JPEG processing easily rivals Nikon and Canon's latest and greatest, says Kevin Carter in his review of Olympus's E-P3. Image © Kevin Carter.
Olympus has improved on the original Pen camera with the E-P3, finds Kevin Carter, prioritising performance over resolution.
Author: Kevin Carter
07 Sep 2011 Tags: Olympus
Mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus Pen have wide-ranging appeal because the bodies are compact compared to a traditional digital SLR, plus they’re a more practical platform for video capture.
Sony and Samsung can claim similar benefits with their rival APS-C-size micro cameras but, crucially, the Pen’s adoption of the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor means the lenses can be equally compact. And while Panasonic (whom Olympus has partnered with in developing the format since 2005) was the first to make a Micro Four Thirds camera with the Lumix G1, it was the Pen’s retro styling that really caught our attention, highlighting the contrast between the new system and the conventional, bulky design of DSLRs. The Pen E-P3 is the third iteration of the original model and retains the same styling and layout for the most part, while introducing a number of refinements that do much to answer any criticism levelled at earlier iterations.
Externally, it adds a removable handgrip and an optional large grip intended for the bigger lenses. It features some of the controls and layout from the E-PL2, such as dedicated video capture and focus magnification buttons. Crucially, the exposure mode dial has been moved to the right-hand side of the top plate and now sits proud, leaving space for a tiny but useful pop-up flash. It has a GN of 10 (ISO 200) but is powerful enough to use for portrait fill-ins, and has a six-stop range with manual settings to 1/64.
Around to the rear, one of the more significant changes is immediately apparent with the introduction of a three-inch 650,000-dot OLED touch panel. Not only is it more visible in bright light than rival LCD panels and some AMOLED screens (such as the Samsung NX100) thanks to lower reflection levels from its gapless construction and anti-fingerprint coating, but it also has excellent colour and contrast. Olympus says the screen has a wider colour space and superior black levels than rivals, and that appears to be the case.
Most touchscreen functions I’ve seen are a bit gimmicky and, while you can release the shutter and reposition the AF point from the screen on the E-P3, Olympus has restrained itself. Like the iPad’s screen, the E-P3 has an Electrostatic Capacitance-type touch panel, and uses it to good effect. But while you can swipe through photo after photo and use your finger to navigate around the image, you can’t use pinching to zoom. Unfortunately there’s an on-screen slider instead, though it works efficiently enough.
The camera also has a new graphical user interface (GUI) for the main menu, which is clearer than previous versions, although the layout is essentially the same. With a colossal array of firmware-related features and options, this is a big plus point, and is one of the best of any currently available, certainly better than Nikon’s efforts to date and rivalling Canon’s DSLRs.
Some detractors may point out the lack of an electronic viewfinder. I spoke with several senior Olympus executives about it at the E-P3’s pre-launch and, while they all said they couldn’t comment on future products, the general consensus was that it wasn’t ruled out but that optional viewfinders kept the bodies compact and, we must also assume, help keep prices lower. While the OLED screen is a huge improvement, the camera handles better with the optional electronic viewfinder, which is now available in a higher resolution version (the VF-3, not even mentioned at the Pen E-P3 launch), delivering 922,000 dots and a 100 percent field of view.
A new shadow/highlight tone control, adjusting the tone curve on screen (actually a tiny graphic) using the rear command dial isn’t something that can be done in a hurry and can be difficult to see during live view. However, the results are certainly visible in image captures and, while tone control has been available as presets previously, on-the-fly adjustments like this are sure to be mimicked by rivals.
Need for speed
With the launch of the 16-megapixel Panasonic Lumix G3 just prior to the announcement of the E-P3, it might have been safe to assume the same sensor would appear in the new Pen. But while it is a new sensor, it retains the 12-megapixel resolution of previous models. The rival G3 and new 16-megapixel sensor has had a mixed reception, but the signal-to-noise ratio when using raw appears lower than previous versions at higher ISOs, so the argument to remain at 12 megapixels could be a valid one.
Besides, there are other considerations beyond pixel count and noise. For a start, the new sensor doubles the read-out speed to 120fps, allowing a substantial increase in autofocus drive speed, but it has also been designed for 1080i60 video capture (in AVCHD format) and boasts a new top ISO 12,800 setting, while also improving live view quality on the optional electronic viewfinder (and, I assume, the rear screen).
Colour and fine detail rendering are excellent, improving on previous Pen cameras. Image © Kevin Carter.
However, just as significant as the choice of imager is the inclusion of a new high-speed, dual-core processor, named True Pic VI. One core handles image processing while the second is dedicated to live view, which means the live view image is updated before image processing has finished. Black-out times between shots are shortened too, taking the E-P3 to DSLR levels of response.
Autofocus detection has been upgraded, the 35 AF points up from 11 covering 60 percent of the imaging area, and the response time has been reduced, although to see the full benefit, you’ll have to have an MSC lens attached. There are several in the range, including the new 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8, and Olympus is upgrading earlier models with the new ring-type focusing motor, but the high-grade 14-150mm (near silent) and 17mm pancake remain on the to-do list.
Part of the increase in autofocus speed can also be attributed to a new “always on” full-time AF mode. With the 17mm pancake attached this can be somewhat annoying, as the lens racks noisily back and forth, and there’s a penalty with battery consumption, but it’s very useful for movie capture where the shutter button must otherwise be lightly depressed to initiate or alter focus even in C-AF with tracking enabled.
The movie modes are particularly extensive now, with a choice of PSAM modes that sees the 29-minute maximum at 17Mbits/s dropping to 22 minutes at 20Mbits/s at 1080p 25/30fps – a significant gain for the E-P3, though not quite matching the pro-level capabilities of the Panasonic GH2. Some rolling shutter can be seen but the quality is very good.
However, it is with stills that the E-P3 really excels. I wasn’t able to review raw files with any of my familiar conversion utilities (ACR and Lightroom), but the JPEGs are outstanding with excellent colour, fine detail rendering and low noise up to ISO 1600. I didn’t see a great improvement in dynamic range or signal-to-noise ratio, but that could be masked by in-camera JPEG conversion and processing.
In the face of stiff competition Olympus has thoroughly re-worked the E-P3, not only bringing it in line with rivals but exceeding the competition in areas such as autofocus acquisition, customisation and JPEG processing, and it is without doubt the most capable and likeable of the Pens.
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