Table of Contents
a history of Micro Four Thirds part IV - the Olympus cameras in detail
© Copyright Khen Lim, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Olympus PEN E-P1
The Olympus Pen E-P1 was first announced on June 16 2009. Its introduction signalled a few important milestones for the company. It was Olympus’ first camera to be designed around the then-fledgling Micro FourThirds platform. It was also the first to bear the famous legacy nameplate Pen and thus began this series of camera models. At the same time, Olympus introduced the 17mm f2.8 pancake lens in conjunction with the VF-1 external optical finder that had a matching field of view. The latter accessory became the first external finder option for a Micro FourThirds camera. Also introduced as the company’s first zoom lens for the format – a 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 – complete with a novel collapsible design so that when not in use, the length is greatly reduced for even better compactness.
Comparisons with the FourThirds E-620/600 DSLR camera
Many (cynically perhaps) consider the Pen E-P1 as nothing but a mirrorless version of the E-620/600 model from Olympus’ own range of FourThirds DSLRs. This is not true. The E-P1 was designed completely from the ground up to be a distinctly different camera. With the exception of the downsized IBIS mechanism, virtually every other component was newly designed and developed for the Pen camera.
A different approach than Panasonic
Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G1 was designed to appear like a facsimile of a DSLR with its faux pentroof shape. While they may have their reasons for adopting this aesthetic form, Olympus’ direction was clearly not the same. The E-P1 was more in the mould of the traditional rangefinder or at least in the case of the company’s history for the keenly aware, it was strongly reminiscent of its famous Pen-F SLR camera. Although nothing of its innards are in the least similar – the Pen-F featured an unusual porroprism finder, side-swinging reflex mirror and a unique titanium rotary shutter – the silhouette was evocative. Yet unlike the Lumix G1, the E-P1 didn’t even have a built-in viewfinder. Instead viewing was courtesy of its rear LCD panel.
The Pen name stirs controversy with mixed reactions
The reuse of the Pen name was both exciting and controversial at the same time. Purists were disappointed, accusing Olympus of cashing in on its famous nameplate without showing any similarities between the E-P1 and the Pen-F. However they forget that the name Pen alluded not to a specific singular model but a complete range of vastly different compact film cameras that utilise the half frame format.
More modern fans on the other hand perhaps showed greater appreciation and excitement especially once they discovered the connection of the name to the company’s past. To them invoking a name from its glorious history was a step in the right direction of nostalgia and classic design as well as an expression of its innovativeness and hallmark creativity. On the overall, market impression has so far been favourable with the Pen name. In fact today such controversy has since petered out – the name Pen has become, once again, a household name deserving of the kind of attention that would have pleased its original designer, the late Yoshihisa Maitani.
The beginning of a collaboration effort between Olympus and Panasonic
The Pen E-P1 is a continuation of collaborative efforts between the two companies stemming from their earlier days with FourThirds. After the cessation of a fruitful relationship with Kodak, Olympus turned its sights to Panasonic for supply of sensors. It was this dependency that shaped much of Olympus’ reliance on the electronics giant for many of its Micro FourThirds cameras beginning with the E-P1. And in so many ways it was this very aspect of their relationship that limited Olympus’ growth in the mirrorless segment of the market for if they had been given more up-to-date sensors, history would have turned out completely differently and without the maligned comments about the Pen’s inability to produce cleaner high-ISO images.
Still all the same, the groundwork was laid for the two companies to work on advancing the format for their mutual benefit. The E-P1 was Olympus’ cornerstone, offering a suitable palette to further develop their line of cameras and lenses. It wasn’t necessarily a bad basis to work from – in fact the E-P1 was a very celebrated design with many admirers for its classic shape, build quality and features.
Concurrent launch of two lenses
Olympus’ first lenses for its Micro FourThirds system were released at the same time as the E-P1. As expected they comprised a wafer-thin prime and a very compact standard zoom lens. This combination of lens pairing eventually would become a ‘standard’ starting point for many of the other mirrorless competitors when they launch their offerings for the first time.
Playing from a safe deck of cards, Olympus chose to bring out the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f2.8 standard-wide prime lens. Not exactly a very outstanding performer, it was more than good enough to get the ball rolling. It wasn’t meant for the fastidious or consummate user but it was optically decent and at f2.8 was fairly versatile. Often referred to as a ‘pancake’ lens, the 17mm lens is only 22mm long and weighs a paltry 71 grams. Yet minimum focusing distance is an impressive 0.2 metre at 0.11X magnification. Olympus also made available the optional VF-1 to accompany the 17mm lens as an external (but optical) viewfinder.
Of the two, the more popular lens was the M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f3.5-5.6. It not only covers the usual sweet spot focal length range but its novel collapsible feature was as eye catching as it was very useful. When not in use, you can collapse the lens down to 43.5mm. Based loosely on the company’s FourThirds-based zoom lens of the same focal length range and optical speed, the Micro FourThirds version here takes up only 65 percent of its volume and 80 percent of its original displacement weight. Although considered a kit lens, it quickly attained a strong reputation for performance and image quality, garnering respect even amongst those who were using higher-spec competing lenses of similar coverage.
|PEN E-P1 brief specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 230,000-dot Hypercrystal LCD panel, 335 grams (dry weight), BLS-1 battery, Live Control user interface, metal body construction, two body colour variations (chrome, white), production discontinued as of March 2013|
Five months after the E-P1 was launched, Olympus introduced the second model to its Pen range on November 5 2009, in time for the coming Christmas season. Similar in some ways, the company last performed something like this was when the OM-1 coexisted with the OM-2 although in that case, the latter took three years after the former to make its appearance. With the E-P1 and E-P2 only five months apart, it was unusual since one did not replace the other and apparently was not meant to as well.
Like the E-P1, the Pen E-P2 continued to be shorn of a built-in flash. However Olympus added a critical feature called the AP (for Accessory Port), which was positioned slightly below the hotshoe, acting as a dedicated electronic slot. The way it was designed, the AP slot is to be used together with the hotshoe and paved the way for a host of numerous types of accessories to be introduced and used with the E-P2, beginning with the VF-2 external electronic viewfinder.
While both Pen cameras look identical, there were some minor differences that are not easy on the eye to pick up but they were there. The inclusion of the AP slot gave reason to designers to rethink the hotshoe; in the end, it was lowered into the body so that the hotshoe was flush with the top panel surface of the camera. While the E-P1 was a chrome-only body, the E-P2 introduced two further choices of black and white, the latter of which was equally as popular. Other than the AP slot, it was in the area of software that the second Pen could actually differentiate itself. Here Olympus added a new i-Enhance picture mode, offering an alternative to its Natural mode with added vibrancy and colour vividness. There were also eight new Creative Art filters including Diorama and Cross Process. These were also implemented across the company’s E-System DSLR cameras. Like the E-P1, the E-P2 is built from part stainless steel and part aluminium alloy and therefore weighed identically.
The news is in the VF-2
Olympus’ collaboration with Epson bore great fruit in the form of the company’s first external electronic viewfinder (EVF), the VF-2. With the VF-2 added, the E-P2 was a completely different camera altogether and unlike anything that has been seen so far with respect to an EVF, this one was simply heads and shoulders apart. The real-world performance of the VF-2, though not completely perfect, is as close to what everyone wanted it to be. The colours were excellent. Lowlight visibility was very good and without the usual colour noise specks that have come to plague many others. The video lag was more than manageable. It might not have the highest resolution (Sony’s version was better in this respect) but the VF-2 set itself distinct from others by being very usable with great colour rendition.
