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Olympus PEN E-P3, PEN Lite E-PL3, and PEN Mini E-PM1 Preview

by Josh Root, June 2011 (updated July 2011)


A little background on the PEN camera name

The original Olympus PEN line was a series of half-frame 35mm cameras that included the PEN F SLR system. Produced in one form or another from 1959-1980, the PEN line was attractively designed and quite compact. In fact, the idea behind the name was that these cameras were as portable as a writing PEN. Though popular in the 1960’s, the half-frame format eventually died a slow death with the advent of high quality compact 35mm cameras (and later smaller film formats like 110). However, the PEN line has long been considered to be some of the best of the half-frame cameras as far as performance. Designer Yoshihisa Maitani, who later would design iconic Olumpus cameras like the XA and the OM-1, was given the PEN line as his first project at Olympus. As far as aesthetics, the beautiful PEN F line can hold its own with any of the classic cameras one cares to name.

Fast forward to 2009 when Olympus revived the iconic line with the digital PEN E-P1. The new PEN camera was the first body to use the Micro Four-Thirds mount, which allowed a far more compact body design than previous Four-Thirds cameras. The E-P1’s aesthetic look was reminiscent of the older PEN cameras, particularly the PEN F. The E-P1 was followed in 2010 by the updated E-P2 and the more compact E-PL1. In turn, those cameras were followed by the E-PL2 body in 2011.

Personally, I really liked the looks of the PEN E-P1 when it was announced. One thing about my job is that you sure do get tired of seeing so many cameras that look the same. In addition, as a reformed rangefinder fanatic, I am always excited at the idea that I might see the creation of a high quality, compact, good handling, camera with sharp lenses. The PEN line has always had a lot of potential in that department and I have followed it with interest. However, the PEN line has also been hobbled by (at various times) jerky live view, slow AF, low resolution LCDs, terrible menu system design, and a few other drawbacks that, though they were improved over the years, never really allowed me to buy into the PEN system as I thought I might.

June 2011 announcements, E-P3, E-PL3 “Lite”, E-PM1 “Mini”, and new lenses

Today, Olympus announces the PEN E-P3 as the latest generation of the digital PEN line. Not only that, but they are announcing the newest version of the compact PEN in the E-PL3 and a completely new body style in the ultra-compact PEN Mini E-PM1. Finally, two new lenses were announced as well. A fast 12/2 (24mm in 35mm equiv) “street shooter” lens with a very interesting hyperfocal focus option and a 45/1.8 (90mm in 35mm equiv) “family portrait” lens.

  • The PEN E-P3 is expected to retail for $899 with either the kit 14-42mm zoom or 17mm pancake.
  • The PEN E-PL3 has not had any pricing information released.
  • The PEN E-PM1 has not had any pricing information released.
  • The 12/2 lens is expected to retail for $799.
  • The 45/1.8 lens is expected to retail for $399.

Specific release dates have not been set, but all are expected to be available before the end of 2011 with the E-P3 being the first to be on the market.

PEN E-P3

Every new camera announcement comes with a laundry list of improvements. Here are the ones that I feel are the most useful and/or interesting.

