Olympus E-P1: Old-School Looks in a Futuristic Camera
At a Glance
Olympus PEN E-P1 Mirrorless Camera
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Note that DSLR-like distinction: The EP-1 joins the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and Lumix DMC-GH1 in the slowly growing stable of Micro Four-Thirds cameras. They're not quite DSLRs--a point we'll discuss later.
Along with a stylish throwback design--the EP-1 looks more like an old Kodak Instamatic camera than a DSLR--the EP-1 dangles all sorts of enticing specs in front of prospective buyers.
The marquee feature in the E-P1 is the 17.3mm-by-13mm Live MOS sensor found in Olympus's E-30 and E-620 digital SLR cameras, offering up a 12.3-megapixel resolution bolstered by Olympus's TruePic V processing engine. Compared to point-and-shoots with significantly smaller, megapixel-inflated sensors, that resolution actually means something. The E-P1 also shoots HD video, with an on-board stereo microphone to pick up audio.
The E-P1's 1.4-inch-deep body also houses a mechanical stabilization system (meaning you don't have to buy special stabilized lenses), an ultrasonic vibrating dust-removal system for the sensor, and a 3-inch-diagonal high-resolution LCD. The E-P1 will be sold in three different packages: as a body-only unit for $750; as a kit with a Zuiko zoom lens (extra-low-dispersion, or ED, glass; 14-42mm; f3.5/5.6) for $800; and as a kit with an ultrawide-angle (ED, 17mm, f2.8) lens with an attachable optical viewfinder for $900.
Joining those high-end specs are a host of features for the point-and-shoot crowd: in-camera "art filters," photo-editing features, 19 preset scene modes, and an Intelligent Auto mode that automatically optimizes settings for the shooter.
So what makes the EP-1 not quite a DSLR? Using a different interchangeable lens system than traditional DSLRs, the Micro Four Thirds system, codeveloped by Olympus and Panasonic, is a somewhat ambitious attempt to capture would-be DSLR buyers. The first Micro Four Thirds cameras seen in the wild were Panasonic's Lumix G1 and Lumix GH-1.
Like a DSLR, Micro Four Thirds cameras use a bigger, higher-quality image sensor and offer interchangeable lenses, but with a key difference: These cameras don't have the space-hogging mirror box at the heart of standard DSLRs, which means they are more portable and are capable of shooting video.
When the Micro Four Thirds system was announced in mid-2008, it had intriguing potential, offering what seemed a perfect blend of point-and-shoot and DSLR characteristics: an ability to swap out lenses, better overall image quality due to a larger sensor and more-powerful optics, a smaller size due to the lack of a bulky mirror box, and the ability to shoot HD video, which no DSLR could do at that time.
But the first-generation Lumix G1 was somewhat disappointing (no video capability, for example). The HD-shooting Lumix GH-1 looks like a winner, but it's not all that much smaller than a traditional DSLR, and it carries a premium price ($1500).
Another knock to the appeal of the Micro Four Thirds system was the fact that both Nikon and Canon quickly released full-fledged DSLR cameras that shoot HD video. What's more, the Micro Four Thirds system requires either its own lenses or a $150 adapter to use with standard Four Thirds lenses, requiring extra financial commitment from potential buyers.
However, with the E-P1, Olympus may have made the Micro Four Thirds system a lot more appealing, thanks to its sub-$1000 pricing, fashionable looks, HD video recording, and the prerelease buzz it created when prototype models of the camera were displayed in 2008 at Photokina and earlier this year at PMA. With apologies to the less-versatile, fixed-lens Sigma DP1 and DP2, this Olympus camera is the first DSLR-like camera to truly break out of that DSLR-looking mold.