The VF-2 was also Olympus’ first accessory to make full use of the AP slot but there was one design flaw with it – plugged on to the hotshoe, the EVF was prone to slip off because there was no effective way to lock it in place. In real-world usability, retrieving the camera from a bag is likely to shear it off the hotshoe, which is annoying as it forces you to perhaps change the way you hold the camera while removing it from the bag. The VF-2 features 1.44 million dot image resolution at 1.15X magnification of view.
Revolutionary or evolutionary?
There is no doubt that the E-P2 was an evolutionary upgrade from the original digital Pen but that only means people were right in questioning the use of a ‘2’ instead of some suffix to denote its revision status. Olympus used the ‘N’ suffix during the OM days to distinguish the minor differences between the OM-2 and OM-2N, the latter of which introduced TTL flash metering and a revised viewfinder design. In the case of the E-P2, the revision was the AP slot and Olympus could have been wiser to consider the model as an E-P1N instead. Interestingly despite the minor variation, both the E-P1 and E-P2 went on for sale side by side for almost four more years, discontinuing from production together in March 2013.
|Pen E-P2 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 230,000-dot Hypercrystal LCD panel, 335 grams (dry weight), BLS-1 battery, i-Enhance picture mode, new accessory port (AP2) slot for compatibility with VF-2 and other new accessories, eight Creative Art filters including Diorama and Cross Process, three body colour variations (black, white, chrome), production discontinued as of March 2013|
Although the E-PL1 became the third to bear the digital Pen name, it was the first to reveal Olympus’ plans of subdividing the family range. The addition of an ‘L’ signified that this was the company’s new iteration. ‘L’ is taken to be Lite, a reference not to any of its physical attributes but to a slightly trimmed range of features. It is also a slightly simpler design expression of the Pen perhaps with lesser number of buttons to reduce user intimidation but it is also a revision of how friendly the company can go with a Pen camera.
As a Lite model, the E-PL1 was of course the first. Announced on February 3 2010, it was only three months after the E-P2 was launched. If there was any show of serious intention that Olympus has with Micro FourThirds, this model was a telling indicator and in fact, paved the way for the company to begin making its impact felt in the market. Within a fairly short time, the Lite series eventually shaped up to be Olympus’ biggest cash cow of its Micro FourThirds offerings.
A new sub-range
Olympus intended the Lite range to be distinct from their premium line and to do that, certain features and attributes were stripped away. At the same time, the overall design was redone to give it a distinctive look that visually separates the range from the premium line-up. Naturally the Lite range will be priced lower. Aimed at the more value-conscious user, Olympus envisages the customer segment to be youthful with more contemporary tastes and preferences. With that in mind, the E-PL1 came with four different body colour choices, which were black, white, champagne, red and blue.
General design and feature outlook
The E-PL1 represents an effort to appeal to the younger set of users. It’s natural – they are the ones with far greater disposable income than anyone else. Besides these are the Facebook generation with a need for effortless communicability and connectivity anytime and anywhere. To understand this segment of users is to be able to perceive where Olympus wished to take the Lite range to.
With that in mind, Olympus further simplified not just the standard control layout but also introduced a brand new LiveGuide user interface that was more intuitive and helpful to the average user. New Creative Art filters were added yet again. Of these a notable one was Gentle Sepia. And unlike the more premium E-P1 and E-P2, a built-in flash was now standard fare. And to bring the whole experience closer to the beginner or average family user, shooting video was only a single press of a button away. No more digging through the menu – with the prominent button, the E-PL1 was a breeze to use.
Stripped down omissions
In a bid to reduce production costs and make the E-PL1 even more affordable, Olympus used plastic body panels but made them ‘feel’ and ‘look’ closer to something with a metallic finish. Replacing the metal parts as well as giving it a smaller 2.7-inch LCD panel helped the E-PL1 to break the 300 gram barrier, registering a very light 296 grams (without battery and card). That makes it 6 percent lighter than the higher-end E-P2. The E-P2’s stereo microphones were replaced by a mono setup although it’s still possible to attach a stereo mike accessory via its AP slot.
Specification-wise, the E-PL1 loses the top maximum shutting speed, dropping from 1/4000 to 1/2000 second. The orientation sensor is also gone but thankfully Olympus retained the very handy IBIS. Having said that, its operating latitude was also narrowed from four to three stops – still it’s better than missing it completely.
A Pen with a fresh new direction
Even as the two higher-end Pen models took up premier flagship position, Olympus understood the importance of a lower model that would broaden its appeal to a far wider range of users. And hence they removed what were deemed ‘unnecessary’ and included everything that would make the E-PL1 useful, easy to use and just as versatile and still stay attractive and desirable. At the same time, Olympus quietly introduced a variation called the E-PL1s together with a higher-capacity BLS-5 battery. Although the battery was made available everywhere else, the E-PL1s was strictly for the Japanese domestic market (JDM).
In hindsight, Olympus’ strategic plans with the E-PL1 paid off. The new Lite model took off and propped up the company’s sales figures impressive. As we use BCN rankings to monitor, we could witness the E-PL1 sales numbers helping Olympus to gain a larger market share in Japan than they ever could have with just the E-P1 and E-P2. The E-PL1’s mix of features, lower cost, bang-for-the-buck and multi-colour appeal were more than good enough to help the company challenge not just Panasonic for honours within the Micro FourThirds format but also the rest of the mirrorless segment.
Two new lenses join the fray
On the same day as the market witnessed the new E-PL1, two new lenses joined the company’s range. They were the M.Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f4-5.6 and the ED 14-150mm f4-5.6. Seven months later (and four months before the E-PL2 was released) on August 31 2010, Olympus made two further additions in the form of the ED 40-150mm f4-5.6 and the ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7. Another two-and-a-half months later on November 16 2010, as we inch even closer to the E-PL2’s arrival, the original standard zoom lens was revised and became the 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II. In a space of eight-and-a-half months from February to mid-November of 2010, Olympus pounced on the market with an impressive total of four new and one revised lens that covered a focal length range of 9mm to 300mm. In 35mm film equivalent terms, that’s an awesome 18mm ultra-wide to 600mm super-telephoto. And within this collection of lenses, there are a few notable things:
Firstly the M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm lens was and still is the smallest lens of its type in the industry. At a length of only 83mm, it’s positively small and light (at 280 grams), and yet has a focal length equivalent reach of 300mm. And it wasn’t the only one with this record-breaking feat – the ED 75-300mm also was the lightest and smallest in its class of 600mm (equiv) focal length reach. Also the companion tele zoom lens to the standard kit zoom – the 40-150mm f4-5.6 – had finally arrived and together with the 9-18mm, were the first lenses from Olympus to feature the MSC technology.
Being the third to incorporate MSC technology was the reason behind the revisions made to the 14-42mm lens but somehow in the upgrade, the lens became a little longer (50mm vs 44mm) and image magnification at 0.19X was not as impressive as the original at 0.24X. However it was certainly lighter – at 112 grams, it was some 38 grams less weighty.
|Pen E-PL1 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor, 2.7-inch 230,000-dot Hypercrystal LCD panel, 296 grams (dry weight), BLS-1 battery, new Live Guide user interface (replaces Live Control), new dedicated Movie mode button, built-in flash, IBIS, six Creative Art filters including Gentle Sepia, five body colour variations (white, champagne, black, blue, red), option to use VF-2 electronic viewfinder, production discontinued as of March 2013|
Almost a year after the first Lite model appeared, Olympus introduced the second-generation replacement, the E-PL2 – on January 6 2011. As things began turning out, it appears that the numbering sequence in the model numbers used do not necessarily suggest that a later numbered model would replace the one before. We can now see that the E-P1 and E-P2 stood alongside one another in the same way as, now, the E-PL2 did with the E-PL1. In fact both the Lite models were offered at the same time and were together discontinued in March 2013 alongside the E-P1 and E-P2.
