My latest camera acquisition started with a quest to get a new point and shoot camera. I’ve been using my two camera setup with great success but I noticed that in India, I had some unexpected challenges. I talked about them in my two earlier posts in this series, Fujifilm X10 vs Canon S100 and The system trumps the individual. Ultimately, I decided to buy a Olympus E-P3 because it seems to meet my needs, it is compatible with my other Olympus cameras and I got a great price. With two hours to spare, I received the new camera just before a downtown photo walk. After skimming through the manual and attaching my Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7, I was good to go. I didn’t even have to charge the battery since it uses the same one as my E-PL1. With a fully charged battery or two, I headed downtown to meet my friends.
I parked near the Texas State Capitol and I started shooting on the capitol grounds and down Congress Avenue. The camera feels good in hand. A bit heavier than the Olympus E-PL1 but not enough to ruin the experience. In fact, the camera has a solid feel and the extra heft reinforces its flagship status. The Lumix 20mm, my favorite micro 4/3 lens, looks great attached to my black E-P3, a real compact, classic looking camera. Even my wife commented that it looks retro and old style. The metal and build quality moves the E-P3 several notches above the E-PL1 in visual appeal. While I like the image quality from the E-PL1, I’ve always said it has a cheap and utilitarian feel. Not so with my newest Olympus Pen. It’s premium all the way. Something that you can feel proud of carrying down the street. I like the black model, it looks better with the lenses that I own. The shiny tones of the silver model seems to be mismatched and didn’t give the unified look that I like. Of course this is personal preference and I’m sure there are many that prefer lighter and shinier model.
I met my friend, Tony, for a quick dinner before we got together with the rest of the gang. The E-P3 is really fast focusing. A complete change from my pokey older Olympus. Even the relatively slow focusing Lumix 20mm lens does seem more perky on this camera, a change in opinion from my earlier observation. I think that the speed of focus is somewhat dependent on the attached lens however, even slower lenses do seem more responsive. Inside the restaurant, I shot some low light scenes and I did encounter focusing issues. This surprised me somewhat since I was expecting, not just faster focus, but good focusing in any situation. I distinctly felt, at the time, that my older E-PL1 had less trouble focusing in similar situations, however I could not test out this theory; I didn’t have my older camera with me. Perhaps focusing ability is dependent on the size of the focus point. The E-P3 has the ability to change the focus point size and maybe a smaller area may have more difficulty in darker, less contrasty places. At the time, I didn’t think about making the focus area larger, something to test before my full review. This low light focusing experience is not a deal breaker though. After further usage, in many other situations, I have not experienced low light focusing problems. And even in this dark bar, I was able to focus on and shoot Madelyn with no problem. I’ve always loved the glow of technology on people’s faces.
Tony and I left the restaurant and we gravitated towards the setting sun. That day, the light was particularly magical and we followed our instinct west along 6th street. I’m not sure why the color looks better on certain days even though the cloud formations look similar. I wished I was up on a hill shooting some breathtaking landscape with the sunset I experienced that evening. Instead I have a nice photo of traffic and road construction. The image at the top of the post was also from this spectacular sunset. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of having my camera set on ISO 1600 for some of the shots. Something I forgot to reset after leaving the dark restaurant. This is the kind of mistake that I rarely make anymore, perhaps I’ll blame it on my new camera. After all, its been only a few hours that I started shooting it. Now a days, I rely upon auto ISO and the Olympus cameras are smart enough to use it well. On my E-PL1, I have auto ISO set up to 800. To my great surprise, the E-P3 does have better high ISO performance. My pixel peeping on the DPreview test images seem to show comparable performance between the E-PL1 and E-P3. My own tests tell me that the ISO performance is better by 2/3 of a stop. Even at ISO 1600, the noise is finer and less blotchy, it cleans up well using noise reduction software. Consequently, I have now upped my auto ISO setting to 1600 on the E-P3.
