Olympus E-P3 — Is it Still a Viable Choice over the E-PM2, E-PL5 or E-M5? — Review

© 2013 Peter Free


11 February 2013 (updated 18 February 2013)



Did the new sensor in the E-M5, E-PL5, and E-PM2 obsolete the E-P3?


For people who don’t already own it, at today’s used prices, probably yes.



Distinguishing “sea changes” in the digital camera world


Occasionally, the digital camera realm is subject to advances that knock older cameras out of contention, even for budget minded buyers.  This happens most often with genuinely noticeable advances in sensor performance.  Two recent examples of that kind of magnitude include Nikon’s d7000 and the Olympus E-M5.


The Nikon, especially, was greeted enthusiastically.  A seemingly significant number of knowledgeable Nikon users dumped more functionally capable older models (like the d300 and d300s) in order to take advantage of the new sensor in the d7000.


And, in Olympus’ case, the E-M5 appears to have persuaded a good many people that micro four-thirds is finally good enough for most purposes.


The question is whether the new sensor obsoleted the E-P3 insofar as economically minded photographers are concerned.  The E-P3’s previous claim to fame was its provision of the level of photographic control that advanced photographers often crave.



Is the E-P3 still a good choice for budget minded photographers?


My tentative answer, for most people, depends on whether saving about $400 to $450 (over a refurbished E-M5) is worth subjecting oneself to the E-P3’s very noticeably inferior sensor performance — both in terms of noise and dynamic range.


If you shoot predominantly in good outdoor light, the E-P3 is still a decent camera — although according to DxO’s sensor tests, its sensor falls roughly two stops short of the E-M5’s dynamic range.


Where I live in Colorado, that negative makes a difference.  Outdoor light here is contrasty, especially at high altitudes.  Digital sensor dynamic range matters.  The E-P3 sensor doesn’t have much.


To some degree, the camera’s 4 EV auto bracketing can make up for this.  But, even so, the sensor is noticeably still not competitive with those in higher dynamic range cameras.


Indoors, compared to APS-C cameras of the same era, the sensor also falls short most of the time.  Noise is unacceptable at ISO 1200 and color begins to noticeably desaturate and change at about ISO 1000.  If you can set the camera on a tripod and don’t have to worry about subject movement, the sensor’s non-competitive performance is less of a drag.



Where the E-P3 is good — focus speed and some aspects of its user interface


The E-P3 acquires focus faster and more accurately than either my E-PL1 or NEX-3.  Even in dim light, it is very quick and usually precise.


The E-P3’s interface and button configuration are also superior to the two other mirrorless cameras.  In most instances, it is a significantly faster camera to control.



Where the E-P3 falls short — for my purposes


Generally speaking:


(1) Aspects of the user interface are still unnecessarily irritating.


(2) And camera settings are often fiddly to use — meaning that I often inadvertently change them, without realizing it.  Especially so with gloves on.


(3) Evaluative metering is near useless in high contrast lighting.


(4) The LCD screen is often impossible to see in bright, high altitude sunlight.


Unlike many other reviewers, I do not especially mind the alleged illogic of Olympus’ menus.  I memorized where everything is.



Negative 1 — occasionally annoying menu characteristics


There are (for me) two especially annoying menu idiosyncrasies:


(i) Olympus separated ISO from white balance on the camera’s main operating menu by several button pushes.


That means that the two settings that I change most often require repeatedly irritating amounts of time to reset.


(ii) A similar bit of “what were they thinking” stupidity affects using the camera’s welcome inclusion of auto-exposure bracketing.


Bracketing is buried far down the menu, and setting it requires going to two different locations.  Once the correct exposure increment (up to 4 EV) and number of frames are set, one still has to go to the drive menu to set continuous frame advance.


Bracketing, therefore, takes time-consuming menu exploration and arguably too many button presses to set and un-set.  After a sequence of bracketed frames, it is easy to forget to undo one of the two necessary settings.  I initially assumed that if I returned to single frame advance, exposure bracketing would discontinue.  But it doesn’t.  You just wind up with a string of improperly exposed single frames.