There were slight changes made to differentiate the E-PL2 from the E-PL1. These were necessary since at the very heart of the matter, Olympus had continued the use of the same 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor supplied by Panasonic. That is another way of saying that no matter how much headway was achievable, image quality wasn’t going to improve drastically given that the sensor had not changed.
Still Olympus persisted, introducing a further simplified graphical user interface. There has been some degree of criticism about the interface for some time now. Since the days of FourThirds, there have been some vocal dissatisfaction with how the interface was complicated by having ‘too much’ crammed into an arrangement that was felt to be less than optimally organised. The problem was of course that Olympus cameras were the most user-configurable of all in the market and this attribute was faithfully carried over to the company’s Micro FourThirds offerings. As customisable as it is, menu options were unavoidable plentiful and arranging them in as logical a manner was always going to be a problem for any manufacturer. In that sense its strength can also be seen as a weakness.
The E-PL2’s control button layout was marginally improved but of particular note was the introduction of a control wheel to enable a more user interactive experience, drawing the new Lite model closer in style to the premium line models. The HyperCrystal LCD panel size had gone back to 3 inches, which was 0.3 inch larger than the E-PL1. Panel resolution was also increased, doubling in effect to 460,000 pixels for better clarity. The E-PL2 now has six Creative Art filters, adding a new one – Dramatic Tone – to its repertoire. While ISO 100 disappeared from view, Olympus added a higher ceiling at the other end, increasing to ISO 6400. The usefulness of this was rather academic as the results weren’t particularly sterling – they were usable but they weren’t market leading but this was to be predicted given the limitations of what many knew was a ‘secondhand’ sensor with outdated capabilities. It was obvious that Panasonic was keeping the best only to themselves.
Introduction of MSC technology
A year and a half after its introduction, Olympus updated its standard zoom lens, the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f3.5-5.6. Based loosely on the original FourThirds derived 14-42mm, this was more compact and lighter. Olympus had also added a collapsible feature, rendering the lens far shorter when not in use. Performance was excellent for what was essentially a kit lens, often matching if not exceeding some of the larger and costlier competitors in the market but one area needed addressing.
Launched together with the E-PL2, Olympus reintroduced a newer version, adding the tag ‘MSC’ to it. Called 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II MSC, the ‘II’ denotes the second version and MSC stood for Movie & Still Compatible, a reference to an upgrade technology that made the lens quieter in operation insofar as its autofocusing mechanism was concerned. For HD movie shooting, the near-silent mechanism came in handily. For still photography, the same MSC technology improved focusing speed but only marginally.
Olympus’ MSC technology comprises a new high-precision screw drive system featuring also a high-speed drive motor with very accurate stop-start control characteristics. Guide shafts were also employed to help with micron-level tolerances and movements. The overall optical mass was also reduced to enable focusing to be faster to match extreme moving speeds without any loss of precision. The weight loss was actually fairly significant – in kit form the E-PL2 with the newly revised 14-42mm lens weighed in at only 474 grams, making it the lightest system camera available.
|Pen E-PL2 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 460,000-dot HyperCrystal LCD panel, 317 grams (dry weight), new BLS-5 battery, Live Guide user interface, six Creative Art filters including new Dramatic Tone filter, only 474 grams with new 14-42mm lens, five body colour variations (chrome, champagne, white, red, black), discontinued production as at March 2013|
The long-awaited big changes have placed Olympus under some pressure for a while now. Although the earlier Pen models were exciting and packed plenty of promises, the essential performance aspects were still lagging behind the competition. And despite the obvious advantages to do with what mirrorless represented, the company did not have that ‘killer’ punch or anything anywhere near to one. Six months after unveiling the second Lite model (E-PL2), on June 30 2011, Olympus announced the E-P3 using the same heavily-revised 12.3-megapixel sensor as the E-5 DSLR camera and with this came a marked improvement to image quality and other performance areas.
While not earth-shattering, the breakthroughs were serious enough, elevating Olympus to a more respectable level. Major photography review websites (such as DP Review) recognised the Pen E-P3 as a possible turning point for Olympus. The third-in-line premier model wasn’t just an upgrade; it was a much-hoped for break the company so sorely needed.
Major generational changes
The E-P3 might look suspiciously similar on the outside but the insides were very much improved to the extent that this was no mere evolutionary upgrade. Despite sharing the same 12.3-megapixel sensor from Panasonic’s shelf of expired offerings, the E-P3 behaved differently enough to warrant closer attention and the chief distinction here was the use of a weaker anti-aliasing (AA) filter. Because Olympus deferred much of the Moiré reduction work to the more powerful new-generation TruePic processor, the AA filter was thinner and all the better for it. This way the E-P3 could do far better justice to the famous Zuiko optical performance than at any other point in the company’s Micro FourThirds journey so far. Suddenly it’s as if there was a new lease of life breathed into the Pen range – the E-P3’s image quality was measurably ahead of its predecessors without any loss of the company’s legendary colour vibrancy and vividness.
Ably supporting the new level of performance and working very much in the background, the architecture of the TruePic image processor had also changed. In the E-P3, Olympus has revised it, for the first time, to a new dual-core design with more impressive multitasking. The point of multitasking is especially important for the E-P3 in view of what the company wanted to technically achieve at this point such as its greatly improved autofocusing, the shorter inter-shot (blacked out) gaps and the smoother on-the-go filter effects processing. All of these are now making greater demands on the camera’s operations and the new TruePic was simply what the doctor ordered. Although largely unheralded, its brainwork is central to the E-P3’s new-found capabilities. Working closely in tandem with the new processor is a reengineered autofocusing system called F.A.S.T., which stands for Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology. In basic terms its workings have not changed but Olympus has retuned its sampling rate and now at 120Hz, the E-P3’s autofocusing capabilities have improved out of sight. In fact it’s so good that it shares ranks with the fastest digital cameras in the world regardless of price.
Also new to the Pen E-P3 was the LiveView panel, which is now OLED and not LCD, making it the first mirrorless camera with such a feature (the second was actually Olympus’ own E-M5). We suspect that this lovely piece of technology is courtesy of Samsung Semiconductor. Furthermore it is touch-sensitive with some added functionality and versatility. For example there is a Touch-AF feature where at the touch of any area viewed via the OLED panel, the camera will train its autofocusing on. Touch-Shutter, another feature, will not only autofocus but also fire the shutter at the touch of the panel. Both features may seem gimmicky but if you learn how to use it well, you may be surprised at how practical they are in the real world.
A very welcome addition that can be seen for the first time is the built-in AF Illuminator. Unlike any other Olympus FourThirds and Micro FourThirds cameras in the past, which used a pre-flash strobe, the E-P3 projects a solid orange-like beam to help its autofocusing alone in anything from lowlight to complete darkness. There is no doubt that many users will find this change a relief for them.
Other competitive changes
After being featured in four Pen models, the original AP slot was upgraded in the E-P3 to become AP2 (or Accessory Port #2). The change was to provide wider support for a more diverse range of attachment possibilities. The idea was to add as much versatility to the AP2 slot the now ubiquitous USB slot is to the average personal computer. By now Olympus has expanded the system accessories that work with the AP2 slot and they include MAL-1 (Macro Arm Light), PP-1 (Penpal Bluetooth Comms Unit), VF-2 and VF-3 electronic viewfinders and the SEMA-1 (Stereo External Mike Attachment) kit for movie shooters. There is no doubt more will trickle in from Olympus such as the new and higher resolution (2.44-million dots) VF-4 electronic viewfinder. We were recently informed that Leica’s EVF2 is essentially a rebadged Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder and will actually work on any AP2-equipped Pen model. It appears that Leica’s X2 camera has adopted the same bespoke AP2 slot.
