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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Olympus PEN E-P3: A Comprehensive Review

PART I: Introduction

As many of you would already know, the PEN E-P3 is the 3rd and latest generation of the revolutionary mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC for the sake of convenience) from Olympus. Several months before it’s launching, speculation was rife that the E-P3 would be the rumored Pro PEN, supposedly the first MILC with weatherproofing and magnesium alloy body etc. etc. Well, now we all know that’s not only NOT true, but the E-P3 still maintains the exact look of it’s last 2 predecessors. Not that it’s bad thing though, since the PEN garnered a legion of new fans overnight by virtue of it’s looks alone. I would have bought it instantly if it actually resembled the older Leica M’s or Carl Zeiss’ astonishingly beautiful Ikon ZM, no bull. But there were none of the rumored weatherproofing features and whatever that defines a current pro level DSLR, which is a shame indeed. As a present E-1 owner who sometimes shoots in bad weather, it would have been the best news of the decade.

What the E-P3 did bring to the table, however, is a whole new dual-core processor (TruePic VI), a built in flash (FINALLY, now that I can also use it to control my FL50R flash unit), a super sharp and bright OLED 640K screen, a claimed new sensor wholly designed by Olympus, and most of all, the world’s fastest autofocus system. Apart from these, practically nothing has changed. It still uses only one SD card for storage, same battery and the same resolution as before. Olympus claimed that not only would it be the fastest focusing PEN, but also the fastest amongst all digital cameras out there, including professional grade cameras! Let me be very honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last statement, because going from experience with the last PENs, I would have laughed myself to death if it wasn’t such a tall order. I knew I had to see and test it for myself to believe that. And by some miracle from the great heavens, I finally got my wish in the best possible way.

About a week ago, the founder of PEN Lovers (a local PEN fan and support group), Koon Yik, called me and asked if I was interested in reviewing a loaner E-P3 from Olympus Malaysia. I would have thrown myself in front of a speeding Shinkansen while crying if we were in Tokyo by the time I got that call. So yeah, of course, OF COURSE I would love to! And after 2 days of carting kilos of gear around Penang and shooting like no tomorrow, I would like to share my thoughts on the E-P3. Among the things I will be covering are the handling and ergonomics, overall image quality, how the so-called fastest autofocus of all time performs, and my personal favorite, how the camera works with adapted lenses. I’m sure some of our readers would be interested to see how their older Four Thirds DSLR lenses work in tandem with the new AF system, so I will create a section specifically for that topic. Without further ado, let us begin.

PART II: Features

At a glance, the E-P3 is so similiar to it's predecessors, you'd think that all Olympus did was tweak the sensor, swap out the display and add in a built in flash. Well, in many ways, that's quite true. To say that Olympus ADDED new features to the E-P3 isn't exactly correct. It still has only one SD card slot, it still uses the ubiquitious BLS-type battery since the E-400 days, and it still does not have a variable angle LCD that allows you to compose in a ridiculous amount of ways. What I DO appreciate, however, is that the display has been bumped up to a more modern 640K OLED display that is so sharp, I can practically focus manually without using the awesome VF-2 electronic viewfinder. I must caution new users, however, that the screen can be too vibrant and what you see IS NOT what you will get when displayed on the PC. It can give a false sense of accomplishment, so be careful not to trust it too much. At the very least for me, I can finally use it to check if I have attained absolute focus accuracy and compared to the previous 230K displays, this is an advantage that I've longed for for a long time. 

            The E-P3 is significant in a sense that it's the 1st E-P camera to have a built in flash. It's kind of sad for me to write this, since not many users today would imagine that there are cameras without even a tiny built-in flash. For some veterans who grew up or lived with cameras that don't have a built in flash (in fact, all my 5 cameras except one don't have a BIF!), however, this may be a welcome addition. For owners of remote controlled flashes like me (eg Olympus FL50R, 36R), this will open up more creative potential especially when one wants to try strobe flash photograph, without the need to buy 3rd party radio control devices. Although the previous E-Ps do not have BIFs, they still were warmly received. By adding one to the E-P#, that will certainly add more value to the package (or in the case of some, the obvious thing that should have been done even before). There will always be a moment when that 'insignificant' little thing will make or break an important shot. 

