Sony NEX-3 vs Olympus E-PL1

NOTE: This post contains unedited images from both cameras. ALL images are straight-out-of-camera (SOOC). Only resizing has been done to speed up downloading time. You can click on individual images for a bigger enlargements. But for original resolution, you will have to email me.

Finally, I have in my hands the NEX-3 with it’s 18-55mm kit zoom lens to test out against the E-PL1 with it’s 14-42mm kit zoom lens! The NEX-5’s main difference to the NEX-3 is just better HD video and better build quality. So, let’s take a look at the NEX-3 versus the E-PL1. For detailed specifications and original resolution image comparison, please refer to www.dpreview.com

I am basically sharing my personal experience with both cameras here and I do my best not to be bias.

Olympus E-PL1 and Sony NEX-3, front view.

My style of testing is focused on the practical usage of cameras rather than comparing technical charts. So I brought the cameras along with me in my recent trip to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia.

First, I like the NEX-3’s finishing. Though the design looks awkward with a really small body and a big lens, I could quickly get over it by holding the lens instead of the body. It’s finishing gives me a high-tech feeling. It feels like a very advanced toy with swift responses, intuitive dials and electronic sounds.

Sony NEX-3 and Olympus E-PL1 back to back.

But the first frustration quickly came when I took more than 15 mins and still could not find how to format my SD card in it. In the end, I just packed the camera for the trip and my friend solved the issue for me, fiddling with it on our way to Kota Kinabalu. First impression: Deep “Menu-Diving”!

For the E-PL1 and NEX, it seems that the camera designers want minimum buttons on the camera. So, we end up with a lot more “menu-diving” due to one-button-for-all concept. This is something I am not used to as I have been accustomed to having aperture and shutter speed dials in most of my cameras since I started photography. Maybe this will appeal to the new generation? I am not sure.

Both the NEX-3 and E-PL1 do not have dedicated aperture/shutter speed dials. They are designed with digital interfaces for you to scroll in/out, up/down, left/right in their digital menu to figure out how to even change the aperture setting for example. After having got used to the E-PL1, fiddling with the NEX is not too hard for me.

BUT I still prefer to have the dedicated dials back like the E-P1/2! Before we go further looking at the images, I must say that at least the NEX comes with “auto-rotate” feature for it’s images at the price tag below RM2000. The E-PL1’s lack of “auto-rotate” in it’s images frustrates me constantly!

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/20sec, F5.6

Olympus E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/25sec, F5.6.

My concept of using such small mirrorless digital cameras is for “de-stress”. I do not expect myself to spend much time post-processing these images at the computer after shooting. I want jpegs that are good enough for uploading to facebook and other sharing avenues almost instantly. (How I wish they come with wireless and bluetooth technology!)

I’d also like to spend more time shooting rather than editing my images. I’d like it to be small so that I can easily carry it around and reach for my camera before I miss a moment. Another attractive thing about these mirrorless cameras is the almost limitless kind of lenses that can go on them via adapters. So, you will never get bored!

NEX-3, Av mode, ISO6400, 1/400sec, F8.

E-PL1, Av mode, ISO3200, 1/200sec, F8.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO200, 1/125sec, F5.6.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO250, 1/100sec, F5.6.

The following shot is done at an exposure of 10sec by resting the camera on a wooden rail which shakes intermittently. The in-body I.S. in the Olympus E-PL1 is amazing! It is very useful. The shot I did with the NEX is simply blur.

NEX-3, ISO200, 10sec, The NEX-3's lowest ISO is ISO200.

E-PL1, S mode, ISO100, 10sec, F22, -2EV.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/8sec, F3.5. Slight camera-shake due to lack of I.S.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/8sec, F3.5. In-body I.S. has managed to help in achieving a sharp image.

Now let’s take a look at high ISO comparisons:

E-PL1, ISO3200

NEX-3, ISO3200

NEX-3, ISO6400.

NEX-3, ISO12800.

The NEX-3’s high ISO capability is impressive. Now, we look at some night street shots:

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/30sec, F3.5.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/15sec, F3.5.

In the following comparison, the NEX-3 automatically brightens up faces, though it can seem a little artificial-looking at times (to me), but it can also be useful.

Obvious color processing differences, both shot at ISO1600.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/30sec, F3.5.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/35sec, F3.5.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/15sec, F4.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/15sec, F3.9.

In a more technical point of view, the following shots will show that the NEX-3 has quite bad barrel distortion and corner sharpness:

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/30sec, F3.5.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/20sec, F3.5.

