If you've read my reviews you'll know I'm a Pen fan. From the off I liked the cool retro look and bolshy 'photo first' philosophy of the original E-P1 and I've used the E-PL1 and E-PL2 extensively underwater. Whatever you call this new sector of the market; MILCs, SLDs or even EVILs, the arrival of micro Four Thirds really shook the camera market up and stole a march on their rivals. The Pens were able to trade on novelty and solid ergonomics for quite a while but now there are some new little kids on the block and many early Pen friends are itching for an upgrade too.
The third generation of Pens sees a mature family emerge along with some big changes. It's a firm reposte to the gathering pressure from a market which has grown at spectacular speed. Olympus may be having a torrid time in financial markets but its Micro Four Thirds baby is still the one to beat as a well rounded mirrorless option. The E-PL3 is at the heart of the third generation, can it be both high concept and easy going at the same time?
The third man
The new Pen range now has three levels. The E-P3 range topper remains really retro, though subtly reworked to add a built in flash and changeable grip. To address a spreading market the Lite model I'm reviewing here moves upmarket and now sits mid range, above the new Mini E-PM1.
It's a change of tack to claw back some of the high ground they started with. The E-PL3 and E-PM1 are very slim and not so retro. The bodies are compact sized and the loss of bulk makes them feel better – more like the erotically dense E-P3. As usual with Olympus the lower models carry almost all the features of the above model. You just choose the handling and physical interface you prefer, or the budget you can afford.
Now that the E-P3 has gained a flash, its lesser siblings have gone on a diet and lost theirs. That's slightly disappointing but Olympus has conceded that most people will want one and included the clip on FL-LM1 flash in the box. Although it sits on the hot shoe it's powered and controlled entirely via the accessory port... which does stop you using it for anything else. The two other candidates would be the external audio unit if you were shooting video seriously or the VF-2 viewfinder which is a boon in bright sunlight. The dinky clip-on flash isn't the carbuncle that I expected it to be, easy to enable by flipping up. It's much more than just a simple flash too as it can run Olympus' remote flash systems. For me (and other divers) that's good news as we can use it to fully control external flashes. It can even act as a 4th flash channel, all run from the RC panel.
In almost every respect the E-PL3 feels like a premium product. It has a pressed metal shell, black on this example. Not quite as erotic as the E-P3, but with the same reassuring rigidity to it. The result rests between the teutonic cool of Panasonic's best and the E-Px. There's a slice of bling on top which lifts the appearance and makes it quite different from a GF-1 clone. The button density is spot on – leaving space to hold the thing! There's a control dial although it's one of those cursor pad rings, not my favourite but space efficient. You need to step up to the E-P3 for its superb thumbdial (stop drooling!), the problem of balancing controls and space is age old.
The only major omission from the baby Pens is an orientation sensor, which is silly. If £100 compacts can offer this then the Pen's should – end of. It's not a deal breaker but it is just annoying penny pinching.
The screen on the E-PL3 is a rather nice 3” 16:9 LCD, it isn't fixed either – tilting 90o up or 45o down. It doesn't twist which allows a very slim mechanism. It would be fairly easy to overlook that the screen is articulated at all, it certainly adds very little to the depth of the body. It's the only Pen to offer this.
It would be remiss not to point out that whilst a 16:9 screen is ideal for shooting video, it isn't perfect for shooting stills in the Pens' native 4:3 format. Sensibly the unused real estate at the sides is used for info, to declutter your view when you're getting your photo shooting chops on. A 3” 16:9 equates to just under 2.5” of 4:3 view so after years of inexorably larger screens the PL3 gives best to its predecessors. That said it's a very nice screen, although not as cool as the OLED on the E-P3. You can set it to switch to an enlarged view for manual focus as soon as the lens ring is turned - very useful. As is the live focal length display which is a first for me and a chance for people to finally understand what they are doing – the graphs compacts display can't convey nearly as much to an aspiring enthusiast.
The PL3 looks very trim, a slim, rounded slab with the mount allowed to extend, reducing the volume of the body. The Sony NEXs use this trick too and end up looking like a lens wearing a camera as their design diet never extended to the glassware. The Pen suits its kit lens, which is now designated the R version to denote slight cosmetic changes. That's chiefly a cover for the bayonet, which can take an optional hood or the recent macro, wide and fisheye accessory lenses.
