OLYMPUS MICROFOURTHIRDS

E-P3 PEN - FIRST IMPRESSION

with a pre-production unit

firmware version 1.0


Please Note: Any RAW files I provide can be manipulated with Olympus Viewer 1.2. I'd recommend Viewer over Studio or Master if you want the latest RAW development capabilities. If your current Olympus software is outdated the upgrade(s) can be obtained from within the software itself through HELP/UPGRADE SOFTWARE tab while connected to the Internet.

Having tried several RAW developer softwares I prefer Olympus Viewer even though it can be slow and lacks some sophistication. I use Viewer for all my RAW manipulating needs; I believe it gives the best results for colour rendition and general tweaking. However, as regards sharpening and noise reduction, there are better softwares out there.

Updates 26/07/2011. Please refresh your browser.

E-P3 CAMERA MANUAL You can download a pdf version of the official E-P3 manual (3MB) here .



BACKGROUND

This is the third E-P series camera I have reviewed (as opposed to E-PL series). I had some experience with the E-P1 in June 2009 at the Berlin release; read about it here , if you wish.

In addition I undertook a full E-P2 review with lots of downloadable images here .

The E-P1, as a first iteration of their interpretation of micro-fourthirds was impressive but I just couldn't get used to not having a viewfinder and find composing off the back screen alien. I know I'm not alone. In addition the AF was very slow indeed and Olympus was obviously trailing its competitor, Panasonic in this regard. Otherwise the E-P1 is, in most aspects, a very nice and competent little camera with excellent Image Quality.

Then came the E-P2 which featured a special port on the camera into which fits the Epson derived VF-2 electronic viewfinder (EVF) accessory which came as a revelation providing a viewfinder experience almost akin to that of E-3/5. Apart from a section of folks who want an integral EVF (me included) the VF-2 seems to satisfy the larger audience who wanted an EVF of some sort. However, and it is a big however, the AF implementation remained seemingly unchanged and attracted more criticism for its sedate performance.

Olympus have used their E-PL series to develop new technologies including two new standard 14-42mm zoom lenses to increase AF speed and with their last iteration, the E-PL2 and its new MSC designated lens, started to really improve on the sluggish AF speed. The E-PL2 is just about as quick as the E-Series cameras except the E-5 with the SWD 12-60 lens. This was quite an achievement that went largely unnoticed.

Still not totally satisfied, Olympus engineers have now redesigned the 12MP CMOS sensor and doubled its speed allowing rapid AF calculations that now enable an AF performance that will stand comparison with even the fastest phase detect systems on high end DSLR's. Now that's some claim! You can read about this new sensor and AF technology in my article about the introduction of the E-P3 here .

I intend to explore the new camera in some depth but please note I do not pretend to be versed in video/movies; nor do I have any more than a passing knowledge about making and processing video. For now I am reviewing the E-P3 as a stills camera. Video is something I will have to come to terms with! There are many reviews on the Internet that discuss the pro's and con's of video making with the Olympus Pen Cameras.

E-P3 FRONTAL ASPECT

E-P3 silver body fitted with the new MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC series zoom.

The two-tone effect between body and lens is real - the lens is more silvery.

The new lens has different knurling on zoom and focus ring; it is made from plastic.

NOTES

As with the E-P1&2 the body is sheathed in an attractive metal jacket. The E-P3 is almost identical to the E-P2 except the E-P3 has the facility to attach a selection of removeable grips via a tapped hole on the side. Unfortunately my sample did not come with a grip so I cannot comment on ease of fixing or sturdiness. In addition and long overdue is the provision of an orange AF assist lamp to the left of the OLYMPUS insignia. The camera oozes quality and begs to be picked up and caressed! Build quaility is exceptional.

E-P3 REAR ASPECT

The rear plate is dominated by the 3" OLED 640k screen that is excellent though a tad contrasty. Unfortunately the screen surround does not oversail the screen and offers it no protection.

I can confirm that the screen is genuinely smear proof. Even resting the screen against your forehead produces little marring.

The button layout is very similar to E-P2/E-PL2.

NOTES

The OLED screen is delightful to use with rich and a tad overly contrast laden colours. The screen sticks out from its surround by about 0.5mm which means that it is very vulnerable to marking if not used with the utmost care. The engineers would have been justified in building out the surround just a little so the screen is offered some protection when laid on its back.

The button column is almost the same as E-PL2 but the dedicated movie button is now at the head of the column because of the position of control wheel No 1 - the acclaimed thumb wheel first seen on E-P1. It is not quite as long as previous versions but just as useful.

Control wheel No 2 is around the 4-way and has been re-engineered to be a little stiffer when moving. I can relate to this improvement as I'm forever accidenatlly turning this wheel on the E-P2 especially if I'm using large lenses because there is so little real estate to actually get hold of to counteract the weight of a heavy 4/3rds or OM lens.

There's a busy lamp in the bottom right hand corner - something missing from E-PL series - they have a screen icon for this.

On the left above the screen is the flash pop-up button (it is mechanical). When raised the flash cannot be moved backwards (ala E-PL1&2 for bouncing off low ceilings). Flash head is tiny with a Guide Number of 9. It is very sturdy when raised and closes with a satisfying click. When raised you can see the tiny space it occupies when folded down; I bet this gave some engineer nightmares!

The AP-2 accessory port is shown with its protector slid in place.

E-P3 TOP ASPECT

The first thing you notice is the command dial is moved (compared to E-P2) to the shutter end of top plate.

You can see the flash detent - its pop-up button is on the back plate.

There is a Function button 2 where the EV compensation button is on E-P1&2.

