There’s some fierce competition for the accolade of best compact system camera (CSC). The basic concept is a strong one, combining SLR quality with compact proportions and topping it off with the best videos modes around. However, no camera we’ve seen to date gets everything right. The Sony NEX-5N comes closest with its class-leading image quality, but it’s relatively slow to focus, it’s quite pricey and its kit lens is bulkier and not as sharp as rival lenses. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is seriously quick, costs less and there are lots of superb Micro Four Thirds lenses, but image quality in low light is disappointing. Then there’s the Nikon 1 J1, which is quick and keenly priced, but can’t match Panasonic for lens range or Sony for image quality.
Can the Olympus E-PL3 deliver a clean sweep? On paper, the evidence is all positive. It uses the same Micro Four Thirds mount as Panasonic, and so shares the same range of excellent lenses. Its 3x zoom kit lens collapses down when not in use for easier transit, and even the lens cap is unusually slim. Olympus also claims significant improvements to image quality and performance in this third generation of Pen cameras – more on that later.
The flash is a small removable unit in the same vein as the Sony NEX cameras, but we’re delighted to see that the E-PL3 also accepts conventional flashguns on its accessory shoe – something all the other cameras mentioned above lack. The shoe can alternatively accommodate an electronic viewfinder, external microphone input adaptor, a pair of LED macro lamps on gooseneck-style bendy arms or even a Bluetooth adaptor for sending photos to say a smartphone. In fact, when it comes to accessories, including some trendy-looking bags, Olympus is way ahead of the competition.
The current Pen range fitted with some of the lenses, flashes and other accessories released especially for them
Back to camera itself, the LCD screen is a similar design to that on the NEX-5N. Measuring 3in across, it’s widescreen and can tilt up or down for easy waist height or overhead shots. It’s not touch-sensitive, though, and it couldn’t match the 5N’s screen for details or contrast, either, and moving images looked a little smeared. It’s slightly raised from the back of the camera, and its proximity to the controls there sometimes made them awkward to adjust.