            One of the defining features of the PEN series is the Art Filter mode. It's a set of built in creative filters that post process your pictures into either awesome or gaudy looking works of art. I never imagined how useful it could be until I personally tried it on the E-P3. My personal favorite would be the Dramatic Tone and Grainy Film filter. I believe that this will be very useful for shooters who are in a creative rut or want to view their pictures in a whole different way. Some of the filters can be very useful (the aforementioned Dramatic Tone and Grainy Film, as well as the vintage Pinhole) to downright grotesque (Star Effect and Pop Art), so use them sparingly.

Pinhole filter

Grainy Film filter

Dramatic Tone filter, possibly the most unique of all the Art Filters. I can't help but feel attached to this style

Gentle Sepia filter

Dramatic Tone filter

            Wisely this time around, Olympus has provided us with the ability to shoot Full HD 1080i videos, and in stereo at that! I can't help but think that they're added this as a sign of pressure from it's competitors, now that almost every DSLR, even the entry level ones, can shoot at 1080p resolution. Regardless of how one may view this, I'm certainly not complaining about it. I am a firm believer that some people or companies will thrive on the demand. Sadly at the time of writing, I did not have  the chance to test out the video capability.

PART III: Image quality

When I read that Olympus was touting the E-P3 as their latest camera with a new sensor designed themselves, I was honestly expecting something along the lines of a 14-16 megapixel sensor with superb dynamic range. Well, the end result wasn't what I expected, but it also wasn't disappointing at all. It still outputs 12 MP, but those are REALLY good 12 MP. Sounds corny, but that's how it goes for me. 

            Honestly speaking, there is nothing for me to add in terms of the color reproduction. If you've owned any Olympus back since the E-300 days, nothing has changed much till now. The trademark punchy and accurate colors are still here after all these years (why change a winning formula?), and they're not oversaturated to the point of being annoying to the senses. The white balance is the same old thing as well, accurate in good light, but has the tendency to be fooled in artificial light sometimes. In my books, however, it's still one of the best amongst some cameras I've tested. The skin tones are realistic, so no complaints there. 

            What really impressed me this time around is the sharpness of the output. Most of Olympus' previous cameras have been known to have a thick anti-aliasing (AA) filter desgined to reduce moire. Consequently, this reduces the maximum amount of detail and sharpness that the sensor is capable of. But since the PEN was introduced, we're finally getting  the results that we want. Specifically since the E-PL1, Olympus was wise to reduce the strength  of the filters so we can extract more detail within the sensor. I have briefly tested an E-PL2 several months back, and needless to say, I was really impressed with the absoulte resolution we can get out of it. Granted, I don't believe that it's comparable to some high end cameras out there without any AA filter at all (eg Leica M9, Pentax 645D), but looking at the overall cost of the aforementioned cameras, I'm not exactly complaining. If Olympus ever comes out with a similiar camera with no AA filter as well (and offload the moire removal task to the CPU like they've done with the flagship E-5), I think that would be something to be really contented about.

            As far as noise performance goes, it has improved noticeably and I can confidently say that clean results are attainable up till ISO 1600. I've heard some comments from users who are even happy to shoot up till ISO 3200, but IMHO, I'd try to stick within the ISO 1600 range if I can help it. From ISO 200-800, the images are really clean and exhibit a balanced amount of luminance and chroma noise. From ISO 1600, luminance noise increases slightly but chroma noise really starts to show itself. It would be wise to shoot in RAW at this point and apply your own noise reduction workflow in Olympus Viewer 2 or iB at this stage. But from ISO 3200, the images are REALLY noisy and not much detail is left at this point. It kind of baffles me that the E-P3 was given the ability to shoot all the way till ISO 12,800, considering that even at ISO 3200, I've already reached my theoretical limit of acceptable image quality. Although Olympus has done a fantastic job in increasing the noise performance by at least 1-2 stops from the previous generation, there's still lots of room for improvement from ISO 3200 onwards. For now, I applaud Olympus for finally giving me the ability to shoot at ISO 1600 happily (as an E-1 user, I have never shot anything above ISO 400, so the extra 2 stops of latitude is very much welcome). 

