Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Olympus goes retro, announces E-P1 "Digital Pen"

I received this email at 1am this morning, telling me that Olympus has finally made good on their long speculated new Pen Camera:

Dubbed the Olympus E-P1, or "Digital Pen", it's their first offering in the Micro 4/3rds lineup, and the first compact camera to have interchangeable lenses and a DSLR sized sensor (in this case, the same sensor used in Olympus DSLRs).  For more information and detailed specs, I suggest reading the previews at DPReview, Imaging Resources, or visit the Olympus E-P1 page.

Olympus has apparently also realized that attractive women sell cameras:

So why is this camera significant?

The E-P1 slides into an underdeveloped spot of the camera market, namely a camera that can produce photos indistinguishable from a DSLR but in a lighter, much more compact body.  This will appeal to serious amateurs who think DSLRs are too bulky, and many professionals will buy this camera not to replace their DSLR, but as a secondary "carry everywhere" camera.  Others have tried to capture this market, notably Sigma with their DP cameras, but those have been marred by poor performance and other issues.  Panasonic has its own Micro 4/3rds cameras, in the excellent G1 and the GH1, but those cameras are not nearly as compact.  Thus, this new Olympus model is pretty unique.

Just glancing at the specs, I'd say Olympus has a winner on their hands.  I was worried it would lack image stabilization, but nope, that's included.  Also included is a dust reduction system.  The sensor is the same 12.3 MP sensor used in other Olympus cameras, so image quality should be on par, and the E-P1 has a whole host of exposure modes and manual controls to satisfy camera purists.  Yes, it lacks a built in flash and a viewfinder, which is unfortunate, but this was necessary (according to Olympus) to reduce the size of the camera.  Finally, the E-P1 includes a 720p video mode for those obsessed with the idea that their still camera must also shoot video.

Did I mention that it looks really snazzy?

There are, of course, unknowns at this point.  How well does the autofocus system work?  How well will the 17mm f2.8 lens perform?  Is the LCD screen good enough to compensate for the lack of a built in viewfinder?  These are things that will be answered as reviews start trickling in.

Retro Marketing Genius?

Camera specs aside, I have to give Olympus kudos for the marketing and launch of this camera.  For the last few months, Olympus has been touting the 50th anniversary of the Pen cameras on their web site, leading to speculation (now proven correct) that this was a precursor to a new Digital Pen camera.  This has served two purposes: 1) it's built up a lot of interest for this new camera, and 2) it's made people nostalgic for the old Pen system, which like the E-P1, was innovative in its time for its size and features.


Tying the E-P1 to the Pen cameras from the 1960s is a brilliant move.  It allows Olympus to be retro and cool, and at the same time, they get to rebrand themselves as something more than a second fiddle company to Nikon and Canon.  Instead, they're the company with the history of innovation compared to Nikon and Canon's status quo.  Of course that's not really true or fair, but it's beside the point-- it's effective marketing, and the other camera makers would be wise to pay attention.

Another thing worth noting is the price, which is less than expected.  $750 for just the camera body, $800 with the 14-42mm zoom, and $900 for the camera and the 17mm lens.  While yes, that is still quite expensive, rumors had this camera in the $1000 range or more, so this is a good job of managing expectations on Olympus' part.  The E-P1 actually seems like a bargain by comparison.


Devyn said...

Thanks for posting this.... quite interesting.... I had pretty much given up on Olympus, but perhaps I need to give them another chance. One of my frustrations with my Nikon D80, is the bulk of having to cart it around with me. BTW, the word verification is "dictess"... funy.

Andy said...

I have the same problem with my D90... I just don't carry it around as much as I should. I'm not sure if this camera is the solution to that problem, but it's nice to have another option on the market.