Next, I tried shooting through the peephole in my hotel room and found the advantage of the NEX-3’s internal focusing. The E-PL1’s lens kept pushing against the door due to it’s AF movement, causing difficulty in achieving such shots.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1600, 1/2sec, F3.5. Slow shutter speed is alright this time as I pressed the camera against the door.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO200, 1.3ec, F3.5. It is weird that the E-PL1 gives ISO200 at iAuto mode for this shot, resulting in 1.3sec exposure, but amazingly it's still quite sharp due to it's in-body I.S.!

The NEX-3 tends to underexposed by about 0.5-1 stop in most cases, but can be an advantage when it comes to photograph bright lights.

Both shot at ISO1600.

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO320, 1/30sec, F3.5.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO1250, 1/60sec, F3.5.

The E-PL1’s 14-42mm kit lens has a slight advantage in shooting macro over the NEX-3 due to it’s slightly longer focal length:

NEX-3, iAuto mode, ISO1000, 1/100sec, F5.6.

E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO800, 1/80sec, F5.6.

Now, we take a look at some everyday life shots, note the difference in color-processing:

NEX-3, AWB, Av mode, ISO1600, 1/40sec, F5.6.

E-PL1, AWB, Av mode, ISO1600, 1/125sec, F3.5.

Both shot in Av mode, AWB, ISO1600, 1/30sec, F5.6. Now, this is weird! Both cameras' exposure is the same BUT Sony seems to have underexposed by 0.5 stop?

Lastly, bringing the NEX-3 out is like bringing a SLR lens out with a slim body:

This is my initial review of the Sony NEX-3 vs the E-PL1:

1. Price is attractive. The zoom lens comes with a hood. (maybe the reason why the E-PL1’s kit zoom lens has no hood is probably Olympus has calculated that flare isn’t an issue with it’s lens… but I have no “flare” issue with the Olympus MZD 14-42mm lens so far)

2. Formatting card is troublesome and menu requires quite a bit of “diving”!

3. Finishing is nice, sleek and fashionable.

4. Ergonomics: Holding it is awkward. You gotta hold the lens NOT the body. The ergonomics of the camera is really bad. I kept accidentally depressing the menu button as well as the rec button on the NEX. As for the E-PL1’s “rec” button, it can be deactivated in it’s menu.

In addition, I also kept accidentally sliding the battery compartment door open. This is quite annoying.

5. Size is considered huge for a mirrorless camera. It’s even bigger than the Panasonic GF1. The kit zoom 18-55mm feels like a SLR lens to me. Only when you use a small prime lens on it that the NEX become much smaller.

6. iAuto is very intelligent, and it seems more intelligent than the E-PL1. It detects type of scene quite well, automatically brightens up dark faces quite a bit (but can appear slightly artificial at times). It’s more intuitive and responsive than the E-PL1. But it also tends to underexpose a little, and color-processing is more towards the cold tone.

7. Lack of in-body I.S. (image stabilization). There are many occasions in lowlight situations when handholding the camera at 1/8 sec could have achieved the shot that the NEX-3 wasn’t capable of and the E-PL1 did it. I must say Olympus’s in-body I.S. is really impressive!

8. Impressive lowlight AF with or without infra red assist beam. Infra red beam can be intrusive for shooting strangers in lowlight situations (night street shooting).

There’s a ergonomics problem again here. My index finger tends to cover up the infra red beam emission when using AF in lowlight. However, the NEX-3’s AF can find focus in dimmer situations better than the E-PL1, with or without the infra red assist beam. I blocked the infra red assist beam and did a test on this.

9. Camera automatically activates AF searching before user semi-depress shutter button. This is impressive!

10. Camera shoots even when focus is not achieved in Single-shot AF mode. User must remember that only when the AF confirmation box shows up with the beep sound, focus is actually achieved. The AF really seems a lot faster than the E-PL1 BUT it may not get the focus right all the time.

If you want really good AF, you should still go for a high end DSLR!

The E-PL1 is more stubborn in activating it’s AF as it will NOT shoot when focus is not achieved. This is something that Olympus users MUST understand. It’s a different system after all.

Some people actually prefer the camera to “fire off” without such restrictions and take chance on getting that ONE shot, in which probably the NEX is more suitable for you. And bear in mind, when using the “continuous/sequential shot mode” in both the NEX and the E-PL1, focus is locked on your first shot ONLY.

11. The rotating dial is great for changing aperture and shutter speed. This is what I miss badly on the E-PL1, which exists on the E-P1 and E-P2.