Several of the reviews I've seen seem to have forgotten the sweet things they said about the look of the L3's predecessors so they can damn them at the same time as praising the look of the 3 itself. A good looking new camera doesn't make an older one ugly but the 3 is a class act. There's a family resemblance shared with the XZ-1 but the E-PL3 is better built.
I was lucky enough to have the double zoom kit squeeze through my letter box and although I won't go into depth here it's probably the best value of the sets you can buy... unless you believe you'd never use a half price telephoto lens. The base kit with the short kit lens is great and the top kit with the super zoom 14-150mm covers the same range but the double strikes a good balance. The little tele lens is actually longer than the full size 4/3 equivalent but much lighter. It's an MSC (Movie and Still Compatible) lens so focuses fast and silently for video shooting.
If you need a back pocket camera then the zooms may not meet your needs but the PL3 is now so slim that with one of the Olympus or Panasonic pancake prime lenses you'd have to have a heart of stone (or exceptionally tight clothes) not to consider it a take everywhere camera – if so, take a bag!
The whole world wants to know how fast the focus is on the new Pens. I find myself with the same problem the grown up review sites have found when something claims to be fast, and is evidently very fast, how do you compare it with other fast things? For the record; Pen 1s were OK, but not fast. The second generation were noticeably faster, the MSC lenses making most of the difference, as fast as the Panasonic m4/3 cameras and faster than compacts. The 3s are faster again, no question, beating the G series easily. But where does that leave them compared with SLRs?
I'll admit I'm not pretending to do a scientific test, simply handling the camera and judging how fast it seems. Any non SLR which was even similarly rapid would be remarkable. My comparison was with my E-3, still rated one of the fastest focussing SLRs. The verdict? The E-PL3 is in the same league, gone is the deep flare of blur as the world cycles in and out of focus, replaced by a little blip - unless there's a gulf between focus points. It is strikingly fast - trying mundane again really brings that home. It's fast enough that pure speed is done as an issue.
It's a treat and is due to a logical rethink of the focus process, and lots more processing power. The sensor reads out twice as fast as it needs to for HD video shooting (120Hz), doesn't bother overshooting so far because it spots loss and gain of focus much faster and if it does have to do full search in the dark, it remembers where it passed the optimal focus and jumps straight there.
Point to point speed is one part of the story and like the E-3 the PL3 gives best to models which cost more for sports... only in this case that's much, much, much more money, size and weight. Another thing to remember is that focus needs light and the little Pen kit lenses aren't going to rival big professional glass in low light – I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that?
The sensor remains the same res as all previous Pens, 12 Megapixels, while top ISO is extended to 12800 though I won't be using that a lot. It's the AF speed that's the big gain from this new chip.
Filter blend on the menu
Like other Pens the PL3 has art filters and now they can be combined and even allow a bit of control. If you've followed my ramblings you'll know I really enjoy the dramatic tone filter, and my love remains unabated. At this time of the year it is just what you need to relieve dull winter skies. There are a couple of ways to work with them, dipping into the menus gives you a world of options.
The comprehensive Olympus menus have received a hi-key makeover. For the beginner the camera comes out of the box with a pared down menu. That might suit the timid but I blame the review press for shuffling Olympus down this path and maybe making them ashamed of the vast choice of configuration and control they've provided. The first step any enthusiast should do is to enable the full config menus and browse – a much better read than the manual! The next I'd recommend is to dip into the control page and enable the Super Control Panel (SCP) when you grow out of the compact style two axis menu.
The SCP interface is by far the best I have seen for any SLR/SLD and removes the need to dig through menus for mundane stuff – other brands could learn a lot. Perhaps a clincher would be to make it simpler to choose between the styles and levels of control. If you have to be a 'philistine' then just spinning the dial around to iAuto will give you an easy results led choice when you summon up the shooting menu (I do that too).
Can you ever be too rich or too thin? Yes, but the E-PL3 drops only the size and weight it needs to fight with enthusiast compacts and the smallest of the SLDs without compromising functionality. All this is at a price which throttles the large compacts which simply can't offer the same quality or creative options as its large sensor. Sure this can't make its lens disappear but then this baby carries SLR abilities in the smallest practical package yet.
|Build||8.5/10||The L steps up, now more Luxury than Lite|
|Performance||9/10||SLR fast to focus, no hanging around for RAW|
|Picture||8/10||The control of an SLR, takes a great picture but not cutting age res or ISO|
|Handling||8/10||So much control, with a simple skin and an enthusiast UI|
|Value||9/10||Really gunning for those bridge cameras – like Edward Fox!|
A great package that's hard to fault. Very well rounded.