Low light shot at ISO1600 w/ Olympus ZD 14-54mm Mark I

            One thing I'd like to recommend is that for future PENs, they have an ISO 100 and 50 option, even 25 if it's not asking for too much. I realise that dynamic range may be an issue at anything lower than ISO 200 (hence the E-P3 starts off at ISO 200 to get acceptable DR), but if they can pull it off, there will be even more reasons for vintage shooters to gun for it. Not everyone needs high ISO capability you know. Imagine being able to shoot at ultra low ISO 50, combined with a 10 stop ND filter for massively slow shutter speeds while shooting in the beach. Sublime.

PART IV: Performance

If any of you have owned the 1st and 2nd generation PEN cameras, you'd probably feel how unfathomably slow they are. So slow that shooting moving subjects in autofocus mode is a universally impossible task. I still remember trying the 1st ever E-P1 with the 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens. My word, was it a world of difference when compared to even my E-1 with the 25mm f/2.8 lens! It's a known fact that in almost every situation, phase detection autofocus (PDAF) in DSLRs are much faster compared to contrast detect AF (employed in almost every digital compact camera available today). But back then, the PEN was quite a costly proposition, and the abysmal autofocus was not something that you'd expect for the money.

            With the E-P3 now, however, the autofocus has been overhauled and improved to levels that you may not possibly imagine. If you're using the new 'R' version of the M.Zuiko lenses, you can often focus AND shoot in less than 1 second! I kid you not, I was blown away by how fast the E-P3 is compared to it's predecessors. Not only that, autofocus in low light environments will slow down much less than before, and even in situations when a DSLR will struggle to lock focus in low light, the E-P3 makes short work of it, often grabbing the image in under 2 seconds at most. Seriously Olympus, if you have waited this long to make an impression, I'd say you really make the previous PEN owners feel underwhelmed with their previous purchases! I have never heard even a single PEN owner who did not compare the E-P3 with their E-P1 and 2, and at the same time, lament about how they wish they had waited for the newest PEN. But let's be reasonable. AF performance will get better and better, there's no point in complaining that the next iteration will focus 0.01 seconds faster than the last. However, in the E-P3's case, the difference can be a staggering 1-2 seconds faster in good light, and 3-4 seconds in bad light! No wonder all the previous owners felt underwhelemed.

            Olympus attributes this miraculous leap in performance to the new FAST focus algortihm (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) and dual-core TruePic VI CPU. I don't really know or understand how it works, but as long as it delivers the goods, I'd rather be spending time shooting, quick draw style ala John Wayne.  It's actually faster compared to both of my DSLRs, and I cant help but feel it may be time to move on to the PEN for the sake of AF performance alone. Yeah, that's how good it is.       Olympus actually went as far as to claim that it's the WORLD'S FASTEST AF, but unless someone can lend me a lightning quick sports camera like a Canon 1Ds Mark IV or Nikon D3s to compare with, I can only vouch for now that the E-P3 is the fastest Olympus camera I've ever tried.

            As far as image recording times go, it's not exactly any different than most entry level DSLRs out there. It doesn't take anymore than 1 second for a JPEG, and 1.5 seconds to write a RAW and JPEG file simultaneously. I would advise, however, to get a Class 10 SDHC card. My testing was done with a cheap Class 4 card, and although it wasn't such a slouch, I believe that a Class 10 card will maximize it's writing performance and getting the best out of the E-P3. I tried to record a short clip with the Class 4 card at Full HD resolution, and although it surprisingly managed to do it, there were times when the video will jerk during slow panning. I have no doubt that the Class 4's writing speed is not up to scratch when trying to record with budget cards. So unless you really can't afford one, I'd say get a faster card to really enjoy the whole FAST experience (pun intended).

            By the way, did I also forget to mention how fast the E-P3 starts up now? Previously, Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) mechanism will need about 1 second to shake off possible sensor dust upon turning on. This time around, it works almost instantaneously, and you can expect to start shooting from the time the camera is turned on. Well done I say.