Negative 2 — fiddly settings, which occasionally disrupt everything that one is trying to do, while shooting under pressure


The body’s controls are small and fiddly to use, especially with relatively thin driving gloves on.


For example, yesterday, I used an E-P3 at the Cripple Creek (Colorado) Ice Sculpture Festival.  It was cold, windy, and about to snow.  I found it difficult to accurately control the integrated spin-dial and rocker button.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, woman in hat.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, man with chain saw about to cut ice.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, walking down the hill.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, looking up the hill.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, chainsawing the ice.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, getting ready to drill the ice sculpture.


Cripple Creek Ice Festival, 09 January 2013, towering sculpture.


The dial-rocker has the customary “OK” button in its center.  The dial’s edge is designed to allow up, down, left, and right directional presses.  The OK button sets whatever you pick, and it also serves to access the most important single menu on the camera.  The problem with the integrated setup is that the whole thing is quite small.


In hand-numbing cold, with ice chips blowing in my face, I found myself inadvertently getting some unwelcome changes to previous settings.  Most irritating of these was a change from the central autofocus point to one at the bottom of the frame.


The above criticism highlights one of my subjective criticisms of the camera.  It uses the rocker function in places in which all my other cameras use a spin dial (as opposed to the rocker).


Consequently, I often find myself spinning the Olympus’ spin dial, when I should be pressing the edge of the dial down to get to where the menu selection wants me to set the new setting.  The Olympus rocker method is slower because it requires one press for each of change along the selection scale.  For example, instead of spinning one’s way through shutter speeds and ISOs, one has to push the directional left-right rocker edge once for each change.


My user screw-ups (meaning that I was spinning, when I should have been rocking) took me to menu items that I did not want to change, but did — sometimes without realizing it.


Note — from 18 February 2013


I returned to the Cripple Creek Ice Festival on 17 February, under windy, but sunny conditions.


This time I had a slightly newer pair of the same brand and style of gloves on.  Being newer meant that they were slightly thicker, not having been through the washer so often.


The change aggravated the fiddly controls still further.  This time I wound up with an inadvertent drive change from single frame advance to 2-second delay.  It took me a few frames to figure this out because the loss of tactile feel meant that I was not sure that I was actually hitting the shutter release properly.


Negative 3 — evaluative metering is near useless in high contrast lighting


Olympus, like Sony, assigns too much evaluative metering weight to whatever is under the focus point.


If you have the focus point positioned over something light or dark — which I guarantee that you will do under the pressure of fast shooting or near-to-far compositions — you will lose the benefit of competently implemented whole frame evaluation.


The way both manufacturers have implemented evaluative metering, you might as well be shooting in semi-spot or heavy center-weighted mode.  I almost always have to dial in significant compensation, so as not to bias the frame’s overall exposure too much one way or the other.


This is annoying, especially compared to Nikon’s mastery of matrix metering.  Had Olympus and Sony settled even for imitating Nikon’s old 60-40 center-weighted approach, the results would be consistently better.


As it is, evaluative metering from both manufacturers — in the E-500, E-PL1, E-P3, a-500, and NEX-3 — creates more problems than it solves for people who shoot are large variety of subjects under a wide range of lighting conditions.


Negative 4 — LCD screen is often impossible to see in bright, high altitude sunlight


The sunny Cripple Creek outing reminded me of how much the invisible LCD irritates me.  During most of my trek through the crowd around the ice sculptures, I had to shoot blind because sunlight obliterated the image on the screen.


As you can imagine, this presented some problems.  Especially in combination with Olympus’ dumb evaluative metering.  Without being able to tell what color or shade the focus point was on, I couldn’t dial in the appropriate compensation.  Which meant that I lost too much of the sky most of the time, and too many of the shadows the rest.



A single example of the E-P3’s offsetting strengths and weaknesses — its flash system


The E-P3’s flash menu generically typifies the camera’s strengths and shortcomings.  It is adjustable from full power to one-sixty-fourth.  And it has an automated “fill” function.


