Olympus Pen E-P3

The Pen series has been around as long as the original Panasonic m43 camera, the GF1. Built by Olympus, it is in its 3rd generation, represented by the E-P3. The EP3 retains the styling and spirit of the original Pen E-P1.

Build Quality

The EP3 is a well-made camera. The dials are made of metal and the buttons are made of plastic. Its a weighty unit, so I have to surmise there is a lot of metal under the skin. I have a white model and it comes with a glossy finish that seems to stand up to wear very well. Mechanical aspects (flash pop, dial, wheel, buttons) operate as they should with no slack or slop.

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E-P3 with 17mm f1.8 lens

Handling

The EP3 is a tank.  It’s quite heavy compared to other mirrorless system cameras, even without a lens. Those coming from other cameras in its class will feel it immediately. It is definitely heavier than the OMD and EOS M and if my memory serves me correctly its heavier than the chunky GF1 too. If you are coming from a DSLR you might not notice at all.

Its a thick camera too, but this plays to its advantage for those with larger hands. I find it very comfortable to hold, especially with the “grip” attached. The grip is a small removable rubberised speed bump where the right hand fingers fall, I couldn’t think of a reason to remove it, unless you had an aesthetic preference.

The buttons on the EP3 are decent, they are only slightly raised from the body so they dont get accidentally pressed as often as the tall OMD buttons. They don’t have a lot of travel so they are easily actuated when you want them to be actuated.

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E-P3 back panel controls

I like the button layout of the EP3. I found it very easy to pick up and get comfortable with, but I am not carrying any baggage from the previous generations. Many reviews lament the moving of the buttons from their location on the EP2, EP1. I think they are great and I really like the “roller” that sits under the right thumb. Its action is quite firm so your not going to accidentally roll it. Also, you can apply pressure and move it a precise number of clicks with ease.

Image Quality

The image quality of the EP3 is quite good for its generation. As usual Olympus produces some nice JPEGs, slightly better than the default JPEGs produced by the Lumix m43 cameras I have tried (GF1, GF2, GF3). I do notice a tendency to give up a little detail for more aggressive noise reduction. I don’t mind noise, and at times very much enjoy the grainy look it can produce. This is a bit of switch for me so I will be playing with the settings bit to get to somewhere I am more comfortable.

The noise performance is decent, and as I mentioned earlier, probably right on par for a camera of this generation.  But compared to newer entrants in the m43 world, such as the OMD and even its little brother the E-PL5, it falls behind a stop or two. It certainly can not keep up with the larger APS-C sensor on the EOS M either. It’s not hard to imagine that the forthcoming E-P5 will have the same sensor as the E-PL5 and OMD and close this gap.

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Clean top plate of the E-P3

Focusing

The EP3 focuses very quickly. It’s actually shockingly quick for someone who just came from an EOS M. This of course depends somewhat on the lens you use. I am using it with the new’ish 17mm f1.8 lens and if I could sum it up in two word it would be “lighting fast”. I never had quite this performance out of the OMD but I usually had the 17mm f2.8 on the body and it was notoriously slow.

Focusing can be done in a myriad of ways. You can use zone focussing that selects the target from the entire field of view, a smaller subset of the field of view, or a single spot. The subset and spot focussing areas can be moved around the frame to suit your desire. A popular way to use the spot focussing is to fix it on the centre point and lock the focus and exposure on your subject and then recompose as desired. This is a classic photography method that pre-dates digital imaging and saves moving the focus points around.

Focusing can also be achieved by using the touch screen. You can simply touch your subject on the screen and the camera immediately focuses and takes a shot. You also have the option of touch-to-focus only, leaving you to depress the shutter to capture the image.

Of course you can use manual focus as well. With the 17mm attached to the EP3 you are presented with two options. First you can simply turn the focus ring on the lens and instantly the EP3 jumps into focus peeping mode and shows you an zoomed rectangle of your subject. This works very well in practice. The second method is to pull back the focus ring, which exposes a distance scale on the lens. This allows you to use the scale to set  your focus, note that this does not turn on focus peeping automatically (but it can be achieved in 2 button clicks). Both methods are easy to access and don’t put anything between you and two different methods of achieving manual focus.

Image Stabilisation

As with all other Olympus m43 cameras the EP3 features image stabilisation built into the camera body. This is a very effective system that allows Olympus to offer less complex and more affordable lenses. When done this way even prime lenses like the 17mm f1.8 can benefit from the stabilisation. Do note that this is not as effective as the OMD 5-axis stabilisation system. The OMD system is fantastic and a generational leap on the technology employed in the EP3. But it is effective and very good for its generation of camera.

Camera Software/Interface

The menu system is classic Olympus, you either hate it or you tolerate it. It is customisable six ways from Sunday and gives you all this power crammed into a 3″ screen. I don’t even really want to get into here as it stresses me out just thinking about it. That being said, generally once you get the camera set the way you like it there are very few reasons to go back in so deep.

The touch screen works well and responds as expected, but its not as sensitive as your smartphone (thank goodness). You still navigate the menus with the buttons and dials and there is a certain comfort in that.

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Not too big, but nice to hold for larger hands

Conclusion

I like the EP3. It has some personality and is definitely a very good performer, especially focus performance. That being said if you are considering buying one today you should know that it is a previous generation camera and is expected to be replaced by the E-P5 shortly. It’s a little bigger than many of the m43 cameras out there so those of us with larger hands will find some comfort with it. Smaller hands would be better served by an E-PL5, E-PM2 or even an OMD.

Pros

  • Built-in image stabilisation
  • Good control layout, 2 custom function buttons
  • Very good build quality
  • Built-in flash
  • Very good looking screen with touch features
  • Access to a wide range of m43 lenses

Cons

  • Larger and heavier than many other consumer m43 cameras
  • Screen does not tilt or swivel
  • Menu system quite complex
  • Being surpassed by next generation of cameras
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