A Viewfinder Darkly

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Olympus EP3 Camera Review and Lab Test

July 14 2011

by Philip Northeast

Olympus launches a new  top of the range PEN micro Four Thirds digital camera with faster focusing and a touch screen rear display.


Olympus EP3 with 14-42mm lens

In the Lab

The DxOMark test summary of the flagship PEN came as a bit of a shock. Here was Olympus’s new top dog mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and it has a worse overall DxOMark score than the model it replaces.

DxOMark overall score

DxOMark overall scores EP3 – Sony NEX-C3 – EP2

Looking deeper into the DxOMark test results reveals that a single overall combination score  relying on interpretation may not tell the whole story. That is the beauty of the DxOMark site because you can go and look deeper into the test results and form your own conclusions. Particularly the relative importance of each area to individual photographer’s needs and styles.

One factor is Olympus have increased the ISO range of the EP3 over the older EP2. This shows up in all the tests as DxOMark test at all ISO settings. Inevitably digital sensors perform worse the as the ISO goes higher. For the EP3 this means the average performance for dynamic range and colour reproduction is worse because of the high ISO results.

DxOMark tonal range test results

DxOMark tonal range test results EP3 – NEX-C3 – EP2

In the lower ISO range where most pictures are taken there appears to be little significant difference in the dynamic range and tonal depth tests between the EP3 and the EP2.

DxOMark dynamic range

DxOMark dynamic range test results EP3 – NEX-C3 – EP2

The real difference in the noise test result is the extension of the ISO range in the EP3 over the older EP2. In the overall scores DxOMark put more emphasis on a greater ISO range than in the other tests, so in the overall DxOMark score the EP3 comes out ahead of the EP2.

DxOMark noise test

DxOMark noise test results EP3 – NEX-C3 – EP2

According to Olympus their new in camera processing engine “TruePic VI ensures outstanding picture quality, especially in low light.”  This may help the EP3 achieve better results than the EP2 in actual use.  The DxOMark noise tests are slightly problematic in that they try to turn off all the in camera noise processing for the test. They are interested in the sensor performance.

The biggest problem for the Olympus EP3’s sensor performance is the Sony NEX-C3, it clearly outperforms the EP3 in every test.

The resolution, or number of megapixels, in the sensor has not increased in the EP3, but its 12 megapixels is more than adequate for high quality images.

Why Buy the EP3

Not for class leading sensor performance. This class of camera is not about ultimate image quality, if you want that buy a DSLR or a medium format camera. The mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are all about the compromise between good image quality and convenience.

While image quality is important so usability. This class of camera is aimed at photographers wanting a better camera than the small sensor compact digital cameras that seem to be everywhere. The EP3 is considerably better than these in terms of sensor performance as the comparison table from DxOMark shows.

DxOMark small sensor scores

DxOMark small sensor scores

The DxOMark dynamic range comparisons to the two small sensor digital cameras highlights an oddity as the score for the EP3  is lower than for the two compact digital cameras.  This an example where a simple number does not fully describe the sensor characteristics.

DxOmark small sensor dynamic range test

DxOmark small sensor dynamic range test

The EP3’s dynamic range is slightly unusual as many digital cameras have a simple response, as the ISO gets lower the dynamic range increases, as do the other two cameras in this comparison. However the EP3’s flattens out and from a certain point using a lower ISO produces no gain in dynamic range. At higher ISO settings the EP3 has a distinct dynamic range advantage, as expected from a digital sensor double the size of the sensors in other two cameras.


Olympus are stressing a number of usability features introduced in the EP3 to appeal to photographers moving up from compact digital cameras.

Fast Autofocus

DSLRs use sophisticated autofocus systems with sensors mounted in the pentaprism of the optical viewfinder system. Mirrorless cameras rely on the same systems as ordinary digital cameras and this is one of the reason for the extended time lag between pressing the shutter and the camera taking the picture. For more advanced cameras this is unacceptable and manufacturers are working hard to improve these systems.

Olympus say their FAST AF system in the EP3 is “the fastest* auto-focus of any camera with interchangeable lenses.” They have also included an AF illuminator lamp in the EP3 to help focusing in dim light. One way Olympus found of speeding up auto focus in the EP3 is to have the AF system on whenever the camera is switched on. This way the camera is always focusing wherever the camera is pointed, minimising the need to compose and then wait for the camera to focus.

Touch Screen Control

To overcame some novice photographer’s fear of control buttons Olympus gave the EP3 a touch screen capable rear display screen. For example, photographers can choose from 35 focus points by touching it on the screen.

E-P3 black back

Olympus E-P3 screen

Brighter Screen

Olympus says the EP3‘s new three-inch, touch-sensitive OLED display gives a quality display even in bright light conditions. Compared to similar LCD screens, an OLED display has better contrast, deeper blacks, and reproduces a wider range of colours. It is brighter, the angle of view is wider and it uses less power.


The Olympus EP3 uses the micro Four Thirds lens mount,  a standard shared with Panasonic, giving it access to many lenses, and even more with an adaptor to use the  range of full size Fourth Thirds mount lenses.

To complement the compact body styling of the EP3 consider buying it with the 17 mm prime lens. The EP3 has a crop factor of two, giving this lens has the equivalent view to a 35mm film lens with a focal length of 34mm. This is a good all round focal length for views and people. Yet it is very slim keeping the camera compact and convenient to carry.

Olympus E-P3 with 17mm lens

Olympus E-P3 with 17mm lens

Price and Availability

Adorama expect to have this combination available in August 2011: Olympus E-P3 Pen Digital camera, Black with M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 Black Lens – Bundle – with 8GB SD Memory Card, Spare BLS-1 Lithium-Ion Rechargeable Battery, Camera Case, USB 2 0 SD Card Reader $US899.99


Camera specs summary

Camera specs summary (DxOMark)



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