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Traveling Around With the Olympus EP3

by Chris Gampat on 02/26/2012

The E-P3’s target buyer is the prosumer that wants to upgrade from their point and shoot or wants something with a DSLR’s power but is much smaller. That applies to an increasingly larger market segment each year. Since I don’t own a point and shoot, I’m not included in that market hence there’s nothing for me to upgrade from. If Olympus expects me to leave my DSLR at home for a PEN series option, then the camera has to perform all the same basic functions, compete with image quality, be just as rugged and provide a satisfying shooting experience.

I travel a lot, so I decided to leave the DSLR at home for a little while and see how the little camera did.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest posting by Joshua Wright.

Ease of Use

If you pick up the camera without consulting anyone, you may find yourself in my shoes the first time I used it, accidentally triggering the shutter from the touch sensitive screen on the back of the camera. While we’ve been autofocusing on our iPhones for the last four years, it’s worth noting though that this OLED touchscreen is bright, responsive and accurate enough to consider as a substitute for the main shutter release. This is a feature you can easily opt out of, but I found it worked great for portrait and low light scenarios. In working with contrast based autofocus it’s still best to focus on an area with extra contrast, like glasses or a hairline in portraits or maybe find a light source at close to the same distance as your subject to focus on. Olympus has added an orange AF-Assist lamp to aid with the low light scenarios, but I preferred to keep it off for discretion when possible. Unfortunately that option is buried deep in an archaic menu layout that’s as old as the mastodon.

Familiar E-P2 users will quickly notice the welcomed addition of a new pop-up flash residing on the top plate. Despite me hardly ever using an on-camera fill flash it seems like a no-brainer to put it there. Luckily it serves a unique dual function and with the addition of the FL-36R and FL-50R flash, they’ve added the ability to wirelessly use the flash off-camera straight out of the box. Relying on the camera’s flash to trigger its visual sensor, the FL-36R is a powerful tool to have in your gear bag, and allowed me to get some killer party shots for this review. TTL usually put me about .5-.7 stops underexposed, but it was welcomed with the longer shutter speeds bringing up the ambient light.

Depending on the size of your jacket pockets, or girlfriend’s purse, this system is still compact enough to consider going sans camera bag. When I’m tired of shooting I simply returned the EP-3 to one zippered pocket and the flash to the other. This allowed me to resume the alcohol consumption and socialize. Having the flash cured a lot situations that would’ve otherwise been very poorly lit as well. The restaurant below wasn’t doing this delectable shrimp and grits dish any favors with it’s lighting either. A quick flash in RC mode with no light modifier, and the camera on aperture priority, produced a very accurately exposed image with neutral color balance. By eliminating the confusion involved in adding an off camera flash, Olympus may be able to reach a market that would have otherwise been initially intimidated with a wireless system

Testing

During my rigorous Halloween test, I encountered some strange behavior from the flash while trying to shoot wirelessly. After a good hour of shooting off camera, it began to miss-fire, with about a seven second lag between the on-camera pre-flash and the FL-36R firing itself. After it did this once or twice every few shots I swapped for some fresh alkalines, hoping a change of batteries would do the trick but I didn’t see a difference. The fact is I missed shots because of it. I’ve read accounts from a handful of owners that encountered the same problem, and it’s frustrating Olympus has yet to address the issue.

Speaking of low light scenarios, we finally come to one of the camera’s more unforgiving shortcomings. Even when it was first announced and impossible to get your hands on, the E-P3’s sensor wasn’t breaking any new grounds. Full 1080p HD video was certainly a welcomed addition to the E-P3, and while it may not output 4:2:2 color sampling or offer peaking focus assist, it creates gorgeous videos for its class. Image quality at its native ISO is superb, but scale the ISO ladder just a few steps and you’ll quickly be getting into some noisy territory. Judging an images usability in high ISOs is somewhat subjective too. In other words, my tolerance for noisy images may be lower than other photographers, but factors such as final print size and intended use also play a factor in this.

That said, images taken at 1600 ISO are only borderline usable, but it’s those low light scenarios that are great to have a compact and discrete system like the E-P3.

Before the age of big live-view LCDs, a large bright viewfinder was required to visually confirm your shot is in focus. I know I’m not the only one who thinks there’s still something inherently unnatural about shooting without a viewfinder, either optical or electronic.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the big, bright touch-sensitive OLED screen Olympus gave us, especially when I used it for the party photos. Of course, Olympus recognized it’s necessity and even though the Pen series lacks an in-camera VF, they offe a couple of great options for the purist in each of us. The VF-2 attaches to the hotshoe and sports 1.6 million pixels making it one of the highest resolution EVFs on the market.

Anyone well adapted to the electronic version of the classic will praise the benefits of being able to visually check exposure and have real time histogram to know where your information sits. If you’re stubborn like me and prefer an optical viewfinder, the VF-1 is a great option that offers 100% field of view for the 17mm lens.

Joshua Wright is a Brooklyn, NYC based photographer who has been shooting portraits for years. He has been working on a project called, “In Transit” for a while documenting his travels around America.

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