Olympus has also given the E-P3 a broadened Anti-Shock feature that offers a more practical workaround instead of a single fixed 2-second option. With the E-P3 you now get a range of selectable timings from 1/8 to 30 seconds inclusive, which is far more useful and more attractive for those looking at dealing with shutter shock.
Visually the E-P3 stays faithful to the general design of its premier Pen line. The same Pen heritage harking back to the half-frame Pen-F remains evident but now Olympus has given the latest E-P3 an interchangeable front handgrip in a similar vein to the company’s OM-4 or OM20, both of which featured pretty much the same screwed-in option except that this time, it looks more useful.
New additions to the system
The E-P3 wasn’t the only good news. Launched at the same time were four lenses – two revised and two brand new. The two kit lenses – 14-42mm and 40-150mm – were cosmetically upgraded (now with the added ‘R’ insignia) but remained technically the same. The other two were breaking news as significantly (if not even more so) than the E-P3 itself. The superwide M.Zuiko Digital 12mm f2.0 featured phenomenal performance and image quality. It was so good that it outperformed its APS-C and full-frame based competition in a straight IQ fight. Not surprisingly it went on to win many awards in recognition of its capabilities. A particularly useful – and cleverly designed – feature of the 12mm was the Snap-Focus ring, which when slid back, not only reveals the focus distance markings but automatically turns into a manual-focusing lens. It not only works flawlessly; it also means one can be very quick in switching from AF to MF without digging into menus or pressing any of the camera buttons.
An important relatively unheralded new technology was also introduced for the first time by Olympus. Featured in the 12mm lens was the company’s outstanding ZERO coating method. Short for Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical, this is a novel coating technique developed in-house to significantly reduce distracting and unwanted reflections. It’s not too much to say that a large part of the 12mm lens’ outstanding performance is owed to this ZERO coating.
The portrait-telephoto 45mm f1.8 is the other jaw-dropping lens introduced at the same time. Performance was equally as exhilarating. The image quality was just as captivating – pictures just leap out of the screen with its butter-smooth bokeh and sharpness even at open aperture. Autofocusing was a cinch – it’s fast, decisive and consistent – and its build quality leaves many of us breathless. Even though it did not feature the same handy Snap-Focus feature, the unusually low asking price meant that in many cases, this is a very affordable must-have lens that doesn’t take much to consider.
|Pen E-P3 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 610,000-dot OLED touch-sensitive panel, 321 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, F.A.S.T. (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) 120Hz autofocusing, high ISO12800 sensitivity, Full-HD movie compatibility, TruePic VI processor, fully metal body, removable handgrip (option to accept VF-2 external EVF), three body colour variations (chrome, black, white), currently still in production as at March 2013|
Introduced at the same time as the E-P3 on June 30 2011 was the third Lite model, the E-PL3. Compared to the two preceding models, this one shook the ground the most. Like the flagship E-P3, the third-generation Lite Pen had a significant makeover, signalling that Olympus was moving up one more gear as the market was now swinging towards mirrorless cameras.
Changing trends in the market
It was now a little over two years after the first-generation mirrorless cameras had hit the market. In that time the market was not exactly slow on the uptake. While movement trends were decidedly conservative in Europe and North America, Japan was a completely different story as it once more showed the way to the rest of the world, racking up increasingly more sales for the mirrorless segment as each year came and went. By the time the E-PL3 arrived in the market, Olympus had taken over market leadership in terms of mirrorless sales although the others were not exactly sleeping either. Panasonic registered just as many of its Lumix models in the top fifteen bestsellers but Olympus was better. Sony was close by, matching Panasonic in leadership models. In terms of outright models and market share, Olympus was now heading the mirrorless flock but in terms of single-model sales numbers, Nikon’s V1 was tops in Japan. The rest – Pentax, Ricoh, Samsung, Fujifilm et al – didn’t appear too active yet. Of these surprisingly Fujifilm did not even have one representative model in the top fifteen.
For Olympus their biggest seller was never ever going to be any of their premium-line models. As expected one of their Lite models had proven immensely popular. Of these the E-PL1 was a runaway success but we also believe that pricing and the different kits available were important contributing factors as much as the availability of many body colour variations.
While the E-P3 was given the privilege of a very nice OLED panel that also happened to be touch-operable, the E-PL3 continued with a 3-inch LCD panel with 460,000-dot resolution (which was 50 percent more detailed than the E-PL2). The very interesting oddball situation here was that the E-PL3’s LCD panel was tiltable whereas the E-P3’s lovely OLED panel wasn’t. Exactly how this feature mix came about would be interesting to know but it certainly made things a little confusing for the general buying public.
The E-PL3’s LCD format had also changed from its traditional 4:3 to the widescreen 16:9. This is an interesting move by Olympus as it signals the company’s decision to draw in the home and amateur movie user, which is quite a considerable market segment. This move also means that the view before and after pressing the Movie button, in terms of aspect ratio, will no longer change. This was not the case with earlier Pen models where the aspect ratio changes depending on what format you were originally in. This change of aspect ratio alters one’s sense of composition and can result in the subject’s head being lopped off for the first few seconds of the movie recording footage.
However users who lean more to the traditional still photography (and less so towards video shooting) aren’t enamoured to this change and so it’s hard to please both types of users at the same time.
|Pen E-PL3 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 460,000-dot HyperCrystal tiltable LCD panel, 265 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, 5.5fps (with S-AF/MF on and IS disabled) or 4.1fps (if IS enabled), six Creative Art filters (with added Variations and Art effects), option to use VF-2 external electronic viewfinder, four body colour variations (chrome, black, white, red), currently still in production as at March 2013|
The surprise launch from Olympus was also one that was initially difficult to understand for many. Called the E-PM1, it was yet another completely different proposition but here it was – a much simpler Pen model yet to populate the range. Olympus sees the E-PM1 as the Pen range’s starting point. Announced on June 30 2011, this meant the E-PM1 shared the same limelight with the E-P3 and E-PL3. Not surprising given its intended consumer market segments, the E-PM1 is available in no less than six body colour variations namely, chrome, black, white, pink, purple and brown.
Another new sub-range
The new Pen Mini sub-range came hot on the heels of the Lite and the premium line and it occupies the all-important and defining basement position because it is at this entry point that users of compact cameras attempt to explore photography a little more engagingly. At least this is how Olympus views the E-PM1 and the likes of all subsequent ‘M’ models.
During the film era, the legendary Maitani was preoccupied with the concept of the ‘bridge camera’ where the idea was to create an ideal intermediary (camera) that could close up the gap between the utterly simple (compact cameras) and the creative and versatile (SLR cameras). To that end, Maitani produced many iterations until his retirement as Chief Designer.
Now two years after his death, the E-PM1 takes up this role that had preoccupied Maitani’s thoughts and ideas for much of the latter part of his career at Olympus. To that end the company has shaped the E-PM1 to be as simple to operate as possible in order to be less imposing to beginners, novices and lifestyle users. At the same time the E-PM1 has no less an access to the same rich offers of lenses and accessories, offering plenty of opportunities for the same users to grow into the system and learn to be creative and more engaging. And with the E-PM1 sharing the same sensor across the board with the E-P3 and E-PL3, image quality can hardly be deficient by comparison.
Distinctively Mini or is it?
By this stage, Olympus’ strategy with the Pen range had become three tiered. While the top was represented by the premium line, the company had now opened up the lower segments with the Lite and Mini sub-range models. The idea seemed reasonable but the product and feature mix was getting confusing. With the introduction of the E-PM1, things didn’t get any clearer although Olympus’ presence in the market was certainly becoming larger through having more models available.
