Olympus E-P1: Start of the Next Digital Age?

e-p1 Jun 16, 2009

With Olympus finally letting the micro four-thirds cat out of the bag, has the Next Digital Age finally dawned?

You’re probably thinking “What has Carlos been smoking and can he send me a couple of pounds?” All I ask is that you hear me out for a second. Let’s take a critical look at the technological developments in digital camera design in the last few years.

Camera Size

In the professional space, camera size has not changed much with digital. In some cases the cameras have gotten larger! Granted, today’s pro digital bodies are smaller than their progenitors but the difference isn’t that much. The main culprit: batteries. The accessory to the crime: the high performance components that comprise the guts of most any pro camera. Very power hungry thus requiring huge batteries to provide a reasonable run time for pro photographers.

Nikon recently bucked this trend with the introduction of the D700. A more compact pro/semi-pro camera with the guts of its pro level sibling (the D3) crammed inside. Smaller body, lighter weight, same image performance characteristics.

However, the true villain in this epic tale are the stable of lenses owned by most pro photographers. Pro photographers own/use lots of expensive glass. They got really whiny in the early days of digital when sensors were much smaller than frames of 35mm film. Camera makers poured millions of dollars into developing “full frame” sensors – digital sensors the size of a classic 35mm film (36x24mm to be exact) and pro photographers could now use their expensive glass without having to do conversion math in their head.

This size requirement meant that certain parts of the camera could not be physically changed. The mirror box, the flange-to-film plane distance, and the use of optical viewfinders all prevent the camera designer from shrinking the camera.

Four-Thirds

The Four-Thirds format was introduced by Olympus and Panasonic to buck this trend. Panasonic had no vested interest in 35mm based lenses and Olympus had spent most of the start of the digital revolution in the small sensor consumer space and their pro film bodies were noted for their small size and robust construction.

Four-Thirds brought forth a host of new smaller bodies and after a shaky start, the format started to gain momentum. Olympus harnessed its formidable optical design skills and released a whole host of lenses for the format.

Not content that the promise of the new format had been fulfilled, Olympus and Panasonic conspire once again to shake up the foundations of the digital camera universe.

Enter Micro Four-Thirds

Last August (2008), the two cohorts took the stage once again and unveiled the new Micro Four-Thirds format which held the promise of shrinking the camera even further while maintaining the sensor size and image quality. Panasonic was quick off the mark with their G1 camera. Looking like a mini-DSLR, the little camera started winning over the hearts of pro photographers as a camera they could carry around all day. The camera was recently supplanted by the GH1 which adds HD video and a host of improvements.

Olympus had something else up its sleeve. Based on the rich history of the wildly successful half-frame PEN cameras of the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, Olympus engineers planned on fulfilling the spirit of the Micro Four-Thirds format by making the camera as small as possible while still allowing the use of interchangeable lenses.

On June 16, 2009, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the PEN, OlympusE-P1 introduced the Olympus PEN Digital E-P1. And with it, they pretty much have set all other digital cameras on their ears.

Why?

One would argue the small size (which is a plus), the excellent sensor (they have been improving those), the all-metal construction (gotta love that), the retro PEN style cues (makes it look way cooler than the Panny offerings), or the advanced list of features as the main reasons they have a game-changer in their hands. I won’t disagree that those are all valid reasons. But the one most folks won’t expect is this:

Versatility

The Micro Four Thirds specification is such that this format can readily accept almost any legacy lens with an adapter. Let me say this again, micro four-thirds cameras can accept almost any legacy lens with an adapter.

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Olympus introduced as part of the accessories listed for the E-P1 a Four-Thirds/Micro Four-Thirds adapter and an OM Zuiko to Micro Four-Thirds adapter. Panasonic recently showed adapters for Leica M & R lenses to Micro Four-Thirds as well. Adapters for Leica Screw Mount, Canon FD & FL, Olympus Pen F, Konica Autoreflex, classic Contax and Nikon rangefinder lenses are expected in the near future.

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Olympus is targeting soccer moms, but pro photographers will buying these babies hand over fist because it can use all of their legacy glass. I may have to get two.

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