12. Sweep Panaroma feature is impressive. This is a useful feature. For the E-PL1, you need to use Olympus software to do it.

13. High ISO on the NEX-3 looks good up till 6400, and useable at 12800.

14. Olympus E-PL1 still produce better jpegs than the NEX straight out of camera.

15. The barrel distortion and corner sharpness of the NEX-3’s 18-55mm lens is pretty bad. But if you are not photographing straight lines subjects with lotsa details, you probably won’t notice.

Conclusion:

I feel that the NEX is more suitable for slightly advanced users who knows how to do some minimum tweaking with softwares like Photoshop, Lightroom… If you do some tweaking on it’s exposure and white balance at post-processing, the files can really turn out quite nice.

The bigger sensor on it gives you better high ISO performance, more depth-of-field. You also have to get used to it’s poor ergonomics and troublesome menu interface.

As for the E-PL1, it’s more suitable to people who don’t wanna mess with Photoshop/Lightroom. It produces beautiful jpegs straight out of camera for immediate sharing.

The E-PL1 is small and compact. It has legendary in-body I.S. which saves you from carrying a tripod. As you can see from the above images, it’s images ARE sharp, not at all losing to the bigger sensor NEX!

In fact, there is no visible barrel distortion and it’s sharp corner to corner!

The ISO1600 on the E-PL1 is smooth and sharp. Though we really hope Olympus can give us good ISO6400 one day.

The E-PL1 does have issues that really bothers me.

It’s lack of a simple “auto-rotate” feature. It’s slow in finding AF, and even unachievable in lowlight situations.

My personal thoughts and advice:

1. If you want the best images from the smallest camera you can find, get the Leica M8/M9. But you have to live with manual focus and some post-processing.

2. If you want the best SOOC jpegs, get Olympus.

3. If you want the smallest 1.5x crop sensor camera, get the NEX. It offers you depth of field from a 1.5x crop sensor, better high ISO and you can also adapt Leica lenses and other manual focus lenses on it via adapters. But I’ve yet to test it’s MF capability, so I can’t say for sure how useable it is. But, you have to do some post processing to make the files look good.

4. If you want FAST AF, go for a good DSLR like the newly announced Nikon D7000. (It’s amazing how dependent we have become to AF that it’s no longer the photographer shooting BUT the camera shooting in most cases today)

5. If you want great HD video, get the Canon 5Dmk2.

6. If you want ultimate bokeh, the shallowest depth of field, get the full frame Leica M9 with the 50mm F0.95 Noctilux OR the full frame Canon 5Dmk2 with it’s 85mm F1.2L lens or any other full frame digital bodies with fast optics.

If you can afford, maybe you should get a Medium Format Digital Camera or a Large Format Sinar 4 by 5  Digital! Now, we are talking about world class bokeh!

But I only have one word to say, “If your shot sucks, it sucks. It doesn’t matter about the bokeh.”

In my next post, I shall write about my dream Olympus PEN, which I hope Olympus will listen. I shall propose something well within Olympus’s ability to produce. Though I doubt they will listen to what Olympus users want (it’s been proven), I will still write for my own pleasure’s sake.

Related Post: E-PL1 vs GF1

35 thoughts

  1. the e-pl1 seemed to produce nicer pic than the nex apart from the oil lamp pics.

  2. Yes, it does. It’s warmer n brighter generally.

  3. David, another great review! It’s exactly the kind of thing people like me want to read! I am a E-PL1 user and was tempted to dump the Oly for the NEX 5 as my EPL1 AF speed was driving me up the wall (and still is). The promise of better bokeh with a larger sensor (Sony) didn’t help either. However, after careful consideration and much googling, I changed my mind and am keeping the Oly and purchasing a panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake for the ultimate street camera!

    While i love everything about the Oly E-PL1(except AF speed), I have to admit that from your photos the contrast from the Sony is that much better. It’s subtle but noticeable and makes quite a difference to my eyes. Makes d Oly look almost like a P&S by comparison (altho in reality of course there’s no match). Not surprising as the NEX has a larger sensor but I think its one of those things (like ISO) inherent in a smaller sensor camera that can’t be helped.

  4. david chua

    September 27, 2010

    Ben, I’m not sure what you meant by Oly files seem like from pns but in reality there’s no match… I’m a little confused by what you say… from what I see, the Sony files are generally lower in contrast, tends to underexpose and colors are colder. Maybe you can clarify… thanks for reading my blog!

