Olympus Ups Its Game
by Douglas Brown
Today Olympus made a major announcement of new cameras, product enhancements, accessories, flashes, and new lenses for their popular PEN Micro Four Thirds line-up.
In one fell swoop the entire Micro line has been refreshed and updated as the company released:
- The E-P3, a new high-end PEN
- The EPL-3, the replacement for the very popular mid-range E-PL2 - currently sitting at number one in new camera sales in Japan - featuring a tilt/swivel rear LCD for the first time in a PEN.
- The PEN Mini, an XZ-1 sized Micro Four Thirds camera at the entry level
- A gorgeous HG level 12mm f2.0 lens (24mm equiv.) with beautiful retro styling.
- A fast, affordable prime portrait 45mm 1.8 lens
- Revised styling of the zoom grip for the kit lenses with a new diamond knurled pattern and optional hand-grips for the E-P3 that allow for a surer, chunkier grip or no grip at all if desired.
- Two new flashes. The swiveling removable flash that is included with the E-PL3 and Mini, plus the optional FL-300R (GN28) which can be remotely triggered and swiveled into bounce position
- A completely overhauled User Interface featuring new graphics and touch sensitive commands and navigation.
- TruePic VI, a brand new image processing engine for all cameras.
The Olympus PEN E-P3
Successor to the E-P2 the new top of the range E-P3 boasts many improvements, chief of which is an astounding new focusing system that brings the focusing speed of this mirrorless compact up to the level of the most expensive professional DSLR's. This is quite an accomplishment and one that many people thought would never be achieved with Contrast Detect auto focus.
This focusing improvement was achieved by what Olympus calls Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology. On a chart that accompanied the presentation I attended ten days ago the speed of the E-P3 is compared to the Panasonic GH-2, Nikon D7000, Canon T2i, and a Nikon D3x. The E-P3 manages to achieve focus lock faster than the AF of all of the Phase Detect mirrored cameras, as well as it's stable mate in the Micro Four Thirds camp.
The E-P3 also has improved on the old 11 point focus system by introducing a new 35 point target area AF system. There is now an AF illuminator to the right of the lens (as you are holding it) for low light situations. It has improved AF tracking performance, a new full time AF mode that will be handy for general video applications.
Shutter response time has been trimmed to less than 60 milliseconds.
The maximum ISO has been boosted to 12,800, the video mode now boasts a new AVCHD option with 1080p resolution and pixel binning technology for less noise, smoother diagonal lines and improved performance when using the excellent optional EVF VF-2.
The camera also gets a new image engine, the TruePic VI with finer detail processing taken from the flagship E5 DSLR camera mixed with Real Color Technology for improved color rendering, Advanced Shadow Adjustment, Full HD video and frame corrected noise processing.
At the advance preview I was shown 11X14 prints of the same scene shot with an E-P3 and the older E-PL2. The differences in image quality were easy to see with the E-P3 images displaying better micro contrast, saturation, sharpness and clarity. It wasn't necessary to examine the prints closely to see these differences; they were quite visible from a normal viewing distance.
The camera can now record up to 29 minutes of full HD video in either AVCHD or AVI formats.
The E-P3 also gets a sparkling new 3 inch OLED touch screen, which means you can use touch on the back screen to set any of the 35 focusing points, select menu items, release the shutter, perform image magnification or swipe your way through the pictures you've taken as you would with an iPod.
For this release Olympus has upgraded the User Interface for each of the new cameras with new graphics and touch sensitive interface.
There are new Art Filters, refinements to older Art Filters, and a new 3D Art Filter for use with 3D TV screens.
Canadian pricing - $899 CAD with either the 14-42mm kit lens or the 17mm 2.8 pancake lens
The Olympus PEN E-PL3
I was convinced the E-P3 was my next camera, and then the rep pulled the E-PL3 out from under his black clothe and it was love at first sight.
Sleek, thin, stylish and just irresistible in Gun Metal Grey (which really should be called Titanium) with the retro styled 12mm attached this is the ultimate street shooter / photojournalist close in camera, not to mention it wouldn't look out of place in a jeweler’s display case.
The E-PL3 gets the same lightning fast focusing as the flagship E-P3, the rear LCD is not OLED but it does tilt for shooting from the waist or above the head – the first PEN to do so.
It has a new compact shutter mechanism that allows for 5.5 fps sequential shooting with IS off / 4.1 with IS on. It is 25 percent smaller than the E-PL2 (which was already a very compact camera) and is nearly 2 oz lighter.
The Olympus PEN Mini
This is the only camera I wasn't allowed to try out as the rep had only a prototype with him, which stayed in a Plexiglas case.
I can say that it is even smaller the E-PL3, has a simplified control layout and simplified Control Guide, making it easier for beginners to master difficult SLR-type effects. It comes in 6 of the modern colours which are popular right now, including a vivid purple, as well as soft Pastel Pink, Gun Metal Grey, Silver and an attractive Bronze shade.
M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0 lens
Solid metal construction.
With 11 elements in 8 groups the 12mm features; Dual Super Aspherical lens, Super High Refractive lens element, new Zuiko Zero Extra-low Reflection Optical Coating, an ED lens element, and one Aspherical lens, some of the most exotic lens element combinations I've heard of.
