Olympus Third generation 'Pen Lite' adds tilting LCD screen but subtracts handgrip and integral flash. Still a great update but no real reasons to upgrade from the previous model if you're own one
Available in a quartet of colours, the E-PL3 may look gorgeous with its brushed aluminium faceplate and retro-style dials, but it’s worth a bit of back-story to secure a critical perspective. The original E-PL1 digital ‘Pen’ camera from Olympus – so-named because it harked back to an original camera series from the 1950s/60s with its refreshingly retro design – was the third such digital model to be released, and the first to include body integral pop up flash.
Mystifyingly, this third generation E-PL3, appearing a mere seven months after the E-PL2 was launched, omits this arguably essential feature, long with the side-mounted handgrip that went with it. Clearly size is everything, and with the E-PL3 its manufacturer is aiming for minimal proportions rather than maximum features.
All is not lost however, as even though the E-PL3 is less chunky than its predecessors, and we’ll painfully admit looks the better for it, a plastic-y clip-on flashgun is included in the box. The impression this gives is rather better when actually mounted on the camera, attached via a combination of the vacant hotshoe and rear-mounted accessory port.
For anyone looking to trade up from a pocket snapper to a more sophisticated camera on which the lens can be swapped and more ‘professional’ looking results can be achieved, the E-PL3 is a good place to start and will set you back around £549 with bundled 14-42mm zoom lens. This provides the equivalent of a 28-84mm focal range in 35mm film terms, so it’s as adept at shoehorning landscapes into frame as it is excellent for portraiture, capable of background-blurring shallow depth of field effects. The zoom isn’t automatic however, so requires steady adjustment by hand, particularly when shooting video.
Olympus E-PL3 Controls (ease of use)
The button layout of the E-PL2 has been re-jigged and operational controls are now more prominently positioned in a row above the LCD screen at the back, where they fall under the thumbs, a bit like a games console. Set into the top plate are a power button, springy shutter release button and familiar shooting mode dial. Its eight options include subject recognising auto options plus program, shutter priority, manual and aperture priority modes as you’d expect to find on an enthusiast camera.
First time users won’t need to get up to speed with what the latter can do in more experienced hands however, as Olympus again includes its Live Guide function here, summoned up with a press of the ‘Fn’ (Function) button. As this handholding feature suggests, a row of icons stacked to the right hand side of the screen display possible visual adjustments, which can be made in real time by tabbing up or down a slider bar.
Thus without understanding the principles of different apertures, users can selectively blur the background to a portrait so their subject really jumps out of the frame. Pro-like results with minimal fuss, basically. That said, some of the controls could be more clearly marked, and a dedicated button for adjusting ISO speed/light sensitivity wouldn’t have gone amiss for those hoping to shoot without flash and wanting to avoid blur.
Olympus E-PL3 Screen
The screen on the E-PL3 is probably its biggest selling point as this camera is the first Olympus Pen model to include an angle adjustable screen. There’s no alternative viewfinder supplied. To operate, the screen is pulled outwards from the body to a distance of an inch or so at the back, at which point it can be tilted upwards or downwards, to easier allow for low or high angle compositions.
However this single axis control is a little limited compared with the likes of Canon’s 600D DSLR, or indeed a camcorder, which allow the screen to also be flipped out sideways so it sits alongside the body, or turned screen in to the body. The Olympus does not.
Still, the E-PL3’s monitor resolution is a respectable 460k dots – which is better than the average 230k dots – plus it’s 3-inches in size and 16:9 widescreen in aspect ratio. This makes it a boon for framing up HD video clips, with black bands otherwise cropping the display when shooting in regular 4:3 stills aspect ratio.
Olympus E-PL3 Speed (performance, basically)
Like the flagship E-P3 model, with the Olympus E-PL3 its manufacturer is making a claim for the world’s fastest auto focus for an interchangeable lens camera. While it’s swift, you wouldn’t necessarily notice – which kind of proves its point. A half press of the shutter release button and the image relayed on screen very briefly blurs while the lens adjusts; it does this before snapping into focus a mere fraction of a second later, signalling the user is free to press down fully to take the shot.
Image writing speed is indeed impressive. We were able to shoot both a regular maximum quality JPEG still and uncompressed (so more memory hungry) Raw file alongside it to achieve the best possible results. The camera did its data crunching and committed both to SD/SDHC/SDXC card in two seconds. Otherwise the Pen responds to each button press and slider adjustment in real time, without delay.
Olympus E-PL3 Battery
The Olympus E-PL3 is powered by a PL-BLS1 rechargeable lithium ion pack, which slots into the base of the camera, where an SD media card slot is ranged alongside it. As with its competitors, power performance is respectable if unremarkable, lasting for around 330 pictures, so you might also want to pack the supplied charger if heading off on holiday. As usual a battery indicator icon is displayed on screen so you can keep an eye out for it becoming dangerously depleted.
Olympus E-PL3 Pictures and video
One of the Olympus’ key selling points, screen aside, are its fully automatic, built-in digital effects filters which have their own Art Filter setting on the top plate shooting mode dial. There are six in total on the E-PL3, as opposed to the 10 on the pricier E-P3, which lend images a Pinhole camera effect (vintage-style shaded corners, as if viewing a scene through a loo roll), alternatively boost colour in Pop Art mode, add film grain, and ramp up contrast and colour in High Dynamic Range-style Dramatic Tone mode.
Aside from a forgettable soft focus choice, there’s also a tilt and shift lens ape-ing ‘Diorama’ option, which blurs a large portion of the frame and narrows the central focus area so any buildings and people appear as if on a toy town scale. While this is great fun, it takes experimentation to get usable results. Otherwise, without any filters and in Natural colour mode, images look warm and flattering, with a slight tendency to underexposure to preserve detail.
While with the kit lens attached we felt the results could have been sharper overall, we’ve no such complaints when it comes to recording video, which takes the form of Full HD 1920x1080 60i, and in a choice of AVCHD or Motion JPEG formats. We get a dedicated camcorder-style record button for this purpose, and even though there’s a dedicated ‘movie’ setting on the shooting dial, give this a press and filming commences whatever else one might have selected.
As noted earlier, if you adjust framing, focus adjusts with it a moment later ensuring a fairly smooth transition. You’ll want to practice manually zooming though to avoid jerky jumps. Stereo sound is provided, but try and keep finger movement minimal so the built-in mike doesn’t pick it up.
Olympus E-PL3 Verdict
If you’ve considered buying a cheap digital SLR to get better shots than your £100 pocket camera or smartphone will allow, then the E-PL3 offers a similarly priced, but more manageable alternative. For us the results aren’t quite on a par with a traditional DSLR, but recording video is a much smoother process on the Olympus and for most of us, the stills quality will certainly be ‘good enough’.
Our only disappointment is Olympus electing to remove the built-in flash, having only just added one to the flagship E-P3 model. That seems a perverse move, even though the addition of a tilting LCD is a positive one.
Olympus E-PL3 availability: Out now
Olympus E-PL3 price: £549