they are saying is the speediest AF system on any interchangeable lens camera system to date.

The E-P3 is designed to be as portable and compact as possible whilst not sacrificing any of the photographic capability a keen amateur might expect. This means a 120 x 69 x 34mm body that weighs just 321g. Lightweight indeed ... but pick the camera up and you don’t get that solid and sturdy feel which some of the more meatier entry level DSLR competition offers. That said, a good afternoon shooting left us with very little neck ache and we could easily see the camera being a more powerful replacement to the portable holiday compact.

In terms of design, Olympus has kept things retro with the Pen. Previous models have enjoyed relative success in many cases simply because they carried the trendy film camera look. The new E-P3 is no exception. There is however a marked difference in feel between the three different colour options. The black is by far the most pleasing to the eye, carrying a Leica-esque style that isn’t really offered by other Micro Four Thirds systems. The white has a slightly cheaper feeling finish, whilst the silver definitely carries that extra quality edge.

Ergonomically the Pen, whilst being compact sized, manages to handle more like a rangefinder or old film 35mm film camera. As we discovered this size makes it the perfect street photography companion for those who can’t afford much more expensive rangefinder alternatives. Discreet and silent (once you turn the focus bleep off), it was perfect for an afternoon of people snapping.

One problem we did notice was that the on/off button, shutter and Fn2 keys are placed dangerously close to each other. Whilst a minor niggle, it does mean that you can occasionally switch the camera off just prior to taking a snap. On the subject of Fn keys, it is really nice to see customisable buttons on an amateur level camera.

Another slightly bizarre design choice is the lens lock. Essentially a lock which once the lens has been extended, prevents it from returning to a more compact closed position. Whilst this is an obvious space saver, it does means that your lens is a lot more vulnerable should you accidentally slam something into the front element, although this has been a feature on their 14-42mm lens since the first version.

Teething problems aside, the look and feel of the E-P3 is definitely commendable, Olympus have managed to do away with the current camera trend towards black plastic and create something stylish that doesn’t get in the way of day to day photography.

Inside the E-P3 is a new TruePic VI powered 12.3-megapixel (effective) MOS sensor. Previous experience with Micro Four Thirds cameras has always left us wanting more for their cost. More often than not the gain in compactness is not worth the sacrifice in image quality. We spent plenty of time putting the 12,800 ISO capable sensor through its paces and were surprised at the results it turned out.

The first thing worth noting is the speed at which the camera managed to achieve focus lock. We raced it against a Nikon D700 and found that in many cases the £800 E-P3 outpaced it. All this speed comes with one major sacrifice however. Constant AF means a constant drain in battery, so much so that the E-P3 could manage around 300 shots at a push. Whilst this might seem like a lot, for a camera aimed at the keen amateur, who may forget to recharge daily, we can see a few inconvenient battery deaths at crucial holiday moments.

One thing we couldn’t argue with was the Pen’s image quality, which proved consistent in a range of situations. The shots included in this article were all taking using the E-P3 and as you can see, for a camera with such a small sensor it has an impressive dynamic range. It also turns out sharp and well saturated pictures which appeared relatively noise-free up until the higher end of the sensors capability. For those who want really nicely balanced colours and a bit more detail to play with, it may be worth considering something like the Canon EOS 550D or Nikon D3100. Both may be admittedly larger in size, but deliver stellar imaging for a similar price.

The E-P3 aims to do away with a lot of the complexities involved with post production and shooting itself. The inclusion of a Live Guide mode which walks the photographer by the hand through a shot is undoubtedly a reflection of this. You can simply do away with technical terms like F-stop and bokeh and instead replace them with a background blur slider which you adjust for shots. Photographs themselves can even be edited in camera, corrected and cropped.

A particular highlight was the included Art Filters, something which Olympus are so proud of they have given them their own notch on the rotating mode dial. Once selected the camera sorts out exposure and settings for you, allowing you to concentrate fully on getting a shot. Things like grainy black and white, bleach bypass, pop art or a pinhole camera effect can all be applied and viewed live on the E-P3’s display. We liked the idea of getting everything sorted in camera and simply having to press the button to take a correctly exposed shot. It did however begin to feel restrictive when we wanted to underexpose or overexpose a picture to create more dynamic light.

Olympus’s new flagship Pen is capable or recording 1080i AVCHD video as well as motionJpeg files. Switching to video was as easy as pressing the dedicated record button to the right of the screen at the back of the camera. From what we recorded, footage has got that inevitable DSLR style video wobble. It is however seriously impressive to be getting such high quality recording out of what is a tiny camera compared to something like the 5D MkII or 550D.

We tested the E-P3 with a pair of different lenses; the kit issued 14-42mm and an ultra-wide 9-18mm. Both were extremely light and added very little to an already featherweight camera body. They also both had a smooth zoom action and well behaved front elements which didn’t move when focusing. Personally we preferred the 9-18, that extra bit of width being perfectly suited to a light street snapper like the E-P3. Initial test pics turned out sharp with little chromatic aberrations or any other nasty unexpected lens issues.

Once we were done snapping and began reviewing pictures back on the 3-inch OLED display, we were immediately struck by its saturation and clarity. The idea is that the 614,000 dots screen reproduces shots in their entirety.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to look at the optional viewfinder or flash, which was irritating as after a few hours shooting we began longing for a proper photographic finder. The Pen E-P3 is a highly capable camera and it feels underused when staring at the back of a screen to snap. A much more natural and rangefinder style photographic experience could be had simply by adding a non digital way of framing photos. 

First Impressions

There is a lot to like about the new Pen, it is highly formidable, small, yet easy for beginners to pick up and learn from. But at £800 is it really the camera they will be adopting? Personally we are far more excited to run the E-PL3 through its paces, a cheaper smaller brother which the same sensor and nearly all the functionality. If Olympus gets it right and retains everything good about the E-P3 but puts it in a more affordable package, we could have the perfect entry-level camera on our hands.