Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
Olympus has been a pioneer in the (Interchangeable Lens Camera) market with its PEN line of Micro Four Thirds cameras which came to market two years ago. Now, with competition from the likes of Sony, Samsung, Pentax, Panasonic and most recently Nikon, the market for compact yet full features camera bodies and lenses is heating up.
We've been fans and users of the E-PL1 model from Olympus. A 12 Megapixel entry level camera that offered above average picture quality, a good line of lenses and ample versatility for users coming up from point-and-shoot cameras and more advanced users seeking a smaller camera with advanced features.
With the ability to shoot HD video (720 p resolution) a great set of built-in features and a built in flash as well as the ability to use an external flash as a slave, the E-PL1 was a workhorse and captured a lot of the product photos used in this website for the past year.
The E-PL3 (SRT $700 with either the 17mm or 14-24mm lenses) is two generations ahead of the E-PL1, it sheds a lof of the E-PL1's boxy body and a number of controls and buttons while maintaining the same 12 megapixel sensor. The E-PL3 also upgrades the autofocus and shutter performance. These were two of our biggest complaints with the E-PL1 and we're happy to report that the new models will focus and shoot a lot faster. Low light and ISO performance (from 200 to 12800) is also improved which is great for a camera of this size.
Other improvements are the larger 3.0-inch, 16:9 aspect HyperCrystal LCD which now offers a tilting options that expands the range of use for the camera since you can now shoot from the waist or above the head.
The E-PL3 now comes in an all metal body, our review unit came in shocking shiny red. The retro styling of the first line of PEN camera's seems to have been played down a bit although there are still a lot of touches that remind the more nostalgic users about the legendary PEN line.
One omission with the E-PL3 is the hand grip which makes one handed use a bit trickier, specially now that the E-PL3 has a shinier and more slippery exterior. It is possible that this was done to further reduce the size and weight of the E-PL3 but we feel the grip is a necessary feature.
Olympus says its new system offers the world's fastest autofocusing with standard zoom lenses, finally bringing contrast detection autofocus on par with phase detection in terms of speed: comparing to its own product line, Olympus suggests that the E-PL3 can focus as quickly as its prosumer Olympus E-5 digital SLR
We can't see ILC cameras getting any smaller or thinner than this, the reason is that there is a limit to the how small and functional lenses can be. Handling will be something to consider going forward.
In terms of performance, the Olympus E-PL3's speed makes it a more useful camera for street photography, landscapes, portraits, food photography and ideal for travelers who want a high performing yet tiny camera.
We used our older Olympus 17mm pancake lens with the E-PL3 and were delighted with this combination for shooting some street photography as well as food shots. With food photography, we found that colour accuracy and great detail was paramount and we like what we saw with the E-PL3.
Olympus has also added a number of useful scenes and in-camera settings that can enhance photos or add effects on the fly.
This is functionality that one would expect from cheaper point-and-shoot cameras but they do make using the E-PL3 a lot of fun and can produce some surprising photos.
We're particularly fond of the Diorama setting which replicates the tilt-shift lens effect and when used to shoot a subject for a distance does make the photo look like a miniature scene.
In terms of video, the E-PL3 can now shoot full HD video, which is a first for a PEN-series camera.
This makes it a great two-in one device for travelers who are keen on carrying 2-3 lenses with the camera body.
The race for smaller yet simpler and more capable ILCs is going to continue to get more competitive.
Olympus is making good use of its head start, great lens selection and by continually refining their line of cameras. The E-PL3 no longer feels like the least premium camera in the PEN line (its $700 price tag is anything but cheap).
As with any camera, we suggest users go and check them out personally to see if the features and more importantly, the feel and handling, are adequate.
We find the Olympus PEN E-PL3 to be a great upgrade to its predecessors and a compelling camera for users who need a powerful compact that can yield stunning results.
Rating: 4 out of 5