Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 £549.99

15th Sep 2011 | 15:30

Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3

The new downsized PEN CSC boasts an extremely fast autofocus system

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

A lightweight alternative to an entry-level DSLR

Like:

Very fast AF; Simple control layout; Art filters; 1080p HD movies; Live Guide;

Dislike:

Mic a little sensitive; No built-in flash; No integral EVF; No built-in front grip;

Overview

Small but perfectly formed, cameras in the Olympus PEN range are well loved for their stylish good looks and user-friendly handling. One of a trio of new launches from the manufacturer, the new Micro four Thirds PEN Lite E-PL3 continues the PEN trend for combining retro charm with a comprehensive feature set.

It may be smaller than its big brother, the E-P3, but it's brimming with innovative technologies and beginner-friendly characteristics.

Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras belong to the relatively new breed of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, (popularly referred to as Compact System Cameras, or CSCs) which marry some of the merits of shooting with a DSLR with the reduced size and weight benefits provided by a compact digital camera.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

Incorporating a unique internal design, the mechanism inside a CSC differs from that of a traditional DSLR. Omitting the traditional DSLR reflex mirror system and optical viewfinder design, CSCs allow for the lens to be positioned much closer to the sensor. This enables manufacturers to significantly scale down the size and weight of these cameras, without having to scale down the sensor as well.

As a result, CSCs like the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 benefit from having a larger sensor than compact camera in a more compact package that's lighter and more portable.

Olympus' past PEN models haven't quite matched up to their rivals in terms of successfully saving on body weight and size. However, the recently released trio of new PENs (the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3, E-P3 and E-PM1) herald the arrival of a new, smaller, lighter and faster generation of cameras.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The three new PENs share the same basic specifications, but each model sports its own unique design, control layout and dimensions. A few differentiating features highlight the diverse users that the individual cameras are designed to appeal to.

As the 'middle child' of the bunch, the E-PL3 is smaller and lighter than its big brother, the E-P3. It seeks to deliver the same user-friendliness as the smaller entry-level E-PM1, combined with the manual functionality of the more advanced flagship model.

Currently being sold for around £500, the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's rivals include the £629 Panasonic Lumix DSC-GF3, the £430 Sony Alpha NEX-C3 and older brother the £790 Olympus PEN E-P3.

Build quality and handling

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The first thing that strikes us about the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 is its sleek metal finish. It's a beautifully engineered camera that feels extremely solid, with robust, well-placed controls adorning its outer surface.

The styling is in keeping with its predecessor's understated good looks, but the black, white, red and silver options that are available offer some scope for making more of a style statement if you want to stand out from the crowd.

Our polar-white review model proves to be a distinguished-looking option, with subtle silver detailing and controls punctuating the design that add to the camera's overall aesthetic appeal.

A sculpted, rubberised rear thumb grip offers some comfort when grasping the compact system camera, but the completely smooth front panel on the E-PL3 does make it a bit of a slippery customer.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

You can buy an optional extra grip that bolts onto the camera to make up for it, but we can't help missing the more ergonomic shape of the older E-PL2 version – not to mention the integral flash.

That said, the achievement Olympus has made in reducing the size and bulk of the new model is impressive when comparing the two cameras side-by-side. The removal of said grip and flash is a necessary trade-off in order to keep the E-PL3's silhouette as slender as possible.

The end result is a camera that's pretty much the same size as the NEX-C3, which Sony is hailing as 'The World's smallest, lightest, interchangeable lens camera with an APS-C sized sensor'. The E-PL3 is a shade taller, but not by so much as to make it noteworthy, but of course it does use a smaller sensor.

While the resolution of the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's screen hasn't changed in comparison to its predecessor's, the ratio (now widescreen format) has.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The big news of course is its new, more flexible design: it hinges out from the body and can be tilted to make framing high and low-angle stills and movies that little bit easier than you can with a fixed screen.

It lacks the touch-screen functionality offered by the pricier Olympus PEN E-P3, but you can't have everything at this price-point.

In use, the wide viewing angle and decent anti-reflective coating go a long way to enhancing the usability of the screen, helping to make up for the lack of viewfinder.

But what is disappointing is that the live view image displayed doesn't make full use of the display's dimensions. Instead, it's confined to the central portion of the LCD, with black bars on either side containing shooting information.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

Press the one-touch movie button to start filming, however, and the entire screen is filled. It may not be the most detailed screen on the market, but the resolution is adequate for everyday shooting and the decent level of brightness and contrast contributes further to a good overall performance.

The controls are fairly minimal in comparison to the more advanced E-P3. It's an important part of the design that's geared towards keeping the E-PL3 as user-friendly as possible, while still allowing for some manual control.

The top panel houses an easy-to-operate mode dial with a wealth of automatic and manual modes, plus an alternative point of access to the camera's HD movie mode and the fun-to-use Art Filters.

To the right of the articulated LCD around the back, the silver four-way d-pad provides softkey access to exposure compensation, flash, drive mode and metering options, while a rotating scroll wheel that encompasses it offers an alternative means of quickly scrolling through menus and on-screen options.

