Olympus has continued to expand its Micro Four Thirds (MFT) repertoire with new models for its PEN series. While the manufacturer might be finding itself in the news for, ahem, less than exemplary corporate behavior, its cameras measure up. The E-PL3 is no exception, which though deviating significantly from the design of the E-PL2, still manages to turn heads for its good looks and pack a couple of worthwhile technical upgrades.
It isn’t a perfect camera, and certainly some of its missteps can be found in tepid attempts to do too many things.
Features and design
Like the rest of the Olympus PEN lineup, the E-PL3 is a handsome camera. It has a noticeably sleeker, slimmer body than its predecessors without too much clutter on the back-facing panel. In a somewhat befuddling movie, Olympus chose to deviate rather drastically from the vintage feel of the E-PL2 and outfit the E-PL3 with an appearance more similar to its XZ-1 and E-PM1 than the earlier PEN models. The absence of a faux-leather grip and streamlined, smoother body is what most of this can be attributed to.
It’s a new direction, but one we rather like: lens weight and shooting conditions mean we’re usually shooting with two hands when using a camera of this caliber, so the lack of a grip isn’t that big of a deal. The thumb grip on the back of the camera gives plenty of traction, but you don’t really want to try shooting one-handed. And in the unspoken race to produce the slimmest, most discreet ICL camera on the market, Olympus’ decision to thin down the E-PL3 makes sense.
However, here’s the problem with slimming down your ICL camera: The weight of the lens isn’t going anywhere. This means when you sit your camera down, it teeters forward and sits on its front-most edge.
It can also mean the backside panel is comparably more cluttered. Thankfully, we didn’t notice this much during testing. Once we referenced the E-PL2, however, it became obvious that some of the E-PL3’s buttons are somewhat unnaturally placed. The playback button isn’t on the right-hand side below the mode dial: It’s in the upper left-hand corner. Same with the trash button. Otherwise, you’re basically looking at the same physical setup, with the exception of a new power switch.
Olympus has returned to a power button that looks like a mini version of the shutter, which it changed up in the E-PL2 because it wanted to prevent accidentally turning your camera off. Luckily, it’s placed so close to the body’s surface that this was never an issue.
The most notable new feature is obviously the 3-inch tilting LCD display. Right off the bat, we didn’t have a lot of faith in this design choice. We’ve used an EVF or live feed on the screen display for the entire of the time we’ve used digital cameras, so what’s the need? However, the screen adapts well to its settings. When you have it secured against the camera, it’s big and bright, and in other situations, like shooting over your head, angling it out is also helpful. Also, it’s worth saying that if you’re going to choose between these sorts of complementary camera features, we’d take an adjustable screen over a touchscreen any day.
Another big different is the absence of a manual pop-up attached flash. Both the E-PM1 and the E-PL3 do without, instead opting for an attachable flash that can be used via the hot shoe on both cameras. Whereas this is a bigger sacrifice with the E-PM1 (which slides more toward the entry-level user than this model), it isn’t terribly inconvenient. Of course, if you forget the flash and find yourself on the go when it gets dark or you shoot in indoor settings, you’re probably out of luck. But given the skill level we’d peg most people who’d buy this camera at, it’s a safe bet that a detachable flash isn’t a significant obstacle.
As far as the E-PL3’s interior is concerned, the in-camera UI features the same makeover the E-P3 and E-PM1 received. There’s more explanation, and the overall menu looks a lot more user friendly and less technical. That isn’t to say actually putting some of the manual controls to work isn’t technical, but Olympus has at least tried to cut down on this appearance with its internal design choices. While there aren’t any new art filters in the E-PL3, there are expanded options (different variations of filters, the ability to include a pin-hole effect or frame, for example) and more pre-set scenes to choose from.
What’s in the box
The E-PL3 box includes the camera body, flash accessory, li-ion battery, charger, USB/video multi-cable, shoulder strap, Olympus viewer CD-ROM, instructional manual, warranty card.