If you are looking for a camera with a distinctive look, then you don’t really need to look further than the new additions to the Olympus PEN series. These stylish Compact System Cameras manage a retro appeal while still looking modern. We like that.
The PEN E-P3 is the latest flagship model and is one of three recently announced new models that share features while each having their own individual appeal. It’s fair to say that the PEN series has been overshadowed recently by the Panasonic LUMIX and the Sony NEX ranges, which have both started enjoying a large chunk of the ‘hybrid’ CSC market.
Olympus firmly believes that its latest models will rejuvenate its appeal and establish the PEN as a tour de force in the CSC arena. Having tested the E-P3 over the last few weeks, I have to say that I don’t think their confidence is unfounded – the E-P3 has proven to be a fun camera to use as well as a very capable performer.
As mentioned earlier, the straight lines and minimalist design give the PEN E-P3 a retro appeal. Olympus has worked hard at making this an object of style, with features such as interchangeable handgrips and a choice of colours allowing potential users some customisation of the camera. While it can be used without a grip, I’d certain recommend fixing it on as it greatly improves handling.
The lack of an integral viewfinder (an optional electronic finder is available) means you need to rely on the rear monitor for composing images. The PEN boasts a 3in OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) screen that provides a sharp image with punchy colours. Like all monitors, it can be a struggle to use on a very bright day without shielding it from the sun, but other than that the screen is excellent.
The command menu system is pretty straightforward to use but I’d recommend setting aside ten minutes, as I did, when you first use the camera to become familiar with it and also customise it to your liking. Its arrangement of access to various functions is different from most other cameras I’ve used. It’s also worth noting that it has a touchscreen, which can be used to focus on a particular part of the frame simply by touching that area of the screen.
Another reason to have an initial ‘get to know you’ session with the PEN E-P3 is because it’s absolutely packed with features, so it’s well worth spending some time finding your way around the camera. Not only that, there is a high degree of customisation, so you can really tailor the camera’s set-up to your liking. Various buttons can be adjusted, but I’d suggest you start off by only setting the Fn 1 and Fn 2 buttons, rather than changing the functions of the two dials. One minor annoyance (that will hopefully get ‘fixed’ on a firmware update) is the inability to set up any of the function buttons for ISO, which can only be reached via the Menu system.
Once you’ve set it up, you’ll discover that the PEN is easy and swift to use. Its speed of operation is down to its latest generation of processor, the TruePic Vi, which wastes little time processing images and is capable of handling bursts of images (Raw+JPEG) without any major problem.
The processor is also the weapon behind the blistering autofocus system, which quickly and accurately locks on to subjects and proves adept at tracking moving subjects too. Olympus claims it is the world’s fastest AF of any interchangeable-lens camera at the time of launch (June 2011) and I have to say that while that’s impossible to substantiate, it’s certainly as fast as any DSLR outside of the pro-spec models.
As well as the ‘core four’ exposure modes (P, S, A, M), the top-plate mode dial allows access to iAuto, an intelligent full-auto mode, Scene modes, the video mode and Art Filters. This latter mode provides a choice of ten Art filters ranging from Pinhole to Grainy Film and Soft Focus, which can all be combined with one of five art effects including Star Light and White Edge. As well as being used with still images, these effects can also be implemented on movies shot on the PEN too. With Full HD capability and stereo sound, this makes the PEN E-P3 a capable camera for video too, although there is no socket for an external mic.
As well as multi-zone, spot and centre-weighted average, the E-P3 offers a spot facility for shadows and highlights too, as well as AE-Lock, bracketing and exposure compensation. A pop-up flash provides limited illumination in low light and as well as offering slow-sync, rear-curtain sync and red-eye reduction modes, has manual power settings from full to 1/64 power.
Other features of note are the built-in stabilisation, which helps minimise shake, as well as sensor dust reduction, multiple exposures and a digital teleconverter.
The AF and metering systems of the PEN prove consistent and accurate and images show very good sharpness, low noise and accurate colours. We produced A4 prints and they looked as good as those from similarly-priced DSLRs at this print size, although at higher magnifications it’s possible to see finer detail from a digital SLR’s file. But, for the vast majority of users, this difference won’t be noticeable and the PEN E-P3 will prove to be a solid and well-rounded performer.