The problem now wasn’t the camera per se; it was the fact that many consumers were finding things tough trying to differentiate a Lite from a Mini or for that matter, the Lite from the top-of-the-line Pen model. Between the E-PL3 and E-PM1, the specification mix wasn’t obvious. With all the models sharing the same sensor only made things harder since that meant that image quality remained identical across the whole range. The E-PL3’s widescreen LCD panel is not only the only feature shared with the E-PM1; indeed there were others.
Perhaps the single biggest differentiator was that the E-PM1 was less interactive in the sense that there were now lesser buttons and therefore the appearance was more minimalist, simpler, less cluttered and perhaps more elegant looking. It was to some people less imposing. Without as many physical buttons and controls, Olympus revised the E-PM1’s graphical user interface in order to make access to various other options an easier experience for its intended target user.
|Pen E-PM1 Brief Specifications||12.3-megapixel sensor (Panasonic), 3-inch 460,000-dot HyperCrystal LCD panel, 217 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, Live Guide user interface, six Creative Art filters, option to use VF-2 external electronic viewfinder, six body colour variations (chrome, black, white, pink, purple, brown), currently still in production as at March 2013|
It is fair to say that Olympus’ presence in the digital era finally became what it was supposed to be when the E-M5 was launched. While the FourThirds endeavour somewhat missed the mark, its leadership in the mirrorless movement inspired a mixture of respect and confusion. Everyone who is familiar with this industry has been waiting since 2003 for Olympus to arrive. In that sense the Pens were a good indication but nothing like what the public was about to see on February 8 2012 when the E-M5 broke cover for the first time.
The E-M5 was a wonderful surprise. Firstly it wasn’t a Pen – not anywhere in its name was ‘Pen’ part of. Instead the mystery surrounded the ‘OM-D’ labelling. Those of us who follow the company’s glorious history knows that ‘OM’ is a revered and legendary name, used whenever we refer to its reputation for creativity, maverick-style ideas and the boldness of its vision. The fact that the E-M5 is now part of the ‘OM-D’ suggests very clearly that this model belongs to yet another brand new class; one that by virtue of its name has links to its grand history and perhaps draws us to the epochal OM-1. And almost overnight, Olympus’ once-battered image in the market took on a new leaf and brought to its doorstep a new found respect and admiration. If there is any evidence of this, the E-M5 quickly became an amazing sales success in quick time throughout the world.
Reliving a legendary name
For the uninitiated, the name ‘OM’ takes pride of place. It represents everything that Olympus is about and virtually everything that most of its competitors, no matter how illustrious, aren’t about. Till today the ‘OM’ name is revered amongst its fans and those who have trusted it for decades and has come to be closely and singularly associated with the best that Olympus was able to come up with. To revive the ‘OM’ name is to bring back everything that it was unique about, well known for and representative of but that was not necessarily how everyone felt when the name ‘OM-D’ was tagged on to the E-M5.
Olympus’ decision to reuse the ‘OM’ name (in the form of OM-D) was to evoke the phenomenon to cameras like the OM-1 and OM-2. It would be visually linked to the E-M5’s silhouette with its prominent pentroof shape. There is no doubting the relationship in this sense but detractors suggest this was a ‘cheap shot’ at borrowing on its past. More often than not, these criticisms were levelled at the fact that the pentroof in the E-M5 did not feature the obligatory pentaprism simply because there is no optical viewfinder onboard. In that sense the pentroof shape was deceptive.
Not so, say those who understand and defend its design. Notwithstanding Olympus themselves, fans warrant the E-M5’s SLR-looking shape because the pentroof was necessary to house the camera’s 5-axis IBIS as well as the flash wireless controller. And for those who appear to love all-things classical (about cameras), the E-M5’s reminiscent shape and appearance was a wonderful visual experience and that there was nothing apologetic about it.
Shape and outer appearances aside, there was concern about how the E-M5 would earn the ‘OM’ moniker. Would it be as system based as the OM System? Would the system itself be closely integrated with the body design and philosophy? How will Olympus build on the OM-D System and will there be depth of choice with the accessories? And what other OM-D cameras are planned in the pipeline and will they be consistent in design, functionality and performance? Many questions but the answers are still some way away right now.
Many firsts along the way
The E-M5 is representative of many things unique for Olympus and for all that has been written about the many milestones that it has managed to hit, each and every one of them deserves merit. Olympus broke their own 12-megapixel barrier with this camera and not its FourThirds E-System DSLR. In the E-M5 is the company’s first brand new never-before-used 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor. The use of this sensor also signalled the first time Olympus broke away from Panasonic. Moving to Sony can now be seen as obvious and predictable since the electronics giant now has 15 percent share of Olympus’ imaging division but back then, it was a shock that took some time to register. Unlike Panasonic, Sony had no qualms in supplying their latest and greatest sensor technologies to Olympus now that they have related businesses together.
No Micro FourThirds camera from Olympus before was able to seriously challenge APS-C based DSLR cameras in terms of image quality. It was possible to get close but to really match any of them all the way was something else. This was largely because of the relatively inferior sensor technologies that the company was forced to rely on. With the Sony sensor onboard with their own technological knowhow in place, the E-M5 proves the point that Olympus has what it takes to match APS-C DSLRs. If the E-M5 is indicative of the computer’s future, everyone is excited.
Another significant turning point is the E-M5’s built-in electronic viewfinder supplied by Epson. It was not only Olympus’ first such feature but it was also so well done that it didn’t matter that there were those before it because its performance was more than good enough to trump others. The colours were good. They did not smear. There is negligible video lag. It handled lowlight and high contrast very well. And the information overlay was masterfully done. In other words it was very usable. For those who were cynical of EVFs need to really have a good hard look at the E-M5’s version.
At 9 frames per second, the E-M5, which is available in just chrome (I’m a traditionalist – I won’t call it silver!) or black body, was the fastest of all Olympus cameras. It’s the first time that the company broke its own 5fps barrier. It was also Micro FourThirds fastest burst rate. Although it was far from being the first Olympus camera to be weatherproof, it was certainly the first mirrorless model to ever be this well built. Built to the same standard as the company’s E-3 and E-5, the E-M5’s dust- and splashproof body is rugged enough to be used under adverse conditions. It was also the first mirrorless model within the company to be able to accept a battery grip accessory for not only extended battery performance but also improved vertical-oriented handling. The additional grip area makes it easier to handle very long and front heavy lenses as well. Insofar as the industry is concerned, this is the very first time that a battery grip accessory for a digital camera is designed to be split-able, meaning that the grip can be used without the battery pack. This feature was a clear indication of Olympus engineers inspired by its own innovativeness during the OM System days.
Setting a new performance standard
Many things about the E-M5 form a well-rounded reason for Olympus’ new found sense of success. There is no denying that while the Pen models so far have been fairly impressive, it was truly the E-M5 that put the company on the map and if others’ opinions (of the camera) are anything to go by, the consensus was very clear – that the E-M5 is exactly everything that the doctor ordered. And most of these have to do with its outright performance; measurable and immeasurable, tangible and intangible.
Even as we saw significant autofocusing performance from the E-P3 (and E-PL3), now the E-M5 was even more so as Olympus cranked up the sampling rate for the latter’s F.A.S.T. technology to work at. At 240Hz, the AF scanning frequency was now twice what the E-P3 was capable and at that speed, the E-M5 could lock on to any subject faster than most DSLRs no matter how the cost.
