Of course the Olympus PEN E-P3 isn’t an SLR. We all know that but we have to call it something. This third evolution of the interchangeable lens compact camera (see, micro-SLR is neater isn’t it?) has almost nailed the concept. Not quite, but it’s not far off.
At this price, styling is very important and the E-P3 sensibly retains the look of the old PEN film cameras from the 60s. We spent most time with the pearlescent white edition, but if you’re not ready for that kind of style statement you can choose from the more sober black or classy silver options. It feels solid, wrapped in a mix of metal and metal-ish materials. Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds lenses are quite plasticky, which jars a little but keeps them light and avoids the camera becoming front-heavy.
There are some things you might think would never impress you. The speed of a camera’s autofocus for example. But we dare you not to be at least moderately flabbergasted by this very talent of the E-P3. You don’t need to use the touchscreen at all (hooray!) but with a single touch it will focus instantly on your chosen area and shoot immediately.
That lightning AF speed carries through to the regular controls too, which all sit well and combine to give the camera a grown-up feel as you gently tweak the lens while sagely adjusting the mode dial or ISO settings.
Unlike the last two flagship PENs, the E-P3 comes with its own built-in flash. It hides away inside the body and pops up beside the hot shoe on demand. It’s about time, frankly, and this means there’s less of a dilemma about what to use that clever hot shoe for. The obvious addition is the VF-2 or VF-3 viewfinder. These bring the camera closer to a DSLR in terms of usability and if you’ve got the cash it’s worth adding one, but depending on the shape of your face you might find the corner of the camera poking into your nose once you’ve got your eye in.
New internal technology has nudged image quality up a peg from the E-P2. Sunny-day JPEGs were always flawless, but improved low light sensitivity now makes it easier to nail excellent images after dusk.
The delivery of near-noiseless detail in any JPEG frame up to ISO 1600 is outstanding. At ISO 3200, noise and softness creep in, so shoot RAW, do a little post processing, and you’ll be good to go for viewing on a screen or printing to A4. Don’t get too ambitious though. Heading north of ISO 6400 expecting anything other than a blizzard would be a costly folly.
A wide range of ‘Art’ filters is available to add retro effects to your shots in realtime. You can also use these in video mode, although that drops the framerate to little more than a few per second – that in itself makes quite a nice effect though. Proper video, unsullied by effects, comes out well at 1080i, 60fps. Not up to the excellent standards of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V but still better than most cameras. Good image stabilisation and Olympus’ almost silently focussing lenses round off impressive video skills.
All in, this is a lovely camera. If you really want a high-end compact there are better options, primarily that Sony HX9V. But if you want full creative control in a cool but discreet package, the E-P3 is hard to beat. The Sony NEX-5 runs it close but is quite a different camera in use and further removed from the DSLR feel, while Panasonic’s GF2 and GF3 come up a little short in the style and usability stakes.