Top positive review
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An expensive, great-handling camera with an outdated sensor
on September 4, 2011
I bought this camera after backpacking around the world with an "expendable" Nikon D40 digital SLR which I bought for just $420 - less than half the price of my new Olympus E-P3. Prior to that I shot film on SLRs. The Nikon took photos that were probably just as good as those from the E-P3. Why, then, did I buy the E-P3? Because of the weight. Anybody who has spent all day, every day, lugging an SLR around with them will know what I mean.
Size and weight are the two advantages that mirrorless cameras offer over SLRs. But once you make the decision to go mirrorless, it is critically important to choose the right format - otherwise you will box yourself into a corner with lenses. I opted for the micro four-thirds (M43) format (supported by Olympus and Panasonic) for the sole reason that there is a much greater selection of lenses for M43 cameras than for the competing Sony and Samsung mirrorless formats.
The three newest M43 cameras are the Olympus E-P3, Olympus E-PL3 and Panasonic G3, all of which have strengths and weaknesses.
After handling the E-P3 and its smaller and cheaper cousin, the E-PL3, in-store, I found that I much prefered the handling of the more expensive model. It is more solid in the hand, and it has an extra scroll-wheel that enhances the speed of choosing aperture settings (I usually shoot in aperture-priority mode). I also liked the touch screen. The negatives were the price and the lack of an articulating screen (which the E-PL3 and G3 have).
Choosing between the E-P3 and the $200 cheaper Panasonic G3 was more difficult. The G3 has an inbuilt electronic viewfinder, an articulating screen and a much better sensor (better photos in low light, without grainy "noise"). Ultimately I chose the E-P3 because, again, I prefered the handling and more solid feel (however, I would advise anybody thinking of buying the E-P3 to check out reviews of the Panasonic G3 and Olympus E-PL3).
The Olympus PEN E-P3 is significantly better than earlier PEN cameras in that it has addressed most of the criticisms leveled at those models. The most important criticisms related to slow auto-focus speeds (all models), sluggish handling (all models) and the lack of inbuilt flash (on the E-P2).
One area in which the E-P3 has made only limited progress, however, is in regards to image quality. The sensor is the same old 12mp clunker used on earlier PENs, which is disappointing given the US $900 price tag. For $300 less, entry-level Canon or Nikon dSLRs take better photographs.
I bought this sleek little beast with my heart, rather than my head, and I do not regret my decision. If you have a photographer's heart like mine, then you should buy this camera immediately. If you have a rationalist's brain, superior to my own, then you might want to consider the following pros and cons:
Image Quality - Olympus cameras are famed for producing great colours, and I have been very, very pleased with colours from this camera. Greens and yellows really come to life. Also, despite criticisms leveled at this camera for its low-light performance, I think it's usable at ISO 1600 as long as there are not too many shadows in the frame.
Handling - There are lots of buttons and dials on this camera. Advanced users will appreciate this. The solid metal body feels sturdy in the hand. The camera has been miniaturised while retaining just enough heft for stable shooting.
Speed - This camera is very, very fast. You can focus and shoot in an instant. Olympus claims that this camera is the fastest in the world. I cannot say whether that is true or not, but I can say that the E-P3 is very, very fast. Or have I said that already?
Build - Metal.
Screen - It's great. Very colourful and detailed. Best of all, it is a touch-screen. Coming from SLRs, I thought this was a gimmick, but I have been surprised to find that I absolutely love the touch screen. It's great for street-shooting, because you can set the camera to focus and shoot anywhere in the frame just by touching the screen. It focuses and fires accurately, and almost instantly. The Panasonic G3 also has this touch-shooting feature, but it did not seem so well implemented when I tried it in-store. Too many shots were out of focus on the G3, whereas they were sharp on the Olympus.
Lenses - All micro four-thirds lenses made by Olympus and Panasonic will work on this camera, meaning the user has lots of lenses to choose from.
IBIS - In-body image stabilisation. You can stick any lens on this camera and it will stablise it - even if the lens itself does not have built-in stabilisation. Lots of prime lenses fall into this category (eg. the superb Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4, the very good Panasonic 20mm f1.7 and the new Olympus 12mm f2).
Size - It's smaller and lighter than an SLR. This factor is critical. If you are not worried about size or weight then you should buy an SLR, because Nikon and Canon dSLRs at this price point do take slightly better pictures than the E-P3.
Okay, that was rather a long list of pros. Now for the cons:
Sensor - This camera has a 3-year-old 12 megapixel sensor that struggles in low light, producing ugly splotches of "noise" from ISO 1600 upwards. The cheaper Panasonic G3 has a better 16mp sensor that can shoot clean images at ISO 3200. Having said that, I have done some street-shooting at night with the E-P3 set at 1600 ISO and have found that I can live with the results, just. The main problem is blotchy shadow areas. Shooting at 1600 in brighter conditions (eg, to reduce camera shake or to freeze motion) produces perfectly good images. I do wish this camera had Panasonic's 16mp sensor, however. No doubt that will happen with the EP-4, but we might have to wait until mid-2012 for that.
Price - Yeah, it's expensive. A Nikon D3100 for $600 is better value, no doubt about it. But you will have to sacrifice portability if you buy a dSLR.
Menus - Olympus is famous for having convoluted menus. I must say that I have found the menus to be frustrating, especially for "setup" options such as choosing the directions in which to turn dials to make setting changes. There are two rear dials and two custom buttons that can be pre-set for variables such as shutter, aperture and white balance, but incredibly not for ISO (which, given the dodgy low-light performance of this camera, is a function I access a lot). It is possible to dedicate the down-button on the second scroll wheel for ISO, but only at the expense of eliminating the dedicated button for 2-second delay and single-frame/multi-frame shooting. Grr! On the other hand, I have found the touchscreen to be pretty useful for changing settings, including ISO.
Missing in Action - An articulating screen and an electronic viewfinder (the clip-on VF-2 and VF-3 viewfinders cost an extra $180 and $250 respectively).
Other image-quality points / conclusion:
The weak low-light image quality of the E-P3 is offset partly by its in-body image stabiliser. This means that the E-P3's body will stabilise lenses such as the Panasonic Leica 25mm, which does not have an inbuilt image stabiliser and is therefore not stabilised on the Panasonic G3, which has a better sensor.
The high cost of the E-P3 is also partly offset by the in-body image stabiliser, because you can use cheaper lenses (without built-in stablisers) on the E-P3. For example, the EP-3 will stablise a US $650 Olympus 9-18mm wide angle zoom, whereas Panasonic users wanting stabilisation at wide-angle must buy the Panasonic 7-14mm with inbuilt stabiliser, for around US $900.
Logically, I believe that the Panasonic G3 is a more sensible choice for beginners, people on tight budgets, and people who are unlikely to buy more lenses. However, photography is not solely about value for money and pixel-peeping image quality - it's also about enjoyment. Personally, I enjoy shooting with the E-P3 more than I do with its competitors.
I believe that most enthusiast photographers would feel the same way.
I would give this camera five stars, but I'm removing one for the noisy old sensor and the relatively poor value for money compared with the E-PL3 and G3.