  • Faster AF speed – Olympus claims that the E-P3 has the worlds fastest AF speed. The improvement comes from a new double speed Live MOS sensor, faster internal processing, and so on. “Worlds fastest” is a pretty strong claim to make. But the Olympus people seem pretty sure of themselves on this one. The way I see it, as long as they up the AF speed from the previous PEN bodies, I’ll be happy.
  • Improved Image Quality – This is another improvement that the Olympus people are very excited about. The E-P3 has a new TruePci VI image processing engine that has ushered in a whole host of improvements from small to large. These improvements all have fancy names like “True Color Technology” and “Advanced SAT (shadow adjustment technology)”. While it’s hard to judge image quality improvement claims by looking at marketing materials for a camera that hasn’t been released yet, if what Olympus is claiming is true (particularly in speed and shadow noise gains), I will be impressed. The most interesting change may be the fact that the TruePic VI is a dual core processor and should significantly improve shot to shot and live view “blackout” times.
  • 3in OLED monitor with touch screen technology – This is one of, if not the, most interesting aspect of the E-P3 for me personally. I find the idea of a touch screen on a digital camera to be fascinating. No more trying to fiddle with AF points to get them to land on an off center subject. Now you just tap the subject on the monitor and that sets the AF point. In addition, you’ll be able to use the touch screen to scroll through images and zoom in and out when reviewing. I admit, this might just be a gimmick that we all tire of. But it also might be one of those things that changes the path of photography in the same way that multiple AF points did in the 80/90’s. In addition, the quality of a 614k pixel OLED monitor will be a very welcome addition to a camera line that hasn’t had that area as a strong suit in the past. Finally, it should be noted that this isn’t the pressure sensitive “soft” feeling type of touch screen monitor that a few cameras have had. This is a glass electrostatic capacitance touch screen just like you would see on an iPhone or Android device.
  • Other Smaller Improvements

  • 35 point AF – A significant increase over the previous 11 points. The AF points can also be moved around in groups of 9 as a sort of localized AF area. Useful if you are expecting your subject to be in a particular area of the frame, but perhaps not exactly lining up with an existing AF point.
  • AF Illuminator – This is a feature that the previous PEN cameras had been downgraded for not having. Not a dealbreaker in my book, but also not something that should have been left out in the past.
  • Improved AF Tracking Performance and Facial Recognition – This is one of those claims that is pretty vague until you actually see it in action. That having been said, AF tracking and face detection technology are two of the most interesting AF technologies to come out in recent years, particularly for the novice/learning class of photographer. So any improvements in this area are pluses in my book.
  • ISO 12800 – Improved ISO performance and the corresponding increase in maximum ISO is an area where digital photography has seen great advances in recent years. While there is bound to be an upper limit of usefulness as far as high ISO settings for the average photographer, the E-PL2’s ISO 3200 was not that limit. ISO 12800 is a welcome addition for the E-P3.
  • Pixel binning for HD video – Pixel binning is one of those discussions that tends to get a bit above the average photographer’s pay grade as far as technical topics go. But in general, it means combining information from adjacent pixels, rather than throwing it away, in order to increase quality and light sensitivity. 1080 HD video resolution is only 1920 × 1080, far below the E-P3 sensor’s 4032 × 3024 resolution. So rather than throw that extra information away when creating HD video, the E-P3 combines in all together to allow each pixel to share the work and increase sensitivity. This should be particularly noticeable in shadow areas and low light situations.
  • Improved user interface/menu design – I put this into the “smaller” improvements, but it really could use a heading all its own. The Olympus menu system has been one of the aspects of their cameras that I have found the most frustrating and annoying in recent years. Every time I used one of their cameras, the menu system made me feel like I was transported back in time to the days of 2mp cameras. It was ugly, confusing, badly laid out, and overall a pain to use. Happily, the screenshots of the new menu system on the E-P3 look to be as well done as anything coming out of Canon or Nikon. This is a very good thing. Particularly for a camera line that aims to bridge the gap between a point and shoot beginner and a seasoned DSLR user.
  • Other stuff – As I said before, there is a laundry list of improvements whenever a new camera is released. Improved art filters, improved Live Guide, a digital teleconverter function, multiple grip options, a tone control function, and a stereo microphone are some of the other improvements that are included in the E-P3.

PEN E-PL3 “Lite”

Along with the E-P3, Olympus is announcing a new version of their more compact PEN “Lite” camera body line, the E-PL3. Many of the improvements such as the 12mp sensor, fast AF system, and TruePic VI processor found in the E-P3 remain in the E-PL3. However, the E-PL3 has a significantly different body style then the E-P3 and, in fact, is much more similar to Olympus’s XZ-1 compact than it is to any of the PEN line bodies. This is a marked difference from the previous E-P/E-PL camera bodies which bore a significant amount of similarity to each other. Enough so that one sometimes wondered why Olympus was bothering to have the two different bodies at all.

