It’s been exciting to watch the micro-4/3rds market develop over the past few years, with Panasonic and Olympus championing the new mirrorless technology along with a line of new lenses to accompany their new bodies. Offering smaller, lighter packages with image quality approaching DSLR territory (and sometimes matching it), the market is growing each year, and the cameras are evolving at a rapid pace. Let’s take a look at two of the hottest new micro 4/3rds cameras on the market, in which many people will be deciding between. Each camera is taking a decidedly different path. Hopefully this comparison can help you make a informed decision.
Image Quality: A lot has been said about the fact that the E-P3 has an aging 12 megapixel sensor, in which image quality at high ISO has not improved upon previous models. The Panasonic, on the other hand, has shown some improvement upon its predecessors, particularly in high ISO performance, and rendering of skin tones. Despite that, to my eyes at high ISOs, the E-P3 produces more attractive grain, with a tighter pattern, is less splotchy than the GF3, and has more contrast. See for yourself on the comparison page on dpreview. Needless to say, neither of these cameras can match the performance of the Sony NEX-5 and the Fujifilm X100 with their larger APS-C sensors.
Performance: Olympus made big waves by claiming the fastest AF performance in the world among interchangeable lens cameras. And indeed it was tested by others to be even faster than the Nikon D3X. It also has a new autofocus illuminator which helps in low light, improving upon the E-P2. Try shooting sports or use continuous mode, and the AF story changes. The GF3 has admirable AF performance, but suffers the same motion-based limitations as the E-P3. Both cameras are sufficiently snappy and responsive, and won’t stand in your way while you make pictures.
Video: Both match up pretty well in terms of video filming and performance. They both offer 1080p (at 60fps) and 720p (at 30 and 60fps), as well as lower resolution modes. The E-P3 records audio in stereo while the GF3 records in mono. The GF3 has almost no manual control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, so you’ll sometimes find it hard to get the exactly the effect you want (with moving water, for example). The GF3 offers considerably more manual controls, although doesn’t quite match up to Panasonic’s video optimized GH2.
LCD: Both cameras have a fixed 3″ touch LCD screen. The E-P3 has a few more dots (600K vs 400K), but it shouldn’t make a huge difference in practice. The E-P3 screen seems more sensitive to touch and user friendly.
Body/Ergonomics: The cameras really begin to diverge here. The E-P3 is more than 100g heavier, and also significantly larger, so for those wanted a smaller discreet package, the GF3 is probably the best bet. However, the E-P3 offers many more external control and custom options. The GF3 lost the rear click dial of the preceding GF1 and GF2, but at least it has a quick access menu and a customizable function button. It’s interesting to note that the GF3 body is roughly the same size as the Olympus XZ-1 (see that camera compared to the Canon Powershot S95).
Price: The E-P3 is considerably more expensive than the GF3. Purchased as a kit with a 14-42mm kit lens, the Olympus will set you back $300 more than the Panasonic. That being said, it’s a more fully featured camera, so the price tag is not without warrant. As for the body alone, the GF3 goes for about $500, and the E-P3 seems to be hard to find as a body alone (at the time of writing).
Key Differences: The E-P3 has a hotshoe, so if you often shoot with an external flash, you should probably bypass the GF3. The built-in flash of the E-P3 also has considerably more power, at 10m vs 6m for the GF3. The GF3 has two levels of JPG quality adjustment, whereas the E-P3 has none. Of interest to old school photographers would be the fact that the Olympus can take an external viewfinder attachment (electronic). It’s ISO range also goes up to 12,800 while the GF3 stops at 6400.
Conclusion: It’s clear that Panasonic and Olympus took a different path in their approach to their flagship micro-4/3rds cameras. With the E-P3, Olympus threw a bone to the serious, enthusiast photographer who values manual controls and a traditional approach. With the GF3, Panasonic is trying to appeal to the mass consumer market, to those who are looking to step up from compact cameras to obtain better image quality with little fuss. Respectively, both cameras have succeeded in their intentions. Our pick? The Olympus E-P3, hands down. Despite the larger size and higher price tag, it feels better in our hands. It’s also got the external controls that we love, and more manual control over video, which is essential for our needs. Finally, the image quality is more to our liking, especially at high ISOs. Now let’s see if I can splurge and put my classic Olympus OM lenses to digital use.