The third generation of Olympus’ digital PEN line sees the range expand into three distinct areas: the flagship Olympus PEN EP-3, the stripped-back Olympus EPL-3 PEN Lite, and the miniaturised EPM-1 PEN Mini.
Like all models within the current digital PEN line-up the PEN EP-3 takes its inspiration from the original Olympus PEN film cameras of the 1960s and 70s. These small, portable and mostly fixed-lens cameras proved a hit with consumers, not least because their half-frame design meant casual photographers could eek out 72 shots from a standard roll of 36-exposure 35mm film.
Of course, now that everything has gone digital you’ll need to shoot many, many more than that to fill the average memory card, although in keeping with its half-frame heritage the Olympus PEN EP-3 does use a sensor that’s slightly smaller than the APS-C sensors used in many DSLRs.
That said, the PEN EP-3’s 17.3 x 13mm Micro Four Thirds chip is still considerably bigger than your average compact sensor. The benefits of this in relation to image quality are huge. Not only does the PEN EP-3’s larger sensor result in better overall low-light performance, it also enables the camera to create a shallower depth-of-field at large apertures, at least compared to what you’d be able to achieve with a small-sensor compact.
While the Olympus PEN EP-3 is well suited to novices on account of its easy operation it’s quite and advanced camera underneath, offering more than its fair share of customisation. This is backed up by a generous number of advanced features that are sure to appeal to enthusiasts used to working with mid- to high-end DSLRs – from flexible AE-AL Lock button configurations to advanced bracketing options and even wireless flash control via the PEN EP-3’s newly installed pop-up flash.
But, of course, all this comes at some cost. Whichever way you look at it, at a penny short of £800, the PEN EP-3 is expensive. In fact, at this kind of price the PEN EP-3 undoubtedly falls into premium territory and, as such, its appeal will surely be limited to those that can afford it and those that want on so much, they’ll somehow find a way to afford it.
Even before factoring in the not inconsiderable price tag, the PEN EP-3 faces some pretty stiff competition. Sticking with the Micro Four Thirds standard, the recently launched Panasonic Lumix G3 can be picked up for around £530 with a 14-42mm lens, and while it may lack the fashionable retro styling of the PEN EP-3 it does offer an EVF and articulated monitor. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 (£750 with 14-42mm lens), meanwhile, is another highly specified competitor with solid video recording abilities and a 16.2MP sensor.
Elsewhere, the Sony NEX-5 (£600 with 18-55mm kit lens) uses a larger sensor than the PEN EP-3 and yet is slightly smaller and lighter overall. Then there’s the Fujifilm X100 to consider, though it will set you back another £200 on top. In fact, given the Olympus PEN EP-3’s price tag and target market, you might even be tempted to consider an advanced entry-level DSLR, with models like the Canon 600D (£700 with 18-55mm) and Nikon D5100 (£630 with 18-55mm) both delivering great image quality and heaps of user customisation, albeit in a much bigger overall package than the PEN EP-3.
Has the Olympus PEN EP-3 got what it takes to compete for your hard-earned cash against these models? Let’s take a closer look and find out…