PART V: Legacy lenses

            When the PEN was announced, one of the heralded features was the ability to mount virtually any commercially available lenses on it. This is all thanks to the absence of the traditional mirror box that presents the risk of collision between the mirror and the rear lens element. Now with that out of the way, you can finally use your grandad’s collection of 50 year old Kodak Retinas or Leica Elmarits on this wonderfully small camera. How many lenses exactly? Take your pick:

-film SLR lenses (eg. M42 screw mount, Nikon F, Canon FD, Pentax K, Olympus OM, Leica R)
-rangefinder lenses (eg. Leica M, Leica M39)
-medium format lenses (ever seen a PEN mounted with a Hartblei 120mm medium format unit?)
-even CCTV camera lenses! The possibility only ends depending on your imagination, and the size of your bank account. 

Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar DDR 50mm f/1.8

Olympus OM Zuiko 35mm f/2.8

Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95, possibly the most celebrated of all Micro 4/3 lenses
            I was really looking forward to being able to use one of my personal favorites on the E-P3, my Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 that I usually use for toy and portrait shooting. The Pancolar is an old M42 screw mount lens that is so sharp for it’s laughable price (did I also mention how lovely the colors are?), and I can’t imagine not trying it on the E-P3 when given the chance. Apart from that, I also own 2 OM Zuiko lenses (50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8) from my Olympus OM-1n MD film camera. I also got the chance to try the E-P3 with Koon Yik’s own Voigtlander Nokton f/0.95, a lens so large and bright, it’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. 

Shot with Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95 at f/0.95

Shot with Olympus OM Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 at f/2.8

Shot with Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95 at f/0.95

            Many of you may also remember that the PEN was launched alongside an adapter that allows you to use your Four Thirds lenses. However, the result left way too much to be desired. The autofocus was massively slow, if not ineffective. I’ve had the opportunity to witness how bad it was when Koon Yik demonstrated his 14-54mm Mark II on his E-P2. Dear God, did it make one hell of a racket, lots of shuddering and the entire process of locking onto a subject took a good 4-5 seconds. Yes, in this day and age, trying to acquire a subject in good light in 4-5 seconds was not something I was looking forward to. I venture a guess that at that time, Olympus could not create an autofocus algorithm good enough for the Four Thirds lenses to work in contrast detect AF. 

My favorite combo, albeit a little front heavy and can feel unbalanced at times

            Well, all those problems are now a thing of the past! Our Four Thirds lenses will now work fine on the E-P3. I tried both my 14-54mm Mark I and 25mm pancake on it, and I’ll confidently say that I won’t hesitate to use it at anytime on the E-P3. The 25mm focuses much quicker than before, and even in bad light, it will take only about 2 seconds to acquire focus. In normal and good light, 1-1.5 seconds tops. 

With the ZD 25mm f/2.8 pancake lens, you've got yourself a ubiquitous 50mm street shooting machine

However, I will need to mention ahead that the performance of the 14-54mm is not exactly stellar. This is because the 25mm has the advantage of being contrast detect AF compatible out of the box. The 14-54mm will take anywhere between 2-3 seconds in good light to acquire focus, 4-5 in low light. But considering that the non-CDAF lenses were not meant to work well with the PEN anyways, this result is considered remarkable in my books. So much so that I spent nearly the entire day shooting with the 14-54. Why? Because I think it’s possibly the best walkabout lens every made by Olympus. You can shoot practically anything with it. Combined with the E-P3s new sensor (which I believe was designed with a weak AA filter), it brings out an insane amount of detail that I never imagined possible with past 4/3 cameras. The proof is in the pictures, so please view them in maximum resolution to see what I mean. 

PART VI: Conclusion

            By the end of the review session, I have to say that I was quite heavy hearted to return it. The E-P3 represents a new age for all the Olympus fans out there. I can’t see myself using a DSLR at all after trying the PEN, that’s how good it is. I would have used the excuse of poor autofocus and practicality back then to justify my reason for not getting it. I mean, who could possibly live with an AF system that takes an eternity to lock on, a 230K resolution LCD screen that is virtually useless for manual focusing, and ISO performance from cameras back in 2008? 

