The latest Olympus Pen, the E-P3, adds some long-needed features to the series. While the first two E-P installments lacked a built in flash, the E-P3 finally delivers on this front. And any moans of slow autofocus from previous models should also now be banished thanks to the E-P3’s latest “FAST” (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) autofocus system - that claims to be the world’s fastest of any interchangeable lens camera.
This claim is bourn out of a new and faster sensor that pairs with a brand new focusing algorithm to deliver speedy results. And fast it is. While “world’s fastest” may ring true in certain scenarios, it’s when shooting at longer focal lengths or employing the Subject Tracking AF that things can go awry. The latter mode seems to falter in low light and lacks the speed to keep up with subjects, meaning the E-P3’s continuous autofocus mode has plenty of room for improvement. Single autofocus, on the other hand, zips in and out of focus with little problem and is impressive in use.
Hardware and design
The E-P3 is among the larger of Compact System Cameras, and uses its retro styling as a key sell point. The camera looks, for the most part, like a decent piece of kit though a plastic-finished, detachable grip may not exude quality (a bit of a mis-match given the E-P3’s £800 asking price). The camera doesn’t feel as solid and sturdy as some of the meatier DSLR competitors out there.
On the camera’s rear is a new OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen - it’s out with LCD and in with the new technology here. Those already in the know about screen tech will know that OLED outshines LCD in a number of areas including having a greater contrast ratio for greater depth and punchier colours. It does look great, and a touch panel means literal hands-on touchscreen use for the likes of focusing. Olympus’s implementation of the touch technology doesn’t take every available opportunity to use it, however, and when in the movie mode it’s not possible to use it whatsoever. As such it doesn’t feel fully integrated into the user experience, a bit of a shame as the likes of the Panasonic Lumix GF3 and G3 both utilise touch technology to far greater effect.
The E-P3 has no electronic viewfinder (EVF) however, though a hotshoe allows for an optional one to be added - though this will add around £200 extra to the already significant cost.
Within the E-P3’s menus are a variety of shooting modes that cover all bases for both the beginner or more advanced user. We’re talking full Auto, a choice of the usual manual settings, a bit of extra fun with Art Filters or, for the more advanced user, a built-in wireless flash control that can sync the camera with an off-camera flash for creative shots. There aren’t many other Compact System Cameras that can lay claim to that.
The Art Filters carry on in the same vein as other Olympus models, with 10 settings available in total. These range from Soft Focus to Pinhole and Grainy Film (black and white) to Dramatic Tone (pseudo-HDR). It’s possible to stack two of the more basic modes with one another or add a variety of in-camera frame edges or even use the Art Filters when shooting movie clips. The latter’s best avoided, however, due to the significant drop in frame rate that can render clips far from usable, unless that’s the artistic effect you’re seeking.
The E-P3’s movie mode is another top-ranking feature, and one that the Art Filters needn’t get in the way of. The continuous autofocus system glides effortlessly between subjects and makes for very easy point-and-shoot work that looks pro-spec. The 1080i resolution is good, though the lack of progressive capture is a shame considering the super-fast sensor should be good enough to encompass this. A stereo microphone is on the top of the camera, and it is possible to add an external mic using the Accessory Port fitting - but this is not a standard fit, so third party 3.5mm jack microphones are off limits.
The Pen E-P3’s images are impressive, and of particular note due to the Micro Four Thirds sensor being smaller than its Sony NEX and Samsung NX competitors. This is one area where the E-P3 even outstrips the Panasonic Lumix G3 in terms of performance - the Olympus retains greater detail at higher ISO settings and produces better-looking images overall. As with all high-end Olympus cameras the E-P3’s sensor doesn’t exceed the company’s 12.1-megapixel limit. This resolution is Olympus’s focus on balancing up output size against image quality without introducing excessive pixel counts that could otherwise diminish results.
ISO sensitivity runs from 200-12,800 at full size, and images are useable right through to the ISO 3200 or 6400 settings - however the new top-end ISO 12,800 sensitivity pushes things a little too far and colour noise and image softness are a problem at this level. Shots are also kept sharp by the sensor-based image stabilisation system that helps counteract camera shake. This is a good backup to have for when not using image stabilised lenses and the system can be turned on or off with independent control of both horizontal and vertical stabilisation.
One downside to the E-P3 is the low-power battery. A camera such as this has plenty of space to fit a large and high-powered battery in, so why the existing one can only muster around 330 shots per charge is one of the biggest letdowns for this release.
At almost £800 the Olympus Pen E-P3 isn’t light on the wallet and is firmly targeted at serious photographers. This third installment of the digital PEN feels good in the hand and brushes up on those issues that the previous two releases haven’t been able to cater for - namely the lack of a built-in flash and fast autofocus. Indeed with those problems well and truly rectified the E-P3 gets a firm thumbs up. It’s a great camera to use, if not a little large compared to some of the competition, and produces among the best pictures of any Micro Four Thirds camera. However, the price and low shots per battery charge may be its comeuppance, and with the impending launch of the smaller, cheaper and almost-as-well-equipped E-PL3 and E-PM1 models there’s a chance the E-P3 may be overlooked.