NOTES

Here you can see why the command (mode) dial has been moved to the shutter end to accomodate the flash. I thought the older arrangement on E-P1&2 was aesthetically more pleasing with its sunken control wheel, but I suppose a flash is a more usable feature.

In the quality stakes the command (mode) dial is the worst part of the whole camera as it looks a bit tinnie. In my eyes it lets the camera down as it appears to be made from thin pressed aluminium with a knurled edge. The icons are printed directly on to the flat surface with no embossing of the metal. I can't see the printing lasting. I prefer the style of knob that adornes the E-PL series - much classier.

The shutter button is identical to the E-PL2. There is a Function Button (2) to the left (above) and the ON/OFF button is slightly recessed and with its own blue warning lamp. Olympus PEN E-P3 logo appears on the chrome top plate oversail.

Just in front of the hot shoe are the twin stereo microphone pick-ups for sound recoring in video mode.

E-P3 BOTTOM ASPECT

Standard E-P series bottom plate layout - battery and card door next to metal tripod bush.

Comms connection door on right hand side of image.

NOTES

This is the standard bottom plate for the E-P series. The battery door drops down to access the battery and card slots. The camera accepts SD-XC cards. The camera is designed in Japan but made in China.

You will notice the tripod bush is not in line with the centre line of the lens and is biased towards the battery door; this means that when mounted on a tripod it is not possible to remove the card without taking the camera off the tripod - a real pain.

E-P3 OTHER VIEWS - BATTERY/CARD DOOR OPEN

Bottom of camera with battery door open - battery (BLS-1) is held in place with a small red spring clip.

memory card slot is adjacent to battery slot.

NOTES

Here you can see the E-P3 with its battery door open. The battery is 55mm x 35mm x 11 deep. It is fitted with the pick-ups facing towards the cameras front. When released it is a bit fiddly to remove. Though the battery will fit the slot either way round, you cannot lock the battery in the wrong way - the locking tab will not work.

The card simply presses down into its slot and is automatically locked in place. To remove press again. The card fits with its pick-ups facing the back of the camera.

E-P3 OTHER VIEWS - LENS OFF

Shown above is the E-P3 minus lens. Here you can see the sensor (well the SSWF dust buster anyway).

Back of the lens is shown with its 11 communication contacts.

NOTES

Here you can see the m4/3rds sensor behind the clear cover of the Super Sonic Wave Filter that is Olympus unbeaten answer to dust on the sensor. Other makers have their own versions and though it is often plagiarized it has not been surpassed. I have been using 4/3rds cameras since 2003 and never required a sensor clean after many thousands of photographs. Too many folks take the Olympus solution for granted - it is a superb answer to the annoying and ever present problem of dust. Electronic devices attract dust like a magnet. The SSWF shakes the cover in front of the sensor at a supersonic rate to rid itself of dust particles, resulting in clear imaging.

E-P3 OTHER VIEWS - LENS AT ZOOM

The new MZD IIR MSC 14-42mm 1:3.5~5.6 lens fully zoomed out to 42mm.

NOTES

The new MZD lens is a collapsible lens in as much as it telescopes back into itself to make a smaller package for carrying when not in use. If you turn the camera on with the lens locked in the closed position you will get a warning on the screen to unlock the lens. In the locked position there is no screen image and the shutter is inoperative. Unlocking and locking is a simple operation via a small button on the lens itself.

I note the new lens is no longer designated ED. I do not know if this means the ED elements have been replaced with something new like IR coatings to assist with the new AF method. I will make further enquiries.

The MSC designation means Movie & Still Compatible which infers that little to no sound is made by the lens' AF mechaniism in movie mode, but the lens maintains all its still imaging characteristics.

The end of the lens is threaded to take 37mm filters.

E-P3 OTHER VIEWS _ ZOOM RING REMOVED

This image shows the front 'dress' ring of the new lens removed to enable fitting of the various Olympus accessory lenses.

The front ring of the lens is threaded to take 37mm diameter filters.

NOTES

Olympus offer 3 different attachment or conversion lenses that fit via a bayonet around the front tube of the lens (since version II of this lens that appeared with the E-PL1 (Japan only) and E-PL2).

Available are a Macro converter MCON-P01 that reduces the minimum focus distance to 24cm.

The FCON-P01 Fisheye converter offering a whole new perepective.

The WCON-P01 Wide angle converter increasing your wide angle capability (I guess to about 12mm).

These accessory lenses are light and will not stress the lens' AF mechanism. They do offer a quite cheap solution for those interested in Macro, fisheye and wide angle. I can see them being popular with those who don't want an arsenal of exchangeable lenses. If these new attachment lenses are made to the same standards as the old TCON & WCON converters they will produce good results with no loss of light.

The removeable front ring is a novel idea but I can see many being lost!

NEW m4/3rds LENSES

The basic kit (until now) is a body with standard kit MZD14-42mm IIR MSC zoom. The VF-2 EVF does not come packeaged and appears to be available only as an accessory. Newly announced lenses are an new (cosmetic change only) MZD14-140 IIR MSC; an exciting MZD12mm x f=2.0 wideangle lens with depth of focus scale and a MZD45mm x f=1.8 portrait lens. For more details about the latest releases see here . For the full rangeo of MZD lenses please go to this page here .

THE VF-2 EVF

The E-P3 relies on the accessory external elctronic viewfinder VF-2 for those wanting an alternative to LCD framing/composition. I know this is a disappointment to many (including myself) but I suspect the major problem of internalizing the EVF is one, primarily, of size. I asked Olympus UK about this and was told that "It is size, cost, flexibility and next year very likely one twice as good so also helps prevent obsolescence." I can see the logic employed here - we would be pretty miffed if the E-P3 had an internal EVF based on the 1.44million dot Epson technology to find the next iteration has 2.88million dots with increased refresh rates.

