Olympus PEN E-P3 £789.95
25th Jul 2011 | 10:49
Could the PEN really be mightier?
Overview and features
Although from the outset Olympus's PEN series of compact system cameras had its fans, it also had its fair share of detractors. The E-P1 (launched in June 2009) for example, had no built-in flash or viewfinder, a dated and somewhat confused menu and a sluggish AF system.
Subsequent cameras went someway to deal with these points, but to the casual observer the models had little to distinguish themselves from each other.
With its recent announcement of the PEN E-P3, E-PL3 (L standing for Lite) and the E-PM1 (M for Mini), however, Olympus has attempted to deal with this identity crisis as well as make a few other improvements.
While sharing the same basic specs, the three new models are designed to appeal to different users. The PEN E-P3 sits at the top of the range and caters for advanced users, the E-PL3 is in the middle for those perhaps looking to upgrade from a high-end compact model, while the E-PM1 (Mini) is for photographers who want a very a compact camera that accepts interchangeable lenses.
The Olympus PEN E-P3, aka The PEN or P3, will be on sale at the end of August, but the Lite and Mini variants will be following in late early autumn.
Like the PEN Lite and Mini cameras, the Olympus P3 has a Four Thirds type 17.3 x 13.0mm Live MOS (CMOS) sensor with 12.3 million effective pixels.
Olympus has a working agreement with Panasonic and the sensor in the new PEN camera hails from Panasonic's factories – it is believed to be the same sensor as in the Panasonic GF3.
As a compact system camera, the P3 has no reflex mirror, so it employs a contrast detection auto focus (AF) system that uses information from the imaging sensor. The Live MOS device inside the P3 has a fast read-out speed of 120fps, which helps to speed-up the AF.
Olympus claims that the TruePic VI processing engine in the new PEN cameras is faster than Panasonic's Venus Engine VI FHD device, so it can get more speed out of the AF system. Consequently, Olympus believes that the P3 has the world's fastest AF when used with its MSC (Movie Stills Compatible) optics.
Being a Micro Four Thirds model, the P3 can accept lenses with the Micro Four Thirds mount from Olympus and Panasonic.
In another upgrade to the PEN AF system, the P3 has 35 AF points, which cover all but the outer edges of the imaging frame. Helpfully, Olympus has also added an AF assist light to improve focusing in low light conditions. In addition to the usual single and continuous AF options, the P3 has a Tracking Continuous AF mode (like Panasonic's) that allows the user to specify the subject for focus and then leave the camera to keep it sharp as it moves around the scene.
Olympus clearly has faith in it TruePic VI processing engine's ability to control noise as the P3 has a sensitivity range that runs from ISO 200 to ISO 12,800, with ISO 3200 and above being listed as extension values.
Touchscreens can be divided into two types, resistive and capacitive. Resistive screens have two electrically conductive layers that are separated by a narrow gap. When a finger or stylus presses these two layers together, the touch is detected and the device responds accordingly. Panasonic uses resistive touchscreens in its cameras.
Capacitive screens have an electrically conductive surface coating and touching this with human skin, which is also conductive, changes the capacitance and triggers a response. Apple uses a capacitive screen in its iPhones.
Devices with capacitive screens cannot be controlled by non-conductive styluses etc, but they tend to be more responsive to finger-touch than resistive screens as they require only a touch rather than a press.
In a first for the Olympus PEN system, the P3 has a touchscreen. This is a 3in 610,000dot OLED device and unlike other cameras that have a resistive screen, the P3's is capacitive like the screen on an iPhone.
Though it may seem unnecessary to some, when well implemented a touchscreen can really improve a camera's handling by allowing quicker access to features and more intuitive control. The E-P3 features touch AF, which instructs the camera to focus on the point in the scene chosen by a touch of a finger, and, like the Panasonic G3 and GF3, it also has a touch shutter. This sets the camera to focus and fire the shutter with a touch of a finger on the screen.
Helpfully, Olympus has given the P3's screen an Anti-Fingerprint Coating that should reduce the amount of smudging on its surface.
Although it doesn't have a viewfinder built-in, the P3 has an accessory port (see below) to accept Olympus's optional external electronic viewfinder (EVF). The Viewfinder slots into the P3's hotshoe, which means it can't be used with an external flashgun, but the P3 also has a flash unit built-in.
Another welcome inclusion with the P3 is a two-axis electronic level, which is useful when it's essential to keep the horizon level and it operates when the camera is upright or in landscape format.
While the P3 has lots to offer enthusiast photographers, there are lots of automated modes that help out less experienced photographers. Olympus's Live Guide, for example is on hand and works with the touchscreen. The popular Art Filters are also available and can be used completely automatically or in any of the advanced shooting modes. Video can also be recorded in AVCHD or Motion JPEG format.