  5. E Johnson

    September 29, 2010

    Ultimately I chose the NEX 3 with 18-55 lens plus the 16mm (which has not arrived yet). Overall the Oly is probably the better product but with future firmware and lens upgrades (wide angle zoom, portrait , macro) I expect the Sony to become better in time. Admittedly I’m a point n’ shooter. I take 50,000+ photos a year for my job. Mostly industrial stuff – buildings, fixtures and details. I was charmed by the NEX’s features, especially the “program auto” mode which automatically sets aperture and shutter but allows me to dial in light on the fly. At work I use that setting exclusively and have shot a few keepers that are superb. I also like the flip up flash which allows me to activate it without looking. So far I’ve only used it once. One handed use is a little awkward. Two hands are required to spin the wheel so one handed shots are moot anyhow. The biggest flaw is the cartoonish geometric distortion which is intrusive at times. Software fixes are inevitable. Without the micro 4/3 correction the PENS reportedly suffer similarly. One major NEX design flaw is apparent when you clunk the front of that heavy lens every time you set the camera on a table. If I am not careful eventual damage will manifest itself. …Just my two cents.

  6. Yes, I agree the colours are colder on the Nex and it looks a little underexposed. But to my eyes, the contrast is better on the Sony. The dark parts are deeper with the brighter areas being about the same. Makes it look richer than the E-PL1 e.g the yellow ‘Poh Suan’ sign. Perhaps I am mistaking the slight underexposure of the NEX for this seemingly better contrast?
    To clarify, my reference to PnS is when comparing the contrast of the PL1 to the Nex which reminds me of a pns to dslr. But not quite as dramatic thus ‘almost like’. ‘No match’ refers to the EPL1 contrast to a PnS in favour of the Olympus.

  7. Ben, thanks for explaining. Now the other readers can get what you meant clearer. I do think the NEX does “pop” slightly more due to the larger sensor, and with some post-processing, the files do look quite good. (except for the occasional barrel distortion)

  8. Different cameras and different in camera processing. But both good mirrorless camera system. Prefer the Pen processing still. I guess because my first cam was a olympus also. Maybe thats why there’s a little bias. Like u said la… “If your shot sucks, it sucks. It doesn’t matter about the bokeh.” Boils down to the person taking the pics also…camera bagus tak guarantee gambar cantik..haha.. Where was that place u took your son for painting dude?

  9. 1-Utama, 4yrs old onwards… ur girl is too young. 🙂

  10. DuffyDuck

    October 29, 2010

    Great website and great review of the two cameras! Congratulations.
    It’s been a month since I started looking for an upgrade from my 4 year old P&S camera and the search had narrowed down to NEX-3 and E-PL1. Your great review helped me a lot. The shots are all well thought and I have to agree with the others that the Olympus shots look slightly better. What is really annoying with the NEX is the barrel distortion which is evident in both the ‘scooter’ shots and the seaside restaurant shot (look at the wooden floor). What I love in NEX is of course the great high ISO performance. Considering the price difference between the two over here (NEX3 with 18-55mm is 200 CHF more expensive than the EPL-1 with 14-42mm) I think my next camera will be an Olympus.
    Thank you again for your great review

  11. Thanks, DuffyDuck!

  12. Great review. A small correction: E-PL1 *will* shoot when not focussed – there is a setting in the detailed menu.

  13. Blouis,

    By default, E-PL1 in S-AF mode has shutter-release-priority OFF. Which means it’ll stubbornly refuse to fire off without achieving focus. For the NEX, I could not find any menu regarding this and by default, the camera still releases it’s shutter in S-AF mode even without achieving focus.

  14. maxypantsinyk

    January 21, 2011

    It was your review that made me choose the E-PL1. Overall I’m happy with my choice but how did you get such good pictures in lowlight in iauto mode? I’ve tried and I can’t seem to do it:(

  15. Add me in Flickr (link in my latest posts) to share with me ur pics so I can see and understand where the problem is? All I did was shot them in iAuto… I’ll need to see ur shots with exif data to understand what went wrong…

  16. Thank you for your helpful review. I have been bouncing back and forth between the two cameras for weeks. Very helpful. Gracias.

  17. Excellent review, just what I have been looking for without the bias of other forums. I am a novice to anything other than a compact camera but I was impressed level of information, telling me exactly what I need to know. The distortion of the Nex images worries me, just as the AF speed of the E-PL1 has me wondering if my decision to get one is going to haunt me! They both seem like fantastic cameras for the money, but I have to choose and it’s the oly for me.