The control layout is fuss-free and easy to navigate, resulting in an overall pleasurable handling experience that beginners and more seasoned enthusiasts alike should find simple to get to grips with.

Performance

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

Headlining the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's list of upgraded features is a speedy new autofocus (AF) system, which Olympus claims to be the fastest on the market (a title shared by the E-P3, which sports the same new system).

The newly-developed 35 point system is incredibly responsive, finding an instant lock in most cases, with a newly-added AF-assist lamp lending a helping hand when the light levels start to drop.

Accuracy is impressive, with the camera's autofocus system proving to be unfazed by off-centre subjects.

Its TruePic IV processor drives the E-PL3's zippy performance, with the added benefit of enabling full-time AF and subject tracking. The latter feature works pretty well in practice with moderately paced subjects, but it starts to struggle if you try to keep up with particularly fast movement. But this factor alone doesn't take the shine off the E-PL3's impressive capabilities.

Equally remarkable is this little CSC camera's near-immediate start-up. Unlock the lens, which retracts into a locked resting position when you want to stow the camera away, and you're ready to shoot the second you spot a photo opportunity. Shot-to-shot times are also very quick, even when you're shooting RAW and JPEG files simultaneously.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

Art Filters make another welcome appearance on the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's mode dial – a fun feature that we've always liked about the PEN series.

With the E-PL3 you get six – compared to the E-P3's ten – different settings to choose from. These filters are Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone.

We found we could take or leave the Dramatic Tone filter – its HDR-esque effect might be a little strong for some tastes. The vintage-style Pin Hole and miniaturising Diorama remain our firm favourites, with each producing compelling images imbued with their own unique aesthetic qualities.

The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 offers a range of sensitivity settings spanning ISO 200-12,800, with 19 options in total (plus Auto). Noise is pretty well controlled up to and including ISO 6400 – the maximum setting we'd recommend if you want to shoot in low light without sacrificing too much detail.

The very top setting produces somewhat impressionistic results, with a lot of noise and softening of detail. It's there if you really need it, but is best avoided if you want to make high quality prints from your shots.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

For the best results, shooting RAW files offers more scope for noise removal at the processing stage, and – although shots will require extra sharpening compared to the E-PL3's JPEGs – it's possible to get some very satisfying images using this method.

Colours are generally very pleasing, although images shot under tungsten lighting can turn out very warm indeed. Shooting RAW, or manually adjusting the WB setting, solves the issue.

Accuracy in day-lit scenes is good, and there's a decent array of options available to help you tweak the appearance of your shots in-camera if you so wish.

The HD (1080i) video mode the E-PL3 offers can be used in Auto, or any of the P, S, A and M modes, giving you as much or as little control over your movies as you want. Video quality is pretty good on the whole, save for some warping of verticals and smearing of detail if you pan too quickly.

The built-in stereo microphones do a good job of picking up ambient sound, but they are quite sensitive, which means they also record the sound of you operating the camera, as well as any breeze if you're shooting outdoors.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The AF system is very responsive and incredibly quiet, though, so there are no issues with mechanical noise being added to your soundtracks.

The 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens feels a little lightweight and – dare we say – cheap compared to the superb build quality of the camera body itself. But with its stylish silver finish, it looks the part.

The focusing and zoom rings are pretty smooth to operate, and the lens itself puts in a fairly good optical performance, given its kit-lens status.

Sharpness is so-so, particularly at the 42mm end of the focal range, and sensor-shift image stabilisation proves to be a welcome measure that helps make up for the relatively slow maximum aperture range.

On the whole, though, this is a useful everyday lens that'll tide you over until you feel ready to explore the vast range of other MFT optics available.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Olympus E-PL3, we've shot our resolution chart 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 E-PL3 is capable of resolving up to around 22 (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:

Olympus e-pl3 resolution

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 250

ISO 250, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 320

ISO 320, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 500

ISO 500, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 640

ISO 640, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1000

ISO 1000, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1250

ISO 1250, score: 20 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 20 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 2000

ISO 2000, score: 20 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 2500

ISO 2500, score: 18 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 18 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 4000

ISO 4000, score: 14(see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 5000

ISO 5000, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 8000

ISO 8000, score: 12 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 10000

ISO 10000, score: 12 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 12 (see full image)

Raw images

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 24 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 250

ISO 250, score 24 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution 320

ISO 320, score: 24 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 24 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 500

ISO 500, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 640

ISO 640, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1000

ISO 1000, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1250

ISO 1250, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 2000

ISO 2000, score: 22 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 2500

ISO 2500, score: 20 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 18 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 4000

ISO 4000, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 5000

ISO 5000, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 8000

ISO 8000, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 10000

ISO 10000, score: 14 (see full image)

Olympus e-pl3 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 14 (see full image)

Noise and resolution

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.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

JPEG Signal to noise ratio

Olympus e-pl3 jpg signal to noise ratio

JPEG images from the Olympus E-PL3 show a better signal to noise ratio than the Panasonic Lumix GF3, Samsung NX11 and Sony NEX C3 between sensitivities of ISO 400 and 1600.

