Priced just a pound dearer than Panasonic’s rival Micro Four Thirds compact system camera, the Lumix DMC-GF3, and bundled with M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm F/3.5-5.6 II T lens kit zoom, the Olympus E-PL3 is also being touted as the "Pen Lite". It sits between the flagship, enthusiast targeted E-P3 and the entry level E-PM1 (or "Pen Mini"#mce_temp_url#) and is available with either black, white, red or traditional silver colour body. It's a pretty compact camera too, with dimensions of 109.5 x 63.7 x 37.3mm and a body only weight of 265g.
The E-PL3 immediately appears less chunky than its short-lived E-PL2 predecessor and will slip more comfortably into a jacket pocket if the lens is removed. The trim proportions and sleek brushed aluminium appearance of the new E-PL3 (in its silver iteration) have, however, come at a price. And we’re not just referencing the suggested £548.99 it will cost you.
The proper, if inelegant, handgrip of its E-PL1 and E-PL2 predecessors has been lost entirely, and so too has the integral pop-up flash. Instead, like Sony’s rival NEX range, we get a plasticy clip-on flash included in the box that attaches to the E-PL3’s vacant hotshoe. By contrast the Panasonic GF3 omits the hotshoe but has shoehorned in the flash, a decision that might have served Olympus better too, especially as Olympus is pitching this Pen at the "fun" lifestyle market.
On a more positive note, what is a big improvement here, and a first for the Olympus Pen range, is the addition of a very flexible screen. It likewise mirrors the screens of the Sony NEX range by being adjustable - up to a point. To operate it, the 3-inch, respectable 460k-dot resolution LCD panel is first pulled outwards from the backplate to a distance of about an inch, at which point it can be tilted up or down. It cannot be swung out sideways to be positioned alongside the body, as with a camcorder, nor can it be turned screen inwards to face the body for added protection when the E-PL3 is being transported. We also don’t get the touch screen operation recently introduced on the E-P3. However, there is an accessory port at the back, that, in combination with the hotshoe directly above it, allows the addition of accessories such as external viewfinder and the bundled flash.
What hasn’t changed since its predecessor is headline resolution; here again it’s 12.3 megapixels from a high-speed Live Mos (CMOS) sensor. Clearly Olympus is concentrating on form, features and function rather than simply upping the pixel count with each successive model. In fact, the Pen range’s resolution hasn’t been boosted since the introduction of the original E-P1 in late 2009.
Not that this truly matters at consumer level. The pitch here is again DSLR quality stills - plus full HD video - from a more compact, mirror-less form factor, and with the ease of use we’d expect from a compact camera too. In most respects the E-PL3 makes good on these claims.
Before the camera can be used the supplied zoom has to be first manually extended. Like its predecessors it features a retractable mechanism so that it's as compact as possible when not in use. The downside is that unfurling this lens adds on a few extra seconds when powering up the camera, which otherwise is ready for the first shot in a couple of seconds.
The lens also feels very plasticy and this is accentuated in comparison with the solid metal feel of the camera body itself, which by contrast feels like it's built to last. This second generation lens does however deliver the benefit of near silent auto focus performance, which obviously comes into its own when video clips are being recorded (with stereo sound too), the image very briefly going soft as you manually adjust the zoom, before snapping back into focus. The beauty of the Micro Four Thirds system, shared by Panasonic’s Lumix G series, is that you have a much wider choice of lenses too, with 20 dedicated optics being available with Olympus branding and at last count 16 under the Panasonic brand.
The Pen range also offers body integral image stabilisation that in our personal experience gives it a very minor practical advantage over the Panasonic range, which doesn’t. The two development partners do, however, share a current claim of the world’s fastest auto focus performance (contrast, rather than phase detection AF). We tested a GF3 alongside and can confirm an identical performance.
With 35 AF points spread out across the surface of its sensor, the E-PL3 is certainly as swift as one would hope, with a half press of the shutter release button the image blurs very briefly before snapping into focus, the shutter firing instantly as you press down fully. As with a DSLR, JPEGs and RAW images can be committed to memory, either separately or shot in tandem. We elected to shoot "fine" (best) quality JPEGs with RAW files and were pleased with a writing speed of only a couple of seconds. Olympus claims this enhanced performance is also partly down to the inclusion of its new TruePic IV image processor.
For low light shooting without flash Olympus has extended its light sensitivity range from ISO 6400 to a DSLR-like ISO 12800 - handy if you forget to pack the clip-on unit here before heading out. Having said that, we’d argue that the performance above ISO 6400, which sees both a softening of detail and increase in image noise/grain, means that the upper end of the range are best avoided. But they’re there if you’re really stuck.
Though it takes several inquisitive button presses to find out how to adjust ISO (there’s no dedicated control), the promised ease of use is in part delivered via Olympus’ much trumpeted Live Guide function. This doesn’t have a button marked as such either, but as a default is summoned up with a press of the button marked "Fn" (function) on the upper ridge of the backplate, where, like the video record button, it readily falls under the thumb of the right hand when using the camera.
Live Guide allows Pen users to make real time adjustments to images - that is, they are able to witness what the effects might be before firing the shutter - and, say, defocus the background to give greater emphasis to subjects in the foreground, without having to understand the principles of adjusting aperture. There’s also the option to selectively introduce blur to emphasise motion - or as Olympus would have it, "Express Motions", which sounds like the after-effects of a fiery curry. All one has to do is drag the indicator on a slider bar up or down to control the degree of the effect applied. This adjustment is made by tabbing gingerly with the four way control pad at the back, or in swifter fashion via the scroll wheel (or "Live Wheel") that encircles it.
This being an Olympus, the other unique selling point here is a set of Art Filter digital effects that are located via the eight-option top plate shooting mode dial and applied when an image is captured, but can again be previewed before firing the shutter. There are six effects to choose from, rather than the ten on the range topping E-P3, so it’s a bit of a "best of". They include: pop art; miniature "diorama" effect; grainy black and white film effect; pin hole camera; soft focus and, our personal favourite, "dramatic tone" which delivers the kind of hyper real effect those used to experimenting with high dynamic range (HDR) images will have experienced. While best used in moderation, these effects are something to fall back on when faced with uninspiring inclement days, and of course save time otherwise labouring in Photoshop to achieve similar.
The supplied rechargeable battery is officially good for 330 shots, which is par for the course with this class of camera. It lives at the base of the unit adjacent to a slot for inserting optional SD/DHC or SDXC media card.
In terms of picture quality the E-PL3 is again no match for an actual DSLR with physically larger sensor and lens to go with it. For most of us not wanting the bulk of such a camera on a day-to-day basis, the quality delivered by the E-PL3 and its kit lens will certainly be good enough - and streets ahead of the average point and shoot for anyone wanting more "professional" quality. The success of shooting video with this Pen will depend on how smoothly you’re able to adjust the manual zoom, but with practice we were very happy with the results.
Potential owners of the E-PL3 will be weighing up whether to go for this or an identically priced Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3.
While the latter is less outwardly sophisticated and certainly lacks the retro charm, as well as a top plate hotshoe, it does include the built-in flash missing from the Olympus. On the other hand, the E-PL3 features an adjustable screen, something we’ve felt has been missing from the Panasonic GF series for a while now.
With imaging performance largely similar, it’s these little extras that will make all the difference, and whether you value integral flash over a tilting screen will be down largely to personal taste. For anyone looking for the ultimate Olympus Pen however, the E-P3 is still the pick of the pack, even if it is nearly £200 more expensive.
Additional product shots by Hunter Skipworth