Build quality & handling
Like Olympus's earlier PEN cameras the P3 feels sturdily built, with its metal construction giving it a sense of durability.
In its standard configuration the P3 has a shallow plastic grip on the front that provides just enough purchase for carrying it between shots, but the supplied shoulder strap is a more secure option. Those who prefer a sleeker look can remove the grip, using a coin to loosen the screw.
Anyone who wants a deeper fingerhold can invest in the optional deeper grip, though at £69.99 it isn't cheap for a piece of moulded plastic. This flexibility is a great idea, but we noticed the anodised screw lost a little of its black finish after being loosened and tightened a few times.
ABOVE:The Olympus PEN E-P2
ABOVE:Olympus's new PEN E-P3
The design of the new PEN E-P3 is very similar to that of the E-P2 and E-P1 with a few notable distinctions - including the pop-up flash. Firstly, the mode dial, which is rotated by the thumb of your left hand on the E-P2, has been moved to the right-hand side of the E-P3's top plate to make room for the pop-up flash - as on the PEN E-PL2.
Meanwhile, the rear of the P3 is melding of the P2 and E-PL2, with a long control dial built into the thumbrest. The video activation button is to the left of the thumbrest (and small speaker), putting it within easy reach.
ABOVE:Olympus's new PEN E-P3
ABOVE:The Olympus PEN E-P2
There has been a little further rejigging of the buttons on the back of the E-P3 since the E-P2. The auto exposure and auto focus lock (AEL/AFL) button has gone and the Menu, Info and Function buttons have been switched around. It doesn't take users too long to get used to it, but it will make a slight difference to existing users.
There are two customisable function (Fn 1 and Fn2) buttons, which can be set to access two of the most commonly required features, including AEL/AFL. Oddly, the two lists of available features are very similar but not identical.
Olympus has given its menu system a much-needed refresh for the P3. It looks much more modern and is easier to navigate, though advanced users still have to activate the Custom menu via the Set-up menu. Once the camera is set-up to the user's preferences, however, there is very little reason to visit the menu as the majority of camera settings can be accessed by pressing the OK button and scrolling though the onscreen list.
The P3's touchscreen is also responsive and easy to use. We particularly like that the screen's touch-sensitive function can be controlled by touching an icon, which remains active even when the touch feature is deactivated. It's surprising that menu and settings selections can't be made using the touchscreen though.
Ease of use
Although most users will find that they can use the P3 straightaway without any reference to the manual, there are a few hidden features that take time to discover. The Highlight and Shadow tone adjustment control, for instance, is found by accessing the exposure compensation facility and then pressing the Info button. Once this is done the user can select whether to brighten or darken the shadows and/or highlights by up to 7 steps.
Rather than physical filters the Art Filter are processing modes that set the camera to produces images with a particular appearance. They demand a lot of processing power so using them can make the LCD image can become jerky.
In summary, the P3 has the best handling of any digital Olympus PEN to date, the buttons and controls are sensibly arranged, the OLED screen provides a clear view even in quite bright light and the menu has a successful makeover. As usual, there are plenty of opportunities to customise the controls and it is well worth experimenting with the various options.
At the lower sensitivity settings the P3 is capable of resolving an impressive level of detail, on a par with some SLRS that have larger (APS-C sized) sensors. Noise also appears to be pretty well controlled in JPEGs taken at ISO 3200. Luminance noise is visible, but not objectionable and could even be described as the type of grain that you might occasionally want to add to enhance the atmosphere of a shot.
Push the sensitivity to ISO 6400, however, and noise (and the camera's attempts to remove it) becomes more troublesome. Even when sized to make relatively small prints, these images taken with the Noise Reduction set to standard look soft and lack details. At 100% on-screen, there's a fair amount of blurring of detail and some image elements lack any definition. We would avoid using sensitivity settings of ISO 6400 or higher. To be fair to Olympus, every setting from ISO 3200 upwards is outside of the native range.
At the time of writing Olympus had still not made its raw conversion software for the P3 available and it will be interesting to compare the JPEG results with the simultaneously captured raw files.
Our images reveal that the E-P3 generally handles colours well and photographs look natural, but have punch straight from the camera. The general purpose ESP metering system also takes most situations in its stride and the P3's wide dynamic range means that bright areas don't burn out unexpectedly. The tone adjustment facility proves useful in very high contras scenes, although not surprisingly, applying the maximum level of shadow brightening and highlight darkening results in flat images that have the typical HDR (high dynamic range) appearance.
Olympus's improved AF system is very fast in good light, but when light levels fall it goes the same way as most other contrast detection systems and becomes slower and hesitant. The tracking AF system can also only cope with relatively slow moving subjects and it isn't a viable option for sports photographers.