  18. Great review. I’m in the market for a DSLR camera and wanted one that isn’t too bulky. I’ve had my eyes on the EPL1 and the NEX-3 for some time now…and after this review, i think i’ve finally made up my mind. I’m choosing to go with the Olympus. For some reasons, the pics taken from the EPL1 seemed much more livelier in color and pics felt much warmer than the NEX-3. I’m picking one up tomorrow, just in time for our baby shower.

  19. Kristofer

    March 27, 2011

    Thanks, great review! I’m buying one of these camreas and I can’t decide which to buy.

    There is one thing I’m wondering about though. In one picture people are sitting at tables with drinks. E-PL1 manages to get a sharp image thanks to the inbody IS. But what about the IS in the NEX-3 zoom lens, was it turned off or is it simply not as good as the E-PL1 IS?

  20. Sony NEX lenses have NO I.S.!!!

  21. Nice comparison review, thanks.
    I was under the impression that the NEX zoom lenses had OSS. Is it an option to turn on in a deep sub menu?!

  22. Owen, NO IS or OS is built into the NEXes… 🙁

  23. The zoom lenses have Optical SteadyShot specced here?
    http://www.sony.co.uk/product/ddl-nex-5-nex-3-lenses-and-a-mount-adaptor

  24. No Owen, They do not have O.S.

  25. Martin

    June 14, 2011

    16mm lense has no O.S. 18-55 and 18-200 DO have O.S. And about the pictures, many of the Olympus seem too saturated for my taste, as if you turn color to the max on your T.V. The NEX-3 has an option to adjust color to Vivid (instead of Normal), this might get warmer results. I just bought a NEX-3, once you upgrade to v3 firmware it works much better, for me menus are intuitive in most cases, and for the two or three exceptions you can get used to it.

    Shoot quality is fine, it has various options where it shoots two or three times to get some postprocessed result (HDR and some low-light modes). This is quite interesting, have gotten good results from these ideas.

    If Sony just would release a decent XX-200 lens for a payable price (800USD for a 18-200 is quite a price tag).

    I have been a P&S user with occasional DSLR useage. I’m really impressed with the NEX-3. high ISO modes work extremely well, was the main reason I wanted to get rid of my P&S. Now will only have to get a few good lenses…

  26. Martin, my mistake: the NEX 18-55mm kit lens has O.S. Yes, you are right, the firmware upgrades helps alot! It does have a better sensor than the Olympus.

  27. Owen, my mistake: the 18-55mm Sony kit lens has O.S. but in my tests, it is not as effective as the Olympus’s in-body I.S.

  28. Yes, Owen, you are right. The zoom lenses have O.S.

  29. I’m new to photography,had settled on the nex 5 when I see these photos n have 2nd thots.
    I dont understand- some of these shots with olympus seem surreal like sumthing you would only find in a painting or a wallpaper on your desktop.
    e.g. [E-PL1, iAuto mode, ISO250, 1/100sec, F5.6.]>>
    photos from both cams of the same scene -are worlds apart – how is this possible?
    However I’m after real photos,as the eye seems them,n not being in a position to judge what the scene actually looked like, I have to take the photographers word for it..have you not altered the photos in any way at all to add bias to the olympus images?

    Also the fixed lcd on olympus is a problem,in bright light what if you cant see what your shooting,the nex prevails over the olympus with the swivel screen.

  30. good review

  31. Just wondering which firmware you had on the NEX 3

  32. very nice review, the sony seems to make cold colored pictures with more blue. the E-PL1 have warm colored pictures very red rich. cold colored pictures seems alway as the have more detail, because black parts are more dark, resulting in high contrast in the picture appearing detail rich

    you have made the pictures in iAuto mode, in this mode the EPL1 use the iEnhance mode which produce the red colored pictures. the sony seems to have a very good high iso perfomance compared to the EPL1. the EPL1 is very noisy in dark parts of pictures, but the EPL1 has also a stronger noise reduction mode, you should compare the cameras at high iso setting the EPL1 to high noisereduction

  33. HELLO SIR,

    IT’S REALLY THANKFUL INFORMATION. VERY USEFUL.

    QUESTION IS HOW’S PENTAX D SLR AND CANON’S QUALITY? AND DEPTH OF FIELD.

    PLEASE TELL SIR, EASILY AFFORDABLE LOW BUDGET GOOD D SLR?

  34. Nice comparison, and I actually liked the pictures, in contrast to most reviews which are filled with meaningless pictures :/

  35. great article. nex 3 is amazing in high ISO compared to epl1.. both are great cameras

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