Olympus EP–3 camera review

As of April 2012, compact cameras with large sensors have come to represent a well–established category of photographic tools. There is a number of very compelling choices—on paper, at least—and one has quite a few options if he is interested in this type of cameras. My first foray into the category was with the Fujifilm X100, but it did not work out as I hoped. The Olympus EP–3 is my second attempt to see if a camera of this class can have a place in my photographic work—and if the camera itself is as attractive as various reports seem to suggest. Below is a summary of my subjective impressions that has been distilled from using the camera for four months and looking at a few hundred images taken with it.

Olympus EP-3 - image courtesy Olumpus Corporation

Ergonomics and usability

The EP–3 has a very well–balanced shape and size and, generally, is a pleasure to handle. It is big enough for reassured handling and yet small enough to serve as a carry–everywhere camera; it is heavy enough to give a sense of a premium product yet not too heavy to carry all day long. The camera falls into one's hand so naturally and neatly that I find the removable grip that comes with it mostly unnecessary. The retro styling is quite elegant and I was pleasantly surprised that, in person, the camera is nearly as stylish as the Fujifilm X100 (style differences notwithstanding).

The menus have an attractive appearance and are fairly well sorted out—the EP–3 passed my use–without–reading–the–manual test with flying colors. Once you set up the camera the way you intend to use it most of the time, you will not need to delve into them all that often. This being said, when you have to change something in the menus after not using them for a while, you realise that they are complex enough to require a bit of head scratching as you try to remember where the item you are looking for is located.

Not everything, however, is good news in the department of handling. The On/Off button at the top of the camera is too small, and I seriously dislike that blue On/Off light—it is too bright in dim light and draws attention of the people around you when you switch the camera on. The main dial and the vertical thumb dial at the back of the camera are too small and fiddly—even the dial on the diminutive Canon S95 camera is larger and gives much better tactile feedback. And generally, I do not find the choice and positioning of buttons at the back of the camera particularly logical or intuitive. Maybe I am just new to the whole paradigm of the Olympus camera handling, but Nikon, Canon, Panasonic or Fujifilm digital cameras that I have used never gave me this impression.

The camera is very customisable, but customisation options are far from well thought out. Altogether there are five customisable buttons (Fn1, Fn2, Record Movie, Flash and Drive), but, very strangely, you cannot assign either WB or ISO setting to Fn1 or Fn2. You can assign these two crucial settings to the Flash or Drive button, but then the question is how you access these important functions. I suppose in the end it is possible to have direct access to all settings that are important to you, but you are likely to end up having a considerable inconsistency between what some buttons are supposed to do and what they actually do. Not a major issue, perhaps, but I would not call it elegant either (which is what the camera aspires to be).

Customisation is not optimal not only with the buttons. For example, Auto–ISO implementation is rather crude: you can only set the upper limit of the ISO setting and there is no way to control shutter speed. Or as another example, the LCD live view cannot show the current ISO setting, Histogram and Image Quality (RAW, JPG, etc.) at the same time—you can see either the current ISO setting and Image Quality or Histogram (you have to cycle between the two views by pressing the INFO button). The best implementation, of course, would be making the information shown on the LCD screen fully customisable via menus.

Speaking of the LCD, I find a lot of issues with it, too (I am aware of the existence of electronic viewfinders but do not happen to be a huge fan of them as yet). While resolution of the LCD screen is sufficient, it is the other aspects that make it rather undercooked. First, it is not bright enough to see properly in bright sunlight (to be less politically correct, it is pretty much useless on a bright sunny day in, say, Madrid). If you turn brightness all the way up it does become a bit brighter, but it also starts to look somewhat washed out. Second, colour rendition seems off. Third, native image aspect ratio is 4:3, but the screen's aspect ratio is 3:2. As a result, the image does not take up the entire screen and there are black vertical stripes on the left and on the right. Forth, the LCD is clattered with information in an inconsistent manner; in particular, shutter speed and aperture are shown in rectangular and nearly non–transparent shapes that barely allow seeing what's beyond them; as a result, I often struggle to see what is happening at the bottom of the frame. Finally, when you switch the camera on with a lens cap on the lens, what you see on the screen is a bunch of static (colour noise) dancing around. Because of all these issues, precise composition and closely following action are often quite challenging. Olympus still have quite a bit of work to do in their search of elegance.

Speed of operation

Despite the numerous claims to the contrary, the EP–3 is not a speed demon. Start–up and wake–up are not instantaneous. Write–to–card speed and, consequently, image review are not immediate (I often happen to press the Playback button twice before the image appears on the screen). Adjustments that are being made with the dials are reflected on the screen with a slight but noticeable and annoying delay. Autofocus is said to be blazingly fast, but, in my experience, it is only adequate with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens (and it starts to struggle in less than ideal lighting conditions). In short, while the EP–3 is not exactly slow to operate, a camera such as, say, the Nikon D700 that I used in the past would run circles around it—while cooking and washing at the same time. Given that the EP–3 is reported to be a great improvement over its predecessors in terms of speed, I am glad I did not bother with the EP–1 or the EP–2.

Image quality

Considering what the camera aspires to be, image quality is adequate—but just barely. While it is clearly better than that of point–and–shoot cameras with much smaller sensors, it is nowhere nearly as good as that of the better cameras with AP–C sensors. Highlight headroom is far from immense, and I tend to pay much more attention to retaining highlight detail dialing in -0.3, or even -0.7, exposure compensation more often than I wish I did. Dynamic range is not exactly limitless either, and taking care of highlights often leads to having underexposed, ugly shadows—even at the base ISO of ISO200. If you shoot a forest from a distance you get digital mash instead of leaves—less than with a digital point–and–shoot, but quite a bit more than what I find acceptable for any serious purposes. Noise is visible right from ISO200, and I refrain from using the camera at ISO settings higher than ISO800 (this somehow reminds me of my seven–thousand–light–years–old Nikon D70s). All things considered, the camera can deliver good image quality, but only under certain conditions and if one pays close attention to what he is doing and does not push the sensor beyond its fairly thin comfort zone.

Final thoughts

If you disregard marketing hype and keep your expectations close to the ground, the Olympus EP–3 is a very decent camera. There is not much that has been implemented decidedly poorly, and one could find numerous reasons to like the camera. To me, however, apart from the cute retro styling, there is nothing that clearly stands out and makes the camera special. In fact, I personally find that it is one of the most lukewarm cameras that I have ever used (but then again, most of the cameras that I have used are real characters). This camera is not for me, and photographers who contemplate buying it should consider carefully if this is the right tool for them. Nevertheless and despite my somewhat unenthusiastic comments, the fact remains that the EP–3 has been popular among photographers, and that Olympus are clearly progressing in the right direction.