Although the P3's tonal adjustment feature proves useful in high contrast situations, the P3 has an impressively wide dynamic range, especially for a Four Thirds camera. Highlights don't burn out too quickly and shadows don't block-up earlier than they should so that images have a full range of tones with subtle gradations.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality tests, we shot our resolution chart using the P3 with the with the Olympus M. Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 200 the Olympus P3 is capable of resolving up to 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 200, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 12 (see full image)
ISO 12,800, score: 14 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
These graphs were produced using data generated by DXO Analyzer.
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO software.
Signal to noise ratio
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
At ISO 200 JPEGs from the P3 have a lower signal to noise ratio than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, Samsung NX11 and Sony NEX-5.
However, our resolution tests indicate that the P3's images contain more detail than the G3's indicating that the camera's processing is calibrated to preserve data at the expense of revealing noise.
Like the other cameras, the P3's signal to noise ratio drops steadily as sensitivity increases and at the highest values images lack definition.
Generally, a higher dynamic range is better than a low as a greater number of tones can be recorded in a single exposure.
Despite its Four Third sensor, the P3's JPEGs have very respectable dynamic range, generally trumping the Panasonic G3's, but not quite matching the Sony NEX-5's.
Dramatic Tone Art filter with frame applied
At f/5.6 the background is nicely blurred here
Colours are bright and punchy straight from the camera
Shot at f/4 to limit depth of field. Taken with the new M. Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 lens and manually focussed on the eyelashes
The ESP system puts in a good performance and colours look natural, yet vibrant
The transition from light to dark along the cobbles has been well handled here
The automatic white balance system hasn't been fooled by the warm tones of this bloom, or the mixed lighting
Compare with the image below
The shadow and highlight adjustment feature has been pushed to maximum to darken the highlights and brighten the shadows to produce this HDR-like image
Taken with the same tonal adjustment options as the image above, to produce another low-contrast HDR image
The Grainy Film Art Filter in action
Pin hole and Crossed Processed Art Filters combined
In reasonable light using ISO 3200 produces a pleasant level of farily uniform noise
When light levels fall, JPEG images taken at ISO 6400 have slightly oversharpened edges and lack fine detail. There's also some mottling of red, green and blue
Taken with the Pinhole art filter
The art filters can now be applied in Aperture Priority and Shutter priority modes - allowing for more creativity.
Cross process mode
Black and white grain mode with frame applied
Pinhole with grain applied
Pop art with frame applied
The super-quick autofocus allows for ultra quick focusing speeds
Four Thirds type 17.3 x 13.0mm Live MOS sensor with 12.3 million effective pixels
Focal length conversion
AVCHD / AVI Motion JPEG
AVCHD: 1920x1080 60i & 20Mbps, 1920x1080 60i, 17Mbps, 1280 x 720 60p & 17Mbps, 1280x720 60p & 13Mbps
AVI Motion JPEG: 1280x720 30fps, 640 x 480 / 30fps
Max burst rate
3in 610,000 dot OLED touchscreen
1/4000-60sec plus bulb to 30 min
321 g (without battery and card)
122.0 x 69.1 x 34.3 mm (without protrusions)
PS-BLS1 Li-ion battery supplied
There is plenty to like about the Olympus PEN E-P3. Although at 12.3 million, the effective pixel count isn't the highest, the rest of the specification is impressive with all the current must have features, including sensor-shifting image stabilization, sensor cleaning, manual exposure control, automated shooting, Art Filters and Full HD video recording.
The P3 is also well made and comfortable to hold with sensibly arranged controls and lots of opportunity to customize it to the user's preferences. All this means that while inexperienced users should be able to pick up the camera and start shooting straight away, enthusiasts have all the control they want and can set-up it up to suit their style.
The extensive range of control and the excellent quality output at low sensitivity. Although it is an expensive extra, keeping the electronic viewfinder (EVF) as an optional extra means that the camera is smaller and lighter than it would be with a viewfinder built-in.
High sensitivity images lack detail and can only be used at a small size. The tone adjustment feature is rather hidden, but very effective.
This is the first time that Olympus has used a touchscreen in a compact system camera and on the whole it has been well implemented, but it would be nice to be able to choose to make settings adjustments (other than the Live Guide options) using it.
At around £200, the optional electronic viewfinder for the P3 isn't cheap, but by not including one in the camera body, Olympus has been able to keep the price of the P3 down and maintain its rectangular, compact camera-like form. It also means that when the new improved EVF that we have been promised comes along next year, users will be able to upgrade to a better unit rather than have to go to the expense of buying a completely new camera.
Those who don't want a viewfinder, will find that the P3's OLED screen provides a very clear view in many situations.
Provided the sensitivity is kept below ISO 3200, the P3 produces superb images, that are well exposed, have lots of sharp detail and pleasant colours.