Review: Olympus PEN E-PL3 [PEN LITE]

When it comes to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, you can’t have a conversation about them without including the name Olympus. With the introduction of their Micro Four Thirds standard and their line of PEN cameras, they were one of the pioneers in this new category of cameras. Their first Micro Four Thirds camera was the PEN E-P1. It had retro styling and promises of DSLR level quality and flexibility, but in a much smaller package. This is what made it so appealing. Three years later, Olympus is still cranking out new PEN series cameras and their popularity has skyrocketed. The original PEN E-P series is in it’s third generation now and the PEN line has spawned the PEN Lite series which is also now in it’s third generation. What I have here now is the PEN E-PL3, Olympus’s third generation PEN-Lite camera that takes a drastic turn in terms of design and features.

Like I stated in my original First Impressions post, you’ll notice that the Olympus PEN E-PL3 no longer has that retro look that it’s predecessors had. The new PEN E-PL3 is more modern looking and sheds much of the retro cladding the PEN line has been known for. Gone is the familiar hand grip up front, as well as the built in flash. These changes however yield what is the thinnest PEN E-PL series to date and one of the sleekest looking, but despite these omissions, Olympus found a way to enhance the camera with a new tilting LCD view screen. The built-in flash unit is now replaced with a clip-on flash unit. These changes though really help modernize the PEN-E-PL line and helps to differentiate it from the higher end E-P line. In my opinion, the camera now looks really slick and has a really nice look to it now that allows the camera to really show off its features instead of relying on the cliche retro styling.

Like the previous Sony NEX-5N review, this review will skip all the really technical details and specs as you can find those on sites like dpreview.com. Instead, we’ll be concentrating on reviewing features and pointing out pros and cons that will be more beneficial the average casual/hobbiest photographer who is just looking for a camera that takes really good photos.

DESIGN & BODY FEATURES

Again, I went though some of this in my initial First Impression post so I’ll try not to repeat a lot of it here. I’ll just skim through the more important stuff here. Many features are carried over from the previous PEN E-PL2 such as the number of buttons on the rear, the top shoot mode dial, and the hot shoe and accessory port. What is new though is the addition of a tilting LCD viewscreen. If you’ve never used a camera with one of these before, let me just say that having a tilting screen can be a huge advantage when trying to shoot pictures at weird angles. For instance, if you want to get a shot from down low, you’d usually need to lay on the ground. With a tilting screen, you now longer would have to as you can just tilt the screen up and view it from above. It’s one of the features I’ve come to look for in a camera even though features like that add a bit to the price of a camera. Another new feature to the PEN E-PL3 is the addition of a AF-assist light to help with low-light shooting situations.

Speaking of low-light, you’ll notice that the built-in flash is gone. Olympus has replaces the built-in unit with a new clip-on unit that attaches to the hot shoe and accessory port. This of course made the camera much slimmer than the previous camera, but it also means you have to carry something extra around with you now if you intend on using the flash. Using the flash also negates the use of any other accessory you might want to use such as an electronic viewfinder. I don’t really use the flash all that much when I shoot however, so it’s not that big of a deal to me.

The PEN E-PL3 is also missing one thing and that is the hand grip. The omission of the hand grip means that the E-PL3 is a bit less comfortable to hold when using it for long sessions and the lack of one makes me feel less secure about holding it in one hand. Because of this, I’ve started using a wrist strap with the camera and usually support the camera with both hands. With cameras like this however, you’ll most likely be shooting with two hands anyways so you may or may not miss the hand grip.

USING THE CAMERA

I’m not going to lie and say that this camera was easy to use when I first got it because it really wasn’t. That’s not to say that the camera is difficult, it’s just that with each new camera that you get, there is a bit of learning curve especially if you are jumping to another camera from another manufacturer. If you’ve used Olympus cameras before, then jumping into the E-PL3 should be no problem. The Olympus PEN E-PL3 OS is actually very in depth and will require that you get to know the menu system a bit before you start shooting, especially when you enable the custom menu. This is also a good time to set up some of the custom functions that you can assign to certain buttons which will help you reach the more used features quickly and easily.

There are tons of settings you can mess with in the menu system so you’ll want to take you time going through each one in order to set up the camera the way you want. To really get into the meat of the options, you’ll want to enable the custom menu which allows you to adjust very detailed options. There are tons of options to go through here so you may want go through each one carefully before making any adjustments.

I’m not going to go into detail about what each option does. Instead, I’ll suggest a few things I learned while going through it. You’ll definitely want to enable the custom menu to access the detailed camera options. You’ll also want to customize some of the physical buttons on the camera and assign them to do reach some of the features more quickly. I also suggest that you familiarize yourself with the whole menu system as it will also allow you find things quicker once you know where everything is. If however you want to be lazy about it, you could just turn off the custom menu, stick your camera in iAuto mode, and let the camera handle all the settings for you which isn’t too bad if all you’ve ever know is the ease of a point-and-shoot. This way, you won’t get too overwhelmed and you can ease into the more advanced options.

