The Olympus E-P3 — Reassessing

Comparison of E-P2 and E-1
E-P2 w/17mm 1:2.8 and VF-2 next to an E-1 with Sigma 30mm 1:1.4
Ever since the E-P3 was officially announced in late June I have been quite critical of the model in particular and Olympus in general.

That critical attitude has also spread to all the other camera manufacturers. I will not run from Olympus, but to a manufacturer and model that makes sense.

I've been quite busy this year, especially recently. This past week I drove up to Columbus Georgia and Ft Benning to attend the the 2011 Maneuver Conference. Since I drove from Orlando to Columbus Georgia I took nearly every camera body and lens I had in my collection; an E-1, an E-3, and an E-P2 along with the ZD 12-60mm, ZD 50-200mm, ZD 50mm macro, Sigma 30mm, ZD 9-18mm, M.Zuiko 14-42mm, and M.Zuiko 17mm. You can carry a lot when it's locked in bags in the trunk.

The majority of the time in the field I carried the E-1 and E-3 with the 12-60mm and 50-200mm (respectively). When I was at the conference center itself I use the more discrete and lighter E-P2 with the 14-42mm kit lens. The one thing I noticed, time after time, is how much easier it was to carry the E-P2 with its kit zoom. Compared to the dual load of the E-1 and E-3 the E-P2 was negligible, yet when I needed it the E-P2 was more than adequate for what it was called upon to do. You can see the difference in sizes above, where the E-P2 and a 17mm is sitting in front of the E-1 on its HLD-2 grip and with a Sigma 30mm mounted on the front. The sensors are the same size, but the surrounding hardware in each body is considerably different.

Bradley with Dismount, Ft Benning, Ga

Up on Ft. Benning, out in the field, walking and riding around in regular old trucks (not military vehicles) across small parts of the range out in the heat and the dust, I carried the E-1 with the 12-60mm and the E-3 with the 50-200mm, and used them both. This matches my use in Florida in rain and outdoor humidity, as well as additional Florida dust, sand and dirt.

Environmentally sealed cameras like the E-1 and E-3 are great, but they're big and heavy, especially if you've got two hanging off your body while you're out and about for hours on end. I'm not just there just to take tourist shots, but to observe equipment and how it's used as a systems engineer and to help document what I observe with the cameras.

If I were a hardened photojournalist out in the Real World, then there'd be no argument; I'd shoot a high end Canon with a matching ruggedized zoom and get on with it. But I'm not and thus I have to choose something that is affordable. And as I've gotten older I've come to appreciate lighter, less expensive, yet more capable cameras. The one thing I've noticed repeatedly is that the higher end more expensive models are on a longer release cycle measured in years, and their features are usually conservatively apportioned. This is great for those photographers who need that kind of stability and have businesses that can pay for it, but I''m not one of them. I can't afford it economically or technically.

I've started to put a table together comparing four cameras I know and care about with various capabilities. The cameras are the Olympus E-P2 (which I already use) and the E-P3, the Sony NEX-7 and the Sony SLT α77 hybrid DSLR.

Beebe's Personal Camera Comparison Table
CameraE-P2 (current)E-P3NEX-7SLT α77
Weight355g/12.52 oz369g/13 oz291g/10.26 oz732g/1lb 9.8oz
Sensor Size4/3rds4/3rdsAPS-CAPS-C
ISO Range200-6,400200-12,000100-16,000100-16,000
Video720/30, 480/301080/60i/60p, 720/60i/60p1080/60i/60p/24p1080/60i/60p/24p
Cost body only$800$800$1,200$1,400

Table notes: Weights are with batteries and cards, and ISO range is what will produce raw image files from the cameras and are not produced by putting the camera in some special exposure mode. Sealed means environmentally sealed, like my E-1 and E-3. All viewfinders are electronic, which is fine by me. All sensors are so-called "cropped", which is also fine by me. The fact that the NEX-7 is a bit lighter than the E-P3 isn't that big an issue, but the fact the SLT α77 is a good pound heavier is. Add another pound or two for a zoom lens like a ZD 12-60mm or 50-200mm plus a vertical grip and that combined camera system gets heavy.

For reasons I'll keep to myself for now I've pretty much given up on Canon and Nikon. The two non-Olympus cameras I'm most interested in are the Sony NEX-7 and the SLT α77. Again I won't get into any emotional details as to why I've decided to only consider these two.

Based on the initial table I think I'm going to concentrate on the E-P3 and the NEX-7. The lighter weight of the NEX-7 is interesting, but it will be quickly overcome by the weight of additional native lenses. And I will buy native lenses for whatever platform I choose. If there's one thing I've learned it's that for size, weight, power and performance regular 4/3rds lenses will never match native µ4/3rds lenses regardless of manufacturer. And I have no strong desire to go hunting up manual focus lenses to mount via adapters either.

One last observation; I need a machine that is fully multi-media capable, able to record very long video passages at industry standard resolutions. Just shooting still images are no longer adequate; customers and sponsors want video as well. Both the Olympus E-P3 and the Sony NEX-7 seem more than capable of fulfilling this need. I will never again buy another camera that can't record 1080 video unless it's dirt cheap or given to me.

In spite of appearances I'm not hung up on the number of megapixels. What I want is clean high ISO performance with as low levels of noise as possible on one end, and wide dynamic range on the low ISOs. As for environmental sealing, I'm going to look at some sort of baggies I can put the cameras in. The E-P3 and NEX-7 are certainly small enough.

I'm moving towards a pragmatic working kit that's a fraction of the size and weight of my 4/3rds (or hypothetical APS-C or 135mm-sized) kit. Cameras are getting smaller and lighter and less costly, and I'd be a fool not to consider all their features together, instead of just fixating on only one feature. I don't yet know what I'll purchase, but I'm past that hard spot I found myself in since the E-5 was released back in September of 2010. As a final observation, I can buy two E-P3 bodies for the price of one E-5 body. That's still a lot of money, but the resultant tools are a lot more flexible. I really do need two bodies with me, one with a reasonably fast wide zoom and the other with a reasonably fast telephoto zoom that I can quickly switch between without having to swap lenses.

Update 18 September

Kirk Tuck has purchased his own E-P3 and has written about it twice so far, here and here. Kirk approaches the E-P3 more as an "artist's camera" designed to make you feel productive and creative. He goes on to chastise people with a "spreadsheet mindset" (and I should note my little spreadsheet above) saying the E-P3 is not the kind of camera for them. Or if they're fixated on high-ISO performance, the E-P3 is not the kind of camera for them.

Kirk is reacting in part to those who don't know "horse poop" about the E-P3, a category I might be uncomfortably close to. Then there are those reacting to the price. I've read and heard a lot of those reactions lately, how folks bash the cost of the E-P3 in one breath then sing the praises of something like the Fuji X100 ($1,200 if you can find it) the next. The price of the E-P3 is the price. Look at my little chart above, and check the prices of both Sony cameras. Note how expensive they are. I have looked at the entry level Canons and Nikons and found them cheaply made and bulky or the DSLRs in the same price range (actually higher, and a bit higher) and found them too expensive and too big.

For the money nearly nothing matches the E-P3 or NEX-7 on the features, size, and price point I'm currently considering. And I'm re-evaluating the sensor performance of the E-P3 in the face of all the excellent example photographs that are now making their way onto the web. All I'm waiting on now are equivalent photographs from the NEX-7 and an ability to physically handle the NEX-7 with a lens attached.


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