New Olympus PEN camera blows away rivals with power and style

In a top secret room, Olympus gave us a preview of its new flagship PEN cameras. We weren't given any free sandwiches at the briefing, but we did walk away with a hunger — for the EP-3's lightning fast autofocus, dual-core image processing, gorgeous 3-inch OLED touchscreen and live filter effect features. The timeless stainless steel PEN design inspired by the film PENs from the 1960s only sweetens the deal.

While I'm quite the camera buff myself, the same can't be said for all my colleagues and friends. To most, a camera is a box with a lens attached to it. There's a shutter button, flash and for the most part, should also do HD video recording, maybe include a touchscreen and have tons of megapixels. Olympus isn't denying that definition of a camera. With the new E-P3, it took a step back and looked at what went wrong with its first stabs at a digital PEN and made sure to check off all of the missing items.

E-P3 — The Big Brother With Muscles

The "pro" in the family, the E-P3 is the true successor to the E-P1 and E-P2; cameras with extremely handsome looks, but ultra weak organs. Picking up where the E-P2 left off in 2009, the E-P3 scraps the cheap plastic from the E-PL1 and E-PL2 cameras and returns back to stainless steel for that rugged and sexy sturdiness. If you like how Leica's feel, but will never be able to afford a $3,000+ camera, you'll love how the E-P3 feels in your hands — it's like a tank.

Feeding off of criticism for the E-P1/2's slow autofocus, slow live filters and lack of an internal pop-up flash, Olympus went ahead and made sure the E-P3 would actually function like a camera that's light-years ahead of its competition (at least until its rivals catch up).

The New and Improved Artillery

OLED Screen: The E-P3's 3-inch OLED touchscreen drop-dead sharp. If you've never looked at an OLED screen, you're missing out on the deepest blacks on the planet. Although not particularly the most responsive touchscreen we've ever used, the added touch layer does add a great deal of intuitive virtual controls. Unlike many cameras that incorporate touchscreens for saving space on physical buttons, the E-P3 uses it only to augment the physical buttons with uses that make sense.

For example, with a tap, you can touch to autofocus with your finger and take a snapshot without the need to press the hard shutter button. Playback of taken photos is swipable, just like on the iPhone and Android smartphones. and adjusting on-screen sliders for things like exposure, saturation, blur and other effects can all be manipulated in real-time live without a single hiccup. Photogs who are still confused by how exposure and white balance affect photos will be able to see all the changes happen live.

Interchangeable Grips: Hell yes. I admit it, I got excited over a camera grip. In what I believe is a first (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) for any camera, the E-P3's body can be mounted with different swappable grips or no grip at all. While I love the leather-like grip on the original PENs, seeing the PEN cam without one and then holding it felt like I was touching an Aston Martin. It's shiny and smooth.

Pop-up Flash: Another thing the first two PEN cameras were hated on for was its lack of a built-in flash. Owners had to buy a separate flash module that could run upwards from $100. Well, you'll be happy to know Olympus managed to squeeze in a pop-up flash into the left side of the camera's top, all without breaking the E-P3's exterior lines. Bravo.

Other neat improvements include an AF-illuminator — a first for a PEN digicam, 1080i HD video recording, 12,800 ISO, an array of even more art filters that can be layered on top of one another simultaneously and a much more presentable UI that at least looks human.

Speed Demon

Fast Autofocus: Blur happens for two reasons: 1) shaky hands and 2) slow shutter speed. Thankfully, somebody at Olympus realized the slow as a turtle E-P1/2's autofocus and sped it up — by a lot. Like it's so fast, Olympus claims the E-P3 has the fastest AF across all CSC cameras (Compact System Camera, or cameras with interchangeable lenses). Apparently, it's even faster than a high-end Canon EOS 1D IV (on single shot). And with 35-points of AF, up from 11-points, the E-P3 will let you take even more interesting and creative shots, provided you have the imagination.

Dual-core Image Processing: So, you get it, the E-P3 is quick as lightning, powering up, powering down, shooting, focusing — all of that, but none of that is possible without the dual-core TruePic VI image processor. With two cores, one processor handles all image recording, while the other crunches the pics for live view. The result is a significant reduction in wait time between when the pic is taken and when the pic can be seen. Patient photographers might not care, but two seconds saved is two seconds you could have used to capture that picture-perfect Kodak moment you'd otherwise have missed waiting for the processing to finish.

Pricing and Availability

This part's going to make your heart sink a little. At $900 for the E-P3 with a 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens or a 17mm f2.8 prime lens, this camera's not exactly on the cheap end or budget-friendly. But then again, when have either of the digital PEN cameras (with the exception of the E-PL series) been considered "affordable?" PEN digicams are premium gadgets made with premium materials. Pretty things cost a pretty penny.

The E-P3 is a pro camera and if you're planning to drop some dough on it, you won't be looking to replace it for at least a handful of years — quality over quantity. Release date for the E-P3 should be in August.

The Takeaway

Overall, the new flagship PEN is a fine and much-needed evolutionary upgrade over its predecessors. As we said, the prototype model we handled is not without its faults, though. The touchscreen could have been a little more responsive and despite a more streamlined UI, many of the more advanced settings and features are still tucked behind a lot of textual menus, but those are things that will grow on you as you tinker with it more.

The intermediate shutterbug looking to dive into the world of cameras with interchangeable lenses will have plenty of controls to work with and uber pros looking for something small and stylish to carry around for daily shoots without sacrificing on versatility will adore the E-P3. Me? I think, I've found my next love, and I'm the guy who dropped serious dough on the E-P1!

Disclaimer: All of the PEN cameras I handled were prototype models. Actual speed and performance can change and differ in final retail models.

Via Olympus

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