Outwardly, the Olympus PEN E-P3 doesn't look dissimilar to the E-P2 and E-P1, but there are changes to the overall design and control placement. The E-P3 looks to us like the sleekest of the E-P cameras, being more rectangular than its predecessors, making them look almost squat in comparison. The edges look straighter and adds a modern finish to its vintage look (if that makes sense). The silver metal version looks out of this world, and not only adds to its retrospective appeal but makes it look like a premium collector's item.
As for the physical controls, whereas Panasonic's equivalent of the E-P series, the GF cameras, have become more consumer-centric with its major control dials removed, the E-P3 retains its appeal to the enthusiast by keeping them, and refining their placement in the process.
The E-P series finally gets an in-built flash. It doesn't pop up as much as snap quickly to attention with a solid thunk at the end. Not only does the E-P3 gain a flash, its intensity can also be dialed up and down in the menu. Now that a flash occupies the left side of the top plate, the Mode dial shifts over to the right and is raised instead of recessed. It's not raised by much though, and only gives you a thin silver to grab on to. Where the exposure button used to be is now a programmable Function button, right beside the shutter release.
The E-P3 is the first and only PEN to get a touch-screen, in contrast to Panasonic's MFT line-up, which have five touch-screen models. The main benefit of having a touch-screen is a more intuitive way to determine AF (Auto-Focus) points. There are two touch AF modes available, when you first switch on your E-P3 touch focus is off by default.
You have to tap the crossed-out hand icon on the bottom left of the screen to go to the first touch and shoot option. In this mode, you simply tap on your subject and the camera focuses on it, then shoots. On a side-note, and not just about the E-P3, we've always felt uncomfortable with touch-screen cameras that shoot the moment they're tapped; the action feels too fast and prone to camera shake. We prefer touch-screen cameras which focus on tap, and shoot when the finger is lifted; the timing feels just right and the camera is less prone to shake.
Tap the bottom left icon again and you get to the second touch AF option; AF Tracking. Tap on your subject, and the camera will track its movements so that it'll always stay in focus, and the shot will be taken only when you tap the shutter release.
Like the Panasonic touch-screen cameras, the best thing about the touch controls on the PEN E-P3 is that they're complementary and not compulsory. In fact, in sharp contrast with the lack of physical controls on the GF2 and GF3, you can argue that the touch-screen on the E-P3 is even more complementary than on the latest GF cameras, which rely on the touch-screen to do things like change exposure modes, something you do with the physical Mode dial on the E-P3.
Besides touch, the E-P3's screen resolution has been substantially improved. From the E-P2's 230k dots LCD screen to a high 640k dot OLED display. The new screen is simply gorgeous, previews show up bright, colorful and beautifully detailed.
The E-P3 gains a new AF area option, which is to concentrate focus on specific areas of the frame (a similar option can be found on Canon's 7D DSLR camera). It's a useful option to have, but to turn it on you have to go inside the menu, which means it takes too much time to activate and too much time to change areas. To select specific AF points, press the left direction on the d-pad and you can then select an AF point quickly and easily with the d-pad or scroll-wheel.
Something that's gotten us mighty excited is this item tucked away in the menu; the ability to shoot with a wireless flash directly without the need for an external commander. We're told that this new feature will pair with Olympus' brand new, compact FL-300R flash attachment, and that it'll be possible to control multiple wireless flashes, though TTL modes will only be supported with Olympus flashes. It's amazing to think that you can get a wireless flash system with these two small devices - even Panasonic's flagship MFT camera the GH2 doesn't support wireless flash out of the box.
The E-P3's grip is now removable, which makes the front surface flat and looking like the Olympus XZ-1. We prefer the camera with the grip attached, it's far more comfortable, and even larger grips than the standard grips will be available (very useful when attaching long lenses to the camera). Olympus will be making grips with different designs, so you can customize the look of your E-P3.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Olympus has finally redesigned their menu, no longer is it the garish and primitive yellow-dominated UI of their previous PEN cameras. Instead, we have a brand new blue and much more modern looking interface, with pop-up help describing each menu item for the first-time user. The control panel overlay, which lets you select and adjust essential settings, has also been given a face-lift.