Micro Four-Thirds cameras have long promised to bridge the quality of DSLRs with the size of point and shoots. The Olympus PEN EP-3 is the fullest realization of the Micro Four-Thirds dream so far, even if it's not quiiiiiiite perfect.
Why It Matters
The EP-3 could very well be the first camera that will satisfy the desires of the weekend photo hobbyist. The person who knows the difference between a zoom and a macro lens. Knows how to adjust ISO, exposure, and shutter speed accordingly. Is curious about HD DSLR video. Basically, they want to take relatively straight forward photos that look great and don't need the power of a full-bore DSLR. The EP-3 is for this person.
It also has an all new sensor powered by a dual-core processor. The 12-megapixel count is the same as the previous-gen camera, but we all know resolution isn't everything. You can also buy the EP-3 with an all new 12mm F/2 Prime lens, which takes advantage of that new sensor, and delivers some images that puts Micro Four-Thirds in the same conversation as an entry-level DSLR.
With its grip removed, the EP-3 is a minimal, matte black beauty with clean lines and a retro-inspired, all-metal build that feels—dare I say it?—Leica-esque. Knobs, buttons and dials galore. Which means there's some heft. It's not a burden, but you'll notice.
The shutter is always fast. Autofocus issues are few and far between. And the Intelligent Auto setting did a damn good job of reproducing scenes as accurately as possible. The camera may not be as small as Panasonic's GF2 wunderkind and its wonderfully slim pancake lens, but in general, the EP-3 stays out of the way.
Olympus also has filters on the EP-3—think Hipstamatic, built into a real camera—and they're good. There's a Pop Art filter, which makes colors jump off the page. A Pinhole lens filter gives photos a muted look and create vignetting along the edges. And so on.
This is the best Micro Four-Thirds camera I've used when it comes to minimal image noise at a reasonable ISO (below 1000). Images in natural light and low ISO settings go toe to toe with entry-level DSLRs in image quality. Photos are sharp and have plenty of depth. The 12mm F2 Prime Lens takes some fantastic shots; the 14-42mm kit lens isn't too shabby, either. (Check out some photo samples here—we're having some gallery issues =(.)
Video is good, not great—you won't be shooting professional footage with this thing. The photo filters are fun and easy to produce some nice, stylized shots. Oh, did I mention this thing looks beautiful?
As far as the camera itself goes, the settings menus can be a bit perpelexing to access. The scroll wheel and jog dial on the back serve the exact same purpose, which leaves me wondering why both are there. And as much as I love the F2 Prime lens, I wish it was a bit smaller.
Low light shots are much improved over the last-gen Pen, especially when it comes to shutter speed, but images still show signs of graininess when examined up close. Video is only 1080i and uses the AVCHD codec. You can shoot 720p in AVI, but 1080anything in AVI would be nice.
Ultimately, the PEN EP-3 finds itself at the same crossroads as the other Micro Four-Thirds cameras. At $900, its probably too expensive and complicated to use for the point-and-shoot crowd. It's also not powerful enough across the board to replace even a comparable DSLR, like Canon's T3i, which also delivers killer video.
Should I Buy It?
This is still an ideal camera for someone who wants quality shots, but will more than likely just post them on their Facebook or Flickr account. The people looking to get a little more serious about photography without taking the full leap, or photographer who wants a low-profile camera on them at all times. The PEN EP-3 is our undisputed favorite of the current Micro Four-Thirds crop.
Olympus PEN EP-3
Price: $900 (w/ either 12mm F2 Prime or 14-42mm kit lens)
Sensor: 12.3-megapixel TruePic IV Image Processor
Iso: Up to 12,800
Formats Supported: Front: 1.3-megapixel webcam
Video: AVCHD: 1080i @ 60fps max. AVI: 1280x720 max
Screen: 3-inch, OLED touchscreen