That said (and speaking as a DSLR user) I still feel an internal EVF would resolve another of the issues preventing the Pen series from seriously competing with DSLR's - in the eyes of DSLR users. But we have to acknowledge that many Pen converts are upgrading from compact cameras and have no wish for an internal EVF at all. It may be that those wanting an internal EVF are less than 10% of the potential market.

For those with no knowledge of the VF-2 here it is mounted on a silver E-P3:

E-P3 with matching silver VF-2 electronic viewfinder. As you can see the top of the VF-2 flips open to enable angled finding as well as 90 degree composing ideal for architectural work. The viewfinder size experience is similar to that of an E-3/5.



The viewfinder experience the VF-2 provides is exceptional in most daylight conditions and is readily comparable with an optical finder. The refresh rate is such that only in the case a really rapid movement do you experience any 'lag'. As the the ambient light level drops the VF-2 'gains up' which does cause graininess and in really low light conditions you will experience streaking and noise, but in all fairness you wouldn't be using a normal optical finder in such low light conditions.

I am very satisfied with the VF-2 as an accessory and would recommend it to anyone requiring an eye level viewfinder experience and wanting the additional stability that it provides when using manual focus legacy lenses. Though I'd still prefer an internal EVF I am understanding more Olympus' reponse.

The VF-2 is available for around 180-200. Yes, it is expensive and yes it clutters up the top plate and yes it ruins pocketability. All that said it's a cracking accessory to have and not one I'd do without.

E-P3 IN USE - FIRST IMPRESSION

There's no doubt about it, this is one handsome camera. It has so much appeal on many different levels. It appeals to nostalgia in one breath and encompasses rangefinder in another (though it is not a R/F camera). The E-P3 meets just about every criteria for being 'A Small Object of Desire'. Even the new range of lenses have been re-sculpted to hark back to a previous era. Olympus is looking back across their past product range and selecting good design from each decade. The new removeable grips are inspired by the OM2SP, 3 and 4Ti and I bet other manufacturers are saying 'Why didn't we think of that?' I bet they soon will!

However, aesthetics are one thing, performance is another. Let's see what the E-P3 offers.

GENERAL SPEED

My first impression of the cameras responsiveness is very favourable indeed. Starting up is achieved in just under 3 seconds - very much in line with the E-P2 and E-PL2 but marginally slower than the compact XZ-1. In general every aspect of the cameras performance seems to have been sharpened up and the whole experience is extremely responive. On moving the camera around rapidly there is no discernable screen lag and a barely perceptible amount through the VF-2 (if fitted). Changing the mode dial immediately brings up the Mode and a note on the screen and all the buttons appear almost instantaneous.

AF SPEED WITH LATEST MZD LENSES

I was anxious to see the AF speed delivered by the new sensor and AF algorithms. The camera has the standard new zoom fitted. On pressing the shutter button halfway AF is virtually instantaneous with the green box flashing its presence and the beep of confirmation. I have no accurate equipment to measure rapid AF speed but I can guarantee you will be impressed. Comparing it with the E-5 it is certainly as quick (if not a tad quicker) and definitely quicker than the entry level E-System cameras such as E-420/520 & 620. Comparing AF speed with the E-PL2 fitted with the same lens the E-P3 is quicker but not by that much. Compared with the E-P1&2 with the first generation of 14-42 zoom it is at least 3x quicker. Compared to the E-P1&2 with the latest generation lens fitted it is 2x quicker. I cannot test Olympus' claim of the fastest AF of any camera including top level DSLR's because I have niether the cameras nor equipment available, but compared to the E-5 anyway, it seems to be true.

AF SPEED WITH 4/3RDS ZD LENSES

I was equally anxious to try out a selection of my ZD (and other 4/3rds) lens arsenal on the E-P3 with the appropriate adapter MMF-1. Here's the results in normal daylight conditions with a target less than infinity. My assessment of AF speed is pretty primitive consisting of a small electronic second counter and my own experience. This is no good for rapid AF measurement, but adequate for slower AF times.

ZD12-60mm SWD AF = 2.25 seconds. Non CDAF enabled.

ZD14-42 kit zoom AF = 1.5 seconds. CDAF enabled.

ZD40-150mm kit zoom AF = 2 - 2.25 seconds. CDAF enabled.

ZD 25mm compact AF = 1.5 seconds. CDAF enabled.

ZD50-200mm SWD AF = 3 - 6 seconds.

ZD50-200mm OLD AF = 3 seconds.

ZD70-300mm AF = 2 seconds. CDAF enabled.

ZD14-35mm SWD AF = 2 seconds at wide angle; 2.5 - 3 seconds at tele (more steps).

ZD35mm Macro AF = 3 seconds Non CDAF enabled (6 seconds if hunting).

ZD50mm Macro AF = 2.5 - 3 seconds Non CDAF enabled (5 - 6 seconds if hunting). Non CDAF enabled.

PanLeica 14-50mm (faster version) AF = 2.5 seconds and very quiet. Non CDAF enabled.

Sigma 30mm AF = 2 seconds (clunky steps but quick). Non CDAF enabled.

ZD11-22mm AF = 2 - 3 seconds. Non CDAF enabled.

ZD7-14mm AF = 2.5 seconds. Non CDAF enabled.

ZD14-54mm Mk I AF = 2.5 - 3 seconds. Non CDAF enabled.

COMPARATIVE TESTS ZD12-60mm ON E-1 and E-P3.

