By David Rasnake and Allison Johnson
I don't put much stock in concepts. I've been following the camera industry long enough to know that what a manufacturer shows off under glass at a trade show is, more likely than not, going to live and die right there – under glass, at trade shows. A handful of notable exceptions aside, under-glass concepts – in photography, as elsewhere – rarely flow down the production pipeline to actual products with actual specs without significant functional and stylistic revisions.
Olympus's Micro Four Thirds concept
Which is why I did my best not to get sucked into the vaporware vortex swirling around Olympus's Micro Four Thirds concept launch back at Photokina last September. What Olympus showed us was a beautiful, elegant mock-up of a rangefinder-inspired camera – with no publicly aired development timeline and lots of caginess about how closely any future production version would hew to the concept's pocketable form factor and classic styling.
If I sound a little jaded on this topic, it's only because we've heard these kinds of promises before: Panasonic built similar buzz around the G1, its Micro Four Thirds platform, and while the G1 is an excellent camera in its own right, the general feeling around here has always been that it never fully took advantage of the form-factor and functional opportunities afforded by Micro Four Thirds.
But Olympus's announcement today of the production-ready version of its Micro Four Thirds concept – known officially as the E-P1, and at least semi-officially as the "Digital Pen" – looks to change all of this. For the E-P1, Olympus went back to the drawing board, or at least, back to the filing cabinet. Vintage camera nuts will immediately recognize the aesthetic influence of Olympus's classic Pen F – a half-frame 35mm camera from the middle of the last century, and one of the manufacturer's early attempts at miniaturization – in the converging body lines of the E-P1's top panel.
The original Pen series's use of a half-frame format (in which each shot is exposed on half of a standard 35mm frame) provides an interesting parallel for the Micro Four Thirds equipped E-P1. The new Pen's 12 megapixel Four Thirds sensor – the same sensor used in Olympus's current DSLRs – is smaller than the APS-C imagers found in many consumer SLRs these days, but also significantly larger than the largest typical point-and-shoot sensors.
Combine that with some impressive early buzz in noise reduction fine tuning and the ability to shoot at full res up to ISO 6400 and you have all of the makings of an interesting small camera indeed: powerful enough to take "serious" photos, flexible enough (with its interchangeable lenses) to handle a range of shooting situations, and small and accessible enough to not intimidate newbies. All in all, it sounds a lot – on the surface, at least – like the Micro Four Thirds camera we've been waiting for since the technology was first unveiled last summer.
Hands on with the E-P1
Olympus was kind enough to provide us with a pre-production of the E-P1, and while we weren't able to share results from field testing or studio shooting at this point, we were able to spend some time shooting with the E-P1 and checking out its array of features. If you want to cut to the chase, we've summarized our findings in a short hands-on preview video.
Like Panasonic's related offering, the E-P1's Micro Four Thirds technology mandates a full-time live view shooting experience. With this in mind, Olympus has carefully adapted its traditional DSLR interface to better suit a shooting environment in which shot composition is taking place solely on the LCD. Those familiar with Olympus's E-series DSLRs will find the menus and status screens largely unchanged, but a nicely laid out sidebar menu provides access to commonly adjusted parameters while leaving space shot composition – similar to the arrangement used in many point-and-shoot cameras these days.
A unique two-axis control arrangement allows shooters to navigate the sidebar – and the rest of the E-P1's menus – using the scroll wheel to move vertically within screens, and a new second scrolling control (the silver column on the camera's back panel) to move horizontally. If it sounds complex, rest assured that in use we found the arrangement intuitive, and quicker to use on the fly than your typical four-way controller (though the E-P1 comes equipped with one of those too).
As a design exercise, the E-P1 closely follows the look and feel of the rangefinder-inspired mock ups that we saw previously. A unique fold-down zoom lens provides a dense and heavy (for its size) if very compact package that rivals a larger fixed lens, small-sensor camera in form factor.
Retro touches – including a recessed mode dial, chrome finish, and a rubberized grip panel – are done tastefully in this case, and the build quality of our pre-production sample was top notch. Likewise, we found the E-P1's display to be an excellent performer in a range of shooting situations, providing a solid foundation for the rest of this full-time live view camera's performance.
More to come...
At this point, that's about as much as we can offer about the E-P1's performance. It's certainly an impressive camera in hand, and as our video preview shows, it impressed us with its straightforward operation and retro-chic appeal during our time with an early sample. Olympus is hosting a press event a little later today to officially unveil the new model, and we'll have even more in-depth reporting on what's undoubtedly one of the most important developments in the camera market – including, we hope, some sample images from a full production E-P1 – before the end of the day. Stay tuned...