The E-PL3 doesn’t’ have the E-P3s 614k pixel OLED touch screen. But it does get a 460k pixel tilting LCD screen. The LCD is a 16:9 ratio, which is strange for a 4:3 camera. Though it will be nice for shooting HD video, it creates black “letterbox” on either side of the LCD when shooting still images. Not a huge deal, but a somewhat strange decision by Olympus. Perhaps they feel that the market for the E-PL3 will hold video in high enough regard as a feature that the 16:9 screen will be an advantage. They may very well be right given how much video is shot with compact cameras these days.

As I said, the E-PL3 shares many features with the E-P3. But it does lose the internal flash (the E-PL3 comes with a hotshoe “clip on” flash), some continuous shooting speed (5.5fps vs 3fps), a slower flash sync (1/160th vs. 1/180th), four fewer art filters, and no internal “level” feature. It also loses the thumb dial on the back and one of the custom function (Fn2) buttons.

Overall, I think the E-PL3 is a lot closer to what the PEN “lite” line should have been all along. The previous E-PL cameras were fine bodies, but they really weren’t all that different from the regular “full” E-P bodies. Definitely not different enough to make a logical upgrade path for prospective buyers moving up from point and shoot cameras, which was part of the whole point of the Micro Four Thirds system in the first place. The change in body style does give the E-PL3 a bit of the Sony NEX “small square body with a giant canon on the front” look to it with some of the bigger lenses. But that is more a function of making a small body that still uses the same lens mount as your larger cameras than it is a knock on Olympus or the PEN line. Some of that type of thing just can’t be avoided. Besides, if you think the E-PL3 looks odd with big lenses, just wait until you see the….

PEN E-PM1 “Mini”

Perhaps the most unexpected Olympus announcement to come out this week is the addition of a third body style to the PEN lineup. The E-PM1 is smaller and lighter than the E-PL3 (though still is a metal bodies camera)17mm and has a further simplified set of controls, to the point where it looks a lot like a basic point and shoot camera. And indeed, it appears to be set up as a true “entry” point for the PEN system for users who might be coming from a point and shoot camera. That having been said it, like the E-PL3, shares most all of the E-P3’s internal features (12MP sensor, TruePic VI, AF system, etc).

To be clear, there are more questions than answers about the E-PM1 at this point and one expects it to be the last of these three bodies to hit the market. But the basic concept behind having a third PEN body is sound and based what we can see from specs and photos, I’d say the E-PM1 is on the right track.

12/2 “Street Shooter” and 45/1.8 “Family Portrait” lenses

While I am excited at the improvements in the PEN bodies, I have to admit that the announcement of these two lenses were the best part of the news out of Olympus HQ. Like many experienced photographers, I have long viewed the Micro Four-thirds system with equal parts excitement and dread. Here was a mount that was designed to be a compact high quality system. A system that really could be the Leica M-series of the digital age (the Leica M8/M9 notwithstanding). But why are virtually all of the Micro Four-thirds lenses slow consumer zooms? Why does all the marketing out of the Four-Thirds companies talk about people moving between a point and shoot and a SLR? Where are the fast primes? The wide primes? Why do I have to shoot at f/4.5 so much of the time with these cameras?

Of course, I exaggerate more than a bit. But you get the idea, there have long been a larger number of advanced photographers who felt real interest in something like the PEN series, but just couldn’t get over the fact that using fast glass on them meant using an adapter and a manual focus lens. Happily, a big chunk of that issue has been knocked out with the announcement of the 12/2 and 45/1.8 lenses. Add the two of them to the existing 17/2.8 from Olympus and the 14/2.5 and 20/1.7 from Panasonic, and a guy could create a fairly complete set of primes from 24-90mm (in 35mm equiv).