Just for fun I fitted my E-1 with my ZD12-60 and the E-P3 with another (borrowed) ZD12-60 on a double-headed tripod arrangement, using the VF-2 on the E-P3 for verisimilitude with the E-1. I used the same focus point, in daylight, less than infinity (about 12') with the camera settings as near equal to each other as I could get them. Coming from a focus previously set at 3 foot on both cameras, the E-1 AF was confirmed in just under a second whereas the E-P3 AF was confirmed in just under 3 seconds. Both results showed accurate AF as both images were properly focused on the PC. It certainly seems that, at the moment anyway, 4/3rds lenses do not focus as fast on a CDAF machine as they do on a PDAF machine. We must wait until Olympus overcomes this issue.

COMMENTS ON ABOVE TESTS Anyone wishing to use the ZD CDAF enabled lenses on the E-P3 will see a a slight dip in performance compared to the MZD version (where appropriate). For those who wish to use their ordinary ZD, Sigma and PanLeica 4/3rds lenses the results are more mixed and none of them fares that well compared to the native MZD MSC lenses. But some of them perform not badly and provided you are not using them for sports or other action photography they will work satisfactorily. Bear in mind too that most of us are landscape shooters and for that type of imaging fast AF is a non-requirement. If you are a tripod shooter it simply doesn't matter.

I did notice that with most of the 4/3rds zooms used in the test, they were very noisy when zooming (except the PanLeica). Some are also noisy going through the AF steps so I'd imagine this makes them unsuitable for any video with sound. From my limited experience the best legacy lens to offer high resolution with a fast and bright zoom and silent operation is the OM35-80mm 2.8 - more about this in another article.

Of the range of lenses tested above by far the worse performer is the ZD50-200mm SWD and this must be to do with the stepping distances in the tele zoom because the ZD14-35mm SWD performs quite nicely, as does the ZD12-60mm SWD.

It's all about horse for courses. 4/3rds high and super-high grade lenses will surpass the standatd MZD lenses in resolution I am sure. They also offer some focal lengths and levels of brightness not yet covered by MZD. Whether you want to mix the m4/3rds system with traditional 4/3rds glass is a matter for you. I certainly will be because this means I can make my 4/3rds bodies last longer.

Of particular note in this section is the latest and rumoured comment by Watanabe-San from Olympus about the non-likelyhood of 4/3rds lenses working fully on the Pen range and the company's so called abandonment of this goal. This is the translation from Russian to English:

"There is nothing sensational out of that battlefront (4/3rds): yes, DSLR system is also important for us, we honour and remember users of our 4/3 optics. We have E-5 in our product line for them. It is possible that we return to active development but now I cannot say something audible. Current situation is so that we have to provide stability and survival, and that is what PEN system is dedicated to. By the way, their sales are good. We tried to adapt big optics to micro system but there are fundamental troubles: phase detection system is made to calculate needed focusing shift and to shift lenses to proper place at once but contrast detection system uses iteration fidgets by its nature. We cannot to join them right, so in fact we have capitulated. Approximately in this way. Watanabe also said me that many leading managers and bosses use E-5 personally so understand anxiety of simple users very well."

To me the most alarming part of the interview (if correct) is Watanabe-San's reference to 'remebering users of 4/3 optics'. It rather smacks of this is now in the past; we remember them but we move on. On the other hand it may mean that traditional DSLR development may have to continue for a while yet, thus ensuring continued production of the E-5. It is such a pity Olympus did not update the E-620 and have two 4/3rds bodies to offer the 4/3 faithful.

Please bear in mind this is an unconfirmed comment that has been through at least one translation software; it might be true or be totally meaningless. Until there is confirmation treat this report with a huge pinch of salt.

E-P3 BODY CONTROLS, SCREEN, KNOBS & DIALS

Anyone familiar with the Pen series will be familiar with the general layout of the controls. It is all self-explanatory. But of particualr note is the lack of a dedicated EV compensation button next to the shutter button, present on E-P1&2. EV compensation is achieved via the 4-way in default set-up. However the Fn button can be re-programmed to EV compensation should you wish (I have). The second function button is in the centre of the rear column of buttons and that too is programmable, as are two of the 4-way buttons and the dedicated video button. Basically, you can set the buttons pretty much as you like but you'll need a good memory!

Buttons are quite clicky in use offering feedback.

The OLED screen is wonderful - my only complaint is that it is too rich and too contrasty (like the XZ-1). When reviewing your photo's on the computer you will be disappointed that they don't look as they did on the OLED. This is OK if you work in RAW as you are going to process the results anyway; but in native JPEG they can look washed-out and lack 'POP' and require a few curve adjustments.

As noted above the screen could use some sort of protection as it sticks off the backplate. It requires a high quality screen protection film fitting from new.

Shutter button is light and responsive - identical in operation to E-PL2.

There's a blue ON lamp near the ON/OFF button that I find quite bright.

If you have the VF-2 fitted you will see the switch on its rear aspect that flips the feed from the sensor (i.e. the TTL view) between VF-2 or LCD. You choose either LCD or EVF display; all Live View and Menu display choices will appear in the EVF just as they do on the rear screen, including reviewing images. If you set REC VIEW to AUTO and have the VF-2 enabled your review image is shown on the VF-2 for a few seconds and then displayed on the rear screen. This is a better solution than constant toggling between the VF-2/screen. Perhaps Olympus might consider a 'smart-switch' in the VF-2 that recognises the human eye and switches the feed appropriately.

The horizontal control wheel is excellent; nicely stiff and clicky. Image Stabilization (IS) has no direct button, being accessed through the menu. This made sense for the E-P1 as the user is relying entirely on the LCD panel for composition and will benefit from IS. Because the E-P3 has an EVF possiblity (and hence some degree of head support for the camera during exposure) the IS choice is not so clear cut. There is no option for mapping IS function to any button so I suspect most users will leave IS set to IS1 and be done with it.

