Given that it employs the same 12.3MP LiveMOS sensor and TruePic VI image processor found in the flagship E-P3 model, the E-PL3’s overall image quality is all but identical with that of its big brother, which is to say very good indeed. For that reason, a lot of what we said about that camera applies just as much here too.
As with the E-P3 we tested last month, our E-PL3 review sample came fitted with a Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R kit zoom. Given the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four Thirds system, this equates to 28-84mm in 35mm terms, which is a useful focal range for general everyday use. The lens has a sliding lock mechanism on the barrel that allows the zoom to fold into itself for a bit of extra compactness - though not very much.
With the lens attached to the camera body and fully retracted like this, the E-PL3 is undoubtedly one of the smaller compact system models available, indeed it’s only marginally larger than the Sony NEX-C3. It’s also significantly smaller than even the smallest entry-level DSLR and lens combination. That said, it’s still a bit too big to fit inside all but the roomiest jacket pocket.
The 14-42mm kit zoom is entirely constructed from plastic, and while this certainly makes it light, it doesn’t feel particularly robust. The zoom ring is on the inside and located very close to the camera body, which takes a bit of getting used to, with the manual focus ring located just beyond it. We do like how the MF Assist feature can be engaged to automatically zoom in on the central AF point when you engage the manual focus ring. If you’re shooting a still subject it’s a good way of getting precise focus.
In use we found the Zuiko 14-42mm to deliver good edge-to-edge sharpness. If you’re shooting JPEGs then the amount of sharpening can be fine-tuned via the E-PL3’s Picture Mode customisation options, but used on a 0 or 1 setting the EP-3 produces crisp but lifelike images, free from haloing and other undesirable by-products of over-sharpening. Fringing is well controlled, with the only the occasional purple fringe showing up, and even then only on the kind of extreme high-contrast borders where bright sunlight meets dark shadow.
Of the E-PL3’s five Picture Mode options, we again found ourselves favouring the i-Enhance setting on account of the punchy colour and rich tones it produces. For us this profile feels just right – punchy and vibrant enough to bring images to life, but not to the point of being oversaturated and unrealistic. Of course, should you prefer a little more understatement there are also Natural and Muted profiles to call upon. The Art Filters all work well too, and are quite good fun to use as well. We've increasingly found ourselves using the Diorama effect more like a Lensbaby to blur the edges around our subjects, as opposed to just using it to try and make scenic images look like scale models.
Metering duties on the E-PL3 are handled by a Through-The-Lens (TTL) module using 324-zones. The system proves very accurate on the whole and when faced with high-contrast scenes the E-PL3 tends to maintain a good balance between highlights and shadow retention. The E-PL3’s dynamic range is noticeably wider than that of a standard compact, which results in superior images when the camera is tasked with capturing a scene that contains extremes of light and shade.
White Balance is generally reliable, although we did notice a slight tendency for the Automatic White Balance setting to occasionally make images shot under artificial light look a bit overly warm. As we also noticed this with the E-P3 it would appear to be a trait that’s common to Olympus PEN models.
While sharpness and detail are naturally at their best at the base ISO 200 to ISO 400 settings, the E-PL3 does a very good job in the mid-sensitivity ranges of IS0 800 to ISO 1600 too, with only a very minor softening of detail. ISO 3200 is the point at which the effects of noise become visible at less than100%, although images shot at this setting often remain usable. At ISO 6400 images become noticeably softer, while at the top setting of ISO 12,800 red colour noise pretty much wrecks the image.
There is a lot to like about the E-PL3: it’s a very capable camera that delivers good image quality. Stylish and easy to use, it offers plenty of useful and fun features including a tiltable LCD, Art Filters and solid HD movie recording abilities. Of course, all of these plus points are tempered somewhat by the lack of a built-in flash and the lack of a proper hand-grip, but even taking these factors into consideration we still think the E-PL3 is a very good camera overall. Compared against the E-P3 it represents very good value for money indeed, although against other competitors from rival manufacturers it still looks to be a bit on the pricey side. It wouldn’t take much of a drop in the street price for that to change though. In the meantime, should you have your heart set on one you are unlikely to be disappointed.