Beautiful retro styling, this lens promises to be one of the gems of the Micro Four Thirds line-up.
Cool feature. You can get fast access to manual focusing simply by pulling the focus ring back towards you. This instantly places the camera in MF, and reveals a convenient distance scale (hidden when the lens is in AF mode) underneath for HyperFocal zone focusing.
This lens on either an E-P3 or E-PL3 should instantly appeal to photojournalists or street shooters for its great potential in candid situations.
With the new AF system it is read-your-mind fast.
Canadian price - $799 CAD
M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.8 lens
As with the 12mm, the 45mm f1.8 lens is optimized for Video and Stills (MSC in Olympus-speak) meaning silent focusing for video mode.
It sports the same metal construction and retro styling in a perfect portrait focal length. I find that 90mm (equiv.) provides just about the ideal working distance to your subject, allowing for normal conversation between photographer and model and a focal length that is most flattering to the average human face. This focal length combined with the large aperture gives you beautiful shallow depth of field, and background blurring effects that are not possible with previous kit lenses.
With the new 35 point focusing system it will be easier than ever to shoot off-centre portraits.
There are nine elements in eight groups, including High Refractive lenses that thoroughly suppress chromatic aberration and flare.
Canadian price - $399 CAD
Olympus FL-300R Flash unit
This flash unit has a nice compact design, hinged near the bottom so it can be leaned back for bounce or folded flat on the camera to lie parallel to the lens barrel for easy storage in a camera bag. It will also tilt downwards slightly to facilitate macro shooting.
The FL-300R supports wireless shooting with 2 groups and can be controlled with another wireless flash unit.
The widest angle of coverage is equivalent to 9mm (18mm in full frame terms) with a built in wide panel.
The Guide Number is GN28 (200 ISO)
Canadian price - $169 CAD
I was an early adopter of the original Digital PEN, the E-P1, and although there were many things to recommend about the fledgling m4/3's system at that time, auto focus wasn't especially high on the list. But with each new release over the years Panasonic and Olympus have been chipping away at reasons for owning a traditional mirrored DSLR.
The lens line-up has matured to the point where it offers everything most of their target market will use 95 percent of the time, the high ISO performance has steadily improved, video implementation is excellent, and now with this release Olympus has just kicked the door down with auto focus speeds that beat top of the line pro DSLR's.
In use these cameras are fast, really fast. Over the last couple years I have used the ultra quick 12-60mm SWD Zuiko lens (a lens that uses twin USM motors to drive focusing) with an E3, two E30's and an E5 for a total of slightly less than two hundred thousand exposures, so I am very familiar with their performance. The combination of those focusing modules and that lens are reputed to be the fastest in the world.
The diminutive E-P3 and E-PL3 using the new Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology focusing system and compact mZuiko lenses are every bit as fast as the 12-60mm E3/E30/E5 combination, maybe even faster.
Touch the rear touch screen anywhere in the frame and the focus confirmation beep is nearly instantaneous. I went from a plate of snacks in front of me (3 ft.) to the back wall of the boardroom (30 ft.). Instantaneous beep. From the back wall to the Account Exec's face at the table (10ft.) Instantaneous beep – and she was backlit!
From far to near, near to far, across middle distances, focusing on faces, round shiny objects, glass windows, over and over these new cameras just lock on immediately. I didn’t experience any hunting or hesitation. The responsiveness of the E-P3 and E-PL3 is in a whole other league from previous Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras. Very high end DSLR-like.
The lighting in the room was not exactly advantageous to testing AF, a toxic mix of incandescent, florescent and natural lighting. In many instances the faces I was trying to focus on were partially in shadow. Never a hiccup. The PEN's just locked on.
I used the 40-150mm, 14-42mm, and 12mm on the E-P3 / E-PL3's. Same story with each lens, both cameras. It's a break-through for the PEN cameras.
The new UI is elegant and modern, meeting today's iPod / Android expectations. Particularly welcome is the swipe feature for browsing through photos captured.
The new 12mm is so impressive in the hand. I loved the styling of the lens, and it went so well with either of the PEN's.
A wide angle lens stresses AF less than other types of lens so you can imagine, with the improved Contrast Detect system the AF performance is just outstanding. I could easily see using this camera / lens combo as my wide camera for a variety of assignments at sporting events, front of stage concerts shoots, street demonstrations, etc. And switching into manual focus is quick and intuitive. Pull the focus ring back towards you and it requires just a quarter turn to go all the way from minimum focus to infinity.
My favourite of the three cameras presented was the E-PL3. It most seemed to embody the 'smaller, lighter' spirit.
And what I really respected was that Olympus didn't feature cripple any of the models in that all three models have the same lightning fast AF. It would have been easy for them to save that feature for just the top of the line camera, but by not doing so consumers have some really good options in the company's Micro line-up.
It's been a rough time for Olympus lately. They have had to make some tough decisions regarding the DSLR line, profits have been down, but the size and scope of this release really bodes well for the future. This looks like a new, rejuvenated Olympus, back to spinning off the kind of technical innovations they were so well known for in the past. Aiming to lead, not follow. I think all of these new cameras will be received well by photographers.