Evolution of Olympus’s Pen cameras

Pens old and new

Above: Olympus Pen FT and E-P1

Beginnings

When Olympus announced their first digital ‘Pen’ model in mid 2009, it caught a lot of press.  At the time, Olympus seemed to be struggling just as other camera manufacturers were seeing a boom in DSLR sales.  With its sleek retro styling and the promise of DSLR-quality images from a camera scarcely larger than a digital compact, the E-P1 seemed like a possible answer.

In retrospect, I think the E-P1 worked better as a proof of concept than a serious photography tool.  They got the image quality side of the equation correct, but practically nothing else.  The controls were awkward, the only ‘viewfinder’ was a low resolution LCD that was all but impossible to see in  bright conditions and perhaps most annoying the camera was painfully slow when it came to autofocusing and other operations.  The net result was that for every shot it enabled, it robbed you of another.  All this for the not inconsiderable sum of $800.  Other less serious complaints included the lack of a flash, an inability to focus in low light and minimal quality video.

The E-P2 came out half a year later, and in all respects save one, it was identical to the E-P1.  The good news was that Olympus had come up with a solution the missing viewfinder, adding a connect for a high quality electronic viewfinder to connect externally.  Beyond that though, it was the same camera as the E-P1.  A few months later, a firmware update came along that sped up the autofocus a little, but it was still quite slow, especially with the kit zoom lens.

Shifts

In early 2010, Olympus released the E-PL1.  As the new lower-end model in the lineup, the E-PL1 was a mixed bag.  On the one hand, there were a number of features removed compared to the E-P1 and E-P2, including the loss of the orientation sensor, a max. shutter speed of 1/2000s, inability to use a cable release and the removal of both control dials.  To make up for that, the E-PL1 became the first Pen model to include a built-in flash, image quality received a slight push and autofocus was improved against the other models, though it remained an issue.  The primary draw of the E-PL1 to most was the combination of size and price, for unlike its predecessors it came in at a modest $600 and was swiftly discounted further.

2010 was not a good year for Olympus.  Their camera division continued to lose money, no doubt spurred by the virtual abandonment of their DSLR line.  At the end of 2010, they announced the Japan-only E-PL1s.  Despite being a minor update, the E-PL1s actually addressed a major complaint of the Pen line since the beginning replacing the kit 14-42/3.5-5.6 zoom with a new design that was both more robust and much faster to focus.

The new lens made its way to the rest of the world with the E-PL2 that was unveiled in January 2012 at CES.  The E-PL2 also marked the end of the low resolution rear LCD, and added back several of the controls removed from the E-PL1, including one dial.  Aside from the missing orientation sensor and one control dial, the E-PL2 equalled or bettered the still-for-sale E-P2 in every way.

Third Generation

The third generation Pens that Olympus released during the summer of 2011 had essentially the opposite problem as the original E-P1.  Thanks to another update to the AF system and the standardization of the new kit lens, they were all fast to operate.  An AF assist lamp improved low light focusing too.  Gone too were the low resolution LCDs, replaced with 460k or better models.  A new simplified control mode was added, and the giant menu system received a substantial revamp.  Also improved was the video, including good quality 1080p as an option.  With suggested pricing at $900, $700 and $500, they also offered models priced for a mainstream market.

Indeed, the only respect in which the new E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 failed to thoroughly impress was image quality.  The 12MP Panasonic sensor they used was effectively the same as that in the E-P1 at a time when other manufacturers had moved on by one or even two generations in terms of sensor technology.  Particularly when it came to low-light shooting or photography involving heavy image processing, they fell short.  Meanwhile Panasonic, their sensor producer and system partner, had switched 3 of their 4 current camera models to a newer, higher quality 16MP sensor.

The Final Piece?

The camera that Olympus announced in early 2012 was their first non-Pen in several years – the E-M5.  Using the same technology as the Pens, but featuring a body reminiscent of their classic SLR designs, the E-M5 included a built-in viewfinder and moved up-market.  At $1100 for a basic kit, the E-M5 was both more expensive and more serious than the Pens.  For all that, it was a massive hit with serious photographers looking to lighten their kit.  The combination of the small micro 4/3 lenses, and a small rugged body proved very quite popular, especially after initial tests showed that the new sensor Olympus had found for the E-M5 was even better than the one used by Panasonic in their competing micro 4/3 models.

Finally, in Fall of 2012, Olympus added the E-PL5 and E-PM2.  As expected, these models essentially took the earlier E-PL3 and E-PM1 bodies and added the newer sensor of the E-M5 along with a few newer features.  Even once removed feature, the orientation sensor, reappeared on those models.  Equally impressive were several widely asked-for items among enthusiasts – the addition of support for OIS on all Panasonic lenses and the standardization of the small AF point option.  Prices jumped slightly when the cameras were released, but rapidly dropped once the holidays approached.

Perhaps the only thing Olympus didn’t do was release a replacement for their high-end Pen, the E-P3.  Whether they intends to have another high-end Pen is unclear at this point, thanks mainly to the E-M5 which occupies a similar price-point in the lineup.

Conclusion

It took them more than three years, but it finally looks as if all the widely complained of shortcomings of the original Pen have been addressed.  The process hasn’t exactly been rapid, but it is interesting to see Olympus steadily improve the cameras, year after year, to the point that all the originally-mentioned shortcomings are today moot.  Of course, there is always plenty of room for improvement but they seem to have reached a pretty comfortable spot, and I hope they manage to stay there for some time.


Below: a photo from my first go with Olympus’s digital Pen – the E-P2 – on Mt. Shasta in June 2010.

Taken with E-P2

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