Olympus has suffered a lot of bad press recently with the outbreak of bad corporate decisions and “fee payment” coverups. I’m not one to speculate about international corporate scandal, for several reasons; I don’t have all the facts, and I don’t care. As long as Olympus continues to crank out quality products, I’ll continue to buy them. I’ve owned several Olympus cameras several of which were the PEN line of cameras. I fell in love with the Micro Four-Thirds (M4/3) system, shared by Olympus and Panasonic, right around the time the Panasonic AF-100 became popular with its’ modest sensor and versatile lens mount options. The M4/3 system is extremely flexible in that adapters can be used for just about any lens mount. From Leica R to Arri PL mount, almost any lens can be mounted to a M4/3 camera with little to no hassle. Other than the vast array of lens options I really appreciate the inherent compactness of almost all of the M4/3 cameras. Wether it’s the relatively miniature Panasonic AF-100, or a pocketable PEN camera, I can’t get enough of the M4/3 system. My introduction to the PEN line was rather careless. I never thought I would adopt such a fledgling standard and grow to prefer it over other systems that have been around for decades. A little background on my E-PL1: It was purchased as a test mule for lens evaluation when it first came out. I knew that I could mount all of the cinema glass I was servicing and testing to it and thought it would be useful for real world image testing. The small sensor wasn’t a big deal since I was only looking for basic center image test results. The camera did indeed provide vital test results but eventually we moved onto larger sensor cameras for test mules in order to evaluate frame coverage and edge illumination falloff more often. The E-PL1 was retired to my bench where I occasionally snapped photos of interesting subjects for use on my twitter or blog. At this time, I regularly used, and still do, a Nikon D700 with an arsenal of lenses for my hobbyist shooting around town and on vacation.I’m that guy who goes to Disneyland with a D700, battery grip, and 70-200mm. Why? Because I can… This past summer I went on several weekend vacations that were great photo opportunities. I usually carry my D700 and gear in a rather large Lowepro bag at all times. One particular evening my fiancé and I were going to an upscale restaurant and I didn’t think she would appreciate the 10lb camera rig sitting on the table while we sip martinis. So I opted for the E-PL1 that I had stashed in my bag for the weekend along with it’s kit 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. I shot with the camera for the rest of the weekend instead of my D700. There’s something about the compact camera that just lends itself to the experienced shooter that wants something a bit more casual. I could still adjust all of my settings manual if I wanted to, or leave it in aperture priority as I would usually do with my D700. Obviously there are certain applications that the D700 is simply better at, like exposure bracketing at high frame rates, which the E-PL1 does, just not as fast. The camera became a staple in my gadget back (man purse) and stayed there until recently when I recently purchased the impossible to find Fujifilm Finepix X100. I paid well above retail price simply because everyone said it was the best compact camera available. I still loved my little Olympus E-PL1 at the time and thought, “If the X100 is the best compact camera like everyone is saying, that must mean it’s better than my E-PL1”. The sensor in the X100 is a larger APS-C sized sensor with a 1.4x crop factor whereas my trusty little E-PL1 had a tiny little M4/3 sensor with a 2x crop factor. All the reviews said that the hybrid viewfinder was amazing and the auto focus was stunning even in low light. My E-PL1 was replaced by the X100 in my gadget bag for about three months. I tried so hard to fall in love with the X100 but it just wasn’t happening. I found myself picking up the X100 when I wanted to have a conversation piece as well as a camera, but didn’t really care about nailing the shot every time. The rest of the time, I reached for the E-PL1 when I wanted to make sure I got the shots I wanted. Eventually, I decided it was time to ditch the X100 and replace it with something that I would use more often and could really appreciate.
My search for a replacement was short. The decision to go with a new Olympus PEN was easy. What was difficult was choosing which PEN camera was right for me. I was perfectly happy with the performance of the E-PL1, which I still had/have, but it needed to stay at the office more often which meant I couldn’t always keep it with me. So even the bottom of the Pen line, E-PM1, was more advanced than my two year old E-PL1. Olympus offers a different PEN camera for just about any shooter. If you’re looking to step up from a point-and-shoot camera, Olympus offers their E-PM1. If you already have experience with an interchangeable camera system but want a little more control, they offer the E-PL3 which is the newest version of my E-PL1. Of course, if you’re looking for the most control and features, Olympus offers the E-P3 at the top of their PEN line of cameras. All three cameras share the same 12.3 megapixel sensor and TruePicVI image processor. So the end image is pretty much the same no matter which camera you choose but features on the higher models certainly make getting the same shot easier. After much debate on which camera was right for me, I chose the flagship E-P3 camera. After using the camera for several weeks now, I love it just as much if not more than my original E-PL1. There are a few key features that set the E-P3 apart from the rest of the PEN cameras. The touchscreen focus/shutter release is a great gimmick. It’s completely arbitrary and really just a marketing ploy, but it works great and I use it more and more often, probably due to the iPhone camera procedure that we’ve all become so accustomed to. There are a few other features like the programmable function buttons and higher ISO options that I really find convenient and make shooting much more enjoyable. The auto focus is pretty darn quick. Not quite as quick as my D700 with average AF-S lens, but respectable nonetheless. I continue to add native M4/3 lenses to my arsenal on what seems like a monthly basis. My most recent addition would be the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8. A tiny little powerhouse with a field of view similar to that of a 90mm equivalent on 35mm full frame cameras. I’ve become accustomed to the 2x crop factor and now choose slightly wider lenses to compensate for this. It’s a toss up for me because I love shallow depth of field (who doesn’t) which is inherent in longer focal lengths which, on the M4/3 system, can get cropped pretty tight. Another of my favorite lenses to use with the M4/3 system is the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7. It’s field of view is similar to that of a 40mm, making this lens my go-to “standard” lens. It’s a pancake lens which means it’s very small and only slightly protrudes from the camera when mounted. It’s compact size and ultra light-weight make it a staple in my gadget bag at all times.
So if you’re looking to get a full featured daily camera to take with you everywhere or if you’re looking to step up from a point-and-shoot digital camera, Olympus has a PEN camera that should tie your needs. It may sound like I’m plugging Olympus and pitching their products. I really do love the brand, the products, the history, and the direction they are going with their cameras. It’s not like they’re slipping me cash under the table. That would be totally inappropriate and something Olympus would never do. …Or would they? Get your shit together, Olympus. Keep making awesome cameras and I’ll keep buying them.