The Bottom Line
For those looking at digital interchangeable lens cameras, one of the longest-running options is the Olympus PEN family of cameras. Olympus has sold PEN cameras for a few years now, and the company has put together a great collection of style and performance with the PEN family.
The latest PEN camera, the Olympus PEN E-PL3 camera, also called the PEN Lite, is another great addition to the family. Its image quality is very good, its performance level is high, and it carries a reasonable price. This camera's widescreen LCD is one of the best I've seen on a camera aimed at consumer photographers. In addition, you can set the camera's aspect ratio to record at a rare 3:4 ratio, which results in a vertically aligned photo, without turning the camera.
It isn't quite perfect -- you'll find a few quirks in how it shoots flash images -- but it's a really nice camera. You won't be disappointed with this model.
The image quality from the PEN Lite is extremely impressive. The autofocus is pin sharp almost all of the time, and even when the focus is slightly off, it's still close enough that most photos are still usable. Colors are really good, and camera shake simply wasn't an issue with the camera body and lens combination I tested.
In automatic mode, the camera performs very well. At times, it will attempt to shoot at a small depth of field, and part of the image might be out of focus, especially in a close-up photo. When that happens, you'll just have to switch to a manual mode and shoot at a larger depth of field.
The other image problem with the E-PL3 is that the lens sometimes causes a shadow in the image when you're using the flash, depending on the angle at which you're shooting.
You can shoot in RAW, JPEG, or RAW+JPEG with the Lite. Several aspect ratios are available, including 4:3, 1:1, 3:2, and 16:9, along with a rare vertical ratio of 3:4, which allows you to shoot vertical photos without turning the camera. The E-PL3 also includes a few different movie resolutions.
The PEN Lite's movie mode works very well. The autofocus works fast when shooting movies, and you can use the manual zoom, too. In addition, you can shoot a still image photo while shooting a movie, but, unfortunately, that will stop the movie's recording at that spot.
As with most advanced cameras, the PEN Lite's response times are pretty good. Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, although you will notice a pause if you're using the flash, because it needs a little time to recharge. Shutter lag and startup are very fast, and the camera's autofocus works quickly and accurately. If the E-PL3 just cannot achieve an accurate autofocus, the camera simply won't fire, so you may have to move around a little bit to make sure you have an accurate focus before pressing the shutter button.
One cool feature Olympus included in this camera is that you can select the amount of time the E-PL3 keeps the photo on screen for review after you shoot it. You can pick from zero to 20 seconds, in 1 second intervals.
The E-PL3's widescreen LCD seems really large, thanks to the camera's short and wide design. Fifteen different brightness settings are available, and the LCD is very sharp. The PEN Lite has no viewfinder, so it's a good thing the LCD is of such a high quality. In addition, the LCD can tilt 45 degrees around a horizontal axis in either direction, which is great for odd-angle photos.
I wouldn't hesitate to say that the PEN Lite's LCD is one of the best I've seen in any digital camera, regardless of price point.
For those who are new to advanced photography, this DIL camera includes explanations of each menu feature or each mode dial option on the screen, as you select it. The overall menu structure is very easy to use and it's clean-looking, which is great for beginners. However, some menus are "hidden" until you choose to display them, so keep this in mind if you can't find a particular feature.
Olympus included a few interesting specialty features with the PEN Lite, including a 3D mode, a dramatic effect, a diorama effect, a pop art effect, and a grainy effect.
Like most DIL cameras, this model is pretty small and thin. The PEN Lite is an all plastic DIL camera. The model I tested was black with silver trim, and, like all PEN family cameras, is a stylish looking model. I also liked its weight proportion, and I thought it was comfortable to hold and use. You can use this camera one-handed, if desired, but, because you must manually turn the zoom lens, you probably will end up using two hands most of the time.
The top of the camera contains a power button, mode dial, and shutter button, along with a hot shoe. The four-way control is on the back panel, and it includes a spin dial. Additional buttons, including the playback and movie buttons, are on a slightly angled panel between the top and back panels.
Unlike some other PEN models, though, the flash on the PEN Lite is a removable unit that attaches to the camera's hot shoe. The flash unit is not anywhere near the size of the Speedlite units you'll often find with DSLR cameras. The Lite's flash unit is really small, but it is effective. This is different some other PEN models, where the flash is in the upper right corner of the camera (as viewed from the front).
As another great feature, you can flip the flash down when it isn't in use to keep the camera's size fairly small. It still sticks up a little bit, but it's a nice design element.
One disadvantage to the centered flash is that, depending on the angle at which you're shooting, you could end up with some shadows from the lens in your photos, as discussed earlier. A smaller lens will have less of a problem, but you'll have to try some interesting angles to avoid having the flash cause a shadow with the lens.
The unit I reviewed included a 14-42mm lens, which is about twice as wide as the thin PEN Lite camera body. You must manually turn the lens to zoom, but the camera offers both manual focus and autofocus.