Around the 4-way control dial is the second control 'ring wheel' providing fast scrolling through the options. Even though the engineers have stiffened its operation, I still found this eay to disturb when handling large lenses on the small body and have disabled it.

The front plate is graciously free of MP count and IS icons. Unfortunately my sample came with no added accessory grip so I cannot comment.

In general the rear control buttons are well laid out but are small. Using the E-P3 wearing gloves will be virtually impossible.

On the right edge of the camera is the comms compartment with combined AV & USB and HDMI plugs.

ACCESSING THE MENU, SUPER CONTROL PANEL & OTHER FUNCTIONS

The Pen series provides two main points of access to control the camera, other than the direct or customized buttons. There's the main menu and a compact style 'Live Control panel' accessed by pushing the OK button at any time. The Super Control Panel, beloved of E-System users is available as an extra layer of control via the menu. However with them both enabled I found it overly complex and now have one or the other, not both. Both offer the same level of control but are laid out differently.

MENU

Much has been made of the supposed 'NEW' menu system. It is not new at all; Olympus have enhanced its looks due to the higher resolution of the OLED screen and incorporated some flashy underlays and new colours to the menu items, but the basic function and access is the same. It is still quite long and complicated to navigate. One enhancement is the provision of a pop-up box when you access a menu function that tells you in a few words what the function does. Yes this is useful but the box stops you seeing what's on the rest of the menu and actually slows the access procedure. I've read a lot of criticism about the length and complexity of the Pen menu system but if you want customizability you have to have complexity. If you scroll through the menus a few times it all makes perfect sense and they are now colour coded!

Above: The new primary menu screens - a rather nice shade of dark blue.

Above: The new custom menu screens - notice the colour coding.

I am not going to explore the menu system; suffice to say it is long and quite complex in places but is laid out logically and most choices are easy to find. To me exploring the menu system and customizing your camera to suit your personal needs is one of the pleasures associated with buying a new camera. Olympus offer an astonishing amount of customizability so enjoy their engineers work.

QUICK SETTINGS

After I had a quick look through the menu I changed a few basic parameters - SAT set to NORMAL (off) and NR to OFF; Picture mode to Natural with 0 sharpness and contrast. Face/eye priority - OFF; Function Button 1 - AF HOME; Function button 2 - EV COMP; 4-WAY Wheel- LOCKED; Auto ISO - High 1250 Low - 200; INFO settings to include Highlight & Shadow. I turned down the brightness and contrast of the EVF too. I record my shots in LF JPEG + RAW. I will further fine tune the camera a little later to suit shooting requirements. I may even put together an article on how to customize your camera.

BATTERY PERFORMANCE

With the bigger screen and additional electronic VF-2 demanding more power, battery life inevitably suffers. Whether the new battery will compensate remains to be seen. My sample had the older BLS1. When reviewing a camera I spend a lot of time in and out of the menu, altering settings and functions and seeing and testing the results. For the first part of the review I do not take many images at all, but I have needed to re-charge the battery three times in less than a week. I would imagine that a spare battery or two are a necessity for a long days shoot.

SOME SMALL DISLIKES

The buttons are too small and I do not like the second control wheel around the 4-way switch - it is too easily disturbed and before you know what's happened you have altered a basic setting. I've locked it on this machine.

Gloved use of the E-P3 will be impossible because of the lack of real estate on the rear panel and small buttons; the huge screen while beautiful takes up a lot of space and will be easily scratched if not careful.

Having to constantly turn the VF-2 off/on is a pain, and I do not like altering parameters or menu diving on the EVF, much preferring the screen. Perhaps Olympus might explore an automatic switch in the VF-2 that reacts to the eye?

Because the tripod bush is off centre this means you cannot remove battery or card without dismounting the camera from the tripod - very annoying.

I miss having no IR remote control - surely this can be easily fixed?

I am used to Olympus menu systems but can see why some new users might find it difficult.

SOME IMPROVEMENTS I'D LIKE TO SEE

I'd like a selectable overlay screen that looks like a DSLR AF screen. It could be a 7 point screen (based on the 35 points used as standard) with 3 horizontal AF targets in the centre with two above and below. These will be active and selectable; all on, some on or centre on. They can be pre-set to the smallest size available or even smaller if possible. They can be selected spiral, loop or off. When enabled this screen would remain as default until deselected in the menu. The idea would be to make DSLR users feel at home by always having a 7 point AF system available and rather than moving the AF points around the 35 point matrix with the 4-way or touch screen, there are 7 fixed AF points to use, just like a DSLR. This will make the E-P3 more appealing to those coming from DSLR's particularly when using the VF-2.

I'd dearly like to see a battery grip that would give some needed stability when using larger 4/3rds and OM legacy lenses. If Olympus are going to make mileage from the fact that the Pen series can use 100's of legacy lenses they need to provide better handling for those who might like to use them.

The tripod bush needs to be centred with the lens.

An IR sensor to be provided for remote operation.

Pro-Pen It's obvious to me that Olympus is not going to provide a model with an internalized EVF within the current Pen range. They seem happy with their VF-2 solution and I suppose if the VF-2 keeps up with technolgy changes that's reasonable. But if Olympus are to seriously engineer a Pen camera to take over from the E-Series then they must consider an internalized EVF for the 'Pro-Pen'. If the Pro-Pen is a reality (and I think this is likely) it needs to be larger than the current Pens to facilitate weathersealing of the body and better handling of larger lenses. That being so its larger body must include an internal EVF. Quite how the current CDAF vs PDAF issue is resolved is a matter for better minds than mine, but at least a bigger body will provide some room for a solution. At this point we are almost back to a camera like a mirrorless E-620 with an EVF and 4/3 mount though likely to be a m4/3 mount and use the adapter to utilize 4/3 lenses!