RAW Signal to noise ratio

Olympus e-pl3 raw signal to noise ratio

Converted RAW files from the Olympus E-PL3 show a better signal to noise ratio than the Panasonic Lumix GF3, Samsung NX11 and Sony NEX-C3 above ISO 200, showing the Olympus E-PL3 produces cleaner and more detailed images.

JPEG Dynamic range

Olympus e-pl3 dynamic range

This chart indicates that the Olympus E-PL3's JPEGs have a at least a 1EV higher dynamic range than the Panasonic Lumix GF3 and Samsung NX11's JPEG files upto a sensitivity of ISO 3200.

RAW Dynamic range

Olympus e-pl3 raw dynamic range

This chart indicates that the Olympus E-PL3's converted Raw files have a at least a 1EV higher dynamic range than the Panasonic Lumix GF3 and the Samsung NX11, and compare well against the Sony NEX-C3.

Photo samples

JPEGs from the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 are detailed, faithfully coloured and pleasingly saturated by default.

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The E-PL3's metering system generally copes well with high contrast situations, as demonstrated by the successful capture of both shadow and highlight detail in this image.

See full-res image

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

On its default colour setting, JPEGs straight out of the camera deliver pleasing colours with just the right amount of saturation.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

An example of the sort of result you get when shooting with the E-PL3's Grainy B&W Art Filter – quite an extreme effect, but it works well with high contrast subjects.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The E-PL3's manual controls enable you to set the aperture and shutter speed, so you can be in charge of the depth of field and/or amount of movement recorded in your shots.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

Shooting with a relatively wide aperture, it's easy to create images with a shallow depth of field that ensures the focus remains squarely on your main subject.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The E-PL3's 12.3MP CMOS sensor records plenty of fine detail and handles noise well – as shown in this image shot at ISO 1600.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The range of tones captured is impressive, making it easy to create well-balanced shots under bright or stormy conditions.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

An example of the results you can get with Olympus' Pin Hole Art Filter – the dark vignette really enhances moody scenes in particular.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The E-PL3's sensor does a good job of recording subtle tonal variations, enabling us to capture a pleasing image of this partially sunlit landscape against the darker sky.

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Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens that's part of the standard E-PL3 kit (other options are available) proves to be a useful everyday lens, albeit with a drop in sharpness levels when zooming in.

See full-res image

Lab tests

Our ISO sensitivity tests in the lab reveal that the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 performs better than the Panasonic GF3 and Samsung NX11 across the board, and it also manages to outdo Sony's NEX-C3 at some settings.

Viewing images at 100% reveals relatively noise-free images right up to ISO 800, although colour fidelity and the level of sharp detail are well maintained up until ISO 6400. Beyond this point, noise becomes more obvious, but we'd say shots remain usable throughout much of the E-PL3's upper sensitivity range.

ISO 12800 is very noisy and colours look a little muddy, but it's still there if you can't bear to miss an important low-light photo opportunity.

Verdict

Olympus pen lite e-pl3

The loss of some the previously-mentioned much-loved features seen on the previous Olympus PEN Lite E-PL2 may grate on some existing E-PL2 owners and potential E-PL3 upgraders' nerves.

Only you can decide whether the tilting screen, new sensor and faster performance are enough to justify upgrading to the E-PL3, particularly so soon after the initial launch of the E-PL2, just over six months prior to this new model's introduction.

The asking price of £549.99 at the time of the camera's launch has already dropped on the high street, with a price tag closer to the £500 mark if you shop around online.

Your hard-earned cash does bag you the 14-24mm kit lens, plus that flash unit that's missing from the camera body itself. So, taking into account the features and the superb build quality that the E-PL3 has to offer, we're inclined to say it's worth the money.

The E-PL3 looks stylish and feels like it's really built to last. Plenty of beginner-friendly features are on hand to get you started, with the full complement of manual controls available once your skills develop, so it'll grow with you.

The new AF system is nothing short of excellent and – overall – this camera puts in a good performance in terms of image quality.

We liked

The simple interface, fast AF performance and tilting LCD add to the user-friendliness, responsiveness and versatility of the E-PL3.

The stylish design and metal finish combine to produce a solid, good-looking camera.

We disliked

Noise at the upper end of its ISO sensitivity range means the camera would benefit from being coupled with a faster lens to get the best shots in low light.

There also aren't many differences when compared to the older E-PL2, so potential upgraders may be put off.

The lack of built-in flash means you have to invest in an external one to improve low-light performance.

Final verdict

Putting the previously mentioned, potentially contentious issues aside for a moment, there's no doubting that Olympus has succeeded in creating a mini-marvel with the PEN Lite E-PL3.

It's beautifully engineered, stylish and puts in a blisteringly quick performance. As a compact system camera in its own right, we have to say it offers one of the best user experiences we've encountered to date, and as such we'd happily recommend it to a budding enthusiast in search of lightweight alternative to an entry-level DSLR.

Olympus compact system cameras
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