Olympus PEN E-PL3 Review - Design and Performance Review

The E-PL3 is a solid and very well made camera. The front fascia of the camera (at least on the silver edition we tested) is fashioned from brushed aluminium and looks pretty classy in a timeless, understated kind of way, especially with a silver 14-42mm kit zoom attached. The top of camera also benefits from a metallic plate, into which a machined shooting mode dial, a metal shutter button and the main on/off button are inset. Again, this both looks and feels very classy.

The back of of the camera along with the bottom of the camera, the battery door and the LCD monitor frame, however, are all constructed from plastic. It’s a bit of a shame that the back of the camera doesn’t quite benefit from the same quality of material used on the front, although had Olympus done so it would undoubtedly have pushed the price (and weight) up.  

Of course, the decision to remove all traces of the E-PL2’s finger grip and instead go with a smooth metal finish doesn’t at all help with the overall grip of the E-PL3. Indeed, the shiny metal finish is every bit as slippery as it looks. Thankfully, there is a textured rubber thumb grip on the back – something that was absent on both the E-PL2 and E-PL1 models – which helps to give a bit of extra purchase, but its still not the best we’ve seen on a £500 camera – you’ll want to keep your neck strap on at all times.

Controls and buttons are nicely spaced and easy to reach. Whereas the E-PL2’s buttons were quite tightly clustered around the D-pad, the E-P3’s buttons are more spread out with the Playback and Delete buttons moved up to the left shoulder, and the Function and Zoom In buttons now on the right shoulder. The D-pad now gets an outer rotational wheel too, in much the same way that Canon cameras do, and this works independently of the directional Up/Down/Left/Right buttons.

The in-camera menu follows the same well-worn path of previous PEN models, complete with the same quirks we saw on the E-P3. Namely, the Erase All/Format Card options being pretty the first thing you encounter when opening up the main Menu, with each command being only a few accidental button presses away from potential disaster. Also, you’ll need to turn the Custom Menu on from the Setup Menu should you want to make any kind of advanced changes to camera settings. Once this is switched on, however, you’ll find a wealth of customisation options – from FN button assignment to AEL metering options.

If you just want to make quick on-the-fly changes to your main settings then the OK button in the middle of the D-pad calls up a handy Quick Menu. From here, it’s a simple matter up scrolling up or down through the various options (Image Stabilisation, Colour Profile, White Balance, Drive Mode, Aspect Ratio, Image Size/Quality, Movie Quality, Flash, EV Comp, Metering mode, AF Mode, ISO, Face Detection and Microphone) to make the changes you want.  

From being switched off to focused and ready to shoot, the E-PL3 takes around two seconds. While this isn’t quite the instant start-up of a regular DSLR it’s still pretty fast compared to many compacts, and we wouldn’t expect it to miss too many spontaneous moments. As with the E-P3, the 14-42mm kit zoom needs to be unlocked (i.e. extended) before you can start shooting.

Using exactly the same 35-point autofocus module as the E-P3, the E-PL3 offers impressive AF performance. Indeed, in good light it’s all but instantaneous – by the time you’ve half-pressed the shutter button, the autofocus already has locked on. There are occasions, most notably when the camera is being used indoors at night under less than optimal artificial lighting, where the camera has to hunt for focus, although even then we’ve been left quite impressed with the E-PL3’s tenacity to eventually lock on. When conditions are just too dark for the AF system to function on its own accord an orange AF Assist light on the front of the camera can be called upon to help lock focus on nearby subjects.

Using the camera in Single-shot mode we were able to shoot JPEG or Raw images at about 1fps, with no upper limit on the number of successive shots we could take. Shooting full resolution JPEGs in Continuous shooting, we were able to reel off 13 frames before the buffer filled and the camera began to slow down. Shooting Raw this dropped to 10 frames, while in simultaneous Raw and JPEG capture mode the figure dropped to nine frames.

Battery performance is a bit poor. Olympus claims the 1150mAh Li-Ion battery is good for about 330 images at a time, but we only managed to take about 270 before the dreaded ‘Battery Exhausted’ message flashed up on the screen. If you’re planning to take the E-PL3 out for the day and expect to be shooting extensively then it’s definitely worth investing in a spare battery.

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