With the car packed and revved in readiness for a weekend of 100-plus degree outdoor schvitz-tivities in the desert, I eagerly awaited the FedEx man’s arrival. He was bringing me a new Olympus PEN E-P3, which I would be testing in the field.
When the first digital PEN took a bow nearly two years ago it was a bit of a show pony. One of the first Micro Four Thirds system cameras, it had the flowing gorgeous tactile throwback styling of the original film-firing PEN of the 1960s, but it was a flashless, slow-focusing piece of design-award-winning aspirational engineering. It took a lot of stones on the part of Olympus to put it out there like that and the manufacturer has taken a few knocks for it.
We’re two PENs downstream today, and even though the look of the latest iteration is nigh on the same, Olympus claims this one’s hopped up under the hood — it has double True Pic VI image processors for more speed, a zippier autofocus, better LCD, overhauled user interface and a Santa’s bag full of other feature goodies. We’ll see, I thought.
A few ticks past 10 a.m., the rumble of the white, purple and orange trunk pierced my caffeine-laced reverie. A scrawled signature later, I climbed into the car and my driver peeled out while I peeled the box open. Slapping the battery in the body’s compartment (there’s always a bit of a charge right out of the box), I fired up the PEN 3 and started shooting while riding shotgun.
It didn’t take more than a minute or two for me to realize that Olympus had, indeed, seriously upgraded the guts. The most immediately apparent improvement is the cheetah-like autofocus, with, get this, an AF illuminator light. The Olympus mouthpiece later told me that in the company’s own testing, it’s the world’s fastest single-AF focusing camera. I’ve no way to confirm their claim, but in a week’s worth of shooting, I’d have to say, if it’s not, then it’s pretty damn close.
The second revelation is the screen. It’s a bit larger than PEN 2, but more significantly, it’s a tack-sharp 3-inch touchscreen OLED. I was instantly caught off guard by the touchscreen capability when I accidentally tapped it and the camera instantaneously focused and fired. My subsequent sonic emanation of joyous surprise nearly sent us into the guardrail. Once the helm was safely recovered, for safety’s sake I decided to stop shooting and dig into the nitty gritty.
Another improvement is the software. Where previous PENs were saddled with a deep and circuitous menu system — a spelunker’s dream — the 3 has been given a streamlined and considered one.
The final obvious feature that literally jumped out at me was the pop-up flash. When you first look at the camera you may miss it entirely because it’s built flush to the top line of the body so it won’t disturb the aesthetic. In action, the little strobe is powerful enough for a solid daylight fill and predictably illuminates night-time scenes and portraits.
The color is a touch punchy straight out of the box, a default most general users would seem to happy to have.
Once out on the cactus trail, I spun the exposure mode dial to Art and played around. Olympus has expanded the Art Filters — there are now 10 — and added a few sub-features like vignetting, fuzzy frames and starlight effects.
If you’re both ambitious and have trouble deciding which filter you like, just tell the camera you want it to apply all the filters at once and it will make 10 editions of each frame so you can see all effects at once. This feature slows the processing speed, but take your time, it’s pretty fun.
Upon returning to the cooler confines of the studio, images were scrutinized. Overall, the PEN 3’s results are fairly predictable and mostly pleasing. The color is a touch punchy straight out of the box, a default most general users would seem to happy to have. White balance is consistent and, given the fact this PEN has a carryover 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor, the noise reduction and higher ISO tightness is still just above average like its immediate predecessor. The PEN 4 will almost surely get a new image sensor to address these issues.
The PEN 3’s standard kit glass is a 14-42mm f3.5-5.6. It’s a very serviceable lens, but the Olympus primes are the real ticket if you’re interested in sharp shooting. The manufacturer provided the 12mm f2 lens (which you can see in my pictures above) and that’s actually what I shot with most of the time.
Solid and bright, it toggles between AF and manual focus with a snap of the focusing ring. Just pull it back toward the body and you’re into manual, snap it forward and the camera transitions back to autofocus. No menu digging required. Olympus also introduced a 45mm f1.8 portrait lens, a compact flash that swivels for bounce or close-ups and can be used wirelessly to add shape to your images.
I can’t test everything this camera has to offer in just a week, so stay tuned, we may revisit the PEN 3 with a deeper dive. But the bottom line on the PEN 3 is it’s a real shooter’s camera, not just a designer’s desktop paperweight. It’s an easy-to-use, fast focuser and shooter that’s got a steamer trunk full of fun, functional features, lenses and accessories.
Photos by Jackson Lynch/get-gadget
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