ART STYLES & SCENE SELECTION

Along with traditional shooting modes, the E-PL3 includes several Art Style modes you can choose from and play with. There are 6 Art Styles you can choose from – Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone. Within each Art Style there are also a couple different types you can choose from as well as an option to add frame effects. These Art Styles are really for those who want to add a little fun to their photos or want to spice of this images a little. My favorites within the bunch is the Grainy Film style and the Pin Hole style. I like Grainy Film because I’ve always been a fan of black and white photography and it’s always great to see this as an option for shooting. As for the Pine Hole style, I’m also a big fan of lomography and the whole “toy camera” craze and in all honesty, I love how the photos come out in this style. The E-PL3 does both of these Art Style superbly and I actually do make use of them.

The E-PL3 has a whopping 23 different scene-modes you can choose from. Most beginners will probably stick to iAuto and not even see the scene modes but for those who want to get a bit more advanced, you can turn the dial to scene select and manually pick a scene-mode to use. Here you’ll find predefined settings for occasions like taking photos of children, fireworks, landscapes, sunsets, night time photography, panoramas, and macro just to name a few.

If you want to get even more advanced, you can switch the camera to P, S, A, or M modes which is pretty standard these days.

FOCUSING

Here’s one area where the camera is very fast. In good lighting conditions, the PEN E-PL3 focuses really quickly. If you enable face/eye detection, you can have the camera automatically make faces a priority while focusing. There are 35 focusing points which can make focusing incredibly accurate. The autofocus however does not focus on what you want it to focus on sometimes, but luckily you can choose an area anywhere on the 35 points to focus on using the directional pad. You can even reduce the number of focusing points to a 3×3 grid or to 1 point. If you set the camera to C-AF+TR, you can lock onto an object and if you move the camera or the object moves, the camera will continuously keep track of the item and focus on it automatically.

Now in low-light conditions, this is where focusing becomes a problem. Even with the AF-assist light, the E-PL3 can have a tough time focusing on an object. There are many times when it would hunt continuously for something to focus on and it just couldn’t do it. This however is not something that is specific to the E-PL3 as I have seen this problem on many other cameras. As a workaround, you can set the camera to focus manually which works pretty well especially if you have the MF-assist enabled which will zoom into your focus point so you  get a more precise with your focusing.

MICRO FOUR THIRDS LENSES

Here’s an area where the Micro Four Thirds standard has lots of support. If you’re looking for a camera with tons of lens choices, Micro Four Thirds is where it’s at. There are literally tons and tons of lenses available for this format from Olympus and because Panasonic is signed on as a partner and supporter of the Micro Four Thirds standard, they too make MFT lenses for their own line of Lumix cameras that are interchangeable with the PEN cameras. Not only that, there are also available lenses from third party lens makers like Sigma, Opteka, Rokinon, and Voigtlander with more manufacturers jumping on board.

 

PHOTO QUALITY

Overall I would say photo quality is quite good. The colors are very rich and detailed, although low-light images contain a bit more noise then I’d like, especially when using a higher ISO setting. Still, the images are quite good and most people should be happy with their photos. I’ve taken a few sample images here that you may want to check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/samversionone/sets/72157629446265803/

CONCLUSION

There is a lot to like about the Olympus PEN E-PL3 but there are also a few negatives about it that may or may not be an issue for you. First off as I stated above, the PEN E-PL3 is missing a few things that the previous generations of PEN cameras had. There is no longer a built-in flash and the hand grip has disappeared. Also, this may or may not be an issue for you, but there is no infrared sensor on the camera to accommodate a remote. That means you will not be able to take images using a remote to fire the shutter. Focusing is also quite slow in low light situations and your photos can be a bit noisy in the higher ISO ranges. On the subject of fast, you can’t really do continuous shooting with this camera. You can do burst mode where it’ll shoot 3-5 shots/second but after the initial 3-5 shots, it slows down quite a bit.

However, if you are able to look past those initial short comings, what you’ll find is a wonderful camera that is signifies a different directional evolution in the PEN E-PL line. I love the fact that they have added a tiltable LCD view screen out back and the fact that they were able to make it slimmer while still keeping the same amount of buttons and the mode dial up top. The camera still feels pretty good in your hands and has a great weight to it. It’s a solid camera that doesn’t feel cheap in your hands and looks the part of a sophisticated, modern evolution of the previous designs.  The included 14-42mm kit lens is quite compact thanks to its collapsible design. It might not be quite that pocketable, but if you pair the E-PL3 up with a pancake lens, it is possible to store it in a jacket pocket.

Overall, I’m very happy with the Olympus PEN E-PL3. It’s a great camera that can be used as a casual shooter or a more advanced level pro shooter. It’s not quite a DSLR replacement, but you can do many of the same things in a much smaller package. I also appreciate the fact that there are lots of lens choices out there for it with new lenses constantly being developed and released. The E-PL3 looks good, is a great overall shooter, and the Micro Four Thirds standard has a huge following. What else could you ask for?

The Olympus PEN E-PL3 retails for $699 with the included 14-42mm kit lens. You’ll also get the included clip-on flash and case for the flash, an Olympus neck strap, battery w/charger, cables, and software in the package. The camera is available in 4 different colors – Black, Silver, Red, and White. You can purchase the camera here on Amazon - Olympus PEN E-PL3 14-42mm 12.3 MP Interchangeable Lens Camera with CMOS Sensor and 3x Optical Zoom

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Samuel Huang is an avid gamer and all around tech geek. When not glued to his computer or iPhone, he can be seen pwning n00bs on PSN nightly. On occasion, he has the crazy dream of owning a vintage JDM Nissan Skyline Hakosuka GT-R or a Datsun 240Z.