E-P3 WITH NEW MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC KIT ZOOM AND MZD 14-150mm MSC

The standard zoom is the equivalent of a 28-84mm (in 35mm terms) and at f3.5~5.6 is a little slow but no different to most kit zooms. Remember to twist out the inner barrel from its locked position to avoid the LCD warning, and you are ready to go. The zoom ring operates smoothly enough with a turn of about 30 degrees across the zoom range, and in manual focus the fly-by-wire arrangement works fine. In manual focus with any MZD or ZD lens, as soon as the focus ring is touched, the camera switches to a close-up version of the scene to allow critical focus - a great feature. Leave go of the MF ring for a second and the camera switches back to its normal view. Obviously this does not work with legacy 35mm lenses as they do not communicate with the body. But with such lenses the magnified view is available by pressing the dedicated magnify button button when in the appropriate LV mode (green box). This feature is exceptional for macro or table-top work using OM macro lenses.

As said above AF is virtually instantaneous regardless of the previous focusing distance, be it close focus or infinity. This is a huge advance for Olympus and finally puts to bed the previous (and justified) criticism of pedestrian AF performance. After two weeks of pretty intensive use I could find no circumstances when the AF was slowed or refused to work in normal daylight conditions.

With the delightful MZD14-150mm (28-300mm 35mm equivalent) lens fitted the only circumstances that slowed down the AF function was if you are coming from close focus at 14mm to distant focus at 150mm. In this case AF was about 0.75 of a second for the first lock, after this it reverted back to its normal rapid performance unless you drastically changed the focal length and focus distance again.

But, in poor light the AF function was slowed using either lens. The AF assist lamp helps and activates at long distances too, but is effective at maximum of about 3m, so it does not resolve the problem if you are too far away. When the AF assist lamp glows AF is still slowed but will lock in about 2 seconds. Common sense must prevail here and sensible AF target selection and positioning is required. The new system is much improved over the E-P1/2 and E-PL1/2 but not perfect. So, in gloomy conditions the new AF system is better than most compacts I've used, but not as good as say the E-system mid-range machines fitted with a budget kit lens lens and AF assist (strobing) disabled.

E-P3 AND OM LEGACY LENSES USING THE ADAPTER MF-2

Micro FourThirds brings the opportunity mount and use just about any 135 format lens (with the appropriate adapter). The VF-2 offers the user a two fold bonus; a superb electronic viewfinder of a similar size as the E-3 and (just as importantly) a place to steady the camera (against your head), thus improving camera stability and avoiding shake. And, of course, you can see the magnified view in the viewfinder for totally accurate manual focus.

While legacy lenses can be just as easily fitted to the older E-P1, their use is somewhat limited by having to compose and manually focus on the back screen away from the body with the camera some 12-18" in front of you. This causes camera shake and makes the physical act of focusing accurately almost impossible unless the camera is tripod mounted.

Some folks may query the use of manual legacy lenses but for specialist uses such as macro photography many experienced users prefer manual focus even with thier AF capable lenses. One of my most used lenses is the OMZ 90mm Macro for table top and illustrative work. The VF-2 on the E-P2 simply extends its usability.

My legacy lens collection is restricted to OM and Pen F/FT/FV series with the odd M42 screw mount. The results from using OM lenses on E-System cameras has improved since the E-1 with superior metering and better exposure box design. Even the OM wide-angle lenses can produce half decent results on the E-3. But the shorter registration distance and lack of a mirror/exposure box of m4/3rds provides even better results.

OM LENSES ON E-P1: I undertook some detailed testing of just about all my range of OMZ lenses 8mm through 600mm on the E-P1 (tripod mounted) that you can read about here if you wish. NOTE: Dandelion focus confirm adapters do not work on the Pen series. The resultant imagery will be very similar/identical.

As I have already provided a large report on the use of OM lenses on the E-P1 I'm not going to repeat that exercise with the E-P3 as the only difference arises from the VF-2's affect on camera stability and the easy to use dedicated magnify button on the E-P3.

A NOTE ABOUT LEGACY GLASS

It is easy to see why there's a resurgence of interest in legacy lenses from many defunct stables. If you should look to the old Pen F system for lenses be warned that Pen F lenses have been collected strongly since the demise of the system in 1970 so prices can be eye-watering. Some OM lenses too fetch staggering prices, especially for the brighter version primes. My experience tells me that the slower version OM primes actually perform better than their faster siblings so look for these if you fancy a small stable of fixed length lenses for your bag. OM zooms are fiddly to use as you have to manually stop down, zoom then manually focus, a process that some find too lengthy. Most run of the mill OM zooms produce 'OK-ish' results that to me are not worth investing time/money in. However, the more expensive and fast zooms like the OM 35-70 x 3.5 and the famed OM 35-80 x 2.8 do deliver very good results and may be of interest to video fans because of their silent nature.

Using old glass on modern cameras is not only fun, it harks back to an era when the photographer was more 'in control' and had a different input into the photographic process. If you want to quickly learn how to focus, and about depth of field and hyperfocal distance, then pop a manual lens on your digital Pen!

Whether anyone should actively acquire legacy lenses is a matter for them. If I didn't already have a stable of OM & Pen F lenses I'm not certain if I'd seek them solely for use on the Pen series.