            This time, however, Olympus really upped the game and made a quantum leap so huge, it’s not even funny. The AF speed is easily double (even triple) that from it’s predecessors, you can finally focus precisely using nothing but the LCD thanks to the super sharp OLED screen, and the ISO performance has been boosted to levels that you never would have thought possible with the 4/3 sensor. Coupled with an infinite amount of flexibility in adapting any lens available on it, this is a compact camera for serious photographers, bar none. 

            Should owners of the older PENs make the switch to the E-P3? Well, let’s put it this way. From an image quality perspective, it’s hard not to notice the difference between the 1st and 3rd generation sensor. The newer ones produce significantly higher resolution / detail and slightly better dynamic range. If you have some extra cash and want to eke out the most amount of detail possible from your super sharp Zuiko Digital lenses, then by all means please get it. The most obvious advantage that you’ll gain for your money is, however, the speed and practicality of the camera. I challenge any present PEN owner to not be impressed by the E-P3’s AF performance, and I’m sure there are many who wouldn’t mind paying for it after witnessing how fast it is. The E-P3 wisely includes the ability to record Full HD videos (albeit in 1080i format, and in stereo sound at that) so this is definitely a pleasant surprise for amateur and casual video makers. 

            In terms of new features, the E-P3 doesn’t really bring much to the table. It still doesn’t have a vari-angle LCD, it still doesn’t have dual SD card slots (I would have paid top dollar for this feature), it doesn’t use a battery that lets me take 800 shots before needing to recharge, and it STILL doesn’t make my daily cup of espresso. But what it has SUCCEDED in doing, is making everything that is so good about the PEN far better, and impressed the hell out of me. There’s still room of improvement though (especially for image quality at ISO3200 and above), and I hope they can make my Four Thirds lenses work even faster. The addition of a magnesium alloy body and weatherproofing would also make me every happy. But for now, I will confidently say that Olympus has finally done right by all it’s fans, especially me. If money wasn’t an issue, I’d be grabbing the black one by now with the Four Thirds adapter to mount my 14-54mm Mark I and 25mm pancake. A combination so damn perfect, I’d be happy to live with that all my life. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for reading, this is Rob Chan signing out.


-spectacular image quality (with a massive amount of detail when paired with High Grade lenses), high ISO performance is at least one stop better than previous iterations
-ultra fast auto focusing with the new M.Zuiko lenses, can often focus and shoot in less than one second (though I have no way of determining if it’s REALLY the world’s fastest)
-much faster focusing than previous PENs when adapted with Four Thirds lenses (especially ones that are contrast detect optimized like the 25mm f/2.8 and 14-54mm Mark II)
-super sharp and bright 640K resolution OLED display (so good you can manually focus legacy lenses using the display alone)
-Full HD 1080i video recording, in stereo mode as well
-Built in flash with remote commander ability (a long time feature for most Olympus DSLRs in fact)
-Touch screen is very useful and adds another layer of dimension to the camera control (especially when trying to access manual focus magnification)
-Art Filters are actually more fun than it sounds, and is finally integrated into PASM mode under ‘Color’ options (previous PENs only allow you to shoot with default settings)
-Solid build (though I wish they can bring out a magnesium alloy version in the next iteration)


-ISO3200 and above has lots of room for improvement
-Aggressive noise reduction algorithm that annihilates detail if set to ‘Standard’ (NEVER go anywhere past ‘Low’, recommended to always set to ‘Off’ when shooting in good or normal light)
-Dodgy wheel control; you need to be careful of bouncing this thing around, as the control dial turns easily and may mess up your settings
-Touch screen is handy, but not sensitive enough (barely OK when trying to do swiping gestures, and you cannot do pinch zooming)
-Newbies may not appreciate the menu system, and even I have some problems trying to find certain settings as a long time Olympus user (just take this as a minor learning curve)
-Mediocre battery life (best to bring at least 2 extra with you on a good day); try not to chimp too much
-Not available as a body only at time of review


  1. Those are really good shots and for sure you use good quality of camera to take these good shots.

    Camera for sports

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)