Like the E-P3, it has a 3-inch OLED touch-sensitive LiveView panel but it is also tiltable in the same way that the E-PL3 was. The usability of the E-M5 was without a doubt the most impressive of all the Micro FourThirds models that Olympus has brought out. But if we’re looking for the most lasting impression that it has made on the industry, it was its sensor. Built by Sony, the new 16.05-megapixel Live MOS sensor stumped its detractors soundly. Its DxO Mark performance was certainly good enough to eclipse not just other mirrorless but also many DSLR cameras. And when used with lenses like the 12mm f2.0, 45mm f1.8 or the 60mm f2.8 Macro, the results are nothing short of phenomenal, setting in the process a benchmark that earned the E-M5 numerous accolades and critical awards even from DP Review.
More new and impressive lenses
As expected more new lenses arrived around that time. Coinciding with the launch of the E-M5 was its companion standard zoom lens, one that was intended for higher purposes than the popular but rather pedestrian 14-42mm. So, on the same day, we were introduced to the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f3.5-6.3 EZ, which on paper, looking nothing like how the media release statement had prepared us for. It wasn’t exactly very bright – at f3.5 on the short end, it was almost a stop less than f2.8, which many consider to be the ‘minimum’ expectation for a starting point. On the far end, f6.3 was unexpectedly slow for a ‘serious’ lens. This part was even more disappointing as it meant that the longest setting of 50mm (EFL 100mm) might not be as useful as one would have hoped for.
However once these on-paper disappointments are disregarded, the 12-50mm shone in a rather outstanding manner – certainly far more so than many have given it credit for. Although some of us do believe that an even better (SHG version possibly) is just around the corner, the 12-50mm is actually an exceptional lens that is essentially under the radar for most people. It’s not only weatherproof but it also has a built-in motorised zoom function that makes it very useful for video use. Its built-in macro feature – 0.72X magnification at 0.35 metre closest focusing distance – isn’t exceptional but remains handy.
Two other lenses arrived as well and both were again exceptional. Of the two, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f1.8 was grabbing most of the headlines. At a film equivalent of 150mm telephoto, a bright f1.8 was going to produce wonderful defocusing and with the help of a nine-blade aperture diaphragm, the further prospects of an ultra-smooth bokeh make it a very popular lens for portraiture work, theatrical and stage performances including indoor sports. It is also very well built (metal bodied) and the focusing motor is as near to silent as one can imagine. Like the 12mm f2.0, Olympus’ ZERO coating technique is deployed. One gets the feeling that when ZERO coating is featured; the lens is very likely to perform outstandingly.
The other of the two was the M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f2.8 Macro, touted by Olympus as the fitting version of its FourThirds-based 50mm f2 Macro. This one is slightly longer – at 60mm, that’s 120mm in film focal length – and more approaching the popular 135mm telephoto for ideal portraiture work. At f2.8, that would be an exciting proposition and being a true macro lens, the very thought of being able to achieve life-size magnification at 0.19 metre focusing distance has to be even more interesting. Image resolution is beyond outstanding – it is exceptional.
A little more than four months later, Olympus brought out the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8. By this stage, the company’s array of fast high-performance glass coverage is quickly broadening, starting from 12mm to 75mm. In between there were now three lenses (17mm, 45mm and 60mm) plugging the gap. In film terms, the steps covered include 24mm superwide, 35mm standard-wide, 90mm standard-telephoto, 120mm and then 150mm telephoto. It’s easy to see where Olympus has still got work cut out to fill those obvious gaping holes. Interestingly with the 17mm f1.8, Olympus chose to incorporate the Snap-Focus feature, making it only the second to possess one, the 12mm being the first. At 120 grams, it is surprisingly light as well.
Turning fortunes around
Looking in hindsight, FourThirds could have easily been Micro FourThirds but the technologies required were probably not available for much of the earlier half of the first millennium decade. And so the advent of Micro FourThirds was what Olympus needed to turn their fortunes around. It looks like all it took was to remove the reflex mirror for the rest of the industry to take notice. In that sense the original Pen E-P1 was very important. And if that’s the case, the E-PL1 was even more so because it was more capable of reaching into the mainstream market and appealing to the ordinary user. Sales numbers attest to this overwhelmingly. In fact the Lite sub-range has since become the company’s lifeline and staple provider and now that the E-PL1 is ceased production, the E-PL2 has taken over that same lofty role.
The story of the E-M5 is somewhat different and in many ways, it was an even more outstanding head-turner for the company. As successful as the Pen Lite models were (and they certainly were), they pale by comparison to the phenomenon that the E-M5 represented. And of all the mirrorless cameras available by then (APS-C or Micro FourThirds or others), it was the E-M5’s combination of capabilities and image quality that incited a mass migration away from the traditional larger-sized DLSR kits. More essentially it was Canon and Nikon that suffered much from this experience because many of those who invested in the E-M5 were those who owned their more premium-based APS-C models. There are plentiful testimonies available of such owners buying the E-M5 to serve as an alternative while they maintained their original DSLR camera systems but only to invariably dispose of them in their entirety. No other mirrorless camera up to that point was this controversial or influential.
Of course that does not mean other mirrorless cameras were sleepers. The E-M5 has its keen competitors within the same woodwork. Panasonic’s GH2 and now GH3 remain prickly rivals from the same backyard and sharing the same wealth of lenses. From the moviemaking standpoint, these were still the benchmark no matter how capable the E-M5 was. Sony’s NEX-7 is not to be underestimated as well. In Japan, Nikon’s tiny mirrorless tots continue to nibble away, racking up sales impressively. Yet despite all these, it was the E-M5 that swept all before it.
2012 was obviously the year of the E-M5. Recognition awards and any relevant titles to be won in acknowledgement of outstanding product designs and mass acceptance were largely the E-M5’s to be won. The key right now is whether or not Olympus can repeat the success with its subsequent OM-D models that the public is now expecting. It is one thing to come up with a hit but it’s quite another thing to make sure it’s not a fluke. With the company set to reveal the next OM-D body in 2013, all eyes are watching. While Olympus fans are looking for a repeat story, there’s no doubt that its competitors are hoping for a slip-up.
|OM-D E-M5 Brief Specifications||16.05-megapixel sensor (Sony), eye-level EVF with 100% field of view at 1.44 million dot resolution, 3-inch 610,000-dot OLED touch-sensitive tiltable panel, 373 grams (dry weight), new BLN-1 battery, five-axis IBIS, 240Hz F.A.S.T. autofocusing with 3D tracking, TruePic VI processor, weatherproof magnesium-alloy body, two body colour variations (chrome, black), currently still in production as at March 2013|
A little more than seven months after the E-M5 on September 17 2012, Olympus ‘updated’ the Pen range with the latest E-PL5. Consistent with the company’s tradition of not using ‘4’ in their model nomenclature*, there was no E-PL4. Secondly there appeared to be a need to bring into line the generations between all the models within their mirrorless range as well as those in their classic FourThirds series. Hence we now have the E-M5, E-PL5 and the E-5 all in ‘alignment.’ We understand that the next number coming up won’t be a ‘6’ but a ‘7.’ The E-PL5 made history as the first Pen to use the Sony 16.05-megapixel Live MOS sensor. However it inherited not just the sensor but also much (but not all) of the capabilities of the E-M5. To put this into perspective, it’s useful to realise that at this point of the Pen’s new generation, there was no replacement for the premium-line E-P3. In other words there was no E-P5 coming although there was also no official word from Olympus that they were discontinuing it. In that sense the E-PL5 was to be seen as the new flagship of the Pen range.
Although Olympus did use ‘4’ during the film days – such as the OM-4, OM-4Ti, AZ-4, iS-4 and to some extent the OM40 Program – this tradition was halted for the new digital cameras beyond the Camedia era. The Chinese and Japanese allude to the sound of ‘death’ because of its homophonic similarity but whether this is the real reason or not, no one seems to know or confirm.