E-P3 ISO TEST

You will know Olympus have increased the ISO range to 200 - 128000 on the E-P3. I undertook a series of shots at ISO 200-6400 in 6 stops; 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400. I then ran out of shutter speed even though the day was somewhat overcast, so I have no example of ISO at 128,000 in this series. However, my observation of shots taken at the highest ISO is quite simple - don't bother. With Noise Filter set to OFF the amount of noise totally destroys the image and with the filter set to STANDARD the image loses much detail. ISO 128,000 is strictly for emergencies. There follows a series of target shots with the full size JPEG available by clicking on the marked image. Download the full size image for your own comparison. At the bottom of the section I've also provided an image showing the sky crops (good place to look for sensor noise) from the centre left of the 6 images. Click on any image to see the original jpg. In essence all Olympus have done is to move the ISO ratings up from 100 to 200 at the bottom end and increased it to 128,00 at the top end. I see little difference in the noise level progression between the E-P2 with its range of 100-6400 and the E-P3's 200-128,000. Both top level ISO's produce the same noisy and blotchy images without a filter applied and large loss of detail with the noise filter applied.



Taken at ISO 200. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Taken at ISO 400. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Taken at ISO 800. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Taken at ISO 1600. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Taken at ISO 3200. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Taken at ISO 6400. Click on image to download original LSF jpg.





Centr left sky crops - click on image to see slightly larger version.



CRITIQUE

These shots are fine up to and including ISO 3200. At 6400 the loss of detail is quite dramatic and I did not have the shutter speed to capture the same image at 128,000 and any alteration of other settings would have voided the whole test. I can see no banding at all but the two highest ISO speeds are really for times when you are desperate. Remember I had noise filtering set to OFF so all these files will benefit from noise reducing software too.

The sky crops are pretty impressive up to 6400 but you may be better looking for noise in the shadows or looking at the house name near the front door which you can see slowly disappears due to noise as the ISO level increases.

Download the original jpg's and try them through your own noise reducing software. I have the basic camera settings very conservatively so all the files should take some sharpening if necessary.

If you require the RAW files please email me direct and ask.

COMPARING THE E-P3 with MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC with E-P2 with ZD 14-42mm MSC

The MSC lens that appeared in Japan with the E-PL1 and elsewhere with the E-PL2 increases the AF performance of any previous Pen on which it is mounted. Apart from the better AF performance I wonder if there's any optical difference the two versions as noted by the IIR designation?

I used a double headed tripod for these shots with each camera at either end of the horizontal bar and focused on the same spot. I set both cameras up identically except for ISO; on E-P3 I used ISO 200 while on the E-P2 I used ISO 100 (their native base line). The images were taken at precisely the same moment. I was curious to see if there is any difference between the lenses as I've been told such difference between IIR MSC and MSC is largely cosmetic. But remember the E-P3 has the latest TruePic engine with fine detail processing, a technology borrowed from the E-5.

This is from the E-P2 with ZD 14-42mm MSC @ 14mm (image is marked only to avoid confusion; no post processing other than notation. EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original LSF jpg version.

This is from the E-P3 with MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC @ 14mm (image is marked only to avoid confusion; no post processing other than notation. EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original LSF jpg version.



CRITIQUE

As I previously determined, ISO 100 on the E-P2 is, effectively, the same as ISO 200 on the E-P3. If you examine the enlarged versions, or better still download the LSF jpg for examination on your own PC, you will see a slight difference. At 100% there is a clarity posessed by the E-P3 rendering not present on the E-P2 version. It might be possible that this is due to the lens but I suspect it is more the processing engine at work here. The EP3 rendering is slightly sharper and enjoys slightly more contrast and overall presents a marginally better image.

However, for non-pixel peepers, this is of little concern. Both images will print out identically at all but the very largest size. But it does show that either the new sensor or the processor or the IIR lens is adding something to the output over previous incarnations. Until I know precisely what the IIR designation brings to the lens, I suspect a mix of all three.

SOME RANDOM IMAGES FROM THE E-P3

I have been out collecting some ordinary images from the E-P3; the sort of shots anyone might take out and about. I'm not entirely happy with the output. When I transfer the images to my PC some look a little dull and lifeless and lack the 'POP' Olympus is so famous for from its JPG engine. Whether this is because the new OLED screen presents a 'too good rendering' and therefore might deceive you I'm not entirely sure. They also do not represent what I actually saw from behind the camera. Most of the test shots above have been taken mid-afternoon whereas all the following shots are taken early evening though none into the sun. Certainly most of my evening shots have this dullness about them. Let me show you:

This is from the E-P3 and MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC @ 14mm: ISO 200; 1/640th @ F8; EV Comp = 0 (EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original JPG version.

I have to apply tonal and curve adjustments to reproduce the scene as I saw it - something I'm not used to doing with Olympus jpg's.

This is from the E-P3 and MZD 14-150mm @ 90mm; ISO 1600 -0.3EV; 1/200th @f8 (EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original JPG version.

Again I need to work on this image in PP to recapture the scene as I saw it. However for ISO 1600 it is very good indeed. Download the original and see for yourself.

This is from the E-P3 with MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC @ 14mm; ISO 200; 1/80th @ f6.3; -0.3 EV (EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original JPG version.

This image requires little in the way of PP, but to my eyes it still lacks the famous Olympus colour signature.

This is from the E-P3 and MZD 14-42mm IIR MSC @ 17mm: ISO 200; 1/200th @ F8; EV Comp = 0 (EXIF should be attached.)

Click on image for the original JPG version.

There's some shade in this image and ther metering system has done well to define it and keep the detail in both the highlights and shadows. But, to me, it is a little flat.



To address this issue I tried developing the above RAW image in Olympus Viewer software (latest version) and applying the VIVID Picture Mode and increasing contrast and saturation to +1 with sharpness to +1. Here's the result:

This is the same image as that above but developed from RAW with some adjustments.

Click on image for the original JPG version.

To me this is a more accurate representation of the reality of the scene at the time of capture.