The 12/2 is a particularly interesting lens because of what Olympus is calling the “Snapshot Focus” mechanism. Essentially, it is an AF engage “clutch” that is connected to the manual focus ring. Slide it back towards you and it reveals a distance/DOF scale that will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a manual focus SLR. But wait you say, aren’t all these Micro Four-Thirds lenses “focus by wire” with no mechanical connection between lens and body? Yes, that is true. But with the 12/2, Olympus has designed a way for the manual focus ring to only turn a specified amount, there are actually hard stops at close focus and infinity. In turn, this allowed them to print accurate distance and DOF scales on the lens. It’s something that sounds unimportant to those who have never used manual focus lenses or found the joys of hyperfocal focusing. But for the rest of us, it’s a minor miracle. Add in the fact that wide and fast are my two favorite lens adjectives and I simply can’t wait to try the 12/2 out.

The 45/1.8, despite its somewhat inaccurate “family portrait” name (you’ll have to stand pretty far back to make a portrait of the whole family with this 90mm equiv lens), is another great addition to the Micro Four-Thirds lens lineup. For one thing, I feel Olympus is absolutely correct in believing that one of the most common “wants” after someone masters their kit lens is the ability to make portraits of friends and family with highly blurred backgrounds. This is something they see “professionals” doing and a very typical reason for someone to buy a new lens. The 45/1.8 is a perfect combo of focal length and maximum aperture to allow people to achieve that goal. Then of course, there are the rest of us who just love fast prime lenses. The 45/1.8 should make that group pretty happy as well.

Conclusion

One of the comments you regularly see these days when discussions about Compact System Cameras come up is the idea that the Four-Thirds system is on its way out. With the announcement of 3 new bodies and two new lenses, I would say that Olympus has done its part to stamp out that sort of thinking. While Sony NEX, Ricoh GXR and the rest are all very cool cameras, the fact remains that the Micro Four-thirds system is the most expansive compact system out there.

Does that mean that the PEN system is the only one worth looking at? Of course not. But it is great to see that Olympus isn’t sitting back and waiting to be knocked of their throne. All the other compact system cameras have been pushing the technology and design of their market segment. That fact is proven by how hard Olympus has worked to catch up, and in some ways pass, its peers in that segment with these announcements.


Text and photos © 2011 Josh Root.

Article revised July 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Joseph Wisniewski , June 30, 2011; 12:16 P.M.

One of the comments you regularly see these days when discussions about Compact System Cameras come up is the idea that the Four-Thirds system is on its way out.

The new Pen cameras reinforce that thought. It's regular, old four thirds that appears to be "on its way out": the E5 long in the tooth, the E30, E300, E400, E500, and E600 series all discontinued. Oly's original patented, copyrighted, trademarked "open" four thirds has given way to Panasonic's micro four thirds.

William Jordan , July 11, 2011; 11:04 A.M.

The new Pen cameras reinforce that thought. It's regular, old four thirds that appears to be "on its way out": the E5 long in the tooth, the E30, E300, E400, E500, and E600 series all discontinued. Oly's original patented, copyrighted, trademarked "open" four thirds has given way to Panasonic's micro four thirds.

 

The E-5 is less than a year old, hardly "long in the tooth."

gerald ward , July 21, 2011; 06:23 P.M.

Thanks for setting me straight with about Olympus. What I meant to say was please check your facts before you go off all half cocked... Olympus E-5 old? Really? Olympus E-30 and E-620 "Discontinued"? Are you sure about that? I've heard about you internet big-shots that have "facts" that we peons aren't privy to I even read your post sometimes. Stop making sh*t up! How did you ever take photos without the internet. I'm sorry that was uncalled for... I'm sure the new Olympus Pen really does mean the end of photography as we know it.That's what you meant isn't it?

Ron Binmore , July 22, 2011; 02:54 A.M.

I read with great interest your article about the Oly Pen cameras. I have an E30 with a host of lens from 11-22 to 150 - 400. Can you tell me, what in the PEN range would be able to substitute my present outfit please. I am not so fussed about the 150-400 lens, but what about the others??

Best wishes,

Ron Binmore

 

matthew waite , July 22, 2011; 03:23 A.M.

Hmmm. Still no inbuilt viewfinder. shame!  


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