Gear review: Olympus PEN E-P3 digital camera

By Carolyn Barry 1 November 2011
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The new Olympus PEN-E-P3 digital camera is a compact device with the SLR quality.

FOR A LONG TIME there has been a divide between the SLR world and the compact world of cameras. The move into the digital realm is lessening that gap, but a new format is making the bridge: micro four-thirds cameras.

Abandoning the mirror and the pentaprism, the micro-four-third camera (referring to the 4:3 image ratio) is able to pack a lot into a little. What results is fairly compact camera with SLR-quality and capabilities, including manual settings and interchangeable lenses.

There have been a few on the market but the Olympus PEN EP-3 is one of the best. While Canon and Nikon have the lion’s share of camera kudos, being long-term trusted brands, Olympus is not one to forget. The imaging company has been in the business since 1919 and leads the field in microscope products.

And they’re starting to change the game with the PEN series. The PEN EP-3 is designed for the enthusiast who wants great quality in a compact box, or for the professional who wants a smaller, lighter option for when the SLR is left at home.

Though it replaces the hefty SLRs (think 2kg minimum), the PEN EP-3 is solid for its size – 370g – and this is mostly due to its metal rather than plastic body. The retro styling harks back to the 60s and its smooth surface is classy – but the removable finger-rest is advised so you can keep a tight grip.

The one thing that has most people talking about – and the company bragging about – is its “world’s fastest autofocus” system – something along the lines of a 60-millisecond lag time. This was under a particular set of conditions and Olympus testing, and we can’t challenge this claim, but we agree it’s pretty darn quick. Certainly, the time to focus and snap a picture is negligible, though add in the time to turn the camera on and it slows things down a little.

Another advanced feature in the market is its touchscreen. It’s a neat feature that you can tap the screen and in a split second the camera focuses and takes the photo. The camera focuses at the point you tap the screen, so it’s great for shots that you need to focus off centre. There’s also a lock when you don’t want to accidentally take a shot.

Controls are reasonably intuitive, but there are a lot of them and multiple ways to get to what you want. Burst shooting is 3 frames/second, which doesn’t stack up to the 8-9 frames/second of SLRs, so it’s not one for serious sports shooting.

Example shot from the PEN E-P3: Rainbow falls along the Great Ocean Walk (Credit: Carolyn Barry)
See more example images from the gallery.

The PEN EP-3 sports a ‘TruePicVI’ system which, according to Olympus, produces more accurate colours. Image results from my test show that on standard settings, the colours are fairly rich and natural, but not vivid. It has a little trouble with blowing out highlights in clouds on a sunny day, but is pretty good compared to most others on the market under similar conditions.

For a bit of fun, Olympus has thrown in 10 art filters, ranging from black and white to pop art, pin hole and the good old soft focus. And just in case you want the shot later without the filter, you can set the camera to take a ‘normal’ shot simultaneously with the art-filter shot.

The PEN EP-3 has 23 different automatic scene settings, but at times this can make it lengthy to trawl through and select the one you want. It’s probably just as quick to select the manual settings.

Like all modern digital cameras, the PEN E-P3 has HD video, up to 1080i Full HD movie (AVCHD) with stereo sound (which puts it ahead of the rest). And the image stabilisation is impressive. While it’s not enough to use for feature films, it’s plenty for web applications. Let’s face it – we can’t expect everything from one device.

Example video from the PEN E-P3 (hand held):

Overall, it’s a great camera and compact for travelling or for those wanting a compact camera to pack a punch. But its price, pushing into SLR territory, might make you think twice.

The PEN E-P3 Silver twin lens kit (with their own Zuiko lenses) 14-42mm IIR and 40-150mm R is available from RRP $AU1199. Also available is a 12mm f2.0 (24mm equivalent in old terms) and 9-18mm f4.0-5.6.