CRITIQUE

I think what I'm seeing here and in many other of my images is the result of more accurate metering inside the Pen range. Where there is a high dynamic range in the scene the metering averaging process is protecting the highlights and preserving the shadows as best it can and so producing something which looks, overall, a bit flat. Only by stretching the highlights to near the maximum will you get a more accurate reproduction. I suppose this is better than blowing the highlights altogether or having very muddy shadow areas containing no detail, but it does mean that you may find you are post processing your jpg's more than you wish.

If you download any of the above images into your manipulator and do some simple auto tonal adjustments or redefine the black and white points you will see an improvement as the flatness is removed. This is something I've not had to do previously.

I've also experimented by developing the RAW image and applying the VIVID Picture Mode and obtained better results (to my eye) than NATURAL delivers. With Previous versions of the Pen, including the Lite, I found the VIVID setting produced images too rich in contrast and saturation for my taste. But maybe the E-P3 needs a little more POP wound in to the camera to make up.

To my eyes this is a little disappointing because Olympus have built a reputation for excellent imaging straight from the camera and many users simply want this. Perhaps the new sensor and TruePic engine needs further tweaking to better match the metering system; I don't think it needs much but it will be a shame if Olympus loses this advantage. On the other hand if this is simply addressed by shifting your preference to Picture Mode = VIVID and maybe slightly adjusting contrast, saturation and shapness to suit your taste, it is easily resolved. Unfortunately in the short time I had the E-P3 I could not really experiment further to find the optimum setting. Perhaps I'll do this later if Olympus will loan me another E-P3.

CONCLUSION

The E-P3 is the third incarnation of Olympus' interpretation of MicroFourThirds. The company has striven to produce a camera that has rapid AF - and succeeded. They have done this by doubling the sensor and processing speed which results in a much more responsive camera than its older siblings. They have also provided a new sensor albeit based on the well tried Panasonic 12.3MP that has featured in all their camera since the E-620. The processing engine is new too and boasts fine detail processing giving superior output equivalent to higher MP count machines. Olympus, for now, are sticking to their belief that 12MP is good enough for the vast majority of photographers.

I think the engineers have looked at each element of the E-P2 and their Lite versions of the Pen and literally tuned each part. The only way to improve AF was to double the speed so the whole camera has benefitted. But in doing so I think the new TruePic engine is not producing the richness and colour signature of the older engines. This may be due to improvements in metering, increased ISO capability or heightened DR, but to me anyway the result is output that is simply not as striking out of the camera as the earlier Pen versions like the E-PL1 or the E-Series cameras. Yes you can capture in RAW if you wish, but the vast majority of users do not wish for this; they want high quality output in their jpg's without any post processing at all. It seems Olympus have taken some huge steps forward but have lost just a little ground in one very important area, convenient image quality.

But I'm not going to berate Olympus for this, rather praise them for the steps they have taken to address the Pens biggest weakness to date, its speed of AF. Also the introduction of new prime lenses is very welcome and I'd like to see this continued. Zooms are very convenient but the size of the Pen makes fast zooms out of the question (think of the Super High Quality f=2.0 4/3 Zooms) where even a modest optical speed increase will produce MFT lenses far too large for the diminutive Pen concept. Fast primes are without doubt the way to go to satisfy many looking for the advantages fast glass offers.

Not that the Pen E-P3 is faultless - it isn't. All cameras are compromises and no one-size fits all. As said above I think the TruePic engine is a little lacking in punchy jpg's. In certain conditions the results can be flat and muddy like film not developed with the correct mid gray point. Whilst the OLED screen is beautiful it tends to deceive the eye making your images better looking than they actually are. I notice exactly the same issue with the XZ-1 compact. I do not welcome the touch screen and am very grateful that Olympus lets the user disable it, but this is a very personal opinion that may not be shared by others.

The E-P3 is a photographers dream with seemingly unending ways to customise the camera to your own specification. In that sense it is clearly aimed at the more experienced user. But it does have a fully automatic mode (iAUTO) to satisfy those who simply rely on the camera to do most things.

The 'new' menu system is just as complex as the older system so some study and a level of understanding is required by new users. The little pop-up explanation box new to the menu system does help though personally I don't like it.

The mixture of modes, both manual, semi-manual and automatic with the availability of differing scene capturing choices and the very novel Art Filters will attract buyers from across the spectrum.

For the nostalgic amongst us the retro design, the VF-2 and the ability to use legacy glass will be irresistible.

LIKES

Fast AF is very welcome and will silence the critics.

Faster processing has increased the write speed by about 40% - a LSF+RAW takes about 4 seconds to write to a fast card; the same takes over 6 seconds in the E-P2.

In general the camera is very responsive in all areas of operation - it feels smooth.

The amount of customizability is wonderful.

AF illuminator - at last.

The aesthetics, like the E-P2, are very desirable and I especially like the interchangeable grips.

On-board pop-up flash is great for daylight in-fill and general close quarters indoor work.

Being able to use the wonderful VF-2 and other accessories in the AP2 smart port.

DISLIKES

Without a grip the camera is quite slippery.

The touch screen is not for me.

Rendering on the OLED screen is 'too damned good' and may mislead the user.

I do not like the circular control wheel around the 4-way - I still find it fiddly in use.

Position of the battery/card compartment in relation to tripod bush means dismounting the camera to access the card.

Having to manually switch the VF-2 on/off - a sensor might be better but I suspect it will not be intelligent enough.

I have relegated the lack of an internal EVF to last place as I'm seeing the Olympus strategy here, though personally I'd still prefer one!


NOTE: This article seeks nothing other than to inform. Only you can decide what equipment you want/need for your use. Olympus provided the E-P3 as a review sample for three weeks before it was returned. I have nothing to gain or lose by publishing this article, photographs, examples or opinion.


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Posted July 2011 Copyright © 2011 John Foster