But the flash is under powered and automated fill is nearly always grossly under exposed and nearly always useless at more than a couple of meters.  The camera’s fractional flash settings (naturally) have to be set by trial and error.


This is not a Nikon-like automated flash system.  It gives you control, but it is time consuming to get it to produce decent results.


On the other hand, I frequently make use of the full power to one-sixty-fourth flash settings.  I just recognize at the outset that I am going to be experimenting with a number of frames before I get a good result.


In sum — not ready for the prime time that dSLRs dance in


My incompetence aside, the E-P3 suffers from pretty much the same annoyances that every other mirrorless camera that I have used does.


These are not the kind of cameras that you can get to do what you need to get done, quickly and efficiently, under a very wide range of photographic situations.  I would not sign up to shoot a generic wedding with one.


A comment from “Big Ga” that pretty much sums up my opinion of mirrorless cameras


“Big Ga” is dpreview.com contributer.  He’s a professional photographer, who is not easily snowed by the nonsense that so many enthusiastically ignorant Internet forum contributors spew.


Here is what he had to say about the Olympus E-M5, a noticeably better camera than my E-P3:



I actually don't 'enjoy' my Nikon gear in many ways. For some strange reason, I don't have any 'love' for it as such.


I actually have 'loved' my olympus cameras a lot more. There is something very 'lovely' about much of the look and feel of the kit.


However if I'm shooting professionally, then 'love' of a camera doesn't come into it, I just want the stuff to work, and in this respect I've found the Nikon stuff to be generally vastly superior, especially when the going gets tough.


It’s typical Olympus. Some things are great. Others not so. And some things are just dreadful.


The EM5 sensor isn't bad at all but let’s put things into perspective here, a sensor doesn't make a camera, plus, what has happened is that at last Olympus has closed the gap, not somehow zoomed ahead.


The Em5 noise profile is VERY similar to a 5 year old (that's half a DECADE) D300, and at base ISO, the DR is virtually identical to a D300s.


© 2013 Big Ga, E-5 vs OMD vs D800 — Part 2, Digital Photography Review – dpreview.com (January 2013) (at Olympus SLR Talk forum) (paragraph split and typos corrected)


That’s exactly how I feel about Olympus (and Sony), as compared to Nikon (and Canon) dSLRs.



E-P3 compared to the E-PL1 and NEX-3?


I would choose the E-P3 over the E-PL1, even at the E-PL1’s currently extremely low prices, despite the fact that the two sensors are identical.  The E-PL1 was just too slow to be useful for significant amounts of what I do.  With it (and the NEX-3), I have to anticipate expressions before they happen.


I also prefer the E-P3 to the NEX-3 — except when shooting above ISO 1000 or wearing gloves.  For gloves, the NEX-3 has slightly larger and less fiddly buttons and rocker.  But the difference (for gloves) is not enough to warrant buying one over the other.



Summary — Don’t pay a lot for an E-P3, if you are going to use it as I do


For most people, I would not recommend buying an E-P3 today — unless you shoot in moderate contrast light and can keep ISO below 400 to 800.  Under those conditions it an excellent mirrorless camera.  And it produces surprisingly good results — even with the kit lens, which is surprisingly good except at the long end.


More generally, the problem with mirrorless cameras is that they tempt you into taking them everywhere and under all conditions.  But once in more challenging circumstances, they really do not perform as smoothly and efficiently as even mid-range dSLRs do.


E-M5, NEX-6 and NEX-7 fans might dispute that statement.  But if you read their Internet postings, you recognize that they are generally not using their cameras under the wide range of photographic conditions that dSLRs so frequently are.


If you can live with their limitations, mirrorless cameras are a pleasure to tote in place of heavier, bulkier dSLRs.  And they can deliver outstanding results.  You just have to work harder to get those results across a wide range of photographic conditions.


Even after months with the E-P3, I am still not convinced that its advances in focus speed and some aspects of control are worth what the camera costs used.  I get annoyed with mine, perhaps because some aspects of it are so good and others so bad.  It is an unusually uneven camera.