We headed to the Driskill Hotel to meet two other friends for an evening photowalk, to shoot the night life on East 6th street. Three out of the four people on the walk own DSLRs but chose not to use them. I had my micro 4/3 camera, both Tony and Steven used new Ricoh point and shoots (they got a great deal on Amazon.com) and yet another Steven was playing with the Nikon P7000 point and shoot. Steven, that brought the Nikon, like me, just got his camera a couple hours before the walk. The gathering was a relaxed affair. All of us were experimenting with our new cameras, getting familiar with their controls and testing their limitations. I find that more often, my photowalk buddies, who all have DSLRs, choose not to use them and go with smaller cameras. Of course, I like my Olympus Pens because, while they are not much larger than point and shoots, they run circles around them in image quality. For me, they are the perfect balance between size and quality.
Shooting the Olympus E-P3 be be summed up in one word. Fun. The camera is fast, compact and handles very well. This is the funnest (I know this is not a real word) camera I’ve ever owned. For street shooting, the touch screen works great to quickly set the focus point. You can also touch and shoot with the touch screen but I prefer touch to focus. Using ISO 1600 and my f1.7 prime with image stabilization means that I can get really good photos almost anywhere at night on 6th street. The image stabilization also seems to be more effective on this camera compared to my E-PL1; I’ve successfully handheld clear shots at 1/10 second. Equally important, the ambient light and flash blending works very nicely. That was the key reason I wanted a new camera. As much as I like the E-PL1, I think its flash exposure is one of its weaknesses. Here is a picture of Tony that I took with flash. I used slow sync which blends more of the ambient light. It was quite dark, the exposure was 1/13sec at ISO 800 at f1.7. I won’t shoot everyone this way since 1/13 second is too slow to capture active kids but the camera and its image stabilization is quite capable. Incidentally, Tony is a professional, classical pianist who plays in Europe, Japan as well as in the United States. He shares a passion for photography and we have become fast friends since I first met him through Flickr. Here is a concert performance I recorded and here is Tony’s website. If you like classical piano, especially Debussy, please check him out.
The downside. This new camera sucks down batteries. The E-PL1 doesn’t have great battery life, maybe 200 – 250 shots but the E-P3 seemed a lot worse. To be fair, I was looking at the back screen (chimping) more than usual and I was doing a lot of flash testing. These tests all contribute to more energy usage, no doubt, but I need to be more cautious about power management. Luckily, I brought along a spare battery. For heavier shooting, I think I won’t be comfortable without brining two extra batteries. Generic batteries only cost $10 so while the additional battery expense is trivial, it does take more time to charge and manage the extra batteries. This may not be a factor at home, but it does become more significant when on the road. When I was in India and Singapore, it was a constant nuisance to make sure all my batteries were charged. Longer lasting batteries are certainly a plus in these cases.
Here is the summary of the Olympus E-P3 after my first photowalk. The camera looks great, shoots fast and has the right feel. High ISO performance is about 2/3 of a stop better and the image stabilization is improved. The flash exposure works nicely but battery performance is down. Most importantly, the camera is a blast to use. I think the high ISO quality is better than my original 2005 vintage Canon Rebel XT and about equal in quality to the equally old, semi-pro Canon 20D. In actual street usage, I get higher quality from this camera than those old DSLRs since I have a higher quality prime lens and in body stabilization. In fact, it might be hard to believe, but I get better night photos with the E-P3 and E-PL1 than with my newest DSLR, the Canon 7D. Sure. if I shoot the 7D on tripod at ISO 100, it trumps the Olympus but for real world, hand-held street photography in lower light, the Olympus rules. The enhancements on the E-P3 just makes it better, all around, than my previous Olympus E-PL1. Oh, and did I mention that the camera is really fun?
I took these photographs with my Olympus E-P3 with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.
See more images taken with the Olympus E-P3 at mostlyfotos, my one photograph per day photo blog.