The omission of the E-P5
At this point of the development of the Pen range, many believed that Olympus had lost its way. By then a total of ten Pen models had been released. It is fair to say that the delineation amongst these models was not clear enough. Perhaps the company had felt that they could have done better if the product mix was not so confusing; if consumers were able to tell the difference a little more clearly and/or that the models within the same Pen series weren’t so competitive against one another.
By now the distinction between premium-line and the Lite range had gotten too blur and it probably started to be so with their third-generation. This was particularly evident when the E-PL3 sported a tiltable screen that was strangely and glaringly missing in the upper-end (and costlier) E-P3. Maybe the confusion had started right at the beginning when the E-PL1 appeared with what seemed to be a better user interface even if the then E-P2 exuded a higher quality look. It was, after all, the E-PL1 that introduced a much easier – and more accessible – movie recording button, saving users from having to dig into the intimidatingly complex menu. The appearance of the E-PL5 marked an unusual time; a time when Olympus was at crossroads, dealing with as much flak as there were questions about the missing E-P5 but it was getting increasingly clear to the company that something had to be done. However removing the E-P3’s successor and propping up the E-PL5 might not have been the best answer insofar as public reaction went.
NOTE: To put this into perspective, refer to section for Olympus Pen E-P5.
An E-M5 in disguise?
At the heart of the E-PL5 is the Sony 16.05-megapixel sensor, the same one that was first seen in the E-M5. And with that, one expects image quality to be indiscernible one from the other especially since both also share the same TruePic image processor. There was also the OLED panel at the back and it’s tiltable. Here the E-PL5 retains its widescreen tradition while the E-M5 is 4:3 in aspect ratio, which is kinder to still photographers while the Lite model seems more in line towards video buffs.
Of course there are differences. The E-M5 is weatherproof and the E-PL5 isn’t. One has a built-in electronic viewfinder while the other doesn’t but there is the VF-2 and VF-3 (soon also, the VF-4) to match it although these are all external accessories. The E-M5 lacks a built-in flash although it does come with a very pocketable version while the E-PL5 has one within. The battery grip (and pack) option is available for the E-M5 but it doesn’t work on either the E-PL5. For that matter, there is no such option available for any of the past and present Pen models.
If you can put aside these differences as well as the fact that both cameras are clearly targeted at different customer segments, you may still be able to see some semblance or sorts between the E-M5 and the Pen E-PL5. We’ve been seeing some unofficial blog-based reports and feedback from users that if you can do without some of the above attributes and features from the E-M5, the E-PL5 might be all you need, seeing that the all-important aspects of image quality, high ISO capabilities and autofocusing are so closely matched. In view of the fact that the E-P3’s successor was missing, the E-PL5 is indeed a very impressive model.
An ever-ready body cap lens
Launched together with the E-PL5 was the unusual – possibly even controversial – M.Zuiko Digital 15mm f8.0, which Olympus refers to as the ‘body cap lens.’ At 9 millimetres thick, it is actually akin to a thickened body cap. In fact there are several features (or non-features) about this lens that makes it as controversial as it is unique or odd.
At 15mm, that’s a focal length of 30mm in film equivalent terms, which is a sweet spot for standard-wide. At that focal length, it’s not wide enough to show linear distortion but not too long to be used in reasonably tight spaces. And that was the primary reason behind Olympus’ choice but what was initially confounding was its optical speed – at f8.0, it was initially a shock.
What was even more of a shock was the discovery that this lens has a fixed focus. It does not lend itself to auto or manual focusing. There is also no other selectable aperture settings – it’s f8.0 or nothing. At f8.0, the depth of field is considered good enough to keep everything in focus from a minimum focusing distance of 0.3 metre (11.81 inches) to infinity. At the closest distance, the 15mm f8.0 lens produces a mediocre magnification of 0.06X but it’s so wafer thin and it weighs a paltry 22 grams.
Olympus’ labelling of ‘body cap lens’ is a deliberate one to place emphasis on the 15mm being a suitable replacement for the usual body cap. In its place, the lens allows the camera to be almost instantaneously available to shoot at any time and in so doing, does not require any momentary lag for the autofocusing to get up to speed. Considering all of these, the 15mm lens could be seen to deliver what the company had set out to do but the market might think different though. To be fair, it’s a mixed bag of results – there are those who felt the handiness of being able to respond quickly and take the picture without much thought but there are also those who felt that it’s a pointless piece of glass because the results are optically not typical or befitting of the Zuiko name. Even while the verdict remains out, we would put this lens as one that you either find very useful (in the way Olympus thinks it as) or not at all. There’s no middle ground but at the lowly price, it might not be such a bad idea after all.
|Pen E-PL5 Brief Specifications||16.05-megapixel sensor (Sony), 3-inch 460,000-dot LCD touch-sensitive tiltable panel, 279 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, twelve Creative Art filters including new ‘Water Colour’ filter (in addition to Variations and Art effects), TruePic VI processor, Touch-AF shutter, F.A.S.T. 240Hz autofocusing, three body colour variations (chrome, black, white), currently still in production as at March 2013|
Like its predecessor, this new Mini model was introduced alongside its Lite sibling. Hence on September 17 2012, the E-PM2 was launched together with the E-PL5. Even while the E-PL5 stole the show, the E-PM2 was not necessarily shaded for this time, there was a lot more to the Mini model than its predecessor. Second in the company’s Mini-series, the E-PM2 now takes up position as the second highest model in the overall Pen range.
Possibly ‘identity crisis’
Without the expected flagship model taking its position at the top, the E-PL5 took over at this point. This meant that the E-PM2 was suddenly elevated to a position that brought nothing but confusion to not just the buying public but the company’s fans and followers. If your thoughts are aligned as such, think of the E-PL5 as the ‘new’ E-P5. And if that makes perfect sense to you, then the E-PM2 should be the ‘new’ E-PL5 (!)
It is possible that at this juncture, Olympus made a major decision to ‘revamp’ its Pen range. It had come to a point where the confusion was apparent. Model mix was as problematic as the different feature sets they offered. There were times when there was little to pick from one model to another. In certain other cases, the features didn’t make sense when a lower model appears more functional than its higher sibling. And now that the conspicuousness of the missing E-P5 was too obvious to ignore, it was time for the company to return to the drawing board and fix the mess.
|Pen E-PM2 Brief Specifications||16.05-megapixel sensor (Sony), 3-inch 460,000-dot LCD with touch-sensitivity, 223 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, TruePic VI processor, F.A.S.T. 240Hz autofocusing, Touch-AF shutter, twelve Creative Art filters including new ‘Water Colour’ filter (in addition to Variations and Art effects), four body colour variations (chrome, black, white, red), currently still in production as at March 2013|
When the E-PL5 was released in September 2012, there was no E-P5. Its absence was reason for plenty of speculation but in most cases, many had given up waiting for it. In fact many of us had also thought that Olympus had retired their premium Pen E-Px line, which meant that the E-P3 was to be the last of the lot. In traditional company fashion, Pen launches tended to be generational, meaning that a brand new release covered all the sub-lines of the family and since the Lite and the Mini were present but the premium big brother wasn’t, it was fair that everyone gave up waiting.
And so when the E-P5 appeared eight months later on May 10 2013, one can imagine the surprise. It looked like Olympus had overturned their decision to retire the line, re-emerging with the E-P5 in line with their fifth generation. Eight months late was one thing; the company launched the E-PL6 at the same time. If you consider the model numbering to be an indicator of generation lineage, then we’re now seeing that the premium E-Px is one step behind their Lite sibling. After all an E-P5 and an E-PL6 released concurrently could spell some degree of confusion. And it did.
Two questions need answering
Two questions come to mind immediately. Firstly what made Olympus change their mind? It was clear to the public that the fifth generation was not going to see a model to fill out their premium line-up. If it wasn’t there when the E-PL5 and E-PM2 were released, it wasn’t likely to appear at all. Now that it did, we must ask why. Secondly why did Olympus launch it as an E-P5 and not an E-P6. Seeing that it was already eight months late (almost one generation in typical digital Pen years) and considering that the E-PL6 had now cropped up, it would make better marketing sense to label it as an E-P6.
We believe Olympus did an about-turn after measuring the Internet response, which generally indicated that the company got it wrong. In other words the sudden disappearance of the premium line was lamentable. Leaving the Pen range to the Lite model to lead was like losing a striker or a captain in one’s football team – a leaderless nature isn’t a good thing because in most respects the range-topper is also a talismanic symbol.
As for the second question, there isn’t any clear answer. We still think it would be better – and more logical – to consider it as an E-P6. Now that the E-PL6 is available – albeit only in Japan – the whole timeline is now distorted as to how one bridges the gap between the release of the E-Px and that of the E-PLx. The third generation Pen family was the only that lined every model up – the launches were simultaneous and it all made sense. Since we now have the E-PL6 and it won’t be long before we possibly see the E-M6, one wonders how long it will take before the E-P6 surfaces. Because the E-P5 was only recently made available, it won’t make sense for it to be launched anytime soon. What this means is that when we next see the E-P6, we will also be anticipating the new E-PL7.
A more serious Pen statement
Unlike every other Pen in the past since 2009, Olympus has somehow made a difference with the E-P5. It’s as if they have decided to ramp up the premium Pen variant as a serious second or backup camera to the OM-D system. If there ever was an OM-D model without a built-in EVF, the E-P5 could easily qualify since many of its prerequisites are there such as superior build quality, metal body, feature set, level of performance and control functionality.
The E-P5 is a serious camera. Hold one in your hands and you’ll understand what it’s about. Click the controls. Turn the wheels. Press the shutter release button. Everything about the E-P5 tells us that insofar as the top-of-the-line Pen is concerned, Olympus has rethought its agenda and come up with a model that adds more daylight to the Lite sibling but closes the gap to the OM-D range.
Even its outward appearance looks different. For the first time, there is now a digital Pen that is stunningly close in looks to the original Pen F. The E-P5’s top plate design is as dramatically different as the way it looks from the front. The ‘step-up’ that has been a Pen characteristic is now more edgy than before. Compared to the E-P1, P2 and P3 where the ‘step-up’ is gentler, the E-P5 appears more aggressive. Olympus has also decided to use a slightly different matte texture to its black body, one that strikes a reminder as to how the OM-2S Program, OM-4 and OM-3 felt like.
Drawing level with the OM-D
For the first time in the Pen range, we have a model that clearly rivals the E-M5 not only for feature significance but also paralleling performance. Here is a model that could possibly outdance the leader of the pack but equally as notable this time, no one is talking about internal cannibalisation anymore. In the early pre-E-M5 days, critics were often talking about poor product differentiation and feature mix as the two issues that plague Olympus product planning. Now we have the Pen E-P5 whose technical specification and capabilities draw it closest to the flagship E-M5.
Looking at the new E-P5, the outstanding differences to the rest of the Pen models are clear as daylight. Compared to the E-M5, similarities can be drawn from the sharing of the same Sony 16-megapixel sensor and TruePic engine as well as the ultra-fast maximum frame rate, dual control wheel operability, fast flash sync speed, five-axis image stabiliser and a tiltable LiveView panel. But that isn’t all. The dual control wheels now offer a ‘2×2’ dual-layered option meaning that you can have the pair operating different functions the way you like them to. The IBIS on the other hand now features a new ‘S-IS Auto’ option, which offers auto panning detection that the E-M5 lacks. Maximum shutter speed is now at 1/8000 second, which is a stop faster again. There is a built-in Wi-Fi option for wireless tethering to a smartphone or tablet.
And while the new Pen remains without a built-in EVF, Olympus launched a new-generation VF-4 that now features an LCD that comes with 2.36-million dot resolution, 0.74X magnification and an auto-eye sensor that works similarly to the one offered in the E-M5. When combined as a kit, the E-P5 and VF-4 is a formidable proposition and more than a match for the E-M5 although ‘minor’ things like weatherproofing, magnesium-alloy chassis and the availability of the unique battery grip remain unavailable.
|Pen E-P5 Brief Specifications||16.05-megapixel sensor (Sony), 3-inch 1.04 million dot LCD with touch-sensitivity and two-way tiltability, 420 grams (incl battery), BLS-5 battery, metal body, twin control wheels (front and rear) with ‘2×2’ dual-layered option, 1/8000 sec max shutter speed, 1/320 sec flash sync, built-in flash, 5-axis image stabilisation with S-IS Auto (auto panning detection), ISO ‘Low’ (equiv ISO 100) setting, 9fps max frame rate with 5fps for Continuous-AF, focus peaking display, intervalometer and time lapse movie mode, built-in Wi-Fi with image transfer to smartphone or tablet, four body colour variations (black, chrome, white and limited edition model featuring wooden grip)|
Launched together with the E-P5 on May 10 2013 was the E-PL6, the next-in-line after the E-PL5. The new E-PL6 is said to be a Japan-only variant in the same way as the E-PL1S. That is more or less another way of saying that there isn’t a lot to differentiate the E-PL6 from the E-PL5 before it.
Like the E-P5, the E-PL6 is a grateful recipient of many of the technologies that were first featured in the E-M5. The benefits include the same 16-megapixel Sony sensor and TruePic VI engine, two-way digital leveller, Touch-AF shutter, which of course means that the LCD panel is also touch-sensitive as well as the F.A.S.T. autofocusing system and the LiveBulb and LiveTime modes.
There are also new features that it shares with the E-P5 such as the twelve additional Art filters and six Art effects, Art filter bracketing, short release time lag, ISO ‘Low’ mode (for an equivalent of ISO 100), intervalometer, time lapse movie mode and a few others. At the same time, it continues to feature an adjustable and hermetically-sealed LCD panel but with an improved angle coverage for self-portraits. Perhaps the big news is the E-PL6 supports the use of the new VF-4 external electronic viewfinder where its predecessor does not.
Looking at it from the outside, the E-PL6 is a familiar face. In other words, much of the changes are from within. Given that it has inherited many of the goodies and share some of the new muscle power with the more illustrious E-P5, it is surprising that it is only available for the Japanese market. However we understand that this may not be a permanent decision. Hopefully Olympus sees the wisdom of letting the E-PL6 loose around the world.
Why bother when the E-PL5 is almost identical
That’s where the problem lies. And that could possibly be the reason why there’s still no news about releasing the E-PL6 in the North American markets. The very fact remains that the E-PL6 isn’t different enough from its predecessor. Virtually everything new is firmware based. Other than the dual-plane digital leveller, the gains are essentially tweaked from inside. Nonetheless many of these features are useful in their own ways. However it’s questionable whether it is different enough to be a saleable camera when the E-PL5 is doing a pretty good job on its own.
|Pen E-PL6 Brief Specifications||16.05-megapixel sensor (Sony), 3-inch 460,000-dot LCD with wide-swivel articulation, 223 grams (dry weight), BLS-5 battery, TruePic VI processor, F.A.S.T. 240Hz autofocusing, Touch-AF shutter, twelve Creative Art filters including new ‘Water Colour’ filter, six Art Effects, ISO ‘Low’ (equiv ISO 100) setting, 0.044-sec short release lag shutter mode, intervalometer, time-lapse movie mode, full support for VF-4, dual-axis digital leveller, 8fps max frame rate, 3D tracking-AF|